Tuesday, March 03, 2015

RIP Leonard Nimoy

Sad news the other day of Leonard Nimoy's passing. A director, writer, photographer, and poet, Nimoy was best known as an actor (yes, I'm deliberately leaving out singer, because we shall not speak of the Bilbo Baggins song). But because of his iconic role in the Star Trek franchise, Nimoy was one of those people who had transcended mere actor status — his name became part of the science fiction community's vocabulary, so much so that it was tapped for the beginning of Monsters vs Aliens for the "Code Nimoy" alert.

Naturally, for as long as I can remember, I've associated him with his role as Spock. As a little kid, I'd see reruns of the original Star Trek on TV, and one of the things that stood out the most was Spock providing the steady anchor onscreen against Kirk's cartoonish flamboyancy. I wasn't paying attention  to the dialogue so much as the rhythm of the characters and how they navigated each story, and Spock always had his own tune. The words became more important when I came back to the series later as a teenager, and while I would tend to identify more often with other characters, Spock remained one of the ones I liked the most. He was thoughtful and smart, always did the right thing, and, because of his alien status, was always a little (or a lot) isolated from his companions. And yet, despite that rigorously logical personality and approach to life, Nimoy managed to add enough subtle touches to keep the character from being totally alien to the audience, and gave us something to like. But I think it was in the 'Trek movies of the 80s and early 90s where Nimoy most excelled in his performances, again, using his ability to add those subtleties to stand out from fellow cast members or story lines that were frequently not subtle, and to underscore just how much was going on inside Spock as he dealt with each crisis.

Best examples? Spock's death in Star Trek II — The Wrath of Khan, for starters. Where others might have been tempted to go all-out demonstrating Spock's agony after being toasted in the energizer chamber, Nimoy gave us just a taste of it — just enough to let the audience know that it was really, really bad, but still kept his performance very controlled, in keeping with the personality of a character who would have kept that pain tightly under wraps to avoid upsetting his friends, and to maintain his dignity. He shows us Spock fading inexorably, holding on long enough to say what he has to say, but all along acknowledging the inevitable and certainly not trying to prevent it. And it's because of Nimoy's presentation of gentle acceptance, a grace when all others around him have been clawing in ugly ferocity to keep living at all costs, that Spock's death wrecks the viewer so much.

Then there was the mind-meld scene with Kim Cattrall (and her horrible hair) in Star Trek VI — The Undiscovered Country. Here, Nimoy teases us with a deceptive amount of emotion: Spock is clearly angry at Valeris' betrayal, and coldly resolved to pry the information about the conspiracy out of her. And yet, for all of that, he's holding so much back because the character is holding so much back. As a Vulcan, Spock's emotions would have been explosive at that moment, but because Vulcans fight to keep their emotions in check, and Spock more than most, half the battle you see onscreen on Nimoy's face is the character's fight to keep himself under control. It makes the scene that much more frightening because as Spock forces the mind-meld and starts tearing away Valeris' mental defences and boring into her memory (and let's call a spade a spade here, what's clearly happening is a mental rape: Spock is forcing himself inside Valeris against her will), the viewer can see that Spock has reconciled himself with having to commit an atrocity against one of his proteges, an act of brutality that he will have to live with for the rest of his life (and one that won't be easy to live with, given his acceptance of the need to acknowledge some emotion, unlike other Vulcans), and who wouldn't be scared of someone who could do that — and, more importantly, do something that monstrous, reveal that ability within themselves, in front of their friends? The viewer can also see from Valeris' reaction that not only is she being painfully brutalized, but because the mind-meld allows her to fully experience Spock's consciousness, she is feeling the full force of his Vulcan rage behind his cracked facade of emotional control, and she is clearly terrified. Very few other actors could have done this without over- or under-acting.

And if you want to look at the opposite end of the spectrum and talk about a character with an excess of emotion, there's always Nimoy's performance as Galvatron in the animated Transformers: The Movie. After a near-dead Megatron is rebooted and upgraded by the world-eating planet transformer Unicron, he becomes the new Decepticon leader, Galvatron. Problem is, coming back from the brink, or maybe a glitch in Unicron's upgrade job, has left Galvatron with some issues. Where Megatron was a short-tempered egomaniac who was into punishment, Galvatron's a flat-out nut who goes off with next to no provocation, and leaves punishment by the side of the road in favour of killing. Nimoy does an admirable job of voicing this character. And while Nimoy would, years later, go on to voice another Transformers baddie in the totally unnecessary ADD-fest known as Transformers — Dark of the Moon, it'll be his role as Galvatron in the animated flick that'll enshrine him in the franchise' lore.

But for all his roles over the years, for all that Spock impressed me, the Nimoy performance that I resoundingly enjoy the most is that of Carapace Clavicle Moundshroud from the animated TV movie version of The Halloween Tree. Pinching and dragging his voice to sound like the creak of an old wooden coffin lid that's about to release a horror upon the world, Nimoy does a brilliant job of making Mr Moundshroud alternately cantankerous, amused, brusk, pedagogical, wistful, sly, surprised and curious, and even embarrassed in a reticent sort of way. He makes the viewer as wary of Moundshroud as the kids are, and yet draws you in as surely as the trick-or-treaters. As the one who does the most talking in the production — next to the story's author Ray Bradbury in his role as the narrator — Nimoy creates a voice that is the perfect evocation of a personification of the ancient, fun creepiness of Hallowe'en.

And maybe it's appropriate to end with The Hallowe'en Tree. As fans, while we celebrate Leonard Nimoy's life and performances, let us also say "Carry his pumpkin gently, Moundshroud. Gently."

Thursday, February 19, 2015

My Nominations for the 2015 Hugo Awards

There can be a lot of hand-wringing when it comes time to make nominations for the Hugo Awards. After all, with so many small publishers offering so many novels and collections alongside those put out by the larger, traditional SF publishing houses (or, substitute production companies if you want to focus on TV and the movies), and so many works being offered from around the world, it's pretty much impossible to have read or seen everything genre-related that's been generated in a year, begging the question of whether one can legitimately make nominations if one hasn't seen or read everything there is to see or read. Then there's the issue of whether one's nominations will make a difference. To borrow a thought from one of SF Signal's Three Hoarsemen (I think it might have been Fred) last year, there used to be a time when the annual SF output was much smaller, and it was possible to have seen or read everything (or most of the major works) from a given year, and because of that, the SF community had a common language or set of terms of reference when making Hugo nominations — one could nominate a work of excellence knowing that a lot of others in the community probably felt the same way, or at least had heard of what you were talking about, and thus one's nomination stood a reasonable chance of actually getting support, and maybe landing the award itself. Today, on the other hand, with so much out there, the community is much more fragmented, and it's increasingly the case that one can nominate a work — even a book, story, or movie of tremendous excellence — but because of the huge number of choices, the percentages of fans who are making similar nominations or backing the same nomination are getting much smaller.

Is it fair to make a nomination? Is it worth while?

I used to worry about this sort of thing a lot when it came to making award nominations (whether it was the Hugos, on the rare occasions when I went to Worldcons, or the Auroras). But I've slowly started growing indifferent to that kind of angst. I'm the first to admit that I haven't read or watched everything new in a given year — I can't! I have a life, not to mention one hell of a reading and viewing backlog because of the aforementioned avalanche of interesting stuff. And as far as low likelihoods of stories or novels that I nominate actually making it to the podium? Well, as Han Solo famously said: "Never tell me the odds!" Sometimes it's more important just to make the attempt, to nominate the thing and show fellow fans (and possibly its creators) that it's a thing worth paying attention to, even if only half a dozen other people ever bother paying attention to it.

So, about a week ago, I just got on with it and filed my nominations for the 2015 Hugo Awards.

For what it's worth, here they are:

Best Novel:
Echopraxia by Peter Watts
Annihilation by Jeff Vandermeer
Traitor's Blade by Sebastien De Castille

I've reviewed all three of these novels previously on the blog, so I won't bother to summarize, but, of the few new novels of 2014 that I read last year, I'd say these are the worthies. Traitor's Blade, being the fun, fast-reading romp that it is, is very much the dark horse here — I suspect there aren't many other voters out there who've read it, and it certainly isn't as heavy a book in terms of subject matter or meaning. But, seeing as how it was a damn fun read, I think it's worth the nod. The other two books here speak for themselves — if you've read them, how could you not nominate them?

Best Novella:
The Slow Regard of Silent Things by Patrick Rothfuss

Another short book that I've already reviewed here, but I'll say again that it was such a finely-crafted and sweet little story that it would be a crime not to include it on the nomination roster. I don't think I read any other novellas in 2014 that were published that year, so I can't make any other nominations.

Best Novelette:
The Truth is a Cave in the Black Mountains by Neil Gaiman

This one was a little problematic, in that I seem to recall reading that the copyright for this story is actually a couple of years old. And yet, this (the illustrated hardcover chapbook from William Morrow/Harper Collins) is the first time I've encountered it, and it appears to (at least) be the first time it's been published with the accompanying illustrations. So, because it was so damn absorbing for such a little tale (and probably because it was also very much on my mind with my reading of it coinciding very closely with my trip to Scotland in the wake of attending Worldcon in London last year), I figured I'd nominate it in hopes that it's actually eligible and that enough other people had read it and agreed on its worthiness. Again, no other novelettes read last year from last year, or, at least, none that I can recall, so there are no other nominations from me in this category.

Best Short Story:
"The Body Politic" by John Jantunen in Fractured — Tales of the Canadian Post Apocalypse
"Maxim Fujiyama and Other Persons" by Claude Lalumiere in Fractured — Tales of the Canadian Post Apocalypse
"Manitou-Wapow" by GMB Chomichuk in Fractured — Tales of the Canadian Post Apocalypse
"Empty Heat" by Agnes Cadieux in On Spec Magazine (Summer 2014)
"Persistence of Vision" by Orrin Grey in Fractured — Tales of the Canadian Post Apocalypse

Yes, most of these come from the same anthology, but that collection was just so damn good (hands down one of the three best anthologies I've read in the last decade — along with Old Mars and Masked Mosaic: Canadian Super Stories) and these particular stories were so incredible that it would have been inexcusable not to nominate them. Granted, because all of these stories are Canadian, it's highly unlikely many — if any — of them will receive other nominations or make it to the final ballot, but, odds aside (sing it, Han!), they are worthy of nomination none-the-less.

Best Related Work:
Pass. Nothing came to mind.

Best Graphic Story:
Nemo — The Roses of Berlin by Alan Moore and Kevin O'Neill
The Truth is a Cave in the Black Mountains by Neil Gaiman and Eddie Campbell

I've always enjoyed Moore and O'Neill's League of Extraordinary Gentlemen graphic novels, and 'Roses certainly didn't disappoint. As for The Truth, well, given the sheer number of illustrations (and their importance in heightening the mood of the tale) in this book, I think it ought to qualify for this category.

Best Dramatic Presentation (Long Form):
Guardians of the Galaxy
The Lego Movie
The Interview
Captain America — The Winter Soldier
The Hobbit — The Battle of Five Armies

Without a doubt, 'Guardians was the best SF movie of the year. If it doesn't take the Hugo, I'll... well, actually, I'll just assume that enough other people liked other movies a little more. Anyway. The Lego Movie, aside from being a nakedly crass marketing opportunity, was smart and pretty damn funny (once it got past a little initial slowness), and worth a nod. The Interview? Science fiction? Well, yes. It's either set in the near future or an alternate present (where the enormously unlikely possibility of an idiot talk show host and his more realistic producer getting invited to North Korea, and playing a role in upsetting the Kim regime, actually happens), so that's SF in my books (if barely). Will this movie get the Hugo? Not a chance. But it's worth a nomination. And then 'Cap is back in a generally interesting flick, if one that lost me at the end with the threat of the helicarrier apocalypse that probably could have been put to a swift end by any first world country possessing defence satellites. I'm comfortable nominating it anyway. And lastly, The Hobbit conclusion. A little more problematic with this one because I found the movie too choppy, and there were more scenes that proved that overall, Jackson and company may love Tolkien's works, but they don't really understand them. Still, it was a big effort to conclude a series that's been a big effort, and one that was, overall, entertaining, so I'm giving this flick the nomination nod too.

Best Dramatic Presentation (Short Form):
"Grand Guignol" from Penny Dreadful
"The Watchers on the Wall" from Game of Thrones
"Listen" from Doctor Who
"The Saint of Last Resorts" from Constantine
"The Laws of Gods and Men" from Game of Thrones

If you haven't been watching Penny Dreadful, you should be. Go out and rent it right now. It's smart and dark and viscerally unsettling, and it brings all the classic Victorian monsters together in one setting without being silly. "Grand Guignol" was the perfect season finale, and because it left me in a state of frustration waiting for next season to begin, it's definitely worth a Hugo. Two nominations for Game of Thrones are in order (and, let's face it, the show probably deserves more nods for more of last season's episodes, but we've gotta be fair to the other good programs out there in TVland), those being for "The Watchers on the Wall" — the big payoff battle between the Night's Watch and the Wildlings that we've all been waiting for — and "The Laws of Gods and Men" — focusing on the trial of Tyrion Lannister and some first-class acting by Peter Dinklage. Constantine was a bit of a surprise last fall — I wasn't sure what DC would do with the character for TV, but it quickly proved itself to be a very entertaining show that doesn't pull any punches. "The Saint of Last Resorts" was a brutal half-season break finale that left me wanting more, so, cue-up the nomination. And "Listen" was probably the most frightening Doctor Who episode since "Blink", especially since the attempt to neatly and soothingly tie things up at the end was in no way convincing. I'd be content if this episode lands the award, though, really, I'd like to see Penny Dreadful get it.

Best Professional Editor (Short Form):
Pass. None really stood out last year.

Best Professional Editor (Long Form):
Pass. Same as above.

Best Professional Artist:
Pass. In this case, I thought that not having seen enough art from 2014 was a legitimate reason not to nominate in this category, and I found the nomination criteria to be a little confusing.

Best Semiprozine:
On Spec

On Spec's been my go-to mag for years. Of course I'm going to nominate them! Besides, they need all the love they can get after the damn Canada Council pulled their funding last year.

Best Fanzine:
Pass. SF Signal took itself out of the running to give others a chance (an unquestionably classy act), so I can't vote for them. I do visit other sites/blogs from time to time, but not often enough to warrant a nomination. And I can't nominate my own blog because I would consider that to be bad form. So... pass.

Best Fancast:
The Three Hoarsemen
The SF Signal Podcast

I think everyone should nominate The Three Hoarsemen for Best Fancast this year. Really. It is probably the best SF-related podcast out there. The hosts are knowledgable, easy conversationalists who air thoughtful discussions on all manner of stories (whether they be in book, comic, TV or movie form) that are guaranteed to draw the listener in. There's no grandstanding or interruption of one-another, and when they pick guests, those participants are chosen for their intelligence and interesting points of view, and they absorb seamlessly into the show, so that it feels like they've always been a part of it. Indeed, the only flaws with the Hoarsemen are that their episodes aren't more frequent (but, hey, I guess they're allowed to have lives), and that nearly every episode will add to your list of books/comics/etc that you previously didn't know that you needed to have, but now have to run out and get as soon as possible. The Three Hoarsemen is the show that deserves to win. That said, if you have to nominate another podcast, the SF Signal Podcast is the one to give the nod to. Generally entertaining and with a lot of names coming in and out to offer varying perspectives, there's a reason why this podcast landed the Hugo last year, and is worthy of consideration again.

Best Fan Writer:
Pass. I've read a lot of articles and whatnot over the past year, some by very talented people, but none of them has really stayed with me, and, if I can't remember a person's articles (or at least one of them), can I really nominate them? And, like with the Best Fanzine category, I can't nominate myself, because then I'd be an ass. Or, at least, more of an ass than I already am, and there are just some lines I'm not willing to cross.

Best Fan Artist:
Pass. Again, as good as some pieces of art that I've seen have been, nothing really stands out in memory.

The John W Campbell Award:
Pass. I don't think I read any new writers in 2014 who fit the criteria (although, it's possible I have, and at the time I just didn't recognize that they were new writers, or I don't have a full grasp of the nomination criteria).

So those are my nominations for the Hugos. If you're still pondering yourself, maybe some of these will give you some suggestions. And, at the very least, if you haven't read/seen/listened-to these works before, maybe reading this will prompt you to give some of them a try (hopefully my ramblings won't drive you away from them!).

Best of luck to everyone nominated for a Hugo or the John W Campbell Award this year!

Sunday, February 15, 2015

Saturday Morning Cartoons - Robotech

Once in a while, an anime series explodes into global consciousness in a way that gets everyone talking, and becomes a benchmark for a generation. In the mid-late 70s, it was Star Blazers (originally Space Battleship Yamato to the Japanese audience), a show that made a huge imprint on my mind as a little kid; meanwhile, in Quebec, they had Captain Harlock the space pirate; later, Battle of the Planets (a.k.a. G-Force on our schoolyard playground, and Gatchaman originally in Japan) was all the rage, though I remember it being on after school, rather than Saturday mornings. But by the mid-80s, it was Robotech that had invaded just about everyone's TVs.

Brought to North America and other markets by Harmony Gold, Robotech was actually an extended combination of three separate Japanese series: The Super Dimension Fortress Macross, The Super Dimension Cavalry Southern Cross, and Genesis Climber Mospeada. The first group of episodes (using the Macross series) followed the lives of a group of people aboard a huge starship called the SDF-1 — originally an alien vessel that had crashed on Earth and been refitted by humanity — as it fled across the solar system in an effort to escape the alien Zentraedi forces (giant, cloned humanoids bred for war in the service of their creators) who claimed ownership of it. The second instalment (built off of Southern Cross), involved the next generation of heroes — specifically the daughter of two of the characters from the first instalment — now allied with the Zentraedi and trying to defend the Earth from an invasion by the Robotech Masters, the creators of the giants. The third part (using Mospeada) took place years later, during a human rebellion against the Invid, another alien force that had taken over the Earth in an attempt to reclaim the flower of life/protoculture stolen by the Robotech Masters centuries earlier and carried to our world by renegade Zentraedi aboard the SDF-1. (Convoluted enough for ya? Well, this was the simple version of the plot summary!)

What made Robotech different than other Saturday morning fare — indeed, more than many other anime series that have been exported to North America in the decades since then — was that the plot revolved around something more than just fighting badguys in a battle-of-the-week scenario. Instead, the story was truly about relationships between people (the love triangle between pilot Rich Hunter, second-in-command Lisa Hayes, and pop singer Lynn Minmay/Minmei in the first instalment — though I can't remember the characters and relationships in the second and third parts), and the power of music and emotion. And notably, music and human emotions — at least in the first instalment — proved to be more powerful weapons than the squadrons of transformable fighter plane mechs or space cruisers. It was also a series that — flying in the face of tradition for science fiction and action cartoons — had the guts to take a break from the action and give its characters quiet time to pause and reflect on their lives, relationships, and emotional states. Sure, the relationships between the characters (especially Rick and Minmei) regularly descended into melodrama (though the portrayal of Roy Fokker and Claudia Grant's partnership was actually very mature), but there was a serious attempt to make these people three-dimensional, and even the melodrama is somewhat understandable when put in the context of many of these characters being teenagers or in their young twenties. Even supporting characters, like the SDF-1's Captain Gloval, or the aliens Commander Breetai and his advisor Exedor, seemed well thought-out and believable. Aside from the occasional tediousness of dialogue that's sometimes top-heavy with excessive compound sentences (again, probably forgivable in light of the production team having to sync the English script over animation patterned for a Japanese script and speech patterns), overall, Robotech was a pretty good show (good enough that I picked up the first instalment on DVD a number of years ago, and still watch the odd episode on occasion).

So why dust this old chestnut off for the Saturday Morning Cartoon Rewatch all of a sudden? Recently, I read that a sub-unit of Warner Brothers is taking a run at producing a live-action movie based on Robotech. Now, like all Hollywood gossip, this is something that fans can't put a lot of stock into, especially since there have been rumours of Robotech projects before. Basically, you've got to put it out of mind until an official trailer is released, and even then you've got to keep your cool until the real deal hits the big screen, because anything could happen to sink the project, or, even if it's produced, delay or prevent screening. And yet, this newest rumour provides us with a good excuse to look back at the original TV show, and remember why it was good enough to cause all this fuss in the first place.

With an action figure in one hand, and a bowl of cereal in another, it's time to watch an episode of Robotech! (part 1 of episode 27, "Force of Arms")

Saturday, February 07, 2015

Saturday Morning Cartoons - When Video Games Ruled the Airwaves Part 3

Our stack of quarters is running low, and the cereal box is nearly empty, but we've got enough left to get through two more video game-inspired Saturday morning cartoons. And then home gaming systems and home computers will radically improve, and society in general will just sort of shift, and arcades will become unpopular and less and less profitable, and Saturday morning cartoons will fall by the wayside, and none of this will have any relevance anymore. [shudders] Yeah.

But we'll make it all relevant. Just one more time. Here on the Saturday Morning Cartoon Rewatch:

Everybody knows who Mario is. But do you remember a simpler time in the digital plumber's life? A time before he started traipsing through rows of magic mushrooms, skipping over turtles, and grasping at gold hanging just above reach in the sky? Before his brother Luigi started tagging along? Before the spinoff go-cart races? When he wasn't even the one on the branding?

Remember when it was all about love?

There was once a game called Donkey Kong, where Mario was focussed on one thing, and one thing only: rescuing his girlfriend from the clutches of an over-sized, demented ape holed-up in a construction site.

That game inspired a Saturday morning cartoon. A cartoon which was not remotely about love. Instead, it followed the simple, tried-and-true Saturday morning formula of pursuit and the evasion of capture. Donkey Kong the cartoon followed the adventures of Mario and his coworker/girlfriend Pauline as they chased the giant titular gorilla across the country, trying to recapture him after his escape from a circus. Once in a while, the big guy would grab the girl, but Mario would always manage to free her, and Donkey Kong would always manage to get away. (full episode)

When Raiders of the Lost Ark whipped audiences into a diselpunk pre-War action frenzy in the early 80s, it wasn't too long before various copycats did their best on TV and in the movies to pick up where Indy left off. The realm of video games was no exception. Atari brought us the vine-swinging, crocodile-dodging thrills of Pitfall, and so when cartoons started using video games as inspiration, it was a given that this one would make the cut. Pitfall! was about the adventures of Harry, a treasure hunter, who would journey around the world to, you know, hunt for treasure. He was joined by his niece and his pet cougar. Hijinks ensued. (intro)

And that wraps-up our series on video game-inspired cartoons. Join us next week for other (hopefully better) animated adventures. But that doesn't mean you have to stay away for a full week. You can always come to the blog more often to read other stuff. In fact, I hope you would! Though, admittedly, I wouldn't blame you if you didn't. Sigh. Excuse me while I drown my sorrows in another bowl of cereal...

Saturday, January 31, 2015

Saturday Morning Cartoons - When Video Games Ruled the Airwaves Part 2

As I mentioned last week, the video game invasion of the Saturday morning cartoon universe was so massive that there's no way to fit all of them into one post — at least, no way to do it and keep the article to any reasonable length. So, jamming our pockets full of quarters, we'll continue our prowl around the arcade to see which games were fodder for TV.

We'll start with Q Bert, not because we want to, but because today's lineup is more or less universally weak, so, why not? Through the magic of Hollywood script grinders, a video game about a round thing with a trumpet-like nose/mouth/whatever that hops around a pyramid trying to change the colours of squares while avoiding snakes, became a cartoon about the same round thing and his friends taking on the roles of retro-50s highschoolers hanging out at a malt shop and doing... whatever. This show was so deeply odd that I couldn't remember a thing about it (only that it existed) before scrounging it up on YouTube, and, once I found it and watched a little, it wasn't good enough for me to watch enough to figure out what it was about. Perhaps you'll be a little more charitable than I. (intro)

Shifting gears now, let's take a look at Pole Position, based on the hit racing game. My friends and I used to spend quite a bit of time on this game in the arcade. Sadly, we had to settle for Turbo on our home gaming consoles, because we had Colecovision systems. And when the wave of video game-inspired shows hit the air, we had to settle for this odd Speedracer-ScoobyDoo hybrid. A couple of teens spending their days on a futuristic Nascar circuit, and fighting crime in the off hours. Throw in overly-cute younger sibling and cat for sidekicks, along with Knightrider-inspired onboard AIs for the cars, and you've got a show. Does anyone else think the cars' AI faces look a lot like the mug of the Master Control in Tron? (full episode)

And just as we're getting to the point where all of the stale marshmallows are gone and only a couple of soggy, hyper-sugared flakes or pops or whatever are drifting around in the milk at the bottom of our cereal bowls, let's finish off with an episode of Space Ace. Like Dragon's Lair (mentioned last week), Space Ace was one of those breakthrough video games to feature animation-quality graphics, and near-impossible game play. The cartoon put Ace and his partner Kimmi into the cockpit on a weekly basis to fight Borf the bad guy (a Blue Meanie escaped from the Beatles' Sgt Pepperverse and whacked on steroids), or whatever other substitute they wanted to use, and things would get complicated when Ace would transform into his slight and dorky alter-ego Dexter at inopportune moments. Funny thing is, just like with Dragon's Lair, I seem to recall the quality of animation in the video game was actually better than what they served up on TV on Saturday mornings. (full episode)

Thursday, January 29, 2015

Mini Review 6 - Dangerous Women, Under the Moons of Mars, Traitor's Blade, and The Rapture of the Nerds

A bit of a mixed bag this time around in the mini book reviews: a couple of anthologies, a trip to the post-singularity future, and a Three Musketeers-inspired fantasy. We'll start with Dangerous Women, then jump out to Under the Moons of Mars, take a look at Traitor's Blade, and finish with Rapture of the Nerds. So, without further ado, here we go!


Dangerous Women, edited by George RR Martin and Gardner Dozois
In theory, the Dangerous Women anthology from Martin and Dozois should have been a great book. After all, it's got a strong, intriguing theme, a boatload of well-known authors (a number of whom are writing additions to popular series), a pair of seasoned editors who are expert at crafting these types of collections, and enough room for the authors to take as much time as they want/need to develop the stories they want to present. But it didn't pan out that way.

Instead, what they reader's got to deal with is a vast, aimless mishmash of — sadly — frequently boring tales that's so bloated a shipping crane is needed to hoist the original hardcover off of the shelf and over to whatever reading area is designated, with a very real risk of severe, debilitating, permanent personal injuries if it ever happens to tip over and fall onto said hapless reader (in fact, this thing is so big ["How big is it?"] that the publishers had to break it into two volumes for the paperback edition). What makes this tome so bulky is the length of the stories — you won't find more than a couple that are less than 20 pages long, and many are up in the range of 40 pages (or more — Martin's own contribution is a whopping 81 pages). Normally, I'd be fine with longer fare — in fact, generally, I would applaud editors and publishers who give authors room to maneuver — but in this case, I found many of the stories to be boring from the outset, making it unreasonable to slog through the entire length of each and every one of them. As a reader, I normally expect a couple of bad to indifferent stories in any given anthology, but in this case, where they're the rule, rather than the exception, and gigantic to boot, it's just unforgivable. In fact, this collection was so unengaging that not only did I stop reading many of the stories after a page or two, jumping ahead to the next in line, but I put the entire book down three or four times to take breaks and read other books. If this collection had been as well-crafted as Martin and Dozois' Old Mars, I wouldn't have stopped reading it for love or money. But it wasn't.

There are a couple of contributions that save Dangerous Women from being a complete wash-out though. Carolin Spector's "Lies My Mother Told Me" was a great addition to the Wildcards universe, with its examination of the things — internal and external— which can try to control the most powerful of superheroes. Melinda Snodgrass' "The Hands That Are Not There" was also absorbing in its tale of a man's obvious but inevitable slide to towards ruin. "Bombshells" by Jim Butcher was an entertaining addition to the Dresden stories. And "Shadows For Silence in the Forests of Hell" by Brandon Sanderson was a story I'd like to see explored at greater length in a novel. I wanted to like Martin's "The Princess and the Queen" — an addition to his A Song of Ice and Fire series detailing the Dance of the Dragons period of inter-Targaryen civil war in Westeros — but, as noted above, it was a great beast of a story, and one that I'd already read in detail in another form very recently in The World of Ice and Fire, so I gave up on it.

On the whole, four (maybe five) good tales alone were not enough to save this lumbering wreck of an anthology, any more than having four good swimmers push against the bow of an out-of-control car ferry would keep it from piling into a pier. Dangerous Women should be a good anthology. Instead, it's a dangerous anthology — dangerous for the amount of time and money that could be wasted on it.


Under the Moons of Mars — New Adventures on Barsoom, edited by John Joseph Adams
I've always been a sucker for good stories about the golden age of Mars — tales set on the Mars of imagination that existed in the minds of writers (like Wells, Bradbury, Wollheim... or Edgar Rice Burroughs) before science outstripped dreams and told us that there were no canals built by vanished races, and that the red planet had never been a place of wild adventure. So, when I saw Under the Moons of Mars — New Adventures on Barsoom at the bookstore, I just had to snap it up. And editor John Joseph Adams certainly does not disappoint with this collection of the further adventures of John Carter,  his descendants, and others in the extended Burroughsverse.

My favourite among the lineup was Peter S Beagle's "The Ape-Man of Mars", where Tarzan is transported to Barsoom and meets John Carter. While the Lord of the Apes is thoughtful and cautious, Beagle presents the Warlord of Mars as a swaggering bully. The story gives the impression that, fresh from his Confederate loss in the US Civil War, Carter's wasted no time in dominating the Martians to assuage his wounded pride — pride that's threatened by the sudden appearance of the stronger and more intelligent Greystoke. "A Sidekick of Mars" by Garth Nix also takes a cynical look at what a man like Carter might be like, seen through the eyes of another Earthman transported to the red planet. But "Woola's Song", by Theodora Goss, gives a more sympathetic portrayal of Carter, told by his calot companion.

If you're a fan of Burroughs, or tales from the golden age of the red planet in general, Under the Moons of Mars is well-worth the buy.


Traitor's Blade, by Sebastian De Castell
Some books are perfect for a summer weekend at the cottage or the beach. They're the kind with a good story that you don't want to put down — not gripping, per se, but interesting enough, and entertaining enough, that you can convince yourself without much effort that it's okay to read just one more page before you put it down, and that one more page turns into the whole book — and a pace that lets you jog through it quickly enough that the book doesn't feel anywhere near as long as it is. Traitor's Blade by Sebastien De Castell is just such a book.

The first in an upcoming series, Traitor's Blade tells the story of Falcio, Kest, and Brasti, a trio of down-on-their-luck Greatcoats, taking whatever jobs they can (and frequently getting underpaid — or not paid at all) as they roam the land searching for a lost relic of their king. Once, the hundred-or-so Greatcoats were the king's law — each individual member combining the roles of police, prosecutor, judge, jury, and executioner — roaming the land in their big leather coats (armoured and packed with pockets containing all manner of potentially helpful items) and helping the people, and Falcio, Kest, and Brasti were among the best. That is, until greedy and corrupt nobles raised an army of knights, overthrew the king, and cast out the Greatcoats in disgrace — but not before the king gave each Greatcoat his or her own secret mission to complete in the dark years ahead. Now the three find themselves having to take work escorting a princess and her caravan to a wedding, with the dangers of the road proving less hazardous than the conspiracy among the nobles which they stumble into, a young girl's need for a protector during a deadly festival in a city, and Falcio's occasional fits of berserk rage.

You may have already picked up the vibe that Traitor's Blade draws some inspiration from Alexandre Dumas' The Three Musketeers, and that's certainly true, but De Castell has done a reasonably good job of telling his own, unique story, and has laid the foundations of (if not fully constructed) his own somewhat-Medieval-kind-of-Renaissance world with its politics, gods, and magic. It's a rollicking story that never loses its pace and has enough funny banter to balance out some of the grim things that happen to or are remembered by its characters. As characters go, Falcio, the narrator, is well-rounded and sympathetic, though this companions, Kest and Brasti, are a bit thin. I also had a problem with part of the book where Falcio is taken in by the priestess of the healing/prostitution cult, in that her insistence on exorcising him of his psychological pain felt a little too much like Spock's brother Sybok's routine in the execrable Star Trek V - The Final Frontier; but worse, as part of her healing ritual, she forces sex on him. Now, it is done in the service of healing him, but one has to note that Falcio tells her "no", and yet she still proceeds, which makes it rape, and thus definitely not okay. When all is said and done, Falcio eventually decides that he might like to take the priestess up on her offer of running off to some nice island with her and leaving the cares of the world behind, so he's obviously okay with what's happened... and yet, and yet, and yet, are we, as readers, supposed to be? I don't know. I'm still a bit uncomfortable with it. Lastly — and this actually is lastly, because it happens at the end of the book — I had a problem with the presentation of Kest's battle with the Saint of Swords (basically the demigod/god of swordfighters who, at this point, has been summoned by the bad guys to kill the good guys), because it's not actually presented. Throughout the length of the book, we're frequently told about Kest's abilities with a sword, that he's essentially the most badass swordsman alive, and yet, when it all comes down to the final battle, we don't actually get a description of him showing his prowess and defeating the Saint. He says his goodbyes, walks off towards the Saint for a duel, other things happen with other characters, and then Kest is back, victorious. Huh? The book has plenty of scenes where Falcio demonstrates his proficiency in a fight (with a sword and otherwise), and Brasti's archery skills are displayed from time to time, but when his big moment comes, Kest gets a raw deal. It doesn't matter that the story is told from Falcio's point of view; to have that kind of build-up and then not show anything just doesn't wash. It's a cheat. And it really took the wind out of the emotional tone and the rhythm of the plot at the story's climax.

That said, overall, Traitor's Blade was an entertaining read, and I'm looking forward to the next volume, Knight's Shadow. I have no problem recommending this book to anyone looking to buy something on their way to spring break or a vacation.


The Rapture of the Nerds, by Cory Doctorow and Charles Stross
How can I describe the whirlwind that is Doctorow and Stross' The Rapture of the Nerds? Well, how about a post-human, multiply transsexual re-imagining of Douglas Adams' The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy — if Arthur Dent had just a little more input on determining the fate of the world (if not his own particular mode of existence). Clear things up any? Not much? Not surprised. It's not really a book that lends itself to a quick summation, even though, beyond the crazed contortions of its plot, it's not really about much, other than one person's fortunes and misfortunes when dragged unwillingly into an adventure.

In a future where much of the human population has uploaded into a post-human state of electronic consciousness and left the Earth to go about its strange business with AIs in the busy communication lanes of the solar system, an anti-technological Welsh potter named Huw receives a summons to do his civic duty and take part in a committee to evaluate a new piece of technology that's been downloaded from the post-human/AI cloud. The device turns out to be something wholly unexpected, and Huw ends up being dragged around the world, through regions with radically different cultures, technological levels, and levels of moral and environmental mutation and degeneration, as various factions try to get a stake in determining the fate of the world. Because, as Huw discovers, the powers-that-be in the cloud aren't content to leave the backward Earth alone anymore; now they're trying to decide whether to tear the planet down to use for computing materials, and Huw's been appointed to argue the case for its continued existence. If that weren't enough, he's later stiff-armed into taking on the role of the defence in an alien trial to determine whether to allow the continued existence of humanity and the entire solar system. Then there's the repeated sexual reassignment surgery, and forcible uploading to the cloud. Got it? Still not quite? Then read the book.

Throwing out post-human, environmental, technological, and cultural what-ifs like cards from a deck hurled over their shoulders while they're on the run from their own imaginations, Stross and Doctorow have concocted a story that's one hell of a wild ride — for Huw the protagonist, and for the reader, both who are desperately trying to keep up. It's funny, it's weird, it's scary, and it's worth every penny just to pick up a copy of this book, read through it, and say you've managed to hold on.

Sunday, January 25, 2015

Saturday Morning Cartoons - When Video Games Ruled the Airwaves Part 1

The early 1980s were the golden age of video games as well as cartoons, so it was only a matter of time before TV networks and their animation production houses got the idea to merge the two in an orgy of marketing. For a couple of years, it seemed like every other show on Saturday morning was based on a video game, with some networks packaging them into hour-long programming blocks. Some were fun, others were typical cotton-candy storytelling, but because the games they were based on were so hot, everyone I knew watched the spinoff cartoons.

Video game-inspired cartoons were so popular that there were too many for me to include in just one post, so this is going to be a multiparter over the next couple of weeks.

Grab a stack of quarters and tell the kid behind you that you're gonna be a while — it's time for the Saturday morning cartoon rewatch!

First up: Frogger. How the writers and producers got from a game that was about getting a frog across a busy highway and hazardous river without getting killed to a show about a reporter and his sidekicks solving mysteries is beyond me, but that's the direction they went in for this spinoff. While I admit that I was a regular watcher of this show, I have to state categorically that it had no influence on my decision to be a reporter later in life. Of course, there were some similarities: the way the corporate end of the private radio industry in Canada works, sometimes I did feel like I'd been run over by a truck. (intro)

If there was going to be a whole new lineup of cartoons based on popular video games, there was no way producers would overlook the king of them all: Pac-man. Sure, by the time these shows came out, video games had become more sophisticated in terms of digital appearance and skill challenge, but Pac-man was a classic that still sucked down plenty of quarters at the arcades, and was a must-include when Atari first came out with its roster of cartridges for its home gaming system. At the arcade, I was always more of a fan of Ms Pac-man (especially if it was on a sit-down table model machine), but I didn't turn my nose up when Mr got his show on Saturday morning. I have to confess though, I have absolutely no memory of what the show was about, or what Pac-man did on it when he wasn't battling ghost monsters or hanging out with his family. (intro)

And to finish off with something slightly more cool, there's Dragon's Lair. This show was a rare example of double cross-pollination, where not only did the video game inspire the cartoon, but the look of the video game itself was inspired by cartoons. While this level of graphic illustration may be more-or-less commonplace today, back in the old days you would have seen huge crowds of kids clustered around the Dragon's Lair machines just to watch this slick-looking game. And so, when the cartoon version hit the air on Saturday morning, we all had to watch. Which was more fun than actually playing the video game itself. Over the years, pretty much anyone I've talked to about this arcade classic agrees that it was a total waste of money to play because the game never gave players much warning that it was about to shift from the extended animated no-play filler sequences to the actual player-controlled game sections; once the game sections did get under way, the control systems were very clumsy and the hero, Dirk the Derring, rarely did onscreen what the player was trying to get him to do; and the game-play sequences were very fast and inevitably fatal. Better to just save the effort of fighting through the crowd of bigger kids to get a turn to play, forget the joystick, hold on to your quarters, and watch the show on Saturday morning from the comfort of your own chesterfield in your own living room. (multiple episodes)