Children of the Atom

Godzilla Minus One is most definitely worth watching. I have no nostalgia or any particular like for the million Godzilla films in existence and I still enjoyed it.

The takeaway is that it’s a really great alternate history period piece about a giant monster attacking Japan in 1954. I especially liked that as a period piece, it shows all the historical stuff that you wouldn’t see in a contemporary movie since it would assume that the audience already knows about it – i.e., people living in shacks built on the ruins of their houses, demobilized soldiers trying to find work, the overwhelming presence of the war suffusing everything in postwar society, etc. Basically we see what it looks like when an empire is destroyed.

The biggest criticism I have is political. The movie shows the aftermath of the war, but it doesn’t show what Japan did to bring the war in the first place. The war is presented like a natural disaster that befell the suffering nation. And the final plan to defeat Godzilla involves the Japanese version of the clean Wehrmacht myth (the idea that certain parts of the military were honourable even if their leaders weren’t). See, the stalwart and upright (demobilized) soldiers along with scientists and business leaders from private industry get together to devise clever strategies to defeat an existential threat, which if you think about it rather sounds like how fascism works in the first place. Really puts kind of a bad taste in my mouth.

I know, I sound just like in my review of 13 Sentinels. I suppose Japan has yet to fully grapple with its wartime legacy, but been so long that it’s almost just historical trivia now. I suppose once the children of the imperialist generation finally die out or get assassinated then we’ll get a more sober understanding of what Japan did in its media. But if you can compartmentalize your reaction to how this Godzilla movie treats Japanese fascism, then you’ll discover a quite well-made film.

Vive L’Empereur

I recently saw Sergei Bondarchuk’s Waterloo (1970). This is probably the definitive movie depiction of the battle of Waterloo. The story of its production itself is impressive: a vast field in Ukraine bulldozed to recreate the topography of the historical site in Belgium, an underground irrigation system installed to mimic the muddy conditions at the battle, 15,000 members of the Soviet army trained for several months in Napoleonic-era rifle drills, 2,000 horsemen brought in from all across Russia. Any modern creation would rely heavily on CGI for the battle scenes but there’s something to be said for seeing an actual army on the screen. There’s reading about how terrifying it was to see the army raised by levee en masse marching at you and then there’s seeing a vast sea of men marching in lockstep for real.

I’m not a big war nerd but it’s obvious how careful the movie was to get the general idea of the battle across. The effects of weather, morale, the ploys in combat and the counters and risky gambles all get a showing, which is quite a difference from the typical Hollywood battle where armies just charge at each other and the side with braver guys win.

But surprisingly, I actually enjoyed the movie more in the first half before the battle started. It starts with Napoleon’s first defeat and surrender, then it covers the Hundred Days of his return and the lead-up to the titular battle. It also devotes almost equal time to Wellington’s doings on the other side and takes pains to be quite neutral and not show one side to be the heroes of the story.

However, the movie was a commercial flop and I think I can see why. The battle is definitely trying to be very historically realistic but it kind of feels too cerebral, or perhaps not visceral enough. Of course, the movie technology of 1970 wasn’t up to faking large groups of men being blown to smithereens, but this leads to lots of explosions on screen with men mostly being unhurt unless the story calls for a character to die from shrapnel. This is probably something CGI could have helped with if this movie was being made today. In any case, it’s the Waterloo nerds that would get the most out of this movie and casual viewers may start getting antsy when the battle starts to feel like it’s dragging – I know I did, and I was watching at home when I could pause when I wanted a break.

Anyway, overall I liked the movie. Apparently there was an even longer version made with one of the related battles included between the Prussians and two of Napoleon’s marshals, but god knows how interminably long the movie would have ended up if it had been kept in.

Also, a helpful person on Reddit added the original historical soundtrack to the movie.

After the End of History

I’m learning that Southeast Asia has a large number of subways and railways currently under construction (I suggest zooming into the maps linked as some of the projects don’t show up properly). Here’s a roundup of the state of railway construction projects in Southeast Asia as of October 2022.

I guess the region is booming and they’re building stuff that’s been sorely needed for decades. The railways are especially impressive considering how mountainous and jungled most of the region is. And yes, they do have high-speed rail, or will shortly in a couple of months (the Jakarta to Bandung HSR is opening later this year).

Honestly, it’s startling to read about someplace that actually gives building public transit the priority it deserves. And there’s a ton of infrastructure being built: bridges, airports, hospitals, and so on and so on.

It’s strange to live in the End of History – also known as the developed world – and peek at someplace where history still happens. Here in dear old declining Canada, the political establishment seems to think that we’ve reached the final perfect society and all that remains is to keep things at a steady state. It’s of course a bullshit mindset that delays the very necessary and radical reforms that we need to get out of our downward spiral (try googling “Canada housing crisis” sometime, or “Canada cost of living”, or maybe “Canada healthcare crisis”).

But in Southeast Asia, the leaders and the people are very much aware that they need massive structural changes and are frantically doing everything that they can to push those through. And maybe they might. The region’s GDP growth rates have been ridiculously high for the past 20-30 years, ranging between 3-8 percent when 2 percent is considered booming in the Global North.

Line graph showing Annual GDP growth rate of the countries in the Association of Southeast Asian Nations from 2016 to 2023 with the individual country rates ranging from 3-8% minus the negative growth rates of 2020-2021
Click to enlarge

I’ll be honest, I’ve spent the last while watching Youtube videos projecting country GDPs like the one below about the Top 20 Largest World Economies. I like to keep my eye out for members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations. Watch for Indonesia getting on the board in 2005 then being joined by Vietnam in 2044 and the Philippines in 2048. It’s oddly relaxing to see the masters of the world like the Netherlands and Switzerland drop out of sight and get supplanted by the likes of Bangladesh and Iran.

Obviously the projections are hogwash. They’re merely current GDP growth rates taken to their mathematical endpoint. Any number of things could throw a spanner into the works: a war, another pandemic, a revolutionary new technology, a terrible climate breakdown. The projection is most believable the closer it is to the present day.

But just look at that chart in 2100. China and India are struggling for dominance, the US is at #3, then come Indonesia and the Philippines while Vietnam, Nigeria, Brazil, Pakistan, and Bangladesh fill out the top 10. Has any near-future science fiction story ever imagined this kind of world? I wish I could live long enough to see if this ever comes to pass.

Ah, what a thing it is to still be optimistic about the future. It’s a strange thing to glimpse from the other side of history.

Tales of University

I just finished the first season of Moyashimon: Tales of Agriculture, an anime series about a student at an agricultural college who can see microbes with the naked eye. It’s not the kind of work that stirs great emotions or speaks timeless truths. Instead, it’s just pleasantly watchable.

Despite the premise, the protagonist’s supernatural ability isn’t actually very important to the show, and not a lot would be different if the main character were just another first year student freshly arrived in the big city campus from the countryside. However, this anime is one of the few fictional depictions of higher education I can think of that actually shows how much of the experience is taken up with academics.

Almost the entire show is taken up with hijinks and tomfoolery, but the shenanigans tend to revolve around the academic experience – frosh week stupidity, weird seminar partners, overbearing TAs, eccentric professors, and other such components of the university experience. It all looks like fun.

Of course, that should tell you right there that this show isn’t actually about depicting the university experience realistically. Who had fun all the time when they were a student? Lots of stuff wasn’t enjoyable for me. It seems silly to remember some of the things I used to freak out about, but they didn’t feel so minor at the time. The characters in this anime have problems as well, but the way the show depicts those problems makes clear just how ultimately minor they are.

What this show depicts, then, is not the experience of being a university student, but the recollection of being one. But this show is not a documentary about university, and is instead an anime set in one. A truly realistic depiction of the university experience would make for a boring show.

So what is Moyashimon about? It’s about the nostalgia of being a student.

Who You Gonna Call?

I just saw the 2021 Oklahoma Ghostbusters (a.k.a. Ghostbusters: Afterlife). It’s about the grandkids of one of the original Ghostbusters who move to the farm their gramps owned. They never met old Egon Spengler, but he happened to die right when they were getting evicted from their New York apartment, so off the family goes to live in flyover country. As far as they know, he was just a crazy old geezer, but they quickly learn there was an apocalyptic reason a hunter of the supernatural moved to the middle of nowhere.

This movie is like other modern sequels in that it retreads the ground that its forebear covered. But somehow I didn’t find the nostalgia annoying, likely because instead of just making constant references to a movie from the 80s, it was directly trying to be a movie from the 80s – in its directing choices, in the design of its sets and props, and even in its CGI that mimics the look of the special effects from the first Ghostbusters. In fact the only real indication that it’s set in the 21st century – besides the fact that the characters say that the year is 2021 – is that smartphones and Youtube exist.

Anyway, the deliberate 80s throwback is obviously why the movie cast Wolf Gunblood or whoever the hell that kid is from Stranger Things. One character that did bug me was the kid who was named Podcast (ugh). Reminds me of Juno trying too hard to be with it (for example, the “honest to blog” line). Also Podcast’s actor was noticeably worse than everyone else. I know he’s just a kid but it kind of invites comparison when he’s constantly around another kid who’s a better actor than him.

Also, I didn’t realize the original cast from the first movie cameos, or as many of them that are still around (Ramis is dead, Moranis retired). Dan Aykroyd’s Canadian accent really comes out in the one long conversation he’s in.

Anyway, watching this made me think of the first movie and how in retrospect it’s clearly from when Reagan was president. I mean, small business owners save the world while the government’s representatives are either useless or actively harmful. I don’t think anyone involved in the movie was a Reaganite but it just goes to show how you can’t escape the times you live in.

As for the Ghostbusters of our current age, it’s decently entertaining. I’d say put it on if you’ve got a lot of laundry to fold.

Today China, Tomorrow also China

Thanks to The Wandering Earth, I just read my first Cixin Liu text: his short story collection To Hold Up The Sky. I had tried reading The Three-Body Problem before but quit in the prologue.

It’s because like many other sci-fi writers, Liu is not good at social realism, and the prologue of Three-Body Problem really just could not grab me with its depiction of the Cultural Revolution. But thankfully I could skip the stories in this collection that showcased too much of the weaknesses of Liu’s writing and go with his real strength – the sci-fi crap. He’s very old school in that way.

For instance, the first story in the book is about a teacher in a dirt-poor mountain village and it was a struggle for me to keep reading until aliens finally showed up. I also completely skimmed the story about coal miners which had nothing science fictional until the really short epilogue with schoolkids in the future learning about why coalmining was dumb.

But the neat speculative stuff worked for me. A finance guy embezzling money to pay for life extension treatments? A quantum computer that allows perfect simulation of the universe and therefore perfect vision of all events past and present? Cryogenically-frozen refugees going further and further into the future to find a time that will take them in? All of that was my jam. Although the story about a near-future war between an invading NATO and the heroes of a Russia newly-returned to communism is kind of odd to read today until you realize it was published in 2001, when Russia had spent over a decade being carved up like a Christmas turkey by American consultants.

So yeah, Cixin Liu is a decent read if you’re aware that he’s very much into sci-fi being the genre of ideas and not the genre of well-written characters or compelling human drama.

Snowball Earth

The Wandering Earth is an entertaining disaster movie. It’s got the stupid twists and sappy drama endemic to the genre. I mean, the sun is going to engulf the Earth so the world’s governments build giant engines move the planet to a different star? A wonderfully dumb premise. It’s even got a rebellious jerk who has to step up to help save the world.

I did especially like how consciously international the movie was. We had people speaking Bahasa Indonesian and Filipino while Sulawesi was where half the major action takes place. Also it’s hilarious how the one white guy was the comic relief. Well, there’s another white guy who’s more heroic but he’s there to supply the tragic death to motivate the protagonist to keep fighting. I think I liked it more than Armageddon. Two goddamn thumbs up!

Love Don’t Cost A Thing?

Because This Is My First Life on Netflix is objectively a very sappy Korean drama. I’m watching it anyway because I find the female lead unbearably cute. Also I guess I’m a big sap at times.

The show is about a failed TV writer who enters into a fake marriage for a roof over her head and her landlord who goes for it so he can get help with his crushing mortgage payments (also tax breaks? I haven’t seen episode 1 in a while). If you’ve read South Korean romance comics before then you’ll know this is a very standard setup in that medium and the show is very much one of those comics but in live action form. I’m better able to accept the extraordinarily dumb events, though, possibly because real people can sell stupid twists better than a lifeless drawing.

The show is actually more of an ensemble piece and is really about three different couples who are friends with each other. One couple is a woman who wants nothing more than to be a housewife who’s working as a waitress to support her loser boyfriend who swears his app is going to be a hit any day now, and the other is two hard charger businessfolk where the woman just wants to be friends with benefits while the guy pretends he’s okay with that.

Money is essentially another character in the show because the lack of it hangs like a miasma over every interaction we see. It’s kind of operating in the same space as Friends in that it’s a comedy about people living and loving in the big city. However, Friends is basically about being a broke hipster but still being able to live a full romantic and social life in New York, while in this show there’s no handwaving about rent-controlled apartments in Seoul. Who you date and who you marry is always tangled up with money and I suspect half the characters secretly have stress-induced ulcers about it.

I haven’t finished watching the show yet but it’s obvious the main couple are going to end up together. I really hope at least one of the other couples doesn’t make it because that’s just realistic when it’s the 21st century and people with different ideas about their future are in a long-term relationship.

Anyway, this is me revealing myself as a big softie.

Coming to America: A Horror Story

I just finished reading The Necessary Beggar by Susan Palwick. It’s about a family exiled from a parallel dimension who end up as refugees in post-9/11 Nevada. The blurb on Amazon compares it to Ursula Le Guin’s The Dispossessed, but I think that’s going a tad too far (especially since that book is one of my favourites).

Frankly, the science fiction aspect of The Necessary Beggar doesn’t figure that strongly into the story. Ghosts and reincarnation figure very prominently in it so it could actually be more easily classified in the fantasy genre.

To be honest, the alternate dimension thing could have been cut out completely and it would have worked out just as well by being a magical realist story about refugees from like Afghanistan or Somalia. But doing the story that way requires a lot more research to get the culture right and I can’t help thinking that was the main reason the family came from a made-up country.

If you’ve read immigrant stories before then a lot of this book will be familiar – it’s got migrants going through the everyday trauma of navigating a foreign culture, feeling an aching and unquenchable yearning for a lost home, clashes between tradition and American modernity, that kind of thing. I feel like there’s a Salman Rushdie novel in here struggling to break through.

Lost in space

I bought the solo journalling game Bucket of Bolts and I’m digging it so far. How it works is that it gives you some writing prompts as you create the story of a spaceship beginning from its construction, going through the many adventures it’s had with its different captains, and ending with its inevitable final journey.

THE SHIP
A midsize freighter, rugged and adaptable.

SHIP CREATION
- You were constructed by a team of starship engineers—describe them, their design principles and political affiliations.
- Add three Traits describing your Ship then draw it. Sketch out the layout of modules and its silhouette, considering the materials used.
- Give your Ship a model name and simple factory designation.

SHIP QUESTIONS
Answer these during play. You don't need to answer them all.

- Every ship needs a good name. What is it and why?
- Across the galaxy there are spaceports in every shape, size and standing. Why do some feel like home more than others?
- Your last Captain installed a secret modification that they never got to use. What does it do?
- Your customised systems allow for a unique manoeuvre that many of your Captain's have attempted. What it is, and what does it come to be called by tale tellers and imitators?

It’s a fun way to get one’s creative juices flowing, while its guided structure prevents the stereotypical writer’s panic at being faced with a blank page. It even comes with a ship generator so you don’t get stuck with trying to imagine what your ship looks like and a soundtrack to listen to as you meditate on your choices. I mean, last night words were fairly flowing from my pen.

The Ship
-constructed for exploration + science. 
-modification of existing template for university researchers. -
-customized to survive high-pressure & high-radiation environments with the most expensive & most sensitive sensors available along with ample computer power for analysis 
-designed for year-long voyages
-apolitical scientists unappreciative how their exploration directly aids the empire
- public funding & grants subsidize the research 

Nimble, Sleek, Precise
The Don Quixote (Raptor-class HX-1138) (sketch of ship vaguely resembling Defiant from Deep Space 9)

The High Era
A Science Expedition
Captain Jacques Jazmere 
-Phd student who gathered fellow iconoclasts to find ancient alien civilization 
-records unclear where it was but crew is certain its remo
are in a distant region of space
- crew rigged a time travel antenna to pick up ancient sig 

Love & Triumph: Captain discovered a wormhole shortcut to deep space & named it the Cervantes wormhole
The ship is named Don Quixote because of its romantic quest

You can even use this game to create the backstory for a spaceship your characters might use in a space RPG like Traveller or Starfinder.

Bottom line? It’s a fun structured way to get creative for a couple of hours.