Monday, December 31, 2007

SFSNNJ 2007 Year in Review

Greetings Earthlings,

Well, 2007 is finally winding to a close and what a great year it has been. We have seen notable and ignoble efforts in the field of Science Fiction grace the silver screen, we have witnessed a deluge of new books, and we have gotten to meet a number of great friends who share our love of the genre. Let's recollect and take a quick tour of this past year...

January: This month marked two firsts for the SFSNNJ: our featured guest speaker, Kenneth Eng, was a no show, and we introduced the Hillsdale area to our new Medium Screen Classics event. On the Kenneth Eng front, it seems a boon that the insane Asian racist did not show up, as his antics throughout 2007 have been anything but laudatory (he was fired from his job at AsianWeek Magazine for an article entitled "Why I Hate Black People" and eventually arrested for menacing in Brooklyn when he threatened a mother and daughter with a hammer). Chris Hasselkus and Barry Weinberger worked hard and brought us a line-up of films for our viewing pleasure at the Hillsdale Library. This library, already the home to That's Science Fiction, played host to a run of Unfaithfully Yours and Citizen Kane as the inauguration for this event.

February: We played host to super-blogger and author Paul Levinson this month, and boy what a great event that was. Paul talked at length about his new novel, and thoroughly enchanted our modest gathering. As one of the lucky few to get their hands on the book, I got a chance to get mine autographed and to read it all the way through. All I can say is that this is a fantastic page-turner with none of the pitfalls one expects of a time-travel book. It is one of the most carefully and well-thought-out books that I have read this year, and there are no strings left dangling. February also saw Medium Screen Classics graduate from single shows to festivals as we ran a Godzilla marathon and a double-feature of the Directors editions of Alien and Aliens. It should be noted that although I love the Alien franchise and the Predator franchise, I am not so huge a fan of the cross-over movies.

March: In like a lion and out like a lamb... a mutant mega-lamb with laser eyes... OK, maybe not... Anyway this month was an interesting one as we played host to Natalie Danford, author of Inheritance. Natalie is a great literary critic, with many interesting stories to tell about the field, and a great book to discuss. Having read Inheritance myself, I can wholly recommend it, and say that it would be a good idea to have some tissues handy.

April: You know what they say: April showers bring hordes of the undead... What? They say that where I come from. Just wait and you will see. Anyway, April brought a visit from the jolly bearded man from Iona College: Dr. Kim Paffenroth! What a stimulating and engaging discussion we had, as the good Doctor discussed the fine points of Zombie lore and we talked about his new book Dying to Live. This is truly the most intelligent Zombie story around, and I highly recommend anybody who loves horror to go out and read this one.

May: Another first for the SFSNNJ as noted radio host Ken Gale joined us to talk about comic books, radio, and the state of the arts. What a great night this was as we were trapped in the basement of the Bergen Mall, with Madeline taking pictures of strange statuary, Sandy Schlosser wondering how many ghost stories were waiting to be told in the creepy confines of the basement, and many others exploring the bowels of the Bergen Museum of Science and Technology, which was kind enough to host our little group.

June: Our return to the renovated Borders Garden State Plaza store was heralded by the arrival of best selling author "Dallas" Jack Ketchum. Jack discussed new works, old works, violent pornography (get your mind our of the gutter, he was referring to a quote from the Village Voice regarding his book Off Season). Remy took notes, most of us grew frightened. Having read Off Season for the first time, I have to say that Dallas certainly has a way of making the reader feel ill at ease. Possibly one of the scariest books I have ever read, if only because the monsters are all humans.

July: It's our Anniversary! That's right, in July we marked the official 1 year anniversary of the SFSNNJ with a dinner out to the great Westwood, NJ eatery The Iron Horse. What a fun time we had there as food was consumed and members chatted socially around the room. It was our chance to thank everyone for all their hard work and horseplay throughout the past year, and we took it. July was also graced by guest speaker Erroll Martins, author of Pell Provence, a rather strange story of a man who destroys worlds.

August: Unfortunately for the world, the Newport Jazz Festival falls in August, and thus I missed out on Face the Fiction's special guest, Sarah Beth Durst. This wonderful new Fantasy author so captivated the audience that Borders nearly sold out of her book. Her new, expensive, hardcover book. Now that is what I call a draw! I have not yet had the chance to read Into the Wild, but considering what I have heard (and read on the author's blog) I am excited to do so. I should also point out that Ms Durst has been corrupted by the heady power of the SFSNNJ's microphone.

September: Clayton McNally is a horse of a very different color. A military Science Fiction writer and martial arts expert, Clayton regaled us with tales of writing, reading, reviewing, and more. He explained the exciting world of working for small press publications, the ability to determine page-layout more for himself, how to produce a commercial for the SciFi Channel, how to juggle 13 projects at the same time, and the mechanics of visiting his daughter in NJ. We were left exhausted and happy by the end of that event!

October: Yet another first for the SFSNNJ as we gathered a panel of authors to discuss the state of mystery, suspense, and intrigue at the Borders Garden State Plaza. Jackie Kessler, author of Hell's Belles, Ken Isaacson, author of Silent Counsel, and Brian Wiprud, author of Tailed, joined forces to form a literary juggernaut the likes of which could easily have destroyed Voltron. Seriously, though, the panel waxed eloquent on a number of subjects, starting by going in order, and then going the tag team route as they worked with the audience. I have now read all three books, and though they are very different from one another, they are all equally excellent works.

November: S.J. Rozan came to us from the heart of New York City to discuss her new anthology, Bronx Noir, as well as many of her prior works. A great mystery writer, if SJ is a good a basketball player as she is a writer, then Shaq better beware. Though she only really read from Bronx Noir, SJ got the attention of a number of bookstore shoppers when we began discussing her novels Winter and Night and Absent Friends. It was a pleasure hearing this Bronx native talk about murder and the city, and Bronx Noir should grace everyone's shelves, as it hs some of the best mystery short stories I have seen in a while.

December: It's a party! December is always a time to kick back, relax, and take a break from the routine of the rest of the year, and as such we lighten the load for the month to let our friends relax. Face the Fiction holds its annual Holiday Party in December, and Sandy Schlosser was again our honored guest. Sandy, who is a wonderful and fantastic member of the SFSNNJ, is the author of the Spooky series of books, and also a contributing commentator on the Supernatural series DVDs. Her insights into folklore and mythology are great. A new addition this year, Sandy had many of the regular members read from various spooky books. Gene read a story from the forthcoming Spooky Wisconsin about trapeze artists and ghosts. Dean read a story from Spooky Maryland reminiscent of Poe's The Telltale Heart. Madeline read a story of witches from Spooky New England. I read the story One Last Head from the book Spooky Michigan, and Sandy read several stories, including the story of the Jack-o-lantern, and finishing up with a tale of Christmas from the Pennsylvania Dutch. A grand time was had by all!

And that, in a very small nutshell, was 2007's highlights from guest speakers and some special events. For more in depth views of each month, please review our archived Monthly newletters on the SFSNNJ Yahoo Group.

Friday, December 7, 2007

Chapter 4 Laws & Orders

"Guards, arrest that woman!"

I recognized the voice, there was no way I couldn't. The smarmy little Tyrennhian fink had found me. All that effort, all that time, all the planning completely wasted because of one officious little Imperial officer. If I could have, I probably would have exploded in sheer annoyance at the unfairness of it all.

I turned slowly to face my captors and was stunned to see Arrenus standing alone. There were no guards anywhere in sight, and it seemed to me that the Tyrennhian was snickering at my obvious shock. Questions whirled in my mind as I tried to analyze the situation. What was he doing? Was he working for Savago, or himself? Was he going to turn me in? He couldn't arrest me himself, this was Dahlon not Tarn Frientum, so what in the 17 hells was going on?!

I must have said the last aloud, because the Tyrennhian guffawed a moment and then muttered something about 'women with spirit' in Medarin. He had an odd look on his face, and my mind was rapidly catching up with the situation. The other people on the street had stopped staring when they realized that there wasn't going to be an arrest and were starting to disperse as the officer from the Proconsul's Writ approached me.

"Sorry, it was too good an opportunity to pass up," chuckled the Tyrennhian, "I know, I know, you have a million little question, eh? Perhaps we should get out of the street and talk a moment. I mean, unless you really want to stand out in broad daylight and wait for Savago's clan to find you..."

The obvious rhetorical nature of the last statement put my teeth on edge. This simply would not do, however I had little choice but to step off into the little cafe with the Tyrennhian. I noticed the man in truth for the first time as we sat down. Medium height, medium build, with a rather bland face, the only thing remarkable about him was the number of campaign rings braided into the Ningul at the back of his head. It was obvious that he was a seasoned veteran in spite of his apparent youth and junior rank.

"Let me explain before you get angry. I am an officer in the Tyrennhian navy, yes, but I am also a member of the Proconsul's inner circle. I have been looking for an ally here in the Merlani Free Cities, and when I saw you with those pirates, I knew I had found one. I will help you out and protect you from the pirates, all I ask in return is that you help me out with a bit of a problem."

I started to object with a sinking feeling in my gut. Was he going to ask me to betray my people? I could expect such from a Tyrennhian. I doubt he had ever fought an honest fight in his life, and betrayal would be second nature to him.

"I know that you have no reason to trust, me, but I sent a runner ahead to Secretary Brill to let her know that you were coming. She should be able to help you out and get you work to keep you away from the Polinoys. While I know you don't trust me, I am pretty sure you are going to trust the Secretary, and I am sure that you will see the necessity of what we are doing when she explains what is going on."

Shaking my head in disbelief I started to speak, only to be hushed by Arrenus. The Tyrennhian simply pointed at a small house down the block and nodded, "I will meet you here when you are finished with Madame Brill."

"You're making an awfully big assumption, Tyrennhian," I said through gritted teeth.

"I sincerely doubt it," he said as he smiled knowingly.

Angry and confused I got up and walked as quickly as I could to the house that the Tyrennhian had indicated. When I knocked on the door a middle-aged woman in rich robes of muted purple and green answered. Cocking an eyebrow she said, simply, "Took you long enough. Come in, we have a lot to talk about."

Suddenly I got the feeling that my day was not about to get any better.

Friday, November 30, 2007

Chapter 3 - Escapes & Escapades

For the next three years I toiled aboard the Wavestrider and fought in many engagements and raids. Though not a Varyag myself, I was accepted by the crew and immersed in their language and customs. The bold pirate ship under the command of Savago Polinoy became my home and family, and like most willful children I could not wait to run away and escape.

From that first fateful raid on the Tyrennhian cargo ship, I knew full well that I would need to escape from the Wavestrider. The problem was, how to do that without getting caught by either the pirates or the local law enforcement. While I knew that I would likely need to wait until they were back in a familiar place, I also realized that it was unlikely that we would return to my home any time soon. So it was that I bided my time until the Wavestrider was once again making for port at Dahlon. Unfortunately, life does not care for the machinations and plans of the living, and so fate intervened before the Wavestrider could reach the Merlani Free Cities.

As the Polinoy clan ship sailed quickly towards its destination they did not realize that an enemy lay along their path. When it was too late for the Wavestriderto alter her course, the massive Tyrennhian Quinquereme appeared out of nowhere, her invisibility removed by the stone her forward onager had just lobbed over the Wavestrider's deck.

Unprepared for the surprise attack, Savago had a moment to stare, open-mouthed and in shock, at the massive Imperial warship almost directly ahead of him. A voice boomed over the deck demanding that the Varyag heave to and prepare for boarding. The Wavestriderwas doomed if they tried to resist, so Savago complied with a speed worthy of the Freiji, the Aspect of the Swift Current.

After a few moments Imperial Marines were boarding the smaller pirate ship from the Tyrennhian warship. The Quinquereme was massive for a warship, but not as big as the heavy Septiremes and Decares that the Tyrennhian Imperium was capable of fielding. I noted the difference in size casually and professionally, comparing this ship to the enormous bulk of the Kraken, a Tyrennhian Decares that had come to Dahlon for trade and diplomacy in my youth. Though smaller, this ship seemed as deadly as her larger cousin.

Taking a quick look at the Quinquereme also gained her the ship's name, written in blocky Medarin on the hull beneath the forecastle. This ship was the Proconsul's Writ, a name that immediately filled me with dread. The ship was a patrol and customs ship renown for catching pirates in just the manner in which the Wavestrider had been captured.

While I mused over the inherent unfairness of it all, a young Tyrennhian officer looked quizically at me and cocked an eyebrow. In Galari, the language of my homeland, he asked, "Whatever is a Merlani doing on a Varyag ship?"

"Working her passage," replied Savago tersely in Medarin to show that he had understood the question and was having none of this nonsense. Vigo looked tense, and two more officers joined the boarding party. The oldest of the officers bore the badges of a Quinquerarch, and was obviously the captain of the Writ.

"I suppose, then, that yours is a cargo ship, Master Varyag," asked the Quinquerarch in a somewhat bored tone.

"Aye, she is that, Captain, and dare I ask why you are stopping merchant ships at sea in the middle of nowhere?" replied Savago angrily. Though he was obviously bluffing, he played the angry and affronted merchant with all the skill of a seasoned actor.

"I see. Then you should have no trouble providing me with proper manifests for a complete customs inspection, eh?" was the Tyrennhian's retort.

Fortunately for us, Savago was no fool, and Vigo and Yssa were forgers of great skill. The ship had papers for every piece of cargo in its hold, and the papers would all pass muster as being legitimate bills of lading and transport for the cargo. Also, as luck would have it, while much of the cargo was contraband in the Imperium, it was perfectly legal in our listed port of call, Dahlon.

The inspection took three hours, as the Tyrennhians were convinced, rightly so as it turned out, that we were all pirates. The young officer, whose name was Septimus Arrenus, kept looking at me the whole time. Though I detested the Imperium for what it had done to my homeland, I had to admit that the young naval officer was really rather dashing in an odd sort of way, though the odd hairstyle affected by Tyrennhian soldiers was kind of off-putting.

In the end, the Wavestrider was allowed to continue on to Dahlon under close escort, thus preventing Savago from filling the rest of his hold on the way to Dahlon. It was obvious that the Tyrennhian knew that the Polinoy ship was obviously a real pirate, but without proof, the law-abiding military of the Imperium would not do anything about it. It took ten days to sail to Dahlon with the Proconsul's Writ dogging us every step of the way.

When we reached Dahlon, my first action was to perform my normal duties and assist with the loading and unloading of the cargo. Much of the time we were under observation by Tyrennhian soldiers or sailors, to the obvious annoyance of the stevedores working the docks. As soon as that was done, I looked to one of the stevedores and told him that one of the Tyrennhians had said something about re-conquering the dirty Merlani scum in this crummy little city. The stevedore quickly spread the word, and the next thing you knew there was a massive fight breaking out between the dock workers and the Tyrennhians. Using the fracas as a diversion, I slipped away from the docks and up into the city proper.

I realized first off that I would not be able to go home right away, and that Deroone Verthur's shop would probably be the first place anyone with half a brain would think to look for me. Understanding that my options were severely limited, and that the mix of different coins in my purse would only last for so long, I made my way as quickly as I could to the south end of town.

Assuming nothing had changed, I knew that the current leader of the Dahlon Secretariat, Fendy Brill, could be found there. It was risky, but I knew it was my only chance for survival and escape. I almost made it to Brill's home when those words that every right thinking woman hates to hear: "Guards, arrest that woman!"

Tuesday, November 27, 2007

Top Ten Best Philosophical Science Fiction Stories

This week, the SFSNNJ's feature events are Themes of the Fantastic, and the topic is Philosophy and Science Fiction. While I know that our wonderful moderators, Steve Spinosa and Bill Wagner, will do a bang-up job, I wanted to throw a few ideas around before the meeting anyway:

10) Iron Sunrise by Charles Stross - examines a culture completely devoted to Nietzche. A brilliantly written story with great characters (as only Charles Stross can do), Iron Sunrise explores a future where pseudo-Nazis are trying to take over the universe in secret in the hopes that the one true ubermensch, the Unborn God, will create the ultimate peace for them. Great concepts and a wonderful tale.

9) Altered Carbon by Richard K. Morgan - are you really you if you are wearing a different body? Morgan examines the concept of sleeved mentalities in this far future series. The initial story, Altered Carbon, shows us that in spite of everything else, Takeshi Kovacs is a UN Envoy, no matter whose sleeve (i.e. body) he is wearing. It is an interesting examination on the morality of killing when a cortical memory stack will still contain the base 'soul' of the sleeve.

8) Cyteen by C.J. Cherryh - Amazing philosophical debate about the idea of cloning. The great ethical debate in the story centers around a clone who is being made to undergo all of the same stresses and experiences as the original in the hopes of recreating the original completely. While some decry this as a far-future version of The Boys from Brazil, the truth is that this story actually argues the point instead of using it merely as a plot vehicle.

7) Maximum Light by Nancy Kress - This bleak look at a barren and sterile future shows us a new argument to look into. Is it morally justified to castrate a homosexual in order to harvest his sperm in order to ensure the propagation of the species? The despicable act is explored in all its torrid thoughtfulness, and eventually the characters must choose between exigence and morality.

6) Stand on Zanzibar by John Brunner - Granted, this cautionary tale of overpopulation and belligerent, chest-thumping nationalism is a bit dated, but the core concept: is it justifiable to kill a man who will give your enemies an advantage, is still there. Brunner looks at the morality of the espionage and assassination culture of international politics, and presents a great moral and ethical problem for the character.

5) The Stone Canal by Ken MacLeod - When is revenge enough? When has it gone too far? This story revolves around that ethical debate, while providing us with a somewhat gritty utopia of a society built around communism and Maslow's hierarchy of needs. MacLeod gives us a great look into the pros and cons of his little universe, as well as a superlative story of vengeance and hatred spanned several centuries.

4) The Traveler by John Twelve Hawks - If might makes right, what does it mean when the villains don't use physical force to coerce their victims? Enter the world of Harlequins and Travelers and find out what the counter-culture is really fighting against, and watch as the debate over the concept of a super-panopticon rages across the text of the story.

3) The Golden Age by John C. Wright - Is it ethical to completely redact a man's memories and impose a death penalty upon him should he try to restore them? What if your redactions are so thorough that he does not know why he has missing memories, only that he has missing memories? Is that character justified in taking any and all steps to restore balance even when told that he might risk his life in doing so? Read it and find out.

2) Kingdom of Cages by Sarah Zettel - Like the Nancy Kress story Maximum Light, this story deals with the ethical conundrum of the rights of a few versus the survival of the species. The question is really more pointed here, though, as human colonies are being destroyed by plague and worse, all because humans were irresponsible in not trying to understand the environments of colony worlds before making colonies there. Brilliant story, well told, and ethically perplexing.

1) Dune by Frank Herbert - Granted, Dune is my favorite novel of all time, but the ethical implications of prescience are explored with quite a bit of depth here. Does Paul Atreides have a moral imperative to shape the future of the known universe, or is this merely hubris on his part?

Wednesday, November 21, 2007

How to wreck a great story

For those of us who saw the movie The Seeker, we knew that it was supposed to be an adaptation of the classic YA book The Dark is Rising by Susan Cooper. In point of fact, other than the names and the idea that Will Stanton is the Sign Seeker, an Old One opposed to the powers of the Dark embodied by the Rider, very little of the original concept remains.

When I saw the film, I thought that it was great, a very well done movie that manages to hit a lot of the notes that Cooper was striving for in her novel. Will Stanton was ably played, and Christopher Eccleston was a fantastic Rider. The effects were good, and the interplay of the characters was worthwhile. The problem is that the film is not about what the book is about.

While the film The Seeker is a coming of age story centered around young Will Stanton, the book has rather a different spin altogether. The Dark is Rising is less about young Will coming of age than it is about the insurmountable task of overcoming a supremely ancient and powerful foe while trying to learn to be an ancient and powerful Old One. The story is not about Will as a callow youth attempting to learn the ways of the force... er, I mean the Light, but rather it is a story of a youth with the mind of a man who is adapting himself to the fight by thinking quickly and behaving as an Old One with the tool thrust so quickly into his hands.

You are not meant to sympathize with Will, but rather you are meant to see Will as just as much of an indomitable figure as the forces that he opposes. If anything, you are meant to feel sympathy for those around Will Stanton. Where the film loses is by making us almost feel sorry for this poor fish out of water and the fact that he is being thrown into the deep-end of the ocean by fate. The novel makes us feel sorry for Will's family, who are unknowingly and unwittingly caught up in the grand struggle of Light vs Dark.

I applaud the filmmakers for making a genuinely interesting and worthwhile film, however I rather wish that they had not tried to pretend that it was a faithful adaptation of the book.

Monday, November 19, 2007

Top 10 Books Every Kid Should Read

Since this week is Tripping the Write Fantastic's last session for 2007, I felt it fitting to do my Todd's Top Ten list based on the subject matter we will be discussing. Tomorrow we will discuss Susan Cooper, one of the greatest Young Adult writers of the 20th century, and so I felt it important to give everyone a look at the 10 greatest genre novels for young people. Here we go:

10) Tuck Everlasting - A young girl befriends a family of immortals in this strange coming of age story. The story is well told and interesting, and we learn the truth as to why immortality isn't more widespread. The ending is bittersweet at best, but the point of the story is well taken: respect the privacy of those around you.

9) I, Robot - Isaac Asimov tells a series of brilliant stories of robots not functioning properly. The idea that simple programming errors can cause different types of aberrant robot behavior is an interesting one, and is a great aid for kids looking at why people behave differently. Also, robots are cool.

8) The John Grimes Series: This venerable Science Fiction series was a gateway drug for many current fans. A. Bertram Chandler writes a great series of stories designed to make every boy feel like they can conquer the universe, just like Lieutenant Grimes.

7) Fafhrd & the Gray Mouser: Say what you like about Fritz Leiber, he sure got this sword and sorcery duo right. Since their creation this indomitable pair have been copied, mimicked, and parodied (they even have a role play game setting under their belts), proving that they are still a force to be reckoned with.

6) The Sword of Shannara Trilogy: Alanon the Druid and the Shannarah family battle demons, evil druids, warlocks, brigands, rebels, and more. The Elfstones of Shannara remains among the best of the series, but they are all fantastic books.

5) The Chronicles of Narnia: Forget the movie, go read The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe for yourself! My personal favorite in the series is The Voyage of the Dawntreader, but these books are all really well written. There is religious symbolism wrought into the story, but it can be easily ignored if you don't want to bother with it.

4) John Carter of Mars: Edgar Rice Burroughs weaves a masterful story of a Civil War officer catapulted to Barsoom (Mars) through mystical means. A great series of stories for kids of all ages, Burroughs sense of wonder and excitement over Barsoom plays well, even to modern audiences.

3) The Lord of the Rings: I doubt that an explanation is needed for this classic tale of swords, sorcery, elves, and Hobbits, but in case you had not heard, this is a great series of novels. Tolkien uses his brilliant world building skills to craft the history of th last great age of Middle Earth in a way that everyone can enjoy.

2) The Flying Sorcerers: Despite the title, the story is actually about a scientist who has crash-landed on a primitive world. Said man of science must use his knowledge and skills to get off the planet, and hijinx ensure. Told from the point of view of the primitive shaman, who calls the sorcerer "Purple" because that is what his name sounds like in the native tongue, this is a classic work for kids by David Gerrold.

1) The Prydain Chronicles: Lloyd Alexander at the top of his game, 'nuff said.

Friday, November 16, 2007

Chapter 2 - Voyage of the Wavestrider

It took me a few days to realize that something was not quite right on the Polinoy clan ship that I had become crew on. Although I had never been to sea before and had no direct experience with sailing, I had seen enough ships in the harbor to know that something was a bit off. Little things that I should have noticed but that my excitement over my new career as a sailor over-rode.

The first thing I should have noticed was that although we were off-loading a great deal of cargo, it seemed that very little cargo was being taken on. It is rather odd for a merchant to go about with an empty hold, but I supposed that maybe the Polinoys were waiting for goods or a transhipment or even taking on new cargo at sea by transferring items. Piracy should have leapt right to mind, but I was too full of the idea of adventure to think clearly.

The second thing that I should have noticed were the number of weapons aboard the ship. Everyone was armed, and there were a nummber of weapons secreted about the ship as well. I assumed at the time that this had to do with the perils of the seas, unfortunately I failed to consider the fact that the Wavestrider was in fact one of those perils.

In the end we sailed from the harbor at Dahlon and made way for Tunde, another of the Free Cities and our next stated destination. After about 4 hours of sailing in the correct direction we began changing course and heading further West, out of the Merlani regions and into the open sea. When I asked Vigo what was going on, he cagily replied that we were positioning themselves to get the best hunting. I naturally assumed that he was referring to the bounty on Slillikul or that they might be hunting a Tojanida or even a Narwhale, but of course I was mistaken.

I learned the depth of my error when the heavily laden Tyrennhian merchantman hove into sight on the horizon three days later. Suddenly the deck was alive with activity and I found a cutlass thrust into my hands.

"Put it in your sash and get in the rigging, Arissa," said Vigo excitedly, "It is time to earn our keep."

"What... what do you mean?" I asked with a sinking feeling that I really knewn what he had meant all along and just did not want to believe it.

"Oh come off it Arissa, you know full well what I mean. At dinner the other day you talked about how awful the Tyrennhians are, and how you wished you could pay them back for what they did to Dahlon during the occupation. Well, here is your chance for revenge. Ok, so we also make some money at this, but beggars cannot be choosers," laughed Vigo heartily.

Out of the corner of my eye I noticed Savago watching us intently. Obviously this was to be my test. If I agreed and took part in the piracy, then I would become an outlaw, like them, and would be forced to help them and work with them for the rest of my days. If I refused, then I would likely be tossed overboard after having been tied to something heavy. Neither proposition appealed to me, however I had little choice in the matter. Better to live as a pirate than die as a moralist.

I gave a brusque nod and began to climb the rigging. The glance that passed between Savago and Vigo did not escape my notice, but I am sure that they intended it that way. Suddenly I realized that I was going to have to be very careful and plan my future without trusting anybody on this ship.

Meanwhile, the fat merchantman had seen us lying doggo on the horizon and was frantically trying to turn away from us. As heavy in the water as the big merchant was, she could not outmaneuver the Wavestrider which had been built for speed and maneuverability by the finest Varyag craftsmen. The merchant valiantly tried to warn us off by firing its stern chase armaments, a pair of light mareballistae, but the crew of the Wavestrider knew full well what they were doing and fired off a chain shot from the forward onager which took out the Tyrennhian's primary mast.

Her speed cut to almost nothing, the merchantman became desperate and the banked oars began feverishly cutting into the water, trying to turn the behemoth. Vigo laughed uproariously at the pitiful display of the Tyrennhian captain frantically barking orders as crewmen injured in the fall of the primary mast attempted to rally. They were really no match for the Varyag pirate, and they knew it, but they were trying valiantly to stave off the inevitible.

The Wavestrider closed quickly, and the next thing I knew we were boarding the Tyrennhian ship, whose name was apparently the Jewel of Vrendisium. I found myself fighting crewmen on the deck for what seemed an eternity, giving and receiving blows with equanimity, my qualms about being in this position quashed by the needs of survival. Soon enough, though, the Tyrennhian ship was subdued with only minimal loss of life on both sides.

Under the direction of Savago's wife, Alainda, we loaded some of the most valuable goods from the merchant's hold into our own, leaving most of the rest in the hold. The Tyrennhians were amazed at this and Savago replied calmly, "Do you think we are fools? If we take all of your treasure and goods you will be bankrupt and unable to sail and bring me more trade! Soon there would be no ships for us to plunder were we to take that route. In fact if you are ever assaulted in that way we will be the first to come to your aid. There is an old Varyag saying, my stiff necked friend: When the storm comes only a fool as no hat. If I make you all too angry you will hunt me down and kill me and my family. This way I am a nuisance, but one that is not so bad that you cannot live with it."

With that said Savago untied two members of the Tyrennhian's crew and we helped them repair the crippled mast. I have to say that at that moment I rather admired the Polinoy crew. Unfortunately for them I was still going to get off of this damned pirate ship as soon as I could and even my admiration was not going to stop me. All I needed was a plan.

Thursday, November 15, 2007

Towering Infernal

I have not posted any reviews or anything in a bit, so I figured it was high time I did so.

I recently finished Hell's Belles by Face the Fiction special guest panelist Jackie Kessler, and I have to say that I have had my eyes opened. Although a bit raunchy (hey look sales just went up) the book is pretty interesting, and I really liked the author's style in telling the tale from two converging timelines.

The book starts with Jezebel the Succubus on the run from the agents of Hell. She knows why, so she doesn't mention it, the story just slowly unfolds for us and we learn the reasons only near the very end. Basically there are two tracks of timeline that the author is using to explain the events. The first takes place after she has made the decision to leave the employment of the agents of Hell and follows her as she attempts to masquerade as a mortal human through use of a potion brewed by the witch Caitlin in exchange for a favor. The second track takes place some days before the decision to leave is made and follows Jezebel in her daily grind in Hell. At the end of the book we finally learn what led Jezebel to Caitlin's door in the first place, as well as finding out what the culmination of the journey among the mortals is.

While this is by no means one of the greatest books I have ever read, it was immensely entertaining and enjoyable. My only real bone of contention was the over emphasis on sex in the story. OK, so the main character is a former succubus who is masquerading as a human stripper, I get it, but I do not need to be reminded every few minutes about how Paul (the human love interest) makes her panties moist (hey look, sales just went up again). Frankly, I find the mental image a bit disturbing and would really prefer not to dwell on her biological processes, but I understand why it might be mentioned (again, Succubus) but the constant repetition of this means that it looses its impact and just becomes a skippable paragraph or two. Also, the sex scenes were a bit graphic for my general taste (wow, the book looks like it is selling even better now).

Seriously, though, the story was great, the characters were fun and enjoyable, and the concept was a lot of fun. I wonder what Ms Kessler has up her sleeve for The Road to Hell?

Friday, November 9, 2007

Chapter 1: And so it begins

I could hardly believe my luck. My life was about to change, and obviously for the better. Who would have thought that a day that began with me waking up late would lead to this!

I awoke this morning to the sounds of people already in the street, men and women working and stores beginning to open. It was nearly a half hour after dawn, and I was supposed to be up nearly an hour before! Deroone Verthur, the odd little man on the street of the crooked hill who hired me to run his errands would likely be annoyed at the delay. He rather liked his hot vressa to be delivered before he opened that musty old curiosities shop of his, so I would have to run to Damal Hessein's pastry shop and skip my own breakfast in order to mollify the old man.

In spite of my late start I pulled on the somewhat boyish costume I was accustomed to wear and leapt down the stairs and past my parents, who were even then leaving for their own jobs, hers as a scribe and his as a stevedore. Saying a hurried farewell I ran down the street and turned right up the road of the split anchor, pushing myself to get to Damal's shop before the morning rush. The streets were starting to get crowded and the number and variety of people out and about were impeding my steady progress. Another typical day in the massive trading city of Dahlon.

Hurriedly ordering the two hot vressas and a pair of sweet rolls with nuts for the princely sum of seven florins, I tucked the bag with the pastries under my left arm and carried the two steaming mugs in my right hand. One had to bring one's own mug to Damal's bakery, but the taste of her hot vressa was worth it, especially when you could leave the shop with you mug instead of sitting around. It usually allowed me the freedom to enjoy my vressa while looking out over the harbor at the coming and going of the ships in Dahlon's busy harbor. No such luxury today, though.

Making my way quickly up the street of the dropped solido to the street of the crooked hill, i was jostled no less than four times by passersby. The crowds were getting thicker, reminding me of the main reason I left for Deroone's shop so early most days. I was within sight of the old man's shop front when my luck for the day dramatically and radically altered. Seeing my destination a bare hundred feet away, I allowed myself to be distracted for one crucial moment, and so I missed the movement of the Varyag who was about to back right into me.

We collided in a glancing manner, the Varyag and I, and the vressa on my right hand splattered up and all over the merchant's eye-searingly yellow shirt and merry purple scarf. The Varyag looked down at the stain the vressa with an expression of shock, which quickly turned to amusement. Anger I could handle, but laughter? I had ruined what was obviously a very nice, though viciously ugly, shirt, so why wasn't he mad?

The Varyag chortled briefly and looked at me steadily, "Perhaps I need to work on my land legs a bit more, eh?" he said wryly, "I am very sorry to have cost you most of your cup of what must be very expensive vressa, but unfortunately neither of us seemed to be keeping ourselves under proper sail."

I gushed out apologies, knowing I sounded foolish. Having nothing else to use I tried to blot up the stains with my sleeves, though the Varyag batted away my attempts at assistance with a friendly wave of the hand. Unsure of what to do next I waited for him to make the next move.

"What is your name young lady," asked the Varyag with a twinkle in his eyes.

Not knowing what esle to do I responded somewhat shyly, "Arissa, Arissa Uliera, sir."

My meekness elicited another peal of baritone laughter from the stranger and I took a moment to examine the unwitting target of my mishandled beverage. He was a full head shorter than I, slightly less than 5'6", with a stocky, poweful build. His dark hair was worn long and fell unbound to his shoulders, and his face sported a delicately manicured moustache. The man was obviously a Varyag seaman and his brightly colored, almost gaudy, outfit put an exclamation point on his obvious heritage and profession.

"Well, I am Vigo Polinoy of the Polinoy Wavestrider. It is not often that I have the chance to leave my clan's ship, and to find myself in this circumstance... Well, it is obvious that Marlena is having a little joke on me. Anyway, in payment for my costing you a cup of vressa I would like to invite you aboard my ship for a meal."

Flabbergasted, and noticing that Deroone was standing at the door to his shop staring at me with an odd expression, I quickly agreed to come to the Wavestrider for dinner that evening. When I finally got to Deroone Verthur's shop and explained the situation, he was overjoyed for me. Knowing of my obsession with the sea and my desire to leave Dahlon and ply the waves, Deroone insisted that I take some money to buy a new dress to go aboard the ship, muttering something about first impressions.

That evening I shared a simple meal with the Polinoy clan, meeting the elder shipmaster, Savago, and his family. They seemed to like me, and after the meal we spoke of ships and the sea and the various ports the Wavestrider had called at. After hours of talking and swapping stories, Savago offered me a position on their happy ship. It was rare, he said, for a Varyag clan to take on outsiders as crew, but his nephew had died recently and he needed another pair of hands.

I excitedly accepted the offer and within a week I found myself finally setting off to sea. Granted it was in in a boat with a yellow and purple hull fitted out with vibrant green and yellow sails, but still I was at sea! We sailed up and out of the harbor, with Vigo laughingly providing me instructions on what to do the entire time. It wasn't until we were well out of sight of the harbor that I learned the truth of my new occupation. This was not just any ship, the Polinoy Wavestrider was a pirate vessel, and I was about to become an outlaw.

Monday, November 5, 2007

Top Ten Best Tabltop RPGs

As we all know, it is Monday, and time for Todd's Top Ten. This Monday, in honor of the Ubercon that just finished up yesterday, I am going to take some time and smell the roses and talk about gaming (big surprise).

There have been a number of settings and systems out there for play, and all of them have one thing or another to recommend them. This list is by no means an exhaustive one (I do not have that kind of time), but it is a list of the systems that I enjoy playing. Now here we go:

10) Rifts: A great system put out by Palladium, its one drawback seems to be the massively overpowered nature of the system itself. A fellow gamer over the weekend remarked that among his friends the concept of overkill was referred to as "Roboteching" (Robotech is another Palladium product that uses the Rifts rules system).

9) Burning Wheel: In spite of what some call an overly complex combat system, Burning Whel offers a great amount of versatility and richness for scene creation that many others don't. While the cinematic nature may appeal to the more narrative storytellers out there, the combat will definitely be worthwhile to those seeking realism.

8) Capes: This indie game is a whole lot of fun, and realistically mirrors the trials and tribulations of a group of superheroes. This game is meant to tell a fun, collaborative story without lots of mechanics.

7) Sorcerer: A more cut throat game has yet to be seen, as the attainment of power is the only goal of this RPG. Binding demons is the way to power, and the story is all about conflict amongst the players. While this is fun for the players, the GM often seems to find himself twiddling his thumbs.

6) Renegade Legion: Less a role-playing game than a space combat game with opportunities to roleplay, the Renegade Legion system is glorious in its realism and complexity. If you can find the books, it still holds up well, though FASA has long since gone the way of the dodo.

5) Mortal Coil: this is a game where the rules are so light they seem to float on air. Brennan Taylor has done a masterful job of crafting a pretty straightforward bid-based game that can be used to emulate any kind of setting. Since this game relies on consensus, it is not an easy fit for pick-up games or gamers that are more competitive.

4) Artesia: Using a variant of the Fusion system, Artesia offers a rich world and setting with a really complex set of rules and concepts. For those gamers enamored of random tables and generating all kinds of odd character traits with dice, this system offers that in spades.

3) Cyberpunk 2020: Using the Fusion system, the newest version of the classic Cyberpunk game makes some great inroads. Easy to understand and navigate, Cyberpunk 2020 shows us a gritty future with a lot of great opportunities.

2) Bulldogs d20: Based on the d20 open license, Bulldogs provides a great system for the running of true Space OPera style games. If you are looking for heavy science, like you would find in Cyberpunk, Rifts, and many other true Science Fiction settings, forget about it. This has all the cinematic flair of a great fantasy setting side-by-side with everything you ever wanted with a futuristic space travel game. d20 Modern and Traveler have nothing on this one.

1) Burning Empires: I know that some folks were betting I was going to put D&D 3.5 as the top dog on the list, and in some cases, it really is, but the focus on this list is games that I enjoy that are made by companies that don't make me froth at the mouth. Burning Empires is from the great minds that brought us Burning Wheel, and provides a truly exciting system that can be used on a session-by-session basis as well as a campaign basis. The concept of scene economy and duel of wits are really what makes this a great system, and the teamwork abilities in combat mean that the players have to work together instead of just playing Monster Pinata as they would in D&D. Is it perfect? No, but it is darn good!

Friday, November 2, 2007


"I'm sorry, but it all comes down to a matter of necessities and priorities, and right now I am afraid that it is necessary that I leave you," said Arrenus calmly.

I had known that this was coming for some time, of course, and so I wasn't as surprised as I could have been. Having known the Tyrennhian man for a long time I realized that the truth of my acceptance would not shock him, and so as I stared up into his calm hazel eyes I recognized that he had come to this conclusion long before this unhappy event. As with any group of adventurers, the time had come for us to part ways. In ordinary circumstances I might not be quite so upset, however dangling from a ledge with a sixty meter drop beneath me was not something that would put me in a good frame of mind for this sort of encounter.

Arrenus had stated his position without rancor, prejudice, or emotion, and the coldness of his decision shook me. He had made his statement and now he would leave. Typical. I took the opportunity, while attempting to pull myself to safety, to roundly curse the man and swear a dozen oaths in half a dozen different languages. Unfazed, Arrenus quirked his eyebrow in the maddening way he has, shrugged his shoulders, turned and left me. I knew then that I was going to have to kill him. A lot.

The fingers of my left hand found a slightly better purchase on the rock, but the dirt and stone under my right hand was slowly giving way, and if I could not pull myself up I would likely soon join Adron at the bottom of this crevasse. I fought and struggled to bring myself up to the level of the ledge, but this was a battle that I knew I was unlikely to win. Slowly, muscles straining, I searched, desperate for one more good hand hold. All I needed was that one last chance. One more go at spitting in fate's eye.

I continued to swear vengeance and hatred of Arrenus, and implored every god and goddess I had ever heard tell of to aid me in this time of need. It is amazing how all the prayers of a misspent youth come back to one when they are dangling over a pit and death is a near certainty. There was no way I was going to allow that arrogant Tyrennhian to win, not at this stage of the game.

How had it all come to this? Where had I gone wrong? What had I done to deserve this? How many had died because of me? Adron was the latest, but what of Ghor'namale or Tack or Zuunta? Could their deaths have been my fault? Was I to blame for all of this? The key lay in the past and I would need to examine it before I went further. Any weakness could be a death sentence, and I needed to make sure that I survived just long enough to watch the traitor breathe his last.

My name is Arissa Uleira, and I was going to make sure that the very last thing that Arrenus saw before slipping into the icy embrace of death was me.

Impelled by hatred and a burning need for revenge upon he who had done me so much wrong, I levered myself up. Taxed beyond the point that most mortal men and women can bear I slowly ascended back to the level of ledge. There was no sign of Arrenus anywhere, but had there been I was too exhausted by the strain of this latest ordeal to do much. I gasped for air, lungs straining to bring more life into my body, to keep me awake and alive for a few moments more. I rose up, staggered a few paces away from the edge, sank to my knees and began to pass out.

My last thought before losing consciousness was that this was an utterly unfair situation for even me to contend with, and the last thing I saw before going completely under was the grinning face of a halfling with a wickedly curved and rather vicious looking knife. As if things couldn't get any worse...

Wednesday, October 31, 2007

What is Odyssey 5?

Apparently I was the only person who ever watched this show when it originally aired on Showtime several years ago. This was a great show then, and I think that it is still pretty good and very gripping. The question is: why did it die so quickly?

The answer, my friends, is really quite simple: no market would pick it up. Odyssey 5 was fairly inexpensive to produce, however Showtime was completely unable to sell this for syndication as it had successfully done with The Outer Limits, Dead Man's Gun, and Stargate SG-1. In addition, the branding of the Showtime Sci-Fi Friday was already falling apart by that time as the Sci-Fi channel picked up The Outer Limits and was already making noises about taking over SG-1. This failure is what lead to the cancellation of a promising, and very interesting show.

Like Total Recall 2070 before it, Odyssey 5 showed us that the imagination was no boundary for the inventive and clever folks at Showtime. Smartly written, with a great cast and good direction, this show had all the ingredients for another mega hit. Why, then, would nobody pick up the hot potato? The answer: language.

This show was written at a time when The Sopranos and Queer as Folk were highlighting the fact that swearing on cable was A-OK by the viewers. The problem is that this show needed the influx of cash that would come from syndication on Fox or UPN, and without it, even the small production costs of a show like Odyssey 5 could not be funded out of pocket indefinitely.

We should learn a great big lesson from this: cussing is OK if you do not need to sell the show to networks, but it will kill your show if you need the cash.

Thankfully, I will get to watch my old friends from the shuttle Odyssey ever Friday for the next few weeks.

Tuesday, October 30, 2007

Todd's Top 10 Greatest Monsters

OK, so I am really trying to get in the swing of posting more regularly, and I am planning to post in a specific format starting next week. The format will be:
Monday: Todd's Top Ten
Wednesday: New & Exciting Stuff
Friday: Serial Story Chapters

This week, with Halloween two days away, I wanted to focus on the scariest monsters in film history:
10) Frankenstein's Monster: Though more lamentable than truly scary, Frankenstein's monster still has the ability to make us cringe. Far scarier than the monster is the Doctor himself, whose mono-maniacal drive destroys most things in his path.

9) The Thing: The John Carpenter film 'The Thing' featured a creature that was able to mimic anyone and anything out there. These creepy beings left a small base out in the snows of the Arctic completely vulnerabl, and in true horror fashion, there are no survivors.

8) The Wendigo: For those of us who remember a strange little film called Ravenous the Wendigo has some pretty scary connotations. The main reason that this creature is frightening is that it could be anyone... well, anyone who eats the flesh of their enemies, anyway.

7) The American Werewolf: Whether it's London or Paris, you cannot help but feel bad for this poor shmuck. In the original film, he has to contend not only with his own transformation, but the hunting of his rather annoying friend (who decomposes from scene to scene). In addition, you have characters like the one in the Jack Nicholson portrayed in Wolf, and the characters from the film Cursed, where they do not understand the change taking them down a more bestial and feral path.

6) Demons & Devils: Before John Constantine, the Hell Blazer, made it cool to fight the legions of hell, men like Father Merrin were trotting around the globe casting out Satan. Whether they are possessing little girls, as in The Exorcist and The Exorcism of Emily Rose, or manifesting in person to threaten life and limb, as in Hellraiser, the damned have a special place in the mythos of monsters, and can still scare the pants off of believers and non-believers alike.

5) Ghosts: Move over Beetlejuice, for there are far more things in heaven and earth than are dreamt of in your philosophies. The restless dead are fodder for many stories, and it is no wonder that they haunt the living with spite and malice (after all, most of them are rotting in the ground, which is enough to make anyone cranky). From Peter Straub's Ghost Story to The Others to An American Haunting, it is amazing what lengths the dearly departed will go to in order to have a bit of closure.

4) The Mummy: Peter Cushing and Brendan Frasier share a common problem: there is a fellow swathed in bandages trying to kill them to fulfill an ancient curse. Stinks to be them. The various incarnations of the Mummy have been alternately frightening and silly, but what makes the Mummy stand out is that it has such a wonderfully complex story to prop it up. Even if you don't care about the actions of the creature, the story of its curse is always really cool (especially when you get to see the poor priest being buried alive).

3) Zombies: I will admit that I do not particularly like zombies, but even I will agree that these things scare the crud out of the living. Dr. Kim Paffenroth, author of The Gospel of the Living Dead and Dying to Live, tells us that there is more to Zombies than just walking corpses who eat flesh. When you get down to it, George Romero made some of the scariest films of all time with a fairly small budget simply because these things are really frightening. See the movies and read Dr. Paffenroth's books, and see if you don't agree!

2) Witches: Not many people liked Halloween III: Season of the Witch, but I thought it was pretty damned scary myself. Step aside Charmed Ones, the girls from The Craftand the guys from The Covenant would like to show you how it's really done. Yeah, we all laughed at Hocus Pocus and The Witches, but was anyone laughing at the movie Warlock? I doubt it, cause that was some scary stuff. Think that was tame? Try The Serpent and the Rainbow on for size, and see who is laughing now.

1) Vampires: Salem's Lot, Nosferatu, Dracula, and so many more it is impossible to keep track. The Vampire is, bar none, the most terrifying creature out there. Why? Because they seem so normal. They are so much like regular folks, right up until the whole blood sucking part, that it is alarming. Also, the fact that they can control their victims and make them obey, even when they know it will doom them, is pretty horrifying. Vampires are the most horrible 'monster' because of their complete lack of any redeeming or mitigating factors. Zombies, Aliens, Werewolves... they don't know any better, they are doing what comes naturally, but Vampires have no such crutch. They know what they are doing and glory in the action. Ugh.

Monday, October 22, 2007

Top ten Science Fiction Horror Films

OK, I know that you have been wondering what happened to me, and where I have been, but frankly work has been so busy that I have not had time to post. For this I apologize, and hope to get back on track with at least one post a week. I hope. Maybe.

In honor of my favorite holiday I thought I would post a list of what I feel are the best of the Science Fiction Horror films. These are not classic horror films, but movies that use science instead of paranormal or supernatural explanations to scare the heck out of us. Fortunately foe you these are films, not books, so the write ups will be fairly short. The list will count down to what I consider the #1 Science Fiction Horror film of all time.

10 - From Beyond - Strange adaptation of the H.P. Lovecraft story of the same name in which Crawford Tillinghast (Jeffrey Combs) plays a scientist whose research partner, Dr. Pretorius (Ted Sorel) has opened a gateway to another dimension through stimulation of the pineal gland which opens the thirs eye. In spite of the cheesy effects, this is a pretty scary film simply because of the intensity of the acting. The science is very sketchy, but internally consistent.

9 - Coma - This film scared the crap out of me when I was a kid. Imagine that Coma patients are being used for a horrifying experiment. Michael Douglas and Genevieve Bujold give stunning performances in this adaptation of the Robin Cook novel. This was also one of Michael Crichton's first film projects as writer and director (the prior was Westworld).

8 - Videodrome - Lots of people hate this movie (Ebert once stated that it was the least entertaining movie that he had ever seen), however the stellar performance of James Woods as he slowly succumbs to the grips of the subliminal message is fantastic. Possibly David Cronenberg's best film.

7 - Flatliners - Many are going to disagree that this is a horror film at all, but the fact of the matter is that this movie has all of the elements of a great horror story (the characters give themselves near death experiences in a scientific attempt to understand death and are subsequently haunted). The fact that there are some slight supernatural ideas in here might preclude the inclusion of this film, except for the fact that the supernatural ideas are exlined with at least an attempt at science.

6 - Strange Invaders - This is possibly the scariest alien invasion story ever, mainly because it only makes sense to the aliens themselves. There are great scenes of aliens 'storing' people and a few really horrific scenes wherein the aliens remove their human guises to reveal really grotesque faces beneath the human masks. Taught and suspenseful, a must see.

5 - Lifeforce - OK, so I am really treading on thin ice with this one. Based on the novel The Space Vampires, this film is about... vampires from space. Seriously, it covers the idea of a scientific basis for vampires and vampirism. Granted, it does not do it very well, but it is still scary as all get out.

4 - Phantoms - Dean Koontx is a great writer, and this was his first true horror novel. Luckily he got to write the screenplay for this film, which features a cast of Hollywood heavyweights (Peter O'Toole, Ben Afleck, Rose McGowan, Liev Schrieber, etc). Creepy and atmospheric, this is a great spine-tingler with a scientific bent.

3 - Invasion of the Body Snatchers - Nice, short, to the point, and truly frightening. This classic film has been remade several times, and they have all been great films. The concept of identity is fully and brutally explored in a film where nothing is quite what it seems.

2 - Alien - Most folks know of my love for the first film of this lucrative franchise. It is possibly the greatest monster movie of all times, with a combination of all the things that make any film great. Ridley Scott shows that he is one of the greatest directors of all time, and the cast is fantastic.

1 - Metropolis - Probably one of the 10 greatest films ever made, Fritz Lang's Metropolis is the ultimate showcase of scientific horror. When a young man becomes concerned over the differences between the 'thinkers' and the 'workers', and tries to bridge the gap, no good will come of it. Many have tried to remake this ultimate class struggle film, but ultimately it is perfect.

Thursday, September 27, 2007

Vellum Review

I probably never would have picked up this book had it not been for the glaring orange spine winking at me from the shelf as I walked by. That's right, the book called to me, and like Reynard Carter, I had to possess it once I had read the first few paragraphs. I am glad that I picked up this masterwork from the shelf, and you will soon see why.

The strange tale of Vellum takes place across many times, and many realities, all of which feature the same cast of archetypal characters doing what they do best. One is immediately drawn to the quartet of friends described early in the story (Renard, Joey, Thomas, and Jack), and while one would assume that the story will be centered on Reynard, it is in fact the many faces of Thomas that we find at the center of the first part of the story (The Lost Deus of Sumer, and yes that is meant to be a play on the phrase the last days of summer). We see Thomas Messenger/Tommy/Tammuz/Dimuzi (etc) who is nicknamed Puck (because he is a lovable fairy) in such diverse roles as a somewhat repressed gay Irish soldier in the Great War, a 1970's gay love child, a gay biker, and a gay pixie (note spelling). His sister, Phreedom Messenger/Anna/Inana, is hoping to find her brother before the inevitable death scene unfolds in spite of her wishes. The first book is a strange retelling of the myth of Inanna in the underworld and her betrayal of her husband, the god Tammuz.

The second story, Evenfall Leaves, is a retelling of the myth of Prometheus, with Seamus Finnan, Phreedom and Tommy's mentor in the Last Deus of Sumer, in which the apocalypse is brought about by the angel Metatron's interrogation of Seamus. The story begins to feature the relationship of Jack and Puck/Thomas more and more, and is really brilliantly done.

One might normally expect to find a novel like this in the Fiction section of most book stores, what with its avant-garde writing, homosexual content, strange literary devices, and almost experimental tone, but thankfully somebody with sense elected to keep this in Science Fiction where it belongs. All in all Vellum and its sequel, Ink, have probably been the best works that I have read all year. Granted, they speak to me on multiple levels (being a gay SF fan), but I think that anyone can get something out of these magnificent pieces of literature.

Monday, September 24, 2007

Journeyman & Heroes Premier Spectacular

I am not even going to pretend that I am not a huge fan of Heroes, and if I did, I would expect everyone to slap me one for fibbing. I know that there are going to be many fans out there who are going to whinge bitterly that "Four Months Later" was dull and draggy, and that it lacked the energy and excitement of last season. My response to such criticism is: Of course it did! Last season was like a well made gumbo, it took a while to simmer up to that exciting peak. You cannot possibly expect them to maintain the level of excitement of last season with such a disconnect between those events and the present. Still, you had a murder, a few surprises, some new heroes, a British samurai, and some wonderful scenes of folks picking up the pieces after the 'exploding man' incident. They balanced everything so well, and I thought that the entire episode was wonderfully executed. It was like watching old friends return.

I do not want to give away any secrets about the Heroes season premier, however I would like to highlight a few wonderful scenes that I think may get overlooked. I loved Noah Bennett as Assistant Manager of the Copy King, that was brilliant, and anyone who has ever worked retail will identify with the breakroom scene. Hiro in the past is, and will continue to be, a very interesting storyline, but more important than Hiro are the many scenes of Ando and Hiro's father, aptly played by George Takei. Dr. Suresh shows breadth and depth, and Matt Parkman proves that he is the kind of cop that all police personnel should strive to emulate. Also, the young girl playing Molly Hunter does a phenomenal job of the sulky kid bit, but her stark terror is magnificent during one of the later scenes.

On to Journeyman, which also had its premier this evening. This show is a cross between Quantum Leap and Evening Edition, and it proves that Kevin McKidd is probably one of the most versatile actors out there today. The show was wonderfully done, and explained nothing about the how or why of what is happening. In fact, those who watched were left with more questions than answers on this one. What is actually going on? Who is Livia? Will Dan keep his marriage intact with the stress of the time jumping? If anyone else read Fritz Leiber's Big Time, or any of the Time Patrol series, then you have to know that the answers are never set in stone.

Brilliant acting, great direction, solid writing, this is a show that will make the two hour Monday time slot a winner for NBC. Between this exciting new show, and the exquisite return of Heroes, I have the feeling that the other networks will be left out in the cold. If I worked for NBC, I would be shouting from the rooftops that Mondays means imagination, and imagination means NBC. Then again, I would probably be doing a lot more if I worked at NBC (just a thought).

Wednesday, September 19, 2007


Why is it that high tech always seems more sexy on the big screen? You look at some nifty new gadget or geegaw on TV or in a movie and think to yourself: That is so cool! Everything seems more interesting, more exciting, and just plain better than real life when you see it on the screen that reality can be disappointing.

The reason for this is as follows: I was recently putting together imagery for pictures for shirts and apparel for the upcoming SFSNNJ online store, and I noticed some things that I had seen in real life pictured on the internet. The pictures were sleek and impressive, but I know what the devices look like, so I know that the reality is hardly as glorious.

Personal Robots: From Asimo to Roomba and Scooba, personal robots are starting to make their way out to the public. While still expensive, they are far more versatile than any past versions. Still, they lack a certain level of charisma in person (how excited can one get about a robot vaccuum). On the plus side, though, if Asimo decided to violate the laws of robotics it would be fairly easy to escape him as he moves slower than most zombies.

Communicators: Eat your heart out James T. Kirk, the Razr is here to take the place of your blocky old communicator. As a Razr owner, I have to admit that I hate this phone. When it works it is pretty good, but when it doesn't, it really doesn't. Given the fact that cellular tech has been around for almost two decades (starting with the big bulky devices of the 1980's) you would think that we've gotten it right.

Artificial Intelligence: Poor Eliza, you have no mate (of course you are not an A.I. either). Still, programs are getting smarter and more adaptive. Basic gaming engines have fairly complex A.I. programs, and some of the stuff swimming in the waters of the internet is pretty scary, but the problem is that even the best A.I. is still just a village idiot who needs constant instruction.

Flying Cars: Believe it or not, there are such things out there (assuming you have the better part of a million to spend on your conveyance). In still photos the flying cars look really cool, in moving pictures, they are definitely not graceful or even attractive. In point of fact, they look like wobbly 1950's flying saucers most of the time.

Ahh, well, all things considered I guess we will just have to live with the reality. The only other choice is to become Luddites!

Monday, September 17, 2007

Mythology and Madness

Strangely enough, I picked up a book the other day for no other reason than it caught my eye and the first paragraph looked amazing. This book, Hal Duncan's Vellum, is a masterpiece of the highest order, however I am actually not going to discuss that here right at the moment (mainly owing to the fact that I have not finished reading it or its sequel Ink). What I did want to address was something that Mr. Duncan uses frequently: mythology.

There is a school of thought that there are a finite number of stories, and that any tale will essentially be a retelling of one of those stories, only with slightly different trappings. This is likely true, however I like to think that the concept of mythology, and the way it explores the human condition through epochal story, works on a slightly different level.

One example of mythology writ large in fantasy was the 2000 edition of Gilgamesh written by Stephen Grundy. This retelling of the ancient epic of Gilgamesh and Enkidu was interesting (though I personally found the constant references to the vulva of Ishtar a bit distracting), but in the end did little other than tell the story in prose (oh, yeah, and use 565 pages to tell a 100 page story).

On the science fiction side, we have Fred Saberhagen's Books of the Gods, a series of novels that explore the idea of some strange future where super-technological masks transform normal people into the avatars of 'gods' to act out their parts in retellings of myth. It is made very clear from the outset that this is supposed to be technology and not magic, but as has been oft said: there is always a point at which technology is indistinguishable from magic.

Wending our way from 'pagan' to 'judeo-christian' mythology, we have Steven Brust's To Reign in Hell. This strange retelling of the revolt in heaven paints Satan, Lucifer, Lilith, Mephistopheles, and Beelzebub in a more sympathetic light, and shows that the revolt was really more of a misunderstanding fostered by one angel looking to save his own skin.

As you can see, these are just three things that come off the top of my head which show mythology alive and well in modern literature. We can add Neal Stephenson's Snow Crash,Timothy Zahn's The Green and the Gray, Kingsbury's The Moon Goddess and the Son, and all the works of C.S. Lewis to that mix, and we get a tapestry of constantly re-invented myths and legends. While some are faithfully retold, others wind their way through different conceptual ideologies or landscapes to transform themselves into something new and different. Eat your heart out Bullfinch.

Monday, September 10, 2007

TV Spirit Guide show me the path away from boredom

Recently I was reading the Fall TV Previews in my TV Guide (yes, I do read the articles) and I was struck by what seems to be a season of blatant rip-offs. Not even very well concealed ones, I might add.

Bionic Woman: Well, not a rip-off per se, but a remake, and darn tedious at that. Assuming this lasts more than half a season, they are already in trouble with people leaving due to 'creative differences'. This one seems doomed to the dustbin in spite of David Eick's participation.

Chuck: Wow, I remember when this show was called Jake 2.0 and stole Christopher Gorham from the far superior Showtime program Odyssey 6. This is the story of a Herd Herd (can't say Geek Squad) employee who gets secret high-tech upgrades to his brain by... OK, I'm bored already. How many times can we redo this concept?

Journeyman: OK, I like this one, even though it is basically just a TV adaptation of the film The Butterfly Effect. As much as I hate to admit it I love time travel as a plot device. Worked for Quantum Leap and The Time Tunnel (both of which seem to have contributed ideas to Journeyman), so why not try from the same well. I will be watching this one.

Moonlight: Come on, you guys aren't even trying! This is a blatant copy of Forever Knight with elements of Angel thrown on top in the vain hope of covering their tracks. Give me a break! Why not just do a remake of Forever Knight and get it over with? Oh, yeah, because the cast is STILL ALIVE!

Pushing Daisies: Well this certainly seems new and original... Oh, wait, no, it's Tru Calling only without the flouncy & floppy running scenes. Considering Tru Calling's fan base was likely paying less attention to the story than they were to Eliza Dushku's cleavage, this will probably seem fresh and new to most. There seem to be elements of Ghost Whisperer and Medium thrown in as well. Since I did not especially like Tru Calling I am kind of looking forward to how this looks on screen, so I am looking forward to seeing this with some reservations.

Reaper: Does anybody else remember Brimstone? If so, then you have likely already seen this show. Updated effects are no replacement for John Glover as the Devil. Looks tepid at best, but might be fun (personally I doubt it).

So that is the new SF line up for Fall. Thank the gods for Heroes and a few returning gems.

Wednesday, August 29, 2007

Super-Mega-Ultra-Retarded Snake

OK SciFi, we get it. You love giant snakes. I understand. I love giant snakes too. Well, not those kind of giant snakes... Anyway, I think that we need to have an intervention for the SciFi channel.

I have seen interventions on TV (OK I have seen commercials for interventions on TV, it's almost the same), and I think we can do it. True, those shows are about trailer-park folk in need of a bath that does not involve either gin or heroine, but seriously can you think of a better candidate in Science Fiction (besides Harlan Ellison, I doubt we could stage an intervention on his ego-abuse)? We need to lock the SciFi channel in a room with a bunch of really annoying fans and tell it how much we love it, but it has to quit.

For those confused by why I am making this bold plan, you have obviously not seen the commercials for the stunning cinematic masterpiece that is MEGA SNAKE! Seriously, that is the title. Watching the commercials it seems like a cross between the Anaconda movie and Gremlins since apparently if you feed snakes live food, they turn into 50 foot long monsters. I think I saw that on Wikipedia, so it must be true.


This is brilliant: we cannot get people to take Masters of Science Fiction (the recent and brief short form adaptations of classic works of SF) seriously, so let's try another snake movie. Hey, you know what would make this film even better Lance Henrickson, he's not doing anything since Millennium went off the air. It will be like Sasquatch Mountain only with snakes! This entire thought process hurts my brains.

I remember a time when there were actual science fiction stories that did not need a giant snake (or komodo dragon, or manticore, or minotaur, or hydra, or (dare I say it) slavering monster). I remember when there was actual science in these films. I remember when the SciFi channel showed SciFi movies, and not horror movies (oh, and wrestling, let's not forget the wrestling).

SciFi channel: We love you. Stop the madness. Bring back Harry Dresden. Bring back Farscape. Bring back anything, just please enough of the monster flicks!

Monday, August 27, 2007

The End of an Era

August has brought us the last of the Dune novels by Brian Herbert and Kevin J. Anderson. The series, which was started by Frank Herbert (father of Brian) in 1965, has spawned over 15 books, one movie (the famous David Lynch Dune), two mini-series (SciFi Channel's Frank Herbert's Dune and Children of Dune), documentaries, discussions, four video games, board games, role-playing games, toys (from the David Lynch production), and countless pieces of fan fiction. Widely regarded as one of the greatest pieces of science fiction ever produced, Dune is, was, and ever shall be a beloved part of my personal collection.

My experience with Dune started with the David Lynch movie, which I recall having seen in all its chopped-up glory on WPIX-NY Channel 11 when I was but a lad. WPIX had a habit of showing lots of SF films before it became the WB network, and many of my favorites were oft seen there (Flash Gordon was a regular Saturday Afternoon feature flick, as were the Planet of the Apes movies and the various Star Trek films). I digress, though.

I remember watching the movie and thinking that it was perhaps the coolest thing I had ever seen. Body shields, sonic weapons, great costumes, great acting, and an awe-inspiringly vast scope made this production stand out in my mind. So great was my adoration of the film that I spent $60.00 for the VHS version (for those who recall, the 80's were a time when buying videos was cost prohibitive and it took me the better part of a year to save for it with my $5/week allowance).

My local library did not have the book, and this was in the days when the inter-library loan system was in its infancy and could only be done with six forms filled out in triplicate and letters from the Pope and Congress. Luckily I was eventually able to find a copy at the (now defunct) Pyramid Booksellers in Westwood, NJ. I read Dune in three days, then went back and re-read it (taking my time). It was hard to imagine how much they had left out of that film. Needless to say, I was hooked.

For some reason I cannot fathom, my mother had copies of Dune Messiah, Children of Dune, and God Emperor of Dune (all of which were in terrible shape), so I tore through those. I almost gave up with God Emperor, and in fact it took me 10 years before I finally picked up Heretics of Dune and finally Chapterhouse: Dune. As with many readers, I was taken aback by the size and shape of what was going on, and I could not see how Herbert was going to make any of this make sense. Like a passenger on a Guild heighliner, I had to trust the capabilities of the Navigator and hope I would get to where I was going.

When the prequels came out in 1999, I was prepared for the worst. I knew Kevin J. Anderson as a hack who was busy ruining Star Wars, and I held no hope that he was not about to royally screw up my favorite franchise as well. Luckily for me, Kevin J. Anderson's input seems to have been tempered by Brian Herbert's skills, and the fact that they were working off of notes and directives from Frank Herbert's safety deposit box. The three prequels were interesting reads, though I did not like them nearly as much as the original material. The next batch of prequels, though, knocked my socks off!

When The Butlerian Jihad came out in 2002, I was expecting it to be decent, but not terribly great. Boy was I surprised to find it was as good as the original Dune though in markedly different ways. It started filling in a number of blank spaces, and as the series progressed, I found myself suddenly knowing more and more about how the universe of the time of Shaddam Corrino, Vladimir Harkonnen, and Leto Atreides came to be. It was a great ride, and I enjoyed it all (though I thought that the origin of the Harkonnen/Atreides feud was a bit silly).

Last, but certainly not least, came the final chapters in the Dune saga. Hunters of Dune and Sandworms of Dune pick up the story where Chapterhouse: Dune left off. The last two books read almost like Frank wrote them himself, with minimal input from Kevin J. Anderson or Brian Herbert. Finally we know why it all came to pass. Finally we know how it all links together. Frank Herbert's grand vision is now complete, and, like the aforementioned Navigator, he has brought us to the end of the journey safe and sound.

The spice must flow!

Wednesday, August 22, 2007

Paging Mr. Nyarlathotep, Paging Mr... Gaagh!

For those unfamiliar with the works of H.P. Lovecraft, I would provide a word of warning. In the mouth of madness lie monsters, and likely bad teeth and a few cavities. At least that is what one would assume when reading the imaginative works of Charles Stross, a Scottish science fiction writer whose short stories and novels have garnered numerous award nominations.

Like the famous HBO movies Cast a Deadly Spell and Witch Hunt Charles Stross imagines a world wherein the gibbering terrors from beyond the imaginings of men, generally referred to as Old Ones, and the arcane principles that summon them, are real. Whereas the earlier films are set in the 1940's, Stross uses the computer age as the backdrop for his horror/thrillers.

The Atrocity Archive set the stage for us when it introduced the concept of the Laundry, a super-secret British Intelligence unit dealing with the mathematic insanity of the Turing-Lovecraft Theorum of universally applied mathematics (i.e. at the end of the long chain of complex equations something eats your brain). The main character, Bob Howard, is a tech geek whose sole purpose is to exorcise the summoned creatures from the Laundry's internal network servers (i.e. 'this LAN is clean'). Although he wants a field commission to help keep the world safe from the many angled ones, Bob is really an IT guy at heart and would be just as happy de-gaussing the wiring at the Laundry as getting into shootouts with the Black Chamber and their minions.

The Jennifer Morgue is even better. Imagine this if you will: James Bond/Cthulu/Hackers crossover. That's right. Go buy it now!!!! Even better than the first book, The Jennifer Morgue explores the concept of archetype-casting and forcing people into well known molds. The unfortunate side-effect is the brain-eating monsters from beyond that wait to devour the souls of the few who are actively participating in the endeavor. Small price to pay, really. Seriously, though, Charles Stross' irrepressible writing style and brilliant story combine to craft a truly brilliant piece of workmanship.

Monday, August 20, 2007

Star light, star bright

For those who missed it, Stardust came out last weekend. As usual, I am always a bit behind with getting to see movies, so I only got to see it this past weekend, but I was well prepared for a great time thanks to several friends' reviews.

Unlike some folks, I will leave a detailed dissection of the plot out of my review and simply say that this movie is a stunning and rich spectacle. One friend of mine referred to this as "This generation's Princess Bride" and I have to say that is an apt description. Stardust is an intelligent, witty, and wise production that explores the real world through the interface of a smartly crafted fantasy realm.

While I was suitably impressed by the visuals, for me it is always about the story, the acting, and the direction (after all, even dreadful movies have great visual sequences these days thanks to ever cheaper CGI effects). Whether you were looking at the big names or the small ones, the actors did a bang-up job in this film. Notable performance from Michelle Pfeiffer, Peter O'Toole, and Robert DiNero polish up the equally well done works of the rest of the cast. Physical comedy melds seamlessly with dry British wit, and even the sweet scenes of romance and love are not overdone.

I highly recommend this film, and, given that it was written by Neil Gaiman, the novel as well.

Friday, August 17, 2007

Space Operetta

I have already griped about the dismal failure that was the first episode of Flash Gordon, but I have to wonder if the idea of a true space opera-style show is dead. SF movies have big budgets, generate huge revenues, and have massive staying power, so I have to wonder why TV shows cannot seem to get the same push. As we all know, it is the strength of the mighty advertising dollar, but the question is 'Why don't advertisers see the potential for revenue in a good SF TV show that they do in an SF movie?'

Battlestar Galactica (love it or hate it) has shown us that a high concept space opera can work on the small screen. Its viewership is high, it has a massive following at home and abroad, and it has garnered critical praise from all corners. Why is it, then, that the advertisers treat it as though it were a blind beggar with leprosy and a bad case of halitosis? The answer is that for some reason they don't believe that SF fans have any real disposable income. This seems odd when you look at how much most SF fans spend on their hobbies.

At any rate, it seems that the rumored Honor Harrington TV series may never come to fruition, and that we will be stuck in a rut of mediocre SF for a while with the close of BSG coming up. Luckily, there are a number of pseudo-real shows that are really good (Heroes, The Dresden Files, Eureka), and these may fill up the time while we wait for someone to bring the next great space opera to the small screen. I just pray that the prospective Star Wars TV shows are not as bad as I fear.

Tuesday, August 14, 2007

That Sweet, Sweet Music

As a satellite radio subscriber, I am constantly surprised by the variety of choices that I have. What does this have to do with SF, you may wonder. Well, it is simple, XM has a channel devoted to movie scores and cinema, and they seem to have a strong fondness for the science fiction.

Cinemagic is an interesting little channel. They play clips from our favorite films, and then sections of film score. It is quite a bit of fun trying to determine what film is on simply from the music and snatches of dialog. Actually, though, there are two things about Cinemagic that really grab my attention, and they are Reel Time and Hi-Fi/Sci-Fi.

Reel time is a program where directors and notable Hollywood figures go on for an interview about their career and their most recent project. Generally the station plays about 5 minutes of interview, then a long clip (usually 2-3 minutes) of dialog from the film, and then a bit of music. It is a fun and educational time for all, and I have managed to hear a lot of news about projects that would not normally have crossed my radar.

Hi-Fi/Sci-Fi is a cool show that highlights only genre movies (though some might debate their choices from time to time). It is kind of fun to hear favorite films and lines come across with well-remembered snatches of music. Usually dedicated to a theme, the Hi-Fi/Sci-Fi show also peppers the dialog clips and music with bits of SF trivia.

While I am spending some time chatting about the programming, it might be pointed out that Satellite Radio itself has origins in Science Fiction (Arthur C. Clarke predicted the concept fairly accurately). As technology progresses, and the meme spreads, it is very easy to see how this will become a great influence on the way we perceive radio. With its automatic inclusion in every new automobile, with free months of listening and inexpensive rates, more and more people will drift into the ranks of the satellite-enabled listeners. Is it possible that we are looking at the beginning of the end for terrestrial radio? Who knows...