Monday, July 25, 2016

Reading Neverwhere Out of Time

I'm wrapping up a listen to Neil Gaiman's "Neverwhere," and it's reminding me of a particular type of sorrow I have, from time to time, experienced. The Russians call the sadness of longing with nothing to long for toska, which can mean ennui, deep regret, and also nostalgia. Nostalgia fits as well as anything in describing Neverwhere, as its intricate web of imagined undergrounds and subtle horrors reference a version of London now gone except for a few hidden patches. It also sums up my feeling of nostalgia for an idealized experience which I never experienced.



I should have read this book when it was released, in 1996. I think it could have easily become the source of significant obsession on my part if I had been so lucky to have encountered it then.

Maybe I'm older now and in less need (I suppose) for an alternate world of angels, droll cut-throats, and forgotten subway stations. It's also true that this is a work with a huge impact on the fantasy literature that followed it. Although I can't find any reference to J.K. Rowling's affection for the tv series or book, her world of hidden wizards and witches (and reliance on adverbs) bears obvious echoes to this earlier work. So reading Neverwhere now is a little like going backwards in a video game series; it's hard to see what makes something great if it's obscured by all that followed it.

But then, a little voice pipes up, who are you to say this isn't the best time to read this book? Although the spell doesn't quite captivate as fully, the incantations still holds power. In particular, Neverwhere gives writers all sorts of handy tools in pulling an alternate world into view: the matter-of-fact presentation, the precise descriptions, and the weary irony.

The work still holds up, with its moments of levity always carrying a sinister edge and its depravity delivered with a gentlemanly lilt. It helps that I'm listening to book on CD, narrated by Neil himself. The guy's voice is like a goddamn Stradivarius.

***

Chapter XIII of my espionage web fiction, "Agent Shield and Spaceman" is now available. Imagine James Bond in Bat Country, you'll have the basic idea of this serialized novel.

Saturday, July 23, 2016

Star Trek Beyond

Setting aside hype and concerns, I think my basic reaction to the new Star Trek movie, Star Trek Beyond was, oh so that's what a decent Star Trek episode would be like as a movie. Your reaction to the new movie will probably depend a great deal on whether or not you can make your peace with Star Trek as a summer sci-fi thriller.



When the first trailer for Beyond dropped earlier this year, I told friends that this was exactly what I thought a trailer for a movie directed by the guy from the Fast and Furious franchise would look like. I was not excited.

Having watched the movie, I would say pretty much the same thing but add that's not necessarily a bad thing.

Justin Lin has a rep for focusing on ensemble character interactions and kinetic action sequences. That's what you get in this movie. Beyond is strongest when the superb cast is together in various combinations, talking, arguing, and working to solve their problems. It gets a little muddled as the scale of action increases, when a hokey species of pandering takes hold, but on the level of a couple of people fighting or chasing each other or falling through a collapsing starship - this stuff pops.

Of all of the Kelvin Timeline movies, this one felt closest to the original feel of Star Trek in the television series. Although the movie is full length, and features impressive scenes of destruction and mayhem, its stream-lined plot is focused on a single threat and the efforts to defeat it. This is a smart decision. Almost all of the original cast gets a nice, fully formed character arc and even the new characters have their moments. I'm always a fan of simple things down relatively well. In the original series that was episodes like "Errand of Mercy," "The Galileo Seven," and "Shore Leave," stories that weren't always as profound as Trek's later reputation would suggest but were nevertheless a lot of fun.

Also - and this is an ongoing strength of the Kelvin Timeline movies - the casting is fantastic. Zachary Quinto (Spock) and Karl Urban (McCoy) finally get to spar for an extended period of time while marooned together on an alien world and really sell the idea of a prickly although fundamentally strong friendship. Chris Pine's Captain Kirk has been hit or miss for me, but this movie finally seems to hit his stride as a risk-taker who feels his moment slipping away from him, a leader in search of a cause. The focus on his efforts to meet the challenge basically carries the film through any slow patch.

Finally, although I like Benedict Cumberbatch's villain very much in Into Darkness, I have to give Idris Elba credit where credit is due. He's not my favorite Trek villain, but the unique motivations he brings to the role, steeped in an impressive amount of Trek lore, worked well.

Even though this was the first film to not feature an onscreen cameo from a Trek alumnus, this did feel like a movie genuinely interested in working with the lore of the series in interesting ways. The references to "Green Hands," and "Romulan Wars" were pitched at exactly the right tone - not gratuitous fan-service but references to things with direct bearing on the action at hand.

There are a few casual nods to Big Ideas like unity of purpose through friendship and respect versus strength developed through struggle and conflict. All of the Kelvin Timeline movies focus intently on the question of whether or not peaceful exploration of the galaxy is even possible and that thread continues here with mixed results. This is a movie about the characters and the question of whether they can pull themselves back together. It's a simple sentiment and one that I imagine will translate well in whatever language it's uttered. Which, in this age of globalized entertainment, is not an idle gesture. A movie like Beyond will rise or fall on the ability of foreign markets to buy into its vision of a utopian future.

As mentioned above, the movie has some significant defects. My friend Matt noted the preponderance of shaky camera-work during action sequences and I thought several big moments in the film were marred by corny decisions. Although I think Simon Pegg's script was very good, he can hit the anachronistic pop culture reference button as hard as anyone in the business.

Overall, I'm listing this as a must-see. It's one of the better Trek films, maybe a bit better than the first reboot movie, better than all of the Next Gen movies except for First Contact. I still find myself wanting to know what happens to this crew and where they go next.




Thursday, July 21, 2016

Stranger Things on Netflix

I am HOOKED on Netflix's "Stranger Things," the exclusive mystery/horror series released last week. Seriously, folks, this is a good show - and probably one of my favorite things I've seen on the small screen this year.



Everything, from the retro-style of the production, the smart casting  choices (Winona Ryder is fantastic), to the intriguing "Demigorgon" monster works so well. The Duffer Brothers (Matt and Ross Duffer) deserve credit for much of this, having woven together the spectral and mundane elements of the story with confidence and style.

It helps that the nostalgia this show mines is congruent to my own experiences as a child of the mid-80s. Without being annoying about it, the show hits all of the right notes - from the awesomely boxy cars, to the amazement shown a 22-inch television screen and a Laz-E-Boy, to the inspired soundtrack choices. This feels like the 80s.

Better yet, this retro setting doesn't feel like a gratuitous move. The story Stranger Things tells (and here's where I should mention I'm only half way through the series) is one that deftly weaves elements of small town troubles, government conspiracies, and the naive optimism of middle school aged kids. It's been a long time since Hollywood has figured out how to get all of these elements together at once without it seeming campy or dismissive. Stranger Things manages that trick.

I'll finish by pointing out the monster of the series is really cool. There hasn't been that much explanation of it yet, but what appears on the screen owes something to Poltergeist, Alien, and Stephen King's IT. The Duffers are adept at using the medium of the small screen to their advantage - always locating the menace just off screen or framed at a distance through obstruction. We think we see more than we actually do, our terrified brains already supplying fangs and claws to a tiger we only hear growling.

***

If you have a spare second in-between binging on the show above, you might want to check out my serial web fiction, "Agent Shield and Spaceman." The twelfth chapter is now available; the agents of Section Starfire traveling to Waco, Texas to track down a lead on the source of the Burmese Tiger Snake.


Wednesday, July 20, 2016

Review: "Stone Work" by Dominic Stabile



I received a preview copy of "Stone Work" in order to complete this review.

Mirror Matter Press' "Stone Work" is a collection of three novellas written by Dominic Stabile, all concerning the travails of a disfigured assassin/bad-ass named Stone. The world Stone inhabits is one part Blade Runner and one part Mad Max with a helping of Steven King for good measure. For aficionados of pulp horror thrills this anthology brings the goods. Stabile writes in a hyperbolic and pop-literate style that emulates the splashier elements of a Frank Miller graphic novel while giving nods to horror, science fiction, and noir classics from the last century.




The final and longest story, "Godless City," is my favorite of the collection. It has the most interesting set-up; a man hires Stone as a bodyguard as he tries to bring a sacrilegious documentary to light. I dig world-building and this story explores in detail an intriguing element of Stabile's world. In the nightmare future of Stone, the only source of hope and optimism of the citizens of his noir city are the various fictional worlds left behind after the end of the world. Whether Sam Spade or Star Trek, believers treat these entertainments as literal truths.

I found this an interesting take on dystopias because it seems to be a self-aware gesture of the writer to his own highly referential creation. In the same way Stephen King mines the pulp horror comics and B-grade movies for his inspiration, Stabile employs the cross-genre pollination of the 90s. Stone's world is one soaked in media and self-reference; the movies, graphic novels, and stories it names don't ground the world in a particular time or place so much as they create a sense of dislocation and rampant entropy.

The other stories in the collection are worth a read as well, especially if you find yourself hooked on Stabile's fusion of hyper-aware noir and Lovecraftian mayhem.

In the first story, "'Roid Rage" a minor criminal boss hires Stone to protect his incompetent drug-dealing son. Considering the drug in question comes with some extreme side-effects, it's probably not surprising the whole job goes south quickly. Of the three stories, this was my least favorite even though I think it represents the best introduction to the rest of collection. While the inventiveness of the mutants streaming in after the hero was entertaining, the thin set-up didn't quite support the mayhem that followed.

Plumb, Inc was much better, much more inventive. Here Stone infiltrates a company involved in scores of disappearances only to discover his biggest threat might be the motivations of his employer. Readers learn a bit more about Stone, his hard-luck past as a soldier and his prickly relationship with his hacker friend Megan. Having read a few other stories by Stabile, I know that he can handle deftly the messy subtleties of human relationships. Between the noisy sections of gunplay and tentacle beasts, the quieter moments peek out.

My overall impression of this work is of an author with obvious gifts in the kind of the literature I enjoy, making rapid strides forward in skill and craft. I would read another volume of Stone's adventures and I look forward to see what else Stabile's feverish imagination will summon forth.


Tuesday, July 19, 2016

New Chapter of "Agent Shield and Spaceman" available!

The eleventh chapter is now available over on "Agent Shield and Spaceman." I update this serialized espionage thriller two to three times a week. In today's installment, Frankie Two-Eyes meets with his handler and learns the Section Starfire mission is an offer he cannot refuse.

The world of politics is blowing up! Movies are blowing up! There are some many good television shows and they are all blowing up!

I'm having trouble prioritizing today and I really do have some work to get done so I'm going to try an inoculate myself with a blog post on...POLITICS!

First off, the one thing I was willing to cede to Trump was that he knows how to put on a show. I figured that with his years of monetizing spectacles, he would know how to create an epic convention for himself. I resigned myself to a massive post-convention bump that would send all of the talking heads scurrying for a thesaurus to find different ways of writing "Clinton Campaign in Trouble."

And hey, you know what? That still might happen. The point of the convention is to serve as the official start line for the general election. The Republicans and Republican-leaning voters finally tune in this week, look over the candidate and fall in line. Trump will  benefit from that perennial sorting effect just as Hillary will benefit from the Democratic convention next week.

But let's look at some reasons why a Trump bump might not materialize. Again, Trump has revealed the short-comings of clinging to a small staff. There are simply not enough hands (small or otherwise) to keep this ship properly righted. The floor protest overshadowed the kick-off of the event, there were numerous technical errors, unforced errors like Trump calling into Fox News during his most emotionally charged speaker of the evening, and then of course #speechgate.

In response to the obvious, striking, word-for-word similarities (the current euphemism for cutting and pasting text apparently), Paul Manafort, chief strategist of the Trump campaign claimed two things: #1) that this wasn't really plagiarism and #2) it doesn't really matter if it does because the Clinton campaign was cynically orchestrating the whole thing.

First off: this is plagiarism. There might be a perfectly understandable or sympathetic reason why this plagiarism happened but let's be clear what's going on. This isn't a case of a few words showing up in both speeches or a felicitous phrase borrowed from Ms. Obama. This was an entire block of nearly identical text dropped into the rest of Ms. Trumps' speech. The only way this could have been more a perfect example of plagiarism is if Melania's text still included hyperlinks!

So, yes, Manafort - this is plagiarism.

Moving on, I honestly think that this controversy does mean something. Presumably one of the most important persons in anyone's life is a spouse, a life partner. Knowing the stakes of this night, and for the speech itself, why wouldn't Trump triple- and quadruple- check her speech. Wouldn't he want to look out for her? Save her from embarrassment in front of millions of people?

No. Trump did not.

Now, imagine that level of care and attention to detail directed towards a nation of 300 million people, many of whom Trump has made it clear he couldn't give a green fig about. How much is he going to look out for them?

I'm a fan of what some folks call "Trump's Razor," the idea that given a certain range of facts, assume the stupidest motivation for whatever Trump does. So, while watching the warm glow of the Cleveland's dumpster fire, my wife and I traded back and forth our armchair analysis of how Melania's speech transpired.

We both agreed that this wasn't entirely her doing. Maybe she wrote some parts of the speech but she had to have had help. Everyone gets help writing these things, at least one other person who looks over the speech and asks a question or two.

So, we asked ourselves is it reasonable that Trump or Manaford assigned someone to Ms. Trump who was so over-worked or incompetent that they missed the glaring fact this text bears a close resemblance to a well-known address by a political enemy?

We didn't think it is which leads to the sneaking suspicion this was deliberate. Someone didn't just make a mistake, or overlook a key passage, but found a way of embarrassing the Donald, or Melania, or both on national television.

What's the alternative? That someone did notice the problem and decided - who cares anyway?

That might be the scariest notion of them all.

Monday, July 18, 2016

New Ghostbusters Movie

"Ghostbusters" is an silly, good-natured summer movie that just so happens to be based on/rebooting one of the most beloved of all comedy horror flicks - "Ghostbusters." One of the first movies I remember watching, part of me still considers the original a masterpiece, a basically perfect encapsulation of high, middle, and low humor mixed with old-fashioned thrills and chills. So, I get it, the new movie comes with a lot of baggage. There are people who are even more wrapped up in that mystique than I am and to them, the idea of rebooting the movie is and continues to be a non-starter.

Ghostbusters busting: from left to right - Melissa McCarthy (Abby Yates), Kate McKinnon (Jillian Holtzmann), Kristen Wiig (Erin Gilbert), and Leslie Jones (Patty Tolan).

To me, that's a shame because most of what made the original movie fun has survived the translation to 21st century. Instead of four really funny men, we have four really funny women. Like the original, this movie draws most of its comedic potential from workplace struggles. Ghost busting is a messy, unappreciated job and running a small business brings a lot of frustrations both small and potentially cataclysmic. The same off-handed, pseudo-scientific absurdity also appears in this movie. References to mass undersea sponge migrations and Tobin's spirit guide felt a lot more subversive in the original but there enough references to New York's tangled history to make things feel lived-in and plausible.

The basic tension in the movie is between the two leads, Melissa McCarthy and Kristen Wiig. McCarthy, in perhaps my favorite role of hers as Abby Yates, plays the former partner and friend of Erin Gilbert. Abby was the only person to believe Erin's account of childhood haunting but the two have had a falling out prior to the beginning of the movie. Gradually, Erin makes peace with her driveto be accepted and validated by the scientific community. For the most part this relationship is well-handled in the movie although I think they could have gone for a bigger crack-up before the final reel.

Unfortunately, focusing the movie on the two main characters leaves a less time and material for the other two stand-outs of the movie - Kate McKinnon's bizarre mad-scientist Jillian Holtzmann and Leslie Jones' former subway worker Patty Tolan. Both McKinnon and Jones are amazing comedians in their own right but I would have liked to see more of their backstory. With word that Sony's going all in for a sequel, that's something that could be addressed in the next movie.

The first half of the movie is also way better than the latter half. The original made the jump from four hard-working stiffs to world-threatening danger through a montage and well-placed portents. This movie has an awkward confrontation with the mayor (played by Andy Garcia) that never quite pays off. I suspect somewhere there's a longer version of the movie with more explanation about why the government is so keen on covering up paranormal activities and how that might tie into the bad guy, a geeky misanthrope Rowan North (Neil Casey). As it stands the ending is exciting but doesn't quite land with the impact of the original.

Even at this late-date there are online critics who refuse to see this movie - complaining about the gender swap casting or Paul Feig as the director or the supposed inviolability of the original. I honestly struggle understanding these sentiments - especially those that claim they don't need to see the movie to know that it's crap. In a year where people are refusing to see the good in the other side of a political debate, or a societal issue, maybe it shouldn't be surprising to see the same rigidity creep into fan culture.

I think you should see this movie before you decide on its merits.


Friday, July 15, 2016

Tenth Chapter for "Agent Shield and Spaceman"

The next chapter for my ongoing web fiction "Agent Shield and Spaceman" is now available.

I am currently reading Alastair Reynold's "Chasm City," a follow-up to "Revelation Space," a cyberpunk space opera I enjoyed very much when I read it nearly a decade ago. I'm also enjoying "Chasm City," as it contains much of what I suspect earned Reynold's his reputation. Although he paints on a very large canvas, he is very economical in his writing. He skillfully focuses on the perspective of a single highly motivated character, for example, rather than rope in a large number of extra characters right of the bat. He also employs an interesting technique to get some other perspectives in what is essentially a first person perspective: infectious spiritual memories. Lastly, knowing what I do about the hellscape the book is ultimately destined to describe, I respect the patient and methodical approach Reynold uses in world building. No concept is introduced in its entirety, but only as an example of some smaller and easy-to-grasp phenomenon in the world. These pieces click together in a natural way, assembling a coherent universe together.