Monday, January 16, 2017

Enlightened Words and Hidden Figures

I've always admired Martin Luther King, Jr. for his eloquence, his profound crafting of words, but most of all, for the courage of his message. He's long been a personal hero of mine.

I think a good chunk of the world population could probably name the author of the "I Have a Dream..." speech, and many may even know more of the words of that powerful oration by heart:
"...that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character."

Amen to that.

Rev. King wrote the speech in 1963 and it's probably his most famous. But the body of this man's work went far beyond this, and many of his masterfully-articulated thoughts have outlived him, ringing down through the decades as undeniable truths long after his death.

"Darkness can not drive out darkness;
Only light can do that.
Hate can not drive out hate;
Only love can do that."

"The time is always right to do what is right."

"Love is the only force capable
of transforming an enemy into a friend."

"Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere."
                    -Letter written in Birmingham City Jail

"Man must evolve for all human conflict a method which rejects
revenge, aggression, and retaliation. The foundation of such a method is love."

                   - From his Nobel Prize Acceptance Speech

"We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality,
tied in a single garment of destiny.
Whatever affects one directly,
affects all indirectly."
 
                   -Letter written in Birminghan City Jail

As we honor the memory and spirit of the man today, the E-X3 technical lab in Chicago has taken it a step further. They will be showing a hologram of MLK Jr. delivering his iconic I Have a Dream speech today. (Wow. Wish I could be there!)

So, yes, Martin Luther King, Jr. has always been a hero of mine.

But now I have three more heroes. Three almost forgotten heroes from the same era, who only now, after more than fifty years, are finally coming into the light and getting the respect and the credit they have so long deserved.

On Friday, I went to see Hidden Figures, the new motion picture about the unheralded African-American women behind NASA's space program. It may be no exaggeration to say that the space program might not exist without them because it could very easily have died a very sudden and fiery death had they not been there as part of NASA's team. Even if they were a part of the NASA team that was shuffled off to the basement of a rundown building at Langley Research Center in Hampton, Virginia and subjected to unconscionable acts of segregation and discrimination. They were present, but not accounted for.

What they did mattered. What they did was remarkable. And their story was so exceptional, it left me wondering, "Why have I never heard about these amazing people before?"

Let's go back to the very beginning. How did these women come to work at NASA in the first place? In 1942, the US became involved in WWII and with a severe shortage of available "man"-power, President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed Executive Order 8802 prohibiting discrimination by defense contractors. Later, he signed an order to hire more African-American workers. Shortly after that, the National Advisory Committee on Aeronautics--NACA, which would evolve into NASA--began hiring college-educated black women with skills in math and chemistry.

It took a war to open the door of opportunity.

Katherine Goble Johnson was a human computer. Literally. Her work predated the first IBM machine ever installed at NASA. They relied on her to check and validate extremely complex mathematical calculations. Her calculations for "First American in Space" Alan Shepard's flight were crucial to the success of his flight. Later, they relied on Katherine to invent math that didn't even exist to apply to John Glenn's Freedom 7 flight--the first orbit and re-entry of an American manned spacecraft. As the movie portrays, it's true that John Glenn insisted she verify the numbers the newly installed IBM computer produced. Yet, her involvement was never brought to light in The Right Stuff, a movie about the evolution of the Mercury space program, with John Glenn as a central figure.
 



Katherine went on to do calculations for Apollo 11--the first mission to reach the Moon--and even did the math for many of the contingency procedures that brought Jim Lovell's Apollo 13 crew safely back to Earth after an explosion aboard their command module. (She was also never mentioned in the very famous Apollo 13 movie about that mission.)

She continued to work with NASA during the space shuttle missions, retiring in 1986. Yet she never received national acclaim for her work during her career.

Hidden figures, indeed.

So how did this amazing story finally get told? You can thank a writer for that. In 2010, author Margot Lee Shetterly visited her father at Christmas. He had worked with many of these women and started a conversation with his daughter about the so-called "human computers"--many of whom she knew from her childhood. Ms. Shetterly decided to write their story, and spent the next three years researching records and archives with the help of Mary Gainer, a NASA historian, and her staff.

In 2014, soon after Harper Collins agreed to publish the book entitled Hidden Figures: The Untold Story of the African American Women Who Helped the United States Win the Space Race, producer Donna Gigliotti (Shakespeare in Love) heard about it and decided to do a movie based on the events, recruiting musician Pharrell Williams (who was raised in Hampton) to co-produce and write the score.

Suddenly, the world began to take notice.

When Katherine and her co-workers' story began to surface, she finally received an award worthy of her work and dedication--a Presidential Medal of Freedom--in November 2015, some 54 years after her remarkable contribution to our nation's fledgling space program and nearly 30 years after her retirement from a long and productive career.

In May 2016, NASA opened the $30 million Katherine G. Johnson Computation Research Facility at Langley. Perhaps better late than never. At least she was alive to see the honors bestowed upon her. Katherine G. Johnson is 98 years old.

But she wasn't working alone. Her fellow female African American co-workers, Dorothy Johnson Vaughan (mathematical engineer and Fortran programming expert) and Mary Jackson (the first woman to become an aerospace engineer) had equally remarkable--and until now equally obscure--careers. Unfortunately, they did not live to enjoy the long-overdue recognition.

I'm so glad I saw their incredible story. And I'm so glad they chose to release it just prior to the Martin Luther King, Jr. memorial holiday. That probably wasn't a coincidence. And it's the reason this blog is more of a reflection than a review, though I do highly recommend Hidden Figures for all the reasons above, and because I think it's important to understand the inequities these women dealt with--and overcame--on a daily basis.

Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. was a visionary, an outstanding writer and speaker, and the leader of a profound movement for peaceful change within our country. He gained respect for his famous words of inspiration and vision at a time of great turmoil in our nation's history--the same era these women were struggling to be heard, recognized and accepted for their capabilities and their vast contributions to our country--their hidden figures.

Have a great MLK Jr. Day.



Friday, January 13, 2017

MY TOP TEN OTHERWORLDLY SIGHTS RIGHT HERE ON EARTH



Write what you know, they tell us. But that’s a tall order for those of us who write science fiction romance. We might be pilots, scientists, military vets, cops or medical professionals on the job, but it’s for certain none of us have traveled in an interstellar spaceship or stood on the surface of another planet. And for many of us our day jobs are even more mundane; working the front desk at the Y was no help at all in writing my Interstellar Rescue series, I can tell you.

Thankfully, like any SFR writer, I have a big imagination and a voracious appetite for books of all kinds. I’ve also seen wonders on this Earth that no author could ever imagine. If you think about it, so have you.

Bison chill by the hot springs in Yellowstone
My husband and I just came back from a trip to the first U.S. national park, Yellowstone, with takes up parts of Montana, Wyoming and Idaho. As every schoolchild knows, Yellowstone sits on a massive caldera, the magma climbing from deep in the earth to near the surface and heating ground water to form bubbling mud pools, hot springs, fumaroles and geysers. Chemicals in the water turn the springs and pools dramatic colors and, seen at a distance, the ground seems to smoke. Who could make this stuff up?

Yellowstone has been on my “bucket list” for years. But I’ve seen some spectacular things over the years, many of which I’ve used in some way in my writing:

2) Homestead Crater Dome in Utah—a hot spring inside a huge limestone dome. I went swimming in the warm water. Dark and a little creepy, but fun!

3) Mammoth Cave in Kentucky—the world’s longest known cave system. Stalactites and stalagmites, squeeze-through passages, an underground lake. Unforgettable!

4) A giant sequoia tree named General Sherman in California—the world’s largest tree (by volume) and its longest-living organism.

5) Stonehenge on the Salisbury plain, England—How? And why?

6) Aquamarine waters falling over a chalky white terrace in Pamukkale, Turkey—so bright it hurts your eyes and so delicate visitors must remove their shoes to step over the rock.


7) The Grand Canyon in Arizona—Phenomenal!

8) The ocean glowing with phosphorescence on a moonlit night in The Gambia, West Africa—Tiny diatoms in the water glowed in the dark.

9) An elephant—Think about it. No alien would ever look stranger or evoke such speculation that sentience lurked in a creature’s eyes.

10) An active volcano—Mine happened to be Kilauea in Hawaii. We stood on a cliffside of freshly-made black volcanic soil and watched lava flow out of the side of the mountain down to the sea, where it disappeared in a billow of steam. Primal!

I’ve been lucky enough to see these things in person. But long before I could travel, I had books, then television and movies, to take me there. I “know” a lot more than just what appears outside my window.

How about you? What spectacular sights have you seen here on Earth that inspire you to create new worlds in your fiction?

PING PONG

I enjoyed Pippa and Laurie’s vastly different takes on PASSENGERS this week. I particularly appreciated Laurie’s line-by-line take-down of the critics on this much-maligned movie. But then, you and I obviously agree on the salient points, Laurie! I’m glad you enjoyed the film despite its flaws, Pippa. At least you gave it a chance, which is more than I can say for many of the critics out there. Unfortunately, the state of criticism these days is such that professional film geeks tend to confuse “ponderous” with “deep” and “bleak” with “sophisticated.” Out-of-the-box thinking is not their forte, and this was an out-of-the-box film.

Cheers, Donna

Thursday, January 12, 2017

Rogue One - the book. Is it worth reading?



As you'll recall, I actually went to a cinema to see the much-anticipated Rogue One, and I've written my review. But I had a few unanswered questions and decided to fork out the exorbitant cost for the novel, written by Alexander Freed. My experience with novelizations of Star Wars stories has been spotty in the past, but I dipped into the 'look inside' and liked what I saw.

Alexander Freed did a stunning job. He had a huge task, bringing that movie to life in a book, and he did it. I haven't read anything so well written in a long time, and my experience with Star Wars stories has not been good.

There were times as I was reading that I stopped and read passages again, simply out of admiration. Such great descriptive language, using all the senses – including smell, which we don't get at the movies. He writes in deep third POV, and he writes exclusively in one character's voice for a scene. He covers everyone you see in the movie for any length of time – Jyn, Cassian, Bohdi, Chirrut, Baze, Krennic, Mon Mothma, and others – and does it well. Because he writes in deep third, the reader learns what's going through the character's mind, what s/he is feeling. For me, that epitomises why I prefer books to movies. A movie is the tip of the iceberg.

The book explained a few things I missed as the film progressed. I certainly had a much better sense of why Jyn went from surly thug to shining light. But if you're expecting more information about the interval between 8-year-old Jyn and 23-year-old Jyn, there are just snippets and memories. Which is fair enough, since it's not really necessary for the plot.

I think when I see the film again, I'll have a much better grounding in the characters than I did at the first showing. I'd rate this book an enthusiastic 5 stars.

Tuesday, January 10, 2017

Passengers: Passable #Scifi #Romance #review with spoilers

Warning: Spoilers Ahoy!

The Story
A spacecraft traveling to a distant colony planet and transporting thousands of people has a malfunction in its sleep chambers. As a result, two passengers are awakened 90 years early.

First Impressions
Wow! It opens with the spaceship travelling through space, then suffering a meteor shower before moving into the interior of the ship and diagnostics. Nothing really new in terms of special effects, but it's very pretty! After that, we have a long stretch of not very much happening, which is no doubt supposed to correspond to the empty, tedious existence of our hero and the motivation behind that dastardly deed that provides the only real plot twist (lazy!).

The Plot
Well, I had some issues here. First up, I kinda wish we weren't shown what had happened to the ship as it made it more frustrating to see the characters trying to figure it out and failing (although some of the best scenes of the ship in space other than the finale). Also, why just one pod? Why not a whole group or even a whole bay? (and that could have made it even more interesting, like The Poseidon Adventure in space, and maybe got rid of the ew factor). Also, I disliked the convenient waking of a crew member who survived just long enough to point them in the right direction to fix things, then died so they weren't stuck with an awkward triangle (Jim is supposed to be some kind of technician - would it really have been so impossible for him to work it out?!). I also didn't get why the barman Arthur blabbed the truth to Aurora after being told to keep it a secret (shouldn't he have some kind of discretion programmed, or maybe client confidentiality?! Okay, so she needed to learn that bit of information for reasons, clearly, but that seemed too convenient a way. It could have been done after the crew member woke and they were running diagnostics, and again taken the film in another direction. Personally I'd rather her pod had been an accident too, because as a plot twist the idea sucked).
Finally, I'm not convinced by Chris Pratt playing the straight guy - he's much better as Starlord with the witty banter (I didn't quite buy his character in Jurassic World either - he's much better in something with a humorous edge), and Jen Lawrence's kissing style? That was much more an ew factor for me personally. Sorry, Jen, but even my daughter who adores you said the same thing...

The Ew Factor
Okay, so, yes, what Jim did was completely and utterly wrong and reprehensible (and as Aurora says later, tantamount to murder), but totally made sense (a year in space alone with the prospect of decades ahead? Not sure I wouldn't have done the same thing). Some people say he got no punishment
I think Aurora beating the cr*p out of him and the guilt was at least some payback? And in the end, she decides to stay with him even when given the choice, so she must have forgiven him. She could even have stayed for a while, then said 'nah, this isn't working, put me to sleep'. Considering how popular romances involving kidnap/abduction, and even forced seduction are, I'm kind of confused by the reaction to Passengers in that respect (although I don't personally like those kind of romances myself yet enjoyed Passengers. Go figure!). While I found the romance too rushed (I didn't get a real sense of time passing, like I didn't realise Jim had been awake for over a year until we're told) so perhaps that could have been better conveyed.

What I did like
Despite all the above, I enjoyed the film - it made for entertaining, thought provoking and visually attractive viewing. The basic premise was cool, and I loved the design of the Avalon. Although we expect that standard of CGI now, I did love all the special effects too, especially when the ship lost its gravity (although I know the whole science is supposed to be wrong on that. Sometimes I can be forgiving in that area if the visuals are spectacular). The barman Arthur was probably the best character in it (and it was cool discovering he was an android. His character provides the little humour in this film).
While I don't think Lawrence or Pratt were 100% perfect for the roles, they played them well enough to mostly be believable (and yes, as an author, I'm somewhat biased toward Aurora). The heroine gets a turn saving the guy, and while the earlier part of the film runs frustrating slow, there's tension throughout, with action and explosions in the finale (though not nearly enough for me). I'm not sure about the level of nudity - I was watching with my 14yo so there was a certain level of embarrassment for both of us, and I definitely wouldn't have taken my younger two. :P

In Conclusion
I'm glad I didn't read the reviews and had decided to just go see the film (as with Suicide Squad). I can't help but feel it got an automatic 'scifi with girl cooties'='shoot it down in flames' like the all-female Ghostbusters.
However, while being an okay/good film I do think it missed out on being much more and hope this is just some test run for greater things. I'd really like to see Starship Titanic (Douglas Adams and Terry Jones) done as a film - you can guess the storyline from the title, AND there's a double romance in it with all the promise that entails. ;) (Adams also did something similar in Mostly Harmless, part of The Hitch-Hiker's Guide to the Galaxy series, while the comic SciFi TV series Red Dwarf also deals with a lone surviving human left on a ship after a nuclear disaster, kept company by a hologram of the crew member he hates most, a humanoid evolved from his pet cat, and a dysfunctional android servant they rescue).
Meanwhile I'm still waiting on that breakout Scifi Romance film (where it's clearly labelled and portrayed as such)...

I give Passengers 3 out of 5 emergency flares, and I will be investing in the DVD (though not another cinema trip).