Jurassic Park as Metaphor for Family Trauma

The element that takes the Jurassic Park formula beyond simple action-adventure fun is the emphasis on human characters with flaws and clear arcs. That human emphasis has, whether intentionally or inadvertently, often resulted in movies with a subtext about family trauma. This is a topic I’ve thought and talked about intermittently on other platforms, but I want to try to develop it a little more here.

Most of the Park and World films are guided by a loss of family unity and a gradual rebuilding of family around kids. The pattern starts with Jurassic Park: Tim and Lex come to the island to get them away from their parents’ divorce. Through the events of the film, they bond with Grant, who starts out as someone who is very child-averse. As he guides them through the park safely and comes to care deeply about them, he’s addressing the issue in his own otherwise solid relationship with Sattler: she wants kids, but he couldn’t stand them. In the final helicopter flight out, Alan and Ellie share looks that express a great number of things: relief, gratitude, affection…but also there seems to be a shared recognition of how things have changed, as the kids rest against the man who starts out the movie terrifying a child merely out of slight annoyance over an offhanded remark. At least within the scope of the movie, the kids have found a new family, somewhat ironically formed around a man who never wanted one.

The Lost World continues the pattern. This time, Ian Malcolm’s daughter Kelly finds herself torn between separated parents. Her mother’s off on a trip with a new love interest. Her father, a habitual divorcé who’s never made time to nurture relationships with his (ex-)wives or kid(s), acts similarly disinterested in her and inconvenienced by her presence. Rather than be pawned off on one of her dad’s acquaintances, Kelly stows away to come along on his next expedition. The horrors of the island bring her to bond closely with Ian’s girlfriend, Sarah, and Ian finds renewed focus on the safety of both Sarah and Kelly. Ian repeatedly risks his life for both of them. This focus on protecting family ties in rather nicely with the threat from the Tyrannosaurus family that occupies the second and third acts of the film. Once more, the movie ends with a moment of peace for the reformed family, with Kelly, Sarah, and Ian all on the couch; in a reverse on the original, the child stays awake and watches over the sleeping adults.

Jurassic Park III once more finds much of the character motivations in a divorce. The Kirbys have divorced, Paul hasn’t really moved on while Amanda has, and their son Eric is caught in the middle. Eric gets stranded on Isla Sorna because of Amanda’s reckless “fun” boyfriend. The trauma of the island pushes Paul and Amanda back together, and the little nuclear family appears restored by the end of the film. In a separate arc, Grant and Sattler have remained friends but split up; Grant seems to slowly be reintroducing himself to Sattler’s new life of husband and child, but he feels out of place. Ellie insists that Alan can ask for help if he needs it. And by the end of the film, he’s able to do so in a moment of crisis, and she’s there for them. The dinosaurs get their family arc, too, as the Velociraptor pack is desperately pursuing their stolen eggs, and the Pteranodon flock attack to feed their offspring.

By this point, the recurrence of divorce and separation begins to feel somewhere between a fundamental franchise building block and a tired trope trotted out simply because it worked before. Either way, it’s back again in Jurassic World. Brothers Zach and Gray get sent to the titular theme park to visit their aunt Claire while their parents finalize a divorce back home. (Side note: I recall people complaining that the divorce reveal came from nowhere, but this is hinted at from as early as the airport departure scene, and the scene where Karen and Claire talk made that pretty clear to me even though it’s not explicitly stated until a little later on.) Even as their family falls apart, the brothers recommit to each other, and Zach changes his attitude from an aloof bully to a caring and supportive older brother. Claire’s arc echoes both John Hammond (as the most visible face of the park administration’s hubris and a more prominent figure than Masrani) and Alan Grant. From Grant, she gets the same apparent disinterest in kids or parenting, and her commitment to saving her nephews provides a somewhat similar arc, though bogged down in sexism: Grant undergoes an attitude change that is not required by society but simply a natural progression that resolves a tension in his romantic relationship, while Claire is nagged by her sister about how she’ll one day want to have children, stares longingly at a child reunited with their parent, is called out or treated differently because of her awkwardness with kids, and is operating within a larger societal notion that women should be guided by a desire to nurture and raise children. Regardless, while the arc had its missteps, I do believe the intent was to provide an arc that echoed Grant’s. Her relationship with the rugged Owen, from exes to romantic partners, suggests something of a collision of the Sarah/Ian and Amanda/Paul relationships from the other films, as well. Then, of course, as I recently wrote about at length, Owen’s relationship with Blue and the raptor pack provides the dinosaur family narrative for this entry in the series.

Finally, Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom is partially about people looking for connection and purpose after losing everything. Owen and Claire have split up and slowly reconnect, Owen is motivated to save his abandoned baby Blue, and Claire is guided by a desire to make right her failings at the park and feels deeply obligated to the dinosaurs she once saw as only “assets.” Lockwood fell out with business partner Hammond after using cloning technology to duplicate his deceased daughter. Over the course of the movie, that cloned girl, Maisie, learns the truth about her identity only after she discovers that her “grandfather” was killed by his not-so-loyal assistant. Once more, a family is formed by film’s end, this time between Owen, Claire, and Maisie. As all three characters are returning in Dominion, perhaps this new found family will be a little more permanent. And for the dinosaur family, Owen reunites with Blue, only to part ways once more by the end of the film.

Not only is this deconstruction and reformation of family structures so central to the movies’ narratives, but the movies themselves work as a metaphor for that family turmoil–as I suggested way back at the top. The dinosaurs are a vehicle for children’s wonder, amazement, and curiosity. Family and children were clearly on the mind of Michael Crichton when he wrote the original novel. As he’s quoted as saying in The Making of Jurassic Park:

My wife was pregnant with my first child, and I found that I couldn’t walk past a toy store without buying a stuffed toy. And what I was buying, more often than not, were stuffed dinosaurs. My wife couldn’t understand it. We knew we were having a girl. Why was I buying all these dinosaurs? And I would say, “Well, girls like dinosaurs, too.” But it was clear that I was sort of obsessed with dinosaurs; and the whole idea of children and dinosaurs, and the meaning of what that was, was just on my mind a lot during that period.

(Don Shay & Jody Duncan, p. 3)

Dr. Will Tattersdill, an academic researching the “social history of dinosaurs” in popular culture over the decades, has discussed how dinosaurs “mean a yearning for the past” and allow the observer to experience both human culture and natural history simultaneously. It’s interesting to consider that framework in recognizing that these movies start with characters, especially kids, yearning to connect with the dinosaurs, being awed by the dinosaurs, before the dinosaurs turn against them. The past isn’t enough to shield them from the crisis of the present, and in fact leads to that very crisis, the dissolution of the preexisting family.

It pains me to say that I can’t recall who said this or where it was printed, but I vaguely recall a comparison made between dinosaurs and children’s parents. Dinosaurs are big, objects of affection, at times terrifying, representative of a past before you existed, just as parents are to kids. A divorce or separation causes a considerable amount of chaos and confusion, if not outright trauma, for a young child, and these devoted caretakers also may inadvertently harm the child in the process of an especially bitter divorce. I think there’s something there in the Jurassic Park franchise, in that these kids admire the dinosaurs, the dinosaurs cause them harm, and they ultimately learn to coexist with the dinosaurs and survive. That evolution typically overlaps with the reformation of the family or the creation of a new found family.

At least to my eye, then, the experiences of the characters make literal the emotional harm and healing associated with the largely background family dynamics that inform the motivations and relationships central to every Jurassic Park movie.

Jurassic Park: Book vs. Film

It’s common knowledge that the book is always better than the movie. Except for when it isn’t. Jurassic Park is a fairly unique case, in that the movie is an incredible achievement and is distinctly superior to the book, and yet in adapting from print to screen, it takes some liberties and changes some characters and plot arcs for the worse. While I do believe that the best version of Jurassic Park exists on the screen, there are some notable caveats that go with that statement, and depending on your storytelling priorities, it’s perfectly reasonable to favor the book. It’s sort of a tie, then, isn’t it?

Below are the elements I favored in each version.

Better in the Film

  1. Almost all of the characters. Except for the case of Gennaro (made into a symbol of corporate greed and embodied primarily by cowardice) and Nedry (who remains a fairly simple bumbling villain, and yet another character motivated by greed), they’re all more human and complex.
    1. Hammond is refreshingly reformed, not a simple corporate bad guy or “evil Walt Disney” like the book, and I think his realization over the course of the film that the park was a bad idea, his recognition that his consultants’ concerns about power, control, and chaos were right, provides a fantastic character arc that also serves to reinforce the central theme of the movie in a better and more subtle way than the preachy lectures from Malcolm in the novel; this also provides a nice setup for Hammond’s reformation and attempt to get the dinosaurs left alone that motivates him to act in The Lost World.
    2. Grant has a fantastic new arc, becoming more comfortable with children and developing paternal characteristics that had otherwise been lacking and suggest a likely improvement in his long-term relationship with Sattler (and so I’ll never really forgive Jurassic Park III for bringing the two back as exes, with Sattler having found another partner to start a family with).
    3. Speaking of Sattler, the sensitivity and fearful resolve brought to the role by Laura Dern make for an improved character over the more generic Action Hero Woman defined solely by beauty and nerves of steel in the book.
    4. Malcolm is made to be hipper and funnier, somewhat less a boring know-it-all, in part thanks to far fewer speeches and in part due to the magnetism Jeff Goldblum naturally produces.
    5. Switching the relative ages of dino-nerd Tim and scaredy-cat Lex, and then making Lex a computer geek, makes Lex far less annoying and gives her something practical to do while retaining Tim’s function in the story. Helpful, endearing kids–who are still kids and require protection–make Grant’s arc even more plausible and, more importantly, make it easier for the audience (or at least me) to care when the kids are imperiled. (I literally gasp every time I watch that Explorer slide over the edge with Grant and Lex barely grasping the line to safety in time.)
  2. The design of the park is gorgeous, the sets are amazing, and it looks better than I could have imagined from reading the book alone. In fact, the book makes the park seem smaller, in a way, even though there’s a more involved tour and then the extended river raft sequence to show more of it and more of the dinosaurs in it. (Tough to beat the lush Hawaiian ridges in the background of the film for making the island and park seem enormous.)
  3. The movie focuses on a smaller set of intense action scenes with plenty of smaller character moments in between. The book is too much a run of threat after threat, with virtually no character development (I’ll talk in the next section about the cool moments of meandering the book gets into, but they’re not there for character development).
  4. The movie really nails moments of awe. In the book, there’s more sickening dread throughout. Whereas the movie still opens with the Velociraptor attack, it then shifts to introducing our characters, and when we get to the island, we get the cool Brachiosaurus scene. The book lingers on moments of horror, characterized by the introductory scene in which a maimed man is brought back to the mainland to die, followed by a prolonged subplot about several Procompsognathus that have escaped to the mainland to prey on infants.
  5. The movie ends with a sense of hope and renewed purpose. The book ends on a darker note, with a much higher body count, the island napalmed, predators escaped to the mainland, and the surviving protagonists held prisoner.

Better in the Book

  1. Gennaro is done a great disservice in the film by combining his character with Ed Regis and killing him off early. I really like the Gennaro of the book. He’s still representative of corporate greed and irresponsibility, but he’s frankly not a bad man, and he’s provided an opportunity for reluctant redemption. Gennaro’s also the book’s everyman and therefore makes for the most relatable viewpoint character, in contrast to the author’s mouthpiece that is Malcolm or the Action Heroes of Grant and Sattler.
  2. There is not a single best version of Muldoon, but the book’s version has some strong points in his favor. I love Bob Peck’s portrayal, but I also like the older, alcoholic, roguish figure of the novel. I also enjoy Muldoon’s meatier role, as he becomes centrally involved in the subplot of attempting to get the park back online, doing things like tranquilizing the adult Tyrannosaurus, finding Nedry’s corpse, and distracting the raptors when attempting to restore power. And there’s the fact that Muldoon makes it out alive in the book. I do prefer the film’s treatment of death–anyone and everyone is at risk, and even though the body count is lower, it’s not the simple use of violent death as moral consequence that Crichton tends to employ in his books. Still, Muldoon’s a character I want to make it off the island; he knew better, and he actually paid attention to the threat the dinosaurs represented. It’s especially humiliating for the film version of the character in that he’s taken down by the dinosaurs he’s supposed to know and respect/fear.
  3. The dinosaurs in the book are more accurate, at least for the time of publication. The film takes too many liberties with some of its dinosaurs, though they are still mostly quite realistic (again, for the time of release) and certainly dynamic in a way that most audiences hadn’t seen before. Even the weird divergences in the book, like Velociraptor actually being Deinonychus, are explicitly discussed, and the speculative behaviors presented for some of the dinosaurs are exactly that–speculative, not necessarily inaccurate.
  4. The book actually answers the questions raised by its central mysteries. The movie never explains why the Triceratops keeps getting sick (nor does it even bother to suggest that Sattler is right) or how the Velociraptor were breeding without notice or able to escape their confinement to lay eggs in the park. The novel simply had more raptors, so it was easier to imagine them secretly disappearing at night in small numbers, but the movie has only the three, so it’s a little harder to imagine that no one would ever notice (then again, they had a skeleton crew to run the park, even more so in the movie).
  5. The book also spends more time fleshing out how the park is run and staffed, how things go to hell and how systems are restored, and even what the dinosaurs really are. I liked the moments spent with Muldoon, Wu, and Harding and the more behind-the-curtain elements that their stories, and Hammond’s, provided. While I’d never want to see a movie remake of Jurassic Park, which is more or less perfect as is, I really wouldn’t mind at all a television series that adapted the novel and mirrored its more meandering pace and curiosity about every element of how this park could possibly exist. Spielberg rightly focused on the awe and spectacle, but I like Crichton’s intense focus on rationalizing everything, on making it seem real, like an incident that had actually occurred. Crichton was interested in the infrastructure and logistics of it all, and I suppose I am too.

A fairly neutral point is how each version left the state of the fictional universe for potential sequels. Certainly sequels are never necessary, but we’ve certainly had plenty of sequels nonetheless, and it’s interesting to consider how the changed landscapes at the conclusions of the original stories impacted what later stories could reasonably be told.

The book closes off any option of a return to Isla Nublar, given its dramatic napalm bombing finale. However, it does leave the dangling thread of some of the dinosaurs having reached the mainland–at least some Procompsognathus and what is suggested to be Velociraptor. That might have been a rather limited scope for a sequel, but you’d immediately be in a world where dinosaurs were coexisting with remote human populations, and that could have been interesting. I’m rather glad we didn’t see that sequel, though, because I don’t think I’d much care for such a scenario where there were only a few small theropods left. Sure, it could have been an interesting story about preserving and containing de-extinct and now endangered life that was nonetheless an invasive species, but I bet it would have been more a monster narrative about killer dinosaurs.

Ultimately, it was the better choice for Crichton to abandon this subplot. And, given his interest in a plausible prehistoric park and in the nuts-and-bolts infrastructure of it, the existence of a Site B makes a lot of sense and is a good starting point. It doesn’t feel like a do-over, but more a reflection that Jurassic Park would have required considerable facilities for genetics, manufacturing, incubation, and raising the young dinosaurs that likely would have to be larger than the infrastructure suggested even in the book’s version of the park. It’s a natural development. I’m also hardly alone in finding that Crichton’s best stories tend to borrow themes and structures from classic literature, so it shouldn’t be surprising that he turned to perhaps the most signature adventure story of humans stumbling upon a lost prehistoric land for the sequel, lifting even the title of Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Lost World for his novel. Once more, Crichton spends a lot of time on nuts and bolts, building out a plausible sequence of events for the characters to discover this lost world and articulating a coherent explanation for its existence and abandonment. But the plot itself suffers, and he reuses character types from Jurassic Park, down to bringing along two kids. Truly, once the team gets to the island, the plot takes a backseat to a series of mostly disconnected action set pieces, interesting speculative dinosaur behaviors, and long-winded philosophical debates among the protagonists. The central mystery on the island–how can the ecosystem support so many carnivores?–is not especially interesting and keeps getting derailed by the next action scene. And the central antagonists are just bumbling poachers, as Crichton apparently felt it necessary to bring the BioSyn corporate antagonist behind Nedry back into the mix in a rather mundane way. Perhaps the most unusual carryover from the first book is the return of Ian Malcolm, a character who was quite dead. While a bizarre choice, I imagine this was an acquiescence to audience interest and the very living version of the character in the movie. It might perhaps be another nod to Arthur Conan Doyle, who in addition to writing The Lost World was of course the creator of Sherlock Holmes, whom he once killed off and later brought back.

Spielberg and screenwriter David Koepp had their own loose ends they could have followed up on. After all, there’s no mention of bombing the island. There could have still been dinosaurs on Isla Nublar. Perhaps InGen could have sent in a team to try to control the situation, encountering new threats and exploring previously unseen areas of the park. The mysteries left unanswered in the film could have been addressed. And while the lysine contingency would have gone into effect with the absence of human intervention, the animals’ continued survival would have been another mystery to answer–after all, that was another question left to address on Isla Sorna either way. While they largely scrapped the broad adventure plot of Crichton’s sequel, they did pull in several of the characters, a few of the action sequences, and the broad concept of the second island, so Nublar was left neglected. Of course, the films did eventually get back to Isla Nublar and a reorganized park, but in the process, they left the fate of the dinosaurs on Isla Sorna in shadow. Why was the volcanic eruption on Isla Nublar a potential threat of re-extinction for the dinosaurs if they were thriving on Site B? The only for-certain explanation, provided in ancillary materials like the Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom Survival Guide, is that the animals were relocated from Isla Sorna to the new park on Isla Nublar. Were they all moved? How did InGen get around the apparent preserve status set up for Isla Sorna after the events of The Lost World, especially if they completely depleted the newly established ecosystem in the process? Regardless, it would have been nice if each film didn’t act as though there was only one island with dinosaurs on it, that island being whichever one was the focus of that given film.

But now I’m way off topic. The bottom line: there are a great many things I like about both the book and movie version of Jurassic Park, and I’m glad they both exist.

Review: Making Contact

Making Contact: Preparing for the New Realities of Extraterrestrial Existence by Alan Steinfeld

My rating: 1 of 5 stars


I was provided an advanced copy of Making Contact, apparently because of my interest in the much better UFOs: Generals, Pilots and Government Officials Go on the Record by Leslie Kean. Making Contact is a book for true believers only, those already caught up in the mythology of conspiracy theories, alien abductions, and interdimensional communication. Only the especially credulous, already well-versed in the layers of contradictory alien contact lore, could truly enjoy this book. As such, this is a case where the book is just a bad fit for me.

But I unfortunately have to discourage anyone else from reading. We live in an age in which misinformation spreads rapidly and easily, and this book represents exactly the sort of dangerous misinformation we should be avoiding. People without strong critical thinking skills might be persuaded, for instance, by the chapter in this book written by social scientists misexplaining and misapplying complex hard science fields like quantum physics to justify disjointed narratives of alien/UFO superpowers.

I’d also suggest that this book is the sort of thing that undermines any real interest in engaging seriously with the phenomenon of unidentified flying objects. I’m sure there’s an explanation for those 5% of sightings that can’t be explained currently even with sufficient data about the sighting, and that explanation may not be very interesting but it would still be worthwhile to know. I’d love to see serious research into that phenomenon. But why would any serious scientist want to touch the subject if the people shouting most loudly about it also insist that the mere existence of UFOs indicates interstellar or interdimensional beings visiting us not-so-surreptitiously on Earth? What legitimate researcher would bother to think there’s anything there if they’re always hearing about the phenomenon in the context of stories about alien abductions, mystical energy fields, telepathic contactees, and elaborate but entirely unsupported conspiracy theories?

Furthermore, the book feels a bit rushed, perhaps because of the need to put something out in advance of the release to the public of the DOD report on UFOs that should be made available by the end of June. Of course, since this book’s publication, it’s become pretty clear that the report, as per usual, cannot definitively state what the phenomenon is. That’s to be expected and not reflective of a conspiracy but just the reality that it’s hard to verify every case of something strange seen in the sky after the fact. But of course, the essays included in the book seem to believe that this is all part of a rolling buildup to full Disclosure, the almost Rapture-level event anticipated in the far-out ufology community in which the government will come clean and reveal the full depths of contact with extraterrestrials, complete with revelations about its sordid history of involvement with benevolent and malevolent ETs and their remarkable technologies.

It’s a shame, too, because not all of the essays are bad. Nick Pope’s essay, while increasingly speculative toward the end, is actually a very level take on the UFO phenomenon and rather clearly and logically explains why it’s very unlikely that there’s any big government conspiracy at all. A transcript of a talk by the late psychiatrist and alien abduction researcher John Mack offered a nuanced accounting of his work and speculation about what it could mean–and while it’s certainly not a convincing argument for legitimate alien abduction occurrences, it’s an interesting reminder that these experiences are very real to the people reporting them. Finally, the book excerpt by famous abductee/writer Whitley Strieber and the fascinatingly fragmented and abstract essay by abductee/performer Henrietta Weekes were interesting insights into the perspectives of those actually reporting an “alien abduction” experience. I think it’s notable that the essays I’ve cited downplay the significance of the actual UFO phenomenon and put more weight into subjective experience related to a separate phenomenon, that of the reported alien abduction, experiences that seem very real to the alleged abductees. However, I think it would be far more interesting to read about the experience as a psychosocial phenomenon, rather than as further support for those desperately looking for proof of alien contact, no matter how incompatible the various sources of evidence.

I’d suggest looking for writings by Pope, Mack, Strieber, or Weekes outside of this anthology, where they can be engaged with (even if not accepted/believed) on their own terms.

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Finally, if you’re interested in reading something worthwhile on the history of investigation into the UFO phenomenon, I’d strongly recommend the April 30th essay “How the Pentagon Started Taking U.F.O.s Seriously” by Gideon Lewis-Kraus on The New Yorker.

Review: Surviving Death (Book)

Surviving Death: A Journalist Investigates Evidence for an Afterlife by Leslie Kean

My rating: 4 of 5 stars


Just like Leslie Kean’s UFOs: Generals, Pilots and Government Officials Go on the Record was for the UFO phenomenon, her Surviving Death: A Journalist Investigates Evidence for an Afterlife is a great introductory text about contemporary evidence for the afterlife geared at a mainstream audience. It’s not an examination of religious belief, and Kean presents herself as agnostic on the subject although inclined to believe that consciousness continues beyond death. She tries to maintain objectivity while also being explicit about her subjective perspective and personal biases; she weaves her own personal experiences into her reporting in a way that makes the book more intimate, more personally authentic, and yet more troubled. I’ll get to that more later.

The first thing you have to get past when reading this book is that Kean is not at all agnostic on the subject of psychic abilities. Quoting British psychologist David Fontana, she writes in the introduction, “Psychic abilities are a matter of fact, not of belief.” She then insists, “The reader will encounter the reality of the most refined psychic functioning throughout this book, and by the end will have no questions as to its existence.” I doubt that many readers, not previously inclined to believe in psychic abilities, will have shifted the needle on their views at all by the end. I certainly still have plenty of questions, having only been primed to accept that there may be some form of psychic ability in some humans thanks to having read Annie Jacobsen’s Phenomena: The Secret History of the U.S. Government’s Investigations into Extrasensory Perception and Psychokinesis. Nonetheless, you have to at least be willing to accept that parapsychologists and other paranormal researchers typically accept psychic abilities as existing to some degree or other, as this forms the big debate for many of these researchers in the narrative: is the evidence we have of some continuation of consciousness beyond death actually supportive of that hypothesis, or is it only reflective of the immense psychic abilities that some living agents may possess to access and synthesize otherwise hidden or unknown information sources that would often be separated without any clear connection? By the end of the book, I do believe that an objective and fair-minded reader will have to acknowledge that if at least some of the phenomena reported are genuine, then one of these possibilities must be true, and the living-agent hypothesis feels like a remarkably conservative position, a recognition that it’s at least as outlandish, if not more so, to make the great number of assumptions needed to reach a hypothesis in which consciousness somehow survives death. Either way, you should be prepared for some rather interesting discussion regarding the concept of non-local consciousness and how it might interact with one’s physical brain–something not presented as fact but as informed speculation in an attempt to explain some of the things described.

So what is described? Kean slowly constructs a narrative of the potential afterlife by building on one section of study after another, starting with reincarnation accounts, moving on to near-death experiences and “actual-death” experiences, providing connective tissue with overlapping accounts between those with NDEs and some of the details children provide about what happens between reincarnations, then steaming on to the end with mental mediumship, trance mediumship, apparitions, and physical mediumship. The plausibility of the experiences started off high for me and gradually decreased over time. (In fact, I’m already rather partial to reincarnation narratives because the best ones seem, to me at least, to be rather difficult to fake without the active involvement of the researcher in the fraud, and the accounts can’t really be brushed away as merely coincidental or absorbed through environment; Old Souls by Tom Shroder, which is referenced by Kean in Surviving Death, turned me onto the parapsychological research into this field, which at its very least is compelling as a form of oral history/folklore collection.)

Kean is quite aware of the decreasing-plausibility concern, and I think she spends an unusual amount of time and space on mediumship and mental mediumship in particular because the field has such a strong history of fraud and resultant public skepticism. She is convinced, along with some other paranormal researchers, that there are legitimate mediums, and I have to say that what she shares of the readings by the exceptional mental mediums she has seen certainly suggests access to knowledge they could not otherwise possess that probably wouldn’t be possible with advance research or cold reading. But physical mediumship has always seemed too razzle-dazzle to be credible, seemingly set up with the intent to deceive, with the closet behind the medium and the darkness or low red light required for anything to happen. Plus, everything else works within an understanding that perhaps consciousness is non-local and can survive death, but it does not have many mechanisms to interact with our material plane, in the dimensions our physical bodies inhabit, and it may fundamentally be something unverifiable, but it doesn’t require a rethinking of our physical reality. However, physical mediumship, with its ectoplasm and conjurations of hands and feet and sometimes whole forms, with its vanishing and materialization of objects, with its projection of strange voices, reads like a bizarre stage show and would require reexamination of how we think the world works in pretty significant ways. It’s a bridge too far for me, and I suspect that will be the case for many people. Kean’s fighting a losing battle there, and her narration of sessions she has attended doesn’t do much for me. Surely she is convinced, and I truly believe she experienced what she writes, but I think that this is just evidence that she was sufficiently fooled by the performers. Many intelligent, educated, skeptical people can be fooled by an especially convincing hustle, so she would hardly be in bad company, but I just can’t accept the extraordinary claims invited by physical mediums without extraordinary evidence that will never be forthcoming. I suppose nothing’s impossible, but I’m not willing to let down my guard and believe just about anything simply because it could possibly be true. I think that’s the very path to the really whacky, far-out-there High Strangeness crowd.

While I think it was a mistake to devote so much time to physical mediumship, it is nonetheless the case that Kean has probably written the most persuasive argument possible to take the practice seriously. And in doing so, her interweaving of her personal experiences in the wake of her grief over losing her brother and a close friend makes the book something far more personal and emotional than I would have expected, even as she often keeps a rather clinical, dry, and objective writing style. It’s certainly a far more revealing book about the author as a person than UFOs was, and I appreciate the vulnerability, even though I can’t reward it with full belief.

Surviving Death presents a series of fascinating narratives, and I’ve barely touched on all that is covered for such a relatively small volume. Much like UFOs, it has its flaws, but it’s essential reading for its paranormal subject matter.



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2 reviews: The Star Wars and Dinotopia

The Star Wars by J.W. Rinzler

My rating: 2 of 5 stars


The dialogue is bad, the plot feels more like an arbitrary series of events, the characters are alternately cruel or cold regardless of whether on the side of good or villainy, and motivations and personalities shift without any clear character arcs to explain them. Jedi and Sith are just buzzwords without any clear philosophy. There’s a rebel kingdom, but it seems that the issue is less with the Empire and more that it conducts itself differently than the Empire that preceded it. And yet, this is a fascinating artifact, a fully illustrated chance to see what The Star Wars was at first, before George Lucas refined it and improved it with a collaborative team of fellow creatives. (Turns out it feels a lot more derivative, wearing the influences of Flash Gordon and Foundation and Dune on its sleeves without really synthesizing them into something truly new and fresh just yet.) How much of this miniseries is representative of that original draft, though, versus what writer Jonathan Rinzler did to adapt the story for a comic book narrative? Either way, while I found the resultant comic art to often be rather cold and sterile, I am still impressed with how illustrator Mike Mayhew managed to make the story feel familiar yet distinct, a combination of new forms and old concept art and familiar images from the films.

This isn’t a vital Star Wars story, but it’s interesting–charming, even, if you look at it in just the right way.


Dinotopia: A Land Apart from Time by James Gurney

My rating: 5 of 5 stars


I adored this book as a child. Returning to the fascinating world of Dinotopia as an adult, I’m just as delighted and eager to escape to this hidden realm. Gurney’s beautiful fantasy art is the star, but his story of a father and son surviving a shipwreck and finding themselves now part of this land where the descendants of castaway humans have come to live with prehistoric creatures in harmony is quite delightful in its own right. The narrative device that this is the explorers’ lost journal recounting their adventures, with abundant sketches and calligraphic notes, serves the story and art well. And there are so many fascinating details about everyday life in this fantasy setting that Gurney manages to incorporate throughout.

The smallest of nagging thoughts crossed my mind at times while rereading this as an adult: how do the characters know, in the 1860s, the scientific names of dinosaurs that had not yet even been discovered at the time? Turns out, Gurney had the same thought when creating the book, and his explanation is contained in the insightful behind-the-scenes afterword he’s provided for the 20th anniversary edition: “After giving these concerns serious consideration, I had to sweep them away, because adhering to them would muddy the waters.” Given that we’re already dealing with a story on a nonexistent colossal island where dinosaurs, extinct mammals, humans, and more all dwell together and can communicate intelligently with each other, this is a pretty valid way to address it. We’re in another world anyway; surely in this alternate reality, they just happen to be a bit further along in paleontology than we were in our own reality. It’s delightful fantasy, is what I’m saying, and worth suspending your belief for–which is easy enough to do when looking at the beautifully conceived double-page spreads. And it helps to know that Gurney already thought through all the concerns one might want to raise (yes, he thought through quite a lot, and his process as remembered in the afterword makes this edition worthwhile). But it’s really beside the point.

The point is that Dinotopia is fantastical, delightful, inspiring, memorable, and worth your time.



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Review: The Empire Strikes Back From A Certain Point of View

From a Certain Point of View: The Empire Strikes Back by Elizabeth Schaefer

My rating: 5 of 5 stars


This is another great Star Wars short story collection, now offering 40 new perspectives on the events in The Empire Strikes Back. I hope they continue this project, because I love this format and the opportunity to have so many writers, both new and familiar to the franchise, contribute something unique to the saga. Basically all of my praise for the original volume applies for this sequel, so I won’t recap that. And once more, I found that I appreciated something from every story. No bad stories yet again.

To return to the format of my original review for the first book, I’ll highlight one story that I loved and then outline my top ten (once more a very difficult decision). So, number one story I’d recommend? Tougher this time, because there’s not a single story that soars in my mind like “The Kloo Horn Cantina Caper” did, but there are nonetheless at least a handful that I’m quite fond of and would rather like to read again. To settle on one, I’d pick “Due on Batuu” by Rob Hart. Of course there was going to be a story about Willrow Hood, the “Ice Cream Guy.” And it’s not very surprising that a reference to Batuu would appear prominently at some point, given the heavy multimedia efforts built around Galaxy’s Edge. But blessedly, one need not know who Hood is or where Batuu is located to enjoy this little adventure. Willrow, it turns out, is an overworked, underpaid systems monitor for the gas mines who dreams of something bigger. He decides a dishonest living at smuggling is the way to beat the odds and finally become rich, so he pesters perhaps the only smuggler he knows into finally giving him an easy assignment. Things quickly fall apart: a couple betrayals and the Imperial occupation of the city throw everything into chaos. There’s a lot of fun reversals between Willrow and his erstwhile pilot partner Bexley. Their frenemy status keeps things interesting. Ultimately, it reads like a low-stakes heist bungled by a bunch of losers–no wonder I’m so fond of it.

The total top ten are still difficult to pick, but here we go (once more in order of appearance):

1. “Hunger,” by Mark Oshiro, which impressively manages to make the wampa into a sympathetic figure wronged by the Rebellion.

2. “She Will Keep Them Warm,” by Delilah S. Dawson, which provides a heartbreaking swan song for the tauntaun who carries Han in search of Luke.

3. “The Final Order,” by Seth Dickinson, which provides a name, backstory, and personality for the Imperial Star Destroyer captain lost in the asteroid belt but also examines the ugly nature of fascism and the unhealthy obsession with Imperial aesthetic held by at least some fans.

4. “This Is No Cave,” by Catherynne M. Valente, which gives the space slug a truly alien perspective on the events of the galaxy.

5. “Tooth and Claw,” by Michael Kogge, which manages to portray Bossk as a lethal and cruel hunter even as it also throws a wrench into his sociopathic lifestyle and forces him to reconsider strongly held beliefs.

6. “STET!”, by Daniel José Older, is quirky and funny and plays with style. It’s a draft of an in-universe magazine article with notes and corrections made by the editor, where both author and editor become uncomfortably inserted into the events of the story being told.

7. “But What Does He Eat?”, by S.A. Chakraborty, imagines Lando’s top chef, who must consider carefully how to handle a dinner hosted for Darth Vader–and the risks she’d be willing to take to eliminate the Emperor’s brutal enforcer.

8. “Faith in an Old Friend,” by Brittany N. Williams, brings L3-37 back, showing that she hasn’t just preserved her own identity within the Falcon‘s computer but actually drawn out the identities of the some of the other personalities loaded into it over time.

9. “Due on Batuu,” by Rob Hart, on the list for reasons explained earlier.

10. “Right-Hand Man,” by Lydia Kang, makes medical droid 2-1B interesting in his own right while allowing a quiet moment for Luke to work through some of his trauma after his fight with Vader, even while displaying the empathetic, curious traits that make him a hero.

Finally, I want to acknowledge some of the other stories for what they’ve brought into the new canon. “Ion Control,” by Emily Skrutskie, brings back Rebel sisters Toryn and Samoc Farr. “The Truest Duty,” by Christie Golden, provides a clear canon personality for General Veers and establishes for the record what happened to him on Hoth. “Rendezvous Point,” by Jason Fry, offers some old-school Legends Rogue Squadron storytelling centered on Wedge and Janson. And “No Time for Poetry,” by Austin Walker, manages a pair-up between IG-88 and Dengar that I never knew I wanted, perfectly capturing Dengar’s new-canon persona and opening up some new questions, like is that still IG-88’s ruined body on Cloud City in the new canon?, given how screwed up Dengar and IG-88’s efforts to track Solo have become, do they still track him to Bespin?, and does that mean that charming old Dengar is ultimately the one who kills the assassin droid now? I wouldn’t mind further adventures following any of these stories.

I certainly wouldn’t mind further stories From A Certain Point of View.



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Review: Surviving Death (Series)

Netflix’s Surviving Death, a docuseries adapting the nonfiction book by Leslie Kean, presents a variety of accounts of the afterlife that will not convince skeptics but are sure to provide a genuine perspective on the varied ways in which people look for answers and assurance when facing death and the loss of loved ones.

I’ve not read Ms. Kean’s book, although her UFOs: Generals, Pilots, and Government Officials Go on the Record is essential reading on the contemporary UFO phenomenon, not to mention her reporting on the subject. If nothing else, this new series makes me want to read what she actually wrote on the pursuit of evidence of consciousness after death, and I can only imagine it would be similarly informative. Ms. Kean does appear quite a bit throughout the series, offering her perspective on various phenomena–especially on the subject of mediums, for some reason.

Each episode of the series covers a different phenomenon: near-death experiences, a two-parter on mediums, alleged signs from the dead, ghosts and end-of-life visions, and reincarnation. While everyone might react differently based on their own biases, my own worldview made the stories about near-death experiences, end-of-life visions, and reincarnation most palatable. Even though the first two categories have many alternative explanations, they’re still interesting phenomena; conversely, the really good and verifiable examples of alleged reincarnation are very compelling, and the alternative explanations about as extraordinary as the idea of reincarnation itself. Even if you reject the (admittedly difficult to reconcile and impossible to prove) paranormal components, the universality of certain themes and narratives across generations and cultures is fascinating in and of itself. At its core, parapsychological studies of these types of stories read to me as a sort of anthropology, just focused on a type of folklore taken as true. So even if you reject them as true accounts of an afterlife out of hand, you’re still left with true accounts of belief and lived experiences that are remarkable even under the most normal of explanations.

Having two episodes devoted to mediums was hard, though. The show repeatedly acknowledges, through some of its interviewed subjects, that spiritualism and mediumship have long histories of fraud. And yet. And yet, two episodes are spent on what can only be read as an attempt to convince us that some level of mediumship must be legitimate. Nothing changed my mind, although I was rather fond of the man who went from medium to medium, attempting to communicate with his dad, celebrating the sessions that were eerily accurate and emotionally on-point, yet even then noting how they could be faked or otherwise staged. For someone to continue to engage with mediums with an open mind, yet never shutting out his critical thinking, well–that’s a man after my own heart. But most of our time is spent with a succession of mediums and true believers. They even have a physical medium, someone who claims to be able to produce physical forms of spirits through the use of ectoplasm. In 2021, a documentary is giving serious space to a woman who claims to use ectoplasm! Oh, sure, all those other physical mediums were frauds or at least highly suspect, but this one’s different? This one who leads seminars to train others to be mediums? Wild! Don’t get me wrong–if you were on the fence, or susceptible to believing in mediumship, this might push you over the edge with some of the more compelling readings, but there’s nothing here that proves mediums are real or that counteracts the obvious non-mystic explanations for all their stunts.

The episode on signs from the dead was fascinating because it really showed how desperately people look for comfort and reassurance when they lose someone. I felt for them. This episode was especially hard on my wife, because it’s basically a nearly hour-long presentation of people’s very raw grief. While it was not compelling evidence for taking signs seriously, it was a nice reminder that if you can take comfort from a perceived sign, there’s no harm in doing so, and a lot of people, even otherwise non-spiritual and rational people, can find comfort in this. In other words, it was just a very human story.

Finally, the episode on end-of-life visions also had a segment on ghosts and ghost hunters. The woman-of-color ghost hunter the series follows is more interesting than the jackass white bros we normally see; rather than pretending to be scientific (and they never are), she actually seemed almost like a shaman, someone who felt that her hobby was sacred work. She was still over-fond of tech gadgets that don’t ever detect or react in exactly the ways the ghost hunters think they do, but it was still a more sentimental and reflective segment than I was expecting given the usual ghost hunters on TV. The proposed “evidence” is all the same, though, and very non-conclusive.

While the episode quality varies, I did stay engaged throughout, even if scoffing at the people onscreen (which was rarer than I might have expected). It was compelling television, with a refreshingly human focus that showed the value in the experiences for the living, regardless of what those experiences actually said about the dead. As an intimate look at how humans respond to death and attempt to adjust to loss in the modern era, I would highly recommend this show.

What I want to read in 2021

It’s been a stressful year for just about everyone. I don’t need to get into that, right? Some of us developed new hobbies and interests. Some of us focused on the familiar. Some of us read more than ever before; some of us could barely crack open a book due to constant mental buzzing. Unfortunately, I leaned more toward the safe and familiar in my down time this year. And I was lucky to stay employed, in a job that gradually took more and more of my time and attention, so it was very difficult to read more. At this point, I’ve accumulated quite a number of books to read that I just haven’t gotten around to. While my ambitions may simmer away to nothing, I’d still like to reassert a focus on reading.

Looking at my shelves right now, there are several books I’m eager to get around to. And while it might be blind hope, it looks like some of the added demands of the job should calm by the end of February at the latest. Maybe listing some of those books here will keep me motivated. So here are some of those books I hope to have finished by the end of 2021:

  1. Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back: From A Certain Point of View, because I loved the first anthology of stories for A New Hope, and because I’m reading it right now. I better finish this! There have been some phenomenal stories already. This is the first example of why I just need to set more time aside for reading–I’m actually enjoying this collection! There isn’t yet a story that I love like “The Kloo Horn Cantina Caper,” but several I’ve liked rather a lot, especially the most recent one I finished, Seth Dickinson’s “The Final Order,” which finally gives a name and personality to the Star Destroyer captain who dies in the Hoth asteroid field but also provides a searing reflection on the nature of fascism and (although this is probably an instance of my own worldview strongly influencing how I interpret the story) some fans’ unhealthy obsession with Imperial aesthetic.
  2. The Working Poor: Invisible in America by David Shipler. This is another book I’m currently reading and want to finish. I’ve been reading an ebook version, though I prefer print, so it’s just something I pick up in rare idle moments. It’s also a book I skimmed through back in law school, and I’m finding it generally more interesting than I remembered. It remains unfortunately timely.
  3. Star Wars: Master & Apprentice and Star Wars: Dooku: Jedi Lost, because I’ve become rather fond of Old Republic and Clone Wars content and because they’re books that I’ll enjoy discussing with my wife. She already finished Master & Apprentice for the Qui-Gon content and, while she doesn’t tend to read licensed fiction like this, she was thoroughly engaged.
  4. The Dinosaur Heresies and Raptor Red by Bob Bakker, because Dr. Bakker’s role in promoting the image of dinosaurs as smart, fast, warm-blooded, and closely related to birds was key to my early infatuation with dinosaurs becoming so dominating in my life ever after. He was a regular presence in many of the dinosaur documentaries I loved as a kid. But I never got around to his books, and they’ve been a little harder to find over the years. I’ve got both of these books now, though. While science has marched on, I’m still excited to read his popular nonfiction argument for the updated image of dinosaurs and his fictional companion novel that attempts to demonstrate what those dinosaurs might have actually acted like.
  5. Digging Dinosaurs by Jack Horner, for similar reasons to the above. He was similarly everywhere when I was a kid, for his discovery of Maiasaura and their nests, his theories on nurturing dinosaurs, and his influence on the Jurassic Park films.
  6. Michael Crichton’s Dragon Teeth is on my list for more nostalgia. Another posthumously published novel, this provides a fictionalized account of the Bone Wars. I was surprised to discover that I rather enjoyed his Pirate Latitudes, especially after finding his later technothrillers to be somewhere been jumbled and formulaic and unfortunately influenced by increasingly anti-science attitudes, and I would expect another historical fiction period piece to be similarly delightful.
  7. My Beloved Brontosaurus by Riley Black (though her former name is still used on the print copy I have). I’ve been meaning to start this book forever! She’s been a tremendous science writer with a paleontology focus who hooked me back when she was writing under the B. Switek name. And she has several more books out at this point that I want to read, too.
  8. Victor Milan’s Dinosaur Lords trilogy (well, it’s looking more like a series, but I have the first three, so that’s what I’m focused on). I read the first book when it came out. It was…fine, but I’ll keep reading for more knights-and-dinosaurs fantasy.
  9. Lovecraft Country by Matt Ruff. I’ve slowly been watching the television adaption, and the setting was engaging enough for me to want to read the source material. I’ve been interested in more recent attempts to challenge and interrogate the racism and xenophobia in Lovecraft’s works, so this is a starting point for me (recommendations requested, though!).
  10. Star Wars: X-Wing: Rogue Squadron by Michael Stackpole. I started this a while ago when I was reading a lot of the old EU, but I never finished it. Jason Fry’s “Rendezvous Point” was very fun and apparently loaded with references to the Rogue Squadron books, though, so I want to try again. We’ll see if I get through it or any other books in the series. Pretty good timing, what with a Rogue Squadron movie coming out!
  11. Last for the list, Star Wars: Darksaber and Planet of Twilight, just to round out the Children of the Jedi trilogy of EU books.

There are other books I want to try to read this year, including several books stuffed away elsewhere in my house or currently only remembered thanks to my Goodreads “Want to Read” list. We’ll see how far I get, but if I even get through most of this list, I’ll be doing better than I did in this pathetic reading year of 2020. Fingers crossed!

Now, shall I do a similar post for games I want to try to get through in 2021? Hm…probably not. There’s a tension between time spent on video games and time spent on books, as both are time-consuming hobbies that demand my focused attention. Still, there are games I want to get to for next year. And no, I won’t be doing similar lists for TV shows and movies–sadly, I get more than enough of that in.

And don’t worry, I don’t see this “things I want to get to” post being annual. (Have I done something like this before? Uh…maybe?) Just trying to set some positive goals for next year, after such a dreary 2020.