Saturday, September 26, 2015


Awhile back I remember a critique of the third Pirates of the Caribbean film that takes issue with, among other things, the depiction of pirates as some kind of quasi-ethnicity being mass-murdered by the East India Company. In particular, the reviewer objected to the sequence where a bunch of pirates, including a child, get hanged and it's depicted as a bad thing. After all, pirates are basically sea robbers and were prone to committing atrocities--for a paper I did on the historiography of Atlantic piracy, I found accounts of pirate Henry Avery's men committing a mass rape of Muslim women on the pilgrimage to Mecca, other pirates torturing and murdering the crew of a ship they'd taken, and various other grotesque acts. The book Under the Black Flag strongly disputes the romanticized view of pirates that omits or downplays their bad behavior.

However, there are pirates and there are pirates. The earliest buccaneers weren't pirates at all, at least at first. They were European adventurers who lived in various Caribbean islands, hunting the cattle that the Spanish had introduced (that had gone wild) and selling the meat to passing ships. Their name comes from a Taino Indian word for "grill." The Spanish repeatedly tried to run them off, until they took control of the island of Tortuga and started attacking the Spanish instead. Furthermore, many later pirates were actually licensed by their governments to attack enemy ships in wartime. The "classic" (and worst-behaved) pirates were at the tail end of the age of piracy, when governments no longer employed freelancers against each other and the pirates basically preyed on everybody.

(To be fair, many pirates had understandable reasons for adopting that way of life--sailors who'd been abused aboard merchant ships or in the military, runaway slaves, etc. Marcus Rediker's Villains of All Nations and the book he co-wrote The Many-Headed Hydra describe these people in more detail, including accounts of how sailors on ships attacked by pirates would often jump ship and join them. However, that still doesn't acknowledge torturing people to find hidden money, rape, etc. Somebody can have a sympathetic back-story and still be an unpleasant, nasty person. Consider Severus Snape, the poor Goth kid oppressed by the rich spoiled popular athlete as a student--who became a cruel teacher who bullied his students and rarely if ever bathed. And Snape is one of my favorite characters.)

So here's a way to get sympathetic pirates and still be at least somewhat realistic. Depict Jack Sparrow and others like him living on some nominally-English but de facto independent island near Port Royal in Jamaica, perhaps a more benign and less violent version of Nassau (depicted as an independent pirate commune in The Republic of Pirates). Emphasize that despite the disdain of Port Royal's residents, most of them are making an honest living selling meat to passing ships, fishing, growing enough food in a month to sustain them for a year, etc.

If they are engaging in criminal behavior, it's more sympathetic activities like smuggling to avoid excessive tariffs. After all, our Founding Fathers did it. :) If there's any actual piracy, it's defensive or retaliatory in nature--they're fighting more violent criminals trying to take control of their island (think how The Godfather made the Corleones sympathetic by pitting them against even more immoral crime families and dirty cops), plantation types trying to reclaim members of their community who'd fled slavery, former employers who'd mistreated them, etc. Emphasize the more sympathetic parts of Jack Sparrow's back-story in particular--according to a deleted scene, he refused to participate in the slave trade. Think Han Solo, who on the surface was a rogue, mercenary, and criminal but had been drummed out of the Imperial Navy for defending a Wookiee slave.

However, not all residents of this island are good folk deep down beneath the veneer of roguishness and petty criminality. Barbossa could be present as a crueler and more violent pirate, with the back-story of him usurping Sparrow's ship still there. He comes to the island and despite Sparrow's opposition is welcomed for his wealth and powerful ship. Then he promptly starts raiding the Port Royal merchants, engaging in the more typical pirate atrocities (including the "dining with the crew...and you'll be naked" implied rape threat from the first film). The fantasy elements can stay or not--their terrorizing her with their undead nature would further show they're bad apples and retain the supernatural stuff depicted in the Disney World ride.

While all this is going on, we can have the canonical romance between Will Turner and Elizabeth. Will is an unappreciated apprentice--he's a trained sword-fighter and makes an excellent weapon, but his lazy master gets all the credit. He might be tempted to join the pirates himself. Elizabeth could too--she clearly has issues with the gender roles of her time ("Do you like pain? Try wearing a corset!") and isn't interested in marrying the older Commodore Norrington.

For the later films, here's where the East India Company (or a more Caribbean-focused equivalent) comes in. Even with Barbossa defeated, the Powers That Be use the fact that Sparrow's island hosted him and many of the inhabitants joined him as a pretext to drive the population they can make it into a sugar plantation. And sugar-production back then was horrifically destructive to the enslaved work force. This is where we can meet Beckett and get his back-story with Sparrow. If Sparrow and his friends engage in outright piracy and the more aggressive behavior originally more characteristic of Barbossa, it's in defense of their homes against a ruthless and dangerous opponent operating under the color of law.

(And, if we retain the fantasy elements, possibly in collusion with evil supernatural forces like Davy Jones.)

So, you all like?

Thursday, September 24, 2015

Blast from the Past Movie Review: Muppet Treasure Island (1996)

For the movie podcast Myopia: Defend Your Childhood, Daniel wanted to defend Muppet Treasure Island specifically and Thomas greatly wanted to see a Muppet film. So off we went. I had not seen Muppet Treasure Island since it came out in theaters when I was probably in the fifth grade, so I gladly came out to watch it.

So here's the podcast. And here comes the review...

The Plot

The classic tale of Treasure Island gets a treatment from the Muppets. Young Jim Hawkins (Kevin Bishop) sets out on a hunt for buried gold after receiving a treasure map from the dying pirate Billy Bones alongside Muppet companions Gonzo and Rizzo. Under the command of Captain Smollett (Kermit the Frog) they sail for the Caribbean, but the mysterious ship's cook Long John Silver (Tim Curry) is much more than he appears...

The Good

*Three of the musical numbers--the really dark opening number "Shiver My Timbers" and the goofy "Cabin Fever"--have held up really well. Although some unnecessary vocals mar "Boom Shakalaka," it's still a pretty impressive introduction for a very important character.

*Tim Curry does a great job as Long John Silver, covering the whole gamut from weirdly paternal with young Jim to murderous and dangerous to charismatic.

*The pirates when they reveal themselves have a strong Marcus Rediker vibe. In the "Professional Pirate" song, one openly invokes how Sir Francis Drake is a hero to the British even though the Spanish hate him and talks about how they're a brotherhood that share with each other. Perhaps I'm giving the producers of the film too much credit for research, but Redeker is a Marxist historian who views the pirates of the Golden Age as a class revolt of common sailors, runaway slaves, etc. against the abusive governments and corporations of the time. He discusses this in his books Villains of All Nations and The Many-Headed Hydra.

*I might well be the minority opinion on the matter, but I really like puns. And at one point there's the pun, "Don't cry for me, Benjamina." I thought it was funny at least.

*Although pirate stories tend to be very male-dominated, they do a clever flip of a male character from the original book in order to bring Miss Piggy, who's too important to leave out, into the story. Pretty clever.

*There are some jokes that kids won't get that parents will. Not only is there the Evita joke I referenced earlier, here's a joke about a character having starfish in his pants and "hobbies," how another character "could have been a contender," and a character being in a relationship with another character because she's a lady, he's a pirate, and you know how the story ends. That particular story usually has a rather adult ending, and to make things even more fun, there were two different pirates involved.

*The movie isn't very long, so there's not a lot of time to bore the viewer. See below.

The Bad

*Kevin Bishop's singing voice is too high-pitched and faint. You can see it in "Something Better" and "Sailing for Adventure." It was really a distraction. He wasn't a bad actor overall, but given the importance of his role, if they couldn't remix his voice, it might've been a better idea to have a different actor.

*When the ship is setting off on its voyage, the background of the town is pretty obviously a matte painting.

*I haven't read the book, but the impression I had was that a certain character's treachery was supposed to be a surprise. In this film, the character is pretty obviously a false friend from early on, which takes away the shock.

*Sadly the movie just really is not that entertaining. I wish I could go into more detail, but it's just...not. Which is a pity considering how much I remember really liking this as a kid.

The Verdict

See it once if you're a Muppet completist. 7.0 out of 10.

Saturday, September 19, 2015

My Trunk Novels, Fan-Fic, and One Million Words

The other day I was listening to the Writing Excuses podcast in which they interviewed Charlie Holmberg, who said she had finished nine novels before she sold one. That was mildly worrying, as I'm currently pitching The Thing in the Woods (got a full-manuscript request from an agent who's an AAR member ten minutes after querying, although he ultimately rejected it) and seriously considering indie-publishing Battle for the Wastelands in hopes of being like Marko Kloos (parleyed independent novel Terms of Enlistment into multiple-book deal with 47 North) or Chris Nuttall (successful independent writer). Both Battle and Thing are my first finished original novels. I'd rather not have to write between three and six more that never see the light of day--when I make something, I generally like the ideas, characters, etc. too much just to toss them.

There's a term for books that never escape the drawer--"trunk novels." I've got one writer friend who has a book (that to me sounded really cool) she was told was "fatally flawed" that's never going to see the light of day, plus a second finished novel that doesn't seem like it's going anywhere either. I've also heard the "my first, second, third, etc. novel didn't sell either" from a bunch of different writers.

It turns out I've got a fair number of those myself. The main difference being, however, that they're not actually finished.

Darkness in the North-This one I actually started writing in high school, with one of my friends really liking the prologue. It has some interesting concepts, including the idea of a revolutionary republic in a fantasy world (which the Powder Mage novels like A Promise of Blood get into) and how a coed military (of said republic) might function. I was outlining it and it turned into a rambling mess, but the prologue did eventually see the light of day as one of the stories in Flashing Steel, Flashing Fire. Other than that prologue, nothing from this is likely to see the light of day. 14,750 words.

Seventeen Sons-This one I remember writing in college (my college ministry had a writing group as part of its arts division) and bringing before my secular writing group at least in part some time after I graduated. It involves a half-demon who's getting hunted by a religious order despite not being a bad guy at all. After his girlfriend is killed by mistake, he wages a one-man counteroffensive, only to unintentionally help his evil father carry out his plans for invading the mortal realm. This in turn necessitates allying with his old enemies. Perhaps it'll get "reimagined," but in its current form isn't going anywhere. 22,964 words.

The American Principate-I'm generally a conservative, but there was a lot of stuff about the Bush Administration I came to dislike. Think the Patriot Act, the Transportation Security Agency, citizens getting interned without trial, etc, all to the applause of people who would have been outraged if Bill Clinton did it. A wise man named Randolph Bourne once said that, "War is the health of the State" and Founding Father James Madison said that if tyranny and oppression came to America, it would be in the guise of fighting a foreign enemy. And there's this questionable quote ostensibly from Julius Caesar.

So I decided to adapt the fall of the Roman Republic and the establishment of the Roman Empire to American circumstances, with a faux George W. Bush as Julius Caesar, an illegal war with Iran as the crossing of the Rubicon, faux Ron Paul as Brutus, and ultimately faux Dick Cheney (whom I dislike much, much more than Bush) as Caesar Augustus. Here's some more detail. The manuscript is full of early-2000s zeitgeist and even some flirtation with questionable economics--there's the implication that the war with Iran had to do with the country deciding to sell oil in Euros and the United States ends up a financial vassal of China. As such the window of opportunity to write it would have been in 2004-2006 or so. Too late now. 2,769 words.

Aaron Greymalkin-This is another high-school story--I remember telling some of my Quiz Bowl friends about it on a trip and one said they liked the character's name. It's set in an independent California after a comet strike destroys most of the United States and causes an impact winter that wrecks the rest of the world. Think the awesome novel Lucifer's Hammer. Notable for a nuclear-armed neo-Aztec cult being manipulated by the surviving U.S. military leadership in Colorado Springs and an independent Alaska trying to avoid resource vassalage to Japan. I'm thinking this would make a really good setting for an RPG. 2,727 words.

Blasted Lands Cycle-Another high-school project--I remember doodling about this rather than watching a Spanish translation of The Never-Ending Story as the first semester drew to a close around Christmas. This takes place in the Gulf Coast in the aftermath of a nuclear war between the United States and Putin's which the latter deploys some kind of weapon that opens a gateway to the age of the dinosaurs. So you have various warlord types, Haitian settlers, a Russian warship that's still fighting the war, and dinosaurs. Another good RPG setting, but the actual novel isn't going anywhere. The last time I remember doing anything with this one was in 2006 when I visited Destin with my friend Nick and his buddies from Ohio. 7,561 words.

Gates of Vasharia-Up until relatively recently, it was widely believed that the Ninth Legion was destroyed somewhere in Scotland fighting the Picts. I wondered, what if the Ninth Legion wasn't wiped out in battle, but ended up...somewhere else? And they weren't the only ones?

Enter the world of Vasharia, where the descendants of the Ninth Legion established a new Roman Empire that grew to encompass various other cultures (including my personal favorites, the Nestorian Christians--imagine a world where the Church of the East continued to thrive) and traded with other worlds through controlled wormholes. I started writing this one probably in 2004 and there are characters based on people I knew in high school and early college. Oh boy, that's a good way to get into trouble. :)

It's been so long since I touched this one that I'm thinking this one isn't going anywhere. That said, I had the idea of re-telling the story from the first-person point-of-view of Patrick Rassam, a Nestorian Syrian general who was cast into the dark spaces between the worlds (think Stephen King's todash darkness), only to return having made a Faustian deal with things living there. I'd call it I, Dark Lord, a title that would capture Rassam's dry wit.

I re-read the manuscript a year or so ago and found there are some pretty good character moments, so of all of the "trunk novels," this one might be the most salvageable. Of all of them, it's the one that's gotten the most attention from my writing group, which helped me work a lot of the bugs out, especially dealing with military stuff. 40,274 words.

However, although none of the above would count toward having a bunch of finished novels one writes before one sells the big one, I have finished novels that aren't going anywhere either. They certainly contribute to the whole "you have to write a million words before you're any good" maxim far more than the 91,000-odd words of those "trunk novels." They're called fan fiction. You can find my profile here.

The Wrath of the Half-Blood Prince-My friend Jamie pointed out this one is actually longer than the first three or even four Harry Potter novels combined. It's actually 193,000 words. It's basically the entire First War if Snape had broken with the Death Eaters his fourth or fifth year--the divergence is at the same time as Snape and Lily's argument about his skinhead friends, some time before the "Mudblood Incident." If this was a book series, I imagine it could be a trilogy.

Lord of the Werewolves-This one I wrote with a pen-pal. It's 125,000 words. It's a "fix fic" intending to correct the underuse of Lupin and Tonks in Deathly Hallows. The first part of the story is basically Deathly Hallows from Lupin and Tonks' points-of-view and includes stuff we don't see, like their romantic relationship (a lot of people thought Tonks some kind of stalker, but the impression I had was that Lupin liked her too but was just too hung up on being a werewolf to act on it), wedding and honeymoon, and much of the Battle of Seven Potters. It diverges from canon during Bill and Fleur's wedding and gets really dark. Like, really, really, dark. Of all my fan-fiction, it's probably the best in terms of characterization. Heck, of all my fiction generally it ranks up there.

Revenge of the Fallen Reboot-I loved the first Michael Bay Transformers film, but was rather disappointed by the second. Good concept, but mediocre execution. So this is how I would have done it. There was some stuff suggested by the commercials (like a confrontation between female lead Mikaela Banes and Starscream) that never happened, but would have been really cool. Heck, the Bay universe botched Starscream's character massively, and that's just one of its sins. 58,476 words, about the length of a decent novel and not that much longer than Thing. I should probably write a TVTropes page--there's already Fix Fic, What The Hell Hero, and a bit of Your Approval Fills Me With Shame.

The Dragon and the Bear-There's very little actual narrative here. It's basically an alternate version of S.M. Stirling's Draka timeline where Russia defeats the Domination in World War II. In terms of sheer word count it would match a novel though--and I still haven't posted all of it on I'm self-banned from the forum until Christmas, so maybe I'll post the rest of it then. It's 46,000 words now, but there's a big chunk left to transfer. I kind of let it peter out a decade or two after the Final War between the Domination and the Alliance for Democracy, but I would bit it's around 60,000 words all total.

So of my "modern" fan-fic (i.e. stuff I wrote after college), that's around 436,000 words. I also wrote some Dark Angel fan-fic in high school that was basically how I would have done Season Two. Combined I think that's around 100,000 words--there were several 20K to 25K installments. There're also various dribs and drabs from short stories both unfinished and finished, my 2006 Battlestar Galactica short story "The Death of the Triton," the 600-odd posts on The World According to Quinn (if they average 800 words each that's 480,000 words), and the thoroughly massive amount of writing I've done for multiple newspapers in my seven-odd years as a full-time and part-time professional journalist.

(Not sure if the latter counts, since some members of my writing group have said writing like a journalist leads to a rather dry and overly-informative product. Good for newspapers, not good for novels.)

So I realized that I'm not necessarily all that different from those "I wrote ten books before I sold one" writers. Even if Battle for the Wastelands (92,000 words) is ultimately destined for the trunk too (God forbid, and I mean that), perhaps The Thing in the Woods (56,000 words) won't be, and neither will my secret third project I've obliquely referenced before (17,000 words presently) or my science fiction tale The Cybele Incident (20,000-odd words presently). :)

Saturday, September 12, 2015

A Novel Marketing Idea Involving Twitter...

The other night just before I went to bed after a full day of #PitMad, I remembered I had an Excel spreadsheet of people who'd tweeted my tweets in previous Twitter pitch parties like #PitMad, #SFFPit, #PitchMas, etc. I hadn't updated it in awhile, so I spent this morning going through tweets from Thursday's #PitMad and from the last #SFFPit in June (next one's in December) and adding a whole bunch of people's Twitter handles to my spreadsheet.

Why do this, you ask? Well, when the book(s) are actually published, these people might be interested in reading and especially reviewing. After all, they wouldn't have retweeted my pitches if they weren't interested, right?

(Okay, some of them might have retweeted because I retweeted theirs and not because they really loved the concept, but better too many people than too few. Plus even if they don't want it themselves, they might retweet.)

So when the time comes, whether I go indie (which I'm thinking about doing with Battle for the Wastelands) or traditional (an agent asked for the full manuscript of The Thing in the Woods), I'll have 60+ people to tweet the link to--and many thousands of their followers if they retweet. For each story. :)

Word to the wise if you implement this strategy yourself--don't tweet the same tweet to too many people. I got kicked off Twitter for an hour a couple years ago for trying to promote "Illegal Alien" to too many people too fast. It's called "spamming." :)

And definitely don't be stalkery or pesky. You don't want to get on people's nerves to the point they don't want to participate in these kinds of things again.

And I'd be willing to help promote others, not just use others to promote me. I saw a lot of really good concepts out there in the Twitter pitch parties and retweeted them all when I was able (i.e. not in class or in a job that was picky about social media). I'd definitely be up for doing this myself if someone decides to contact me about a novel they pitched online.

So that's another bit of advice--be willing to do this yourself to help others. Pay it back and pay it forward. Remember, the writing community isn't that large.

Sunday, September 6, 2015


Over the next couple months, I'm going to be revamping my Kindle short-story project considerably. I have already removed two stories and have set several to leave KDP Select when the 90-period they're committed for expires. Once that happens, I will remove several from Amazon completely and make the remainder--my three best--permanently free.

It started out with the podcast Sell More Books Show, which I started listening to within the last year or so. Bryan Cohen, one of the two podcasters, discussed how he made the first book in his Ted Saves the World series permanently free to gin up interest in the later books in the series. I took the concept and decided to apply it to my Andrew Patel supervillain-protagonist stories. If everything goes according to plan, the collection Consequences: Four Tales of Andrew Patel should be out by the end of the year.

The thought occurred to me that this could work for Flashing Steel, Flashing Fire, my short-story collection, as well. I decided on a little experiment. I had recently put my historical-Lovecraftian horror tale "The Beast of the Bosporus" back on KDP Select and decided to make it free for yesterday (9/5/15) and today (9/6/15). Muslim fantasy writer Saladin Ahmed and the good people at Promote Horror tweeted the news over their networks. Not only did I move many free copies of "Beast," but I also sold a copy (possibly two) of FSFF.

I had initially thought to remove all the non-Patel short stories from Amazon except for my best-seller "I am the Wendigo" and make that my freebie, but that would limit my range as a writer. "Wendigo" is creature horror, but my stories run the gamut from espionage to cosmic horror to high fantasy. So I'll leave three up for free instead of one and hopefully drive traffic to FSFF, where you can get ten stories for what used to be the price of three.

I'll let you know how that works out. The KDP Select program with its new pricing system is very good for novels ($0.006 per page for a 400 page book that the reader finishes comes out to be close to book purchase price), but not so much for short stories ($0.006 for a 35-page story isn't much). Short-story collections, however, might split the difference a bit.

Tuesday, September 1, 2015

Blast from the Past Movie Review: Armageddon (1998)

The other night I watched the 1998's more action-oriented celestial impact film Armageddonwith my friend Nick for the podcast Myopia: Defend Your Childhood. You can listen to the podcast here. And now for the review...

The Plot

One sunny morning the Space Shuttle is destroyed in orbit by a meteor shower that devastates New York City. It turns out that wasn't a freak incident--there's a Texas-sized asteroid heading for Earth and said meteor shower was just a bit of debris preceding it. Thanks to NASA's low budget for watching for potential celestial impacts they don't have time for more conventional approaches to deal with the oncoming extinction event. Instead they have to hire a bunch of oil-drillers led by Harry Stamper (Bruce Willis) to drill into the asteroid and plant a nuclear bomb to split it in half. Things are complicated by Stamper's disapproval of his daughter Grace (Liv Tyler)'s relationship with his protege A.J. (Ben Affleck), who will also be going on the mission. They've got 18 days to train for the mission and save humanity while more debris rains down from the sky...

The Good

*The movie starts out depicting the asteroid that wiped out the dinosaurs, states that something like it can and will happen again, and then New York gets destroyed by the outriders of a Dinosaur Killer 2.0. This is a pretty damn important point to make. We're well-overdue for a celestial impact, and relatively minor events like the Tunguska Event and the Chelyabinsk Meteor don't count. And as NASA honcho Dan Truman (Billy Bob Thornton) points out, NASA's budget for watching for these kinds of things only lets them watch three percent of the sky and it's a big-ass sky. In TVTropes terms, Some Anvils Need To Be Dropped.

*The special effects have generally held up quite well, despite the movie being nearly 20 years old. The asteroid itself is very cool-looking, as are the scenes taking place during the landing and the drilling. Instead of being one big inert rock, it's got an actual tectonic ecosystem including gas pockets, fault lines, a landscape, etc. That makes drilling the shaft to drop the nuclear bomb a much more time-consuming and dangerous proposition and makes for a more suspenseful film.

*There are some very good visuals in the film, including a scene involving a frozen corpse flying through space and the camera pulling back from Grace's hand on a snow-storming television screen.

*The movie has very good pacing and is generally extremely entertaining. I went into this thinking it would be a stupid Michael Bay explosion-fest, but it was overall a very well-done summer blockbuster movie with a surprising amount of heart.

*I liked some of the characterization of the secondary characters, including the biker-redneck propensities of Bear (Michael Clarke Duncan). And Rockhound (Steve Buscemi) is pretty darn funny.

*Although many people are rightly suspicious of training a bunch of non-astronauts to engage in a space mission in less than three weeks, the movie actually takes pains to explain this. Most of the more conventional methods of deflecting an oncoming Dinosaur Killer (like planting a rocket on it to push it off-course) would take far too long. This insane plan is literally the best of bad options, especially when its sheer size prevents simply bombarding with nuclear missiles.

*There's a lot of good humor scattered throughout the movie, starting at the beginning where New York is ravaged ("SOMEBODY DIAL 911!"). The way they introduce Harry Stamper--him hitting golf balls at some anti-drilling protesters--is pretty funny, as is his pursuit of A.J. through the rig with a shotgun when he discovers Grace in A.J.'s bunk.

*The scene where A.J. serenades Grace with "Leaving on a Jet Plane" and the other members of the crew join in as they're leaving for space was shorter than I remember it. Something like that would either be very sweet or very obnoxious, and keeping it relatively short avoids the latter.

*Early in the film, a character's recklessness and propensity for trusting his hunches pays off, but another character warns him of the potential dangers to other people's lives. This is touched on again later in the film and plays an important role in the film's climax.

*This is something I didn't catch until the end of the film, but one character is basically a Christ figure. Not just for his general self-sacrifice, but a very particular "the righteous for the unrighteous" (1 Peter 3:18).

*While we're on religion, I like how Harry and Bear are depicted as sincerely praying. And the president's speech on how everything humanity has done, both good and bad, has helped pave the way for the mission to save the Earth reminded me of Romans 8:28.

*At the end of the film, a bunch of military planes fly the missing-man formation. And it's rather poignant.

The Bad

*For something that darn big, 800 feet being deep enough to blow it in half even with a nuclear weapon (even if it was some kind of outsized monster like the Tsar Bomba) is awfully shallow. TVTropes has an explanation for why this might actually work (TL;DR the rock is two smaller pieces glommed together and isn't stable to start with), but that isn't in the movie. There's an article I found online somewhere that suggests the amount of energy needed to save the Earth in this situation would be hundreds of thousands if not millions of times more powerful than any nuclear bomb. The "two smaller pieces" theory, if it was actually in the film, would have helped fix that problem.

*There's a scene where the other drillers call Harry on his overprotective attitude toward Grace and they make a bunch of comments on how she's coming of age, she's experiencing hormonal surges, etc. That kind of thing would be appropriate if she were 15, but Liv Tyler was 21 when the movie came out and Harry tells the protesters their fuel-inefficient boat is putting his daughter through college. Grace might be older even than most undergraduates, given how she seems to have an office manager/client liaison-type job and might even run Stamper Oil's Human Resources (she tells NASA how to find the crew once they've scattered).

*Some of the family drama we see the night before the crew blasts off for the mission is a little dull, although it does help build up characterization.

*Why do the drillers go onto the Russian space station to help fuel up the shuttles for the landing? As has been said before, they're not trained astronauts, and it was specifically described that they're not going to do more than get off the shuttle, drill, and get back on. The smart thing to do would be leave them aboard the shuttles while the actual astronauts handle that kind of work. If they referenced a personnel shortage due to budget cuts and so many existing astronauts being killed in the meteor storm that destroyed the Space Shuttle early in the film, that might make sense. But they didn't.

*Why isn't Grace removed from mission control, given the two epic freak-outs she has? In one of them she has to be physically pulled away from somebody and in another one she actually gets violent with a NASA tech. Having her available to talk to Harry and A.J. makes sense from a morale perspective, but it would've been better if they just set her up with a two-way TV somewhere else. And given what happens at the end of the film, it would be very significant if she's sent elsewhere and then they bring her back.

*Given what just happened, the scene where the crew jumps down the emergency inflatable slides should have been a heck of a lot more somber. They're not at White Water, people!

The Verdict

A surprisingly well-done and entertaining movie, but with some dumb bits. 8.5 out of 10.0.

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 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.