Friday, March 30, 2012

John Carter mini-review

Honestly, I'm not a good candidate for a movie reviewer. I don't watch enough movies or TV to know which actor is which, I really don't care about the awards and all the hooplah. I just like to watch the occasional good movie. Because I don't want to waste my time or hard-earned money, I don't get out to the movies nearly as often as my friends. I think they enjoy it when they mention a movie for which I haven't seen a preview, then tell me which actors are in it, only to have me stare at them with a blank look on my face. So when I went to see John Carter (of Mars - lest you confuse him with any other John Carter), I was skeptical. I had read the books as a kid and again as an adult, and was excited about the prospect of seeing John Carter on the big screen, but fearful that the sense of adventure and action that I had loved as a child-reader would be muffled by some hidden political message that the screenplay writers and studio would interject in order to make the move "more impactful". Knowing that CGI has come a long way, I had visions in my head of just how good a movie this could be. But I was under no illusions on just how bad this movie could also be. When I first learned of the movie and saw the trailer, I was excited by the prospects. It seemed to be headed in the right direction. My movie-going friends, even those who are self-proclaimed science fiction fans, asked: "Who is John Carter"? After crying inside, I gave them a brief rundown (which I shall not do here). So we, my family and I, went to the local big screen for my 16 year-old's birthday. I watched with guarded, very guarded, optimism. I waited for the blatant environmental theme or the pandering dictum of overcoming differences. Being a liberal, I'm fine with those themes in real life, but I don't go to the movies to enjoy real life. I go for an escape. So as I wound my way through Carter's adventures (notably different from the books in some fundamental ways), I was wary. I simply knew that, just around the corner, some "special" message was waiting for me, telling me how I should or should not do this or that. But the message never came. Sure, there were a couple sidelong glances as environmental issues, but these were not an anachronism. They were tastefully taken from Burrough's work itself, not magnified out of all proportion for a modern audience. And, frankly, John Carter kicked butt. I don't know that I've seen such an over-the-top swashbuckling scene as Carter leaping, alone, into an oncoming wave of martians, carving himself into a crater whose walls were the bodies of his bleeding foes. THAT is what I had come to see! Give me John Carter leaping to impossible heights in Mar's lesser gravity, give me mysterious shape-shifting aliens bent on their own hidden and foul purposes, give me the fighting man John Carter, as precocious and wild on Earth as on Mars, give me ADVENTURE! Kudos to the directors. I'm sure that armchair critics and academics alike will poo-poo the movie as a childish diversion. And you know what? They're right! So right! And I'm fine with that. Besides, I'd like to see them say it to John Carter's face . . .

Friday, March 23, 2012

A Dodo at Oxford

Dodo At OxfordDodo At Oxford by Philip Atkins
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Truth be told, when a friend buys a book for me, I'm more-often-than-not thankful, but shamefully put the book on a pile, probably never to be read again. In this case, however, some good friends of mine, who understand my . . . erm . . . quirky taste in books, picked this up while they were visiting Oxford. They also knew that Oxford is one of my favorite cities in the world, and I've seen a few cities in my time. As a US Air Force brat during the Reagan/Thatcher years, I lived in Bedford, UK, and traveled to Oxford a few times, in which I fell in love with that storied city. So I was delighted to read this book, which is, ostensibly, a "found" diary written by a student at Oxford in the 17th-Century. Said student inherits one of the last of the Dodos and undertakes a study of the bird. But the diary really isn't about the bird, it's about life in Oxford, early modern and modern. The book as an artifact is wonderful, with "found" objects like a collectors card from a pack of cigarettes, a photo of an injured cat, and a series of letters and other documents hinting at the story of a dog being purchased and transported across the country. The many side notes, some of them completely non-sequitor, add a whimsical air to the work, illuminating the story and the book itself, even down to the type of print used in its pages. It is a funny, somewhat surreal contemplation on the city itself, perhaps pointing to the Dodo as a type or symbol of the city itself. But your conclusion might be different - this book lends itself to many interpretations, none of them wrong.

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Thursday, March 15, 2012

Sadness in Comic Land

My all-time favorite comic book artist, Jean Giraud, aka "Moebius," has passed away. It's been a tough couple of years: My favorite singer from my childhood, Ronnie James Dio, passed away two years ago, and now I hear that my favorite guitarist, Tony Iommi, has lymphoma. Man, watching your teenage idols go down like that . . . well, it makes a guy feel a little sad. I'm not big on celebrity worship. In fact, I am baffled at how some people know every little thing about actors and celebrities. The whole paparazzi thing makes me ill. So I guess when I mourn a celebrity's passing, it's a big deal to me. Mostly because there's a chunk of my childhood I won't get back. I'll never see Dio in concert again, never anticipate a new release from Moebius, and, from the looks of it, probably not get to see Tony Iommi play live again (unless his situation drastically improves). Sorry to get all glum, but sometimes a guy's gotta vent. Dying sucks.

(addendum): And now MAR Barker, genius writer who invented the Tekumel universe, has also passed on. The world is bleeding creativity!

Tuesday, March 13, 2012

Italo and Vincenzo

Once in awhile, you get a sense of satisfaction at a job well-done. Not a pompous chest pounding, but just a little voice inside that says "Yeah, that's it!" Of course, reviewers come along soon enough and put you in your place (some rightfully so, some for their own chest-pounding satisfaction). So I'm rather pleased with my latest writing foray and curious to see what others think. I wrote the first of the adventures of Italo and Vincenzo in a flurry. "Cloaks of Vermin and Fish" took around two months from idea conception to finish, which is pretty darned quick for me, as it is a novella, and I am notoriously slow with longer works (real job and life tend to get in the way of my precious writing time).

In all honesty, I can't remember much more about the genesis of the story than a thought I had that, if I were to try to pull the perfect heist, I would need a twin. But then I though, what if both of us were just plain stupid? From there my mind jumped to Venice, a magic bottle embedded with blinking eyes (yes, I think of these things while out running), a wizard living in a tower, a feud between the Assassins' Guild and the Thieves' Guild, the Cthulhoid god Dagon, and an old, dead grandmother.

As always happens with good bouts of inspiration, I could hardly read my notes after I emerged from my fever-dream of an outline. Doing the character sketches was where things really started to come together, where an over-riding voice emerged. When I had completed the sketches for Italo and Vincenzo I knew I had hit on some special people. And not just "special" in terms of their abilities or intelligence. I've written two Italo and Vincenzo pieces now, "Cloaks of Vermin and Fish" and (soon to be published, I promise) "The Shadow of the Doppelganger".

I think this is the beginning of what might be a long working relationship. I'm intrigued by these two and, besides, it's pretty easy to get your way when you're surrounded by simpletons. Besides, Italo and Vincenzo have one thing on their side: dumb luck. And as has been said before, "It's better to be lucky than good."

Friday, March 9, 2012

Absolution Gap

Absolution GapAbsolution Gap by Alastair Reynolds
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

The final novel in the Revelation Space Trilogy concludes one of the great space operas of the modern era. Though not the best book of the trilogy (I reserve that spot for Revelation Space itself), Absolution Gap brings the vast, centuries-spanning epic to a satisfactory conclusion. My only dis-satisfaction with the novel (*spoiler alert*) involved the nascent leadership struggle between Scorpio and Vasko that never seemed to carry any consequential weight. This is a shame, given the compelling character of Scorpio, a seemingly minor character in the second book, Redemption Ark, who unwillingly becomes one of the main characters in the drama. The problem is not with Scorpio, but with Vasko, who, while we are led to believe is going to come into conflict with Scorpio, only really does so as just another member of the discontented opposition to Scorpio's rule. When Vasko should shine, he timidly fades into the background.

That one qualm aside, this trilogy is probably the best series of Science Fiction novels I've read since Gene Wolfe's Book of the New Sun and Book of the Long Sun, though comparisons between Wolfe's works and Reynold's trilogy would be an apple-to-oranges comparison; unfair to both authors.

Despite its one weakness, which is minor in the grand scheme of things, but could have made the book near-perfect, I give my highest regard to this work. This is one of those books that I, as a writer, had wished I had written. I'm sorry to see the end of the trilogy, but it will be with me, in my mind, for some time to come. Here's to hoping that a movie version is never made. This is too good to be spoiled by Hollywood!

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Friday, March 2, 2012

Writing Music

No, not writing scores and orchestrations, I'm talking about the music that I listen to while writing, the soundtracks, as it were for various writing tasks. I've been a music nut since I was very young. Mom was into musicals (I heard my share of South Pacific, The King and I, The Sound of Music, and many more obscure musicals), Dad was into surf guitar (The Ventures, Beach Boys, that sort of thing), and, as a child in the '70s, then a teenager in the '80s, I learned to love funk and heavy metal, with a smattering of punk and pop in-between. In college I learned to appreciate classical music and trance/techno, too. Sorry, I never was a country boy, never will be. And rap, well, there is some good rap out there, but it's really difficult to find, hidden in all the c(rap).

I rarely find myself writing without headphones in my ears. This will likely result in some bizarre long-term illness when I'm old, I'm sure. I can live with that. Writing, for me, is an all-body act. It's not just my fingers on the keyboard. I usually write with a pen, standing up, to begin with. My writing desk is actually an old RCA Victor turntable cabinet, the kind with the big cornucopia sticking out from the top (it had been removed when I acquired the cabinet). I only sit to type (like now) and sometimes I can't even sit down to type. I'm not particularly hyperactive, but, for some reason, I concentrate better standing. But I digress.

More than anything, the right writing music provides atmosphere, a niche of consciousness into which I can crawl to see things from a particular character's POV. For example, in my novel Heraclix & Pomp (Agent Kris is still shopping this one around Which has now been sold to Resurrection House press), the main characters are a flesh golem (Frankenstein-like creature, though it's much more complicated than that) and a pixie (again, it's complicated). For Heraclix, I often found myself listening to downtempo jazz, jazz created by ex-death metal bands and such. Examples include Bohren & Der Club of Gore and The Kilimanjaro Darkjazz Ensemble. When I needed to brood on Heraclix's thoughts, this was the music that put me in the right frame of mind to do so. And Pomp was definitely a Big Bad Voodo Daddy/Brian Setzer Orchestra girl, fun, winsome, just a touch off the wall. As I've been writing my current string of Italo and Vincenzo stories (if you can call two a string), set in Renaissance Venice, I find myself listening to Blackmore's Night more than anything else.

Now, these are examples of choosing music to meet my need to get in the right frame of mind to get into my characters' frame of mind. On the technical side, when I need to be sharp and hone my writing, I will often listen to nothing at all. I can't have my brain distracted while I'm trying to hash out grammar and sentence construction. Just can't.

Once that phase is through, then I'm ready to type my story into the computer, doing a little editing as I go.  For some reason that I can't quite fathom, techno/trance is the best typing music out there. Give me some Astral Projection or Man With No Name or Paul Oakenfold. When I am typing, I am driven, and the regular beat of this kind of music just keeps me going, making me an automatic typewriter (with a devilish little editor sitting on my shoulder, prompting me as needed). today, as I typed up "The Doppelganger's Shadow," (an Italo and Vincenzo tale), I found myself bouncing in the chair, typing to a cadence that got me through the physical act of typing *very* quickly and accurately. There's something about the almost mathematical dictum of this kind of music that mandates that I type with speed and accuracy. It can't be helped.

So if you see me at a convention, pen in hand, bobbing to the music, don't worry. I'll get to you soon enough. I go to conventions to talk with people about reading and writing and publishing, really, and to pick up a few tips on the art and labor of writing, so I'll come out of my shell before too long. But if this author's rocking, don't bother knocking!