Friday, 29 April 2016

Some words that kinda mean their opposite

I’m aware that this blog doesn’t really stick very closely to it’s science-fiction subject matter. It roams freely, choosing whatever loosely-related subject happens to be interesting to me at the time.

Well that’s about to stop.

Unfortunately that’s because this next post is going to be not-at-all-related.

You see what I did there? Language can be so misleading at times.

So with that in mind here are a few words that I’ve always found particularly confounding, and that may even mean the opposite of what you think.

Let’s start with some Twentieth Century racism. The Nazis famously wanted to kickstart the Aryan race. They saw this as a master race of white Nordics. You know the type, the kind of tall, blond-haired, blue-eyed bad guys that Indiana Jones would come up against. But as an ethnic term, Aryan actually means Indo-Iranians. Meaning much darker tones than old Adolf was suggesting. Just as well he tainted the whole thing out of common usage.

Not so Aryan now, are you, mein Freund?

We think of a factoid as a little or quick fact. As in “here’s a quick factoid for you: Indiana Jones’ first name was actually Henry.” But its true meaning is pretty much the opposite thing: an item of unreliable information that is reported and repeated so often that it becomes accepted as fact. The suffix ‘-oid’ usually means resembling but not actually the same. As in planetoid. Thus a factoid is an untruth.

Dr. Henry Jones Junior. Fact

When the government or military talk about defence, what they are usually discussing is offence. Thus in the early 1940s, a wise SS would have set aside money in their defence budget for actively hunting down American archeologists.

This next one is more to do with my personal ignorance than common misconception. As such it takes a little setting up. Let’s start with the words feminine and masculine. Feminine: having characteristics typical of a woman. Masculine: having characteristics typical of a man. When we add some extra sounds at the beginning and the end of each word we get effeminate and emasculate. Effeminate is the adjective used to describe something male that displays feminine characteristics. Surely then emasculate is some kind of opposite. Is it the adjective for when a female displays male characteristics (perhaps like Indy’s one time girlfriend, the hard-drinking Marion Ravenwood)? Or is it the word used to describe something male that’s particularly masculine (like our matinĂ©e hero himself)? Of course not. After a lifetime of using this word in completely the wrong context, I found out what it really means. Who makes this stuff up?

But it's irrelevant anyway, nothing can emasculate Indy. (Let's not talk about snakes)

If you were standing in a cellar or underground parking lot and someone was talking about being razed to the ground, you could be forgiven for thinking you were about to step into the lift (or elevator). Whereas instead you should have been thinking that the person was going to burn the whole place down, in the manner of Gestapo agents looking for the headpiece to the Staff of Ra in Marion Ravenwood’s Nepalese tavern.

I know. That last reference was a little too much

Moot Point
But you don’t care anyway, do you? The whole thing is a moot point, because to you it’s a matter of no importance, right? Wrong. The original meaning of moot point is a hypothetical idea created specifically to be talked about. Perhaps a bit like George Lucas saying to Steven Spielberg “what if we took the Charleton Heston film Secret of the Incas, and remade it with a nicer good guy and a bunch of Nazis.

Nah, it'll never work. He looks all wrong

Anyway enough of this awful article and its attempts to cram an Indiana Jones reference into every paragraph. Awful you say? Why, thank you very much. The word originally meant inspiring wonder. Literally full of awe.

The Giant Robo Alphabot, part six

In one of the previous posts about my Robo Alphabot project I mentioned my surprise at how difficult it was to find satisfactory entries for some of the letters that you'd imagine would lend themselves quite easily to the names of sentient electronic devices. Letters such as X, Y and Z. I had naively imagined that every other fictional robot out there would probably begin with one of these letters. I figured names like XZ271 or Zardo the Destroyer would be a staple of the genre and there would be all kinds of cool-looking mechs to choose from.

As it turns out, not for the first time in my life, I was completely wrong.

In fact it became quite a struggle to get decent looking machines, that fit my personal aesthetic, and weren't all simply drawn from the Warhammer 40,000 universe (I'm mostly looking at you, Tau).

So below are the ones that I finally settled upon for the last three letters of the alphabet. If you're not sure who they are, or where they are from, then the individual descriptions on each design should help shed some light.

Wednesday, 27 April 2016

Lo-fi sci-fi

Over the last few years there has been a slew of low-budget films making it into mainstream cinema. With shared characteristics such as improvised scripts, use of locations instead of sets and an emphasis on personal relationships over plot, these movies have been pigeonholed more by their film-making techniques than their subject matter. The exact edges of the movement are hard to define, but this somewhat generalised sub-genre of independent film has come to be known as mumblecore.

Although some pointers exist to help with identifying these movies, I find the simplest way to know a mumblecore film is to see if Mark Duplass is in it.

In some States in America it is probably illegal to make mumblecore without this guy

But this is predominately a sci-fi blog so it's neither Mr. Duplass nor mumblecore that I want to discuss. It's the science-fiction offshoot of the genre, often referred to as lo-fi sci-fi, that is of real interest to me. (The horror sub-genre, containing films like V/H/S (2012) and, arguably, The Blair Witch Project (1999) is known as mumblegore.)

But the term lo-fi sci-fi is still somewhat misleading. Not just because some of the traits that most characterise the mumblecore parent genre, such as the improvised scripts and lack of real plot, can be absent from the often tightly vectored science-fiction counterparts, but also because the term 'lo-fi' has a tendency to be used interchangeably with 'low budget', thus opening up a wealth of movies that I would argue do not belong.

Nonetheless the genre is definitely out there, and no matter where you draw your demarkation lines it appears to be growing. Here are five films, well worth watching, which characterise the movement most accurately for me, eschewing the heavy use of special effects, set pieces, alien invasions and outer space, and instead relying on what it would actually feel like to be immersed in the chosen science-fiction conceit. 

I, Origins (2014)
If you see one film off this list, etc. etc. That's why I put it first. (Though don't be fooled into thinking the other four on the list are in some kind of order. I'm just not that organised.) A beautiful film that covers a range of fascinating themes, but is ultimately centred on a scientific discovery (to do with eyeballs) that would cause a paradigm shift in the way we think.

Safety Not Guaranteed (2012)
Mark Duplass is in it, so it absolutely must be mumblecore. Based on a perplexing, real-life classified ad that appeared in the US a few years before the new millennium, this film follows a group of fictional journalists as they try to uncover the truth behind the ad's time travel claim.

The One I Love (2014)
Mark Duplass is in this one too. Twice. This list is practically writing itself. A couple, struggling through a breakdown in their relationship, go on holiday together to a mysterious country retreat. But is what they discover there a type of ground-breaking therapy or something much darker?

Primer (2004)
Primer is kind of the dad of this genre. Or mum if you prefer (though its distinct focus on male characters makes me want to go down the masculine route). Like The Blair Witch Project it's probably a little too old to be true mumblecore, but all the hallmarks are there (low budget, real locations instead of sets, naturalistic dialogue etc.). In attempting to build a computer in their garage, four friends accidentally create a time travel device. A cursory glance at almost any other movie made about this subject would tell you never to mess with time travel, but clearly these guys didn't have time to watch too many films. Wouldn't be much of a story if they did. The resultant chaos is so confusing it will hurt your head and have you looking for charts like these on the internet, but that just makes it even more compelling.

Coherence (2013)
What could possibly go wrong at a dinner party among close friends? Now that I think about it, quite a lot. But what happens in this intriguing and suspenseful film is probably not what you'd expect. This highly rated movie is a testament to what can be achieved with a minuscule budget and just a few days of shooting.