Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Herbert George Wells - Great Science Fiction Author

It is HG Wells' birthday today. He is not the most consistent writer I've ever read, not by a long shot. But he is one of the most interesting. His fiction is, in a lot of ways, what science fiction should be: a thinly veiled critique of today's society. He accomplishes this by pushing tendencies of it to the extreme. The things I appreciate most about science fiction are clearly present in HG Wells' work. He also sits within the epic tradition.

I love the part in War of the Worlds when all the people just line up on the street, trying to escape town, and once they are out of town, amongst the fields, they stick to the street. Initially the act is so surprising for the aliens that they don't even target the people all lined up for killing. The protagonist, on the other hand, hides and sneaks and forges his own path, and because of that he has a hard go of it but comes closer to truth and comes out better in the end. If this isn't a parallel to day-to-day life I don't know what it.

The Invisible Man is a story about a man unable to fit into society. Unlike the Odyssey, where the protagonist is a PTSD scarred war vet who cannot re-integrate into the society that sent him out to kill, this is a kid that is poor, and therefore feels he cannot integrate into society. However, like Odysseus, he does superhuman things – becomes invisible – and, again like Odysseus, though it helps him stay alive it doesn't help him in the long run with his overarching problem of being unable to be a part of his society.

As Darwin's ideas hit the scientific community in the 1800s, the idea of degeneration, or the idea that the state of humanity need not be fixed, spread like wildfire. Wells took the idea of human evolution to a logical extreme in the Island of Dr Moreau. In that work a doctor on an island creates humans out of animals, but continues to treat them as animals. When he is done experimenting he sets them free on the island and they form their own society. However, this story is really dealing with the inhuman nature of science: warning against vivisection and human experimentation. The island's compound is a parallel for a lab while the island is a parallel for the memory of prior experiments gone wrong. The animals then become people from this scientific culture attempting to parrot humanity, while really engrossed in something other, something inhuman. Two years after this popular book came out The British Union for the Abolition of Vivisection was founded.

But my favorite work of his to read is the Time Machine. This is one of my favorite books of all time – in the top five at least. Sitting right around 32,000 words this incredibly dense story can be read easily within an afternoon. It is Wells' first work in a prolific career. Told by an unnamed man around a dinner table, this is the first major work to deal with the idea of time travel. Some say Wells invented the concept, and though I disagree, he does have a major influence on time travel fiction. In he creates a society where humanity has everything provided for it and no longer has challenges or conflicts. This lack of adversarial stimulation produces a significant lack in intelligence and the two races of human he encounters are neither able to think like humans today. As he becomes stuck and then frees himself, it is clear that these are truly post-human beings, but not in the typical (for 2010 at least) singularity sense, but rather in an evolutionary sense. The two groups are logical extensions of the lower and upper classes. It is a fantastic piece about never shying away from challenges in your life and about the adverse affects of a rigidly classed culture, where rich people cannot communicate with or understand poor people and vice-versa. If this tendency hasn't happened throughout history I don't know what else has. But the story is, in my mind, his best written and one of my favorites. It reads so well.

He has protagonists that, through the distraction, evolution, or stupidity of other characters are superhuman heroes who do what other people only attempt. Their deeds are superhuman in the sense that they are out of the norm of humanity. His setting in the War of the Worlds and in Time Machine are vast settings spanning space and time respectively. Supernatural or otherworldly forces intrude on humanity and the heroes, but sometimes it is just human culture that intrudes. It is overwritten and exciting – explosions, babes, crazy scientific advancements, half-human half-animal creatures, and highly stylized, especially with the triple narrator setup in Time Machine. The only epic characteristic that doesn't always fit is the omniscient narrator. Though that one fits War of the Worlds partially. (These six elements are from Tom Drake's epic page.)

HG Wells is an underrated author who should be read by more people. Yes half of his books are utter crap filled with misspellings and grammatical errors that drive even me crazy. But these four main books of his are cultural treasures that, unfortunately, culture ignores. This is what science fiction should be. This is why HG Wells deserves to be remembered on his birthday. So here's to you, Mr Wells, thanks for the entertainment and interesting ideas. Spot on mate.

Saturday, September 11, 2010

The Audi Post

First I told you how I feel about Mercedes, then BMW, then Porsche. Now, that ain't all of the German Automakers in the world, so let's talk one more today, that great evil, Audi. Now, it's not that Audi is evil, it's just that they always win at Le Mans. Always. They have lost three times at Le Mans: they lost their first race in 1999 to BMW and a Toyota, but they still took 3rd and 4th, then in 2003 they lost to a pair of Bentleys, but still took 3rd and 4th, and finally, in 2009 they lost to a pair of Peugeots but, you guessed it, still took third. Every race that Audi has ever been at Le Mans, they have been on one of the top three steps, and they have been on the top for 9 of the last 12 races - 75% wins. In the 1980s Porsche took seven in a row, and has 16 overall wins, but Audi and Ferrari are tied for second in overall wins with nine each. Audi's five consecutive wins from 2004-2008 is third only to Porsche's seven from 1981-1987 and Ferrari's six from 1960 to 1965. All this is just to say that Audi is very good on the track - and that statement is key to how I feel about Audi: I want some of that hot track action. The only good cars Audi has ever made have been derived from track-only models and, well, they need to do that more instead of creating their usual drivel. We're going to do this in order of my favorites. Four rings, four cars:

1. Audi Quattro - 1980-1991

In the 1980s, the WRC battles between Lancia and Audi were legendarily awesome. In 1981, Audi's first year, they took fifth, giving the WRC it's first female rally winner in the process. In 1982 they took the championship while Michele Mouton took second, just twelve points off of first. In 1983 Lancia came back with a vengeance and took the title off Audi's hands by a mere two points after 12 rallies. In 1984 Audi beat Lancia by 12 points. In 1985 Peugeot came on the scene with the Quattro inspired 205 Turbo, which took seven of the twelve wins. Audi took 1 win, 5 seconds, and 2 thirds. Group B was dying, and Audi was thinking about abandoning the WRC. In 1986 as the new Lancia Delta came on board for the full season, Audi only managed two third place finishes, ending the season in 4th - the last year of Group B racing was not to go with Audi. But they were prepared for the 1987 season, with Group A cars taking the stage: they took second place, but by quite a few points behind Lancia. In 1988 they took three thirds and third place overall. In 1989 they didn't podium, and ended up in fifth overall after strong efforts from Privateer teams. The Quattro was done, but it had made its name, and made it well. During the 1980s the Quattro also came to America and, at the hands of Michele Mouton, won Pike's Peak in both 1984 and 1985, setting a record in the process and giving Pike's Peak their first women champion.

This is insanity. It is long enough for a five-door, but they only put three in. It is confused between a hot-hatch and an estate. It has that gaudy faded-four-ring emblem on the doors. It has that little spoiler that doesn't do much else but block the driver's rear view. And if you ask me, and since you're reading this blag the question is inherent, this is the best car Audi has ever made. The wheel wells don't so much arch as slump out of the car. The rear is symmetrical but for the twin, offset exhaust pipes and the window washer. There is a vent cut through the top of the gas filling cap. I could go on and on and on about how much I should not like this car, but, well, it's perfect. It's almost so bad it's good type perfect but it gets so much right in the face of so much wrong that it's only partly so bad it's good perfect. I would drive this with pride. And get lots of tickets with it.

2. Audi R8 - 2006-Now

The R8 is perhaps Audi's best known car. In 1999, Audi decided to partake in the biggest race of them all: Le Mans. The competition was fierce with BMW, Ferrari, Mercedes-Benz, Porsche, Toyota, Nissan, Ford, and Dodge, amongst others, taking to the track. Audi brought two cars - a closed top and an open top. Audi surprised all by taking two open-top prototypes to third and fourth placed finishes. Then, in 2000, they brought their finalized car, the open-top R8 to a field significantly thinned out as Mercedes went to the DTM series, Ferrari quit, Toyota and BMW decided to try F1, while Porsche, after starting an LMP racer, decided instead to make it into the Carrera GT. This left Audi battling privateer teams, and they swept the podium. This was to be a familiar occurrence. They gave their closed-top prototype from 1999 to their subsidiary company, Bentley, and in 2001, Bentley managed a third place in their first Le Mans - behind two Audis of course. In 2002 the R8 swept the podium and Bentley took fourth. In 2003 Bentley took first and second while Audi took third and fourth. 2004 saw Bentley pull out, Audi sweep the podium, and an Audi take fifth as well - for good measure - while Pescarolo (Privateer Peugeot) took fourth. In 2005 Audi took first, third, and fourth, while a Pescarolo took second. 2006 saw the introduction of the R10, and newer version of the R8 - they took first and third while a Pescarolo took second. In 2007 they took first while Peugeot took second and Pescarolo took third and fourth. In 2008 they finished 1, 4, and 6, with Peugeots in between and Pescarolos behind. In 2009 they brought another new car, the R15, and took third behind a pair of Peugeots. And finally, in 2010 they swept the podium again. What was Audi to do with all of this winning? Why, make a road car of course!

Enter the Audi R8. Not exactly the best looking car on the road - sort of looking like a stretched version of their abysmal Audi TT. Style based off of the Audi Quattro Spyder, rather than the R8 Racecar. But this thing can go. It sounds gorgeous, it is well-put-together, and it is faster than a lot of cars much more expensive than it. This is a car that is stuck somewhere between practicality and supercarality. It is the daily driver supercar. It is the boring supercar, unless you're behind the wheel. And that, friends, is all I can say about it. It's so good that I can't deny that it is a good car, but if given one, I would sell it and buy something with design or style. Unless it was the rumored V12 TDI, that one I would sell only after putting some serious miles on it.

However, in a meta-moment, Audi than converted the R8 to a GT3 Racecar in 2009, when they took second at the Nurburgring 24. In 2010 only two of their seven entrants finished, but they still took the GT3 class win and third and fifth overall. This car is doing very well. Oddly enough, the GT3 is the prettiest one:

3. Audi B7 RS4 quattro Saloon - 2006-2008
It is, like the M3, a hideous and fantastic car. This is the M3 killer Audi has wanted for a long time. It is so good I cannot ignore it. This car is more cockish than the M3: if you live in a fraternity, buy this car. Leave the rest of us the M3. Here's a picture so I don't have to say anything more about this car:

4. Audi Avus Quattro - 1991

This is what I want from Audi - this retro-futuristic orgy of melted aluminum, stupid amounts of power, and a human driver as an afterthought. This is why Audi should be around today. Forget about all the cars they make today - they all suck but for the RS4 and R8. But if you look back over the concept cars that Audi has crafted, you realize that there are talented people there, and when they loosen up a bit they truly do create things that are otherworldly, deliciously stupid, and truly astounding. Audi, please do this more. Lots more. And let me buy one. I feel like this car would be right at home in The Metropolis of Tomorrow:

The Pre-War Auto Union Race Cars: Kings of the Past and Future

Streamlined, melted bodies made out of polished aluminum melded to engines that are stupidly powerful. The pre-war Auto Union racecars are what I wish so badly that Audi was building today. This is what I think of when I am inebriated and convinced that Audi makes good cars. Here is a 1935 Type B "Lucca" that was once the fastest car in the world and is is completely lust-inducing:

In Conclusion:
The Audi Quattro was a spectacular race car and a spectacular street car. The R8 was a spectacular race car and an good street car and then a spectacular race car again. The RS4 B7 Quattro Saloon's quality spoke for itself - because the design sure didn't. And finally, the Audi Avus Quattro and Rosemeyer are the rightful heirs to a fantastic design tradition that Audi continues to ignore. Screw you Audi. You started out the most exciting out of all the German Automakers, and ended up sucking the worst. And with that, I think it is pretty clear why I hate Audi. But, I want the Quattro. That is the one Audi road car I would buy.

Thursday, September 09, 2010

Exciting Racing News

Mini is BACK!

After taking third place in 1963, the little car made its name on the slopes surrounding Monte Carlo with wins in 1964, 1965, 1966, and 1967, then capped it off with another third in 1968 as the Porsche 911 took its first win of three consecutive wins.

After Subaru's factory rally effort ended in 2008, Prodrive was left stranded. After competing at the very top, they needed to get back there. Their old buddies BMW showed up with their little car and now, the Mini will return to racing. This week it was testing on tarmac at the Pro-Drive track. Next week it hits the gravel hard in Portugal. Here's a picture to fap to:

And because this is all so very exciting, here is the Press Release:
* 09.09.2010
* Press Release

Munich. The new MINI Countryman World Rally Car has successfully completed its shakedown phase at Prodrive's private proving ground in Warwickshire.

This initial part of the car's test and development programme took place with the engineering team driving the car over four days, primarily on tarmac, but also including several kilometres on loose surfaces and Prodrive's low grip facility. The car will now travel to Portugal for a week of testing on gravel.

"As with any totally new car, it is vital to take time to ensure all the systems are working as intended before embarking on a week long gravel test," said David Lapworth, Prodrive technical director.

This first test car is running with an interim body and aero package, while design of the final World Rally Car bodywork is underway.

Monday, September 06, 2010

The Socratic Method

"If I say that it is the greatest good for a man to discuss virtue every day and those other things about which you hear me conversing and testing myself and others, for the unexamined life is not worth living for men, you will believe me even less. What I say is true, gentlemen, but it is not easy to convince you."

I am reading Plato for the first time, in my eighth year of college. I bloody love it. And disagree with about half of it. But it sure is fun reading! If you haven't read any of his stuff yet, you should read some of the dialogues. It's clearly where the idea of othering comes from.