Extra Credit, Aug. 31

Weekly Links
August 31, 2011

Some wild stuff this week. First, John Scalzi’s response to the NPR Top 100.

Speaking of lists, Nonstop Press is releasing Science Fiction: The 101 Best Novels 1985-2010. I wonder how this compares to NPR.

A podcast interview with David Drake that I listened to in preparation for this Friday’s post. Drake just gets more interesting the more I hear about him and this is full of great stuff.

While in my review, I claimed laziness and didn’t look into Nancy Kress and the origins of Probability, I did later. This interview discusses it a bit and introduces The Flowers of Aulit Prison as a source. I was right – she cooked up World first and everything else second.

Anyone curious what a Gundam looks like, this guy has an impressive page dedicated to modeling them.

Finally, while I was searching for that Jo Walton link in the Ghost in the Shellpost, I came across this. I don’t know what world these people are from, but the hackers have rippling chests and no shirts. Jose still hasn’t recovered from seeing this.

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Ghost in the Shell

Ghost in the Shell
Shiro Masamune

Something about cyberpunk gives a buzz unlike anything else in science fiction. I’m not sure what it is and the only answer that comes to mind is generational. Cyberpunk really exploded when I was a young adolescent, playing a lot of computer games, dabbling in pre-internet BBS culture, and planning on attending Rice University before getting a job at Origin Systems. (Yes, this is doofy. To make it worse, that dream was updated to “co-own a jazz coffee shop in Seattle” in later years. Now I live in the Northwest and work for a certain IT behemoth, so no telling what any of this says about me.) I’m not sure that baby boomers felt the same about Neuromancer, or any of the younger crowd would get that “just over the technology horizon” sense of excitement that William Gibson and his crowd could generate. To us though, watching the dawn of the Information Age while we read about hackers, cyberspace, or AI, this stuff was dizzingly intoxicating. (For a fun counterview, read the second paragraph of this post by Jo Walton. As much as I like her articles, we have very few tastes in common.)

Shiro’s Ghost in the Shell is hardly the first shot fired in the cyberpunk revolution, but the manga was published in 1989, just four years after Neuromancer. The film adaptation in 1995 helped usher in a Second Wave of sorts, characterized by anime, The Matrix, and some other stuff. (I’m not nearly the expert I should be about this, so apologies for being shallow and/or vague. I have, however, read Shockwave Rider, so I’m no poser.) This article will address both the original manga and anime, but not sequels, follow-ups, or hangers-on. Shiro was already in the manga/anime pantheon for Appleseed (unseen, but on my list) when he took a break to create Ghost in the Shell. Oshii Mamoru directed the movie adaptation; he too is no lightweight in the anime world, so there were some heavy hitters lined up for this tale. As a final note, the English title, “Ghost in the Shell,” bears no resenblence to the Japanese title, “攻殻機動隊 Kōkaku Kidōtai,” or roughly “Armored Riot Police Squad.” It is much cooler, which is not something that happens often.

The first question for our busy readers is no doubt, “I just don’t have much time for this anime stuff. Which one is better? I’ve got to consume efficiently here.” For once, this is a difficult question to answer. I will give a couple of suggestions here, then break them down in further detail in the following paragraphs. The short answer is, “I can’t pick just one.” This is not just because I am indecisive and wishy-washy, this is because the two actually have different strengths and weaknesses. In terms of narrative integrity and intensity, the film is a better choice. For a larger look at the world Shiro creates, and for more time to ruminate over the questions of existence that the characters ask among themselves, the manga offers greater reward.

But because it is a manga, it was published weekly over a period of some months and is prone to wandering hither and yon with the plot. This was explained further to me by my wife last week, as she read a gooshy romance series all out of order. “Well, these things that happen are just self-contained episodes, so you can kind of take them however they fall and set everything straight at the end.” Longer manga are much bigger offenders here, but there tends to be a single, mainline plot to a manga that is compartmentalized into weekly or monthly sections. Side stories happen, characters go on vacations, some random person will pop into the story and be important for a bit before disappearing, weeks will pass without any progress on the main story, but things will always gravitate back to it at some point. Mind you, I’m not a manga veteran by any definition, but even in limited reading I’ve noticed this. I suppose it could drive some people batty, but if taken the same way computer RPGs, with their subquests and diversions, or even Victor Hugo books are dealt with, it’s not a deal breaker.

In the case of Ghost in the Shell, this allows Shiro to track the main plot, where Motoko Kusanagi and her special ops police force hunt down a hacker named The Puppet Master, but also gives enough flexibility to send the squad on other missions, demonstrate the larger society at work, and let the squad hash out questions of identity. Kusanagi is a cybernetic hybrid, and spends large portions of the manga trying to come to terms with notions of humanity, how they apply to AI and cybernetics, and how these affect notions of Self. The “Shell” in the title refers to the bodies the characters are given, while the “Ghost” is something like a soul, or consciousness. These questions are a necessary part of the story and are present in the film, but not with the shambling, philosophical bent of the manga. This lack of time constraint also gives Shiro a chance to blow a week on conversations between Fuchikomi (spider-like AI robot henchmen) as they debate overthrowing the human regime. That was my favorite part. I should point out that even within this flexible setup, Shiro apparently didn’t have enough room to get out everything crammed into his head, because there are copious footnotes. These aren’t necessary to the plot, but they shine a light into Shiro’s unquestionably brilliant, but deeply strange mind.

Oshii suffers no such distraction. He gets in and out with maximum efficiency, taking a compact 80 minutes to trace Kusanagi’s hunt for The Puppet Master. The movie basically stays faithful to scenes from the manga, but eliminates all the side stories and navel gazing. What this loses in context, it makes up for with insistent pacing, a flawless arc, and about ten pounds if style in a five pound bag, to borrow a favorite Dave Barry-ism. The manga is also a cyberpunk tour de force, but in color and in motion, the film is the quintessential near-future, urban noir aesthetic. Anything we owe The Matrix in terms of 21st century style, we actually owe Ghost in the Shell. (The Wachowskis are, or were at least, fairly open about this influence.)

The real answer to the question posed earlier is, “Get them both.” Ghost in the Shell is influential, engaging, intelligent, and stylish. Nobody can be serious about cyberpunk without, at the very least, watching Oshii’s film. I plan on seeking out the follow-ups and posting reviews in the somewhat near future.

Rating: Nakata Hidetoshi. Japan’s essential footballer as the Samurai Blue went from nothing to global relevance, and Japan’s first major football export. He played the game with an uncharacteristic intelligence and grace, and is also really into fashion.

Probability Moon, Sun, and Space

Probability Moon
Probability Sun
Probability Space
Nancy Kress

Long, long ago, I started reading Beggars in Spain. For whatever reason, I didn’t really get into it and gave up a little ways in. This probably had more to do with my high school homework load reaching epic proportions than any failing of the book, as I pretty much stopped reading for pleasure after that. But whatever the reason, I never read Nancy Kress again. This was probably a mistake, though to be fair, it wasn’t until I finished college that I read much of anyone else either. Many years later, I was perusing the shelves of the public library, found a book that wasn’t the middle of a series, decided that Probability Moon was as good a title as any, and decided to give Ms. Kress another shot. (Thank you Broadview Library, for never failing to have books two and three of something and forcing me to use interlibrary loan on a weekly basis.)

I’m genuinely curious how the Probability stories got off the ground (but not enough to dig for interviews at this late hour). Most books have one fairly clear Big Idea that kicks off the action, but Kress is working with three Classic SF Cliches: The long vanished elder race, the implacable and incomprehensible enemy race, and the noble savages. These three are tied together by a Big Mysterious Object (BMO = Cliché 4?), which was left by the elder race in the noble savages’ solar system, and will be used in the war against the enemy of all humanity.  Any one of these could have triggered the story, but it is unclear to me which came first. I suspect that she started with World, the home planet of said noble savages, but the other aspects are integrally tied to World in such a way that it is hard to imagine it in isolation.

This could very easily get out of hand, but Kress keeps it all together. The first two Classic SF Cliches remain just that, but the third takes an interesting path. The noble savages are indeed noble, but it is only because they have no choice. The explanation is convoluted, but involves a lot of brains, quantum particles, and evolution, and is much more satisfying than a Dances With Wolves-esque “these magnificent, yet primitive, men live in perfect harmony with their surroundings.” (Of course they do – it’s hard not to live in harmony with nature when one doesn’t have a bulldozer, or at least some TNT. I digress.) They do like flowers, however.

Besides the multiple starting points, the scope of the series is unconventional. It would be easy to take the initial set up, where humanity discovers space tunnels that enable travel between the stars, only to bump up against the xenophobic and violent Fallers, and let loose a massive space opera. Ships blowing up, valiant men and women fighting impossible odds, scenes of individual and collective heroism, etc. Instead, the first book sends the reader straight to a planet full of flowers and populated by humanoids with neckfur and recurring headaches. In fact, the Fallers don’t really make an appearance until the end of the first book; mostly we learn about flowers and headaches. Especially flowers. The noble savages return in the second book, but the focus is clearly on the Human – Faller conflict. By the end of the series, the noble savages, flowers, neckfur and all, are a footnote. Even the Fallers are far less important in the last volume, as developments on Earth and Mars take center stage. Again, this narrative could blow itself apart at any second, but Kress makes it work.

To sum up thus far, Probability is a trilogy that starts in one place, ends up way out in another end of the galaxy, marginalizes most of the original characters by the end, and basically turns left every time the reader would assume it will turn right. It is also insanely hard Hard SF. Quantum physics is the science of choice, but there is a fair bit of anthropology and anatomy thrown in as well; the soft sciences are hard too. As far as I’m concerned, these are all good things. I am always happy to read unpredictable books, as the opposite are far too common. I am also all in for science, despite my inability to practice it myself. Hard SF remains my favorite subgenre. I also enjoyed World and its denizens, as well as what little was shown of the Fallers. I can’t really give the Probability books my absolute highest grades, though I enjoyed reading them. This isn’t due to any failings per se, just the difference between something that leaves me satisfied and something that leaves me blown away. That difference comes down to personal preference, I think, and is unrelated to the author’s skill/imagination/eloquence/whatever. So a strong recommendation for these, unless the reader has an irrational hatred of flowers.

Rating: Valencia. Solid team, good football, worth watching and cheering for, but overshadowed by more extravagant competitors. Are there flowers in Valencia?

Mobile Suit Gundam

Mobile Suit Gundam

I am finally getting to the last of Japan’s Big Three SF Anime. (The other two are Super Dimension Fortress Macross and Space Battleship Yamato. Say what you will about the Japanese, but they sure like long, descriptive titles that may or may not make any sense.) Gundam is probably the definitive science fiction experience in Japan; it is comparable to Star Wars or Star Trek here. One can watch Gundam movies (possibly based on Gundam comics or books) while building plastic models from the show, then re-enact the whole thing in a video game, and finally tell friends about it later at a Gundam convention. There is even an anime series called Gunpla Builders that tells stories about, I kid you not, kids who build Gundam models and enter them in competitions. The original series came out in the late 1970s, the current series gets its next scheduled theatrical release in November of this year. It’s pretty much impossible to understand Japanese SF without confronting the Gundam behemoth at some point.
The best news? Many (but probably not all) of the Gundam stories are worth experiencing. On the surface, there aren’t many things sillier than gigantic robots piloted by angsty teenagers, flying through space and whacking things with glowing swords. And yet, somehow Tomino Yoshiyuki, the Gundam mastermind, pulls it off. It probably helps that he appears to be manic depressive and uses these stories to confront his personal demons. In Tomino’s hands, what should be moronic, adolescent fantasy turns into a dark meditation on the confluence of war, violence, and growing up. There are also giant fighting robots, crap blowing up, and occasional gratuitous shower scenes. (Note: the robots do not, repeat not, transform in this series. They only bash things and fly.)
The Gundam universe is a somewhat near-future creation, where humanity is split between Earth and several orbiting space habitats. The Earth-bound folk are The Federation, while the break-away orbitals are part of the Principality of Zeon. In the original series, Zeon are the rebel scum and the Federation are scrappy and decent. These roles are fluid though, with the sides trading white and black hats depending on the creator’s mood at the time. This being a Japanese story, there are multiple factions within each side, and ever-shifting degrees of good and evil. Char, the chief antagonist, is the epitome of this. He fights for the bad guys, but is operating for his own mysterious purposes in ways that both harm and help the heroes. He is also much cooler than the whiny protagonist and more sympathetic than any of the truly evil bad guys. Char and his clones play a major role in the Gundam universe, but now is hardly the time to delve into what has become a complex and detailed mythology.
Mobile Suit Gundam crashes merrily along a cliché ridden path. The hero is young and must come of age. (He’s also a dork for the first two thirds of the story and I had no compelling reason not to wish for his horrible death.) He literally falls into the cockpit of a Gundam (the giant robot) and demonstrates almost supernatural gifts for piloting it. Everyone is shocked, though if they had any idea they were in an anime TV series, they would immediately realize that of course the hero can drive the robot. After all, he used to bulls-eye wamp rats back home in Beggars Canyon, and they’re not much bigger than two meters. Whoops! Wrong dork who comes of age. Fortunately for all involved, the hero doesn’t find true love this time around. This is Japan, so most love is either tragic, unrequited, poorly executed, or some combination of the above. (A reflection of real life??) Again, there is no way this should work. And yet! I enjoyed it and plan on watching more.
Gundam benefits this time from finding a length sweet spot. I have complained in other reviews that Yamato was too short to engage and Macross needed to lose about one fourth of its episodes. Gundam clocks in at about nine hours across three DVDs; Tomino condensed the 30+ episode series and is, according to something I read somewhere, happiest with this length. I concur – three DVDs forces the editor to cut out clip shows, side stories, and other narrative fat, but allows enough room to build a convincing world and facilitate a rapport between audience and character.
I realize that in this review I have spent more time talking about the world, mythology and context of Gundam than I have the actual series. This may be appropriate, as a friend of mine explained to me that Mobile Suit Gundam is basically Tomino’s world building exercise, and that the story really gets going in the second series. This may be true. The first series is interesting, I’m glad I watched it, and I plan on watching more, but I think it leaves plenty of potential untapped. I consider it to be must-see anime for anyone who is serious about understanding Japanese SF or who just likes big robots, but suspect that Gundam’s best days are waiting for me on a different set of DVDs.
Rating: Pre-season friendlies. Fun to watch, full of useful scouting material, and an endless source of gossip and speculation, but not to be confused with the meat of the regular season.

NPR Top 100 SFF

NPR’s Top 100 SFF

First of all, click here to check out the Top 100 Science Fiction and Fantasy Books, according to a poll conducted by NPR. I looked at it today and had some strong reactions. First of all, the big caveat is that NPR didn’t make the selections, they merely accepted nominations and conducted the voting. Nobody claims that these are the “best,” “most influential,” or have “literary merit.” These are just whatever people tossed out there, which for many no doubt means, “whatever NYT best-selling fantasy doorstop was last in my bathroom.” All I can say is, at least Twilight was excluded.

NPR’s blog does their own analysis of the list, so I won’t belabor the points made there. After all, those people are much more well-read than I am, and probably real live literary scholars or something. Instead, I’ll just give my reactions to the list: things I liked, things that caused me to spray my Talking Rain fizzy water on my screen, and things I think were unfairly left out. As an overall reflection, I get the feeling that SF voters tended towards lifetime achievement medals and an appreciation for their forbears, while Fantasy voters went with The Tome of the Month and gave little thought to what came before and what may follow. More on these as my rant goes on.

Let’s begin with the Yes, Yes, a Thousand Times Yes Division. That has to start with #1, a very deserving J.R.R. Tolkien. According to NPR, LOTR didn’t just take first place, it crushed all comers. I think any way we look at it, nobody can deny Frodo & Co. their place at the head of the line. Dune is also well deserving of its place, though I would have it even higher. I think it is admirable that Orwell, Bradbury, Verne, Shelley, Wells and Huxley are all present, though I wonder if these authors are mentioned because the books are genuine favorites, or because well-informed SF readers know what a debt we owe to the writers. Likewise with the Big Three (Asimov, Clarke, Heinlein) and other prominent writers (Niven, etc.). Some of the selections may have got in based on name recognition rather than quality. For example, Ringworld is Niven’s best known work, but possibly not his best. I need to reread Foundation (among others) to see if it is really the 8th best series ever. Stranger in a Strange Land gets the nod of course, even though I prefer others from Heinlein. I’m glad that people remembered A Canticle for Leibowitz, The Forever War, and Hyperion, though again, Dan Simmons should be in at least the top 20. Finally, Robinson’s Mars Trilogy is a worthy addition. Readers of Two Dudes will know how I feel about those books.

Now for the AAAUGH Fer Ignert! Division, which is more fun. My first thought when reading this list was, “When did Neil Gaiman take over the world?” I’ve read one of his books, and it was alright, but the man is holding even with legends like Asimov, Niven, and Vonnegut. I guess I should pick up American Gods so I too can fall in line. My next thought was, “Fantasy types, I know you are weird, but this is too much, even for you.” I will say nothing of George R.R. Martin, since I didn’t finish Game of Thrones and probably never will. But Patrick Rothfuss in the Top 20? Ahead of Malazan, Phillip K. Dick, Zelazny, and LeGuin? Good heck, people. And who is this Brandon Sanderson, and why is he out-polling The Book of the New Sun? There is no accounting for taste.  (To be fair, I haven’t read Sanderson, and he may be amazing. But I doubt he’s Gene Wolfe amazing.) Oh, and did I mention Robert Jordan? At #12? Aaaaarrrrghghghgh. I’m not going to comment on Xanth or Shannara, but I will mention in passing that any list where Drizzt books top Rendevous with Rama and Iain M. Banks is not one to take to the bank.

In a category all itself, what to do with #2? I love Douglas Adams books. Zaphod and Marvin have been heroes to me for decades. But I suspect that Adams himself would be puzzled to find himself the second best SFF (and first best SF) writer of all time.

And now for those left home, alone, on Prom Night. I’m not going to create my own Top 100, because it would take a long time and accomplish nothing, but there are several authors that I think should be on there. They should be far ahead of anything mentioned in the last paragraph, though I suppose I risk the wrath of Wheel of Time disciples everywhere. (We live on the edge here at Two Dudes in an Attic!) In (mostly) alphabetical order, here are some Better Than Terry Goodkind Winners. How about Poul Anderson? I’m less a fan than in the past, but surely he’s worth a mention? Or Greg Bear! Blood Music and The Forge of God are pretty good. Alfred Bester anyone? He won the first Hugo. I seriously can’t believe that Brin’s Uplift isn’t on there. Chalker’s Midnight at the Well of Souls and Cook’s Black Company are better than most of the fantasy on the list. CJ Cherryh? David Drake might deserve a spot, though he may be more divisive. I wonder if Andre Norton was relegated to the YA list. Speaking of fantasy, Patricia McKillup (especially The Riddle Master books) and Mervyn Peake’s Gormenghast are better than The Sword of Truth. Frederick Pohl! They passed up Pohl for Terry Pratchett? Alastair Reynolds may only be my favorite, but surely Tad Williams deserves to have a doorstop on the list? I’m starting to froth.

To sum up, this is a puzzling list. I alternately nod my head in wise agreement, then frantically try to prevent that same head from exploding. The contrast between SF, where Jules Verne and H.G. Wells hold prominent positions at the expense of younger writers, and Fantasy, where pioneers like Fritz Leiber and Fred Saberhagen are tossed off a cliff in favor of (teeth gnashing) Robert Jordan, is telling. Are fantasy readers that ignorant or apathetic about their heritage? Fafhrd and the Grey Mouser will abide long after The (Weapon) of (Noble Quality) has passed into obscurity. Oh well. I will now invoke several spells of protection around the house, lest it be burned to the ground by furious Wheel of Time acolytes.

Rating: Wayne Rooney. There’s some great stuff going on, but R.A. Salvatore’s books and a string of World Cup red card inducing frothy outbursts go hand in hand.

Extra Credit, Aug. 18

Weekly Links
August 18, 2011

A funnier review of Flare.

Jefferson Road thinks the new Star Wars novel is worth checking out.

This article on SF Signal has a lot of big words, but is a worthy entry into what seems to be a wider blogosphere debate on “suspension of disbelief.” It obliquely touches on what I think may be the bigger question: Why do some people love SFF and others can’t stand it?

Another couple from Tor.com: Jo Walton, with whom I only agree with about 50% of the time but writes interesting and informative posts, reviews all the Hugo winners. Ever.

A very cool short story by a Korean author I was unfamiliar with, offering alternative narratives of stellar expansion.

More about Tsutsui Yasutaka. This review goes into more depth about the stories, but I suspect he doesn’t know much about Japan. Also, he didn’t like my favorite story of the bunch. (A couple of places slam Tsutsui for misogynism, and I agree that his female characters are shrewish, stupid, or both, but pretty much all of the men suck too. I think he just doesn’t like people.)

Salmonella Men on Planet Porno

Salmonella Men on Planet Porno
Tsutsui Yasutaka

I’m going to disappoint with this review. Salmonella Men on Planet Porno is neither gloriously pulpy nor titillating, despite the promise of the title. Certain bits of it are not for children, but those bits are not lascivious. Mostly they are just weird. This collection of short stories offers more of a window into modern Japanese surrealism than science fiction, but hopefully people will find it interesting enough to forgive the meatier discussion that follows.

Tsutsui Yasutaka occupies roughly the same place in the Japanese SF pantheon that Arthur C. Clarke or Isaac Asimov does in ours. There are some crucial differences, however, beyond the fact that Tsutsui is not a Russian Jew, neither has he received civic honors from the government of Sri Lanka. To begin with, Clarke and Asimov both failed to publish a book entitled Salmonella Men on Planet Porno. Beyond that, Tsutsui has found renown outside of SF, winning mainstream awards in Japan and Europe. His The Girl Who Leapt Across Time (Toki wo Kakeru Shojo) has been adapted a number of times as a mini-series, anime, and live action movie and has become part of the shared Japanese consciousness. Indeed, the short stories collected in Salmonella Men, which I will abbreviate to SMOPP, are much more mainstream than one might expect from a giant of the speculative field.

I would cautiously describe most of the SMOPP as “surreal dark comedy,” rather than SF. A couple of the stories are more or less SF (alien planets, futuristic cities, etc.), while a couple others are more sardonic horror. Some are just plain weird, while others are laugh out loud hilarious. (The contents of the ballast in a floating city for one, or the fondleweeds and collapsing cows of the title story.) Throughout, Tsutsui maintains a dim view of human institutions and their degrading effect on people. He’s often none too positive of people either; I found myself cheering for more than one protagonist to just keel over and die. Any yet, hope shines through occasionally. Behind (almost) every stupid person is a plea for sanity and/or decency.

One target in particular is the government, especially in stories I suspect were written in the 1970s and 80s. Moving between disciplines and reading their differing views of Japanese elites is starting to give me whiplash. When I lived in Japan, I assumed (like most people around me) that the government types were corrupt, out of touch, and running the country into he ground for their own short-sighted benefit. Then I got into grad school, where political scientists and economists fall all over themselves to praise Japan’s miraculous post-WWII growth. Now I’m reading Japanese fiction, where the very people who supposedly benefited from this growth depict the toll it has taken on the Japanese people. The damage comes in many guises, from the dehumanizing effects of slaving thanklessly for large and uncaring companies, the materialism that modern capitalism has engendered, and frantic race to keep up with both the Joneses and inflation in bubble era Japan. Not all of the stories are about this, of course. The title story is a side-angled attack on prudery and repression, while several others highlight one aspect or another of human banality. Big ideas and exploding spaceships have taken a backseat to The Human Condition. (And by “backseat,” I mean the very last row of a passenger van.)

I think that part of this is attributable to the strain of humanism which seems to run through Japanese SF much more than in the West. This is not to say that Japanese SF is all character-driven, emotional narrative, or lacking in action and big ideas, but I notice that, in general, more care is given to the feelings and thoughts of the characters than in SF coming out of the Western tradition. Even Giant Fighting Robot Anime, a subgenre one would naturally assume to be at least as brainless and hedonistic as a Michael Bay production, can spend extensive time buried in the heads of emo youngsters. (Hello Gundam!) This is a topic somewhat beyond the scope of this review, but is something that keeps coming up when I review Japanese SF. (For even more fun, compare and contrast Asian and Western views of the individual and its importance while harping on the differences between SF worldviews.)

Considering the title of the book under review, this is kind of a heavy bit of writing. That probably means I’ve been thinking too much, rather than simply reporting that Tsutsui crashes merrily through madness and reality, dragging along a motley cast of strange and disturbed people as they self destruct in hilarious fashion. People less plugged into Japan might come away with wildly different interpretations of the stories. They may even be offended by his less than family friendly topics or casual, but not gratuitous, violence. (With characters this crazy, death and degradation are by necessity close by.) I thought it was good fun.

Rating: The football match in Bedknobs and Broomsticks, if all of the animals were somehow perverted by an obscene Salvador Dali.