Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Toys of the 1970s: Nerfoop

Fig. 1 – Modern-day Nerf Hoop
I have a Nerf Hoop home basketball game (Fig. 1) in my home office. I must say that the Nerf Corporation made a mistake when they went to a denser, heavier foam ball with latex coating. This new ball, which is constructed similarly to the Nerf football, is too heavy for the relatively flimsy hoop and bouncing it around can get pretty loud.

As a fifth-grader I had a Nerfoop™ basketball game (Fig. 2) which came with a less-dense foam ball. It was more like a facial sponge, and had no latex coating. This Nerf™ ball was perfectly calibrated to the strength of the hoop and allowed hours of by-myself playtime in my bedroom. (Another inexplicable corporate decision: Retiring the Nerfoop™ name.)

Fig. 2 – Nerfoop™ listing in 1977 Parker Brothers wholesale catalog
Image © Jason Liebig
My solitaire game was to stand at the opposite end of my room and try to make a long distance shot. After releasing the ball, I ran forward to grab the rebound. If my long shot missed, I had to jump in the air, catch the ball and try to put it back in the hoop, dunking if possible, before landing on the floor again.

This was in Amarillo, Texas, where our ranch-style basement-less house sat on a concrete slab, so there was minimal house-rattling from all of this jumping around. For my Nerfoop™ soundtrack I would usually play my Abba greatest hits 8-track or my K-Tel disco compilation LPs. Or my various 45s, including “Head Games” by Foreigner, “Last Train to London” by ELO, and “Rock with You” by Michael Jackson:



Monday, January 23, 2012

Movie Review: The Iron Lady

Meryl Streep stars as British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, with Jim Broadbent as her husband Denis and Olivia Colman as her devoted if much less ambitious daughter Carol (I was really happy that this role went to Colman, who is great as Sophie Chapman in the existential British sitcom “Peep Show,” and she also appeared in an episode of “The Office (U.K.)” as a reporter who interviews and photographs a just-fired David Brent.) The film is structured as a day in the life of the present-day Thatcher as she battles the onset of a dementia that features hallucinations of her now-dead husband that lead into flashbacks into her own life story. By the end of the movie she finally breaks through to reality again and packs up all of his clothes for donation to Oxfam.

Thatcher is portrayed as someone who just never, ever gets discouraged and who has zero patience for those who do. No wonder: she is always the lone woman in a roomful of skeptical men and learns from an early age that she has to fight hard for their respect. She is shown adoring her grocer father, who was active in Conservative Party politics in their constituency of Grantham and who strongly encouraged his daughter’s political instincts. Her mother is portrayed as a frightened non-entity. The teenaged Margaret Roberts is laughed at by the other girls because she has to work in her dad’s shop and because she is so serious. When she meets husband-to-be Denis Thatcher at a gathering of local Conservative bigwigs he is attracted to her because she acts like it never occurs to her that she cannot or should not hold her own talking politics with the men. The film shows Denis getting frustrated with her ambition only once; otherwise he is a typical political spouse: supportive, encouraging, a confidant, and close adviser. (Whether he ever has a job of his own, and if so, what it is, is left out of the story completely.) Their relationship is shown to be one of mutual respect and tenderness.

Another important male booster in Thatcher’s life is a fellow Conservative MP in the party leadership who convinces her to run for party leader and gets her to change her style a bit in ways that are apparently successful. After launching Thatcher’s rise but before she becomes Prime Minister he is killed by an IRA car bomb, which provides some context for her no-compromise-with-terrorists-or-Argentinian-juntas resolve. (Nice detail: in a private meeting with her advisers about the Falklands she pronounces “junta” with a hard j; I’m not sure if that was a typical British lack of effort with foreign words, ignorance on Thatcher’s part (very unlikely), or simply her way of indicating disdain.)

Her political views are covered a bit, but not extensively. The Conservative program is portrayed in the best possible light: Hard work should pay off for the yeoman shopkeeper. Of course she can make that theme work because that was in fact her background, and she does chafe against the more high-born men of the Conservative Party. But the harsh austerity policies she enacted after she became Prime Minister in 1979 aren’t really covered in great depth. The Labour side of things is represented via chaotic documentary footage of the Brixton riots and the raging from the Opposition in the Commons, which of course just looks like a roomful of angry men yelling at a woman.

Thatcher is never shown to waver and is always the most forceful and in-command person in the room. The male courtiers surrounding her are often shown to be callow and weak, too ready to compromise. There is a key scene during the most intense part of the Falklands War where she has to decide whether or not to sink an Argentine cruiser. The military men say yes, the political men say no. She takes a moment, sets her jaw, and firmly says, “Sink it.”

I suppose the movie qualifies as a hagiography because Thatcher is really never shown to make a public misstep of any kind. In 1990 she is deposed by her own lieutenants. The film posits that this is because in a post-Cold-War world, her imperious management style has run its course and begins to border on the abusive.

“The Iron Lady” is by no means an historical document, but it is a compelling more-or-less true story of a woman who overcomes sexism to rise to perhaps the third most powerful office in the world, an office she uses to utterly transform the British welfare state and, along the way, authoritatively direct a relatively splendid little war. It is also an affecting love story and a sensitive portrayal of the toll that aging takes on even the most competent person. A good video rental; not at all necessary to see it on the big screen.

Friday, January 20, 2012

Book Review: To Your Scattered Bodies Go

Philip José Farmer
Awards: Hugo
Rating: ★ ★ ★ – –

The main character of To Your Scattered Bodies Go is Richard Burton (the 19th century adventurer, swordsman, and spy, not the 20th century actor who married Elizabeth Taylor twice). The book begins with Burton waking up – which is odd, because he could have sworn that he had died or was just about to die – in an enormous chamber filled with thousands of inert, floating, sleeping bodies arranged in a grid pattern in every direction as far as he can see. All of the bodies, including his, are naked, hairless, and slowly spinning around a central head-to-toe axis.

As soon as Burton wakes up he starts flailing around, attracting the attention of two guys who are apparently monitoring the sleeping bodies. They zip over to him in a sort of floating canoe and zap him with a device that renders him unconscious again.

The next time he wakes up, he is still naked and hairless, but lying on a grassy plain next to a river, and there are a lot of other people lying on the plain near him. They all gradually wake up and realize that (a) they all appear to have been resurrected from the dead; (b) they are all in their own bodies as they were when they were about 25 years old; (c) they are from all different parts of the world and from all different times in history. The largest component of their group comes from 1890 Trieste, but there are also a few people from Victorian England and random scatterings of other humans, including an australopithecine.

Sir Richard Burton
Burton, a natural leader, becomes the de facto head of the troupe as they put the pieces of a new life together and try to figure out why and where they are there.

The first thing they learn is that they are not the only ones there. The world they are in, which they name Riverworld, contains thousands, if not millions of people, all living up and down the banks of the river, which itself may be thousands, if not millions of miles long.

The next thing Burton begins to suspect (aided by his memory of the chamber of sleeping people) is that they are all part of a big experiment being run by Other Beings. And that these Others have developed a technology to record a soul (or something equivalent), and have done so for all humans who have ever existed, and have then created this world into which to bring them back to life for some nefarious purpose.

Burton, in his resurrected state as in life, tends to get stir-crazy staying in one place too long. He also really wants to find the beings that put them in this situation and give them what for. So he heads off on a long voyage upriver to find its source. He travels for hundreds of days and sees thousands of resurrected humans of different types.

Along the way he acquires a new human nemesis: a plump egomaniac who turns out to be Hermann Göring, who has formed an alliance with former Roman emperor Tullius Hostilius and is running their little troupe of resurrectees with an iron hand. He also attracts the attention of the mysterious Others, who begin sending agents out after him, so he has to spend a considerable portion of the second half of the book on the run.

This book is actually the first installment in Farmer’s Riverworld series. I didn’t realize that when I read it, so I have to admit I found the story, and particularly the ending, dissatisfying. Burton has a series of smallish adventures, but there is no major climactic showdown which resolves anything. The big issues – who the Others are, how Burton may be able to subvert it, and whether he should – are all left unanswered. And there is also a tantalizing note at the end saying that I would get to meet Samuel Clemens if I read the next installment, which is frustrating since I have no intention of reading the next installment right now.

But Burton is an excellent central character. He is charismatic and opinionated. And the skills he picked up in a lifetime of worldly adventure (espionage, hand-to-hand combat, and a knowledge of many languages, to name a few) serve him well in Riverworld.

And the book certainly creates a fun thought experiment. Riverworld is a uniquely controlled environment with strict parameters (much like Ringworld, although Riverworld is not as rich or as well-architected). Within that setting, Farmer can create weird juxtapositions of famous people from any time in history and explore how they will interact.

Friday, January 06, 2012

Science Fiction Themes: A Case Study (Revised and Expanded 1/6/12)

Nebula- and Hugo-winning novels that I have reviewed so far and the themes they explore, arranged into a lovely chart.

Click to enlarge. You may need to click twice to expand it to its full size.

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