Friday, December 31, 2010

Science Fiction & Fantasy Month - Dune

OK, so originally I intended to spread these out throughout the month, but you all know as well as I how busy it gets this time of year - maybe in 2011 Science Fiction & Fantasy History Month should be in August.

Anyway, without further ado:


As I tried to subtly indicate, the first book I decided to read for the month was Dune, by Frank Herbert. Although it's a pretty famous piece of literature, I started out knowing very little about it - basically, that it took place on a Desert Planet inhabited by giant worms.

LEGO Sandworm by RebelRock.

As I read the book, it was easy to see how it has influenced later fiction, from Star Wars and Tremors to Order of the Stick. In itself I found it a pretty enjoyable read, although "Far-future Pseudo-Medieval Space Opera" isn't exactly my most favorite genre. Actually, I found that what I would have called the "Science-Fiction" elements of the novel were overshadowed by the "Fantasy" aspects. The young noble, betrayed by a decadent aristocracy, escapes to a vast wilderness and wins the trust and leadership of the barbarian inhabitants by taming the local mega-fauna. If Paul Atreides hadn't arrived on Arrakis via spaceship it would basically be a weird hybrid of Tolkien, Howard, and Burroughs*.

Part of this, I think, is that over the years genre divisions have become much more rigid and plentiful. My "Far-future Pseudo-Medieval Space Opera" label was mostly in jest, but like most good satire (if you'll excuse my presumptuousness), there's an element of truth to it - just look at what TvTropes calls the PunkPunk phenomenon.

On the other hand, back when some of the earliest writers in the genre were working, both fantasy and science fiction fell under the more general term, "Speculative Fiction"**. Writers of what we now call "Horror" fit in there, too - some of H. P. Lovecraft's stories are all three, simultaneously. For that matter, though today they're considered the fathers of Science Fiction, H.G.Wells and Jules Verne's works can also bee seen as more like the techno-thriller writers of today, people like Clive Cussler and Michael Crichton.

Amusingly enough, my copy of Dune has a blurb on the back cover, wherein Arthur C. Clarke - yes, he of the famous law about magic and highly advanced technology - says of the novel that "I know nothing comparable to it except The Lord of the Rings". High praise indeed, and surprisingly, I kind of agree with him. I think the key similarity is that both Tolkien and Herbert developed highly intricate and well-thought-out backgrounds for their novels, which they then drew on to create a detailed, very realistic world in which to place their stories.

In the end, it was easy for me to see why Dune has the cultural place that it has. I certainly enjoyed reading it, though not enough to make me actively seek out the sequels (which I understand are kind of on the weird side). Someday I'll give it a second read-through, too, and see what kind of a difference that makes.

Probably not this year though.

*Actually, that's not a bad description of the book as it is.

**There are also some interesting variances in terminology to be found from back then - one of my favorites was scientifiction, which I suspect fell out of favor because of its unpronounceablity the first time through.

Friday, December 17, 2010

A Left-Handed Complimentary Review

So, this evening I was out with the family at the movies, seeing the latest installment of an ongoing fantasy franchise. No, not that one, we saw The Chronicles of Narnia: The Voyage of the Dawn Treader. As Voyage has always been one of my favorites among C. S. Lewis' Narnian tales, I was rather worried about how it would turn out. The various trailers leading up to the film's release didn't really help my growing sense of unease.

As it happens, my fears were completely justified. The various episodes that make up the tale of the Dawn Treader were for the film, variously abbreviated, combined, shuffled, and forced into an overarching metaplot with no basis in the original book whatsoever. As an adaptation, it was probably one of the worst I've ever seen, second only to Eragon.

And yet . . .

And yet, it's only in the adaptation of the story sequence that I can find any faults in the film. Visually, it's gorgeous, as most movies are these days, with special mention going to the Dawn Treader herself, as well as the Sea Serpent in all its giant-cobra-meets-Venus-flytrap glory. None of the characters were mishandled, as far as I could tell - Eustace's introduction and growth from whiny baggage to protagonist, in particular, was handled quite well, even including his particular friendship with Reepicheep. Aslan, much to my delight, even kept his lines from the end of the film spelling out that He's in our world, too.

There were a surprisingly small number of things that were actually missing from the film, given how violently everything else was rearranged, and most of them I can grudgingly concede as being lost for time constraints (although you'd think that when one meets Ramandu's Daughter on Ramandu's Island, Ramandu himself would at least show up). Even the aforementioned metaplot, as shoehorned in and unnecessary as it was, at least wasn't completely out of left field - maybe I grasp at straws trying to make it better, but the "seven swords on Aslan's table protecting Narnia" thing, to my mind, has a faint echo of the tree Diggory planted at Narnia's genesis in The Magician's Nephew.

Clearly, I have some rather conflicted feelings about the film. Maybe I'm too easily pleased by a decent spectacle, but I'm having a hard time building up any rage against the film-makers for the changes they made to the story. One thing I'm not conflicted about is that when they get around to doing my other favorite Chronicle, The Silver Chair - and there were certainly enough hooks in the ending to assure me that they're planning just that - I'll be ready and willing to set sail for Narnia again.

Friday, December 03, 2010

Making December Science Fiction And Fantasy History Month

"My dear friends, I am calling on you to help me start a movement. This December, let us take another step in further promoting one of our great loves---Science Fiction and Fantasy. Let us declare December to be SCIENCE FICTION AND FANTASY HISTORY MONTH.

What? Why does it have to be promoted? you ask. Aren't we inundated with it? Isn't there more genre in film and on television than ever? Isn't the fiction market dominated by genre?

Perhaps, but as lovers of the genre, we owe it to ourselves to promote quality work and to invite the young into our fold ,giving them a perspective and understanding of the traditions and tropes of our literary world. Consider the political and cultural influence of science fiction and fantasy, and how it has helped us vent our angst, voice our identity, and celebrate our optimism."

(from The House of Sternberg, via The Blog That Time Forgot )

Apparently inspired by the "Twilight invented werewolves" uproar* some time ago, author and blogger Stewart Sternberg has started a movement "to promote the work of the past which we feels best represents that which made science fiction and fantasy such an important part of our culture and identity." Well, being somewhat interested in those topics, how could I stay away?

Therefore, I spent a little time digging through my entirely-too-huge "books to read" pile, and came up with three titles I think qualify as culturally significant: Frank Herbert's Dune; Isaac Asimov's I, Robot, and Jules Verne's The Hunt for the Meteor. I have never read any of these before (though I did see the Will Smith movie of the same title, and am familiar with some of Verne's more popular works), and will be putting down my thoughts on each one as I get through them, hopefully by the end of the month. I'm open to suggestions as to which to do first, though I'm leaning towards one candidate in particular. Either way, it should be fun.

*Short version: a historically ignorant Twilight fan accused Universal Pictures of, firstly, plagiarizing from Stephanie Meyer by putting werewolves in The Wolf Man, and, secondly, disrespectfully making the werewolf the villain. The Internet's reaction was somewhat indignant.

Friday, November 19, 2010

Welcome to Today

There are few things more irritating in the pop-cultural world than a bad adaptation of a beloved work. One early warning sign is often that a period work has been moved to the modern day - this can signal that the producers either don't know much about the work beyond what can be gleaned from the title, or are attempting to make it more "relevant". Now, while a modernized work isn't always bad (V for Vendetta was originally set in the 1990's, after all), it does generate controversy amongst fans of the original work (not everybody liked V for Vendetta, and amongst those that didn't the most common reason seems to be that it wasn't enough like the comic).

Given all this, it is understandable why I was skeptical about Sherlock, a recent BBC production that brings Sherlock Holmes to modern London. However, the responses from viewers across the pond were mostly positive, so a few weeks ago when the first of three episodes season aired on PBS, I made sure to check it out.

That first episode, "A Study In Pink", turned out to be an excellent retelling of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's first Sherlock Holes story, with just enough twists and reversals to make it both fresh and familiar to fans of the original. And not just in the actual mystery, either - from Sherlock's first complaint that it's "impossible to sustain a smoking habit in London these days" (not to mention his "three-patch" solution), it's clear that this Holmes is going to both keep everything that made the original unique, while not glossing over the things about the modern world that Holmes would have to adapt to.

One particularly interesting example of this from the first episode occurs when Sherlock, gleefully rushing out of 221B to the scene of another grisly crime, calls out to Dr. Watson that "The game . . . is on!" Of course, fans of the original Holmes would be expecting him to say, "The game's afoot!", but in a universe where there was no Sherlock Holmes until the late 20th century, there would be little reason for that phrase to stick in the public consciousness. Replacing it with "The game is on!" is not only a nice little reminder of the paradox involved in Holmes & Watson's temporal displacement, but another clever way to modernize the character.

The rest of the season, while not following any particular Holmes cases as closely as the pilot, do measure up to the high bar set by the pilot. The middle one, "The Blind Banker", is the least of the three, but I attribute this to it's being the only episode in the season that isn't a season premiere or finale. "The Great Game", that finale, introduces Sherlock's great nemesis, "Jim" Moriarty. The show plays up Moriarty's being Sherlock's opposite (a consulting criminal as opposed to a consulting detective) at the expense of what we knew of him from the stories (although, there's nothing to say that Colonel Moran wasn't at the other end of one of those laser sights . . . ), he was still very well done.

Of course, then the season ended with one of the worse cliffhangers since Captain Picard got assimilated by the Borg, but I understand that a second season will be coming . . . sometime next year. Sigh.

One last, tangential note. Apparently, Dr. Watson - or more accurately, his actor Martin Freeman - has been cast as Bilbo Baggins in Peter Jackson's long-awaited film version of "the Hobbit". Hmm - Bilbo, Watson, Arthur Dent - does anyone else notice a theme here?

Friday, November 05, 2010

Treason & Plot

"Remember, remember,
The Fifth of November,
The Gunpowder Treason and Plot,
I know of no reason
Why the Gunpowder Treason
Ever should be forgot."

As has been my tradition for the past few years, I celebrated Guy Fawkes Night this year by re-watching the movie V for Vendetta. It's been a favorite of mine since I first saw it in the theater, and its anti-tyranny message has made it very popular in some quarters.

It's interesting, though, that for many of the centuries since the original Guy Fawkes was captured in 1605, he wasn't considered the hero he, as well as his contemporary counterpart V, are today. In fact, the reason that the fifth of November was originally celebrated is because Fawkes failed to blow up "the King and Parliament", as the poem continues. It seems to be a relatively recent shift in celebrating not the failure of the attempt, but the man making it.

However, the perception of Fawkes and V as lone rebels against an unsympathetic government, no matter how romantic, deserves a bit of a closer look. Not only because it's not quite true (Fawkes was only one of about a dozen conspirators, and far from the mastermind at that), but because their actions could be, and have been (and not without some merit) labeled as terrorism. V for Vendetta, of course, makes this explicit - and yet we still sympathize with V over the Norsefire government, because the latter is such an overtly repressive, authoritarian regime.

Guy Fawkes' situation is a little more complex. He was a Catholic in a time and place where that religion was unacceptable, but slowly becoming less so. Too slowly, unfortunately, for the conspirators' tastes, hence the Plot. And yet, the plan to install a Catholic monarch over 17th-century England doesn't exactly mesh with the anti-authoritarian symbol he's become.

And what of the charges of terrorism? "One man's terrorist is another man's freedom fighter" is somewhat trite, but in some situations it may be true. Of course, neither V's actions (if he didn't intended to terrify people, does it count as terrorism?) nor Fawkes' (as I mentioned, religious toleration for Catholics was slowly growing in England right up until he got caught under Parliament with a barrel of gunpowder) truly fit those circumstances.

In the end, I think what really drives the current popularity of Guy Fawkes Night is, again, the idea of one man standing against injustice. In today's world it often seems like individuals can't make a difference, but as a wise man once said, "in every revolution, there's one man with a vision" - and the courageousness (if not the methods) of Guy and V will be there for the inspiration as long as we remember, remember the Fifth of November.

Sunday, September 19, 2010

Piratical Vexillology

Yarr, mateys, welcome aboard! Now settle back with yer mug o' grog, and we'll -

You know what, stop. International Talk Like a Pirate Day or no, I don't think I can keep that up for an entire post.

Moving on, then, to vexillology, or the study of flags. Everybody is, I presume, familiar with the standard "Skull-and-Crossbones", or "Jolly Roger" flag, of which the above is a pretty standard example. Individual pirate crews, of course, would modify the flag in various ways, each one being more or less unique (though some would simply use solid black) - the example shown above happens to have been used by the Irish-born Edward England.

As any book on Golden Age Piracy will tell you, many ships also had a solid red flag, which they would fly when their target offered resistance, signifying that "No Quarter" would be given - i.e., the attached crew would be killed. It is thought that the term "Jolly Roger" actually comes from a French phrase referring to this flag, joli rouge - "Pretty Red".

Recently, I was reading a book almost completely uninvolved with pirates - The Great Crown Jewel Robbery of 1303, by Paul Doherty, and came across the following passage, presented as an aside:

" . . . Norman pirates, displaying 'Beaussons, streamers of red sandal' sent a message, well known amongst mariners, that it would mean 'death without quarter and war to the knife' for the English sailors." (Doherty 15)

Doherty's source is given as F.M.Powicke's The Thirteenth Century, a volume which I am currently trying to track down. Some poking around on the Internet has revealed a citation of "a document of about 1300" which would appear to be the original source for the 'Beaussons, streamers of red sandal' quote, but no further information seems readily obtainable.

It is very, very tempting to jump to the obvious conclusion, that there is some kind of continuity between the Norman pirates and the later Caribbean ones. More study is obviously needed - 400 years is a very long time - but if it ends up being mostly true, there's an even more distant connection to be made: who were the Normans descended from again?

That's right - the Vikings, who were after all, the most famous medieval pirates of all. Though at this time tenuous, the possibility of continuity we have here just astounds me.

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Other Timetales

As someone who has a keen interest in both history and storytelling, I'm endlessly fascinated by the idea of the alternate history - theorizing about what the world might look like "if things had happened otherwise", as one famous compilation of such theories is named.

The most well-known and popular alternate histories, perhaps not unsurprisingly, have revolved around war and politics - "What if the Nazis won World War II?" being a particularly wide-spread example (in fact, I have two novel on my shelf right this moment of this very idea - Robert Harris' Fatherland and Leigh Deighton's SS-GB). There is, however, a particular joy to be found in the obscure, and so it is with my recent rediscovery of the idea of alternate philological history - that is to say, alternate histories of languages.

This particular idea I had come across a few years ago, and recently looked back up on a whim. It's an essay by author Poul Anderson entitled "Uncleftish Beholding" - or, "Atomic Theory", in a universe where English never got its huge influx of Romantic loan-words:

"For most of its being, mankind did not know what things are made of, but could only guess. With the growth of worldken, we began to learn, and today we have a beholding of stuff and work that watching bears out, both in the workstead and in daily life."

It's a fascinating piece of writing, particularly as the science involved gets more and more complex. It also begs an interesting question as to what kind of history could produce such a language - presumably the 1066 Norman Invasion of England is eliminated or defeated somehow. Perhaps Harold Hardrada's practically simultaneous invasion is somehow delayed, switching his position with that of William the Conquerer?

Anyway, whether alt-history inspired or not, there's evidently some interest in creating (or re-creating, as the case might be) the "Anglish" language (or, as it has been called when dealing with scientific topics, "Ander-Saxon"), replacing as many Latinate words as possible with Germanic ones. It's harder than it looks - the title of this post, for example, is meant to be the equivalent of "Alternate History", but to do anything more complex than that would probably require a great deal more knowledge of the history of English than I currently possess.* Anderson was certainly skilled at it - he managed to describe an atomic explosion with the vocabulary of a Viking:

" . . . when a neitherbit strikes the kernel of one, as for a showdeal ymirstuff-235, it bursts into lesser kernels and free neitherbits; the latter can then split more ymirstuff-235. When this happens, weight shifts into work. It is not much of the whole, but nevertheless it is awesome."

Indeed it is.

*Tolkien, I'm sure, would have had a field day with the idea, but Anderson's essay unfortunately wasn't written until after Tolkien's death, and I've never heard whether he knew of the project's precursors.

Friday, September 03, 2010

Some Proposed Additions to the Crossover Universe Timeline

As I mentioned a few months ago, Win Scott Eckert, the driving mind behind the Wold Newton Universe website, has published a portion of the site as the extremely fascinating Crossovers: A Secret Chronology of the World. Now that Volume Two of that work has been out for a while, I figure now would be a good time to comment on it. But, instead of just reiterating all the gushing I did over Volume One*, I decided to join in the game, and share some things that I think fit nicely into the timeline Mr. Eckert has given us.

  • 22 May 1855: A gang of thieves lead by the enigmatic Edward Pierce steal £12,000 worth of gold bullion from a railway train en route to the Crimea. It is noted that Sherlock Holmes was the only Londoner to ever memorize the entire railway schedule. From Michael Crichton's historical novel The Great Train Robbery. It's an odd thing to note about a fictional character in an unrelated novel, isn't it? Too bad Holmes was only about seventeen months old at the time of the crime.

  • 5 November 1955: Marty McFly, a time traveler from 1985, is upon his arrival mistaken for a space alien, due to his unfortunate resemblance to the cover illustration of Tales From Space, a comic book owned by one of the witnesses to his arrival, one Sherman Peabody. From the 1985 film Back to the Future. This particular issue of Tales From Space was apparently quite popular, as it was reprinted at least once during the next half-century.

  • 25 August 1967: A little girl is kidnapped from Innsmouth by (as it transpires) an inhabitant of the underwater city of Rapture. From There's Something In The Sea, the online background for the video game BioShock 2. Curiously, the reports from this event put Innsmouth in Rhode Island instead of Massachusetts, but as there's no actual town by that name in Rhode Island either, I'm chalking it up to either a subtle misdirection by the game developers or a transcription error by Mark Meltzer.

  • November 1986: The Notion Club, a literary society from Oxford, discusses the fictionalized account of Dr. Elwin Ransom's 1938 journey to Mars. From J.R.R. Tolkien's unfinished Notion Club Papers. In addition to mentioning Ransom's book Out of the Silent Planet, the Papers also discuss the Club member's psychic encounters with Numenor, strengthening the connection with the Cosmic Trilogy.

  • 1998: Visiting extraterrestrial Harry Solomon reads a familiar-looking Tales From Space comic. From the "3rd Rock From the Sun" episode "The House That Dick Built". This appearance establishes a link among that TV show, Back to the Future, and Heroes.

  • Autumn 2005: While fighting some vampires, Chicago-based wizard Harry Dresden tells Inari Raith to "make like Buffy". Later in the fight he tries to stab a vampire with his broken blasting rod, "Buffy-like". From Jim Butcher's "Dresden Files" novel Blood Rites. The connection to "Buffy the Vampire Slayer" is somewhat tenuous, since the reference is immediately followed by Harry thinking that staking vampires with broken sticks "works better on television". Still, Harry never does come out and say that Buffy Summers is only a TV character, and while later in the series Thomas does wear a Buffy T-Shirt . . . so has Buffy.

  • 7 - 10 October 2006: Several people read the Tales From Space comic first seen in 1955, including technopath Micah Sanders and an unnamed student at Union Wells High School. From the television show "Heroes", which provides the major link to the Back to the Future series.

  • Summer 2011: Harry Dresden muses that the universe contains "terrors that the Black-Goat-with-a-Thousand-Young wouldn't dare use for its kids' bedtime stories." From the Dresden Files novel Turn Coat. "The Black-Goat-with-a-Thousand-Young" is, of course, one of the titles of the Lovecraftian entity Shub-Niggurath. This reference also serves to strengthen the admittedly weak connection with "Buffy the Vampire Slayer", since that series has many Lovecraft overtones.

  • 2370: A graveyard on the Federation colony world of Caldos II contains a marker inscribed "McFly". From the Star Trek: The Next Generation episode "Sub Rosa". Given the manufactured Scottish culture present in the colony, it's not impossible that some descendants of the Irish-derived McFly family of Hill Valley might choose to settle there. And we already know that Marty's descendants take to the stars fairly early on . . .

* OK, I have a bit of gushing. I was seriously pleased that a couple of fairly obscure works I happen to be familiar with made it in - namely, the Gabriel Hunt book Hunt at the Well of Eternity (which obliquely mentions Indiana Jones) and the Burn Notice novel The Fix (which mentions Crockett and Tubbs of Miami Vice). What can I say, I enjoy this kind of thing.

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

My Take on the Cinematic Mystery of the Decade

By which, of course, I mean Inception. People still concerned about spoilers should look away now.

The "mystery" to which I refer, of course, is the spinning top in the final frames of the film, which ends before we see whether it falls - thus implying, supposedly, that Mal might be right, and the film's "reality" is really just another dream.

Personally, I don't buy it. There are a couple of reasons for this: First, the top wobbles. Leaving aside all the speculation and debate about how exactly the totems in general and the top in particular works, the fact remains that the top's purpose to the plot is as a indicator that the protagonists are in "reality", and to subvert that at the last second would completely undercut Cobb's character development arc. No, I think Cobb is in his prime reality, with his real children, and to suggest otherwise (for example that, as one theory I've seen goes, he spends the whole movie trapped in Limbo and the inception heist is "really" Mal and his team trying to rescue him) is to read things into the film that simply aren't there.

However, as a careful reading of that last paragraph will indicate (go ahead and check, I'll wait), that's not quite all that there is to this film. In fact, what I think is really going on here is that Nolan has made a film that is a quite clever metaphor for film-making itself. The key scene for this interpretation is when Cobb and Ariadne begin talking in the cafe - when Cobb points out that they must be in a dream because she can't remember how, exactly, she got to that point, we as the audience take a moment to realize the significance of this. Why? Because skipping transitory elements (like walking to a cafe) is exactly what most films do to keep the pacing from slowing to a crawl.

In a way, then, the reality of the film actually is another dream - but it's not Cobb's dream, it's Nolan's. The next level isn't some hypothetical plane with Cobb's real family, it's the actual real world, where Cobb is played by Leonardo DiCaprio, and little cinematic goof-ups like not having your characters wake up when their van rolls down a hill can be completely overcome by using that opportunity to stage a fight scene in a revolving hallway set.

Finally, one last thought to really break your brain: a great many people actually do believe that there is a level of reality beyond this one, and furthermore that death is the quickest way to jump from here to there (although, of course, purposefully causing your own or someone else's death to jump there faster will likely be frowned upon by the One in charge, but no analogy is perfect).

Sunday, July 25, 2010

News Tidbits From San Diego

As many of you are likely already aware, this week was the San Diego Comic Con, which, if not the biggest annual geek get-together in the world, is certainly in the running. For obvious reasons, many film studios and other companies take advantage of this concentration of nerdery to make announcements about upcoming projects, several of which I am quite excited about:

"Cowboys and Aliens" footage and image (via io9)

First off, apparently there was footage on display from next summer's sci-fi Western movie, an adaptation of Cowboys and Aliens. Now, a movie about an alien invasion of the Wild West would be amazing enough, but the two main stars? Daniel Craig and Harrison Ford. That pretty much sells it for me. Although the footage itself hasn't leaked onto the 'net yet, we do have this single image of Craig's alien-tech-wielding cowboy:

As if that wasn't enough, it also appears that the director of Cowboys and Aliens is none other than Iron Man franchise director Jon Favreau. In fact, it's rumored that Robert Downey Jr. was slated for Craig's role, before scheduling conflicts forced him to bow out. Which brings us to our next bit of news:

Joss Whedon confirmed as "Avengers" Director (also via io9)

It's been rumored for a while now, but this week was the official announcement. Now, I haven't seen all of the stuff Whedon's famous for, but for all the jokes about The Avengers getting canceled halfway through or suddenly having a petite female fighter character, he's got a pretty good reputation. And the stuff I have seen - mostly Firefly and Dr. Horrible - I've liked, so this is a tentative thumbs-up. Part of me does wonder, though, who we might see as a cameo (like Bruce Campbell does in the Sam Raimi Spiderman films) - Nathan Fillion? Summer Glau? I'll make a Bingo card. And, hey, speaking of Bruce Campbell . . .

Burn Notice Announces Sam Axe Prequel (via

And there was much rejoicing.

Is "Pirates of the Caribbean" the Next LEGO License? (via FBTB)

Given the sudden cancellation of the popular 2009 Pirates line, TLC's acquisition of a general Disney license, the upcoming Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides , and this Jack Sparrow minifig in TLC's Comic-Con display . . . I'd say yes. Whether it'll be a good thing remains to be seen, but despite some knee-jerk criticism (the flesh-tone battle is over, people), I'm cautiously optimistic. And this means Stranger Tides is coming next summer, too!

Darth Vader Robs New York Bank (via

OK, technically this has nothing to do with Comic-Con (save a tangential relationship involving the wearing of sci-fi character costumes), but this one was too amusing to pass up.

Sunday, July 18, 2010

The Tallest Dwarves in Indiana

I have a confession to make. When it comes to artistic pursuits, I'm much more of a planner than a doer, and even then I prefer the more mental arts, such as writing (the big exception being modeling with LEGO bricks, but that's for another time). Therefore, I have much respect and admiration for people who have more talent than me in the more physical artistic pursuits.

Such as, for example, David DelaGardelle & Andy Davis, two young blacksmiths in Indiana who craft absolutely beautiful swords and knives. Heavily inspired by history, mythology, and fantasy literature, (especially the works of J.R.R. Tolkien, as their company name - Mad Dwarf Workshop - implies) these guys perfectly mesh form and function, creating pieces that look like they fell through a time portal from a thousand years ago, or from Middle-Earth. I find this axe and this sword particularly noteworthy, but if you have any interest at all in blacksmithing, knifemaking, or swords in general, their website and Flickr photostream are well worth a look.

Thursday, June 24, 2010

On Second Thought . . .

Due to seeing The A-Team, again last night, I have to conclude that I might have been a little harsh in my criticism of Faceman's writers. There was, in fact, an instance (during the preparation for the Baghdad Job) when he used trickery and impersonation to gather equipment for the team. There were also indications, such as our brief glimpse of his time in prison, that he does this regularly off-screen. I do, however, stand by my assertion that there should have been more focus on this, and less on him learning to mimic Hannibal's planning style.

Also, I spotted what may be an undiscussed Easter Egg - during the brief shot of Hannibal's toe-tag, the other name (besides, "John H. Smith") reads, "Dr. Schultz". Is this another reference to original Murdock actor Dwight Schultz? If so, it's a bit odd, since Murdock has nothing to do with that particular scene.

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

This Post is Brought to You by the Letter "A"

Which stands for, amongst other things, "amazing", "awesome", "astonishing", and most importantly . . . "A-Team".

Yes, some of the words up there are a bit hyperbolic - I was rolling with the A-theme, give me a break. Still, I tried to be objective and critical when I saw The A-Team - a few things in the previews had gotten me a little worried, after all.

After about five minutes (if that), though, I had completely forgotten about that and was wildly enjoying myself. And with good reason - for a big "A-Team" fan like myself, this movie was nearly perfect. Yes, I had a few minor issues with it (mostly centering around Faceman's characterization - more on this later), but overall? It was just like watching a big-screen, modern-day episode of the original show. Specifically, a big-screen, modern-day version of "Dishpan Man"/"Trial by Fire"/"Firing Line", the fifth-season opening trilogy that explained a lot of the original Team's origins in flashback. Without going into too much spoilery detail, the new film (though not in flashback), covers a lot of the same ground (with double-crossings and CIA duplicity galore) , but with new, updated twists.

The new Team, themselves, don't disappoint, either. Liam Neeson and Quinton "Rampage" Jackson were instantly recognizable as Hannibal and B.A., and yet managed never to descend in parody (and, admittedly, the original show is an easy thing to make fun of). Sharlto Copley was an absolutely brilliant Murdock, straddling the line between acting crazy, and acting acting crazy, all to a kaleidoscope of voices and personae (including one very clever reference to his last major film in a three-second stint as a South African newscaster).

And as for Bradley Cooper's Faceman . . . well, as I alluded to above, my single major beef with this film revolves around this character. Now, don't get me wrong, Cooper did as well a job acting his part as the rest of the team, it's just that, well, Film Face was written wrong. It's not even that there were aspects of his character that were missing or added wholesale, it's just that they were there in the wrong proportion - the film writers really de-emphasized the conman/team scrounger aspect (he's not called Faceman just 'cause he's pretty!) in favor of the second-in-command/Hannibal's understudy role (which was hardly a main facet of his character in the show, though I admit it's there if you look for it). Film Face is also much more exuberant than TV Face was - it always seemed to me that TV Face had an element of the Only Sane Man* to him, as a counterpoint to the wackiness of Murdock and Hannibal and the comic irritability of B.A. Admittedly, I would have trouble not shrieking with glee if I was flying a tank, too, but would it have killed the writers to include at least one of Face's signature cons? (Although, just typing that has made me consider that the climax on the L.A. docks might be the writers trying to do just that. It's still not quite what I was thinking, but it helps.)

Hmm, I spent a lot of words on that point. I suppose being critical takes up a few more words than myriad variations of "It was awesome! I loved it!", but . . . it was awesome. And I did love it, or at least was totally satisfied with the effort. Just to put things in perspective, this is the first film this year I've really wanted to see again in theaters, and I don't feel that way very often. I would also go see a sequel in a heartbeat, and I can't imagine the producers weren't thinking the same thing, what with them ending with the theme voiceover and all.

To conclude, I have only two things left to say - first, for anybody who hasn't seen this yet (but plans to), stay through the credits. Secondly -

I love it when a film comes together!

*And there goes the next hour of your life into the black hole that is TvTropes - Bwa Ha Ha!

Saturday, June 12, 2010

Timeline Of Adventure

In the past, one of my favorite websites to browse has been the Wold Newton Universe expansion site on I had been greatly dismayed, over the past few years, that updates for the site seemed to come seldom or never.

I needn't have worried.

Win Scott Eckert, the mastermind behind the site, has apparently spent the time he wasn't updating the site with preparing it for publication. I just finished reading Crossovers: a Secret Chronology of the World (Vol. 1), and even though I only knew it was coming for a few weeks, I spent those weeks in acute anticipation.

And it was worth the wait. This book hits a large number of my interests - intricate world-building, crossovers, pulp action - all mushed together in a 460-page tome detailing a world built up from hundreds of other literary works. Many of these are world-renowned classics like the Sherlock Holmes stories, Dracula, Frankenstein, and Tarzan of the Apes, while others are more modern and/or obscure works - The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, to give an obvious example, features prominently.

Although there is much here that is familiar to fans of Eckert's online work, there is much that is new, as well. My only complaint is about several things that were not included that I missed, but these were made up for by numerous entries that surprised me by their inclusion. Furthermore, this book only covers up to the year 1939 - there's a "Vol. 2" coming at the end of this month which will continue the project through the present into the future and, if it's anything like the first part, will be pretty amazing.

Saturday, June 05, 2010

In Which Things are Burning Up in Miami

As of last night, the wait for one of my most keenly anticipated pop-cultural happenings was officially over. No, I didn't get into an advance screening of The A-Team - I'm talking about the season premiere of Burn Notice (if you haven't seen it yet, the following is likely to be spoilerous and/or confusing).

When we last saw Michael Westen, he had been arrested by the FBI following the rampage across Miami after Simon, his "psycho twin", and led hooded and in shackles through a prison camp to . . . a luxurious sitting room.

The following discussion with his new handler "Vaughn" (who's either Management's co-conspirator or his boss) is familiar to fans of the show, but meatier: it seems there's some kind of shadow war going on between Management & Vaughn's organization (hereafter IWI, for Intelligence Without Initials) and . . . someone else. Michael theorizes that they're arms dealers making WarForFunAndProfit (beware the TvTropes link), but all we really know is that they're willing and able to send a UAV armed with a minigun out into the middle of some jungle just to take out one of their underlings that Michael happens to be talking to. I didn't even know you could put a minigun on a UAV.

And so, Michael agrees to look into the matter for IWI. Skipping ahead to the very end of the episode, this involves sneaking into a US military research facility with someone else's ID badge, downloading some files, and strolling out again. This he does without a hitch - except that before he can drive away, he sees a security team hustling somebody out of the building. Late, he finds out from Sam that the man is the same one whose badge he borrowed. And now, just like Michael, he's burned. Oops.

This is especially poignant because, just a few scenes before, Michael had been confessing to Madeline that he was scared of turning out like Simon. To their credit, the writers didn't hit us over the head with the comparison, but I suspect that it's going to be a major source of character development for Michael this season. It'll make a nice change from all the "lone wolf crap" he's mostly gotten over recently.

As the season premiere, I suspect most of the attention was focused on setting up this season's main arc - the B-plot with the lawyer hounded by the biker gang didn't particularly stand out to me, although I thought Sam was underused and Michael's final plan somewhat problematic - so now the lawyer guy's just supposed to go back to his life with his finances tangled up with the biker gang's?

Even so, Burn Notice is still my favorite thing going on television right now, and overall this episode was a great kickoff for the season. Also, during the episode there were some ads for a new USA show, Covert Affairs, which also appears to feature spies and intelligence work. Is a crossover - a real one, not just in commercials - imminent, maybe for the next season of both shows? One can only hope.

Saturday, May 15, 2010

Why Iron Man III Is Going To Suck

Over the past several years, I've noted a recurring theme in Marvel superhero movies. The first one is good, the second one amazing, and the the third one, well . . . OK, "sucks" is too strong a word, but neither X3 nor Spiderman III were, in my opinion, nearly as good as their predecessors.

Naturally, since Iron Man 2 was an all-around excellent movie, if the pattern holds true the hypothetical third one is going to be a real letdown. Of course, the pattern isn't completely accurate - take the Fantastic Four films (please!) - and we may luck out in that Iron Man 3 is actually going to be the much hinted Avengers film (which will, of course, also be Captain America 2, Thor 2, and Hulk . . . 2.5?).

**Spoilers Follow!**

But all this hypothesizing doesn't detract from the fact that Iron Man 2 is, in fact, a very good movie. It flows very naturally from the first one (in fact begining pretty much simultaneously with the famous "I am Iron Man" ending), raising the stakes and introducing new characters in a very satisfying way. In fact, one of my biggest quibbles with the movie is that there were so many interesting new characters, there wasn't enough time to fully develop some of them. So, how 'bout that "Nick Fury & The Agents of S.H.E.I.L.D." film, Marvel?

In many ways, Iron Man 2 takes everything that was good about its predecessor and amplifies it. After all, Tony is slowly being poisoned by his arc reactor during the first half (and the movie does a great job of subtly portraying him giving up and preparing for, if not actively seeking, his death), while the second half pours on the pressure begun earlier concerning prospective competitors with equally advanced equiptment, but lacking Tony's charm and sense of decency.

That's not, of course, to say that the movie turns into an angst-fest. Although the serious bits are treated with all due weight (and, perhaps, some of the stuff between Tony and his father could have been toned down or trimmed . . . then again, it does set up the resolution of the Palladium Poisoning subplot), Iron Man 2 is not The Dark Knight. It's still fundamentally a fun movie, with Tony reveling in being Iron Man, whether by acting the lush at what he thinks is his last birthday party or, once cured, finally teaming up with his best friend to take care of that "Hammer-oid Problem" (and people say this movie doesn't have the humor of the first!). One really gets the point (helped along by the use of classic rock songs for the soundtrack, in contrast to the typical epic symphonies employed by every other cinematic superhero) that Tony enjoys being Iron Man, and so the audience enjoys watching him. Of course, Tony Stark is pretty fun to watch even when he's not in the armor - if I can compare him to his DC counterpart again, there's no Bruce Wayne/Batman separation here. "I am Iron Man - the suit and I are one". Indeed, Tony, and if anyone can break the "three strikes" pattern, it's you. For my part, I for one can't wait to see it happen.

Friday, April 23, 2010

Lincoln: Statesman & Slayer

Anyone vaguely aware of literary happenings last spring probably noted the arrival of Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, the Jane Austin/Zombie Horror mashup written by Seth Grahame-Smith. Although the book itself was pretty unspectacular - the tone swung wildly between the
"Pride and Prejudice" and the "Zombies", and was more than a bit jarring - there was apparently a waiting market for odd genre mashups. Over the next year, a great many other novels with a similar theme were released, some by the same company, some not (and a couple missing the point entirely - the violent clash between the mundane and the fantastic is what sells the idea, and War of the Worlds with zombies just doesn't have that same resonance).

Despite this flood of imitators,when the announcement of an official prequel (the deliciously named Dawn of the Dreadfuls) arrived, Seth Grahame-Smith was not involved. Eventually, it became clear why. (Possible spoiler warnings to follow)

Although not quite the first to replace "Historical Fiction" with "Historical Figure", Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter is a very respectable sophomore effort on Grahame-Smith's part. The overall tone is very much that of a respectable work of history, even while describing Honest Abe decapitating the undead with the same ease with which he split fence rails. This is partially achieved by presenting many of the action sequences as excerpts from Lincoln's journal. The interlacing of historic fact (for example, the heartbreaking number of Lincoln's loved ones who died throughout his life) with vampiric conspiracy is also skillfully done, in a technical sense at least.

Questions inevitably rise as to the appropriateness of using real people and events in this sort of work, and there are two specific cases here that must be dealt with. Lincoln's family life is mostly glossed over, though all due attention is given to Lincoln's grief when his loved ones die (the cause of these usually being implied to be murder by vampires instead of the various actual diseases that they fell prey to is remarkably non-exploitative).

The issue of slavery & the Civil War, however, is much more central to the storyline. Grahame-Smith casts Lincoln as being the key opponent of a group of vampires plotting to take over the United States, using the "peculiar institution" both as an easy source of nourishment and to pave the way for their eventual takeover. This has the effect of demonizing the main faces of the Confederacy, namely Jefferson Davis and John Wilkes Booth (the latter literally), as well as possibly misrepresenting Lincoln's own views on slavery. While it is still not quite clear how much of his writings on the subject came from personal belief and how much from political necessity, Grahame-Smith leans heavily towards the latter. At least he doesn't fall into the trap of equating the vampires with the south exclusively - one memorable scene has Lincoln accusing General McClellan of being one of the undead, and New York (of course*) seems to be a major center of activity for the creatures.

Still, I thought the whole subject was handled with as much tact as was possible, though this is of course a highly subjective analysis. On the whole, the book itself is quite worth reading - I even learned a couple things about the historical Lincoln I wasn't previously aware of (such as the Baltimore Plot) - though I really did not particularly care for the post-assassination epilogue, for a number of reasons (The mental image of Vampire Lincoln attending Martin Luther King Jr.'s "I have a dream" speech in his own memorial is not one of them, however). Probably the book is strongest in the beginning, when young Abe is the scourge of vampires all over the frontier.

Final Note: As seems to be the case with many popular books, there appears to be a film version of Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter in the works. And who currently seems to be in charge of the project? Tim Burton. Really, could it have been anyone else?

*Warning: TvTropes link. Do not use if you have less than two free hours. Void where prohibited.

Wednesday, April 21, 2010


Well, it's been a while, hasn't it? For those just joining us, long ago, I let this blog (then called The Media Connoisseur) languish. There are, I suspect, many reasons for this - such as lack of time, distractions, and the inability to spell "connoisseur" the same way twice.

But I'm back now, and hopefully with a new name and a new look will come new motivation. While I'll still most likely be found discussing books and films, I may from time to time branch out to essentially anything I find interesting. So, then, I suppose it's time to get started . . .