"The Childe...More restless than the swallow in the skies..." -Lord Byron, Childe Harold's Pilgrimage

Saturday, September 28, 2013

Is 'Doctor Sleep' a Shining Sequel?

Doctor Sleep (The Shining, #2)Doctor Sleep by Stephen King
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

“Enough with all this Alcoholics Anonymous chit chat! I want the supernatural scare fest I was promised!” Some part of me wanted to stand and say that to Stephen King while reading his new novel, Doctor Sleep. After all, this story is a sequel to The Shining , a true blue--which is to say green and slimy--horror house thriller.

Having survived the literal monsters of The Shining, Young Dan Torrance has grown up into a womanizing alcoholic with a violent streak. As character reprises go, Torrance is a plausible and well-crafted offspring of his haunted father. Yet as literature, Doctor Sleep is better compared to King’s recent 11 22 63 . They share similar sentiments about individual and collective character. King even recycles my favorite line from 11/22/63. And both plotlines embellish one man’s internal struggle by covering a great deal of country and time. Torrance bottoms out as a 20-something alcoholic. After a period of wandering, he encounters a young girl who also has psychic gifts and is plagued by soul-sucking villains. These catalyze his personal growth.

Ironically, the novel’s chief problem is the extent of its restraint. In contrast to the vivid and sometimes overwhelming savagery employed in past novels, here King errs on the side of minimalism and suggestion. It’s not to say he altogether spares readers horror. But where he does get graphic and macabre, King is relatively brief and to the point. Unlike The Shining, this novel is not unrelentingly spooky.

Doctor Sleep spends most of its ink developing human drama. And herein lies one of the novel’s weaknesses. Most of the characters are not memorable. They may be a cut above flat caricatures, but they fail to transcend their mere utility nature. In particular, the individuals who make up a villainous cult named the True Knot are mostly forgettable.

Still, as a collective voice the True Knot prove intriguing. They are evil but not mindlessly diabolical. They display love, loyalty, and personal struggle in ways that merit some empathy. Their coldblooded killing is more than a recreational pursuit. Motivated by a sense of survival and dependency, they feed on the vitality of younger generations. Holy cow! Am I just now realizing how the True Knot’s self-serving rampage makes an excellent allegory for Baby Boomer politics?

As explored through interviews and author’s notes, King seems mesmerized by real life crises. So much so that Doctor Sleep develops at the expense of the supernatural, rather than by virtue of it. For most of the novel, the protagonist’s chief adversary is not a monster; it is a vice. Likewise, Torrance’s shining protege is predominantly hounded by her own temper, not the villain's.

I struggled in trying to decide whether to give Doctor Sleep three or four stars out of five. No, I don’t wish I could give it three-and-a-half. I’m saying this novel merits either three or four stars depending on how I look at it. As a sequel that adeptly transcends rehash, that provides a thoughtful and entertaining development of an established character, this is a four star novel. However, taken as a thriller it feels patchy.

Still, as I followed Doctor Sleep on his journey I felt myself appreciating the lesson Torrance plays out. The demonic forces we should be most concerned with are not in this or any King story, they are in our souls. It may even follow that some people read Doctor Sleep and decide to give AA, or one of its off-shoots, a try. Yes, one might read a Stephen King novel and be the better for it.

View all my reviews

Friday, September 20, 2013

Returning to NASA Glenn

65 feet high
130 feet in diameter
17,000 fiberglass wedges, each 2 feet thick
3 jet engine test rigs
1,000+ degrees Fahrenheit testing conditions
Dozens of microphones
Zero echoes

The Aero-Acoustic Propulsion Laboratory

The above video showcases a far-field microphone array in the AAPL located at
NASA Glenn Research Center in Cleveland, Ohio. If the laboratory reminds you of a recording studio, it should. That is precisely what the AAPL is. (Prefer a photo tour?
Jump to my gallery.)

Microphone Arrays at NASA's AAPL

A key feature of the AAPL is the ability to measure jet engine noise from near and far. It's not enough to stand next to a running test rig and say, "Yup, that's loud." At the AAPL, scientists and engineers study a jet's noise output from multiple angles and distances, just as it is experienced in everyday life. Jets today are loud, but keep in mind they could be--and once were--much worse.

Jet engine test rigs at NASA's AAPL

Above at left is the Small Hot Jet Acoustic Rig. To the right is the larger Nozzle Acoustic Test Rig. Researchers use both to try out new and hopefully less noisy jet engine designs. They tend to focus on the engine's backside. As was explained to my tour group, one motivation for altering the back of the engine is convenience. In terms of safety regulations, it's much more troublesome to modify the front of the engine--where things get sucked in--than the back of the engine--where things get blown out.

Enough about tech issues. Let's talk about raccoons. ...yes, raccoons.

fiberglass acoustic wedges behind wire mesh

Notice the wire mesh covering the above acoustic wedges? NASA installed the mesh to keep birds from nesting in the dome. Alas, though the wire mesh solved the bird problem, it created a raccoon problem.

A few of the stripe-tailed scavengers snuck into the AAPL, took one look at the wire mesh, and decided it must be climbed. And they made it to the top. Furry critter advocates will be happy to know this story does not end with dead raccoons. Upon discovering the unauthorized visitors, NASA staff left a door cracked. The raccoons let themselves out overnight--presumably after discovering that the AAPL deprived their squeals of cool reverb.

NASA Glenn on Second Thought

A jet fan test rig at NASA Glenn Research Center
The Advanced Noise Control Fan test bed

The above cluttered photo is not my favorite. But in terms of capturing NASA Glenn's essence, it is probably the best picture I can share. Glenn's exterior is a jungle of tan bricks and weathered steelwork. It shows the blight of age and funding cutbacks. Yet when you enter its facilities, especially AAPL, Glenn becomes awe-inspiring. This is one of NASA's workhorse centers. One of its oldest buildings, dating to World War II, was originally used to troubleshoot overheating B-29 Bomber engines. Today it houses research into ion engines intended for deep space.

This was my second visit to NASA Glenn. I attended 2012's Mars Curiosity landing social. I'm already daydreaming about a third trip. The place has an industrial charm. The staff display warm hospitality. The work they do, especially in aeronautics, is critical. I encourage paying a visit. Public tours are free but limited. Advanced registration is required. Visit the NASA GRC website for details.

Friday, September 13, 2013

How Cleveland Charmed Me

Looking down through a glass case, I examined century-old rivets so badly gnarled they resembled pulled taffy. Yet these thick metal pins once held together the RMS Titanic. They were torn from the hull as the steel ship sank in the Atlantic Ocean. Now the rivets and other artifacts surrounded me in a dimly lit exhibition room. Inevitably, I felt haunted.

Later I rode up an escalator, walked into another room, and found myself a few centimeters from the above Skylab 3 space capsule. An authentic 1970s Apollo command module, it still bore char marks from a fiery plummet through Earth's atmosphere. Yet as the undamaged crew seats assured me, the capsule landed quite safely, proving itself air-, space-, and sea-worthy. It would have felt absolutely inspiring...but I was still thinking
of Titanic.

This past weekend, I traveled to Cleveland, Ohio to make my second visit to NASA Glenn Research Center. My first visit was entirely about exploring NASA's Midwest campus. This time I allotted an extra day to experience a bit of Cleveland. Priority one was a visit to the Great Lakes Science Center, which serves as NASA Glenn's official visitor center. Over five full hours, I saw many cool exhibits and attended two IMAX films. I am pleased to say this venue is excellent and well worth visiting. Give yourselves a full afternoon or more. Let the kids enjoy the many hands-on exhibits. Heck, enjoy them yourselves!

The above image is of a test version of the Mars Pathfinder rover's landing bag system. You can see more pictures here, including shots from my facility tour at NASA Glenn. On the strength of the science center's permanent collection, the citizens of Cuyahoga County can be proud. Still, I happened to visit while the Titanic Artifact Exhibition was in town. Seeing relics of that tragedy in close proximity to a triumphant piece of Apollo space history gave me pause. Shakespeare's auspicious line comes to mind: "What a piece of work is man!" Then again, that is a line from Hamlet.

Following my visit to the Great Lakes Science Center, I found a short walking trail with a great view of Lake Erie and the Cleveland skyline. The above picture was taken at the Cleveland Lakefront Nature Preserve. As the sun went down, I drove into the nearby suburb of Lakewood and found a small diner. There I enjoyed a tasty double decker club sandwich with a side of sweet potato fries and a glass of ginger ale. The service was friendly. Moreover, the diverse and neighborly mix of employees and customers helped dissolve some of my preconceived notions about the city.

Several times during the day, a Randy Newman song played in my head: "Burn On." Equal parts charming and haunting, the song references the infamous Cuyahoga River fire of 1969. Like the Titanic exhibit I had visited earlier that day, Newman’s tune perfectly captures the dichotomy of achievement and folly that is human industry. One line swells with nostalgia: "Cleveland, city of light, city of magic..." Heretofore only acquainted with the city's maligned past--and overlooking the wry undertones of Newman's bass line and lyrics--I used to find that line odd. On September 6th, I finally came to embrace the multifaceted import of the song. Thank you for a great and thoughtful day, Cleveland. I hope to visit again.

Friday, September 6, 2013

Call Me Sci-Fi Writer, Please

Asimov. Clarke. Bova. Christensen.

These names do belong together...just barely. And I mean just barely. Three are phenomenal sci-fi authors and Bova is just a hack. Kidding! I'm kidding, Ben Bova. Seriously though, I am proud to say that on September 1st, Childe Jake became a published author of science fiction!

I am the 2013 winner of Current magazine's Flash Fiction Contest. I invite you to open the following link, proceed to page eight, and read all three sentences. Yup, my story is only three sentences long. Flash fiction indeed!

by Jake Christensen