Saturday, December 29, 2012

Three Reasons Why Doctor Who Books Need To Come Back

Technically speaking, I should start by pointing out that Doctor Who books aren't actually gone. In fact, there's something like five lines of Doctor Who fiction out there--the basic novels, which have been a bit dormant but will see three new releases in April; a line of fancy hardcovers that have attracted jaw-droppingly good authors like Stephen Baxter and Michael Moorcock (I'm still holding out hope for a Harlan Ellison entry in this series, although I know it's not going to happen); a line of "Quick Reads" designed to be finished over a lunch-break; a kid's series of 2-in-1 novels; and a Choose Your Own Adventure-esque run of books. After all that, I can kind of understand why the BBC doesn't want a line of novels for the classic series cluttering up the works.

Nonetheless, I miss the books that were coming out before the TV series relaunched in 2005. Even though there was a fairly steep dip in quality during the changeover from Virgin to the BBC, the book series had recovered reasonably well by the end, and produced some really excellent work like 'The Tomorrow Windows', 'Camera Obscura' and 'Fear Itself'. It's a line that deserved to continue on its own merits and on the merits of its sales...but there are also three other reasons I'd bring back the Past Doctor Adventures book line.

1) There is a place for a line of Doctor Who books for older fans. I realize that this is a very fine line to walk, because Doctor Who is a family series and I don't want to see younger fans excluded...but at the same time, the genie's kind of out of the bottle, here. For a good fifteen years, the Doctor Who series was written with an eye towards the older fan, and we got to see stories written for a more mature reader...and I don't necessarily mean that in terms of sex and violence, either. 'Love and War', to choose a particularly excellent and seminal example, examines the Doctor's relationship with his companions and his ultimately alien perspective on the universe in a way that the TV series will never be able to do, simply because I don't think the TV series is willing to risk that kind of unsympathetic view of the Doctor. Not every book was that good or that mature (I'm looking at you, Chris Bulis) but there was a potential there that shouldn't be discarded.

2) The book line served as a laboratory for improving the series. Because the book line was for older fans, and because it wasn't under the pressure of being a flagship show on Saturday nights, they had a lot of license to experiment. The book lines came up with a number of interesting ideas, like a time-travelling archaeologist, or a human/Time Lord hybrid able to deal with the Doctor on his own level, or a view of the Doctor as a myth scattered throughout human history, or a Time War that would lead to the destruction of Gallifrey and the end of the Time Lords, or...basically, re-reading the books (like I'm doing here alongside my wife, just as a reminder) shows just how much of the concepts that became essential to the success of the new series came out of people trying new takes on a classic series and seeing what worked. That's the kind of thing that can and should happen again.

3) The book line gave a lot of excellent writers their first break. The Doctor Who book line had an open submissions policy, both in the Virgin and BBC era, and a lot of fans made the jump to pro through the book line. Paul Cornell, Mark Gatiss, Gareth Roberts, Gary Russell (whatever you may think of his work) and Matt Jones all went from fan to novelist to TV writer, and even some of the already established TV writers (like Moffat and RTD) started their work for Doctor Who in the novels. It didn't always work--we got the occasional Neil Penswick--but it really encouraged a lot of talented people and gave them an opening, which is something that I think feels appropriate for the BBC to do.

There are more reasons, some of which really can't be done right now due to the narrative primacy of the TV show...but I think there's a place for a line of well-written adult novels in Doctor Who, even now. I just don't know if the BBC will see it my way anytime soon.

Wednesday, December 26, 2012

Thoughts on the Doctor Who Christmas Special

I showed extraordinary patience yesterday by waiting to watch this year's Doctor Who Christmas Special--most of my family was en route back to Minnesota when it aired, and far too exhausted to sit through it when they got home a bit later. As such, it wasn't until tonight that I saw the continuation of the series. Some thoughts below the cut, for those who are waiting longer still...

Friday, December 21, 2012

Why Doctor Who Doesn't Work In Fantasy

Someone (I believe it was Paul Magrs, but I'm not entirely sure) once said that the TARDIS isn't a machine for traveling in time and space, it's a machine for traveling between genres. This is certainly in evidence in the new series, with the Doctor wandering through Westerns and horror stories and all manner of big-budget Hollywood blockbusters, but it's been a part of the series almost since the beginning. Sometimes the story is a comedy, sometimes a tragedy, sometimes out and out horror, and yet somehow the Doctor seems naturally to fit into all of them. It's one of the things that has made the series so refreshingly renewable over the years; the Doctor has been able to essentially borrow from whatever's modern to make himself seem relevant.

And yet, when you look at the few attempts to blend in with fantasy, they've almost always been dreadful failures. 'Cat's Cradle: Witch Mark', 'Autumn Mist'...really, about the best of them was 'The Sorcerer's Apprentice', and that keyed on the idea that there was no such thing. Even Paul Cornell's take on "The Doctor does a trip into a fantasy universe" was his weakest novel, and he's sodding brilliant. Why is it that the Doctor can't go into a high fantasy novel the same way he can wander into a Western or a crime caper?

The most obvious answer, of course, is that Doctor Who doesn't do fantasy. It's firmly set in a rational universe with an orderly set of scientific rules, even if they are handwavy "psychic paper" and "sonic screwdriver" and "anti-plastic" type rules. People will point out that a sonic screwdriver is basically just a magic wand with a different name, but that misses the point. It's the name that's actually important. Doctor Who states that everything is explicable, even if we aren't smart enough or experienced enough or knowledgable enough to understand the explanation yet. That's a pretty key difference from a world where High Prophecy and gods simply tell you that this is the way things are.

That means that whenever the Doctor enters a fantasy universe, one of two things has to happen. Either first, he has to come up with a scientific explanation for it all. These are usually leaden and dull, and tend to reduce the whole thing to an exercise in mapping handwavy science fiction explanations onto handwavy fantasy explanations. There's nothing intrinsically exciting about a horse with a horn on it, even if it's a horn with extra brain in it that gives the horse telepathy. Fantasy is all about the poetic and the symbolic, not the literal; things are not necessarily meant to have an explanation.

The alternative is that the Doctor surrenders his narrative primacy, acknowledging that yes, this is magic and cannot be understood, even by a Time Lord. This is in some ways the far worse alternative, because the thing that's special about the Doctor when he travels to another genre is the way he warps it about himself. The Doctor is fun to read about in a Western because he doesn't carry a gun and he wanders off to talk to the Native Americans and comes back as an honorary member of the tribe. The Doctor is fun to read about in a crime caper because he wanders into the head office of the local mob boss and says, "Hello, can I have a spot of tea with you while we chat about the murders you've committed?" The Doctor is, in a good story, the center of the narrative. That doesn't happen when he goes into a fantasy story. Instead, he has to follow the rules of that world. The Doctor is never fun when he's following the rules.

I won't say that it's impossible to do a Doctor Who story that involves fantasy elements--'Battlefield' pulls it off by suggesting that a future Doctor will be the one to square the circle and deal with magic on its home ground--but for the reasons above, I think it's far riskier to try and there's less payoff. My advice to future Doctor Who authors would probably be, "If you want to write a high fantasy novel...go have fun. There's plenty of publishers out there who take 'em."

Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Random Trailer Thoughts

I went out and saw 'The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey' over the weekend, and while I don't know that I'm ready to write about the movie, I'm interested in writing about the trailers a bit. No trailers for 'Man of Steel' or 'Star Trek...INTO DARKNESS!' (I've decided that this is the correct way to write the title), but we did get some interesting ones. Random thoughts follow:

1) Were the makers of 'The Lone Ranger' going for an emotional sensation of "sad and empty inside, except maybe with a quiet ache that tells you you've given up on joy"? Because if it was, they freaking nailed it. Every moment of that trailer looked joyless, mechanical and dull, compensating for a lack of emotion with sound and fury. And it's also a classic case of Hollywood whitewashing, with Johnny Depp getting dressed up like a Native American so that they have a "name" actor in a major role. This screams "terrible" to me.

2) 'Warm Bodies' looks cute, but I'm not sold on the idea of "super-evil zombies" for the regular zombies to show how nice they are by opposing. Still, it does look like an entertaining parody of the "paranormal romance" sub-genre that has become a bit too prevalent since 'Twilight' hit the stands. (This is not to say, by way of clarification, that I am against them in principle. There are some great writers out there doing paranormal romance stories, like local author Mary Janice Davidson for example. Just saying that they're cranking them out a bit.)

3) 'Epic'...at this point, I kind of feel like the non-Pixar studios (Dreamworks, Fox Animation) have solidified their position as the bland, generically acceptable time-waster alternative to Pixar. Want a kid's movie that's CGI and kind of funny and exciting, but don't want to worry that actual quality might challenge your kid's mind in some way? Spend two hours in front of a film by the creators of 'Ice Age'! It'll be like they never watched anything at all! Basically, I'm saying that there is a very narrow band of quality to a picture like this, and this probably is going to be neither bad nor good. It will be there.

4) I was really surprised to find out that 'After Earth' wasn't a very clever reworking of the narrative-free, but extremely cool book 'After Man' into an actual science fiction movie. I thought I actually recognized some of the animal designs from the book. Now the only real reason I had to see this is gone. (Clever stunt casting, though, making Will and Jaden into an actual father/son team.)

5) Is it just me, or does 'Oblivion' feel vaguely like every other movie you've ever seen? Just something about every scene seems to conspire to give you a vague sense of deja vu. Underground rebels, Tom Cruise as One Man Determined to Find Out the TRUTH, creepy laser drones...it just all seems kind of "been there, done that".

6) I like the idea of 'Pacific Rim', but it does kind of feel like it'd be hard to stretch out the concept beyond what we've already seen in the trailers. I mean, they show us that big monsters climb out of a hole in reality that opened up under the Pacific Ocean, they show that they rampage a bunch, and they show that human beings build giant robots to fight them. Isn't that pretty much the movie, right there? I mean, is there a plot twist that you could wring out of that, or is the only bit we didn't see in the trailer going to be, "And the humans win. The End!"? (I felt kind of the same way about 'Real Steel', by the way.)

7) Wow, we got a lot of trailers. In addition to all those, we also got 'Beautiful Creatures', which felt like your bog-standard "Hey, that 'Twilight' thing is doing pretty well. Let's find something kind of similar to that, then adapt it and make a few million!" I don't think I'd enjoy this. Then again, I don't think I'm the target audience.

See any trailers you liked last weekend? Talk about them in the comments!

Friday, December 14, 2012

Roger Goodell and the New Football

Football commissioner Roger Goodell has been talked about a lot lately by football pundits. He's taking a lot of flack at the moment; his announcement that the NFL is talking about replacing the kickoff is being viewed with approximately the same amount of enthusiasm as New Coke, the recent changes to enforcement of illegal hits are being viewed as an attempt to neuter the game, and of course, everyone who follows football knows that his suspensions for the New Orleans players who deliberately attempted to injure their opponents have been vacated by his predecessors. (For those of you who don't follow football, um, yeah. I talk about it sometimes. Sorry if it's not your thing.)

But here's the thing--there's a common element to all of these stories (along with a couple of other ones floating around the periphery, like expanding the playoffs to 14 teams and possibly creating new teams in LA and London.) Reading them and hearing them gives me a lot of sympathy for Goodell. Because what he's trying to do is change the culture of football, and that doesn't come easily.

Historically, football players have prided themselves not so much on speed or strength as on "toughness"--the ability to endure pain and continue to play at a professional level. Men like Ronnie Lott were admired for their determination to get back on the field no matter what the consequences (Lott literally had part of his finger amputated rather than undergo surgery that would keep him off the field.) Dishing out punishment to your opponent, and showing that you can take more punishment than your opponent, was considered to be how you proved yourself as a real man on the field.

But the players that played in that era are old men now. More specifically, they are crippled old men--a lifetime of playing in that environment has left them with brain damage, arthritis, atrophied muscles and misfiring nerves...it is becoming clear to everyone that the problem with sacrificing your body for victories on the field is that the victories on the field last only a moment, while the pain and weakness lasts a lifetime. If for no other reason than simple legal considerations, the NFL has to take an active role in trying to reduce the number of on-field injuries. At the very least, they open themselves up to negligence lawsuits if they don't.

But since pretty much everyone announcing, commentating, and generally professionally opining on football is a former player, they all come out of the old culture where enduring pain was a point of pride. Paul Tagliabue's vacation of the Saints' suspension boiled down to "Yes, these players did deliberately accept money to try to injure players on the opposing team in an effort to knock them out of the game, but I don't think that's worth suspending anyone over." Troy Aikman and Kurt Warner admitted on 'Mike and Mike' that they didn't see what the big deal was...they knew that defenses were trying to injure them the entire time they played, and they just saw it as part of the game. Let's stress this--a man who retired because he suffered double-digit concussions is saying that he doesn't think it's a big deal to try to knock someone out of a game. The cognitive dissonance is absolutely stunning.

It's the same with all of these changes, really. The change to the kickoff sounds like it would actually be great for the game above and beyond simply reducing injuries (the scoring team gets the ball back with 4th and 15 from the 30, so they basically punt instead of kicking off. But since there's about a 10% higher chance of converting a 4th and 15 than recovering an onside kick, it might make the last few minutes of games that much more exciting.) But old-school players like Mike Ditka think it's a terrible idea, because they feel like the kickoff is where you separate the men from the boys in football. In the case of Ditka, it separates the men with hip replacements from the boys, but Ditka doesn't seem to make that connection.

Ultimately, whatever the players and pundits say, the changes will be made. Even if Goodell is scapegoated and driven out of the commissioner position as too heavy-handed, the next guy to come in will make them. There's too much money at stake if the players file a lawsuit for them not to make football a safer game. And ultimately, despite what the current crop of sports pundits say, that's a good thing. Perhaps it will be less of a "macho" pursuit, getting out on the gridiron...but it'll also mean that the players at the reunion might not be using two canes to get around.

Tuesday, December 11, 2012

Reviews: Ghosts of India and Shining Darkness

Re-reading the classic New Adventures (alongside my lovely wife, who blogs with me about them here) has had the unfortunate side effect of reminding me just how much of a shadow of their former selves the Doctor Who novels have become since the relaunch of the new TV series. Back when people like Paul Cornell and Gareth Roberts wrote for the books, instead of the TV show, we got vibrant and exciting new fiction that felt like it was more than just a line of tie-in books. Great new authors like Kate Orman and Lawrence Miles got their voices heard, the books were aimed for the first time at my generation, and they felt like the future of Doctor Who...because, looking back, they pretty much were. The New Series Adventures don't have that same verve, even if they do occasionally score big wins like Michael Moorcock's first Doctor Who novel.

'Ghosts of India', by Mark Morris, is a pretty good example of what we get now. It's not a bad novel, don't get me wrong. You won't mistake this one for 'The Pit', or even for 'Deep Blue' by the same author. But it's exactly the sort of thing you'd expect from a Doctor Who tie-in novel. The Doctor and Insert Companion Here (Donna) go to Insert Significant Time and Place Here (India in 1947, just as they were regaining their independence) and meet Insert Major Historical Figure Here (Ghandi, who's treated as a generic Wise Mentor figure for the most part with absolutely no effort to delve into the man's complex personal history) and fight Insert Alien Menace Here (the Jal Kalath, who manage to be basically an unmemorable collection of syllables that's EVIL!) to stop Insert Horrific Thing Here (evil radiation making people go insane and murderous, which is about as generic a Horrific Thing as you can get.) It's sort of a cross between a novel and a Doctor Who Mad Libs. Nothing to get upset about, nothing to get excited about, just something to while away a couple of hours reading and then put on the shelf.

But on the other hand, there are still embers of the old books flickering about if you have the patience to read through them all. Mark Michalowski, who was something of a latecomer to the old BBC line but who proved his writing chops pretty clearly, still has the enthusiasm to write something worth reading. 'Shining Darkness' mostly eschews continuity references to produce a funny, romping twist on the old "quest" story. It's still a book pitched considerably younger than, say, 'The Man In the Velvet Mask' (no companions getting STDs, you don't have to know who the Marquis de Sade was), but it's got some clever and witty sequences, the Doctor and Donna come off the page well, and there are enough red herrings floating about that the final plot twist actually caught me off-guard. It's definitely a nice reminder of how even though the new series has eclipsed the books almost completely, you can still find a few treasures in the dark.

Thursday, December 06, 2012

A Suggestion for the Next Star Trek Series

Obviously, the current regime over at Paramount has decided that the foreseeable future for the Star Trek franchise is in the form of new movies. And frankly, as long as the movies look as good as 'Star Trek Into Darkness', I will be interested no matter how silly the names get. (Future films will no doubt have names like 'Star Trek Up the Khyber', 'Star Trek Screaming', and 'Star Trek At Your Convenience'.) (Trust me, there are people laughing right now, even if you're not one of them.)

But eventually, I'm sure that the Star Trek of my teen/young adult years will develop its own nostalgia, and we'll see a return to the small screen, and a return to the Federation of the 24th century. When that happens, there's something I'd like to see addressed, and it comes out of the problem of Wesley Crusher.

Because there is a problem with Wesley Crusher, and it's got nothing to do with him being a science nerd or him being uncomfortably similar to the show's target audience (oh, come on, you knew most of the Wesley-hate was thinly-disguised self-loathing, even then.) The problem is that Wesley is a civilian, and even as the son of the Chief Medical Officer, there's really no good way for him to interact with the bridge crew without it seeming like authorial fiat. This, in turn, exacerbates the Mary Sue feeling the character has, as he's an ordinary civilian who's somehow always able to wander onto the bridge and take a seat at Comms whenever he wants to. Wesley really needs to be interacting with other civilians, and be given something to do as a normal teenager on board a starship.

Which, on thinking about it, opens up all sorts of possibilities. Because while it was mentioned from time to time in passing that the Enterprise had a civilian population, nothing was ever really done with that. What were they there for? After all, it's not generally like we slap a civilian population onto a battleship. The Enterprise was a vessel that saw combat; why did it have civilians? What purpose did they serve? Then there's the next big question: Who did they answer to? After all, if they answered to Picard, then they weren't really civilians. If the only authority on the ship was a military authority, then they're under military jurisdiction. The specific mention of them as "civilians", the careful distinction of their roles, implies a civilian authority. We're told that the Enterprise is the size of a city; is there a Mayor of the Enterprise?  Or, for that matter, a Burgomeister, a Prefect, a Sindaco, or a ChoCho? Does Picard meet personally with the Mayor, or is there a Civilian Liason Officer? Are there conflicts? (If nothing else, there's bound to be a conflict over the fact that there's a cityful of people on board and only one bar.)

To me, this feels like a whole area that never got explored, one which could prove potentially interesting indeed. If nothing else, it would give Wesley something to do until he became an Ensign.

Monday, December 03, 2012

It's Stockholm Syndrome, But It's a Better Rhyme Scheme

My friends have all heard this ad nauseum, but...every time I hear the song 'Stacy's Mom', or even every time it gets stuck in my head like the earworm it is, I get frustrated anew. Because "Mom" does not rhyme with "on". They have different consonant sounds. For that matter, "wrong" does not rhyme with "Mom" either. Every time I hear the song, it grates on my inner ear like biting down on tinfoil. As such, I have decided to correct the lyrics of the song. It may be a somewhat different story, but at least the rhymes work.


Stacy's mom has tied me to a bomb
Stacy's mom has tied me to a bomb
Stacy's mom has tied me to a bomb
Stacy's mom has tied me to a bomb

Stacy knows I came over after school? (after school)
Just to hang around by the pool (hang by the pool)
But her mom got back from her 'business trip'? (business trip)
She had plans to set a bomb off, give the cops the slip? (give 'em the slip)

I freaked a bit at first but then it kind of grew on me
Dying's kind of hot, baby can't you see

Stacy's mom has tied me to a bomb
But I don't mind, I feel a certain calm
Stacy, can't you see you're just not the girl for me
She's tied me to a bomb but I'm in love with Stacy's mom

Stacy's mom has tied me to a bomb
Stacy's mom has tied me to a bomb

Stacy, do you remember when I mowed your lawn? (mowed your lawn)
Your mom came out with just a towel on (towel on)
I could tell she liked me from the way she stared (the way she stared)
And the way she chloroformed me over there (drugged me over there)

And I know that you think she wants to murder me
But since your dad walked out, your mom could use a guy like me

Stacy's mom has tied me to a bomb
But I don't mind, I feel a certain calm
Stacy, can't you see you're just not the girl for me
She's tied me to a bomb but I'm in love with Stacy's mom

Stacy's mom has tied me to a bomb
But I don't mind, I feel a certain calm
Stacy, can't you see you're just not the girl for me
She's tied me to a bomb but I'm in love with Stacy's mom
(She tied me to a bomb)
I'm in love with (Stacy's mom oh oh)
(Stacys mom oh oh)
I'm in love with Stacy's mom

Thursday, November 29, 2012

Meet N Greet #8

In honor of the end of 'City of Heroes', I once again introduce you to another of my characters. This one was  the creation of a mad scientist with a love of the works of Roald Dahl. The creature had a perpetually shifting bodily structure, allowing it to rapidly grow razor-sharp spines from its body and slash (or fling them at) enemies with them. The beast's warping, semi-liquid flesh could recover from just about any injury within moments, making it a formidable foe.

But the scientist was surprised when the monster turned out to have a conscience. Somehow, its primitive brain understood the concept of right and wrong, and joined the side of the angels to bring justice to Paragon City. It could understand a few words, even if it only ever figured out how to morph its malleable flesh into a mouth long enough to speak one: "SCRAM!" (It never did figure out what it meant, but it was terribly proud of knowing how to say it.) This creature became a legendary hero, known only as...the Vermicious Knid!

(The best part of playing this character was when they installed the "Day Job" badges. The Vermicious Knid was a Shop Keeper, a Scientist, a Professor, an Architect, and a Fashion Designer...all without ever saying anything other than, "SCRAM!", apparently.)

Monday, November 26, 2012

End of an Era

This appears to be the last week ever for 'City of Heroes', which I think it's safe to say is my favorite video game of all time. I've been a member since about the first month (my friend let me play his account for a few weeks to try it out) and it is genuinely saddening to me that NCSoft seems determined to kill the game. (They said they "exhausted all options" when it came to keeping the game alive, but even the tiniest leaks of information belie that statement.)

This game has meant a lot to me. A lot of the good times with my friends over the last near-decade involved 'City of Heroes' LAN parties, and a lot of my characters have developed a life of their own in my imagination. (Suffice to say, a lot of the early genesis of 'Self-Taught Superheroes' has its roots in 'CoH'.) I think the game was an excellent piece of design work, very casual-play and casual-gamer friendly, and I think it was influential all out of proportion to its playerbase. You can see, scattered through my blog, some of my character ideas...I've backed those characters up using the Sentinel+ tool, but that doesn't mean I'll ever get to play them again. Paragon City might have been a virtual place, but that doesn't make it any less real to me.

I'm going to spend the last week of the game's existence playing; there's still at least one character I'd like to see hit 50 before they shut the servers down. After that, I'm going to keep my eyes and ears open for good news...because I believe that a game like this is too good to die forever.

Friday, November 23, 2012

True Confessions Hour

Last week, over at Mightgodking.com, I started off my post by saying, "I don't seek out fights with angry misogynists." I've been thinking about that for a few days, and it's finally time to admit that this is not 100% true. I certainly do get tired of the constant fights with angry misogynists, and I do wish that they would hop on board the Clue Train and get wise to the fact that losing the freedom to be a sexist jerk is not, in fact, a form of oppression no matter how many jargon terms you invent to disguise that...but I'll admit, there's a part of me that loves to watch these guys whine.

Take this one, for instance, from the comments on a John Scalzi post. Is it not a thing of beauty to watch this flailing, desperate, impotent panic disguised as pompous, pseudo-intellectual bloviating? This is a man who cannot understand exactly what it is he cannot understand. He knows people are telling him that he doesn't get to ignore a woman's accusations of rape, for example, but the underlying logic of why escapes him in much the same way that my cat doesn't understand why it doesn't get to go outside. The door is closed, it's figured out that much. But when I explain about cars and coyotes, it's just sound.

And the jargon...isn't it wonderful? He describes his social circle as "the Manosphere". I presume it has some meaning to him and to the other people he's talking to, but to me it just describes a house where you can hang out in your full-length black robes with the pictures of hands on them, watch your seven or eight wives wrestle in their underwear, and occasionally torture a goat-man. (Actually, this might well be what it actually is, given the context provided in the rest of his comment...) These guys have invented all these terms for the things that the voices in their heads rant and cackle at them about, because they think it makes them sound smarter and more respectable, but all it does is code their language so thoroughly that they can't even talk to a normal human being. "You're a Delta-male White Knight!" they say, not realizing it takes fifteen minutes of research to even figure out that's an insult.

So yes, in that sense, I have to admit...I do kind of seek out fights with angry misogynists. Because they're so stupid it's actually funny to read their responses. But I'll still be glad when they go away.

Monday, November 19, 2012

Fred Saberhagen's Rejected 'Sword of Power' Ideas

For the most part, even those fans who haven't read the series are familiar with Fred Saberhagen's 'Swords of Power' series. The legendary 80s fantasy books about the twelve swords forged by the gods, each with powers that make its wielder an unstoppable force, are known far and wide. But what's not known is that Saberhagen put a lot of thought into the choices for his twelve swords. He brainstormed literally hundreds of ideas for sword names, only to winnow it down to the final twelve. What follows the cut is, for the first time, the complete list of ideas that this legendary fantasy writer considered and rejected before settling on the final versions for his novels.

Thursday, November 15, 2012

Transformers 4: The Warning Label

In the runup to the depressingly inevitable release of 'Transformers 4', they've now released the new logo for the movie, and I gotta say...I think they nailed it this time.



It's ugly, it's lazy, it's slapdash, it's a mish-mash of jangly images that practically makes the eyes bleed, and it only makes the vaguest stabs at coherency. Honestly, the only way they could make it more perfect was if it could be loud, racist and sexist too!

...maybe they could somehow embed an MP3 into the graphics file that screams various offensive epithets? But I guess I should leave that kind of detail to the experts.

Monday, November 12, 2012

Five Movies That Were Better If You Never Saw the Trailer

It can be hard sometimes, marketing a film. You have to show people something that draws their interest and entices them into coming and seeing your movie...and at the same time, you have to keep all the important plot points a secret so that the filmmaker can unfold their vision in the way they want to. After all, time doesn't have to be linear in films; if the director wanted you to see that 5-second clip before you saw anything else in the movie, they'd have put it at the beginning.

Of course, just about every movie has a secret twist or two that they save for the end, and there's just about nobody in the trailer-making business crazy enough to give that away (and in fact, as with 'The Crying Game', there's sometimes a campaign that revolves around emphasizing the secret to get people to go see what the reveal actually is.) But there are some movies that are just so twisty and subversive that they're best viewed cold. Here are five...if you see any titles that you're not familiar with, go watch the movie and then come back to read, OK?

1. The Negotiator. This one is really more a case of a trailer that spills too many beans, honestly. The whole premise involves one big twist--a hostage negotiator is himself forced to take hostages when he's framed for crimes he did not commit. Understandably, the trailer gives that one away because it'd be hard to present the film as exciting without it. But then, unforgivably, it gives away the second big twist--the hostage negotiator negotiating with the hostage-taking hostage negotiator comes to believe that he's telling the truth and begins working with him to help him escape and track down the real criminals. Giving away both twists left viewers with no real reason to go see the movie, which may be why it underperformed at the box office.

2. From Dusk Till Dawn. This one is still a good movie even if you know everything coming in. Let's face it, you're seeing it to watch George Clooney deliver Tarantino tough-guy dialogue and kick vampire butt, and everything else is gravy. But I do know a few people who saw this movie without seeing the trailers, and let me tell you...their reaction when the hard-boiled crime caper movie suddenly morphed mid-way into a vampire flick was instructive. To say the least. If you can get someone to watch this sight unseen, it's worth it.

3. Contagion. Admittedly, you're probably going to guess a little bit of it from the title alone. And admittedly, too much of the movie takes place after Gwyneth Paltrow dies to be able to keep that a secret. But it's pretty clear that they cast a big name in that part solely so that it would surprise the heck out of you when she just drops dead fifteen minutes into the film, and it's a shame that the trailer took away that shocking moment.

4. The Sixth Sense. Sure, everyone knows about the big twist in this one, the secret you must not reveal: Bruce Willis is secretly afraid of water because it will burn his skin like acid and reveal him to be a fake monster created by the village elders so that they won't have to send people out into the world to get killed by the plants. (Who are secretly the last Airbenders, I think...) In all seriousness, the big twist isn't the one that involves Willis, it's the one that involves Osment. The first half of the movie is all about making you think that he's a troubled youth with a psychological problem; it's only at the mid-point that they reveal the truth: He sees dead people. All the time. This, by itself, is a twist worthy of most horror movies, and it's half of why Shyamalan continues to get film gigs long after his audiences have dried up.

5. Cabin in the Woods. Already covered this one a few weeks ago, but it's no less true now. Finding out that the Cabin is a killing-bottle created by a sinister crew of shadowy manipulators for the express purpose of sacrificing the main characters in a ritualistic mass murder is something that really needs to not be known prior to seeing the movie. It's way too much of the movie to avoid showing at all in the trailers, but wouldn't it be awesome if it weren't?

Sunday, November 11, 2012

Life at the Bachmann Household

Sorry there was no Thursday post--been feeling under the weather, haven't had much energy to do anything productive since Tuesday. I did, of course, follow the election results. Wonderful, wonderful news all over the country, but it is a shame about Michele Bachmann. This morning, my wife and I were speculating about the someday-eventually tell-all biography of her written by her kids. We speculated that she might be so crazy that she actually creates conspiracy theories to explain the things she did while in the grip of previous conspiracy theories and forgot.

"Oh no! The knives have moved! The UN's secret surveillance teams have broken into our house and rearranged our kitchen! I finally caught them this time, though. They'll rue the day they--"

"Actually, Mom, you put the knife holder next to the front door. In case we needed to fight off Obama's rainbow-jacketed troops when they came to take us to the re-education camps, remember?"

"Oh. Right."

Oh, well. There's always 2014.

Monday, November 05, 2012

Review: The Book of Deadly Animals

It's been a long time since I engaged in the pastime of just picking up a random non-fiction book solely because it sounded interesting, then absolutely devouring it over the next few days. It's somehow appropriate, then, that the book I chose to break my metaphorical famine for non-fiction was 'The Book of Deadly Animals', by Gordon Grice. Because when you talk about things that devour, this book has the full spectrum.

Make no mistake--at some point, this book will push your phobic buttons. It covers the entire animal kingdom, from cats and dogs (domestic cats? Not so bad. Domestic dogs? You will be surprised) to spiders, wasps and centipedes, to parasitic worms, to sharks and poisonous snakes. Somewhere in there, you will find your personal squick and you will read that section giving your profound thanks to Insert Deity Here that you do not live in Insert Location There.

And yet, it is fascinating. Every page of it is fascinating. The predation habits of hyenas, the reactions of tigers to provocation, the descriptions of the sheer and terrifying power of a Nile crocodile...all of it is amazing. And it's more than mere morbid curiosity--the book has a clear point, demonstrating that human beings are not the special and privileged stewards of the earth, occasionally murdered by sinister and aberrant monsters. We are a part of nature. Sometimes we are a threat to animals. Sometimes we are prey. And sometimes we are just in the wrong place at the wrong time when an animal is in a bad mood. Seeing things through that lens gives you an important perspective, and one worth having.

And also you get to read about whales going after whaling ships. Which is just awesome.

Thursday, November 01, 2012

Post-Halloween Round-Up

As always on Halloween, my time was spent handing out candy to adorable little kids, with a horror movie playing in the background. I always like to watch horror movies I haven't seen on Halloween; sometimes it's a chance to see a classic for the first time, sometimes it's a chance to catch up on something new that folks are talking about, and sometimes it's just a chance to chuckle at some ripe cheese.

This year, I had leftover candy and leftover movies. The kids came pretty steadily until about 8:30, but we'd purchased plenty of candy on the grounds that it would find a good home even if we didn't give it all away. We always hate having to turn children away empty-handed. And since Halloween fell on a weekday, I didn't really get a good start on my movies until about 8:30, and an early start to the day today meant that I couldn't really stay up late. So 'Juan of the Dead' and the remake of 'The Crazies' will need to wait until another day.

I did, however, finally get the chance to see the John Landis classic, 'An American Werewolf in London'. I'll be honest--it didn't feel like a movie so much as a movie stew. There were little bits of very interesting movies, all sort of floating around in a savory broth of sharp dialogue and black comedy, but none of it ever felt much like anything was done with it beyond tossing it in. The idea of a werewolf tormented by the ghosts of his victims was interesting, the village with a dark secret involving werewolves had a lot of potential, and David Naughton was great in the movie...

...but ultimately, all those elements were sort of subsumed into the standard "I got bit by a werewolf/I found out I am a werewolf/I died at the hands of the good people who wanted to help me but had no other choice and it's sad but at least I'm free of the curse" plot that makes up about 90% of all werewolf movies. Well-made, brilliantly directed, excellent dialogue and character beats, but I found myself wishing Landis had done more than his take on 'The Wolf Man'. Lucky for me, it's not the only thing I have to watch.

Feel free to share your Halloween in the comments!

Tuesday, October 30, 2012

Storytelling Engines: Showcase

(or "The Naked Engine")

This will actually be my 144th post on the subject of the "storytelling engine", and I've written all of these in the belief that there actually is an element of conscious design in creating an ongoing series, one that is different to that of creating a single story. Writers and editors have to create elements that can sustain a potentially indefinite number of stories, each one distinct and unique despite the ideas and themes that they share, and some things do that better than others. The job of creating a series is different than the job of creating a story, and editors of comics in particular need to keep that in mind even before the first issue is published.

Nowhere is this idea vindicated better than in 'Showcase', DC's Silver Age series that was essentially a try-out book for their new ongoing series ideas. Each potential comic got a three-issue run (or, on occasion, a three-story run within one issue), and editors decided based on the sales of those issues whether or not to green-light a new book. However, it's hard to imagine that sales numbers were the only factor, based on reading the various different comics that appeared in the first twenty or so issues of 'Showcase'. After all, the test-runs of different concepts served not just as a way of determining how well a book would sell, but also how easy it would be to write for. And some books have better storytelling engines than others.

The first issue, for example, was a comic about firefighters. The concept must have seemed commercial--little kids like fire engines, fighting fires is generally seen as a heroic activity with lots of danger and adventure, and you can create some pretty exciting tales out of it. However, the first issue contains three basic stories...fighting fires at a building, fighting fires at a circus, and fighting fires at...another building. Apart from the change in location, and the appropriate details about the firefighting techniques used in different situations, the concept was already starting to show its limits after one issue.

The Challengers of the Unknown, though, or the Flash, or Adam Strange all made repeated appearances in 'Showcase' even after it became obvious that they were popular and could sustain their own series. (Because no editor likes to take a concept that sells well and say, "OK, job done, let's hand off the great numbers this character is doing to someone else!" Not even when it's their job.) They've already been discussed in their various respective entries, but it's very much worth noting the way that each one has a protagonist or protagonists that are active and seek out adventures, each one has a supporting cast that has their own story hooks, and each one has a setting and a variety of antagonists that further assist writers in coming up with ideas. Not only are they popular, but any reasonably talented writer can look at Multi-Man, Iris West, or the planet of Rann and come up with a way that these elements can create a new dilemma in the life of Our Hero(es.)

Books like 'Showcase' come and go, depending on the fortunes of the industry. In the 80s, we didn't see many because the market was doing so well...a try-out book wasn't needed, because you could count on a large enough audience that would try out a new first issue that you could just put the book out there and see what happened. Nowadays, we don't see many for the exact opposite reason; the current market is appealing so strongly to nostalgia that they don't see much of a reason to put out a book featuring characters we haven't already seen in some form or other. (It says a lot that the closest thing we got, "DC Universe Presents", was sixteen issues of characters we'd already seen in the pre-Flashpoint DCU.) However, should the market improve slightly, the time might very well be right for another series like 'Showcase'. Because there are times when it's worth testing your engines before the rubber meets the road.

Thursday, October 25, 2012

Horror Movies Are Made To Be Snuck Into

Horror movies have changed a lot since I was a kid. Or at least, the way they're marketed and sold to their target audience has. When I was young, the perfect rating for a horror movie was 'R'; kids knew that any horror movie that had a 'PG' (or later, 'PG-13') had skimped out on the real scares. We all knew somewhere that didn't check IDs, or someone older who would buy us a ticket, and if that failed, we could always find some independent video store that would rent without looking too closely at who was renting. (I was ten years old when I watched 'Return of the Living Dead' for the first time. I rewatched it as a grown-up, and commented to a friend that I was surprised at how vividly I remembered the film. He looked at the screen, where a naked punk played by Linnea Quigley was being eaten alive by a horde of ghouls. I looked back at him and said, "Yeeeahh...we, um...we weren't very well supervised.") We were always able to get access to the 'R'-rated movies, and movie studios knew it. They amped up the scares as hard as they could, even releasing some movies unrated when the MPAA squawked. 'Evil Dead 2' and 'Dawn of the Dead', two of the most iconic horror movies ever, were unrated.

But all that changed because, in the immortal words of Helen Lovejoy, "Won't someone please think of the children?!" Independent movie theaters and video stores were driven out of business by the big chains, who proved to be more susceptible to pressure from parents' groups. Those groups forced theaters and video stores (notably Blockbuster, who began their upswing slowly but inexorably in the late 80s and early 90s) to start enforcing the 17-and-up part of the 'R' rating...which drove profitability for 'R' movies way down. The producers responded by slowly, but inexorably weakening their product to qualify for the teen-friendly 'PG-13'...but therein lies a little twist.

Because this is also the point at which first home laserdiscs, then DVDs really started to take off. The era, if you will, of the 'Director's Cut'. More specifically for horror movies, the 'Unrated Director's Cut'. Because you can make it hard on kids to go into a theater, or to rent a horror flick for the night...but once you're selling these things, then anyone can get them. Even when Wal-Mart started enforcing the ratings and refusing to sell unrated films to kids under 17, it was about as meaningful a restriction as putting a chain-link fence up to stop a river. The theatrical product became nothing more than a loss leader, a suggestion of the truly scary stuff that was to come on DVD.

And, to some extent, that's as it should be. Because when I was a thirteen-year-old, I was the perfect audience for a horror movie ostensibly aimed at seventeen-year-olds. That age between thirteen and seventeen is an age where you're starting to edge out into the deeper waters of adulthood, and you don't always get to choose where and when you start dealing with things that are intended for children. Your body is changing (sort of like in 'The Fly'), you're starting to think about sex and it's a little bit scary (like in 'Shivers'), and you're having to deal with a whole new world that you're not ready for.

Just about every really good horror movie out there is, in some allegorical way, about this mystical, alchemical transformation from childhood to adulthood...and on an emotional level, it makes sense that you should have to access it through a means forbidden to you by adults. Because adults forbid these things to children because they're only intended for grown-ups. They only let the "safe" things be seen by children, and part of growing up is learning that sometimes the unsafe things fall into your lap whether you want them to or not. The forbidden knowledge is the knowledge you need, usually before adults are willing to accept you need it. If you don't have to sneak into the movie, it's not telling you about the things you really need to know.

Does this mean I'm going to let my daughter watch and/or read whatever she wants to? No. (Especially not now--she's not even seven yet.) But I'm aware that part of the ritual of growing up is me telling her, "You don't want to watch that movie. It's too scary for kids..." And the other part of the ritual is that she'll watch it when I'm not around. Because as sad as it makes me, she's going to stop being a kid before I'm ready for her to stop being a kid.

Tuesday, October 23, 2012

My Found Footage Sequel

'The Blair Witch Project' really is, in some ways, the mother of all "found footage" films. I remember when they announced a sequel, the ill-fated and poorly-received 'Book of Shadows', thinking that they were making a mistake by simply returning to the woods and doing more spooky stuff. I wanted to see them think well outside the box--actually outside the "found footage" box entirely. I wanted to see a movie about the people who found the "found footage", and actually do more with the "true story" psyche-out that the original played so well (for all that it did a lot of other things so badly.) My film idea started like this:

We open with the ending of the last movie. The two remaining characters are racing to the house, into it and through it. There are screams, the camera is shaking wildly. The whole thing is designed to evoke that creepy memory...and then suddenly the action pauses. The whole screen just stops dead, in a crystal-clear freeze-frame. A hand reaches in to point to one of the characters. "There. Do you see that?"

We pull out, to see a police station. Three homicide detectives are watching the footage on a DVD player in a conference room. "Look at the clothing." She rewinds the footage, and points to the same character a minute earlier. "Look at the shape of the head." She hits 'play'. "Now watch again." The footage runs forward a bit. "See the jump cut? That's where they inserted the footage of the actors." She lets the film play again as she talks to her fellow officers. "Sanchez and Myrick murdered those three kids. They hired actors to play them, and released the snuff film to all of America to watch. We're dealing with the sickest psychos we've ever tracked, and they are covering those tracks even now. If we want to catch them, we're going to have to act fast."

The movie itself would be a taut police procedural, with the directors of the last film appearing as characters in this one. The plot would revolve around an attempt to prove that they're actually serial killers who are taunting the police by "remixing" the footage of their crimes with fake footage so that they can produce actors on cue who will admit to shooting those scenes as part of a film. Possibly there'd be some sort of supernatural twist at the end, a "real" Blair Witch who's making them kill, but I think it'd be better if you just took the "it was all real" element to its logical conclusion. Assuming Sanchez and Myrick had a good sense of humor about it all, I think it could be fun.

Thursday, October 18, 2012

My Thoughts On 'Cabin In the Woods'

Spoilers abound, so for those of you who don't want to know, well...this'd be a good place to stop reading.

This would also be a good place to point out that the ad campaign for the movie was actually really bad about that. Not just in the sense of, "Gee, the absolute best ad for this movie would be a big black screen and a voice saying, 'We'd love to tell you more about 'Cabin in the Woods', but if we told you, we'd have to kill you.' Then a rapid flash cut of screaming people and zombies and a shot of the titular cabin, all going by almost too fast for the eye to follow, and then back to the black screen and the voiceover saying, 'Kind of like that.'"

But even by the standards of this movie, which delivers its biggest, most high-concept twist right at the beginning so that you can't possibly show anything from the film without spoiling it, the trailer offers huge spoilers. Marty, the stoner character, is "killed" halfway through the movie, but the trailer had several sequences of him in the secret base with Dana, and we hadn't seen those bits when he died. So the big reveal that he survived was deflated. Likewise, scenes that hinted at the true explanation behind it all were shown in the trailer, which was kind of a mistake.

But it's hard for me to complain too much about the trailer giving away all the spoilers when the movie is essentially a spoiler-factory. The more I think back over this film, the more effective I think it would have been if it had never shown us anything that the characters didn't already know. The scenes inside the facility are funny, don't get me wrong. They're a wonderful set of inside jokes for those of us who've grown up on a lifetime of horror movies. But to me, it feels like they traded $100 million in drama for a cool ten grand in humor. All of the reveals to the characters--the mysterious whispering voices, the wire in the lamp, the force-field that kills Curt, the hidden elevator in the grave, and finally the revelation of the endless rooms of monsters--every single one would have been more powerful and more gripping if we hadn't already known about it for an hour. (The most egregious one is the hawk flying into the force field. That scene is such a small pay-off, and it absolutely wrecks the big money shot of Curt doing the same thing later on.)

This isn't to say that the scenes in the lab aren't worth keeping. Ten grand in comedy is still a lot of money, and some of the film's best gags (the big board, the betting pool, "Am I on speakerphone?") involve the office workers. Honestly, I'd really like to see a version of this on DVD that has a few extra scenes shot or reshot to provide coverage for the gaps, and that lets you watch it with or without the office scenes, because I think that's what would make this movie the strongest. For it to really work its best, you need to see this fragile, scared group of human beings getting killed off one by one, and then finding out along with them that the whole thing is staged with the dedication and elaboration of a ritual...and then go back and watch it from the point of view of those who staged that ritual, and find out that to them, the whole thing is as banal and repetitive as a typical day in the workplace. You can get that in your imagination, of course, but it lacks the visceral impact I think you'd get if you weren't being shown what's going on behind the scenes.

(And, I have to say, even in the movie as shot, we could do with a bit less behind-the-scenes, or a bit more variation to it. There were too many scenes of Wendy reminding everyone how important it was not to screw up, and Truman standing around looking scowling and disapproving in what had to be the movie's most thankless role. "OK, Brian, your job is to stand there and frown at people, occasionally interjecting a line about how serious this all is!" "And in the climax, I--" "Die horribly without any lines, yeah. Ready?" These made the office scenes seem a lot more like filler than they actually were.)

But as so many people have pointed out, the action climax at the end is truly spectacular, and Sigourney Weaver steals her surprise cameo because she's Sigourney Weaver and she is awesome. That said, I'd be lying if I didn't have a huge gripe here, too. The whole point of the movie, plot-wise at least, is that the reason people in horror movies behave stupidly and unrealistically and follow movie cliches and always do the dumbest thing possible and always fail to get any breaks... (and how did we not get a scene of the motor home not starting on the first try? The ultimate horror movie cliche, the car not starting when you need it to even though it's in perfect working condition, and we didn't even get one "rrr-rr-rrrr"?) ...isn't because of fate or chance or character flaws, it's because someone is actively stage-managing things behind the scenes to make sure the outcome is pre-ordained. Nobody really would be dumb enough to split up like that. Nobody really would go out for a walk in the woods in the middle of the night. Nobody really would read the Latin out loud.

So why, oh for cryingoutloud why do the bad guys actually have a Big Red Button whose only basic function is "Kill everyone in the base"? Real people do not do this. Real technicians generally don't install a button whose only conceivable function is to cause the death of the user and everyone in the same building as them, even in buildings that don't expect to get unfriendly visitors and even if you have to flip a little switch before pressing it. The Big Red Button is nothing but a lazy action movie cliche, without logical explanations, in a movie whose whole function is to suggest that there is a logical explanation for all those cliches. The only way this makes sense is if the sequel is a bunch of Ancient-Ones-cultists standing around their secret monitors, commenting on all the ways they're manipulating the guys who manipulate the other guys. (Which, okay, would actually be pretty awesome. But I don't think it was planned like that.)

Probably this makes me sound a lot grumpier than I am about the movie. I did like it, and it was a fun experience. But I think that a lot more could be done with this idea. I feel like Whedon and Goddard didn't really swing for the fences, that they were so happy with a movie that got their big high-concept horror movie idea out there that they didn't really work at taking it as far as they could go. I can understand that to some extent; it is a great high-concept idea, and they do some pretty audacious stuff with it (again, complaints about the Big Red Button aside, the climax to the film is about as good as the ending to a movie could possibly be. And the very end was ballsy in a way you don't see very often, even in horror movies.) But I hold these two to incredibly high standards, and I think they could have made this movie even better. Still good, but could have been better.

These are my thoughts on 'Cabin In the Woods'.

Monday, October 15, 2012

Storytelling Engines: Kull

(or "Self-Plagarism Is The Best Kind Of Plagarism")

For those of you unfamiliar with Kull, King of Atlantis, he's a character created by Robert E. Howard during the 1930s "pulp" era. He's a savage tribesman who wound up as a slave, then graduated to a gladiator, then got free and became a thief and mercenary. Finally, he worked his way into the palace guard and from there wound up becoming king due to the plots and intrigues of the decadent court, although his disdain for scheming and ultimately noble, if rough-edged ways resulted in a new era of prosperity. He fought against evil sorcerers and would-be conquerors with equal ferocity, and his dark hair and bronze, well-muscled arms marked him out against the pale, skinny Atlanteans. Basically, he's about the most obvious Conan rip-off you could possibly come up with...except, of course, that the same people created both, and Kull came first.

At that point, the question becomes, "Why did Howard create Conan?" After all, he already had a barbarian hero with a storytelling engine that allowed for a wide scope of fantasy stories, from sneaky capers involving fleet-footed thieves to sword-and-sorcery epics to tales of palace intrigue and treachery. They clearly couldn't have been that different; 'The Phoenix and the Sword', Conan's first story, is word-for-word in some places the same tale as the unpublished final Kull story, 'By This Axe, I Rule'. (Have I mentioned that subtlety was never Howard's strong point?) Thulsa Doom, who was used and re-used by generations of post-Howard writers as a Conan villain, is in fact out of the Kull stories. There really is only the slimmest of difference between the two men, and only slightly more in their storytelling engines. Atlantis is a vanished age to the Hyboreans, but does that really matter to a modern reader?

Ultimately, it seems like the decision came about as a result of commercial factors. The difference between Kull and Conan is a difference of emphasis more than anything else, with Conan's stories involving slightly more swordplay and battle and slightly less melancholic contemplation and dark magic (Kull's no philosopher, but he is more introspective than Conan...) But Kull never really caught the fancy of the editors of 'Weird Tales'. Howard seems to have decided that while he was retooling the series, he also needed to rebrand it to keep editors from rejecting the stories out of hand. 'Kull' had become damaged goods, and so Howard went ahead with a new name as well as a cosmetically-different setting when he changed the tone of his series.

In the end, it's hard to argue with the success of the move. It might well be that a a retooled Kull could have caught the public imagination, and certainly post-Howard storytellers have shown that a disjointed or convoluted timeline is no obstacle to the success of a storytelling engine ("missing adventures" and "definitive chronologies" being something of a cottage industry for Conan.) But clearly, the new character of Conan caught hold of the public imagination in a way that has kept the character going for decades and will probably keep him going for centuries. And as a side benefit, while Kull has never developed Conan's popularity, he has his own devoted following that spins off the occasional new series or movie for that character. They seem happy to follow the original Conan imitator...an imitation so old, in fact, that it predates the character it's imitating.

Thursday, October 11, 2012

Review: Moon Over Soho

Figures. I mention, in my review of 'Midnight Riot', that I went straight from that book to the next...then I misplace the bloody thing for a few months. Way of the world, I suppose.

But I did find it, and I did finish it, and I have to tell you that it's also magnificent. It's the second in Ben Aaronovitch's series of police procedurals set in a London where magic is (dimly) understood and (barely) tolerated by the Met, and in which a young policeman named Peter Grant realizes that the same qualities that have hindered him so far in his fledgling career are actually assets in his role as supernatural detective and wizard's apprentice. This one focuses on two interlocking plots, one involving the wizarding world and the gradually-dawning realization that magic isn't quite as dead as Peter's mentor once assumed, and the other involving the deaths of several up-and-coming jazz musicians in a manner that involves black magic. The plots work as stories in their own right, which is nice, but they also help to establish tantalizing hints of a world and a backstory that can serve as a backdrop to countless other stories. Aaronovitch is building a series with legs, which is always nice.

If I had a complaint, it would be that the ending does leave some untidy loose ends in a way that 'Midnight Riot' didn't...without spoiling things too much, we get hints of a lurking storm on the horizon involving sinister and unethical wizards (beautifully, the mixed-race lead character strongly objects to "black magic" and prefers "ethically challenged magical practicioners".) This means some of the threads aren't wrapped up quite as tightly as they were in the first book. That said, this is a lot more forgivable now that the third book is out and I'm reading it.

But it's once again filled with awesome prose (my favorite bit has to be when Peter and Nightingale are discussing the relative power of magic vs. modern weapons, and Peter finds out that Nightingale's "tiger hunting" with fireballs refers not to the animal but the German tank) and crisp plotting and fun characters and yes, I know, I say this about Ben Aaronovitch all the time. But trust me, this one is great.

Monday, October 08, 2012

Should We Celebrate a Saints Win?

Does anyone else have a little problem with the reporting on the New Orleans Saints win? I mean, the basic thrust of the narrative is that the team struggled during their four-game losing streak, but they pulled together and they overcame adversity and they finally got that win they'd been working so hard to achieve. Go teamwork! Yay for overcoming adversity! Hurrah for working hard!

...but I will admit, I'd like at least one person over at ESPN to point out that the "adversity" they overcame was entirely self-inflicted, that it was a punishment for cheating their way to a Superbowl win (and not just any kind of cheating, but the dirtiest cheating imaginable in any sport, deliberately injuring your opponent to prevent them from being able to compete against you) and that frankly, the fact that it was hard for them to win games means that the punishment is working exactly as intended. If anything, the way they reacted to winning tells me it wasn't enough of a punishment--if they're seeing it as a triumph that the NFL's disciplinary actions weren't enough to stop them from winning games, then they're clearly not engaging in the kind of introspection that should come to you after finding out that your teammates were out there trying very hard to inflict permanent injury on people because a trophy was more important to them than a living human being's health.

If I was Drew Brees, I don't know that I'd want my coach to be there for my big day. I'd be profoundly ambivalent about putting on a Saints uniform after the way it was tarnished by the actions of Gregg Williams and the Saints defense. I don't know that I'd go so far as to apologize for winning, but I wouldn't be comfortable portraying it as some sort of great triumph of the human spirit, either. The Saints were 0-4 because they deserved to be 0-4, not just through the quality of their play but due to the quality of their character as an organization, and I'm a little surprised that this is being so quickly forgotten in the rush to celebrate their achievements.

Thursday, October 04, 2012

My Thoughts On the Debate

Or at least, the debate until I switched it off because frankly, Mitt Romney makes every sane human being in America want to punch him every time he opens his mouth. Seriously, I'd worry about him getting us into wars not because he's hired a bunch of belligerent neocon Bush rejects as his foreign policy advisors, but because Mother Teresa would haul off and slap that man silly if she was stuck in an elevator with him for five minutes. (And yes, I'm aware Mother Teresa is dead. This does not change my opinion.)

Basically, I think that the news media is saying that Romney won the debate because they have to say Romney won the debate. The alternative is, "Gee, Mitt really seemed like a transparent liar and a jackass, and failed to defend any of his policies coherently while throwing out the same tired attacks that have failed to stick against Obama this entire campaign. Let's face it, he's toast. Wanna spend the next five weeks talking about this fall's hot movies?" Everyone in the news media, left or right, has a vested interest in selling the narrative that this is a tense, exciting race and you should remain riveted to (INSERT CHANNEL HERE) for up-to-the-minute news and analysis. If Romney's dead in the water, it's not exciting.

That said, the overall narrative of the pundits is correct. Obama didn't really blow up on Mitt. Why? Because it's not what he does. Barack Obama is not a fiery tongue-lasher of a politician who "lets the other guy have it". I know that's what a lot of liberals wanted. Because I'm a liberal, and like many other liberals, I'd really like to see someone ask Mitt how he can stand up there lying, day in and day out, shifting positions with the wind, saying whatever he thinks people want to hear while secretly holding almost half the nation in utter contempt, and not at any point feel shame in it all. But Obama doesn't do that. Obama is all about remaining calm, letting the other guy lose his cool, and then demolishing him with the facts.

And that's what he did. The narrative today, in the papers and on the news, is that Romney might have seemed tough and pressed the attack, but that he lied openly and blatantly and frequently. (He was clocked at one provable falsehood every 1:40.) That's what people are going to remember, not anything specific. Well, maybe the bit about Mitt Romney wanting to kill Big Bird, but other than that, they're just going to remember that Mitt Romney lied. That Mitt Romney can't help but lie. And that when he wasn't lying, he was saying things like, "I don't have time to get into the specifics. Just trust me." Which would work better if he didn't, you know, lie every two minutes. LITERALLY.

The narrative is that Mitt Romney won the debate, because it's the only narrative that fits the media's desire for a close race. But I can't imagine that people watched that debate and came out of it thinking better of Romney. And I suspect that in a few days, the polls will bear me out on that.

Monday, October 01, 2012

The Two Big Mistakes 'Revolution' Made

(Caveat and Disclaimer: I haven't really watched the series. Everything I've seen and heard about it has made it look like it was pretty aggressively mismanaged, and frankly I'm three to five seasons behind on the shows I actually like. (One of the few upsides of the impending closure of 'City of Heroes' is that I will finally catch up on leisure activities that don't involve Paragon City, RI, or the islands just three miles off the coast thereof in international waters.) Frankly, if a series looks lousy and sounds lousy and everyone says it's lousy, I'm not about to go watch it just so that I can verify it's lousy. So if you want to complain that I hate a show I haven't even seen yet, you're absolutely right. By the same token, I'm pretty sure that stove is cool. Go put your hand on it to be sure, though.)

So what are the two mistakes that 'Revolution' made? Well, everyone's agreed on what seems to be the big one, which actually isn't the big one relative to the truly huge mistake they made but is, on an empirical level, a pretty big mistake. They didn't define how the "no technology works" rule works. Not the rationale for it--let's face it, most science fiction relies on a fairy-chess style, "Well, what if someone could invent a faster-than-light drive?" or "What if you made a drug that stopped the aging process?" type of question. The actual physics of "What if electricity stopped powering electrical devices?" is never going to make sense.

But they needed to create an internally consistent set of rules for it. As it is, everyone's running around with crossbows except for the people who have black-powder guns and things have reverted to a medieval level of technology despite the fact that the 19th century worked pretty well electricity-free and and and...there needed to be a, "This is what the effect is and what it does, and that rules out A, B, and C but not D, E, and F." Because human beings are tremendously freaking inventive rules lawyers, and one of the first things we do when we find out something doesn't do what we want it to is we start engineering ways around it. Fifteen years of "no electricity" would lead to some pretty ingenious solutions, but we don't see those. Everyone's just given up and started using swords and bows instead of steam and clockwork.

And that's the second, much bigger sin. They jumped ahead fifteen years. The most important event to happen to the human race in a century at minimum, and they said, "Nah, let's just skip past that so everything can look all overgrown and people can run around with swords in the ruins, looking for the Lost Secret that will bring back The World That Was." Which is the plot of every goddamn post-apocalypse story out there ever. The loss of electricity has been reduced from "a fascinating change in human society" to "this story's MacGuffin to explain why humanity is reduced to a pre-industrial dystopia where heroes fight evil tyrants while looking for the lost secret that will restore the old order." This is the freaking plot of 'Warrior of the Lost World', 'Robot Holocaust', and 'Teenage Caveman'. It should not be the plot of your big-budget prime-time TV series.

The story should start the night the power went out...and stay there. It should follow characters who are trying to restore communications between cities in the absence of telegraphs and telephones, characters who are trying to keep food safe to store without refridgerators. It should follow the government's attempts to keep order without any way of broadcasting to the nation, and people who are re-learning how to light with gas and heat with steam. It should be about the tension of not knowing who will succeed, those who are trying to rebuild the world or those who are taking advantage of its collapse. It should be something we've never seen before, not 'The Postman' with the serial numbers filed off.

Ultimately, I think this explains the tepid response to the series better than the absurdity of its premise alone. It's bad enough that it has an absurd premise, but making a show with a premise that absurd only to utterly ignore it in favor of the pseudo-Hunger Games aesthetic you're more interested in writing is criminally annoying.

Thursday, September 27, 2012

Side Project Announcement!

I wanted to let everyone know that in addition to this blog and my posts at MightyGodKing, I will also be posting irregularly to a blog I'm co-writing with my wonderful wife. This will be a sequential tour of my personal favorite era of Doctor Who, the novels published during the so-called "Wilderness Years" between the end of the old series and the beginning of the new. (One of the surprises that may come up is that the end of the old series and the beginning of the new doesn't come quite when you'd think it would...)

The blog is available here, and I invite you all to wander by when you have a moment. It'll encourage us to keep going with what is, ultimately, a Herculean labor...albeit a labor of love. Whether you loved the New Adventures, or whether you just kind of heard that there was a series of books out there and want to know more, stop on by!

Monday, September 24, 2012

Storytelling Engines: True Story, Swear To God

(or "And Then You Threw A Squid At My Window")

When it comes to finding ideas for an ongoing series, sooner or later just about everyone comes up with the same idea: Why not just talk about myself? After all, the reasoning goes, I can never run out of stories as long as I live if I just write a sort of semi-fictionalized diary about my life and the lives of the people around me. Day-to-day living will provide endless inspiration, neatly circumventing the difficulties that writers who make stuff up for a living have to deal with. It sounds almost too good to be true...but by definition, it is true!

And for certain values of "true", it is. When you're writing an essentially autobiographical series, like Tom Beland's "True Story, Swear to God" (or Jennie Breeden's "The Devil's Panties" or Harvey Pekar's "American Splendour", to name a couple of other examples) you do have a constant source of inspiration in your day-to-day life. You really can't get writer's block, because autobiographical writing shares as much with journalism as it does with fiction. (Although it should be noted that there is always an element of fictionalization, no matter how honest you're being with yourself. You're selecting which incidents to report, which details to recall, and even the best memory is anything but perfect. Short of wearing a helmet-cam everywhere you go, you can't possibly get it perfectly real.)

That said, there are plenty of pitfalls specific to the autobiographical form...ones that in some way explain why most writers find it easier to make stuff up. First, you're constantly sharing your life with the reading audience. That requires a lot of unflinching honesty about yourself, because while we all like to think that we're charming, funny, honest, upstanding, decent paragons of virtue that are also dead sexy to boot, we sometimes aren't. Sometimes we do things that we really wish we hadn't, and the temptation to erase those less-than-flattering details can be enormous. For that matter, sometimes being absolutely honest about ourselves shows people something they'd just as soon not read about. Not everyone, I suspect, wanted to keep reading TSSTG after reading about Tom, fresh off a promise to a skittish Lily that he wouldn't hold his decision to move against her, complaining for a full issue about all the hardships he was going through because of his decision to move just for her.

And even if you do feel like you can be that honest about yourself, you have to ask whether you can be that honest about everyone around you. Your real-life friends and loved ones might not take so easily to their private conversations being reduced to grist for the fictional mill, and you have to take into account their reaction when you're writing. Balancing the committment to your audience with the committment to your family is not easy; the last thing you want is to have to write "Issue Three: In Which My Wife and I Fight About the Way I Wrote the Fight in Issue One."

Assuming you do have the skill to write yourself honestly and sympathetically, and assuming you have the skill to do the same for your family (or, alternatively, the skill to convince them that it's okay to write them as jerks) you run into the next big obstacle. Is your life interesting? Certainly, we all assume that our lives are exciting, terrifying, hilarious, and filled with larger-than-life passion. It feels that way to us. But the life of a cartoonist is filled with hours of sitting in front of a desk drawing. Once the whirlwind romance of meeting a woman and moving to Puerto Rico to be with her is over, how much of your story is going to be "And then we made dinner! And then we snuggled up and watched a movie! And then we went to bed!"? It's something you have to weigh when you start in on an auto-biographical comic.

Everyone's got a story to tell about themselves, they say. And for certain values of "true", that's absolutely true. But when you really look at how hard it is to describe your own life, in terms that are honest and engaging...you begin to understand why some writers are tempted to just make stuff up.

Thursday, September 20, 2012

Self-Taught Superheroes, Part Eighteen

I know I've mentioned this before, but comic books did not actually provide a very good guide to how my life was going to be when I got super-powers. Especially when it came to meeting other superheroes. In the comics, it's so common it's got an entry on TV Tropes all to itself; when two heroes meet for the first time, the first thing they do is assume the other one is a villain and start pounding.

In real life, it totally doesn't work that way. First, none of us are stupid. We did kind of notice a whole bunch of unconscious guards, and an even larger number of freed prisoners who didn't look especially menaced. Even in the heat of battle, it doesn't take a rocket scientist to figure out that the weird-looking guy in the junkshop armor and the woman whose hands were shimmering with unearthly light might have been responsible for that.

Second, none of us are stupid. When you run into a room and see someone who's obviously got superpowers, and you don't know what they are, the last thing you want to do is just start punching. What if their super-power is they have acid sweat, or that they can make you feel all the pain inflicted on them, or their bodies are actually portals into the Dimension of Angry Telepathic Frogs? You look pretty stupid, is what. (And ouchy. Stupid I can handle, but ouchy less so.) Superheroes fight like cats do, lots of sizing each other up and trying to look like someone you shouldn't mess with and deep down, in the back of your mind where you hope it doesn't show, calculating your odds of getting your butt kicked and wondering whether you should just run away.

So that was pretty much how we met Shining Dragon Fist and Neutrino Man. Not that either one of them was called that, then.

"I'm Captain Light," Josh said. "You might have heard of me." It was almost funny, watching him meet other superheroes. He was totally different from the way he talked to me. He lowered his voice a little, stood up straighter...he didn't actually add "citizen" to the end of all his sentences, but you could imagine him doing it with a straight face. (Well, with as straight a face as you already had. When I said 'almost funny', I really meant 'I was trying so hard not to bust out into giggles that my face got flushed.' Which is actually really weird looking on someone with light green skin. But I digress.) He finished up with, "We're here to rescue you."

Shu bowed low. "I am Shu Mai, the Shining Fist of the Celestial Dragon of the North Wind. We are most deeply gracious for your assistance, and I offer my own humble skills in return."

"I'm um, Kevin." Kevin waved. (In case it wasn't obvious, he wasn't Neutrino Man then.) "Am I supposed to have a cool name? I mean, I could probably think of one if you need one, but I really don't want to start thinking of this as a career choice or anything. I'm just trying to help out."

John Q. Public smiled. "Helping out is like shingles, my man. You get it once, it gets into your system and you're stuck with it for life." He looked over at Lord Raptor, who was just beginning to get those shifty eyes that suggested he was wondering if we were distracted enough not to notice him sneaking away. "Too bad it works both ways."

And of course, that left it to me to be the practical one. "Um, hate to break up the introductions, but there's still a lot of bad guys. How many prisoners are there, and do we have a way to get them out of here?"

"No," said Lord Raptor. "You don't." His eyes were doing a mile-a-minute shifty, now, but his voice was calm and confident. "My men are disorganized at the moment, but that won't last forever. If you leave this base, I can guarantee you the automatic defenses will cut your prisoners down before they've gone fifty feet. Even if you disable them, you couldn't possibly stop all of my Raptor transports from killing them from the air. You're outnumbered, outgunned, and frankly outclassed. Your best bet is to surrender now."

"Spoken like a man with a lot to lose," John replied, charging up his stolen rifle. "Do we need to go over the whole question of your courage?"

"Yes," Lord Raptor snarled back. "We do. Because I guarantee you, my men will settle the score. Seventy-two people, Mister 'Public'. You will not get them out of here alive. You have my personal word that dead or alive, I will ensure that those fatalities are on your conscience. I'm not without mercy, of course. If you surrender, I will arrange for an exile in another dimension once we've solved the problem of powering the portals. Not the most comfortable of fates, but better than your current dilemma."

John glared back. "You think that we're just going to hop into one of your portals and leave the Earth to--"

"Oh!" Kevin cried out. "Oh, oh, I think-- Yes, if we just-- Oh, this is so clever..." He suddenly became aware of everyone staring at him. "Sorry. I just figured out how to get everyone out of here. Us included. The portal chamber, where I came from. I hacked into their computer system and sealed off the route between there and here, I didn't want to have to fight anybody I didn't have to. We can get back there without running into any guards. Then we just have to set the portal to a destination here on Earth, somewhere safe, and we can herd everyone through!"

"I thought the portals couldn't be sustained that long," Josh replied. "How are we going to get them going without a power source?"

"We've got a power source," Kevin said, his face alight with excitement. "You!"

TO BE CONTINUED...

Tuesday, September 18, 2012

You're A Mean One...

I suspect, at this point, everyone has heard about the video of Mitt Romney explaining how he thinks 47% of Americans are happy to depend on government for everything they need, how they think they're entitled to food and shelter, and how they would never vote for a Republican because they know Republicans are going to force them to stand on their own two feet. (No, I'm serious. He really said this. The whole video isn't released yet, so I'm still hoping for some juicy details on his Horcruxes.)

I listened to it, and I read about it, and I talked about it...and one person made a comment that suddenly made the entire campaign make a lot more sense. This commenter (on Andrew Sullivan's article on the whole mess) said that this was the first time they'd heard Romney sound comfortable and natural the entire campaign, that his awkwardness and stiffness disappeared when he started talking about how nearly half the country are parasites and leeches.

And that's when it hit me...that's why Mitt Romney seems awkward. That explains the forced grin, the leaden jokes, the quarter-hearted attempts at connecting with people on his campaign stops. It's not that he doesn't know how to deal with people, it's that he hates them. As soon as the behavior was placed into context, I recognized it instantly. We've all had to spend time around someone we really disliked, in a situation where we had to be polite with them for one reason or another. And when we do, we behave with that same stiff formality and over-rehearsed politeness. We even crack the half-hearted jokes. And deep down, what we're really thinking is, "God, I cannot wait to get away from these idiots/jackasses/insert epithet here."

I even realized that I recognized the smile. In 'The Grinch Who Stole Christmas', when the Grinch has to lie to Cindy-Lou Who (who was no more than two), he gave her a sickly, pathetic imitation of a natural grin before telling her that he was only stealing her Christmas tree to fix it. THAT GRIN IS MITT ROMNEY'S SMILE. Tell me I'm wrong, here.

Thankfully, Mittster Grinch doesn't seem likely to steal this Christmas. Although, if Obama wins and someone retaliates by breaking into my house on Christmas Eve and stealing all the roast beast, I know who I'm telling the cops to investigate.

Thursday, September 13, 2012

Silence Vs Weeping Angel

I keep seeing this one all over the Internet as an example of one of those "immovable object meeting irresistible force" paradoxes, so I thought I should address it here.

This really wouldn't last long.

If the Weeping Angel and the Silence looked at each other, the Weeping Angel would be frozen in place until the Silence looked away. At that point, the Weeping Angel can move, and it can still see the Silence, so it wouldn't forget the Silence. It'd just charge up to it and zap it back in time 80 years or so.

At that point, it would perhaps wonder why it felt so full, but it wouldn't be much of a contest.

Monday, September 10, 2012

When the Bully Squeals

Has anyone else noticed a major reversal of roles in this year's Presidential campaign?

I mean, normally by this point, we'd have seen at least one prominent Democrat going on 'Meet the Press' (or equivalent program) to decry the Republican's unethical "dirty tricks", and their talking-head counterpart from across the aisle delivering a message of "hey, everybody does it, it's just part of campaigning, and if you can't take the heat stay out of the kitchen." It's been a ritual from 1980 ("welfare queens") to 1988 ("Willie Horton") to 2000 ("invented the Internet"...or, if you're paying attention as early as the primaries, "illegitimate black baby") to 2004 ("Swift Boat") to 2008 ("secret Muslim"). But this time, it's the Republicans who are shocked--shocked, I say!--that the other side isn't conducting themselves with proper decorum. They're upset that their candidate's finances, previous political decisions, and career are campaign issues, when everyone knows that the focus should be on the other guy. Unsurprisingly, that's not been much of a persuasive argument, but why is it happening?

I think that for one thing, this is the first time in a long while that the Republicans have put forward a really bad candidate. This isn't to say that they haven't put forward poor Presidents before...one of the ugly things about democracy is that it takes different skillsets to run for office than to actually govern, and not everyone has both...but Reagan and the Bushes were savvy campaigners. They knew how to turn on the charisma in front of the cameras, they knew how to set and frame a narrative, and they knew how to deflect attention from their shortcomings. Romney...doesn't have that. His attempts to be charming come off as awkward and stilted, his efforts at framing a narrative (Obama's not the person to help America out of the hole created by the Mystery Person Between Clinton and Obama Who Was Probably A Democrat Or Something) sound like shrill appeals to racism and stupidity, and his response to questions like, "Why didn't you thank the troops at your convention?" was, "I wanted to talk about important things instead." This man is fundamentally inept at the basic business of getting into office.

And that's a real problem, because the other thing is that for all his "nice guy" image, Barack Obama is a very ruthless campaigner. He's excellent at framing a narrative (his treatment of McCain in 2008 is the kind of thing they should write textbooks about. Not only did his criticisms of McCain as "erratic" ring true, they also prevented McCain from making any kind of game-changing decision in the later stages of the campaign.) He's very personable. And yes, he's very good at getting the media trained on Romney's tax returns instead of the unemployment rate (assuming, of course, that you blame Obama for that and not the Mystery Person That Republicans Pretend Never Existed.)

And that, I think, is why you're seeing such howls of protest from the Republicans. Because after years of socking the other guy in the balls whenever the ref isn't looking, their candidate just walked into the ring and said, "By the way, I'd just like to announce that I'm not wearing a cup!" They're vulnerable and someone's actually taking advantage of it, and they're finding out pretty quick that they can dish it out, but they can't take it. And speaking as a lifelong Democrat...it's just part of campaigning, and if you can't take the heat stay out of the kitchen.

Thursday, September 06, 2012

How Big Is Too Big?

Hi all! Sorry I went incommunicado for a while, but I went pretty much directly from one of those "two-day intensive courses" (I'm now certified in USPAP, though! For those of you who know what that means...) to preparation for DragonCon to DragonCon to recovering from DragonCon. That left very little time for blogging, especially as I didn't bring my laptop on the trip.

For those of you who've never been to DragonCon, it's one of the larger conventions out there, although still a pretty distant second from San Diego Comic-Con. In 2011, it drew 46,000, and it's only getting bigger. When I went for the first time, back in 2001, it was probably closer to 20,000. Needless to say, that's a pretty big gang of people crowded into one convention. And yet, it'll probably be even larger next year. Is that a good thing?

On the one hand, it's still fun. Every year, a bigger draw means more people doing cosplay, more money coming in to attract more and bigger guests, more parties, and more friends coming. Capping membership cuts people out of the experience, no matter how the cap is handled (first come first serve, lottery, et cetera.) Who wants to be the one person in your group of friends who doesn't get to go? On the other hand, expansion can't be continued indefinitely. Already, the logistics of simple day-to-day operations during the con are becoming virtually insoluble problems; elevator capacity is at its limits 24/7 for the entirety of the con, walkways are congested to potentially dangerous levels (the fire marshall for Atlanta is practically on a first-name basis with the DragonCon organizers, except that they probably only address each other in four-letter words) and lines stretch around the block for practically every panel. Moving the con from one hotel to five does reduce congestion to some extent, but there still tends to be a "hub" mentality centered on the Hyatt (the original site of the con), and lateral expansion produces its own set of challenges, as you now have to walk a block and a half between panels that don't get spaced any further out in time.

Ultimately, a decision is going to have to be made to cap membership...and I suspect that the con organizers might be nearing that point. If it gets up into the 80,000 range or higher, just walking around the con is going to become a logistical nightmare, let alone things like getting food, sleeping, and oh yes that business of actually enjoying yourself at the convention. It's the kind of decision that I'm glad I don't have to make, because no matter how you slice it, someone's going to be unhappy. But I'd be surprised if they can go five years without having to put a limit on the number of badges they can sell at the rate they're expanding. SDCC has already had to cap its attendance, and while they don't have the ability to expand laterally from the convention center like DragonCon, that kind of expansion can't go on forever.

I'll be kind of sad, I think, when it gets to the point that I can't go every year because I missed my chance. But lucky for me, there's always another convention out there, I wonder if registration is open yet for CONvergence?

Monday, August 20, 2012

Voter ID Laws Made Simple

To understand the voter ID laws currently being proposed and implemented in many states, it's important to first understand the problem: Voter fraud. Voter fraud is, essentially, any effort to rig the election in order to make sure it doesn't represent an accurate total of votes from the citizens of the country in question, usually to the benefit of the fraudster.

Voter fraud takes two basic forms. The first is the casting of additional ballots for one candidate that are not legitimate, inflating the total number of votes for that candidate to give them an edge. (Known as "stuffing the ballot-box" in some circles, as the oldest and most primitive form of the practice involved literally shoving fake ballots into the boxes used for counting.)

The second is the denial or destruction of legitimate votes cast for one's opposition, in order to artificially deflate the vote totals against the fraudster and give them an edge. Sometimes this is done through literal destruction or shredding of ballots, but most often it takes the form of erecting a (literal or metaphorical) fraudulent barrier to voting. For example, a fraudster might circulate a flyer among their opponent's supporters stating an incorrect time or place for polling, hoping to fool those supporters out of casting legitimate votes.

Currently, Republicans are claiming that the best way to prevent voter fraud of the first type (illegal additional ballots cast) is to erect a (metaphorical) barrier to voting, in the form of stringent requirements for voter ID. These requirements are estimated to prevent somewhere in the neighborhood of three thousand times as many legitimate votes from being cast as they will stop illegitimate votes from going through. (Depending on which estimates are used. Some estimates suggest that the number may be as high as thirty thousand, not three thousand.) Coincidentally, these legitimate ballots generally belong to demographic groups that vote overwhelmingly Democratic.

So to make it very simple: Republicans are currently insisting it's better to commit voter fraud 30,000 times over in ways that benefit them than to stand by and allow 10 cases of voter fraud that may benefit their opponents...or them.

What's complicated is why anyone believes these crooks anymore.

Friday, August 17, 2012

Dalek Vs. Jedi

I was asked about this a day or two ago, in my (apparent) capacity as expert on both Daleks and Jedi...and while it may be egotistical of me, I thought that people might be interested in my response. In a battle between a Dalek and a Jedi, who would win?

The specific question I was asked to weigh in on at first was, "Would a Dalek be affected by a Jedi's telekinesis?" This seems like a pretty good place to start, as telekinesis is one of the best weapons in a Jedi's arsenal. (Which brings up the question of why they never use it in lightsaber duels, but I'm willing to handwave that away with the assumption that equally matched Jedi either keep each other too busy with lightsaber attacks for either to bring to mind the requisite TK focus, or equally matched Jedi can block each other's telekinesis through some sort of non-visually-discernable means. I bring this up to demonstrate that I can BS with the best of them.)

The answer, I felt, is that yes, Daleks are somewhat vulnerable to Jedi telekinesis. Not totally--I think a Dalek's armor/force field, generally demonstrated to be proof against most projectile weapons, is too tough to be crushed or warped by a Jedi's telekinetic powers. Likewise, Jedi abilities have never been shown to be able to work through solid objects, so the Kaled mutant inside is probably safe from having its life-support tubes yanked out or something similar. But could a Jedi knock a Dalek over, or spoil its aim by moving the gunstick around? Yes.

Which is probably a good thing, because Dalek weaponry is generally portrayed as being not a cutting beam or a projectile, but a packet of energy that "detonates" on contact, creating a disruptive (or possibly explosive) effect that scrambles internal organs and bursts cells. In other words, the Jedi tactic of batting aside blaster bolts would be about as effective as using a baseball bat to deflect a Molotov cocktail. The first Jedi to fight the first Dalek would probably be in for a nasty surprise.

The second one, though, would probably fare better. Telekinesis could keep the Dalek's gunstick pointing in the wrong direction (or spin the Dalek's middle section around to face away) long enough for the Jedi to get into lightsaber range...and lightsabers, traditionally speaking, have been shown to be able to cut through anything. (We could argue the strength of the force-field at the lightsaber's core versus the strength of the force-field surrounding the Dalek (as exhibited in 'Doomsday', natch) but it'd be a moot point. There's not enough evidence to judge, and writerly fiat would trump real-world physics here.) So basically, the Jedi could slice up the Dalek like a layer cake, albeit a large one with a very hideous exotic dancer inside.

So the answer is ultimately "yes". After a particularly hideous casualty to serve as a tactical lesson, a Jedi could take on a Dalek. The only problem is...there's very rarely just "a" Dalek. The Dalek philosophy tends to be, "Why send in a Dalek when you can send in two thousand Daleks to do the same job?" They're also not shy on using strategies that involve expendable Dalek troops. So after the first few Daleks bite it, the Daleks are either going to attack in numbers too massive for the Jedi to deal with, or they're just going to start self-destructing whenever a Jedi gets close to them and banking on the fact that they have more Daleks than the Jedi do Jedi. ("Jedi Do Jedi" is, of course, a fanfilm that Lucas came down pretty hard on with the cease and desists.)

If you want, you can factor in the Jedi Mind Trick, but let's face it--the Jedi Mind Trick never works in the big fights. In 'Feng Shui' terms, it succeeds against unnamed characters only. Random Dalek that you have to distract so that you can sneak past? Weak-willed. Angry Dalek exploding six inches away from you? Bad news for the Jedi.

Ultimately, I think that the Daleks would win through overwhelming force, which is pretty much did in the Jedi order last time, too. Be fun to watch, though.