Saturday, January 31, 2015

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, January 29, 2015

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

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


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

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

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

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


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

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

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


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

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

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

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


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

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

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

Sunday, January 25, 2015

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, January 21, 2015

Surrendering to the Inevitable

Well, it's done.

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, January 20, 2015

Saturday Morning Cartoons - When Hollywood Shamelessly Cashed-In

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, January 18, 2015

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

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



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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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


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

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

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

Sunday, January 11, 2015

Saturday Morning Cartoons - Science Fiction Shows that Felt Like Fantasy

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Awful Task of Throwing Out a Book

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A New Year: Looking Ahead, Looking Behind

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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