Monday, June 23, 2014

Orson Scott Card's Homecoming Harmony

It took me a while, but I made it through Orson Scott Card's Homecoming Saga -- all five books.  Today I'll review the first three, which are combined into this one big volume called Homecoming: Harmony.

Book #1: The Memory of Earth.

The first I realized right off the bat was that this book was a retelling of the Book of Mormon.  Not the entertaining (and not-so-accurate) musical, but the actual book.  Instead of Nephi, the main character is called Nafai.  His brothers Laman, Lemuel, and Sam become Elemak, Mebbekew, and Issib.  And instead of God leading the way, it's the Oversoul, a supercomputer that watches over humanity on the planet Harmony over the past forty million years.

At first I thought this was pretty cool and a neat idea, but then as the story progressed, I came to realize that I knew exactly how the book was going to progress.  This started to become annoying and distracting.  You ever try to read a book when your friend told you how it's going to end?

Also, I think the actual book I read was a first edition.  It had many errors such as bad punctuation, unclosed quotes, and misspelled/wrong words.  (And it was published by Tor?)  I'll just assume these got fixed in later editions.  All this came together for me almost as if this were an early attempt at writing from my favorite author, and not a particularly good one--heavily relying on a religious text to guide the plot.

But then I noticed something else.  In a way, it was commentary on what could possibly have gone through the heads of Nephi and his brothers as they did what they did in the Book of Mormon.  And when Card's book ended, it did feel like it was somewhat more than an imitation of scripture.  I had enjoyed some parts of it even though I knew what was coming.  After all, Orson Scott Card always finds a way to bring everything together with a satisfying conclusion.

Ultimately, I recommend reading this book, especially if you're an Orson Scott Card fan.  This book tells the story about Nafai and his brothers.  After forty million years of decay, the Oversoul computer realizes it's dying and losing influence on men.  He/she/it calculates that the humans will destroy themselves.  It chooses Nafai's family for reasons that become more apparent in the later books.  Nafai's family must flee their extravagant lifestyle and prepare for whatever the Oversoul has in mind.

Book #2: The Call of Earth.

This second book of the series tells the story of what comes next.  Nafai and his brothers must go back to their old city and bring back wives for their upcoming journey.  Eventually they must find their way to Earth, where humanity began, and repopulate it.

In many respects, I found this book to be better than its predecessor.  Orson Scott Card spends less time relying on the Book of Mormon and much more time fleshing out the characters.  He even introduces new major characters that have no parallel in the Book of Mormon.  The writing itself also seems improved and definitely free of the errors I saw in the first book.

This may surprise some Mormons, but this book spends a lot of time talking about sex.  It's nothing explicit, but rather it explores different attitudes toward sex.  This might be expected, considering the main plot point is about marrying the characters off.  One of the characters also turns out to be gay, where Card gives a surprisingly sympathetic point of view (well, surprising to those who think they fully understand Card's views).

Towards the end of the book, I saw the pages running out, and I wondered where Card was going, but as always, he ends with a very satisfying ending that ties everything together.

Book #3: The Ships of Earth.

The story continues as Nafai, family, and friends disembark on their journey across the desert.  They have no idea where they're going, but the supercomputer Oversoul watches them.  He tells them what direction to go, when to stop and camp, and when to keep on going, alerting them to any and all dangers along the way.

This journey takes a couple of decades.  Along the way, the group makes babies, which then become new characters.  At times, the details of the journeyings and who's who in the new generation gets a little cumbersome, but on the most part, Orson Scott Card keeps the direction moving forward at all times.

The biggest plot device seems to be the struggle between the oldest brother, Elemak, and Nafai.  Elemak wants to be in charge, but resents Nafai since he's the one who's chosen by the Oversoul.  Elemak would love to kill Nafai, but he can't without losing the support from the rest of the clan.  Also, most of the group wants to leave the difficult desert life and return to the lavish city life they had left.

When the group gets to its final destination, Orson Scott Card gives a very imaginative story as to how they come to build a ship to get to Earth.  Again, it's a satisfying ending.

There are still two more books in the series, and I'll get to them next week.

Monday, June 16, 2014

How To Train Your Dragon 2

The first movie was cool, and so is the sequel.  How To Train Your Dragon 2 has the same humor, action, and wittiness.  Hiccup is back and he's older.  He's created cooler gadgets, and more adventures await as he goes exploring the world.

High energy pulls the viewer through the whole show, with no boring parts at all.  Even adult viewers are easily pulled in, while at the same time without the annoying use of sexual innuendos or colorful metaphors that some writers mistakenly think are above children's intelligence/experience levels.

What makes this movie so successful is the strong story line.  Even though it sometimes feels like it's setting up for the third movie yet to come, it all holds together and prompts strong emotional responses across the spectrum.

I recommend watching this in the theater because of the colorful imagery.  Sometimes I forgot I was watching a cartoon.  I watched it in 2D, but my kids went back to watch it in 3D.  They report mixed reviews.  Two thought it was worth the extra bucks, and the third wasn't so sure.  Either way, you get the story, and sometimes that's just most of the experience.

Wednesday, June 11, 2014

Edge of Tomorrow: It's Not Dead Yet

Why is everyone so ready to write off the movie Edge of Tomorrow as this summer's first big-budget flop?  I would love to see the numbers turn around and make these experts eat their words.

Why did the movie do so terribly in the US (so far)?  I can tell you why ...

#1) The title really sucks.  The movie is much more exciting than its title.
#2) The poster looks boring, too.
#3) People are hesitant to see another Oblivion (though, I liked that movie--it wasn't too bad).
#4) Tom Cruise and his wacky religion.  Yeah, I've seen people online complaining about that.

But something else is happening.  People are talking about this movie.  It's much better than Oblivion.  Tom Cruise actually did a good job in this role and is not too annoying.  (Some will even enjoy seeing him cut down in the beginning of the film.)  The action is awesome, and the plot is interesting.

I wouldn't be surprised if this movie enjoys a steady cash flow over the next few weeks.  Let's look at some numbers.

Edge of Tomorrow had a production budget of $178M.  Domestically, it earned only $29M over the weekend.  As of June 10, its cumulative is now up to $35M.  That sounds pretty paltry, doesn't it?

As usual for Tom Cruise, the foreign market is eating up this movie.  It's already eared $111M in the foreign market, bringing the total to $146M so far.  It will definitely end up covering the production costs.  It still has a long ways to go to meet other costs, though.

I don't think it's over, yet.  I'm hoping that those who've seen it already will tell their friends, and we'll see another wave of viewers in the next couple of weeks.  Don't let the experts tell you NOT to see this movie because it's DOA.  Rather, go and enjoy this before it leaves theaters.

Thursday, June 5, 2014

Edge of Tomorrow: The Next Blockbuster?

Could it be that Tom Cruise is finally in a sci-fi movie that will be well-received?  I really hope so, because I really liked this movie.

First I should say in full disclosure that I'm a fan of Tom Cruise sci-fi movies, even when they're not popular.  Often I think his movies get a bad rap because of his affiliation with Scientology and his whole "I'm better than you" attitude.  But I am one who is able to set that aside and enjoy his acting.

The first few minutes seemed a little cheesy and reminded me of Battle: Los Angeles (which I liked and no one else did), and I feared I was watching a dud, but then I was hooked when the real story began.  The action continued forward, and there was never a dull moment.

Tom Cruise plays Major Cage, a total jerkwad and a coward.  It's fun to watch what happens to Cage as he earns his just rewards.  He is thrown into the thick of battle, dies, and ... Groundhog Day!  He wakes up one day earlier.  He relives the disastrous battle and learns that he can do different things to change the outcome.

Yes, a large part of the movie is practically isomorphic to Groundhog Day.  At first there's the concern that we, the audience, will be forced to watch the same scenes over and over again.  (Well, we do get to see Emily Blunt do Upward Dog at least six times.)  But just when you think it might start to get boring, the slow parts get skipped, and ... well ... I'll just say I think they did a very good job in editing and story telling -- keeping it interesting while not confusing the audience.  I only got confused once (when Cage took some random trip among civilians one time ... how exactly did he get there?).

The movie isn't perfect.  There are several glaring plot holes, which I'm sure many will say, "I hated this movie because ... <blah>."  Unfortunately, I can't describe any of these holes without giving away what happens.  The action and interesting characters more than make up for the glaring holes.

My advice ... go see this movie.  Don't see it in 3-D, though.  They didn't pay the extra amount to shoot the movie in 3-D (instead opting to go the cheaper 3-D conversion route), so I didn't pay the extra $3.  I don't feel like I missed a thing.

And finally, one small spoiler.  If you watch it this Friday (June 6), notice where the big battle takes place.  My verdict: it's a fun movie to watch while simultaneously celebrating D-Day.

Sunday, June 1, 2014

The 80-20 Principle: The Secret to Success?

If you've ever taken a class on job efficiency, I'm sure you've heard of the 80-20 principle.  Basically, it says that 80% of the results comes from 20% of the effort.  What this means is that you can often spend 80% of your time and effort trying to achieve the final 20% of your results.  This is often called the Law of Diminishing Returns.

Often, 80% of the results is good enough if you have a million things to do.  If you spend only 20% of the time on the project, then you can produce results quickly, impress your superiors, and move on to the next project.  On the other hand, if you want perfection when it's not really required, you could spend hours just getting that annoying font perfect, or the calculation of a non-consequential number perfect.  In other words, you could be wasting time when other projects are awaiting your attention.

Makes sense?  It's a very good principle to follow in business.  I've found it helps me greatly at work.  When I see others ignore it, they tend to work more inefficiently and end up working long hours.

However, there's another side to this principle that I'd like to explore.  As I come near an end to my five-year midlife crises, I've come to a realization about myself.  I am naturally very good at several different things.

For example, as I was finishing my Masters in Music, I needed 3 more credit hours.  Just for fun, I took Physics 2 (skipping Physics 1).  Without hardly any effort at all, I was able to pass at the top of the whole class, even beating that one Chinese dude that wanted top.  Heh heh heh.  

I am also good at sight-reading.  Put something in front of me, and I'll pound it out on the piano.

My whole life I've been living the 80-20 Principle without realizing it.  Everything was just so easy that I felt like I didn't need to put forward the extra effort.

That is until I hit 40 and realized: "Why doesn't anyone read my stories?" and "Why won't people listen to my music?"  The answer is very simple.  I had never really worked hard in life to achieve the 100% perfection.  I had been getting by on 80% in many aspects of my life, but get this ...

Whatever you do, there is somebody else in this world who can do it better than you.  If you want to get published, you're going to have to be in that top 1% of all the writers of the world.  80% just doesn't cut it.  Sure, your stories may be fun to read, and well written and all that, but are they 80%?  Or are they 99%?  The magazines will be publishing the 99% stories, while the 80% stories will be long forgotten.

Here's another example.  Chopin wrote the Etude opus 10, number 1, which is so difficult, even Horowitz avoided playing it in public.  (If you can find a recording, I'd be interested to hear it, but I can't seem to find one.)

The Etude is actually very easy to memorize.  It's basically all chords with a moving bass line and the melody interspersed almost randomly in the right hand.  So, I worked it up, giving it my usual 80% effort, and I posted it on YouTube thinking I was hot stuff.  Here's that recording (listen for about the first minute or so):

But then, I was brought down.  One You-Tuber (who has since deleted his comments) pointed out some technical difficulties that was ruining my performance.  He basically opened my eyes that this was a terrible performance.  Sure, my performance may be cool and impressive to some who don't play the piano, but any experienced piano player would cringe and stop listening after the first 15 seconds.

With this small amount of effort, it's no surprise that I'm not currently playing in Carnegie Hall.

So, I worked up the Etude again.  After spending a whole year on technique and smoothing out issues, I got it to this 95% performance (again, you only need to listen for about a minute) ...

It's not perfect, but this second performance is much more bearable.  Also, check out the difference in times.  2:17 vs. 3:19?  Yes, I got it to be faster!  And yes, it's impressive.  I bet most of you can't hear why it's not going to get me into Carnegie Hall.  I still need to finish up the last 5% and get the piece closer to 100%.

Here is a professional recording (listen to the first minute or so)...

Ashkenazy plays this very well.  He's at least 99% if not at 99.5%.  He's mastered the dynamics.  He plays it slightly faster than I do.  He has fewer errors.  He's found a way to add feeling into the piece.

Now for the coup-de-grace.  Go back to my second recording and listen again to the first minute or so. Now, can you hear the difference?  Yes.  If I ever hope to get noticed, I need to get to that 99% level.

It's the same with writing fiction.  Have you ever read a book that was so good that you almost feel like "I'm not worthy"?  If so, you have experienced the 99%, and that's exactly where you need to be if you want to get published.

So, what does this all mean?  Basically, you must decide what you want to excel in.  You can put forward 20% of the effort in most aspects of your life and be happy with the 80% results.  But where it really matters, you should put in the other 80% effort (what Bradbury called Perspersistence) and do whatever it takes to bring your work much closer to 100%.

It's not too late for me.  I want this.  I want my fiction to be published.  I want people to perform my compositions.  I want to do something good in this world and leave my contributions.  I know exactly what I need to do next.

Who's with me?