Friday, October 26, 2018

Invaders From Planet 3 - Ep 23 - Mark Barrowcliffe

Author Mark Barrowcliffe (also known under his pen names MD Lachlan and Mark Alder) joins us in this episode.

Mark tells us about his first loves in sf, including Alan Garner, Ursula K Le Guin's Earthsea series, Tolkien, Moorcock, and Andre Norton. He talks about his enjoyment of Tolkien and Garner injecting mythology into their fantasy, and Moorcock's ability to challenge his readers by posing difficult questions.

When discussing his own writing, Mark reflects on the exhilaration of letting his characters tell their own story, and how this helps when writing characters that come from different backgrounds than his own. He also shares his thoughts on how his experiences practicing boxing, martial arts and fencing give him insight into the scariness of fighting, and how youthful experimentation with hallucinogenic drugs provided inspiration for writing the unreality of a werewolf's state of mind. And he talks about using the trappings of fantasy in storytelling without descending into escapism, and why it's important to refuse to impose modern sensibilities on characters from other periods in history.

We talk at length about his latest — and final — instalment in the Wolfsangel series, The Night Lies Bleeding. He discusses the difficulties of writing a story set partially in a Nazi concentration camp, his research into some of the prisoners who were kept there, and the story's exploration of the problems faced by characters who try to maintain a distance from the world, and who descend into evil.

We also chat about Mark's experiences with Dungeons & Dragons: from his teenaged years dealing with trolls both in and out of the game's quests, dressing for the part, his ruminations on that period of his life in his book The Elfish Gene, and returning to roleplaying years later.

And Mark gives us some hints about the latest story he's working on: a swashbuckling fantasy about a female fencer in the court of Versailles, inspired by the adventures of a real woman known for her duelling victories and romances.

Our interview took place in June 2018 via a Skype connection between Mark's home in Brighton, UK, and my studios in the Lair of bloginhood, currently located in a century-old, unused plantation irrigation tunnel in a mountain on Kauai.

You can find Mark's books under his various pen names at your local bookstore.

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

Let the Invasion begin!

Tuesday, October 16, 2018

Invaders From Planet 3 - Ep 22 - Sean Cullen

Comedian, author, podcaster and performer Sean Cullen joins the Invasion for this episode. Sean talks about how his love for speculative fiction started with works such as Tolkien's The Hobbit, Mr Bass's Planetoid by Eleanor Cameron, Stephen R Donaldson's Lord Foul's Bane, and Asimov's Foundation and Robot stories. We discuss the ups and downs of following a series, especially a long-running collection. And he talks about what makes a good story.

Sean and I dissect the Star Wars franchise, especially the prequel trilogy and the latest stand-alone focussing on Han Solo. We also talk about Space 1999 and Star Trek, and how science fiction is often a product of its time, and whether it's possible to go back to and enjoy your first loves in the genre. We then get into a discussion of more recent favourite books, including the works of Neal Stephenson, Dan Simmons, and Kim Stanley Robinson. And we reminisce about the madcap fun of The Hilarious House of Frightenstein.

We also talk about the books Sean has written for kids, including Hamish X and the Cheese Pirates and The Prince of Neither Here Nor There, as well as a superhero-themed novel he's currently writing for adult audiences. And Sean shares his thoughts on occasionally working science fiction references into his stand-up comedy.

Our interview took place in June 2018 via a Skype call between Sean's headquarters aboard The Seanpod, currently drifting along the bottom of James Bay, and my studio in the Lair of bloginhood, located in a sumptuous beach house on the shores of a methane lake on Saturn's moon Titan.

Find out more about Sean Cullen, his books, and his comedy albums on his website:

Listen to episodes of The Seanpod on his podcasting page:

Watch Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs on TV or YouTube.

And check the listings at your local comedy club to see when he'll be performing in your town.
To listen to Invaders From Planet 3, or subscribe, visit LibsyniTunes, Stitcher, Overcast and Spotify. Be sure to rate and review the show while you're there!

Let the Invasion begin!

Sunday, October 07, 2018

VCon 2018 - Day 3 - Turkeys for Turkey Day

As the man once sang: I hurt myself today.

No, there was nothing involving a needle or other methods of substance abuse. This was a different kind of voluntary destruction of lives. This was the Turkey Readings. But I'm getting ahead of myself.

Day 3 of VCon (which was also this year's host for Canvention — Canada's national speculative fiction convention): the sleepy Sunday when the fun is slowly, reluctantly, wearily grinding to a halt and people start to head home — some faster than others in order to make it to early Thanksgiving dinners with family (technically, the holiday is tomorrow, but a lot of Canadian families get it out of the way on Sunday so that we've got Monday to rest, rather than wrestling with a feast and guests all day and then having to return to work or school on Tuesday completely exhausted). I arrived around 1:30 to meet someone, but plans changed, so I had a little time on my hands and wandered around a bit. Today's attire: a Flynn's Arcade t-shirt from Uber Torso, and, yes, one person wandering by did get the Tron reference and gave it the nod of approval.

And today I actually managed to take in some programming! I caught the "I'm In Love With The Villain" panel, which, fairly obviously, discussed villains in sf (and pop culture in general, and history) and why we love them, or love to watch them or read about them even if we hate them. A lively and thoughtful discussion from the panel, as well as the audience. In fact, I give those at the front of the room a lot of credit for striking the perfect balance between their own panel pontifications and audience participation. It kept everyone engaged and entertained. Bonus points for this panel: unrelated to their topic, they mentioned that the West Coast Science Fiction Association (which runs VCon) had published an anthology this year as a fundraiser, something that I don't recall hearing about during the opening ceremonies (and, to be fair, maybe I just didn't catch it, and I probably looked right past the book when I was walking through the dealers' room this weekend), so I had to rush over to the dealers' room once the session wrapped up to snag a copy. Edited by Ellen Michelle, it's called Power: In the Hands of One, In the Hands of Many. I think putting out an anthology to help fund the con is a great idea, and I hope it's sold enough copies over the weekend to support more volumes in the future. Now we'll have to see how it reads!

After that, I linked-up with author Charles Stross (one of the con's Guests of Honour) to interview him for the Invaders From Planet 3 podcast. We covered topics ranging from the influence of Britain's "dysfunctional society" in the 1970s and 80s on its science fiction, to how his experience working in large, bureaucratic organizations affected his stories. Stay tuned for that episode in December.

Then it was time for the pain.

Why do I go to the goddamn Turkey Readings session every year? Why? In Return of the Jedi, C-3P0 warns Luke, Han and Chewie that they're in for "a new definition of pain and suffering" as they're "slowly digested over a thousand years" in the sarlacc pit. That prospect has nothing on VCon's Turkey Readings. While this exercise in psychological torture and masochism may not actually last a millennium, it damn near feels like it. If your local con has nothing like this, then it may be a good idea to read the following description so you'll be forewarned and can use any means necessary — up to and including a full nuclear strike — to prevent this painful travesty from ever being replicated by your fan organization, or anyone else in the universe for that matter. It goes like this: three or four panelists sit at a table at the front of the room with a pile of books. These are terrible books. Some of the worst culled from the history of the genre, usually by unremembered authors, but sometimes by big names who are still talked about. But make no mistake: these tomes are abominations. They contain truly painful writing, cliched plots, and ridiculous characters. The panelists divvy-up the pile, then one will start reading a selected story aloud. Did I mention the actors? Oh yes, this is more than just an assault on the brain through the ears. They attack your eyes too. Volunteers in the audience come up to the front to "act" out the scenes as they're being read. Their performances are enthusiastic, but on the same level of quality as the writing that inspires them. Deliberately. As the story unfolds, the ridiculousness of the writing and the antics of the volunteer actors drive the audience into fits of laughter. But, really, can we say this is the laughter prompted by something truly funny, or is this the helpless braying of once-intelligent minds being driven into the putrid, hairy armpit of madness? The latter, I think. If there's any redeeming virtue to all of this, it's that the victims in the audience can open their wallets and make bids to stop the pain. Of course, this is often just a trick to give the audience victims a false sense of hope, because others among the crowd (having the last vestiges of their sanity finally shredded away) can pay more money to keep the agony going! This auction of insanity goes on intermittently until finally some desperate soul can throw down enough money to make it stop once and for all. But then, of course, the next panelist picks up his/her chosen book, and begins to administer a new round of psychological annihilation, and those of us who have wandered into this circus of pain clutch out seats, vainly waiting for a financial hero to rise from among our number to buy a few minutes of respite. The positive side to the whole affair is that the money raised at the Turkey Readings goes to the Canadian Unity Fan Fund, which pays to bring a selected fan from one part of the country to a Canvention in another province in the interests of creating bonds of friendship among fans around Canada. Maybe that's why I keep inflicting this experience on myself year after year. I'll never be one of the fans who's a part of this exchange, but I certainly support the idea, and I usually put a couple of bucks in the pot every year to help out — and to, mostly unsuccessfully, try to put an end to whatever reading is being thrown at me in the moment. Of course, there's another explanation: maybe I keep going back to the Turkey Readings because they've been successful in permanently damaging my brain. Maybe I've been driven so far beyond rational thought that I can't help returning to the scene of the crime again and again — maybe it's become just as important a part of my Thanksgiving tradition to suffer through the Turkey Readings as it is to eat turkey dinner. Gobble, gobble, gobble...

VCon 2018 - Day 2 - More Conversations than Conference-Going

Can you really say you've spent a day at a con if you've hardly taken-in any programming? Yes. Yes you can.

Today was a day like that for me at VCon. I arrived at noon(ish — I mean, hey, come on, it's me! How often have I ever shown my mug before the crack of lunch?), and spent the whole day there, but only took in one thing that was on the con schedule. The rest of the time I spent talking with people. And it was great! Sure, there were a bunch of panel sessions I would have like to have attended, and they would have been interesting and entertaining, but I think I had a better time shooting the breeze with people here and there throughout the venue. Some people would call that a "bar con" (where a person registers for a convention, but ends up spending the whole thing camped-out in the hotel bar yakking with whoever drifts in), and fair enough, though I didn't step foot inside the hotel restaurant/bar today. Maybe a lounge con? A courtyard con? A hallway con? Call it what you will, it was a good day.

I started things off catching up with Kristi Charish. I was just finishing lunch when she walked by and stopped to talk for a while. We ended up having an interesting discussion about the state of self-publishing versus traditional publishing, and all of the permutations in between that have popped up in recent years. She also shared a little info about her upcoming instalment in the Voodoo series. Later, part of me thought it would have made a good podcast episode. But you know what? Sometimes it's nice just to leave the iPad/recorder off and shoot the breeze. Enjoy the easy conversations that just kind of happen. That's part of what makes sf conventions so great.

Next I met up with James Alan Gardner to do an interview for the Invaders From Planet 3 podcast (stay tuned for that episode in about a month!). I've been a fan of his work going back to the Northern Stars Canadian sf anthology back in the mid-1990s, and his recent superhero novel, All Those Explosions Were Someone Else's Fault, was a glorious, fun, superhero/supernatural mashup that had a lot of heart. Jim's another good person to sit down and chat with, and I think you'll enjoy our conversation as much as I did.

A little wandering around then, and I drifted back into the dealers' room where I spent some time gazing wistfully at some of the Roman and Anglo Saxon items an antiquarian vendor had on display, and talking with him about history and how things like clasps and mounts and buckles would have been used, and by whom. I'd gone looking for something to buy my brother for Christmas, but ended up wrestling with temptation to get a trinket for myself. Didn't buy anything, but with one day left a the con, you never know.

After that, I had another interview for the podcast scheduled, this time with Matthew Hughes. He's another interesting person with a lot to say on everything from writing (of course) to a childhood and youth with incidents that could have been right out of a novel. No spoilers — you'll have to stay tuned for his episode of Invaders From Planet 3, coming up in late November/early December.

At that point, I toyed with going to a panel session, but it was after 6 and I was getting hungry, so I thought it'd be better to walk down the street for a bite. Sticking around for the session would have meant rushing through supper in order to get back in time for the Aurora Awards, and who wants to wolf down a meal when you should be taking time to enjoy it? So, scratch another session off the list. Instead, I walked through the deliciously crisp autumn night to the #9 Restaurant — Richmond's Chinese version of a 24-hour diner. It ain't pretty, but the food is good and inexpensive. Kung po guy ding, hoisin chow mein, and peppered deep-fried silver fish always make me a happy boy. If only they'd serve bolay tea, instead of the weak jasmine, it'd be perfect.

Back up the street to the con for the Auroras, and while I was waiting around, I saw a cosplayer styling a Negasonic Teenage Warhead suit. None of the energy blasts of her Marvel comic or Deadpool movie counterpart, but all of the attitude. We chatted for a bit, and she showed me some photos of some of her other costumes. I'm not a cosplayer myself, but I have a hell of a lot of respect for people who are — they show a lot of dedication and passion for the nerdy stuff they love. This conversation also reminded me that Saturday is generally the day that the cosplayers come out in force at VCon, but I hadn't really noticed any... mainly because I was talking with people instead of taking-in the masquerade or wandering around. But that's okay. If you see one good costume and a cosplayer having fun, it's worth it. I also ran into Kristi again during the wait, and we chatted a little more. And I saw someone I recognized from a session at the con a few years ago that I wanted to talk with briefly. This person had run a brief how-to on home recording and podcasting that I found really helpful when I was gearing up to put IFP3 together, and so I wanted to say thank-you. It's important. Lots of people teach or share info, and thankyous are pretty rare, so when you learn something worth-while from someone, it's important to give them that validation.

Then the doors opened and everyone filed-in to one of the larger rooms for the Auroras. No need for me to sum-up the list of nominees and winners — you can find that around the web. I'll just say congratulations to everyone on the lists this year! Well deserved, everyone!

Leaving the ceremony, someone caught sight of the Uber Torso CHOAM t-shirt I was wearing and asked "Hey, is that the CHOAM company from Dune?" It's a wonderful thing to be around people who get the references on Uber Torso's shirts. Yesterday, I was in the Tyrell Corporation Nexus 6 shirt. Tomorrow? Maybe Flynn's Arcade? Maybe Weyland Yutani's Hadley's Hope colony shirt? We'll see. If only the Wyld Stallyns tour shirt I'm waiting for would arrive, I might go with that.

After that, it was time to head home. As usual, hungry kitties waiting for a too-late supper, a blog that needs updating, and a little relaxation before bed.

See you at the con tomorrow!

Saturday, October 06, 2018

The Return to VCon - Day 1

I'm back.

Every October for the past I-don't-know-how-many years, I've happily (generally) attended the Vancouver Science Fiction, Fantasy, and Games Convention, or VCon. Last year, however, was an exception. The con organizers opted to go for a "relaxicon" format, and with the shorter event and a programming lineup that didn't really jump out at me (never mind other obligations at the time), I took a pass.

This year, they're back in the swing of things with a full con (the 42nd full con in VCon's history), so, even though my schedule's busier than it was last year, I wanted to come back. I'm not a social butterfly who hits all the parties (but, by the same token, I'm not a misanthrope either — some of my most enjoyable con moments have been random conversations with fellow fans), but I have become quite attached to BC's annual nerd gathering — as small as it is, I'm happy to identify it as my home con — and I missed it last year.

And I'm glad I came back. I arrived mid-afternoon today, and while the opening Friday is always a little sleepy at first, there was a nice energy in the halls of the hotel that charged me up.

As usual, after registration, I prowled around for a while to get the lay of the land. The Sheraton in Richmond has been a regular venue for VCon off and on for years, but the layout of the con in the facility is a little different this year, so it was good to do a walkabout. What was unusual was that I broke one of my prime rules of attending a con: never buy anything in the dealers' room on the first day. In this case, a couple of anthologies on a book dealer's table caught my eye and I didn't want them to be bought-up before I could snag copies, so I made that purchase. Then there was a chainmail maker who'd made some interesting pieces of jewellery that I thought would make nice birthday or Christmas presents for my nieces, so I figured I'd get that out of the way. Which is all fine, because now, even though I may wander through the dealers' room again, I won't be tempted to buy anything. Nothing wrong with another walk-through anyway just to look and stop and chat though (one of the dealers today was selling a replica of the Glaive and we had a good laugh about how few people are familiar with Krull, with most movie audiences these days associating it with Ready, Player One). I also spent some time in the art show. There were some nice pieces on display, but, as much as decorating will be on my mind when I buy a new place in a few months, money's tight, so I'll just have to enjoy looking without shelling-out for art this weekend.

Saturday traditionally is the big day for costuming, but during my walkabout today I saw a couple of cosplayers in nice getups: a guy who'd put a lot of work into an astronaut costume,

...and a Cylon centurion.

On to programming.

The first session I took in was "Flags & Iconography in Fiction". While I'm not a Sheldon Cooper "Fun with Flags" kind of guy, I did have to absorb a certain amount of flag-related lore on a job years ago when I was doing a project pitch with a government protocol master, and enough of it stuck that I thought I'd drop by this session to see what they had to say. Overall, it was interesting, and everyone had a chuckle over some sf flags that wouldn't work particularly well in the real world, like the Earth Alliance flag in Babylon 5 (too busy, and it has words, which is apparently a no-no), or the Alliance flag from Firefly (a clumsy-looking mashup). Not a bad way to start the con, programming-wise.

From there, it was over to the opening ceremony, which started with a flash mob dance by a bunch of local high school kids promoting their production of Monty Python's Spamalot. Everyone got a smile out of it, and it was a nice way to kick off what's normally a dry affair. The opening ceremony was also fairly short, so bonus points to the organizers and guests of honour.

After that, I took in the "Ghost Stories of Antiquary" session (perhaps that should have been "Antiquity"?), which gave an overview of authors of that genre from the Regency, Victorian and Edwardian eras. I was familiar with a couple of them, but it was nice to learn about the others. At first, it seemed like the room housing this session might itself have been haunted, as the lights kept turning off and on, and dimming, at random with no-one at the switches. Rather than a pesky poltergeist, it turned out to be the doings of some well-meaning hotel staff on the other side of the back entrance, trying to turn off the lights to assist the panelists' powerpoint, but not telling each other that they were doing it, resulting in two or three staffers repeatedly flicking the switches as they passed back and forth. Finally they realized what was happening and we finished the session in a comfortable, wannabe-spooky darkness.

When that was over, I got some exercise in the wonderfully brisk autumn night air and walked several blocks to get some supper at Pho An Nam, my favourite Vietnamese place in Richmond.

Back at the con a little over an hour later, I took in "The Quad Comedy — Sci-Fi/Fantasy Improv" performance, which was a riot, especially the "Spider Farming Song" and the "Time Bomb Song". Lots of fun, and I hope they con keeps bringing them back in the coming years.

I was half-tempted to call it a night at that point, but I figured I'd squeeze in one more session, so I went to the first half of the "Not So Family Friendly Feud", a pleasantly raunchy take on the gameshow classic. I would have stayed to watch the second set of teams challenge the surveys, but I didn't sleep well last night, and the day was catching up with me. And I knew there were two hungry cats at home probably plotting to eat me in the night just to make a point if I didn't get back soon. So I hit the road.

Looking forward to what Saturday has in store.