Wednesday, September 16, 2020

Book Review: THE LADY HEIRESS (2020)


British independent science fiction and fantasy writer Chris Nuttall and I have agreed on another review swap, his new fantasy novel The Lady Heiress and new science fiction novel The Lion and the Unicorn for my steampunk military fantasy Battle for the Wastelands and its prequel novella "Son of Grendel." So let's return to his Zero Enigma fictional universe, a world of manners, magic, and backstabbing...




The Plot

Lucy Lamplighter, a member of a declining aristocratic family in the fantasy city of Shallot, graduates from her young ladies' boarding school to find herself in a bind. Her father had attempted to stop their family's collapse by engaging in increasingly reckless business gambles, most of which failed, and now House Lamplighter's fortunes are in free fall. Rather than taking what's left of the money and running, Lucy decides to restore the family's fortunes. She makes some risky moves that allow for the payment of some of the family's debts, but like her father soon finds herself playing with fire...

The Good

*Protagonist Lucy Lamplighter is an engaging and clever character whom I really like and whose fate I really care about. She's very well-handled, and how she went about restoring her declining family's fortunes wasn't what I expected. However, she does have character flaws and her decisions, both good and bad, proceed from these flaws. And through her actions we see the benefits and flaws of her boarding-school education--although it teaches her valuable skills, the inconsistent consequences for rule-breaking don't necessarily prepare one for the high-stakes world of aristocratic politics and crime.

*Because the reader cares about Lucy's adventures and ultimate fate, the book is a fast read. I think I finished it in two sessions on my apartment elliptical.

*The villain arrives much later in the story than I expected and they're an absolutely slimy, vile, disgusting person who is also very, very smart. Not going to go into a lot of detail for spoiler reasons, but this character too is very well-drawn. And the villain does a very good job using blackmail to draw characters into committing more and more heinous acts. Science fiction author David Brin illustrates how the process works here. Their decisions, both good and bad, ultimately stem from the character's own personality as well.

*I also liked some of the supporting characters, like wealthy commoner Gary Prestwick and Lucy's long-suffering Uncle Jalil who fears his niece is going down the same path as her father.

*Although this book is set in Chris's Zero Enigma universe, one doesn't need to have read the other books in the series to enjoy it. The main-series characters drop in now and then, but the characters in this story are small fish in this world's upper class who realistically wouldn't interact with them. And you get all the worldbuilding you need in this book, as seen through the eyes of a young woman who has to grow up too soon.

*Finally, Chris spent his money very well on the cover from artist Brad Fraunfelter. His cover is quite frankly awesome.

The Bad

*Some revelations about Lucy's father that explain the villain's actions could have been better foreshadowed. The reader knew he was getting desperate, but there's "making bad investments" and there's what ultimately gets revealed.

*Lucy's school rival Marlene could have been better developed, especially given some revelations the villain makes about her.

*Overall the book felt a bit short.

The Verdict

Some very good characterization of major characters, but the minor ones need some work. Definitely worth reading once, especially if you're already a fan of the Zero Enigma series. 8.0 out of 10.

Tuesday, September 1, 2020

Book Review: THE LION AND THE UNICORN (2020)

British independent science fiction and fantasy writer Chris Nuttall and I have agreed on another review swap, his upcoming fantasy novel The Lady Heiress and new science fiction novel The Lion and the Unicorn for my steampunk military fantasy Battle for the Wastelands and its prequel novella "Son of Grendel." So let's be off into a world of aliens, space warfare, and mayhem...


The Plot

The zombie apocalypse in space. I'm not making this up. That's the thrust of the plot. Humanity and several alien races are doing battle with what is essentially a sentient plague that has infected many worlds and turned the populations into a singular hive intelligence. Said hive intelligence has industrialized shipyards, space fleets, etc. and it's expanding like, well, a virus.

(Rather appropriate given the circumstances in which I'm writing this review.)

Captains Thomas Hammond and Mitch Campbell, the first a conservative old war-horse and the latter a a less-experienced but far more daring new captain, are placed in charge of two new warships. And among the enlisted ranks, Royal Marine Colin Lancaster and gunboat pilot Tobias Gurnard have to face the demons their youth in Liverpool have set upon them.

If they don't, they're all dead. And humankind and its aliens might die with them.

The Good

*Although the book is actually the fifteenth in a larger series, it essentially stands on its own. Events that happened in previous books are introduced smoothly as part of a character's background rather than something the reader has to have read about in order to enjoy the current book.

*The book is overall a fast and entertaining read, perfect for the elliptical exercise sessions where I typically indulge myself with e-books. The last quarter or so of the novel is particularly gripping.

*Chris begins the novel by hanging a lampshade on several ridiculous sci-fi tropes, including Star Trek's infamous exploding consoles. However, with that one he also plays it straight, explaining just how it might realistically work. I thought that was fun. There are also a couple riffs on Superman and S.M. Stirling's Draka that science fiction fans would appreciate.

*I liked Colin's arc as he realized how much of a bastard he was to Tobias when they were students and how he handles his return to the boarding school and dealing with both former cronies and enabling administrators who hadn't grown like he has. I also liked how Tobias struggled with the low self-esteem and paranoia that a youth of horrific bullying had inflicted on him.

*The concept itself is pretty cool. I've read zombie stories and am familiar with the concepts of body-snatching, demonic possession, etc. even though I haven't consumed any media about them, but I don't think I've ever read a story with a "virus space empire" as the enemy before. And the possibilities for trouble such an enemy can produce are pretty clever when every conceivable living thing can be infected.

*There are a couple fake-outs that Chris throws our way that keep the story from being predictable.

*The book sets up more adventures that I'd definitely be up for reading.

The Bad

*Those who've read a lot of Chris's work will notice some stock characters like the nerd with a chip on his shoulder because of boarding-school bullying or the nobleman who married for family duty more so than love who has to keep track of an elaborate social circle with debutante balls and parties and has entailed assets. Those tropes existing in the past or fantasy worlds that mimic the past like his Zero Enigma and Schooled In Magic series make sense, but the Ark Royal series is supposed to be set in the future. I could imagine the modern-day British navy reflecting these types of class distinctions, but hundreds of years in the future? Cultures change a lot, and they can change very quickly. Compare Britain of 1945 with Britain today.

*Although there's much talk of how humanity and its allies are losing the war against the virus, I never really got the urgency of the situation. If there were more horrors--worlds falling, refugee fleets getting quarantined in deplorable conditions or nuked lest they bring the virus with them, people getting scapegoated for the disease and murdered like medieval Jews--on-screen, I would have gotten that better. With coronavirus crisis still ongoing, there are plenty of horrors to crank up to eleven. I'm actually getting some Cozy Catastrophe vibes.

*The book makes references to people who'd been infected but been freed from viral control after a relatively short time (the most is a few months), but characters also speculate about what it's like to be infected by the virus--whether an infectee's consciousness just goes to sleep and never wakes up or whether they're helplessly watching as their body does the virus's bidding. This is something that should be well-known among the rank and file, if anything for the propaganda value--if the alternative to victory is an endless And I Must Scream trapped in one's own head, that'd be quite a motivating factor to give one's all for victory. The book makes a reference or two to labor unrest and scaring the hell out of people so they don't undermine the war effort is a missed opportunity.

(Later in the story characters start talking about being infected by the virus as being "a living death," but it would have been better if this was something mentioned earlier.)

The Verdict

Definitely worth reading once and a worthy addition to the Ark Royal series. 7.5 out of 10.

Monday, August 31, 2020

Facebook Ads *Avoiding* Kindle Unlimited

In the past I've posted here extensively about my various Facebook ad campaigns. Although Facebook ads moved copies in ways that Amazon ads generally didn't, none of my earlier campaigns made a profit. The closest I ever came was making $43 royalties on $50 spend. Although there were times money from con sales or random hand sales could cover those costs, COVID-19 means a lot fewer conventions and those remaining are a lot smaller.

However, in early August I wondered if my ads might've been flawed--in order to make it clear that I was selling e-books (i.e. I didn't want people thinking the book I was selling was a video game, then costing me money by clicking and deciding not to buy) and attracting people with the magical word "free," I emphasized the book was "free on Kindle Unlimited." This meant thousands of Kindle Unlimited page-views per month, but at slightly under half a cent per page read, this came out to $4.80 per 1,000 pages read--aka not much even if I got thousands of page-reads (and believe me I did). Even though I made outright sales, no combination of sales and KU page-reads covered the costs. This applied even when I released The Atlanta Incursion, the sequel to The Thing in the Woods and advertised Thing in hopes people would buy it and then move onto the next book. Furthermore, based on my experience KU readers seem less likely to review than people who made full purchases and I was in severe need of reviews, especially for TAI.

So I created a new $100 Facebook ad for Thing with ad copy stating it was "available in e-book and print" rather than "free on Kindle Unlimited." Based on advice from a Facebook ad consultant (buy enough ads and they'll start wanting to call you to chat), I was also sure to include "engaged shoppers" as a behavioral characteristic--per the consultant these were people who are more likely to buy things. I also made sure to max out the spend at $5 per day, which is a recommendation I got from Help My Facebook Ads Suck, meaning an ad campaign running from 8/8 to 8/28.

The first day went pretty well. I sold two e-books of Thing and one e-book of TAI for a $6.18 royalties gross on $3.91 ad spend for a net of $2.27. There were also a few Kindle Unlimited page-reads, but we're talking less than a dollar. The sale of TAI took a little effort on my part--one person who commented on the Thing ad said he'd like to see the back-story for the titular monstrosity and I told him it would be in TAI, which was now available. He was glad to see it and bought it. I made another such sale on 8/10 (in which I suggested making a two-for-one series buy), so let that be a lesson--engage your fans on the Facebook posts. :)

Of course, one good day doesn't make a profitable campaign or a wise strategy, so I watched and I waited. Even after the campaign formally ended, I held off on commenting for a few days in order for the last Kindle Unlimited reads to come in and see if any sales came off the shares of the boosted post (there were 12 shares).

As of morning 8/29 when the post was no longer boosted, Thing and TAI between them had nine e-book sales and one paperback sale for Thing (per Amazon for royalties of $21.28) and five e-book sales for TAI ($10.30 royalties) during the advertising period. No additional sales were made for either book on 8/29, but the day did feature nearly 400 KU pages read for Thing. The Kindle Unlimited revenue for Thing in this period as $21.83 (a little over 4,500 page-views) and for TAI was approximately $3.55 (739 page-views). Overall, the ad campaign generated $56.96, $59.02 if one counts a Thing sale made 9/1 that might've been from a shared post. There's actually a decent amount of read-through from Thing to TAI in terms of purchases, but not nearly as much in KU. Also got one new review for Thing from one of the people I engaged with on Facebook, but no TAI--that's later on her reading list.

Ironically in July I had 19 Thing sales and 3,167 KU pages read, with a Facebook ad emphasizing Kindle Unlimited. There were nine TAI sales and 1,071 KU pages read (although this is skewed by the fact the book premiered in July), but even with those the ad didn't cover its costs. And this new ad ran for much longer at a lower cost per-day. I'm thinking that emphasizing free on KU might be a good idea, not a bad one. However, I also suspect I'm reaching the point of diminishing returns, even if one treats advertising as a loss-leader rather than something that should pay for itself each and every time.

(Bad idea--Samhain Publishing at one point had a banner ad in Times Square advertising to millions who'd never buy their books when that same money advertising in genre magazines would've been much more useful.)

However, before I decide on no more Facebook ads (at least until the third and perhaps fourth "Long War" books are done for more series read-through), there are more avenues I have yet to explore.

Firstly, as part of a multi-author promotion, I have set Thing to $0.99 from 9/2 to 9/7. I could advertise that on Facebook, hoping that the fact there's a sale generates more interest and that KU reads and read-through into TAI compensates for the greatly reduced royalties (35% on anything below $2.99 but 67% on $2.99 to $9.99). After all, I advertised Battle For The Wastelands when it was free as a COVID morale-booster and moved not only 250 free copies but at least some KU reads from people who didn't want to have the book permanently. And I got some reviews on Goodreads and perhaps on Amazon, something that TAI in particular needs. With the Augusta Toy and Comic Show coming up this weekend (Sept. 5-6) and the Next Chapter Con Sept. 19, I can afford another loss-leading ad.

Secondly, one of my reviewers (I can't remember whom) suggested that one really didn't need to read Thing to enjoy TAI. In late July after the presumed premiere boost wore out, I'd spent $100 on a Facebook ad selling TAI to fans of the Lovecraftian role-playing game Call of Cthulhu, horror fiction, and e-books (that didn't cover its costs and didn't even generate that many clicks for that matter), but blogger Matt Stienberg explicitly compared TAI to the X-Com game series. Given the focus on the Gray aliens on the cover art and throughout the book, X-Com fans might be a better target market for TAI on its own. Thing is, so long as TAI doesn't have any Amazon reviews, that might be quite a risk even if I emphasize that magical word "free" and use the KU ad copy.

Thirdly, I could send people to the Amazon series page showing off Thing and TAI together. That might be better to wait until I have more books, since a two-book series isn't exactly impressive.

Another alternative is to continue advertising but not spend so much money. Although the longer ad campaigns made more sales and grossed more, they also lost more money. Meanwhile, the $50 ad buy came within $7 of breaking even, and that was pushing Thing without TAI.

We'll see. I'll need to make a quick decision if I want to push the $0.99 campaign.

Thursday, August 27, 2020

How I Would Have Done "2012" (SPOILERS)

As my regular readers know, I'm a longtime participant in the film podcast Myopia Movies, formerly known as Myopia: Defend Your Childhood. Myopia now has a Patreon, and for the last few months, that's where I've posted the "how I would have done it" articles for Myopia favorites Transformers, Starship Troopers, Alien Resurrection, and even The Guyver. My takes on The Phantom Menace and the original Friday The 13th are coming later. However, it's been so long since I've done one here that many people don't know what they're missing if they don't sign up.

So now I'll do one about 2012, since during or after the podcast, the mighty Daniel said he'd be very interested in how I would have done the film given how much he hated the canonical movie. So here goes...


In General

*In the podcast, I describe the movie as what happens if someone tried to take one of the books on the polar realignment apocalypse from the 0000 section of the library (you know, where you can find Bigfoot, UFOs, and what-not) and tried to give it the Lord of the Rings treatment. This movie is nearly three hours long. Although it's not nearly as horrifically dull as Jason X, which we watched together that evening, that was still a chronic complaint.

*I didn't have any problem with the casting in general. That can stay.

Act I

*The characters are broadly fine, but the scientific jargon was so ridiculous. American scientist Adrian Helmsley (Chiwetel Ejiofor) can just hear from his friend Indian scientist Satnam Tsurutani (Jimi Mistry) that a recent series of solar flares have caused an increase in solar radiation that, though not noticeable day-to-day, is subtly heating up the Earth's core. This in turn threatens a worldwide geological disturbance that would kill billions of people and collapse global civilization. The simpler your explanation for what happened, the less ridiculous it sounds. He then goes to see Chief of Staff Carl Anheuser (Oliver Platt) and meets U.S. President Thomas Wilson (Danny Glover) and his daughter Laura (Thandie Newton) and begin plans to prepare. Then we cut to China and meet the Chinese (Tibetan?) worker Tenzin (Chin Han), his Buddhist monk brother Nima (Osric Chau), and elderly grandparents. The Chinese government is clearly going to build something and is moving those who aren't skilled workers out of the area.

*Ix-nay on the assassination of conspiracy members who try to leak, or at least we don't need to see the whole bit with the evacuation of the Mona Lisa and the killing of the Louvre director on-screen. Remember, the movie needs to be shorter.

*Jackson's family stuff seemed broadly fine, although it should be made a bit clearer that Jackson's wife Kate (Amanda Peet) regrets leaving Jackson due to his failure to support the family and ignoring her and their children in favor of his failed writing career. That's the vibe I got--and that her new boyfriend Gordon Silberman (Tom McCarthy) is aware, which is why he emphasized the sacrifices she'd made for Jackson that he hadn't reciprocated (her leaving medical school) and wanted them to have a child of their own so urgently. However, in the podcast, nobody but me seemed to pick up that Gordon, despite his many good qualities, seems rather insecure and anxious Kate might return to her husband despite his failings. That's the subtext for wanting them to have a child, despite the fact that Kate and Jackson might still technically be married (Kate later references them being separated, not divorced) and she and Gordon aren't married themselves. Since we're supposed to like Gordon, having him too clingy and twitchy would be a bad idea. Maybe Kate is pleased to see that Jackson has regular employment and Gordon, though he on the surface is glad as well, might subtly project worry.

*To the above end, I'd have introduced the Russian oligarch (mob boss?) Yuri Karpov (Zlatko Buric) as Jackson's employer a bit earlier. When we first meet Jackson, he's just dropped Yuri off at the airport to fly to Vegas to see his oldest son boxing before going to pick up his own children for their weekend camping trip rather than sleeping in and forgetting. Yuri might inquire into the state of Jackson's finances (some reference to credit card debts finally getting paid off?) and the two might bond over the difficulties of being divorced fathers. Jackson's overall arc for the film is "zero to hero" and we need to see him as the zero and then rise above his past failings as a man, but there's a balance to be struck between showing him at the bottom and making him so unsympathetic that viewers want him to die. We might also meet Yuri's obnoxious spoiled twin younger sons earlier and perhaps develop them as characters a bit more--although they're rude and disrespectful to Jackson, they do commiserate with his kids about being children of divorce and are willing to share their maybe-stepmother's dog, so they're not completely un-salvageable.

*The journey to Yellowstone, the meeting with Adrian and conspiracy radio host Charlie Frost (Woody Harrelson), and the escape from Los Angeles to Yellowstone to Las Vegas using Gordon's pilot skills as the Big One finally hits California and the Yellowstone supervolcano erupts all are broadly fine. I'd make it more obvious that the geological instability has actually yanked southern California off the U.S. mainland by depicting the ocean flooding the enormous crack that forms, but that's about it.

*Adrian's conversation with his father Harry (Blu Mankuma) aboard the cruise ship where the latter works as a musician was one of the few legitimately poignant moments in the film, so that stays. However, to save time I'd cut the senior Helmsley's father's musician partner Tony Delgatto (George Segal) completely. There's this whole subplot with how he's alienated from his son because he doesn't approve of his marrying a Japanese woman and how his attempted reconciliation is cut off by Japan getting destroyed by a tsunami that can be cut.

Act II

*Jackson and his family meeting up with Yuri in Las Vegas and escaping with him aboard his gigantic aircraft can broadly stay. Seeing Gordon repeatedly getting drafted to serve as a pilot despite his minimal qualifications was pretty funny. As people on TVTropes pointed out, Las Vegas is too far away for the pyroclastic flow from Yellowstone, so I'd just have more earthquakes and/or debris from Yellowstone falling from the sky and smashing things.

*I would have made the president's sacrifice somewhat less pointless. Rather than just staying there to die with his people, I'd have him remaining behind to coordinate the evacuation of many DC and Baltimore citizens to aircraft carriers and other ships offshore. Think the evacuation of Saigon as the Communists poured into the city in 1975--overloaded helicopters carrying people to the carriers, aircraft being shoved into the ocean to make room for more, etc. Ships hundreds of miles offshore aren't vulnerable to tsunamis and carriers can carry tens of thousands of people. The U.S. has the largest navy on Earth and here's where it would come in real handy, especially given how often it's deployed for humanitarian purposes. Nearby ocean liners, other civilian ships, etc. can be pressed into the effort rather than (apparently) the continuity of the U.S. being gambled on the "arks in Tibet" plan. This is especially doable since the U.S. Merchant Marine is a quasi-military service and would be easier to take control of in an emergency. There should be hundreds of ships off the East Coast for this purpose, but it doesn't seem like anybody thought of that.

There might also be tectonically stable areas in the U.S. proper or Canada where people can be evacuated by aircraft. Although southern California getting torn off and the Yellowstone eruption have probably made it unsafe to evacuate anybody west of the Mississippi and (I'm assuming) the New Madrid fault and the Wabash Valley fault going off will give much of the Midwest too many problems to risk adding a lot of survivors, but Ontario, Quebec, the Upper Midwest, and New England might be broadly stable and able to receive people from the East Coast tsunami zones.

(Furthermore, the president staying alive and in command as long as possible would also avoid the chain of command issues that I mentioned in the podcast where the slimy Anheuser claims to be in charge of the federal government with the president and vice president dead and the speaker of the House unable to be found. Here's the "I am in control here" situation involving the assassination attempt on Ronald Reagan referenced in the podcast. That's something to avoid, even if the Wikipedia article makes Haig's actions far less sinister than I'd initially thought.)

Although I could imagine a super-tsunami blasting over the Delmarva Peninsula to destroy D.C. (the topography is fairly flat), ix-nay on the carrier U.S.S. John F. Kennedy crushing the White House. Per TVTropes the ship is ported at Philadelphia--not only would the tsunami have to pull it out to sea and then throw it back just right for this scene to work, but per my earlier scenario I imagine the U.S. Navy would be put to sea as much as possible as the apocalypse approaches. Even an old carrier would still be useful for evacuating people. Instead I'd just make it a Deep Impact-style super-wave, with the president giving up his seat aboard the last helicopter out for a couple little kids carrying the original Constitution and Declaration of Independence or something so he can stay at his post until the very end.

*Also, some people involved in the film suggested that Islamic holy places be destroyed along with the statue of Christ in Rio de Janiero, the Vatican, and the Buddhist holy site in the Himalayas, but this got shot down due to fears of Islamic extremists putting a bounty on the creators' heads. For those of you not in the know, the "fatwa" comment refers to what happened to Salman Rushdie and Theo Van Gogh was killed only a few years before the movie was made, so these fears aren't completely unreasonable. 

Given how the Muslim holy cities are located in vicinity of several active volcanoes, I imagine Mecca and Medina would be in the same danger as Hawaii and Yellowstone. Rather than something that would give undue pleasure to people who hate Muslims and provoke the jihadis to murder Emmerich and company, this could be the chance to show the Saudis and other Islamic states using the logistical skill they've honed through hosting the pilgrimage to Mecca to evacuate the Holy Cities' populations and important Muslim artifacts to somewhere relatively safe, like perhaps the Ethiopian highlands.


This could be worked into Adrian's plot--Air Force One and some other aircraft with federal leadership are flying across the Atlantic, Europe, and the Asian interior to the arks in Tibet and they spot the evacuation of western Arabia amid the volcanic apocalypse breaking out around them. Maybe a couple Chinook helicopters heavily loaded with people also carrying the Black Stone between them like the helicopters carrying the animals at the ark site? Given how the film is broadly US-centric (with the Chinese as second fiddle), this might be the chance to give Arabs and black Africans a Crowning Moment of Awesome or two.

Act III

*The flight to the Himalayas, Jackson and Kate's conversation about their separation that shows they still love each other (something that if I remember right Gordon sees and isn't too happy about), the pilot Sasha's death, and Yuri abandoning Jackson and his family and his girlfriend Tamara (Beatrice Rosen), who had been cheating on him with Sasha, can stay. That last bit shows Yuri's scumbag nature as well as his cunning--Nic pointed out in the podcast that he didn't have Tamara and Sasha killed when he learned of their affair because he needed Sasha to fly him to Tibet. It also allows for the scene where Kate begs Tenzin to at least take the children onto the ark to remain. Since they're riding with Tenzin's family to the ark, we still have Gordon's conversation with Jackson that came off to me as the former somehow foreseeing his own death and further building audience sympathy for him.

*We also need to keep Adrian finding his stateroom and his horror that the space they've given him is enough for ten people. If the goal is to save as many people as possible, the arks should function like nuclear-powered military barracks, not floating hotels. This will help set up his challenge to Anheuser to let everybody aboard the arks despite the oncoming tsunami later in the film. The same with the death of Satnam and his family--this shows how flawed the evacuation effort was, especially its reliance on funding from the rich buying their way aboard even though they might not have skills useful for the post-apocalyptic world.

*Ix-nay on how Tenzin and Nima's plan to sneak their family--and Jackson's family, Gordon, and Tamara--onto the ship accidentally jeopardizes everybody's survival. The fact the killer wave is coming in early with the boarding incomplete is suspense-building enough, plus it still allows for the moral dilemma of casting off right away (advocated by Anheuser, now fully in charge with the president confirmed dead and the other members of the line succession missing) or risking everybody's safety to save more people. There's plenty of opportunities for Jackson to engage in heroic activities in helping get people aboard as the tsunami clock ticks down, especially the Chinese workers who built the arks in the first place. The canonical sneaking cost Jackson, the ostensible protagonist, a lot of audience sympathy (at least per TVTropes and a couple people on the podcast), especially since it kills off Gordon, probably Tamara, and likely a bunch of other people too and nearly causes the American ship to destroy itself on Mount Everest. We could still have that--they get everybody on board, but enough water comes in that the ship is unstable and careens around until the extra water is pumped out. Yuri still dies saving his sons, giving him some karmic retribution for his earlier behavior and a Dying Moment of Awesome.

*Per the above, some people on TVTropes wanted Gordon to survive and hook up with Tamara, who'd been his patient at the plastic surgery clinic. Gordon and Jackson can each engage in some heroics getting people onto the ships at the very last minute. Although there can be some unpleasant close calls, both survive. Kate can go back to Jackson, who has developed from being a loser who'd failed his wife and children into a bona fide hero. Gordon sits there looking all sad, then Tamara can pop up, having survived the whole experience, and reminds him that she's now single. Gordon can hesitate a bit, unwilling to abandon Kate and remembering that she'd been unfaithful to Yuri with the younger and more pleasant Sasha, and then decide he's too glad to be alive (when earlier he seemed to think he was going to die) to argue.

*The ending scene can stay broadly as-is, except with radio contact between the arks and surviving population centers in Africa and elsewhere (the ending world map shows much of Asia rode it out and Australia might have too). The fact a convoy of mostly white survivors (and the last-minute addition of a lot of Chinese workers) are heading for post-apocalyptic Africa gave a lot of people colonialism vibes, especially since China has gotten more involved in Africa in recent years. This makes it clear that the survivors and their technology will be welcomed to help maintain civilization and aren't simply invading. Furthermore, there can be radio or phone contact with other ships at sea (which are likely to have survived), including Adrian's father aboard the cruise ship.

(Seriously, there was no reason for the cruise ship to be destroyed in the canonical film and in fact there's an alternate ending where it survives. If the ship was floating over an underwater earthquake it might bob a bit, but that's it. Tsunamis become dangerous close to shore and they were well out to sea.)

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Wednesday, August 19, 2020

My First #Booktube Videos

One of my strategies for promoting my "Long War" science fiction/horror series--The Thing in the Woods and The Atlanta Incursion thus far--was querying #booktube for people to do review videos about the books. I queried several YouTube book enthusiasts and the first to agree was Books of Blood.

Here's the video he did on Thing:



Here's the review he did on The Atlanta Incursion, which he liked better.



I also queried about my "Dark Tower meets Game of Thrones" indie novel Battle for the Wastelands. The #booktuber Mindy's Book Journey agreed to take a look, and here it is.



I've queried a lot more #booktubers since then, so let's hope this strategy continues to bear fruit.

Friday, August 14, 2020

More Successful Sassanid Persia? Rome Restored From Gaul? Check out "The Darling Of The World"

One of the causes for the decline and fall of the (Western) Roman Empire is the revival of the old enemy Persia under the vigorous Sassanid dynasty. This gave Rome a major military threat to the east at the same time the Germanic tribes were growing larger and more organized and the weaknesses of the Roman imperial system (namely how the armies could make emperors in the provinces) were becoming apparent. However, although the Sassanids could hurt the Romans, their richest province Mesopotamia and their capital Ctesiphon were close to Roman Palestine and Anatolia and so the Sassanids got the worst of it more often than not. And it was the Romans that ultimately survived in Constantinople while the Arabs overran Persia.

But here's an alternative timeline "The Darling of the World: A Persian TL." This time around, the Sassanids do even better, something that combined with the Crisis of the Third Century has the following effects...

*The combination of the betrayal of the Romans by the precursor to the Palmyrene Empire after a series of Sassanid successes deprives Rome of the riches of the East, especially Egypt's grain supply. This in turn leads to a series of usurpations at the same time as the Plague of Cyprian. Taking advantage of the weakening of Rome, the Goths push through the borders earlier than in real history and establish a new kingdom in the Balkans, putting the boot in on the Romans when someone manages to raise an army to contest them. And then the Alemanni invade Italy itself...

*China is reunited after the fall of the Han by the Wu Dynasty rather than the later Sui. The Wu implement the imperial examination system much earlier than in real history and expand into Central Asia much like the later Tang.

*Although the timeline is meant to showcase a more successful Sassanid dynasty, the Persians' various political problems--too many squabbling princes, a powerful nobility, etc. The Persian emperors who crippled their Roman rivals don't have long to enjoy their victory before they start fighting among themselves over the spoils. And the Palmyrenes who helped the Sassanids bring the Romans low start thinking they deserve more.

*Even though Rome itself falls much earlier than in real history, one of real history's breakaway states--the Gallic Empire--manages to hold the Rhine and rides out the storm. Not only that, but they have the loyalties of Britain and Spain. With the armies and resources of these realms, they're able to (eventually) launch a reconquest of Italy, like a western Justinian centuries earlier.

*Ethiopia becomes the world's first Christian state.

Although the author hasn't updated it since late July (a little over two weeks at the time of this writing), there's still plenty of stuff to chew on in the meantime.

Monday, August 3, 2020

Muppet HELLRAISER? Muppet IT? Muppet MISERY? Muppetizing Famous Horror Films

As all of you should know at this point, I'm a regular participant in the film podcast Myopia Movies. In addition to appearing on the show in almost every episode, I also share a lot of memes and other amusing content in our Facebook group. Below is one meme I found that spawned some particularly interesting discussion.


Seriously, a Muppet version of A Clockwork Orange? The Hensons would sooner commit collective suicide. However, when I shared the meme in the group, some interesting discussions emerged. James O'Neil from my writing group suggested a Muppet version of Hellraiser, with Beaker as Pinhead. That would deprive us of the awesomeness of Doug Bradley as Pinhead, but I'll at least acknowledge that. Here's my cast:

Kirsty Cotton: Ashley Laurence
Larry Cotton: Kermit The Frog
Julia Cotton: Miss Piggy
Frank Cotton: Sean Chapman (alive), Oliver Smith (undead)
Steve: Robert Hines
Derelict: Gonzo
Pinhead: Doug Bradley
Female Cenobite: Janice
Butterball Cenobite: Bobo the Bear
Chatterer Cenobite: Fozzy Bear

The other characters (like Larry's party guests, the men Julia brings home for Frank to kill) can be a mix of humans and Muppets. Since they don't really have distinctive personalities, it doesn't matter who plays whom.

I thought about making Animal Frank Cotton (the "WOMAN! WOMAN! WOMAN!" stuff would tie in with Frank's sexual aggression), but Muppet Treasure Island uses human Tim Curry having been in a romantic relationship with Miss Piggy for jokes. Keeping the canonical actors as Frank would work for that purpose as well. Given how the Derelict (the keeper of the puzzle box) is supposed to be an unnatural and scary being, Gonzo would work for him too--until Muppets From Space revealed he was an alien, he was always a "Whatsit" or, in Muppet Babies, a "Weirdo." And making Chatterer Fozzy Bear would be amusing--instead of the click-click-click thing, he just says "wokka, wokka, wokka" all the time.

James also suggested a Muppet version of It. I was initially skeptical because Miss Piggy is always the female lead and I would never buy her as Beverly. When we see her as an adult, Beverly is beaten down by life (and literally by her evil husband Tom Rogan), while Miss Piggy is loud and takes no crap from anybody. James suggested the Muppet Janice might work better, but she's not one of the major Muppets. For convenience's sake, we're using the adults here for the most part, not the kids. Credit to horror writer @disneynine for Ben, Richie, and Eddie.

Ben Hanscom: Kermit
Richie Tozier: Fozzie Bear
Beverly Marsh: Jessica Chastain
Bill Denbrough: James McAvoy
Mike Hanlon: Isaiah Mustafa
Eddie Kasparak: Gonzo
Stanley Uris: Andy Bean*
Tom Rogan: Will Beinbrink
Pennywise: Bill Skarsgård
Sonia Kaspark: Miss Piggy (flashback)

Although Henson's special-effects crew could make a magnificent practical-effects Pennywise for the climax in which It's true spider-like form is revealed, I liked Bill Skarsgård's performance in It: Chapter One (I never saw It Chapter Two), much like how I liked Doug Bradley's performance as Pinhead. Replacing either with Muppets would be a shame. Jessica Chastain pulls off the sort of worn-down look the adult Beverly would have--she's nearly 40, has been smoking since she was in middle school, and her husband hits her. Depicting the mild-mannered and encouraging Kermit as her eventual second husband Ben would work personality-wise.

And if the vengeful Tom shows up (in the book he followed Beverly to Derry and was enslaved and eventually killed by Pennywise), we can play his jealous horror at the thought of his wife sleeping with a Muppet for laughs. He was ready to kill her because he thought she'd left him for Bill (in this version a human)--how psychotic would he get if he thinks she'd left him for a Muppet?

Also, since this is a Muppet movie, Miss Piggy has to be in there somewhere. The only way I could think of to work her in would be having flashbacks to Sonia Kasparak, who has Manchausen's Syndrome by Proxy and tricked Eddie into thinking he has asthma, and attempts to separate him from his friends.

*Although the cast seems a little too human (only four out of the ten major characters are Muppets), Stanley is the one who slits his wrists in the bathtub rather than return to Derry to confront Pennywise. His wife coming into the bathroom and finding "IT" written on the bathroom walls in Muppet fluff would be unintentionally hilarious, not horrifying. This isn't supposed to be The Happytime Murders.

Another discussion that emerged from that was Stephen King's Misery. Imagine Miss Piggy as Annie Wilkes and Kermit as author Paul Sheldon, whom she imprisons and terrorizes. :)

Sunday, August 2, 2020

Guest Post: The Last Egyptian, A Black Comedy Set In Late Roman Egypt

Got another guest post from Luis "Lou" Salcedo, he who wrote the earlier synopsis for a Seth Rogen comedy set during the reign of Justinian. Now he's decided to write a black comedy set in late Roman Egypt. Behold...

The Last Egyptian

Since there are sparingly few notable movies on Roman Egypt, besides Agora (2009), I had a fleeting thought for an A24-style black comedy-drama. The Last Egyptian would be a satirical black comedy starring Rami Malek as Flavius Onuphrius, a mid 5th Century Roman officer from Egypt who comes home after years serving the Empire abroad.

Flavius Onuphrius (Rami Malek) serves under Magister Arnegisclus (Mads Mikkelsen), leading a detachment of the Emperor's Palatines. Onuphrius scouts ahead and is ambushed in a skirmish. Onuphrius and a select few return to Arnegisclus, who decides that it's time to take the battle to Attila (Fabio Ide). On the following day, the Romans meet the Huns at the river Utus.

Arnegisclus' army is wiped out. Onuphrius is shot in the eye and left for dead, witnessing Arnegisclus and his fellow soldiers get cut down one by one. Fade to black. Onuphrius is discovered by Prefect Constantinus (Mark Ruffalo) and made to report his findings to Emperor Theodosius (Chris Sarandon) and he faints from shell shock.

Onuphrius finds himself in the imperial infirmary and receives word from the doctor (Hank Azaria) that he's been dismissed unceremoniously from service. No pension or land, especially since we're talking a millennia and some change prior to OSHA. He finds out that his long term partner, the actress Eudoxia (Dasha Nekrasova) had left him for senator Liberius Babylas (Rob Lowe).

Onuphrius gets a letter from his father informing that his mother had passed away and he would want him to come visit Syene (modern day Aswan) to give respect to her gravesite. Having nothing better to do, he decides that it's time to come home.

In Syene, Onuphrius reunites with his baby sister Kattrin (Yara Shahidi), a Rupi Kaur-esque poet/scribe and his elder sister Lucra (Hannah Simone) who's married to Isidorus (Dominic Rains), a bandit leader who seeks to drive out the Romans. Onuphrius' father Pamoun (Bassem Youssef) is the priest to Isis. He guilt-trips his son into helping him maintain the temple as his youngest brother Shenoute (Mena Massoud) converted to Christianity and is now a deacon in the newly constructed church.

As the weeks turn into months, Onuphrius' assistance turns into being a participant in Pamoun's schemes, chiefly trying to accuse the newly appointed priest Hormisdas (David Chokachi) of being a proto-Pizzagate guy grooming young men and women to serving a foreign god and being responsible for the climate change, barbarian invasions, etc. All these accusations fall flat and the temple continues to fall into disrepair as more people visit the church.

Onuphrius starts a relationship with Sophia (Lucy Boynton), a down to earth baker. He confides that he wants to run away from everything, ever since his father would spend more time worshiping Isis than raising him. Sophia suggests that he tries to rebuild that connection.

The relationship between Onuphrius and his father is slowly rebuilt and he gains more enthusiasm participating in his father's crazy, hare-brained schemes, seeing it as making up for lost time. Onuphrius suggests using Isidorus and his bandits to ransack the church. The bandits do so but this only angers the town. The temple of Isis, also Onuphrius' mother's burial place, is burned to the ground by a mob.

Onuphrius and his family, including a saddened Shenoute watches the temple's destruction from a distance. Pamoun mourns the temple, seeing it as an extension of his devotion to his wife. Onuphrius points out that while the temple's destruction is a loss, the family's shared memory of the mother, the temple and conspiring together made them a much stronger family.

CAST

Flavius Onuphrius - Rami Malek
Pamoun - Bassam Youssef
Sophia - Lucy Boynton
Kattrin - Yara Shahidi
Shenoute - Mena Massoud
Lucra - Hannah Simone
Hormisdas - David Chokachi
Liberius Babylas - Rob Lowe
Isidorus - Dominic Rains
Arnegisclus - Mads Mikkelsen
Constantinus - Mark Ruffalo
Byzantine Doctor - Hank Azaria
Emperor Theodosius - Chris Sarandon
Attila - Fabio Ide

Friday, July 31, 2020

FALLEN EMPIRE What Might Have Been #2: Independent Stories

In a previous post, I described how I would have continued writing in Lindsay Buroker's Fallen Empire science fiction universe had Amazon continued the Kindle Worlds program. My main focus would've been the "Choi and Watson" prequel series ("Ten Davids, Two Goliaths" and "Discovery and Flight"), but I had several ideas for independent stories.

Fallen Titan-This one takes place in the aftermath of "Ten Davids." The survivors of the Imperial warships the Tri-Suns Alliance rebels destroy--mostly trainees--have to survive on the swampy surface until rescuers arrive. Survive while being hunted by...something. This is loosely based on accounts I've read about the Battle of Ramree Island during World War II in which Japanese soldiers were attacked by crocodiles. The protagonist is an Imperial enlisted seaman ("starman" since we're dealing with spacecraft) under the thumb of an abusive superior who gets progressively sick of her to the point they he frags her and calls the Alliance salvaging crews overhead for rescue instead of waiting for the Imperials. In the canonical series Buroker has protagonist Alisa Marchenko reference the Imperial military's stern disciplinary practices (potentially including flogging), so many members of the Tri-Suns Alliance might've been Imperial personnel who'd deserted due to mistreatment. This one is fully outlined and partially written.

Rebellion of the Dead-I'd heard on a podcast that zombie fiction fans were voracious readers, so what better way to make some cash than by writing a zombie story set in the Fallen Empire universe? This ties in with the ruthless side of the Alliance mentioned in the canonical novels--the zombie virus is created by the Alliance, not the Empire, to compensate for their lack of numbers. The zombies can be controlled by pro-Alliance Starseers (more on them later) or simply unleashed as indiscriminate weapons like Arcturus Mengsk uses the Zerg in the original Starcraft. Fully outlined and partially written.

Apprentice-The Fallen Empire universe features a subspecies of humanity called "Starseers," who have psychic abilities. They're divided between a good (or at least neutral) faction and an evil group called the chasadski, which want to take over the Tribus Solis system much like their ancestors had attempted centuries past. Although some took sides in the rebellion, most stayed neutral and pursued their own goals. This particular story was inspired by "Darth Maul: Apprentice," a Star Wars fan-film in which Darth Maul hunts a group of Jedi who find his training ground. However, when the villainous chasadski Lord Thomas Smith has sole "Good Starseer" survivor Khaila Sokolov--powerful but young and relatively untrained--at his mercy, he decides not to kill her. Instead he claims her as his new apprentice (and heavily implied concubine). This is very much like Dryden Vos did Qi'ra in the back-story for the Solo film, even I don't recall using the movie as a model.


(I recall discussing this one with Lindsay and pondering this as the back-story for a member of the main villain's entourage in one of the later books. Given how...uncomfortable...the whole plot is, I was planning a second story in which a fully-trained Khaila gets the drop on Smith and disposes of him Sith Apprentice-style during a mission--incidentally like Qi'ra ultimately does to Vos in Solo. I don't have a synopsis in my notes for the second story, so I mustn't have gotten very far after outlining the first.)

It would have probably needed a new title, to avoid being too blatant a rip-off, but I didn't get the chance to get started on it.

Kurultai-In the Fallen Empire universe, the victorious Alliance was only able to take control of three planets, while the Imperial capital remained under the control of the dead emperor's successor. The rest of the Tribus Solis system fell under the control of various warlord types and Mafia bosses. In this one, a retired Imperial general of Mongol background deposes the corrupt Imperial governor of his largely Mongol-Chinese planet and is chosen by the people to be the new khagan (Great Khan). Once in power, he suborns some local Imperial spacecraft and launches a war of conquest against a nearby world that had been a historical rival of his own. Like "Apprentice," I outlined it but didn't get started.

Commander of the Faithful-Somewhat similar to the above, except it's an Islamist instead of a wannabe Genghis Khan. In Angle of Truth, the adherents of the Old Earth religions are shown to have been largely exiled to one outlying planet in the system and I can't recall any discussion of serious fighting on the planet during the rebellion. Either this happened somewhere else or got squashed pretty quickly. I don't even really have a plot here, just a concept.

Tuesday, July 28, 2020

FALLEN EMPIRE What Might Have Been #1: Choi and Watson

Awhile back, I wrote two Kindle Worlds novellas set in independent science fiction author Lindsay Buroker's Fallen Empire universe, "Ten Davids, Two Goliaths" and its sequel "Discovery and Flight."Both were part of a sub-series called "Choi and Watson" that took place during the rebellion preceding the events of the first novel Star Nomad. They followed Geun Choi, a Korean Buddhist warrior-mystic, and his friend Tammy Watson, a recovering drug addict. Both are fighter pilots for the rebellion that brought down the titular Empire and repeatedly cross paths with canonical characters like main-series protagonist Alisa Marchenko and her lecherous friend Bradford Tomich.

(Since neither character is part of the main series, this avoids the prequel problem of knowing a character's eventual fate. See this comment from Mad Magazine about the duel between Palpatine and Yoda in Revenge of the Sith. Since Choi and Watson aren't canon characters, it's entirely possible one or both of them could die in the events of a story and that allows for suspense.)


However, Amazon shut down Kindle Worlds not long after I started writing for it. Although Lindsay allowed those who'd written KW stories already to republish them ourselves, I didn't see any point in writing more. Here's where "Choi and Watson" would have gone if Kindle Worlds had kept going.

(I had some ideas for unrelated stories, but those will have to wait for a later blog post.)

"Torpedo Protocol" (Choi and Watson #3)-The Alliance unit that includes our heroes expended almost all of their torpedoes during the events of "Discovery and Flight," so the rebels have to steal more. While the mission is being planned, Tomich (who has had an eye on Watson since the beginning of "D&F" at least) finally sleeps with her, much to the protective Choi's irritation. To shut him up, Tomich tries to hook up Choi with one of his (many) previous flings, who's also a Buddhist. This one gets into the Empire's religious policies--in one of the later books, it's revealed the Empire required everybody to join the state religion centered on the three suns and exiled the die-hards of Earth's old faiths to a reservation planet. Choi's syncretic Buddhist faith was tolerated due to its similarity with the official religion, while Tomich's ex had to suffer for her more traditionalist beliefs and is surprisingly resentful of her date. And then the battle starts...

"Fire From The Sky" (Choi and Watson #4)-In the main series the rebels' Tri-Suns Alliance engaged in ruthless tactics like deliberately attacking civilians because they couldn't defeat the Empire in open combat, at least until very late in the game. In this story, we see this firsthand--after the Imperial admiral from "Discovery and Flight" bombards a rebellious planet from orbit, the Alliance uses captured civilian ships as relativistic weapons, devastating a loyalist planet in return. This causes the horrified Watson to break up with Tomich, who abandons his habit of poaching among the lower ranks to start sleeping up the chain of command, which we see throughout the main series. In his mind, Watson didn't want anything to do with him anymore because owing to her lower rank she's not aware of the "big picture," but someone higher on the totem pole would be.

Both of these novellas were plotted out when Kindle Worlds shut down, but I hadn't started writing them. I had some ideas for later novellas involving the characters stealing fighter spacecraft ("Stealing Strikers"), seeking to recover a psychic-amplification device referenced in one of the canonical prequels ("Psychic Fire"), and destroying a factory producing android soldiers for the Empire ("Android Rising"). The latter is particularly important because although sapient androids exist in this world, the Empire didn't mass-produce them to crush the rebellion. The point of this story would be to explain why.