Sunday, August 16, 2015

Blast from the Past Book Review: THE WOLFEN (1978)

Back when I was living in McDonough and working for The Griffin Daily News, I checked out from the library an ancient copy of Whitley Strieber's 1978 debut horror novel The Wolfen, which in 1981 was adapted into a questionable horror film featuring Edward James Olmos. This was either before The World According To Quinn or when the blog was in its infancy, so there was no review then.

Well that's about to change...


The left is the cover of the first edition, which I got from the library.
The cover of the Kindle book I now own is on the right.

The Plot

Two police officers are ambushed and killed by unknown attackers in a New York City junkyard in the late 1970s. Ambushed, killed, and at least partially eaten. The cranky old-school detective George Wilson and his female partner Becky Neff investigate and soon discover that the killings weren't the work of attack dogs, but something far worse. In New York, human beings are not at the top of the food chain, and the creatures that are don't take very kindly to the threat of their existence being exposed...

The Good

*The protagonists figure out very early on what they're dealing with and that they're being hunted. Yes, the antagonists of the story (I hesitate to call them "villains" because they're predatory animals acting according to their nature--they're not human beings who have chosen to do evil) are intelligent enough to recognize witnesses and try to eliminate them. And Neff and Wilson are smart enough to take precautions, so we get this gigantic cat-and-mouse game involving the titular monsters and two human detectives across late 1970s New York.

*There's a strong 1970s vibe to the book, which makes sense given when it was written. Neff is one of the few female police officers dealing with something as important and public as homicide and she has to deal with a skeptical partner and a generally skeptical police force. New York City is depicted as being a cesspool of decaying neighborhoods and crime, which it became in the 1970s. One character is a police officer on the take from a gambling syndicate, which was also an issue in the 1970s.

*Strieber's antagonists are one of the more creative horror monsters I've ever seen. They're not werewolves, although they're the origin of the werewolf legend. They're not a pack of conventional wolves that have adapted to city life the way coyotes have. They're an entirely new set of beings, and if they were real, they'd be incredibly, incredibly dangerous.

*And one character's visit to the library reveals a new horror--not only do werewolves have a factual basis, but so do vampires. A 100% human basis (unlike the werewolves), but an extremely creative and creepy one. This might come off to you like monster overload, but I promise you, it's not. It's really quite clever. The library visit also touches on how these creatures might adapt to various historical periods and how different human cultures would adapt to them. Strieber even touches on Native American culture (and possible awareness of the creatures), something that I suspect inspired the Native American cultural stuff that made it into the film version.

*The scenes from the monster's points-of-view are really well-done. No goofy infrared monster-vision here. It's poetic and fascinating.

*The book moves along pretty quickly. Like I said my in my review of The Flock that I wrote last Christmas-ish, it didn't take too many elliptical sessions to finish this. It's never boring.

*The book is legitimately creepy in many places. I'm fairly inured to movie/book scares, so if I thought this, you, dear reader, will probably be quite scared. The ending in particular gave me the chills.

The Bad

*There's a fair bit of telling and not showing in the book. Sometimes telling is necessary (as Mary Robinette Kowal pointed out in the podcast Writing Excuses with an Inigo Montoya quote from The Princess Bride, showing can take too long and sometimes a writer needs to sum up), but there could have been more showing. The places where telling could be replaced with superior showing seem most prominent in the beginning, but there are instances toward the end as well. To be fair, this is Strieber's first published novel, so I can be more forgiving.

*I would have liked more scenery description. In Tom Wolfe's novel The Bonfire of the Vanities, we get a portrait of New York City at roughly the same time (or perhaps a little bit later) and the descriptions are much, much more vivid.

*A love triangle starts to come on partway through the book, and so somebody has to die. Strieber reveals some less-savory aspects of the man's character during the last third of the book to make his doom more palatable, stuff that I didn't think was adequately foreshadowed. He does have a pretty impressive death though.

The Verdict

A great debut novel of a writing who did a lot of good work in the horror field before focusing on a new interest in UFOs. Hopefully someday he'll come back. A sequel to The Wolfen describing what happens in the aftermath of the (literally) world-changing ending would be really interesting.

After all, I've heard the competition between humans and the cave bears for habitat in the face of the oncoming Ice Age described as mankind's first war, so some late 1970s/early 1980s equivalent involving the titular monsters would be a fun book to read.

9.0 out of 10.

Saturday, August 8, 2015

Two New ASOIAF AU Stories for You

The alternate-history discussion forum has spawned two more interesting alternate-universe stories set in the realm of George R.R. Martin's A Song of Ice and Fire. One of them is a do-over story with an interesting twist, while the other is a more conventional what-if.

"The Northern Giant"-In this story, Sansa Stark poisons Petyr "Littlefinger" Baelish with the strangler poison she had in her hairnet at the lethal wedding of Joffrey "Baratheon" to Margarey Tyrell sometime after he says her father was a good man but a poor player in the game of thrones. This is something I've seen in fan-fic and in predictions for the next book before (the remaining poison is a Chekhov's Gun waiting to be fired), but not what happens next...

The dying Littlefinger wakes up nearly two decades earlier...in the body of Eddard "Ned" Stark the morning of his wedding to Catelyn Tully during Robert's Rebellion.

Now Littlefinger has everyone and everything he's ever wanted--power, respect, and Catelyn as his wife. He's also got all of Ned's experiences and memories, which could have some interesting consequences. He might find himself with honor and a conscience not deadened by years of bitterness and scheming, something that could make his evil-masterminding more complicated.

Plus the Battle of the Trident is looming. Hopefully his knowledge about what's to come will come in handy...

The Falcon's Last Cry-This diverges from canon when the dying Jon Arryn manages to warn King Robert Baratheon that "his" children are really bastards produced by incest between his wife Cersei Lannister and her twin brother Jaime. Robert is fortunately intelligent enough not to immediately warhammer them both, but this is something that needs to be dealt with quickly. Shenanigans and bloodshed within the Red Keep will be coming soon.

I like what the author does with Littlefinger in this story. Littlefinger's master plan is to sow strife in order to advance his own position (in addition to whatever it is he's been doing with the kingdom's money), not simply "keep Stannis off the throne" (his reason for betraying Ned in canon) or supporting the Lannister regime that has given him honors and power. Who knows the slippery little twerp will be up to this time around?

Sunday, August 2, 2015

The Writing Plan for the Coming Year-ish

In a little over a week, I will start a new job--in fact, an entire new career--putting an end to years of graduate school and part-time freelancing. This will drastically cut into my time for personal writing projects, blogging, etc.

This means that you will be seeing a lot fewer blog posts, movie reviews, etc. here. I will continue being part of Myopia: Defend Your Childhood, but I won't be reviewing every movie we watch like I've been doing. I will also write posts linking to the podcast The Geekly Oddcast put on by The Brothers Herman, but since Geekly Oddcast records on weeknights, I'll probably be doing that less often than Myopia. I will have less time for my personal writing projects, so there will fewer updates on those.

Speaking of my personal writing projects, here is the plan for some of them.

*I intend to finish two additional stories featuring my supervillain protagonist Andrew Patel and release them as a four-story electronic collection Consequences that will also include the first story ("√úbermensch")and the second "Needs Must." I have partially written both, with more progress made on the fourth story (which will ultimately tie Patel with the world of my Lovecraftian novel The Thing in the Woods) than on the third. This will be my top personal writing priority aside from selling my completed novels Battle for the Wastelands and Thing.

Here's the cover, which my regular artist Alex Claw made awhile back, to whet your appetite:


I will also be working on a novella entitled "Fairmont," which will take place just over three years before the events of my novel Battle for the Wastelands. My fellow writers James R. Tuck and Delilah S. Dawson both secured book deals that saw the release of novellas for e-readers alongside more conventional print books, while Marko Kloos self-published the short story "Lucky Thirteen"and the novella "Measures of Absolution" alongside Terms of Enlistmentand kept them online even when he got a traditional book deal for Terms. Regardless of whether I go traditional or independent with Wastelands, "Fairmont" would be an excellent way to whet readers' appetites for Battle, much like how "That Thing At the Zoo" preceded Blood and Bullets.My completed novella "Son of Grendel" can come afterward, much like "Spider's Lullaby" came after Blood and Bullets and before Blood and Silver.

I have received some good comments from agents and publishers on The Thing in the Woods (but no bites yet--you'll find out when that happens), so I don't foresee tinkering with the manuscript too much. Depending on how things go with that I might resume work on the sequel The Atlanta Incursion or resume work on the third project I'm holding close to the chest at the moment. I've let that one fall by the wayside due to graduate-school responsibilities, but I've been told by fellow members of my writing group that this project plays to my strengths (world-building and journalistic writing) and, owing to the nature of the project, it's something I could finish more quickly than a conventional narrative novel.

Friday, July 31, 2015

Movie Review: ANT MAN (2015)

Last night I saw Ant Man with some of my church friends after an illness-induced delay. So here's my review, a few days behind schedule...

The Plot

Scott Lang (Paul Rudd) has just been released from three years in prison for stealing from an unethical former employer. Unable to find a job to pay child support for his daughter Cassie (Abby Ryder Fortson) due to his record, he slips back into crime alongside his motormouthed former cellmate Luis (Michael Pena). Luckily for him, he's soon recruited by former superhero Hank Pym (Michael Douglas) and his estranged daughter Hope (Evangeline Lilly) to stop the machinations of Pym's former protege Darren Cross (Corey Stoll). Cross is on the verge of rediscovering the technology that allowed Pym to become the first Ant-Man, and he has designs on selling it to some...questionable people.

The Good

*I didn't have very high expectations for the film because, like many, I viewed the Ant Man concept as kind of ridiculous and not especially effective as a superpower. However, the film proved me wrong. Being able to shrink to insect-size is very useful for breaking and entering, plus they go with the proportional size/strength thing (like Spider-Man?) to make Ant-Man a very effective combatant. And Cross's modern Yellowjacket suit is even more impressive than the 1980s gear Pym provides Lang.

*In that vein, the scenes where Lang is shrunk to approximately insect-size are incredibly entertaining. Rats, dancing club denizens, a friend of yours taking a shower, and ants become a lot more dangerous when you're that small. And when Lang and Cross do battle, environments like the inside of a suitcase or a toy train set prove to be fascinating battlegrounds.

*The film shows the ability to integrate different genres into the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Although most of the films so far have been superhero movies, Ant Man is a heist film in the way that Guardians of the Galaxy is a space opera and Agents of SHIELD is a spy show.

*The acting is great. I liked Rudd as the well-meaning Lang and Douglas as the sometimes cranky Pym. Stoll does a good job as the ambitious, resentful Cross and I liked Lilly's Hope. But the best one of them all is Michael Pena, who steals the show as Luis. Luis is absolutely hilarious and I definitely like how the climax worked him and his other small-time crook buddies into the film. I do hope we end up seeing him again.

*There's a lot of good humor in the film, and not just from Luis. Thomas the Tank Engine gets put to some interesting uses, while let's just say there's more to a particular keychain than meets the eye.

*Although I initially thought the tie-in with the Avengers was kind of forced, it did lead to an entertaining battle between Lang and Falcon (Anthony Mackie). If you're going to send somebody to an old building to retrieve something you left, always, always make sure your maps are up to date. :)

*A possible Fate Worse Than Death for those who end up "shrinking uncontrollably" is foreshadowed, but it ends up happening to two completely different characters than what I expected. Good job at misdirection. And according to different sources, it might have happened to a third character as well. That's a good thing, because it allows the character to potentially be brought back for a later movie.

*There are two credits scenes to watch for, a mid-credits scene foreshadowing later developments in the Ant Man series and a post-credits scene that sets up Avengers: Civil War. Knowing what I know about the fate of Tony Stark's parents in-universe, I think I know what will trigger the conflict between Captain America and Iron Man.

*Like Captain America: The Winter Soldier, the film touches on serious political issues, but not in a ham-handed way. Winter Soldier discussed the dangers of excessive government surveillance and trying to pre-empt every possible threat (something that was hijacked by some very dangerous people), while Ant-Man shows how easy it is for an ex-con who can't get a job to slide back into crime. Had Lang not encountered Pym, odds are he would have become a full-time criminal and likely come to a stickier fate.

*I liked the historical tie-ins in the flashbacks to the 1980s at the beginning of the film. SHIELD is meeting at the Triskelion building we first see in Winter Soldier, which isn't complete. Howard Stark and Peggy Carter of the WWII generation are still in charge and the organization seems more U.S.-centric rather than the one run by the multinational "World Security Council" we see in The Avengers.

*There's a whole subplot that I suspected in hindsight was a product placement for Baskin and Robbins. Given how I like B/R and how it wasn't obvious, that's a plus in my book.

The Bad

*I saw the movie at a drive-in theater and for the first part was sitting farther away from the radio. Although some actors' voices were easy to understand even with that, some I couldn't really hear until I moved. Obviously some actors/characters are softer-spoken than others, but that could also indicate issues with the sound mixing. After all, I don't think the characters who were harder to hear were this way for reasons of plot/character (think Roose Bolton in A Song of Ice and Fire, where being very soft-spoken is a major part of his characterization).

*There's some continuity issues with the television series Agents of SHIELD, also part of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. The show depicts a certain criminal organization as largely gutted, with its dregs controlled by a former low-level agent intent on using it to further his personal grudges ("closure"). Given the nature of the group it could be that the villains in Ant Man are independent of the ones in Agents and they might not be aware of each other or are even at war. However, some throwaway line like, "These suits will be useful in dealing with so-and-so" could explain the internal situation within the group.

*There was a bit later in the film where I remember checking Facebook on my phone, which could indicate a dull moment.

The Verdict

A delightful end to Phase Two of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. 9.0 out of 10.

Thursday, July 23, 2015

Blast from the Past Movie Review: Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles II: The Secret of the Ooze (1991)

The very first episode of Myopia: Defend Your Childhood discussed the 1990 film Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. Now, for our first anniversary podcast, we discussed its 1991 sequel Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles II: The Secret of the Ooze. So listen to the podcast here and see my thoughts below...



The Plot

It turns out the villainous Shredder (Francois Chau) did not die at the end of the first TMNT film. He reasserts his control over the Foot Clan and vows revenge on the Turtles who defeated him in the last film. The mysterious ooze that created Splinter, the Turtles, etc. becomes a bone of contention--and the source of dangerous new foes. The Turtles, their master Splinter, and reporter friend April O'Neill (Paige Turco) join forces with eager young pizza boy Keno (Ernie Reyes Jr) to stop the new threat...

This film is notable for a lengthy appearance by rapper Vanilla Ice, BTW.

The Good

*The movie is often quite stupid (I'll get to that later), but it's never boring.

*There were complaints about the original film being too violent, so they made this one more lighthearted. Sometimes this was stupid (the lack of weapon use by anybody), but the opening goofy fight scene was pretty entertaining.

*Raphael retains his tendency from the first movie to run off by himself, but this time around he puts these tendencies to good use--he independently infiltrates Keno into the Foot to spy on them.

*Ernie Reyes Jr. is explicitly described as doing his own fights in the credits. Good on the film for casting an actual martial artist to do martial arts.

*David Warner does a good job as Professor Jordan Perry, the scientist involved in the initial creation of the ooze years before. He has a couple really good smart-aleck moments, including at least one when he's a captive of the Foot. Seriously, he manages to get away with being all smarter-than-thou with the Shredder.

(Or maybe he didn't--we do see him tied up later.)

*I liked the attention to detail early on when Keno takes on a bunch of burglars and the Turtles show up to help him fight the rest. The Turtles take pains to pay for the pizza they took from him while he was incapacitated (by being stuffed into a trash can).

*The filmmakers also remembered Tatsu (Toshishiro Obata), Shredder's lieutenant, and show him commanding the Foot in Shredder's absence. His role in the organization is elaborated on--we see him as Shredder's field commander as well as his earlier role as the trainer of ninjas.

*The police chief that April doesn't get along with makes another appearance in this one.

*Tokka, the mutated snapping turtle, is pretty cool looking and still held up.

The Bad

*Where's Casey Jones? He was a very important character in the original film, plus over the course of the movie he managed to woo April. Yet in this movie there's no mention of him whatsoever. Keno serves a rather similar role in the sense of being an aspiring crime-fighter (he attempts to make a citizens' arrest of some burglars and manages to subdue several before more show up) who allies with the Turtles, but he's less effective. Given how they were willing to recast April, if Elias Koteas wasn't available for this one (he did appear in the third film), they should have recast him or, failing that, explained why he was gone.

Given how he deliberately killed the Shredder (activating the compactor when the Shredder fell into the garbage truck at the end of the first movie) and Nick thought he might be in jail for murder, maybe a throwaway line about how he's crashing at April's family's house from the first movie until the heat dies down?

*Why did they replace Judith Hoag as April? Paige Turco doesn't do a bad job, but she does look awfully young for someone who's a respected New York television reporter.

*There's some serious Narm in this movie. When Shredder is angry that the new mutants Tokka and Rahzar have diminished intelligence, he straight-up roars "THEY'RE BABIES!" Pretty much everybody in the podcast crew broke out laughing. You'll probably see some of this on the podcast itself. Yes, this is a kid's movie and the goal was to be more lighthearted than the original, but there was plenty of lightheartedness in the film elsewhere.

*The Turtles only rarely use their weapons. Donatello uses his staff a couple times, but that's about it. They don't even use their weapons against objects like cutting themselves free of a net in one scene.

*Tatsu is absolutely wasted as a character. I swear, there're multiple scenes where the Foot ninjas fight the Turtles and he just stands around looking either disgusted or angry. To be Shredder's second-in-command he must be a fierce warrior himself and Obata, according to the TMNT Wiki is a martial-artist and champion swordsman. He could have been a very impressive secondary-boss type enemy to the Turtles, but in the one scene he actually fights, he's disposed of immediately in the most ridiculously stupid way.

*Speaking of standing around during fights, the Foot's capability as ninjas seems to vary as the plot demands. In one scene they mob and subdue one of the Turtles, but other times they engage the larger, stronger Turtles one at a time and at one point allow them to huddle and plan the fight rather than swarm them. Not only Tatsu, but Shredder himself just sits there watching the Foot fight even when they're losing.

*Despite being a journalist (which doesn't pay well unless you're much, MUCH higher on the food chain than April is) and living in notoriously-expensive New York City, April has a very, very nice apartment and no roommates. In the first movie she was living over her father's old store--in the aftermath of the Foot attack, did she sell the property and use the money to get a better place?

There's an article I found once about how movies and TV do people a disservice by showing those in low-paying professions living in housing they couldn't possibly afford in real life, and this might be an example. The 2014 film establishes April's roommate as a character, albeit a minor one. If April had a roommate or roommates, her hiding the Turtles would get a lot more interesting (and complicated). Are the Turtles helping pay the rent?

*Keno's first encounter with Splinter is kind of ridiculous. The Turtles didn't unduly faze or frighten him the first time, but Splinter does?

*When the Shredder returns and seems to be at least partially unmasked, one of the remaining Foot ninjas makes some comment about his face. Shredder himself also comments about wanting to punish the Turtles for damaging his face. Thing is, all we see is a cut above an eyebrow. When the Shredder unmasks himself at the climax of the first film, we see scarring caused by pre-mutation Splinter's attack on him. Whatever damage the events of the first movie did to his face, it doesn't seem enough to justify his minions' horror and his own anger.

The Verdict

Just see the first one. 5.0 out of 10.0.

Friday, July 17, 2015

Guest Post: The Thing – Lessons in Running a Small Press

The Thing: Lessons in Running a Small Press

By Jason Sizemore

A decade ago I started a small press named Apex Publications. Recently, I wrote a book titled For Exposure: The Life and Times of a Small Press Publisher where I lay bare the heartbreak, the insanity, and the fun that comes with the job. I’d like to add an addendum to the book, if I may, here on Matthew Quinn’s blog. I want to share the lessons any publisher/editor/writer can learn about real life in John Carpenter’s classic The Thing.

I had the good fortune of being introduced to The Thing at an early age. I was perhaps ten years old when my mom and I popped the videotape into the VCR and watched Kurt Russell do his thing. The movie scared the piss out of me. Some of you judgmental types might be frowning and thinking, “Parenting fail!” On that, I will have to disagree. It’s akin to throwing a child who doesn’t know how to swim into a pond. They’ll learn to swim, and swimming is a valuable life skill. The Thing may have scared me, but I’m a better business leader for it.

Here are the lessons The Thing will teach a prospective small press publisher.


Trust No One

In what I consider one of the greatest cinematic scenes in film history, MacReady (Kurt Russell) has tied everyone to adjoined chairs. MacReady has a problem. He doesn’t know who is infected with the alien parasite and who isn’t. He knows he’s not infected, and that the alien deplores fire/heat, so he devices a blood-based stress test. Take a sample of blood, apply a red hot wire to the blood, and if nothing happens, that blood is clean.

The tension mounts as MacReady tests each person. When he does encounter his first positive reaction, the shit hits the fan. The alien goes wild, flamethrowers malfunction, men panic.
MacReady survives because he was very selective of who he trusted. This will be an important aspect of running your publishing company. Keep your inner circle small and tight. There will be book disasters, there will be lies told about you, and there will be vocal critics. You’ll need your trustworthy circle to help you navigate through such obstacles to success.

Loneliness

The Thing is set at an isolated research outpost in Antarctica. On planet Earth, that’s about as isolated as it gets. When you’re a small press publisher, you’re going to be spending your nights under the lamplight in front of your computer burning the midnight oil. Your resources will be limited. There are only a handful of people you can count on. Sure, you’re doing important work, but you must find a way to stay mentally sharp.


Wilford Brimley

Everybody loves Wilford Brimley. Who doesn’t like a guy who has such passion for oatmeal? In The Thing, Brimley plays Dr. Blair. Blair gets infected by the alien parasite, which then sabotages the research outpost by destroying the radio equipment and helicopter. The research team locks the old fella in a story shed, where he starts to build a mother-trucking spaceship to escape! The Blair creature was going to find a way out or die trying.

There are two points to be taken from Wilford Brimley. First, you have to learn how to survive when somebody tries to sabotage you. It will inevitably, inexplicably happen. Second, you must be determined and single-minded in your goals. Success is to be the only option.

Know When to Blow the Whole Thing Up

MacReady spends two hours fighting the thing, but it is a losing battle. The alien can mimic any living host, including cute dogs. He decides that for the survival of humanity the best thing to do is to blow the whole base to smithereens in an attempt to kill all vestiges of the thing.

In the end, it is only him and Childs. In the dying embers of the camp, they share a bottle of whisky. Childs might be infected, but MacReady doesn’t care; he knows they’re both going to die in the cold.

MacReady knew when to cut his losses, no matter how painful it would be. You have to be ready to do the same thing as a publisher. In For Exposure, I shared the terrible parting of the ways with my old magazine, Apex Science Fiction and Horror Digest. I loved that digest. Still do. But it had to die.

If you’re looking for an intense, well-acted, and scary sci-horror movie to watch, then check out The Thing. If you’re looking for a semi-true, funny (to me!), and intense written history of ten years of publishing, then check out For Exposure: The Life and Times of a Small Press Publisher! Although, the horror of the warm splatter that hit me in the dance club found in Chapter 10 of my book fairs comparably to the horrors of Carpenter’s masterpiece.


ABOUT THE BOOK:

For Exposure: The Life and Times of a Small Press Publisher
Apex Publications
182 pages
ISBN:  9781937009304


ABOUT THE AUTHOR:

Born the son of an unemployed coal miner in a tiny Kentucky Appalachian villa named Big Creek (population 400), Jason fought his way out of the hills to the big city of Lexington. He attended Transylvania University (a real school with its own vampire legend) and received a degree in computer science. Since 2005, he has owned and operated Apex Publications. He is the editor of five anthologies, author of Irredeemable, a three-time Hugo Award loser, an occasional writer, who can usually be found wandering the halls of hotel conventions

Thursday, July 16, 2015

What If Robb Stark Got a Do-Over?

Today I've got another alternate-universe fan-fic from the world of A Song of Ice and Fire for your enjoyment. Both of them courtesy of the biggest alternate-history forum on the Internet, of course...

The first one is entitled "Robb Returns," written by the board member whose handle is Cymraeg (and who has a bunch of really awesome stories available for the Kindle). The gist of it is that the Old Gods send Robb Stark back to a year-ish before King Robert Baratheon comes to Winterfell to ask Ned Stark to become the Hand of the King. To the other denizens of Winterfell, Robb is acting quite strangely--he immediately hugs his sisters and younger brothers (whom he thinks are dead), acts disconcertingly hostile toward his foster brother Theon Greyjoy, and weapons-master Rodrik Cassel reports that he fights like a man who's killed.

Maester Luwin and Ned Stark soon suss out the truth and there's a chance to right the wrongs of canon. Goodies include...

*The touch of the Old Gods giving those who've been touched (first Robb and then Ned) red irises, like the sap of the heart trees. Fortunately for them it fades, but it's a cool little touch.

*An amusing bit about how...popular...King Robert and Tyrion Lannister were with the prostitutes and Winterfell's female staff.

*Ned, who'd kept his distance from Theon in the event Balon rebelled against and he'd have to kill him, actually tries to be the father-figure Theon needs.

*And best of all, Robb goes back early enough that Domeric Bolton, Roose Bolton's legitimate son, is still alive.

This story is of especial interest because my writing fan-fiction in Harry Potter and the Transformers movie-verse (you can see my page here) was inspired by reading the story "The Moment It Began," which gives the dying Severus Snape a do-over.

However, just because a character can avoid the mistakes of his canonical lifetime doesn't mean everything's going to be peachy-keen. Snape in "The Moment It Began" still had to deal with the petty torments of James Potter and his friends, the enmity of the Death Eater wannabes he's now spurned, and the war with Voldemort. Since a major trait of the ASOIAF universe is that (almost) everything that can go wrong will, I expect Robb and the Starks will have issues too. For starters, Roose has ordered Domeric to try to charm Sansa Stark, which might make things a bit awkward if King Robert wants to betroth Sansa to Joffrey. And Ramsay Snow is still out there, waiting to cause trouble...

Enjoy!

Thursday, July 9, 2015

Blast from the Past Movie Review: The Great Mouse Detective (1986)

Here's another "Blast from the Past" movie review for a movie that I have never actually seen before, but watched it as part of my friend Nick's podcast Myopia: Defend Your Childhood. This time, it was The Great Mouse Detective, also known as the one where Sherlock Holmes is a mouse. Here's the podcast. And now for the review.

The Plot

Basil of Baker Street, the world's greatest (mouse) detective, is called to help when Olivia, the daughter of a missing toymaker, appeals for his help. It turns out her father has been kidnapped by the villainous Professor Ratigan, who has an evil plot involving mouse version of Queen Victoria's Diamond Jubilee. Now Basil and his new friend Dr. Dawson have got to crack the case, braving human toy stores, mouse burlesque shows (I kid you not), and more to foil Ratigan's plan.


The Good

*The movie starts out with a bang, with toymaker Hiram Flaversham's abduction by the bat Fidget. The movie moves along fairly quickly and is never boring.

*Basil, Sherlock Holmes' mouse analogue, matches up with his human counterpart very well. He's got the "anti-social insufferable genius with a heart of gold" thing down. He's able to deduce all sorts of facts about various characters based on observing things most people would miss, just like Holmes.

*Although his Villain Song comes off as a bit forced in a movie with only three songs (one of which is a recording on a record), Ratigan is an entertaining villain. He's a sewer rat who pretends to be a mouse and sometimes the mask slips. The fact he's voiced by Vincent Price (yes, THE Vincent Price) is pretty cool. And he's a rat that's got a cat trained as a disposal for minions who fail him and his enemies.

*Speaking of the cat, the cat is introduced in the same vein as the Jurassic Park T-Rex, which is pretty well-done given how, to a mouse, a cat is a T-Rex.

*Fidget, who's a henchman of Ratigan, is a well-done character. He's horrifying enough to be a threat to smaller, weaker characters like Hiram and Olivia but physically small enough to be sympathetic when he's mistreated by Ratigan. And he's got some character development, like singing a song from the burlesque show to himself as he flees Basil and Dawson.

*The final confrontation between Basil and Ratigan atop Big Ben is very well-done. For starters, the whole thing is a homage to Holmes' confrontation with the villainous Professor Moriarty at Reichenbach Falls, which is a good riff on the source material. Furthermore, I'm guessing that's where much of the animation budget went. The rotating gears are extremely impressive and are a good example of meshing early CGI with traditional hand-drawn animation. And that's when Ratigan finally unleashes his rat side on Basil, who is significantly smaller than he, and spends most of the scene absolutely destroying him.

*Flaversham is clearly supposed to be Scottish, and they give him some good dialect, including the use of the word bairn for his daughter.

*Disney used Basil Rathbone, who had played Sherlock Holmes on many occasions, to voice Holmes in a scene where he and Watson are seeing discussing something (according to TVTropes it's the case of the Red-Headed League). Rathbone died in 1967, so they had to use recorded clips. That's pretty cool.

The Bad

*Much of the animation is cheap-looking, especially at the beginning. The initial view of the city looks rather washed-out and although that might partially be due to the fog, you could have better-drawn buildings and what-not and then have the fog obscure them. The cheapness is especially blatant in the trashy mouse bar, where the background characters don't move at all (except for on occasion smoke from their cigarettes). I once interviewed former Disney animator turned rival Don Bluth for a news story and this kind of thing is why he left Disney.

*Hiram at one point rebels against Ratigan, destroys the robot he was building for him, and announces his refusal to participate in the plan. Given how he's in a room with only one door and Ratigan between him and said door, that wasn't very smart. It would've been more interesting if he had the robot attack Ratigan to allow him to escape, only for Ratigan to smash the robot (showing early on Ratigan's physical power) and knock him around some. Ratigan can then escalate his threats by threatening to kidnap Olivia like he does in the film.

The Verdict

A pretty good movie, especially for kids interested in Sherlock Holmes for whom the current television adaptations (or many older productions for that matter) might not be age appropriate due to content or attention span. It seems I'm not the only one who thinks that. 8.0 out of 10.0.

Wednesday, July 8, 2015

A Timeline of the World of "Coil Gun" and "Picking Up Plans In Palma"

When I first became interested in alternate history in high school, one of the early books I read was The Domination and its sequel Drakon, both of which are part of S.M. Stirling's Draka series. The series is controversial in the AH community--although it's considered one of the major founding texts of the sub-genre (alongside Harry Turtledove's Guns of the South, which is more a time-travel story), its plausibility is somewhat lacking to say the least. Stirling himself said the point of the series is that everything that can go wrong does.

On the forum, the user whose handle is reddie suggested a "realistic quasiDraka"--a cold war between the United States and "the apartheid juggernaut" (a sort of super-South Africa under white minority rule). That got the creative wheels turning. I wrote an embryonic timeline that served as both a homage to and critique of the Draka world and within a few years wrote "Coil Gun" (my first professional sale; it first appeared in Pressure Suite: Digital Science Fiction #3) and later my independently-published "Picking Up Plans in Palma." I've got some ideas for additional short stories and even a trilogy of novels depicting the events of WWIII from the perspectives of, among others, some (surviving) cast members of "Palma," but I'm focused on other projects right now.

However, since SM Stirling has the appendices and timeline from the three books that went into The Domination available online, here's the current version of the timeline where the two stories take place. It's still a bit patchy in places and it's a work in progress. After all, this is the sixth iteration of the timeline and I might well end up making a seventh, especially if I end up writing novels set in the universe.

Some highlights:

*Although a point of divergence in the late 16th Century might "butterfly" the United States completely, I still need it to be there for story reasons. However, we have a completely different cast of Founding Fathers and a very different war. The same with the U.S. Civil War.

*One of the first major enemies the Afrikaners face is the Sultanate of Oman. They don't get a lot of notice in most histories I've read, but they get their due here. And having taken a class where Oman's history was explored in greater depth, I'm revising that aspect of the story. Hint: Just because two nations are enemies at one point doesn't mean they can't become allies later, especially if one experiences a major problem.

*The French Revolution isn't corrupted or ultimately repressed. However, there is a proto-fascist Bourbon pretender who causes trouble later. Furthermore, the French ally/puppet the Batavian Republic remains in existence for much longer than in our history. Although I haven't integrated that into the existing TL or v.7.0, basically the Dutch East India Company forsakes Amsterdam for Cape Town, giving the Afrikaners the Netherlands' Asian possessions right away. This helps explain their rapid expansion, which the disease environment in Africa would make very, very difficult to say the least.

*The 1848 revolutions are much, much more successful. However, that doesn't mean the French Republic and the newly-united Germany are going to be friends...

*There's a more successful analogue to the Taiping Rebellion. Thanks to the influence of the Afrikaners, it's more orthodox in its beliefs. Instead of being Jesus's brother, the leader of the rebellion believes himself to be something akin to Jehu, only called by God to destroy the Qing Dynasty rather than the House of Ahab.

*There's still a Soviet Union, but Leon Trotsky ultimately succeeds Lenin and not Stalin. Why I use real-life personalities for this when I don't for the American Revolution or Civil War is beyond me. This will require some changes...

*Project Orion. Oh yes. If you want more information, here's a really cool book.

Monday, July 6, 2015

The Falcon Has Flown--What If Jon Arryn's Poisoning Is Delayed?

Another day, another A Song of Ice and Fire alternate-universe fan-fic from the Internet forum for you. This one is entitled "The Falcon Has Flown." It diverges from canon on the smallest of matters--Jon Arryn, the Hand of the King to the neglectful Robert Baratheon, agrees to see one more petitioner. It turns out it's the ambitious, loquacious Justin Massey. He's intent on getting some lands and keeps talking for an hour, delaying Jon going to lunch. This delays Jon getting poisoned by around a day or so, allowing him to send his sickly son Robert Arryn to Dragonstone to be fostered by Stannis Baratheon.

At this point he's aware that Robert's children aren't actually his, but he doesn't intend to tell Robert until after his son is safe on Dragonstone with Stannis, who also knows what's going on. Once "Sweetrobin" is safe, he thinks a confrontation with the Lannisters is coming and is counting on his protegee Petyr "Littlefinger" Baelish to keep the Gold Cloaks on the right side.

Well, we all know how trustworthy Littlefinger is when there's the possibility of the rigid, hands-on Stannis becoming king. From the end-note in the first chapter, it's clear Jon Arryn is going to die before he can share his suspicions with Robert. I'm guessing that the events of A Game of Throneswill generally follow their canonical course rather than Robert flipping his lid, going after Jaime and Cersei with his warhammer, and starting a war with his evil-mastermind father-in-law Tywin Lannister.

However, once the War of the Five Kings begins, Stannis has an advantage he didn't have in canon--the sole Arryn heir as a hostage. In canon Yohn Royce led a group of nobles who wanted to intervene on the side of Robb Stark against the Lannisters, but Jon's wife Lysa managed to maintain the neutrality of the Vale, ostensibly to protect her son. With her son as a hostage and much of the Vale nobility wanting war with the Lannisters, Stannis might find himself with a very reluctant and difficult (but given his situation, welcome) ally. And then there's Littlefinger, Lysa's lover, who most assuredly does not want Stannis to become king. Treacherous doings are afoot...

The author says he updates slowly, but my experience with fanfiction.net and my own writing groups, having a lot of readers is a strong incentive to update more regularly. Prove my theory right by following and reviewing!