Thoughts on Current SF&F in Cinema – Part 1

When I was much younger, I remember wondering if there would ever be a time when the state of the art in “film” would allow a decent version of the Lord of the Rings to be made.  When Ralph Bakshi’s cartoon over live action was made in 1978, I was quite surprised at how good it was.  And I hoped that he would continue the project to finish the complete story.  But he never did.  Maybe he didn’t make enough money or maybe he got bored.  And so, it would be another twenty years before anyone tried again.

Peter Jackson did a remarkable job both visually and artistically of capturing Tolkien’s story.  And I think he proved that we have reached a point where regardless of the unreal or fantastic nature of the story CGI can produce a convincing visual representation of that story on the screen.  And that was an important moment.  For a fan of science fiction and fantasy this is the promised land.

And yet, what have we got now?  For every film like Dune where the story faithfully reproduces a worthwhile piece of fiction, we get ten movies like “The Marvels” or “The Last Jedi” or “Madame Web” where the visuals are successful but the story and the acting are unwatchable.

Well, that’s reality.  The cultural and societal standards are pretty awful so even if some interesting topic like the Second Age of Middle Earth (Rings of Power) or Harry Seldon’s Psychohistory (Foundation) are being filmed chances are that the result will be terrible.

But the only good thing I can say is that the potential exists for a rogue force like Elon Musk to come along and fund an independent studio to produce some exciting projects.  So, eventually we will get good movies.  Eventually the profit motive will succeed.  Who knows we may be forced to watch Chinese or Hungarian movies in subtitles but it will come.  So, patience, patience.

And what might make a good project?  Well, based on what we know would sell, how about space opera that is a lot more interesting than the Star Wars universe?  How about a project to film the Lensman series?  A few updates to the technology might be needed and the chronology might need to be tweaked but then the story would be easily turned into a series of films.  It has likeable heroes, awful villains, interesting aliens and plenty of space battles.  And best of all, not a girl boss in sight.  Just classic square-jawed heroes saving the day and rescuing the damsel in distress.  I would guess that the Lensman saga would be easily as popular as Star Wars and in fact more so.

Now another popular film idea would be the Heinlein juveniles.  There are several good candidates.  As a first choice I’d go with, “Have Spacesuit Will Travel.”  It has all the requisite ingredients for a good young adult movie; human interest, suspense, adventure, pathos, humor and the resolution of a coming-of-age story.  As a second choice I’d recommend, “The Star Beast.”

It’s an interesting thing to reflect that a really satisfactory movie version of a Heinlein book has never been done.  The only one he ever had a hand in was Destination Moon.  And while technically there were interesting aspects to the production as a movie it was pretty cut and dry; more of a primer on rocket flight than work of fiction.  In terms of popularity, I guess Starship Troopers is the best of those produced, even though the director made it in the spirit of a mockery of the underlying philosophy of the book.  A faithful portrayal of Starship Troopers would be an amazing idea for a movie.

And rounding off my picks for Heinlein would be, “The Moon is a Harsh Mistress.”  I think this story would make an excellent film too. I’d especially enjoy seeing the rail gun attack on Earth on the big screen.  And I think the friendship between Manny and the artificial intelligence Mike would work great on the screen.

I’ll have to think of some other classic sf&f books that would make good movies.  If you can think of any you’d like to see made, leave them in the comments.

Abraham Lincoln – Vampire Hunter (2012) – A Science Fiction – Fantasy Movie Review

Words utterly fail me.  I understand that about $100 million was spent on this movie.  That seems inconceivable.  I also read that it actually made a small profit.  That also seems impossible.  And finally, that I didn’t stop watching this “film” at any one of a hundred places in the 105 minutes of running time is a source of great personal shame for me.

Who thought this thing up?  Who green-lit the project?  Who are these nincompoops?

The premise is that when Abraham Lincoln was a boy his father angered a bounty hunter who went after runaway slaves.  And since the bounty hunter was a vampire, he killed Abraham’s mother.  He vows revenge and when he grows up, he meets up with a vampire hunter and trains to become one.  It turns out that the hunter is also a vampire himself but you can’t have everything.

So armed with his silver-dipped ax, Old Abe rail-splits his way through the vampire kingdom and we discover that the South is not only filled with slavers, it’s chock full of vampires too.  You know I always suspected that.  Eventually Honest Abe puts away the ax and picks up the law books and becomes a politician and the rest is history.  That is until the vampires invade his White House and kill his young son.  And then they use undead troops to try to win the war for the South by overwhelming the Union Army at Gettysburg.  So Abe decides to seize all the silver tea sets in Washington DC to provide vampire killing weaponry for the troops.  There’s an overly long fight on a train headed over a bridge that is on fire supposedly bringing weapons to Gettysburg.  It turns out to be a meaningless plot twist but it goes on forever.

But with silver clad bayonets, bullets and cannonballs the tide is turned just in time for Lincoln to read his Gettysburg Address.  Mary Todd Lincoln gets to shoot the girl vampire that killed her son.  She shoots a toy sword with a silver chain out of a rifle and the chain embeds itself into the vampire’s head.  And this symbolizes something or other.

And that’s more or less it.  Amazingly, this is even stupider than it sounds.

I don’t suppose most people would watch a movie called Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter but just in case some innocent, trusting individual might stumble onto this turkey I felt compelled to put out this warning.  If you watch this movie, you will lose brain cells.  I myself lost at least three IQ points.

So to sum up, movies of the stupid, for the stupid and by the stupid have not perished from the Earth.

Kwaidan (1965) – A Movie Review

Kwaidan means ghost story and was directed by Masaki Kobayashi.  This movie is a collection of four stories that I guess could be called supernatural tales.  They are based on stories written by Patrick Lefcadio Hearn, an ex-patriot of Irish/Greek extraction who settled in Japan in 1890.  Each of the stories deals in an unrelated supernatural event.  The stories are based on old Japanese folktales.

(Spoiler Alert – Skip down to last paragraph to avoid spoilers and read recommendation)

In the first story (The Black Hair) a samurai decides to divorce his wife who is a weaver of cloth.  He is tired of poverty and has orchestrated a marriage to the daughter of a nobleman.  But when he goes through with his plan his new marriage is a disaster.  His new wife is selfish and spoiled.  He misses the good-hearted weaver and after a few years he leaves his new wife and heads home to Kyoto for his old life.

When he gets there his old house is strangely changed but the samurai finds his wife overjoyed to see him.  She looks completely unaged and comforts her ex-husband not to blame himself for his actions.  She mysteriously mentions that they have only a short time together.  When he wakes up the next morning his wife is a shriveled corpse on the bed next to him. He tries to flee but her hair pursues him and while we watch he grows visibly much older as it attacks him.

In the second story (The Woman of the Snow) a young woodcutter and his older partner become trapped in a heavy snowstorm and seek shelter in a hut.  During the night a Yuki-onna, a female snow vampire freezes the older woodcutter and steals his life-force.  She tells the younger woodcutter that she had planned to kill both of them but because he was young and attractive, she decided to spare his life but on condition that he never tell anyone what happened that night.  If he does tell anyone she will know and then come to him and kill him.

Out of fear he tells no one including his mother with whom he lives.  Shortly after, a young and beautiful woman travels through their town and the young man invites her to stay at his house.  Both the young man and his mother are impressed with her qualities.  Eventually they marry and she bears him three children.  But one day as she is talking to him, he notices that she bears a resemblance to the snow vampire and he tells her the story.  His wife then reveals to him that she is the snow vampire.  Because they have children that she loves she will not kill her husband but instead will leave him forever.  But she warns him that if he is ever a bad father she will return and kill him.  After she leaves, he puts a present outside his house for her.  Later she takes the gift thereby signifying an abatement of her anger.

In the third story (Hoichi the Earless) Hoichi, a blind singer of heroic songs who lives at a monastery is visited by a samurai at night who brings him to a noble house lost in the fogs of the night.  There he sings The Tale of the Heike about the Battle of Dan-no-ura, a sea battle fought between the Taira and Minamoto clans during the last phase of the Genpei War.

Eventually his brother monks go looking for him and find him in a cemetery.  It seems that the ghosts of the defeated Taira leaders want to hear the story of their heroic defeat sung by a great artist.  The monks tell Hoichi that the ghosts will come back to claim his soul permanently so to protect him they cover his whole body including his face with the text of the “Heart Sutra.”  But they forgot to write it on his ears.  When the ghost of the samurai reappears, he can only see Hoichi’s ears.  To obey his master’s order to retrieve Hoichi he rips off the ears and takes them away.  Hoichi survives this injury and recovers.  When the rumor of this ghostly action spreads, rich patrons of music pays great sums to have Hoichi sing the tale of the battle.  And Hoichi becomes famous and very rich.

In the fourth story (In a Cup of Tea) a writer of old tales (sort of like Patrick Lefcadio Hearn) relates a folk story to his wife that he is planning to sell to a publisher.  The story is about a samurai who is part of the escort for a great lord who is travelling home.  The samurai goes to drink a cup of tea and sees the face of a man staring up at him from the tea.  He is shocked and angered by the occurrence but drinks the tea anyway.  When he arrives back home a man appears in the great house with the same face as the man in the tea.  The samurai attacks him with his sword but the man disappears.  Later that night the samurai is accosted by three men who say they work for the man from the tea cup whom he has injured.  The samurai battles all three men.  Now the writer tells his wife that this is where the story ends uncompleted.

That night the publisher arrives to see the writer but when the wife and publisher look for him, they see his image in a large pail of water just as in the story and they run away screaming.

As you can tell these are very unusual stories.  They don’t fit the category of western horror stories.  They’re reminiscent of European fairy tales or folk tales.  I wouldn’t describe them as frightening but instead odd.  I can’t say that I highly recommend them to a general audience.  They’ve been praised for the artistry that they display as visual cinema.  But I think that for a Western audience they might lack immediacy.  So, let’s call these a curiosity that probably only would interest connoisseurs of Japanese folklore or Japanese cinema.  I thought they were interesting and some scenes, specifically the sea battle portions were well crafted.  Your milage may vary.

What Does Science Fiction Want for Our World Today?

Back when my father was a kid science fiction was all about rockets to Mars, flying cars and atomic power.  The world would march forward in the same way that it had after science advanced in the generations before.  It would engineer applications for atomic power in the same way that earlier generations applied knowledge of chemistry and physics to create the internal combustion engine and airplanes.

When I was a kid science fiction had progressed to where relativity and quantum physics were assumed to be susceptible to human genius and no barriers were too tall to prevent humans from colonizing the stars, travelling through time and even traipsing into other dimensions.  Now this made for a lot of interesting stories about universes where humans could meet up with all kinds of amazing creatures and events.  But at some point, you have to wonder if the word “science” in the name science fiction should be changed to fantasy.  And that’s fine.  Having faster than light (FTL) travel opens up so many story lines for an author that it’s hard to resist.  Otherwise, we’re stuck with multi-generational ships depending on relativistic time dilation to reach the nearest stars in one or two hundred years.  Which, by the way, makes for a lot of very interesting sociological phenomena on the ship.  But anyway, you can see how FTL travel would be a very desirable pseudoscientific device.

But here we are something like a hundred years on in the “modern” science fiction timeline and we’re still engulfed in the FTL travel trope.  And we’re still nowhere near any kind of science that would lead us to believe that FTL travel is even remotely possible.  So, in my mind maybe science fiction needs to start looking at science again for inspiration for new themes.

Thinking about this, it’s not like there aren’t all sorts of scientific discoveries and avenues for new technologies that are not only possible but also exciting building blocks for science fiction stories.  In biology we have gene therapy and longevity research.  In computer science there is artificial intelligence and cybernetics.  The reality of atomic power as a replacement for fossil fuels is not really science fiction as much as fact but there are enough questions about how it will change the present world that it could provide plenty of fodder for stories.  And human exploration of the solar system is now much better understood than it was even back during the Apollo program.  Reimagining the directions that something like landing on Mars will take has already been a successful idea for one author who even saw it turned into a successful movie.

Perhaps some of this sounds a little tame for science fiction readers.  On the contrary, sticking to the reality of what it would take to put a small colony on Mars should allow a good author to engineer in plenty of human interest and adventure.  I could see how a story based on capturing and harvesting an asteroid filled with gold and platinum would make a very exciting tale.  A good author would include the part of the story that involves very rich and powerful individuals scheming to hold onto the profits from a mission that might include the most powerful nations on Earth claiming the assets as the “legacy of all mankind.”

So, this is something I’ve been thinking about lately.  Now I like space opera as much as the next guy.  I’m very comfortable with galactic empires and multiverse.  They’re great fun.  But I also think it’s time for some of the most creative writers to start adding some real science back into science fiction.

Nosferatu (1922) – Nosferatu the Vampyre (1979) – A Science Fiction & Fantasy Movie Review

Last night I watched both Nosferatu movies.  I believe they are best reviewed together since Herzog’s remake of the silent film is in many ways an homage.  Almost all of the “dialog” of the silent film is reused word for word.  The appearance of the Dracula character and even the sets have been constructed to mimic the look of the originals.  Mercifully, the science of motion picture imaging had progressed tremendously between 1922 and 1979 so the picture quality of the latter film has none of the pioneering qualities of its predecessor.  Night scenes weren’t shot during the day and there is sound so the actors can restrain their pantomime gesturing.  But that being said it is essentially the same story.

In this version of Dracula, Renfield is a “land agent,” sort of a nineteenth century realtor and he employs Jonathon Harker to go to Transylvania to sign papers to buy a house in Bremen, Germany.  Jonathon leaves his wife Nina behind fretting about his safety.  When he gets to the environs of Castle Dracula the townsfolk warn him about spooky stuff but he goes anyway.  Dracula meets him and signs the papers and then feeds off of Harker for a few days, packs his dirt boxes and drives off with horse and wagon.  Harker escapes from the castle, and after recuperating for some time in the village heads for home by horse.

Dracula takes the slow boat across the Black Sea, the Mediterranean, and the North Sea to Bremen.  Enroute, he sucks the life out of the crew so that the boat drifts into Bremen with only the captain’s lifeless body tied to the ship’s wheel.  Somehow Dracula sneaks off the boat and takes up residence in the house across the street from the Harkers.  Dracula also brings a goodly supply of plague rats with him and the town starts dying off of the bubonic plague in droves.

While Dracula was enroute by ship Renfield is somehow driven mad and starts eating flies and biting animals and people to get blood.  He is cast into a mad house but eventually escapes and capers around town awaiting “the master” and acting like a gibbering idiot.

All this time Nina has been suffering mentally from the strain of worrying about Jonathon and because she seems to be a clinically depressed heroine.  When he arrives, she reads this book on vampires that Jonathon has specifically told her not to read.  This disobedience seemed the most realistic detail of the movie.  Nina reads that a pure spirited woman who offers her blood freely to the vampire can keeps him drinking until dawn.  And at that point the sun will destroy him.  Nina feigns illness and sends Jonathon to get a doctor.  She invites Dracula to her home and he falls for the trick and is evaporated in a puff of smoke.  Jonathon and the Doctor arrive just in time for Nina to greet Jonathon and expire from exsanguination.

In the 1979 version the ending is less positive.  When Nina expires Jonathon, who has been slowly becoming a vampire for the last few days goes full Nosferatu and escapes the town on horseback to start his own reign of death somewhere else.

So, what about these movies?  The silent version is a product of German Expressionism and uses bizarre and unreal imagery to evoke the sense of fear and dread.  The Dracula character is a cartoonish figure.  He is exaggeratedly tall and gaunt, has a dead white skin color, an elongated hairless head, protruding front teeth and ridiculously long and curved fingernails.  The sets at Castle Dracula showcase bizarre architectural details like the odd shaped doors and the monolithic walls in the crypt.  Everything is unnatural and bizarre.  I would say for a silent film this is a successful visual representation of a horror story.  But remember, it’s a silent film.  That means the acting is painfully exaggerated to pantomime the meaning.  Both of the Harkers are always gesticulating and grimacing to let you know they are emoting something or other.  I think very few modern viewers can get past the staginess of silent films to enjoy the story as a story.  So, it’s a successful silent horror film but I couldn’t recommend it to the general audience.

As for Werner Herzog’s 1979 homage, that’s more of something we can discuss in normal movie terms.  I’d call it an art film.  It goes a long way to provide good cinematography, good (if odd) acting and a rationale for the actions of the primary characters.  Dracula even gets to tell of his ennui and his envy for those who can die.  And he invests the characters with a reasonable level of personality above what was provided in the silent film.  There is even a small amount of humor thrown in, primarily around the character of Renfield but what struck me as funniest was a scene at the very end of the movie.  Dr. Van Helsing is holding a bloody stake that he has used to permanently kill Dracula.  Two town officials arrive on the scene and Jonathon denounces Van Helsing to them stating that the doctor has murdered good old Count Dracula.  The magistrate orders his underling to have Van Helsing arrested and jailed for murder but the subordinate argues with him that there are no police left to arrest him, no jailors left to imprison him and no town officials left to charge and try him.

Herzog has succeeded in making an atmospheric, artistic horror film.  It’s not particularly frightening but it attempts to adhere to the spirit of the original Dracula story, a sort of late nineteenth century gothic fairy tale.  So, my recommendation is restricted to people who enjoy art films.  And it wouldn’t kill a horror fan to watch it.  It just might not be completely what he would be hoping for.  So, there’s my Halloween day horror review that I promised.

30OCT2021 – OCF Update

Today I spent a good chunk of the day on fiction writing.  And it was very productive and I think successful.  But the trade off is no time for web site work.  I’m going to have to get much more efficient at splitting my time between the two tasks.  Tonight I am employed watching the 1922 and 1979 versions of Nosferatu.  The original is a silent film that is without a doubt a puzzling experience for the modern audience.  The film quality is terrible, the special effects are non-existent and the acting is highly stylized if I want to put it politely.  The 1979 version is titled Nosferatu the Vampyre and was directed by Werner Herzog.  I just started it but it looks like it could be okay.  I hope to have the review out tonight.

 

Side Jobs and Brief Cases – Two Short Story Collections from The Dresden Files – by Jim Butcher – An SF&F Book Review

These two books are each a group of short stories that Jim Butcher has collected.  Side Jobs was published in 2010 and Brief Cases was published in 2018.  In each case Butcher collected the stories that had been published in anthologies then added a new novella at the end.  And obviously the differences in subject matter and tone in the collections match up with the where they fit in the chronology of the Dresden Files at the time they were written.  But just as with the overall series the “feel” of the stories and especially the character of Harry himself is surprisingly consistent.  He is as always, a wise-cracking, annoying defender of the human world against the forces of the various supernatural creatures he opposes.  He battles White, Red and Black Court vampires, ghosts, sorcerers, werewolves, faeries and other folklore creatures.  Harry is always a little too lefty and feminist for my complete stamp of approval but Butcher writes a very good story and I have been reading these books for a very long time and even when some lefty cultural stance annoys me, I still read and enjoy the story.  And these stories are no exception.  Some character or some comment from Harry will annoy me but I’ll still read and enjoy each story.

The stories are self-sufficient and can be read alone without the need to jump into the next one.  And because the stories were written for various anthologies some of them have oddball plots that were picked to fit in to some overarching theme.  Like in Brief Cases there is a western story called “A Fistful of Warlocks” that was written for an anthology called “Straight Outta Tombstone.”  And likewise for other stories that had themes relating to weddings or relationships or even beer or baseball.  But even the stories that you would think would be just a throwaway Butcher puts in the work and makes the story hang together.  And in these short stories sometimes Harry isn’t even the narrator.  Thomas Raith, John Marcone, Karrin Murphy and even Molly Carpenter each narrate a story.   And especially in the case of Thomas and Marcone I think these add a lot of interest to the story because of the very different point of view of these characters from Harry.

Just as with the rest of the Dresden Files these books cannot be enjoyed unless you already have read the first few books about Harry.  But it is good to know that Jim Butcher takes the time to make even his short stories worth reading.

Starman Jones by Robert A Heinlein – A Science Fiction Book Review

Starman Jones is one of Heinlein’s juvenile novels (today it would be called a young adult novel).  Many people feel that some of his best work is represented in these books.  I tend to agree with this.  Starman Jones is also one of his best juveniles.  Well, you can see where that puts it in my opinion already.

Max Jones is an Ozarks hillbilly.  He lives on the family farm and dreams of someday following his father’s brother, Uncle Chet, into space as an astrogator.  But the deaths of his father and uncle leave Max trapped on the farm, and duty bound to provide for his step-mother.  Max struggles to keep food on the table and has to forego his dreams of working in outer space.  But when his step-mother remarries and his new step-father sells the family farm and tries to steal the astrogation books that Max got from Uncle Chet, Max decides that his commitment to his step-mother is ended and he runs away to try and claim a berth as a legacy candidate in the hereditary guild of astrogators.

On the road he meets a hobo named Sam Anderson who shares his dinner with the hungry runaway but steals Max’s astrogation books and identity card before disappearing.  Max hitchhikes a ride with a freight transporter and reaches Earth Port, the main space port in North America.  Upon reaching the guild headquarters Max discovers that Sam had attempted to impersonate him and get a reward for returning the valuable astrogation tables.  Sam managed to escape without getting arrested.  Now Max receives the substantial reward for the books but learns that his Uncle Chet did not list Max as a guild candidate.  Crushed by the news, Max leaves the guild office and immediately bumps into Sam.

Max at first was thinking of turning Sam into the authorities but since their last meeting Sam had come into a windfall (gambling winnings) and was dressed as a prosperous citizen, whereas Max was disheveled and unwashed.  Sam actually ends up saving Max from arrest as a vagrant.  Spotting Max to a good meal, Sam apologizes for stealing Max’s books and lets him know that there is still a way for Max (and Sam) to obtain berths on a star ship.  Sam has connections that can fake identification papers that will indicate that Max and Sam are members of the guilds that work on these commercial space liners.  With this paperwork (paid for with Max’s reward money) and coaching by Sam, Max passes himself off as a Steward’s mate working for the ship’s Purser on the Asgard.  Max was greatly aided in this coaching by the fact that he has an eidetic memory, basically photographic recall of anything he’s seen.

Max and Sam work their way into different roads of advancement on the Asgard.  Sam had been a space marine long ago who had gone AWOL and was still a wanted man so now he uses his service training to become the ship’s Chief Master-at-Arms and uses that office to supplement his income with clandestine gambling operations for the crew.  Max is in charge of the ship’s livestock which includes the passengers’ pets.  An extraterrestrial animal called a spider puppy is the pet of Eldreth (Ellie) Coburn, the daughter of a VIP.  She meets Max because of his kind treatment of the spider puppy and once they become friends, she takes it into her head to use her connections with Captain Blaine to help Max advance into a position on the ship that would give him a high enough status to allow her to be seen with him.  Because his forged papers claimed that he had formerly trained as a chartsman (a lower level member of the astrogation team) he is given the chance to try out for the job on the Asgard.  Here he meets Dr. Hendrix the ship’s Astrogator.  Hendrix had trained under Max’s Uncle Chet and he is interested in seeing if Max has inherited the family’s mathematical skill.  Dr. Hendrix is generally sympathetic toward Max and goes out of his way to teach him the skills he needs.  Max also meets Mr. Simes the Assistant Astrogator.  Simes is an unfriendly, belligerent man who jealously guards his prerogatives as Dr. Hendrix’ assistant.  He resents Max’s presence and once Max’s eidetic memory is demonstrated Simes more than ever goes out of his way to denigrate Max’s skills.

The story proceeds very skillfully and Max is shown to mature and take responsibility for the choices he made that put him on the ship.  And circumstances on the ship lead to excitement from various sources.  The ship is lost during a poorly executed transition, sort of a translation through folded space that sends the ship to a completely uncharted area of the universe.  A planet where they take refuge has hostile lifeforms that threaten the lives of the crew and passengers of the Asgard.  And due to death, suicide and mutiny Max finds himself the only astrogator left on the ship and dependent on his memory to provide astrogation tables need to attempt to return the Asgard to familiar space.

I won’t go into all the details but suffice it to say that Starman Jones is a lively and fascinating story that combines various types of characters interacting in a consistent science fiction plot.  Some of the details of how astrogators do their jobs now would seem quaint and illogical with the advent of powerful computing equipment but this in no way diminishes the interest in the story.  As a naval officer Heinlein paints a very convincing picture of life on a star ship.  His hierarchy among the crew members and their relation to the passengers allows the dynamic of the story to play out.

This book was written in 1953.  Mores and attitudes have changed drastically in the sixty-five plus years since Starman Jones was written but I’ve given this book to a grandson of mine who reads science fiction voraciously and he gave it high marks.  It still maintains a high position among any young adult science fiction books written since then.  Highly recommended.

 

After you’ve read enough sexbot articles on Drudge maybe switch to something interesting

The Rise and Fall of D.O.D.O. – A Science Fiction and Fantasy Book Review

One time I mentioned on the site that I wondered what a combination of science fiction and fantasy would be like.  TomD, whose opinions on matters political, photographic and literary are always enlightening, immediately volunteered two examples, The Majipoor Cycle and the Rise and Fall of D.O.D.O.  I have previously reviewed the Majipoor books.  Here I will address D.O.D.O. and just to get it out of the way the acronym stands for Department of Diachronic Operatives, a government issue time travel story.

Neal Stephenson wrote this book with Nicole Galland.  I’ve heard of Stephenson but never read him before.  I’d never heard of Galland before this book.  So, the book finally got to the top of the pile and I just finished it on Thursday past.  The first thing I can say is that this is a hybrid creation.  The outline of the story is a time-travel science fiction story of the giant government project category.  On that framework is a story that combines historical fiction, fantasy and a satiric contemporary novel about day to day life in a government bureaucracy.  The other fact about the story is that most of it is a first-person narrative by a modern female character.  And this particular character is a college teaching assistant with expertise in linguistics.  And I am intimately familiar with this subspecies.  And I’m not greatly sympathetic to its idiosyncrasies.  Also, the story takes place in Cambridge, MA.  And I am also intimately familiar with the habits and foibles of the people who live there.  And I am also not greatly sympathetic to their idiosyncrasies either.  So, this starts me out in the wrong place as a reader and reviewer.

Moving on from there, the story ingeniously constructs a scenario where the present-day American military becomes worried about losing a global arms race in magic.  Military intelligence has somehow detected anomalies in the present that lead them to believe that someone has figured out how to travel back in time.  And based on a thorough computerized analysis of historical documents, they believe the method involves witchcraft.  And since witchcraft doesn’t seem to exist anymore, they need to figure out how to revive it.  And reviving it hinges on manipulating quantum states of matter and invokes Schrodinger’s Cat who literally shows up in the story (the cat, not the Schrodinger).

From there we meet a Japanese scientist/Mayflower descendant, husband/wife team, which is a category that believe it or not, I’m also personally familiar with.  He’s a quantum physicist who has been investigating the mechanism that the story needs to restore magic and she is the descendant of a burned Salem witch.  Mix in a surviving one hundred and eighty-year-old Hungarian witch, a dashing young army lieutenant colonel, a plucky and annoying female linguist (these last two being the love interests in the story) and assorted scientists, generals, computer geeks and bureaucrats both academic and military and you have the cast that becomes project D.O.D.O.  Once they succeed, we add into the stew, witches from colonial Massachusetts, Elizabethan London, thirteenth century Constantinople and various times and places in medieval northern Europe.  And the non-witch historical characters include Byzantine emperors and empresses, Varangian guards, Sir Francis Bacon, Christopher Marlowe, Richard Burbage and a raiding party of Vikings in a Walmart.

The text is a collection of Victorian era journal entries, Elizabethan era letters, some medieval vellum codices, U.S. military documents and a copious collection of e-mail messages from a variety of bureaucratic organizations.  The story is in several voices modern and antique but as mentioned above is primarily the journal of the young woman linguist who is the protagonist and the focal point of several of the original plot elements.

Despite my obvious lack of sympathy for the protagonist and several other of the main characters, the story works on its own terms.  The characters are self-consistent and wherever I am competent to compare them to their real-life exemplars highly accurate.  Because of the details of the time travel mechanism, the action is of necessity episodic and sometimes repetitive.  This situation is written pretty well and only results in a little slowness in the action at the beginning of the book.  Toward the end the pacing picks up quite a bit and the book ends by resolving the latest crisis but the finish requires that there will be sequels.

My opinion on the book is that if you are like me and rather dislike bureaucrats and modern women then you will have limited sympathy for the protagonist and several of the main characters.  There is a good amount of swashbuckling action by the military officer who is a main character and likable.  The story line is extremely clever as a science fiction plot.  So, I recommend it as a story with the proviso that men of my generation will be tempted occasionally to toss the book at the wall when modern New England feminist empowerment rears its ugly head.

Chuck Dixon’s Avalon #1 – The Street Rules – A Science Fiction & Fantasy Review

I’ve never been a comic book guy.  My thing was always science fiction books.  My closest approach to comics was the Marvel and DC tv shows I saw as a kid.  So, I never really had a reason to buy any.  But my policy on right wing artistic and commercial endeavors is to always give them the benefit of the doubt when they compete on the Left’s turf.  I decided to pick up Avalon #1 to see if I could understand what it was all about.  A comic book is like a book chapter with pictures.  You tell a piece of a story and try to hook the reader in for the next installment.  The story and the art work are of equal importance.  Well, to me they are.  I guess if you’re really more of an art lover then the pictures might be the main attraction.  But I don’t think that would work for me.  There’s got to be a story I want to hear.

I’ll make this short because I don’t have the background to talk any nuance about comic books.  The story is introducing a world where people with superpowers are a fact of life and not all of them are good and not all of them are heroes.  We meet a small cross section as we are primarily introduced to King Ace and Fazer.  They are close to the classic vigilante super hero like Batman or Superman.  They fight crime outside of the prescribed legal framework that superheroes adhere to in this world.  They do it according to their code.  Well, for the most part.  Some hints of a less selfless motive do show up in the book.  The story is good.  It’s set up as Fazer telling his story to a reporter but the action bounces back and forth between narrated action and other events that give additional information on other characters and other plot lines.  I like the art work but I will not claim I know much or even anything about the state of the art in comic book aesthetics.

Long story, short I think it’s good.  I look forward to the next installment.  I won’t say I’m hooked but I’m interested enough to want to see where this all goes.  Bravo Chuck Dixon and good for Vox Day for venturing into enemy territory.