I had heard absolutely nothing of Guillermo del Toro's The Shape of Water (2017) until this afternoon, but the trailer makes it look like something I should very definitely see in December. It looks like William Alland and Jack Arnold's Creature from the Black Lagoon (1954) retold through Jane Yolen's "The Lady and the Merman," which has haunted me since elementary school when I first read Neptune Rising: Songs and Tales of the Undersea Folk (1982). It looks sea-deep.
Speaking of oceanic things for which I may existentially blame Caitlín R. Kiernan: Delphine Cencig, "Poulpe Fiction."
In fact, I have another doctor's appointment tomorrow.
1. spatch sent me this handy-dandy list: "Times Doctor Who Was Ruined Forever." The site is snarky and some of their tags are jerkass, but the article itself is gold. "21/03/1981 – The best Doctor ever is replaced by a vet. Doctor Who dies."
2. Following my belated discovery of Jack Buchanan, I am pleased to see that the HFA will be showing Ernst Lubitsch's Monte Carlo (1930) on Friday. I wonder if I have ever actually seen Jeanette MacDonald.
3. I had no idea one of the performers of "The Grass Is Always Greener" was Lauren Bacall (and I think I had forgotten the song came from a musical by Kander and Ebb, although listening to its brassy swing, I don't know who else it could have been). Standing Room Only on WERS used to play it all the time. I like how her voice softens on the repeated line That's wonderful, but her unimpressed What's so wonderful? could pass for Elaine Stritch. This makes me desperately sad that Bacall never recorded "The Ladies Who Lunch."
4. This is a gorgeous photoset, but I would love to see the on-set photos from the shoot. Like, the backstage stuff. People just standing around on snack breaks, being Klimt paintings.
5. This was true last weekend as well, but I was at Readercon and couldn't do anything about it: spatch swapped in for one of the hosts of the PMRP's Murders and Scandals: Poe and Doyle at the last minute, so I'll see him this weekend on one of the nights I'm not seeing Jack Buchanan.
It is rare for me not to like Heflin in a film, even when he's playing kind of a dick, and he makes an engaging proto-nerd here, a slouchy, grouchy smart-ass in a lab coat who has managed to figure out that he's in love with his educated, attractive coworker but not yet that flirting by insult only works for Oscar Levant. (His eventual apology is legitimately adorable.) Hunt as Mitchell is nicely, unequivocally competent and has little time for her colleague's negging even as it's clear from space that she'd reciprocate his interest if he were only a little less schoolyard about it, but her character feels like a conservative compromise when she insists repeatedly—despite sufficient aptitude for chemistry that she has a master's degree in it—that forensics is "no career for a woman." I do appreciate that heteronormativity is defused at least once by McKay conceding wryly that it's "not much of a career for a man, either. No prestige, no glamour, no money. People holler at you when there are no miracles." I suppose it is also sociologically interesting that the script's anxiety about science and gender runs both ways—unless it's to prove that spending nine-tenths of your life behind a microscope doesn't make you less of a man, I have no idea why McKay is apparently incapable of confronting a suspect without a fight scene. He is otherwise not very macho, which I am fine with. He can't throw a dart straight to save his life. If the human heart were located in the right elbow, though, that firing-range target would have totally had it.
The extremely spoilery original trailer suggests that Kid Glove Killer was intended as the start of a series and I'm almost surprised it didn't happen—if Thin Man stand-ins Joel and Garda Sloane could get a trilogy, I don't see why we couldn't have enjoyed more McKay and Mitchell. As it is, the one film is all we've got. It runs 72 minutes and they are worth it all for the scene in which Heflin performs a precise, self-annotated mime of catching, cleaning, preparing, and then jettisoning a trout, all with the serious concentration of the slightly sloshed. He handles plain air so confidently, you can see the glint of the butter knife he's cleaning on the tablecloth and want to hand him one of those modern-day rubber grips for the ketchup bottle with the sticky cap. I have no idea if it was part of the original script or improvised on set or what on earth, but now I want to know where I can find more Van Heflin doing mime. He and Zinnemann would later reteam to superb and less comic effect in Act of Violence (1948). I appear to have seen Hunt as the Broadway-bent eldest of Frank Borzage's Seven Sweethearts (1942), but I don't hold it against her. Ava Gardner cameos as a cute married carhop. I hope to God mineral oil salad dressing is as much a thing of the past as the constant chain-smoking in chemically sensitive laboratory conditions. [edit: WHAT THE HELL IT'S NOT.] This investigation brought to you by my scientific backers at Patreon.
This and the next episode was the turning point for me: up until now I enjoyed the episodes, but didn’t feel much engaged. I know it’s different for different people, just as in anything else: one friend was hooked from the first episode at the sight of MC gliding in that flat boat as he played that compelling minor key melody on the flute. Another didn’t get hooked until a certain point in the story a few eps on, and then all of a sudden got hooked so hard that they had to mainline the entire thing until the end. And then promptly rewatch it all.
For me, it was the conviction that I got through this and the next episode, which I think of as a pair, that not only was Mei Changsu as brilliant as promised, but I was going to see proved, bit by bit. That intrigued me. And that intrigue began deepening slowly, until the emotional layers of friendship, loyalty, brotherhood, hidden and obvious—all the conflicting emotional currents—gripped me.
( Read more... )
One important thing to note here is that the TPM doesn't actually have any ability to directly interfere with the boot process. If you try to boot modified code on a system, the TPM will contain different measurements but boot will still succeed. What the TPM can do is refuse to hand over secrets unless the measurements are correct. This allows for configurations where your disk encryption key can be stored in the TPM and then handed over automatically if the measurements are unaltered. If anybody interferes with your boot process then the measurements will be different, the TPM will refuse to hand over the key, your disk will remain encrypted and whoever's trying to compromise your machine will be sad.
The problem here is that a lot of things can affect the measurements. Upgrading your bootloader or kernel will do so. At that point if you reboot your disk fails to unlock and you become unhappy. To get around this your update system needs to notice that a new component is about to be installed, generate the new expected hashes and re-seal the secret to the TPM using the new hashes. If there are several different points in the update where this can happen, this can quite easily go wrong. And if it goes wrong, you're back to being unhappy.
Is there a way to improve this? Surprisingly, the answer is "yes" and the people to thank are Microsoft. Appendix A of a basically entirely unrelated spec defines a mechanism for storing the UEFI Secure Boot policy and used keys in PCR 7 of the TPM. The idea here is that you trust your OS vendor (since otherwise they could just backdoor your system anyway), so anything signed by your OS vendor is acceptable. If someone tries to boot something signed by a different vendor then PCR 7 will be different. If someone disables secure boot, PCR 7 will be different. If you upgrade your bootloader or kernel, PCR 7 will be the same. This simplifies things significantly.
I've put together a (not well-tested) patchset for Shim that adds support for including Shim's measurements in PCR 7. In conjunction with appropriate firmware, it should then be straightforward to seal secrets to PCR 7 and not worry about things breaking over system updates. This makes tying things like disk encryption keys to the TPM much more reasonable.
However, there's still one pretty major problem, which is that the initramfs (ie, the component responsible for setting up the disk encryption in the first place) isn't signed and isn't included in PCR 7. An attacker can simply modify it to stash any TPM-backed secrets or mount the encrypted filesystem and then drop to a root prompt. This, uh, reduces the utility of the entire exercise.
The simplest solution to this that I've come up with depends on how Linux implements initramfs files. In its simplest form, an initramfs is just a cpio archive. In its slightly more complicated form, it's a compressed cpio archive. And in its peak form of evolution, it's a series of compressed cpio archives concatenated together. As the kernel reads each one in turn, it extracts it over the previous ones. That means that any files in the final archive will overwrite files of the same name in previous archives.
My proposal is to generate a small initramfs whose sole job is to get secrets from the TPM and stash them in the kernel keyring, and then measure an additional value into PCR 7 in order to ensure that the secrets can't be obtained again. Later disk encryption setup will then be able to set up dm-crypt using the secret already stored within the kernel. This small initramfs will be built into the signed kernel image, and the bootloader will be responsible for appending it to the end of any user-provided initramfs. This means that the TPM will only grant access to the secrets while trustworthy code is running - once the secret is in the kernel it will only be available for in-kernel use, and once PCR 7 has been modified the TPM won't give it to anyone else. A similar approach for some kernel command-line arguments (the kernel, module-init-tools and systemd all interpret the kernel command line left-to-right, with later arguments overriding earlier ones) would make it possible to ensure that certain kernel configuration options (such as the iommu) weren't overridable by an attacker.
There's obviously a few things that have to be done here (standardise how to embed such an initramfs in the kernel image, ensure that luks knows how to use the kernel keyring, teach all relevant bootloaders how to handle these images), but overall this should make it practical to use PCR 7 as a mechanism for supporting TPM-backed disk encryption secrets on Linux without introducing a hug support burden in the process.
 The patchset I've posted to add measured boot support to Grub use PCRs 8 and 9 to measure various components during the boot process, but other bootloaders may have different policies.
 This is because most Linux systems generate the initramfs locally rather than shipping it pre-built. It may also get rebuilt on various userspace updates, even if the kernel hasn't changed. Including it in PCR 7 would entirely break the fragility guarantees and defeat the point of all of this.
The complexity is there, and so brilliant, and this ep finishes setting up one sequence so that we will in the next actually see MC’s brilliance, step by step, unfold before our eyes. We’ve been told—and now we’ll be shown. It was then that I got hooked.
But first, episode four, which sets up not just that aspect, but a whole lot of important emotional beats: we’re beginning to get clues to what happened twelve years ago, that no one dares talk about.
( Read more... )
So, on to episode three.
( Read more... )
I had five program items on Friday. The first was my reading, which I think went well; it was recorded by both Readercon and Jim Freund of Hour of the Wolf, so I'll link to either or both as they're made available. I read from my recently completed, as yet unpublished short story "The Face of the Waters" with new poetry on either side and wore glasses in public for the first time, which was less a cosmetic issue than a matter of figuring out how to negotiate eye contact with my audience without bifocals. Of the panels that followed, I don't think any of them were trainwrecks: "I Am Become Death . . . No, I Mean Literally" went off-script almost immediately, but in an abstract, ethnographic way that the audience as well as the panelists seem to have enjoyed, and "The Works of Tanith Lee" was as wide-ranging as the literature we were talking about. I feel bad about overstating the degree to which I believe Owen Davies is a parental fuck-up during "Classic YA Book Club: The Dark Is Rising by Susan Cooper," but I regret nothing about rhapsodically anti-recommending Kathleen Sky's Witchdame (1985) in "Terrible . . . but Great" because somebody turned to me abruptly in an elevator the next day and complimented me on my flailing. More seriously, someone else told me that they had scoured the dealer's room for Lee's work because of the way I talked about her on the panel and been rewarded by everything they had read so far. That was really nice to hear.
In the one non-programming group activity I managed all weekend, I joined rushthatspeaks, ashnistrike, skygiants, and kate_nepveu for dinner at Taipei Cuisine, with dessert at Yocha afterward. There was sweet corn with salty egg yolk and chili-fried shrimp with peanuts and lotus root with mushrooms and sesame chicken and a couple of dishes that didn't work out but were worth ordering just to see what they were like, although "with bones in" is not how anybody was expecting the popcorn frog. I hope I can get a coconut smoothie with lychee jelly other places than Yocha, because it's a really nice dessert. I would not be the person to write it, but I hope someone does a serious critical survey of that phase of '80's fantasy when it was all idtastic, all the time.
I do not know if I can promise a Patreon review of it, but I nonetheless recommend "Level Seven" (1966), a formerly lost episode of Out of the Unknown (1965–71) adapted by J.B. Priestley from Mordecai Roshwald's 1959 pre-and-post-apocalyptic novel of the same name; it is more streamlined and more of a parable than its source material, but pulls no more punches when it comes to the likelihood of surviving MAD. Young David Collings turns out to remind me of Peter Cushing. I think it's the cheekbones and the breakdowns.
The rest of Friday night was terrible. Between four and five in the morning, I had some kind of severe allergic reaction to an unknown trigger. It was like anaphylaxis with violent nausea: I took Benadryl as soon as I realized that my throat and mouth were prickling and swelling and I had suddenly stopped being able to breathe through my nose and for all I know it saved my life, but did not prevent the rash all over my body or the wheezing when I breathed. Sleep was not so much a thing for the rest of the night. I took Benadryl conscientiously round the clock until this evening and the symptoms gradually subsided, but it took a full twelve hours for my mouth to stop being numb. I have no known food allergies; I am hoping I have not suddenly developed any. The best medical guess right now is either one bad shrimp or some kind of slow-building reaction to a medication I started a week and a half ago. I will be calling my doctors about it on Monday. It was scary.
I had one panel on Saturday at noon and I feel slightly as though I hallucinated my way through it, but I remember talking about Phyllis Gotlieb and Yoon Ha Lee and The Robots of Death (1977), because the panel was "Life, Love, and Robots," and then I drifted briefly through the dealers' room with my mother and ran into aedifica for a very careful lunch (I dissected the chicken out of a chicken sandwich) and then I slept for the rest of the afternoon. I did not manage to have dinner with yhlee. I did not manage to have dinner at all. I did manage to spend portions of the evening hanging out with Yoon and choco_frosh and Rush-That-Speaks and Ashnistrike and nineweaving, cautiously drinking herbal tea and eating my way through the pocketful of ginger chews I stole from the green room. Instead of attending any of the con's numerous room parties, I went back upstairs and answered some e-mail and continued reading Susan Cooper's The Dark Is Rising (1973), which I had brought in hardcover to the previous day's panel. spatch came out after his evening show and stayed with me just in case I stopped breathing in the middle of the night. I didn't.
I got the news about Jodie Whittaker's Thirteenth Doctor right before arriving for "Disturbed by Her Song: Gender, Queerness, and Sexuality in the Works of Tanith Lee," so Rush-That-Speaks and Steve Berman and I talked about Doctor Who for the first five minutes and I maintain gender-changing, self-reinventing immortals are totally on point for a discussion of Tanith Lee anyway. It was an enormously fun panel and may have repercussions.
This was a good year for books. I came away from the convention with Michael Thomas Ford's Lily (2016), L.A. Fields' Homo Superiors (2016), John Maddox Roberts' The Seven Hills (2005), Michael Cisco's The Wretch of the Sun (2016), Yevgeny Zamyatin's The Dragon (ed. and trans. Mirra Ginsburg, 1967), and five pulp novels by Fredric Brown all courtesy of alexxkay: The Fabulous Clipjoint (1947), The Dead Ringer (1948), The Bloody Moonlight (1949), The Screaming Mimi (1949), and Compliments of a Fiend (1950). I could not afford the first edition of Nicholas Stuart Gray's The Apple-Stone (1965) on display at Somewhere in Time Books, but I am going to look for it in libraries because either I've read the Nesbit-like scene in which the children bring a Bonfire Night guy to life and it takes its face and voice from all of them by turns or someone once described it to me and either way it gave me the same jolt of half-recognition as Eleanor Farjeon's The Silver Curlew (1953), so I need to figure out what happened there. This was not a good year for seeing people, but I am glad to have caught the people I did, like lesser_celery and Gillian Daniels and briefly rosefox, and especially pleased that I managed to snag a conversation with Michael Cisco and Farah Rose Smith on Friday before my corporeal manifestation blew up. I did not take notes on any programming, but Kate Nepveu did.
(Can Martin Landau have played one of the first queer characters I ever saw in a movie? We can argue about the positive representation of "Call it my woman's intuition, if you will" Leonard in North by Northwest (1959), but he's not even subtext: I always read him and James Mason and Eva Marie Saint as a triangle. I found out he had died as soon as I got home; I had already seen the same about George Romero and Maryam Mirzakhani. Jeez, Sunday.)
Either to sum up or really bury the lede, I can now announce that Steve Berman of Lethe Press will be publishing a collection of my short fiction in 2018. Details are yet to be determined, but it will be my first fiction collection since Singing Innocence and Experience in 2005 and I am incredibly happy about it. I will share the details as soon as they exist.
My plans for the immediate future involve sleep.
Last November, I posted about this series after my first watch. Some of the below is taken from that post, but I’ve expanded it.
On the surface Nirvana in Fire (Lángyá Bǎng in Chinese)
is about revenge, but that’s far too simplistic. Justice is truer, and so is recovering the truth.
I suspect, especially these days, if Hollywood had made this story, they would probably have climaxed it when the Big Bad was taken down, and ended with the heroes trotting off for celebratory whoopie.
Don’t think the final sequence taking down the Big Bad isn’t nail-bitingly intense, because it most definitely is, but the true climax is even more powerful—everyone, especially our hero, risking absolutely everything to gain justice for people not just killed but whose reputations had been destroyed thirteen years ago.
And those who did the deed—who begin the story arc wielding imperial power—don’t cynically shrug off the past. They will do anything to keep their secrets, which—one picks up through the subtleties of phenomenal acting, because the subtitles are at best adequate—haunt them.
It’s tense, passionate, romantic, full of great battle and ninja action as well as complicated political gamesmanship and quiet, tender moments. It’s funny, tragic, more tense, and always, always visually stunning.
And here’s the other thing I love. The female actors don’t have to strip in order to convey sexual politics or relations. And we don’t have to see tons of graphic torture scenes (though there is one, and the perpetrator is not who you'd think) for those dungeon scenes to be breathtakingly, harrowingly intense.
I don’t speak Chinese, I’ve only read a handful of Chinese novels translated into English, and while I’ve read some Chinese history, the emphasis is on the ‘some’—a tiny fraction of the hundreds of books I’ve read over sixty years about European history.
China has such a long, fascinating, complicated history, which furnishes an equally long-view historical outlook that we just don’t find much of in the USA.
When I compare this to those bits of early episodes of Game of Thrones that I saw, with the generic faux-medieval design and actors who seemed uncomfortable in their tunics and gowns, while I understand there was some fudging-for-modern-audience about the design of Nirvana in Fire, the characters wear the clothes naturally, their interpersonal customs flow naturally, even when rigidly constrained into ritual. Everything feels authentic, to the tiny steps mandated in court to the way men and women played their fans, and held aside their sleeves when pouring tea.
But that’s window dressing. What compelled me was the paradigm. Reputation is important—and not just to the good guys—especially family reputation, for it lasts beyond death. Friendship is important. Loyalty is vitally important. There are some things worth dying for. Given the news lately, I find recourse to this series not just entertaining, but necessary for sanity.
The series apparently comes out of the wuxia tradition— the word “wuxia” being a compound composed of the elements wu (lit. “martial”, “military”, or “armed”) and xia (lit. “honourable”, “chivalrous”, or “hero”). And this genre of story has been popular for at least two thousand years; Chinese literary tradition mentions a critic making fun of wuxia back in the third century B.C.
When comics and film came along, wuxia spread into those media, and flourished. During my lifetime, the USA has important tons of low-budget Chinese martial arts films, most of which more or less fall under the wuxia umbrella. On the plus side, these include badass female warriors who whirl through the air like balletic chainsaws, gracefully wielding as much power as the males—though female non-warriors still represent the traditional submissive female, whose power is covertly expressed.
This seeming contradiction isn’t contradictory to the Chinese, who have grown up with the jianghu tradition, which runs parallel to wuxia in a way I would love to understand better, but it seems even older. My still-tentative take is that the jianghu world is the world of the outsider, always fascinating to a complicated, repressive cultural order.
The jianghu world exists amorphously within the rest of China, in some stories with actual lands (formidably defended by martial artists, as in this story), and in others existing as a type of roaming martial art outsider.
Jianghu warriors paid no attention to the various governments, and dealt with high and low without any distinction, except maybe a preference for the latter, which made them popular, especially when they adhered to a code of honor. In most English translations, jianghu seems to be rendered into the somewhat quaint ‘pugilist’ as in Pugilistic World.
So Nirvana in Fire is set in a sort of alt-600s, during the time of the Wei and Liang dynasties, in the north and south respectively. It will help you get into the story to know that the pugilistic world when this story occurs is represented by the Jiang Zuo Alliance, with its headquarters high in an amazing place called Langya Hall, which was the Google/Wikipedia of the 600s.
People can climb the billion steps to ask any question by putting a slip of paper in any of a number of boxes in a wall, and within a period of time get an answer, while overhead pigeons are constantly bringing messages from all over the world, keeping otherwise isolated Langya Hall up to the minute on all happenings great and small.
Early on in Episode One, we only see the data archive for a short time, but it is mind-bogglingly awesome, establishing its presence so vigorously we absolutely believe in its power and reach through the entire series.
Before I get into Episode One, let me provide an insight that only occurred after I’d seen the rest of the serial once, then twice: and that is, every single line of that first episode is important. Every single line packs a live mine that is going to explode during the rest of the series.
I strongly encourage the English-speaking viewer, who is going to be compounding with subtitles (not always grammatically correct, sigh) not to worry about that.
Don’t try to make sense of the story in the first episode. There are a lot of characters to introduce, and all of them have their motivations and goals. Let the colors, the expressions, the action, and the mood begin to build impressions. By the third and fourth episodes, you will discover yourself recognizing characters and beginning to understand the main goals well enough.
Okay, Episode One.
The first minute or two is horrific—a truly nasty battle sequence. What we are seeing is nightmarish memory, as our main character fights, looks around in bewilderment and despair as everyone around him is slaughtered, and then clings to his father’s hand. His father lets him go, yelling at him to survive as he falls into the abyss . . .
And our main character wakes up. We pull back to see him sit up in bed, hair hanging in his face, then we see his bloodshot eyes, and after that he fingers a silver bracelet on his hand. All these signs are important: the nightmare. The bloodshot eyes. And the bracelet.
But we don’t need to remember them—we’ll see them all again, and what they mean, when it’s necessary. It’s that second viewing when you gasp and think OMG because you know what everything means.
We go directly to a pigeon flying to Langya Hall, which we see in all its spectacular beauty. We see information arrive and get brought to Lin Chen, the Master of Langya Hall. The info brought is important, but again, don’t worry about remembering it. It will be re-introduced when it matters.
Then we meet Prince Yu, sixth of the Emperor of Da Liang’s nine sons. We also meet the Emperor, getting a message that Prince Yu has completed his inspection of distant provinces, and as the emperor talks with his trusted Head Eunuch, the talk touches on the intense rivalry between Prince Yu and the Crown Prince, to whom we’re briefly introduced next as he asks for news.
Again, don’t worry about memorizing all these guys. Their distinctive personalities will emerge as events do. Just watch, as the Crown Prince’s assassins try to take out Prince Yu. He doesn’t fight—his bodyguard dispatches the assassin—but we see that Prince Yu is cold and assured even when the assassin’s blade gets close enough to slice his hand. And he knows who sent the assassins. But as he evaluates international news (remember that pigeon in the earlier scene; he has his own methods of obtaining intel) he decides that he needs to visit Langya Hall, too, if the world’s royal power brokers are advancing by asking advice of the Hall.
We then see Lin Chen do an exquisite kata on a soaring cliff, in wuxia style, with lots of martial air ballet. So we’re establishing that this man is Master of Google/Wikipedia/Head Warrior Honcho . . . and we will also find out that he is a very skilled doctor. (And he will nearly steal the show in the last five episodes.)
He gives orders about what data to hand off to Prince Yu, which incidentally is also being sent to the Crown Prince. Langya Hall is utterly neutral, totally detached from political struggles in governments. Their alliance is a free-wheeling one, their lands fiercely protected, as we’re about to find out.
Prince Yu gets home, and he opens his message at the same time as the Crown Prince does, both pondering the disconcerting news: whoever possesses the Divine Talent will hold the world. Of course they begin politicking, meanwhile mentioning a mysterious case of a Duke Qing who is in trouble for real estate fraud (called land grabbing). Don’t worry about this. You will never meet Duke Qing—it’s the fallout of this case that will unfold over several episodes.
But first, assassins dispatched to chase some innocent servants of the duke, and kill them before they can talk, manage to slide into the waters of the Pugilist World. Three ships full of fierce armed guys encounter a slim boat with our hero standing up in it, playing the flute. It’s the only time we will ever see him play that flute, so enjoy it.
Also enjoy how the sight of him scares the sweat out of said three ships of fierce warriors. As our hero calmly remonstrates with them, a teenage boy, Fei Liu, lands from the sky into the boat, bringing a beautiful cloak to put around the shoulders of our hero. (We will see all through the story friends and enemies alike making sure he is warm enough.)
When one of the warriors starts talking tough, Fei Liu launches high into the air, plucks the burly guy up, and tosses him overboard, then lands lightly in the little boat again. So right here we learn two things: Fei Liu, small as he is, is an incredible badass, and 2) the Jiang Zuo Alliance (the Pugilists) have a really scary rep when you cross into their territory. The ships about face and creep off, leaving the little boat to skim by apparently magical power in the other direction.
So, what is a Divine Talent? A super-smart military strategist and an elder statesman rolled up in one, an eminence grise, or Richelieu, to those who know Western history.
We switch back to the emperor, who laughs comfortably at the idea of a Divine Talent disrupting his empire. “My empire is something he cannot take so easily,” he says. Famous Last Words.
We switch back to Langya Hall for the last time, as we see Lin Chen and our hero sitting face to face in their gorgeous flowing robes and hair. Lin Chen is now in his doctor guise, trying to talk our hero out of leaving, but he knows it’s a lost cause. Our hero tells him that he’s been planning for ten years—and he pleads for two—to get his goal accomplished. Lin Chen gives him some heart pills for when he's in bad shape, and when they are gone, he will come.
It’s a fairly elliptical scene. Again, I’d say let it flow over you. Every word strikes very hard on the second viewing—every single word.
For now, let me just say that our hero is going to have three identities in this story, and we’ll get to why the third is necessary a bit later. Right now: the young warrior in the horrible battle was nineteen year old General Lin Shu, brilliant leader and son of Lin Xie (last name first in Chinese), head of the Chiyan Army. But now he is Mei Changsu, head of the Jiang Zuo Alliance, even though he is unable to do martial arts: we get the sense that he is extremely ill. But that does not affect his mental abilities. Mei Changsu is the Divine Talent, first on one of Langya Hall’s Lists—each year they rate scholars and warriors according to ability, and other things besides.
Mei Changsu is heading for the capital city, which he has not seen since before that terrible battle. He will be going accompanied by two sprightly young men, Jingrui and Yuzin, who we meet shopping, when they are distracted by the arrival of some grim warriors. They comment on these guys, who have not dared come around for over ten years, and again, that will only make sense later. Just look and listen now.
We will be learning lots more about the boys, too—but right now they seem to be happy-go-lucky young guys in their early twenties, rich, well trained. Jingrui a Pugilist, trained by his adoptive brother (and we’ll be finding out a lot more about that relationship, hoo boy).
Jingrui’s father is the Marquis Xie—the sinister eminence grise behind the Crown Prince, though everyone else thinks he’s politically neutral. Mei Changsu is going to be staying in his guest house.
The young guys Yuzin and Jingrui (sometimes called Xiao-Jingrui, Xiao being an honorary title that will pop up a lot for various young male characters; the female equivalent is jiejie, or jie) and their guest in his covered cart approach the capital, and we see Mei Changsu’s face as he looks up at the walls again. There is so much repressed emotion there.
But first the boys encounter another party, led by Princess Mu Nihuang of Yunnan. She attacks Jingrui and his buddy Yan Yujin, and defeats both, but compliments them on their learning. She wants to know who is inside the closed carriage with them, and they explain that it’s a sick friend coming to town to recover. She glances curiously, but inside, Mei Changsu/ Lin Shu listens with an expression of yearning, and we wonder if he and this gorgeous fighting princess have a history. In fact you just know they have a history.
Before they get to the fortified mansion belonging to the Marquis Xie, Mei Changsu asks the boys to introduce him as Su Zhe, a sickly traveling scholar. You’re thinking really? Three names, two of them disguises?
The thing you begin to pick up is that the Su Zhe guise doesn’t fool anyone long, but it forces everyone who wants to possess, bribe, threaten, or annex Mei Changsu to deal with the scholar fiction, if they want to save face. This fiction keeps a kind of polite balance, and it persists pretty much through the entire series, more or less.
Sometimes less, with dramatic results.
But that’s way later.
So Mei Changsu comes in behind the oblivious boys who are chattering, and the Marquis is about to ream Jingrui when he notices they have a guest. Meanwhile Mei Changsu (MC) experiences a few second flashback that is quite startling. It is so fast that I didn’t notice it the first time through. But on the second, I realize just how much he is masking his emotions as he greets Xie, and the men exchange polite bows.
The boys are oblivious to any undercurrents.
Then we switch back to the emperor, who tells the princess that it’s time for her to have a suitor. Now, on first watching, this doesn’t mean much, but I think it will help viewers to know that she is not at all up for this. She was engaged to Lin Shu (we find that out soon enough) and has stayed loyal to his memory all this time. What we don’t know in these early episodes is how extremely dangerous it would be to let the emperor get any hint of that.
Instead, she insists that there be not only a martial contest, but a scholarly one. She will consider the top ten winners . . . but if she beats any of them in martial arts, all bets are off. And she is on the Langya List, so we know she’s a badass.
Her best friend Xia Dong, an officer of the Xuanjing Bureau (FBI/secret police), arrives. The emperor assigns Xia Dong the Duke Qing case. The women leave together and talk, and we find out that Nihuang still feels loyal to Lin Shu, and that Xia Dong hates Lin Shu because of all the evidence provided by her own bureau that the Lin family was responsible for the death of her husband. So the women agree to disagree on that front. They are still friends . . . and the second-time viewer is shaking their head thinking, oh wow, Xia Dong, have you got some eye-openers ahead of you.
So that is episode one. So far, we have:
Mei Changsu/Lin Shu, wearing the scholarly mask of Su Zhe.
Princess Nihuan, badass of Mu.
Prince Yu and the Crown Prince, rivals for the throne. (Crown Prince isn’t fixed. Far from it.)
The super-snakey Marquis Xie—whose house MC is staying at.
Jingrui and Yuzin, delightful young friends of MC.
The Emperor, his Empress and Consort Yue (briefly met), adoptive mother of Prince Yu and mother of Crown Prince respectively.
We will learn a lot more about them all, and meet our second hero, in the next episode.
Until it reaches the USA market in a professional form, you can find it at Viki.com here:
And at YouTube, Here: but beware—some episodes in, the YouTube subtitles begin at the start of the title roll, and so are two minutes or so off.
I do recommend the German subtitles at Viki.com if you can read German—they are better than the English (definitely better grammar and spelling), but the English are okay. Watch the characters, whose acting is brilliant, and you can sift out the emotional subtleties.
So my question is, should I live-blog it, or is no one but me interested?
I love Stephen King but not his propensity for grossouts or body horror. In fact, I shied off his short stories after reading two Ultimate Body Horror Grossout stories, "The Cat From Hell" and that goddamn story about the surgeon stranded on a desert island UGH UGH UGH.
Given that, which of these should I read, and which should I avoid? I'm OK with scary and with violence that isn't revoltingly graphic.
The end of the whole mess
Suffer the little children
The night flier
It grows on you
The moving finger
You know they got a hell of a band
My pretty pony
Sorry, right number
The ten o'clock people
The house on Maple Street
The fifth quarter
The doctor's case
Umney's last chance
Nicola Griffith's Slow River on an accurate recommendation from watersword. So good. Wow for the realistic abuse content, ggggnnnnnngggh for the competence in water treatment facility management scenes. I feel like people who liked China Mountain Zhang, for the personal journey stuff and the mundane futuristic scifi stuff and the emphasis on physical labor and managing complicated processes, might be likely to also like this.
(Reread) a few Tamora Pierce books from The Protector Of the Small quartet for comfort. Still comforting.
All the Birds in the Sky: finished, LOVED everything except the last 10 pages which were just okay.
Started Hild and am having a tough time getting the world into my head.
Am most of the way through Harry Potter and the Cursed Child which is fairly breezy.
A bunch of Jon Bois stuff which is SO GREAT.
In Transit, documentary, loving and unexpected. Way more about people and way less about the train itself than I thought we'd see. I had a lot of nostalgia for my times on the Empire Builder.
Schindler's List -- saw this for the first time. Stunning, of course. I'm glad I saw it on the big screen. I am glad I saw it on a Friday night when I'd had a good day and I didn't have anything in particular to do the next couple days.
Jurassic Park -- awesome and fun, maybe my 3rd or 4th time seeing it. I could probably see this once every 12-18 months.
Steven Universe -- all caught up now, love the songs, love Lion, amazed and surprised every few episodes.
A Man For All Seasons -- saw this in high school I think? So many good burns in this movie, and a fascinating portrayal of an actual conservative.
Wonder Woman -- better as an Event than as a movie (in contrast some movies don't have to be Events, like, Ballistic: Ecks vs. Sever or whatever). The message the movie wants to speak is in direct opposition to the basic visual and structural form of a tentpole superhero blockbuster film. But there are fun bits.
Yuri!!! On Ice -- I'm glad I saw this and I respect it a lot but I don't love it. I think that it's the restaurant that doesn't punch you in the face for a bunch of the intended audience, and I'm not part of that audience.
Leonard's podcasted conversations with our friend Lucian about 90s nostalgia -- I enjoyed Lucian's recurring "because Kurt Cobain" explanations of his teenage quirks.
1. I don't know whether to describe this essay on Brian Clemens' The Professionals (1978–83) as a celebration, a critique, or stomp-on-the-brakes rubbernecking, but it's wonderfully written and has convinced me that the show was definitely something, even if not necessarily something I want to see. Okay, maybe a couple of episodes. "Having watched the whole of Sapphire & Steel, every surviving episode of Ace Of Wands and his contribution to the children's supernatural series Shadows, I can say without hesitation that 'Heroes' is by far the least realistic thing that PJ Hammond has ever written."
2. Speaking of sympathy for the fascists: vidding Star Wars' Imperials to "Everybody Wants to Rule the World" might sound like low-hanging fruit, but it's Lorde's cover and the vid is both darkly funny and creepingly immersive. handful_ofdust calls it "a Mirror Universe existence" and I had somehow not quite noticed before that unless the vidder futzed with the light levels, Imperial interiors in the original films all look like something out of a horror movie, Kubrick-sterile and glowing dark as space. The music sometimes follows and sometimes illuminates the images and the whole project basically delights me in the same way as realizing a few years ago that Piett fandom had gone mainstream. (kore, are you the person who directed me to Michael Pennington's deleted scenes?) Rob observes that the line about Mother Nature is especially trenchant in context of the Battle of Endor "when they're fucking defeated by Ewoks and trees."
3. Speaking of getting fucking defeated by nature, Rob has chronicled on Twitter the night the baby spiders decided to join us in the shower.
4. Speaking of things I wish hadn't happened, this article courtesy of rushthatspeaks is an interesting and valuable look at the filming of rape scenes and it is not that I feel bad now for having loved Alejandro Jodorowsky's El Topo (1970) when I saw it, but I feel a lot stranger about future Jodorowsky and that really angers me.
5. I don't have a good segue here. They Can Talk reminds me a lot of The Far Side. I am especially fond of "Shark Rescue" and "forbidden."
At least I have no programming of my own tomorrow.
The story is straight science fiction, which I think of as rare for Doctor Who; visible influences include Isaac Asimov, Frank Herbert, Karel Čapek, Thea von Harbou and Fritz Lang, Art Deco, and Agatha Christie, so we're talking a murder mystery in a remote outpost of a decadent civilization sustained entirely by the labor of artificially intelligent but strictly constrained robots, with sumptuous retro-futurist costuming (Morojo would be proud) and the elegant aerodynamics of streamline moderne everywhere. The robots themselves are sculpted in black and green and silver metal according to their grade and function, their classical features planed into perpetual smiles, their inlaid eyes as serenely empty as a Tiffany shade. As if flirting with the man/machine boundaries that they otherwise take such pains to reinforce, humans on this unnamed planet make up their own faces in the same contoured patterns, though much more delicately, mostly some linear accents around the eyes and nose. I got a slight glam rock vibe off the whole mise-en-scène, although it might just be this future's idea of reasonable hats. Everyone in the guest cast lives and works aboard Storm Mine 4, a vast mineral-harvesting ship on a world of sandstorm-swept deserts staffed by a small human crew and dozens more robots of all three classes. We get a few hints of wider worldbuilding—the Twenty Founding Families, Kaldor City, the Company—but the touchy dynamics among this small group are front and center, as is only appropriate when one of them is about to turn up dead. Strangled, so there's no chance of an accident, with a curious red disc stuck to his hand—a "corpse marker," which we shortly learn are used in technical contexts to identify irreparably damaged or permanently deactivated robots. Suspicion at once explodes in all directions among the already bickering crew, though there is one possibility no one raises until the arrival of the Doctor and Leela (Louise Jameson), the one the title portends. And should the mysterious serial strangler turn out to be a robot, a voiceless Dum, a reliable Voc, an autonomous Super-Voc with all the "million multi-level constrainers in its circuitry" somehow switched off and the ability to contravene the universal "prime directive" against harm to humans switched on? The Doctor's seen it before: "Oh, I should think it's the end of this civilization." We won't get to see that apocalypse, but we will witness the personal equivalent.
Collings plays Chief Mover Poul, a kind of engineering officer, and between this serial, Sapphire & Steel (1979–82), and the casting of ITV's Midnight Is a Place (1977–78), I'm close to concluding it is his life's work to play the characters I would naturally gravitate toward in any narrative where he appears. He has a trickster look here, too, sharp-faced, copper-haired, a dryly spoken observer with a gift for throwaway sarcasm—asked if a body was like that when he found it, his reply is, "Just a little fresher." The audience may guess that he's hiding something even before Leela observes that he "move[s] like a hunter, watch[es] all the time," but it's not obvious what, except that he feels the least likely of the human suspects. He sees more than he says, distracts when tensions escalate, laughs to himself but says nothing when the mine's commander repurposes one of Poul's own ripostes. He has a nervous habit of fiddling with the communicator that hangs like a medal from the breast of his sharp-shouldered tabard. Sometimes when no one's looking his face flickers apprehensively and he sputters with excessive denial at the Doctor's suggestion of killer robots, but his crewmates are dropping like flies with no solution in sight, who wouldn't be afraid? He smiles and talks easily and cynically with Leela about the money to be made sandmining, the only reason he claims he signed on to a two-year tour in this refrigerated, mechanized sluice box when he'd "rather live with people than robots, that's all." Between one scene and the next, very suddenly, he cracks.
( We've all got something to hide. Don't you think so, Commander? )
In short, this is one of the reviews where I come in late to a classic, but at least I came in. I am not surprised that it's a fan favorite; I don't even know that I can call myself a fan, but I think it's terrific. It's a good science fiction mystery. It has characters as well as cleverly interlocked ideas. It definitely gives good David Collings. This mental thing brought to you by my important backers at Patreon.
1. For maximum irony of the sort that comes to pass if a person does enough science fiction, Collings played 51st-century robot detective Daneel in a 1969 BBC adaptation of The Naked Sun (1957), which I assume like its source novel came down to the terrifying concept of positronic brains not bound by the Three Laws of Robotics—robots that could harm humans, even without knowing it—and which the internet helpfully tells me does not survive in any form barring some of Delia Derbyshire's sound work. Damn it, BBC.  In fact, it looks as though the BFI did a reconstruction from the surviving soundtrack and stills, further details of which can be found at WikiDelia. I'm still side-eying the BBC.
2. I appreciate that he survives the story, though I mind a little that it leaves him at loose ends, catatonic on the bridge of the sandminer without even third-party dialogue to point toward his fate. My preferred headcanon would involve him getting offplanet somewhere he doesn't have to be around robots all the time, but it looks as though radio canon has him reappearing full bore loony some years later. Maybe I will ignore radio canon. Opinions? Everyone is just lucky I did not see this serial in high school instead of The Pirate Planet, because I wouldn't have written Poul fix-it fic—I didn't start writing fanfiction until I was out of grad school—but I am pretty sure hopelessly derivative original fiction would have been guaranteed.
3. I would love to know if there is believed to be any link between The Robots of Death and Dan O'Bannon and Ridley Scott's Alien (1979), because I have to say that one looks a lot like a direct forerunner of the other, not just in the isolated, claustrophobic and-then-there-were-none premise, but elements of plot and atmosphere like company agents embedded in regular crews and futuristic long-haul work being just as tiresome as the twentieth-century kind. Ian Holm's Ash pretty much is what you would get if you combined Poul with D84 and turned the sympathy way down on both sides.
A year after discovering Dan Taulapapa McMullin's Coconut Milk (2013) in the bookstore in South Station where I could not afford to take it home—or to New York City, as I believe was actually the case—I have finally acquired my own copy. It's as good all through as I hoped it would be from the poems I read at the time and after. Also I like his visual art.
On the dining room table is a grocery bag full of used books, mostly poetry, which my father thought I would like. I suspect he is correct. Nikki Giovanni's The Women and the Men (1979), Heather Ramsdell's Lost Wax (1998), and this hardcover second printing of Archibald MacLeish's Public Speech (1936) look great. You could really hurt someone with an ex-library hardcover of Harlan Ellison's The Essential Ellison: A 50 Year Retrospective (2005).
I still want to write about so many things and I'm not sure it's physically possible. This is infuriating.