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Review: The Thrilling Adventures of Lovelace and Babbage by Sydney Padua

The Thrilling Adventures of Lovelace and Babbage reviewWhat an intriguing work of public history!

The Thrilling Adventures of Lovelace and Babbage: The (Mostly) True Story of the First Computer is a 2015 graphic novel by Sydney Padua. It’s a kind of historical fiction about two mathematicians of the 1800s, but it carries on their lives into a steampunk pocket universe beyond the point of Ada Lovelace’s real-world death. Much of the book is available online, since it started as a webcomic.

I’ve mentioned three genres already, maybe four depending on how you count, but everyone should note that the comic is heavily footnoted. Even the clearly-made-up parts are, in my public-historian view, “historical interpretation.” She takes not only opinions but the historical figures’ actual words and actions, just moving them to new contexts for laughs, and she continues to footnote extensively. (Not to mention appending about sixty pages of primary documents and explanation). That’s why I classify it as public history, albeit a new breed. It’s history for the public, achieving both entertainment and education, not “disguising” either as the other but actually, really, truly offering something the public WANTS in both ways.

Padua also clearly delineates what was possible from what was probable, a crucial but underappreciated skill in public history. I don’t want to detract from that skill, but I must point out that when such material is presented properly like this, the public is perfectly capable of understanding the difference between reality and fantasy and embracing them both at the same time. Honestly, that’s the fun part. I firmly believe that people think history is boring because we, as historians and “adults,” ignore the ways in which history actually signifies things to people.

Ada Lovelace by Sydney Padua

Ada Lovelace as drawn by Sydney Padua

Anyway. The footnotes are new for the book. The webcomic version has short historical notes after each part, but no footnotes, and I’m going to keep talking about those because I found the to be the most delightful and most challenging aspect of the work as published. I mean, how often do you read a historical book or watch a film and think “Did that really happen?” Quite often, I’d guess, even if you don’t actually go look it up. Padua lays it all out for you to find.

That’s the challenge, though… you have to find it. Reading the footnotes along with the comic is distracting and kills the jokes by explaining them. I’m a big enough nerd that I actually got a decent number of the jokes, but many (if not most) are so obscure that I need the explanation to get it at all. The book was crazy popular, on the New York Times bestseller list and nominated for a Goodreads Choice Award among other honors, so I’d be interested to hear others’ reading methods. Did you read footnotes as they came up, skip them, skip the pictures, or what? What were you learning and why?

I ended up with sort of a staggered reading style, going through each comic section and glancing down if I didn’t get something, then going back through to read the footnotes and endnotes before continuing to the next section. (Note, however, that the final story’s footnotes should be read simultaneously. It’s a brilliant little piece in which the comic and the footnotes interact to address the question of just who Ada Lovelace was and how much mathematical history can be credited to her. Can I say “brilliant” again? I was already impressed with Sydney Padua’s research chops and artistic talent, but this sequence won the book five stars from me).

I could pick this footnote thing apart all day, because I think it says something about the modern public and how public historians should be working, and it also raises questions about reader/visitor behavior that I find terribly relevant. But if nothing else, you should read the comic book parts, because Ada Lovelace was a badass and I love her.

Uhura Wears Red

Monthly Star Trek column is up!

Comparative Geeks

Nyota Uhura, Nichelle NicholsIt occurred to me recently that Lieutenant Uhura, the Enterprise’s communications officer, portrayed by the formidable Nichelle Nichols, wears a red uniform. This may not be immediately surprising. Lots of people wear red uniforms in the Original Series. All the nameless “redshirt” security guards, yes, but also the entire engineering department, which naturally raises the question: Which is Uhura? Not security, clearly, which leaves engineering.

This realization struck me because fans seem to have conflated “communications” with linguistics at some point after the original series, largely due to the 1985 novel Uhura’s Song by Janet Kagan. In actual episodes, though, she’s not presented as a linguist but an expert in the sophisticated technology required for the Enterprise’s communications, including long-range with Starfleet, intraship coordination, and interfacing with alien ships’ technologies. She doesn’t pull out a dictionary, she crawls under her station to reconnect wires. She’s in the engineering…

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How I Use

Habitica, previously HabitRPG, is a productivity app/site that “gamifies” your life, assigning XP to daily tasks and giving virtual rewards in the form of equipment etc. for your character. Habitica pretty much runs my life now, and I promised in my post on writing approaches that I’d explain how I use it. It took a good while to set this site up the way I wanted, and it takes some tweaking if there’s ever a life change like starting grad school, but malleability is one of its great strengths. Built-in rewards, a social aspect, and the existential pleasure of checking things off lists are other perks. I’m highly motivated by checking off things on lists…

When you log in, you have four columns: Habits, Dailies, To-Dos, and Rewards. You can add your own rewards if you like, but your main activity areas are the first three columns.

Habitica 1

My “Habits” column is where I put anything I want to do on a regular basis. You have the option of positive (a reward each time you click it), negative (a penalty), or a combo of both on one item, like the food options I have listed above. I also keep a few levels of writing goals in that column, and you can select how difficult each habit is, so there’s more of a reward for hitting a higher goal.

The second column is a self-renewing daily checklist. You get rewards for doing these things, and a penalty at the end of the day for any you didn’t accomplish. (I should note that the penalties are just a few health points, it’s nothing dramatic). The next day, the list renews to blank again. This is AWESOME, because in every other system I’ve tried, I’d have to do these lists manually and re-write the same things over and over. Most of the stuff on my daily list is “eat,” “work,” etc., but it sort of helps keep my place in the day, and then I also have some things like my daily Star Trek episode, daily exercise, etc. One more awesome feature is that you can set tasks to appear on specific days of the week, so you can still use the auto-renewing feature for something you do “twice a week” or whatever.

Most of the action happens in my To-Do column. These items, once checked, reward you and disappear, they don’t renew unless you add another one. I have one-time to-do tasks for all the stuff I want to get done — books to read, a load of dishes to wash, etc. I will literally forget what I WANTED to do otherwise, let alone what I OUGHT to do. I used to keep lists like this in a text document, and I still have that document to feed into Habitica so my list isn’t too huge at any one time, but Habitica’s features are awesome. (Turning tasks increasingly red the longer they’ve been sitting there, dragging to re-order, etc.) Plus this is a great anxiety thing, because I can take a few minutes to reorder the list for my immediate needs and then just look at what’s next. I don’t have to struggle with old paper lists that don’t accurately present EXACTLY what’s most urgent.

UntitledRight now I’m using the To-Do column as a kind of dayplanner, too — I have a one-time task for every day, made several days in advance, with a sub-checklist covering the things I want to do that day. This has been super helpful in controlling overbooking, when I think I can do ALL THE THINGS in one day, because I can literally see how much I’ve gotten done. I do the same with monthly lists. This also works beautifully for me because I just don’t function on a single-day cycle. If I do something once, I’m not mentally ready to do it again for a while. I might come back to it over a few days until it’s done, or I might want to do it once and then again some time later. With Habitica, I can get a balance of a one-time daily checklist with a general list of stuff to do at some point.

So, as mentioned in that writing post, I need to incorporate writing goals in a realistic way. I’d tried just having “write” pop up in my weekly renewing checklist, a better step than daily, but still the wrong approach for me. I’ve now changed “write” to a positive Habit, and the next step is to design my chunks so they pop up at a steady rate along with my various other tasks. I also believe I need a more conceptual to-do list, and I think that can go here — things like “Figure out what Wams is up to,” not just “write scene 87.” That way things appear along with all my typical tasks, so A) I’ll remember to actually do them, and B) I don’t psych myself out thinking writing has to be super separate.

Verdict: I love, love, love Habitica. If you try it out, let me know! I’d love to see other people’s strategies!


Review: The Keepers Trilogy by Lian Tanner

The Keepers Trilogy is a middle-grade fantasy by Lian Tanner, consisting of Museum of Thieves, City of Lies, and Path of Beasts, published 2011-2013 and complete as a trilogy. It’s a hidden gem, found through sheer serendipity — I searched for the word “museum” in my library’s ebook database to see what came up, and Museum of Thieves was the only result. I went on to get all three and cry when they were over. I’d call it dystopian, focused on the treatment of children within a larger society, but it’s also fairy-tale-like, a bit unrealistic on purpose. While it has its heavy content, it’s not as dark as a YA dystopia would be. I listened to the audio, narrated by Claudia Black, and can highly recommend it.

Museum of Thieves coverMuseum of Thieves is a parable about growing up. Not about adolescence, but about that half-remembered experience of learning to worry about things. Learning that there are things in the world to worry about, but also learning how to deal with those things competently. At the same time, a feeling of fear at all the huge unknown dangers that you’re starting to see, but that you realize can’t be controlled — war, famine, disease — and that’s where the Museum of Dunt comes into play.

It’s a museum of good things and hidden things and secrets and thieves, but also a place of very old magic, and the place where the villagers of Jewel pushed all the terrible things. They’ve sheltered themselves so much that nothing “bad” happens… But they’ve lost the ability to cope when anything does happen. They live in permanent fear of outsiders and their own leaders, and they fall prey to a thousand small injuries to their sanity and dignity in the name of safety. Children are chained to adults (or their beds) to keep them safe, and Goldie — our heroine — panics the first time she gets a little cut. But she learns to cope, and brush these little things aside. While the museum keepers teach her to steal things and pick locks and melt into the shadows, she also learns competence and how to think of resolutions. Despite the little lessons and “teaching moments” in dialogue, they’re not annoying, the character-development fragments are subtle and fascinating.

I particularly liked that it’s a typical boy-and-girl setup, but the girl is the protagonist, and they’re not blended together over the course of the book. Toadspit (the boy) isn’t even there much of the time, and for much of the book they actively dislike each other. Through shared experiences they come to respect each other’s work, and that leads to a level of friendship that continues to deepen over the course of the trilogy, but they’re not considered a unit. And adults are still prominent as players in the story and figures of power, like they are in real life, good or bad.

The worldbuilding comes in tantalizing pieces — why do all children learn sign language? What exactly does a “Fugleman” do? What do the strange animals look like? We can infer from their names, like “slaughterbird,” but those kinds of casual references really made the place come to life as a somewhat-urban fantasy country. Their seven-god religion is mentioned in the same way, and just as interesting.

City of Lies expands all this, follCity of Lies coverowing logically from the first, with an interesting new setting and characters without losing the tone or the beloved people from Museum of Thieves. The Festival of Lies is perfect for this series and plays into a clever plot that’s more subtle than the first. There’s one little pacing hangup I won’t mention for spoilers, but it’s balanced by a moment of sheer magic you’ll know when you see, and this second book moves us inexorably from the first installment to the last.

I also liked the way Goldie was separated from Toadspit and the others, directly leading to increased independence and an ability to build a new friendship network. She refines her skills in learning who to trust and we get several invaluable new characters through it. And again, there’s no stupid “girls can do anything boys can do” lesson. It’s very naturally an adventure book about a girl, including a scarily warlike princess, without eliminating boys or making gender a factor at all.

Path of Beasts is the final development, encompassing the first and second books and bringing them to their full completion. It’s terrible and wonderful and big, like the whole series has been. So much bigger than it seemed when I stumbled onto it unawares. I don’t think I can even tell you the rest of how I feel about it, I’m still processing a week later.

Path of Beasts coverI can talk a little about Goldie, though, and how much I loved her themes here. She has to handle not only her fear, learning to cope with life as an adult, but a seemingly uncontrollable anger personified by the Wolf-Sark inside her. And she should. She is angry. She’s been imprisoned physically and emotionally as long as she can remember, been told that she doesn’t matter and has no control over her life, and that anger’s been building inside her all along. I love that. A lesser writer might make her simply afraid, but no. It’s much more complicated.

Goldie has to learn not to shove these things down, but not to give into them either: To greet her fear and anger as old friends. To use them. And finally to let them go. It’s not a moral, or a lesson — it’s life. And as a trilogy, it’s life. It’s about how you don’t just “solve” something and that’s it, happy ending. Sometimes it takes three books of wrestling and setbacks and conflict and doubt and anger and despair, but you can eventually be finished and start something new.

I’d also like to say how much I love the character of Pounce, introduced in book two, and the complexity he represents for all the characters. That he can betray them all, and save them all, and be in it for himself but help others almost against his will. That he doesn’t turn out to have a heart of gold, or a heart of stone, just a heart, flawed and bitter and good and human. The same for Double, an adult in book three. Especially the same for all the children, though, who are given internal (and external) lives of a depth I’ve never seen before in middle grade.

There are questions left unanswered, but that’s fitting too, with the kind of big mysteries the Keepers trilogy offers us. It’s just amazing. Please read it.

CN: child abuse and neglect, implied adult torture

Harlan Ellison’s “The City on the Edge of Forever”

My latest appearance on Comparative Geeks! Always a pleasure and a privilege. 🙂

Comparative Geeks

Let’s talk about “The City on the Edge of Forever”! A classic Star Trek time travel story, and generally considered to be the best episode in the Original Series. Harlan Ellison, distinguished science fiction author, wrote the first script.

Harlan Ellison's City on the Edge of ForeverHowever, his script was heavily edited to create the episode we know and love, and he’s been complaining about it ever since. He published his treatments and scripts in the 1990s, and in 2014, collaborated with Scott and David Tipton to release a comic-book version that would finally offer the visuals he intended.

Ellison adores it, as stated repeatedly in the introduction to the collected edition, so we can safely treat it as “the Harlan Ellison version.” (I hesitate to call it “the original,” as he did several rewrites, it’s coming so long after the version we all saw first, and a script and its production are both “original” in different ways). With this comic…

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#queerpop Movie Review: Victim (1961)

Landmark British film about gay rights from 1961? Yes please! Here’s the description:

41AV9W-6HZLIn early 1960s London, barrister Melville Farr (Dirk Bogarde) is on the path to success. With his practice winning cases and a loving marriage to his wife (Sylvia Sims), Farr’s career and personal life are nearly idyllic. However, when blackmailers link Farr to a young gay man (Peter McEnery), everything Farr has worked for is threatened. As it turns out, Farr is a closeted homosexual — which is problematic, due to Britain’s anti-sodomy laws. But instead of giving in, Farr decides to fight. (Google synopsis)

A slightly lackluster auto-synopsis for what turns out to be a fascinating movie. While wondering about the blackmailer’s identity adds some suspense, Victim is a drama rather than a mystery. It reminds me of a stage play, something like The Crucible, a set of philosophical arguments given life and dialogue. That’s not to say it’s terribly didactic or unrealistic, just that it’s spun around a question, and everything in it pertains to that question.

The question of course is “Should homosexuality (continue to) be illegal,” as it was when the movie was made. This was one of the first movies to portray a gay man in a sympathetic light, and the first English-language movie to use the word “homosexual” at all, which would make it historically significant in any case, but it is also credited with real impact on culture at the time. The arguments for equality are simple, but I believe affecting, and those laws were repealed in Britain by 1967. The movie doesn’t sensationalize the gayness, but confronts the contemporary laws against it rationally and patiently. It was an incredibly brave project given the censorship regulations at the time, and particularly for the stars, since Dirk Bogarde (a major British star at the time) was almost certainly gay himself but never came out, even into the 90s. We’ve come a long way, but the arguments presented in 1961 are still relevant, and that’s very sad.


Back to the movie, though. As mentioned above, it’s like a play, heavy on dialogue. I’m pleased to report the acting holds up. While all the men look vaguely similar at the beginning — all cleancut grayscale Sixties men in suits — they quickly differentiate themselves in demeanor. Bogarde in particular carries the film, as well he should, portraying an immensely believable character who’s intelligent, driven, frustrated, and haunted, but always with a respectable face. It takes tremendous skill to convey that much suppressed emotion, but he’s flawless. I can only assume his personal life informed those acting decisions, and I’m deeply grateful for it.

I can come up with a few criticisms… The plot is necessarily simple, although there is one very strange little subplot about a couple observing goings-on in the gay bar. I think it was meant for comic relief, or as a red herring, but it was exceedingly brief and mostly just odd. The movie is also a bit of a slow starter to modern eyes, beginning with a very slow “chase” scene. Beyond that point, though, it’s gripping. Highly recommended for entertainment, for historical value, and for those who want (or need) to start at the very beginning in the rationale of queer rights.