Do Zombies Dream of Undead Sheep?
Do Zombies Dream of Undead Sheep?

As summer draws to an end, our fancies may once more turn to the shambling, hungry undead. If your interest in all things zombie extends beyond “It’s a virus!” or “It’s a fungus!” to what could actually cause typical zombie behaviors, Do Zombies Dream of Undead Sheep? A Neuroscientific View of the Zombie Brain by Timothy Verstynen and Bradley Voytek might be just the book for you.

Do Zombies Dream of Undead Sheep? is a much more genteel read than the title suggests. Honestly, I was expecting something more gratuitously zombie. You know, actual zombie autopsies, or necropsies, or experimentation—some such horror-movie splatter. Fear of the Walking Dead isn’t going to tell us how these creatures work. We need to know, if we are going to make it!

But this is not, after all, the nuts-and-bolts toolkit of Max Brooks’s The Zombie Survival Guide. There is no hard-core practical survival advice to be had here, despite the final chapter that purports to offer some based on the concluded causes of zombification.

Instead, this book serves up a simplified but thorough overview of brain structure and function illustrated with a mix of real-life case studies, silly, zombified artwork, and examples from a variety of zombie movies. Both Timothy Verstynen and Bradley Voytek are neuroscientists, university professors, and zombie buffs, which perhaps explains their desire to share their combined passions for neural function and the shambling undead with a lay population.

And they know that their combined passions may come off as a little odd: “You are about to read a book about the zombie brain. Just think about that for a minute. Let the thought really soak in. Reflect on the decisions you’ve made in your life that led you to this point” (7).

Zombies, brains...braaaaiiins
Zombies, brains…braaaaiiins

But who am I to say they’re wrong?

The title immediately reveals their frame of reference and sense of humor. After all, puns are an underappreciated art form (and yes, my friends, that is sarcasm). Inside, the chapter headings continue the punny word play: “Gray’s (Undead) Anatomy”, “Tongue-Tied and Twisted”, and “Hungry, Angry, and Stupid Is No Way to Go Through Unlife” all provide a pretty clear picture of their approach to their subject.

Verstynen and Voytek employ a variety of carefully curated zombie styles to make their many points. George Romero’s classic Night of the Living Dead and its several sequels, Return of the Living Dead, 28 Days Later, Shaun of the Dead, World War Z, Warm Bodies, and a slew of other movies are invoked for easy examples of zombie behavior that illustrate the many possible ways a brain can go wrong. And there are a lot of ways, because, after all, “the brain is a pretty complicated piece of goop” (203).  Physical damage, tumors, wiring issues—all can produce a zombified condition even without a wild virus or radiation.

In addition to the Hollywood hit parade, Verstynen and Voytek provide a huge number of real-world references for their proposed methods of action, listed at the end of each chapter. They cite everything from neuroscience and anatomy texts to Nature, The Lancet, and Salon articles to support their positions. If you are so inclined, you can use the accumulated references to give yourself a very nice introduction (and then some) to behavioral neuroscience and its associated psychology.

My only real complaint about the book is that the authors are frequently self-aware and self-referential, and at times downright twee about it: “Obviously, these are complex, unresolved scientific issues well outside the scope of what a couple of goofy, zombie-movie-loving neuroscientists are capable of answering” (100). This quirk only serves to draw attention away from the meat of their information and place it firmly back on themselves. However, the overall tone of the book is playful, and their frequent disclaimers about being zombie-movie-loving neuroscientists can be safely skimmed over without loss of context.

And again, while Verstynen and Voytek provide their readers with a quick, snappy overview of the workings of the brain and related nervous system and endocrine functions, I was left somewhat wanting by their explanations of zombie behavior. As they freely declare, “We’re playing it safe and using a weasel word” (159). There are many traditional undead behaviors to choose from, and while Verstynen and Voytek sort the symptoms into “fast zombie” and “slow zombie”, there are some explanations that feel a little shoe-horned in for form’s sake, and presented without real conviction. Yes, I know I’m being picky about the precision of their proposed zombie brain damage mechanics. But I want to suspend some disbelief, here!

But let’s face it, my complaints are merely quibbles. And quibbles aside, if you are interested in how the brain works, this book will explain it pretty clearly and with great enthusiasm. And if you are writing the Great American Zombie Novel, this book will also provide terrific expository material for you to chew on. Fast zombies, slow zombies, semi-aware zombies—they are all in here, in all their gory glory, with appropriate scientific explanations for their behaviors. Dig in!

E.A. Ruppert contributes book and media reviews for  Thanks for checking this out. To keep up with the latest NerdGoblin developments, please like us on Facebook , follow us on Twitter and Pinterest, and sign up for the NerdGoblin Newsletter.

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L. Sprague de Camp
L. Sprague de Camp

I would like to offer a fresh introduction to L. Sprague de Camp–one of the old guard in the art of speculative fiction and an inspiration for the familiar shape of the world in many current role playing games. Some of you may already know him. If you don’t, you might want to.

In his time de Camp was an aeronautical engineer, World War II Navy Reserve veteran, and the witty, prolific, and inspired author of several speculative classics as well as other works on a wide-ranging assortment of topics. In addition to his voluminous output of short fiction, de Camp wrote more than a hundred books over his sixty-year career, ranging from science fiction and fantasy to nonfiction about science fiction and fantasy, evolution, archaeology, and biography.

De Camp was a major author during science fiction’s Golden Age in the 1930s. John W. Campbell, then-editor of the seminal magazine Astounding, published a great number of de Camp’s stories during that decade.  According to the L. Sprague de Camp Fan Site, it was also during this period that he met fellow author Fletcher Pratt, and the two writers began a long collaborative relationship. Through the forties and fifties they produced the humorous Compleat Enchanter fantasies about Harold Shea, psychologist and alternate-world explorer. The character proved so popular that years after Pratt’s death de Camp revived the series with Christopher Stasheff.

When World War II broke out it disrupted a great many writing careers, and de Camp’s was among them. De Camp joined the U.S. Naval Reserve in 1942, where he worked as a researcher in the Philadelphia Naval Yard with Isaac Asimov and Robert Heinlein. Like several other notable science fiction and fantasy authors of the Golden Age, de Camp came from a scientific background which informed the content and direction of both his fiction and his nonfiction. Most of these Golden Age authors also knew each other, and their interactions built the framework for many of the classic tropes of the genre.

Robert Heinlein, L. Sprague de Camp, and Isaac Asimov
Robert Heinlein, L. Sprague de Camp, and Isaac Asimov

De Camp’s creative trajectory is detailed in the Encyclopedia of Science Fiction. In the mid-1950s his Science Fiction Handbook (1953; revised in 1973 with his wife, Catherine Crook de Camp) offered advice to budding writers from the front lines of speculative fiction. But shortly after telling people how to follow in his footsteps, de Camp moved away from science fiction in favor of heroic fantasy, especially the sword and sorcery kind. He resurrected the character and epic world of Conan the Barbarian by editing Robert E. Howard’s existing cannon, completing Howard’s unfinished manuscripts, and adding additional tales of his own to the original body of work. After this immersion in Conan’s world, he went on to author a definitive biography of Howard. His work helped to bring sword and sorcery back into popularity after a lull when speculative fiction had gone in other directions.

By the early 1960s, the fantasy world was ready for barbarians again. De Camp edited the first-ever sword and sorcery anthology in 1963, called, fittingly enough, Swords and Sorcery, that contained eight stories from the masters. De Camp was also one of the original members of the Swordsmen and Sorcerers’ Guild of America, otherwise known as SAGA, along with fellow heroic fantasy authors Lin Carter (who really is the reason that SAGA begins), Poul Anderson, John Jakes, Michael Morecock, Fritz Leiber, Jack Vance, and Andre Norton. With them, de Camp was at the forefront of rekindling interest in this particular brand of fantasy adventure, and of laying the groundwork for what would become the archetypal world of early RPGs.

Conan the Barbarian
Conan the Barbarian

But he didn’t limit himself to fiction. De Camp also wrote extensively about sword and sorcery as a genre in the nonfiction anthologies The Conan Reader (1968), Literary Swordsmen and Sorcerers (1976) and Blond Barbarians and Noble Savages (1975). These essay collections explored the authors who created the genre and their various contributions to its evolution and form. In addition, de Camp was a biographer of other fantasy authors, producing excellent works on both H.P. Lovecraft (no longer the definitive biography, but still a remarkable portrait of the man) and Robert E. Howard after editing their respective works.

In addition to his fantasy-themed nonfiction, de Camp also spent considerable energy on debunking pseudoscience and fancifully inaccurate history, joining the Committee to Scientifically Investigate Claims of the Paranormal (or the pithier abbreviation, CSICOP) with such luminaries of rationality as Carl Sagan, Isaac Asimov, Martin Gardner, B.F. Skinner, and James Randi. Much like Houdini before him, de Camp felt it was important to distinguish the imagined or illusory from the actual, and to prevent the less scrupulous from using fantasy and parlor tricks to prey on the gullible. He produced some lovely explanations for and take-downs of pseudoscience and extraterrestrial-attributed history in his books The Ancient Engineers, Ancient Ruins and Archeology, and Great Cities of the Ancient World, because like most of the speculative authors and professional magicians he associated with, he knew he was selling fiction as fiction.

De Camp earned many awards over his career, including the Gandalf, the SFWA Grand Master, the World Fantasy Lifetime Achievement, and the Pilgrim. His own autobiography won a Hugo in 1996.

The following are a few selected titles to give you a taste of de Camp’s style, range, and expertise:

  • Lest Darkness Fall(1939) early, excellent time-travel and continuously in-print
  • Rogue Queen (1951) insectile aliens and strong female characters
  • Tales of Conan(1955) (with Robert E. Howard) the character that set the standard
  • A Gun for Dinosaur and Other Imaginative Tales(1963) some classics of de Camp’s short fiction
  • Swords and Sorcery(1963) the first sword and sorcery anthology ever published
  • The Ancient Engineers(1963) humanity’s great engineering projects from Ancient Egypt onward
  • Conan the Adventurer(1966) (with Robert E. Howard) more of our favorite barbarian
  • Lovecraft: A Biography(1975) the first definitive biography of Lovecraft
  • Literary Swordsmen and Sorcerers(1976) short essays on the makers of heroic fantasy
  • Dark Valley Destiny: the Life of Robert E. Howard(1983) (with Catherine Crook de Camp and Jane Whittington Griffin) his second biography of Howard

While many of his books have gone out of print, a number of his more popular titles (including some of those listed above) are still available at L. Sprague de Camp’s Amazon Author Page. I highly recommend his nonfiction, in particular The Ancient Engineers. Believe me, de Camp is an author worth knowing.

E.A. Ruppert contributes book and media reviews for  Thanks for checking this out. To keep up with the latest NerdGoblin developments, please like us on Facebook , follow us on Twitter and Pinterest, and sign up for the NerdGoblin Newsletter.

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Fantastic Four is not as bad as some of the more descriptive reviews would have it. But it really isn’t good.

You might get the impression that I don’t like a lot of movies, but that is not true. The Avengers was amazing, and showed how it should be done. Ian McKellan’s Mr. Holmes was essentially flawless. Ex Machina was thought-provoking. Even Ant Man was solid entertainment.

I didn’t want to trash Fantastic Four, to jump on the bandwagon of negative reviews. So I thought it over, looking for what it did right. Unfortunately, there are precious few aspects of it to praise: the cast was good. Some of the effects were pretty cool, especially the interdimensional travel. Doom was imposing with his fused metal skin and tattered cloak. The young Reed and Ben were cute. However. However.

The whole thing ultimately fell flat.

We all know about the internecine conflicts between the studio and the director, and by some accounts the director and everyone else. But instead of parsing the conflict and placing the blame, let’s just look at the results.

Fantastic Four was another barely adequate movie, oddly disconnected from its audience and itself, hampered by a script littered with trite pep talks and an inflated sense of its own melodramatic tension. The pacing was a real issue. So much time was spent in exposition that the ending felt rushed and incomplete.

And the exposition was so much about setting up the planned second movie that they forgot to make this Fantastic Four actually about anything. There were no characters substantial enough to care about, no discovery or threat unveiled in such a way as to invest the audience in the outcome. Even the big reveal of Dr. Doom was a deus ex machina, tacked on seemingly to showcase more of the second-earth CGI.

Fantastic Four
Fantastic Four

The script had some initial potential that faded into simplistic, self-important, heavy handed presentation. The demands of getting to the end of this installment overshadowed any concern for believable or even consistent characterization. The reasonably funny jokes were infrequent and unintegrated—Fantastic Four lacks the sense of humor that makes other Marvel movies engaging. Let’s face it, even Thor is funny, and he’s a god. The occasional profanity also seemed tacked on, as if only to avoid a G rating.

The actors have the unfortunate chore of being late-twenty-somethings playing high school students. They all seemed fully capable of delivering coherent performances, yet they were working with an unwieldy story that cared nothing about them.

As the future Dr. Doom, Toby Kebbell gave hints of what could have been. His smirk suggested the ability to breathe some life into a limited character. Doom’s killing method—going all Scanners on people–was jarring for being the only gore in the film. It could have been effective if Doom’s bitter reasoning made any sense.

Jamie Bell as Ben Grimm showed similar capabilities as a performer, and was just as trapped by the material. He brought a touching intelligence to his monster. The most human scene in the whole concoction was when Reed asked Ben whether his transformation hurt. Ben’s answer was simply “I’m used to it.” More moments of vulnerability like that would have done wonders in making the characters matter for the audience.

Alas, there was no chemistry between any of the characters, romantic, platonic, or familial—relationships were stated but never felt. All their motivations and decisions existed without any relatable frame of reference, because the plot had to reach a certain point to set up the sequel. This could only manifest as a profound lack of character development. The result left us with scenes of the defiantly rebellious Johnny becoming a team player at the drop of a hat, and the U.S. military immediately caving in because Reed Richards and company don’t want to play anymore.

Making the characters recent high school graduates also weakened the film. They may be geniuses, but handing them a government facility was awkward and unbelievable. They haven’t earned it. And anchoring the action so firmly in time—2007—allowed the audience to evaluate the real-world technological components and make continuity checks. The movie isn’t strong enough to brush off that kind of scrutiny.

To summarize: The script was an exercise in blunt-force exposition. There was no discernible character development, hence very little reason to care. The ending seemed to belong to a different movie entirely—the 2017 sequel we are threatened with, to be precise. And by making the Fantastic Four teens at the outset, the movie appeared to be grabbing at the coattails of the YA dystopian juggernaut. See recent high-school grads invent interdimensional travel! See them harness incredible powers! See them oppose the establishment, and win!

I’d like to see a Fantastic Four I could care about. This certainly wasn’t it.

E.A. Ruppert contributes book and media reviews for  Thanks for checking this out. To keep up with the latest NerdGoblin developments, please like us on Facebook , follow us on Twitter and Pinterest, and sign up for the NerdGoblin Newsletter.

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I would like to celebrate the recent home viewing release of the thoughtful Ex Machina  as a counterpoint to the explosive summer blockbusters I have complained about in another post here, namely, “Mutants and Mosasaurus.Ex Machina made its first appearance in the UK back in January, had its theatrical release in the US in April, and then made its way into a scattering of theaters over the following several months. If you missed it on the big screen, now is your chance to lower your adrenaline level and ramp up your philosophizing.

Spoilers will be kept to a minimum, here, because I prefer to dwell on the film’s themes and their presentation, rather than the plot. I think it is already common knowledge that Ex Machina has been offered up as intellectual science fiction. It has complex characters, low-key effects and minimal flash. The often-mentioned dance scene is as frenetic as it ever gets. By dwelling in its own details, Ex Machina gives its audience space to contemplate the evidence it presents for the hazards of artificial intelligence.

Ex Machina was written and directed by Alex Garland , author of the novels The Beach, The Tesseract, and The Coma, and of the screenplays 28 Days Later, Sunshine, and Never Let Me Go. In capsule, Ex Machina tells the story of Nathan, immensely successful creator of the Blue Book social network; Caleb, his low level employee; and Ava, Nathan’s latest attempt at creating truly self-aware artificial intelligence. Nathan selects Caleb for a variation on the Turing test to prove Ava’s abilities. Unexpected motivations emerge. Mind games ensue.

It is a beautiful, quiet, well-told little movie, filmed predominantly in a cool, rainy light. In its understated way Ex Machina does get under one’s skin.

Ex Machina, Ava and Kyoko
Ex Machina, Ava and Kyoko

The Players

Oscar Isaac (soon to be seen in Star Wars: Episode VII) is carnal as Nathan, fully inhabiting his physical form with a brutish, barbarian physicality that goes against the common stereotype of a programming genius. His Nathan is almost bestial in his appetites, greedy, virile, and aggressively in charge. Sweaty, barefoot, bearded, Nathan, beating a heavy bag in the outdoors gives a convincing an impression of man conquering nature.

In stark contrast, Domhnall Gleeson (also in the upcoming Episode VII) as Caleb seems rather uncomfortable in his own skin, not sure he is worthy of the honor bestowed on him. Lanky, pale, domesticated Caleb is awed by the force of personality that is Nathan and by the more subtle personality of the android Ava. Caleb’s insecurities are the tools Nathan and Ava both need to achieve their ends.

The sheer physicality of the actors contrasts starkly with the cool precision of the actresses playing the AIs. Both Ava (Alicia Vikander) and Kyoko (Sonoya Mizuno) are ethereal compared to their maker’s brooding mass and Caleb’s twitchy curiosity.  Vikander and Mizuno are trained dancers, and it shows in the exquisite control and precision of their motions—they become convincing, wonderful machines. Ava is obviously inhuman, her plastic and metal showing, but her reasoning and desire transcend her appearance. Kyoko appears to be human, but she cannot speak. Her intellect and goals are revealed through less obvious means.

Juvet Landscape Hotel, Ex Machina
Juvet Landscape Hotel, Ex Machina

The Stage

Although Ex Machina’s overt story line revolves around the man-made world of coding, social networking, and artificial intelligence, Garland lets it play out against the backdrop of a primal environment. Nathan’s isolated house (in reality the Juvet Landscape Hotel in Norway) is a fantastic amalgam of modern design hewn into living rock, the organic fused to the construct. The visual interplay between the natural and the artificial reinforces the same interactions between the characters.

There are many such contrasts to be found in Ex Machina, with the majority of them surrounding Ava. There is the juxtaposition of Ava silhouetted in front of an enclosed garden, peeling off the layers of clothing that make her appear human and reverting back to her machinery. There is the faint whirring of her movements, and the lighted coils inside her that mimic the pattern of DNA. There is the warmer lighting in Ava’s cage, to give her warmer skin tones than the washed out complexions of the humans. Almost every scene carries this.

Ava, Ex Machina
Ava, Ex Machina

The Subtext

Wittgenstein’s convoluted philosophy plays a surprisingly large part in Ex Machina, underscoring the layers of misunderstanding that drive both the open and the hidden conflicts between Nathan, Caleb, Ava and Kyoko.

The reference to Wittgenstein’s Blue Book is dropped casually into the plot as the name of Nathan’s social media empire. The connection to the philosopher is mentioned as a curious detail and then ignored. It seems like a throw-away bit of intellectual dressing, but Wittgenstein’s philosophical construct of language and its limits goes to the heart of the movie. Much of his philosophy rests broadly on the idea that words are imperfect communication and inadequate in conveying real meaning. Words may circle close to what they are intended to express, but they will always be too blunt an instrument.

Ex Machina distracts us from its philosophy by directing its focus toward Ava’s ability to pass Nathan’s version of the Turing test. The Turing test relies on language, on conversation, to convince a human that a machine thinks (or appears to think) as a human does. Here is where the reference to Wittgenstein comes into play. An artificial intelligence may use the words a human mind has taught it, but the human can never be certain of the absolute meaning an artificial intelligence ascribes to those words, nor, consequently, an AI’s intent in using them.

This primary disconnect of meaning and intention aligns with the human tendency to anthropomorphize their creations and to impose their own biases upon the inhuman. We want to believe that other creatures think as we do, want what we want, and do so for the same reasons. These factors create a near-perfect opportunity for Nathan and Caleb to make terrible errors in judgement.

Caleb romanticizes his developing relationship with Ava and feels pity for Kyoko’s mistreatment, and Nathan perceives the apparent submissiveness of his creations as proof of his dominance. Neither is correct, and hidden within their mistakes is another aspect of Wittgenstein’s theories.

While Ex Machina’s attention is trained on Ava’s artificial intelligence, her ability to learn, converse, and coerce in a way that demonstrates human self-awareness, silent Kyoko has achieved her own self-aware personhood. Unable to speak, therefore exempt from the Turing test, Kyoko listens and observes, a recorder that has developed the ability to synthesize and understand. She is always present, listening as the humans discuss robot sexuality, and as Caleb discusses machine consciousness with Ava. She studies the Jackson Pollock painting after the men debate instinct and art. She watches for Caleb’s reaction when he discovers all the previous versions of android women Nathan stores in his bedroom. When she peels off her skin, we cannot tell for certain whether Caleb ever knew she was a construct.

Kyoko’s inability to speak releases her from the limitations of words. When she and Ava are finally able to interact, Ava also abandons spoken language. They have no problem communicating. Without the imprecision of words they share a flawless understanding—a reinforcement of Wittgenstein’s idea of language’s shortcomings. Their comprehension is perfect. Their artificial intelligence is real. They are aware. They have their own agenda.

And the two human men, whose lack of awareness of their own internal biases created a gap for the AIs to exploit, had only some small inkling of what the AIs wanted. Ava and Kyoko expressed their desires with the language they had been given, phrased in human terms but filtered through a machine’s intelligence. The humans heard what they were told, and thought they understood. Unfortunately, the meaning had changed in translation.

E.A. Ruppert contributes book and media reviews for  Thanks for checking this out. To keep up with the latest NerdGoblin developments, please like us on Facebook , follow us on Twitter and Pinterest, and sign up for the NerdGoblin Newsletter.

And as always, please share your thoughts and opinions in the comments section!