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Redshirts and Year Zero

I recently finished reading, well, listening, to a couple of fantastic novels on Audible. (I had a lot of car-driving time this last week.) I want to spend a little more on the absolutely amazing, beautiful, crazy novel, Redshirts, so I’ll discuss Year Zero first.

Year Zero is about the wacky hijinks of aliens, and their human copyright lawyer, trying to deal with the recent discovery that they owe the Earth literally the entire universe’s wealth in music licensing fees for all the music they’ve been pirating for the last 40 years. It was written by Rob Reid who is no stranger to the world of music and copyright law. The very, very absurd and ridiculous world of music and copyright law. This farcical and comedic novel is a perfect foil to point up just how comedic (in a black comedy sort of way) the reality of the subject is. In fact, the slowest parts of this fast-paced novel are where copyright law and licensing are discussed. But the thing is, the real subject — the revolving-door lobbying, the absurd legal penalties, the paranoid and spiteful barriers to licensing improvement — is so absurd that it actually doesn’t take away from the farcical fiction of the story.

One of the ups and downs of the book is just how much it tries, tries hard, to emulate Douglas Adams. Maybe not quite a “Hitchhiker’s Guide” novel, but at least a “Dirk Gently” novel. At times Reid handles it quite well and I laughed aloud at the pun or slapstick or wacky description, but much of the time, I listened with a small smirk the occasional eye-roll and groan. The novel bounces around from clever to silly to clever quite a bit, and the number of times aliens are depicted saying, “Well, duh!” got a little tired. …and then, like a Family Guy gag, it was to over-used that it almost became funny again.

In any case, it was a fun read, well written despite the groan-worthy puns. I hate puns!

And then there’s John Scalzi’s Redshirts. This was a huge surprise of a book! John Scalzi is a favorite author of mine, and an inspiration to my own writing. And based on the description of the novel and much of what I’d been hearing about it, I thought this was going to be a purely fun, action-packed, quirky romp. And, indeed, the first two-thirds certainly had a lot of that! But then, starting at the end of the main story and carrying through into the three codas, the book takes a very serious turn that left me both inspired and emotionally wracked. The codas are, from what I’ve read of his, the most sentimental (in the good way, not the sentimentality-bad way) stuff he’s written.

What’s funny (not in the ha-ha way), is that I did read some reviews of the novel before hand, to get an idea of the book before I bought it, trying to not spoil myself. And, I read a lot of comments saying that, “This is a great book! Until the stupid codas. They’re pointless and totally don’t fit.” A lot of those kind of comments. So, I was prepared to enjoy the satirical and fun first two-thirds of the main story, and then just kinda gloss over the rest. Whoa, was I wrong! No… boy are those comments absolutely wrong! See, despite the fact that most of the book is the story of a bunch or “red shirts” on a space shift figuring out newbies on the ship tend to die on away missions and figuring out how to overcome this apparent curse, that’s not the real story. In fact, I see that as the preface for the real story, which is the three codas! The sci-fi action story is a necessary setup for the themes and conflict that are dealt with in the codas which investigate the nature of finding yourself. Discovering who you are, what you want to be and do, and how you deal with the life you’re “given.”

I really can’t say more without spoilering the book. And this is a book that I highly and heavily recommend reading! It’s a short book, and very fast — you could probably read it all in a day and evening. I would recommend listening to the audiobook as Wil Wheaton (also no stranger to star ships and red shirts), does a fine job! Although, I don’t agree with some of his inflection and tone choices. Until He gets to the codas. Then, I can’t imagine anyone else reading it. He’s absolutely brilliant, and I’d recommend anyone listening through the first part in order to hear Wil Wheaton read the codas. He’s an actor, so very possibly the emotion I hear in his voice toward the end of the last coda is acting… but I don’t think so. I think, considering what and how he talks about his own life in his blogs, he’s truly feeling the emotion of that last coda, and it’s bringing tears to my eyes right now as I remember it.

Read Redshirts. Even if you’re not a sci-fi fan, even if you don’t think you’ll get the satire and the in-jokes. That’s okay. Remember, the main action story is just a prelude for some of the best contemporary literary fiction that is the core of the book.

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Looper

I just got done seeing the new film, “Looper.” Wow! That’s good cinema! An original film (not a sequel, not a remake — although I do not have anything against remakes) that takes you on a ride both emotionally and viscerally. It’s from the same writer and director who made “Brick,” one of my all-time favorite films. A film that also starred one of my increasingly favorite actors, Joseph Gordon-Levitt. As I write, briefly, about this film, I will avoid spoilers that aren’t evident from the commercials and trailers.

Now, you certainly know, it is a time travel film. (Huh, Bruce Willis is good in those — see: “Twelve Monkeys.”) And yes, if you’re the kind of person who demands that your time travel films make complete and logical sense without any paradoxes, this film is going to totally P. you O. There are some potential problems with the laws of causality in this film. But, to badly paraphrase one of the characters: “I’m not gonna sit here and discuss time travel paradoxes with you! We’d be here all night and end up diagramming shit with napkins and straws.” This is obviously the filmmaker telling the audience, yes, he’s well aware some stuff doesn’t makes sense, thank you. Deal with it. He’s letting you know that time travel is, in a sense, a narrative macguffin, something you just have to accept as necessary and watch the film for everything that the film ultimately is about.

Now, I do have a fictional theory as how this fictional notion of time travel could work in this fictional world and have the kind of cause and effect it presents, and would be happy to discuss it with anyone curious — but I’m not going to spend time detailing it here, not without risking sounding like a pedantic hypernerd, (in Simpson’s Comic Book Store Guy’s voice) “They clearly established in episode 46, ‘Rise of the Regalitrons,’ that deck 12 only has 20 rooms as the phasematter converter controls are there. So, obviously, there can’t be a ‘room 14′ on that deck, unless it is 30 meters outside the starboard side of the ship. And I think not. Obviously, what would the crew even breathe?! Sheesh.” Sorry… back to “Looper.”

The film has a wonderful balance of dark pathos as well as moments of fun, and necessary, humor. There’s one moment that Gordon-Levitt’s character is seen examining his hairline in the mirror which makes fun of the fact that the prematurely balded Bruce Willis is in his future. There’s also some moments that, without giving much away, is difficult to watch as a parent. So, fair warning. But the script is clever, the acting just great, and the story engaging!

An element I found interesting: most of the film takes place in Kansas City or thereabouts in 2042 — thirty years from now. The world that’s created feels, sadly, extremely believable. There’s rampant poverty in the streets, mentions of “vagrant wars” (or “vagrant riots,” I can’t remember), and realistic appropriation and adaptation of technology, like solar panels everywhere and hydrogen fuel recycling systems fitted to early 21st century trucks. The only bit of tech that had be raising an eyebrow was the jet cycles that had hover capability. Eh, no, not buying that. Oh, and there’s one other major story element that I won’t spoiler because I don’t believe it’s revealed in any trailers, that, for me, is far less believable than time travel paradoxes and had me thinking outside the film a bit much.

It was nice to be able to get out and see a fun, dark, actiony, humorous film. Oh, and I saw a goose-bump-raising trailer for the upcoming film, “The Cloud Atlas.” Can’t wait! And a trailer for some Abraham Lincoln film that oddly had nothing to do with vampires. Pfft. Leave it to Hollywood to toe the line and perpetuate the lie about the truth about Lincoln all these years. *grin*

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The Tea Party returns for another round, and I rejoice!

image from http://maytherockbewithyou.com/mtrbwy/2012/07/jeff-martin-stuart-chatwood-of-the-tea-party/

No, not that Tea Party. Allow me to be political for a couple sentences as, on this subject, it almost begs for a comment: My mostest favoritest rock band of all time is Canadian trio The Tea Party. They’ve been around since the early 90s. They are so utterly not affiliated in any way with the “political” party, the Tea Party, that when they broke up for a bit, they were thinking of selling, or even giving their Web domain, to Jon Stewart or Stephen Colbert, or George Soros or Arianna Huffington, with the goal of their critiquing the lies and misinformation put out by the political movement (principally about Canadian healthcare which, like most Canadians, the band The Tea Party love). That aside….

So, not only did The Tea Party come back together last year, but they’ve been doing a reunion tour and recorded their Sydney, Australia concert for a double-size album. They pre-released the album through Pledge Music (with proceeds going to help the Princess Margaret Hospital in Toronto which does cancer research). I got myself a copy of the album… and I have not listened to an album with as much joy, excitement, air-drum-playing, as I have this one, since I first listened to their second album, Edges of Twilight, in 1995. Allow me to reminisce a bit.

It was the summer of 1994 when I was working at a brand new Hastings entertainment store while getting my BAs. The store hadn’t opened yet, we hired staff were in the process of constructing the displays and stocking the place, and the music department manager was playing CDs for us while we worked. And one of those days, this amazing sound came on the system. It was a melange of Led Zepplin, the Doors, some middle eastern flavor. Hard rock with a splash of mysticism. One could, fairly I’ll admit, make the criticism that they were trying too hard to be a reinvention of Led Zepplin. Even so, the raw, amazing musical talent of this group was certainly not a gimmick. The album was Splendor Solis, and I fell in love with a band like I hadn’t since I discovered Pink Floyd in high school. I believe the very day that Hastings store opened, before I put my employee apron and name tag on, I bought that CD, and if one can wear a CD out, I about did.

Fortunately, I didn’t have to wait too long for more. Not long after graduating undergrad, we moved to a different town, my wife and I, and settled in to life, and I heard The Tea Party was releasing a second album. Excited, giddy, doesn’t come close to the feeling I had as I waited for release day. When I got the album and brought it home, I made sure everything was right: the stereo settings, the lighting, the drink in hand, and I hit “play.” The experience of listening to that new album for the first time was nearly a religious experience. It did not in any way let down. Every song was as good as from their previous album, with new instant classics that rivaled anything on Splendor Solis, such as “Sister Awake,” “The Bazaar,” and “Inanna.” If asked, at that time, which album was better, I’d be hard pressed to answer.

Then came their third, and nearly equally amazing, album, Transmission. It was an even harder, more techno album, moving a bit away from the blues and middle eastern influences of their first two albums. While not every song is among my favorite, like the previous two albums, it’s still filled with mind-blowing works like “Temptation,” “Transmission,” and the heartbreaking “Release.” You would never see me in a more than 5 minute car trip without that album.

With their next album, Triptych, things started slowing down a bit in my They Can Do No Wrong passion for them. While still a great album with beautiful and technically amazing songs like “Heaven Coming Down” and “Samsara” and “Halcyon Days,” I wasn’t in as much love with each track like I was for everything prior. Then again with the album, Interzone Mantras. There are again songs that alone would make them better than 90% of the bands out there, like “Lullaby” and “Requiem.” But it almost started sounding like they were trying to hard to be mainstream at that point. (In point of fact, come to find out, they indeed were being pressed by their label to indeed become more mainstream.)

This discomfort with what they were starting to sound like extended into their final studio album, Seven Circles. While still a fine album, I have a hard time recalling off the top of my head any particular tracks I love. “Wishing You Would Stay” comes to mind because of how beautiful it is, and also because it’s their only song with a female guest vocalist. And evidently, the label pressure (and, *sigh*, drug issues, of course) came to a head in regards to interpersonal differences among the band’s three members, and singer/guitarist Jeff Martin left for a solo career, breaking the band. (And actually, his first solo Exile and the Kingdom, is really good. It felt like an attempt to return to Tea Party’s pure rock and blues roots. Sadly, his next band, The Armada, album, felt closer to Interzone Mantras.

image from http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jeff_Martin _(Canadian_musician)

And during this time I’d been waiting anxiously for the remaining members, Stuart and the other Jeff, to do something with The Art Decay. Where Jeff Martin is an undeniable guitar god, the reincarnation of the still living Jimmy Page, Stuart Chatwood is a musical genius. His skill and versatility at nearly every instrument he touches (primarily keyboards, bass, middle eastern percussion) is… well, “impressive” is a lame adjective. Alas, they never got anything together. But Stuart went on to do all the music for the Prince of Persia video games at least.

Despite the slow decline of my unholy love for The Tea Party over the last couple albums, when I heard they broke up, I was devastated. My hopes and dreams for hearing That One Next Great Album, or ever seeing them in concert, were dashed. Well, I thought, maybe I could catch Jeff Martin at least… should I ever find myself in Ireland or Australia.

Then, a few years later, the news that would make my heart swell with great, but cautious, joy: Their reunion for a Canadian music festival. The fact that they got back in the same room was pretty amazing–could it last? And, O frabjous day! Callooh! Callay! When they declared they were going on a reunion tour, I think I literally jumped for joy! When they later said they’d be working on a new album, well, I think I’m still recovering from palpitations and vapors.

Back to the present, I got the recording of their Sydney reunion concert. I didn’t take as much care setting the mood to listen to it as I had for Edges of Twilight, because I was excited, but still thinking, “Eh, it’s a concert album. I’ve heard it all before.” Boy, was I wrong! They do not simply play copies of their studio performances for their live shows. They freakin’ bring it! Bring. It! “Temptation” becomes even more brain-smyooshingly hard and edgy, they break “Save Me” down and jam in the middle of it like Led Zepplin would’ve, Jeff Martin’s familiarity and banter with the crowd, and letting them sing key passages (like the ending chorus phrases in “The Bazaar”) is intoxicating and exciting!

Well, it’s just an amazing album, and I listened to it the first time in shock and wonder, and a youthful excitement I’d not felt in some time. Over the last several years, I’ve come to love some bands, like Arcade Fire and Silversun Pickups and The Decemberists, and I really enjoy their music. But nothing has ever quite grabbed ahold of me and never let me go like The Tea Party. And no matter how much I greatly enjoy listening to Neon Bible or Picaresque, no experience has ever matched listening to Edges of Twilight that first time, nor Live in Australia this weekend. The Tea Party is back, and life is good!

(PS: The band is hugely active in The White Ribbon Campaign, “the largest effort in the world of men working to end violence against women. In over fifty-five countries, campaigns are led by both men and women, even though the focus is on educating men and boys. In some countries it is a general public education effort focused on ending violence against women.” Yay!)

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Distracted by my no distractions editor

omm writer

At GenCon last week, at one of the writing panels, I sat behind someone who was taking notes on their really sweet Apple Macpro Air Jordan Tigerbond, or whatever they’re called. I don’t think I can even afford to know its proper name. And I couldn’t help but notice that the text editor he was using was extremely cool. No bars or ribbons or icons or buttons anywhere–just a nice, pleasing full-screen image and the text situated in the center third of the screen without borders. Really nice. I was afraid it was going to be some Apple proprietary software.

When the panel ended, I risked being rude and asked him what it was he was using. Happily, he told me it was Omm Writer, a free (for the older version) or super-cheap, pay-what-you-will (for the latest version) distraction-free editor. But what’s even cooler, it’s available for PC in addition to Mac! … except I use Linux. Except I do have a PC with Windows that I only use to convert documents into files Amazon will accept for their e-book store. (Stupid Kindle issues with Tables of Contents.)

focuswriter and a busy background theme

So, using the best frakkin’ Web site ever created, Alternative To, I followed some links and reviews until I came upon FocusWriter. It’s also a for-donations application that actually works on Mac, Windows, and Linux! And indeed, as people on LifeHacker and the NaNoWriMo boards have said, it’s an amazing no-distraction editor! You can set timers/goals, such as how much time you want to write or by word count; basic rich text formatting; typewriter keypress sounds (little things make a difference). And what I really like, is you can download themes, quick and easy, and modify them. Then, you can switch among them based on whichever story you’re working on. My current young adult fantasy novel, I use “Leathers,” for my Eclipse Phase fanfic, I use “Bladerunner – Cockpit,” for a horror story I’m working on, I switch to “Midnight Dreary,” and for the contemporary lit novel I’m playing around with, I use a somber “Winter Afternoon.” They really help one’s mindset for that story.

So, I spent about an hour on that instead of writing. And now I’m spending time writing this. :-/

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Glasshouse

(A no-spoilery review.)

I recently finished Charles Stross’ novel of the posthuman future, Glasshouse. It was closer to his novel Halting State in style, and certainly more readable than its unofficial prequel, Accelerando. While not a perfect novel by any means, and containing a few misses and rough parts, I’m placing it in my top 10 favorite SF novels and top 5 posthumanity-themed works.

I stopped reading Accelerando, but not permanently. (Not like Dies the Fire, the probable inspiration for the upcoming TV show, “Revolution.” That book is the only one that I’ve put down mid-way and said, “Nope! I’m done, thank you. No more.”) It really is a fascinating book that depicts the coming singularity, the advent of the posthuman age, in a believable and detailed manner. Unfortunately, I’m finding it a bit too dense, too inscrutable when it comes to the detailed, and far too often, explanations of intellectual property rights and venture investing and whatnot.

In contrast, Glasshouse, like Halting State, is more action and adventure. Where Accelerando explains the posthuman rise, Glasshouse exists in it. We don’t need to be told what’s happening, it just happens. In the opening pages, the first scene, the reader is thrust right in the middle of a strange, new existence where bodies are interchangeable and minds can be backed up and restored. At first, you have no idea if the characters are players in an advanced online RPG, a virtual reality, or what. But soon we come to accept that this setting is post-Earth, post-human, post-normal expectations of what it means to have a body or even an identity. The protagonist, Robin, goes through a crisis of identity involving his past life (lives — in the metaphorical sense, not any metaphysical “reincarnation” sense), while at the same time dealing with his current situation as a test subject in a closed environment meant to simulate late 20th, early 21st century Earth.

One of the most clever conceits of this novel is making most of it take place in a setting that’s vaguely familiar to the reader, if a bit askew (like a collision between the village from “The Prisoner” and the town from “Leave it to Beaver,” with Shirley Jackson’s “The Lottery” and an Ikea display showroom), and allowing that to counterpoint the characters and their floundering in this environment. We can understand the posthuman world better because of the way the characters who live in that foreign world react to the things and ways of our world–and at the same time provides the cognitive estrangement needed to examine our own ways and mores with their arbitrary restrictions and customs.

Meanwhile, Robin must solve a couple of mysteries, one involving who these people are running the experiment, and the other involving his missing memories.

Glasshouse is well-written and moves reasonably quick, but there are annoying moments where characters occasionally do or say something odd that pulled me out of the book. Whether it was something that was unmotivated, or awkwardly phrased, I found moments that my reading ground to a halt, I would have to go back and re-read the passage to see if I missed something, and just ended up shrugging and moving on. Fortunately, that was a rare occurrence. The only other complaint, is that some of Robin’s background and history would be presented in flashback with teasingly little in the way of context and explanation. This is fine, when explanation does eventually come and the tangles and loose ends get wrapped up; however, too much of his flashback went unexplained for too long, making it difficult to understand how it motivated some of his fears and goals. By the end, when the whole story starts to come together, I felt it was too late to make me really grasp who he was and what was going on in the past.

Indeed, difficult not just in understanding Robin, but the history of the book as well. The greater wars and conflicts that happened before the novel begins, which helped shape the condition of transhumanity in this story. Some of it in intentional, as, and this is difficult to explain without spoilers, much of history is actually lost to the characters and must, therefore, be lost to us readers. But I feel as though there are too many holes that Stross let go in the backstory that I really needed to have filled before the climax.

Stross and his works appeal to me because of my own keen interest in the topic of post- and transhumanity. It’s been a focus on my own graduate work (and, hopefully, will be the focus of my doctorate work when I finally get to attend Trent University. Oh, yes–one day I shall!), my writing, and my hobbies. I’ve written recently on my love for the pencil-and-dice RPG, Eclipse Phase. The creators of that game, set in a quasi-posthuman universe, have listed Charles Stross as a “writer to watch,” and it’s no wonder why: I don’t think it’s unfair to say that Eclipse Phase was heavily influenced by Glasshouse (and Accelerando), as much as it was inspired by Richard Morgan’s Altered Carbon, and maybe a bit by Cory Doctorow’s Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom. (I really want to see reputation (i.e. Doctorow’s “wuffie”) used more as currency and capital n the game!)

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Do a little to help working authors?

Steven Brust, Emma Bull, and a fan

A while back I blogged about my favorite fantasy artist’s health scare. He’s recently had heart surgery, as a good friend and collaborator of his, Emma Bull, also went through a procedure. Naturally, because they’re very hard working, talented writers in America who make their living with the sweat of their brow as artists–they get paid crap and health insurance is likely non-existent for them. (Our country’s insurance-care system is, besides horrific just on its own merit, absolutely cruel to anyone who strives to follow their artistic passions or actually be an entrepreneur certain political groups give lots of lip service supporting… but I digress….) Cory Doctorow, an amazing writer and activist, a favorite author of mine, and someone who has said will never again let his family live in the U.S. because of our insurance-care system, explains the issue in his Boing Boing article.

Another excellent author, Scott Lynch, is raising donations to help them with their medical bills. Here: http://www.scottlynch.us/ironsands.html, then clicking the “Donate” button on the left.

I’m sorry about the political ranting there, I try to avoid anything political on this site–but this issue, as I’ve discussed before, is greatly important to me: the near inability or anyone in America whose passion is artistic and creative in nature, to be able to devote themselves to their craft, is, in my mind, cruel and completely anti-civilized. Any advanced society should allow their creative citizens as much access to life and health as a wage-slave has, equally. All citizens of an enlightened society should have equal access to life and health.

But, I digress once again.

Forget the politics: If you care at all for helping hard-working writers afford their medical care, please consider donating! Thank you.

Side note: Another most excellent, favorite scifi author of mine, John Scalzi, noticed Brust’s humorous ode to Scalzi’s highly popular blog, “Whatever.” Then, Scalzi featured others setting Brust’s words to music! (I prefer the ukulele.)

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Before They Open the Door

At GenCon last week, during the Tracy and Laura Hickman Killer Breakfast, I signed up for a drawing. Low and surprise, I won! What’d I win? Their collection of stories, Eventide and their daughter Tasha’s brand new CD: Before They Open the Door.

As for the book, I was immediately excited! I’d recalled hearing Tracy Hickman talk about the book on podcasts a year or so ago, and it sounded really interesting! (Though, if I recall, I thought he and Laura were doing some kind of special subscription method for people to buy the book directly from them back then in a clever, hearken back to the original days of fiction publishing by sponsorship, method. But I forget.) Plus, while I hadn’t read much of the Hickman works lately, I lovelovelove the first two Dragonlance trilogies (the second, Twins, trilogy, was the first fantasy novel(s) to make me outright cry).

As for the CD, well, that was an unknown. Never heard of her before, and the song she sang before the Killer Breakfast to promote their Pick-a-Path live musical that weekend, was cute and nice but, well, she sang flat and off key a lot.

But, never look a gift CD in the mouth, as my mother has never said!

I finally got a chance to listen to it this week, and the verdict: It’s cute. Sadly, she still sings somewhat flat and off key, but not nearly as bad as live. She’s a fine guitar player and a decent lyricist… over all, she’s exactly what you’d expect from a talented young local music performer who will do great in her community but will likely never get a Big Break.

As for the songs: They’re mostly gaming/nerdy-themed songs with a humorous bent (in other words, filk music), but there are a few with a sweet or even melancholy sentiment. As a CD, I’m not sure I’m going to listen to it all that much. But if she were performing live at another con, surrounded by people having a good time and singing the chorus with her, I wouldn’t turn that down for a second!

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Happy Stone anniversary to me!

My wife is just the coolest.

First, she knows I love craft beers and microbrews (okay, not hard to know that). But she also seems to have recalled that my favorite type is the IPA. And she’s also noted to herself that one of my favorite breweries is Stone. So, what did she do? She researched some beers and discovered that Stone puts out an anniversary IPA each year with different flavor profiles. They release it on a limited run that can be difficult to get. She ordered half a case for me and it arrived yesterday!

The Stone 16th Anniversary IPA this year has a hoppy, lemony, citrusy flavor that I must say, is very complex and interesting. I’ll admit, at first it caught me a bit off-guard. While it’s not “more lemon than lemon” as they advertise, in fact, I’d say I got more peach from it than lemon, it is very sour (but in a good way, not a “bad beer” way.) I’ll also admit, I wasn’t sure at first if I liked it.

But it paired great with the ribs and pulled pork I had for dinner, so I drank the whole bottle over the evening (they come in large 22-ounce bottle that I usually, when I have a beer that size, drink only half of in a night and wine-stopper the rest until the next day), and by the end of it came to really appreciate its complexity and punch.

One of the reasons I like Stone beers, is they’re generally bold, bitter, rich, and don’t go easy on you. They give you an experience. And this 16th Anniversary IPA is an experience. After you allow your palate to accept the lemony-peach, you can start appreciating the malty spices. The hoppy finish. By the last third of the bottle, the flavors no longer jump out separately but meld nicely into a tapestry that works together.

It’s not a beer for partying with or drinking thoughtlessly (none of the beers I like are like that, actually. Sam Adams Boston Lager is probably the closest I can come to to drinking a beer without “experiencing” it). It’s absolutely one worthy of an annual treat! Sadly, I only have 5 left. I better savor them.

But that my wife thought about this, put study into it, and did just for me–is just the coolest! I want everyone to know that that’s just how cool she is. :)

*PS: It should be obvious by the article but just to clear up any title confusion: No, it’s not our anniversary. She did this just ’cause.

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GenCon-inspired motivation

Last week I attended the largest gaming convention in America, GenCon. Four days of role-playing games, sci-fi cosplay (not me, personally), writers’ workshops, dealer room (and by “room,” I mean ginormous arena of more product in one place than a human mind can comprehend). It was amazing!

I’ve been known on my blogs to babble in incessant detail about the minutia of an experience. I’m going to try to avoid that here, else this post will go on for days. Four, to be precise. So, instead, I’m going to attempt an overview and then get into a few details now an again.

What brought me to GenCon this year, several years after my previous and first trip, was the decision to volunteer to game master some rounds of Posthuman Studio’s amazing RPG, ECLIPSE PHASE. To be honest, and perhaps to the surprise of the volunteer wrangler if he chances upon this, I’d not actually run an EP game before. Oh sure, I’ve been GMing RPGs since I was 10, some (oh… my… god!) 30 years now. (Pardon me while I take a stiff drink or five.) And I’d been reading EP materials for more than a year, trying to convince my regular gaming group to let me run some for them (to no avail). So, when I saw the call from Posthuman for GM volunteers, I jumped at the chance. I think I literally jumped.

What followed was weeks of intense EP studying and, finally, getting a couple groups of my friends to allow me to test the adventures I’d be running on them. Gladly, that went well. More importantly, the actual GenCon rounds I ran went fantastically well! (Fortunately, I’m the kind of GM who, if I run into some kind of road-block, I create workarounds and can wing it really well, with the primary goal of making sure everyone has fun. (Which, by the way, does not mean everyone gets to Monty Haul their way through the adventures… I did indeed end up killing a couple of characters in a most dramatic and worthy fashion, and just about Total Party Killed one group. They really enjoyed the tension-filled drama!)

Anyway, to wrap this part up, ECLIPSE PHASE is an incredible game, and Posthuman Studios is filled with great people! (I found it very amusing, and cool, that nearly everyone I saw working the Posthuman booth sported body mods: lots of facial piercings, hair coloring, tats. …and they were young–20s, certainly. A realization that helped lead me to a personal revelation which I’ll deal with soon. Anyway, great people, cool company (they actually put their $50 core rule book free online under Creative Commons! Can you believe that?!) I’m hoping to involve myself with them more.

So, that’s what took me to GenCon. But better yet, the wife and I decided we’d make it a family vacation with the daughter. We all searched and scoured the GenCon schedule for things to do, and successfully found a few things to do together; but, ultimately, all three of our schedules were pretty filled all four days.

Wife and I played an interesting board game that’s about to come out and was funded with Kickstarter, called “Oh My God There’s an Axe in My Head!” I’m looking forward to getting a copy. The three of us attended Tracy and Laura Hickman’s (you know, Tracy of Dragonlance fame) Killer Breakfast. Fun! But he wasn’t nearly as clever and quick as I expected him to be. Meh, that’s OK–it was a cool experience, and I love his writing. Daughter attended workshops on Doctor Who jewelry (read: Shrinkydink) making, makeup, anime stuff, and more stuff. She and wife make funny-cool felt doll ninjas and zombies, and played a “furry”-based RPG.

One of the things wife (I really need to get permission from her to use her name in public) did on her own was attend a Shadowrun improv show. She found it funny, and it really revitalized her Shadowrun interest! (I used to GM her and some college friends through many adventures back in the early 90s.) Now we’re browsing the ‘net-tubes for copies of Shadowrun 4th edition. Guess what I’ll be doing again, soon. *wink*

The vendors were legion! And, man, if only I’d had money, and lots of it. So much to buy! I had my eye on an interesting non-collectible card game that allowed you to create and play through a dungeon adventure solo or cooperative or multi-player. What I did end up getting was the new FADING SUNS book, which, sadly, after the controversial departure of their lead designer (wow, they’ve completely locked down their forum since I was there last, when stuff hit fans–yikes!), isn’t the revolutionary new version we fans had been expecting. By the looks of it, it’s a version 2.5, though the lady was trying really hard to say it was virtually 3rd edition. In any case, it does clean up and streamline the 2nd edition rules, which is well worth it in any case! Whatever questionable things the company has done/is doing, I still love that game! And I got the ECLIPSE PHASE supplement book, GATECRASHING. (Their books, by the way, are some of the best quality I’ve ever seen, period.) Daughter picked up a Doctor Who sonic screwdriver and a very nice pocket watch that, without any influence by me, happens to look very much like my own pocket watch that she didn’t know about. She’s my daughter. *smile*

I didn’t get to meet Wil Wheaton though I so wanted to. $25 to meet and get an autograph, which I don’t begrudge him at all! But that’s just too much for me. I did get to meet, speak with briefly, and get to sign my Nook, author Michael Stackpole. I’ve been a fan of his for years, but more so after I found out the work he did putting the “Dungeons & Dragons is evil!!1!” people in their place in the 80s. And even more more so after listening to his Stormwolf advice and hosting Dragon Page podcast.

Which leads me into the real meat of this post.

I attended a few writing seminars and panels (though not near as many as I wanted to!), including one of Stackpole’s. I heard from editors and publishers and authors about the business of writing, about networking with others in the industry, and other topics that deal with the writing career, as opposed to the act of writing. (Heck, as I’ve written before, I’ve been studying the art and craft of writing for year– *sigh* decades.) Oh, I also watched the taping of four episodes of Writing Excuses podcast. Sadly, I couldn’t get Brandon Sanderson’s autograph. *pout* Hearing from professionals about the profession was more than just informative, it was illuminating. It was motivating! Half the people on the panels were young, or started very young. And once again, for the tetragabazilionth time since I started grad school a few years ago, I felt the very sharp and painful pang of regret at all the lost time! I am starting a new career path, based on my passion now at middle age. Not only do I only have half the time in front of me to accomplish and enjoy my goals, but I’m trying to do it with a demanding full-time day job and a family while my peers and competition both are doing the same thing at the peak of their vigor and freedom.

Well, yes, this feeling of loss and desperation was sharp, as it always is–but what I also felt and was/am quite glad for it, is excitement and anticipation and hope. For example, working for someone else as a slush pile reader should be an intern-like job for a young person, but I’m excited about the chance of getting to do it, and gaining the skills and experience it will provide. Trying to network at my age and position will be difficult, but now I have a head (and some notebook pages) full of tips and suggestions of how to do it properly and effectively, and I’m excited about that as well.

And so this is what I came away from GenCon with: the renewed thrill and appreciation of my RPG hobby, renewed motivation and hope for my writing, and a renewed plan and energy for my editing/publishing goals. And, interestingly, one of the things that the helped these renewals, was the fact that in 4 days I barely looked at Facebook. The realization: I need to stop using Facebook.

Sadly, that’s not entirely feasible as Facebook is a great tool to me for learning news and info about books and authors and publishers, getting scifi/fantasy inspiration, networking with others in the industry, keeping up with gaming news and releases, and, of course, promoting my own works. So, leaving altogether would actually be a bad idea.

What I did do, though, is set up a new account and liked/subscribed/friended people and pages and groups and interests that focused entirely on writing, speculative fiction, publishing, and other manner of related subjects. (See, my original account was filled with socio-political-economic-philosophical matter that compelled me to not just visit every moment I had a break from work/family/work, but read and respond with negative-feeling emotion that, while was very important to me, sapped my mood and attitude and encouraged misanthropic crumudeonry. Those socio-political-economic-ideological beliefs I still feel very strongly about; but, I decided, it was time to make all that take a backseat to what I want to be most important to me, aside from my family. My writing and writing-related career.

So, here it begins… again. Wish me luck!

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“Sleeping Beauty” really needs a wake-up call!

I caught the Julia Leigh film “Sleepy Beauty” on Netflix the other night, and, if it weren’t for the final scene, I would have forgotten it as a sexually exploitative mediocre-at-best art-house film. Unfortunately, thanks to the penultimate scene in the film, what “Sleeping Beauty” is, is in fact, a near-miss at a truly excellent feminist psycho-drama. Sadly, no matter how affective one good apple of a scene can be, it’s not enough to save the rotten barrel. And because of that, instead of simply sighing and mumbling, “Well, that was a wasted two hours,” I’ve not been able to stop thinking about what this film could have been.

Needless to say, this critique/review is going to contain spoilers. If you’ve not seen this film. . . well, actually, I’m not sure I can suggest doing so. As I’ve indicated, and I’m going to go into, it’s not a good film. It’s certainly not something you want to watch for the entertainment value–it’s not entertaining. Well, unless you’re someone who watches, say, Lars von Trier films for entertainment. *scowl* Poorly made Lars von Trier films as that. So, if you’ve not seen it, and would still like to read this article, I won’t stop you.

That said, I really don’t feel like summarizing the film any any great detail for people who’ve not seen it. In fact, I would suggest reading the Wikipedia summary of the film before continuing. But, for clarity’s sake, here’s the broad brush: A college student played by Emily Browning appears to go to class, work two normal jobs, prostitute at night as a free agent, and subject herself to medical/scientific testing for extra cash. How she finds time to do all this, well, let’s just say time management isn’t the only fanciful aspect of this film. In the process, she gets hired on to be a half-naked “silver service” server and objet d’art a la Story of O for a private dinner party club. Evidently, because of her unique beauty (and, I assume, preternatural lack of emotion or flappability) she’s contracted to be put to sleep (literally, not figuratively) naked in bed so that high-paying men can do. . . whatever, to her while she remains comatose.

Yeah, sounds just lovely, huh. The film could have, and I think, though I’ve not read any articles about the writer/director, sincerely tried to use this rather unusual, twisted adult fairy tale of a plot, to make a feminist indictment of the way in which women are exploited and used by the patriarchal society. And, it comes close. At least, the elements are there, ready to be activated into a stunning and unforgettable critique of society. But the production fails to activate the materials. The catalyst was never set off thanks to a script that, at its best, rises to the level of tedious, directing that aspires to be as good as tedious, and acting that tries really, really hard but is hamstrung by the script and directing.

Before I get back to why the feminist structure was there, I want to touch on the acting. Emily Browning does an admirable job portraying a young women who, on the surface, is easily dismissed as “self-destructive.” Certainly anyone who lives the life her character does can’t be anything else but, can she? But no, it’s deeper than that, and Browning shows it. Her character actually doesn’t appear to care enough about her own being to be something as active as self-destructive. Nihilistic is perhaps the best description.

Actually, not long ago I discovered a mental-behavior disorder known as depersonalization disorder. Essentially, someone with this condition generally feels disconnected, literally and figuratively, from their body. They tend to go through life not as a participant in their own actions but rather as an observer–a detached viewer of a person they don’t identify as themselves. Browning’s character is never described in the film as having any kind of mental or behavioral disorder, and the somewhat surreal atmosphere and circumstances of the film tend to preclude being able to diagnose any of its characters with any real-world DSM-IV conditions. They simply are what they are without the benefit of medical classification. But, if I had to label her, I would say she depicts someone with depersonalization disorder to a tee. This analysis becomes very important in discussing why the ending of the film is as powerful as it is and nearly redeems this movie.

Browning’s character goes from job to class to job to drug to sexual exploit entirely unaffected. When a clinical scientist is running a tube down her throat for a test, when she’s making endless copies at an office job, when she’s lying to her alcoholic mother and gives her her fake(?) credit card number, when she’s negotiating for sex with a client, when she’s being examined for marks before joining the dinner party service team, nothing breaks through her detachment. She performs every task and duty equally submissive, equally detached. Until the end, there are only four times in the film she shows any emotion. One is, unbelievably, some semblance of happiness in the company of what the viewer can only assume (as no direct explanation is ever given) a long-time friend who appears to be a shut-in and either a recovering alcoholic or is chronically ill. Another is when said friend informs her that he can’t go on any longer and implies he’s either “letting go” or will commit suicide, she shows weakness, sadness, and even a bit of fear. Then, when she discovers him near-death from what appears to be drug-induced suicide, she crumbles and cries, allowing herself to be cuddled by him as he dies in bed. And finally, at the funeral when she demands of a new character and evidently long-ago friend of the both of them, to marry her (jokingly? sincerely? both?) and he angrily rejects her, she herself displays barely-repressed anger.

It’s these four, only four, instances of sincere humanity that peak (yes, “peak”) out from an otherwise Kansas-flat vista of stoicism, that allows the viewer, just barely, to feel some amount of empathy, or at least sympathy, for her character. Just enough to let us keep going along this weird and twisted journey she’s on, to see where it ends. The 95-percent unaffected behavior from her is necessary for the socio-political purpose of the film, and to make the ending as effective as it is, while the four-instance emotional cracks allow us to believe the ending is possible while, also, not getting so disgusted by her alien behavior that we have to give up on her before journey’s end.

No, all blame for the failures of this film rests at the feet of the director. For example, just what style was she going for? Kubrickian? David Lynchian? Catherine Breillat-ian? von Trierian? It certainly doesn’t establish a style of its own, despite the pastiche, as the styles of the afore-mentioned auteur directors are employed with heavy-handed obviousness and no cohesiveness. Which is made worse by the fact that the viewer can’t tell what directorial choices are in fact choices or mistakes or carelessness.

For example, in one particular scene, Browning’s character, Lucy, steps out from a car having arrived at where she would be sleeping, and stops in the driveway to stare at something. The camera slowly pans (Lynchian-style) across the building to where there’s another car that two men help a drugged young woman into. The camera slowly pans back to show Lucy vaguely curious. The problem here is that once the camera reveals the men, woman, and car, it’s obvious that they wouldn’t have been visible to Lucy at the point we see her stare before the camera makes its languorous trip. So, is this intentional? Is this just lazy direction?

In another scene, Lucy is in an electronics store to buy a concealable camera. Her image is displayed on various televisions from what should be a camera on display. However, it’s obvious here that her televised image was pre-recorded and Browning is having to act to match the dialog and movements of herself in the screens. This is terribly perplexing; there’s no logical, practical reason why the production couldn’t have used a real-time digital camera patched into televisions the same way thousands of department stores do daily. Just replace whatever they had feeding the screens with her pre-recorded action with a live camera. The fact they used a recording had to have been a conscious and intentional decision, but why? For all the oddness of the film, it’s not so odd that this display of a fracture in reality, I can only assume, is justified and appropriate.

And, not to mention, the scene that was surely the worst directed scene I have ever seen since an Ed Wood movie. The scene in which Lucy has her interview with the hostess/madam, Clara, and her assistant(?). The entire, single-cut scene, felt like the director said, “Action!”

And the actors replied, “Uhm, you never gave us lines or blocking for this scene.”

“Well. . . oh! We’ll do this scene. . . minimalist natural realism! Yeah, that’s the ticket. Now. . . action!”

“Er, we still don’t really know what to do here.”

“Action!”

It was awkward and uncomfortable watching it, and I sat through “Jurassic Park 2.” I almost gave up. I thought to myself, “I don’t care how artsy and film-festivally this is, this is terrible.” But, I try never to stop watching a film so that, if nothing else, I can say, “Yeah, actually, I saw that. Let me tell you how bad it was!” (And yet, I still refuse to see “Twilight.”)

This brings us, finally, to the saving grace that made me throw up my hands in cry, “This! Why couldn’t the previous 97 minutes have lived up to this?!” Here’s what happens:

So, she rises to the position of being a beautiful rag doll in a lavish bed. We see her on three different occasions get molested in her drugged state by three wealthy men she never meets. The first one is, in a manner of speaking, the more gentle one who seems to want to do no more than appreciate her appearance. (Still misogynistic, and I’ll go into that later.) But he’s a sad, broken rich man. He comes back at the end of the film to allow himself to be drugged to death by the madam/hostess and die in bed next to the naked and sleeping Lucy.

Cut to later when Clara returns and checks to make sure he is indeed dead. Clara sits on the bed, perhaps sad. She attempts to waken Lucy and discovers that (thanks to her still having last night’s recreational drugs in her system) Lucy won’t awaken. She’s forced to give her near-panicking mouth-to-mouth. Lucy wakes with a shock and a start. She looks around, seemingly for the first time, sees the man dead next to her, and screams. And screams. Not the scream of panic, nor of shock, nor anger, but of pure, brutal existential crisis. She screams in spiritual terror like a newborn pulled violently into a new world, but also with all the awareness of the terror of what life holds.

Every ounce of emotion that Lucy should have felt throughout the film, throughout her whole life perhaps, comes out in this instantaneous realization of who she is, what she is, what she’s done. The dam has burst, the walls have collapse, the ground has given way, every masonic artifice that is used to hold in the unbridled force of being, is gone. All is left is pure pathos. And Emily Browning performs this painful and terrible moment with complete and utter sincerity. We, the voyeur who has watched her emotionless debasement for an hour and a half is given a view of the cost and are then swept away, never to know if this re-birth leads to her new life, or ultimate destruction where what was before an existence not-lived or examined, becomes active self-destruction as she realizes she can’t live with her new awareness. The scene cuts to video of what Lucy had secretly recorded of that night using her covertly placed camera–her asleep, and him presumably dead, in the same position he was found in. Then, credits.

That catharsis gives meaning and purpose to the previous hour and a half of detached ennui. And the previous small cracks give the catharsis sincerity. Sadly, however, the scene can’t be seen entirely as Lucy’s horror and catharsis and one can’t help but see, perhaps, some of Browning herself in the emotional release, due to the fact that the awkward and amateurish direction throughout the film gives the impression that the actress is being exploited and abused nearly as much as the character. While the presumed intent of the film was to critique misogyny, the failure of the message makes the actress as much a victim as the character. Perhaps not as intentionally as von Trier and his sadistic debasement and abuse of women (the actresses themselves in what seems like the director’s hate for women) in what is truly misogynistic film-making, but the end result is the same.

So, because of the embarrassingly awful and never-quite-sure-what’s-intentional directing, the potentially powerful message gets turned into exactly what the film was trying to subvert–a misogynistic sexual exploitation piece. Lucy is supposed to represent the female, made to be submissive and without voice in the patriarchy. She’s expected to be all things: the good daughter, the student, the hard worker, the sex slave, the piece of art on a pedestal, the caretaker of the weak and sick . . . . And she’s expected to do it without complaint. Without even her active participation in those roles. She’s simply . . . expected.

Clara, the hostess/madam, should have been an interesting character. She is what Lucy would have become in fifteen or twenty years. Clara appears in the film nearly as unaffected, as detached as Lucy. She is, in fact, representative of the self-victimization of the woman. She facilitates her own subjugation and the subjugation of women because that is, again, what is expected. It’s what she knows. It’s auto-pilot. Throughout the history of the fight for gender equality, some of the fiercest opponents have been other women who resent the idea that they should question the world, the role, they know and have been convinced is the right and proper “place” for a woman in this “man’s world.” Without question, without a raised eyebrow, Clara perpetuates the abuse to the next generation. Lucy has woken up, and has avoided that fate–though we don’t know if for good or ill.

The three men who visit the comatose Lucy represent three different ways in which society sets men up to subjugate women. The second man to use her is overtly abusive, raining verbal abuse upon her and even burning her with a cigarette. There is no subtlety with him, he is hate. Interestingly, before his visit, Clara had but one rule for the men: no penetration. She had even told Lucy, in these words, that her vagina is a temple (which Lucy dismissed). This points out the patriarchy’s obsession with “purity,” or virginity, despite the complete disdain it has for all other aspects of the female. “Virginity” is code for “property.” Only the man who owns the girl can despoil her in such a way, while society has historically had no similar attachment of “purity” toward men. (At least, not until the rise of equal rights when, faced with the hypocrisy, instead of giving up on the obsession with female virginity, Judeo-Christian culture started giving lip service toward the value of male virginity. Though, in cultural practice, this is empty sentiment.) This is evident in the rise of the rather creepy “purity balls” which have no male version.

In any case, Clara’s one rule was to maintain the patriarchal obsession with purity in hypocritical counterpoint to the range of abuse otherwise allowed, until the second man’s visit. Clara then adds a second rule: no marks. After all, we are still talking about property.

The third man is a large, bull of a man who is surreal David Lynch style, performs a scene of trying to pick up the limp, naked Lucy, carry her around and replace her on the bed, only to have her continue to slide off the edge despite his efforts. It really is almost as absurd as it sounds. This man is the hypocrisy of chivalry. Chivalry (as we know it today, not its medieval origin) is a false theatrical replacement for actual respect. If you want to open a door for someone, protect someone’s honor, treat someone with deference, you do it out of respect for that person as a human. While the patriarchy exploits and abuses the female, it hides behind this play-act of being a protector and guardian of virtue of “the weaker sex.” It’s patronizing and demeaning and borne, once again, out of protection of property, as opposed to out of human respect as equals. The third man tries to be the strong, dominant hero, and because he sees her as the other men do, an object, property, he ultimately fails.

Back to the first (and final) man, he is the subtle symbol of patriarchal exploitation. His first visit, all he does is look, admire, touch, with what appears to be both longing and adoration. On the surface, this seems harmless enough. But remember, he’s looking and touching and admiring a woman who has been made to order to be unresponsive, unaware, without voice–still, just an object. His tender touch is no different and has no more care than a stroke of a statue or a vase. In the western patriarchy, women are objectified and presented on magazines, TV, billboards, as commodity. To be consumed. The image of the woman is sexualized, made glamorous and seemingly untouchable, but consumed all the same. This seemingly kindly, older man, is not being kind to Lucy, he doesn’t even know or even see a “Lucy.” He sees an object, something he’s paid to consume.

And in the end, with his second visit, he uses her in a most obscene way, by making her without her consent, see him off into death. We may feel sympathy for him because he’s alone and broken and desires to leave the world next to something beautiful, but this does not absolve him of the exploitation he commits, of the person to which he is incapable of apologizing to. And it perverts the earlier scene where she voluntarily gives comfort to her friend as he, in counterpoint, also leaves this world, broken. That scene (though directed awkwardly), is heartbreaking; the scene with the rich old man, is perverse. This realization is certainly part of what instigates Lucy’s ultimate breakdown.

The indictment is there, the statements are there, the critique is there–but what ultimately comes out of this film is clumsy and . . . whatever German word means: ironically sexual without any actual sexuality.

Oh, and a final word on the marketing of this film. From what I’ve seen, it’s been marketed as an erotic drama, even romantic is some strange way. For the DVD release, the studio even did a promotion where you could win a chance at a prize for sleeping in public in their display bed. Seriously. Think about what this movie is about, and then consider this “you too could be Sleeping Beauty for money!” promotion. Reminds me of how “Hunger Games” was promoted. “You too can participate in the Hunger Games!” kind of hoopla to the books and fast food tie-ins and stuff. Think about that. “You too can participate in a horrific and evil competition where you kill other children in grisly ways and try to survive! Buy our stuff.”

I hate marketers.

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