Tuesday, December 18, 2007

Review: "Blade Runner - The Final Cut"

Warning: SPOILERS (spoilage factor: about the same as a plate of nachos left on the coffee table in your living room for two days)

Does it matter that Ridley Scott has decanted another replicant of his SF classic “Blade Runner”? Is the newly-released “Blade Runner – The Final Cut” worth buying?

Having just watched it, I have to say that while it is most definitely worth buying, I’m not so sure that this latest model is different enough from the Director’s Cut, released in the early 90’s, to be significant. (Excuse me while I brace myself for the collective in-drawing of breath and cries of “Sacrilege!” from some of the other BR fanboys out there).

I think though, we have to look at the two questions separately.

Firstly, I bought the 4-disc Collector’s Edition, which includes The Final Cut, as well as the original 1982 North American theatrical release, the international theatrical release, the Director’s Cut from the 90’s and a couple of disks of special features. I’m a big enough fan of BR that I knew going into the store it would either be this collection, or the super-duper-ultra-mega-metal-briefcase-there’s-no-nerd-like-me collectible collector’s edition (including a 5th disc with another cut of the film, a paper unicorn, a toy hovercar and some slides/cells) – no single-disc cheapo version for me. I made it in time to grab the last of both of these collectors’ sets from the shelf and stood there for a minute or two, studying the extras listed on the package. Ultimately, I took the 4-disc set because after an initial opening and examination, I probably wouldn’t look at all the bonus knick-knacks again, and let’s face it, if it’s resale collector’s value you’re looking for, really, if you want to keep the value up, you’d never open the metal box in the first place, let alone remove the plastic.

Getting the collector’s edition was worth it for me because I’m one of those freakishly rare types that enjoys both the theatrical release and the DC. Each has the feeling of a different film from the other, and while I love the DC, the TR certainly has its merits. The DC is definitely more of a challenging film. That being said, in some ways the TR does a better job of creating the tone of an old-style film noir – you could almost see Bogart doing that role – the narrative has much the same tone as one of his monologues from, say “The Maltese Falcon”. A buddy of mine recently made the observation (and one that, upon further thought, I’ve come to agree with) that the TR is probably a better vehicle to introduce non-BR, non-SF fans to than the DC. If they’re interested, they’ll want to progress to the DC.

Buying the collection to watch TFC was worth-while if for no other reason than to see the footage cleaned up and listen to the crispness of the remastered sound. But the little extras that have been added here and there to the shots, such as reflections, like the elevator lights off of an exhausted Deckard’s face, enhance the look of the film nicely, rather than crowd it out. In adding extra footage – an extra reaction here, a longer hold on a character there (like the side-long looks we now see Captain Bryant giving Deckard during the debriefing in the beginning), some raised audio (like Roy calling to Sebastian after he’s just used his thumbs to egg-beater Tyrell’s eyeballs and brain – something we see more of in the new cut), or in the case of Zhora’s death, reshooting footage, Scott has shown a deft touch in making sure TFC is a fine film, rather than a caricature of itself. Taken as its own version TFC is, like its predecessors, simply great to watch.

The only digital change I’m not so sure about is the changing of the sky as the dove flies away from Roy’s body at the end. In older versions, there was the rather odd sight of the dove flying across a patch of blue daylit sky, despite the fact that Deckard and Roy were lying on a building in the perpetual darkness and rain of the lower levels of the city. Now it’s been changed so that the dove wings-off across a dark, cloudy sky with a backdrop of skyscrapers. The new footage certainly fits better with the scenery, but metaphorically, I don’t think it works as well with for the scene. Especially towards the end of the film, despite the carnage he inflicts, Roy’s character is shown more and more to be a type of savior for his people, and the dove is a crucial part of this imagery. When the replicant leader dies and the dove flies away into the blue sky, it appears to show that Roy’s finally found peace – that he’s fled the tired and dingy world he’s come to. In rising into the blue sky, the dove seems to emphasize what we’ve just seen with Roy saving Deckard’s life and accepting that his time has come, that he has transcended his violent past and gained a sort of tranquility. And this is something we can see reflected in the understanding on Deckard’s face (or, if you’re watching the TR, it’s something we’re blatantly told). The switch to the dove flying across more dark buildings negates any chance of a metaphor at best. At worst it would seem to cynically tell us that in death, Roy has not gained any freedom - that things haven’t changed, even on a spiritual level.

This leads us to the question of whether TFC is significant in being Scott’s last word on the film (allegedly – we’ll have to wait another 10 or 20 years to see if Scott changes his mind). As I said previously, I’m not sure that it is.

There’s been a lot of hype about TFC showing conclusively that Deckard is a replicant. The afore-mentioned debriefing scene at the opening with Bryant’s sidelong glances at Deckard certainly adds to the implications that Harrison Ford’s character isn’t a normal human. But (and perhaps I wasn’t being attentive enough in the first viewing of this version – or perhaps I was distracted by the cleaner video and crisper audio) I didn’t really pick up anything else in this rendition that added to the case for Deckard being a replicant. That being said, the Bryant scenes, in my opinion make this likelihood conclusive enough for this version of the film.

But so what? So this version indicates Deckard’s a replicant. That just makes it the polar opposite of the TR, which, in my opinion, seemed to fall on the side of Deckard being human. The fact that in the 2007 version Deckard is a replicant doesn’t make TFC a better film.

Some might argue that Scott has said that TFC is the version he has always truly meant for the public to see. Again, I would answer with “so what?” Scott’s entitled to his opinion, but so am I and so are you. This is a post-modernist era, where it can be argued the interpretation of the audience (both personal as an individual, and general as a collective audience) has as much validity as the intent of the author – most especially so if I’m the one paying to buy altered version after altered version every decade or so.

In fact, I would argue that the DC from the 90’s is probably the best version because it’s not as conclusive as either of the others. It leaves plenty of leeway for Deckard to be either human or a replicant. Yes, Edward James Olmos’ character leaves behind an origami unicorn, and Deckard did have the unicorn dream, but it could be coincidence – or maybe not! How much significance, and what kind of significance should we put on Deckard’s reaction to the demands of the case, the stress in his life, his new relationship or the fact that Roy chose to save him? It’s the kind of unsettling uncertainty that a classic Philip K. Dick story would leave us with. And since BR is based on “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?”, that uncertainty is fitting.

That being said, TFC is not a bad film. It’s a very good movie and a worthy addition to the collection.

I think, in the end, the way I view the 3 versions of the film is something along the lines of a favourite old story being told orally around the camp fire. Many of the themes and characters and events are the same, even if the details and the implecations of the story differ from telling to telling. As long as the storyteller spins his yarn well, all versions can be entertaining and possibly enlightening. I think in each version, Scott has done a good job of telling a tale. The newest version of “Blade Runner” definitely makes the cut.

Wednesday, December 05, 2007

Why Sam's Girlfriend on "Reaper" really is the Devil's Daughter

Warning: spoilers (spoilage factor – about the same as piece of French bread left on the counter for a couple of days – still edible if you need stuffing for a roast hen, but otherwise…)

“Reaper” continues to be one hell of a funny show and lately a new plotline (beyond their usual hunting of escaped souls) has been added that’s kept Sam and his cohorts busy guessing: is his new girlfriend, Katie, the Devil’s daughter?

We first met the very hot Katie at the end of last week’s episode, where Sam got to know the Devil’s on-again-off-again girlfriend while doing his job (both jobs, actually). At the end of the episode, we find out she’s got a daughter who’s about the right age to have been the product of her unknowing flirtation with the forces of evil. Sock and Ben are immediately suspicious, while Sam tries to convince himself it just ain’t so. This week’s episode continues to dwell on the question, when Sam and his sidekicks aren’t up to their usual ghostbusting antics, with Sock and Ben taking their investigation to new heights – or lows. By the final act, they think they’ve found a satisfactory answer – though not satisfying in any way relating to their mystery, and it is Sam who suddenly isn’t so sure.

And so the question remains: Is Katie the Devil’s daughter?

I submit to you that yes, she is, for one very simple reason:

It is not because she’s old enough to have been conceived during the Devil’s relationship with her mother…

It is not because Sock & Ben missed a piece of crucial evidence during the hot tub incident – they didn’t…

It is not even because of all the dead flowers and animals.

No, the proof that Katie is the Devil’s daughter is that she loves the movie “Highlander II: The Quickening”.

Anyone who enjoys that cinematic abomination obviously should be held suspect – for atrociously bad taste if nothing else, but perhaps for more nefarious motives too. I met someone many years ago who summed-up the whole “Highlander” franchise very nicely: There should be only one.

Tuesday, November 27, 2007

The Olympics go Pokemon

The Vancouver Organizing Committee (Vanoc) for the 2010 Olympic Games unveiled the official mascots for the Winter Games today – a trio of Pokemon.

No, the mascots are not technically part of the Japanese children’s animated TV series/card game/video game/toy/etc mega-franchise. They just look that way. Much to the chagrin of many of us here in Greater Vancouver, BC, and across Canada. I wouldn’t be surprised if folks in other parts of the world are as disappointed as we local yokels. And if not now, they probably soon will be.

The three critters are representations of (inspired by? mockeries of?) figures from First Nations folklore here in BC. They are:

Miga – a sea-bear – a creature, as I understand it, that lives as an orca in the water but can come onto land where it then turns into a Spirit Bear (Kermode bear – a very rare, naturally white, non-albino black bear).

Sumi – an animal guardian spirit combining elements of the orca (represented by its hat), the thunderbird and the bear.

Quatchi – a Sasquatch (also known as Bigfoot) – who, incidentally, wants to be a goalie on a hockey team.

And if three A-line beasties aren’t enough, technically there’s four of them – they have a sidekick: Mukmuk, a marmot (a small animal, akin to a groundhog, eking out a living on the mountainsides of Vancouver Island and currently on the Endangered Species List).

I don’t have a problem with the Olympics gang borrowing their mascots from native folklore (I’d be interested to hear what our aboriginal people have to say about the matter though). What I do have a problem with is how these things were drawn. They don’t look like anything – or at least, they don’t look like anything outside of your standard after-school anime series battling monsters roster! To put it another way, one of my coworkers said she thinks they look like Hello Kitty characters. How is that unique? How does that in any way distinguish an Olympic Games mascot? How is unidentifiable artwork representative of BC or First Nations culture? How does the cheap drawing-style let us know what the hell these things are supposed to be?

Why didn’t the designers contracted by the Games actually stick to the original concepts as portrayed in native art? At least that way we’d be able to get a sense that Miga’s supposed to be a synthesis of whale and bear, rather than something that could be a penguin or a cat or Pepe La Peu’s surreal anime alter-ego!

I heard someone from the Vanoc crew try to justify the design today by claiming that the mascots had to be “cute”. Marketers will tell you the big push for the mascots is from 6 to 8-year-olds. If the kiddies want the mascot toys or want to see the things wandering around the Games venues in person, they’ll twist Mom & Dad’s arms to buy the merchandise (funding the Games) and/or to go to the actual Games (funding the event and increasing the positive optics of full stands and hopefully spreading hype). But that could be accomplished by mascots that actually look like something. Cute? There are hundreds, if not thousands of “cute” portrayals of animals, real and mythical, in art and TV and movies all over the world that actually look like recognizable animals. Bears? How about Yogi & Booboo, or Baloo? Any designer/artist actually worth their over-inflated Olympic-contractor salary could have taken a 5 second look at some original aboriginal art portraying these creatures and given us “cute” versions that would be original and worth looking at.

Thanks, Vanoc. You’ve blown my tax dollars on vaguely fuzzy-looking blobs. Hairy cat turds with smiley faces. They’re not just Pokemon, they’re lazy Pokemon-wannabe attempts.

More on the Tragedy of "The Commons"

If you’ve followed the comments section of my previous post and its review of “The Commons” by Matt Hughes, you’ll want to check out SF Signal. John’s got a great review of the book and I continue our discussion in his comments section. I still disagree with his contention that it’s a good book – the characterization just isn’t strong enough to warrant liking it. That being said, John makes some good comments about just how interesting Hughes’ Commons is as a setting.

Another good review of “The Commons”, especially if you disagree with me, is John Clute’s (different John) Excessive Candour column over on scifi.com.

Wednesday, November 21, 2007

Two Years and Three Reviews

It was cold, foggy night two years ago that I launched this blog. Two years full of reviews, rants, links, whines, bits of shameless adulation, bad jokes, occasional hopelessly local observations, head-scratching and naval-gazing, infrequent posting, and, once in a great while, a blurb worth reading (maybe), and I’m still here.

More surprisingly, you’re still bothering to read this. I thank you. It’s been great having you along for the ride.

In honour of the two-year anniversary of bloginhood, I figured I’d serve you a three-course meal of quick book reviews. (Okay, it’s not really an anniversary treat, it’s actually because these books have been sitting on my desk for a while now waiting to be reviewed and I just haven’t got around to it. Might as well do it now.) No spoilers on the list of ingredients.

“Bad Monkeys” by Matt Ruff

I gotta thank the boys at SF Signal for this one. Read a review on their site and, based on that, picked it up when I came across it in Seattle at Eliot Bay Books (a signed copy made this quick buy decision that much quicker!). A good, brisk read perfect for a plane ride, long haul on a ferry or a rainy Sunday afternoon. The book tells the story (and retells and retells again) of Jane Charlotte and her involvement in the clash between two very secret, very powerful organizations – one dedicated to stopping evil doers (the “Bad Monkeys”) at all costs, the other to spreading death and mayhem. The story is alternately funny, a head trip and creepy (especially the stencil of the monkey on the cover). SF Signal got it bang-on when they said (at least I think it was their review) that Ruff’s book has a very Philip K. Dick-ian feel to it (with a bit of “The Prisoner” and perhaps a dash of James Bond and “La Femme Nikita”). Definitely worth the read.

“The Line Between” by Peter S. Beagle

This collection of well-crafted tales was thoroughly enjoyable. Typical Beagle, they focus on matters of the heart and exploring (sometimes with cynicism) what it means to be human. The story “Two Hearts”, the sequel to “The Last Unicorn”, was the highlight, although, for me, the sailors’ tragedy “Salt Wine” was probably the runner-up. Another book worth buying.

“The Commons” by Matthew Hughes

Published as a single novel under the Robert J. Sawyer Books, “The Commons” is actually a fixup, an amalgamation of short stories previously published. Problem is, there isn’t any smoothness in the transitions from one chapter/story to the next. The chapters revolve around the adventures of Guth Bandar, a noonaut, or explorer of the human collective unconscious – one of the last frontiers for our species in the very, very distant future (so far, in fact, that the sun has begun to turn orange) where humanity has pretty much done and seen everything and has now settled in for the long wait. What Guth finds during his treks into the Jungian wilds, is that the collective unconscious is aware and is intent on manipulating his life to suit its purpose. Crazy and often unpleasant adventures ensue involving mythical and psychological archetypes. I’d have to give this book a resounding “meh”. I neither hated it or loved it. It was okay, not a complete waste of time, but I certainly could have been spending that time on one of the other items in my teetering, ever-increasing new book pile or enjoying a favourite old chestnut. Beyond being indifferent to Hughes’ plot (or plots), I was even disappointed with Sawyer’s introduction to the book. Rather than saying anything of interest about the story, Sawyer devotes the better part of two pages to giving us a history of fixups. That’s not why I bother to read intros. Intros are meant to give the reader some insight into the story or a key implication of it, or about the author and how and why he presents things to us (in the following story or other works), not to talk ad-nauseum about a literary/publication device. This intro isn’t even a case of missing the forest for the trees – it’s looking up the definition of the word forest in the dictionary instead of bothering to look at said forest or trees. I’m not happy about having to say this either, because normally I enjoy Sawyer’s commentary on books he’s reading or literature in general, or pretty much anything. In contrast, an intro that does work very well is Mike Resnick’s intro to Nick DiChario’s “A Small and Remarkable Life” – which is also published under the Robert J. Sawyer Books label. At any rate, while I don’t regret reading “The Commons”, I do regret buying the hard cover. Must’ve been one of those archetypes Bandar has to deal with now trying to control my mind and making my shell-out instead of waiting for the paperback.

Saturday, November 17, 2007

"Star Trek" vs "Star Wars" Debate Rehashed - This Time Courtesy of CBC

CBC radio’s “Sounds Like Canada” hosted a debate on Friday (Nov. 16) on that classic sci-fi uber-geek grudge match: “Star Trek” vs “Star Wars”.

Author Robert J. Sawyer took to the field on behalf of Trek. Defending the honour of “Star Wars”: Calgary IT systems analyst Devon Cameron. The debate had its moments, although I found the host to be a bit of a dweeb and he and his producers could have chosen a better sound clip from “Star Wars”.

At any rate, the show’s been saved as a podcast on the Mothercorp’s site. So, for your enjoyment (or copious eye-rolling), here’s the link to CBC’s “Star Trek” vs “Star Wars” debate.

"Beowulf" Worthy of the Legend

We just got home from watching Robert Zemeckis’ animated “Beowulf” tonight (in Imax 3D!) and we’re still stunned. This is a big, savage, beautiful to look at (especially the exquisitely digitally-rendered Angelina Jolie), terrifying and yet thoughtful picture worthy of the legacy of the ancient Anglo Saxon poem.

There’s no point in summarizing the plot – chances are, you’ve read the original, or read or seen one of the legion of books and films re-imagining it or inspired by the tale in some way, or you’ve at least heard about it and get the basic gist. In fact, because the story’s so well known, it’s almost hard to spoil the movie by talking about it. And yet, because this rendition varies from the original in some ways (like Grendel’s origin) which add nuances that give the film a more powerful dramatic and intellectual impact. While it explodes onto the screen right from the start with Grendel’s truly frightening attack on Hrothgar’s mead hall and storms along through Beowulf’s battle with the dragon, it also takes time to season itself with quiet moments of introspection and emotional confrontations between characters, making this very much a grown-up story. (I shudder to think what kind of mockery or videogame it would have turned into if a director like Bruckheimer had gotten a hold of it.)

But it’s interesting to make a brief comparison of this film to other somewhat recent versions of the story. Unlike 2005’s underappreciated gem “Beowulf and Grendel” (directed by Sturla Gunnarsson), where Gerard Butler’s title hero was very much a man, and one not overly fond of a tough-guy reputation at that, Zemeckis and writers Neil Gaiman and Roger Avery (and, to be fair, actor Ray Winstone) have kept their Geatish hero very close to the original in terms of superhuman strength and endurance, and insured that he remained true to the typical Norse warrior mindset of the time that one had to help spread the myth of one’s prowess by boasting frequently and largely.

That being said, Zemeckis’ Beowulf is not just a one-dimensional big lug. Despite his larger-than-life abilities and antics, he is a man painfully aware of his own shortcomings (as some of those around him are also aware). It is this tension within the character, along with other plot devices like Grendel’s origin, that make Zemeckis’ movie very, very similar to Parke Godwin’s exceptional 1995 novel “The Tower of Beowulf”. In fact, I wonder if Zemeckis, Gaiman or Avery have read Godwin’s rendition and were influenced by it. I’m not alleging anything underhanded here, not at all, just curious as to whether they ever came across the book and if so, what sort of impact it might have had on them. In fact, despite the groaning pile of new novels scattered around my study, this movie has tempted me to go back and read “The Tower of Beowulf” again (as well as the original poem – which is pretty much a given).

Hats off to all of the actors too, for breathing life into these believable characters, both the human and the inhuman. That being said, the one performance I haven’t made up my mind about yet is that of Sir Anthony Hopkins as Hrothgar. Hopkins plays the old king as jovial, frequently drunk and silly, somewhat weak and ultimately tragic. Not like the kind of forceful personality one would imagine a person would have to be to rise through bloody years to become a wealthy Norse king. No, Hopkins’ Hrothgar felt to me more like the manager of a small bank branch in a small-to-mid-sized out-of-the-way town, or kind of like old Fezziwig in Dickins’ “A Christmas Carol”. By contrast, Stellan Skarsgard, in “Beowulf and Grendel”, played a Hrothgar beset by demons (both internal and external), drink and the end of his people’s traditional way of life, but you could believe that this was a man who was once, and still remained on some level, very dangerous. To paraphrase an old Shakespearean prof from my university days, Skarsgard taught me things about Hrothgar. Hopkins, on the other hand… I don’t know. I normally enjoy his performances (especially as Van Helsing in Coppola’s “Bram Stoker’s Dracula”), but I think I’ll have to watch this movie again to make up my mind.

But that won’t be a tough sell. Not only is “Beowulf” worth paying full price to see at the theatre, it’s worth paying full price to see again.

Tuesday, November 13, 2007

Reaper Goes 2001

First of all, folks, sorry there weren’t any posts last week. I was sick as a dog for more than a week and I’m only now up to snuff to unleash my inanities upon the largely indifferent web. Anyway…

Did anyone catch the opening of tonight’s episode of “Reaper” with the coworker named “Frank Poole”?

I’m trying to figure out if it’s a deliberate reference to “2001: A Space Odyssey” or just a coincidental choice of names by the writers. Not that I think this guy’s destined to become a regular character with a speaking role, or that he gets flicked out into deep space or anything, I’m just wondering if there’s a pattern of classic sci-fi references in this show that I’ve just been embarrassingly oblivious to.

The last time I remember name-dropping like that it was in “Babylon 5” where monikers like Asimov, Clarke and Bester were popping up every other episode. But that was a very genre-focused show, where “Reaper” is clearly gearing itself towards a more main-stream audience.

I guess I shouldn’t be entirely surprised at SF referencing in a show that Kevin Smith’s involved with. Although this simple use of a name is far more of a light touch than the scene dissections and character comparisons in the View Askew movies.

Has anyone else out there caught any other SF allusions in this surprisingly entertaining little show? If so, send me a note. Let me know which subtle or not-so-subtle salute to SF you’ve caught on “Reaper” and we’ll see if this is a regular feature or a one-off.

Wednesday, October 31, 2007

A Special Treat - "The Halloween Tree"

Clouds scud in off the Pacific to add another shroud to the darkness already covering the Lower Mainland. The costumed kids have all gone home to nestle amid their hordes of candy and dream sugar overdrive dreams of how much more they’ll eat tomorrow and what they’ll dress as next year, but there’s one last treat to be given out this Hallowe’en night, friends. Not too long ago, I was poking about on Youtube searching for whatever old shows crossed my mind, when I stumbled upon a find I had always hoped for but never really expected to discover: “The Halloween Tree”. I was already in university when this holiday special first hit the air in ’93, but I was immediately drawn to it like a kid to a jack o’lantern-lit house and though it hasn’t been aired in years (thanks to whoever out there managed to tape it during one of its showings and upload it!), it’s still one of my favourites. The show benefits from Ray Bradbury himself doing the narration; not only does he put a lot of feeling into it (you’d expect that from the guy who wrote the story), but he’s also got that great wise-old-Mr.-Owl-type voice that’s perfect for telling a tale like this. Kudos as well to Leonard Nimoy for his delightfully malevolently creaky voice as Mr. Moundshroud. And though slightly different than Bradbury’s original book of the same name, the best part about this animated special is that it captures all of the magic and wonder I felt as a child on Hallowe’en. In fact I still feel that way today during the season. In Bradbury’s words: “… the greatest night of the year. Better than Easter. Better than Christmas. Halloween.”

And so, for your enjoyment, trick-or-treaters, here is “The Halloween Tree”.

Happy Hallowe’en!

Tuesday, October 30, 2007

The SPACE/Aurora Saga Continues

An update in my tantrum over the failure of SPACE, Canada’s science fiction cable TV channel, to cover the Aurora Awards (Canada’s awards for professional SF literature in English & French, along with art and fan participation):

On Friday, I received the following reply to my email from one of the producers of Hypaspace, the news & gossip show on SPACE. I have to admit, I was pleasantly surprised to get such a well-thought-out response. Heck, I was surprised to get any formal response from them. Based on the producer’s letter, one can see how things panned-out the way they did. I still think SPACE could have done a better job giving attention to the Auroras, but as you can see, this producer has something of an uphill battle on his hands. At any rate, here’s the letter:

Dear -

Thank you for your letter.

I, too, share your disappointment that SPACE didn't cover V-Con, or the Aurora Awards on television.

We did discuss the Aurora Awards on our weekly podcast, but when you wrote your letter the podcast wasn't 'up' yet. (It won't be on-line until the weekend.)

Part of the problem for this years Aurora Awards were purely timing- SPACE only has two producers, and I'm the only 'book producer' and I was covering the International Festival of Authors and interviewing Jasper Fforde, Mathew Skelton, Rutu Modan, James Sturm, and covering events like JK Rowling's only Canadian reading that weekend, and in the days around the weekend. So, that's the 'practical' reason SPACE did not attend.

Another reality is that we've known for weeks that this weekend would be a repeat of my Spider-Man Hypa special, so there was no place for it on the weekend show.

There's another bigger concern, though.

Lately SPACE has moved away from literary interviews. We used to have a weekly book segment called ShelfSpace, and did 50 books a year (and 50 comics a year). ShelfSpace is now only comics, and the book portion has been cancelled.

For the first time in years I didn't attend any local literary conventions this year, and I haven't attended a WorldCon, a World Fantasy Con or a Hugo/Nebula/Aurora ceremony since TorCon (2003).


For almost a decade SPACE attended worldcons, various literary conventions and gatherings. I have interviewed hundreds of authors for SPACE. As I say, I've produced many ShelfSpace segments...

The audience response has been ZERO. No e-mails at all. No questions about authors. Nada. Zip. Until your e-mail, my Executive Producers would have to conclude that our audience just doesn't care about literary SF.

I lobby for it, but I have nothing to support my pleas, other than nice feedback from book publicists.

I still interview authors, as I refuse to abandon the beat, but I have to tie them into other stories we're working on, or use the in the podcast…

The other aspect of this is that when I do public interviews with people like Gibson or Gaiman I have discovered that most of the audience doesn't watch SPACE. Strange but true. Our audience is skewing younger, and their thirst is for film/anime/tv/comics/toy related material.
So, your letter was wonderful, and I shall use it to show that there is an interest in (part of) what I do here…

There has just been a regime change at SPACE, so perhaps the new management will support SPACE's long tradition of covering books.

Thanks again, -.

Mark Askwith
Producer SPACE

Here’s the response I sent this evening:

Hi Mark,

Thanks for your thoughtful response to my letter. It's heartening to hear that there's at least one person at SPACE who's still placing a value on books.

I didn't have time to catch the podcast this weekend, but I'm glad to hear the Auroras had some presence there.

I can appreciate the difficulties of having to set coverage priorities when an outfit is short on staff and faced with multiple events. Admittedly, Rowling is a huge draw by herself, never mind when there were so many others of note at the Festival. That being said, presumably because the Spider-Man special was airing this past weekend, segments from the Festival will likely be aired at a later date. I still think that arrangements could have been made to get footage of the Auroras through other channels (freelancers, etc) featuring noted Canadians like Robert J. Sawyer, Dave Duncan and Jean-Louis Trudel which could also be used at a later date. A quick recap of the awards using a couple of clips of footage during the next regular episode of Hypaspace would have been in order. However, this is now academic and something to consider for future years when other conventions host the Auroras and other scheduling conflicts arise. (We could get into a discussion of whether the new Spider-Man movie merited a repeat of the Hypa special [acknowledging that a lot of hard work went into the special itself], but that's a different matter.)

The real crux of the problem, is, as you point out, the position of management as to whether books and book-related events have relevance to SPACE's audience.

I'm glad you brought up the change in the nature of ShelfSpace. I really enjoyed this segment, back when it featured books. Whether or not I agreed with the reviews or cared about the previews, I appreciated the fact that the audience was being given the heads-up on new SF books. The highlights were the author interviews. It's always interesting to hear the author explain the book in his/her own words and then further expound on their influences or concerns. (I would offer a belated congratulations to you for your work on this segment.) There are a couple of books on my shelf that I bought as a result of watching ShelfSpace. Having books as a part of this segment rounded-out Hypaspace too - books are a part of the audience's experience of SF and completed the big picture. By talking about movies, comics and collectables on the show, but leaving out books, SPACE is omitting an important part of the equation - one that frequently gives context to the other three. The risk that SPACE runs to its own success through this course of action, is that it may lose members of the audience as a result of this and there's no guarantee that the non-reading audience will increase (or stay at even numbers through loyalty, for that matter) in sufficient numbers to make up for this loss.

Admittedly, it's curious that there has been no response from viewers to the literature-related segments. Certainly, one could argue that this means the audience doesn't care about SF. I tend to disagree though. It's too simplistic and most especially too convenient for management that doesn't want to spend money sending producers hither and yon to interview authors that management types may not themselves read. I tend to take a more cynical view. The reason the literature-oriented viewers weren't (and aren't) writing in is likely because of modern culture. When you were profiling books and authors, they were likely content to simply watch and enjoy. No need to speak-up when SPACE was doing its job. I certainly didn't. Then the books disappeared off ShelfSpace. Why didn't they write in by the thousands complaining? Simple - the alternative to complaining, the alternatives to Space is/are readily available and easy to access in the internet age. Writing a letter/email complaining about the program involves effort that many people likely believe would be wasted on a large corporation that likely won't listen to the demands of viewers, especially when those viewers are asking for something with a higher cost (paying producers & camerapersons to interview authors) than cheaper alternatives (using stock promo footage of movies provided by studios and using wire/net gossip copy to fill more airtime). Consumers are a jaded lot, and the "why bother" attitude is a hallmark of our culture. The age of the great letter-writing campaign to bring back Star Trek is over (with the exception of Whedon's "Firefly", which viewers couldn't leverage back as a TV series but did assist in getting the feature film "Serenity" backed.) If SPACE isn't profiling books any more, many have probably switched quietly and immediately to other sources (like the thousands of blogs and other 'net sites) where they can get their lit fix - including Canadian SF literature (often on international sites where our authors are known).

The question is, if this audience is lost or leaving (or too quiet to validate and quantify the station's success), is it worth even considering book content for the show? I would argue that yes, it is. Resurrect the quality product that SPACE used to have for literary previews & reviews, something that can compete quality-wise against websites that feature books & literary awards, and they'll come back. Quietly, to be sure, just as they left, but if it's a good product with intelligent content, word will spread and these viewers will return.

As for a younger-skewing audience, don't underestimate their desire to read. Yes, they stampede towards movies and comics and videogames and anime and collectables and the rest of it. No question. But then, so do those of us who are bookworms. And surprisingly, kids are reading. If they weren't, there would be no young-adult sections in bookstores. And yet there are. It's not uncommon to see a teen prowling around the SF section of a store with the adults trying to figure out what to pick up. And if you go to a convention, you'll notice there are a fair number of teens who show up - sure, the majority of con attendees are adults, but the kids are there. By all means, tie the books in to something else you're doing for the time being, you're right, that's a logical hook. But once you've hooked them, then there's the possibility of regrowing something about books simply for the sake of books. Offer them a book segment on the show, give them a chance to become well-rounded and they'll buy into it if they like what they see - even if they never tell you about it (and you have to admit that's pretty standard behaviour for a teen).

I'm glad to hear you're still trying to fight for literary content at Hypaspace, Mark. It means there's hope for Space. It's my hope that the new management will see the logic in what you're pitching. I'd like to see books come back to Space.

Best of luck!


So that’s where things stand now. I really do hope the new management at SPACE listens to his arguments for the return of literary content. In the absence of it, Hypaspace has become rather shallow, and I’m not the avid viewer I used to be.

Thursday, October 25, 2007

More on Space Ignoring the Auroras

A small update in the story of Space skipping the Aurora Awards…

As mentioned in an earlier post, the Space channel (Canada’s science fiction and fantasy-oriented cable TV channel – much like SciFi in the US) not only failed to attend the Aurora Awards ceremony at VCon32/Canvention27 in Greater Vancouver this past Sunday, but has also failed to post the award results on its website in the days since. Space claims its SF entertainment news show Hypaspace is supposed to be on top of the interesting stuff in the genre. Clearly they have dropped the ball, as the Auroras are Canada’s top awards for SF and some internationally-respected authors (see the list in the previous posting with the award results) are among the winners.

Last night, after emailing my letter of concern, I received the following autoreply from Space:

Greetings from SPACE!Thank you for your interest in our station and for taking the time to write to us. We regret that due to the large volume of emails and calls we regularly experience, we may not be able to respond to your message personally. Be assured that your comments, queries and suggestions are taken seriously and individually reviewed.IF YOU ARE INQUIRING ABOUT THE REMASTERED STAR TREK: THE ORIGINAL SERIES EPISODES:SPACE does not currently have the rights to air these particular episodes, but it is something that we are definitely looking into for the future.Please note that we have a daily listings page that should answer many of your programming questions: http://www.spacecast.com/tvschedule.aspx---------------------------------------------------------------------------------If your inquiry was answered above, you will not receive a response to your e-mail.Once again, thanks for your input and for tuning into SPACE.

My initial reaction was skepticism. I doubted there would be any real response to my note.

Today, the following email was sent to me:

Thank you for your e-mail. Your comments will be forwarded to the appropriate parties.

SPACE Communications

It would appear that a real human being has actually looked at my complaint. I’m kinda surprised.

Now the question remains whether I’ll get a real answer from someone actually involved in the decision-making process either explaining why Space made this error, or attempting to cover up their blunder, or apologizing for it and detailing whether they’re going to rectify it. And I’m curious as to whether they’ll bother to shoot a story to include in this weekend’s Hypaspace news package (which raises its own question: will they have to purchase footage from a fan who was there, or will they do a quick read-only story, or play pick-up by reading the results and then cutting to a hastily-arranged interview of one of the winners, which would have to have been shot either today or tomorrow).

One thing is certain, at the time of this blog entry, Space has still not posted the Aurora results to the Hypaspace page of its website! How they can fail to get the info up when it takes mere minutes to update a web page is beyond me. So much for covering what’s important in SF.

More updates as they come in.

More from VCon and the Auroras

Check out author Robert J. Sawyer’s blog for his view of the Aurora Awards ceremony from the MC’s podium. As mentioned previously, Sawyer took home one of the awards himself this year for his short story “Biding Time”. A good yarn.

Why Was "Space" Absent from This Year's Aurora Awards?

As I noted in my previous posting, something odd about the Aurora Awards on the final day of VCon32/Canvention27 was the absence of Space – Canada’s science fiction and fantasy-oriented cable TV channel. This was something that struck me only after I got home Sunday night and my wife asked if Space was there. I thought back to the ceremony and very clearly remembered that there was no professional cameraperson present. Moreover, there has been no posting of the Aurora winners’ list on the channel’s website for the past couple of days. It’s not like they could have received the results early and gone to air with them – the final ballot is voted on by attendees at the con on Friday and Saturday, and the week’s episode of Hypaspace has already gone to air by Saturday, and websites can be updated at any time. Rather lame behavior for a station that’s pursuing viewers from this particular community.
So, I sent the following letter (note the typo where I list the send date as Oct 24, when technically, having hit midnight, it’s the 25th. Oh well.) off to the contact emails listed on the Space website (for both programming and the website). It’ll be interesting to see if they bother responding, and if so, what they’ve got to say for themselves. I’m not terribly optimistic. But if they do respond, I’ll be sure to post it. Stay tuned.

To whom it may concern:

I am writing to express my disappointment that Space, and more specifically, Hypaspace, was not present at the annual Aurora Awards ceremony, hosted this year by VCon32/Canvention27 on Sunday, October 21.

The Auroras are Canada’s premier award for excellence in professional science fiction and fantasy literature and art, as well as outstanding fan achievement. Internationally respected authors (see the Aurora site for the listing: http://www.sentex.net/~dmullin/aurora/) were among the winners this year.

And yet, puzzlingly, you weren’t there. There was no camera with Space stenciled on the side or on a microphone flash in the ballroom during the ceremony Sunday afternoon. Nor was one of your cameras waiting outside to do interviews after. And, as of the writing of this letter, 12am pacific Thursday, October, 24 (3am eastern, Thursday, October 25), there has been no listing of the Aurora winners on your website’s homepage or the Hypaspace page. This information has been available on the Aurora site for the past couple of days.

For years, Space has coveted the niche as Canada’s cable TV provider of science fiction and fantasy, both in terms of TV shows and movies, as well as book and comic previews and reviews. Your show Hypaspace claims to be “An informative look at news and gossip from the Entertainment Industry as it relates to Science Fiction and Fantasy.”

And yet, how can Hypaspace claim to be informative at all if it isn’t covering news as significant to Canadian SF as the Auroras? This is our country’s major sci-fi awards ceremony! You can cook up your own campy, and admittedly mildly amusing, awards show called The Spaceys, but you don’t bother to cover the real thing?

I’ve been trying to figure out why Space would take a pass on the Auroras and I’ve failed to come up with any satisfactory answer.

Perhaps you think that the Auroras, being Canadian awards, are of no consequence. If that’s the case, I urge you to remember that you’re broadcasting to a Canadian audience that reads what our national authors generate, buys Canadian SF magazines like On-Spec, Neo-Opsis and Solaris, and sometimes even watches Space. Moreover, in terms of fan voting, it’s interesting to note that the Auroras see a higher percentage of voter turnout than the Hugos (US-based, but voted on internationally) do.

Or perhaps you will claim that the time and expense involved with sending a videographer from Toronto to Vancouver are prohibitive. If that’s the case, I would point out that Space has frequently in the past made an effort to be present or to acquire footage from conventions in San Diego and other non-Toronto locations, so clearly there is a precedent for you spending money on this sort of event. I would also point out that as a property of CTVglobemedia, Space could easily access resources at the Vancouver CTV station and have one of their camerapersons dispatched to cover the awards. If CTV Vancouver’s resources were unavailable, it would have been easy for you to obtain the services of a freelance videographer. There are many talented and experienced individuals on the Lower Mainland. Failing that, you could have contacted the Television department in the School of Broadcast at the British Columbia Institute of Technology – they have many well-trained student camerapersons who would be more than happy to get footage for you in exchange for experience and a cheque.

There is also the question of the use of airtime. As a former broadcaster, I understand how difficult it can be to squeeze items into a finite broadcast slot. That being said, looking at the track record of Hypaspace, you could probably drop one profile of the newest line of He-Man collectibles, or yet another Simpsons collectible line, or the newest ugly toy or odd Toronto-area art gallery for just one weekend to fit in two minutes about the Aurora results (3 to 5 if you could actually be bothered to go to the effort of interviewing one of the winners). Moreover, there is no excuse for failing to update the Hypaspace page of your website with this information.

The Aurora Awards are the highest achievement for science fiction and fantasy in Canada. The Canadian authors who have won them are greatly respected in their own country and many receive international renown. Ignoring the Auroras is simply not an option for a station that calls itself Space.

I would urge you, in the few days you have left to produce this weekend’s edition of Hypaspace, to take a look at the Aurora website (mentioned above) so you can at the very least get the list of winners for your show and your website and possibly arrange an interview or two. I would urge you to contact the VCon32/Canvention27 organizers through their website (www.vcon.ca) to see if they know of anyone in the room who was shooting footage on a home camcorder who could sell it to you so you’d have something to air.

I would urge you to think long and hard about whether you’d like to have credibility among Canada’s science fiction and fantasy community, the people who are your viewers.

Sincerely, etc.

Monday, October 22, 2007

VCon - Day 3

The Final day of VCon32/Canvention27 and I was off to a late start. Some of the morning programming looked to be of middling interest, but I was up too late last night and I need to get up too early tomorrow morning for work to pass up the opportunity to sleep in a little.

The first activity I attended today was the convention banquet and Aurora Awards ceremony. The lunch itself was pretty lame – no fault of the organizers, this was all the hotel’s doing (remember, this is the same hotel that’s making Con guests drink outta Dixie Cups) – serving beef satays that could only be called beef in that the vastly overcooked chunks of wood on the skewers might have once been shown a picture of a cow. But I was at a table with some nice folks from Whitehorse, Yukon; Missisauga, Ontario; Rockland, Ontario; and Winnipeg, Manitoba.
The Aurora ceremony itself was entertaining. The keynote speech, “I am not what I seem”, about personal alienation and how that can be reflective of a writer’s place in society sometimes, was delivered by author Matt Hughes. Author Robert J. Sawyer, who ended up winning one of the awards himself, acted as MC and joked he was giving up his signature Hawaiian shirt-wearing look in favour of wearing black leather jackets like Neil Gaiman. Sawyer went on to point out that where Gaiman had made the mistake of choosing to wear black leather to an outdoor awards presentation this summer in China in 40 degree heat and had suffered for it, he at least could wear a leather jacket in Vancouver in a chilly October and be comfortable.
As for the Aurora Awards themselves…
FAN ACHIEVEMENT – PUBLICATION: Guillaume Voisine for Brins d’Eternite
FAN ACHIVEMENT – ORGANIZATIONAL: Cathy Palmer-Lister for Con*Cept
FAN ACHIVEMENT – OTHER: Christian Sauve, Eric Gauthier & Laurine Spehner for the blog www.fractale-framboise.com
BEST WORK IN ENGLISH – OTHER: Karl Johanson for Neo-Opsis Magazine
BEST WORK IN FRENCH – OTHER: Jean-Louis Trudel for an article in Solaris Magazine on “The History of Little Green Men”
BEST SHORT-FORM WORK IN ENGLISH: Robert J. Sawyer for “Biding Time”
BEST SHORT-FORM WORK IN FRENCH: Mario Tessier for “Le regard du trilobite”
BEST LONG-FORM WORK IN ENGLISH: Dave Duncan for “Children of Chaos”
BEST LONG-FORM WORK IN FRENCH: Elisabeth Vonarburg for “Reine de Memoire 3. Le Dragon fou”
Congratulations to all of this year’s Aurora Award winners!
Next year’s Auroras and Canvention will be held at Keycon in Winnipeg.
I do have one complaint in connection with the Auroras (aside from the food) - that’s the notable absence of a camera crew from Space – The Imagination Station (Canada’s science fiction and fantasy-oriented cable TV channel). It’s disappointing that Space’s sci-fi news show “Hypaspace” will show some coverage of conventions in Toronto (the location of the CTVglobalmedia head offices), or send videographers to San Diego or to various video game trade shows hither and yon, but they can’t be bothered to send a videographer out, let alone dispatch one of their company’s local cameramen or contract an independent shooter, to cover Canada’s national award for excellence in speculative fiction. You’d think they’d keep tabs on this sort of thing, being an SF channel and all. I’m not going to get into any Toronto-bashing here, I just think this was a dumb oversite on the part of the producers at Space. I intend to send them an email regarding their absence in the next couple of days. More to come.

After the Auroras, it was time for the afternoon’s programming.

I managed to catch the tail-end of the “Inventors, Patents and Mad Scientists, Oh My!” featuring a trio of scientists regaling the small audience with tales of wacky experiments and displays, blunders and general oddities. One of the most memorable was a story about NASA allegedly sending a copy of the specs for the Orion spacecraft that were drawn-up and abandoned to an author, then calling him up several years later and asking if he’d let them have the copy back because they’d lost the originals.

From there it was on to a panel discussion on “Writing Historical Fiction” (featuring, among the panelists, the day’s Aurora winners Jean-Louis Trudel and Dave Duncan). Lots of fascinating explorations of where to draw the line on the amount of detail to include in a story in a historical setting – how much is too much and will the strangeness of the environment alienate the audience. Alienation was a hot topic, coming out again when the panel chewed over how to properly portray the mindset of people in cultures of the past whose way of thinking was completely different from ours. They noted this is especially a problem given the shift in values over the decades/centuries/millennia – how does an author create an engaging protagonist who might, because of their times, have beliefs or take things for granted (like slavery, for example) that we today would find repellant. Lots of excellent audience participation too. I really enjoyed this session.

And then it was time for the “Turkey Readings”. A strange combination of fun and torture I’d never encountered before. The Turkey Readings are a long-standing tradition at VCon. A panel of various speakers of the Con is assembled. A box of really, really, REALLY bad SF novels are brought in. Each panelist is given a novel and must read from it. Meanwhile, volunteers from the audience are called upon to come up to the front and act out what’s being read. The “acting” by the volunteers is absolutely hilarious. But their antics just can’t override the sheer awfulness of the story that’s being read. I’m talking crap with lines like “genitals jiggling merrily”. I’m talking the worst pieces of pulp garbage where the “author” was clearly using a thesaurus to pad-out the text – they frequently have used every alternative adjective under a word listing, stacking them all, in an effort to increase the number of words in the book (and I’m guessing their pay cheques). And it’s utterly painful. One guy in the audience remarked “I’m less afraid of the author than I am of the editor who let this happen!” Oh, how right you are, fanboy. But that’s where the bidding comes in… The other angle to this event is that while the reading and pantomime are under way, members of the audience can bid money to bring the damn performance to a stop. The catch is that other, more masochistic, members of the audience can counter-bid to keep the thing going. And back and forth and so-on until finally someone puts up enough money to stop the madness that no-one’s willing or financially able to out-bid them. The money goes into a fan fund to bring fans from the other side of the country out to this event to foster a sense of national community. This was my first Turkey Reading session, and as painful as it was, I’m looking forward to watching it again next year.

This brings us to the closing ceremonies and the “Elron Awards”. The closing speech rambled and went way too long. I was tempted to leave in the middle of it, but I figured I’d put in enough time that I’d better see it through, and I wanted to see the Elrons.
The Elron Awards are a tradition at VCon going back years, where these spoof prizes are “given” to various individuals and organizations for their less-than-stellar achievements. The philosophy behind them is “If we honour the greatest, should we not also recognize the least?” VCon organizers are quick to point out “The name of the award has absolutely nothing to do with a former science fiction writer who founded his own religion. “ It award itself has, for many years, been a bronze lemon mounted on a GOR novel (in answer to a suggestion from author Ursula K. Le Guin that GOR author John Norman deserved “a bronze lentil for semi-literate fetishism”). These days, the lemon has been replaced by other items deemed symbolically appropriate for the “winner”. This year, the GOR novel was replaced (because organizers couldn’t find one) with a copy of Dan Brown’s “The DaVinci Code”.
This year’s Elrons went to a number of different recipients. The first went to the Sigma group, a collection of science fiction authors (Greg Bear, Jerry Pournelle and Larry Niven) who gave advice to US government officials about the future and threats to that country. Others went to the governments and military organizations of the US and Russia for crazy weaponry schemes. Another group was awarded an Elron for a plan to mount an expedition to the arctic to drill a hole into the Earth in hopes of finding a hollow centre it could explore. A company garnered one of the dubious distinctions for trying to market Star Trek-themed coffins, urns, tombs and other funerary merchandise. The producers of the Simpsons were foisted with an Elron for having a giant outline of Homer painted next to the famous hill giant in Britain as a promotional scheme for this summer’s movie. A concept performer who’s had a medical procedure to grow an extra ear on his forearm got an award for wasting time and money that could have gone towards helping someone who legitimately needed medical assistance. Frank Miller was awarded an Elron for the titanic amount of historical inaccuracies in the comic and movie “300”. And the final award, which always goes to John Norman for pretty much any reason the organizers can make up from year to year, went, of course, to John Norman, for the plans by Dark Horse comics to publish an omnibus edition of the GOR novels, even though the company hasn’t posted any information on its site nor made any official statement.

And with that, so ends VCon32 and Canvention27. Congratulations to the Con organizing committee and a big thank-you to all of the special guests and panelists. Overall, I had a pretty good time and I’m looking forward to next year’s gathering. But for now, after three days of Con immersion, I’m pretty beat. G’night, all.

Sunday, October 21, 2007

VCon - Day 2

Climbing to the top of the stairs this morning to the hotel’s convention level, VCon32/Canvention27 seemed like a different event than yesterday. Most displays, etc were set up yesterday, but there were still some holes – some boards in the art room needed to be filled, some tables in the dealer’s room were empty, the gaming room was relatively quiet, and while there were people in attendance, there was plenty of room usually. Today was a whole different ball game. I don’t have a formal head-count from the organizers, but there were a lot more Con-goers on site – it appeared like the numbers had tripled or quadrupaled (I could be wrong, but that’s how it looked). And they seemed a more lively bunch too – more groups chatting, more old friends re-uniting in the hallways, more people in costume (although the heavy costume presence may have been due to the fact that the masquerade and masked ball were this evening). Certainly there was more spirit in the air. A great way to start off the day’s activities.

And the start for me was watching the panel discussion on “The State of Canadian SF & Fantasy”. Panelists included Rob Sawyer and Lisa Smedman, to name a few, and there were a number of authors in the audience, including Dave Duncan. The session saw passionate talk about the nature of the publishing industry and how it deals with Canadian authors. That point evolved into the classic question of what makes Canadian SF Canadian (an ironic but key facet of our national identity is that Canadians are constantly trying to figure out what exactly our national identity is), and from there into the larger issue of what makes Canadian culture unique compared to the rest of the world. Some would call this naval-gazing, and they wouldn’t be wrong, but this degree of introspection and debate is one of the things that binds us (with all of our diverse backgrounds that are not only tolerated, but encouraged) together here in the true north strong and free. At an operational level, in many ways this session was an excellent example of how to achieve a balance between vigourous discussion among panel members and the inclusion of intelligent audience participation. The first session of the day at an Con can set the tone for the rest of the day, and after this one, despite a being up waaaaaay too late last night, I came out invigorated and enthusiastic.

After that it was over to a Q&A session with Peter S. Beagle. Beagle’s an immensely charming man with a never-ending supply of stories. He gave equal attention and consideration to every question that was asked by the audience, no matter how trivial or profound, whether it was asked by old fans or young children. And his stories were all quite entertaining and delivered in a careful, thoughtful pace that never strayed into babbling or ego. He reminisced about how a painting given to him by a friend helped, in part, to inspire “The Last Unicorn”. He answered questions about his cats and told us of one white Persian who preferred the company of dogs. He spoke at length about the two actors with, in his opinion, the greatest knowledge of literature: the incomparable Christopher Lee (who was passionate about being part of “The Last Unicorn” and said in an Austrian interview it was the closest he’d get to playing King Lear) and the late Sorrell Booke (or Brooke) of “The Dukes of Hazzard” fame. Beagle told us how he once asked Booke why we was doing a show like “The Dukes of Hazzard” when he could be doing serious acting on any stage of his choosing – Booke apparently responded that one pay cheque for one episode of “The Dukes” would buy him a lot of books. Definitely a great session to just sit back and listen to a master story-teller.

Next was a panel discussion on “Killing Off Characters”. There was a lot of interesting talk around gratuitous versus plot-necessary death, audience manipulation, logic in setting up deaths, consequences and even the logic involved to bring a character back from the dead (in whatever form) without undermining the story’s credibility within itself. That being said, the session was undermined somewhat by a couple of overzealous fans in the audience who frequently attempted to monopolize the panel’s time (one of the fans in question even got waved-off by a panelist she’d tried to interrupt on one occasion and was asked quietly by another member of the audience on another occasion to let people finish). I hate to keep harping on this beef, but it’s this kind of socially maladjusted behaviour that breaks the flow of an otherwise good debate or prevents other audience members from having the time to ask questions or make points that are actually intelligent and worth while. Getting back to the panel though, one of the great examples they brought up for gratuitous deaths meant to manipulate the audience (and the financial bottom-line) was the death of Superman, where a villain was created specifically by the authors to kill the previously unkillable hero so the line could sell a record number of copies and rake in huge profits before bringing Ka’Lel back. The panel’s example of a well-thought-out and plot-logical death was the recent assassination of Captain America, who’d come out against the US government’s superhero registration laws in the Marvel universe, thus making himself politically inconvenient and a target. Panelists also discussed the nature of the body counts in horror movies, as well as the purpose of including shocking, unexpected deaths in books and film (like that of Wash in “Serenity”). On the whole, this session was worth while.

After this block was over, I had a few hours on my hands – there weren’t any panels for a while that interested me and that was fine since it was high time to step out onto the strip and grab some chow. When I came back, I made my way to the dealers room again where I bought a stack of books from a publisher’s table (including an advance copy of “Tesseracts 11” – woohoo!) and a bunch of back-isues of On-Spec at that magazine’s booth. That purchase had the added bonus of giving me a chance to meet On-Spec’s Managing Editor, Diane Walton, and have a nice chat.
I then moseyed over to the far end of the room where Peter Beagle was signing books. He autographed my copies of “The Last Unicorn” and “The Line Between”, but what was better was the chance to talk with him one-on-one for a little while. He’s a warm and personable fellow who makes a genuine effort to pay attention to the people he’s talking with and to have a two-way discussion instead of merely pontificating. He spoke about how he feels more of a muscial influence when he’s writing than visual art, and noted that he doesn’t have music on when he writes because that might distract him from the music in his head – rather, he listens to baseball and will switch his attention from writing to the game when he picks up on something major.That led him to inquire about my name and recount stories of an old ballplayer from the 50’s who had the same last name (no relation, except very distant, I think). To me, the fact that he would look at a fan’s name tag and get into a conversation focusing, at least to some degree, on the fan instead of himself, underscored the fact that he’s a class act.
More wandering around brought me upstairs to the movie room, where a small group was well into that classic hunk of cheese “ Robot Monster”, heckling it mercilessly. I stayed for a while and joined in the fun – there’s nothing like slinging smart-ass remarks at a bad movie to bring strangers together. (“Hey, that young couple’s fooling around without any birth control!” – “Yeah, but that big dude in the gorilla suit with the cheap space helmet who just wiped-out every other living thing on the planet is probably birth control enough!” – “Only if he can catch them with that slow walk!”) I left after about 20 minutes though ‘cause the room was too damn hot.

My final session of the day was “Slayers, Champions & Space Rogues: The Joss Whedon Panel”. I think I would have enjoyed this one more if I’d been a “Buffy” or “Angel” fan. As it is, my preference is for “Firefly”. Now, for all you Buffy fans out there who might be preparing to take umbrage, don’t get me wrong, I’m not trashing on that show at all. I don’t dislike it, I merely never got into it. (I’ve got a buddy who’s constantly trying to convince me to borrow his Buffy season one collection though, so someday I may give in) I’ve seen a couple of episodes of Buffy and Angel here and there and thought they were entertaining enough, but I just never felt the urge to become a follower of the shows while they were around. “Firefly”, on the other hand, got me hooked after one episode. At any rate, it felt like 60%-75% of the talk from this panel and audience was Buffy-related, so while I wasn’t put off, I sat through it feeling generally detached. What “Firefly” discussion there was was okay, but nothing scintillating.

After that, I called it a day. I could have stuck around for a screening of “The Thing” (the original 50’s version, not Carpenter’s gore-fest), but the thought of the heat in that little room turned me off. There was also the Masquerade and Masked Ball this evening, but that’s not really my scene. Better to come home, rest, post the day’s blog and figure out what to take in tomorrow.

Stay tuned.

Saturday, October 20, 2007

VCon - Day 1

Launch day for VCon 32/Canvention 27 – outside: a chilly day in October with one hell of a wind and rain storm blasting in from the Pacific to lash BC’s Lower Mainland. Not unusual for the fall in these parts. But, inside the comfort of the Radisson in Richmond, things got off to a good start (for the most part).

Registration started at noon, but I didn’t get in until 3 – right around the time the first panels/sessions/seminars/whatever were getting under way. Things at the registration desk were well organized and were running quickly enough (a nice improvement over last year where long lines and registration steps that took forever greeted Con goers). This year’s Con T-shirt looks pretty cool – a black shirt with the Con logo (sporting a dragon) in red. Looking forward to wearing it tomorrow. In addition to the usual flyers for comic shops, game shops, costume designers and the like, the registration desk also featured a couple of tourism guides to the region for out-of-towners. Not a bad idea, but someone probably should have thought to type out a one-sheet list of restaurants in Richmond… the hotel’s at one end of the strip, but if you’re not a local like me, you might not know how much is farther down the road, what type of fare is available, and what the best restaurants are. During the course of the day, I heard several people ask where they could find good, cheap food. Unfortunately, in at least one instance, one of the guys at the registration desk didn’t know the area and wasn’t of any help. I offered a few suggestions, but what with the storm outside, I doubt many people (especially those without cars) went far.

Anyway, on to the Con’s content.

The first session I attended featured a topic that’s probably a staple of many cons: “Where The Heck Is My Hovercar?” Hosted by Neo-Opsis editor Karl Johanson and another fellow (whose name I didn’t catch), it was an interesting discussion with a nice amount of intelligent audience participation about technologies predicted by science fiction – some that came true (like personal communication devices – now cell phones), others that didn’t (the hover car, or the transporter beam), as well as developments and their effects that kind of snuck up on us (like the internet and all of its social ramifications). A sad irony about this session (unknown to those of us at the Con at the time – I didn’t find out until the drive home) was that while we were taking part in a discussion that used the idea of a hovercar (a mass-market available means of easy local airtravel), a small plane crashed into a condo tower nearby. Makes me wonder if it’s not a good thing that there aren’t more vehicles in the air to be prone to accidents that can affect residential areas.

Once that was over there was a time block where none of the sessions really interested me, so I wandered around for a bit. The dealers’ room was partially up and running – still a few empty tables though. I’ll probably check back tomorrow and pick a few things up. Next door the gaming room was all but empty (although it was quite busy by the time I left early in the evening). The art room was pretty much the same scene as the dealers’ – some displays up, some walls empty, more to come tomorrow. Checked out the hospitality suite for a minute, then back down to the Con floor.

An odd observation about the amenities provided by the hotel: there were several tables set up in the halls around the Con floor with pitchers of water for the attendees. But there were no glasses. There were no mugs. There weren’t even any plastic beer cups to put the water in. Nope. In their infinite wisdom, the hotel staff provided Con-goers with stacks of Dixie Cups. Dixie Cups? What, like if I’m thirsty I’d only want a shot – maybe a double-shot if I sip, of water? It’s not even like providing Dixie Cups is cheap – they’re a disposable item – they cost money to provide! A glass (or ceramic mug) on the other hand, is washable, and thus doesn’t cost the hotel anything to put out, aside from the odd break, which, let’s face it, probably only puts them out a few pennies considering they’ve got to buy glasses by the case. I heard more than one person complain about the Dixie Cups. I was glad I’d brought a couple of bottles of water in my satchel (shhhhh! Don’t tell the hotel staff- no outside food or drink allowed!). I mean, come on, if I walked around in public drinking out of a Dixie Cup, I’d feel like Brodie from Kevin Smith’s “Mallrats”. Would anybody like a chocolate-covered pretzel?

Anyhow, still with plenty of time to kill before anything interesting, on a whim I wandered into a session called Anime 101. I enjoy some anime, though I’m not a super fan, so I figured it might be an entertaining way to fill an hour. Unfortunately, no. I wasn’t entertained and I didn’t last an hour. More like about 15-20 minutes. Chalk it up to a pair of session hosts with the attitude of The Comic Book Guy from “The Simpsons”, and two guys in the audience (the Quibbler – we’ve all had to put up with this show-off before, interrupting presenters to highlight minutia, and the Refugee From His Mother’s Basement – who has the social skills of a garden slug and thinks the entire thing is set up to be a personal conversation between him and the presenters where he sets the tone) who managed to drag the session waaaaaaay off topic and monopolized far too much time. I wasn’t the first to bail out on this session.

After escaping into the hallway I wandered around for a bit before attending a reading by Canada’s Dean of Science Fiction, Rob Sawyer. I’m a big fan of Sawyer’s stuff, so this was the highlight of the day for me. Aside from the content, it’s enjoyable to attend a session with him because he’s a nice guy who gives a lively performance when he’s reading. Unfortunately, before getting into the reading of his short story “Biding Time”, Sawyer noted that it would be his last work of short fiction. He noted that medium doesn’t pay particularly well and his time can be better spent writing novels. He also pointed out there weren’t many people who’d been steered to his novels by his short stories. Personally, that’s exactly how I got hooked on Sawyer. Once I read his short story “Just Like Old Times” in the anthology “Northern Stars”, I knew I had to see more of what this guy had to offer and began reading his novels. It’s a pity he’s getting out of short fiction (although he did announce a collection of his short stories would be published in February), not only because he’s good at it, but because it’s a form (or length, if you will) of literature that’s still valid – moreso in today’s hurried world where it’s hard to make time to sit down and read a novel for a couple of hours when you’ve got work and family to attend to. But, the man’s entitled to make his own choices and if it means he’ll have more time to write more good novels, I certainly won’t complain. Anyway, Sawyer didn’t disappoint when it came to his reading performance. It was the first time I’d encountered “Biding Time”, and, in fact, I don’t recall having read (or heard) any other story featuring his character Alex Lomax before either. The tale has a definite flim noire mood, heightened by the character of Lomax, the detective, who struck me as very Humphrey Bogart-ish, especially during his conversation with the rotund fossil dealer in the opening (it could have been Bogie and Sidney Greenstreet) and in his interrogation of his suspect at the climax. I had a chance to have a quick chat with Sawyer later out in the hallway when he was signing copies of “Calculating God” and “Flash Forward” for me and he said that when writing the Lomax stories he’d watched all of Bogart’s films to get just the right feel for that type of plot and the people who inhabit it. I’m very much looking forward to that collection of his so I can take a gander at the other Lomax installments.

From there it was on to the opening ceremonies. Strange that the opening ceremonies come near the end of the day, but who am I to argue, this is my second VCon and only the third con I’ve been to (the first was the ’96 WorldCon in Winnipeg, Manitoba). Things got off to a bit of a late start and the opening remarks rambled a bit, but aside from some people being hungry (it was scheduled over the supper hour), most folks know that there’s an easy pace to this kind of thing and thus took it in stride. Then the various Guests of Honour were introduced, the highlight among them being Peter S. Beagle, author of “The Last Unicorn” (among other works). Beagle was warm and sincere. I was struck how his voice is reminiscent of William Shatner’s - the difference being that Beagle isn’t as strident as Shatner. He has a quiet self-confidence, an aura that he’s comfortable with himself and his surroundings and doesn’t neet to show off or prove himself – something Shatner could learn from – and that’s reflected in his voice. Beagle gave a nice speech about his career as a writer, how he sees himself as an artisan, rather than an artist – someone who has to work at his craft and who acknowledges that sometimes it takes a lot of effort to get it right, and that once in a while the results cold be better. His point was that he keeps working at it, and when that kind of dedication is combined with raw talent, it produces something worth while.

After a hearty round of applause, things broke up for a bit. Some people stuck around for the Guest of Honour Concert, the flicks up in the movie room, or the Buffy Sing-Along, but I chose to head home to spend a little time with my wife and cat and get some rest. There’s a blurb in the beginning of the Con’s programme (coined by Ross Pavlac for Windycon XXIV) called “The Four Rules of Con Survival”:
1) Get at least five hours of sleep each night.
2) Eat at least two meals a day.
3) Do not confuse rules 1 and 2.
4) Show, brush teeth and change into clean clothes at least once a day.
I notice that it’s getting really late and that tomorrow will be a full day at the Con, so it’s time to observe Rule 1.

Stay tuned for more updates tomorrow.

Wednesday, October 17, 2007

Another Con Job - VCon32/Canvention27 Starts on Friday!

Just a few hours until VCon32 – The Vancouver Science Fiction, Fantasy and Gaming Convention, which is also hosting Canvention27 (Canada’s national SF con).
The event runs Friday, Saturday and Sunday. And it’s pretty convenient for me, being located in my little corner of the Lower Mainland.
Highlights include author guest of honour Peter S. Beagle (of “The Last Unicorn” fame),the presentation of the Aurora Awards (Canada’s highest honour for SF) and author Robert J. Sawyer, who will be the MC at the awards ceremony.
I’ll be on-hand for all three days and will be posting daily blow-by-blow summaries of what’s on at the con. Stay tuned.

"Now and Forever" is One for Two

Over the years, I’ve come, with good reason, to have high expectations of Ray Bradbury’s works. Anyone who’s read this blog long enough knows that not too many months go by without a Bradbury reference or a full-blown raving about the man’s genius as a writer. But his newest work – which is actually a pair of stories from decades ago that were reworked again and again over time – is proof that even a master can stumble once in a while.
In “Now and Forever”, Bradbury presents us with two distinct tales: “Somewhere a Band is Playing” – about a young reporter who stumbles into a mysterious town and discovers not only love but the key to immortality (and its price), and “Leviathan ‘99” – a science fictional reforging of Melville’s “Moby Dick” substituting a comet and a rocket for the whale and the Pequod. While I enjoyed the first submission immensely, I was strangely unimpressed with the latter.

“Somewhere a Band is Playing” is classic Bradbury – all the fat, juicy poetic prose of his love of the American landscape and its small towns and the people within them. In his introduction, Bradbury gives the nod to Canadian author Stephen Leacock’s “Sunshine Sketches of a Little Town” for embracing the richness (if frequently ridiculousness) of isolated villages and the characters who inhabit them. But even greater still is the love Bradbury put into crafting his female lead, Nefertiti, inspired by his great admiration and affection for the late Katharine Hepburn, who he insists could have played Nef at any age.
The story is ultimately about the power of love and writing (with a dire warning about how the power of the word can bring about destruction, whether literally or metaphorically) and how they can achieve a kind of immortality. Immortality is something frequently on Bradbury’s mind, whether it is child gods of summer in small Michigan towns, ghosts that hold on to their mysteries down through the ages, or Stanley Laural and Oliver Hardy tickling funny bones across space and time with their antics.
And it’s no surprise the power of writing comes into play. A fairly good chunk of his body of work has characters who are storytellers of one kind or other. They tend to have to deal with the ancient dilemma of the artist who sees the world in all its shades, but is always somewhat removed from it. Until now, that is. Here we have the story of a writer who has finally come home – who can finally be part of the world.
But achieving this holy grail is not without its difficulties, the protagonist is beset by his arch-enemy McCoy, another reporter who follows him around the country polluting the subjects of his stories by exposing them to the attentions of an ugly world and detailing their subsequent corruption. McCoy is like a shark following a ship, like Melkor trailing after the other Valar in the early days of Tolkien’s Middle Earth and upsetting their works, like Mordred undoing King Arthur. And yet, this time the writer, the maker of things, manages to keep something pure and outwit his nemesis. His second challenge, like many knightly quests, is to fight temptation – to realize the truth of things, in this case, what he really wants out of life – where his heart lies.
In perfect Bradburian fashion, it makes absolute sense that the catalyst that allows the writer to achieve immortality is love. Nefertiti is lover, teacher, beacon and inspiration to the protagonist. Where some might see her initially as a test of temptation, she proves to be the key to finding meaning and happiness in his life.
I won’t say “Somewhere a Band is Playing” is Bradbury’s finest work, but this heartfelt story is a solid and worthy addition to his best material.

“Leviathan ’99”, on the other hand, I just couldn’t get into for some reason. Obviously I like Bradbury (to belabour the point). And I have a deep enjoyment of and appreciation for “Moby Dick”. And yes, I also got a kick out of his screenplay for the novel. Why then, don’t I like this story? I don’t know. Maybe I was bugged in part because I couldn’t figure out how a comet could blind a person. Many of Bradbury’s attempts to paste the items, settings and events of “Moby Dick” into a space environment seemed clunky to me. It’s not that I’m a stickler for hard science per se… I do enjoy hard SF, but I also enjoy the stuff (like Bradbury’s) that uses scientific terms and pseudo-science willy-nilly, as long as the plot and characters are well done. It just didn’t seem to work here though. That being said, the author’s intro makes reference to one of the story’s incarnations being an old BBC radio play with Christopher Lee as the mad captain, and I think that would be a treat to listen to.

The heartening thing about this book, even though one story’s a hit and the other’s a miss, is that you can see how active Bradbury’s imagination is and how hard he tries to spin a good yarn, even if it doesn’t always play out the way it should. One for two ain’t bad in a lifetime of successes that resonate now and forever.

Thursday, October 11, 2007

Beginnings and Endings - This Season's Sci-Fi

Warning: Spoilers (spoilage factor: about the same as the contents of your refrigerator after you’ve been away on vacation for three weeks – some items will be more spoiled than others)

It’s been about three weeks since the start of the new TV season here in North America, and while I haven’t made a point of watching every new or returning sci-fi show, I figured it was time to weigh-in on the few I have managed to catch.

HEROES (second season)
Overall, I enjoyed the first season of “Heroes”. It was nice to see a serious attempt to create a TV series based on a comic book-style premise (instead of the outright camp of “Batman” or “Wonder Woman” or “The Greatest American Hero”) and some of the characters and storylines were engaging. That being said, I was a bit ambivalent about last season’s finale. There was too much that didn’t make sense and I thought the writers didn’t need to leave all the potential plot lines dangling with the teasing possibilities that some characters might just come sneaking back (especially if the show needed a hook in the future to keep the viewers). Now, at the start of season two, the disappointment factor for me is sadly increasing. The season premier didn’t really feel like an episode at all – it was a rushed mish-mash of teasers designed to set the stage for plots that will come later. Poor writing in my opinion. The brains behind the show should have focused on a couple of key storylines (such as Hiro’s samurai adventures) and taken the time to actually develop them, instead of taking snapshots of nearly everyone – they made the mistake of trying to please all of the people and wound up with something so thin as to have no substance. And it hasn’t changed much with the subsequent episodes. There has been a little plot development with Claire, Suresh and Hiro, but their segments are so short they’re about as satisfying as a premature orgasm. I’m also getting tired with the writers’ obsession with dangling mysteries in front of the audience. Why did Peter lose his memory? How did he get from exploding in the upper atmosphere to a container in Ireland? Has Sylar really lost his powers? What will happen to Claire’s relationship with her father as she learns more about what he did to her new boyfriend when he was a company man? What about Suresh’s new job with the company – who’s playing who? What’s the deal with the disease afflicting some of the metahumans? Who’s stalking and killing Hiro’s father and the rest of the gaggle of geezers and leaving behind Kenzo’s mark? Who’s the new badguy haunting the little girl’s nightmares? While it is effective to set up mysteries once in a while to keep the audience guessing (and in these days, communicating with each other online about their guesses, thereby increasing the show’s hype), too many at once can make the show as flimsy as a house of cards. Granted, mystery creates tension in a show, but sometimes greater levels of tension can be achieved when the audience knows what’s going on and is on the edge of their seats waiting to see if the protagonist will figure things out in time to save himself. To keep dangling teaser after teaser also makes me wonder if the writers are afraid their plots aren’t strong enough or their characters aren’t interesting enough to hold the loyalty of the audience past the close of a limited story arc. The constant hints of things to come are starting to look like an inability to focus on writing quality episodes. Yes, episodes can be part of season or series-long story arcs, but if an episode can’t stand on its own, then the writers have failed at the craft of good storytelling. Shows like “Babylon 5” and the new “Battlestar Galactica” understand this – individual episodes may be key moments in larger stories, but those single moments make for powerful stories unto themselves. The writers behind “Heroes” really need to learn this. They need to learn the benefits of completeness. That being said, I’m not writing off “Heroes” yet. Some of the segments (short as they are) are still enjoyable. It’s hard not to get a kick out of Hiro’s attempt to build a hero out of a wayward, indestructible Englishman in feudal Japan. There is some potential to the new Parkman detective/surrogate daddy storyline. But if the writers can’t learn the art of focus, even these two heroes might not be able to save this show.

REAPER (new series)
This show about a young slacker who finds out he’s obliged to be the devil’s bounty hunter has been pretty entertaining so far. The concept is nothing new (“The Collector” had the devil dispatching the hero to, well, dispatch with a different soul every episode – though the protagonist was more of the Hollywood stereotypical dark hero), but the strength of this show is the hilarious dialogue. Kevin Smith of “Clerks” fame is associated with the show (he gets a creative consulting credit and I seem to recall he might have directed the pilot) and you can hear his vulger stamp on nearly every sentence from the sidekick “Sock” (played with gleeful confidence by Tyler Labine) – who’s essentially the teleplay bastard child of Jay and Silent Bob. The problem is this very strength in writing is the show’s weakness. Because there is nothing interesting or new enough about a guy rooked into being the devil’s bagman, or a guy pining for a girl he’s too afraid to ask out, and because the sight gags of the new spirit-trapping device (and accompanying impromptu fighting equipment and outfits the heros construct out of garden shed and garage tools) of the week are one-trick ponies, the show relies entirely on the dialogue and the performances. If there are just one or two episodes where the writing isn’t as sharp as it should be, or if the actors’ delivery is a little too flat, then the show is sunk – it wouldn’t take more than that to make the show boring enough that viewers wouldn’t return. For this reason, I’ve always got a bit of trepidation during the first 5 minutes or so of each episode – I always wonder if the other shoe is finally going to drop. To date though, “Reaper” is definitely worth watching.

THE BIONIC WOMAN (new series)
I’d initially had cautious hope for this reincarnation of the 70’s cyborg series. I wanted to like this show, I really did. I mean, come-on, with this project being helmed by Eick from the new Battlestar, there had to be quality assurance. Sadly, that quality doesn’t seem to be there and I think I’m done with the show. The pilot about Jamie Summers’ transformation from bartender (as opposed to tennis pro in the original series) to high-tech hero was mildly interesting. But in the quest to prove they can develop characters, the writers have made the mistake of spending too much time on bionic angst. This Jamie spends more time whining to her new boss and fighting with her little sister than actually battling the forces of evil. What’s worse, the sibling fights and make-ups feel stilted and phoney, like someone was trying to write what a sister-sister relationship is like without ever actually having had a sister or without even knowing someone who had a sister. One would also think that for all the intelligence and mental flexibility the so-called tests indicate Jamie has, she’d have an easier time adapting to her new life and would be more likely to see a future in the use of her new abilities. Then there’s Katee Sackhoff (Battlestar’s Starbuck), playing a psychotic bionic prototype. I think Sackhoff is generally a good actress, but this is definitely not the role for her. You can see she’s trying, she really is, to play the sultry femme fatale who can whisper enticingly into your ear one minute, then turn on a dime and rip your head off the next. The problem is that it just doesn’t seem to work for her. What comes naturally to Battlestar co-star Tricia Helfer (who isn’t just eye candy – she can clearly act and act well) playing various incarnations of the Cylon Number 6 looks painfully forced and fake when Sackhoff makes the attempt. This is a character who isn’t suited to Sackhoff’s face, body type or acting ability. Really, does she think that pursing her heavily lipsticked lips and gazing vacantly into the middle distance half the time makes for sexiness of the potentially lethal variety? Watching Sackhoff try to do Helfer is like watching a 12-year-old tom-boy dress up in her 18-year-old prom-queen sister’s gown and makeup to try to impress the paperboy. It just doesn’t cut it. And, beyond all that, I just haven’t found the storylines all that engaging. Last night, faced with a couple of choices on TV, I decided not to bother with the Bionic Woman. I probably won’t bother with it again.

EUREKA (season two)
Although my wife’s a fan of this show and I find it amusing enough myself, we don’t tend to watch it consistently. Not sure why. The premise is kind of a cross between “Northern Exposure” and “The X-Files”, which I don’t mind, and the writing, while solid, doesn’t take itself too seriously. For some reason, we’re just not tuning in on a regular basis or taping it. I suspect we’ll probably continue to watch it on an occasional basis, but I don’t know if we’ll be buying the DVD set sometime down the road.

I’m an occasional viewer of “The Family Guy” – I’m not ashamed to admit that sometimes the pronouncements of Brian the dog or the outbursts from Stewie crack me up, even though, as “South Park” has accurately observed, the show is formulaic in the extreme and the asides rarely have anything to do with the plot. The “Star Wars” episode, on the other hand, was tightly focused and a brutally funny take on Episode IV – in some ways, dare I say it, it was better than Mel Brooks’ “Spaceballs”. In addition to the writing, I have to give the animators a huge amount of credit for their attention to detail – many of the exterior shots (such as the opening battle between the Rebel blockade runner and the Star Destroyer) seemed lifted almost exactly from the original footage – so much so that I wondered if it was exacting attention to copying all of the angles and movement or if it was a modern example of shadow animation. In any case, this special easily lived up to all of the hype that was going around since the producers first announced they’d be tackling Lucas’ baby. I only wish I’d taped it.

And on to an ending…

I simply can’t say enough about how much I enjoyed this episode (or three-part episode, if you want to get technical). The BBC team behind Dr. Who was at its best this time. Martha’s departure was painful but liberating. I think she’s easily the best Companion the Doctor’s had, but as she walked out of the TARDIS (for the second or third time), I found myself thinking, yeah, you had to do it. It was also fun to see the Master reveal how diverse events from episodes across the season that were seemingly unrelated were part of his evil machinations. Other plot tie-ins, like Captain Jack turning out to be The Face of Bo(Bow/Beau?) were fun to watch too. But best of all was The Master’s revenge. What better way to strike one last painful blow against the Doctor in defeat than for the Master to allow himself to die, thereby leaving the Doctor completely alone once and for all. That’s a villain who knows how to do the most damage to his adversary – I don’t think killing a Companion could have wounded the Doctor as much as that did, and it showed. The only part of the episode that seemed too corny for me was the Doctor’s reboot when the whole world thought about him at once – it smacked a little too much of readers being asked to clap their hands if they wanted Tinkerbell to live in “Peter Pan”. At least though, the writers seemed to be aware of this and acknowledged it with a snide comment to that effect from The Master at the time (though for the life of me, I can’t remember the exact wording). The new Doctor Who has become one of my favourite shows because of its sharp writing, frenetic pacing and great characters and acting. However, in other Dr-related news, I am kicking myself for missing the premier of the spinoff series “Torchwood” on CBC last Friday (we were babysitting my one-and-a-half-year-old nephew and got too distracted to turn on the TV or set the VCR. Toddlers will do that). I’ll have to hunt around for it on the net before the next episode hits the air tomorrow night. I’ve got a buddy who’s already downloaded the whole series and has been dropping teasers for a week now. Why isn’t he writing this blog posting?

Tuesday, October 02, 2007

A Tale of Two Dollars

I normally wouldn’t get into economic discussions on a blog devoted to SF, but recent currency capers have forced the issue. The soaring Canadian dollar – the Loonie, and the spanking of the US dollar are starting to have an impact on my geeky purchases, and not in the way they should.
For years, bookfiends north of the 49th have had to resign ourselves to dual prices on the covers of books – the US price being 20 or 30 per cent below the listed Canadian value. Insult was added to injury with provincial and national sales taxes slapped on top to pump up the price even higher. But the end was seemingly in sight a few weeks ago as the Loonie closed in on parity with the dollar – a feat not seen since 1976. The Loonie is now more-or-less at par with the US dollar. And, in fact, trading on some days has seen the value of the Loonie exceed that of the greenback. Experts agree it will probably stay this way for quite a while as the Canadian economy continues to boom and the US economy struggles with the housing loan crisis and crippling debt and deficits.
This age of high dollar values should be a time for Canadian sci-fi nuts, generally some of the highest-volume book-buyers, to be rejoicing in the streets, tossing our coke-bottle-lens glasses into the air in celebration of higher purchasing power. We should be teetering out of the store with even bigger stacks of the latest volumes by Robert Charles Wilson and Jack Whyte and Naomi Novik and others than we usually would.
But it hasn’t happened. Not yet, and probably not for a while. And I am right pissed off about it.
Go into any Chapters (Canada’s biggest book retailing chain) and they’ll rub their hands gleefully together as they scan each book into the till and rack up the outdated Canadian prices, even though we should be paying the US value. Comedian Tommy Chong (of 70’s Cheech and Chong fame), who lives here in Vancouver, was on a local radio morning show not long ago and mentioned he’d gone into a corner store to buy a magazine, noted the huge difference in price despite parity of the dollars, and, wanting to pay less, told the cashier he’d be paying in US currency and asked her to ring the magazine through in its American price. The cashier refused and told him they weren’t accepting US dollars. Not accepting US dollars? In Vancouver? In Canada? That’s unheard of. While this is a fairly extreme example, it shows that merchants are definitely cashing in on the dollar parity and listed price discrepancy. And they seem fairly determined to ride this pony to the bank for as long as they can at the expense of the Canadian consumer. In a recent newscast, I heard one national retail association state that retailers probably wouldn’t be changing their elevated prices for another 2 years (2 years!!!) as they wait to see if the dollar parity will last. Meanwhile, they certainly won’t shed any tears for the extra profits they’ll be tucking away courtesy of Canadian consumers. Oh sure, in a rare move for a manufacturer of publicly-accessible goods, Porsche has announced its dealerships will be lowering their prices by 10% to account for the Loonie’s rise, and that’s nice, but come on, as an average consumer, I’m not going into my local Porsche dealership once or twice a month (in fact, not ever) to pick up the newest items on display. It’s the bookstores and the record stores and the DVD dealers and the (insert the list of retailers of pan-North American goods ad infinitum) that I want to see price reductions at. I had a conversation with someone at a small, independent bookstore today who said she’d heard some of the publishing houses were going to be re-labeling books with lower prices to reflect the Loonie’s value in about two months. Two months? I’ll believe it when I buy it. And why not now? I’ll admit some ignorance about the industry and retail practices behind the scenes, but why not give consumers a break and just scan – or manually code in – the US prices so we’re paying fair value?
It raises the question of why I should even be buying books north of the border at all any more. A couple of weeks ago (when the Loonie was in the 96-97 cent US range), my wife and I drove down to Seattle for a day of shopping. One of our stops was at the Eliott Bay Book Company, where I tottered out with a little over a hundred dollars worth of sci-fi books. The same stack, if purchased back home, would probably have gouged me for about $150 – before tax. Even with the duty coming back across the border it was cheaper than buying these books at home. Before, I was pretty discriminating about buying books in the US – I’d only go for items that I couldn’t find here at home. Now, looking at the pricing racket, it’s actually smarter to do most of my book-buying there and only come into my local book retailers to buy the Canadian authors I can’t find down south. I’ve gotta admit, I’m not entirely comfortable with that, given that I want to support local Canadian independent bookstores like White Dwarf where there’s a relationship with the staff. But if it’s a question of saving 10 to 50 bucks (depending on the size of the purchase), money tends to talk. With most of Canada’s major cities being fairly close to the border, this is an option many of us might choose that could leave non-responsive local retailers in the lurch (local tourism boards are already getting pensive about this very possibility – retailers and manufacturers would be wise to listen to their concerns). Although I pity those in more northerly communities that don’t have the option of a quick drive south for a day of shopping (though internet purchases could offer an alternative and would save them from being hassled by overzealous US border guards who don’t quite understand that the vast majority of bad people move north across the border, not south).
I have to wonder if this sort of thing happens in other parts of the world where different currencies with competing values exist side-by-side. Does this take place in Europe, or has the Euro evened things out between the national currencies? Or, is it not an issue in Europe with media like books, CD’s & DVD’s because of language differences? I’d be interested if anyone knows.
If there’s anything positive in this whole nonsense of a theoretically higher purchasing power with a stronger currency being stymied by retail/manufacturer greed, it’s the disincentive to buy (though not buying, while helping the personal pocketbook, doesn’t do the economy any favours). If I’m petulant enough about the unfair price differential, I’m far less likely to go out and buy more books. That lets me whittle-down the towering pile in my in-box/to-read/new acquisitions box and, having made some headway against the tide of new books, lets me do a little re-reading of old favourites. Of course, the reality is that money saved on fewer book purchases can never really stay in the bank for long… the holidays are coming and my wife’s got her eye on some new jewelry. At least with an ever-increasing stack of new books, I could cry broke. Mind you, with book prices remaining unfairly high, I probably still can.