Tuesday, December 03, 2013

Finding a Dim, but Notable Star in the TV Christmas Special Sky: George and the Star

The other day when my wife and I were putting up our Christmas tree, we discovered the lights on the star weren't working anymore, sending us out on a hunt through three or four different stores to find the perfect star to replace it - or, at least a replacement that wasn't cheesy or too pricy.

Fitting, because the incident put me in mind of a scifi-ish TV holiday special about a search for a tree-topper that I really enjoyed as a kid back in the 80's: George and the Star (alternatively known as George and the Christmas Star).

This Canadian production didn't air that often (I can only remember seeing it once), then pretty much disappeared forever, so you probably won't see it in many lists of the greatest holiday specials of all time. But, for the few of us who did catch it, it made an impression.

The story is about a guy named George (obviously), who lives alone with his cat in a big house. One night, as he's decorating his Christmas tree, George decides he needs a new star for it (no, his old one wasn't broken like mine, it was a paper cutout and our understated hero just wanted something a little more flashy). He goes outside with his telescope, spots a little star glowing in the depths of the night sky, and decides he has to have it for his tree. Using a collection of odds and ends from his house, he builds a starship and heads off on his quest. Along the way, he befriends a robot named Ralph, an astronaut named Barbara, and runs into a troupe of robotic Mounties - er, space rangers (wearing Stetsons, blue serge instead of red, and cruising around in a giant horse-like spaceship). He also runs afoul of space pirates, and, if that wasn't enough, space bikers, before eventually finding his star. And let's not forget the cookie-cutter inspirational songs from Paul Anka.

Over the years, I've looked for it on the off chance that it might have come out on videotape or DVD, but no such luck - or, at least, I didn't have the luck to come across it when it was released. Finally though, I managed to track it down on Youtube, where someone out on the 'net has shown the Christmas spirit and put it up to share with everyone.

So grab your star-salvaging permit, and reserve a bed on the motel moon, it's time to watch George and the Christmas Star.

Monday, November 25, 2013

It's a Dog's Life

Is anyone else waiting for the other shoe to drop?

The death of Brian Griffin on Sunday night's episode of Family Guy seems to have ignited a fair amount of discussion about whether this is the right plot move or not, whether it's an act of desperation to draw in viewers, the sign of a long-running show possibly entering its death spiral, or just a mean trick on fans. Then there are the strong opinion's about Brian's replacement, Vito Vinnie.

What struck me the most about the episode, though, was the sense that this was a setup for something... I wasn't upset at Brian's death (despite his being one of my two favourite characters on the show), or the implications for the show or what the writers/producers may or may not be up to. Rather, I felt a detached sense of waiting, because the whole story had something familiar to it.

By familiar, I don't mean that I thought the writers were ripping anyone off - let's face it, too many primary characters have been killed on too many shows over the years (Henry Blake in M.A.S.H., Marcus in Babylon 5, Fry in Futurama - though he always bounces back) to make a sudden and arbitrary death in any way proprietary - rather, by familiar I mean that the entire episode arc had the feeling of a familiar refrain within the specific Family Guy style: the unrelated aside. The entire episode felt like one of Peter's references to ridiculous past incidents that are obligatory for each episode - "This is just like that time when I [insert your favourite bizarre or inappropriate reference]" - and now it's as though, we, the audience, are waiting for the characters to jump out of the aside, to revert back to the actual story in progress. The whole thing felt very meta in that respect. And maybe that's the point, and we just have to wait for Macfarlane and co. to decide that, having set the joke up adequately, it's time to get to the punchline.

What made the whole thing weird was that this sudden bit of genuine heart, of plain-served drama, is something that Family Guy doesn't do often, and doesn't necessarily do well. Sure, this is a series that'll serve up a bloodbath in any episode, or deliberately confront the audience with something uncomfortable and just plain wrong, but these incidents are always so over-the-top ridiculous or, though we may not want to admit it, funny, that they're in keeping with show's usual feel. In that way, Family Guy is like Southpark, even if it's main characters don't get slaughtered in every episode like poor Kenny was for so long (humiliated, yes, but rarely killed). But you'd probably be hard-pressed to remember one of Family Guy's genuinely dramatic moments. The only one that comes to mind for me is the season 8 episode "Brian & Stewie" where the boys get locked in a bank vault and Brian admits he keeps a gun in case he gets to a point where he feels the need to kill himself. This indicates that Family Guy's dramatic moments/scenes/episodes aren't done well enough, or the structure of the emotions the show evokes in general isn't varied or subtle enough to allow those dramatic moments to have any impact. This is unlike Futurama, which is equally wacky, but is not so obsessed with shrilly mocking things to extreme, and so is able to allow the audience to feel legitimate sadness, and to have that sadness feel like it has a legitimate place within a Futurama storyline. Think of the end of "Jurassic Bark" or "Luck of the Fryish" -  both deeply moving conclusions to funny episodes in a funny series, and endings that were meaningful to the audience because the writers know how to vary the tone, to let the audience know that they won't be made to feel stupid for feeling anything other than cruel amusement when the characters are put in painful situations. Because Family Guy episodes focus on playing just one note, the audience doesn't know how to react when the show changes its tone and tries to be serious.

If it's actually trying to be serious, that is. And again, with that vague meta feeling to the whole episode, I'm not sure that it is. I wouldn't put it past this crew to take us for a ride for a few episodes, then spring an 80s-style "it was all just a dream" reveal on us. We'll have to wait and see if there's another shoe that they'll drop for Brian to fetch, or if it's just a dog's life.

Wednesday, October 23, 2013

Anybody Remember This Story?

A little over a week ago, I was thinking about science fiction during our preparations for Thanksgiving dinner. As you do. I was pulling the turkey out of the oven, and I suddenly flashed back to a story that I haven't read in more than 25 years:

It was a short story - probably not more than a page or two - about a mother getting ready for a holiday meal. Lots of hustle and bustle of family throughout the house as she worked to set the dining table and get the baby into his high chair. Amidst all of this, she was thinking about how great it was to have the modern convenience of an  instant feast in a pill: a large turkey, stuffing, gravy, potatoes, side dishes, etc, all on plates, and all compacted down into one small tablet the size of an allergy capsule. All she had to do was add a drop of water, and in a minute the capsule would expand into the whole huge feast, all of it piping hot and ready to eat. She puts the pill onto the dining table, then gets distracted by something. When she turns back to the table, she realizes the capsule's gone missing, looks around, and, horrified, sees the baby (having leaned out of his high chair across the table) has popped the pill into his mouth. End of story.

Not the best SF piece ever, but it's one that's stuck with me over the years, and I think of it when the bird is ready to put on the serving platter and bring to our table.

What's bugging me though is that I can't remember the title of the story or the author's name.

Can anyone help jog my memory? Do you know what this story was called, and who wrote it?

Monday, October 07, 2013

VCon 38 - Day 3 - That's a Wrap

Sunday's always the toughest day to go to a con. Say what you will about the difficulties of getting out of work early to make it to Friday's programming, or that Fridays sometimes have the weaker sessions because programming committees might predict a lower attendance on opening day, but I've always found Sundays to be the toughest. By Sunday, I've put a couple of days of attending sessions under my belt, usually from noon through until mid-late evening, supplemented by trips to the dealers' room and art show, not to mention late night blogging, and my system's fighting off whatever con-crud I may have been exposed to among the crowds, and it's starting to wear on me. But I don't want to miss anything, and, hey, if I've paid for the full weekend, I want to get my money's worth, so I drag myself out of bed and make the effort anyway. How much worse it must be for the die-hards who stay onsite and rock the room party scene, or doggedly roll dice through the night in protracted gaming campaigns! Yeah, no matter who you are, Sundays are tough. But you go anyway. 'Cause for SF geeks, this is your scene, and that's what you do.

So. Sunday. VCon. I blasted up the highway late this morning in The Ol' Porkchop Express and got to the hotel in time to catch the last half-hour of the "Science Adventures" panel, which profiled some of the naval explorers of the past and their exploits. A good, solid, informative session, and I wish I'd been able to attend from the beginning, but I guess I missed the boat on that. Ha ha. Heh heh. Ugh. Feeble, I know, but I couldn't pass it up. Anyway, a good start to the day.

Then it was over to the "Exploring Worlds Far, Far Away - Without Hyperdrive", where UBC prof Jaymie Matthews gave an entertaining lecture on how exoplanets are found, how the search is going (something like 952 planets confirmed, as of this morning, he said, and many more waiting in the wings for verification), and the status of some of the satellites that've been launched to discover them. On that note, a big "Way to go!" to Canada's MOST satellite, nick-named "the humble telescope" for its very modest size (in the range of a suitcase) and budget (just a few million), and otherwise known as Spongebob Squarepants for its appearance, for continuing to operate and get the job done when bigger, more expensive platforms have experienced problems.

From there, it was up to the "Alternate Canada, Eh?" session, which wasn't bad, but wasn't great. There were two panelists and probably more audience participation than there needed to be. Enthusiastic crowds are great (heck, I made a couple of comments myself), but in this case, the audience started to take control of the session fairly quickly, and while there were a lot of alternate history ideas tossed around, the sheer volume of them, and the rapid-fire barrage of ideas coming from members of the audience (frequently from 5 or so of the same people) who wanted to get their two cents in, prevented any real, in-depth discussion of the ideas, or a separating of the wheat from the chaff. I enjoy alternate history panels (regardless of national or general themes) when they're done well, but to be done well, you need at least four panelists who have the depth of historic knowledge to really explore the possibilities raised, and to play off one-another, and you need a strong moderator who can set the panelists off in the right direction, and keep audience participation focussed, and limited, because this is a panel discussion, not a 30+ person random brainstorming session.

After that, I left the hotel to grab a late lunch at a local Chinese mall's food court, where I found myself eating just a table away from a guy who looked like an Asian version of Danny McBride in This Is The End - right down to the mullet. In fact, the resemblance was so uncanny, I began to worry that he was going to waste everybody's bottled water, and I didn't even want to think about what he might have done to the magazine rack around the corner. I finished my meal and fled as fast as I could before the winnebago full of post-apocalyptic minions could show up.

Back at the Con, a different kind of horror awaited me. After using a couple of "con scrip" dollars I'd found in the bottom of my registration bag to buy another nerdy button in the dealers' room, I went to the "Turkey Readings". The Turkey Readings are a VCon tradition where some of the guest panelists sit at the front of a room reading from pre-selected, old SF novels that are so poorly written that they're probably banned under the Geneva Convention, making it a miracle that the con hasn't been invaded by a UN peacekeeping force sent to dispose of these weapons of mass mental destruction and arrest those responsible for inflicting them on con members. But it gets worse. Members of the audience volunteer to act out the scenes from these "books" as they're being read. It's up to the seated members of the audience to then endure the madness that follows. Audience members can bid cash in an effort to make it all stop, but other sick individuals can counter-bid to keep the suffering going. When the "make it stop" side finally coughs up enough money to put an end to it, another panelist will crack open a different book, and the horror begins anew. Funds raised go to... well, at this point, given the lateness of the hour and the brain damage I sustained attending this session, I can't remember what worthy cause the funds go to, but the Turkey Readings do raise a reasonable chunk of change, which might be a redeeming virtue, but probably not, given the pain they inflict on the audience. Why do I keep going year after year? Sometimes the "performances" are worth a laugh, but if there's a reason beyond that, it's inaccessible behind the wall of psychological, emotional, and physical scarring the Turkey Readings have inflicted on me.

Reeling from that experience, I clutched at my chair when it was over, and waited for the Con's closing ceremonies to begin in the same room. The usual round of heart-felt thank-you's and see-you-next-years was enhanced this year with a cool announcement: VCon will be hosting Canada's national SF convention, Canvention, and the Aurora Awards (prizes for the best in Canadian SF) in October 2014! Congrats to VCon for landing this honour!

Maybe I'll volunteer at the Con next year - specifically, maybe I'll try to convince the organizing and programming committee to bring back the movie room. Things just weren't the same this year without the movie room. Don't know why they didn't have one, whether it was an issue of finding someone to man it, or of dealing with government regulations around using movies at a con, or if there's some other reason, but the movie room's absence this year just wasn't right. I'll have to send a note to the organizers to find out. If it means I have to step up to the plate next year to make it happen, then so be it. We'll see.

One of the great things about VCon, and cons in general, that I haven't talked about this year is the nice one-off conversations that strangers tend to have with each other. When I was leaving the hotel this afternoon and walking across the parking lot, I heard some strangely familiar music coming from another car... music I haven't heard in 25 years... It was a song (and video) I remember a DJ playing at one of our highschool or junior high dances back in '88 or '89 that once every few years flits like a ghost in the back of my mind, but I haven't heard it since school, and have never been able to remember the name of the band or the title of the song. Ditching my stuff in my car, I walked over and had a chat with the group standing around the other car, obviously enjoying themselves in the wash of nostalgic notes. The song was "Doctorin' the Tardis" by the Timelords (the Jams). A completely and utterly silly song, but fun as hell to listen and dance to. I downloaded it off of iTunes as soon as I got home. Many, many thanks to author Lisa Voisin for passing along the band name, song title, and YouTube link to the song! (Here's the  link to the original video)

So that's it for VCon 38. On the whole, it was fun, and time and money well-spent. Our local Con organizers know how to bring the geek community together and ensure there's something for everyone to enjoy. Thanks for putting it on, folks, and I'll see you next year!

Sunday, October 06, 2013

VCon 38 - Day 2 - Guiding a Newbie Deep into the Jungles of Nerdom

I am not a morning person. Really, really, really not a morning person. Even when I've had to get up stupidly early for weird job shifts back in my radio daze, I could do mornings, but never learned to like them. Tolerated them at best. When it comes to SF cons, I may make vague noises about attending morning sessions (and cons - including VCon - very often have good sessions scheduled in the morning), but, for various reasons - not the least of which is the complete awfulness of mornings - never wind up going to them. Until today.

The day started far too early (especially given last night's late blogging run-down of Friday's adventures at the Con) because I had to drop off my wife at her volunteer gig if I was going to be able to have the car to go to the Con. Luckily, the wife's activity and the Con are in the same municipality, so that made things fairly easy - dropped her off, then drove over to the Con hotel in less than five minutes. I even arrived an hour before programming started, so I was able to get breakfast at one of the hotel's restaurants. Breakfast is a somewhat alien meal, what with my avoidance of mornings, but when in Rome...

The first session of the day for me was 10am's "Others Among Us", concerning mainstream culture's adoption of an increasing number of science fiction and fantasy movies, TV shows, books (Harry Potter, A Song of Ice and Fire, etc.), and even comic conventions, and raising the question of whether that means nerds are no longer outsiders. Absolutely fantastic panel, and they had a lot of thoughtful things to say (even if they wandered off topic a little from time to time) about whether mainstream culture really is more accepting of the SF community now, and what the obstacles to greater acceptance might be. Some pointed out that while younger people tend to adopt SF culture more readily, they may not be fully integrating with the traditional SF community (or integrating the traditional SF community into their own) because they just aren't communicating through the same channels - they don't know that we're even here! A good point; it's been nagging at me for years that as I've looked around the con (and the WorldCon in Montreal not too long ago, and the one many years ago in Winnipeg) that fandom seems to be getting older. Sure, there are a few highschool and university students who come, and some of the people my age who are parents bring their kids. But by and large, the crowd is predominantly middle-aged people and seniors. That's a problem if this sort of gathering (meaning cons that are focussed on thoughtful discussion of literature, rather than comic cons which seem increasingly to be merely a place to strut flashy costumes and less concerned with substance) is going to continue. One thing that wasn't mentioned, which I've often wondered about, is whether the younger generation is more accepting... kids do seem to be flocking to the comic cons by the thousands, and following SF-related books, TV, and movies, while middle-aged mainstreamers tend to maintain the old illusions of the ghetto of science fiction. I recently had some co-workers who were otherwise well-read and reasonable people, who stated that they couldn't stand sci-fi... until I pushed them a little and got them to admit that they loved Game of Thrones, and Battlestar Galactica, and thought "they guy who directed the new Much Ado About Nothing was brilliant" (Whedon). And even then, they were a little uncomfortable with the notion that SF could be intelligent, mature, and compelling. I remember a few years ago talking to another coworker who pulled out every term in the literary criticism dictionary and twisted them in all kinds of weird ways to allow that Tolkien's LOTR was "real" literature rather than fantasy - of course, having majored in English Lit, I was able to smile and call her on her bullshit and point out that she was just waving her hand and using a lot of fancy terms that basically meant fantasy, and that there was nothing wrong with the "F" word. So, I don't think acceptance of geeks and geek culture is truly here yet. But getting back to the panel, someone pointed out that part of the problem is within the geek community itself, because, like all communities, we have our own bullies who try to belittle and marginalize newcomers, which doesn't make us any allies among the mainstreamers who try to adopt parts of geek culture. That's an important point, because if we, as a culture, are going to whine about ostracism from the mainstream, we better damn well make sure we're not putting up our own barriers that keep newcomers out.

After that, I had to duck out of the con for a little while to pick up my wife. We're going to Worldcon next year in London, but she's never been to an SF convention before (I don't count the Vancouver FanExpo we both went to two years ago, because the atmosphere of a Worldcon is closer to that of a smaller, local SF con, rather than a bloated commercial comic convention/merchandising marketing blitz), so I thought the best way to prep her was to bring her to the Saturday programming at VCon this year. So, after lunch, we came back to the hotel, got her registered, and wandered around for a while so she could take it all in. Admittedly, this isn't traditionally her scene, so she was a little taken aback at first, but she was very impressed with the level of skill many of the cosplayers had put into the making of their garb, and by the time we hit the dealers' room, she was getting into it. First stop was at the White Dwarf Books table to chat with our buddy Walter, the owner. Then, as we made our way around the room we came to a lady selling knitted wares, who made an easy sale when my wife caught sight of her TARDIS toques, and I saw that she had a couple of 4th Doctor scarves. We probably would have bought them anyway, but when she offered us a deal if we bought both, we were hooked. So, add one TARDIS toque, and one Baker-era scarf (don't ask me which series, I'm too tired to remember scarf specifics, and I don't want to unroll the damn thing to check the tag on the end that's currently buried in the middle) to the pile of Con goodies.

Her first real session was the live Caustic Soda Podcast, with guests John Kovalic (of The Dork Tower) and Mur Lafferty (of I Should Be Writing). I became of fan of Caustic Soda last year when I attended their podcast recording at VCon, and shortly after I began listening to it, my wife picked it up and fell in love, so this was the perfect way to begin the programming side of her con-going experience. As usual, Joe, Kevin and Torren were wickedly, mercilessly, brutally funny while talking about a range of awful subjects, ranging from families dying in unusual accidents to discontinued sugary cereals of the 80s. John and Mur fit right in, and were hilarious in their own right - in fact, they had probably the best lines of the 'cast:
Mur: "...you can't brawl to Simon & Garfunkel."
John: "You people have ruined me."
At the end, we went up and thanked the team for their efforts, and I bought a Caustic Soda T-shirt. It'll go nicely with the podcast's pin that I picked up last year. Does that now make me an official Soda Jerk? Or do I have to undergo some arcane and uncomfortable ritual to be initiated into the ranks of this particular fan sub-set?

From there, we went up to the "Justify The Science Flaws" panel, where a crack team of real scientists, moderated by Neo-opsis editor Karl Johanson, focussed their collective genius on pointing out science flaws in well-known SF movies and TV shows - including Pacific Rim and episodes of classic Star Trek - and then tried to come up with explanations (some more plausible than others) for why those supposed mistakes might actually be possible. Another panel of great personalities, and (as it is every year) the session was educational as well as entertaining. I certainly enjoyed it, and I was happy that my wife did too.

After that, we had a look around the art exhibit, and then called it an early day. I could have kept attending sessions and stayed until mid-evening, but my wife had had her fill for the day, and I didn't want to ruin her positive first con experience by forcing her to stay and overload on nerdity. Sometimes easing into the pool is a better way to teach a person to swim than booting them into the deep end. Now she knows what to expect at Loncon 3 next year (sort of) and will probably be able to enjoy it more.

As for me, I wasn't going to complain about an early day and the chance to eat at home and get to bed earlier. That'll give me the energy to more thoroughly enjoy the final round of sessions on Sunday.

Saturday, October 05, 2013

Arrrrrr, it's time to get Conned again! VCon 38 - Day 1

Well. buckle my swash! Avast! And timber my shivers! October's come in like a galleon under full sail, and that means it's time for VCon again! And - if the corny buckaneerisms haven't tipped you off yet - this year's theme is pirates (of the sea, space, the web, and anything else that you can cram a tricorn cap on top of).

As far as themes for the con go, "pirates" isn't a bad idea. Granted, in mainstream pop culture, most people probably see coursairs as a straight-forward part of a real, by-gone era (or, possibly still relevant in the modern era, with incidents of piracy in the waters off of Africa getting news headlines - and even a Tom Hanks movie - these days). But pirates have always comfortably commanded a place in genre fiction too - from the founding of modern speculative fiction in the 19th Century with Jules Verne's Captain Nemo, to more recent dashing swashbucklers, like Captain Harlock or Han Solo. Beyond the literary and cinematic appropriateness, the pirate theme is also a good way to challenge cosplayers to show off their sewing skills in a different way than previous years. While you won't find me sporting a peg leg or armed with a cutlass (though I have been forced to wear an eyepatch on occasion in the past, post-op), I enjoy seeing what other people have managed to put together.

The day started for me just after noon. After making a wrong turn (no, not at Albuquerque, rather on the approach to Cessna Drive - the entrance to the Delta Airport Hotel in Richmond has been a real pain in the ass for years, ever since Translink slapped a minor transit hub in front of it, blocking the main way into the parking lot), I finally managed to get to the hotel. Parking's free for the weekend, which was a good way to open the Con experience. The registration area was a bit cramped, but they were moving people through in a reasonable fashion, so I couldn't complain.

First order of business after that was to get my Con T-shirt. There was the usual inefficient payment shuffle from the T-shirt table, to the registration desk to process credit card payment, then back to the T-shirt table to take possession, but the real disappointment was this year's T-shirt design: they've gone with this year's overly cutesy mascot drawing, which looks like it belongs on an educational cartoon for 4-year-olds, and that, in and of itself, is a big disincentive for me to actually wear the thing (well, I'll wear it at least once - just this weekend - if only because I've paid for the thing). It's also just a bare-bones, white line outline of the mascot, totally lacking in detail. Really a poor showing, especially compared with Con T-shirts from years past. I was so disappointed, I almost didn't buy it. Until this year (at least in the years since I've been attending), VCon has consistently produced Con T-shirts with great designs that I would (and have!) proudly wear to other cons, showing the world the cool stuff coming out of Vancouver's local Con. This year... this year's was so lame that after this weekend's obligatory wearing, it'll go at the bottom of the Con T-shirt collection drawer and never see the light of day again. Ever. You may ask, if the shirt is so bad, why did I bother buying it? Very good question. I'm still asking myself too. I was only just barely tipped onto the purchase side of the decision because I've got every other Con shirt from the past several years, so I thought I might as well have this one to complete the collection, and every collection needs the one mistake to look the good ones look even better. Really though, I hope next year the Con organizers will choose a design that's actually worth buying - there are enough good genre artists around that they don't have to settle for this kind of crap.

Normally I don't buy anything in the dealers' room on the first day, but the Con T-Shirt left such a bad taste in my mouth, that I had to counteract it by purchasing something good, so I picked up a trio of geeky buttons, and a trio of books at the Edge Publishing table. Having just moved into a new house and reshelved all of my books, I'm all too aware of how stupidly big my "to-read/inbox" pile is, but I always look forward to picking up the latest issue of the Tesseracts annual Canadian SF anthology at the Con, and, while I was there, I saw a couple of other collections that looked cool - Shanghai Steam (edited by Ace Jordyn, Calvin D Jim, and Renee Bennett) and Urban Green Man (edited by Adria Laycraft and Janice Blaine) - and I'm a sucker for anthologies, and, what with Edge offering a deal on pricing, I had to buy all three.

Leaving the dealers' room, I prowled around the hotel a bit to find out where all of the Con session rooms, etc were, and then it was on to the first panel of the day.

The 1:00 session of "Meet You At The Airship Terminal" (a panel about alternate history) was a bit problematic. Seems that due to some scheduling confusion, the session had already taken place at 12. But since the Con program listed it at 1, a pair of the panelists stayed on to do a bit of a recap for our (very) small audience. The panelists were nice guys, so I stayed for the whole thing, but they only ran for half an hour, it felt very much like a highlight reel, rather than an actual panel discussion, They also occasionally made historically incorrect statements (Such as one offhandedly mentioning that Britain had lost its legends when Charlemagne invaded. Charlemagne? Um. No. That'd be William the Conqueror.) - and not in the same deliberate way as when they were giving examples of alternate history in literature or film - which was pretty jarring. Something that's always made alternate history panels at previous/other cons interesting and worth attending is when the panelists are actually well educated in history, and make accurate references to real history as the basis for discussing alternate history, and so today's session, lacking that, seemed more than a little amateurish. As an audience member, there isn't a lot of incentive to ask questions or engage in discussion with panelists if it isn't clear that they know what they're talking about, or that they have an in-depth perspective on the subject matter (in this case, a real knowledge of history in order to be able to discuss alternate history significantly).

Since that session ended early, I did a little more poking around, and found the hospitality suite. Then it was on to the panel that was simply titled "ARRRR!", concerning pirates. Unfortunately, I didn't find the panelists to be terribly engaging, and rather than getting into any real detail about piracy in a speculative fictional sense or from a historical perspective, there were just a bunch of bland statements about pirates being terrible people, but how they represent freedom - mixed with the occasional bit of strangeness, such as one panelist stating that pirates were people of ultimate principles (even if some of them were bad), like mobsters. Really? Anything historical I've read or seen about pirates seems to indicate that while some of them had occasional quirks that were somewhat principle-like in nature, most were, as most criminals are, unprincipled people who would do whatever they had to, and whatever they thought they could get away with, regardless of their code or their shipboard quasi-democracies. Despite being located in one of the larger session ballrooms, this panel had a fairly small audience turnout (to be fair, it was the middle of a Friday afternoon, not the busiest time of the Con weekend) - not more than half a dozen of us, which didn't help with the energy level in the room. But it was the general blandness of opinion on the panel and lack of meaty discussion that did me in though. I called it quits after about 10 minutes and left to grab a bite.

Sadly, things weren't much better with my late lunch. A nice view of the marina from the hotel restaurant that's perched out over the river, but the service was shockingly slow, and the food was overpriced and - I hate to use the word again - bland.

After lunch, I ambled over to the ballroom housing the art display, and here I was really impressed. Lots of good entries this year. Some are the same artists and works that have appeared in previous years (hell, the Con just wouldn't be same without some of the same damn pictures turning up year-in, year-out), but of those, there were more entries from the more talented artists. And there were new entries from new artists - many of them extremely skilled. I was especially interested in a set involving glass and plants - one especially that looked like a glass human head, used as a terrarium, with a watering tube as a sort of crown. Not sure it, or the other works in that particular display, would fit in with the decor at our house, but I really enjoyed looking at it.

At that point, I bailed-out of the Con for a little while to run some errands, but I was back in time to catch the last couple of minutes of the Opening Ceremonies (which had a pretty good turnout).

From there it was on to a pair of back-to-back sessions on how to work with audio: "Kitting Out Cheap: Building Audio Toolkits On A Budget" (we all had a laugh when a couple of people arrived a few minutes late wondering where the session on "knitting" was being held - "kitting", not "knitting") and "Home Recording 101: Using The Kit You Built". These sessions were a real pleasure to attend. Admittedly, they were perhaps a bit too technical at times, but the information covered was absolutely necessary for anyone toying with the idea of home recording for podcasting or music recording. The hosts were also friendly and engaging, and clearly very passionate about working with sound, and helping others learn how to do it right. The two hours blew by in a flash.

At that point, I thought about grabbing a quick bite, then coming back for a couple of late evening panels, but I'm tired and not feeling 100%, and I've got to get up early tomorrow to drive my wife to her volunteer gig before the Con, so I figured best to call it quits and head home.

On the balance, I'd say a 50-50 start to the con, maybe leaning slightly more towards the positive because of the art room.

One thing I do miss though: the movie room. I looked high and low through the program and the hotel, but I couldn't seem to find it. What a shame. The movie room has always been a highlight in the past - the perfect venue to drop in on during those lulls in programming where I (and others) just couldn't find any panels of interest, and there was always an ever-changing crowd of easy-going, nice people to chat with, jointly heckle the movie with, and sometimes quietly enjoy films with. I hope the lack of a movie room was just a Friday thing this year. If it's off the roster completely, perhaps I'll have to send a polite request to the Con Committee, or maybe even get off my lazy butt and volunteer to run it next year.

Oh well, let's get the next two days of this year's Con out of the way first.

Thursday, August 29, 2013

The Doctor and the Dwarf

I had no idea that August would be filled with so many unexpected (hence, my having no idea) reminders of the best of BBC science fiction, but it seems to have panned out that way.

It started a couple of days ago when my wife and I were celebrating her birthday Downtown. We'd wandered into Golden Age Collectables to pick up some comics and graphic novels, when she spied a Doctor Who TARDIS mug (rectangular-sided, to make it look, well, TARDIS-like). Not unusual to find the Doctor's merch in a comic store, I just didn't expect to be buying any. But it was her birthday, so... "Happy wife, happy life" as my mother-in-law once instructed, and the TARDIS mug now has a place in our kitchen.

Fast-forward to yesterday when my coworkers were throwing me a bit of a farewell celebration because my contract's come to an end (mental note: must tighten the budgetary belt and keep spending in the merchants' room under control at VCon in October). I opened the envelope and pulled out the extremely cool TARDIS card that my coworker and friend - and graphic designer extraordinaire - Nancy Berke (the same artist behind the new bloginhood logo) had created. Now, my coworkers all know that I'm a nerd, and two of them are fellow fanboys, but this was the last thing I expected to find. A Hallmark card, sure, but something tailor-made to my geekiness and printed in-house on high-quality paper? I probably enjoyed getting the card more than eating the cake they brought out - and that says a lot, considering my love of cake! The best was when Nancy brought out the alternate card with its Dalek design. I may frame that one and put it up in my study.

Then there was the fridge that should be on the set of Red Dwarf. We've sold our house, and in preparation to move into the new place, my wife and I are combing through a lot of furniture stores to get ideas. A few days ago, she dragged me into some hipster home decor boutique on south Granville. Wandering around on my own, wishing greatly to get the hell out of there, I stumbled upon this gem and burst into laughter: a compact, bright red refrigerator with "SMEG" proudly emblazoned across the front (in hindsight, I should have checked the back to see if the manufacturer was listed as the Jupiter Mining Corporation). Some of the resident hipsters spared me a brief, condescending glance, and then looked away - clearly too cool and lacking in vocabulary or knowledge of SF culture to understand the humour in what they were trying to sell. Sure, this thing would be a perfect addition to any nerd's basement to keep his lagers cold and his chicken vindaloos fresh while he's watching reruns of the short rouge one - so perfect, in fact, that for a second I was half-tempted to snag the fridge myself. But even better was the fact that if you ignore the Red Dwarf allusion, then it would certainly appear that the manufacturers are proudly proclaiming that this fridge is best suited for duty in a hospital lab, specifically for the storage of urological specimens. Really, no self-respecting consumer appliance or home decor store would stock a fridge with a slang shorthand for smegma as its branding if they were aware of its definition. And, while hipsters do love their affected irony, it was pretty clear from the other merchandise in the store that there's little to no irony intended in their selection of wares. No, this is just an example of a purchaser thinking a loudly-red little beer fridge would be something that somebody would buy, with said purchaser being completely ignorant of what it's name meant. Which made it all the funnier. What a smeghead.

Tuesday, July 09, 2013

Who's Who?

It's been a while since BBC announced Matt Smith will be stepping down from his titular role in Doctor Who, and since then, the net's been abuzz with speculation about who his successor will be, as well as the occasional threat from some fans that they'll stop watching if this criterion or that is not met in casting the next Time Lord.

For my part, I'm glad to see Smith go. He wasn't terrible – I just didn't really like him in the title role. Maybe it's because his head is too big. Seriously, it makes Tommy Lee Jones' enormous noggin look normal. Damn thing pushes past the borders of my TV screen when the show's on, and intrudes on the rest of the room. Shallow, I know, but you've gotta be honest with your comfort zones. Beyond that, there was just something I couldn't really pin down about him that prevented me from really liking his Doctor and getting in his corner – to the point where I was, surprisingly, kind of indifferent to missing a few of this past series' episodes.

I won't try to engage in speculation because I have no connections whatsoever with the network or producers, and, unless you are in that inner circle, there's no way you'll know who they're really serious about choosing either.

As for threats to stop watching if certain casting conditions aren't met? Whatever. Empty words from most people who make statements like that, because, ultimately, if you're a fan of the character or the series, you'll come back for a peek. Hell, chances are you'll stick with the series anyway, just to see what the writers/producers/directors do with that incarnation you don't approve of. How many people bitched about what Lucas did with the Star Wars prequels, and how many of us went ahead and watched all three anyway? It's a philosophy that's been successfully applied to talk radio for years. And if you really stick to your guns, it won't matter. The show will keep lumbering on. Moreover, if you stop watching, you run the risk of missing a potentially good performance (or at least an entertaining episode or two) from an actor who might rise to the occasion, despite the absence of the characteristics you insist upon.

For my part, I hope they don't cast the Doctor any younger than Smith. I understand that in the UK, Doctor Who is classified as a kids' show, and there's logic in casting younger actors to appeal to the primary demographic. But, really, if the Doctor gets any younger than he is now, I'm going to start feeling like I'm rewatching an old episode of Mork & Mindy with the late Jonathan Wintes (or, similarly, from much later, the Star Trek - Voyager episode "Innocence") with aliens who age backwards. But again, that's all in the hands of the producers.

And while I won't claim any authority to speculate on who will get the part, I will (in no particular order) indulge in offering a few thoughts about actors I think would do a great job at the helm of the TARDIS:

  • Stephen Fry – Imagine the TARDIS doors opening after the transformation flash, and seeing Stephen Fry step out to evaluate the Whoniverse! Here's an actor with gravitas balanced by a sense of humour, an air of intelligence and attentiveness, and an excellent sense of timing. The only problem is, I just don't see his Doctor running much, and there's a lot of frenetic running on this damn show.
  • Lenny Henry – Years ago, when it was announced that Tennant was stepping down, I said I'd like to see Lenny Henry take a crack at this role, and I still stand by that statement. The electric wit he demonstrated on Chef! was perfect, and while the Doctor's temper isn't anywhere near as explosive as Gareth's, sometimes, despite the fact that the Doctor tries to let on that he's mellowed with age, I think it would do to have an actor who could give the sense of simmering when confronted with something deeply annoying, if not life-threatening. Henry's also got a depth of feeling and a sense of timing that would be perfect for the Time Lord.
  • Emma Thompson – I seem to remember John Scalzi mentioning on his Twitter feed that he'd like to see Emma Thompson become the next Doctor. I was on-board with this as soon as I read it. Yes, Emma Thompson would be perfect. Any doubts? Rewatch her in Much Ado About Nothing. Genius. Enough said.
  • Omid Djalili – Yes, the comic who played the warden in The Mummy. Talk about a sense of timing! In his stand-up act, or in his movie roles, Omid Djalili is always spot on with the timing of his delivery – just the right nuance of tone and speed at just the right time, and the ability to switch gears instantly. He's also got that sense of watchfulness that the Doctor needs – regardless of his role, you always sense that his characters are paying attention to the situation. They may not be able to cope with the situation, but they're taking it all in, and that's something the Doctor always seems to display. I think he's also an actor who could show us the right depth of feeling for the Doctor, even if previous roles haven't afforded that opportunity. As much as this Doctor could make us laugh, I have a feeling he could show us what it's like to hurt if he wanted to.
  • Lena Headey – If you could pry her away from Game of Thrones, Lena Headey would be The Oncoming Storm - the battle angel version of the Doctor, if you needed to show some serious kicking of Dalek ass. And yet, as we saw in moments in Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles, she can show a pretty good range in character. I'd like to see what she could do with the Doctor.
  • Alexander Siddig – Okay, Alexander Siddig has already played a space-and-time-travelling doctor in Star Trek - Deep Space Nine, but I think he'd make a fantastic Doctor. As an actor, he's got a great range, and I could see him bringing some of the even-tempered wisdom of his character in Kingdom of Heaven to the Time Lord. He's also got that timing and sense of watchfulness I've mentioned before, that I find so essential to the Doctor.
  • Chiwetel Ejiofor – I saw Chiwetel Ejiofor again the other night while rewatching Serenity, as the parliamentary assassin sent to run-down River Tam, and thought, here's an actor who would just feel right as the Doctor. I thought back to how much different his character was in Inside Man, and yet how completely at home he seemed in both, as different as they were, and it just reinforced my impression that he would make a completely believable Doctor who could show us a lot about the character that maybe we haven't seen before. Like the others I've mentioned in this list, timing and watchfulness are traits that he's got down.

To reiterate, this is not a predictive list, just some thoughts about actors I think could bring something new and interesting to the role of the Doctor.

In any case, regardless of who the producers select, I'll be watching when the changeover happens, and, as long as the Doctor's head doesn't get any bigger, I'll be willing to give whoever it is a chance.

So, if it was your call to make, who would you cast as the Doctor?

Monday, June 24, 2013

Robots vs... Gummy Bears?

Congratulations to my coworker, Derik Whitehead, for winning the Jury Award at Vine's first FastFilmFest!

Forget King Kong vs. Godzilla, or Aliens vs. Predator, Derik's submission is a very short film that would make even the most mashup-crazed nerd wide-eyed with awe: Sour gummy bears vs. robot!

Personally, I would have put odds on the 'bot winning, but there is a convincing argument to be made for the bears taking down their mechanical opponent, since they could, you know, gum up the works.

Thursday, June 06, 2013

Mini Review 1 - River of Stars, Son of Destruction, Masked Mosaic

As promised, this is the first of a somewhat regular series of mini book reviews. In this issue, we'll take a look at a trio of great reads:
River of Stars by Guy Gavriel Kay
Son of Destruction by Kit Reed
Masked Mosaic: Canadian Super Stories edited by Claude Lalumiere and Camille Alexa


 River of Stars by Guy Gavriel Kay

Inspired by the Mongol invasion of China, River of Stars is Guy Gavriel Kay's tale of individuals living in a time when their culture is threatened with utter destruction, the different ways some fight against the threat, others enable it, and the rest bear witness - while they live. This is the second novel set in Kay's fantasy world of the Kitan Empire, picking up 400 years after the civil war that was ignited at the end of the brilliant Under Heaven - a war, we learn, that has resulted in the loss of several northern territories (and a lot of pride) to hostile horsemen of the steppes. It's also left a weakened Kitai "protected" by an incompetent army, humiliated by protection payments to the northern tribes, and ruled by corrupt, in-fighting officials and an emperor more interested in art and his garden than the plight of his people. Amidst this, a young man from a country village, Ren Daiyan, uses his intelligence, education, and self-taught fighting skills to rise from being his family's second son without many prospects, to a Robin Hood-esque outlaw leader, to a general who may be the only hope to stop the northern invasion. Meanwhile, Lin Shan, ferociously intelligent, a gifted poet, and (gasp!) an educated and opinionated woman, fights to preserve their culture on another front, mastering verse, creating a new style of song, and collecting artifacts. More importantly, when her artistic abilities capture the attention of the artsy-fartsy emperor, she uses her poems and songs to imply that all is not well in Kitai, urging him to remember the glory and pride of their past in a bid to convince him to take action. Orbiting around them are a collection of poets, bureaucrats, soldiers and others swept along in the increasingly rough currents at court, in the countryside, and eventually on the field of battle.

River of Stars is another example of Kay's mastery of worldbuilding. As with its predecessor, he's created a sort-of-China that's so close to the original that when he describes the cities and countryside, you can taste and smell the grit of the real hills in the north outside of Beijing, or the oppressive humidity of the south near Hong Kong. His 12th Dynasty echoes the Northern Song Dynasty. The culture has the Confucian hierarchy and values of the real thing, and the myths include the fear of ghosts still felt today, and warnings about the perils of fox demon women. And yet, as similar as this world may be to China of the past, it is its own creature. One of the major differences (aside from people and place names): the ghosts are real, though not so prominent in River of Stars as they were in Under Heaven.

Kay also does excellent work developing his characters. Ren, Lin, and the rest are fully-fleshed and three-dimensional. You can believe they would have existed in this kind of culture, behaved the way they do, and come to similar fates. Ren is likable, but the life he's chosen means at time he does terrible things and is capable of cruelty and sacrificing others to get the job done. He's brilliant at leading others and winning battles, but for all his knowledge, he isn't quite able to grasp in time how easily other people can compromise themselves or the world around them - that others don't hold to his standards. For her part, Lin is able to confront poets, court officials, emperors, and would-be assassins in a way that few other women do, and yet she remains confined to the limitations of her culture (confines that she recognizes and sometimes laments, but remains within none-the-less), and in so doing remains believable.

The novel's pace also has an engaging ebb and flow, focussing on the principle characters for a time, then shifting to supporting cast, then farther out to the country as a whole, then back in, again and again, over time, with the narrative occasionally offering philosophical comments about the way of the world.

River of Stars isn't a quick read, but it's worth the time, and certainly worth spending extra to get a hard cover copy.


Son of Destruction by Kit Reed

Who could take a common event like a person who wants to understand his past searching for a parent he never knew, season it with the greasy unspoken pressure on a group of people who don't want to acknowledge an ugly part of their collective past, drop the story into a banal setting like middle-upper class suburbia, and then toss in, oh, let's say, spontaneous human combustion - or is it some kind of deliberate pyrokinesis - and maybe an angry ghost? Kit Reed - that's who!

Reed is the queen of taking the banal and making it completely, utterly, disturbingly surreal, as she's demonstrated on many occasions with works like Thinner Than Thou, Enclave, and Magic Time (look for a review of this one in the coming weeks), and Son of Destruction doesn't disappoint. But don't think for an instant that this author's a one-trick pony relying on a gimmick like M. Night Shyamalan. Make that mistake, and her stories will bust you on your ass and leave you crying like an acidhead in a funhouse. Reed's stories are as much skillfully crafted character studies of people coming to grips with themselves and each other in situations that hit uncomfortably close to home, as they are tales of daring escape from real or metaphorical prisons. And then the spontaneous human combustion - or pyrokinesis! - happens.

But I'm getting ahead of myself.

Son of Destruction is the story of reporter Dan Carteret as he prowls around a sweltering middle-and-upper-class Florida suburb trying to reconstruct his dead mother's youth in an attempt to find out who his father is. To hide his purpose, Dan pretends to be working on a story about a series of mysterious deaths that have occurred there over the years, apparently involving spontaneous human combustion. But the story's also about Nenna, and Jessie, and Bobby, and the others who went to school with Dan's mom, and the lengths they'll go to to keep the details of their collective past more tightly wrapped and locked away than a corpse at the morgue - and people bursting into flames are the least of their concerns. Throw in Walker, who constantly dwells on his desire to be left alone, but can't help but come in from the fringes on a quest of his own. And then there's Nenna's teenaged daughter Steffy, who doesn't care much what the adults are up to, but inadvertently acts as observer, confidant, and spy, and ultimately sets the stage for her own play about the lengths people will go to to get what they want, and whether they can make different choices and change history (after a fashion).

But the novel is more than just a who-dunnit or what-the-hell-really-happened yarn. It's also probably one of the most brutally incisive and accurate examinations of the machinations, self-delusions, fears, failures, aspirations, compromises, and possible redemptions of middle-and-upper-class society players since William Thackeray's Vanity Fair or George Eliot's Middlemarch. Every nasty nuance of a ladies' gossip group whose members oh-so-politely jockey for dominance over one-another; the quiet moments of impotent desperation of men who've peaked and slid into irrelevance or failure as they watch peers of lesser moral worth continue to ascend; the dirty not-so-secrets that are protected simply because shame for one at the hands of outsiders would be embarrassment for all; and the incomprehensible lengths people will go to support - or appear to provide support - for former friends who have (though no-one wants to publicly admit it) long since drifted away as they went along other paths in life or who are downright disliked (with the attendant realization that maybe they never really were friends), merely out of the clinging ghost of a sense of duty - all of this is captured in Reed's unflinching psychological and sociological analysis.

Add to that a tight writing style and relentless pace to the plot as it builds to its explosive conclusion, and Son of Destruction is definitely worth buying in hardcover and moving to the top of your to-read list.


Masked Mosaic: Canadian Super Stories edited by Claude Lalumiere and Camille Alexa

As we crash into a summer of superhero movies, how could we not talk about Claude Lalumiere and Camille Alexa's long-overdue blizzard of tales about metahumans and their adventures across Canada? I say "long-overdue" because Canadians have a grand tradition of superhero storytelling - from Joe Shuster's groundbreaking Superman, to Cory Doctorow's "The Super Man and the Bugout,"to the worlds and characters of Minister Faust's Coyote Kings of the Space-Age Bachelor Pad and From the Notebooks of Dr. Brain, to the legion of authors whose stories are jam-packed into this newest addition to the genre (not to mention the historic milestones listed in Mark Shainblum's opening essay for the book). It's a wonder a lab experiment gone wrong, strangely radioactive meteorite, or genetic mutation hasn't caused this anthology to bound onto bookstore shelves before!

The volume contains stories by authors from across the country, featuring characters from Canada and around the world having adventures here in the Great White North. Where other editors might have been tempted to take a shared-world approach like George R.R. Martin's venerable Wild Cards series, or the superhero worlds of the Marvel or DC comic franchises, Lalumiere and Alexa have elected to go with diversity - each author writing unique adventures in his or her own universe. And that's appropriate for a collection about Canadian superheroes. For a country with so many different regions and voices, it makes sense to have a collection of stories that have different tones and paces and histories and political viewpoints and types of characters, which somehow flow from one to another quite comfortably, which almost seem to form a cultural conversation with one-another and the reader, and, taken collectively, make for one hell of a good read. This book is Canada - if people could fly. Which would be awesome.

My favourites among the bunch were E.L Chen's grim lead to the collection, "Nocturne," about a hoodied (yes, hoodied, as in kangaroo jacketed) hero in Toronto; Kristi Charish's funny "Canadian Blood Diamonds," about a super villain's attempts to make a profit, avoid arrest, and meet the right guy;  the ass-kicking "The Secret History of the Intrepids" by D.K. Latta, putting a Canuck spin on the League of Extraordinary Gentlemen mashup idea; Mike Rimar's super villain origin story "A Bunny Hug for Karl"; Michael S. Chong's creepy "The Creep"; and Jason S. Ridler's take on antiheroes in "Revenge of the Iron Shadow". In fact, in the whole anthology, I'd say there was only one story that I didn't enjoy: "The Shield Maiden" by Alyxandra Harvey, which wasn't terrible, rather just longer than I felt it needed to be.

The only real downside to the book is the type of paper Tyche Books went with for the covers. At least with the first print run (yes, I ordered early, and got a copy with a mistake in the accent over Lalumiere's name - which makes it a collectable! Woohoo!), there's something vaguely and unpleasantly waxy about the texture of the cover. And within a day of bringing it home - even before I'd had a chance to open it and flip through - the covers had curled back quite significantly.

That said, the contents of the book are what's most important, and, whether you're a Canadian or not, if you're a fan of first-rate superhero tales, get yourself a copy of Masked Mosaic: Canadian Super Stories as soon as you can - whether you have to walk to your local bookstore, order online, or leap a few tall buildings in a single bound.

Tuesday, June 04, 2013

Coming Soon: Mini Reviews

It occurred to me a couple of months ago, when I was writing my meditation on the final Wheel of Time book that was almost as long as Jordan and Sanderson's entire series, that it had been a hell of a long while since the last time I wrote a book review. Plenty of reasons for this, some better than others, but a lot of time went by none-the-less, and a lot of finished books piled up with little more acknowledgement than a 140-character Twitter opinion.

Time for that to change.

Starting tomorrow, I'll be posting a regular series of mini book reviews. Mini, because writing a stupidly-long essay like the WOT piece takes a lot of time to put together - time that I could allocate to writing posts about other stuff, like the genius of The Starlost (okay, maybe I wouldn't go that far - okay, let's face it, nobody would go that far), and nearly as much time for you to read through - time that you could be using to recatalogue your collection of Gilligan's Planet fan-fic or something. Each post will include reviews of 2-4 books, with each book getting a couple of paragraphs - just enough to give you a sense of the plot and what I thought of the story overall.

Rather than go through everything I haven't reviewed for the past year-and-a-half or so, I've got a short stack on-hand from just the last couple of months. Should be good for a few posts. And, of course, as I finish other books, they'll be added to the review pile and eventually discussed.

Stay tuned for tomorrow's premier post, covering Guy Gavriel Kay's River of Stars, Kit Reed's Son of Destruction, and Masked Mosaic: Canadian Super Stories - edited by Claude Lalumiere and Camille Alexa.

Wednesday, March 27, 2013

Introducing the Logo

For a few years now, I've been thinking that what this blog needs (yes, yes, I know, cue the loud chorus from 2 of the 3 people in the audience: "You mean, aside from better writing and more content?!") is a logo. A few weeks ago, I finally decided to do something about it.

And, behold: The new bloginhood logo!

Many, many, many enthusiastic thanks to friend, coworker, and graphic artist extraordinaire Nancy Berke for coming up with this cool design.

She put a lot of work into this concept, chatting with me at length to get some sense of what I was looking for (which wasn't easy, because the geekery on the site is pretty diverse, and my approach to working with graphic designers on projects, in general, has always been to give them some broad ideas of what I'm looking for, then let them tap their creativity to come up with something interesting that, let's face it, I, as a non-artist, probably wouldn't have thought of), and reading back through the posts to get a feel for the tone and content. From there, she came up with several different, eye-catching design options, presenting everything from rockets to dragons - and this funny little planet. Any one of those illustrations would have been great, and, to some degree, I wanted to use all of them. She very wisely suggested that focusing on one would be better than mashing a bunch together - and thankfully, I listened.

But as good as they all were, this was the one my eyes kept drifting back to. Right from the start, I was in love with the idea of using the craters to spell the site name, with the straight letters by extension giving the feel of ridges or valleys, or, at the beginning and end, the lines of the horizon. It was simple, spacey, clean, and a bit goofy. It was perfect. It also was Nancy's favourite, and my wife's, and with two other people with different perspectives coming to the same choice, I would have been a fool to turn my back on it.

I also realized, just a couple of days ago (and maybe this thought was lurking unseen in my subconscious the entire time) that another reason I like it is that it's vaguely reminiscent of Chairface Chippendale's partially-completed lunar graffiti on The Tick. Not that I'm planning on taking up a career as a super villain though. Not yet, anyway.

Meantime, I hope you enjoy the logo as much as I do.

Tuesday, March 19, 2013

Showdown at the Old Graphic Novel Aisle

Ever watch westerns? I know, a bit of a departure from science fiction at first glance, but not really, as many authors, critics, and fans have, for years, pointed out how SF borrows from the cowboy genre not infrequently. But sometimes, scenarios from westerns can go beyond SF on the page or screen, and enter into the realm of fandom.

I'm talking about the showdown. The gunfight at high noon, where two individuals draw and see who's standing at the end. Sometimes it's the person who draws quickest, getting that first, fatal shot off. Sometimes, it's the guy who's a split second slower, but only because experience has taught him to take his time and make sure the shot counts. Sometimes these face-offs come as a result of a vendetta, or maybe a reckoning for justice. But sometimes, just sometimes, it's a senseless shootout that happens for no other reason than one party's looking to show off - maybe it's the new, young guy - looking to make it known that he's the new top dog.

I found myself in that situation a couple of days ago. Not a full-on, cigar-chompin', whip-lean-and-narrow-eyed-stranger, tumbleweeds rollin' in the dust as the six-shooters spin kinda way, but in a far more bespectacled, somewhat overweight, bookish and nerdy kinda way - that none-the-less turned every bit as deadly serious, and was every bit as wasteful and pointless.

Our story takes place on a late afternoon, the harsh glare of banks of fluorescents lashing down on two weary travelers just looking to take it easy... My wife and I had gone to our local Chapters mega bookstore after work looking to pick up a couple of travel guides (yep, researching for next year's Loncon3 already), and afterwards had started browsing in the SF section, eventually wandering over to the graphic novel aisle. I was casually looking to see if anything caught my eye, while my wife was digging for book 1 of The Walking Dead (having just started watching the series - without me, might I add, 'cause zombies aren't my thing). That's when the stranger wandered into the aisle.

The kid was one of the store's staff, doing a customary check to see if the customers needed any help, and we struck up a conversation. Nice guy; turns out he's an SF fan who's new in town. We started talking about the local SF scene, books, university and post-university life, and comics. After a while, I remarked that it was nice to run into a fellow fan in the store, since most clerks have a knowledge of the genre that's about as low as their desire to help customers.

That's when things got serious. That's when the kid decided, out of the blue, to throw down the gauntlet and unnecessarily try to assert some nerdy dominance.

"I'm probably a bigger fan than you are, though," he says.

Since when did this become a contest? I wonder, as I cock an eyebrow and chuckle quietly.

My wife laughs openly. "No," she says with a smile, pointing at me. "He is."

"No," says the kid, a cocky gleam in his eye and gloating, confident smile on his lips. "I'm pretty sure I am." like maybe he thinks that because my wife has asked his opinion on whether to buy the individual book 1 of the series or the entire collection omnibus that maybe we're latecomers who are new to the SF party.

My wife looks over at me, her smile vanishing, and I flash back to that old episode of Cheers where Sam gets into the phone number contest with the new young buck in the bar who thinks he's the ultimate ladies' man. "Aw, Sammy," says Carla, "Go easy on him. He's just a kid. He didn't know any better!" Sam's face is quiet, calm, almost expressionless. "Then maybe it's time he became a man," he says.

"I just bought two tickets to the 2014 Worldcon in London the other day," I say with a half smile and a level gaze. "How about you? Are you coming? It'll be my third Worldcon."

The kid's eyes pop out of their sockets and roll around on the worn carpet somewhere near where his jaw has hit. Metaphorical tumbleweeds roll past in the background and the town undertaker comes out to take measurements for the coffin.

I smile and we resume chatting amicably about authors, etc.

The point is that it was just weird that out of the blue, as we were establishing a brief geeky conversational relationship, this kid felt the need to try to brag that he was the bigger fan.

Bragging in-and-of itself is not unusual in nerdy communities. There are plenty of fans who, given a chance, will gush about the depths of their love for a particular sub-genre, or author, or movie, or vintage tapes of Gilligan's Planet, or what-have-you. And, in some geeky group settings (not all), the degree of one's knowledge on a subject is a mark of status or political capital - I've seen onlookers nod sagely with deep respect as one of their gang lectures the rest about the most minute details of, say, implements in a medieval cook's kitchen.

And that's okay. Because, at the end of the day, while these folks are showing off, and relishing in, their knowledge of the object of their nerdy affections, it's a non-comparative, or, at the very least, a non-confrontational exercise. They're not hanging pork to see who's got the bigger love of Manos, the Hands of Fate. In most cases, it's enough for nerds just to relish in the company of like-minded individuals.

There's another element at work in these interactions too: at some level, there's usually an understanding that you just don't know how well-versed a strange nerd is until you've chatted with them for a long time. And while age isn't necessarily indicative of knowledge, in the fan community, it's usually a safe bet that the older a person is, the more likely they are to have seen more, read more, and done more. I'd never walk into a book or comic store, strike up a conversation with an older fan, and presume that I know more about, say, Tolkien than she does. Perhaps I do, but there's a good chance that I don't, and to deliberately get into that kind of contest would just make me look like a jackass.

So why did I thump this kid? Was it to brag and make myself feel like a big man - reaffirm my status as the alpha dog in that setting? Not at all. I'm pretty secure in my degree of fandom, and I'm also more than willing to admit that as much as I've read or seen, and as many cons (large or small) that I've been to, there are plenty of other fans out there who've done so much more as to make my experience pretty insignificant. And that's cool. My intent was to teach the kid a friendly - if firm - lesson about fan etiquette. That little surprise of realizing he was wrong to issue the challenge hopefully will help him grow up a little. Even if he only refrains from this behaviour in the future because he's afraid of finding himself in over his head again, that's a start. After all, aside from that fumble, he was basically a nice kid. Eventually, if not already, he'll probably figure out that you don't have to posture in front of other fans. Better to save time and energy just enjoying the SF discourse for what it is.

Kids these days!

Tuesday, March 12, 2013

London Calling

I've finally done it - the other night I bought memberships for my wife and I to attend Loncon3 - we're going to Worldcon in 2014.

I've been toying with the idea since London won the bid for the 72nd Worldcon... After all, a lot of great SF has come out of the UK since, well, since the beginning with Mary Shelley, HG Wells, Robert Louis Stevenson, and on down through Arthur C Clarke, and into the modern era with giants like Gaiman, not to mention contributions to comics by folks like Moore, and TV fair like Doctor Who and Red Dwarf. It's fitting that London would get another turn to be the focal point of fandom. While there isn't a lot of info available on the con website yet (and, to be fair, I don't think anyone would expect a full program this early in the game), what they do have in terms of guests and venue looks interesting. And, hey, it's a Worldcon - it's guaranteed to be cool! The other reason for my interest in this particular con is that I've always wanted to see Britain, but, for various reasons, I haven't been able to make it happen yet (my wife has, a few times, and she's always eager to return). Now, I've got the con to provide some extra incentive to finally get on with it.

The con may be more than a year away, but I think for a fan pilgrimage like this, it's actually a good idea to buy memberships early. For the con, it means more support up front - not having organized a con, I don't know if this is helpful in terms of gauging potential attendance or paying for infrastructure, but it's got to be nice knowing that support is building early on. For me, as an attendee, booking early means getting a lower rate, because every other con I've attended has always raised membership prices as the months pass and the con gets closer. But the big advantage of buying early, especially as a fan traveling internationally, is that it spreads out the expenses: rather than wait until just a couple of months beforehand to take care of all the arrangements in one shot, I can pay for the memberships now, wait a few months until the flight schedules and hotels become available, book and pay for them, then, in the months after that, book and pay for other post-con travel arrangements. By the time the actual trip arrives, everything's out of the way, except for ground transportation there, meal expenses, miscellaneous purchases and incidentals.

Now it's a matter of making the rest of our travel plans. Years ago, I met a guy who'd been to every Worldcon, everywhere, since he'd become an adult and started making his own money to pay for the trips. Problem was, that was all he did. He came home immediately after the cons ended. Never stayed around to actually see anything of the cities and countries he'd visited. Kinda sad, really. Not my style though. If I'm going to take the trouble to go overseas, I'm going to make sure I actually stick around for a bit and see some of the place. So, in this case, we'll probably make it a 3 week trip: the con, plus a couple of weeks of touring around. That's the other advantage of booking our memberships early: plenty of time to start planning.

We've already started making lists of the things we want to see and do, and I'm open to any recommendations that more seasoned travelers or UK residents might have. What would you suggest? Where are the great places to eat? What are some of the must-see sights? Anything with a particular SF element that's worth checking out?

Tuesday, February 26, 2013

The Hitchhiker's Guide to Battlestar Galactica

So let's say you were watching the Battlestar Galactica spinoff movie Blood and Chrome recently, and you got nostalgic for the series that started it all (well, the remake of the series that started it all, because the old series sucked), and you started rewatching BSG, and you got it into your head that you'd like to visit the Colonies, or Kobol, or Earth, or the other Earth, or any of the pitstops along the way (not literally, of course, but the sometimes beautiful, sometimes grimy places where they were shot), how would you go about doing it? Why, you'd visit Battlestar Galactica Filming Locations, of course.

This cool site came to my attention a little while ago when one of its resident battlestar scouts got in touch with me to see about borrowing some of the photos my sister-in-law took of the set (photos in the posts Beach Blanket Battlestar and Look what else washed up on the beach) of the ruins of Earth (or Centennial Beach in the village of Tsawwassen, Corporation of Delta, as locals know it) back just before the beginning of the 2007-2008 Hollywood writers' strike. But aside from the potential bias involved in a relative's photos possibly getting reposted there, I'd still highly recommend the site to BSG fans, especially those with an interest in visiting set locations.

It's a nice looking site, and easy to navigate. Lots of pictures, both from the series and from the set pilgrimages of the site's authors, which are handy in helping you figure out exactly what to look for when you go there yourself, and to help you get your impression of your favourite character's in-scene pose just right when you take the obligatory fan-on-location photo. Even more important: maps, trip resource PDFs, and links to other sites with info - good to have, whether you're poking around the SFU campus, navigating the back alleys of Vancouver, or heading into the hills outside of Kamloops.

Now, get the frak over there and start planning your BSG trip!

Monday, February 11, 2013

Star Wars Spinoff Movies?

To quote Princess Leia: "I've got a bad feeling about this."

No, I'm not referring to the announcement a couple of weeks ago that JJ Abrams had been chosen to helm Star Wars - Episode VII. Considering that Abrams Star Trek was really a Star Wars movie, and a pretty good Star Wars movie, that's encouraging news.

I'm referring to word that came out just a few days ago that in addition to the new trilogy, Disney's already working on Star Wars spinoff movies, about other characters in the story's universe, that will be released around the same time.

Spinoffs? While there's been a reasonably good track record with expanded universe books and comics over the past 20 years, starting with Timothy Zahn's Heir to the Empire books, and the Darkhorse Dark Empire comic series, but when it comes to moving pictures, the franchise's quality gets a bit spotty.

Let's wind the clock back to the 70s for first spinoff, the bad start of the trend: The holiday special. Say what you want about whether Lucas disowned it, the thing was made, it's a spinoff, and it sucks. I could stop there, and it's tempting, but there's a more complete case to be made.

Things didn't get much better in the 80s: remember the two Ewok made-for-TV movies? I remember the first being billed as The Ewok Adventure, but some might know it as Caravan of Courage or Cindel and the Ewoks. Whatever you called it, it wasn't very good - even for a made-for-kids flick. The sequel, Ewoks: The Battle for Endor wasn't much better, nor was the Ewoks cartoon (although the Droids cartoon had some cool moments). I'm not one of those haters that tries to claim the Ewoks dragged down Return of the Jedi, but looking back on these two sappy offerings, I almost wish the Empire had won the battle for the green moon.

In the early 2000s the Star Wars machine churned out the first animated Clone Wars series, comprised of a bunch of 5-10 minute shorts that were actually pretty cool. The animated Clone Wars film that assaulted movie theatres a few years later to suck people into watching the new animated series (still currently running, I think) did, in fact, suck. Stinky the Hutt? Really? That takes us to the current Clone Wars TV series, which people seem to enjoy, but I've pointedly ignored because of its poor movie lead-in.

So you can see why I'm looking at this word of new spinoff movies as a possible trick of the Dark Side, rather than welcome additions to the franchise.

Sure, there are plenty of fanboys out there who are probably concentrating as hard as they can, trying to use the Jedi Mind Trick to get The Mouse to make a feature-length Boba Fett movie. Why? So he can stand around looking menacing for a while and then take another nose-dive into an immobile hole in the ground like a punk? Some may be hoping for an adaptation of an expanded universe book or comic. Others may even be crossing their fingers, praying for the Wolfman to get a shot.

I say go for broke. If spinoff movies and shows have a high chance of being lame, then let's wantonly embrace the ridiculousness in the franchise, in hopes of the lame becoming cool. Let's defrost Noa Briqualon from his carbonite slumber in the Lucasfilm vaults, dust the Quaker Oats crumbs from his shirt, and follow the further adventures of Wilford Brimley's character in the sad years after his flight from Endor, when Cindel has grown into an ungrateful and cruel teenager who steals his starcruiser and leaves him penniless on the streets of Tatooine, where he has to sell Teek to an exotic foods restaurant in exchange for passage on a spice freighter, which then is beset by space pirates, which Briqualon has to join, eventually becoming their janitor. How about young Ackmena's adventures as a courtesan on Coruscant before taking over as proprietor of the Cantina on Tatooine? Or the life and times of the droid GNK/Gonk?

Better yet, let's turn the spinoff series over to that mad genius Sean Cullen, who's currently doing a hysterical feature in the closing minutes of recent episodes of his podcast (epis 26-28), the Seanpod, called "Things that are taking place in the Star Wars universe, yet are not in the Star Wars movies" (or variations thereof). You might not see many of the franchise's signature laser blasts or lightsaber battles, but the silly bickering of Cullen's talk-radio hosts on Coruscant or stormtroopers on Tatooine would be worth every penny.

But really, wouldn't the best idea be to shelve the notion of spinoff movies - flicks that would just end up diverting attention from the new trilogy, especially if the spinoffs are bad - and just let the new trilogy do its thing? If it works out, then look at the option of spinoffs for TV, or maybe the movies. But for now, simplicity and focussing just on the trilogy might be the best course if Disney really wants to do a good job with this new hope for the Star Wars franchise.

The Wheel of Time Stops Turning - A Memory of Light

(Here there be spoilers. Eventually. Scroll ahead to the cover pic for the actual review.)

When I read Robert Jordan's The Eye of the World, I had no idea it would be the beginning of a more than 22-year literary journey.

I was in high school and looking for something new to read, so I dropped into Albany Books, the neighbourhood bookstore in Tsawwassen, where I fed my SF addiction in those days. That was back before Chapters (never mind Amazon) rampaged across the country and stamped-out most of the smaller competition, the days when independent stores had well-stocked science fiction and fantasy shelves, the days before media tie-ins began to take up all the room (with the exception of the Robotech novels), when Asimov and Bradbury and Clarke were still alive and spinning good yarns. I don't know how much SF the owner read, but she had a good eye for ordering intelligent and entertaining stock, and I never had trouble finding something good at her place. On this particular day, I'd only been browsing for a minute or two, when she asked if I was interested in trying something new that she'd just got in. She'd never been one to make recommendations before, so I figured I'd see what she had up her sleeve.

It was The Eye of the World.

The teaser on the back was enough to get me. Add the fact that, for a softcover, it was pretty hefty, and this read boded well. After all, at a time when most SF books were 250-450 pages, a fat 782-pager (800 if you count the glossary) seemed to indicate that the story had to be pretty good if the publishers were going to let the author get away with that kind of substantial investment in paper. The cover art was cool too, and, as a bonus, the store owner was giving away promotional bookmarks - as you can see in the photo above, I've still got mine.

When I got home, cracked it open, and started to read the opener about a madman who realizes he's just murdered his family and friends, and then proceeds to tap into some serious magic to not only kill himself and level his castle, but drag a volcano up from the bowels of the world - a story which then cuts to a farmboy who's most likely about to fall into something big (because that's how these stories go), I was hooked. After all, what wasn't to like? A grand adventure, interesting characters, deep-level world-building (down to the intricacies of the clothing fashions), a well-thought-out magic system, monsters, a challenge to defeat evil that is nearly overwhelming but leaves a hope that it's not completely impossible (thanks to the repetitive nature of history driven by the wheel of time), and, unlike many male authors, Jordon seemed to be able to write believable, three-dimensional female characters. Mostly. For the first couple of books, it seemed like he was only able to create two or three different types of women, but at least they were whole individuals, and, over time, he was able to diversify. For my female friends who were SF fans, this was a big deal. As a guy, it wasn't quite as important for me, but it certainly made the characters and story more interesting.

Since then, it's been a long, exciting, and sometimes tiresome quest, following Rand, Perrin, Mat and the others on their adventures, tackling each new gigantic book, and wondering when the whole thing would finally end. Along the way, some of the personal stories about the series have been as memorable for me as the books themselves:

I remember when I moved to Winnipeg, during university, when I was part of a group of friends devouring the Wheel of Time series, I knew a young married couple who could not share. There was no doubt they loved each other, and they certainly shared everything else in their lives, but not the WOT books. They couldn't buy just one book for their household, because neither was willing to let the other go first and wait for him or her to finish. Each had to have their own copy so they could start reading immediately. This continued even when they moved overseas for a couple of years - friends in the group had to mail two copies (and hardcovers, mind you) to them as soon as the newest book in the series came out.

Then there was the winter of 2000, when Winter's Heart and George RR Martin's A Storm of Swords came out at pretty much the same time. I was working as a reporter/anchor at a small radio station on northern Vancouver Island at the time, and as any of you who have worked in the news business know, you don't make a lot of money doing that kind of gig - just enough to pay your rent, fill the gas tank, and eat Kraft Dinner. My then-girlfriend-now-wife and I had driven down to Nanaimo for a little shopping, and before heading home, we went into Chapters so I could grab another book. The first thing I saw, perched high atop the SF shelves, were Jordan and Martin's newest brick-sized tomes, each demanding in excess of $30. Not fair! So, I did what any fanboy would do. I bucked-up, bought both hardcovers, and fought like hell to use the company van at work for the next few weeks so I wouldn't have to fill my own car's gas tank. Which one did I read first when we got home to Courtenay? Martin's A Song of Ice and Fire installment, of course. Save the indignation, WOT fanboys. Jordan was good. Very good. But Martin is genius. And that's a debate for another time.

Along the way, The Wheel of Time books began to drag. Jordan seemed to be losing his steam - he seemed to be dwelling on too many details and spinning too many new plot threads to keep the beast moving at the pace he should have. I began to wonder if the series would ever end, and if it was even possible - or advisable - for him to take it all the way to the Last Battle. I've said it before and I'll say it again: Jordan could have made a reasonable, solid, and satisfying ending if he'd cut things off with the cleansing of the male half of the power at the end of Winter's Heart. That was the single greatest obstacle, and the single greatest achievement in the entire series; second only to Rand's final showdown with the Shadow in A Memory of Light. In fact, I'm even tempted to argue that cleansing the Power was a greater achievement, because with the Wheel being what it is, you pretty much know the outcome of any "last" battle between the forces of good and evil - good will triumph, if perhaps not entirely; cleansing the Power, though, that isn't guaranteed. Not at all. Anyway, it would have been entirely fair to end the series saying now that saidin has been cleansed, Rand et all had some stability in their lives, leaving us secure in the knowledge that they'd use this opportunity to build towards confronting the darkness. It would have made a good ending. Really.

But Jordan kept trundling forward. For a while anyway. Until the sad news of his death. Luckily, he'd known it was coming and planned accordingly for the care of his series. For fans, it wasn't a question of whether The Wheel of Time would be completed - Brandon Sanderson had been brought in to do it, so it would get done. It was a question of whether Sanderson, though accomplished in his own right, could carry Jordan's legacy well. Luckily, for all concerned, he did. In typical Jordan fashion, Sanderson has taken three massive books to get to the point, but he's done a good job with those stories. In fact, at the risk of incurring the wrath of purists, I'll go as far as to say that Sanderson has done a better job with the last three books than Jordan had been doing for a while before his demise. Sanderson has been able to reinvigorate the characters without making them different from the people we've come to know, and he's cracked the whip behind the plot's ass to get it moving at a decent pace again. The end was coming, but it looked like it was going to be the end we'd all been waiting for.

Which brings us to A Memory of Light.

The one good thing I'll say about being off work due to an absolutely brutal case of the flu for two weeks in mid January is that after snagging AMOL while buying more medicine, I was able to devote several days to doing nothing more than plowing through, cover to cover (amidst all the sneezing and coughing and suffering and attendant goo). And it was worth it.

The novel opens with a chapter-long montage: men discarding old allegiances, one of Mat's lieutenants in a desperate fight amidst the fall of Caemlyn, the life of a drudge in the shadow of Shayul Ghul, the Aiel Wise Ones pondering the possible extinction of their people, and so on. From there, a fairly significant portion of the book is devoted to Rand gathering all of his pieces for the final match against the forces of evil. Armies are moved north (even the Ogier come out to fight), the leaders of every nation west of the Aiel Waste (including the Sea Folk, Seanchan, and even the Aiel themselves) sign a pre-emptive post-war peace treaty, the good Asha'man overthrow those who have been corrupted by evil in the Black Tower, Perrin learns some new tricks to use in the dreamtime, and Rand and Egwene finally come to an agreement about the seals on the Dark One's prison. Then, despite the bloodbath that's already been washing across the continent on a tide of Trollocs and Myrddraal, the Last Battle (the actual chapter, The Last Battle, running nearly 200 pages) really begins - across the fields of the north, at the foot of Shayol Ghul, in the dreamtime, and in the minds of Rand and the Dark One themselves.

In general, Brandon Sanderson has given us the spectacular ending to The Wheel of Time that, as a fan, I was hoping for: a gigantic, no-holds-barred, all-in portrayal of the Last Battle, the main characters giving their finest performances, and good triumphs over evil. As though we didn't see that coming.

Like the rest of the series, AMOL takes its time building to its protracted climax. Even though just about everyone has come to the party with (at least deep down) the realization of what has to be done, there's still all kinds of last-minute dickering over details. There are extended moments of reflection. There are a myriad of armed skirmishes and pitched battles on the side before the main event. And Rand has to take the opportunity - about 20 or 30 times - to remind himself, and anyone who'll listen, that he's going to die. Then we're finally ready for the big show. But once it gets there, the book doesn't disappoint. Mostly.

I enjoyed the fact that Rand was finally able to forge an alliance of all parties, and get a commitment to his plan to defeat the Shadow - something that the previous book, Towers of Midnight, for all of its personal triumph in finally giving Rand peace of mind, had very much left in doubt. Getting this support allowed Rand to succeed in a way that Lews Therin couldn't in ages past, proving that while the Wheel turns and ages repeat themselves, there is the possibility for change and improvement - the Pattern can be altered somewhat here and there. As a reader, what made Rand's success in bringing everyone on-side most satisfying was that it wasn't just a simple chorus of "you betcha, boss!" from a bunch of diverse leaders suddenly turned into toadies. Rather, the alliance is built on compromise, and Rand doesn't get things done exactly the way he'd envisioned - he doesn't go into this fight with all the answers, or even the best ones.

This even extends to the climax of the Last Battle itself, where Rand realizes that his plan to utterly destroy the Shadow (rather than re-imprison him) can't work. More importantly, that it shouldn't work - that a world without evil would be as imperfect and unpalatable as a world under a victorious Shadow. Through his extended faceoff of imaginations, Rand has to learn that the best solution is not to seize total victory, but to settle for re-imprisoning the Dark One. And yet here we see the possibility of changing the Pattern just a little, but just enough, when Rand imagines a bigger and better way of sealing the prison than Lews Therin ever did using just saidin. Instead, he embraces all aspects of magic (and symbolically, all of the world - good and evil) by reforging the seals in a new way through the use of saidin and saidar - and the Dark One's own "true power". His plan changes, getting him a better result, and the fact that Rand realizes he has to make the change shows that he's continuing to grow as a person.

If I have a problem with Rand's showdown with the Shadow, it's that it probably went on a little too long. The Dark One tries to break Rand's very essence apart - the first time that's explained, it's probably good enough. No need to keep repeating it. They also repeatedly thrust and parry with imaginations of what could be, but the scenarios seem to drag a bit. Remember, there's not much action taking place here, it's an imagination-off, not a sword fight - it's really just two guys staring at each other, thinking hard. "Did you see the way he thought at that guy?! That was awesome!" So, it's a lot harder to keep momentum going. While I did enjoy this end of the battle, I think Sanderson could have written it a lot tighter.

Getting back to Rand's pre-emptive post-war peace treaty though, I have to say I just loved the solution to the question of the Aiel. I don't know if Sanderson is a Babylon 5 fan, but using the warriors of the Waste as peackeepers to keep the nations from fighting one-another (rather than employing them as anyone's personal, conquering army, like Frank Herbert did with the Fremen in Dune) was a lot like Sheridan's idea to use the Rangers as a police force to keep the members of the Interstellar Alliance peaceable.

Elsewhere on the field of battle, I enjoyed how Sanderson brought back old friends that the series has ignored for a while. How long has it been since we last heard from Loial the Ogier? Bringing him back for a more substantial role than just a cameo, and having his non-human kin join the fight, was a smart way to reinforce how this was a battle for the future of the entire world, not just a threat to the human way of life. It was also nice to see Juilin Sandar the thief-taker again, if only for a minute.

And speaking of people returning, let's not forget the comeback by Artur Hawkwing and his army of dead heroes when the Horn is sounded. One of the scenes that really made me smile in the book was when Mat asks Hawkwing to go and have a word with his wife Tuon (or Fortuona as she's now known), empress of the Seanchan. We have no idea what exactly Mat asks Hawkwing to say to Tuon, who's the hero's many-times removed successor, but given Mat's feelings about the Seanchan superiority complex and the strange and brutal culture they've evolved, you can just imagine. It's equally funny to think about how Tuon would greet Mat after receiving a talking-to from her ancestor, and learning that it was Mat who sent him. It's a sign of Sanderson's confidence and ability that he can give readers just enough to intrigue us, but then leave the questions of what exactly would happen unanswered, without disappointing.

Another testament to Sanderson's skill is a scene about midway through the book, before the Last Battle begins, where Rand and Mat engage in a bit of banter in Tuon's palace garden. One thing I've noticed over the years reading this series is that while Jordan was capable of writing some good dialogue for a variety of types of scenes, there wasn't any banter - no quick, informal, careless, humorous ribbing between two friends. Jordan had his characters confide in one-another, discuss things, complain, threaten, and even fight, but it's taken Sanderson to bring in the good-natured verbal horseplay of banter that has to happen once in a while between two characters for their friendship to be real and believable.

There's also a moment near the end of the Last Battle that shows just how smart this series can be, and how much thought has been put into not only what this world is like, but where it's going. It's what I like to think of as the peek-a-boo cannon scene. While the "dragons" have been effective in plastering the Trollocs on the open field during the fighting, one of the biggest problems faced by Rand's artillery (aside from running out of gunpowder and ammunition) is that they're sitting ducks for attacks by Dreadlords and Forsaken. The badguys ultimately figure out that they need only wait for the cannons to reveal themselves, and then raze them with fire, lightning and balefire. So it's then impressive when the gunners change their tactics and combine their science with magic - using the power to travel to a hidden cave where they won't be detected, then opening gateways into enemy formations and command posts just long enough to blast them before closing the gateways to protect themselves. Combine this with the use of the steamwagons for transporting supplies through the Power-generated gateways at the beginning of the battle, and you can see what direction this civilization is going to take in the years after the victory over the Shadow - places where the products of science and the powers of magic are used together in all manner of ways that will completely change life from what these people have previously known.

But there were a couple of plot points, aside from the afore-mentioned slow pace of Rand's duel with the Shadow, that didn't sit well with me.

One was the length of time that it took for the Seanchan to get into the fight. Sure, part of the delay was a deliberate attempt to make the badguys think Hawkwing's heirs were jamming out, making it all the more effective when they did finally join the fray; and yeah, part of it was cultural in nature: Tuon and the rest obsessing over their omens; and some of it was Tuon playing the court to keep herself on top; and, ultimately, all of this was a writing device to create tension for the reader; but, really, Sanderson dragged his heels a bit too long in deciding when to break out the Seanchan. Tapping them a little bit earlier would have been just as effective for creating the level of tension he was trying to achieve, while at the same time making their role in the battle more believable. Waiting as long as they did, allowing the rest of the armies to sustain such catastrophic losses, especially with the arrival of the Sharans on the side of evil, just wasn't believable. You can argue that Tuon might have done this deliberately, calculating that letting her allies take this kind of horrific loss would allow for the Seanchan to have an easier time breaking the peace treaty post-victory and rolling over hopelessly weakened nations in a bid to take over the world. Or you might say that she had to hold off that long to make her surprise attack truly effective. But that doesn't quite wash, because she'd also have to know that if she waited too long to join the fight, the enemy might gain too much momentum for her to overcome, and too many key assets could have been destroyed, and that having some allies with numbers and strength left to help her would be better than having allies that are nearly crippled, or wiped-out entirely. And as far as how effective the timing of the Seanchan surprise attack was, they only needed to wait for the Sharans to come in. Once that happened, the Seanchan could have effectively pounced on the Sharans from behind, throwing the new enemies into chaos. Waiting as long as the Seanchan did was not a means of enhancing their attack, it was a blunder that should have cost them the war. This seems to be a pattern across the entire series, under both Jordan and Sanderson, of pacing things out so carefully and deliberately, and slowly, that some plot points are ultimately too slow to be entirely satisfying or believable.

Then there's the issue of Egwene's death. How is it, with all the terrible forces poured into the crucible of two battlefields, with all of the showdowns between powerful characters, with all of the badguys outnumbering the goodguys and possessing superior strength, that Egwene was the only primary character to die? And don't give me any crap about Rhuarc or Elayne's brothers buying the farm. They were secondary characters, and on a stage like this, that's what secondary characters do: they die by the score to ratchet up the tension, to cause emotional pain to the primary characters, and to give the primary characters extra opportunities and emotional ammunition/inspiration to win. But killing-off primary characters, that shows how high the stakes really are. That shows that victory comes with a price. And considering how many primary characters we've got at this point, and how completely the odds are stacked against them in battles that leave hundreds of thousands dead, it's utterly shocking that, with the exception of Egewene, they all make it out. Let's run the numbers: Rand faces-off against the Shadow itself, and lives; Perrin battles Slayer in and out of the dreamtime and wins; Mat hacks his way through armies, then knifes Fain in the middle of his death cloud, and lives; Nynaeve's hunkered down at the edge of the Shadow himself, and she walks outta there; Moiraine pulls a Gandalf and comes back, also plays Occupy Shadow Street with Nynaeve, and walks outta there; Lan takes an abdominal wound fighting one of the Foresaken and somehow seems to survive out of sheer coolness; Elayne, massively pregnant, exhausted and drawing dangerously from the power, goes charging around the battlefield where any number of things should have killed her, and nearly gets carved open like a Christmas turkey, but manages to survive - and not suffer a miscarriage; Loial is axe-deep in Trollocs and Fades and who knows what else on the the front-lines of the battle, and survives - with a song on his lips and an obsession with recording things for posterity, no less; Aviendha fights all kinds of nastiness - including one of the Foresaken - with weapons and magic in front of Shayol Ghul, and, though she'll be on crutches for the rest of her life, she survives to look forward to sweatlodge stich-and-bitch sessions with the other Aiel Wise Ones, and dalliances with a Moridin-faced Rand; Faile fights through all kinds of foes, and gets buried under them, but somehow manages to survive; Min goes through the battle without getting killed; and Tuon escapes with nothing more than a stern talking-to from the ghost of her long dead ancestor Artur Paendrag Hawkwing (unless we consider the possibilities that arise from Jordon's penchant for spanking as a frequent punishment in the series). And we're supposed to believe that only Egwene dies? Really? And yet, miraculously, this seems to be the case. The decision to kill her off, instead of someone else, or several someones, seems pretty arbitrary. Arbitrary enough that, I hate to say it, I have to wonder if Sanderson just put a bunch of names in a hat and randomly drew one out as a means of deciding who would be the sacrificial lamb amongst the primary characters. Maybe I've become too cynical over the years, maybe I've become more inclined to the darker, more realistic rendering of battle and struggle and adventure that Martin gives in his Song of Ice and Fire series, but it just seems to me that you can't have this many characters face these kinds of odds, ta'veren or not, without the cast paying a higher, bloodier price. At least we can say that if Egwene is to be the sole sacrificial lamb, she died well. She died kicking ass and in a blaze of glory.

Then there's Rand. Did anyone else feel cheated by Rand surviving his final battle with the Dark One, then doing a body swap and skipping off down the road in Moridin's skin? Again, I'll admit to getting a little bloodthirsty in my old age, and coming to believe that if a character's going to take on a messianic role, than he's probably got to actually sacrifice his life - his actual life, not merely the role he's playing in life - to bring about the real and lasting change to the world that he's trying to accomplish. But there also seems to be something fundamentally wrong about having the guy who's led people to a conflict where most of them (except for the primary characters - 'cause it's okay for little people to suffer and die, but not the powerful, the titled, the important people) get slaughtered, somehow emerging essentially unscathed himself and getting the opportunity to flounce down the road and build a life where he can do whatever he wants to, rather than having to bear the burden of helping to rebuild a world that he played a hand in overturning. Yeah. Great. Sure, I'll be the first to admit there's no fairness in life, but the unfairness of it in this story certainly leaves a bit of a sour taste in my mouth. And don't tell me that Rand's already suffered enough and earned some respite, because hasn't everyone else? Precious few got a second chance in the Last Battle, and few will get it in the hard days of rebuilding to come. Aside from there being something unfair and irresponsible about Rand assuming a new face and quietly slipping away, there's also something deeply cruel about what he does. Think about what he's putting the people who care about him through - those who (unlike Elayne, Aviendha and Min) don't know about his little trick, and actually think he's dead. Perrin and Mat seem to be able to brush Rand's supposed death off fairly easily, but what about Tam and anyone else from the Two Rivers who liked the boy who grew up in their midst, who feel terrible about the loss their friend Tam has to endure? I've lived in small communities like that, and I'll tell you that whoever it is, when there's a death of someone, especially a young person, who's liked, and who's family is liked, the people in that community really hurt. Remember the funeral scene with Tam in tears? It was well-enough written that even though I knew what was going on (because just a few pages earlier, if you've ever seen E.T., you knew exactly what was afoot when the healers in the tent mentioned how Rand's condition was declining, but the stranger - Moridin - he'd been found with was improving at a corresponding rate), I felt really bad for Tam. And then I gave my head a shake and reminded myself that Rand had pulled the old switcheroo,  swapped his consciousness into Moridin's body, and that he wasn't really dead. And then I felt pissed off on Tam's behalf, because Tam doesn't know Rand is alive. As far as Tam knows, his boy, who he raised and loved, is dead. Tam's mourning and pain are, really, for nothing. What a good son. It's a cheap shot for Rand to be punking his loving father like that. Makes him less of a hero, and more of a self-centred dick. And if the writing of the funeral scene didn't sucker you into feeling bad for Tam like I did, then it's a testament to the mistake in writing that Sanderson made by including that trick - you should feel bad for Tam, and if you didn't, it's because the knowledge that Rand was really alive completely robbed the scene of its emotional impact, thus making it a waste of time. Although, when you're already running in excess of 800 pages, what's a few more pages that don't have any effect?

And yet, for all of that, I certainly didn't hate the end of AMOL. It wasn't enough to make me dislike the book or the series. On the whole, I really enjoyed this book - I wouldn't have devoured it as quickly as I did unless it was largely well-written and an entertaining tale. Someday, I can see myself rereading the entire Wheel of Time series again. This certainly wasn't the best end that A Memory of Light could have, but, as the series so often reiterates, in a world yoked to a repeating cycle of events, it was an end.