From 1980s nerds to birds to Oz: this week’s movies

Words cannot express how boring I found COMPUTER CHESS (2013), a mockumentary set in 1980 about competing groups of programmers testing how their chess-playing software does against human players. I’d heard good things about it, but a mockumentary about nerds spouting technobabble, while it might have hooked a real computer buff, didn’t add up to compelling drama — no memorable characters, no story arc, nothing to hold me. Watching a movie where D&D fans debate the change from 2nd to 3rd edition would be more compelling. “I bet you and I here are the only ones who understand that computer science has a feminine side.”

THE CURIOUS ADVENTURES OF MR. WONDERBIRD (1953) is a dubbed French cartoon from the same DVD set as Alice of Wonderland in Paris.  The English language version stars Peter Ustinov as a bird roosting on a king’s palace. When the shepherdess and a vagabond from two of the king’s paintings come to life and run away together, the king’s self-portrait comes to life to pursue the shepherdess and claim her for himself. The big draw in this one is the lovely, detailed, old-school animation. Claire Bloom and Denholm Elliott voice the young lovers.

AFTER THE WIZARD (2011) from the same DVD was, with the Alice film, the one that convinced me to pick it up (it was a library sale, so it was only three bucks or so), as I’m interested in Oz films — after all, I literally wrote the book on the subject (this one was about seven years too late to be included. This one is a familiar story of a troubled kid retreating into fantasy (similar to John Cusack’s The Martian Child): protagonist is a young orphan repressing memories of her tragic past by imagining herself as Dorothy, and that the Tin Woodman and Scarecrow have landed in America by the Wizard’s balloon and are journeying cross country to take her back to Oz. I like that the creators draw on the book rather than the film, and the way everyone accepts the protagonists as kind of eccentric cosplayers. However   the acting is so-so and the production is low-budget — the Tin Woodman is just wearing silver spray paint, the Scarecrow has straw stuffed in his collar and cuffs. Given how dark Dorothy imagines her post-Oz life (Uncle Henry died in a farm accident! Aunt Em died of kidney failure! They took Toto to the pound!) I’d suggest a double bill with the adaptation of Geoff Ryman’s even darker Was. “Could Kansas possibly be a place where there is smoke without fire?”

#SFWApro. Rights to images remain with current holders.

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I found her

So it was Valentine’s Day Wednesday. Which put me in mind of Kipling’s poem The Thousandth Man, albeit genderflipped:

“One woman in a thousand, Solomon says
Will stick more close than all others.
And it’s worthwhile seeking her half your days
If you find her before the other.”

It did take half my days (we met when I was fifty), but I did find her. And that’s made such a wonderful difference. For Valentine’s Day we went out to Ted Turner’s Montana Grill (it’s close, and we had a limited time window). TYG got me a new belt, which I’d asked for. I got her bath bombs and typhus (see left).

Now, as to this week’s writing:

First, the Space Invaders proposal for a movie book got thumbed down. The editor I’d been working with contacted me Monday to let me know. Apparently they’re having some internal upheaval and he’s no longer associated with them either. However even though it was his idea, he gave me the blessing to shop it around on my own. I intend to do so, possibly to McFarland, maybe to a different press that works with this topic. And there’s always self-publishing. Though my experience with editing and proofing my McFarland books makes me slightly dubious about the editing: even my relatively short Bond book took a lot of work (errors in fact are far more grievous than errors in self-published fiction, I think).

Another thing that’s not happening, at least yet: I received an email from the new owners of And Magazine, asking if I wanted to take up column-writing again. I’m interested, but I haven’t heard back since I said “Let’s talk.” Whether they lost interest or something fell through I don’t know, yet.

Other news was more upbeat. I reviewed the last draft of my Undead Sexist Cliches book at the start of the week rather than leaving it to the end. I was pleasantly surprised that it went much smoother that way. By the end of the week I had a much clearer idea of what will go in which chapter (some chapters will be substantially larger than others, but I think that’s okay). And I went through a ton of articles I’d bookmarked around the web and mined them for more stuff. I’ll start the next draft in March.

Despite my pessimism last week, I also figured out how to fix No One Can Slay Her and completed the latest draft (number fifteen, sheesh!). I feel much more optimistic I’ll have it polished and finished by the end of March. I also did a lot of work on The Impossible Takes a Little Longer and Questionable Minds.

I didn’t get a Screen Rant done. I pitched several ideas but I only got a green light on one, with instructions to wait a couple of weeks (it’s close to another we did recently). A couple of others are still maybes.

And I got my quota of Leaf articles done.

I also dealt with a couple of different contractors and got the state car inspection taken care of Monday. So a good, productive week.

I shall attempt to make the weekend as unproductive and leisurely as possible.

#SFWApro. All rights to cover image remain with current holder (it’s a very good book by the way, i read it some years back).

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Filed under Impossible Takes a Little Longer, Nonfiction, Personal, Screen Rant, Sex for Dinner, Death for Breakfast, Short Stories, Story Problems, Writing

A good day to die? (part two)

Apparently the universe was doing something Sunday. First came Cindy’s email about Meggie, then my friend Courtney sent the news that her husband Neil had died (that’s him in the photo, part of a skit he was doing for a Mensa gathering).

Neil was a very cool dude. Civil liberties lawyer, amateur magician, expert on the history of magic, funny and decent. And he and Courtney fit together perfectly. At their wedding, his daughter (Courtney was his second marriage) said how happy she was that he’d found his soulmate, and he had.

Even though I only saw him a couple of times a year, i enjoyed his company, and his comments on my FB posts. And his occasional advice when I needed feedback on legal questions or sleight of hand for something I was writing.

But he had some running health problems, and they finally outran him. Damn.

 

 

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A good day to die? (part one)

Sunday night my best friend Cindy called to say her thirteen-year-old chow mix, Meggie Sue, had passed away. Some vision and balance problems, followed by falling down and suffering a broken leg, and deciding not to put her through surgery.

Meggie was a real sweetheart. She was cuddly and very well-behaved — I’d never have trusted our dogs to walk around in the back yard, which opens on a large pond, without doing something dumb (jump into the water chasing a duck, wander off into the woods, etc.). She loved showing people her favorite toys, but we weren’t supposed to touch them.

She’ll be missed.

And here’s me playing with Meggie Sue during one of my visits home. #SFWApro, please credit me if you use photos.

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Rewriting old stuff: The Impossible Takes a Little Longer

I really like my novel The Impossible Takes a Little Longer. Enough that I’m rewriting it for probably the fourth time.

When I wrote the original version back in the 1990s, I was intrigued by the idea of cabal of people possessing metahuman powers, manipulating the rest of us behind the scenes. Then I wondered, given the level  of power they wielded, why they’d be behind the scenes. Wouldn’t they be more likely to flaunt their powers? Not necessarily by conquering the world. Some paranormals would be happy using their powers as wizards or wonder-working preachers. Or getting elected mayor or senator as often as they want the job. Or using their healing powers as an EMT. Or believing themselves to be the Second Coming, Thor incarnate, the Antichrist, etc. As the nature of paranormal power baffles science, everyone interprets their abilities differently.

My protagonist, KC, is a comics nerd, so she became Nighthawk, one of the few superheroes in the world. In contrast to most superhero novels, KC doesn’t have all the cool stuff — awesome adversaries, amazing adventures — and settles for bodyguarding abortion doctors, getting battered women to shelters (she’s bulletproof, so if the husband objects she doesn’t have to use lethal force), fighting the occasional paranormal. And wishing she could have foes as cool as in comics. As you can probably guess, KC gets a real A-list supervillain and finds herself in over her head.

Part of her backstory was sex abuse, which wasn’t too overused back in the 1990s. I think I handled it well, and it did figure into the novel thematically (the bad guy’s fatal mistake is assuming abuse defines her — it doesn’t). But since then, abuse has become a cliche (and one I hate), so that aspect of the story has bothered me more and more. I read one chapter for my writing group and they weren’t keen on that aspect either.

I’m also uncomfortable with my handling of the Comanches. They’ve been manipulated by a powerful paranormal with a yen for Westerns into keeping part of Texas as Indian Country, where they ride and raid just like characters in an old movie. Even though it’s been forced on them, it still feels uncomfortably stereotypical.

But I really like the book. I enjoy writing a superhero novel, I like some of what I do with genre tropes, and I like playing with the idea of how paranormal abilities have changed history. Europe between the English Channel and the Russian front is now “Germanic Europa,” ruled by the Third Reich. Silicon Valley seceded. King Arthur returned and now rules England. So I’m working to see if I can fix the problematic parts.

KC’s past is easy enough to fix, but since it does play into her character arc and the villain’s goals I have to rework them. The character arc I think I have a handle on. The villain’s role? I think so, but I’m less sure. The Comanche? Still working on that.

So I’ll use this draft to solve the problems and get it into a workable rough draft. Then once I’m satisfied with the bad guy’s agenda, I’ll rewrite the earlier chapters to take into account the changes. And hopefully I’ll finish it up and make it good.

Of course I’ve rewritten other things, gotten to the end and discovered they didn’t hold up. Hopefully that won’t be the case.

Wish me luck … Like Mr. Miracle, let no trap hold me!

#SFWApro. Cover by Jack Kirby, all rights remain with current holder.

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Dark rebooting: HERO: Powers and abilities

DC’s 2003-5 series H-E-R-O is an interesting example of doing a darker, grittier, grimmer reboot that actually works.

The series was based on Dial H for HERO, a Silver Age series about “Robby Reed — the Boy Who Can Change Into a Thousand Superheroes!” Created by Dave Wood and Jim Mooney, this has teenage science whiz Robbie Reed discover an alien dial. Translating the instructions, he learns that by dialing the equivalent of the letters H-E-R-O, he transforms into a superhero. To return to normal, he transforms back (other letters allow someone to dial VILLAIN).

I loved this series as a kid. In the first place, it was the only series besides Spider-Man that had a non-sidekick fteen protagonist. And where Spider-Man had powers, Robby was ordinary. If I’d found the dial, hey, I could be just as super! Plus the appeal of a series that offered more superheroes even than the Justice League of Avengers books was irresistible.

Rereading recently, I can see the flaws in it. The stories and villains are bland, and got sloppy near the end of the run (Wood forgets his own ground rules, like Robby having to dial back to normal before becoming another hero). Robby lives with his grandfather, but we never learn why, or where his parents went. Being a science whiz is his only personality trait.

When Joe Orlando took over as House of Mystery editor at the end of the Silver Age, he saw that the superhero strips sold poorly compared to the supernatural anthology approach of times past. He switched House of Mystery and House of Secrets to anthology books hosted by Cain and Abel, a format which made them steady sellers on into the 1980s. I was baffled and disappointed to discover Robby Reed and backup the Martian Manhunter had suddenly disappeared, and I never became a fan of the anthology approach (with rare exceptions such as the first Swamp Thing story, they were mostly mediocre).

Robby popped up occasionally after that, including a 1980s Dial H series with different protagonists (it was a lot less fun). Most of these stories followed the premise of the original faithfully but H-E-R-O (by Will  Pfeifer and Jose Angel Cano Lopez) took it in a different direction.

While Robby eventually shows up, the hook is that the H-Dial passes from hand to hand in the course of the series. A guy who feels like a nothing becomes a superhero — now he’s a somebody, right? A stressed-out businessman uses the dial to give himself some fun. A little girl makes herself cool at school by offering to share the H-Dial. A group of slackers film themselves using their powers, then stream it to YouTube. Trouble is, the dial eventually falls into the hands of a psycho who hits the jackpot — Superman-class powers. Robby saw this future back in one of his super-identities and now that it’s arrived, he’s taking steps to prevent it …

This was definitely on the grim-and-gritty side of comics. Suicide, death, heroes dealing out gratuitous violence, extremely flawed protagonists and then more death. I think the reason it worked for me is because it’s a perfectly logical outgrowth of the original series — what if someone less heroic found the H-Dial? It’s not violating the original canon at all. That’s a vast improvement over the many, many reboots that go with Everything You Know Is Wrong! DC’s 1980sreboot of Silver Age space adventurer Adam Strange, for instance, assumes that Rann (the planet he adventures on) despises him and his presence there is just to provide breeding stock (Rannian men are sterile). It was grim and gritty at its worst, undercutting everything fun in the original series (when I read the classic Adam, I just ignore the reboot exists).

Pfeifer and Lopez, by contrast, got it right.

#SFWApro. Covers by Jim Mooney and John van Fleet, all rights remain with current holders.

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Doc Savage: The Speaking Stone of Pirate Island

It’s May and June of 1942, Doc Savage is having adventures in the Pacific but there’s not the slightest hint that the Pacific Theater of Operations is a thing.

PIRATE ISLE opens on a tramp steamer in the Pacific. Captain Hardgrove is the non-too-respectable captain, apparently saddled with a parrot that squawks out endearments to Mrs. Hardgrove’s lovers. Then he learns a man they recently rescued from the sea has apparently gone insane, run up the mast and pelting the crew with snowballs … despite the terrible tropic heat.

The man is actually Johnny Littlejohn, so before long Doc, Renny and Long Tom are flying to the ship (this is the rare book with no Monk or Ham, for reasons explained in the second yarn). Unfortunately so is Lord London, a ruthless pirate/mercenary whose presence on the scene fills the crew with terror. There’s a sequence where Lord London arbitrarily selects and shoots one of the passengers, just as a warning. It’s surprisingly shocking and effective. His men seize the ship, forcing Doc and his men to fight back without risking the passengers.

It turns out Lord London is after control of what he believes is a system for filtering gold from sea water (not the first time Johnny’s been entangled with one). He doesn’t realize it’s actually a system for making food out of plankton, an English project that could sustain Great Britain with North Sea plankton even if German u-boats shut down all shipping. That’s the only reference we get to the war. Johnny, who’s been faking insanity so nobody can interrogate him, was working on the system because … well, that doesn’t make much sense. “Greatest archeologist and geologist” is a skill set that has nothing to do with making food from plankton.

And the ending twist didn’t work for me. It turns out Hardgrove is the real Lord London. Before executing someone he starts talking about how sexy and handsome they are and this is what the parrot is er, parroting. While Lord London’s clearly ruthless, nothing indicated he was this loonie before. Still, the novel is an enjoyable, fast-moving story. It also leads directly into THE SPEAKING STONE.

At the opening of that one, Doc and Co. are still in the Pacific, dealing with the press ,when a man in a red vest shows up and gives Renny a small stone. It talks to him in Monk’s voice. Then the man keels over dead. So where are Monk and Ham? How did the stone speak? And why are the bad guys so hot to get hold of the stone?

It turns out this is a lost race story. Monk and Ham have wound up trapped in an Andean lost city (they don’t appear until two-thirds of the way in). After a lot of move and countermove with the bad guys — they do not want Doc reaching the city or figuring out what’s going on — we learn the stones are the city’s form of long-distance communication. The crystals pick up electromagnetic waves which allow them to transmit voice communication much further than radio (Monk suddenly displays enough physics knowledge to explain this), but after a while they degrade and repeat the last thing they heard on an endless loop. The lost city hopes to market the tech so they can grab some 20th century goodies, but their contacts in the outside world want to exploit it themselves. As it turns out, though, the stones don’t work except at very high altitudes so it’s all for naught.

The story is competent, not stellar. I did enjoy Dent riffing on the usual lost city cliches: instead of sitting in a volcanic crater or atop hot springs that keep it snug and warm, the snowbound Andean city is very, very cold. It’s a detail that gave me a chuckle.

#SFWApro. Cover by James Bama (from Men Who Smiled No More‘s cover) and Bob Larkin. All rights remain with current holder.

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