Books: The Martian, The Story of Human Language
TV: Mad Men [3x06-3x13], RWBY [volumes 1 & 2]
The Martian by Andy Weir
This is Andy Weir's self-published bestselling novel that depicts, with convincing verisimilitude, an astronaut who gets stranded on Mars and has to desperately improvise to survive.
First, see this xkcd comic. That tells you what the book is much better than I could. I would only make one (somewhat meta) adjustment: The Maritan shows you what it would be like if the guy who writes xkcd got stuck in that scenario. Mark Watney is almost always hilarious about his predicament, but he's also a relentlessly brilliant engineer. Every single thing he has to do on Mars is a baffling puzzle -- he spends a good fraction of the book trying to grow potatoes -- and much of the thrill of the book comes from watching him desperately jury-rig solutions.
I also like how the book is structured. This will sound odd and backhanded: it feels clumsy, in a way that I really appreciate. For about the first third of the book, it's purely transcribed audio diaries from the stranded astronaut. Then it flips over to limited third-person stories from earth. Those alternate for a while; then the author starts folding in TV-show transcripts, historical recaps, whatever sort of document the story needs at the time. And it's refreshing, really, to see the writer construct his novel with whatever works instead of following some regular, tried-and-true, traditional structure. It's almost like he's building the book the same way the astronaut is building his survival gear -- grabbing whatever's to hand and making it work.
That said, this is a hard-sf book, hearkening back to the golden age of sci-fi -- both in terms of its relentless accuracy and its just-good-enough characterization. You may think a novel about an astronaut's isolation on a distant planet would be a chance to go introspective, to explore someone's emotional state under those terrible circumstances, to ask questions about human beings even *are* when we're severed from our society. But this is a chance the book doesn't take. It's a deliberate and respectable choice -- Mr. Weir elides past all the psychological questions by implying that Watney keeps himself amused with 70s sitcoms, and keeps the crippling loneliness at bay with constant, snarky, self-effacing humor. And that's fine -- you just accept that this book isn't about that, it's about "how do we use this set of resources to make it so I don't die?"
And then you sit and wait for Murphy's Law to kick in, and for the next disaster to hit.
The Story of Human Language by John McWhorter
This is the Teaching Company's audiocourse about the evolution of languages.
And honestly, it's one of the best audiocourses I've listened to in some time. I choose the word 'evolution' very deliberately here, as the course is all about languages changing over time. It shares a lot in common with evolution, except for the (important) notion of "survival of the fittest". Since every language, and every variation of every language, is suitable for communication, the changes feel a bit more random. Terminal syllables turn into quiet murmurs, and fall off. Concrete nouns become grammaticalized, and then become endings. Isolated languages, left to their own devices, develop bizarre and byzantine grammatical curlicues. Phonetic writing systems try to fix things in place, but the languages keep on drifting, on and on, forever.
This is one of the best lecturers they have employed at the Teaching Company, on par with Robert Greenberg. He explains his points clearly, with fascinating concrete examples and engaging humor. (The jokes aren't the greatest, but there's still something winning about them.) With controversial topics where the linguistic community hasn't reached a consensus, he's careful to delineate the different competing theories, and distinguish his own opinions from the known facts.
All in all, it's a wonderful course that I'd recommend to any fellow language nerd.
Mad Men [3x06-3x13]
This finishes out the third season of AMC's series about ad executives living through (and beyond) the tumultuous 1960s.
Again, it's just damned hard for me to say anything new about the show. And to be clear, that's okay -- the show still does what it does very well, with lies and tension simmering under lots of measured, deliberate scenes, with characters straining against the restraints of decorous early-1960s America, and Don Draper's lies about his (decreasingly) mysterious past rumbling deep beneath everything, threatening to knock the whole structure down.
The tricky office politics were a welcome addition to the mix. Forcing the Sterling Cooper bigwigs to puzzle out what their new corporate overlords were planning was a fun game of cat and mouse, ending in the fantastic finale, which multiple critics rightly compare to a heist movie.
But by and large, I feel like season-three Mad Men was doing the same thing that seasons one and two did. Fortunately, they burn through plot so slowly that they don't exhaust their storylines the way that, say, a 23-episode season with self-contained episodes set in that universe would do. Every character gets an arc or two, and that's enough to power the whole season.
RWBY [volumes 1 & 2]
This is the animé series about four girls at a school for magical fighters. It was written and directed by the late Monty Oum for Rooster Teeth, the studio primarily known for the machinima series Red vs. Blue.
I'm glad this show exists. It feels like it's extending this basic idea of a machinima microseries in a new direction -- a new genre, a new style, and aiming for epic drama instead of wisecracking humor. Sure, RWBY isn't itself machinima -- they made it in Poser, mostly -- but it still feels like they took a high-end magical-fighting game and extended it out to full-fledged web drama. It's great to see Rooster Teeth take these tentative steps into a much larger world.
And there are lots of moments interspersed throughout that I really enjoyed. I love, for example, how they set up the love story for Pyrrha. Yes, she has a crush on Jaune, the show's inept comic relief, and she never confesses it. And at this point, most stories, for dramatic effect, would get kind of... unhealthy. In a lot of stories, the hero starts to do really stalker-y things towards their crush, and the story implies to us that this is okay, or even commendable. In other stories, the hero gets vindictive, in a "why can't s/he just conveniently read my mind?!" sort of way, and the story implies that yes, only a fool would try to resolve this with sensible communication, and the crush deserves our scorn. Instead, Pyrrha is -- gasp! -- nice to the guy, and supportive, and generally keeps her shit together.
I'm not saying every story has to do that, but it's kind of striking that I've seen *no* stories that do that, so it's nice to have this example.
Expanding out the Rooster Teeth empire to include an original animé fantasy series must have been a massive undertaking, and again, I commend them for that. But this does seem like one of those situations where they spent most of their 'originality capital' just making the show happen at all. The actual content feels cobbled together from obvious sources. Yes, it's a magical school, like Hogwarts, with rune-pattern magic techniques that are familiar from MMOs, and a lot of familiar, off-the-shelf character archetypes. If I tell you this is a show about girls at a magical fighting school who have to learn to work together as a team in order to stop the sinister plans of a shadowy cabal, then the show you've just imagined in your head is pretty much the show that you're going to see. No surprises.
I have sharply ambivalent feelings about the animation. I can't help but acknowledge that this is a great step forward for Rooster Teeth, which had its humble beginnings in Halo footage with amusing voiceover. And the fight scenes -- of which there are many -- are rapid-fire, engaging, and stylish. It's fun watching Team RWBY employ more complicated, coordinated fighting techniques as they "level up" as a team.
Yet, at the same time, they've hit something like the uncanny valley. They've gotten just close enough to "real" animation -- say, the Brad Birds, the Glen Keanes, the Shinichirō Watanabes of the world -- that the shortfalls are sharply disappointing. When someone eats a cookie by waving it vaguely towards their mouth and having the cookie instantly somehow blip out of existence, or a character's feet don't quite touch the ground they're walking on, or an errant polygon flickers in and out of sight from a weird clipping issue, it takes you out of the story. Sadly, human beings are involuntarily relentless at detecting these kinds of problems.
Again, I'm glad this show exists. And I had an entertaining time watching it. But RWBY doesn't feel like the end of this road -- more like a very promising signpost towards what machinima studios can accomplish in the future.
For next week: I'm watching Good Eats and Last Week Tonight while exercising. I'm watching Transparent, listening to Craig Ferguson's autobiography, and re-reading Pride and Prejudice. Lindsey and I are still listening to Welcome to Night Vale and watching season two of Community, though we're currently taking a detour to watch My Dinner With Andre.
 I should really say "verisimilitude" -- I have no idea whether the space-travel details are remotely correct.
 ... or "like The Magicians", if you want to prove to us that you read.
 And yes, there's the usual tension between "yay, they're showing empowered women fighting bad guys and supporting each other!" and "wow, literally every female character design is as fan-service-y as possible." But I could voice that quibble with a lot of animé.[3b]
[3b] Why yes, complaining about that sort of thing *does* make me great fun at parties. Why do you ask?
Mood: contemplative · Music: none