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alice-clock

 

I just saw Alice Through the Looking Glass, the sequel to the Tim Burton’s Alice in Wonderland. Both star Johnny Depp and Mia Wasikowska, with Helena Bonhan Carter and Anne Hathaway but the sequel (directed by James Bobin) is crazier than the Mad Hatter.

 

I am a fan of all the Alice books by Lewis Carroll, and I enjoyed Tim Burton’s Alice in Wonderland.

I also enjoyed the Disney animated Alice in Wonderland when I was a kid. Back then, I liked the Cheshire Cat. In the mid-1960s, it was the hookah-smoking Caterpillar that got all the attention. “One pill makes you larger. One pill makes you small,” sang the Jefferson Airplane in “White Rabbit.” We knew that Lewis Carroll had to be tripping on something.

I was ready for a Burton sequel. I was okay when they announced another director because the original casting was intact. It’s been six years since the first film was released.

Here’s the problem. They took Lewis Carroll’s title and the characters, but they chucked the plot. That is always a bad sign.

Actually, I thought I might even be okay with the new plot because they slipped in one of my favorite things – time travel.

In this version, Alice still enters the magical looking glass and goes back to Wonderland. She discovers that the Mad Hatter is acting madder than usual. He needs closure about what happened with his lost family. To do that, Alice has to travel through time.

She finds and hijacks a Chronosphere and zips through time to deal with her friends and their enemies at different points of their lives.

Alice Through The Looking Glass  flopped at the box office. I doubt that the reason was that there are too many Carroll purists out there.

I watched it and I was entertained. It wasn’t great filmmaking, but the effects were well done. the outrageous performances were, well, outrageous, as i suppose they must be in Wonderland.

The film sent me back to the books. I was delighted that as an Amazon Prime person, I could get all four Alice books free on my Kindle. Most people don’t know there is more to Alice than just the first Wonderland book. The tetralogy includes Alice in Wonderland, Alice Through the Looking Glass, the Alice-related fantasy verse The Hunting of the Snark, and Alice’s Adventures Underground. That last one is the shorter, original Alice in Wonderland manuscript which Carroll wrote for his friends and family. They encouraged the mathematician to expand the book and send it to a publisher.

Martin Gardner wrote in the introduction to his The Annotated Alice  “that life, viewed rationally and without illusion, appears to be a nonsense tale told by an idiot mathematician.”

Lewis Carroll, an imaginative mathematician, believed that nonsense was the hidden art of language.

In the first chapter, Alice is playing with her kittens in the house and she starts to wonder what the world is like on the other side of a mirror’s reflection. Isn’t that a kind of mathematical thought too?

She climbs up on the fireplace mantel and pokes at the big wall mirror behind the fireplace and discovers that she can step through it. On the other side is a reflected version of her own house. She finds a book of poetry with “Jabberwocky” in it. It has reversed printing but she can read it by holding it up to the mirror. She can see that the chess pieces from her house have come to life, though they remain small enough for her to pick up.

The second section of the book actually has a lot of changes in time and spatial directions as plot devices, so maybe that inspired the new film. There are lots of plays on mirror themes – things are opposite, time goes backwards.

Alice says that she thinks time is a thief.  She gets no argument from me on that.

lydia

Lydia consults the Handbook for the Recently Deceased in the film Beetlejuice

“I must go in. The fog is rising.” – last words of Emily Dickinson

I have a fascination with death. One reason may be that I was an English major. Poet Billy Collins has said that majoring in English is like majoring in death. Yes, it does seem to be a favorite theme in literature. But how can you not be somewhat fascinated with Death? It’s a much bigger and more important topic than birth.

One of my interests has been in the last words of people. Not everyone, famous or not, has a chance to say something just before they die, and not everyone has the wit to say something clever enough to be memorable.

Lots of people have a similar interest in dying words. The author John Green made that part of a character in his novel Looking for Alaska, and Green dropped them throughout the book and geeked out over a big book  of Last Words of Notable People that was published in 2012.

As I said, not everyone gets a chance at this last bit of fame. George Orwell’s last written words were, “At fifty, everyone has the face he deserves.” He died at age 46.

Nostradamus said, “Tomorrow, at sunrise, I shall no longer be here” and correctly predicted his death.

I love Herman Melville. I was very surprised to learn that he died saying, “God bless Captain Vere!” Vere is a character in his then-unpublished novel Billy Budd, which was found on his desk after he died. One last act of self-promotion.

I stumbled upon The Oxford Book of Death in a bookstore, which sounds like a real downer that you should only assign as reading to some English majors in an honors seminar.

I paged through it and read things that caught my eye. It’s not all melancholy. The authors range from long-dead Plato to living (at least at the time) poets, playwrights and authors.

Some people are funny, sarcastic or witty right to the end.

Drummer Buddy Rich died after having surgery, but when he was being prepped, a nurse asked him, “Is there anything you can’t take?” and Buddy replied, “Yeah, country music.”

Sir Winston Churchill’s last words were, “I’m bored with it all.”

Actor, tough guy, drinker and smoker Humphrey Bogart ended with “I should never have switched from Scotch to martinis.”

George Appel, executed by electric chair in 1928, said before the pulled the switch, “Well, gentlemen, you are about to see a baked Appel.” I bet that wasn’t an ad-lib.

Poets are not always poetic at the end. “I’ve had 18 straight whiskies. I think that’s the record,” said the heavy drinking Dylan Thomas before he died of pneumonia.  And “Now I shall go to sleep. Goodnight, ” were the closing lines from Lord Byron. Not even a rhyming couplet.

Johnny Ace, a 1950s rhythm and blues singer, was playing Russian roulette with his revolver on a backstage at a concert on Christmas Day 1954. He said “It’s okay! Gun’s not loaded… see?” and when he pulled the trigger with the gun pointed at his face, there was a bullet, and it killed him instantly.

Socialite Lady Nancy Astor, was very ill and awoke on her deathbed to see her family all around her. She said, “Am I dying, or is this my birthday?”

Sir Walter Raleigh, English writer, soldier, politician, courtier, spy, and explorer said to his executioner just before the axe came down on his neck, “Strike, man, strike!”

The very practical inventor Thomas A. Edison went out with the hopeful line “It’s very beautiful over there.”

Edison’s closing line is the kind of thought you want to believe is what we see as we cross over from this life – that is, if you believe there is a place to cross over to. We haven’t had any reliable reports from the other side.

That’s why I like the movie Beetlejuice. In its darkly comic way, we get to follow a couple who have just died and are definitely not ready to move on. One of the things they get on the other side is a copy of the Handbook for the Recently Deceased. I actually found that they sell it on Amazon.com but you may be disappointed to find this reproduction of the movie prop book is a blank book. Perhaps, it is intended for you to take notes after death. Perhaps, the information only appears to the recently dead. I use it to catalog last words and good quotes about death. I figure those will come in handy in the afterlife.

But in Tim Burton’s excellent 1988 film (with Michael Keaton, Geena Davis, Alec Baldwin and Winona Ryder) there is actual advice. There are important things for the recently deceased to know, such as that living people generally ignore the strange and unusual. The rules for ghost and the dead aren’t fixed and vary from manifestation to manifestation. Deaths are personal. Ghosts vary based on how a person lived and died. The book suggests that in case of an emergency, draw a door and knock three times. It also lets you know how to do a séance and how to haunt the living.

The recently deceased consult the Handbook

The recently deceased Adam and Barbara consult the Handbook

This laughing about death is healthy. It doesn’t make me feel very good about the whole process to know that the short story writer O. Henry (who loved surprise endings) said at his end ‘Turn up the lights. I don’t want to go home in the dark.”  I don’t want to go over in the dark either. I hoping for that warm, inviting light and the smell of baking bread that I keep hearing about.

time machine

The “eyeball” time machine of Timeless

Okay, so I am a sucker for time travel stories in print and on a screen. When I read that two new time travel television shows would launch this season, I set my DVR.

As I have written before about time travel stories, they have a long history in print from H.G. Wells The Time Machine and likewise in the movies and on TV.

Timeless is one of the new time travel series that premiered this fall.  In it a history professor (Abigail Spencer), a scientist (Malcolm Barrett) and a soldier (Matt Lanter) are charged with trying to stop Garcia Flynn (Goran Višnjić). Flynn is (or appears to be)  a time-traveling criminal who has stolen the main “mothership” time machine from a research facility and seems bent on changing the course of American history.

The show went through lengthy negotiations in order to get “in-season stacking rights”, which allows NBC to stream all episodes of the series’ current season via all the network’s online platforms.

Flynn and his associates are plotting to rewrite American history, but the team of three other “good guys” time travelers (using a smaller auxiliary time machine) also have some connections to Flynn’s plan. Lucy Preston’s primary concern is for her ailing mother. Master Sergeant Wyatt is grieving over the recent demise of his wife. Rufus, the scientist who helped develop the time machine, is distressed over the fact that criminal mastermind Garcia Flynn stole his invention.

In the first episode, they traveled back to the day the Hindenburg zeppelin burst into flames while landing in New Jersey. They should never change the past, but it ended up that the crash still occurred but in a different way. That set up changes in the present that they returned to in 2016.  I like that so far the plots have not left history “as is” but that the changes are good, bad and still largely unknown.

http://www.nbc.com/timeless

Frequency is the other new television series that airs on The CW. It is inspired by the 2000 film of the same name. In the film, given the chance to travel back in time and change one event in his life, the protagonist John Sullivan wants to undo a fire took the life of his firefighter father.

frequency

Similar to the film, the TV show is set in 2016, where NYPD Detective Raimy Sullivan (Peyton List) discovers that she is able to speak to her deceased father Frank Sullivan (Riley Smith) twenty years back in time in 1996 using his old ham radio.

Her attempts to save his life trigger a “butterfly effect” that occurs when we change the past and it sends ripples that changes the present in unforeseen ways. So far, in order to fix the damage, she must work with her father across time via the radio to solve a decades-old murder case.

http://www.cwtv.com/shows/frequency/

Author Arthur C. Clarke is probably best known for the novel and screenplay for 2001: A Space Odyssey. His writing always seemed to me to be more “science” than much science-fiction.

Clarke contributed to the idea that geostationary satellites would be ideal telecommunications relays and the geostationary orbit is now sometimes known as the Clarke Orbit or the Clarke Belt in his honor. Clarke, who died in 2008, was knighted by Queen Elizabeth II, and he is the only science-fiction writer to be nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize.

My favorite novels by him are Rendezvous with Rama, Against the Fall of Night (which I read when I was much younger) and Childhood’s End.

Childhood’s End was a novel I taught several times and read very closely with students. It was written in 1953 and set in the late 20th century. Its plot, thankfully, did not occur by the end of that century. Well, it didn’t occur in the way Clarke described.

This novel was an early example of the “first contact” with aliens story. When he was writing, it was the time of  the United States and the Soviet Union competing to be the first in space and building rockets to fight nuclear war. That conflict was often portrayed in science fiction as aliens, nuclear mutants and “body snatchers.”

Childhood’s End opens at a time when we are preparing to launch the first spaceships into orbit for military purposes. That is when huge alien ships appear over Earth’s biggest cities. The “space race” immediately ends as we unite in our defense of the planet.

It only takes a week before the aliens announce that they will take over all international affairs. But the Overlords, as they call themselves, are doing this for our own good. They see that we are on the verge of destroying our planet and humanity.

The Overlords never appear, but Karellen, the “Supervisor for Earth,” is their representative speaks directly only to Rikki Stormgren, the UN Secretary-General.

Karellen says, “Your race, in its present stage of evolution, cannot face that stupendous challenge. One of my duties has been to protect you from the powers and forces that lie among the stars—forces beyond anything that you can ever imagine.”

The plan is that the Overlords will reveal themselves in 50 years, when humanity is used to their presence.

Rather than the aliens of War of the Worlds and other novels, the Overlords don’t try to destroy Earth. They plan to make it better. Earth prospers. The end of war. A kind of utopia.

Things seem good, though not everyone is trusting. Spoiler alert: When the Overlords are finally seen, they look very much like our image of the Devil.

When Clarke died in 2008, no one had been able to bring his novel to the screen. Clarke unsuccessfully tried to adapt his novel back in the 1960s with filmmaker Stanley Kubrick. Kubrick moved on to 2001: A Space Odyssey which started with Clarke’s 1951 short story “The Sentinel.”

This year Childhood’s End finally came to the smaller screen in a three-episode series on the SyFy channel.

The camera eye of HAL 9000, an artificial intelligence from 2001: A Space Odyssey

The camera eye of HAL 9000, the artificial intelligence from 2001: A Space Odyssey

So, the Overlords didn’t come to Earth. Or did they? I wrote earlier today about how many of us are willingly giving up control of our lives for the sake of convenience. Maybe the “overlords” are here in the form of algorithms and technology.

Take that idea a step further and some have suggested that the technology was put here by aliens. Okay, this moves beyond science fiction into fringe science, but there are believers.

Clarke’s Overlords are very interested in psychic research. At a party, guests play with a Ouija board. They ask where the Overlords came from and the answer is a star-catalog number that matches the direction the Overlords’ supply ships come and go.Do they want us to know?

Without giving away the plot, I’ll say that psychic abilities and the children of Earth are keys to the Overlords’ ultimate plans.

Even the Overlords give up control to the Overmind. The Overmind is the interstellar Hive Mind that Clarke said dominates the Milky Way Galaxy.

Is the Internet and all its technology the Overmind? The Internet launched in the 1980s. If the Overlords decide to reveal themselves to us, it would be in the 2040s. Beware the Overmind.

 

dirk cast

I was happy to read that BBC AMERICA announced a new series based on Douglas Adams’ Dirk Gently novels. The series, Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency, is scripted by Max Landis and comes from the producers of The Walking Dead. 

They are billing it as a “comedic thriller that follows the bizarre adventures of the eccentric holistic detective.” Dirk Gently is played by Samuel Barnett, his reluctant assistant Todd is played by Elijah Wood, and Hannah Marks is Todd’s sister Amanda. Oscar-winning director Dean Parisot will direct the series’ first two episodes. They are shooting the series in Vancouver.

There was an earlier BBC series called simply Dirk Gently that starred Stephen Mangan in the title role in 2010 and 2012.

I liked the earlier series and I loved the Douglas Adams‘ novels starting with the 1987 Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency.

The way they are playing the new TV adaptation for this fall, Dirk and Todd will be working their way through one mystery all season, though it will take holistically absurd and unlikely paths.

I am a Dirk Gently fan and have written about Dirk and his adventures before and I do recommend the books, but I know it’s easier to watch it unfold from your couch, so set your DVR.

dirk sign

This video was made at Ikeguchi Laboratory in Japan a few years ago and resurfaces online every once and awhile.

It shows 32 metronomes that are started, all out of sync. As the video progresses (it’s only 4 minutes, but you can jump a bit if you get anxious),  they shift and then synchronize themselves.

Magic trick? Nope.

It’s that science that is magic – physics. The video shows that transfer of force can align the metronomes over time.

Transfer of force?  You give a toy car a push. It rolls across the floor on its own. It hits another toy car halfway across the room with some force.  Wait. How could it exert a force? The only reason it moved was because you pushed it.

After you pushed that first car, a force was transferred to the car. When it had that collision, it exerted a force on the second car. That force came from the hand that pushed it. Forces are transferred.

And yet, the metronomes syncing is still kind of magical. Most of the science I like best has some magic to it.

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