Monday, September 26, 2011

Thoughts about History

I was thinking about stories and history and life the other day, about the sorts of books I read and how I feel when I read them, and about the local history I know and share, and I realized something. For me, there are two types of history. Maybe this is normal, but it's not, but I think it's interesting enough to merit a blog post all the same.

The main type of history is, of course, world history, all the facts and stories we've gathered about the span of human existence. It's epic and complicated, fantastic and scary, repeating and fascinating. It's sometimes hard to separate facts from fictions or synthesize what actually happened from all the varying reports. Most importantly, the people who populate this kind of history don't feel like people. I can read about Sumerians, Romans, Ming Chinese, Elizabethans, 19th-Century Americans, and men in WWII trenches, and unless I'm reading firsthand accounts, nobody feels real even though I know they were. There's an aura of fiction to this kind of history, and one I'd imagine historians and historical novelists have to push past at every turn.

And then there's the history of the places I know intimately, the stories about specific events and people who shaped the parts of my province I know best. While there's still a slight sense that the events aren't real, it's still a lot more grounded. I can point to landmarks or stand on hillsides and say, "This is where such-and-such happened" or "So-and-so could've been here then". I took a walking tour of historic Vancouver a couple weeks ago and had a strong feeling of "yes, this happened" because I could see the streets, knew the buildings, and, importantly, knew that the people being talked about were the same rough-and-ready types who had first colonized the area I grew up in. When I think about this type of history, I have a sense of ownership, that this is my history and something to be proud of.

This divide between world history and local history parallels my reasons for reading histories and historical novels. Most historical fiction I read or want to read, I choose because I want to know what life was like in a certain place at a certain time. The biographies and histories I choose are picked for the same sorts of reasons. I want to expand my knowledge base and find things out. But the novels, bios, and histories I've read about British Columbia—the gold rush, the ranchers, the loggers, and so on—I read because I know the basic stories and want to see how they're realized on the page. I use those books more like a time machine than an archive, and when I'm reading them, there's a deeper sense of "this could have happened" than I get with other historical fiction. I also get the time machine effect through firsthand accounts, as I alluded earlier.

I imagine this is probably a pretty common thing. History's always more immediate when you can see where it happened, or when you can see artifacts. The sense I got of European history, and the ancient world, while I was touring Europe so many years ago was incredible. And of course, local history often has a folklore quality to it. We tend to mythologize important people and events, and tell our children about them at a young age. The biggest hero of the area I grew up was a guy named Billy Barker, who found a motherlode that spurred a gold rush that built a city and drew ranchers into the area. Without him, the town I grew up wouldn't have been founded. There were other rushes, and other miners in the area first, but he's the guy everyone's heard about. I also learned the mythology of the fur trade, the Northwest Passage, and Canada's explorers.

At what point does local history become the more global "characters-not-people" history? How long does it have to be before the cultural memories fade? How much area can be called local? (My schoolbooks mythologized the colonization and exploration of the whole country, but the only bits at felt real are the bits that happened to BC.) Is this mythologizing of history what created the world's myths? I don't know. I don't even know if there's a single answer. But it's something interesting to think about, isn't it?

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Year of the Superhero - Captain America

If you've been following this series, you'll know that Marvel movies make me grin like an idiot. Captain America was no exception. It was fun and exciting and a little bit cheeky, and I barely have any quibbles at all.

(Yes, I know Captain America came out weeks ago and I watched it opening week. I just didn't feel a blog post about it till now. On the upside, this means I don't have to worry as much about spoilers as usual.*)

I went into the film knowing the basics of the character through fandom osmosis and the theatrical trailers. Captain America is a whole-hearted boy scout type named Steve Rogers, who gets enhanced through "scientific" means to become a super-soldier. He has a sidekick named Bucky, and together they fight Nazis. Then Cap, as he's affectionately known, gets frozen, then thawed out later to lead to the Avengers. The trailers also told me there'd be a British love interest and Hugo Weaving delightfully chewing the scenery. I expected Hollywood gun fights and superhero quips, and I got that—but the film was more serious than I'd expected too, and there were some twists and turns in the origin story that I hadn't anticipated.

The film starts with a modern-day scene in the arctic, the discovery of a downed plane, and a suspiciously familiar shield (if you've seen Iron Man 2 and the Captain America trailers). We skip back to 1941 and go through Cap's entire origin story until he crashes the plane. The movie ends with Steve Rogers waking up in a hospital bed and discovering that he's not in Kansas the 1940s anymore. Normally I don't have much patience with frame stories like this, because I feel the frame is generally unnecessary, but in this case I like it. That first scene sets up a mystery and a sense of anticipation that lurks in the background for the rest of the film, and the final scene establishes more or less where the Marvel movie-verse is going to go next. Take those scenes out, and you're left with a run-of-the-mill origin story with a definite conclusion that necessitates a lot of explanation when The Avengers comes out. I'd have less patience with a "yeah, so we found him and unthawed him" scene in Avengers than I generally do with frame stories.

The origin story itself is pretty standard. Steve Rogers tries and fails multiple times to enlist, is taken under the wing of a scientist and brought into a super-soldier program, and proves himself and is rewarded with enhancement. He metaphorically stumbles around a while trying to find something useful to do, then becomes a badass hero who destroys Nazi facilities with a crack team of soldiers. He finally ends up in a one-to-one fight with his nemesis, the Red Skull.

With the WWII setting, the story could've gone a couple ways I'm glad it didn't. It could've been a really gritty war movie, full of dirt and blood and bodies, and make a statement about how awful war is and how comrades become family, etc. Or it could've been a goofy action film à la Indiana Jones, with campy Nazis who never seem to come close to committing actual atrocities and are basically a tame threat.

What we got instead was a war movie that pays tribute to how hard and gritty and bleak the war was at times without really getting into it, and a bunch of Nazis that, while kind of goofy looking and ineffectual in the Hollywood way of not hitting targets, did pose a fairly big threat to our protagonists. Their retro-futuristic energy weapons were a large part of that. If they'd just been guys in weird outfits…

I really liked the retro-futuristic look of the technology. I know that a lot of what I saw in terms of transformation chambers, secret labs, planes, and energy cannons didn't actually exist back then, but it all looked like it could have. I had a bit harder time accepting that with the level of technology displayed in 1941, we haven't come further than the technology seen in Iron Man, though. I mean, there's a proto-type flying car in Captain America! Even if it failed in the film, if Howard Stark could do that then, why does his son only have cars on the market in our universe? Or should I accept that the holograms and AI in Iron Man are in some way the outcome of things Stark Sr. was dreaming up back in the day? I think I'll take that option…

I nearly bounced in my seat and squeed when the cosmic cube showed up near the beginning. I didn't because I was with people who hadn't seen Thor** and didn't want to spoil them. Or scare them. I get the impression that the cube wasn't initially linked to Thor and Asgard in the comics, that maybe it still isn't, but I think it's a stroke of genius that it is in the films. It ties the continuity together, and has implications for The Avengers. I enjoyed the demonstrations of just what the cube's power could do, and I thought everything the Nazis did with it was twice as terrible because they were perverting a holy/alien artifact. Which ties into the Nazi-occult thing, too.

Individual character time… I liked Cap. I was a little worried going in because I thought he'd be either really naive or too much like a boy scout, but my fears were unfounded. He was a solid, nice, likable guy, but he didn't come off as a caricature. He was a person, a person with his head on straight, and a person who grew up over the course of the film.

The supporting cast all delivered good performances as well. I'm a little in love with Howard Stark, who has incredible flair and does crazy things like his son does. I'm definitely in the faction who wants him to get his own film. Peggy Carter, the love interest, was good as well. I was glad to see that she got to be active and badass, but wanted to see more of that. It felt like she was sidelined by the men a lot, and yes, I know that's realistic to the era, but … *sigh* I also thought the romance aspects were a little heavy-handed at times, but believable 90% of the time.

I liked Hugo Weaving as the Red Skull too. He played up the sinister, creepy madness of the character, ending up slightly on the Indiana Jones side of the war movie equation, which is where a villain like him needed to be, I think. This is a comic book movie. The baddies are allowed to be a little unbelievable and cartoonish at times. But damn, he was creepy, and he pulled off the infodump scenes pretty well to boot. My only quibble with Weaving is that he had the worst German accent of any of the German characters. It wobbled. It occasionally went a bit Aussie. The vowels were slightly off most of the time. You'd think an actor of his caliber could do better, especially since he must've had a vocal coach.

But apart from the Peggy and Red Skull quibbles, this was a solid, enjoyable film. I think my favourite Marvel characters are still Iron Man and Spider-man, but Cap is fun and I'm looking forward to seeing him again in The Avengers next summer. I've got a good sense of his character and background now, and see some possibilities for how he'll interact with the rest of the team.

* Not that I ever avoid spoilers, really, but I worry whenever I put them in.
** Yes, I know. I plan to fix this soon.

Friday, September 9, 2011

Friday Science Linkage!

(a.k.a. Anassa is too tired to think of a better title.)

I have another post up at Science in My Fiction today, this time on mountains, volcanoes, and solar system geology. I highly recommend it, since I'm totally not biased or anything, and then coming back because I've been archiving interesting science articles again.

One group of mad scientists has recently created bullet-proof human skin, from spider goats. I'm now envisioning soldiers, stuntmen, and superheroes with this stuff grafted onto their bodies, and will applaud any burn victim who opts for this treatment.

Another group of scientists have come up with brain-mimicking computer chips. Robot uprising and singularity ahoy?

Yet another group of scientists have developed a chemical to make organs transparent. It's being described as a major medical advance, and I agree.

And on a societal front, we have research on hyenas that ties complex societies to intelligence and evidence that Homo erectus could sail, because we've found their tools on Crete. And the discovery that dolphins don't whistle, but actually have "vocal chords" thrills me to no end.

As does this video, actually. This could seriously revolutionize agriculture, if it takes off.

And on a more generically inspirational note for genre writers, here's a lecture about unintended consequences of inventions and actions. Everything we do as a society, and everything we create is going to do things we don't want it to, for good and for bad, and really great sci-fi gets that. So watch, and write! (And comment?)