Sensuality, Shakespeare and Stranger Things

Where the hell has Winona Ryder been?

Like half my friends, I just finished binge-watching Netflix’s Stranger Things, an eight-part sci-fi/horror series that’s partly a homage to the 1980s. Overall it was very good, both addicting and entertaining, once I was able to slide into the story.

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A lot has been made of the fact that Stranger Things is set in 1983, and the directors took great pains to ground the series in that time frame. The senses are constantly distracted by elements from the early ’80s — from music to the clothes and hairstyles to the decor of the houses.

I appreciate the effort, but it was overkill, too much of a good thing, and it distracted from the story. Having been alive and aware in 1983 I kept finding myself questioning how accurate it all was, and it seemed too dated.

Luckily, in a stroke of brilliance, they cast Winona Ryder as the lead. She played against type — the woman who made her name as a quirky everywoman played a worried, desperate, and unstoppable mother.

Winona

Winona Ryder is about my age, and when I was younger a lot of guys I knew had crushes on her. But to me she always seemed unformed. She a girl, not a woman. I didn’t get the attraction, and I never followed her career.

Winona_RyderIn these intervening years she’s had some not-so-secret difficulties, as we all have. And when I look at pictures of her now — she’s hot. She’s a woman now, a fully formed adult with all the complications that brings.

In Stranger Things Ryder was effective not just for her acting, but because, in contrast to the set, she was not stylized. She was gaunt and frail. Ryder’s pixie quality was a strength here, as we saw a woman who’s been beaten down by life in many ways but keeps fighting.

Coincidentally, last week I saw Shakespeare’s Troilus and Cressida in Central Park. One of the actors listed in that play was David Harbour as Achilles, a rambunctious warrior torn between his fellow soldier/boyfriend and a woman he pines for back home.

Harbour, unfortunately, dropped out two days before I saw the play. He tore his Achilles tendon during a performance (you can’t make that up). However, when I started binge-watching Stranger Things the next day, whose name pops up in the credits?

David Harbour, as Chief Hopper.

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Like Winona Ryder, he brought a physicality that rooted the show. In one of his earliest scenes he’s outside shirtless smoking a cigarette after a hard night of drinking. He’s pale with a paunch. He’s tired. He’s hung over. And he’s real in a fully relatable way.

Watching Stranger Things was a totally different experience than watching Troilus and Cressida. Compared with television, it’s harder for me to lose myself while watching a play. I’m hyper aware of the fact that it’s fake. Troilus and Cressida was hard-charging. The actors were loud and physical. There was constant movement — touching, scrapping, fighting. The play used these sensory elements to draw me in.

Stranger Things, while fun, was using the sensory elements of 1983 (or a close approximation) as a wink to the audience, and it was distracting. Luckily they cast Winona Ryder and David Harbour as their leads. They were natural, and by using their physicality to ground the show, they ended up saving it.

 

Aliens: do they look like us?

If anyone’s noticed, one of my minor obsessions is alien life. I’m not one of those who believes we’re being probed by Roswell-style aliens. My interest is more about fantasy (and maybe reality). If there’s a book or movie with aliens in it, chances are I’ll be interested. Take one of my favorite TV shows: Farscape. Human dude gets mixed up with a bunch of renegade aliens. What more could you ask for?

FARSCAPE

But I also love the scientific aspect of the search for extraterrestrial life. As we discover more Earth-sized planets, the question of extraterrestrials becomes more of when we’ll find them, rather than do they exist.

I’ve written about why we haven’t found any evidence of alien life yet. (short answer — we don’t know why). If we do find intelligent life, what will it look like? For Star Trek alienyears I’ve thought that alien life would be wildly different from our own. Not like Star Trek, where the aliens are basically humans with a few bumps and ridges, and a little different hue. Instead, the real aliens would, due to evolutionary forces unique to their home worlds, be more bizarre than we could fathom.

Not so, says a professor named Simon Conway Morris from Cambridge University in England. Evolution is a streamlined process — it selects the features best suited to thrive in life. And independently, different species evolve similar features (eyes, for instance). If this takes place on Earth, then the same process would apply on other planets.

He also states that evolution has produced life suitable for its environment. If you want a sophisticated plant, then you design it as a flower or tree. Aquatic animals would be fish-like, and creatures that fly would have wings.

The question remains, though, what about intelligent life? Could we assume that Calculating Godthey would look like us only because we’re the first intelligent species on the planet?

In his novel Calculating God, sci-fi writer Robert J. Sawyer had a intriguing take on ETs. Two different intelligent species contact humans. Both are similar proportion and of similar intelligence to humans, though one is a spider-like creature. These aliens were very like us, suggesting that intelligence is linked less to physical resemblance than to shared understanding, beliefs and values.

I guess someday we’ll find out the truth. Or maybe we truly are alone after all.

Read this book: Ready Player One

How do you write a book about a dense subculture and make it accessible to a wider audience. I don’t know that trick, but Ernest Cline, the writer of the book Ready Player
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does. Somehow he managed to take the incredibly detailed world of video games and obscure Japanese anime, and make novices like myself care.

Ready Player One is best described as Charlie and the Chocolate Factory meets Tron. The story takes place in 2044 in a world that’s suffering from a significant depression. While the people’s real world is dystopic to the max, they have an out — OASIS. Created by James Halliday, OASIS is virtual reality perfected. As such, most people in the miserable real word spend all their time and money in OASIS. Halliday dies, and his virtual perfection is threatened by the evil conglomerate IOI, which wants to corporatize OASIS.

But Halliday left a plan in place. He established a hunt — Easter eggs hidden throughout his vast virtual universe. Whoever finds these Easter eggs will inherit Ready 2OASIS. Here comes our hero, teenager Wade Watts (who also narrates the story). A video game fanatic, Wade, who goes by the name Parzival in OASIS, is among the scores determined to find these Easter eggs. Halliday, it turns out, was a fanatic of all things from the 1980s — music, movies, TV shows both foreign and domestic. Wade spends years geeking out and studying this era, as well as mastering the video games of that time.

Ready Player One centers around Wade’s exploits as he solves Halliday’s riddles. But he’s not the only one. Questing alongside him are his vfriend Aech (pronounced H), famous blogger Art3mis, who he has a crush on, and a pair of Japanese dudes — and all of these people he’s only met in OASIS, never in the real world. As this rag-tag group progresses, they must also battle the genuinely evil conglomerate IOI, which uses all its resources to win control of Halliday’s empire.

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So now the breakdown:

The good…

–Wade/Parzival is an engaging narrator. Cline writes Wade with an assured and consistent voice. Wade is one of my favorite types of hero: the ordinary guy who rises to extraordinary circumstances. Keep your crusading CIA/FBI/forensic detectives. Give me more Wades.

Ready 3–This book is a page turner. I am a slow reader. I read this 300 page book in a week. That is light speed for me. There were times when I did not want to put my Kindle down and get off the train. That good.

–I’m pretty agnostic when it comes to video games. I enjoy playing them, but I’ve never been a fanatic. If there’s one around, I’ll play, as long as it’s not too complicated. Ready Player One reads like it was written by someone who lives and breathes video games. Normally I wouldn’t be interested. Why would I care on that deep level? But by using an engaging narrator and a high-stakes plot, Cline makes the world of gaming accessible…and interesting.

–By peppering Ready Player One with a range of cultural references and tasks, Cline keeps the story interesting. For instance, one task involves Wade/Parzival having to play the Matthew Broderick role in a virtual reenactment of the movie War Games. Pretty damn inventive.

Ready Player One ends. There is no cliffhanger forcing me to wait, or pony up to read. Cline leaves ample room for a sequel if desired, but he doesn’t pull a literary bait and switch, where the end isn’t really the end. Save the sequels for book two, not book one.

And the not so good…

ReadyPlayerOne RD 1 finals 2–Cline spends a lot of time in the beginning building his world. The first fifty pages are exposition heavy and not as interesting as the rest of the book.

–The romantic subplot between Art3mis and Parzival was a little clunky. Parzival was a little too lovestruck, and Art3mis’s aloofness got annoying sometimes.

–With all the careful world building, I had a hard time blindly accepting that these people could spend hours and hours in their virtual reality gear (no food or drink, no bathroom breaks, no sleep).

But these are minor points. Ready Player One isn’t a book I would normally pick up, and I’m glad I did. I’m not the only fan — none other than the 1980s icon of film making Steven Spielberg plans to direct the movie version. I can’t wait to see how that turns out.

Doctor Who and plot regrets

Writing is hard. You have to not only come up with compelling, believable characters, you also have to create dramatic tension. You have to give the character a reason to do what he does — motivation. And that’s not always easy. Especially when you’re rebooting a beloved, decades-old sci-fi franchise like Doctor Who.

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But that’s exactly what head writer Russell T. Davies did when he brought Doctor Who back to the BBC in 2005. He created a dark version of the Doctor, one who ended the war between his home planet Gallifrey and their mortal enemies the Daleks by sacrificing his home world to rid the universe of the Daleks forever. What Davies gave us in this new Doctor, played brilliantly by Christopher Eccleston, was a withdrawn, shell-shocked hero burdened by guilt. Sure, Eccleston’s Doctor showed flashes of that childlike wackiness that is the hallmark of the Doctor across incarnations, but the guilt was a strong undercurrent.

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This theme — the burden of guilt and the loneliness of being the last of your kind — carried through to the new incarnations of the Doctor as played by David Tennant and Matt Smith. Doctor Who became a balancing act between darkness and frenetic energy.

But then the new head writer Steven Moffat changed it all. In Doctor Who‘s 50th anniversary episode, not only did we see the Doctor who ended the time wars, we also had a shift. Gallifrey was NOT destroyed. The Doctor was not guilty of genocide, however well intentioned. The Doctor was given a new purpose — rescue his home world from the static universe they were trapped in.

Now Moffat believes he may have cheated, in a way. In a recent interview, he stated that he, like the Doctor, is haunted by guilt:

“I know some of you, including friends of mine, were upset that we reversed the outcome of the Time War. My defence, however feeble, is that given the chance, the Doctor would do exactly that. And it was his birthday, how could I deny him that chance? What could define him more? This man who always finds another way? And there he is, at every moment of his life, proving to himself – literally – that there is always a better path.”

I say Moffat should get over his guilt. Why? The morose Doctor had run his course. After several years, we understood that the Doctor was tortured. What more could we get from this particular plot point? Why not switch things up? In the world of sci-fi and fantasy, writers have a broad canvas to paint on. Why not take advantage of every square inch?

Now Doctor Who has a chance to be reborn. Now we can witness a Doctor who has a genuine shot at redemption, one who is hopeful and can save his home world. Just imagine the new stories that can come from that.

Tracking the zombie outbreak

Who doesn’t love a good zombie story? I know, not everyone does but I like to pretend they do. From George Romero’s Night of the Living Dead to the AMC channel’s The Walking Dead, zombies have been a staple of the horror genre for half a century, with no sign of them being killed off anytime soon.

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But who knew that zombies could be a topic worthy of honest-to-goodness scientific inquiry? I sure didn’t. I was wrong.

A team of researchers from Cornell University used a combination of US Census data and statistical probabilities regarding disease outbreaks, coupled that with some zombie lore, and created an interactive map that allows you and me to watch our own little zombie outbreak as it filters across the US.

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The map, which you can find here, lets us control a few of the parameters to make it interesting:

–how easy or hard it is to kill zombies

–how fast the zombies move

–where the outbreak originates

I tried a couple of simulations, and watched as a chilling red crept across the map. for both simulations, I had the outbreak start in Miami, because all the weird stuff happens in Florida.

In simulation 1, I had slow-moving zombies that were relatively easy to kill. While the zombies zipped up the east coast of Florida, it took them a full 16 days to conquer Florida, and after a month, they were still bogged down in the deep south. The zombies2takeaway? Under these conditions humans would have a good chance of surviving — the threat could conceivably be contained.

Then I tried a quicker, nastier simulation, with faster zombies that were harder to kill. Again, I started in Miami. And the results were scarier, at least for those of us on the East Coast. By the second day Florida was completely overrun. After 4 days the south was gone. On day 5, zombies were attacking New Orleans and the Midwest. Day 6: Washington DC, Baltimore were decimated, followed quickly by Philadelphia, and as the day ended, New York City fell victim, with Chicago, Houston and Detroit next to fall.

The good news? The outbreak had a hard time spreading through the rural areas of the Western United States. So if you want to survive the zombie apocalypse, go west.

Genre TV: a golden age or too much of a good thing?

It is a sad fact that there are too many great books in the world, of all genres, that I will never have time to read. I’m sure that I’m missing out on some life-changing classics, but there’s nothing I can do about that.

Star TrekWhen it comes to TV, though, there used to be a time when you could be up on all the great TV shows. For fans of all things sci-fi/supernatural/horror like myself, it wasn’t that hard, because there were so few TV shows that had a sci-fi or supernatural theme. Back in the 1950s you had The Twilight Zone and in the 1960s came The Outer Limits, Star Trek, and in England, Doctor Who. Along the way there were a smattering of other TV shows, notably the X-Files and Buffy the Vampire Slayer in the ’90s, but with only a handful of networks (and the BBC in England) the options were severely limited.

Buffy the Vampire Slayer

That’s all changed. Now there seems to be a new network popping up every week, along with new TV shows. When Lost premiered, it reinvigorated the genre by making it commercially and critically viable. As flawed as Lost was, the emmy-winning series showed the powers that be that genre shows could make money and win awards.

Lost

Since then, there’s been an explosion of genre shows. A few decades ago, who would have predicted that two of the most hyped television shows would include dragons and zombies? These two shows, Game of Thrones and The Walking Dead are worldwide cultural events. Game of Thrones and The Walking Dead bring more than just supernatural/fantastical/horror elements: they have high production values, are well acted, and have great writing.

Walking Dead

And these are just two of the latest and greatest. The past couple of decades have given us so many great genre shows, from SyFy’s Farscape and the Battlestar Galactica reboot, to BBC’s relaunched Doctor Who and BBC America’s Orphan Black. I should be happy, right?

Orphan Black Tatiana Maslany

In a way, I’m not. There are SO MANY genre shows out there I can’t keep up. And neither can the people who are writing them. The Walking Dead has given us the derivative Z Nation. The second season of SyFy’s Helix was a mess (a glorious, batshit crazy mess, but still a mess). And Netflix’s Hemlock Grove was half-baked camp. We’ve got a glut of genre shows out there, some of which should have never been made, and others that could have used a little more seasoning.

helixNot to mention that I don’t have the time to watch the vast majority. I’d love to watch The Strain, and there’s a new Salem TV show with Lucy Lawless that looks interesting. But between work, writing, play, family, how could I possibly fit all these shows into my life?

Maybe Hollywood needs to scale back a little — if not in the number of shows, then at least in the number of episodes. In the UK, it’s a common practice for TV shows to be short runs. Each season is perhaps six episodes, and the TV shows only run for a few seasons, if that. What you get is concise storytelling that does not require a lifetime commitment of the viewer. I’d fully support this idea; even the best shows suffer from episode bloat and could use some trimming (I’m looking at you, Walking Dead).

Designer humans: the future is almost here

Some sci-fi tropes seem too far-fetched for reality, until science catches up. Take the film Gattaca, starring Ethan Hawke, Uma Thurman and Jude Law, set in a world where genetically approved people were given a higher Gattaca Jude Lawstatus. When the movie came out, the idea of designer babies was bizarre. How could such a thing be done, technically?

But now we’re on the verge of designer babies becoming a reality, and not everyone is eager for this to happen.

What do I mean by designer babies? Manipulating DNA to either enhance favorable qualities, or delete some bad genes though a process called gene editing. This could be good. Think of all the heritable diseases we could get rid of. Once we snip them from the gene pool, they’d be gone from that genetic line forever. An embryo that had its genes for a deadly disease extracted would never pass those genes on to future generations.

But there’s the flip side. What could we do to enhance humans? Super strength? Super intelligence? Evolution works by filtering out the bad traits and promoting the good traits. With this gene editing technique, we could make humans a whole lot better. Evolution put in the hands of man. Think of Star Trek and the genetically enhanced supervillain Khan.

Benedict Cumberbatch

And that’s what scientists are afraid of, so much so that they’re calling for a moratorium on using these amazing techniques on humans. I suppose their thinking is that if we can manipulate genes, we can create supermen, or monsters.

Personally, I don’t see the problem. Not right now, anyway. The truth is there is a whole hell of a lot we don’t know about the human genome. Scientists have not found a gene (or set of genes) that correlate with intelligence. There’s also the problem of junk DNA — strands of genes whose function scientists don’t understand. And also epigenetics: the strange phenomenon where environmental factors can change your genetics, and pass down these changes to your children and grandchildren. Right now we wouldn’t be able to do much with this gene-editing technology.

I say let’s keep exploring. Welcome to the brave new world.

Mars Alive!

If I had a hundred lives and the corresponding years, I’d spend a chunk on space travel. Can you imagine the disorienting feeling of stepping foot on another planet? I can’t but I would like to.

Mars is one of the planets on that list. Well, there aren’t that many viable options right now. Venus is a hot mess, Saturn and Jupiter are too gassy, and who would ever want to go to a place named Uranus? Mars is the best bet of a bad lot. But it is dry and barren. As it turns out, it might not always have been the case for the Red Planet.

Mars ocean

Those brilliant scientists at NASA have determined that Mars once had an ocean — a deep ocean — that covered nearly half the planet. This means it was warm enough for life (meaning us), and it may have actually been home to life.

I’m not one who thinks that Earth alone is the be-all and end-all of life. I do believe that life is special and rare, though. Could this mean that our next door neighbor was teeming with life?

Possibly. If the NASA scientists are right, then there was liquid water—a prerequisite for life—and time enough for life to develop. What that life on Mars would have looked like is anyone’s guess.