Dune. Get it Done.

Dune-Frank Herbert (1965) First edition.jpg

Dune (1st edition cover) Source: Wikipedia

I properly experienced Dune a few years ago (Goodreads tells me it was exactly seven years ago this month) by reading Frank Herbert’s masterpiece. It might’ve been on audio or an ebook, so maybe it wasn’t a ‘proper’ reading. (Here’s my back-of-the-book review if you’re interested.)

But before that, Dune existed to me only as David Lynch’s 1984 movie (awesome if you’re a 10yo kid watching on cable in the ’80s) and the Sci-Fi Channel miniseries (which I revisited on DVD and immediately put in the junk pile. Baron Harkonnen spews his dialogue in rhymes. It’s painful to watch.)

At this point in my life, I demand good stories and Dune fits that bill. And that’s why I’m going back and finishing the first three core books (how’s that for a new year’s resolution!). I’m somewhat glad that Dune hasn’t been adapted repeatedly (exhibit A and B above) and remains fertile ground for the reader to imagine his or her own Arrakis (aka the planet Dune). But the story is being adapted again, this time by one of the most visionary movie directors living – Denis Villeneuve (aka the man behind the Blade Runner sequel.) I have high hopes he’ll get it right. He has made me believe again in the power of film.

But before his vision of Dune comes to the big screen, now is the time to read the book. I’ll admit that Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings movie trilogy (just finished rewatching it on Netflix) prompted me to read The Hobbit and then The Lord of the Rings, and I loved the experience. Jackson brought that world to life on the screen, and I was moved by the books, especially Sam and Frodo’s relationship as they struggled through Mordor, with the experience enhanced by imagining the actors from the film.

But honestly, how often do people go back and read a book after watching the movie version? Maybe it’s more than I think, but personally I use the film or TV versions as an excuse not to read the book (exhibit C: The Witcher).

So. Dune. Get It Done. I read this absolutely fascinating commentary about the book on Tor.com. It motivated me down this path. Skip paragraphs 5 and 6 if you don’t want spoilers and happy reading! – Josh

“I must not fear. Fear is the mind-killer. Fear is the little-death that brings total obliteration. I will face my fear. I will permit it to pass over me and through me. And when it has gone past I will turn the inner eye to see its path. Where the fear has gone there will be nothing. Only I will remain.”

-Paul Atreides

 

A Pitch Perfect Sci-Fi Short That Speaks Volumes

Emergency Skin (Forward collection) by [Jemisin, N. K.]

The best fiction keeps your undivided attention. It holds you in the moment, simultaneously letting you savor every word and creating anticipation for what happens next.

N.K. Jemisin’s short story “Emergency Skin” does these things and more. The story of a human foot soldier on a mission to a decimated Earth is almost immediately flipped on its head. The Earth is thriving when it shouldn’t be since the ‘best’ of the species hightailed it off-planet with as many resources as possible centuries ago when they saw everything circling the drain. Everyone else be damned.

Jemisin cheekily uses the AI embedded in the soldier’s suit to show how wrong our ‘superior’ cousins got things. The planet survived the catastrophic damage that people inflicted on it and society didn’t crumble. We rebuilt.

The story could almost be a standup comedy routine (the audio story is excellent) the way it’s delivered and how exasperated the AI is at not being able to explain things.

But Jemisin does something more here than entertain; she creates multiple layers speaking basic truths about civility and compassion without beating you over the head. It ultimately made me reflect deeply on how we think we have the solutions to everything and he we might be deeply flawed in some of these assumptions.

It’s hilarious, it’s thoughtful, and it shows Jemisin at the top of her writing game.

(Part of the Amazon Prime Reading collection “Forward“)

Happy Reading!

Josh

‘Strange Weather’ Forecast? Bloody Good Reading

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Don’t read the description of this book; you’ll only spoil the setup for each of the four wickedly good tales collected here. And they are wicked good. Each evokes a different kind of terror, and their implications hang heavy like the weather in each of the stand-alone stories. This anthology doesn’t have a weak link, and intentionally or not, the stories get weirder and more fantastical as you go. I wouldn’t dream of spoiling these reads, so here are my emotional reactions to each instead:

Snapshot: Evil in the world lurks right out in the open and I want to smash a baseball bat square in its face.

Loaded: I was unsettled by the lengths people will go to for self-preservation. Truly terrifying.

Aloft: It’s bizarre, it’s funny, it’s a guy’s fantasy, it’s heartbreaking, and ultimately it shocks you back to reality.

Rain: My favorite because…I never saw it coming. Full of fun characters that I would want to meet, an apocalyptic tale that’s both fantastical and plausible.

SPOILER SECTION:

Rain was an interesting take on the near-apocalypse and was full of misdirection. The main character Honeysuckle was catalyzed into action after her girlfriend was killed by crystal needles raining from the sky. She wanders a devastated Boulder where people still try to cling to the normal (McDonald’s fries during disaster relief) while dealing with the staggering death toll (mass graves at a high school football field). There are Russians, crazy cultists, and more than a few bigots in this tale. Honeysuckle tries to honor those she’s lost by doing right by them and along the way meets strangers of every type – among them an MMA fighter who can’t put his suffering cat out of its misery, state troopers getting the job done, and the Queen of the Apocalypse, wandering Denver in a wedding dress and tiara and who claims she can walk between the raindrops.

This needle rain starts to infiltrate the global weather system and a panicked public listens to the news media and government, which claims it’s the work of terrorists. Two storm fronts begin to brew: the deadly rain (which eventually is the only kind falling) and threats of nuclear retaliation on the assumed culprits.

The ending is startling and satisfying in how it completely circles around to the people closest to Honeysuckle to reveal the mystery of the hard rain’s origin. It’s closer to home than Honeysuckle would have ever imagined. The misdirection in the story is brilliant – those who would harm Honeysuckle (the jealous Russian with the stripper girlfriend and the cultists who would convert her by locking her away and dehydrating her) are not the real threat. It turns out Honeysuckle’s young neighbor Templeton, who lost his father, has a vengeful mother who blames her husband’s death on the company that stole his research (aka fired him and left him unemployed). She exacts her revenge in a dust cropper plane spreading the seed agents from her husband’s research that create the first storm in Boulder. Honeysuckle puts it all together right when it’s too late and her friend Marc Despot is cut down by the mom with a machete (but Marc lives!).

In the end, when trying to kill Honeysuckle, who has taken the boy Templeton as a shield, the mom is pierced by several hundred needles protecting the boy from another storm. The world meanwhile is in poor shape since the U.S. President — a brash, Twitter-crazed egomaniac — nuked the company that could have solved this new climate crisis. There’s hope one scientist can reverse-engineer the damage and the world waits with abated breath. The End.

Loaded shows how guns play a huge role in our society. It’s a boiling pot of water waiting to spill over, and it does so in spectacular fashion. The author doesn’t spare anyone in this tale, which is is what makes it such an emotional slap in the face when we reach the end. There’s no clean, easy solution to America’s gun problem and this one drives that point home in a blaze.

Snapshot is eery and shows how we can be easily seduced by power. A powerless boy comes across a man who can wipe memories by snapping someone’s photo. The boy gets the slip on him, and as the new owner of the Solariod (an evil Polaroid), he ultimately can’t resist the evil camera, which promises all the answers in universe. That thread is never really pursued, as is the connection between the evil man and the boy’s babysitter, so the story feels incomplete in that regard.  I believe this is an allegory for the evils of technology, but it’s told in a fashion that centers on the human decisions to use that technology for good or ill. I still can’t believe the kid wiped the babysitter’s memory (thus killing her) thinking it was a mercy since she was already far advanced with Alzheimer’s caused by the camera. That was a morally ambiguous decision that still doesn’t sit well with me.

In Aloft, it’s pretty simple. Boy pines over girl, girl’s not interested and boy is perpetually tortured as being the “best friend.” In was fun for the fact that the cloud he lands on (when attempting a skydive to impress said girl) is so damn weird. The cloud materializes what you need at just the right time. And up there, he does get his dream girl. Er, um, yeah, that happened. There’s also a sleeping alien that the cloud’s security system (pounding headaches and blackouts if he get’s too close) won’t let the main character near. Lucky for him, the cloud doesn’t throw anything away and he escapes with a 19th century balloonist’s balloon buried in a cloud grave with the former owner? Weird stuff but the guy survives and hopefully this experience can help him get past said girl or man up and let her know how he feels. RIP Junicorn!

Happy Reading,

Josh

Mexican Gothic Literature? Count Me In

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Data visualization (left) of Silvia Moreno-Garcia’s work inspired by the cover of her latest novel (right). Click on image to explore books.

I have not read one word of Silvia Moreno-Garcia’s written fiction beyond her book titles, so no bogus reviews or recommendations from me.

But I can make an introduction.

I learned of Moreno-Garcia from reading Andrea Gomez’s compelling and thoughtful piece on Tor.com that teased just enough details about the author’s books to make me do some homework. As a fan of speculative fiction I got excited about the author and read more about her background and the scope of her work.

I created a data visualization of the author’s work – inspired by the book cover of her latest novel – in order to figure out where to start reading. I hope the interactive data graphic gives others exposure to this author and lets them try out new genre reads.

One thing that is a little discouraging is that Goodreads had some of the author’s shorter works linked to Amazon that led to a broken web page. If the written fiction of women and minorities are to be discovered and their fanbases are to grow, issues like these need to be addressed. My library didn’t even have any ebook holdings I could borrow, but good ol’ physical copies are waiting for me at my branch.

Click on the image at the top to interact and happy reading!

Josh

Good Books for National Science Fiction Day

Goodreads Choice Awards 2019 Goodreads Choice Awards 2018 Book Picker Image Map

Today is National Science Fiction Day, so get your geek on and explore some of the most popular science fiction reads of the past few years. Click in the above image to visit one of the data visualizations to explore.

Then, as a 2020 New Year’s resolution, put one of the most important and brilliant sagas of the past half century on your reading list: Hyperion by Dan Simmons. Don’t shrug it off. This book will change the way you think about epic sagas. Happy Reading!

Goodreads Choice Awards 2019 Goodreads Choice Awards 2018 Book Picker Image Map

 

RPGs are Giants in the World of Video Games – We Analyze the Power Players

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If you like your video game stories, then read on! I just got back from a conference that inspired me to make a data graphic with some of the most celebrated video game RPGs in the modern era. – Josh

Tableau is incredibly robust and my experience at TC17 in Las Vegas showed me just how much so. My visualizations has always focused on designing for the interactive experience, and with the #data17 knowledge I acquired, I was able to merge many ideas into a more fully realized data-driven experience with my work.

There’s a data set that I picked up in the spring and worked on but then abandoned because I didn’t feel like the story I was building did justice to the subject I was passionate about: role-playing video games.

Role-playing games (RPGs) stand as giants in the world of video games. The level of immersion when playing these games is remarkable and your connection to the characters and story is much more palpable because in a sense the player controls his or her own destiny in the game.

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In my Tableau work, I wanted to convey some of the impact and meaning behind these creations and help people more fully appreciate and explore video games as vehicles for art.

I was inspired by the amazing viz work of Jonni Walker to attempt this approach. He arguably sets the bar for beautiful data stories in Tableau and stretches the limits of the software’s capabilities.

There were some tradeoffs I had to make so that the dashboard retained its interactivity and the images could still play a key role in pulling the audience through the story. This was a remarkable experience building on my background in photography and writing in order to create a data-driven story.

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Here are some quick tips I learned:

  • Photo selection: Fortunately I could use the data set itself to leverage striking images of the game art. I picked images that lent an editorial message to the elements or integrated into the design of the dashboard. (I had a good conversation with Michael Mixon and we commiserated on how long it takes to find the perfect image!) Also, this viz is a type of commentary and the artwork falls under fair use.
  • Photo editing: Learn Photoshop or a similar program that offers image masking. Tableau doesn’t offer transparent backgrounds for its charts, so I had to make design decisions that ensured optimal use of interactivity and images. This was a big pain point in Tableau and took probably 3x longer than building out the charts.
  • Calculated Fields (including LODs): This is an acknowledgement that your work will go much faster and you’ll be able to approach these type of data-driven stories if you learn how to present your data using calculated fields.
  • 3000 pixels tall!: Everything floated and it was beautiful. Just keep track of all your assets on the dashboard. I did this visually since the Item Hierarchy pane still isn’t that intuitive to me.
  • Pay it forward: I was tempted, right up until this writing, not to share the downloadable file. But I have learned so much from the Tableau Public community and would not be where I am without its members and their generosity (there are so many, I can’t name them all!). I think there’s a social contract of sorts, not necessarily in always making your work available, but in making a real effort to share knowledge and elevate the whole community.

I hope you enjoy. Happy vizzing!

 

 

Star Wars: Aftermath trilogy finishes unevenly but with some of the best action the galaxy has to offer

There was much to like about the idea of seeing where the Star Wars saga would go in this new line of official books picking up shortly after the destruction of the second Death Star. Chuck Wendig’s trilogy touches on issues throughout the larger galaxy as it adjusts to the crumbling Empire and the opportunities and challenges that result.

The trilogy succeeds in giving us some satisfying developments in the birth of a New Republic and what that might look like. There are great interludes to show different parts of the galaxy, my favorite of which is the fight against slave trafficking on Tatooine with some Wild West action involving Sandpeople for the win!

The conclusion to the trilogy, though strong with some of Star Wars’ best action and fun new characters, turns out to be the weakest link in the story. It often feels like a slog, with little or no movement in the narrative as we approach the climax. We’re teased with a big buildup to the Empire’s so-called contingency plan that Emperor Palpatine himself supposedly orchestrated before his death as a failsafe should the unthinkable happen at Endor. There are even creepy robots with Palpatine’s face on them that are supposed to evoke the long end-game the emperor had thought up.

But it serves more as a quick bookend to a story that doesn’t really know how it wants to end.

Wendig is strongest when he’s placing the ensemble cast in the middle of the fight and focusing on the core cast. “Look after mom Bones!” was her son Temmin’s last command to his trusty hacked battle droid when Nora made a daring gambit to plummet toward the Empire’s last stronghold in an escape pod right before her son’s ship takes off into hyperspace. I actually get a lump in my throat thinking of this family’s courage to run headfirst into the fray at the cost of losing the last people in the galaxy they care about.

Spoiler-light observations:

Later, I love when Nora Wexley zooms toward the enemy line in a stolen Empire command ship in the final battle with Bones by her side. There’s an irony to the scene because Temmin is piloting an X-wing and tries to take down the “enemy” ship. He almost shoots his mom down, but Mr. Bones comes to the rescue again. (There’s so much to say about Bones, from his self-repair magic trick to his final scene in an AT-ST.)

Jaz doesn’t disappoint either with her painful escape from some fellow bounty hunters and her confrontation with an old friend that shows what a complex character she is. Loved it.

Other characters that stand out are a republic ship captain taking on the super star destroyer and showing some amazing military strategy. This scene not only checks the block in giving us a memorable space fight, there’s also real emotional weight that shows the cost of war. And no Star Wars book would be complete without a Hutt. Nema is a mean and crafty snakelike Hutt, nearly unkillable and has an entourage of scary knife-wielding servants. I’d love to see her on the silver screen.

Ultimately the story suffers from trying to tie up too many loose ends. It feels saddle bagged by the weight of having to bridge the story to the Force Awakens and in doing so scenes rush by blindingly fast, doing a great disservice to this story in an attempt to service the next one, which we’ve already seen. All the major build-up between Sloan, Nora, and Rax literally fizzles out. It’s a strange truncated ending.

We rush to  get obligatory status updates on every character (minor and major) and I end up forgetting who is doing what at the end. But by and large, I enjoyed this journey, and we are left with a sense that there are many brave men and women who will continue to fight for what is right and just in this galaxy far, far away.

3 of 5 stars

Worlds Collide – Cage Match 2017 Finals

UPDATE: Ragnar was unstoppable at the end. All those that challenged him were laid bloody and broken at his feet. His prowess in the cage secured him the crown but it was at the cost of his fellow fictional brothers and sisters. May his crown of destruction weigh heavy on his brow…

The Story So Far.

Tom Bombadil buried his Rd1 opponent (IT) without looking back and enjoyed the top spot among all cage match fighters for almost 10 days straight. But he fell steeply in the contest, only narrowly defeating the old god Mr. Wednesday with 50.11% of the votes in Rd3, the closest of any fight. He trailed Devi in Rd4 until the very end when he pulled off an upset .

Ragnar has clawed his way through the competition, never ranking higher than #4 until his ascent in Rd3 to edge out Kell Maresh and then trounce Georgia Mason in Rd4 to head to the finals as the #1 seed.

Our Prediction: Tom B. to take it all. Middle Earth rises again!

Click image to interact!

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