BOOK REVIEW: Inventing Iron Man by E. Paul Zehr

Inventing Iron Man: The Possibility of a Human MachineInventing Iron Man: The Possibility of a Human Machine by E. Paul Zehr

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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As the title suggests, this book examines whether Iron Man could exist in the real world. As with Michio Kaku’s book Physics of the Impossible, answering the question involves defining the various meanings of “impossible.”

One way to parse the question is, “Is Iron Man possible today given the existing state of technology?” In and of itself, this question is of limited interest because the answer is, “no.” There’s certainly a demand, and so if Iron Man could exist given current technology, he probably would. That’s not to say it isn’t interesting to learn about what technologies are holding us back and where the cutting edge of relevant technologies lies—both of which are addressed by the book.

Still, a more interesting inquiry is, “Will Iron Man ever be reality given the physical laws that we know to govern the universe?” While more intriguing, it’s also a harder question to definitively answer. It’s impossible to foresee all the technological developments that might come along to answer the seemingly insurmountable challenges (e.g. Tony Stark’s inevitable Traumatic Brain Injury (TBI).) The book deals with the critical question of what challenges would have to be overcome for Iron Man to be reality.

As Zehr suggests, the appeal of Iron Man is that he’s considered to be among superheroes for the common man. Like Batman, the sufficiently bright and diligent nerd may fantasize that, “That could be me.” You or I can’t be Superman or Wolverine, but given enough money, smarts, and training we could be Batman, or—even better—pilot the Iron Man suit. Put in this light, the book may seem like just another frivolous attempt to capitalize on the popularity of superheroes to sell books. However, there’s actually a great deal of food for thought packed in the book. Like others, I read the book because its title is Inventing Iron Man and not Neuro-motor control of a self-propelled armor system or some other suitably scholarly title.

Dr. Zehr has the bona fides to delve into this topic. He is a Professor who investigates questions of how the nervous system controls movement. That subject may not constitute the sum total of critical concerns, but it’s one of the most important challenges. For Iron Man to move the way he does in the movies and comic books, Tony Stark’s impulses to move have to be transmitted seamlessly to the servo-motors that move the suit. From dodging Col. Rhodes’ (i.e. War Machine’s) punches to ducking RPGs, Stark can’t be quick enough if he has to manually steer the device. Then, of course, there’s the issue of feedback. Any neophyte meditator who’s had his or her foot fall sound asleep will know how difficult it is to walk surefootedly when one can’t feel anything through one’s foot.

[Iron Man 3 spoiler commentary in this paragraph.] One of the most damning challenges for making Iron Man a reality is the high probability of severe concussions. Let’s say you make the suit out of a material that is virtually indestructible? This may be possible. However, the pilot’s mushy brain is still sloshing around inside that impenetrable armor. One can remotely pilot the suit in order to negate this (as has been done in the comic books and the third movie), but—at that point—is it still Iron Man? I know from a writer’s perspective it’s a lot harder to maintain tension if there’s nothing human on the line. In the third movie about 30 autonomously piloted suits get wiped out and the viewer doesn’t care—the only source of tension is that Tony Stark is without armor half the time.

Some of the most interesting discussions are about where the current state of the art lies with respect to: a.) direct mind control over mechanical systems; b.) a “flying suit”; and c.) robotic movement enhancers. Zehr conducts interviews with those engineers and technologists involved in such technologies, and finds out where we are presently. Letter “a” above seems to be the least developed of the three technologies, but they are all active lines of research.

I enjoyed this book and found it interesting. I think anyone who is interested in the state of technology and its limits will find it a nice pop-sci introduction to the subject. The use of superheroes as a pedagogic device may be overdone, but it continues to work because we are fascinated by the edge of possibility, and that’s what superheroes represent.

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MOVIE REVIEW: The Wolverine

I don’t normally do movie reviews because, for one reason, I don’t watch that many movies–at least not in the timely fashion necessary to be relevant. However, I figured I’d do one for The Wolverine because I did a book review of Clairmont & Miller’s Wolverine.

The Wolverine shares superficial common ground with the Clairmont & Miller book.  The setting for each is largely Japan. The movie and the book share almost the same slate of major characters. However, the characters don’t necessarily have the same relationships to each other or the same personalities as in the book.

If you’ve seen the trailers, my synopsis will be largely spoiler/surprise free. The movie opens with Logan saving a young Japanese officer. It then flashes forward to Logan living in the wilderness of the Pacific Northeast. The primary reference to the earlier films is that he is tormented by killing Jean Grey in X-men: The Last Stand (a.k.a. X-Men 3.) Yukio (a female warrior who the movie makes friendly to Logan from the get go) tracks Logan down to take him to see her employer, the same individual he saved during the war. That individual offers him mortality. After their meeting, Logan’s principal goal shifts from living by a vow to not kill to one of keeping Mariko safe. Mariko is the granddaughter of the officer Logan saved and she becomes his love interest. As in the book, Mariko is tangled in intrigues of family and company (i.e. kairetsu), but the nature of these intrigues is somewhat updated in the movie. In the book, Mariko is a helpless damsel-in-distress, but in the movie we see her strength.

The biggest strength of this movie is that Wolverine becomes mortal in the film–at least for a time. This creates stakes for Logan where none usually exist. The problem with Wolverine’s combination of rapid healing and indestructible skeleton is that there’s no nail-biting over his fate. You know no matter how much he gets tossed around, he’s going to get up and within a minute he’ll be right as rain.

In my opinion, the biggest flaw of the movie is the creation of a twist ending that fails to surprise but yet requires distorting a character. I realize it’s hard to write a good twist ending. If one foreshadows too much, one gives away the surprise. If one fails to foreshadow, then one annoys the audience with a “gotcha” type ending. In this case, one of the characters behaves in a manner that is out of character with the first act portrayal. This is a “gotcha,” but one that one couldn’t help but thinking was a possibility. There are a number of little forgivable sins that I won’t discuss, and which may be inevitable in film.

The film also contributes to the general continuity muddle of X-men films. Because this film attempts to be a standalone film, it may not seem fair to critique this point. However, by using the aforementioned piece of the X-Men 3 timeline, I think they open themselves up to this criticism. As an example, while in the X-Men Origins: Wolverine film we are told that Wolverine can’t grow back his memories, he apparently grows back his memories of what happened in WWII just fine. There’s a post-credit scene which happens three years after The Wolverine timeline that is a set up for X-Men: Days of Future Past and Professor X appears in it, but they hint that there may be an explanation for this (Xavier died in the same X-Men 3 that this film references through about half a dozen dream sequences.) This is not so much an example of  discontinuity, also because the upcoming film features time travel prominently, but may or may not be example of the general X-Men muddle.

I’d recommend seeing this movie, but only if one goes in thinking of X-Men Origins: Wolverine. If one does that one will find it an enjoyable step up. However, if one goes in expecting a movie of The Dark Knight caliber, one will be sorely disappointed.

BOOK REVIEW: Wolverine by Claremont & Miller

WolverineWolverine by Chris Claremont

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Amazon page

I got this as the Kindle “Daily Deal” about a week ago. It’s really a bundling of six comic book editions: Wolverine No. 1 through 4, and Uncanny X-Men No. 172 & 173.

The story begins as Wolverine travels to Japan to check on his beloved Mariko only to discover she is married to another man. Her abusive husband is a man owed a debt by Shingen Yashida, Mariko’s father, and a Yakuza crime lord. Mariko is the repayment of debt. Over the course of the six books, Wolverine battles Shingen Yashida and–having defeated him–must take on Mariko’s half-brother, the Silver Samurai. In the process, while Wolverine loves Mariko, Yukio (Shingen’s assassin sent to kill Wolverine) falls for Wolverine’s animal charm. The final two editions involve the X-men coming to Wolverine’s wedding to Mariko, but only Storm plays a significant role in the action.

I will admit that comic books are not my bag. As a writer, I generally find the dialogue and internal monologues contrived and filled with jarring “as you know, Bob” style references. This is nails-on-chalkboard grating to me, and it was no less true for this book than others. However, I accept that some of this is an inevitable result of the serialized nature of story lines (often across different series), the space limitations, and the fact that boys are a targeted audience.  The Watchmen is one of the few exceptions to this problem.

Having said that, I thought the story line was intriguing and it obviously kept my interest through to the end (albeit without much of a significant time investment.) There are lots of battles with ninja, so how cool is that?

It’s the first graphic-intensive book that I’ve read on my Kindle–which is the basic model, and I was surprised how well it worked. Each page contained several frames, usually in mice type that was hard on the eyes, but one could double-tap the screen to call up a single frame in very legible type.

I think this is worth a read if you’re interested in the Wolverine story. The upcoming Wolverine movie seems to share many of the same characters, but apparently with a different story line. Of course, as I understand it, the X-men series of movies are legendary for scrambling the mythology and timelines of the comics without much concern for being internally consistent, let alone consistent with the comics.

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