Gantz: 0 is a Japanese, CGI anime movie based on the original manga series Gantz [Note: spoilers ahead!]. I ran into Gantz: 0 on Netflix, not having heard anything about it previously. I had read some of the manga years ago and seen the live-action version (2010), so I decided to give this film version a go. I’m glad I did! Normally, I avoid CGI animation which has traditionally suffered from uncanny valley syndrome (creepy vibe of animation that comes close to human realism but falls short in a bad way). Early attempts like the Final Fantasy films (2001, 2005), The Polar Express (2004), and Beowulf (2007) had soured me on CGI for “realistic” mainstream films (admittedly it’s been a better fit for children’s films), but at the same time, I knew video game CGI effects and animation in general were advancing all the time. Gantz: 0 showcases the best CGI characters I’ve witnessed yet. While still noticeably animated, the characters have just enough expression that I managed to skip over the valley and achieve that much sought after “suspension of disbelief” despite some persistent manikin-like attributes—artificial posture and body motion (do people really sway like that?), skin textures, physics-defying hair, and the compulsory well-endowed female characters (how much animator time has been devoted to the physics of breasts?).

Plot and character borrow minimally from the original, more complex and slow-to-unfold manga storyline (skipping the multiple “game” rounds, learning about the rules and how to survive and what Gantz is), but the film preserves the core of the series—people resurrected to fight aliens, or in this film—supernatural monsters. There isn’t much in the way of character development. The hero, Masaru Kato, does heroic things mainly because he’s the hero. Inexplicably, all the veteran warriors with the high-level weaponry are killed off. With the help of his friends (and one not-so-friendly kid with homicidal tendencies), Kato prevails in the end despite his apparent lack of skills. The morals seem to be self-sacrifice is the trait most worthy of admiration and teamwork can trump badassery.pedmc1a

Despite its shortcomings, Gantz: 0 delivers over-the-top effects in true Japanese anime/manga style with full-on craziness and mayhem captured in eye-popping CGI detail. IMO, the creativity on display here puts many Hollywood special effects juggernauts like Pacific Rim or Godzilla (2014 reboot) to shame. Bodies, lighting, and scenery are amazingly rendered. It’s clear digital animation is steadily gaining on its live-action counter-part. I expect in 5-10 years the two forms may be nearly indistinguishable. In any case, the monsters steal the show in Gantz: 0—horrors brought to life from Japanese folklore—you can tell the animators went all out in this respect.

I enjoyed this film and would definitely watch more if the Gantz: 0 team ever decides to tell more stories from the Gantz universe. As a tangent, I’d like to suggest they also take on one of my favorite series—Berserk. I think their style would fit perfectly with Berserk’s medieval knights-and-monsters carnage. I can only hope!

I finally got around to watching Ajin Season 2 (aired on Netflix in October 2016) [Note: spoilers ahead!]. After an exciting season 1, the new season of anime provides a little more character development, primarily for Izumi Shimomura, the female ajin working for Yū Tosaki at the Ministry of Health, Labour and Welfare. Mr. Sato and his Ajin followers continue to provide more diabolical mayhem as they wage war on the Japanese government. An impressive villain, Sato is always one step ahead of his foes, outsmarting them at every turn. Overall, the episodes were fast-paced and enjoyable as I binge-watched them over a weekend.ajin-season-2-episode-1-sub

On the downside, some of the major plot turns felt somewhat contrived. Kei Nagai’s failure, crisis, and retreat are followed by a redoubling of his determination to beat Sato, but his renewed commitment seemed hollow, without much reason behind it other than the unflagging faith of an old friend.

Disappointingly, we don’t learn anything new of significance about the Ajin themselves. How did they come about? Do they have a higher purpose? Barring future seasons, I guess we’ll never know.

Another abrupt revelation is Sato is just playing a horrifying game. Rather than obtaining freedom for Ajin, we learn he really just craves the excitement of hunting and killing his enemies, turning everyone’s lives into a real-world video game. This plot turn seemed somewhat arbitrary. Even his followers seemed to acknowledge the change without much fuss and shifted gears into fighting against him too smoothly to seem real to me.maxresdefault

The ending was sufficiently dramatic and exciting, but then the epilogue undercut any satisfaction I felt at the story’s resolution—far from being contained, Mr. Sato pulled off another escape, and Nagai’s well-earned quiet life was on hold once again. This skewed ending was an off-key way to end the series IMO, or perhaps a clumsy way of leading into a potential season 3. Overall, those who enjoyed the first season will likely enjoy season 2 as well; however, I think it could have been better.

I may be late to the Lorn party, but I’m glad I found them. In the same vein as Gunship but mostly without vocals, both groups fall into a genre I’m calling retro/sci-fi electronica. Just like Gunship, Lorn has put up some amazing videos. My favorite so far is their song Anvil, a pleasingly electronic track with a good beat and post-apocalyptic vibes. It melds perfectly with animation by Antoine Caëcke & Hélène Jeudy (aka Geriko) (character animation by Anthony Lejeune & Manddy Wyckens).

As the music rolls along, we enter an animated urbanscape of hovercars and airships and cyberpunk architecture all rendered in beautifully spare black and white, as if a comic book had been inked by an angel. One airship deposits a stoic young woman at a facility that appears to be part crypt, part Matrix-style mind-uploading machine. I’ve had similar ideas about the future of death in that I suspect as we increase human lifespan and continue to conquer more diseases, perhaps aging itself, death will become something more intentional than accidental. I’m more skeptical about the possibility of uploading minds and therefore no Singularity fan, but this video imagines the process with impressive creativity and leaves us with a gorgeous aesthetic (although I could do without the unsurprisingly porn-worthy mammaries).

Another video worth watching is Lorn’s Acid Rain. Live action rather than animated, it still manages to deliver an attention-grabbing sequence involving cheerleaders, dancing, and a surprising (or not) ending.

Lab Girl is foremost a biography tracing the arc of Ms. Jahren’s life from a childhood in a small Minnesota town first learning about science from a loving father, onwards through graduate school, then moving through a series of professorships across the U.S. Jahren provides a raw, unfiltered glimpse of one scientist’s personal journey to succeed using every tool at her disposal, including a wild sense of humor, an unremitting endurance, and a maniacal joy in the process of discovery, one measurement at a time.

“A seed knows how to wait. Most seeds wait for at least a year before starting to grow; a cherry seed can wait for a hundred years with no problem. What exactly each seed is waiting for is known only to that seed. Some unique trigger-combination of temperature-moisture-light and many other things is required to convince a seed to jump off the deep end and take its chance—to take its one and only chance to grow…apple_seeds_-_variety_minister_von_hammerstein_aka

…When you go into a forest you probably tend to look up at the plants that have grown so much taller than you ever could. You probably don’t look down, where just beneath your single footprint sit hundreds of seeds, each one alive and waiting. They hope against hope for an opportunity that will probably never come. More than half of these seeds will die before they feel the trigger that they are waiting for, and during awful years every single one of them will die. All this death hardly matters, because the single birch tree towering over you produces at least a quarter of a million new seeds every single year. When you are in the forest, for every tree that you see, there are at least a hundred more trees waiting in the soil, alive and fervently wishing to be.”

Jahren’s challenges included an endless struggle for financial solvency, one annual budget at a time, overcoming bipolar disorder and its debilitating effects, and enduring a difficult pregnancy made no easier by an unsympathetic faculty. The message, at least for me, is scientists are people, like anyone else, managing their own problems. It’s easy to forget when Science’s success stories are continually put on display without note of any mortal struggles they may have faced or the casualties of the scientific system who might have been scientists under less adverse conditions.

“No risk is more terrifying than that taken by the first root. A lucky root will eventually find water, but its first job is to anchor—to anchor an embryo and forever end its mobile phase, however passive that mobility was. Once the first root is extended, the plant will never again enjoy any hope (however feeble) of relocating to a place less cold, less dry, less dangerous. Indeed, it will face frost, drought, and greedy jaws without any possibility of flight. The tiny rootlet has only one chance to guess what the future years, decades—even centuries—will bring to the patch of soil where it sits. It assesses the light and humidity Bark Nature Old Log Tree Root Tree Root Woodof the moment, refers to its programming, and quite literally takes the plunge.

Everything is risked in that one moment when the first cells (the “hypocotyl”) advance from the seed coat. The root grows down before the shoot grows up, and so there is no possibility for green tissue to make new food for several days or even weeks. Rooting exhausts the very last reserves of the seed. The gamble is everything, and losing means death. The odds are more than a million to one against success.”

Aside from milestones, the book details not just Jahren’s challenges as a woman scientist but also her scientific adventures in foreign lands: the Arctic Circle, the hills of Ireland, and Mississippi. Field trips teaching students soil science seem better described as road trips with Jahren’s dryly humorous recollections of bare-bones camping and oddball detours. Throughout her career, She is held up by a persistent and enduring friendship with her lab assistant, Bill, a friendship that defies easy categorization but is touching nonetheless.

“The day after the University of Minnesota conferred upon me a bachelor’s degree cum laude, I dumped off my winter clothes in a big pile at the Salvation Army on Lake Street, took Hiawatha Avenue south to Minneapolis-Saint Paul International Airport, and flew to San Francisco. After I got to Berkeley, I didn’t so much meet Bill. It was more like I identified him…

…It took me about a week to notice that one of our undergraduate students—the one who looked like a young Johnny Cash and was perennially clad in jeans and a leather jacket even in 105-degree heat—always somehow ended up several meters away from the edge of the group, digging his own private hole… …I looked at the course roster and determined by process of elimination that the loner’s name was Bill. I went over and interrupted his solitary work. “How are you doing? Do you have any questions or anything?”

Without looking up, Bill refused my help, saying, “Nah. I’m good.” I stood there for a minute and then walked away and checked on another group, evaluated their progress, and answered some questions. About thirty minutes later, I noticed that Bill was now digging a second hole, his first one having been carefully refilled and smoothed over at its top. I picked up his clipboard and saw that his soil evaluation had been completed meticulously and that he had also included his second-best answers in a separate column down the right side of the page. At the very top of his report, suitability for “infrastructure” was checked, and a specification of “juvenile detention center” had been added in careful handwriting.

I stood next to his hole. “Looking for gold?” I joked, trying to strike up a conversation.

“No. I just like to dig,” he explained without stopping. “I used to live in a hole.””

Jahren is not afraid to delve into her own failures. Failures I suspect most scientists experience but rarely divulge. Throughout the book, she explains selected research projects: from genesis of a hypothesis or question through overcoming technical hurdles to finally answering the question.

The biography is interspersed by beautifully written descriptions of life from a plant’s perspective: the gamble every seed must make, a taproot’s life-or-death quest for water and nutrients, a tree’s adolescence, maturation and death. These passages allowed me to see through Jahren’s scientific eye—how she must perceive things, adopting as much as possible, a plant’s context to enable her to gain insight into the omnipresent, but generally overlooked, green life around us.

“The leaves of the world comprise countless billion elaborations of a single, simple machine designed for one job only—a job upon which hinges humankind. Leaves make sugar. Plants are the only things in the universe that can make sugar out of nonliving inorganic matter. All the sugar that you have ever eaten was first made within a leaf. leaf_1_webWithout a constant supply of glucose to your brain, you will die. Period. Under duress, your liver can make glucose out of protein or fat—but that protein or fat was originally constructed from a plant sugar within some other animal. It’s inescapable: at this very moment, within the synapses of your brain, leaves are fueling thoughts of leaves.”

Her writing possesses a poetry, her eloquent prose mingled with, at times, a cringe-inducing honesty that will make her scientific ideas uniquely available to a non-scientific audience. Her unabashed, general weirdness is delightful and refreshing (speaking as a bonafide weirdo myself). In the end, Jahren’s story is one of survival and more—she seems to define and arrive at her own version of success and happiness.

“A new mind-set became imperative: perhaps I could learn to see the world as plants do, put myself in their place, and puzzle out how they work. As a terminal outsider to their world, how close could I come to getting inside? I tried to visualize a new environmental science that was not based on the world that we wanted with plants in it, but instead based on a vision of the plants’ world with us in it. I thought of the different labs that I had worked in and the wonderful machines, chemicals, and microscopes that gave me so much happiness . . . What kind of hard science could I bring to bear on this weird quest?

The perversity of such an approach was seductive; what was there to stop me, aside from my own fear of being “unscientific”? I knew that if l told people I was studying “what it’s like to be a plant,” some would dismiss me as a joke, but perhaps others might sign on just for the adventure. Maybe hard work could stabilize scientifically shaky ground. I didn’t know for sure, but I felt the first delicious twinges of what would be my life’s enduring thrill. It was a new idea, my first real leaf. Just like every other audacious seedling in the world, I would make it up as I went along.”

In some ways, Jahren’s book aligns with my own experience of the world of academic science as a system in which the struggle for money dominates and senior scientists manage rather than conduct science. I declined a life of always competing for grant funding, where competition seems to overshadow collaboration. I lost faith in my own ability to ask the right questions and find the answers, but not for a lack of curiosity. I suspect successful scientists like Ms. Jahren possess an unquenchable curiosity mingled with enough determination and talent and perhaps just enough mentorship to drive them beyond whatever obstacles lie in their path just like the few seeds who manage to break through to the light.

Writing Slow

Posted: January 19, 2017 in fiction, Writing
Tags: , ,

I am slow. My writing process reminds me of the fast food vs. slow food movements. You hear it a lot—be prolific, write fast, crank out books, series, new product funnels—the literary equivalent of fast food. But partly by choice, partly by nature, I’m a slow writer.

I’ve begun baking lately. The kind of bread I like, sourdough, requires long, slow fermentation to develop a more complex texture and richer flavor.

My writing is like that as well. I’ve spent the last year anslow-2d three months ruminating on the plot for my new book series, hundreds of pages of notes without a single page of prose so far. The plot turns and turns in my mind, my subconscious churning out useful bits and pieces here and there, as I weave the structure into greater complexity or reduce something overwrought into a more elegant simplicity.

Ok, I should be completely honest here—viewed from another angle, I turn the pieces of my story this way and that, add a piece here and there, but they won’t yet fit together—is this my process or failure? I vacillate between “this isn’t enough” and “this is too much”. I suspect this grinding, frustrating process is my road to a better book, but what if there is no better book? I can only quit or not. We’ll see.

slow-down-focusPerhaps a writer’s approach derives from the initial goal—why is he/she writing? To get paid, to become known, or something else? For me, I write as a test. Can I really write something that—had it come to me as a book written by someone else—my reader-self would have loved? The kind of book I would stay up late reading because I couldn’t put it down? I’m not sure if I’ll ever achieve that, and it’s impossible for me to know, since I can’t be truly objective about my own writing. I have to rely on other readers to provide a different kind of mirror, one with its own limitations (lovers and haters and what do you take from them?). Meanwhile, I inch forward on this quest, a literary tortoise hoping to win the race.fast_and_slow

While working on a story, I often get great ideas crystallizing along the edges of my main concepts and plot. Things that happened that led to the main events or that happen on the periphery. I’ve found when I struggle to consolidate the story, I sometimes reach a point where I realize much of what I’m considering background IS the story.

My seemingly irrational impulse is to avoid incorporating these important story elements. I label them background because they don’t fit the preliminary narrative structure I’ve crafted. Without knowing it, I’ve fenced myself in arbitrarily. This habit seems to arise from a passive side of my writing self. The same source of passivity responsible for my persistent desire to protect and coddle my protagonists when I should be casting them out into the cold to suffer and struggle.ba8406b875891caa38c61af88a072c6b

The good news is a quick, easy (sometimes) shift of perspective can pull all those important happenings into the story. Reorder events or expand the timeline (start earlier) to include them. Expand your scope (characters, setting, plot, etc.), skip from one key period to the next (sweeping transitions like Ten years later…).

This is the opposite of the commonly-held wisdom: start where the story starts—skip introductory background to where the action begins. While I agree skipping background is good advice in general (we don’t really need to know Stormwald’s family history before he’s accused of burning down his village and banished), I’ve found with my own writing, sometimes the action has started well before the point I thought it did. Star Wars is a good example. Georsample-timelinege could just as easily have told that story in chronological order, and it might have been as good or better. Beserk and its Golden Age sequence is another example. Right or wrong, I’m not a huge fan of starting in the middle and then jumping back in time. It’s a disruption for the reader and risks losing his/her attention. I do use this mechanism at times, but if I can avoid it, I will.

What’s more powerful? One character relating a past event to another, a flashback scene, or allowing the reader to experience the event firsthand as part of the main story? For a given character’s background, some important events in their preceding life can be worth writing into the story in some way. Here’s a clue you might need to re-evaluate your background: are you spending as much or more time describing events prior to your story’s start? Do you find yourself describing other places and/or people in great detail? If you’re struggling to define your story amid a sea of compelling details, it might be time to bring the background into focus.

The Last King (2016, available now on Netflix Instant Watch) depicts historical events in Norway in 1206—a Birkebeiner infant king must be transported to safety to avoid his being killed by the Bagler opposition (the Birkebeiners were so-named as they were originally so poor they wore birch bark shoes). The Last King serves up a good adventure. The plot is straight-forward and fairly predictable, but well-paced without descending into melodrama. It manages to give a brief flavor of Nordic life in the 13th Century—castles, hamlets, and an abundance of action scenes with the heroes skiing through the snow-draped Norwegian landscape.

For those seeking a Game of Thrones fix, The Last King does have its share of Machiavellian manoeuvers provided by treacherous royalty and brutal assassins, but while the violence is realistic, it’s never gory or gratuitous.

A warrior (Tornstein, played by Kristofer Hivju) is assigned the task of taking the young king to safety. I enjoyed seeing Mr. Hivju play a more nuanced part than his role as the Wildling leader, Tormund Giantsbane, from Game of Thrones. While still in a medieval setting, in The Last King, Tornstein is a brother-in-arms and a friend. Also giving a good performance is Jakob Oftebro, playing Skjervald, a warrior-turned-farmer seeking to redeem himself and obtain revenge in the process.

After watching the film and doing a little research, I was surprised to find Norwegians celebrate this heroic journey every year with races by foot, bicycle, and of course, cross-country ski. Sister cross-country ski races (Birkebeinerrennet) are also held in the United states, Canada, and Australia. So the adventure continues, and if I ever find myself back up in snow country, I may join a race and be a Birkebeiner for a day!