Friday, September 14, 2018

Invaders From Planet 3 - Ep 20 - Voice of the Fans 2


The Invasion has resumed! Season three of the Invaders From Planet 3 podcast kicks off with a new Voice of the Fans episode, where I interview a group of fans about their first loves in science fiction, fantasy, video games, comics, movies, TV — whatever!

My guests include Ryneld Starr, Sarah Corbeil, Jose Palacios, and Sam McCreath. Our interviews took place over the summer of 2018 via Skype calls between their homes and my studio in the Lair of bloginhood, currently located in a pillow fort in your mom's basement.

And because every fan's voice is important, I'd love to hear from you too! Leave a note in the Comments section below telling us about your first love in speculative fiction. And if you'd like to be part of next year's Voice of the Fans episode, contact me at talktobloginhood@gmail.com.
Meanwhile, don't forget to tune in over the coming weeks for the next episodes of the show. I've got interviews with some cool authors, performers and artists coming up this season, and I think you'll enjoy these conversations as much as I did.

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

Let the invasion begin!

Sunday, September 02, 2018

Final Episode of Excellent Prisoners of Gravity Documentary Now Online

The team at Radio Free Krypton has now posted/aired the final episode of its excellent documentary on Prisoners of Gravity!

Part four of "Inside the Orbit of Prisoners of Gravity" talks about the show's legacy, and asks the question of whether it could be done today. Interviewees include the PoG host and producers, author Robert J Sawyer, and fans — including me. For my part, I think, at least as far as Canadian fans go, the legacy of PoG is every sf-related, interview-oriented podcast and video log/Youtube show. Whether these shows follow the PoG template or go in their own directions, Commander Rick and his producers showed us that it could be done (nearly 30 years ago), and so all of us have escaped the world to our own little broadcasting/podcasting/vlogging space stations. We're all the children of Commander Rick (although I can only wish that I had his hair).

Thanks to Radio Free Krypton for putting this documentary together. As important as Prisoners of Gravity was 30 years ago, it's just as important now for fans to celebrate what the host and producers accomplished for the speculative fiction community — especially the Canadian sf community (though not exclusively so, since the show contained many interesting interviews with American and British sf and comics creators too) — and the legacy it created. It was the first time (at least in this country) where our community had a voice that showed the significance of its work, it was a voice that further connected our community, and it was a voice that could be heard/seen by people outside of our community. For Radio Free Krypton to document this achievement, and explore its ongoing relevance, is also important to our sf community. For that, the RFK team deserves an Aurora Award. And I'm not just saying that because they invited me to participate in this doc (although being part of this group does tickle me immensely) — I would have endorsed it anyway. It's that good.

Lastly, I think it's also important to thank TV Ontario for airing the show in the first place. During the first half of my childhood, in Ontario, I devoured TVO's programs (Hey, TVO introduced me to Doctor Who! That's why Tom Baker will always be my favourite.), and even after moving away and growing up, I can still see them for the quality shows they were. It's also important to thank BC's Knowledge Network for picking up PoG from TVO — without Knowledge, I wouldn't have seen the awesomeness of Prisoners of Gravity in its original run back in the late 1980s and early 90s. The value of public broadcasters is incalculable.

If you haven't listened to "Inside the Orbit..." yet, head over to Radio Free Krypton and do so! And if you've never seen an episode of Prisoners of Gravity, what are you waiting for? Punch it up on Youtube and watch one, or three, or all of them! Thirty years on, it's still as relevant, thought-provoking and entertaining.

Mini Reviews: Trouble on Paradise, Eden, and Earth

We're still a couple of months out from Hallowe'en, but for this edition of the Mini Reviews, I've decided to post some thoughts on books that deal — to varying degrees — with monsters. Both the inhuman and the human kind.

Here's the lineup:

The Night Lies Bleeding by MD Lachlan
The Dinosaur Princess by Victor Milan
Daughter of Eden by Chris Beckett

The short version? These books are all awesome and you should buy and read them immediately.

Now for the longer (but still mini) reviews. As always: SPOILERS AHEAD. And if you don't like spoilers, you can just go back to working on that Yor: The Hunter from the Future fanzine you've been trying to put together for the last 35 years.


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The Night Lies Bleeding, by MD Lachlan

What could possibly be worse than the old Norse god/monster wolf Fenrir coming to Earth in human form to reincarnate again and again over the ages, each time transforming into a gigantic werewolf that chews through everyone around him like a chainsaw ripping through a box of baby bunnies? Nazis, of course.

In The Night Lies Bleeding, the final instalment in MD Lachlan's superbly unsettling Wolfsangel series, Fenrir's latest avatar is living as a British aristocrat and museum curator, trying to stay detached from humanity as the UK is hammered by the German Blitz in the Second World War. But there's a difference from his previous lives, one that's more important than his social status or wealth: Previously, as a Viking, a would-be Byzantine courtier, a priest, or someone caught up in the Norman Harrying of the North, he'd only lived a single lifetime (and generally not very long at that). He'd been confined and died after each transformation and rampage. This time, however, the avatar of the wolf, currently known as Endamon Craw, has been living the same life for a few hundred years — there was no death after the transformations of the recent centuries. And while Craw has been trying to lead a quiet life, to keep away from things that might make him lose control, he's now drawn back into the inescapable fate laid out by the Norns when he's brought in as a consultant on a police investigation into a series of mutilations and murders. It seems someone else is trying to use some of the ancient runes to become a werewolf himself. Every day Craw assists with the case, he's confronted with things that increasingly prod the wolf inside him, bringing it closer to waking. Meanwhile, in Germany, a lazy doctor who doesn't support the Nazis or the war submits a research proposal to the SS as a joke, only to have it taken seriously by the occult-crazed High Command. Dr Max Voller is ordered to report — with his wife, Gertie — to Wewelsburg, otherwise known as The Black Vatican, a castle where the SS carries out abominable experiments on concentration camp prisoners as it attempts to access arcane power to win the war. Once there, he's forced to carry out his research, committing atrocities on prisoners lest he face punishment or execution, and for fear that his wife might be taken by superior officers who have their eyes on her nordic beauty. For her part, Gertie soon finds herself facing an otherworldly place of horrors as she attracts the attention of an ancient entity. And lurking in the background, the god Odin manipulates the situation to try to outmaneuver his fated encounter with the wolf.

The Night Lies Bleeding marks a departure from the rest of the series in a number of ways. On the surface, there's the basic movement of setting out from the Middle Ages to the more familiar terrain of the early-mid Twentieth Century (while probably not personally familiar to most readers, it is a time that we would have heard about from parents or grandparents who experienced the War, and its effects are still visible upon the world stage and our cultural dialogue, even more than 70 years on).

As noted previously, there's also the change in the existence and perspective of Fenrir's avatar. Not having died in several centuries, Craw carries the detachment, aloofness, and vague melancholy that we've come to associate with immortals in speculative fiction, but — and here's where the author shows his skill — Craw is more interesting than his counterparts in literature and film in that he's not just aware of how different he is from normal humans because of his long life and extensive experiences, he's not just comparing everything to the good old days (though he does indulge in these things), more interestingly, he's constantly re-evaluating himself and his own behaviour in the world that normal humans have created. When another character says something or behaves in a certain modern way (let's say not showing deference to Craw as a person of higher social/economic status), Craw's immediate internal reaction is to feel insult or anger at the breach of protocol by an uppity peasant, but he then reminds himself that times have changed, reflects on the nature of those changes, and makes an effort to adapt. And not just to adapt his clothes or mannerisms — he's not simply engaging in a masquerade to be camouflaged among the humans — instead, he goes even further, reminding himself to change his beliefs and feelings, in essence, to change a part of who he is, because this kind of evolution of the self is the only way he can survive and remain sane (aside from periodic outbursts from the wolf). You never see Connor Macleod from Highlander, or the Greek gods of Peter S Beagle's Summerlong, or the various deities of Neil Gaiman's American Gods instigating that kind of internal change of self — they remain who they are. Lachlan's Fenrir, on the other hand, despite being a monster, has that capacity (which, perhaps in the eyes of other gods — though this perspective isn't given in this book — might be part of what makes him monstrous).

But this story also marks a departure from the other Wolfsangel books in that the nature of its horror has shifted somewhat. What was most frightening in the other books was the idea of the helpless loss of self at the hands of others. The transformation of an unwitting and unwilling avatar into Fenrir, caused by the vicious magic and schemes of gods or witches — beings so incredibly more powerful than the avatars that there was nothing they could do to prevent what was happening to them, with the change being accelerated as they were thrown onto blood-soaked battlefields. The focus of the other books was also, ultimately, on the carnage inflicted by the wolf as it pursued the woman it loved, usually to their mutual destruction, with the monstrous alienness of the supernatural being front and centre. But here, the supernatural elements are almost incidental. Yes, Craw becomes Fenrir. Yes, there are people trying to use the ancient runes to create more werewolves or to gain power or the favour of the old gods. Yes, there are supernatural entities trying to control the situation. But with the story shifting into the setting of the Second World War, the real horror that takes centre stage is the very real monstrousness of facism — the monstrousness of people who became Nazis. Here, the story is moving into Dan Simmons country, where no supernatural god or monster can compare with the horror of what human beings do to each other due to hate, evil beliefs, or self interest. Yes, the previous books were set during times where human beings committed monstrous acts upon one-another, such as Viking raids, or witches confining people in caves, or the Norman Harrying of the North. But those were background elements to their stories, where TNLB presents Nazi atrocities, and the willingness of people to do them, as its central thrust. What's most terrifying in this story is not a loss of self at the hands of more powerful beings, or the transformation of a man into a supernatural monster, but rather the loss of self and the transformation of a good man into an all-too-human monster as a result of deliberate choices that man takes upon himself. It is the horror of watching a once good man becoming desensitized to the cruelty and evil around him, being too weak to refuse to be a part it, and willingly participating in it — and rationalizing this decision as the right choice — in order to protect his own life  and that of his wife, but then ultimately to gain greater personal comforts and prestige. It's the horror of a person once sympathetic to the suffering of the human beings around him becoming one who indifferently sees them as disposable material. It is the all-too-real horror of a doctor transforming into a Nazi torturer. Fenrir, Odin's schemes to outwit Ragnarok, and the witch's possession all seem trivial compared to what human beings are doing to each other in World War II Europe. They seem trivial compared to what could be brewing in today's world of explosive nationalism and intolerance. It's a story that leaves the reader shaken, knowing that monsters can't be escaped just by closing the book.


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The Dinosaur Princess, by Victor Milan

Others have said it, and I'll gleefully hop on the bandwagon: Victor Milan's The Dinosaur Lords books should be adapted into a TV series (HBO or Netflix would be perfect). The reality though is that rather than listen to this excellent idea; or adapt another good, original story; or create something new, Hollywood will most likely continue to look inward and rehash old properties with modern twists. Instead of a lineup of top actors astride computer-generated hadrosaurs, T-Rexs and triceratops, we're more likely to be served something profoundly lame like a reboot of Barney Miller — except, rather than a half-hour, one set sitcom, it'd be an hour-long, gritty, gore-intensive, multi-location police procedural/crime drama where Wojciehowicz turns into a pacifist Buddhist to try to overcome crippling PTSD; Dietrich is now a woman and sidelined to desk duty amidst allegations of police brutality; Harris is a mom trying to advance in her career while raising three young kids, dealing with a husband who's a world-class chef who cheats on her, and supporting an elderly mother who wants to go back to school to become an archaeologist; Yemana talks to the ghosts of murder victims; Fish is a closet BDSM sex addict; and Barney himself may or may not be on the take from the mob. You know they're going to do it. Probably with a high-octane pilot episode featuring a gun battle in the streets (a-la Heat) where the squad tries to foil a bank job by Big Blast, the guy who likes to use a bazooka for robberies. Hey, that might actually be kinda cool... Wait! What did I say? No. Must... focus... on... quality... storytelling. Really, Milan's Dinosaur series needs to be adapted for TV or streaming services, and that includes the latest instalment, 2017's The Dinosaur Princess, because it's just so visual, and just so good.

The Dinosaur Princess picks up just after the events of The Dinosaur Knights, with the people of the Empire of Nuevaropa on the world of Paradise regrouping after their defeat of the Grey Angel Raguel and its horde of mindless humans (along with some fully-aware knights and nobles who followed the angel willingly out of self-interest). The emperor returns with his court to the capital, but the victory is hollow. Apart from the appalling loss of life and the fear that another Grey Angel may come to launch a follow-up crusade against mankind, the court is creaking under the intrigue of rival factions. On one side, there's Princess Melodia, who finds herself sidelined at court, back to being daddy's girl, despite her success as a light cavalry (which means horse cavalry on a world where heavy mounts are usually duck-billed dinosaurs, but can also include ceratopsians and the big carnivores) commander during the war. But even worse, Duke Falk — the man who imprisoned and raped her while scheming to take control of the empire — has also survived the battle, and due to his bravery defending the her father, the emperor, he's hailed as a hero and keeps a senior position in the government. Worst of all, Melodia knows that if she calls Falk out, the political chaos could cause a civil war (if anyone believed her) and Falk, knowing this, takes every opportunity to cast glances and verbally needle her, savouring her inability to respond. But Melodia has a powerful ally: her many-times-great grandmother, who returns to the capital to school the princess in the castle's hidden secrets, arranges for her to learn to fight astride dinosaurs, and helps her learn palace intrigue and prepare to take revenge, because no-one goes after the old lady's family and lives to tell the tale. But Falk isn't alone either: his scheming mother has arrived and made a bee-line for the emperor's bed to cement her family's control. Meanwhile, the renegade noble Karyl has been welcomed back into the fold after leading the attack against the angel (and, specifically, after his allosaurus, Shiraa, ate it), along with his sidekick, Rob the dinosaur trainer. But the good times don't last for the pair when Karyl is visited by the queen of the supernatural fae, who has her own designs against humanity. And if that isn't enough, the emperor's youngest daughter, Princess Montse is kidnapped, with another country seemingly to blame, and Melodia's fiance Jaume and his squad of knights have to try to rescue her before war breaks out.

As with its predecessors, The Dinosaur Princess is one hell of a fun ride, treating readers to knight-on-dinosaur mashup action; court intrigue; well-rounded, believable characters; and a lush world combining elements of Medieval warfare, the style of ancient Mexican and South American empires, and, of course, dinosaurs. It's rewarding to see Melodia continue to develop as a character as she picks up skills with new tools to survive both dinosaur combat and life-and-death plots against rival families within the castle walls. Karyl and Rob are also characters that I couldn't wait to see more of from chapter to chapter as the noble tries to hold up under the political and seemingly supernatural pressures piled on top of him while coming to terms with his new lease on life, and his salt-of-the-earth sidekick thrives under new responsibilities, even as he longs for his old carefree days. As always, I also have to take my hat off to artist Richard Anderson for the wonderful sketches at the head of each chapter, and especially the cover art, which just explodes off of the book and into your brain.

And while I can't find any flaws within the story of The Dinosaur Princess itself, the overall series may be weakened by the possibility that it will remain incomplete. Tragically, Victor Milan died this past winter. The man had real talent that will be missed from the genre (his contributions to the Wildcards mosaic novels were great, and I'm sure others can sing the praises of his other novels), and his death leaves The Dinosaur Lords series hanging. That's because The Dinosaur Princess is only half a book. Just like The Dinosaur Lords was half a story, and needed The Dinosaur Knights to complete the tale of the battle against the Grey Angel's crusade, there needs to be more to tie-off the plot threads The Dinosaur Princess leaves dangling, and to give the reader a sense of completeness, or, at least, wholeness to the story. George RR Martin, a friend of Milan's, has speculated that Milan "may have another book or two in his DINOSAUR LORDS [sic] sequence coming out, but I am not sure of that." As fans of the series, we can hope that's the case, and that capable editors at Tor, possibly with the help of other writers (as we saw with Kevin J Anderson finishing The Wheel of Time series after the death of Robert Jordan), will be able to work with whatever drafts and/or notes Milan left behind to wrap things up.

If that's not the case, and there is insufficient material to work with, or an unwillingness from the publishing house or the author's estate to continue the project, then the question becomes how should someone new to the series approach it? Is it even worth reading, in the absence of an end to The Dinosaur Princess' storyline, never mind the overall plot of the series? I know some readers who are completists, and won't touch a series if the author hasn't seen it to its end. But these stories, this world, and these characters are just too good to not experience. If there's nothing further, I'd be tempted to suggest that someone new to the series could just read The Dinosaur Lords and The Dinosaur Knights. There's enough closure with the success of the battle against the Grey Angel to satisfy a completist. Does that mean that The Dinosaur Princess should then be ignored? Not necessarily. I think that anyone who really enjoys the first two books should definitely read TDP. Sure, they might be left hanging, but even if things are left open, does that matter? The Dinosaur Princess is a sufficiently good, if incomplete, story on its own to be worth reading. And, let's not forget what Emperor Londo Mollari admonished his young audience in Babylon 5: In the Beginning: "The story... is not over yet. The story is never over." So enjoy The Dinosaur Princess for what it is, as a single moment in time. More story left untold, perhaps, but more open trails for dinosaurs to tread in your imagination.


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Daughter of Eden, by Chris Beckett

What if you had a chance to meet your gods? What if they didn't live up to your expectations? What if the story they told, and the values they held, were different than what you believed?

As much as Daughter of Eden features civilizations coming to terms with the reality of their gods and the durability of their beliefs and identity, this final book in Chris Beckett's Dark Eden trilogy is about the little people. Where Dark Eden focussed on John Redlantern, a combination Cain and Moses figure, inventor, and breaker and builder of civilizations; and Mother of Eden was about Starlight, a messianic figure and one of the great beauties of Eden, who tries to bring compassion to a people; Daughter of Eden is about Angie, a regular peasant who's just trying to get by.  When her island community is taken over by the hard-line religious culture of the mainland (or Mainground, as it's known), Angie's people disperse and in order to survive she has to fall in with a small forest tribe of a different faith; marry (after a fashion) and have kids with a simple-minded man; occasionally allow his brother, the one-handed chief (who's a bit of a bully stuck in the memory of his glory days with the army), to have sex with her; and endure prejudice from the others for being a foreigner from a religious/political/cultural minority and because she's a "batface" (a person with an extreme form of harelip, one of the conditions common among the population of Eden due to extensive inbreeding). But Angie is intelligent and practical, and does what she has to in order to live and provide for her children. The story alternates between this present and her youth, just after the dissolution of her home community, when she took to the road as the assistant to a priestess (the people of Eden worship the policewoman/astronaut/castaway who was the mother of their race), criss-crossing Mainground from the towns and villages on the coast to the original settlement in a valley beyond the mountains where their astronaut forebears were stranded. In that past, Angie sees the importance of religious belief to the Maingrounders' self-image and ability to deal with the hardships of life, and she learns what can happen when an intelligent person questions those beliefs and is honest enough to admit a life among the faithful may not be for her. Meanwhile, in the present, Angie witnesses the arrival of an invasion fleet from New Earth (a nation with a similar but somewhat different religion — think Protestants as opposed to Catholics — founded by John after he and his followers fled Mainground generations before). As the New Earth soldiers with their superior weaponry begin their brutal conquest, Angie and her people flee across the mountains to humanity's original home on Eden, arriving, coincidentally, just before a scientific expedition from Earth. After hundreds of years, humanity has decided to find the planet its first experimental starship went to when it was stolen, and to see if there are any traces of the rogue astronauts or the police who tried to bring them home. When the Earthlings introduce themselves, first to Angie, then to their other local cousins, the people of Eden — Maingrounders and New Earthers alike, as well as other, smaller civilizations — must come to grips with the reality of meeting gods whose stories and worldview don't match up with their own.

Daughter of Eden is a smart, intelligent, and absorbing page-turner of a book. It's strength is in Beckett's shifting of gears to focus on the life and perspective of a normal person who's generally at the mercy of the more powerful people around her, and her culture, but who ultimately is important (as the regular people of the world usually are, despite credit usually going to the great) to how events play out. Angie is important not just for being the first one to spot the New Earth invasion fleet, or to make first contact with the astronauts and act as a cultural liaison to them, or discover a long-lost holy relic, but because she (again, a normal person, not one of the leaders) is the one who is telling this story, a story that will be heard by many of the communities on her world as she assumes a new role at the end of the novel. She has a voice. Despite being one of the typically downtrodden, she is a person with agency. Despite being one of the little people, she matters.

Moreover, once we meet the new astronauts and they begin to share history about the original incident involving the starship and information about the Edenites' progenitor/goddess Gela, and when they begin to share recordings left by her, we begin to see that she was a regular person too. One with flaws and worries and no grand schemes about creating a holy legacy. As Angie (and the others) learn all of this, she realizes that even gods can be little people too. That little people can be important. That they can build new, lasting things and shape the world around them.

We also see (through Angie's eyes) the new astronauts having to change their worldview too. At first, they have to get their heads around an entire world full of humans descended from just two people, not just surviving, but thriving in spite of the genetic problems from massive inbreeding, lack of modern technology or contact with Earth, and having to adapt to an alien lifestyle under the dim light of glowing trees in the darkness of a rogue, starless planet orbiting the galaxy. They have to get past their initial pity and revulsion for a people who (due to their genetic abnormalities, nutritional deficiencies, and environmental conditions) look different from Earthlings and who live in violent, technologically primitive, religious fundamentalist cultures. They have to deal with the disappointment of being confronted by a people who are disappointed that the astronauts' statement of facts has challenged accepted dogmas on Eden. And they have to see the potential in some of Eden's inhabitants to become more than they are.

A few years ago, I stumbled on Dark Eden by accident and picked it up on the strength of it's win of the 2013 Arthur C Clarke Award, and, most of all, because of its back cover description of descendants of interstellar castaways living in the biological lamplight of trees on a planet of darkness. I was glad I did, and I'm just as glad now that Daughter of Eden has wrapped things up as strongly as the series began. Buy this book.



Friday, August 31, 2018

Countdown to the Invasion — Season Three Is About to Launch

Just a quick reminder that the new season of the Invaders From Planet 3 podcast is set to launch in just two weeks!

A whole squadron of writers, artists and performers will be leading season three of the Invasion, but I'm not going to spoil things with any name-dropping now. Starting Friday, September 14, you'll have to tune in every two weeks to see who's taking the helm of our flagship as we talk about science fiction, fantasy, and all points in between.

Meanwhile, get caught up on classic episodes of the past two seasons right here on bloginhood.com. Just search for Invaders From Planet 3 and pick an interview. You can also catch the show on these podcast listening platforms: iTunes, Libsyn, Stitcher, Overcast and Spotify.

Let the Invasion resume! Soon.



Sunday, August 26, 2018

Episode 3 of Prisoners of Gravity Doc Now Online

More documentary goodness: The gang at Radio Free Krypton has released the next episode of its series on Prisoners of Gravity!

Part 3 of "Inside the Orbit of Prisoners of Gravity" focusses on what the show meant to fans — including me — and how it inspired us in different ways.

I've shared my thoughts before here on the blog about how amazing PoG was, but it's really worth checking out this episode of the doc (well, all of the episodes!) to listen to other fans share their stories. It's great to know that so many people were inspired in different ways. And it was good to hear from the PoG producers that they're aware of how popular the show was — and still is — among fans. All too often, people can create meaningful things but exist in a vacuum in terms of feedback, and it's important that they hear how much their fans love their work.

Looking forward to the final episode of the doc this coming week!

Saturday, August 25, 2018

Spiking the Canons

The Washington Post created a bit of a stir recently with Ann Hornaday's piece titled "The New Canon — The 23 best films of the 2000s". Reading the article — as well as others' opinions of its choices — has brought me circling back to the issue of how deeply problematic the notion of canons is.

The first question is one of scope: is it right or fair to lump everything into one list of what's best, most important, most groundbreaking, or most influential? If we just focus on film (to keep with the subject of Hornaday's list), is it fair to lump costume dramas in with comedies, or science fiction or fantasy or superhero movies? Yes, they're all using film to tell stories, but (genre-crossing pieces aside), they're telling different kinds of stories, sometimes using different tools, and often aimed at different audiences. Here, Hornaday has mashed together a generally humourless grab-bag that includes Children of Men and The Royal Tenenbaums (which, though it's supposed to be a comedy, I didn't find funny). These movies aren't even in the same universe! Not in terms of style, theme, or any other measure! How can they legitimately occupy a spot within the same canon? One should definitely cultivate tastes in different genres of film — it's okay to like both the Swiss science fiction drama Cargo and the raunchy little Hollywood comedy A Good Old Fashioned Orgy — but if we're going to try to define what is canon, that canon should be comprised of stories that are actually comparable in some way beyond the medium of their release. This is one of the major faults of lists like this, as well as awards. We need to compare apples to apples, rather than lump watermelons in with bone-in pork butts.

Then there's the problem of time: How long does a creation (whether a film, book, short story, comic, video game, whatever) have to be out in the world before we can legitimately claim that it has a place in a canon? Clearly, this century isn't over yet, so it's just a smidge premature to say the 23 films in the Post article constitute the canon — or even part of it — for the 2000s. Barring major man-made or natural catastrophe, there will doubtless be many, many good films in the long years ahead that will be equal to, or better than, those offered by Hornaday as the pinnacle of the art.

But even beyond the raw numbers game of how many movies of quality are released within a defined period, I think it takes time to digest a film to determine if it really is that good in the grand scheme of things. To be worthy of canon status, a movie has to be so good that audiences and critics and academics will still be talking about it decades, not merely years, down the line. It has to be a story that will maintain its strength over time as the culture around it changes. We also have to bear in mind that some films take a while to grow on people. 1982 was a good year for these kinds of flicks. John Carpenter's The Thing was panned for its gore, and critics didn't give Blade Runner the best reception either. Nor did they cash-in well at the box office — in fact, none of the other movies that we now consider to be classics of the speculative fiction genre, like Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan or Tron, did especially well financially because E.T. was rampaging across the box offices. It took a long time before these movies grew beyond their cult followings to gain the respect they deserved. For Hornaday to try to argue that films made in the years from 2000 up until today deserve a canonical spot is premature. They haven't proven they can withstand the test of time. In fact, some of the genre films on her list have decidedly not survived in the cultural consciousness: sticking with genre movies, as good as Children of Men was, I haven't heard anyone talk about it for a long time. But who knows? Maybe it will see a resurgence. I doubt it though. I would suggest that it's really not of any value to try to decide if something is worthy of canon status until at least 20 years has passed. We can talk about the films (whether within a specific genre or, more ambitiously — and I would argue that this is unwise — across culture as a whole) that constitute the canon of the 20th Century (yes, I know it's only been 18 years, not 20, since the end of that century, but it's been long enough to prove my point), but to try to make the argument that we're in any position right now to pronounce that which is best and most important of the 2000s is unwarranted.

Then there's the fact that canons placed upon pedestals by critics or academics are, ultimately, subjective declarations of what is best and most noteworthy. We might be able to say with some degree of comfort that a movie has probably reached a wider audience than any other. Or we might give a particular story credit for having broken new ground in terms of subject matter or casting or technical achievement. But even then, someone could take issue with these claims, saying this advancement was actually done before (or the groundwork was previously laid for it) in a certain film, or that another movie was released to an equally wide audience that the canonical critic wasn't aware of because of ignorance or ignored because of bias. And when we get into the question of what constitutes the "best" example of storytelling or acting or direction or technical craftsmanship — better than others of its era — or whether a film is the most influential, or more relevant (either for its time, or for the human condition as a while), I worry that we're getting into a truly perilous exercise of trying to make personal opinion into objective critical dogma. Putting aside Hornaday's mainstream choices, if we were to examine her genre picks, would it really be fair to say that Children of Men is more deserving of a place in a canon than Blade Runner 2049? Personally, I don't think so. Or can she legitimately say that Spirited Away is a better film or has greater cultural importance than Up? I would hesitate to argue either way — both stories are dear to me. So is it right or in any way intellectually valuable for one critic or academic to say "This is the canon"? I'm not sure.

Perhaps one can base one's canon selections on a survey of what many critics or audience polls (or now, in the 21st Century, the avalanches of online comments) have said about a movie's merits. But these are ultimately still a snapshot of a few opinions. There will be many who will disagree with the choices as flat-out wrong. Some might agree with a few, or even all, of the chosen films, but assert that equally well-done — or better — films have been left out, and so demand a revision of the list. And these dissenters may have entirely valid reasons for their positions. But when it comes down to it, their claims too are personal opinions rooted in their own preferences, or biases, or artistic or political agendas. Perhaps the anointing group, and maybe the dissenters, are right or wrong. Or neither.

There's a truly excellent discussion of this very question of determining what is the best, or what is most praise-worthy, over on the Coode Street Podcast, in a recent episode where Jo Walton joins hosts Jonathan Strahan and Gary K Wolfe. As they chat about Walton's new book, An Informal History of the Hugos, they grapple with the question of what makes a story worthy of a Hugo Award, or a place within the canon, and how authors are named Grand Masters and whether this needs to change. While it is a discussion about speculative fiction literature, the ideas can be transplanted directly into a consideration about what gets admitted into the canon of film for the 2000s (or any other era or specific genre). And they make a point that I agree with, which is: you like what you like.

I've always been deeply uncomfortable with the idea of a canon — for film or anything else, within the sf genre or in a broader mainstream context. Yes, we can often agree on that which is truly terrible, like Manos: The Hands of Fate (although I'll leave the door open for the possibility that there are a few poor, lost souls out there who legitimately love this steaming crapfest non-ironically). But putting the worst aside, what constitutes the best — the must-watches, the standards by which we judge all others — is just so subjective. I'm not completely opposed to the idea of canons: I think they have some educational benefit in terms of giving a newcomer a place to start when learning about the history of film (or whatever) of a certain genre or era. I also think they have some value in terms of sparking discussions — or, as the gang on Coode Street rightly said, canons give us something to argue about, and we enjoy this. But because they are, ultimately, founded on personal opinion, I've never liked the idea that canons are perceived as the last word on the subject of quality. Too often, this is used to marginalize people (either arbitrarily, or with a specific agenda in mind) based on their personal preferences or some aspect of their background. It's snobbery and prejudice, pure and simple. Science fiction, fantasy, comics, horror (everything under the umbrella of speculative fiction) were the victims of this for a long time (and are only just — slowly — starting to crawl out from under this scorn) as mainstream critics and academics (and the self-styled literati and culturally-minded members of the public who slavishly parroted their opinions) looked down their noses at genre films (and literature, etc) and performed all manner of terminological acrobatics to avoid giving credit to sf when one of its stories was begrudgingly admitted to be of quality. And here's the sad thing: we nerds do it to each other too. How often have people within the sf community declared what is canon, deliberately leaving out specific films (or stories, or authors, or whatever) or whole segments of the genre because they feel that certain niches aren't as important or of lasting value, when really, they just don't like that stuff — whatever that stuff is? How many times have others declared these canons invalid as being harmful in some way, or inadequate at (or failing completely in) including this group or that region, or ideology, or whatever, and then raised canons of their own, sparking counterattacks, and so on, and so on? It's all just your personal opinions, folks. Other people have their own opinions. With a few exceptions, I tend to get uncomfortable with notions of absolutism, and distrustful of those who advocate them, especially when it comes to art. And that's why the notion of a canon doesn't sit easy with me. You like what you like.

Maybe it's time to spike the canons. I've always taken it as implicit that when someone presents a list of "the best", that it's a list based on their own personal opinion. They may feel strongly about it. They may be able to present a carefully reasoned argument for it. It may be a conversation starter (or, in what could be the case of the Washington Post, a cynical, business-minded example of click bait to get people going to the site, thereby making advertisers happy when the sales team presents them with the tally of hits by unique viewers), or an educational tool to get a newby started. But it's just that person's opinion, and one that I (and you, and you, and even you over there... but maybe not you — you know who you are) don't have to share. But the word canon carries such critical weight, that maybe it's time to drop it as something that is wholly inadequate in the face of personal opinion, the near impossibility of seeing (or reading) everything that's released all across the world, and the question of specific scope. But most of all, forget about discussing canon until there's been enough time to see what actually proved to be a film that mattered. At least, in your opinion.


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And since Hornaday only included 5 genre films in her canon (Children of Men, Pan's Labyrinth, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, Minority Report, and Spirited Away), I thought I'd post the following list of some of my favourite films — so far — from the 2000s (not including made-for-TV-fare). But it's not a canon.

I'd include Children of Men, Pan's Labyrinth, and Spirited Away, but I'd also want to highlight (in no particular order:

Moon
Rogue One
Deadpool
Deadpool 2
The Lord of the Rings trilogy
The Hobbit — An Unexpected Journey
The Avengers
X-Men
Spider-Man
Spider-Man Homecoming
The LEGO Batman Movie
Beowulf (animated)
Blade Runner 2049
Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon
District 9
Fanboys
Serenity
Logan
Monster House
Monsters vs Aliens
The Muppets
Pacific Rim
Hellboy
Hellboy 2 — The Golden Army
Paul
Predators
Scott Pilgrim vs The World
The Shape of Water
Stardust
Ted
A Million Ways to Die in the West (Doc Brown and the Delorean make a cameo, so it's genre)
The Martian
Up
Unbreakable
Wall-E
The World's End
Iron Man
Cargo
Kick-Ass
Guardians of the Galaxy
Mad Max — Fury Road
Terminator — Salvation
Midnight in Paris
Sausage Party
Super 8
This Is the End
I Am Legend
King Kong (2005)
Kong — Skull Island
Cloverfield
10 Cloverfield Lane
The Host
Snowpiercer
Ant-Man
Ex Machina
Watchmen
The Incredibles
Dredd


What are some of your favourite movies from the last 18 years?


Saturday, August 18, 2018

Prisoners of Gravity Documentary Continues with Examination of Early Challenges

Radio Free Krypton has dropped the second episode of its cool documentary about Prisoners of Gravity.

In this episode, they examine the challenges faced by the show as it struggled to find its feet in its first season, and some of the changes it went through later on both behind the scenes and on-screen.

As with the previous instalment, part two includes interviews with host Rick Green, producer Mark Askwith, and others involved with the show. Author Robert J Sawyer also weighs in on the early days, as do some fans — including me.

I'm really impressed with how this series is going so far. Lots of fascinating insights into what was going on behind the scenes as the show came to life. And I'm always interested in hearing what the authors and other fans thought about it too.

Can't wait for the next episode of "Inside the Orbit of 'Prisoners of Gravity'"!

Friday, August 17, 2018

Cracks in the Foundation

I've finished my reread of Isaac Asimov's Foundation, and the verdict is: it's deeply, deeply flawed, and I don't love it like I used to, but it's not terrible.

As I noted in a recent post, the Foundation series was one of the first examples of adult-level science fiction that I read as a teen, and for much of those early years, I counted it as my favourite work of sf. But it's been more than 20 years since I last picked it up, and when Asimov's Robot novels failed the reread test a few years ago, I was afraid that revisiting Foundation would ruin the memory of it.

So over the past week or so, I've finally confronted it and given each section a lot of thought. It's often been hard — sometimes cringeworthy — encountering the weaknesses, blunders, and missed opportunities in this collection of stories that's been stitched together and had a "novel" label slapped on it. Fans back in the days when these novellas (Novelettes?  Whatever.) must have been truly desperate for content as much as they were blown away by the ideas in the Foundation stories to have read them and wanted more — never mind the editors who published them. And yet we can't dismiss out of hand the idea that people can be blown away by the ideas within a story (or collection of stories), even if it is deeply flawed. You like what you like.

And yet we do have to be honest about the cracks in the Foundation.

For starters, the writing isn't that good. Asimov's approach to characters is clumsy, with both his protagonists and villains unnecessarily exploding at each other in just about every other conversation, as he attempts (and always fails) to ramp-up tension in scenes that really have none because the stories are all talk and no action (as the author confesses in his forward to the book). Beyond their forced bursts of aggression, their dialogue is hackneyed. There are the cheesy attempts at futuristic expressions like "Space!" or "Galaxy!". Imperial officials and borderworld warlords speak in an overwrought fashion that comes off as pretentious, and while it may have been Asimov's intention to use this mode of speech to try to show that the apparently (though often ultimately not) powerful antagonists themselves were pretentious (or products of a pretentious culture), it just comes off as pretentious writing. Similarly, the protagonists of the Foundation have a forced, rapid plainspokenness that feels like Asimov is trying to mimic what he thinks Humphrey Bogart might say in a movie (the stereotypical "fast-talkin' high pants" speech that probably wasn't as pervasive as old black and white films would have us believe), but doesn't quite pull it off.

Beyond their dialogue, the characters themselves are one-dimensional. The outer rim of Asimov's galaxy is populated by warlords of antagonistic kingdoms next door to Terminus who could each buy-out entire stores in Portland of their supplies of moustache wax as they scheme and utter threats, stopping just short of laughing maniacally and tying damsels to railroad tracks for kicks (nuclear railroad tracks, that is, because everything in the Foundation stories — up to and including kitchen knives — is nuclear, in keeping with the technological darling of the 1940s and 50s). Taken with the overwrought dialogue, their descriptions and actions are supposed to evoke Kasper Gutman, or Ming the Merciless, or any other well-spoken, aristocratic (or pseudo-aristocratic) bad guy of the era, but instead they fall flat and unintentionally become caricatures of characters who are themselves intentionally, to varying degrees, caricatures. The protagonists are also caricatures, chomping on their cigars in back rooms as they tell everyone around them how much more clever they are than anyone else, and especially smarter than the current government of  Terminus/the Foundation. Hober Mallow, the merchant prince of the final sequence, is an absurd, futuristic Yankee trader or robber baron, who, in spite of the story, is impossible to take seriously because he's just so over the top, painted as a giant with a booming voice who's seemingly the best at everything. Asimov misses the opportunity to create a three dimensional character in Mallow by failing to give the Trader captain any kind of internal examination of what it means to be an outsider within the Foundation power structure. He's frequently reminded that he's from one of the worlds the Foundation has conquered, and thus a kind of second class citizen, but Mallow never addresses it internally, and I don't recall him addressing it externally in any substantial way either. It's just brushed aside. A better writer could have opened the character up with this issue to let us get to know his motivations better, and to give him an opportunity to evolve. Instead, Mallow, like every other character in Foundation remains static.

There are other problems with the writing: Chapter 1 of "The Mayors" is essentially a long "as you know" piece, making it dull. That's a fatal way to start a story (or, at least, it should have been) when we consider this would have been published as a piece in an sf magazine.

Then there are the rare holographic appearances by Hari Seldon, the legendary psychohistorian who founded the Foundation: they serve no purpose. It's a logical hole in the story big enough to fly an Imperial battle cruiser through. Seldon's photonic ghost provides no guidance at all — he just checks-in once in a while to say "Well, I calculate that you probably made it through some crisis that I didn't warn you about, even though I knew it was coming, and I'm not going to spell it out now even though we may actually be thinking about two entirely different incidents if your experience varies from my predictions, but hopefully you're sitting here listening to me, even though I'm still not going to tell you anything! Basically, you're here just to look at my picture. Am I dead sexy or what?" The leaders and academics of the Foundation don't even have a schedule of when he's going to appear! They really don't know! They just have to assume that things have been shitty enough recently to constitute a Seldon Crisis, and that the old man is going to materialize in his cube any minute, look up from the book on his lap, and, yet again, tell them nothing of substance. I mean, this is the future, so you'd think there would be an electronic warning in city hall a little while prior to the airing of the latest episode of The Hari Show, but Asimov doesn't mention anything along these lines, so it could just be the case that the mayor of Terminus has a line item in his budget to pay some kid to stand around outside the Seldon vault and shout "Hey, you guys!" whenever the machinery starts to hum. Or, knowing large organizations the way we do now, it's probably an unpaid internship position.

Asimov has made some other strange decisions when it comes to the Foundation colony: only one psychologist was sent with the initial population of settlers, and there have been no others since. That's a truly astounding amount of faith in the mental health of a group of people who have to build a society, run a major project, and, you know, survive in the face of hostile neighbours (and eventually a hostile Empire) while isolated out on the rim of the galaxy, never mind your standard run-of-the-mill psychological, emotional and relationship issues, and developmental challenges, that come up during everyday life. The explanation given is that Seldon didn't want the Foundation to have psychologists who could relearn and use his predictive science of psychohistory to try to guide their society and thus skew his plan. But Asimov seems to have confused the disciplines of psychology and sociology, and besides, his fictional psychohistory seems to rely heavily on some kind of higher level mathematics, which is sufficiently different from psychology (read sociology in this case) that there's little danger of a mental health professional who does marriage counselling or developmental assessments or personal therapy, and maybe still has 5 minutes left in his/her day after dealing with this case load and making time for a life outside of work, stumbling into calculations that will allow him/her to predict and steer the future of entire civilizations.

There's also what feels like a bit of retconning going on between the introductory section, "The Psychohistorians" (which was added on later when the first Foundation stories were compiled into a novel) and the other sections over the question of the secrecy of Seldon's plan. The intro section tells us that Seldon and his team have been working on preparations for the Foundation project for two-and-a-half years prior to his trial, preparations that are so well-known that, because of his dire predictions, he's earned the nickname of "Raven Seldon". So lots of people know his take on the state of affairs (at least generally) and that he's getting ready to do something about it. And yet, by the time we get into the originally-written stories in the second section, "The Encyclopedists", nobody out on Terminus has any idea that they're there to do anything other than compile an encyclopedia, even though they're only 50 years out from the settling of their colony. It's completely unbelievable that they're ignorant of the Foundation's true purpose. After the first crisis, Seldon's recorded holograph tells them they were kept in the dark about their purpose (never mind his predictions about what's coming) to prevent them from going off the course he'd charted for them. Never mind that I've heard scientists of varying disciplines say on several occasions that scientists don't like to keep secrets, it's just not believable that with all of the extensive preparations going on before the launch of the original colony ships, and with all of the publicity about Seldon's predictions, that none of the settlers would have known or guessed what their purpose was. There's also no value in keeping them in the dark. Asimov, through the character of Seldon, saying that the Foundation's people can't know what's coming so they don't corrupt the timeline and the plan is basically so much weak handwaving. The fall of the Empire and the bid to have the two Foundations survive with all the old knowledge and rebuild society over a thousand years into a Second Empire is disaster planning on a galactic scale, and any emergency management expert will tell you that people have a better chance of making it through disasters if they plan ahead and know what to challenges to expect in different situations and how to deal with them. It's just not believable that the best way for the Foundation to succeed would be to keep its people ignorant. There may be an argument for keeping the science of psychohistory out of their hands so that the Foundation doesn't, with the best of intentions, wander too far out into left field, but using Seldon's electronic spectre to give them advanced warnings ahead of the crises would make sense and probably help them succeed.

As if all of that wasn't enough, the book is a total sausage fest. The only female character with a speaking role (and, unless I'm forgetting, the only female character in the book at all!) is the Commdora in the final section, and she doesn't occupy any place of value in the plot. A princess of the Empire who's married to a warlord out on the border, the Commdora only makes a couple of appearances to play the role of a spoiled shrew of a wife who nags her husband to prove he isn't a loser by getting off his ass and conquering some planets. Oh, and she likes pretty jewellery. This is probably Asimov's attempt to inject a little humour into a dry story, making his barbarian conqueror a hen-pecked hubby, but it isn't necessary and doesn't accomplish anything in terms of story or character development. It isn't even funny. And while we can look at the absence of women on the Foundation's council or among its Traders as an artifact of the time the stories were written (and possibly of the editorial choices of the magazine where they were published, and the writer and editor's assessment of their target audience), to have no women mentioned at all elsewhere in the stories is a major oversight, and to make the only female character a shallow harpy is bad writing. Whether cast in the role of a protagonist or antagonist, Asimov could have given the Commdora more to do, such that she actually has an effect on the plot.

It's also strange that Asimov, an immigrant born to parents who grew up in Tsarist Russia who fled with him to America to escape the Communist regime, seems to have little use for democracy in the story. It begins in an empire (which was chosen because Asimov took inspiration from the fall of the Roman empire, and probably because empires are, to our modern eyes, inherently dramatic), and starts with a colony that has a democracy in the form of the mayor and council of the planet Terminus, but one that has no teeth because it's subservient to the non-democratic council of academics running the Foundation project. The mayor, Salvor Hardin (who, at age 34, seems unbelievable in the role of media mogul and colony leader) then stages a coup and overthrows the council, but this isn't a victory for democracy as Hardin leads more-or-less as a dictator. From there, the Foundation (though still a democracy for its own citizens on Terminus) manufactures a religion to control the people and governments of neighbouring kingdoms, and this theocracy is left in place for decades, rather than installing democratic governments in their new subjects/confederates. Eventually, the territorial theocracy is replaced by Mallow's plutocracy, which more-or-less squats on top of the democracy of the Foundation itself: there's still an elected mayor, but Mallow has used his money to buy the election, and it's the richest Traders who (like the merchant families in Renaissance Italian city states, or the Hanseatic League) decide what happens in the Foundation for the next period in its history, with Mallow, as the richest, ruling as de facto dictator, tossing political opponents in jail. Putting aside the other changes to the Foundation's government throughout the rest of the series, Hari Seldon's goal, ultimately, is for a Second Empire — a monarchy — to be established, leaving no room for democracy.

But, for all its faults, I can't find it in myself to dislike Foundation. Is it just nostalgia that's holding me back, preventing me from hating this book? Or, taking into consideration the time when it was written and the nature of other sf that was being published, balancing the writer's ideas and enthusiasm against lack of ability, and its impact on me as a reader and on the genre as a whole, does Foundation have merit?

Overall, I liked the larger plot of a colony established to minimize a period of cultural darkness following the collapse of a large civilization, and, more than that, to build something greater. I like the notion of intelligent people, rather than interstellar bullies, being the ones who rebuild civilization — the nerds win! Even if I don't agree with all of his assessments or outcomes, I'm intrigued by the possibility that Foundation is Asimov's attempt to do what Plato did in the Republic and examine types of government. And I love the vastness of Asimov's future, of time so deep that humanity has forgotten its origins — that even in an age of electronics and super science, this forgetting implies thousands of years of exploration, colonization, exploitation, experimentation with different approaches to creating and running cultures and civilizations that compete with, overthrow, destroy, amalgamate and outgrow others and their predecessors; that technologies for and philosophies of record keeping and storytelling have changed; that there have been wars, epidemics, isolation, Renaissances, building and rebuilding, soul-searching, and reinterpretation of and throwing away and reinventing history; that people have created and repurposed and discarded and edited cultural myths, and repeatedly invented a new sense of self both personally and culturally. It's truly breathtaking worldbuilding contained in a few throwaway lines about historians arguing in books over centuries about humanity's origin.

Maybe there's also something to the thought that Asimov might have been a better short story writer than novelist, being better suited to a platform that could showcase his big ideas while being tight enough to let him skate over his professional weaknesses.

I think, taking all of those things into consideration, Foundation does still deserve a place in the sf canon (and whether the genre should have a canon or not is something that's been debated by many others previously and will continue to be argued about into the foreseeable future), and, personally, I think I can be comfortable in defending my enjoyment of it. If nothing else, Foundation and Asimov opened the door for me to adult sf, a lot of big ideas, and a universe of other (and often more talented) writers. For that reason alone, it deserves a place of honour on my bookshelf, and a fond bookmark in my memory.