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A tiny bit more publicity

I found another online mention of Only Superhuman!  Audible SF/F listed it in their “Ridiculously Huge Preview of 2012” column recently.  It’s wayyyyy down toward the bottom, in the “Sometime” section (since its publication date isn’t entirely locked down yet).  But at least it’s a mention!

Oh, and I got the word yesterday that the copyedited manuscript has arrived safely back at Tor.  Yay!

A bit of publicity!

Only Superhuman by Christopher L. BennettWell, it looks like Only Superhuman is starting to get a bit of attention beyond what I’ve been able to stir up (or what my editor has been saying about it over on the TrekBBS).  A blog called Superhero Novels has mentioned it twice now: back on Christmas Day it included it in a list of superhero-themed novels slated for 2012 (a much longer list than I would’ve expected, though it seems most of them are either small-press books or DC/Marvel tie-ins), and two days ago, in a monthly news update, they linked to my recent post debuting the novel’s cover, and said “it looks great.”  So, my thanks to Superhero Novels for helping to spread the word.

Good book: FOOL’S WAR by Sarah Zettel

I just finished a novel I picked up at the used-book store recently, Fool’s War by Sarah Zettel.  This 1997 novel was my first exposure to Zettel’s writing; I bought it because the premise sounded interesting and because I’m interested in reading more SF/space opera from female authors.  And it turned out to be a solid, engaging hard-SF novel whose approach and values were similar to my own in some ways.

Fool’s War is set in a starfaring human civilization over 500 years in the future.  There’s FTL travel and communication, called “fast-time” and never really explained, but otherwise the treatment of physics and engineering in spaceships and space habitats is very realistic (for instance, there’s no artificial gravity).  There are no aliens, but there are artificial intelligences which occasionally become fully sentient, their birth pangs wreaking havoc in the highly computerized, networked human civilization of the novel.  The interstellar community is held together, not by a government, but by the banking network that manages all transactions.  (However, this is not a work of libertarian SF, refreshingly enough; one of the main characters comes from a libertarian sort of society and scathingly indicts the brutal anarchy he grew up in.)  And to a large extent, the peace is kept by the Fools’ Guild.  These are Fools in the Shakespearean sense (there are numerous references to the Bard herein, with a lot of the action taking place among the Shakespearean-named moons of Uranus), professional jesters who serve as social release valves and easers of tensions.  The story focuses on the packet ship Pasadena, whose crewmembers come from a variety of different cultures with sharply conflicting values.  The co-owner and engineer of the ship, Katmer Al Shei, is a devout, veiled Turkish Muslim woman in a future where anti-Muslim bigotry has become far worse than it is even today (startling that this was written before 9/11/01).  The pilot is a Freer, a member of a habitat-dwelling society that reveres sentient AIs, believing they have captured and effectively reincarnated the souls of dead humans.  Whereas the communications officer (a position cleverly labelled the “Houston”) is a survivor of a disaster wrought when his colony’s AI became sentient, and is fanatically, paranoiacally anti-AI.  And the ship’s co-owner, who timeshares it with Al Shei on alternating missions, may have left some dangerous contraband onboard.  So tensions are high in this enclosed environment, and ship’s Fool Evelyn Dobbs has her work cut out for her, using comedy and wit to entertain and calm the crew so the ship can run smoothly.  It’s a charming notion, and Dobbs’s presence makes the book quite entertaining — at least in the first half, before things end up becoming deeply serious and increasingly dark.

But the Fools have a deeper goal, a secret mission to keep the peace on a far more sweeping scale, and there are others with a conflicting agenda that may destroy that peace once and for all.  I don’t want to go into specifics, because it turns out that Dobbs has her own deep dark secret that is very deftly concealed.  I absolutely did not see it coming, even though I was given clues, things I was shown and allowed to interpret through my own preconceptions, leading me to the wrong conclusions.  It’s a deft bit of misdirection, befitting characters like Dobbs and her fellow Fools.

Perhaps reflecting its origins in the ’90s, there’s a lot of cyberpunkish stuff, characters diving around through cyberspace, and a lot of the descriptions of how that happens feel rather fanciful to me, though perhaps they’re just metaphors for otherwise incomprehensible processes and program interactions inside a computer network.  Still, this is the first SF work I’ve ever seen or read that actually offered a plausible justification for the premise of the mind “leaving” the body upon diving into cyberspace, and being potentially in danger of bodily death if something goes wrong.

So this is the kind of story I like, both to read and to write.  A hard-SF setting, richly textured worldbuilding,  a witty central character with depth, a celebration of multiculturalism, a message against intolerance, and — I felt — an ultimately positive, optimistic tone, even though some very dark and awful things happen (or have happened in the characters’ pasts).  It’s one of my most satisfying impulse buys in recent memory, and I’m definitely going to be checking out more of Zettel’s SF (though I see she also writes fantasy and paranormal romance — making it doubly cool that there’s so much hard science in her SF).

Copyedits are done!

January 24, 2012 1 comment

I’ve finally finished the copyedits to the manuscript for Only Superhuman.  Actually I pretty much finished them yesterday, but since this is being handled the old-fashioned way — a hefty printout that I had to mark up by hand and will mail back to Tor tomorrow — I wanted to add all the changes to my digital file of the manuscript so there’s a backup record of them in case the pages get lost in the mail.

I’m a bit puzzled that this part of the process is being done old-school all the way, seeing as how my earlier editor-requested manuscript revisions were handled digitally.  But I guess when you get to the copyediting phase, it’s deeper in the machinery of the publisher, or whatever, so I guess the procedure could be different.  But it’s just been rather a long while since I’ve had to mark up pages and mail them back, rather than sending a Word file with changes tracked, or just sending my editor an e-mail listing the edits by page and line.  When I’m sent physical pages, I still do take the red pen to them as a backup; but since it’s so rarely needed, I’ve let my notations get a little sloppy, so I’m a little out of practice on the proper format.  I hope all my notations are clear.

Only Superhuman by Christopher L. BennettBut I was finally able to make a couple of fixes that I’ve been waiting to make for a while.  One, which I’ve mentioned my intention to do before, was an update to a passage about the planetoid Vesta, incorporating some of the new information we’ve gained from the Dawn probe currently orbiting it.  I replaced a conjectural passage about Vesta’s geology — something that Dawn has found no evidence to support as yet — with a mention of Rheasilvia Mons, the name of the enormous mountain in the center of Vesta’s south polar basin.  At first I was going to say it was the tallest mountain in the Solar System, which it is as far as we know right now; but then I realized we could maybe discover a taller one somewhere out in the Kuiper Belt.  So instead, considering the extent of human travel and colonization in the system at the time of the novel, I described it as the tallest mountain humans had ever climbed.

The other fix I’ve been waiting to make was to correct an oversight.  In my last major revision of the novel before selling it, I reworked the backstory of a featured community in the novel so that they originated in a space habitat rather than on Earth.  And a while back, after the previous set of post-sale revisions, I realized I’d accidentally left in a line in which a character from that community referred to his “Terran upbringing” and how it affected his perception of a certain situation.  I was able to fix it by saying he’d resided on Earth for a time, which is a reasonable extrapolation from his backstory as it now stands.

Meanwhile, I’ve been consulting with my editors about a design issue.  There’s an appendix in the book, a listing of the locations featured in the book and their relative positions within the Solar System, and I’ve never been happy with the format I used to present the information.  I intended it merely as a stopgap and figured that if I ever sold the book, I’d consult with the editors/designers about coming up with something better.  But I’d forgotten about that until just recently, doing the copyedits.  But I had a little back-and-forth with Greg and Marco and came up with a couple of ideas, including a table format that I think works a lot better than what I had.  So hopefully that will be all worked out, and I’m glad I remembered to ask about it while we’re still pretty early in the process of designing and assembling the book.

Anyway, with the copyedits done, Only Superhuman is now one step closer to being a completed book.  All the major changes and adjustments are pretty much done by now; once we get to the galley proofs, with the typesetting and composition done, any further changes will probably be pretty minor.  So the way the book is now is almost its final form, probably.  Which means that any mistakes and plot holes I still haven’t caught are doomed to be immortalized (though with luck I’ll get a sequel and be able to rationalize or retcon them).

Fall back position

I just discovered last night that I still had this blog set for Daylight Savings Time. I have now corrected that oversight. The management apologizes for the great inconvenience and confusion that surely must have resulted. ;)

Categories: Uncategorized

Behold the ONLY SUPERHUMAN cover!

January 18, 2012 8 comments

Here it is…

Only Superhuman by Christopher L. Bennett

I couldn’t have asked for a more perfect cover for this book.  It marvelously conveys the novel’s sense of high-flying action and adventure in a high-tech setting, and the flamboyance and power of its heroine, Emerald Blair (aka the Green Blaze).  It makes the novel look exciting and energetic, and that should help sell copies.  (This scene doesn’t appear in the book, but it’s kind of an amalgam of elements of the opening and climactic action sequences.)

And it’s a marvelous portrait of Emerald Blair.  First off, I’m stunned and honored by how closely artist Raymond Swanland followed my character design drawings.  Allowing for a bit of idealization, and my own limited ability to translate my visual ideas to paper, it’s as authentic a portrait of Emry as I could’ve hoped for.   More, it captures her personality and the life she leads very well.  She looks like she just hurled herself off the top of a skyscraper without giving any thought to what happens next.  She’s totally focused on fighting the bad guys and won’t let little things like plans or gravity distract her.  She’s in an incredibly precarious and dangerous situation and she looks completely at home there.  Yes, she is presented in a sexual, glamorous way too, but that’s in character for her, and it’s a very athletic, active, powerful kind of sexiness that (at least to my eye) complements the impression of strength and competence in this image rather than undermining it.

Here’s a look at the cover painting without the text:

Only Superhuman cover art by Raymond Swanland

Art by Raymond Swanland

The composition is fantastic.  The lines of the image converge on her face, drawing the viewer’s eye there, and there’s a powerful line of action running from her eyes along the arm to the sidearm, reinforced by the parallel line of her leg, and by all the shrapnel flying past.  That outthrust, perfectly straight arm just conveys so much power and skill and confidence, and I’ve never been happier with my decision to give her a sleeveless costume.  Even though she seems to be in retreat from something, her body language feels forward-thrusting and aggressive and fearless.  (Not to worry, though — that’s a stungun.)  Also, the background is muted, mostly in grays and browns, with the only bright colors being on Emry, so she really pops as the dominant part of the image.

Emerald Blair peers over my shoulder and has this to say:

“Vack, I look great.  I wish I could get my hair to look that good, especially in action.  Normally I just tie it back, or French-braid it if I have the time.  And I wish my outfit showed off my curves that well, though just as well it’s not quite so flimsy.  Cool Flash Gordony gun, though I’d stab myself in the side if I actually wore the thing.  Still, this is how I should look in action.

“But I’m glad he didn’t exaggerate my body.  Some things, honey, you just can’t improve on.”

So yeah, it’s a slightly idealized portrait of the Green Blaze, but it conveys her essence very well.  It could validly be a portrait someone painted of her in-universe.  In any case, it’s an ideal way to introduce Emerald Blair to the world, and I’m very happy with it.

EDIT: Since this post is getting a lot of new attention, here are some ordering links for the book:

Buy from Macmillan

Buy from Barnes & Noble

Buy from Amazon

Buy from Books-A-Million

 

ONLY SUPERHUMAN copyedits are here (and other news/tidbits)

Things are starting to pick up with the process of getting Only Superhuman to publication.  Not only is the cover nearly done, as I mentioned the other day, but I’ve just gotten the copyedited manuscript pages sent to me for review.  Over at Pocket, this is being done digitally now, with the copyedits sent to me as a Word file with tracked changes, but apparently Tor (or at least Marco, the assistant editor who’s handling that part of the process) still does things the old-fashioned way, with printed pages delivered to me.  And it’s a hefty sheaf, over 400 pages that I need to work through by the end of the month.

And here I was just starting to get some momentum going on the reworking of my second spec novel.  I just finished revising the first of the book’s three parts (the one that’s an expansion of my first published story, “Aggravated Vehicular Genocide”) and am about to start on the second, which is the part where the revised plot begins to diverge more substantially from what I’d written before (before I realized that I was writing myself into a corner and needed to back up and take things in a new direction).  Well, hopefully I’ll be able to spare enough attention for both projects, though of course the OS copyedits need to take priority since they’re the project I have a deadline for.

Anyway, I printed out the OS cover art at about 7×10″ size and hung it over my desk, next to my own pencil/colored-pencil renderings of Emerald Blair.  The more I look at the cover, the more I like it, and I hope it isn’t much longer before I can share it publicly.  (I wonder what the title font will look like.)

Meanwhile, this seems to be my week for seeing covers, since today my Trek editor at Pocket e-mailed me the cover mechanical (i.e. the flat version of the full cover, front, back, and spine) for Star Trek DTI: Forgotten History.  No surprises in the cover art, but now I’ve seen the back-cover blurb too, and hopefully the final cover and blurb will be publicized soon.

And in other news, as I’ve already reported on Facebook, the Twitter page set up by my impersonator has now been shut down.

To prove that I was the real me, I had to fax proof of identity to Twitter, and since I’m not set up for telefacsimilating from home, I had to walk up to the nearby FedEx Office place — and by bad timing, today was just about the coldest day we’ve had all winter.  I could’ve driven, but I wasn’t sure about parking availability, and I wanted the exercise, and it was only 7-8 minutes to walk either way.  Still, even such a short walk in such cold weather can really take it out of me, and I’m still feeling the fatigue.

Warning: I’m being impersonated on Twitter

I was just doing a Google search for references to Only Superhuman, and I discovered that there is a Twitter page from someone going by the username @Chris_L_Bennett and purporting to be me.  This page has over 50 followers, some of whom are people I know in person or online.  Folks, it isn’t me.  I don’t do Twitter.  I don’t even know how.  So if you follow this person’s “tweets” or whatever the things are called, you’re being misled.

This person is mostly quoting or paraphrasing my actual comments from various places, but some of the comments have nothing to do with me (like one professing an interest in Zooey Deschanel’s TV series that I’ve never watched) and some are outright falsehoods (like several from September involving a completely fabricated phone call with “an editor on the west coast”).  It doesn’t seem like this person has any malicious intent, but they’re still deceiving people and probably breaking the law.  I’ve notified Twitter of the impersonation and hopefully this will be resolved soon.

Categories: Uncategorized

TOPKAPI (1964): The proto-MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE? (Not exactly…)

January 11, 2012 2 comments

In the comments to my recent review of Mission: Impossible: Ghost Protocol, I mentioned (not for the first time on this blog) that the original Mission: Impossible TV series was partly inspired by the 1964 heist movie Topkapi.  Since I’ve run out of M:I episodes to recap/review (until I can get my hands on the DVDs of the ’88 revival, which Netflix is taking its good time getting in stock), it occurred to me to check out Topkapi as a sort of adjunct to my review series.  Fortunately, it is available for streaming on Netflix.

Topkapi was written by Monja Danischewsky, based on the novel The Light of Day by Eric Ambler, and directed by Jules Dassin.  It stars Melina Mercouri, Peter Ustinov, Maximilian Schell, and Robert Morley.  Ustinov won an Oscar for Best Supporting Actor.

And it’s very different from what I expected, very different from M:I.  It’s more of a screwball comedy, opening with Mercouri talking directly to the audience to explain her goal, to steal a priceless emerald-encrusted dagger from the Topkapi Museum in Istanbul.  (Hey, I like it that she’s into emeralds.)  Her character, going by the name Elizabeth Lipp, is a thief, but one who’s never been caught, nor has her old flame Walter Harper (Schell), whom she recruits to help her steal the dagger and replace it with a replica she’s created.  He insists that they need to recruit a team of amateurs, people who also have no police records, since if a heist of this magnitude succeeds, the cops will be looking at the high-end thieves, all known.  Here we can see the ancestry of the M:I trope of assembling a team of “amateur” spies — magician, supermodel, engineer, professional bodybuilder — for off-book, deniable missions too sensitive to leave a paper trail back to the government (though this implied concept was abandoned by the show soon enough).

The team they assemble consists of  eccentric inventor Cedric Page (Morley) — sort of the “Barney” of the operation in M:I terms, though more like a spiritual ancestor to Blade Runner‘s Sebastian — plus the volatile strongman Hans (Jess Hahn) and the mute acrobat Giulio the Human Fly (Gilles Segal), who reminds me of the non-English-speaking contortionist in the George Clooney Ocean’s Eleven.  (How many movies borrowed tropes from this movie, anyway?)  The last “recruit” is the unwitting patsy (or “schmo,” as they call him) — Arthur Simpson (Ustinov), the world’s most hapless tour guide, whom they hire to drive a valuable rented car across the border to Istanbul, with some of their heist gear hidden in the door.  They don’t plan on Simpson having an expired passport that gets him questioned and his car inspected at the Turkish border, revealing the hidden rifle and smoke grenades.  The Turks arrest him, thinking he’s part of a terrorist plot to attack a major meeting of important officials, but his bumbling defense convinces them that he’s probably a dupe, so they let him prove it by spying for them, carrying on his assignment as though nothing happened.  Once he delivers the car to Cedric, a cop working for the government tells Cedric that only the registered driver can drive the car under Turkish law, so Cedric is forced to bring Simpson with him to meet the other plotters.  There’s a bunch of character-based wackiness that doesn’t amuse me, largely involving a drunken, incoherent male cook (Akim Tamiroff) who keeps coming onto Simpson and picking fights with Hans, or else involving the rather unattractive Mercouri playing a seductive vamp who claims to be a nymphomaniac.

It isn’t until nearly halfway through the movie that the heist begins to unfold and we begin to see some more elements relating to M:I.  A notable one is when, before the heist, a fight with the cook leads to Hans getting his hands crushed in a door so he can’t play his part — a trope used with Wally Cox’s safecracker character in the M:I pilot.  This requires them to bring Simpson into their confidence so he can fill Hans’s role of lowering Giulio into the museum on a rope.  So Simpson lets slip that Turkish Security thinks they’re terrorists and is watching them, so they have to adjust the plan.

I guess the heist sequence itself, which kicks in during the final half-hour of the movie, is the main part that inspired M:I — and not just the show, as it was a direct inspiration for the famous lowered-on-a-wire sequence in the first Tom Cruise M:I movie.  The meticulousness with which the planning and execution are shown step-by-step is the main inspiration.  But at the same time, there’s a lot that’s different.  These thieves are less of a well-oiled machine than the IMF, with lots of stumbles and hitches and improvisations and barely averted disasters as they execute the heist.  The sequence is carried out with very little dialogue, like M:I, but with no music whatsoever throughout the entire heist, very unlike M:I.  And the plan turns out to have one tiny but fatal flaw, so the outcome is rather different than it is in M:I.

Bottom line, I wasn’t crazy about the film.  Even aside from not being the kind of film I was expecting, it was a little too weird and eccentric, and I really disliked Mercouri as the lead actress.  And too many of the plot points depend on these supposed master thieves making stupid decisions.  If they were going to pick Simpson as their dupe, they should’ve researched him more first and made sure his passport was valid.  Worse, their decision to bring him aboard as a replacement for Hans makes no sense.  We were shown that the team was assisted by at least one member of a carnival that had set up shop next to the Topkapi Museum (which, come to think of it, may have inspired the similar use of a carnival in M:I’s first two-parter “Old Man Out”), so if they needed a strongman, why not recruit one from the carnival, instead of pinning the success of their plan on a flabby middle-aged coward whose involvement brings them close to disaster time and time again?  The plot just doesn’t add up.  Maybe it’s not supposed to, maybe these characters are intended to be bumblers attempting something beyond their abilities, but that’s hard to reconcile with the premise that the masterminds are too good to have ever gotten caught.  So it just didn’t work for me.  I almost wish I hadn’t seen the film at all.  The only thing I really gained from the experience was having my misconceptions about the film clarified.  It’s not nearly as much a spiritual ancestor of Mission: Impossible as I was expecting.

Categories: Reviews Tags: ,

I’ve seen the cover to ONLY SUPERHUMAN

January 10, 2012 2 comments

It’s not quite ready for public view yet, but today my editors gave me a look at the cover art for Only Superhuman, and it’s awesome.  It’s a very dynamic scene of Emerald Blair in action and it does a very good job of capturing her look, her personality, and her world.  I’m actually very surprised at how close it comes to my own interpretation of Emry, right down to the costume.  Though of course it’s far more skillfully rendered.

I’m told that the cover will be released once they complete the title design and text and stuff, which hopefully will be soon.

Meanwhile, it just so happens, the copyedited manuscript just arrived at Tor and they’ve sent it out to me.  So things are finally moving forward!  This is exciting!

Finally saw THE MUPPETS

January 10, 2012 3 comments

I went to see The Muppets today, figuring by now the theaters would be empty enough that there wouldn’t be a lot of noisy kids to contend with (indeed, there was only one well-behaved toddler).  It was entertaining and had some good gags and musical numbers, but I’m afraid I’m underwhelmed by it on the whole.  For one thing, it was too much about playing on nostalgia and things the Muppets had done in the past.  So it felt a bit derivative.  For another, some of the story elements didn’t make much sense to me.  Like, if they had so many celebrities showing up for the telethon, big names like Whoopi Goldberg and Neil Patrick Harris, why just stick them on the phones instead of having them perform?  Which leads me to another disappointment, which is that the celebrity cameos were mostly so minor.  In the previous Muppet movies, the celebs often played bigger roles, and even the cameos were more than just one or two lines.  I would’ve liked to get more than just the brief glimpses we got.

But my main problem was with the characterization of Kermit.  He was just so passive and hopeless here.  Kermit’s supposed to be the eternal optimist, a source of inspiration to others, a leader who brings people together and brings out the best in them.  But here, Kermit was this mopey sad sack who didn’t believe anything was possible and spent most of the movie giving up too easily and needing other people/Muppets to talk him into trying things.  It would’ve been okay if that had just been his initial characterization and he’d been back to his old self by the second act, but it just went on so long here that by the time he gave that “It’s okay because we’re all together” speech near the end, it was too little, too late.  This wasn’t the Kermit I used to know.  The script made him too weak and defeated so that Walter could be the hero and the source of inspiration instead.  Or maybe they were trying so hard to make Kermit a nice guy (something that I gather was an issue that came up in the rewrites) that they forgot he could be bold and assertive and daring as well.  I mean, Kermit was the alter ego of Jim Henson, who was not just an easygoing guy but an innovator who strove to push the envelope and readily took risks.

So it was a nice bit of nostalgia and maybe it’s fine for younger audiences as a reintroduction.  And I enjoyed it for the most part while I was watching.  But in the wake of it I feel a little empty and sad for the loss of what the Muppets were in their prime.

Categories: Reviews Tags: , ,

The STAR TREK Novelverse flowchart

January 8, 2012 1 comment

This is cool: A poster on the TrekBBS calling himself Thrawn had the idea to put together a flowchart showing the interconnections among the various Star Trek prose-fiction series that Pocket Books has published in recent years.  It’s not a completely comprehensive chart, since that would be way too cluttered, but it’s an impressive overview.  It’s being hosted on 8of5’s Guide to the Trek Collective, and you can see it here:

The Almighty Star Trek Lit-verse Reading Order Flowchart

You can click to enlarge it.  On my browser it works best if you right-click and open, but maybe that’s just my browser.

The list includes seven of my works (at least implicitly, since I had a story in Mirror Universe: Shards and Shadows), but doesn’t have room for Ex Machina or The Buried Age.  At least, not in its current form.  Thrawn went through about five drafts in one day putting this together, so who knows?  Maybe there will be future refinements.

Of course, it’s worth pointing out (and Thrawn does, on the left-hand side of the chart) that this web of interconnections doesn’t mean anyone is required to read all these books to understand what’s going on.  For the most part, except for the outright duologies and trilogies, you can read and understand any novel on its own, because we authors know any book is going to be somebody’s first and thus needs to be accessible without prior knowledge.  (Heck, I know my books may be read by friends or family who aren’t too familiar with Trek in the first place, so I always try to make my books understandable for them.)

Anyway, it’s a cool reference guide to Trek literature, so it’s worth calling attention to.

Categories: My Fiction, Star Trek Tags: ,

M:I: GHOST PROTOCOL: At last, an actual MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE movie

This week I got my semi-annual royalty check from my publisher, and it was a lot bigger than I expected (yay!), so I celebrated by going out to a bookstore and a movie.  The movie I picked was Mission: Impossible: Ghost Protocol, which I’ve been looking forward to, since I’m a big fan of its director Brad Bird’s previous films The Iron Giant and The Incredibles (and to a lesser extent Ratatouille), and I was eager to see what he could achieve in live action.

And Bird didn’t disappoint me. This is the best M:I movie ever. It was the kind of movie I’d expect from an animation genius like Bird, full of richly imaginative visuals and action composition — and I don’t just mean action in the sense of fights and chases, but in the sense of cause and effect, one thing leading to another, like the delightful touch of the progression of Ethan’s goggles from the Burj Khalifa climbing scene through the meeting scene to the sandstorm scene. And it had a lot of Bird’s wonderful sense of humor as well, full of marvelously funny action gags (like Ethan going back to smack the phone when it didn’t self-destruct in five seconds, or trying to use the retinal scanner on the moving train car) and character bits (mainly Simon Pegg’s Benji and Jeremy Renner’s Brandt, who have a good comic interplay). It wasn’t as deep with the characters and emotions as The Incredibles was, but it was highly entertaining, with lots of inspired set pieces. I actually didn’t find the much-touted Burj Khalifa sequence to be the highlight of the film. There were so many other sequences that were just as cleverly scripted, designed, and executed, just as frenetic and intense. If anything, it was a little too much — I felt a bit overloaded by the end of it.  But it was too much of a good thing.

Best of all, it’s the first Ethan Hunt film that really feels worthy of the title Mission: Impossible.  Previously, this film “series,” if you can even call it that, was three radically different spy films reflecting their respective directors’ sensibilities more than they reflected each other or the television series they were named for.  Brian De Palma made a De Palma-style paranoid thriller with some trappings of Mission: Impossible.  John Woo made a Woo-style action thriller with even fewer trappings of M:I.  J. J. Abrams made Alias: The Movie with a pretty good M:I pastiche or two in the middle.  But Brad Bird actually went and made a Mission: Impossible movie.  Granted, it’s also an Ethan Hunt movie, with the characteristic wild action and agent-on-the-run tropes of that protagonist’s prior screen adventures.  And it’s the first of the Ethan Hunt films to actually feel like a continuation from its predecessor; sure, a lot had changed since the previous film, but at least those changes were explained, and there were character threads growing out of what the third film established (which makes sense, since Abrams produced this one).  But Ghost Protocol had more of the original M:I television series in its genetic makeup than any of the previous films — though it’s definitely filtered through Bird’s own voice and sensibilities as a filmmaker.

It started with the main titles. Not only did Bird bring in the iconic fuse-lighting motif as part of the actual action, which was inspired, but he used it to segue into a main title sequence that took the same basic concept as the original series’ titles — the burning fuse superimposed over a progression of scenes from the story we were about to see — and amped it up into a very dynamic, visually imaginative, Pixaresque sequence. Then there’s Michael Giacchino’s music with its liberal use of Lalo Schifrin’s main title theme and an excellent use of Schifrin’s “The Plot” motif leading into and during the Kremlin sequence (though it’s a shame he didn’t use “The Plot” anywhere else in the movie), not to mention peppering the score with Schifrinesque bongos and violin vibratos, so that it felt more like an extension of the original series’ music than any of the previous films’ scores. But it felt like the original M:I in content as well as style. It’s the most team-driven of the movies, not just Ethan plus his support group, but a full ensemble piece throughout like the original was (though with a smaller team size than the series usually had in its first five seasons).  It’s also the first of the movies that didn’t have a romantic subplot per se for Hunt, so the focus was more heavily on the progression of the mission, as it was in the show (there were occasional M:I episodes that gave the leads romances, but such personal involvements were rare exceptions, not the rule they’ve been onscreen).  The IMF is still implicitly a much larger, more centralized bureaucracy as it’s been in the films, but the storyline keeps it mostly off-camera, letting the film feel more like the series, where the team was never seen in any kind of official headquarters and their superiors were invisible and implicit.  (Okay, we actually met “the Secretary” here, a major subversion of the show’s conventions, but it was brief.)  It’s a good compromise between the established realities of the movie universe and the flavor and approach of the show.

And some of the gambits they used were right out of the show. The idea of hiding from guards behind a projection screen, as Ethan and Benji did in the Kremlin hallway, is a modernized, amped-up, much more convincing (and funnier) version of a gambit the original series used in “The Falcon, Part 3.” Controlling the elevators to direct the mark to a duplicate room a floor away from the real one was used in “The Double Circle.” Intercepting both parties in a meeting, having them respectively meet different team members in adjacent rooms, was a gambit they used in “Orpheus” and probably other episodes. And the way Benji helped Brandt get into the server room was in the spirit of the sort of behind-the-scenes stuff Barney and Willy routinely did in the original show, using clever, high-tech equipment to sneak through tunnels and shafts and so forth.  Sure, having the tech go wrong so often was a subversion, something we infrequently saw in the show, but even as a subversion it felt like a reaction to the series’ defining tropes more than those of the movies.

Although Agent Carter, despite sharing a surname with Cinnamon Carter (and I didn’t catch onto that until after the film), was something of a subversion as well, in that she tended to have a much more brute-force approach than was standard in the original series, beating answers out of people instead of tricking them, and she almost fumbled her seduction assignment (though she looked really good in that green dress at the party — not quite as striking as Maggie Q’s dress in the third movie, but almost).  Aside from Hunt, she was the main thing that felt more like part of the movie universe than the TV universe.  But she felt like an outsider trying to adjust to the more clever and devious way of doing things, so that still makes it feel (at least to me) like the movie is treating the show’s approach as the standard.

I had a nice little experience in the final scene of the film. When Brandt was starting to confess to Ethan about the thing he was all angsty over (I don’t want to spoil it), I realized what the upcoming surprise revelation was going to be, and I gasped in delight and leaned forward in anticipation. And then a few lines later, just before the reveal, a woman in the row in front of me — whose face I could see now that I was leaning forward — gasped in realization just as I had.  It was nice to (sort of) share that moment with someone else. Sometimes, even in this age of cell phones and relentless chatter and shoddily run, overpriced theaters, there’s value to seeing a movie with an audience rather than alone at home.

(And no, this isn’t the kind of detailed analysis I did for the TV series.  Maybe someday, I’ll do that for all four movies, just to be thorough, but not yet.)

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TrekMovie.com votes THE STRUGGLE WITHIN best Trek story of 2011

TrekMovie.com has put up several “Best of 2011″ posts lately, and in their “TrekIn2011: Best Star Trek Books & Comics” post, they gave top honors to my e-novella Star Trek: Typhon Pact: The Struggle Within, calling it “[t]he clear winner for short stories and novellas (and in fact for all Star Trek fiction in 2011).”

Typhon Pact: The Struggle Wtihin

Now, even getting just the short-fiction nod would be an honor, because the other candidates would’ve been the four novellas comprising Vanguard: Declassified, and that’s mighty tough competition.  But best of all Trek fiction of the year?  That’s rather mindboggling — and heartening, because frankly I wasn’t too happy with The Struggle Within and feared it wouldn’t work at all.  Personally, my vote for the best of 2011 would’ve been Voyager: Children of the Storm by Kirsten Beyer.  But I’m gratified that TSW has been so well-received, and I thank the TrekMovie staff for the recognition.

The multiple faces of M.A.N.T.I.S. (1994)

January 2, 2012 1 comment

Thanks to Hulu, I’ve been revisiting a couple of old sci-fi TV series, and I’ve just finished a watch-through of the short-lived 1994 series M.A.N.T.I.S. starring Carl Lumbly.  This concept actually went through a few different incarnations thanks to network micromanaging — technically only two, but the second had two distinct phases.  To break them down:

The original pilot movie

The pilot of M.A.N.T.I.S. was created and written by Sam Raimi (then best known for the Evil Dead films and Darkman, later known for Hercules, Xena, and the Spider-Man films) and Sam Hamm (screenwriter of the first Tim Burton Batman film) and directed by Eric Laneuville.  It was an ambitious attempt to do an African-American-centered superhero tale dealing with racial tensions, gang violence, and the like, and featured an entirely African-American main cast headlined by Lumbly (whom I would later get to know as the voice of J’onn J’onnz in Justice League Unlimited and as Marcus in Alias), along with Gina Torres (later to appear in Alias and costar in Firefly) and Bobby Hosea as the initial focus characters, a medical examiner and reporter who investigate the mystery of the superhero called M.A.N.T.I.S. and end up becoming his allies, though without unearthing his identity.  The secret (which isn’t revealed until the end of the first hour) is that he’s actually the paraplegic Dr. Miles Hawkins, who’s invented the Mechanically Augmented Neuro-Transmitter Interception System, a harness that allows him to walk while he wears it, but not without a long-term cost to his body.  Hawkins was paralyzed by police gunfire in a riot paralleling the 1992 Los Angeles riots (the pilot is set in the fictional “Ocean City,” though it looks exactly like LA right down to the familiar skyline), and it awakened his formerly dormant social conscience, though he still hides behind his old right-wing rich-guy politics to preserve his cover while he operates as a champion of the common people.  It’s interesting that Hawkins is initially set up to look like a bad guy of sorts, and it’s an interesting touch to see even the audience being misled by the superhero’s secret identity.  It’s certainly a nice alternative to the usual origin-story approach.  All in all, it’s a fairly good action movie; a lot of its characterizations and story beats are broad to the point of caricature, and it’s far from the most nuanced exploration of 1990s racial politics you’ll find, but it’s entertaining, and its African-American focus was a daring and intriguing angle for a superhero show.

IMDb’s trivia page claims that Miles Hawkins was named for Stephen Hawking, but given the character’s fondness for jazz, I prefer to believe my father’s interpretation that he was named in honor of jazz musicians Miles Davis and Coleman Hawkins.  Although it’s worth noting that just a year before this, Milestone Comics introduced the superhero Static, whose real name was Virgil Hawkins (in honor of the first African-American to go to law school, I gather).  And one of the founders of Milestone, artist Denys Cowan, designed the M.A.N.T.I.S. costume for this movie.

The music for the pilot was by Sam Raimi’s frequent collaborator Joseph Lo Duca, and though it sounds good, it’s a classic example of Lo Duca’s tendency for, shall we say, extreme imitativeness.  His main title theme’s first few bars are note-for-note the same as the first few bars of Alan Silvestri’s Predator theme with only the rhythm and ostinato changed, and the music under the climactic chase sequence is an even more exact pastiche of Bernard Herrmann’s North by Northwest theme.

Unfortunately, the pilot was probably too daring and controversial for the FOX network of the day (which did eventually bring a successful black-superhero series to the screen with that other guy named Hawkins in the animated Static Shock), so this version of the character didn’t last beyond the original movie.  Instead we got:

The first half-season

For the weekly series, Bryce Zabel (who would later create Dark Skies and eventually pitch a failed Star Trek reboot along with J. Michael Straczynski) was brought in to reinvent the premise from the ground up.  Only Lumbly, his character of Miles Hawkins, and his basic backstory were retained, but everything else was changed, right down to the origin.  The series had a more ethnically mixed cast and almost completely avoided the racial politics of the pilot.  Now Miles was the head of Hawkins Technologies along with his best friend John Stonebrake (Roger Rees), and they invented the “exoskeleton” (it was called a “harness” in the pilot) together to let Miles walk again.  Or rather, Miles invented the exoskeleton and John invented the control helmet for a different purpose (to control a flying car, the Chrysalid, that became the Mantis’s Batmobile), and the exoskeleton didn’t work until they had a chocolate-and-peanut-butter epiphany and put the two together.  The metallic helmet was redesigned from the pilot and made more all-concealing, and now he couldn’t walk unless he was wearing the helmet (which was not the case in the pilot).  Whereas the pilot version of the character wore a suit, tie, and trenchcoat over the harness, the series version wore the bare exoskeleton over a molded black bodysuit.

The third member of the team, inexplicably, was a somewhat annoying bike messenger named Taylor Savidge (or Savage, according to IMDb — the former is from onscreen text in an episode, though, so I’m going with that), played by Christopher Russell Gartin.  In this version, he stumbled upon Miles’s first impromptu attempt to use the exoskeleton’s superstrength to help someone, then somehow fast-talked his way into their operation, encouraged them to embrace the superhero potential of their creation, and coined the name “Mantis” based on the mask’s insectile appearance, even though it didn’t look very mantis-like to me.  (Which made it paradoxical when the original acronym from the pilot showed up on a screen later in the series.)  I guess Taylor was added to provide youth appeal or something, though it felt rather forced.  The final regular was police lieutenant Leora Maxwell, played by RoboCop 2‘s Galyn Görg (her surname is pronounced “George,” though the Internet offers no insight on how her first name is pronounced — I’ve been wondering that for ages now), who was a romantic interest for Miles even while hunting down his vigilante secret identity.

The series was clearly produced on a tighter budget than the pilot — shot in Vancouver rather than LA, using cheaper CGI effects and electronic music (originally by Christopher Franke, later by Randy Miller) rather than the pilot’s orchestral score.  In the first half-season, Miles (who was here called “the Mantis” instead of just “Mantis” as in the pilot — and I’m going with lower-case here because that’s how Savidge used it and because it’s easier to type) and his team took on corruption and high-tech crime.  Well, at least theoretically; it was often stated that the city where the series now took place, Port Columbia, was a hotbed of police corruption, but we rarely actually saw it until the last few episodes of the first half, when they introduced the corrupt police chief played by the stalwart Blu Mankuma — who at the time was apparently required by Canadian law to appear in every television series produced in Vancouver.  (Port Columbia looked exactly like Vancouver, except that whenever the Mantis went up in his flying car the Chrysalid, the background plates were stock footage of the LA skyline from the pilot.)

My fuzzy recollection of seeing this show in its original run was that the first half-season wasn’t as good as the pilot, and was disappointing for its abandonment of the racial complexities (such as they were) of the original, but had its own merits that made it worth watching.  Unfortunately, on reviewing the series, I find that the first half-season was actually pretty lame overall.  What made me remember it fondly, it seems, was a brief arc in episodes 6-8 (listed as episodes 8-10 on Hulu because they count the pilot movie as 1-2) where things finally, belatedly started to get interesting — Miles began to show signs of getting hooked on the power of the Mantis, even starting to develop hints of a dual personality, while Stonebrake became angst-ridden over whether he should be helping his best friend risk his life and sanity in this pursuit.  Unfortunately, this was never heard from again after those three episodes, and the rest of what we got was relentlessly mediocre.  The Mantis was a pretty poor superhero overall.  He wasn’t very good at saving lives; in episode 2, he tried to stop a paramilitary raid on an arms warehouse and failed to prevent the guards from being killed, ultimately only saving Savidge’s life.  He wasn’t very good at keeping his identity secret either; in the same climactic scene the Mantis taunted the main villain with the same line the villain had used to taunt Miles Hawkins earlier in the episode.  And he was known to flee a scene where an innocent was still in danger the moment he heard police sirens coming.

This was the status quo for 11 episodes, but then low ratings led a shift in the series focus.  Typically, the network’s meddling to try to “fix” a failing show ended up making it even worse.

The second half-season

 In the second half, the writing staff was apparently taken over by Coleman Luck, who’d come onboard as a creative consultant earlier in the series.  The focus shifted to more wild, way-out sci-fi and supernatural menaces like extradimensional Men in Black, mutant jellyfish-women, clones, and ghosts.  Also, Leora discovered Miles’s secret identity and eventually came around to be on the team.

Now, back in 1994, I lost interest in the show and stopped watching a few weeks after the mid-season revamp.  I found the whole thing painfully stupid and was frustrated by the abandonment of the promising character drama I’d seen before in favor of ludicrous fantasy and shallow action plotlines.  When I started this rewatch, my initial plan was just to watch the first 11 episodes and stop there.  But after seeing how lame the first half-season was, I decided I might as well take the plunge and watch the rest of the series to see if it was really that much worse.  And yeah, the second half is still quite dumb, even dumber than the first half.  But in a way, it’s more entertainingly dumb.  The first half aspired to be somewhat serious and gritty in concept, with the Mantis as a dark, driven vigilante/crusader in a city so corrupt that only he could clean it up  — basically “What if Iron Man were Batman?” — but it just went about it so ineptly and fell so far short of its aspirations.  But the second half wasn’t trying to be anything more than it was, a cheesy, lowbrow sci-fi action show.  Indeed, it wholeheartedly embraced the ludicrous, and had the same kind of unapologetic, random insanity you’d see in Silver Age DC Comics.  It was by no means good, but at least it made me laugh at the cheesy stupidity of it all, rather than boring me as much of the first half-season did.  I guess I’m more tolerant of such cheese now, after a few seasons watching Batman: The Brave and the Bold, than I was back in ’94.

But while the second half may have been more comic-booky (in an old-fashioned way) than the first half, it was less effective as a superhero series.  The problem is that too few episodes involved the Mantis actually protecting the public.  The majority of the stories involved the Mantis and his team protecting themselves from people coming after them for various reasons, or protecting relatives of theirs, or even trying to clean up problems they themselves caused.  It was too insular.  Superhero stories should be about the heroes protecting other people, not just themselves.  And the Mantis was still not very good at saving lives.  Whenever he dealt with a serial killer, he usually only managed to save the last victim.  In “Fast Forward” he consistently failed to stop a superfast villain from causing citywide blackouts — and the episode glossed over how many people must’ve died in hospitals and traffic accidents and riots and such.  Also, it got rather formulaic, with a stretch where the supervillains were discovering the Mantis’s secret identity almost weekly.

(By the way, the episode “Progenitor” is noteworthy for pitting Carl Lumbly’s Miles against a villain played by Vincent Schiavelli — a reunion of Lectroids from Buckaroo Banzai, on opposite sides once again.  Although I didn’t notice any nods or in-jokes relating to that film.)

So yeah, most of the second half was entertainingly stupid, kind of.  But then I got to the series finale.  This episode never even aired on FOX, since the show was cancelled before it ran.  It eventually aired in 1997, presumably on what was then called the Sci-Fi Channel.  (The same may be true of the preceding episode, but there’s conflicting info online about its premiere airdate.)  And really, this is one case where FOX did the viewing public a favor by cancelling a series with episodes unaired.  Even hours after watching the finale, I’m boggled at how horribly wrong it was.  And that’s despite it being written by future Farscape showrunner David Kemper (who also wrote the only episode of the second half-season that borders on being good, “Fast Forward”).  I’m going to put a spoiler warning here before discussing it, in case anyone is brave enough to actually suffer through the ordeal of watching it.  Though I would advise against any such ill-conceived effort.

In the final episode, “Ghost of the Ice,” the Mantis and his friends are lost in the woods and battle… oh, lord… an invisible, bulletproof dinosaur that hatched from a cocoon in a glacier.  (The invisible dinosaur is called “Harvey” by the mountain man they meet out there — a reference that would later show up in Kemper’s Farscape, although it debuted in a script by a different writer.)  Why is it invisible?  Because they didn’t have enough money to create a visible dinosaur special effect, so the best they could do was a vaguely dinosaur-shaped distortion.  Why did a reptile hatch from a cocoon?  I don’t have a fershlugginer clue — it was a totally random insertion that added nothing to the episode.  And that’s not the worst of it.  The worst part — and this is the last spoiler warning — is how the episode ends.

The episode ends with Miles and Leora trapped by the invisible dinosaur in their car.  Miles triggers a fuel cell to try to electrocute the dinosaur… killing himself and Leora in the resultant explosion.

Ohh, that hurt to write.  My eyes are literally tearing up a bit at how tragically wrong this was, and that’s despite not even really caring that much about the characters.  I mean, sure, the Mantis was never a particularly effective superhero over the course of this series.  But here he went out like a total punk.  He didn’t die saving the city or the world.  He arguably saved Stonebrake and Savidge, but he didn’t even save the woman he loved — and was indeed directly responsible for her death by making the bad decision to trap her in the car with him in the first place.  And he apparently didn’t even kill the dinosaur, since its outline was still moving and roaring in the smoke from the explosion.  I mean, come on, saving the love interest — particularly saving the princess from the dragon — is the archetypal superhero accomplishment, and the Mantis’s final act was to fail profoundly at that most elementary heroic feat.  That’s not just killing the hero off, that’s deliberately poisoning his legacy.

It boggles the mind that the makers of this show chose such an ignominious, even insulting end for their hero.  I have to wonder what happened.  I suspect that Kemper didn’t conceive the story as a finale; it’s just so minor, a side story way off in the woods with only the core cast and one guest star.  Maybe it was meant to be just another episode, but when the show was cancelled the staff rewrote it to tack on a definitive ending, and were stuck with having this as their hero’s final adventure.  But then, why choose that ending?  Why kill off Miles and Leora, and have it be such a humiliating defeat?  Did they hate the character or the show that much?  Were they deliberately trying to burn it down and salt the earth so it could never be revived?  Did someone at the network hate the show and require them to end it this way?

Whatever the reason, it’s a shame.  Carl Lumbly was effective in the lead, even with the lousy material, and he deserved a better conclusion than this.  Hell, it would be better if the show had never been re-aired on cable or released on home video and this episode had never seen the light of day.  Don’t get me wrong, I’m against censorship, but some stories are so bad that they don’t deserve to be published in the first place.  It’s staggering that a finale this horribly wrong was ever approved for production at all.  They must’ve totally stopped caring by that point, or else been actively bitter and hostile toward their own show.  So the result is a hollow, pointless ending that’s sad and frustrating to watch.

So, to sum up: I do recommend the pilot movie.  It’s kind of unsubtle (hardly surprising for Sam Raimi), but interesting and daring, and it’s definitely worth watching for Lumbly and a young, very hot Gina Torres (as well as a supporting appearance by a young, very hot Marcia Cross).   But I can’t really recommend the weekly series.  It has a few good points, but not enough.  Episodes 6-8 have their moments of intelligent characterization, but they require some familiarity with at least the first 2-3 fairly lame episodes.  Much of the second half-season can be enjoyed in a mocking, Mystery Science Theater 3000 sort of way, and “Fast Forward” is almost good (though the science is as ridiculous as usual for that phase of the show).  But the finale should be avoided if you know what’s good for you.

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Just to put things in perspective…

Yesterday was the start of the new year 2012… in the current version of the Gregorian calendar used in much of the world.  In the old Julian calendar, yesterday was December 19, 2011.  In the Hebrew calendar, we’re about three months from the end of the year 5772.  In the Indian civil calendar, we’re a similar distance from the end of 1933 Saka Era.  In the Islamic calendar, we’re early in the second month of 1433 AH.  To astronomers, yesterday was the Julian day 2455927.  In the traditional Chinese calendar, we’re a few weeks from the end of the year 28 (Year of the Metal Hare) of Cycle 78 (or Cycle 79 depending on whether you date from the beginning or the end of the reign of Emperor Huangdi).

The point is, calendrical divisions are arbitrary human constructs.  The Earth just moves continuously through its rotation and orbit from one moment to the next.  Some people make a huge deal out of the start of a new year in their particular calendar.  That’s fine, but it’s just an excuse for a party, not something that has any objective significance where the universe — or even the entirety of the human race — is concerned.  Worth keeping that in mind just for a sense of proportion.

Now, about this silly Mayan meme that’s going around… I wish we would stop blaming the Maya for this dumb apocalyptic prophecy.  The Maya (a more proper term than “Mayans”) had no apocalyptic tradition of any kind.  What they had was a calendar that worked very well, and that they used to date events in their own lives and up to a few generations in the future.  They probably never gave much thought to the year we call 2012, although they had a couple of written predictions/prophecies about events taking place long after that date.  A lot of the jokes and cartoons you see circulating posit that the “Mayans” actually manufactured calendars going up to this year and then stopped.  That’s not so.  They didn’t bother making calendars more than a few centuries ahead.  But the thing about calendars is, they’re cyclical.  They can easily be extrapolated forward indefinitely.  And the Maya calendar was really cyclical, since that was their view of time, that everything was a series of nested cycles that continued forward indefinitely.

So what happened was this: the actual Maya/Mesoamerican calendar fell into disuse many centuries ago.  More recently, in the mid-20th century, Western researchers reconstructed it and projected it forward into their own era, something the Maya themselves didn’t really bother to do, since why would they need to?  Those modern researchers discovered that one of the longer cycles of the Mesoamerican calendar, the 13th baktun cycle, would come to an end within their lifetimes, in the year 2012.  In 1966, a guy named Michael Coe wrote a book wherein he interpreted that as a Maya prophecy of what he called “Armageddon.”  But of course Armageddon is a Biblical concept, and later scholars have consistently debunked Coe’s interpretation.  There was nothing in Maya writings to suggest they saw the end of the 13th baktun as the end of the world — merely as the end of one cycle and the beginning of the next.  In other words, New Year’s Day writ large, an excuse for a huge party but nothing more.  Coe had imposed his own Western religious traditions onto his interpretation of a foreign culture — an elementary mistake for an archaeologist.  But that didn’t stop other 20th-century Westerners who believed in a looming Apocalypse from latching onto Coe’s mistake and building a whole eschatological cottage industry out of it.

So there is no “Mayan” prediction of the end of the world.  They don’t deserve the blame.  End-times theology is a distinctly Christian belief system and has been for thousands of years.  Many Christians since Biblical times have been convinced the world would end in their lifetimes, and they’ve always looked for “evidence” to justify the latest eschatological forecast.  The Maya calendar just had the bad luck of getting co-opted by that process and misinterpreted to fit it.  So please, let’s stop blaming the Maya for our own Western preoccupations.

Categories: Science Tags: ,

Another loss in the family

January 1, 2012 1 comment

For me and the Bennett clan, 2011 came to a close with some sad news.  My uncle, Professor Emmett L. Bennett, Jr., passed away on December 15th at the age of 93.  I can’t say I was really close to him; until my father died last year, I’d been rather detached from the rest of my family, following my father’s precedent.  But of all my other relatives, Uncle Emmett was probably the one my father and I saw the most of, since he occasionally came to visit.  I dedicated my Star Trek novel The Buried Age to him, because it involved his field of archaeology and some ideas in the book were inspired by his work.  At the time, his mental clarity was not what it had once been, but he wrote to me to let me know how deeply he appreciated the tribute, and kept in touch for a while thereafter.

Of all the members of our family (which includes several scholars, artists, and the like), Emmett was probably the one who achieved the greatest importance and accomplishments.  He was a legend in his field because of the crucial work he did deciphering the ancient Mycenaean Linear B script, constructing the symbol frequency tables that were the key to Michael Ventris’s breakthrough translation a few years later.  Emmett went on to become the world’s leading authority in the study of Mycenaean inscriptions, a field formally known as pinacology — a term Emmett himself coined.  That’s right — my uncle actually named a whole field of scholarship.  Is that awesome or what?

Emmett’s achievements were so significant that his passing actually warranted an article in this weekend’s The New York Times Science section, which you can read here:

Emmett L. Bennett Jr., Ancient Script Expert, Dies at 93

Uncle Emmett earned his degrees right here at my own alma mater, the University of Cincinnati.  His mentor was the great archaeologist Carl Blegen, in whose namesake library I’ve done a good amount of writing.  (When I took a mythology class way back when, I was able to impress my professor by telling him I was related to Emmett, whom he called “one of the gods of Linear B.”)  It was often academic functions that brought him back to town (he lived and taught in Madison, Wisconsin).  I once attended a talk he gave at UC, though it was many years ago and I have a hard time remembering anything specific about it, except that I did learn a lot about his work with Mycenaean tablets.  Like the irony that the clay tablets were meant to be temporary media for minor things like inventory lists and receipts and personal letters, while all the important writings and records of the culture were preserved on more “permanent” media like papyrus or parchment (I forget which) — but when the cities burned, the “permanent” media were destroyed while the “disposable” clay tablets were baked and preserved for the ages.  Makes you think.

Although at this time, my thoughts go mainly to my Aunt Shirley and Uncle Clarence, who’ve lost both their youngest and oldest brothers just sixteen months apart.  That just doesn’t seem fair.  And my condolences also go to Emmett’s children, Patrick, Kathleen, Cynthia, John, and my namesake cousin Christopher, and their own families as well.  But it’s good to know that Uncle Emmett will be long remembered for his achievements.  He helped reveal history, and now he has gone on to become a part of it.

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