Thursday, September 15, 2016

Geekly Oddcast: How To Improve The Star Wars Prequel Trilogy

The fourth episode of The Geekly Oddcast has come forth, and this time we're discussing the Star Wars prequel trilogy. One of the major topics discussed was how to improve the prequels. Here's my chance to elaborate on what I said...

For the record, I didn't hate The Phantom Menace or Attack of the Clones, at least when I saw them in late middle school and in high school. In fact, I remember enjoying both movies. However, Revenge of the Sith came out when I was in college and when I saw it, I was incredibly disappointed. My disappointment culminated in the infamous "NOOO!" that, instead of being tragic (Palpatine claims Vader, who had sold his soul to Palpatine to protect his wife Padme from dying in childbirth as he had foreseen, had actually killed her--and in a way that was actually true), was unintentionally hilarious.

Watch it below and weep. Or laugh.


So how to make things better?

*For starters, nix the bit about "midi-chlorians" from The Phantom Menace completely. It's established in Return of the Jedi with the whole "I have it, my father has it, my sister has it" bit and followed up with Han and Leia's son in The Force Awakens that Force-sensitivity is often hereditary, but there was no need to actually explain it. Just leave it mysterious.

*Daniel suggested following a single character the way the Original Trilogy followed Luke Skywalker. Even if the story is ultimately about the damnation of Anakin Skywalker, we can see him through someone else's eyes. Daniel suggested Obi-Wan and that's a really good idea. One of Thomas's friends (I don't know his crew that well so I don't know his name) suggested Anakin's fall would have more impact if we focused on how it affected other characters and Kenobi watching his beloved student turn into a monster would really hurt. In Return of the Jedi, he tells Luke about how he thought he could have been as good a teacher as Yoda..."and I was wrong." The guilt that might have been tempered by time in the original trilogy would be red-hot in the prequels. Boba Fett, as someone who isn't a Rebel or a loyal Imperial, could be another possible central character.

*I liked Christopher Lee's performance as Count Dooku, but his name is just so ridiculous. Apparently they had to change his name in Portuguese and Brazilian releases because "Dooku" actually means "from the ass." Plus the name "Dooku" in the U.S. at least seems to have some scatological connotations, which further undermine him.

*One of the worst parts of Revenge of the Sith was Hayden Christiansen's awful delivery in what're supposed to be some very important scenes. Either he should have been recast with somebody who could actually act (I didn't mind him in Attack of the Clones, although I do remember a reviewer claiming he was "vapid, not Vader"), or they should have brought on a different director.

*Heck, the different director might've been the best way to make a difference in the quality of the acting. The Empire Strikes Back, widely believed to be the best Star Wars movie of them all, was directed by Irvin Kirshner, while Return of the Jedi was directed by Richard Marquand. Although one must give credit to Lucas for writing and directing A New Hope, by the time we got to the prequel trilogy (in which he wrote and directed them all), he might've been wearing too many hats.

You might wonder what the point of posting about this is, given how the movies are years old now and nothing's going to change? Well, some people might be inspired to write "fix fics" that showcase how they would have done the films. Think my fan-fic "The Revenge of the Fallen Reboot," which is how I would have done Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen. If this post inspires some fan-fics that improve upon the prequel trilogy and fill readers' hearts with wonder and joy the prequels ought to have inspired, I will consider myself well-rewarded.

(Heck, "The Skywalker Heresy" is a good "fix fic" for the prequel trilogy that makes Anakin's characterization more akin to that of the television series The Clone Wars rather than the whiner of the movies. You all should check that out.)

Sunday, September 11, 2016

Dan Wells DragonCon Panel: "I Am Not A Serial Killer"

Dan Wells, author of the mystery-horror novel I Am Not A Serial Killer that was recently adapted into an independent film, was allowed to spend over a week on the film set, a rare honor in the film business.

At the 2016 DragonCon screening of the movie (you can see my the spoiler-free review of the movie here), Wells said most of the time writers of the source material aren't included much. He cited the case of one writer who was only allowed on-set one day and not allowed to talk to anybody. However, the director of IANASK was a friend of his. So Wells got to be on-set ten days and talk to the cast members about their characters. Speaking as someone who'd love to see his books adapted into movies (Battle for the Wastelands could easily be a cross between Gettysburg and Lord of the Rings), this would be a high honor indeed.

Furthermore, the film's low budget--$1.2 million--gave them a lot more creative freedom than a big-budget film with a lot of studio money people involved did. Executive Meddling is a common problem in the film business, especially if there are concerns the filmmakers' vision might alienate audiences. With costs so low, it's easier to make a profit and thus more risks can be taken.


During a Q&A session after the movie, I asked Wells about why the movie looked so old-fashioned. He said it was shot on FujiFilm that's no longer made. The director of photography had two movies' worth of this film stored in a refrigerator in his garage. They wanted an "old, gritty-looking" feel to the movie and this they got. I read elsewhere the film was shot on 16mm film. I'm not familiar with how movies shot on different media look (although I did notice when I last saw Dog Soldiers that it looked in part like it was shot in the 1970s and apparently older Dr. Who episodes were shot at least in part on video), so I guess that's why movies shot in particular time periods look the way they do.

I also asked why the killer didn't attack John when John came across him killing another character and Wells said it was clearer in the book that the killer was too weak to do both.

Wells also said he wrote the book he wanted to write and the book served as a test for finding "his people." Wells paraphrased how they'd react below:

"I thought this was a crime novel. Holy cow, this is a monster. This is so cool!"

The audience also learned that half of the I Am Not a Serial Killer extras also worked on the television series Fargo. Given that both stories take place in the cold Upper Midwest, this is a pretty good choice.

Before the film, Wells' Writing Excuses cohort Brandon Sanderson (yes, the one who finished the Wheel of Time series when Robert Jordon died) interviewed Wells. They spoke about their long friendship and the easygoing competition they have with each other. That got the audience a tale of the origin story for IANASK--Wells worked for a scrapbooking company and read serial-killer biographies to ward off the excess of kitsch. When Sanderson gave him a ride home, he regaled him with the MacDonald Triad, which informed the first line of the first draft.

"There are three traits common to serial killers. I have all of them."

Wells also said that he wanted his adaptation to be different from the book. After all, he's written the book already and knows what's going to happen. For example, John's love interest (as much as he can love) Brooke in the novel is blonde, but the actress is brunette. Although he was skeptical at first, after seeing her performance it was hard for Wells to see Brooke as blonde afterward. And although he and the director had some "friction" over how the movie had a different ending than the book, Wells did say it looked good on film and overall, it was fun to see others' interpretation of his ideas.

Finally, we also learned the first version of the script had a lot of voice-over, reflecting how the novel was told in first-person POV. However, this ended up cut out--people will assume the protagonist is safe. Furthermore, Wells said that actor Max Records, who plays Cleaver, conveys all the V.O. stuff through his facial expressions anyway.

Saturday, September 3, 2016

Movie Review: I AM NOT A SERIAL KILLER (2016)

The evening of the first day of DragonCon 2016, I had the opportunity to see a screening of mystery-horror film I Am Not A Serial Killer, with Dan Wells, author of the novel on which it was based, answering questions before and after the show. The panel discussion will be its in own blog post; now it's time for the review...



The Plot

Teenage John Wayne Cleaver (Max Records) works in a funeral home, has a fascination with serial killers, and has recently been diagnosed as a clinical sociopath. To prevent himself from harming others, he lives by a strict series of rules. However, a serial killer has begun stalking his small Midwestern town and Cleaver may have to break his rules to defeat him...especially since the killer isn't human.

The Good

*The film has some extremely creepy and suspenseful scenes. Even though I knew the general outlines of what was going to happen, there are many scenes where you fear just what Cleaver or his seemingly-benign elderly neighbor Mr. Crowley (Christopher Lloyd) are going to do.

*The film has a lot of really good dialogue, including Cleaver's Crowning Moment of Awesome from the book where he terrifies the oafish high school bully at a Halloween dance. Records delivers the lines with what another review I read describes as aggressive cheerfulness in a sequence that drew laughter, applause, or a combination thereof from the audience. Cleaver's reaction to catching his mother at dinner with his therapist Dr. Neblin (Karl Geary) is pretty funny too, as his Neblin's reaction to his comments. The confrontation between Cleaver and the killer in a chapel just before the film rolls to its violent conclusion is also well-done.

*Geary and Lloyd deliver the best performances in the film. Neblin is extremely witty and obviously cares very much for Cleaver, while Lloyd lets the occasional flash of creepiness or rage shine through Crowley's kindly old neighbor persona, setting up something much worse to come.

*There are lots of interesting character moments. Although Brooke (Lucy Lawton) plays a smaller role than I remember her playing in the book, the friendliness and kindness that marked her character are still made clear in a couple scenes. Crowley displays some interesting depths--in one scene he quotes William Blake's poem "The Tiger" to reveal what in hindsight is self-loathing.

*The filmmakers do a good job showing rather than telling Crowley's love for his wife, which is an extremely important motivator for his character.

*I noticed the film looked kind of old-fashioned in terms of the coloration, how things appeared on the screen, etc. It turns out it was shot entirely on 16mm film, film that is no longer made but the filmmakers kept cooled in their garage for years. Wells said they were going for an "old, gritty-looking" feel and in that they succeeded.

*The violence in the film is sudden and brutal rather than stylized. This is much more like real-life violence than movie violence.

*Per my comment above, the scene where the killer's true identity--and true nature--is revealed is very well-done. John's reaction is also done well.

The Bad

*The movie was rather slow-moving. That was my single biggest problem with the movie. I remember checking my watch multiple times, which is my main indicator of whether a film is entertaining or not.

*It's not clear why Cleaver decides to interfere with the killer's activities at all, although when he does decide to, the movie does make it clear why he chooses to challenge Crowley personally. It's been many years since I've read the book, but the book jacket suggests he's doing to protect his family and the town--he's fighting "a menace to everything and everyone he would love, if only he could." Although he doesn't have an emotional connection with anybody, he knows he should and is acting accordingly.

*Records delivers some of Cleaver's snarky dialogue really well, but I never got a creepy incipient psycho-killer vibe from him. In the book there's a scene where he discusses with Dr. Neblin trapping and torturing prairie dogs in a way that comes off like he's discussing playing with Legos. That illustrates just how warped he is, but didn't make it into the movie. He does watch Brooke and her family through a window early on, but the creepiness in that scene was too subtle. I expected someone far more intense and overtly unsettling. The closest we get to that early on is a scene where he has to restrain himself from attacking a trio of bullies, but that could have easily been him trying to avoid escalating a situation into a fight he can't win, not checking murderous tendencies.

*At one point Cleaver catches the killer in the act, but the killer frightens him away rather than immediately attack him as well. Wells said during the panel that in the novel it was explicitly stated he was too weak to kill Cleaver and finish what he was doing with the corpse at the same time and the film let the reader draw that conclusion. However, I didn't get that, which is why I had to ask in the first place.

*The final confrontation between Cleaver and the killer is rather underwhelming.

The Verdict

A rather minimalist film, but still creepy and suspenseful. 8.5 out of 10.

Saturday, August 20, 2016

The Geekly Oddcast On Reboots, Cartoon or Otherwise

In case you haven't heard, I'm in the new The Geekly Oddcast podcast with my friends Thomas, Nick, Daniel, and some other people I don't know as well. The second episode, which covers cartoon reboots, is the first episode I'm actually in.

Here you go!

Most of the programs we discuss on the podcast are shows I didn't regularly watch as a child, like Reboot or The Powerpuff Girls. However, I do remember regularly watching DuckTales despite, even as a preschooler or early elementary schooler, I found the theme song incredibly annoying.

(When I dropped that bomb that got a lot of people on the podcast aggravated. However, to prove my DuckTales cred, I will cite a VHS tape "Lost World Wanderers" Mom got me, which had "Dinosaur Ducks" where the gang visits a prehistoric lost world and "The Curse of Castle McDuck" where they encounter the Hound of Baskervilles. I also remember watching episodes featuring a robotic killer whale and Donald Duck in the Navy, as well as Magica de Spell and creatures that remind me a lot of Sirens from Greek mythology. My grandmother Quinn even took my little brother and I to see DuckTales The Movie: The Treasure of the Lost Lamp, which the Myopia podcast discussed here.)

The podcast got derailed some into non-cartoon reboots like Michael Bay's Transformers and Ninja Turtles films, which I enjoyed but the others didn't particularly like. That was probably my fault, since I didn't watch the main shows being discussed to the degree the others did. However, it did generate some good conversation and jokes. :)

However, there was one cartoon property I do have some familiarity with, and that was Thundercats. I remember watching the original show when visiting my grandparents, which would have been in the late 1980s, and I saw some of the Thundercats reboot on YouTube. Those episodes seemed a lot more thoughtful and sophisticated in terms of characterization and storytelling than I remember the original show being. Unfortunately, it didn't attract the attention of today's kids (despite being more anime in visual style), nor did it bring in the fans of the original. So it ran for only one season. :(

So if you like animation in general or you're a fan of the Myopia episodes dealing with animated movies, come check this episode out!

Thursday, August 4, 2016

How I Would Have Done STAR TREK BEYOND (Spoilers)

Last night I saw the science fiction action film Star Trek Beyond with a friend. It's really too late at this point for a movie review, but I did find the big plot twist at the end kind of annoying. The whole "Federation military man who can't handle peace" plot has been done already with Admiral Marcus in Star Trek Into Darkness and that was one of the weakest parts of the movie.

But anybody can complain. Here's how I would have done it:

ACT ONE

The movie opens with Kirk's failed attempt to negotiate a peace treaty between the two alien species and the amusing reveal that the big scary aliens are really Chihuahua-sized. I'd also keep the description of how they're three years into the five-year mission, how every day is bleeding into another day, and Kirk's birthday angst. I'd also throw something in there about Carol Marcus, who at the end of Into Darkness seems to be Kirk's girlfriend but is never mentioned in this movie at all.

(Maybe she requested a transfer for reasons unknown and left the ship, breaking Kirk's heart and contributing, along with his Daddy angst, to his depression. The "reasons unknown" could be revealed in a later film to be David Marcus.)

The Enterprise arrives at the Yorktown, which is explicitly described as being the farthest Federation outpost and up against unknown space. Kirk applies for a desk job at the station. Vice-Admiral seems a bit high for a relatively young captain, so perhaps the position is Commodore or even another captaincy, just with a different job. There are captains who command combat units and captains who run bureaucracies, after all. Spock learns of Ambassador Spock's death and briefly breaks up with Uhura so that he can travel to New Vulcan and, as Bones would put it, "make little Vulcans."

However, everybody seems on-edge at the Yorktown command and we eventually learn that there've been probes of the Yorktown by unknown alien craft apparently from a nearby nebula. The nebula's radiation blocks out Federation long-range reconnaissance and unmanned probes have disappeared, apparently lost in the debris fields, dangerous gases, etc. The Federation leadership at the station puts on a big happy face about how this is an opportunity to meet new alien life-forms, but there's a lot of worry that the Yorktown could be attacked. Yorktown commander Commodore Parris dispatches Kirk and the Enterprise to the nebula to investigate. We get Kirk's speech about how they can't communicate with the Federation, which will be important in a minute.

Upon arrival in the nebula, the Enterprise is surprise-attacked by the drone swarm like in the movie. The ship is badly damaged (the warp nacelles are torn off like in the movie), but Scotty's "redirect the warp core into the impulse drive" plan allows them to break contact. They manage to limp back to the Yorktown just in time for...

ACT TWO

A massive attack on the Yorktown by the nebula aliens. The Enterprise, despite being in no shape to fight, is drafted to help hold the line. Here we have the boarding action by Krall and the hand-to-hand battle between him and Kirk, who leads an attempt to relieve some cut-off Starfleet personnel in person instead of doing the intelligent thing and delegating like he's supposed to. The Bones-Spock interaction from the film can go in here as well--perhaps they've got to rely on each other to escape alien boarders or something. Many Federation ships are destroyed, but the Yorktown itself is unpenetrated and the alien fleet, which has taken losses of its own, retreats. Krall then calls for negotiations. Kirk is sent along with Uhura and Spock to parley.

At the negotiations, Krall submits his terms. He demands the Federation evacuate Yorktown and turn the station intact over to him and his people. Kirk is angry at the unprovoked attack, points out the Yorktown as a free-floating artificial planetoid is in no way an intrusion on any world his people inhabit, etc. Kirk then defends the Federation as a peaceful state that only fights if attacked and is primarily interested in exploration, new discoveries, providing a happy life for its citizens, etc.

Krall plays his trump card. He shows the Federation ancient television transmissions of a documentary on Red Cloud's War and the subsequent defeat and subjugation of the Sioux Nation by the United States. "I will not be the Sioux." He then makes a big speech about the expansion of the Federation before dropping the "this is where the frontier pushes back" line that made me think Krall was the leader of an alien polity that felt threatened by the expanding Federation. He might also mock the Federation's ethos of unity, cooperation, etc. by pointing out how his fleet has just savaged theirs.

(Imagine the gloating of a victorious Japanese soldier in 1941-42, mocking Americans as weaklings easily defeated by superior will.)

However, Krall has no interest in blowing up the Yorktown the way the Sioux burned the Powder River forts. The Yorktown's shipyard's and automated industrial facilities would make Krall's race invulnerable to any kind of outside coercion and allow them to be "free" forever. Some of the Federation people are even open to the proposal--Spock might think that Krall is clearly more interested in maintaining his independence than any sort of aggression against the Federation and the placement of the Yorktown was unduly provocative. Kirk tries to argue the Federation isn't like the U.S. was back in the day, that it never incorporates a world against the will of its inhabitants, etc. but Krall is not impressed.

Then we meet Jaylah, one of Krall's soldiers who is clearly not of his race who defects. She tells the Federation delegation that Krall's people have conquered her species, another race residing within the nebula, and fears they will continue this behavior once they capture the Yorktown.

Commodore Parris, fearing that Krall could use the station's productive facilities to conquer other lower-tech races nearby (like the dog-people from the opening), begins evacuating non-combatants aboard warp-capable civilian ships while preparing to defend against another attack and, if necessary, blow up the station. We have the line from Kirk's confrontation with Krall in the movie about how it's better to die protecting others than live killing them--said by Kirk, agreeing with Commodore Parris's proposal. She recalls Kirk and the Federation delegation, who escape under fire when it's clear they intend to take Jaylah with them.

ACT THREE

It turns out Jaylah has served in Krall's army as a draftee (think a more authoritarian-industrialized version of the Indian scouts who accompanied the US cavalry in the Old West) and knows just how Krall's fleet works. Most of Krall's ships and soldiers are drones and/or Terminator-type robots--Krall's race is not particularly numerous but uses advanced technology to conquer other races. This is in explicit contrast with the high-tech Federation, which is democratic, voluntary, etc. Scotty, Jaylah, and his little alien friend begin putting together the plan to disrupt the coordination of the drone swarm with radio waves. The problem is, they have to get close enough to the swarm for this to work. Jaylah is reluctant to participate since she fears Krall will retaliate against her subjugated people, but Scotty tells her if they work together, her people will no longer need to fear Krall. "Ye canna' break a stick in a bundle" or whatever the proverb his grandmother told him can be deployed here.

So Bones and Spock are dispatched with a captured drone craft to disrupt the swarm from within, while the Enterprise (which has had some repairs) and the remaining Federation ships prepare to hold the line against the drones and then, once the swarm is disrupted enough, attack and destroy the drone fleet. The Yorktown will add the station's powerful transmitters to the plan, although the skeptical Parris is still planning on scuttling the station if necessary.

The attack begins. The Federation takes some losses and the Yorktown itself is damaged before Bones and Spock trigger radio waves (yes, I'd keep Beastie Boys' "Sabotage" as the song) within the swarm, disrupting their coordination and causing lots of them to crash into each other. The remaining Federation ships take the offensive, disrupting the swarm and destroying the uncoordinated drones at knife-fight range, before the Yorktown's mega-transmitter breaks the swarm completely. Krall and the (few) survivors pull back toward the nebula. Kirk, rather than immediately pursuing, transmits a request for a parley to the surprised Krall.

At the parley, Kirk tells Krall that if the Federation were as bad as he thinks they are, he'd have finished off Krall's armada and invaded the nebula to either exterminate his people or reduce them to a planetary reservation. Instead, Starfleet will allow Krall to return to his homeworld with the remainder of his fleet in peace. Of course, with Krall's fleet largely destroyed, unmanned probes bearing records of the defeat have been dispatched to Jaylah's world, which Kirk expects will rebel against Krall and request Federation membership shortly. Krall is welcome to seek membership in the Federation as well, of course, or he can remain independent and un-interfered with. He has a choice between reigning in hell or serving in heaven and the Federation will respect that choice.

Krall is outraged by this "duplicity" (encouraging a revolt within his realm while negotiating with him), but tells him that it's no matter. The shipyards and industrial production that allowed Krall's people to build their huge fleet and conquer the other civilizations in the nebula are on worlds that Krall's people dominate. Setting Jaylah's people free won't change that. Krall will rebuild and then take back what is his at first opportunity.

Kirk just nods and tells him the Federation will be ready if he tries again. However, the shot will reveal other members of Krall's entourage looking at the Federation delegation with respect and at Krall with disdain. Even if Krall is able to maintain his regime in the short run, in the long run his empire is doomed. The Federation has shown itself to be morally superior and, owing to its unity and tolerance, strong enough to repel more aggressive and less moral foes. Krall's philosophy has just been shown to be a bunch of nonsense, just like how World War II showed racism, fascism, etc. as deficient.

My version ends the same way the actual film does, with Kirk withdrawing his application for a desk job at the Yorktown, Spock reconciling with Uhura, and Jaylah joining Starfleet. The badly damaged Enterprise is rebuilt as the Enterprise A and once it's done, the crew is off again on new adventures.

You all like? The only problem I can think of is having Kirk and not Commodore Parris being the one in charge of the final parley with Krall, offering Federation membership to Jaylah's world, etc. Killing or incapacitating Parris in Krall's attack on the Yorktown is too easy. Perhaps she delegates to Kirk while she focuses on repairing the damaged Yorktown? A gigantic space station is vulnerable to losing its gravity, air, and other things that keep millions of people alive in a way that a planet isn't, so this might be a more urgent priority

Either way, this maintains Trek's optimistic ethos without indulging in yet another parable about how the real danger comes from within, not from without. Someone who believed that in World War II would be screaming about the democracies being the warmongers for preparing themselves, the Axis being a phony threat to justify FDR accumulating more power, etc. while German panzers and Japanese Zeroes roll behind them. The original series even touched on that with "The City on the Edge of Forever" episodes about the danger of pacifism when faced with aggressors like Nazis Germany.

My version of Beyond would maintain the superiority of democracy, racial tolerance, etc. in the face of racism and imperialism without being naive and weak.

Tuesday, August 2, 2016

No Kindle? No Problem! How To Get FLASHING STEEL FLASHING FIRE Elsewhere

I was puttering around my Twitter feed after work this evening and found the following article:

Self-Publishing Is Not Spelt K.I.N.D.L.E.

The article argued independently-published authors don't sell very many copies of their e-books for devices other than the Kindle because they don't bother advertising for these other devices. I tweeted out the Nook version of my short-story collection Flashing Steel Flashing Fire and thought about doing the same for the Kobo version, then decided it would be more economical to put it all in one place.

So here goes...

Flashing Steel, Flashing Fire for Kobo

Flashing Steel, Flashing Fire for Nook

Flashing Steel, Flashing Fire for iBooks

Flashing Steel, Flashing Fire on Smashwords. That's got versions for lots of different e-readers and services--you can even get it as a .rtf file to read on your word processor. Here's a list of the different retailers.

So if you enjoy science fiction, fantasy, alternate history, and/or horror and don't have a Kindle, live in a county without access to Amazon, etc., here's your chance to get ten stories for $2.99, or (based on my $0.99 price for individual stories) ten for the price of three.

Monday, August 1, 2016

The Geekly Oddcast Is Here!

There's a new film and culture podcast out there in the world. It's called The Geekly Oddcast and was put on by the good people from The Brothers Herman and The Dudeletter. The first episode, dedicated to the subject of spoilers, premiered on Podbean a few days ago and further episodes will appear every two weeks. This episode features Daniel from The Corner Critic, a Myopia regular, as well as Myopia: Defend Your Childhood and Dudeletter overlord Nick and the merry Hermans.

The podcast is dedicated to "geeky" topics (hence the name). I'm in three episodes that I can think of--one dedicated to Star Wars, one to Harry Potter, and a third to the realities of working as an Internet writer. The first two have companion blog posts I've already written that will appear here once the podcast goes up.

So enjoy!

Thursday, July 28, 2016

Going Back to DragonCon...

This time last year, I was starting a new job and needed to focus on learning how to do that properly. The year before that, I was a graduate student at Georgia State paying for my M.A. by working as a graduate research assistant and didn't want to spend the money.

Things are a little different this year, so I'm going back to DragonCon! For those of you who aren't in the know, DragonCon is the big science fiction, fantasy, horror, comics, etc. convention in Atlanta every Labor Day weekend.

In 2008 I went to DragonCon and met representatives of the company holding the rights to the BattleTech science-fiction franchise. I spent the next year (I probably could have finished it faster) writing "Skirmish at the Vale's Edge," which tells the tale of the Clan Wolf invasion of the Oberon Confederation, and told them in person in 2009 that I'd submitted it.

(I also got a good reference from established BattleTech writer Loren Coleman, who vouched for me that unlike some other fan-fic writers, I wasn't insane and actually did believe in the rights of copyright holders.)

They ultimately accepted the story and it's now considered part of the BattleTech canon alongside books written by established authors like Michael Stackpole, Mr. Coleman, Blaine Lee Pardoe, etc.

This time around, I've got two completed novels--the post-apocalyptic steampunk Western Battle for the Wastelands and the Lovecraftian science-fiction/horror The Thing in the Woods--to pitch. I've got got two more incomplete projects, the horror/dark comedy/bizarro Little People, Big Guns (which I've blogged about under its original title Badgers vs. Midgets) and the science fiction Bloody Talons: An Oral History of the Avian War, that I can pitch as well. Even if they're not done now, I can get permission to submit them once they're done.

(Bloody Talons is the secret project I've been referencing in posts tagged with "aliens" and "alien invasion." It can be described as a cross between World War Z and Independence Day. I'm still going to keep the details close to the chest though, since it's maybe 1/3 finished.)

When I was at DragonCon in 2011 and 2012, I made contacts with publishers and pitched Battle. Although neither pitch panned out (I did get a "this is good" rejection from one publisher though), meeting representatives of publishers at conventions is a good way to get around the "no unsolicited submissions" bar. If you get permission, it's not an unsolicited submission anymore. Just be sure to reference that in the e-mail to be safe.

Furthermore, even if I don't sell anything as a result of my visit, it's a good way to network and learn. I've interacted with Michael Stackpole and Stephen Michael Stirling, both of whom are really cool guys, and learned about the craft of writing. I might acquire some interesting new books (which I could get signed, considering how many authors are there) and collectibles. And I just learned from my friend James R. Tuck that the Fire of Brazil near the hotel has a $10-12 lunch. Considering how those Brazilian steakhouses are typically $50+ I think I'll hit that up pronto.

It's going to be a fun weekend. :)

Wednesday, July 27, 2016

Hadrian a Confucian Aficionado in Kuwait? Check Out "On Eastern Shores"

Self-banned from the alternate-history forum until October so I can focus on work and my personal writing projects, but here's a relatively new Roman-era timeline that looks pretty cool.

It's entitled "On Eastern Shores: A Roman Timeline." The divergence from our timeline is that the dying Emperor Trajan, instead of selecting Hadrian as his successor, instead chooses the Roman general and governor of Judea Lusius Quietus. Lusius had defeated a series of Jewish uprisings known as the Kitos War, which is part of reason the timeline's author gave for Trajan deciding Quietus would be his successor instead. The other reason is that Trajan doesn't think Hadrian will retain his conquests, something that our history bore out with the abandonment of Mesopotamia.

(Quietus was relieved of command and killed, possibly on Hadrian's orders, soon after Hadrian became emperor, so it's possible he was a serious contender for power.)

As emperor, Quietus finishes the war with the Parthians with a treaty that leaves Mesopotamia in Roman hands and the kingdom of Characene (modern southern Iraq and Kuwait) a Roman client. Hadrian, seeking to avoid offending Quietus, moves to Characene and becomes a patron of scholarship, including Indian and Chinese scholars whose ideas become popular.

And that's the kicker there. With a Roman port on the Persian Gulf, Rome is in a much better position to participate in the Indian Ocean trade. The Romans also receive a Chinese ambassador, something that I don't believe happened in real history. As a result, Buddhism spreads more readily in the Roman sphere than it did historically, while Confucian ideas about government arrive. These encourage the Roman Empire to develop a more merit-oriented bureaucratic system rather than staffing the government with members of the senatorial and equestrian classes.

I don't agree with everything the author plans for this timeline--he seems to think Buddhism would syncretize with and replace Christianity because Buddhism, unlike Christianity, does not require people to abandon their earlier religious beliefs. I'd prefer he go with a more religiously-divided Roman sphere (one of the commenters suggested one half be Christian, one half be Buddhist, and Christians enjoy more success outside of the Empire), but I'm not going to be a major contributor to the timeline. So we'll just have to see how it goes.

Tuesday, July 19, 2016

Book Review: Sherlock Holmes and the Servants of Hell (2016)

I first became interested in the Hellraiser horror franchise when I was in middle or high school, although I lost interest for a long time. Over the last few months my interest has been rekindled--I watched the original Hellraiser for the first time and read the novel that inspired it, The Hellbound Heart. At some point along the way I saw that Rebellion Publishing had a Hellraiser/Sherlock Holmes crossover entitled Sherlock Holmes and the Servants of Hell coming out.

So how was it? Let's see...



The Plot

Sherlock Holmes, the world's greatest detective, and his physician partner John Watson are called into action when a libertine disappears from a locked room. Their investigation draws them deeper into London's underworld, where the powerful and influential cast aside their Victorian uprightness indulge in a plethora of perversions. They discover the machinations of the mysterious "Order of the Gash" and a mysterious puzzle box.

Soon Holmes and Watson find themselves faced with a foe not of this world that deals in fates worse than death...

The Good

*As I mentioned earlier I've been interested in the Hellraiser universe for a long time. Crossing it over with the realm of Sherlock Holmes is pretty creative. Someone who solves the box and is taken by the Cenobites sets up a classical "locked room mystery," especially since a philosophical materialist like Holmes is not likely to consider a supernatural cause like, well, a gang of extra-dimensional BDSM enthusiasts who drag people through portals opened by a supernatural Rubix cube.

(Wow, I just made the whole franchise seem really ridiculous, didn't I?)

*I was able to read the novel in a few hours on the elliptical and it made my exercise time go by pretty quickly. It's an absorbing read and a fairly quick one. Definitely very entertaining, which is why we all read books in the first place.

*Author Paul Kane has clearly done his research into the Hellraiser franchise. This is not really a surprise considering he'd written The Hellraiser films and Their Legacy and had the assistance of Barbie Wilde, who played the Female Cenobite in the first two films and wrote the introduction to the book. In particular he's clearly studied The Hellbound Heart, since he knows the smell of vanilla accompanies the Cenobites and those who seek their attentions sometimes offer their dove's heads and their own urine. A character is very strongly implied to be the ancestor of Clive Barker's occult detective Harry D'Amour, who appears in some of Barker's other works before facing off against the nefarious Pinhead in the recent Scarlet Gospels. The acknowledgements section at the end of the book reveals influences from anthologies of stories set in Barker's universe written by other authors as well. The climactic battle even draws on both Hellbound: Hellraiser 2 and Hellraiser 3: Hell on Earth.

*Per the above, Kane knows not to bring in Pinhead. Pinhead would have been "born" in the 20th Century and this far too early for him. However, Hell had servants well before Pinhead, so he's not really needed.

*Sherlock Holmes' deductive talents are on full display in this one. He deduces several interesting facts about one Laurence Cotton and his second wife Juliet (more on them later) upon meeting them and he's able to discern the presence of the Puzzle Guardian vagrant and just how those who've gone missing after the solving the box died. Kane has written in the Holmes universe as well, including stories in The Mammoth Book of Sherlock Holmes Abroad and Gaslight Arcanum: Uncanny Tales of Sherlock Holmes.

*I was initially displeased to see characters from earlier Holmes works popping up, but Kane makes the whole situation work out and paves the way for a very entertaining climax.

The Bad

*The author's knowledge of the Hellraiser universe proves to be a bit of a creative crutch when Holmes and Watson first begin investigating. The first missing person is a mischievous "Francis Cotton" and the people who seek out their help are his brother Laurence and his new wife Juliet, who live on Lodovico Street in London. Laurence has a daughter named Kirsten, with whom Juliet doesn't get along. Does this sound a bit familiar? It's the triangle of Larry, Frank, and Julia from the first Hellraiser, transplanted into the late 19th Century.

However, another missing person is one Lt. Howard Spencer and he has a son nicknamed Ellie, whom Watson thinks will go into the military for all the wrong reasons. The implication is that this is the young Elliott Spencer, who will someday solve the puzzle box in India and be transformed into Pinhead.

If the story had been a pure prequel to The Hellbound Heart, this would not have been a problem at all, and if Kane had just transplanted the tale of the Cotton family for a 19th Century reboot, I might not have liked it but I wouldn't have been that upset. However, the prequel and the reboot aspects sit uneasily side by side. And since Hellraiser is not public domain like Sherlock Holmes is, Barker and friends have to have approved this.

It would have been better if Holmes and Watson merely met the ancestors of the Cottons--perhaps they had a boarder in the upper room of their Lodovico Street house who disappeared? It might be a nice hat-tip to the mythology.

Per my point about the Cotton family reprise, some characters' fates in hell are more akin to the torments depicted in in Hellbound: Hellraiser 2 than The Hellbound Heart. For example, Barker's original novella implied those taken by the Cenobites experienced "pleasures" more physical than psychological that reduced Frank Cotton to a mutilated mess and bore at least a passing relationship to sex. The punishments of Francis Cotton, the elder Spencer, etc. are more psychological and spiritual in nature. Furthermore, they stem from the idea of the Cenobites dispensing justice upon the wicked, as opposed to Barker's original vision of them as a band of amoral experimenters in pleasure and pain. That's something that appears in the later Hellraiser films (especially the awful direct to video ones), but not in The Hellbound Heart or the original Hellraiser. The idea present in The Hellbound Heart that the damned, when not "enduring pleasure," are able to see into the worlds they've left behind is abandoned entirely.

So is this a prequel to The Hellbound Heart and some of Barker's other works, the Hellraiser film series, or both?

*Some of Watson's actions after the climax of the novel don't fit in with his character, don't fit in with the existing Hellraiser mythology and might not work with the Holmes canon overall. I'm not going to go into detail for reasons of spoilers.

The Verdict

An interesting book and a fast read besides. 8.5 out of 10.