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)



Wednesday, January 21, 2015

Surrendering to the Inevitable

Well, it's done.

Last night I registered my wife and myself for attending memberships at Sasquan — the 2015 Worldcon in Spokane, Washington. But not before I reserved our hotel room though — lodgings in that town during that week are getting hard to come by (forget about blocks of rooms set aside for the con at the specific con hotels — those are long gone) — 'cause if you've got no place to stay, there's no point in buying tickets to the event. Luckily, I was able to find a room in what seems to be a nice enough hotel. So, we're officially locked-in for this shindig.

Wasn't an easy decision though. As I've noted in a previous post, we had to think long and hard about this one. After all, we're just coming off the high of Loncon3 this past summer, and we weren't sure we wanted to do two Worldcons back-to-back. Also — and no offence here to the good people of eastern Washington — Spokane isn't really on our list of vacation destinations. And our 10th anniversary is coming up not to long afterwards in October, and we want to get away for that occasion, so budgeting is a consideration.

And yet... and yet... Despite all of our hesitations, there's been an inexorable pull towards Spokane. The reality is, there probably won't be another Worldcon this close to us again for quite some time (Seattle's bid a couple of years ago fell apart, so there's no knowing when they'll try again; and Vancouver... well, the Worldcon rules, as I understand them after a limited fashion, seem to indicate the current VCon committee, for all its experience, doesn't have enough experience [which makes no sense to me], and there's a remarkable amount of fear around these parts among a not-insignificant portion of the community of going after something that big), so that along merits going. It's also within easy driving distance, which makes it inexpensive to get to, we won't have to worry about airline luggage weight restrictions (which means I can buy more books!!!), and we can take our time and stop along the way at our leisure going to and from. And some of our friends from the White Dwarf gang will be going (and we're trying to persuade some of the others to come too), so that'll be fun.

Now it's just a matter of waiting until August.

Meantime, if anyone reading this post is from Spokane or the area, or if you've been there before, what are some of the can't miss restaurants, sights, and things to do that you'd most recommend? Yes, I know, there are all kinds of travel sites, books, and other resources out there, but I'm always interested to hear about individual experiences — especially from fellow sf fans. So, what should be on our agenda in Spokane when we're not knee-deep in the con? Where do you go for the best burger? What's the best bookstore in town? What's the most interesting historical attraction?


Tuesday, January 20, 2015

Saturday Morning Cartoons - When Hollywood Shamelessly Cashed-In

There's nothing wrong with the folks in Hollywood trying to make a buck. But sometimes, the shameless promotion — or self-promotion — and merchandising, and all around exploitation and over-mining of every possible angle on an entertainment commodity — either a celebrity or a pre-existing show — can go too far. In the 80s we saw things taken to ridiculous lengths when a bunch of those entertainment products got their own Saturday morning cartoons... cartoons that weren't remotely original, didn't make any sense, and, to no-one's surprise, weren't entertaining.

So, here for your scorn and derision, the Saturday morning cartoon rewatch assembles some of the shows that showed Hollywood shamelessly cashing-in:


The Gary Coleman Show. There was a time in the late 70s and early 80s when under-sized child actor Gary Coleman was one of the hottest properties in the American entertainment business. He was the lead in the cast of the popular family sitcom Diff'rent Strokes, he'd starred in a couple of movies, made guest appearances on other shows (including Buck Rogers), and did the talkshow circuit. And then someone got the bright idea that (while Diff'rent Strokes was still stampeding through prime time) they could squeeze a few more bucks out of Coleman by building a Saturday morning cartoon series out of him. The show was a spinoff of the TV movie The Kid with the Broken Halo, about a kid who's died, is messing around during angel training, and is sent back to Earth to help people. While it may be a little unsettling to some to have a cartoon about a dead child, what's worse is that, even with the big bucks of the Hollywood promotion machine behind it, this show isn't remotely entertaining — wasn't back then when I was a kid, isn't now during a rewatch. There are full episodes available online, but —perhaps fortunately — I seem to be unable to copy the links over to the video window, so we'll have to settle for the show intro.




If that wasn't enough of an abuse of the celebrity promotion machine to start churning your Saturday morning bowl of stale-marshmallows-and-puffed-sugared-corn-cereal and milk in your stomach, let's try a little of Mr T. Propping-up this additional exposure op for the ubiquitous 80s tough guy (widely known for his role as the muscle on The A-Team and as Rocky's nemesis in Rocky III, Lawrence "Mr T" Tureaud had also backed Hulk Hogan in Wrestlemania, and appeared in other movies and TV shows, including the afore-mentioned Diff'rent Strokes), the plot was essentially a Scooby-Doo-style ripoff, with a team of competitive teen gymnasts driving around the country solving mysteries and helping people get out of trouble (instead of doing what you'd expect a gaggle of under-supervised teenagers would do on an endless roadtrip). Mr T was their coach, the driver of their motor coach, mentor, and enforcer. He also appeared in non-cartoon form in taped segments introducing each episode and providing a life lesson at the end. In addition to being forgettable except for being a celebrity cash-in, the show also dropped the ball by never having an episode where the gang helped foil the plot of some badguys at a chiropractors' convention, because it would have made sense to show that Mr T would eventually have needed help for his neck and back after dragging around that yoke of golden necklaces for so many years. (full episode)




And speaking of Hulk Hogan and Wrestlemania, this Saturday morning lineup just wouldn't be complete without Hulk Hogan's Rock'n'Wrestling. If the WWF (or WWE, or whatever it's called these days) was a tsunami inundating pop culture during the 80s, the Hulkster (haha- my autocorrect just tried to change that to "huckster") rode the crest of the wave like mighty Neptune himself. If the wrestling entertainment gig, with all of its posters and action figures and other merchandise, wasn't enough exposure, Terry Bollea certainly got his paws on more, with appearances in the afore-mentioned Rocky III, The Love Boat, Cindy Lauper's music video for The Goonies theme, and other productions. But, to get the world of entertainment in a full nelson and ensure he had as much exposure as his mighty biceps in a camera closeup, Hogan had to defeat Saturday morning, and so a cartoon was born. It was actually an ensemble affair, featuring other big wrestling names of the day, such as Andre the Giant and Rowdy Roddy Piper as good guys and bad guys tangling with each other in various misadventures, though I don't think many — if any of them at all — actually voiced their cartoon alter egos. While this show was, without a doubt, a shameless self-promotion platform for Hogan and the WWF, it differs from the others on this list because it actually made sense to do it, from a business perspective. After all, one of the WWF's key audiences was kids; the cartoon (like the action figures that would come out around the same time) was a way to keep the kids interested and entertained, and bind their brand loyalty. At the time, I liked HHRNW well enough, but it certainly wasn't a favourite. (full segment from episode)



Lastly, we come to The Dukes. While not an exposure vehicle for a particular celebrity, this was none-the-less an entirely pointless and shameless cash-in for an already popular TV show: The Dukes of Hazzard. There wasn't much in the primetime version of TDOH that kids (at least, kids in the 80s) couldn't watch; consequently, pretty much every kid watched it. It was one of the holy trinity of family-friendly action TV shows of its era, along with Knightrider and the afore-mentioned The A-Team. Growing up in a rural subdivision and going to a little school in the middle of farm country where pretty much every other kid's dad was a farmer or trucker, it was more-or-less a standing law of the playground that TDOH (for all of its encouragement of reckless driving, illegal alcohol distilling and smuggling, and weapons use) was to be watched, enjoyed, and endlessly discussed. So why, with every kid watching the main show (even through a major cast shake-up a couple of seasons in), would the network need to squeeze out a half-assed cartoon version for Saturday mornings? I mean, they weren't going to get us to watch the main show any more than we already were! But there it was: a cartoon about a couple of rednecks speeding through countries across the globe in a car sporting a Confederate flag in an animated ripoff of Around the World in 80 Days. And, of course, since it was a TDOH spinoff, we dutifully watched it and discussed it on the playground. Sigh. Well, at least I can own up to my shame now. Anyhow, here's the intro. Maybe it'll sit easier if you suck back bottle or two of moonshine before watching.



As a footnote, I'll add that there was another cartoon that merited a dishonourable mention, but I couldn't find a full episode, or even an intro online: Wolf Rock TV, a show about the adventures of an animated Wolfman Jack and his companions. Some of us still shudder at the memory of the Wolfman's cameo in the Galactica 1980 Hallowe'en episode years earlier, but there seemed something really desperate and pathetic about carting the legendary DJ out in a cartoon at this point in his career, when his bigger, better days were behind him. Makes me want to go to the freezer, get a popsicle, and shrug-off the hassles of life.


Sunday, January 18, 2015

Mini Review 5: Annihilation, Lowball, The Slow Regard of Silent Things, and The World of Ice and Fire

I was lucky enough in the period from late November through the end of the Christmas/New Years holidays to hit upon a stretch of really good books (with one exception, which I haven't finished yet, so mention of it will have to wait): The World of Ice and Fire, The Slow Regard of Silent Things, Wildcards - Lowball, and Annihilation. Each is completely different in style and tone from the others, which, in addition to the obviously different stories/subject matter, made for a nice variety, if not necessarily a smooth transition from one to the other. All are books that have been released in the past few months, so they should be easy to find if you're looking to buy — which you should be!

WARNING! HERE THERE BE SPOILERS!

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The World of Ice & Fire - The Untold History of Westeros and The Game of Thrones, by George RR Martin, Elio M Garcia, and Linda Antonsson
The World of Ice & Fire is a companion piece to Martin's wildly popular A Song of Ice & Fire books, though not another instalment in the series per se. This summer, during a reading at Worldcon in London, Martin gave us a bit of a teaser for it (reading a section about the last years of Aegon the Conqueror, and the succession problems following his death), and described it as his version of Tolkien's The Silmarillion — a compilation of the extended history and geography of the world of the ASOIAF series, and backstory to some of the families and cultures encountered therein. And that's a fair assessment — kind of.

TWOIAF differs from Tolkien's approach in that The Silmarillion, while somewhat dryer than an actual novel, is still a collection of tales — short stories about historical events and characters —written in the style of stories, while the book offered by Martin et al is written like a history book, something actually published by a scholar in the ASOIAF world who has researched multiple source documents and compiled them into a linear account based on what he believes was most likely to have happened. It even includes the kind of commentary and petty scholarly nitpicking about the reliability of some of the sources that you'd expect to find in an updated history published by a prof who claims to have conducted a more recent and rigorous review of the facts than any previous. To that end, TWOIAF is even dryer than The Silmarillion. But, if you enjoy reading history books like I do, and you're willing to devote many hours to studying the deep history and political and cultural nuances of this world, then it's worth while.

In addition to the written material, TWOIAF is packed full of beautiful colour illustrations — pictures of Aegon the Conqueror and his dragons during the Conquest, giants and other monsters from the ancient times (is it just me, or does the face of the giant illustrated on page 6 look suspiciously like Martin's?), and cities and peoples from Westeros, and across the continent of Essos and beyond. It's a big bruiser of a hardcover, but it really is a gorgeous book.

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The Slow Regard of Silent Things, by Patrick Rothfuss
As Patrick Rothfuss warns his readers at the beginning of The Slow Regard of Silent Things, if you're looking for a book in the same vein as the two volumes in The Kingkiller Chronicle, you're looking in the wrong place. While this little story does take place in the Kingkiller universe, it's only tangentially related to the adventures of Kvothe, and differs significantly in pace, scope, and tone. And yet, for all of that, this quiet, sweet little book is a worthy addition to the series, in that it gives us a glimpse into another life with other stakes in a heretofore unseen part of that world, and thus makes the overall place and story of that world richer and deeper.

TSROST follows Auri, the quiet, apparently (though appearances, especially in the Kingkiller world, are deceiving) feral girl who befriended Kvothe on the nighttime rooftops of the university, as she goes about her daily routines and prepares for another visit with him. And that's it.

Yes, we get a tour of the mysterious realm Auri lives in — the labyrinth of abandoned cellars, vaults, laboratories, ballrooms, sewers, wells, vents, and shafts under the university — and accompany her across the rooftops and out to a cemetery and a farmer's cottage; we watch as she goes through her rituals — frequently obsessive-compulsively — and gathers materials to make soap, collecting bric-a-brac along the way; we come along as she discovers new chambers; and we sit with her during her hours of anxiety, frustration, and despair, and follow as she crawls out of them. We learn more about Auri's personality, and get a deeper look at how her mind — like so many of the rooms in her subterranean home — has obviously been damaged by some past trauma, but, like those rooms, continues to exist and has found a new reality for herself. We see how, for Auri, the best (though not necessarily safest) way to live, is to listen to the soft voices of the world — not to impose order upon it, but to understand it, and, with that understanding, learn how to be a part of it on its terms.

But that's all there is. The battles are all internal. The companions are silent trinkets and quiet rooms. The menace comes from places that merely exist menacingly. And the challenges are things out of place with no apparent clear fix conforming to the strange rules Auri perceives in her world.

And yet, for all that smallness, this book draws the reader in as surely and deeply as any quest Kvothe has embarked upon to learn the mystical arts, win a musical duel, escape a lusty faerie queen, or battle monsters. The book implicitly tells us with its smallness that every life in every world, no matter how quiet or strange, is important, filled with wonder, and worthy of being known. And that's a sentiment that certainly applies to The Slow Regard of Silent Things too.

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Wildcards - Lowball, edited by George RR Martin and Melinda M Snodgrass
Anything can happen on the streets of Jokertown, and, in the latest instalment of the Wildcards series, this time trouble starts when jokers start disappearing off the streets. An eastern European gang has been snatching them to be thrown into the ring in an underground fightclub pitting wildcards against each other for the amusement of the rich. Father Squid, worried about the disappearance of members of his flock, puts snake-tailed vigilante Marcus "Infamous Black Tongue" on the case, while Detective Francis Black of the Jokertown precinct tries to crack the case that no-one else in the police department cares about, while dealing with cracks in his relationships at home. Former wildcard reality show contestant and now federal agent Jamal Norwood provides backup while trying to cope with the decreasing reliability of his ace power. Throw in some side stories about a roadkill-eating coroner and an avatar-creating peeping tom who help to crack some of the angles of the investigation, and you've got a pretty entertaining super power-augmented mystery.

I've been a huge fan of the Wildcards series ever since its debut back in the 80s, and one of the things that keeps me coming back is the consistently fantastic writing. Every book showcases work from authors who are bringing their A-games to create very real, very understandable characters (even if some of them are fairly awful characters that most of us would never empathize with) who just happen to live in a world of super powers and people with strange appearances, who have to deal with situations that are sometimes supernatural, but sometimes painfully familiar. I'm usually happy to immediately drop most other books to read a new Wildcards instalment because they're so good, and Lowball is no exception.

Each author ratchets-up the tension and urgency in each chapter as more and more jokers disappear. You can just feel the frustration of the characters as they keep hitting dead ends, or when they get new leads or seem to have made the right bust, only to find more roadblocks and fewer answers. And then, even when everything becomes clear and it looks like a resolution is at hand, the story jigs sideways, and things become more complicated, because not everybody makes good decisions, and life — in the Wildcards universe, as in ours — doesn't always have a happy ending. The final jolts that David Anthony Durham and Melinda M Snodgrass give in their closing chapters are especially illustrative of this: twists not for the sake of having convenient plot twists, but naturally arising out of the circumstances and there to remind us that these are bad, bad things afoot, and just being a hero isn't enough.

I can't wait for the next Wildcards to be dealt.

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Annihilation, by Jeff VanderMeer
Jeff VanderMeer's Annihilation is a book that makes its readers, like its characters, work for everything. Just like the characters, we're given very little to start with: a group of women, identified only by their  duties (Biologist, Psychologist, Anthropologist, Surveyor), is sent into the mysterious "Area X", a zone in an unidentified part of North America, beyond some sort of strange boundary — which is strange in a way never really described except that it allegedly requires heavy psychological programming to cross — where several previous expeditions have gone, some ending in deaths. The members of the group have to decide what they want to explore and test to figure out what's going on in Area X, with no support or direction from the outside world. In addition to finding fields, woodlands, swamps, and the seashore, they encounter a ruined village, a lighthouse that appears to have been a setting for a slaughter, and an unsettling well (called "the tower" by our narrator, the Biologist) with a staircase winding down into the earth. Faced with animals that look at the party in a way that's all-too-human, questions raised by things found in the lighthouse, and a terrifying entity lumbering in the depths of the tower, the members of the expedition also find themselves increasingly at odds with one another, with the sense of imminent violence building as much within their camp as in the countryside. Through all of this, the Biologist works to try to understand what's going on with the environment of Area X, what happened to her husband (a member of a previous ill-fated expedition), and what's happening to herself, as exposure to spores in the tower, her dealings with others of the expedition, and the things she discovers while exploring begin to change her.

In some ways, Annihilation reminded me of Robert Charles Wilson's novels Voyage to Darwinia and Bios — Darwinia with the expedition to a surreal, and somewhat haunted-feeling, environment that seems to have been dropped onto the Earth for unknown reasons; and Bios for the ordeal of a character exploring a strange land who, in turn, is explored by that land as its substances infiltrate her and slowly consume, or incorporate — or perhaps even "convert" is a better word —  her for its own unfathomable purposes. And, more frighteningly, like in Bios, this is an absorbtion or annihilation of the body and the self by the environment that the narrator, ultimately, seems okay with. In this respect, Annihilation also feels like a Peter Watts story, where a person who is damaged or otherwise unusual in some way is thrown into a strange environment and adapts — or surrenders — themselves wholly to it. It's also Wattsian in that every member of the expedition seems damaged or hostile in some way, with the others' inability to adapt (or surrender themselves) resulting in their violent deaths. Strangely — and I know this is gonna sound really nuts — this story also had a very strong sense of the old text-based video game Zork constantly lurking in the background... with the tower's staircase and monster (the white house, the trap door under the rug, the staircase going down into the Great Underground Empire, and take your pick of grues, trolls, or other critters menacing in the shadows), and the characters entering Area X not really knowing anything and having to learn pretty much everything as they go along. I know Annihilation and Zork is a connection that just shouldn't be made, but try as I might, I couldn't shake it. And you know, it didn't ruin the story in any way.

Ultimately, Annihilation is its own story. One that can be taken in isolation as the record of an expedition gone wrong, or a teasing invitation to wander further into the depths of Area X by reading the next instalments of the Southern Reach trilogy. For my part, I'll be coming back for more.

Sunday, January 11, 2015

Saturday Morning Cartoons - Science Fiction Shows that Felt Like Fantasy

It's pretty common in the speculative fiction universe for the worlds of science fiction and fantasy to collide. Sure, there are the purists in the fan community that stomp their feet and insist on strongly demarcated lines between the two and stout defences to enforce that separation, but most of us are willing to accept the crossover as long as the story is good. After all, this kind of cross-pollination has given us Star Wars, Jack Vance's Dying Earth stories, and plenty of others that we could probably name if we wanted to take the time. And when it comes to the broader audience outside of fandom and its consuming of pop culture sf, nobody cares if their chocolate gets mixed with their peanut butter.

So it should come as no surprise that when mainstream production companies were manufacturing science fiction cartoons for kids back in the 80s (and in some cases as early as the 60s), it was pretty common to throw in elements of fantasy. That was just fine with me and my friends, because when we were re-enacting episodes in the school yard, or inventing our own stories based on those cartoons, everyone thought it was entirely appropriate to counter a laser gun with a magic wand.

This week's Saturday morning cartoon rewatch looks at a couple of science fiction-fantasy crossovers that I most enjoyed in the old days:


Thundarr the Barbarian. Set thousands of years in the future, after a cosmic near-miss caused natural disasters that devastated the planet, this show followed the exploits of the titular hero, Thundarr, with his light sabre ripoff sword, princess girlfriend, and wookiee-ripoff sidekick. Think Han Solo (with Luke's light sabre), Leia, and Chewie yanked out of Star Wars and dropped into a Mad Max/Canticle for Leibowitz-style Earth with D&D-style monsters and magic-wielding sorcerers thrown in for good measure. (intro)



Next, we head offworld to join the adventures of Blackstar. A sort of hybrid Flash Gordon-He-Man, Blackstar was about an astronaut who crashes on another planet, falls in with the 7 Dwarfs, er, "tiny Trobbit people", gets his hands on a magic sword, and fights a big bad guy for supremacy. Oh yeah, he's also got a cool reptilian pegasus. (full episode)



We'll finish with The Herculoids. I'm not sure if this one actually had magic in it, but I have a feeling it did, since, like the others, it was a Flash Gordon-esque throw-everything-including-the-kitchen-sink-at-the-story kind of approach to kids' sf. In this show, a futuristic family and their rather unusual pets fight to defend their world from a variety of monsters and maniacs. (intro)




And since you're probably already thinking it: yes, He-Man and the Masters of the Universe would be entirely appropriate for this post, but blondie's already had his day in another edition.

Stay tuned until next week, for another episode of the Saturday morning cartoon rewatch!

The Awful Task of Throwing Out a Book

It's a rare thing, but once in a great while, a book needs to be thrown out.

I know, I know, from across the corners of the world, I can hear your cries of protest. My heart made the same noise the other day when I finally reconciled myself to the fact that I had a dead book in my collection, and it was finally time to consign it to the recycling bin.

By dead, I mean battered, beaten, tattered and falling apart beyond the point where a book can, in good conscience, be given to someone else or donated to charity. I mean a book that's lasted well beyond its intended or reasonable shelf life, one that's put up with decades of use and abuse, been hauled across the country several times, and despite a love of its cover and contents, just been run into the ground.

Oh sure, I've had books with bent covers and cracked spines and dog-eared pages that I've kept because they were still readable. Paperbacks with sun-faded spines, covers, and pages. Spots of unidentifiable and best-left-unquestioned origin. Dog and cat hairs from beloved pets long gone that have mysteriously taken up posts between pages of books the animal never came near, waiting to emotionally ambush me when I pull one off the shelf for a once-in-a-decade reread. Shredded, folded, and curled dust jackets over hardcovers with crumpled corners. Water stained page edges. Whole books that have been accidentally dropped into a pool on a drowsy summer afternoon and puffed up to three times their normal size like angry cats. All of these are salvageable. All of them are worth keeping.

But sometimes a book just can't be saved. Sometimes age and damage are so great, and initial binding and paper quality are so poor, that a book has just had it and should be allowed to rejoin the circle of pulp in dignity to resurrect as toilet paper or something else of use.

The other day, it became painfully obvious that my old paperback copy of Arthur C Clarke's 2010 - Odyssey Two has reached that point. I was rearranging things to make more room on my shelves for the new books I'd received at Christmas, when I pulled 2010 out and the first 20-odd pages fell out in a clump. Cleanly detached from the spine — the glue must have finally given out after years of the book being read and reread and subjected to different levels of humidity and temperature. Add that to the tears on the cover-spine edges, and the constellation of water stains, and it was clear the fix was in. It was a cheap 1984 printing which I think I bought in 1986, and it's probably been read and reread more than a dozen times, being my favourite of Clarke's monolith cycle. After all these years, it certainly doesn't owe me anything. Coming apart as it is, I don't think there's any quick fix I can make that'll hold it together much longer. As painful as it is, it's time to not just let it go, but throw it out.

Luckily, I was able to find a replacement at White Dwarf the next day — and one that's of the same vintage. They had a trade-size paperback that's been kicking around on their shelves since its original publication back in the 80s, protected in its original plastic wrap (mint condition!!!), and, even better, still priced at its original 1980s rate. Good thing, because I want to keep the series complete on my shelf. As tough as it is getting rid of a dead book, having a replacement makes it a lot easier.


A New Year: Looking Ahead, Looking Behind

Happy belated New Year, everyone! I hope all of you had an enjoyable holiday season and a good start to 2015.

This year, the holidays turned out to be busier than I thought they would be... Things started with a new bunch of writing contracts from a former business associate, which was nice, as it's been a while since my last full-time gig and these assignments gave me some money to actually be able to buy Christmas presents. That kept me busy through most of December, preventing me from posting more to the blog than I had intended.

Additionally, there was some sad news in the family: my grandmother died in early December, and I had to make a quick trip back home one weekend for the funeral. As unfortunate as it was to lose her, she had a full life, and going in her sleep, just shy of 101 years old, with one of her sons at her side earlier that day is about as good a way to go as anyone could ask for. As a former teacher and librarian, Grandma was always interested in reading and learning about new things. While she wasn't into science fiction or fantasy, she was none-the-less an important figure in my early sf development. Most of the other adults around me dismissed, disapproved of, or were indifferent to my love of science fiction, but my grandmother was curious about what had so incited my passion. One year, when I was in junior high, and she was out for a visit over the holidays, Grandma asked if she could read one of the sf books I had just enjoyed. I loaned her my copy of Asimov's Nine Tomorrows collection (I've since forgotten most of the stories in it, but "The Last Question" and "The Ugly Little Boy" are still two of my favourite IA yarns), and she wasted no time diving right into it. To this day, I don't know if she actually enjoyed any of those stories, but it was incredibly validating at that point in my life for her to have made the effort, and it's a gesture I still appreciate. My Grandma will be missed.

Despite being tied to the computer for most of the season, and the flying back and forth across the country, I managed to get out to the movie theatre for the premier of The Hobbit - The Battle of 5 Armies (or Middle Dune, as Melinda M Snodgrass has so aptly suggested), and to read a couple of books (Patrick Rothfuss' The Slow Regard of Silent Things, the new Wildcards book, Lowball, George RR Martin, Elio M Garcia Jr, and Linda Antonsson's The World of Ice and Fire, and recently Jeff VanderMeer's Annihilation - though, for the life of me, I still haven't been able to finish Martin & Gardner Dozois' anthology Dangerous Women). Christmas itself was pretty good. I was given a stack of sf books (buying gifts for me is pretty easy for my wife, she just has to take my "to buy" book list into White Dwarf and ask Jill or Walter to find a few of the items while they shoot the breeze, and she's done), a couple of nerdy t-shirts, and a bottle of scotch. New Year's Eve was quiet, but a couple of days later, we hosted the White Dwarf Gang for a dinner party and caught up on everyone's adventures over the past year.

Looking back on 2014 as a whole, the sf highlights for me, book-wise, were Kit Reed's collection The Story Until Now, Peter Watts' Echopraxia, and the aforementioned Slow Regard of Rothfuss. On TV, I enjoyed Peter Capaldi bringing more than a bit of darkness back to Doctor Who. The even darker Constantine (which I hope NBC will bring back for another season next year) was also worth watching, as was SHIELD (Flash is entertaining enough, but I could live without it, while Forever is utterly forgettable), and, of course, it goes without saying that Game of Thrones continued to be all kinds of awesome. In the theatre, it had to be Guardians of the Galaxy. And the crowning glory was being able to attend Worldcon in London.

Low points... Well, that had to be the new Godzilla movie, as I've complained about previously.

Looking ahead to 2015, I'm looking forward to Martin & Dozois' Old Venus hitting the shelves. Old Mars was such a perfect anthology, I'm pretty sure this companion will be the kind of book I'll drop everything else to read. On TV, Game of Thrones will naturally be a sure thing, but I'm really hoping this year we'll also finally get to see AMC's version of Dan Simmons' The Terror (which would be especially appropriate given the discovery a few months ago of the wreck of HMS Erebus in the Canadian arctic). A new series of Red Dwarf is also something I'm looking forward to, as long as we can download it here in North America in a reasonable amount of time. More Doctor Who will also be good, and I'm curious to see how Agent Carter will develop (and whether it will continue to depict a strange alternate version of the post-war 1940s where there are no smokers), now that the pilot's aired. In the theatre, it's all about Avengers: Age of Ultron and (despite a little worry on my part for what JJ Abrams will do to the franchise) Star Wars VII.

And then there's the Worldcon dilemma... Spokane is so damn close (just 7 or 8 hours' drive) that it's really hard to say no to the prospect of attending Sasquan, and it's probably going to be a while before another Worldcon will be so near again. No doubt, it'll be chock-full of cool authors, bloggers, podcasters, and book and merchandise dealers, and a couple of members of the White Dwarf Gang have already said they're going and are gently trying to convince the rest of us to join them. There's also the fact that summer's a great time for a drive through the mountains, and if we wanted to, my wife and I could take the long way home coming back through Canada instead of the faster US route, allowing us to stop in the Okanagan wine country. And, because it's within driving distance, it'll be a lot cheaper to get to than any other Worldcon. But not so cheap in other respects... the Loonie's tanking these days, so the exchange rate with the American greenback is a killer, and we'd certainly feel that difference at the hotels, restaurants, and dealers' tables. As for the con itself, it's going to be really hard not to compare it to the extravaganza that was London. And then there's the host city. No offence to any reader who lives there, but Spokane just isn't on our list of places to visit, and with our holiday budget being limited, and this year being our 10th wedding anniversary, other vacation destinations may take precedence. And yet, proximity doggedly raises its head again — how can I pass up a Worldcon that's so close? We certainly won't be going to Kansas next year, and, unless Montreal manages to land the 2017 con (and, as supportive as I am, I have my doubts), we won't be hitting a Worldcon in the next couple of years either. So, to con or not to con in 2015?

But enough of me. What were your highlights of 2014? What are you most looking forward to (science fictionally or otherwise) in 2015?


Monday, December 01, 2014

A Couple of Science Fiction-Related Causes that could Use Your Support this Holiday Season

As we enter the season where a lot is traditionally said about family, about giving, and about hope, we're often called upon to come out in support of one cause or another, generally very worthy, dedicated to helping others through troubled times. Looking out at that vast sea of the charities, fundraisers, and calls for support though, we, as fans, don't usually see any that speak directly to the family of science fiction and fantasy. But this year, I'd like to draw your attention to a couple of sf-related causes that are in need of your support.

The first is a fundraiser for author Spider Robinson and his daughter Terri. As some of you may be aware, Terri's fighting stage 4 cancer, and given the how expensive healthcare is in the US, you can guess how much of a financial toll this has taken on the family. It's been a rough couple of years for old Spider... first losing Jeanne to cancer back in 2010 (a blow which has severely affected his writing), then having to deal with Terri's diagnosis, and then a heart attack this past summer. This poor guy isn't just singing the blues, he is the blues, and yet, seeing him a VCon this past October, he's doing his damnedest to keep going and find a smile here and there, at a time when most of us would just pack it in. It's not often that we, as fans, get to show an author in a meaningful way how grateful we are for all of the hours of entertainment, thought, and perhaps wisdom he or she has given us, but this time we do have that opportunity. Consider following the link above and helping Spider and his family out.

The second is a call for subscription to, and support for, OnSpec Magazine. Back in August, word came down the pipe that after years of support, the Canada Council (Canada's federal government-backed grant organization for the arts), in its infinite wisdom, decided to cut funding to OnSpec in 2015. Flimsy excuses were given by the masters of culture at the Council, but it's pretty clear that the literati can't bear to fund something as low-brow as speculative fiction (despite many of Canada's past and present big-name authors having slummed it in the genre ghetto from time to time, whether they wanted to admit it or not). Stories of this kind of snobbery abound (so many that they would drag this particular post light years off topic), and I guess, with sf being so prevalent in pop culture right now, it was only a matter of time until the guardians of Can-Lit purity struck back. Since then, the magazine has managed to pull together enough support and make a few changes to allow it to keep operating. But it still needs your help. So what to do? Obviously, if you're a Canadian, or a landed immigrant paying taxes here, you can certainly write to the Council registering your displeasure and requesting that they overturn their decision. Fat lot of good that'll do, but you're welcome to try (I directed a tweet at the Council's Twitter account this summer before leaving for LonCon, but, not surprisingly, received no response). You could do one better, and write to the federal Heritage Minister — since the Council is funded by Ottawa — or your local Member of Parliament and say that, as a taxpayer, you'd like them to look into the situation and, acting on the instructions of taxpayers, request that the Council to overturn its decision. Or, since the die has been cast, you can skip the communications campaign that's surely doomed to be ignored, and just go straight to supporting OnSpec directly. Follow the links above and you can make a donation, or, even better, subscribe! It is, after all, a speculative fiction magazine, and magazines are meant to be subscribed to (unless you've got a time machine and you're going back a hundred years or so to the settler era, when magazines and seed catalogues were necessary fixtures in outhouses for more than just reading)! Every quarter, you'll get pages of awesome that'll showcase new talent in the field. I've been a subscriber for years (well, my wife has bought me a subscription for years as an ongoing birthday or Christmas present), and it's always a treat to find out where its stories will take me. The cover art's usually pretty cool too. Best part is, you don't have to be a Canuck to be a subscriber, they'll mail the mag anywhere in the world, and they've got an online subscription option too — all you have to be is someone who loves good speculative fiction — well, and someone with a few extra bucks to buy a subscription. But really, it's quite affordable, and worth every penny. Show your support and subscribe now.

Saturday Morning Cartoons - Shows that Jumped from Saturdays to Weekdays After School

Sometimes, after launching a new cartoon on Saturday mornings, a network would, at some later point, drop it into a weekday after school position. Once in a while, a show would keep running in both slots at the same time, but usually it was a hand-off from one to the other for good.

Why? I don't know. I don't think it had anything to do with the quality of the show, because some that were moved rocked, while others were utterly forgettable. Maybe it had to do with jockeying for ratings, though I don't know how much kid viewership outside of the coveted Saturday morning lineup really mattered. Maybe it had something to do with ideal times to promote shows which acted as marketing vehicles for toys. Or it could have been for some other reason.

In any case, here are a couple of good Saturday morning shows that made the jump to weekday afternoons:

First up, Robotix, the story of a group of humans stranded on an alien planet, who fall-in with giant robots controlled by AIs based on the personalities of that world's original inhabitants, who remain in stasis deep beneath the surface. While the robots were supposed to be rebuilding the infrastructure of their destroyed civilization, they ended up fighting with each other, and the newly-arrived humans split into two factions who take sides, with their help greatly augmenting the abilities of the robots. Aside from being a thoroughly kick-ass show, Robotix was also a marketing vehicle for the toy line of the same name, which was also pretty cool (you could use the large, Lego-esque pieces and electric motors in each set to build robots with a wide range of configurations). I got the Argus set (based on the character who lead the good guys in the series) for Christmas one year, and aside from having to replace it on boxing day due to a faulty part, it was one of my favourites for a while. (full pilot episode)



Released as part of the same mega line-up promotion as Robotix (along with the forgettable Big Foot and the Muscle Machines and Jem and the Holograms) is our next series: Inhumanoids. This show was about a team of scientists in league with various races of secretive monsters (a race of plant people, a race of rock people, and a couple of magnetic dudes at the Earth's core) battling a trio of demonic creatures called, you guessed it, the Inhumanoids. The show was also about marketing toys. In the show, vicious-Muppet-looking Metlar, who likes to hork-up fireballs and throw them at people, is backed by the viney, brainless titan Tendril (imagine the bastard child of Cthulhu and Swamp Thing), and D'Compose — think a hairless yellow gorilla for the body, with an exposed rib cage, and rat's skull for the head — who stashes prisoners in his chest cavity like coats in a wardrobe and turns people into zombies by biting them. After ages trapped in custom magical prisons, the Inhumanoids escape and then try various schemes to alternately conquer and destroy the world — everything from stealing nuclear weapons to unleashing stumpy cyclopses with appetites that would put the starting lineup of an American football team to shame. Episodes would occasionally take a turn for the disturbing (and of questionable appropriateness for a Saturday morning audience) when D'Compose got front and centre, temporarily turning characters into mutant-zombie things, unleashing huge zombie armies, and once raising a mad scientist from the dead in a manner that even the yellow demon himself found unsettling. But the good guys always won and there were toys to be bought. So, you know, there's that to keep in mind when you're a kid and trying to get to sleep later that night staring across the room at D'Compose and his open sternum prison. (opening intro)




And taking things back into space, in an Old West-superhero mashup kinda way, there's BraveStarr. It's the story of Space Martial BraveStarr, a man of First Nations ancestry with super powers (eyes of a hawk, ears of a wolf, strength of a bear, and speed of a puma) who keeps the peace on a mining planet in the future. Assisted by his trigger-happy, cybernetically-enhanced, intelligent, talking horse, Mr Ed, er, no, that wasn't it... uh, Francis?...no... 30-30, yeah, that's it! — along with a couple of other deputies — BraveStarr arrests run-of-the-mill criminals when he's not battling the evil entity known as Stampede. If you take out the super powers and universe-threatening-evil-entity angle, the show's kind of like a kid-friendly precursor to Firefly — as told from the cop's point of view (now wouldn't that be a cool crossover to see?). (full episode)



Monday, November 24, 2014

Saturday Morning Cartoons - Star Wars Spinoffs and Spoofs

I've always been a proud uncle, but this past week, I was even more proud. My brother mentioned that he was walking through his living room a couple of days ago, and passed his 6-year-old daughter, who was quietly humming the Imperial March theme from Star Wars while colouring in a Christmas activity book. How could you not beam with nerdy pride?

It reminded me of how everything was coming up Star Wars back when I was a kid in the late 70s and early 80s, lingering in the realm of Saturday morning cartoons even years after when I was a pre-teen and the afterglow of Return of the Jedi was fading from pop culture consciousness.

The Secret Railroad did a Star Wars spoof episode not too long after Episode IV debuted (I can still remember the awesomeness of Mr Passenger pulling an extension cord out of his carpet bag, running it from his umbrella to a wall socket, then going toe-to-toe with Darth Vader in a light sabre duel with said electrified umbrella), and others followed overtly or somewhat subtly over the years. I wish that TSR episode was available online to share, but I can't find any sign of it — I fear the bulk of the series is lost to time.

However, one of the later spoofs that is still available is the "Gonzo's Video Show" episode from season 1 of Jim Henson's Muppet Babies. The show, in general, teeters precariously on the edge of being insufferably cute and aimed at too young an audience, but then sometimes spins right around and has funny elements that can appeal to older viewers — not as sly and adult as the original Muppet Show itself, but enough to make the cartoon series worth watching if you're in the right mood. And this episode is no exception. Of note is the inclusion of actual footage from Star Wars in the gang's playroom production (used to illustrate what the Muppet kids are seeing in their imaginations — rather than what's actually playing out on their camcorder), which is no surprise, given the Henson group's deep involvement with 'Empire and 'Jedi. Personally, I've always gotten a kick out of Kermit's narration of the opening crawl. The episode also strikes a cord with me because when I was a kid, my friends and I would pretend to be Star Wars characters and act out our own adventures — we called it "Star Wars With Us". We never video-taped these sessions like the Muppet Babies did, but we would have if one of us had had a camcorder. And so, for your amusement, here's Muppet Babies — scroll forward to about the half-way mark to get past the non-Star Wars material. (full episode)



From the potentially insufferably cute to the unquestionably insufferably cute, here's a cartoon spinoff of Return of the Jedi that came out shortly after the two made-for-TV Ewok movies. It's called, not surprisingly, Ewoks, and, like the the afore-menioned live-action TV movies, I don't know if it's considered official franchise canon, but I really hope it isn't. (full episode)



Lastly, I'll try and redeem this post with something cool that (unlike Ewoks) was actually worthy of the Star Wars monicker: Droids. This cartoon detailed the adventures of R2D2 and C3PO, in what were probably the years prior to their service aboard the Tantive IV at the beginning of Episode IV, although the prequel trilogy more-or-less undercuts that possibility. In any event, our favourite mechanical thralls find themselves associated with well-meaning racers/hoodlums, Rebels, and others, as they try to avoid the forces (no, not Forces) of the Empire, and, on one occasion at least, survive crossing paths with the dreaded bounty hunter Boba Fett. I remember the show being pretty cool back in the old days — good enough to warrant a prime-time special at one point, and I still enjoy the theme song. (full episode)