Tuesday, September 18, 2007

The "Eye of the World" Closes - Farewell to Robert Jordan

I got the word the other day on SF Signal that Robert Jordan has died. Author of the hugely popular “Wheel of Time” fantasy series, Jordan also wrote several Conan novels among other works.
Robert Jordan’s real name was James Oliver Rigney, Jr., although he also wrote under Reagan O’Neill. He’d been battling cancer for a while and died on Sunday at his home in Charleston, South Carolina. He was 58.
I never read the Conan books or his other novels. I was strictly a “Wheel of Time” fan.
I remember quite clearly being introduced to the books shortly after they were released. I was a teenager, browsing the SF section of my small, independent local bookshop (remember those?), when the owner, who was used to seeing me come in every other week or so to buy something, said: “How would you like to try something new? This one, ‘The Wheel of Time’. I’m hearing a lot of good things about it.” Not one to pass up the advice of a trusted bookseller, I bought it. I still have that paperback copy, as well as the promotional bookmark for the series that she handed me.
Another fond memory is from my university years, when I was living in Winnipeg, and a bunch of us were avidly devouring each new installment. I remember long summer evenings as some of us strolled along lapping at cones and other treats from DBI Ice Cream and discussions about what this plot line was pointing to, or what the ramifications of that decision, word or action might be. Two of those friends, Jim and Selena, a married couple just back from teaching English in Japan, were so determined to read the books as soon as they were released that they couldn’t share a single copy for their household – they had to buy two copies – one for each of them.
It was a series began explosively with “The Eye of the World” and gradually started to get too slow as book after book was released and there was still seemingly no end in sight. The books started to loose their imagination and intensity and could have used a firm hand on the editor’s pen. I think it ought to have ended with “Winter’s Heart” and the cleansing of the male half of The Source. That would have been the logical finale. That being said, I did enjoy the later additions to the series and would have stuck with it until Jordan was ready to write the closing chapter.
Now, like everyone else, I wonder if the publishers will leave the series where it is, or if Jordan left behind enough in the way of notes for another author to wrap things up.
At any rate, thank you, Robert/James.

Conversion to Geekdom

A line was crossed the other day in our house. A point beyond which there is no turning back. My wife has finally admitted she is a geek.
Oh, the signs were always there – she’s had a fondness for video games and the latest techno toys ever since she moved to Canada as a teen. She’s watched many sci-fi movies like “Serenity” and enjoyed them immensely. But so do a lot of people who we wouldn’t normally consider to be geeks. But more signs have started to creep in over the past few years. She now watches a number of sci-fi TV shows, including “Dr. Who”, “Heroes” and “Battlestar Galactica”. Sure, she started watching because I had them on, but now she seeks them out on her own and is rather put out if she misses episodes. She’s also started to read SF. Traditionally, she’s a mystery fan, which is fine, but a while back, she picked up one of my Bradbury books, and now and again she’ll venture into other strange territories on my sci-fi bookshelves.
You could have said she was a geek at that point, but there was one crucial last step she had to take to reach the conversion threshold. That happened two weeks ago when she came with me to White Dwarf Books one afternoon. Glancing at the stacks, her eye caught on a copy of Rob Grant’s newest: “Fat” (okay, not the best piece of the genre ever written, but it’s sci-fi, so I’m not complaining). She read the back cover, flipped through the pages, brought it up to the counter and bought it herself.
All without any comment, suggestion or otherwise interference from me.
And that’s the important milestone, when a soon-to-be-geek takes that first step without any outside influence to actively pursue and purchase a sci-fi book. It’s an internal admission of the worthiness of sci-fi and a motivation that will continue at its own pace.
I just stood there and watched in quietly amused triumph. I felt like Darth Vader would have if Luke had crossed over to the Dark Side.
Oh sure, she denied the change when we got home. She fought it and fumed and made up excuses like anyone who doesn’t want to acknowledge a long-buried lifestyle truth. Finally though, this past Sunday, she came out of the closet. Sure, her admission was piled high with blame focused squarely at me, but it was an admission none-the-less.
“Honey,” she said, “You’ve turned me into a geek.”
Ah, sweet satisfaction!

Sunday, September 09, 2007

"You keep trying to take over the world."

The above sentence pops up in Austin Grossman’s “Soon I Will Be Invincible” more often than the book’s title phrase does. Odd for a book that spends half its time tailing the bad guy, but revealing.
Part of the book details the exploits of Dr. Impossible, malevolent scientist extraordinaire, as he escapes from a special prison for supervillains and resumes his quest for world domination. The other plot revolves around cyborg superhero Fatale as she tries to find a place among a top-ranking team of crimefighters and prove her worth.
On its simplest level, Grossman’s novel is quietly funny as we get a rather sympathetic look at the life of an evil villain. Following Impossible through his various tasks to get bits and pieces or arcania for his evil devices reminded me at times of the megalomaniac lab-mouse Brain, from Warner Brothers’ “Pinky and the Brain” (one of the best cartoons, ever), who, every night, went to great lengths to get what he needed to “Try to take over the world!!!” And while reading the litany of Impossible’s run-down of failed inventions and alliances were supposed to help him achieve world domination, it occurred to me that the best music for a soundtrack for this segment would be Sean Cullen’s viciously funny “Food of Choice” (where the comedian solicits favourite foods from the audience and describes in a supervillain persona how he will arrange to have the food of their choice end their lives). In fact, food is about the only thing Impossible didn’t use as a weapon.
As Dr. Impossible talks candidly about the hardships of being an enemy of society and reminisces about his past glories, his mantra of “You keep trying to take over the world” comes up several times, but not in the usual places where an arch villain would drop such a line.
For most comic, sci-fi, or James Bond ultra bad guys, it would be a totally different statement, something along the lines of “Now I’m going to take over the world!” (insert maniacal cackling), delivered at the threshold of victory or during the torment of a hero. For Dr. Doom, Lex Luthor, Baron Vladimir Harkonnen, Ming the Merciless, Max Zorin, Dr. Evil, or Chairface Chippendale, this would be a triumphant fact (at least in their own minds) carved in thousand metre-high letters upon the walls of destiny.
But for Impossible, the resolute statement of his code doesn’t come up in the heat of battle. Rather, it’s associated more often with the good – er, bad Doctor’s repeated defeats, shamings and general setbacks. It’s a bolstering of self-confidence for a man who knows, and occasionally openly admits, he’s doomed to always lose. As he comes up with one wacky scheme after another and tilts Quixotically towards another near-win, it’s a reaffirmation of who he is at heart – someone who keeps trying, despite the odds and despite what experience has empirically shown. This is a heart-felt sentence that is confided as part of a journal or on-going documentary interview (either internal or actual), and thus personal and quiet, not something flung at an enemy as some sort of taunt or war cry.
Grossman borrows a trick from Milton’s “Paradise Lost” playbook by making the story’s villain one of his protagonists. The fact that Grossman takes it even further and makes Impossible a somewhat sympathetic character (he’s clearly a nut, a megalomaniac and a potential killer, but it’s hard not to pity the nerdy little guy who respects his elders, appreciates fine workmanship, studies hard and who used to get picked on by the cool kids) might also indicate some influence from William Thackeray’s portrayal of Becky Sharp in “Vanity Fair”.
But what makes the novel most interesting is how the story of Fatale parallels Impossible’s. She’s the new superhero on the block, trying to navigate the perilous waters of the relationships among The Champions, the elite team that fights the forces of evil. She has to put up with her colleagues suffering marital problems, mild learning disabilities and alcoholism, among other issues, as well as in-fighting that would put high school hallway antics to shame. All of this on top of the fact that being a cyborg makes Fatale incapable of having anything resembling a normal life (including intimacy). In a world where having super powers should make you the coolest of the cool, the pairing of Impossible and Fatale makes “Soon I Will Be Invincible” a story of outsiders.
Interesting too is that there is no “Revenge of the Nerds” in this story – Impossible doesn’t win (not much of a spoiler to reveal that – he’s a villain in a stereotypical superhero’s world) and let’s face it, doesn’t even really fit in with the other supervillains (the bar scene reminded me of some of the episodes of “The Tick” – another of the best cartoons ever), and Fatale doesn’t win a hunky dude’s heart and rise to fame and glory. There is no triumph for these two aside from survival and introspection: Impossible’s still alive and determined to keep trying; Fatale has proven her mettle (pun intended) in a tough situation and begins to come to terms with her own inner demons. In a totally unrealistic universe, it’s a realistic ending – as in our world, the little guys generally only get small victories, while the aces on top usually stay on top.
Because of this, it would be tempting to invoke the old cliché and say that Impossible and Fatale are opposite sides of the same coin. Certainly both are damaged individuals. Both are on the outside. But there’s a significant difference between the two that shows Fatale has actually come out on top: Impossible comes full circle – ending up incarcerated and plotting his next escape and means to achieving supremacy – exactly where he was in the opening pages of the novel; Fatale, on the other hand, has learned an important lesson from another alienated soul – Lily, who has been both a hero and a villain. Lily refuses to allow herself to be boxed into a specific definition or role and has little use for the squabblings of the in-crowd. In fact, by walking away from it all, she shows Fatale that the cyborg can take ultimate power by being the one to define herself and by following her own heart. There is some sense that Fatale realizes this, and thus has moved beyond Impossible, who is imprisoned not by chains or walls, but by his accepted role within the system. Impossible becomes more than a name for this villain, it represents his chances of escape from his circumstances.
As novels set in superhero universes go, “Soon I Will Be Invincible” makes the perfect sidekick for Minister Faust’s “From the Notebooks of Dr. Brain”. Grossman’s individual-focused story, with its exploration of alienation and personalities coping with their past and present circumstances, compliments Faust’s tale that tackles broader issues like the self-help industry and celebrity psychiatrists, the price of ego, and the cover-up of the truth and propagation of lies to advance personal, political and corporate agendas.
The irony about “Soon I Will Be Invincible” is that like a superhero, it tries to hide its secret identity. Given the setting, this is most definitely a science fiction story, but you won’t find it on the SF shelves in your local bookstore (at least not in this neck of the woods), no, it’s under cover in the regular/non-genre fiction section, like Clark Kent with his suit and glasses on, blending with the mundane citizens of Metropolis. That is, until there’s a crisis, until someone buys the book and opens it and realizes (whether they want to admit it or not), it’s not human, it’s superpowered alien – it’s really sci-fi! I wonder if the publishers (who no doubt insist it be placed with the “normal” fiction) get it?

Saturday, September 08, 2007

Battlestar Merchandisica - the Techie Invasion

TV techies have invaded a local comic store, and they are here for merchandise – their own.
I was moseying through the Brentwood Town Centre in Burnaby today on my lunch break. It’s near my new workplace and it’s been a couple of years since I’d been in that particular mall. I was pleasantly surprised to find a comic and gaming store, Comic Land (part of a small local chain), nestled up on the second floor. It hadn’t been there the last time I was in, so I decided to check it out. Had a nice conversation with the manager and found out that location had opened only about a month ago.
But a month has been more than enough time to stage an invasion.
While poking through the various figurines, models and toys I asked the intrepid merchant if he had any of the Titanium line of Battlestar Galactica ships. I’ve been looking for the Galactica itself for months, but haven’t been able to find it (or any of the other ships released in the line, for that matter). Yeah, I know I could probably find a couple of vendors on e-bay within a few seconds and feed my fanboy fetish, but I’d rather buy from a store around here – support the local guy who’s busting his hump, ya know?
This is where it gets interesting… The manager confides that he hasn’t been able to keep them on the shelves. Not because of lineups of ardent fanboys peeling themselves away from their TV sets to venture out into the strangeness of sunlight on an odyssey of toy-buying (like yours truly). Oh no. The Battlestar toys are getting scooped-up by the crew who work on the set of the show just down the road at the Vancouver Film Studios. Seems they descend on the joint like locusts (and have even been known to phone in beforehand) on a very regular basis to buy up all the merchandise they can get their hands on.
I guess it’s good for this guy’s business, but what about the rest of us? First come, first serve I guess.
Makes me wonder why they’re doing it.
Is it because the crew themselves are huge fans of the show? And why not? Seeing it from the inside, they must know they’re part of a good thing and may have an affection for something they’re crafting that no mere viewer can match.
Is it because they want some memento of the show because it’s going to end soon and they’re too straight-laced or cautious to bother snatching a souvenir from the set?
Or, more cynically, is this an investment? Knowing how great Battlestar is, and knowing it’s coming to an end, and knowing how devoted fans can be, are they sucking up all the merchandise in an effort to corner the market? Are they taking possession of all the, well, possessions so that they can sit on the ships and figures and whatnot for a while, let the fan nostalgia – and the merchandise value build, then sell it all for a bundle and put their kids through college or pay for a trip to Cuba? Think of the value if they could get the merchandise signed by cast members. If that’s their game, I can’t really say as I blame them. I mean, there’s not a lot of difference between the collectibles market and antiques or the stock market. It’s just, I do kind of blame them ‘cause I’d like to buy one myself.
Or is there another reason that hasn’t occurred to me? (entirely likely)
Maybe one of these days I’ll get lucky and wander in sometime just after the new stock has arrived, and just before the crew who shoot the show that inspires it.

Fleeing from the studio techie purchasing tyranny, a Battlestar fanboy, bloginhood, continues on a lonely quest – a shining collectible, known as the Titanium series.

Aurora Nominations

The list of the finalists nominated for the Canadian Science Fiction and Fantasy Association’s Aurora Awards is out.
Unfortunately, I can’t say I’ve read any of the finalists for best long-form work in English (released in 2006) – yet. I am glad, however, that R. Scott Bakker’s steaming pile “The Thousandfold Thought” didn’t make it onto the roster.
The short stuff on the other hand… I’m really glad James Alan Gardner’s “All the Cool Monsters at Once” made the final ballot. And yeah, it was one of the ones I voted for. As for the others, I’ve read Karin Lowachee’s “This Ink Feels Like Sorrow” and Hayden Trenholm’s “Lumen Essence”, but ‘Ink doesn’t stick out in my mind at all and my impression of ‘Lumen was a resounding “meh”. Didn’t read Rob Sawyer or John Mierau’s yarns.
Looking forward to seeing who takes the win at Vcon 32/Canvention 27 here in town in October.

Thursday, September 06, 2007

Late Review: "Stardust"

Warning: minor spoilers (spoilage factor: a banana with a couple of brown spots)

Okay, so it’s been longer since my last post than it takes for George R. R. Martin to write an installment in the “A Song of Ice and Fire” series, but a lot’s been going on. I’ve jumped ship to a new job and the past few weeks have been the usual period of adjustment - not the least of which is re-setting my internal clock to regular work week hours instead of the somewhat later day I used to keep at the old place. Not being able to stay up as late is probably the single biggest reason for my blogging tardiness. And then there’s the other usual stuff going on: domestic life with the wife, catching up with old friends, etc. At any rate, for what little it’s worth, I’m back.
So a few weeks ago we caught “Stardust”. What a great film! My wife and I were completely captivated throughout the entire show.
Based on a Neil Gaiman novel, the movie centres around our young hero Tristan (played by Charlie Cox), who crosses an ancient wall, leaving England behind and entering a magical realm on a quest to find a fallen star and bring it home to impress the girl he loves. He arrives at the impact crater to find the star is a beautiful young woman named Yvaine (Claire Danes) who has ideas of her own about where she’s going. But that doesn’t deter Tristan, who binds the star with a magical cord and starts for home. Along the way, they’re beset by witches in search of youth and beauty, conniving princes and air pirates. And, not surprisingly, Tristan eventually grows to realize his true love isn’t the girl he’d originally had his eyes on.
Perhaps the finest complement that can be paid to “Stardust” came from Michael Marano in his Sci Fi Weekly review: that this movie has the same wit, energy and charm as “The Princess Bride”. In fact, though Gaiman’s story is original, they’re alike enough in setting and feeling that you could believe that Westley and Buttercup might invite Tristan and his love over for a merry dinner party one evening.
One of the big checkmarks this film earns is director Matthew Vaughn’s ability to find big name stars who are also top-notch actors (because the two aren’t always the same) who can confine themselves to playing solid roles as supporting characters. Robert De Niro does a masterful job in playing a secondary cast member who doesn’t scene-steal when he’s not supposed to, but who shines when the time is right. His Captain Shakespeare, air pirate and lightening harvester, is a screamingly funny synthesis of “Space Battleship Arcadia’s” Captain Harlock and the Robin Williams and Nathan Lane characters from “The Birdcage”.
And Michelle Pfeiffer does an equally impressive job of playing the witch Lamia. It takes a lot of guts and a hell of a sense of humour for a beautiful but aging actress to play a powerful woman who tries to maintain her fair looks longer than she should and has to watch them disintegrate with alarming rapidity. In playing a sorceress this time around, Pfeiffer is nowhere near the cute, pregnant-at-the-drop-of-a-hat New Englander she did in “The Witches of Eastwick” – this time she’s got a mean streak big enough to let her teach former costar Jack Nicholson a thing or two about black magic. And you can tell she’s enjoying every minute of it.
The movie’s charms are present in so many other ways as well, from the Three Stooges-like ghostly brothers to the touching backstory of Tristan’s father.
And the special effects are used with perfect flourish: the sky ship, the castle and the magic are all impressive eye candy, but they never detract from the story or the characters. George Lucas needs to study this movie carefully, to learn that deftly-used special effects should leave an audience feeling that they’re merely another background part of the world being presented, not its focal point.
As “The Princess Bride” revitalized the fairy tale when it came out in the 80’s, “Stardust” has kindled the torch high again for another generation.