Tuesday, February 21, 2017

What If: Achamaenid Persia Conquers Greece?

Here's another timeline from the alternate-history forum, even though I remain self-banned in order to avoid distraction from my day job and from my other writing pursuits. This one diverges from our history with a Greek defeat at the Battle of Salamis to become The World of Achaemenid Hellas.

(For those of a less historical bent, the Achaemenids are the ruling dynasty of Persia during this period, while "Hellas" refers to Greece. The Greeks actually called themselves "Hellenes"--"Greece" and "Greeks" is based on the Latin-Roman term for them.)

Some highlights of the timeline include:

*The Messinians, who had been servile helots under Spartan rule, cannot agree on whether to establish a democracy or a monarchy after getting liberated by the Persians, so they basically invent the concept of a constitutional monarchy as a political compromise.

*Xerxes lives so long he gains the epithet "Xerxes the Old" and at one point waxes philosophical about the nature of kingship, petty cruelties, etc. I'm vaguely reminded of the Book of Ecclesiastes.

*The Greek population of Italy, swollen by refugees fleeing Persian conquest, forms an alliance uniting all the Greek cities of the region (which was referred to as Magna Graecia--"Greater Greece"--owing to its settler population) and permanently disabuses the Carthaginians of their desire to conquer Sicily. The Carthaginians, beaten but not annihilated, find more productive places to expend their energies and go onto brighter things.

*A Persian satrap--regional governor--of a united Greece rebels against the Persian Great King and establishes a sort of Diadochi-in-reverse.

*There's some kind of synthesis of Buddhism, the Hellenic faiths, and Zoroastrianism that has generally Buddhist ethics, the Hellenic pantheon, and a Zoroastrian belief in the struggle of Good against Evil.

I'm very busy these days and so I haven't finished it, but so far so good. If I ever return to posting on the forum, I should probably ask whatever happened to Artemisia, Xerxes' female naval commander who even the extremely sexist Greeks admired.

Thursday, February 16, 2017

Blast from the Past Movie Review: Hellboy (2004)

Although Hellboy is not as well-known as, say, Batman or Spider-Man (no great surprise since he's from Dark Horse, as opposed to the Marvel-DC duopoly), he still got a comic-book movie made about him. Two in fact. I watched the first film for Myopia Defend Your Childhood. Here's the podcast. And now my review...

The Plot

In 1944, a group of Nazis led by the Russian sorcerer Rasputin have occupied an island off the coast of Scotland in order to summon the Lovecraftian Ogdru Jahad to help them win WWII. They're interrupted by a platoon of American soldiers, but not before they summon a demonic ape-like baby. The American soldiers feed him Baby Ruth candy bars and adopt him as their mascot "Hellboy." Fast-forward to the modern era and Hellboy (Ron Perlman) has grown up to fight paranormal threats for the FBI while pining after the pyrokinetic Liz Sherman (Selma Blair). New FBI agent John Myers (Rupert Evans) is assigned to the team just in time for Rasputin to rise again and try to summon the Ogdru Jahad, with Hellboy playing a surprising role...

The Good

*An impressive amount of research into mythology, folklore, and the occult went into the film. Hellboy's anti-demon bullets are filled with holy water, silver, shavings of white oak, etc., which he refers to as "the works." All of those are reputed to have supernatural properties--holy water for exorcising demons and repelling vampires, silver to kill werewolves, etc. The Nazis attempt their ceremony in Scotland, despite the fact it's on the territory of one of their enemies and they're losing the war, because two ley lines intersect there.

*Although a movie with an outright demon as the lead doesn't seem like a major candidate for a Christian film, this is actually a pretty strongly Christian movie. Many characters are depicted as being faithful (Catholic specifically), Christian icons are depicted as having supernatural power against Evil, etc.

*There's a whole lot of Rule of Cool going on here, including a clockwork cyborg Nazi assassin, Rasputin using Magitek to summon demons, etc. It's a lot of fun.

*That Dr. Broom (John Hurt), Hellboy's adoptive father, is terminally ill is shown, not told. And this leads to a rather surprising end for the character.

*There are some really impressive visuals, like the temple in the mountains of Moldova where human blood is put to religious use.

*I liked the Lovecraftian influences in the film. The Ogdru Jahad are extra-dimensional tentacle monsters served by black magicians much like Cthulhu, while the opening of the film cites De Vermis Mysteriis, an occult book that's part of the Cthulhu Mythos. Lovecraft was unappreciated in his own time and is a pretty niche topic today, so that's pretty cool.

*The movie has got a fair number of amusing one-liners, including various sex jokes associated with the hellhound Samael. Sex jokes associated with a tentacled demon-dog--I promise you, they're a lot more clever than they sound. Toward the end of the film, there's a resurrected half corpse of a Russian that gets a lot of really good lines, all in subtitles.

*Hellboy has a character arc. He starts out rather immature despite being over sixty years old (the movie explains this in "reverse dog years") and acts like a somewhat stalkerish high schooler where Liz and romantic rival Myers are concerned. However, this is something he grows out of by the end of the film. The bureaucratic and prejudiced FBI agent Thomas Manning has an arc too--at the beginning of the movie he refers to the paranormal team as a bunch of freaks, but by later on he's teaching Hellboy how best to light a cigar.

The Bad

*The film's single biggest flaw is how slow it is. It's over two hours long and there were many times I was looking at my watch. The special-effects failures (I'll get to that later) were pretty minor in comparison to just how un-entertaining this movie was in many places. I'd suggested on the podcast that some of the Samael fight-scenes could have been cut (just ditch the whole "if you die two will take your place" bit) to speed the movie along, even if it meant "killing your darling" and eliminating the scene where Hellboy stops a fight to save some kittens.

*The special effects have not held up very well. Maybe it's because I was watching an ordinary DVD on a Blu-Ray player on a high-definition TV, but there was a lot of stuff that was obviously computer-generated imagery. When I saw this on the big screen in college it might not have been this obvious, but it certainly is now. Many of the close-ups of Samael look real because they clearly used a model or a puppet and Hellboy himself is an excellent prosthetic/makeup work, but there are far too many scenes that are "invasion of the video game."

(Still not as bad as Spawn though.)

*A character dies because Hellboy left his home go to stalk Liz and Myers on their possible-date. I would expect that to be a much bigger deal for both Hellboy and Liz. Hellboy's maturation and willingness to back off where Liz is concerned could have been driven by the quite-justifiable guilt he would feel over the situation, but other than seeing him holding the character's rosary at the funeral, it's never touched on. Given how both Liz and Hellboy are depicted as Catholics, they could even explore stereotypical Catholic guilt some.

*At this character's rainy funeral, they've got a "sea of umbrellas" shot. That seems to be a bit of a cliche in film--according to this link here, Hellboy is actually paying homage to the film Foreign Correspondent, but I've seen it so many times that my first thought was "cliche." This isn't totally fair--I've complained about how the John Carter stories were ripped off so many times that by the time the movie came out ideas the Carter mythos originated had become cliched--but I still felt it.

*The Nazi soldiers in the prologue are so focused on the occult ritual they're protecting they are completely oblivious to the American soldiers creeping up on them. Given how the Nazis are losing the war at this point and they've snuck onto the territory of an Allied power, I figured they'd be a lot more alert. Prolonging the battle between the Americans and the Germans could be a means of building suspense--the longer the fight goes on, the more likely something gnarly is going to come through that portal.

The Verdict

See it once if you can get it off Netflix or something. It's not really worth buying. 6.0 out of 10.

Monday, February 13, 2017

What If Eisenhower (First) Fights the Japanese in the Pacific?

Awhile back I wrote a blog post about the alternate-history timeline "The Battle At Dawn," in which Pearl Harbor is better defended and the bloodied U.S. Pacific Fleet sails forth to duel the Japanese Combined near Midway Island. The AH.com user whose handle is Galveston Bay is writing a second story set in this same world entitled "The Shoestring Warriors of Luzon."

The point of divergence from our timeline is that Douglas MacArthur dies in a car accident when visiting the United States in 1937. MacArthur when he was good was very good (he was recommended for the Medal of Honor during the 1914 occupation of Veracruz, earned a lot of awards during World War I, and oversaw the Inch'on landings and subsequent campaign that would have destroyed North Korea were it not for China intervening), but when he was bad he was very, very bad.

The most relevant badness to this story is his failure to properly prepare the Philippines to face the Japanese during the lead-up to the Pacific War and his psychological paralysis that led to most of the U.S. aircraft in the Far East getting destroyed on the ground eight hours after Pearl Harbor when they had the opportunity to return the favor and attack Japanese airbases on Taiwan when weather had their aircraft grounded.

(Holy crap, how could someone who'd demonstrated that much talent on other occasions drop the bomb this absolutely badly? He should have gotten the Medal for some of the stuff he did when he was a lot younger--the Filipino farble should have ended his career, or at the very least not been rewarded.)

So with MacArthur out of the way, Eisenhower, who'd served under MacArthur, takes his position in the Philippines. His plans for the Filipino military are much less grandiose than MacArthur's, but they're implemented a lot more competently. Consequently, although the Filipino forces are smaller than those that faced the Japanese in our history, they're much better-trained, better-equipped, and better-organized. The Japanese, especially since they've taken worse lumps fighting a major naval battle soon after Pearl Harbor, are going to face a much tougher fight.

Right now we're almost to the Japanese attack on the Philippines, with the Japanese having already attacked Pearl Harbor. Galveston Bay has promised this is the first of three parts and there will be other stories detailing the various campaigns of this alternate Pacific War. I still intend to remain self-banned from the site to focus on other obligations, but I will definitely keep you all posted about his projects.