Friday, May 21, 2010

TV & Movies: Iron Man 2

In a world where sequels come in two flavors... this sequel does not really break the boundaries.   Seriously, though, as we all know, there really are only two forms of sequels: everything the same but more (a la Alien to Aliens) or everything the same but different (a la Predator to Predator 2).  While Iron Man 2  may seem like its a case of everything the same but different, it is more a case of everything the same but more.

Why do I say this?  Well they both start off the same: Tony is high on life, on top of the world, and the man to be envied (Iron Man he is showing off his Jericho weapon and making money, Iron Man 2 he is showing off his Stark Expo and making money), but he has a problem (Iron Man he is captured by terrorists and given super pacemaker, Iron Man 2 he is captured by congress and is poisoning himself with super pacemaker v3.1).  Things start looking up (Iron Man Tony escapes from evil terrorists, Iron Man 2 Ivan Vanko is arrested), but wait, there are more problems (Iron Man Tony announces no more weapons programs, Iron Man 2 Congress announces no more Tony Stark).  Relationships become strained (Iron Man Tony fights a group of mean terrorists and alienates Rhodes, Iron Man 2 Tony throws a party and alienates Rhodes who becomes Warmachine and kicks Tony's butt).  Corporate skullduggery commences (Iron Man Obadiah Stane starts pushing Tony into a corner in the boardroom, Iron Man 2 Justin Hammer begins backing Tony into a corner with his Vanko designed Droid army).  Ooooops wait, Girl saves the day (Iron Man Pepper Potts figures out skullduggery and brings SHIELD cavalry, Iron Man 2 Natasha Romanoff figures out Hammer's dumb plan and brings Happy Hogan for whup-ass session), but Iron Man must fight his foe (Iron Man big battle with Stane, Iron Man 2 big battle with Vanko and Droids).  Iron Man wins!  Roll Credits.

Yes, it seems like the film was an exciting rehash of the first film, but for some reason, it works pretty well.  You have a lot of the elements of 'the same but more', but the slight variances in the story make the film much more interesting.  The hordes of Hammer Droids make for a slightly different feel to the story, but that is alleviated by the introduction of Warmachine, who offsets the villains' numerical advantage.  While I would not say that the second is in any way better or more entertaining than the first film, it certainly is more.  More explosions, more action, more romance, more technobabble, more Sam Rockwell, more villains, more drunkenness, more girls, more characters, more subplots, more Samuel L. Jackson, more shots of Robert Downey Jr's chest... OK, so it's not all good stuff.  The way I look at it is Iron Man 2 is to Iron Man as Batman Returns is to Batman.

THAC0: 6
Obviously an action packed crowd pleaser, this is a pleasant way to spend an afternoon without having to think or figure out stuff.  Pretty standard action movie fare, though I will admit to liking the original film better. 

Thursday, May 20, 2010

Gaming: The Fantasy Flight Juggernaut

There are a few big names in the game industry; Wizards of the Coast, Games Workshop, Privateer Press, Rackham Entertainment, Fantasy Flight Games.  Strangely enough, seasons change and systems change, and companies grow or fall, but overall the industry really doesn't move much off true center. 

A few years ago, Wizards of the Coast was high and mighty, Games Workshop was losing money hand over fist, and Fantasy Flight Games was a middling distributor specializing in Board and Card games with few original product offerings of its own.  Now, things have changed.  Wizards of the Coast is flailing about, Games Workshop is strong and profitable, and Fantasy Flight is moving in all sorts of new directions with bold and innovative product lines.

Strangely enough, Fantasy Flight's ascension started with a misstep on the part of Games Workshop's Black Library Press division.  Black Library over-extended itself in the production of the new Roleplaying Game Dark Heresy, and was forced to abandon the ambitious project.  Seeing a potentially lucrative project before them, Fantasy Flight Games snatched up the property and began its own development project to expand Dark Heresy.

After failing at a gamble with the distribution of Rakham's AT-43 and Confrontation lines, Fantasy Flight struck gold with the Warhammer 40,000 and Warhammer Fantasy systems.  In addition to Roleplaying games, Fantasy Flight smashed the boundaries flat with new boardgames like Warhammer Chaos in the Old World and Warhammer 40,000 Horus Heresy, card games like Warhammer Invasion, Chaos Marauders, and the upcoming Death Angels which is based on the famous Space Hulk board game, and roleplaying games like Warhammer Fantasy Roleplaying 5th edition, Dark Heresy, Rogue Trader, and Deathwatch, which is getting ready for wide release very soon.

In addition to its massively lucrative Warhammer licensing projects, Fantasy Flight has moved forward on a number of other ambitious projects.  The Eagle and the Lion is a wargaming style of board game similar to the now famous Tannhauser and Dust games that allows you to fight battles between Napoleon and Wellington.  Speaking of Tannhauser, an expansion for that is now in the works.  Constantinopolis is another awesome concept game of city and Empire building.  Meanwhile, pushing the boundaries back into games of the past, Fantasy Flight has also announced the development of games like Dragonheart and Dungeonquest, which will bring even more attention and attraction from the nostalgia market.

The question I have is: Is Fantasy Flight's expansion sustainable, or are they on the path to over-extension?

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Book Review: Soulless by Gail Carriger

I have often lamented that there are just not enough bustles, corsets, or ugly hats in traditional Gothic Horror Fantasy stories.  Thankfully, just in time, I was rescued from this wasteland of decolletage by the wasp-waisted wit if Victorian-era horror writer Gail Carriger and her new book, Soulless.

Having seen a release for the book from Orbit Press a few weeks ago, I decided to recommend it to our Suspense Central Moderator, Aurelia Long, as a potential candidate for August's New Kids on the Bloch: New Visions of Gothic Horror Theme.  When it was decided that this book would be the August selection, I immediately tore into it like a spinster into a treacle tart.

The book itself is the standard 'series starter book', replete with introductions of all the characters, set-up of the mechanics of the universe, and an explanation of who the opposing and allied forces are.  In the opening scene we meet Miss Alexia Tarabotti, English spinster extraordinary, and in the first two pages we see every paragraph, actually near every sentence, start of with the notable young woman's name.  This is incredibly off-putting, and were I made of less stern stuff, I would likely have stopped right there and then.  I am grateful that I persevered, though, for the rest of the book more than made up for the tedious two introductory pages.

Miss Tarabotti is the product of her mother's first marriage to an Italian emigre, is a notable bluestocking, and a preternatural.  What, you might well ask, is a preternatural?  Well,  a preternatural is a being who emits an aura that turns off the supernatural powers of Ghosts, Vampires, and Werewolves, rendering such supernatural creatures wholly mortal and, thus, easily dispatched.  In addition to her immunity from the supernatural predators, Miss Tarabotti has a brilliant mind, and has immersed herself in the sciences of Aetherics and Biology, as well as literature of a... less discrete sort.  While this might not seem important, trust me, it will be.

Surrounding our Victorian heroine in 1870's London is a cast of bizarrely well fleshed out characters.  As a point of fact, one has a tendency to forget that this is a first book by a new author, so well turned out are her characters.  From the gruffly romantic werewolf Lord Connal Maccon to his Pack Beta and partner at the BUR (Bureau of Unnatural Registry, where supernaturals are required to register) Professor Lyall and the mysterious and foppish dandy Vampire rove Lord Akeldama, we get an excellent taste of the supernatural, or nighttime set as the daylighters call them.  Looking into the daytime folk, we see one of the most amazing characters to ever grace the page, Miss Jill Hisselpenny (another spinster with a proclivity towards eye-searingly ugly hats), swanning about the society  the vapid and irritating pages with members of the Loontwill family (Miss Tarabotti's mama's family through her second marriage to the miser, Squire Loontwill), and the members of the Hypocras Club.

The setting itself is somewhat familiar, but definitely different in all the right places, somewhat like a proper Victorian dress should be. London in the 1870's has a few bands of Vampires, Werewolves, and Ghosts, who have apparently been living publicly since the time of Henry VIII, what they refer to as the end of the 'Dark Ages'.  Unlike much of Europe, and the rest of the world, which is divided on the supernatural issue, the Church of England has not taken a stance against the supernaturals, and has instead welcomed them into society, even going so far as to place a Vampire and a Werewolf as specific councilors to her Majesty the Queen (the Potentate and the Dewan in order to be precise).

THAC0: 5

From the opening scene with the poorly dressed and gauche Vampire to the various climaxes that conclude the book, Soulless could well be called Relentless because it simply never lets up.  The action is ratcheted up every scene, the suspense ratchets up every chapter, and the mystery deepens with every sentence.  While this book, and it sequels, will likely be more appealing to those with a historical bent, I feel that any fans of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Sookie Stackhouse, and/or Harry Dresden will be enchanted by this book as much as fans of HG Wells and Jules Verne will.

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

SF News: Is SyFy Salvagable?

I know that I do a lot of complaining about SyFy and its awful programming, but I got into a debate the other day and found myself defending the channel.  That's right, ever the optimist, I was trying to explain how SyFy is not all bad.  While you are busy choking down your laughter, let's take a look at the pro's and con's of SyFy:

Good shows like Caprica, Eureka, Haven, Merlin, Sanctuary, Stargate Universe, and Warehouse 13
Rerun blocks of good shows like Invasion, Jeremiah, Jericho, Star Trek: TNG, Threshold, and the Twilight Zone.
Cool Miniseries and Programming like Alice, Riverworld, and more

Poor promotion of products outside of the SyFy Channel.
WWE NXT?  Really?
SharktopusMega Pirannah?  SyFy Original Movies... 'nuff said.
Destination Truth, Estate of Panic, Ghost Hunters (and its multitudinous spin-offs), Mary Knows Best, Outer Space Astronauts, and Scare Tactics.

OK, so the picture is not so rosy, but the fact is that SyFy is walking a tightrope between Dreck and Drama!  The problem with this statement: so is every single other channel on TV (with the possible exceptions of USA and TNT).  Not every channel is being held to such scrutiny as SyFy is, mainly because SF fans tend to be very demanding and easily upset by things that they feel are 'talking down' to them.

Monday, May 17, 2010

Week at a Glance: May 17 to May 24

...Aaaaand we're back.  I have to apologize for last week.  Things got kind of crazy, and I managed to fall behind on every single one of my projects.  First and foremost I would like to let everyone know that I will be writing a series of articles for Bell of Lost Souls regarding the application of military philosophy to wargaming.  In the mean time: here is what we can look forward to this week.

In the SFSNNJ:
Wednesday we meet up at Borders Books & Music in Ramsey, NJ for Moderator Barry Weinberger's Films to Come 4-Star movie discussion group.  Among the topics of discussion will be Iron Man 2, Robin Hood, and the top grossing films of 2010, as well as a look ahead to the awesome line-up of genre films due out in June, including Toy Story 3.  On Saturday, our Heroes & Rogues Gaming Group will host the next chapter in the Rogue Trader "Wolves in the Fold" Campaign (interested parties, please visit

In the Movies:
Last week saw the introduction of Robin Hood to the box office, but this new Ridley Scott/Russel Crowe vehicle just did not have the drive to smash through the walls of powerhouse blockbuster Iron Man 2.  Given the potential staying power of Iron Man 2 it might be a worry for Dreamworks as Shrek Forever After is due to come out this Friday.  Given the longevity and popularity of How to Train Your Dragon, this looks to be a banner year for the Dreamworks Animation team, and even if it does not top out at the box office, it cannot help but swell the coffers of studio.

On DVD & Blu-Ray:
Kind of a light week for DVD & Blu-Ray releases, but we still have a few notable genre titles to choose from.  Outlander is a strange cocktail of comic-book, historical, and science fiction starring Jim Caviezel, and The Spy Next Door pits Jackie Chan against kids in the espionage spoof (though how they explain an obvious Chinese actor with a thick Chinese accent working for the professional paranoiacs at the CIA really pushes this into the realm of Fantasy).  Clash of the Olympians compiles 16 different sword & sandals epics into one big (and surprisingly well priced) bundle.  Classic films on DVD brings us Gamera and The Navy vs The Night Monster.  In TV releases to DVD & Blu-Ray we have the classic Greatest American Hero as well as SyFy Channel's Ghost Hunters: Military Investigations.

In Gaming:
Games Workshop's Forgeworld studios keeps on putting out the hits, with Imperial Armour vol 8: The Raid on Kastorel Novem as well as a number of new models for Orks, Raven Guard, and Elysian Drop Troops.  Fantasy Flight announced the upcoming release of Death Angels, a Card based version of the classic Space Hulk game, as well as new editions and add-ons for Ingenius, Tide of Iron, and Tannhauser, and completely new projects like Dragonheart, Dungeonquest, and Constantinopolis.  In Video Games we mainly have the release of Super Mario Galaxy II to occupy the hands and eyes of gamers, but rest assured that there is more on the way soon!

In Books:
This week sees some interesting new releases in the genre book section, including the latest from Robin Hobb, Dragon Haven.  A few other books hitting the shelves will be such selections as Blood Oath by Christopher Farnsworth, Stealing Fire by Jo Graham, and Genesis by Bernard Beckett, but the most important release this week is bound to be George R.R. Martin's latest short story collection, Warriors, with selections from Naomi Novik, Diana Gabaldon, David Weber, and many more.

On the Blog:
Tuesday: SF News: Is SyFy Salvagable?
Wednesday: Book Review: Soulless by Gail Carriger
Thursday: Gaming: The Fantasy Flight Juggernaut
Friday: TV & Movies: Iron Man 2

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

SF News: Is the Mid-List Really Shrinking?

For years many people have argued that the genre sections of book stores have been shrinking and the 'mid-list' selection, the level of writers that includes most non-bestselling authors, has been decreasing.  The question, is this really true, or are we seeing a simple reaction of greater diversity penetrating the genre section?  Also, how do we prove this one way or the other?

First, the problem that we really have to get over is that the internet allows us access to organizations like Bookview Cafe, Kobe, and  Even if the shelf space at book stores is shrinking, the fact that there are literally hundreds of books available for devices like iPads, Kindles, and even smart phones that are simply not on the shelves.  More and more of the mid-list seems to be available in these formats, the simple statement

In addition to this, we have an amazing diaspora of genre titles across traditionally opaque lines.  Science Fiction novels are turning up in Mystery, Literature, and Romance sections, and the reverse is also true.  Many mid-list authors, like Barbara Hambly, Jackie Kessler, and S.L. Viehl, are turning up in different sections of the bookstores, and, even though their works are very obviously SF, Horror, or Fantasy, their shelf placement belies their content.

So the question remains, is the mid-list shrinking, or only our perception of it?

This week in the SFSNNJ:
Monday: Suspense Central discusses Replay by Ken Grimwood
Wednesday: Drawing A Crowd discusses Time Travel and Comics
Saturday: Call of Cthulu!
For event details check out

Saturday, May 8, 2010

TV & Movies: Come On Get Happy

First of all, I have to apologize for the delay in posting, and for missing the past few Mondays.  I have had a number of Monday issues of late, and will be changing the schedule accordingly since I need to spend most of my Mondays getting stuff ready to take to the Dump on Tuesday (I'm sure you really wanted to know that).  Anyway, on to more interesting subjects...

A few weeks ago, advertisements began cropping up for the new ABC show, Happy Town.  Buzz started up, and most of us groaned and dug in for Harper's Island redux, irritated and annoyed by what blatantly seemed like another try at making an edgy little limited season mystery story.  Thankfully, while last season's hacker's delight was a predictable, tedious, over-wrought bloodbath, Happy Town is cut from quite different cloth.

With a look and feel reminiscent of early Stephen King or Peter Straub, Happy Town seeks to blaze a new trail in the supernatural and horror genres.  When asked to describe the show, I often tell folks to imagine a town from any Stephen King book.  Now imagine that instead of the town burning down at the end of the book, the strange events just stop, and the people of the town just try to go back to living their lives and they forget the horrors of what happened.  The problem is that you cannot ignore the past, because eventually it will come back to get you.

With only two weeks into the show, we really don't have much in the way of information, but what we are learning is all about the dynamics of the characters.  In a town full of secrets, where nothing is as it seems and everyone has a few skeletons in their closets, the introduction of outside elements to disrupt things makes for even greater drama.  Of course, you cannot really go wrong with a show where the sheriff cuts off his own hand while muttering gibberish.

I would definitely head over to and check out the first two episodes.

Thursday, May 6, 2010

Gaming: Dark Heresy, Rogue Trader, and Deathwatch

Throughout the course of the month of May I will be taking some time to explore the world of Warhammer 40,000 through the lens of Fantasy Flight's series of Roleplaying Games set in the grim darkness of the far future.

First off, I am am sure that some of you are all aching for a bit of background, and I will endeavor to supply you with that before I elaborate.  In 2008, Games Workshop, through its Black Library Publishing division, released the first true roleplaying game set in the universe of Games Workshop's world famous and highly popular Warhammer 40,000 universe.  The game, set 38000 years in a future where the human race struggles for supremacy amid both alien and supernatural threats, was then picked up by Fantasy Flight Games in the US, who began a massive program of development for the system.  Given its amazing initial successes, Fantasy Flight began a full fledged program of expansion and support and created an ancillary game, released in late 2009, called Rogue Trader.  Even greater sales and successes followed the release of Rogue Trader, and Fantasy Flight began development of Deathwatch, which is scheduled for release this summer.

Now, I know what you are thinking: how can you have three different games in the same setting?!  Very easily, in point of fact.  The Universe of Warhammer 40,000 is epic in its porportions to begin with, and the simple fact is that each of the games fills a somewhat unique sub-genre within the setting.  Let's take a look:

Dark Heresy: Characters, referred to as Acolytes, are doing the holy work of the Imperial Inquisition, rooting out enemies of humanity wherever they go.  Dark Heresy allows players to create Acolytes from any of the three major orders of the Inquisition (Ordo Xenos hunts aliens, Ordo Malleus hunts daemons, and Ordo Hereticus hunts witches and traitors), and provides a look at the lowest levels of society as the players work their way up in their masters' organization.  Well supported with many supplemental books and adventures, Dark Heresy provides a fantastic gateway into the Warhammer 40K universe for roleplayers who are uninterested in the tabletop wargame.  This game is good for players who are interested in sleuthing adventures and thriller/suspense/intrigue campaigns.

Rogue Trader: Unlike Dark Heresy, Rogue Trader characters, referred to as Explorers, are not working directly for the government of the Empire of Man, but are rather members of an interstellar trading cartel known as a Rogue Trader Dynasty.  Rogue Traders have been a staple of the Warhammer 40K universe from the beginning, and this game added a whole new dimension and power level to the game.  While it is compatible with Dark Heresy, Rogue Trader has a slightly different feel and structure to the adventures, as well as innovative new ways of generating characters and solving problems.  In addition, giving players command of a starship, and the ability to pick and choose Endeavours (the Rogue Trader equivalent of missions or projects) makes this a far more advanced game for players who are looking for a type of 'Pirates in Space' feel.  Though the Core book only came out last November, we already have set of supporting adventures (see Rogue Trader: Lure of the Expanse) with a great deal more on the way.

Deathwatch: Now we get  into the nitty-gritty of what really makes Warhammer 40,000 a popular game: Space Marines.  Deathwatch puts players in the role of Space Marines seconded to the Ordo Xenos, the Inquisitorial branch dedicated to wiping out aliens, and looks to be head and shoulders above the power levels of the prior two books.  While the game has not yet been released, we have seen a great deal about the setting and the options for building a Deathwatch Kill Team Marine, including the use of specific Space Marine Chapter backgrounds.  Unlike the previous games, Deathwatch is likely to be focused on combat and will definitely appeal to the dungeon-crawl, shoot-em-up type of player who likes killing aliens of all stripes.

So what are these articles going to deal with?  Well, next week I will talk more about the specifics of Dark Heresy, game mechanics, supplements, and overall conceptualization.  The week after I will do the same for Rogue Trader, and the week after that I will round up the rumors on the forthcoming Deathwatch system.

Dark Heresy, Rogue Trader, and their supplements are available for purchase at New Moon Comics.

Wednesday, May 5, 2010

Book Review: The Lost Fleet: Victorious by Jack Campbell

About two decades ago, at the close of the first Gulf War, the genre world started a love affair with military SF that lasted through most of the 1990's and into the early 2000's when it was supplanted by Paranoir (a.k.a. Paranormal Mystery or Paranormal Detective stories).  Happily enough for me, authors like David Weber, John Ringo, and Scott Westerfeld keep on writing military SF even though the genre has moved on to a new darling.  Of equal good fortune for those who like this sort of story, new book series do come along from time to time.  I know that I have reviewed the Lost Fleet series previously, however I just finished the most recent entry by Jack Campbell and I wanted to share my impressions.

First of all, one must realize that this is part of an overall series, and that a lot of dramatic tension is built up over the course of the prior books.  To bring you up to speed:
The Alliance and the Syndicated Worlds have been fighting a brutal war for over a century.  The war started with an ambush that forced Captain Jack Geary to abandon his ship after a desperate action to hold off Syndicate ships, allowing the defenseless convoy he was escorting the time to escape.  After all this time, the Alliance has managed to find a way to attack the Syndics' capitol system directly, and is on their way there, when they find Jack Geary's survival pod and the famous Captain frozen in stasis.  They thaw the legend out just in time for him to watch the fleet get blasted to bits in an ambush at the Syndic capital.  He takes over control of the fleet by sheer dint of seniority (the Admiral commanding placed him in charge before going to his death at the negotiating table), and teaches the modern day captains about things like tactics and formations (their military traditions consist of charging headlong into the fight and hoping the esprit de corps is sufficient to win the day), and they fight their way back home.  On their way they learn much about the Syndics, including the fact that the Syndics are worried about an alien threat on their other border!

OK, so Victorious starts off with the Lost Fleet having finally made it all the way back to Alliance space.  Black Jack Geary must now contend with truculent, self-centered politicians and push for his own new strategy of striking back at the Syndic capital with their new found information.  In addition, he must now reveal the truth about the aliens, that he has hidden from his own forces through the entire long trip home.  Suffice it to say that, much as the title implies, Geary achieves victory in ways that few would have imagined possible (especially the reader).

The story, like many military SF stories, is more of a backdrop for character drama than one would think.  Sure there are great battles and well told military life scenes, but the character tensions and drama kicks this from war story to high drama.  From comradeship to cowardice, love to loss, and fleet to family, Victorious explores all of the facets of character that a wartime milieu allows, and then some.  Sure, I know that many of you are thinking "Honor Harrington all over again..." but this is really not the case.  Not only is Campbell's style very different from Weber's (no treecats, no winking knowingly, and a lot more backbiting), but Campbell handles the battle sequences in a very different manner.

THAC0: 10
Fans of military SF will love this series and this book in particular, however those not into the sub-genre may find themselves bored.  A good rule of thumb would be: if you liked JAG, then you will enjoy this.

Tuesday, May 4, 2010

SF News: Film Futures

In mid-April the Commodities Future Trading Commission approved the bill that would allow the trading of film futures on the stock market.  The argument for this is that it will allow producers access to a larger pool of money to help make films.  Given the higher and higher cost of making the average film, every little bot could help, but the biggest issue here is that of the danger to investors themselves.

By and large, investors are mostly ill-educated on the dangers inherent in the futures market, which is byzantine and difficult to understand even for some professionals.  The idea of any futures market is basically the same as gambling at the race track or betting on a sporting event: you put money into what is basically a bet on whether or not the commodity is going to increase or decrease in value over a certain period of time.  With movies, these futures would likely include cost over-runs and projected box-office sales.

Why is this dangerous?  Two words: Warren Buffet.  Actually, I am being perfectly serious when I say that.  Buffet espouses a theory that you should invest in companies that you know and products that you use.  While this is great for regular stocks, it can be disastrous in a Film Futures Market.  People will invest in things based solely on their knowledge of the product will be basing their investments on their personal tastes, which will cause high investment in films that are likely to be bombs (or in many cases simply bad movies).

What can we do about this?  Aside from asking our investment professionals NOT to invest in film futures, nit very much.  When a whole bunch of people lose their shirts on A Nightmare on Elm Street 2 or Iron Man 3 and demand that the government step in, though, we will need to step up and say "Caveat emptor... with extreme prejudice!"