Tuesday, December 11, 2018

A Little Christmas Magic

I know it's been a month since I've posted anything, which includes being two episodes behind on airing the Invaders From Planet 3 podcast, but I've been knee-deep in life lately and haven't been able to give the nerdiverse my full attention. My plan is to get the delayed episodes up in a few days to get the airing schedule back on track over the holidays. I promise, there are some good interviews coming up that are worth waiting for!

In the meantime, I thought I'd share a little story of Christmas magic that happened a couple of days ago:

Over the years, I've occasionally been Santa Claus at parties for charities and at offices I've worked at. This year, the Rotary Club of Ladner needed Santa to come to their first annual community tree-lighting celebration, and because my dad is one of the Rotarians, I agreed to be Big Red (to use the elfin security detail's code name for Kris Kringle in "The Tick Loves Santa!" — one of the greatest episodes of the animated series of The Tick). Lots of families came and had lots of fun.

When you're Santa (and this is important: when you don the suit, you are Santa — especially to the little kids — you're not playing him, you have to be him — like Victor Prinzim putting on the cape and cowl in The Cannonball Run and becoming Captain Chaos), you have to be ready for anything. 99.9% of the time, the kids are happy, you give them 100% of your focus, you try to make a connection with them and tell a little story about life at the North Pole or Santa's adventures to make their visit special, and things are more-or-less straight-forward. Sometimes a baby will cry (even when Santa is quiet and easygoing, it can still all be a bit much for babies and toddlers just getting used to the world), but, generally, you don't get too many curveballs. This time around, there was one visit that was a little different...

About mid-evening, a mother brought her little girl over. She was just a teeny little thing, couldn't have been more than 3 or 4, with a big smile, and was absolutely adorable. She looked up at Santa with big brown eyes full of wonder — think of a brunette, brown-eyed version of Cindy-Lou Who from the original, animated "How the Grinch Stole Christmas" — and hopped up onto my knee, and we began our visit. I asked if she'd be a good girl this year ("Yes!"), and if she'd helped her mommy around the house, again, "Yes!" and she looked so happy that she'd pitched-in. Then I asked what she wanted for Christmas.

She looked up at me with those big eyes brimming with hope and absolute, unshakeable faith that Santa could make her holiday wish come true, and, now with a little sadness in her voice too, she said:

"Can you please bring my kitty back? He's gone."

Boom. A 50-kiloton nuclear bomb to the heart.

Because this was a tough one. You see, Santa can't make promises. Some kids will ask for dolls, or LEGO, or radio-controlled cars or trucks, or even new kittens or puppies, but Santa can't promise to bring any of it, because there's no guarantee that their parents will come through, and you can't say anything that will cause the kids to lose hope. It's like J Michael Straczynski wrote in an episode of Babylon 5 (I think this was from one of G'Kar's monologues): "Greater than the death of flesh is the death of hope." Or, as Lorien said in another B5 episode: "Hope is all we have." So all you can say is something like "I'll work with my elves and we'll try to make sure your Christmas is special." And that's generally enough to make the kids happy. Santa hasn't promised anything concrete, so they can't be completely let down if the item doesn't come through, but you're leaving them room to hope, and, as a result. to be happy and enjoy the holiday.

But this is something different. In this case, Santa REALLY can't promise anything, because a missing cat may never come home. Heck, for all I knew at the time, the cat may have died and the parents may simply have told the little one that kitty had wandered off, just to make things easier on her. So Santa couldn't say he'd bring the kitty back. But, at the same time, I couldn't crush this little girl's hope.

And I had to keep my game face on with only a millisecond to think.

So I gave her shoulder a sympathetic squeeze and said "Oh, sweetheart, I'm so sorry your kitty is gone. It's tough when kitties go off on adventures. This is a pretty tall order, but I'll talk to my elves and tell them to go out and keep a look out for your kitty."

She gave me a huge smile and a thank-you, and held onto her hope, and I steered things back on track, asking her about toys she'd like, gave her a candy cane I'd said the elves had made especially for her earlier that day, and she eventually left happy.

The whole thing has stayed with me for the past few days.

And now, just this morning, Dad forwarded me an email from one of his fellow Rotarians: the little girl's mother had been back to the community centre and had told the staff (who passed the word along to the club) how much they'd enjoyed the party and their time with Santa. But, best of all, she said the cat came back that evening after they'd returned home from their visit with Santa. So it seems the little girl got her Christmas wish!

Now I certainly can't take any credit for the cat coming home. The wayward fuzzball probably just got cold, wet, tired and hungry enough (even without pursuit by dogs, other cats, raccoons or coyotes) to come home on his/her own.

But if this coincidence made that little girl happy, and gave her a sense of holiday magic to make this year extra special — something that will stand out in her memory in the years to come, and hopefully help her make the season special for other people — then that's a real bit of Christmas magic.

Whatever you celebrate, and even if you don't celebrate anything in particular, I hope you have a wonderful holiday season. Merry Christmas, everyone.

Monday, November 12, 2018

So Long, Stan

My first memory of comics god Stan Lee was his narration of the 1982 Saturday morning cartoon The Incredible Hulk. Sure, I'd seen his creations before, in the form of reruns of the 1960s cartoon Spider-Man, and during the original run of the late 1970s live-action TV show The Incredible Hulk, but the 80s 'Hulk cartoon (along with Spider-Man and His Amazing Friends — later combined into The Spider-Man and His Amazing Friends and the Incredible Hulk Adventure Hour) was the first time I'd heard Lee's name and voice, and his intense voiceovers permanently cemented him to the those iconic comic characters in my memory. My appreciation for the actual comic books that had given rise to these characters (as well as the character of Stan, in the fan and larger public perception) would come years later.

When I read the news about Stan's death earlier today, I have to admit, it didn't come as much of a shock. He was 95, and, from the news and internet coverage over the years, it seemed as though he'd been in decline since his wife's death. Time passes, as do our heroes.

And Stan certainly was a hero to many. One of the creative forces behind so many of the superheroes and superhero teams that have been a part of our nerdy lives and fan culture conversation (along with Jack Kirby, Steve Ditko and others), a pop culture figure who interacted with fans at conventions and other venues, and, in a larger sense on the pop culture stage, a reassuring voice that told us it's okay to like this stuff, and that our comic book characters and the stories they tell have real, meaningful value, beyond a few minutes or hours of entertainment. That value was especially evident in Marvel Comics' presentation of normal, later diverse, characters with identifiable lives (beyond — sometimes influenced by, and sometimes influencing — their superheroic adventures) and problems that we, as readers, can understand and have experienced. Peter Parker has to try to hold down a job outside of his costumed vigilanteism because, you know, food and shelter; and he worries about how to attract the girl he likes. The X-Men deal with discrimination, infighting, self-doubt, depression, and strained romantic relationships. Bruce Banner, in struggling to deal with the Hulk within, has to grapple with stress and emotional control, isolation, and the consequences of being persecuted and living without a home. Even the gods (and god-like alien entities) have problems in Marvel's universe. Thor has family issues, and, over the years, has made more than a few bad decisions. Galactus is alone — the sole survivor of not only his race, but his universe — and has to battle superheroes because, in order to survive, he needs to feed on the life force of planets (perfectly understandable and justified to the star titan, not so much to the inhabitants of Earth and other worlds). Thanos just wants Death to love him, and is rejected. Thus Stan's legacy of crafting characters with recognizable challenges and flaws is clearly present not just in his own creations, but in those of other Marvel writers and artists. And, beyond the empathy factor, it's this attempt to create three-dimensional characters that made Stan and Marvel's heroes — and villains — more interesting than their counterparts (at least until DC — and other publishers — started to catch on and flush-out their own characters' lives — internal and external).

Beyond the comics, cartoons and conventions, Stan was also a highly recognizable figure thanks to his media interviews and cameos in everything from Kevin Smith's Mallrats, to The Big Bang Theory, to the various Sony Marvel-related and official Marvel Universe movies. The overall impression was of a friendly, if occasionally curmudgeonly old guy. The loveable grandpa of comics. How true-to-life that was is up to those who knew him to say. But to the rest of us, it was the perfect representation of that person we'd always imagined was cobbling together the comics we loved.

Thanks for everything, Stan.


Friday, November 09, 2018

Invaders From Planet 3 - Ep 24 - James Alan Gardner

Author, editor and kung-fu mathematician James Alan Gardner joins us in the latest episode of the podcast! Jim starts off by talking about how comics were his first speculative fictional love, especially Marvel's The Avengers and DC's Crisis on Earth One! and Crisis on Earth Two!, leading eventually to science fiction like Heinlein's juveniles, and later, in university, to fantasy by Tolkien and Stephen R Donaldson, and horror by Stephen King.

We talk about his decision to study Math at university, and how a student work internship in Toronto with nothing to do at night gave him the opportunity to start developing his abilities as a writer. Jim tells us about how a writing workshop in Banff allowed him to further hone his skills and find his own voice, and we later discuss how this differed from his experience at Clarion. We also talk about Jim's early work writing science fictional stage plays and radio plays, like Curio (a paranormal investigative series predating The X-Files) and Percy Pulsar, Space Accountant. And he discusses his first prose science fiction stories that were published.

Coming back to superheroes, we talk about Jim's novel All Those Explosions Were Someone Else's Fault — a story pitting metahumans against vampires, werewolves and other paranormal monsters. And he teases its upcoming sequel, They Promised Me the Gun Wasn't Loaded, and the two other novels he's working on in the series. Jim also gives some hints about a haunted house novel he's developing.

Our interview took place in October 2018 at the annual Vancouver Science Fiction, Fantasy & Games Convention (VCon).

Find out more about James Alan Gardner and his stories on his website:

To listen to Invaders From Planet 3, or subscribe, visit LibsyniTunes, Stitcher, Overcast and Spotify. Be sure to rate and review the show while you're there!

Let the Invasion begin!

Thursday, November 01, 2018

Punkin Punkin Punkin

This year's crop of jack o'lanterns at the Lair of bloginhood:

Friday, October 26, 2018

Invaders From Planet 3 - Ep 23 - Mark Barrowcliffe

Author Mark Barrowcliffe (also known under his pen names MD Lachlan and Mark Alder) joins us in this episode.

Mark tells us about his first loves in sf, including Alan Garner, Ursula K Le Guin's Earthsea series, Tolkien, Moorcock, and Andre Norton. He talks about his enjoyment of Tolkien and Garner injecting mythology into their fantasy, and Moorcock's ability to challenge his readers by posing difficult questions.

When discussing his own writing, Mark reflects on the exhilaration of letting his characters tell their own story, and how this helps when writing characters that come from different backgrounds than his own. He also shares his thoughts on how his experiences practicing boxing, martial arts and fencing give him insight into the scariness of fighting, and how youthful experimentation with hallucinogenic drugs provided inspiration for writing the unreality of a werewolf's state of mind. And he talks about using the trappings of fantasy in storytelling without descending into escapism, and why it's important to refuse to impose modern sensibilities on characters from other periods in history.

We talk at length about his latest — and final — instalment in the Wolfsangel series, The Night Lies Bleeding. He discusses the difficulties of writing a story set partially in a Nazi concentration camp, his research into some of the prisoners who were kept there, and the story's exploration of the problems faced by characters who try to maintain a distance from the world, and who descend into evil.

We also chat about Mark's experiences with Dungeons & Dragons: from his teenaged years dealing with trolls both in and out of the game's quests, dressing for the part, his ruminations on that period of his life in his book The Elfish Gene, and returning to roleplaying years later.

And Mark gives us some hints about the latest story he's working on: a swashbuckling fantasy about a female fencer in the court of Versailles, inspired by the adventures of a real woman known for her duelling victories and romances.

Our interview took place in June 2018 via a Skype connection between Mark's home in Brighton, UK, and my studios in the Lair of bloginhood, currently located in a century-old, unused plantation irrigation tunnel in a mountain on Kauai.

You can find Mark's books under his various pen names at your local bookstore.

To listen to Invaders From Planet 3, or subscribe, visit LibsyniTunes, Stitcher, Overcast and Spotify. Be sure to rate and review the show while you're there!

Let the Invasion begin!

Tuesday, October 16, 2018

Invaders From Planet 3 - Ep 22 - Sean Cullen

Comedian, author, podcaster and performer Sean Cullen joins the Invasion for this episode. Sean talks about how his love for speculative fiction started with works such as Tolkien's The Hobbit, Mr Bass's Planetoid by Eleanor Cameron, Stephen R Donaldson's Lord Foul's Bane, and Asimov's Foundation and Robot stories. We discuss the ups and downs of following a series, especially a long-running collection. And he talks about what makes a good story.

Sean and I dissect the Star Wars franchise, especially the prequel trilogy and the latest stand-alone focussing on Han Solo. We also talk about Space 1999 and Star Trek, and how science fiction is often a product of its time, and whether it's possible to go back to and enjoy your first loves in the genre. We then get into a discussion of more recent favourite books, including the works of Neal Stephenson, Dan Simmons, and Kim Stanley Robinson. And we reminisce about the madcap fun of The Hilarious House of Frightenstein.

We also talk about the books Sean has written for kids, including Hamish X and the Cheese Pirates and The Prince of Neither Here Nor There, as well as a superhero-themed novel he's currently writing for adult audiences. And Sean shares his thoughts on occasionally working science fiction references into his stand-up comedy.

Our interview took place in June 2018 via a Skype call between Sean's headquarters aboard The Seanpod, currently drifting along the bottom of James Bay, and my studio in the Lair of bloginhood, located in a sumptuous beach house on the shores of a methane lake on Saturn's moon Titan.

Find out more about Sean Cullen, his books, and his comedy albums on his website:

Listen to episodes of The Seanpod on his podcasting page:

Watch Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs on TV or YouTube.

And check the listings at your local comedy club to see when he'll be performing in your town.
To listen to Invaders From Planet 3, or subscribe, visit LibsyniTunes, Stitcher, Overcast and Spotify. Be sure to rate and review the show while you're there!

Let the Invasion begin!

Sunday, October 07, 2018

VCon 2018 - Day 3 - Turkeys for Turkey Day

As the man once sang: I hurt myself today.

No, there was nothing involving a needle or other methods of substance abuse. This was a different kind of voluntary destruction of lives. This was the Turkey Readings. But I'm getting ahead of myself.

Day 3 of VCon (which was also this year's host for Canvention — Canada's national speculative fiction convention): the sleepy Sunday when the fun is slowly, reluctantly, wearily grinding to a halt and people start to head home — some faster than others in order to make it to early Thanksgiving dinners with family (technically, the holiday is tomorrow, but a lot of Canadian families get it out of the way on Sunday so that we've got Monday to rest, rather than wrestling with a feast and guests all day and then having to return to work or school on Tuesday completely exhausted). I arrived around 1:30 to meet someone, but plans changed, so I had a little time on my hands and wandered around a bit. Today's attire: a Flynn's Arcade t-shirt from Uber Torso, and, yes, one person wandering by did get the Tron reference and gave it the nod of approval.

And today I actually managed to take in some programming! I caught the "I'm In Love With The Villain" panel, which, fairly obviously, discussed villains in sf (and pop culture in general, and history) and why we love them, or love to watch them or read about them even if we hate them. A lively and thoughtful discussion from the panel, as well as the audience. In fact, I give those at the front of the room a lot of credit for striking the perfect balance between their own panel pontifications and audience participation. It kept everyone engaged and entertained. Bonus points for this panel: unrelated to their topic, they mentioned that the West Coast Science Fiction Association (which runs VCon) had published an anthology this year as a fundraiser, something that I don't recall hearing about during the opening ceremonies (and, to be fair, maybe I just didn't catch it, and I probably looked right past the book when I was walking through the dealers' room this weekend), so I had to rush over to the dealers' room once the session wrapped up to snag a copy. Edited by Ellen Michelle, it's called Power: In the Hands of One, In the Hands of Many. I think putting out an anthology to help fund the con is a great idea, and I hope it's sold enough copies over the weekend to support more volumes in the future. Now we'll have to see how it reads!

After that, I linked-up with author Charles Stross (one of the con's Guests of Honour) to interview him for the Invaders From Planet 3 podcast. We covered topics ranging from the influence of Britain's "dysfunctional society" in the 1970s and 80s on its science fiction, to how his experience working in large, bureaucratic organizations affected his stories. Stay tuned for that episode in December.

Then it was time for the pain.

Why do I go to the goddamn Turkey Readings session every year? Why? In Return of the Jedi, C-3P0 warns Luke, Han and Chewie that they're in for "a new definition of pain and suffering" as they're "slowly digested over a thousand years" in the sarlacc pit. That prospect has nothing on VCon's Turkey Readings. While this exercise in psychological torture and masochism may not actually last a millennium, it damn near feels like it. If your local con has nothing like this, then it may be a good idea to read the following description so you'll be forewarned and can use any means necessary — up to and including a full nuclear strike — to prevent this painful travesty from ever being replicated by your fan organization, or anyone else in the universe for that matter. It goes like this: three or four panelists sit at a table at the front of the room with a pile of books. These are terrible books. Some of the worst culled from the history of the genre, usually by unremembered authors, but sometimes by big names who are still talked about. But make no mistake: these tomes are abominations. They contain truly painful writing, cliched plots, and ridiculous characters. The panelists divvy-up the pile, then one will start reading a selected story aloud. Did I mention the actors? Oh yes, this is more than just an assault on the brain through the ears. They attack your eyes too. Volunteers in the audience come up to the front to "act" out the scenes as they're being read. Their performances are enthusiastic, but on the same level of quality as the writing that inspires them. Deliberately. As the story unfolds, the ridiculousness of the writing and the antics of the volunteer actors drive the audience into fits of laughter. But, really, can we say this is the laughter prompted by something truly funny, or is this the helpless braying of once-intelligent minds being driven into the putrid, hairy armpit of madness? The latter, I think. If there's any redeeming virtue to all of this, it's that the victims in the audience can open their wallets and make bids to stop the pain. Of course, this is often just a trick to give the audience victims a false sense of hope, because others among the crowd (having the last vestiges of their sanity finally shredded away) can pay more money to keep the agony going! This auction of insanity goes on intermittently until finally some desperate soul can throw down enough money to make it stop once and for all. But then, of course, the next panelist picks up his/her chosen book, and begins to administer a new round of psychological annihilation, and those of us who have wandered into this circus of pain clutch out seats, vainly waiting for a financial hero to rise from among our number to buy a few minutes of respite. The positive side to the whole affair is that the money raised at the Turkey Readings goes to the Canadian Unity Fan Fund, which pays to bring a selected fan from one part of the country to a Canvention in another province in the interests of creating bonds of friendship among fans around Canada. Maybe that's why I keep inflicting this experience on myself year after year. I'll never be one of the fans who's a part of this exchange, but I certainly support the idea, and I usually put a couple of bucks in the pot every year to help out — and to, mostly unsuccessfully, try to put an end to whatever reading is being thrown at me in the moment. Of course, there's another explanation: maybe I keep going back to the Turkey Readings because they've been successful in permanently damaging my brain. Maybe I've been driven so far beyond rational thought that I can't help returning to the scene of the crime again and again — maybe it's become just as important a part of my Thanksgiving tradition to suffer through the Turkey Readings as it is to eat turkey dinner. Gobble, gobble, gobble...

VCon 2018 - Day 2 - More Conversations than Conference-Going

Can you really say you've spent a day at a con if you've hardly taken-in any programming? Yes. Yes you can.

Today was a day like that for me at VCon. I arrived at noon(ish — I mean, hey, come on, it's me! How often have I ever shown my mug before the crack of lunch?), and spent the whole day there, but only took in one thing that was on the con schedule. The rest of the time I spent talking with people. And it was great! Sure, there were a bunch of panel sessions I would have like to have attended, and they would have been interesting and entertaining, but I think I had a better time shooting the breeze with people here and there throughout the venue. Some people would call that a "bar con" (where a person registers for a convention, but ends up spending the whole thing camped-out in the hotel bar yakking with whoever drifts in), and fair enough, though I didn't step foot inside the hotel restaurant/bar today. Maybe a lounge con? A courtyard con? A hallway con? Call it what you will, it was a good day.

I started things off catching up with Kristi Charish. I was just finishing lunch when she walked by and stopped to talk for a while. We ended up having an interesting discussion about the state of self-publishing versus traditional publishing, and all of the permutations in between that have popped up in recent years. She also shared a little info about her upcoming instalment in the Voodoo series. Later, part of me thought it would have made a good podcast episode. But you know what? Sometimes it's nice just to leave the iPad/recorder off and shoot the breeze. Enjoy the easy conversations that just kind of happen. That's part of what makes sf conventions so great.

Next I met up with James Alan Gardner to do an interview for the Invaders From Planet 3 podcast (stay tuned for that episode in about a month!). I've been a fan of his work going back to the Northern Stars Canadian sf anthology back in the mid-1990s, and his recent superhero novel, All Those Explosions Were Someone Else's Fault, was a glorious, fun, superhero/supernatural mashup that had a lot of heart. Jim's another good person to sit down and chat with, and I think you'll enjoy our conversation as much as I did.

A little wandering around then, and I drifted back into the dealers' room where I spent some time gazing wistfully at some of the Roman and Anglo Saxon items an antiquarian vendor had on display, and talking with him about history and how things like clasps and mounts and buckles would have been used, and by whom. I'd gone looking for something to buy my brother for Christmas, but ended up wrestling with temptation to get a trinket for myself. Didn't buy anything, but with one day left a the con, you never know.

After that, I had another interview for the podcast scheduled, this time with Matthew Hughes. He's another interesting person with a lot to say on everything from writing (of course) to a childhood and youth with incidents that could have been right out of a novel. No spoilers — you'll have to stay tuned for his episode of Invaders From Planet 3, coming up in late November/early December.

At that point, I toyed with going to a panel session, but it was after 6 and I was getting hungry, so I thought it'd be better to walk down the street for a bite. Sticking around for the session would have meant rushing through supper in order to get back in time for the Aurora Awards, and who wants to wolf down a meal when you should be taking time to enjoy it? So, scratch another session off the list. Instead, I walked through the deliciously crisp autumn night to the #9 Restaurant — Richmond's Chinese version of a 24-hour diner. It ain't pretty, but the food is good and inexpensive. Kung po guy ding, hoisin chow mein, and peppered deep-fried silver fish always make me a happy boy. If only they'd serve bolay tea, instead of the weak jasmine, it'd be perfect.

Back up the street to the con for the Auroras, and while I was waiting around, I saw a cosplayer styling a Negasonic Teenage Warhead suit. None of the energy blasts of her Marvel comic or Deadpool movie counterpart, but all of the attitude. We chatted for a bit, and she showed me some photos of some of her other costumes. I'm not a cosplayer myself, but I have a hell of a lot of respect for people who are — they show a lot of dedication and passion for the nerdy stuff they love. This conversation also reminded me that Saturday is generally the day that the cosplayers come out in force at VCon, but I hadn't really noticed any... mainly because I was talking with people instead of taking-in the masquerade or wandering around. But that's okay. If you see one good costume and a cosplayer having fun, it's worth it. I also ran into Kristi again during the wait, and we chatted a little more. And I saw someone I recognized from a session at the con a few years ago that I wanted to talk with briefly. This person had run a brief how-to on home recording and podcasting that I found really helpful when I was gearing up to put IFP3 together, and so I wanted to say thank-you. It's important. Lots of people teach or share info, and thankyous are pretty rare, so when you learn something worth-while from someone, it's important to give them that validation.

Then the doors opened and everyone filed-in to one of the larger rooms for the Auroras. No need for me to sum-up the list of nominees and winners — you can find that around the web. I'll just say congratulations to everyone on the lists this year! Well deserved, everyone!

Leaving the ceremony, someone caught sight of the Uber Torso CHOAM t-shirt I was wearing and asked "Hey, is that the CHOAM company from Dune?" It's a wonderful thing to be around people who get the references on Uber Torso's shirts. Yesterday, I was in the Tyrell Corporation Nexus 6 shirt. Tomorrow? Maybe Flynn's Arcade? Maybe Weyland Yutani's Hadley's Hope colony shirt? We'll see. If only the Wyld Stallyns tour shirt I'm waiting for would arrive, I might go with that.

After that, it was time to head home. As usual, hungry kitties waiting for a too-late supper, a blog that needs updating, and a little relaxation before bed.

See you at the con tomorrow!