Sunday, September 25, 2022

CONjuration 2022 Panel Schedule

On November 4-6, the Hilton Atlanta Airport in Atlanta, GA will be hosting CONjuration, a convention dedicated to magical fantasy like Harry Potter, Lord of the Rings, The Chronicles of Narnia, etc. The panels are already being assembled and here are the ones I'm slated to participate at present. More than three panels means I don't have to pay for a table, so I anticipate this one being profitable. :)

"The Problem of Fenrir Greyback"-This one is led by Marlena Frank and Kelley Frank from the Atlanta Horror Writers Association chapter. I applied on the strength of my long-ago Harry Potter fanfic "Lord of the Werewolves," in which the werewolf terrorist Greyback plays a prominent role. Although he's still canon's "big bad wolf," I depicted him as someone who'd realistically serve as the war chief of Britain's werewolves--intelligent, strategy-minded, more knowledgeable about Muggle politics and warfare than most of Britain's wizards, and all-too-aware that once his ally of convenience Voldemort has triumphed, he and his aren't long for the world. Since Greyback doesn't appear very often in the actual books, one could imagine his more intelligent actions take place off-screen...not every mastermind type is as dignified and classy as Vito Corleone and someone could be a brute in public and much cleverer in private. 12 PM on Saturday 11/5, Rabun Room.

(And definitely check out "Lord of the Werewolves"--before I started putting out my own books, it was probably the best thing I ever wrote.)

"Unleash the Kraken"-This one is about editing your work, including avoiding being too precious about your own words to judge them objectively. I'm going to talk about my experience with writing groups and professional editors. 4 PM on Saturday 11/5, Ogeechee Room.

"Sorting B-Movie Monsters"-Which Hogwarts house would the giant ants from Them! belong to? I'm thinking Hufflepuff, since ants are hardworking and group-oriented. It'd be easy to shove movie monsters into Slytherin ("any means to achieve their ends"), but I imagine many are more complicated than that. The Predators could be suited to Gryffindor--physical bravery and martial honor. If the selfish and cowardly Peter Pettigrew can end up in Gryffindor because he wished he were as brave as James Potter and Sirius Black, then the Predators who actually do demonstrate at least some of these qualities would fit in. Various mad-scientist types would fit in Ravenclaw, especially the more well-intentioned or tragic ones. Hive-monster types like the Xenomorph or the vampires in Priest would fit in Hufflepuff; the latter's villainous Black Hat might straddle the line between Gryffindor (courageous, daring, proud) and Slytherin (ambitious, cunning, treacherous). Lanier, 7 PM on Friday 11/4.

"Ladyhawkes, Beastmasters, Legends and More: Fantasy Films of the 1980's"-I just saw Willow for a Myopia Movies episode slated for a premiere in November and even went so far as to order the novelization to go deeper into the story. I've also seen many 1980s fantasy movies for Myopia, and plenty on my own. Ogeechee, 4 PM, on Sunday 11/6.

"The Light to Dark Duality of Labyrinth"-Although many people who saw Labyrinth as children will remember the Jim Henson creatures, there's some surprisingly adult content in here. And David Bowie as a threatening yet strangely alluring older man is just part of it. Check out my blog post "Labyrinth is Hellraiser for Kids" if you'd like more. 7 PM on Saturday 11/5, Ogeechee Room.

"Southern Fried Fantasy"-What extra flavor does Southern culture bring to fantasy? I applied for this one because my "Long War" novels (The Thing In The Woods and The Atlanta Incursion) have some distinctly Southern tics even if they're more horror and science fiction. I've also read the sleazier Bringing Home The Rain by Bob McGough, whose protagonist is a meth-addicted small-town wizard. Incidentally, McGough himself will be on the panel. 6 PM on Saturday 11/5, Rabun Room.

"How To Get Your Book Published"-This is about the state of the publishing industry and the ways to get one's books published. I have a good bit of experience with small-press and independent publishing, so this is where I can make myself useful. 3 PM on Sunday 11/6, Harding Room.

Here are the convention membership prices. If you'd like to come see me present and check out a bunch of other cool panels, come on down!

Thursday, September 15, 2022

Movie Review: SOYLENT GREEN (1973)

Once upon a time, there was a Charlton Heston film called Soylent Green, set in the far-off year of 2022 in which Earth has become massively overpopulated and...desperate measures...are required to keep everybody fed. Since we have finally reached that year and the human population has actually started to decline, the film podcast Myopia Movies is doing a very special episode on the film. Here is the podcast episode. And now for my review...

The Plot

New York City Police Department officer Robert Thorn (Charlton Heston) and analyst Sal Roth (Edward G. Robinson) live in an NYC where there are 40 million people, at least half of whom are unemployed. Real food is rare and ludicrously expensive, with most people living on different varieties of "Soylent" made--supposedly--from processed vegetable matter.

When the wealthy William Simonson (Joseph Cotten) is murdered, Thorn investigates and soon finds himself unraveling a conspiracy with the help of Shirl (Leigh Taylor-Young), Simonson's former concubine (more on that later).

The Good

*The film touches on a lot of issues that are still timely. Although the movie is clearly a product of a time where overpopulation was the major ecological fear, the movie also mentions the greenhouse effect and other types of air, water, and soil pollution. Those are still problems, especially the former. It also touches on wealth inequality--New York City in 2022 has a population of 40M people, at least 20M of whom are unemployed. Thorn and Roth are police officers living in a tiny apartment with unreliable power, while most people live in even more wretched conditions. (I'm assuming) due to the massive unemployment and poverty, many women are willing to serve as concubines so degraded they're referred to as "furniture" and can serve particular individuals or whomever happens to be resident in a particular apartment. That's some Epstein-level stuff there. Homeless people literally fill the streets and fire exits. Food prices are rapidly skyrocketing--at one point Roth mentions $150 for a jar of strawberries, and the rarity of real beef reminds me of the early days of COVID when many meatpacking workers were sick.  Crime is so severe than the superintendents of ordinary apartment complexes carry assault rifles--although urban crime is nowhere near the levels of the late 1960s to early 1990s, it has been rising in recent years. Meanwhile, there is a ludicrously wealthy elite living in extreme luxury and fenced off from everybody else like something in Latin America or Africa.

(Someone on Twitter claimed dystopia is when privileged people are subject to the same horrors as the poor and marginalized--a lot of the stuff I've mentioned exists in real life, but for the most part not in the United States. Yet...the film mentions supply chain problems affecting day-to-day living in New York City, even for the wealthiest people, and even causing the decline of the book-publishing industry. Sound familiar?)

The film even touches on the alienation of people from each other...Simonson, who is wealthy enough to afford personal servants and even a concubine, has no next of kin to receive his death benefits. The "furniture" girls, exploited by their employers and on at least one occasion bullied by senior employees, seem to have only each other to rely on.

*Even though the film was made in 1973, there doesn't seem to be any overt racism. The (I assume) WASP Thorn banters with his black boss and Jewish roommate without any hint of snobbery or friction and he treats Martha (Paula Kelly), not only a black woman but the "furniture" of a suspected criminal, politely rather than lording it over her as a police officer and as a man. Although there are obviously still problems that need fixing, the negative of impact of discrimination has been in decline for some time.

*The acting is good. Heston is good as Thorn and Robinson is good as Roth, while Leonard Stone is appropriately reprehensible as the abusive butler Charlie. 

*Rather than a talkie-talk explanation of how just everything went bad, the dystopian aspects of the world are depicted initially by an opening-credit montage depicting population growth and pollution and then by details on-screen...heaps of homeless people, food lines, old people reminiscing about the days when the planet was more habitable, casual discussion of ludicrously-inflated food prices. No infodumping.

*The more you think about it, the more morally gray the situation becomes. Is the conspiracy investigated in the film the lesser evil, in order to reduce human pressure on the already collapsing environment?

*Finally, although this is pedantic, there's no TVTropes Bottomless Magazines here. In one fight sequence, the fact Thorn has to stop and reload his gun is important.

*When we see the cover's "riot control bulldozers" unleashed, the shots are so well-timed that they're actually a bit intimidating. It reminded me of the scene in The Wolfman where a man beats the wolfman to death with his silver-headed cane, but all the audience sees is the rising and fall of the cane over the fog.

The Bad

*The opening montage could have been tightened up a bit. The point could have been made a lot faster.

*The movie overall is rather slow-moving. There's a lot of "this is what dystopia looks like" where not a lot actually actually happens. Things do pick up later in the film though.

*Given the importance of the Catholic Church to the events in the film, there's a missed opportunity to depict the Catholic hierarchy conniving with the villains. Given how we see ordinary Catholic priests and nuns caring for the poor and providing spiritual solace, it wouldn't make the film anti-Catholic. All you'd really need to make the point is to depict a bishop or archbishop involved, which would make the ending more impactful and less vague.

The Verdict

Worth seeing once, but not the classic I expected. 8.0 out of 10.

Sunday, September 11, 2022

Donald Trump and the American Principate

Back when I was in college and soon afterward, I plotted out a dystopian novel called The American Principate, named after a period in early Roman history in which the emperors reigned but the Republic continued to theoretically function. The gist of it was that the abuse of federal war powers in the name of the "War on Terror" would lead to civil war and a presidential military dictatorship in the U.S. initially established by Not George W. Bush and solidified by Not Dick Cheney. It was heavily tapped into 2001-2007 anxieties about the Patriot Act, Guantanamo, etc. and its time came and went, so don't expect me to finish writing it.

(I suppose I could go full alternate-history like Lindsay Ellis did with Axiom's End, but this really isn't something I'm interested in doing anymore.)

However, in a discussion with a friend about dystopias in fiction and what in particular I might find dystopic, I sent him the blog post. He said it seemed like a more subtle dystopia that many Americans would tolerate and could lead to a true dystopia later on. I'm inclined to view it as a dystopia already, but I remember that long-ago World Book encyclopedia set that differentiated between "authoritarian" and "totalitarian." An authoritarian state regulates its subjects' political participation but doesn't meddle overmuch in other aspects of their lives. A totalitarian state will try to control everything. The American Principate, with a few exceptions, is the former rather than the's much more like the very early Soviet Union (in which the Communists, Left Socialist Revolutionaries, and Mensheviks were legal parties and the CP was more democratic internally) than the reign of Stalin in which the whole society was reorganized in a bloodthirsty revolution from above.

And the above brings us to Donald Trump. The American Principate allows the two major parties to operate (the Greens and Libertarians are straight-up outlawed on the grounds they undermine the war effort, which given how Twitter partisans of the two major parties are all convinced they're evil spoilers controlled by their rivals or foreign powers would probably be popular), but the range of acceptable political opinion is narrow. The neoconservative/unitary executive crowd is in ascendance and political positions outside that window are only somewhat less verboten than being a Kadet, Right Socialist Revolutionary, Octobrists, etc. were in the early Soviet Union. Democrats like Joe Lieberman, possibly Joe Biden (who supported the 2003 Iraq War), etc. may operate and at least sometimes win (the election system is federalized), but the ones who opposed the Iraq War, especially the more militant ones, not so much. The paleocon wing of the GOP is probably gone too, especially since I had Not Ron Paul as a prominent opposition leader executed by military elements loyal to the president as the civil war drew to a close. Donald Trump, who was advocating against the Iraq War as early as 2004, would probably be staying very carefully out of politics or else some politically-motivated investigations into his finances and other possible crimes would shut him up real quick.

However, should the American Principate suffer a significant reverse, things might change very quickly. Even with a military version of the bracero program allowing large numbers of Mexicans and other Latin Americans to earn U.S. citizenship for themselves and their families, I imagine the occupation of Iraq, Iran, Egypt, Syria, and Afghanistan and consequent counterinsurgency operations have stretched the military very thinly and cause the U.S. significant financial problems. If something like our world's Arab Spring breaks out, the US might be put in the position of either having to openly, violently crush a non-violent democratic movement in front of the entire world or abandon the post-invasion governments they set up. The latter might end up being inevitable because of fiscal factors alone, especially if China isn't willing to loan the U.S. money anymore. That's going to generate a massive backlash that even the Principate's more authoritarian system might not be able to contain.

And then is where Trump, assuming he hasn't been conveniently jailed already (and possibly even if he has, if he can spin himself as some kind of antiwar martyr jailed by the Deep State--after all, Hungary's semi-dictator Orban was an anti-Soviet political dissident as a young man), might come in. Despite getting only 50% of the vote in the Republican primary, he was able to bend virtually all of the GOP to his will very quickly, and all this despite having personal issues (multiple divorces, avoiding the Vietnam draft, outright contempt for soldiers) that by the standards of 1990s anti-Clinton Republicans would totally disqualify him and one might think would vex the Principate's more militarized society even more. Right now there are 1.9 to 3 million "War on Terror" veterans--more than the two million who served in Vietnam--and in this timeline there are a hell of a lot more due to the occupation of Iran, Egypt, and possibly other countries. Trump calling soldiers "losers" is going to piss off even more people--including party elites who have even more power in this scenario as well as ordinary veterans--than they would have in our history. Although a majority of veterans supported Trump, younger ones didn't, and there are a lot more of them this time. Although this would represent a potential anti-Trump bloc, if he's able to play on their resentment of the system that sent them to a war they couldn't win without indulging in the excesses of the Vietnam-era antiwar movement (yes, they did happen), he might be able to bring them on board or neutralize them politically.

Given the much more aggressive "War on Terror" in this timeline and likely radicalization of U.S.-born Muslims (see the San Bernardino shooting and the Pulse nightclub shooting), I imagine the primary targets for a much more empowered Trump would be Muslims. Trump pushed for a ban on immigration from Muslim countries and although existing US laws limited what could ultimately be implemented significantly, those legal checks are going to be much weaker or nonexistent and terrorism-related precedents could be used to override whatever precedents remain. I would imagine Muslim immigration and/or asylum claims would be sharply limited if not barred completely in this scenario, and American-born Muslims would be subject to much greater surveillance and harassment by state authorities or hyped-up Trump supporters. The Principate would likely play up Bush's post-9/11 "Islam is a religion of peace" rhetoric (especially when they need Muslim cooperation for the expanded "War on Terror"), but under Trump the radicalized base would be in the driver's seat.

Another target for a much more powerful Trump would be Hispanics. Although Hispanic support for the Republican Party grew during his administration, he was very zealous about border enforcement even if it led to human-rights violations. In this world, Hispanic immigration to the US was much, much higher due to the "service for citizenship" program and rather than working and going home, they and their families are staying permanently. I imagine the replacement theory enthusiasts will be losing their minds even more so than in our history. Many, many of the January 6 rioters came from areas where the Hispanic population was rising and the white population was declining. Although the Principate would come down hard on anything resembling January 6 (if Not Bush jailed antiwar protesters using anti-terrorism laws and Not Cheney fought a civil war to crush congressional opposition to what was essentially a presidential military dictatorship, I imagine anything resembling J6 in this timeline would be dealt with much more aggressively), this world's Trump and his allies might be able to channel the same sentiment into support for a more aggressive program against further Hispanic immigration. Given how climate change is still going to be a problem in this world, at least some asylum-seekers in recent years were fleeing natural disasters like hurricanes, and this is projected to get worse, I could imagine a much, much uglier migrant crisis. And there would almost certainly be crackdowns on the enlarged U.S. Hispanic population, especially if they object to the stricter border enforcement regime or some other pretext for jailing or deportation could be found.

And Trump does not take criticism or insult well, much less so than Bush 2.0, Cheney, or Obama. According to the upcoming book Holding The Line, Trump sought to have the Justice Department investigate his critics, including former U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry. In a world where criticism of the government is considered helping terrorists (look at some of the more obnoxious behavior by Republicans in the 2001-2005 period), wartime restrictions of civil liberties were much more severe, and an expanded overseas counterinsurgency to test out new repression techniques, there's plenty of precedent for a President Trump to be much more destructively vindictive than real history. And then there's the prolonged attempt to overturn the 2020 election results, only with a lot fewer if any guardrails against presidential overreach.

So to sum it up, in the world of the American Principate, Donald Trump is much less likely to become president, but if he does, he's going to be much more likely to become a tyrant whose opponents are worthy of the title "the resistance" than the Trump of real life. If Bush 2.0 is Julius Caesar, Dick Cheney is Augustus, and whomever is holding the bag when the Arab Spring breaks out is Tiberius or Claudius, Trump could be the American Caligula, Nero, or Domitian.

Thursday, August 25, 2022

Blast from the Past Movie Review: LADY IN THE WATER (2006)

Hey everybody, it's been awhile since I've actively posted, but I've been working a lot on Serpent Sword, the sequel to my novel Battle for the Wastelands. However, I've still been actively participating in Myopia Movies and we're doing a month on M. Night Shyamalan's films, ranging from his high point (at least among the movies were watched) with Signs to his decline.

So here's my review of Lady in the Water, the first film of his I actually skipped due to negative reviews. Here's the episode. And let my commentary begin:

 The Plot

Long ago, humans were in contact with a civilization of mermaids known as Narfs, who provided spiritual guidance. But man grew greedy and moved inland, multiplying conflicts and wars without the mermaids' advice. As the world grew darker and more dangerous, the mermaids have taken the initiative to contact humans again, but the mermaids have their own supernatural foe, the lupine Scrunts. Into this conflict comes Cleveland Heep (Paul Giamatti), an apartment superintendent with a stutter and a tragic past who encounters a Narf named Story (Bryce Dallas Howard) in the complex pool one night.

But Story, and now him, are being hunted...

The Good

*I liked how Howard played Story...although she's a supernatural being, she is unfamiliar with our world and its social conventions. Hence the brutal honesty, which can be encouraging or discouraging depending on the situation, and misunderstandings like "I need to wear clothes" or "someone who looks and acts like a teen runaway strung out on drugs hanging out half-naked with a middle-aged (apparent) bachelor might give people really wrong ideas." She also helps other characters follow their dreams, but she's by no means anything remotely resembling a typical Manic Pixie Dream Girl.

*I also liked Giamatti's Heep. When we first meet him, he's going out of his way to introduce a newcomer to the complex to the various eccentric characters that populate the place. It would have been nice if someone had done that for me when I moved to various complexes over the years. It's also a good foreshadowing of a later reveal--in order to make that work for a complex as large as the one he manages, Heep would have to have a very good memory. And that ends up playing a major role in the story.

*A young college student Young-Soon Choi (Cindy Cheung) and her mother (June Kyoto Lu) who cannot speak English play a major role in the storyline. I liked their dynamic--a strict Asian-born "tiger mother" and her more free-spirited Americanized daughter--and the fact Young-Soon has to be her mother's translator in her dealings with Heep is pretty funny.

*Sarita Choudhury is having a lot of fun as Anna Ran, part of the brother-sister duo with her writer brother Vick (Shyamalan himself). I liked her performance.

*One of the new residents of the complex is a movie critic who has some about the state of storytelling and the film industry. I thought that was pretty funny.

*In an age of remakes, legacy sequels, etc. a film with a completely original plot (it's based on a bedtime story Shyamalan told his children) is pretty refreshing.

*The difficulties the characters have with their roles in the story (not going into any more detail for spoiler reasons) are pretty clever, even if later on they do slow down the film.

The Bad

*One reason I recall for all the negative reviews when the movie came out was the bizarre names for the creatures. Seriously, Narfs and Scrunts? This sounds like Shyamalan was channeling Luna Lovegood from Harry Potter when he was writing this one. One review said it would be much simpler if Story were just a fairy (naiad?) or a mermaid being hunted by a werewolf. I know this whole thing is based on a bedtime story Shyamalan created for his own children, but the ridiculous species names were one of the major negatives from the reviews I can remember when the film came out. Listen to the podcast for all the times we mimicked Pinky, the deranged lab rat from The Animaniacs whose trademark saying is "Narf!"

*In the podcast, Daniel described the movie as "surreal" and it really is. It's just plain weird.

*Someone pointed out on the podcast that given the Narfs' isolation from humans, why does Story know how to speak English? That might merit an explanation--maybe she learned English from watching human fishermen? Then you could have BDH using sailor lingo and that might actually be pretty funny.

*Shyamalan casts himself as a major character in the film rather than his typical cameo. He's fairly flat in contrast to his character's lively sister and he doesn't really stand out like his costars do. This wasn't a problem with his character in Signs, who probably had a lot of guilt and possibly PTSD from falling asleep at the wheel and killing Reverend Hess's wife and whose main interactions are with the man he (unintentionally) widowed, or the non-entity park ranger in The Village who has only two lines. I can see why giving himself such a large part rubbed people the wrong way, especially given some revelations about his character's ultimate fate.

*The narfs and scrunts get introduced pretty early in the story, but there's another supernatural threat dropped in halfway through the film that seems a little abrupt.

*Like The Village but unlike Signs, it starts to drag in the middle.

*There's some additional information revealed about Story toward the end of the film that really needed to be foreshadowed better.

The Verdict

I don't think it really deserves the hate it got (four Razzie nominations?), but it's not a particularly good film, especially the more you think about it. At least it's short. 7.0/10.

Tuesday, August 2, 2022

New Comics Purchase: FRANK FRAZETTA'S DEATH DEALER (2022)

Hey everybody, it's been awhile since I posted anything, but I've been working a lot on Serpent Sword, the sequel to my novel Battle for the Wastelands. However, I'm writing to let you all know that I've bought some comics from a comic shop for the first time in probably over a decade. Here goes...

A couple weeks ago a friend, his wife, and new(ish) baby were visiting from out of town and after lunch we went to a Marietta comic shop in the same shopping center where, many years ago, the son of our old Scoutmaster worked. One of the comics I saw--but ended up not buying at the time--was based on noted fantasy artist Frank Frazetta's iconic fantasy character The Death Dealer. Given how I'd read the 1990s-era Death Dealer novels at the library when I was younger and own the Frazetta art book Icon, my curiosity was piqued. And when I found out via CBR that Frazetta's family intended the new Death Dealer comic to be the beginning of a "Frazettaverse" incorporating characters and creatures from his art, I decided to give it my financial support.

So I went to a comic shop closer to my home in Atlanta and purchased the first, the second, and the third issues, which is all of what seemed to be available. According to this website, the next issue is slated for August 24.

The Plot: I would describe this as "Conan the Barbarian meets Venom." The protagonist Kur, once a warrior seeking power and glory, put on a supernatural horned helmet, which he cannot take off. The helmet has a mind of its own, generally egging him on to more violence and talking enormous amounts of smack. Kur lives alone and is contemplating suicide when he rescues the red-haired witch Admira and her young son Mesh from wolves. He takes them back to his underground lair, where Mesh takes a liking to him and Admira, tending to his wounds, quickly gets physical. Awakening the next morning, Kur finds both of them kidnapped by dark forces and, against his better judgement, sets off to rescue them. He encounters a sorceress--who seems to be an old flame who has a history with the damned soul dwelling in the helmet--and it turns out there are more supernatural doings afoot.

The Good: Giving the Horned Helmet (in the novels it was capitalized) a mind of its own rather it just being a device that amped up the protagonist's physical prowess and aggression was interesting. This allows for Kur to have an Eddie Brock/Venom-type relationship with it. That was one thing I really liked about the first Venom film (I haven't seen the second), even though the movie was basically a buddy comedy and this...isn't. The Death Dealer is such a cipher character--in the painting he's just a big scary-looking dude--that one can do a lot with him. In the novels he was a noble savage trying to defend the valley that would someday become the Mediterranean by any means necessary, while in this one he's a much more tired and anti-heroic figure. Given how the Horned Helmet can go from person to person, it's possible the novels (and an earlier attempt at comics) take place in the same continuity, although the novels were explicitly set on prehistoric Earth and this comic seems to be in a totally different fantasy world.

The art is also really good. It's very colorful and vivid. I also liked how they worked specific Frazetta concepts into the comics--not only is the titular character a direct draw from a Frazetta painting, but they also worked in another one in which the Death Dealer confronts a gigantic crocodile.

The Bad: I must be a bit spoiled from graphic novels (which are typically collections of multiple issues that tell the complete story) because I thought the comics were a bit short. This is especially blatant with the third issue, in which two side quests (a unicorn and a wizard) that might merit expansion into an issue each are dealt with in a few pages. And since this is a monthly comic, it means a lot more waiting in between. If each comic were a bit longer, this wouldn't be a problem. Also, although I wouldn't expect a Frazetta adaptation to be particularly modest--Frazetta wasn't known for that at all, even if he wasn't nearly as raunchy as other fantasy artists--the way we first meet the sorceress is kind of dumb.

I emailed the comic company to see about the possibility of subscribing (since unlike the 1990s X-Men comics there's nothing to mail in with a check) or whether the individual comics would be consolidated into larger graphic novels. At $5 per comic, a graphic novel consolidating all the individual comics into one larger issue covering an entire storyline would be the better buy. However, the comic is so new (and it's from a smaller company) that it might not get to that point unless it does well enough financially. And that requires people buy it now. The comic shop offered to set me up with a subscription (i.e. they let me know when it's in for me to pick up or they mail it to me), which I might well do if I don't hear back from the company.

Thursday, April 21, 2022

Book Review: Pteranodon Canyon (2022)

Do you like the Old West? Do you like dinosaurs? Or perhaps even both? If so, you'll love author Tim Meyer's new novel Pteranodon Canyon.

The Plot

In an Old West where dinosaurs survived west of the Mississippi and have made life...interesting...for the settlers, the conservationist-leaning federal government has just heavily restricted the hunting of pteranodons. To deal with illegal hunting, the feds hire bounty hunter Charlie Archer, who has a very personal grudge against the outlaw Francis Burner. Acquiring two companions along the way--the female gunslinger Elinor Watts and the mysterious Finn Hampton--Archer sets off on his mission, facing threats both reptilian and human along the way.

The Good

*The book is fast-moving and fun to read. I read a lot of it on the elliptical at the gym and it's a fast read. It's never boring.

*The timing for laws against dinosaur poaching does make sense historically. Yellowstone National Park was founded in 1872 and the conservation movement was very active in the late 19th and early 20th Centuries. The possibility of dinosaurs--extinct in the Old World and in much of the New--being threatened in their last surviving redoubt could potentially galvanize the conservation movement even earlier than in our history.

*Meyer's use of Old West dialogue is clever and as far as I know, period-accurate.

*Meyer also clearly knows and loves dinosaurs. His descriptions of the animals and how they hunt is well-done.

The Bad

*There are some plot threads that could be developed more deeply. I'm not going to go too deeply for reasons of spoilers, but late in the book certain medicinal uses of pteranodon parts come up. I don't recall this being discussed earlier in the book.

*Also being vague here for reasons for spoilers, but one character has lost a body part to another character and bears a grudge over that. During their inevitable confrontation they rant in very specific detail about how this has hurt their life, but I don't recall those specifics coming up in earlier scenes featuring the character.

*Finally, the U.S. and Old West seem pretty much the same despite there being a surviving dinosaur population. Assuming there was no impact beyond the Americas (no pterosaurs making their way to Europe via Iceland and Greenland?), European colonization, the Native American cultures, etc. are going to be very different with dinosaurs being around. No attempts to weaponize the dinosaurs during the Mexican War or Civil War? No attempts at dinosaur domestication? What impact did mega-carnivores have on the bison? Meyer could have gone in a lot of different directions with this. Obviously he can't go too far and create a totally unrecognizable world if he wants a Western with dinosaurs, but there could've been Easter Eggs like references to Sherman setting loose raptors on his March to the Sea to further devastate whatever Confederate livestock he couldn't steal or Lewis and Clark bringing dinosaurs back to Washington D.C. to show Thomas Jefferson.

The Verdict

A fun read for the elliptical, although I'd recommend more for Kindle Unlimited borrowing than for buying. 8.0 out of 10.

Monday, April 18, 2022

Movie Review: The Northman (2022)

Thanks to an online group I'm in getting perks, I was able to score early passes to see The Northman, much like I did Dune. And just like I did with Dune, you're getting an early film review out of it. :)

The Plot

In ancient Norse Ireland, King Aurvandil War-Raven (Ethan Hawke) returns from raiding and slaving to his queen Gudrun (Nicole Kidman) and young son Amleth (Oscar Novak). Treachery arrives with his brother Fjolnir (Claes Bang), leaving his son to flee and vow revenge. Years later Amleth (now played by Alexander Skarsgård) is a Viking raider pillaging in modern Russia, but a religion vision reminds him of his vow of revenge. Allying with the Slavic sorceress Olga (Anya Taylor-Joy), he sets off for the end of the world -- Iceland -- and a final confrontation with his uncle.

The Good

*The cinematography in this movie is simply beautiful. Even though the film is rather ponderous (more on that later), the film simply looks so good that it doesn't matter.

*The soundtrack is also marvelous. I don't claim to be a great expert on authentically Norse music, but it stylistically sounds a lot like the Scandinavian-themed and actually Scandinavian music I've found on YouTube, like the Norwegian band Wardruna.

*The film does an excellent job captured just how alien the pagan Norse are to modern Westerners. Lots of strange (and often bloody) rituals, hallucinogenic sequences, unrepentant violence, and eschewing common sense in favor of belief in Fate. From what I know about Norse history and culture, they get it all correct. The fact that it was co-written by the Icelandic poet Sjón no doubt helps quite a bit.

*The acting is generally good, particularly Bang's Fjolnir.

*There are some unexpected and creative plot twists.

The Bad

*The movie is rather slow-moving at times. It's even divided up into sequences with title cards, something I found objectionable in The Free State of Jones.

*Per the above, Skarsgård stares at the camera a lot. Although he's by no means a bad actor, he's one of the least interesting performers in the bunch.

The Verdict

Definitely worth seeing once. 8.0 out of 10.

Saturday, January 22, 2022

Apex Publications Is Having Big-Time Sale

The other day, I spotted a blog post saying that speculative fiction stalwart Apex Publications is "retiring" 42 titles and was offering a substantial discount until the end of January Given Apex's importance to the small-press scene and the business I've done with publisher Jason Sizemore, this was somewhat concerning, so I checked it out.

It turns out that Apex is reverting the rights to many of its older titles to their original authors, to "trunk" or republish as they see fit. Apparently they're not generating enough money to cover the administrative costs of maintaining them, paying the writers, etc.

From a business perspective, this makes sense. I've looked over the list (more on that below) and a lot of them seem to be short-story collections or shorter works. Collections are generally not strong sellers--on Amazon I've sold three copies of Flashing Steel, Flashing Fire in the last six-odd weeks in comparison to five sales of The Thing in the Woods and three sales of its sequel The Atlanta Incursion. And that's fairly unusual--Thing, TAI, and Battle for the Wastelands typically sell at least all right, while FSFF languishes. This is even more blatant at conventions, where I move lots of novel-length works but few copies of FSFF, my novella Little People, Big Guns, or, in recent years, The Best of Heroic Fantasy Quarterly Vol. 2. I put all of my shorter work (with the exception of Battle prequel "Son of Grendel") on Draft2Digital for wide release and only "Ten Davids Two Goliaths" and "Discovery and Flight" (both set in Lindsay Buroker's Fallen Empire universe) seem to sell.

Since I'm a one-man show without any authors to continue to pay or actual employees (the artists, designers, etc. are all contractors), keeping FSFF and the other shorter works available for purchase is no big deal. However, if for every sale I had to do the paperwork, royalty computation, etc. for multiple authors, that wouldn't be worth the minimal return I get. However, I do have to store my convention stock and the fewer boxes sitting around my apartment the better.

I took a look at the books on the Apex list and here are some that interest me. Appalachian Undead is a collection of zombie stories set in, well Appalachia. It leads with a story entitled "When Granny Comes Marchin’ Home Again," which is certainly attention-grabbing, and even has another story alluding to a John Denver song. Harlan County Horrors operates in a similar vein, with lots of ugly doings in coal country. Breaking The World is about what might happen if the apocalypse actually started during the siege of the Branch Davidian compound in Waco and certain sounds interesting. HebrewPunk is a group of short stories or novellas featuring characters based in Jewish tradition, culminating in all of them joining forces for a heist. Kentucky Kaiju is a Dungeons and Dragons-style monster manual for large creatures inhabiting Kentucky of all places. Severance is about the mishaps that can befall a generation ship bound for another star system. Stay Crazy has a pretty interesting concept--is this woman insane, or is there a being from another dimension recruiting her to fight another extradimensional being? Starve Better by Nick Mamatas is about the writing life; I already own it, but it's been awhile since I've read it. To Each Their Darkness and Yours to Tell also books about the craft of writing, and I'm seriously considering snagging that one while I still can.

My to-be-read pile (including several library books that might lead to fines) is pretty substantial as is, so I'm not sure which of these I'll actually purchase when all is said and done, but those all sound cool. However, if you're interested in helping out someone who's helped me, Sizemore has done a lot for my independent novelist career, including editing Battle back when I was still pitching it to publishers, connecting me with cover designer Mikio Murikami and laying out and assembling some very well-designed e-books.

Saturday, January 15, 2022

A (Somewhat) Realistic North Korean RED DAWN

The YouTuber The Alternate Historian, whom I know from my former days at the Internet's premiere alternate history forum, posted on Twitter recently about making a video discussing a realistic war between the U.S. and North Korea. In the Homefront video game and the 2012 Red Dawn remake the North Koreans manage to land forces on the American mainland and actually take control over much of the continental United States.

Sufficient to say, that isn't going to happen. North Korea's air force is obsolete and owing to lack of fuel, their pilots have little training time. North Korea's navy is primarily focused on its own river and coasts. They're realistically not going transport a whole army to the American mainland and good luck keeping them supplied even if they could get here. Their army is large, but their equipment is obsolete. Their main strengths are masses of artillery threatening the South Korean capital, their nukes and ballistic missiles, and their cyberwarfare capability.

(North Korea's nuclear capabilities seem much more advanced than I'd earlier believed...I thought at best they could manage a "Super-9/11" on one or two cities on the West Coast and then they'd be annihilated, but what the Council on Foreign Relations describes is something more like what's depicted in this faux Congressional commission's report on a North Korean nuclear attack. Yikes.)

So how could you have a realistic Red Dawn where it's the North Koreans of all people landing on the American mainland? Commandos. Before I left the alternate-history forum, I suggested the "more realistic Red Dawn" story would be a small North Korean force taking over an isolated small town in the rural West Coast. In my idea they'd be hidden aboard a civilian ship, while TAH suggested on Twitter they could use submarines. North Korean cyberwar techniques could be used to conceal their approach to the West Coast. The goal isn't to actually conquer the United States; the goal is to seize a town during an international crisis as a bargaining chip to get the U.S. to back off militarily, lift sanctions, etc. Northern California is rather isolated (a large land area with few roads) and if they take a large number of civilians hostage, that would complicate any response from the California National Guard or the regular U.S. military. That means the locals will have to liberate themselves, and so we enter Red Dawn territory.

And that's when things get tricky. There are lots of guns to be had in the rural U.S., even in Democratic states like California, but a force of North Korean regulars is going to have much heavier gear even if they're dramatically outnumbered. I'm imagining them herding captured civilians into camps beneath a battery of portable artillery and then defending said artillery with machine guns. A few dozen guys with rifles might be able to make life difficult for North Korean infantry patrols or do hit-and-run on isolated enemy positions, but good luck with successfully attacking this.

Fortunately, northern California is a major haven for illegally growing marijuana, and the local weed baron "just happens" to have some mortars. Think how mobster Eddie Valentine flips on the evil actor (and Nazi spy) Neville Sinclair in the climax of the film The Rocketeer--like Eddie, this man might not have a problem making money illegally, but collaborating with a totalitarian enemy is something else entirely. A bunch of irregular infantrymen bum-rushing machine guns isn't going to end well for them (and even a successful attack would give the North Koreans time to slaughter the hostages with artillery), but a surprise mortar bombardment could cripple the guns or kill their operators, wreck the machine gun positions, etc.

And that gave me the idea for an analogue for the traitor Daryl from the 1984 version. I'm imagining some young Twitter tankie (an apologist for authoritarian anti-American regimes--think Western leftists defending China's repression of Hong Kong or Xinjiang or Russian bombing of Syrian rebels) initially collaborating with the North Koreans. He erroneously thinks they're "anti-imperialist" or believes the U.S. provoked the North Koreans into this crazed long-shot gamble with economic sanctions or military drills. 

Sufficient to say, the scales fall from his eyes real fast. Although the guerrillas initially don't want his help, he's read the Anarchist's Cookbook and knows how to combine chlorine and bleach to make a crude chemical weapon or can make other chemical concoctions ISIS-style. Putting the trust the North Koreans gave him to good use, he sets off the chemical bomb in the North Korean headquarters at the same time the guerrillas use their new mortars to destroy the artillery the North Koreans are using to hold the townsfolk hostage. If the guerrillas or their weed-baron allies have got some decent machinists, they could make gas shells to make absolutely sure the gun crews are dead.

(Daryl could have some Redemption Equals Death for having been a collaborator initially, or more creatively, survive and everybody believes he was the Wolverines' inside man the entire time.)

I've got a lot going on, so I'm not going to try to pitch this to Hollywood (which wouldn't be interested, especially with the failure of the Red Dawn remake) or even write a book. Still, it might be interesting.

Sunday, January 2, 2022

Book Review: SWORD AND PLANET (2021)

"Sword and Planet" is a sub-genre mixing science fiction and fantasy tropes that, although one of the oldest in modern SF (think the Edgar Rice Burroughs stories featuring heroic Earthman John Carter on a habitable Mars) doesn't get the attention it merits. Fortunately Baen put out Sword and Planet, a collection of several such stories, which I got the pleasure of reviewing. Here goes...

The collection starts out with a bang with Tim Akers' "A Murder of Knights." Basically a member of a high-tech knightly order has to investigate some sinister doings and finds himself facing off against something abominable, with a very bloody deadline. It seems like an origin story for a particular character and according to a conversation I had with the author, there's more content out there set in this universe. The fact my first reaction to the story was to see if there was more of it reflects very well on this collection.

Another story I enjoyed was R.R. Virdi's "A Knight Luminary" in which a trainee knight in a future war with a machine intelligence *still* hasn't manifested the psychic powers he needs. He and his fellows investigation an outpost that's gone silent and, as can be expected, things go very, very wrong.

"Bleeding From Cold Sleep" by longtime Warhammer 40K author Peter Fehervari features a fugitive member of what are essentially humanity's Cossacks (the vanguard of human expansion against a myriad of alien races, the first of which are based in a more pulp-fiction version of our own solar system) and just why he's a fugitive. It turns out there's a threat much, much closer to home.

In T. C. McCarthy's "The Test," a world that has regressed into a medieval state features a king, his son who reminds me a lot of Prince Hal from Shakespeare's HENRY IV, and another son who'd like to usurp him. And did I mention there are monsters and priests using advanced technology? This was fun too.

Rounding out my favorite stories is the novella "Queen Amid Ashes," set in author Christopher Ruocchio's SUN EATER universe (which begins with the novel Empire of Silence, the first of several). Our hero Imperial noble Hadrian Marlowe and his companion, the foreign cyborg doctor Valka, and their Imperial troops must liberate a world under attack by the predatory alien Cielcin, but there's much more going on than an alien invasion. There are some very vivid descriptions here.

Unfortunately, not every story in the collection is so grand. I loved the Deathstalker novels when I was in middle school, but Simon R. Green's "Saving The Emperor," which describes the origin of the titular Deathstalker noble family, was disappointing. I had a hard time following Susan R. Matthews' "Operatix Triumphans."

Still, no collection is perfect and I would definitely recommend this one. 8.0 out of 10.