Saturday, June 23, 2012

Review of John Carter

I finally got around to watching John Carter last week.  It's time in the theater was awfully brief, and I didn't get around to seeing it before it was gone.

A lot of people, particularly fans of Edgar Rice Burroughs's Mars series, really liked the movie.  Others thought it should have been truer to the books.  Most folks who appreciated ERB seemed to like the movie, however.  The general viewing audience, however, appears to have been less enthusiastic, and the movie failed at the box office so fast that I didn't get a chance to see it.

So what did I think?  I've read the first couple John Carter novels (actually titled A Princess of Mars and The Gods of Mars), and overall I liked them.  I was not, however, particularly impressed with them.  The first novel was rather episodic, and only came together at the end.  The second also had an episodic feel, though there was more of a driving narrative.  Neither really grabbed hold of me as I was reading them.

Perhaps as a consequence, I didn't find the movie as entertaining as the other reviewers had. The beginning, which had very little resemblance to the book, felt particularly weak.  The movie broke from the book in other ways, but I think one advantage of doing so was that it was able to give the narrative more cohesion and drive. But it was still not enough cohesion and drive.  The journey to the River Iss, in particular, and the discovery of the chamber with the map of the solar system, seemed particularly random, and a bit too convenient.  

The action was fun, but felt even less realistic than other action movies.  Of course, this is partly the fault of ERB, who postulated that an Earthman would be super-humanMartian on Mars, which gave the action scenes a superhero feel.  Since, however, the genre was not superhero, it didn't work as well.  Besides, the way John Carter fought seemed to involve more swinging his sword in great slashing arcs and using his superior strength than any real swordsmanship.  In the books, at least, John Carter was a capable swordsman.

There were quite a few places in the movie where I lost track of what was going on, and why they were doing what they were doing.  I'd like to think that I was paying attention, and am at least as capable as following a movie as the average movie goer, so I suspect that some fault for that lies with the filmmaker.

Overall, I don't regret watching it.  I may even watch it again, just to try to figure out the plot in the sections I didn't follow last time.  But while I've seen worse (at least it's better than "Cowboys and Aliens," as Kristin remarked to me afterward), I'd hoped for better.

Thursday, June 14, 2012

Camping conveniences

Kristin and I went camping this past weekend.  We pitched a tent, cooked a meal over coals (and then figured out that it takes forever to cook anything over coals, and instead broke out the gas stove), and climbed a mountain, and eventually managed to climb down the mountain.  It got me thinking about some of the conveniences that modern backpackers have that would not have been available in any of that fantasy fiction I write and read.
  1. Lightweight, warm, and waterproof clothing.  Getting one of three was possible.  Maybe two of three.  But all three?  If it existed at all, you couldn't afford it.
  2. Comfortable backpack. As far as I can tell, the Romans used a sturdy forked stick which rested on the shoulder, and suspended their pack from the forked end.  Illustrations from the crusades show a backpack consisting of a shapeless sack with shoulder straps.  Overall, not as comfortable as today's form-fitting aerated backpacks.
  3. Matches. Have you ever tried to start a fire with flint and steel?  It's not as easy as fantasy fiction makes it sound.
  4. A camp stove.  Recent experience suggests that it takes a really long time to cook anything on a wood fire or hot coals.
  5. Well-preserved food. There were ways of preserving food: smoking, salting.  You could make bread (sort-of) that lasted a while.  None of it tasted good.
  6. Insect repellent. I'm still itching from a variety of bug bites.  I can only imagine what it'd be like if I hadn't used bug repellent.
  7. Sunscreen. This might not have been as big a deal.  Most people spent a lot of their time outdoors, and were likely pretty well tanned.  And you can always wear long sleeves and hats if you weren't.  But see above for the lack of lightweight clothing.
  8. Well-marked trail.  There were actually such trails.  They were called roads.  The lack of a Park Service meant that any other trail you found couldn't be trusted to lead where you wanted it to, to be safe and manageable, or to always be well marked and easy to follow.  Most folks stuck to trails they knew well.
And I'm sure I'm missing more.  These are just the things I was glad we had during this trip.

Monday, June 04, 2012

Conditum Paradoxum

As I mentioned last week, I have a book coming out soon, and I've been spending some time thinking about the release party. Of course I'll have a release party. We'll probably do something local, for friends whom I can guilt into buying my book. In addition, we'll probably do something at some of the local cons: Readercon and/or Boskone, if we can. One question we've been pondering is what we can do to make it distinctive and original. Well, my book has Romans in it, so what can be more distinctive than Ancient Roman food? To that end, Kristin and I have been taking a close look at some Ancient Roman recipes, and trying to see what we can make. First up, conditum paradoxum, or paradoxically spiced wine. The recipe is from Apicius, who describes it thus:
Conditum paradoxum: conditi paradoxi compositio: mellis pondo XV in aeneum vas mittuntur, praemissi[s] vini sextariis duobus, ut in cocturam mellis vinum decoquas. Quod igni lento et aridis lignis calefactum, commotum ferula dum coquitur, si effervere coeperit, vini rore compescitur, praeter quod subtracto igni in se redit. Cum perfrixerit, rursus accenditur. Hoc secundo ac tertio fiet, ac tum demum remotum a foco postridie despumatur. Tum [mittis] piperis uncias IV iam triti, masticis scripulos II, folii et croci dragmas singulas, dactylorum ossibus torridis quinque, isdemque dactylis vino mollitis, intercedente prius suffusione vini de suo modo ac numero, ut tritura lenis habeatur. His omnibus paratis supermittis vini lenis sextarios XVIII. Carbones perfecto aderunt duo milia.
In English, with modern measurements:
Conditum Paradoxum: The composition of this excellent spiced wine is as follows. Into a copper bowl, put 15 librae (10.8 lbs) of honey and 2 sextarii (1.08 L) of wine; heat on a slow fire, constantly stirring the mixture with a stick. At the boiling point add a dash of cold wine, retire from stove, and skim. Repeat this twice or three times, let it rest till the next day, and skim again. Then add 4 unciae (4 oz) of ground pepper, three scruples (3/24, or 1/8, oz) of mastic, a drachma (1/6 oz) each of aromatic leaves  and saffron, 5 roasted date pits, the dates themselves soaked in wine, having been steeped beforehand in wine of sufficient quality and quantity so that a sweet mash is produced. When you have prepared all this, pour over it 18 (9.72 L) sextarii of smooth wine. The resulting mixture is treated with charcoal.
The English, but not the calculated amounts, is a combination of a couple of different translations, but mostly Giacosa's A Taste of Rome.  The mixture would, of course, be strained.

We decided to try this wine after finding a modern interpretation on this German website. It uses 4 L of Retsina wine, 500 g of honey, 60 g black peppercorns, 8 pitted dates, 1 teaspoon of anise, a pinch of saffron and as many bay leaves as would be covered by the liquid. Looking over it, we realized two things. First, they substitute anise for mastic, and second, they use proportionately a lot less honey, and a lot more of most everything else (with the exception of saffron). We figured we'd try something closer to the original, with gum mastic ordered from Amazon. However we did have to scale everything down, since we didn't want 11 liters of spiced wine.  We decided that the recipe would work best for 1.5 liters of wine (2 bottles).  So the proportions we used were:

  • 1.5 liters (3.2 pints) wine
  • 1.5 lbs (682 grams) honey
  • .55 oz (15 g) pepper
  • 1 roasted date pit
  • 1 pitted date soaked in wine
  • 1/43 oz (0.63 g) aromatic leaf
  • 1/43 oz (0.63 g) saffron
  • 1/58 oz (0.48 g) gum mastic
Some of these are very small quantities.  Well, except for saffron, which comes in jars of 0.5 g (technically, a jar containing a plastic bag with the saffron--but even so, it is really a lot of saffron, since it's a strong spice).  We just used one whole jar of saffron.  For the leaves, we used a couple of leaves of tejpat (though bay leaf works too).  The gum mastic, which is a tree resin, comes in beads of varying size, and after some math, we came up with 9-10 mastic beads (assuming a normal size distribution) as the proper amount.  We did use Retsina for the wine.

So, more accurately, our recipe contained:
  • 1.5 liters (3.2 pints) Retsina
  • 1.5 lbs (682 grams) honey
  • .55 oz (15 g) black pepper
  • 1 roasted date pit
  • 1 pitted date soaked in wine, along with the wine
  • 1-2 tejpat leaves
  • 0.5 g saffron
  • 9-10 gum mastic beads
I'll leave it to Kristin to give the full recipe she used, since she did the cooking (I just did the calculations).  If you do decide to make conditum paradoxum based on this information, the most important warning I should give is that like all Roman wines, it should not be drunk straight.  The Romans diluted their wines with anywhere from one to seven times as much water.  We found three parts water (or soda water, if you don't mind being anachronistic) to one part conditum paradoxum to be about right to give a sweet and spicy drink, tasting strongly of honey, pepper, and saffron. So you may think you're only making 2 liters of conditum paradoxum, but it's really 8 liters worth.  Share it with some friends.

Update (9/29/2012): Kristin's finally put the recipe up on her blog.  And I have another post on Ancient Roman food here.

Update (10/6/2012): Kristin pointed out that I left the black pepper out of the ingredient list.  I put it in.