Saturday, February 18, 2017

Pulp Revolution Review: Nethereal



Nethereal is the 2015 debut novel by Brian Niemeier, and it is one hell of a page turner.

First, some ethical disclosure: the author and I follow each other on Twitter, I am a frequent listener to a podcast that he co-hosts, and we are both part of the current Superversive and Pulp Revolution movements taking place within Sci-Fi/Fantasy. So there is absolutely a level of personal bias to this review that I want you to be aware of.

Now to business. Nethereal is the first book of the Soul Cycle, which is a Weird Space Opera/Horror setting. Now, by Weird, I mean WEIRD. Traditional physics have no place here and a combination of super science and magic are what propel space travel, which is under the monopolistic control of the Guild. Thrown into this is the pirate frigate Shibboleth, captained by Jaren Peregrine, the halfbreed last survivor of the Gen race (effectively Space Elves) hell-bent on revenge for the Guild's genocide of his people. He has two steersmen (magician/pilots): Nakvin, a beautiful, half-human woman with mysterious origins and Deim, a devoutly religious young man who's family has been helping Peregrine's for several generations. And there is Teg Cross, mercenary sociopath and Jeren's combat enforcer.

Misfortune leads them to a revolutionary group building a massive and unnerving exploration ship called the Exodus, which further misfortune causes it to travel to Hell during its maiden voyage.

Yes, actual Hell (at least Hell as described by Gen theology).

Then it gets weirder.

That's all I want to say about the plot, because a) I want to avoid spoilers and b) I could be here all day trying to explain what happens, there's so much of it.

I simply trying to explain what the book is is less effective than explaining what it is like. It is like Dune meets Firefly meets Outlaw Star meets Lovecraft meets Spelljammer meets Moby Dick meets the Inferno. It draws from a tremendous variety of influences and in doing so defies genre classification, though “Space Opera Horror” might be the closest you can get.

Despite the disparate influences (or maybe because of them), the setting is one of the strongest selling points for the book, and its is incredibly thought-out. The action escalates to grandiosity, and the villains rise to match the scale.

Its not a perfect book, though a lot of my criticisms are nitpicks and entirely subjective. Scene transitions sometimes feel rushed or lacking in cohesion. The prose is straightforward but feels like it lacks a little something to make it quotable. The same is true for the dialogue. They get the job done, but its not on the level of a master like Bradbury's narration or Herbert's quotability.


That doesn't mean that Neimeier can't get there. Nethereal is a very strong, imaginative debut propelled by a confident enthusiasm for its subject matter. Absolutely recommended, though the intentional weirdness won't be for everybody. Amazon's your best place to find it. 

Tuesday, February 14, 2017

Legends Never Die: Heir to the Empire


A survey of the Expanded Universe really ought to start with Timothy Zahn's Thrawn Trilogy. Published in 1991 by Bantam Spectra, the first book, Heir to the Empire, ushered in the Expanded Universe proper after a long period of dormancy where the only new Star Wars material being released was for the roleplaying game by West End Games.

Zahn was an established Sci-Fi author by this point, having won a Hugo Award (back when that still meant something) and created a Space Opera series of his own with the Cobra trilogy. In the course of writing this trilogy, he worked closely with West End Games, and incorporated a lot of supplemental material into the books, establishing a cross-pollination between different products. It would take more new stories to start forming the true EU, but this was the keystone, and it was a huge success.



The setup is this: Five years after Return of the Jedi, the fledgling New Republic is struggling against a sudden surge of Imperial resistance. Said resistance comes from Grand Admiral Thrawn, an imposing blue-skinned, red-eyed near-human alien who has returned from the Unknown Regions to find the Empire in tatters and he is determined to right that ship.

Thrawn has limited resources and manpower, so he resorts to brilliant tactics and intel from a deep cover spy known only as “Delta Source” to attack against “the Rebels,” until he discovers the planet Wayland and one of the Emperor's hidden vaults guarded by a powerful, but insane cloned Jedi.

Meanwhile, Luke Skywalker has a final visit from Obi-Wan Kenobi's spirit urging him stay vigilant against the Dark Side and promises that he will find new allies. Han Solo and Princess Leia Organa Solo, now pregnant with twins, are busy flying around the galaxy doing diplomatic work when strange gray aliens repeatedly attack them, intent on capturing Leia specifically. Leia also has to deal with intrigue in the government as the stalwart Admiral Ackbar butts heads with the slippery Bothan senator, Borsk Fey'lya. Han is trying to make inroads into the smuggler scene to set up freelance supply lines that the New Republic badly needs, which leads him to smuggler baron Talon Karrde, a man who's risen to prominence in the wake of Jabba's death.

After a disastrous encounter with an Interdictor cruiser, Luke comes into an uneasy alliance with Karrde. Intelligent and urbane, Karrde's real stock in trade is information, and he knows more about Thrawn than he's willing to let the New Republic have for free. Karrde also has a mysterious lieutenant, Mara Jade, who wants nothing more in the world than to kill Luke Skywalker. Mara was the Emperor's Hand, a Force sensitive assassin and spy that answered only to Palpatine. The Emperor's death effectively destroyed her life. Naturally, she and Luke have to survive a hostile forest together.

Meanwhile, Lando Calrissian has a new business venture that is promptly raided by Thrawn, and the mole miners stolen from Lando are used in a climactic space battle where the Empire cleverly attempts to use the miners to board and capture New Republic capital ships to steal them. The New Republic repels them, but at significant cost to their own drydocked fleet.

Meanwhile, Leia and Chewie capture one of her would-be kidnappers and learn he's a Noghri, a species of lethal hunters who were sworn to serve their “savior” Darth Vader. Moreover, Khabarakh, the captured Noghri, calls Leia the Mal'ary'ush, the Lady Vader, and agrees to the dangerous prospect of negotiations with his race.

Heir to the Empire is amazing. It captures the grand space opera themes and the world-hopping pulp that the Star Wars Trilogy was built on. The pace is rocket fast and never lingers too long on mundane drudgery. The heroes are in character and growing as people. Luke is maturing as a Jedi. Leia is swamped by matters of state and imminent motherhood. Han is chafing with respectability but growing into it. Lando is up to his old entrepreneurial tricks.



The new characters are fine additions. Thrawn is the obvious standout, since he's a deliberate contrast to Vader's rage and Palpatine's gleeful tyranny. Thrawn isn't so much a “villain” as he is an antagonist. He wants order in the galaxy and sees the Rebellion (he refuses to acknowledge the New Republic by title) as rampant, violent chaos that must be quelled. His effectiveness is based on an analytical mind that would make Mycroft Holmes jealous, and he has weaponized art history as a means of studying species to find their weaknesses. Thrawn is, however, still an antagonist, and while reasonable and intelligent, he is unbending and cold with regards to his enemies. He has no interest in negotiating with the New Republic. He wants them beaten down.

The viewpoint character for Thrawn is his second-in-command, Captain Pellaeon. Pellaeon is an old veteran who served back in the late Republic and into the Empire. A competent commander, but lacking in innovation, he was the one who took command at Endor after the Emperor's death and sounded the retreat to cut the Navy's losses. Pellaeon doesn't really get what Thrawn's doing all the time, but he trusts him implicitly, and is another believer in re-establishing law and order in the galaxy.

Joruus C'Baoth, the mad Jedi clone, isn't evil in the direct sense, nor is he related to the Sith in any way. He's clearly powerful and possesses wild mood swings, but wishes to impose order as well, though with him at the top deciding what that means. He's something of a Jedi supremacist, where he sees those with the ability to use the Force as the top of the food chain. He and Thrawn butt heads frequently, but Thrawn has access to ysalmiri, little lizards that create bubbles where the Force can't work, that can keep C'Baoth in check.

Talon Karrde is something of a combination of Han and Lando. Hands-on, but with a very strong organization sense that makes his smuggler group one of the most reputable out there. He's smart and has contingency plans, and he doesn't like being caught between the Empire and the New Republic, so he tries to play off both sides. Mara too, doesn't like being caught between the two factions and simply wanted to find a peaceful place for herself when Luke Skywalker comes walking into her life and the romantic tension that follows.

The characters are great. The action sequences are good, and the grand sweeping scope is everything you could want in a Star Wars story that builds on where Return of the Jedi ended. There's a reason why people clamored for years to turn this into a sequel movie trilogy.


Its damn good, and an essential read for anyone looking at getting into the Expanded Universe.

Legends Never Die


After Revenge of the Sith, I was pretty much done with Star Wars. The prequel trilogy was a massive disappointment for me, and the quality of secondary materials dropped considerably after 1999. I'd occasionally peek back in to see what was happening or buy the occasional video game, but Star Wars as a whole wasn't the all-encompassing obsession that I had grown up with.

Then Disney bought the entirety of the property in 2012 and in 2014 the new owners decided to wipe the slate, as it were, and deleted the Expanded Universe continuity in one stroke. 37 years' worth of officially licensed material, be it books, shows, comics, games, made-for-tv movies, whatever, was thrown out the window to make room for a new “Canon” continuity where everything from that point was now officially official and the only survivors of the previous continuity were the six theatrical movies and the animated Clone Wars TV show that was airing at the time.

From a business standpoint, I get it. Disney spent a fat wad of cash getting Star Wars, they were damn sure going to milk it for what it was worth, and that meant new movies, new books, new games, and new everything.

Everything else? Right into the memory hole, except for whatever characters and items that the powers that be deemed worthy of being elevated to Canon, like Grand Admiral Thrawn. Oh sure, they're still reprinting the old continuity, now branded as “Legends” but that's because Disney loves money and its a move to placate old fans bitter about the Wipe.

If I sound bitter three years after the Wipe, that's because I am. George Lucas didn't rape my childhood with the Prequels like so many people joked about in the early 2000s for the simple reason that all those stories and games that I consumed with my parents' hard-earned money as a boy still counted. I could still point people to them and say “the Prequels suck, sure, but Wraith Squadron is amazing” and not get too many funny looks.

Now though? Like tears in the rain. The Expanded Universe is gone and only the grognards are left to bear witness to its passing. The new generation of Star Wars fans, both the casuals that only watch the movies and the diehards that consume the books and comics, are now being told that this is fine. This is good. The Expanded Universe was a convoluted mess that was difficult to follow and was nothing but glorified fan fiction anyway and it never mattered. There were no strong female characters. There was no diversity. It belongs dead and forgotten.

Lies.

The hell with that. It mattered to me. It mattered to enough people that a constant barrage of New York Times Bestseller novels and a growing video game empire in the early 90s provided the raw financial capital and an audience hungry for more that emboldened Lucas to release the Special Editions and then new movies to huge (financial, if not critical) success.

Without the Expanded Universe, I doubt that would have happened.


So with that said, and since I have a tendency to rage against the dying of the light, I am going to go through the Expanded Universe as a literary body and give them a fair shake. Because while there certainly were bizarre missteps and insane oddities in that patchwork continuity, there were some truly amazing stories that NuCanon hasn't surpassed. 

Sunday, February 05, 2017

Shelf Stagnation, Part 2


So part 1 of an informal survey of thestate of Science-Fiction and Fantasy at retail was a downer. By comparison, I decided to go to a Half Price Books over the weekend for a comparison.

Now, Half Price Books and Barnes & Noble are two different creatures. The former is primarily a used book store while B&N is a full retail store. Both sell books, music, movies board games and, for lack of a better category, “pop culture trinkets” like Dr. Who mugs and Harley Quinn statuettes and whatnot.

The general atmosphere in the SF/F aisle couldn't be more different despite a roughly equivalent shelf space. Since there were millions of cheap Sci-Fi and Fantasy paperbacks published over the years, HPB ends up having a much richer selection available at any given time, with a large number of these books being printed in the 70s and 80s.

The first thing that stuck out was that Jules Verne and H.G. Wells were firmly entrenched within the shelf, as they should be. A whole bunch of Roger Zelazny paperbacks stood out at the end of the alphabet. Margaret Weis and Tracey Hickman existed in four places: Their Dragonlance output, their fantasy collaborations, and their individual works. The rest is going to be me rattling off names of fantasy authors: C.J. Cherryh, Andre Norton, Anne McCaffrey, Alan Dean Foster, Tanith Lee, Robert Asprin, Craig Shaw Gardner, Michael Moorcock, Fritz Leiber, Orson Scott Card's. There was only one Pratchett book at the time, but it was an early North American edition of The Colour of Magic from the 80s. Piers Anthony's Xanth series took up a whole row by itself, so if you're looking for Comic Fantasy like Anthony and Asprin's Myth books, that's where they're hiding.



This is all in addition to authors on the shelf at Barnes & Noble and the differences are remarkable. The history, the weird cover art, the oddball books standing alongside giants of the genre. There's a sense of discovery there that's missing from the other chain. One time, I picked up the entirety of the Thieves' World series for ten dollars.

So the question is why? Why is HPB better at handling Fantasy than B&N? Is it because B&N is beholden to traditional publishing and HPB is fueled by the masses bringing in their own books?

Maybe.


While Barnes & Noble may be among the last of its kind struggling against extinction, I don't think physical bookstores should be written off completely yet.  

Thursday, February 02, 2017

Shelf Stagnation


Today I went to one of my area Barnes & Noble stores because I still have a fondness for the last of the Big Box Bookstores, and because I wanted to look closely at the Science-Fiction/Fantasy aisle, particularly in regards to Fantasy, since that is what I predominantly write.

I've heard horror stories of the SF/F aisles in other areas, where they're nothing more than a tiny shelf in a remote corner of the store, hidden by the shadows of an ever-increasing Manga section. That's not the case in my area, fortunately, and the two stores nearest me have a healthy selection, at least as far of square footage of dead trees is concerned.

The variety on offer, though, is lacking. As far as Fantasy is concerned, you have: the essential Tolkien section, Tolkien followers like the Robert Jordan and Terry Brooks, then the new epic fantasy stars like Joe Abercrombie, Brandon Sanderson and Patrick Rothfuss, as well as noted female authors like Mercedes Lackey and Ursula K. Le Guin. Neil Gaiman and the late, great Terry Pratchett both have respectable shelf space as well. Jim Butcher has a very large presence as well, with most of the Dresden Files on offer, along with his other series. George R.R. Martin is strongly represented too, of course.

After that, it gets murkier. The list of instantly recognizable names diminishes. Ray Bradbury's modest section occupies an uncomfortable spot next to an even smaller (fortunately) Marion Zimmer Bradley section. Thanks to the game series, the Witcher books are off to the side by the RPG and video game art books. Two omnibus editions of Roger Zelazny's Chronicles of Amber stand defiant near the end of the alphabet before the Warhammer 40k and Star Wars books begin. The rest is a sea of quite respectable-looking books filling two genres: urban fantasy and high fantasy in varying states of cynical deconstruction. And that is it.

It is this mob of lower-tier books that stands out to me. I have no idea of their relative merits, nor their flaws. The urban fantasy novels tend to feature a single person, usually a woman, dressed in a way some artist might call “badass” looking intently into the distance while surrounded by glowy bits. The high fantasy books tend to focus on a sword, or someone holding a sword in a generic ready stance. Others look even more generic. A crown. An axe. The face of some warrior in a helmet. A close-up of a dragon's eye. Or they might just be a landscape. Some are just a design and some text. There's very little action.

Taken individually, these are not ugly design choices for covers. Taken individually, they might draw the eye on a table with a “New in Paperback!” sign accompanied by whatever public talking heads have a ghostwritten memoir out this month.

Lumped together, though, they turn into a sea of sameyness. They get lost trying to muscle their way through the crowd but all belie a similar school of graphic design that makes them look boring.

Stagnant.



The poor cover selection is not the authors' fault. That lies with the publishers/marketers/designers. If every book cover looked like it came from the psychedelic paperpacks of the 60s they would start to blend together in a riot of color reflective of the time they were printed in.

The keyword that stuck about that humble SF/F aisle was “stagnant” and the covers hit that home.


Science Fiction and Fantasy have long occupied an awkward place where they sit at the kids' table in the other room away from “Serious Literature.” Serious Literature is for serious readers who are serious about being taken seriously by serious academics. That attitude was what turned me off of most of my 20th Century Literature courses (my focus was on Medieval and Renaissance anyway). SF/F was wild, frivolous, frequently comedic, imaginative and frowned upon by Serious Literature. Its supposed to tickle the imagination with its possibilities. Its supposed to titillate you with stories that Serious Literature doesn't want you to read because, God forbid, they might be FUN.

I didn't see any of that in the SF/F aisle. I saw the literary equivalent of Dad Rock: something that was once incredibly energetic but now trying to be responsible and respectable and trying to make sure you go to bed by 11 so you have enough energy for tomorrow.

I don't think that's the authors' fault. Nor Barnes & Noble's. Nor anyone in particular's. I think that at some point in time there was a desire for SF/F to be taken seriously by an audience that was never going to give it the time of day anyway. Only a few authors are ever lifted out of SF/F into Serious Literature, notably H.G. Wells, Jules Verne, Bram Stoker and Mary Shelley. Edgar Rice Burroughs and Robert E. Howard are lucky to get occasional reprint collections. God help you if you're trying to find Moorcock or Leiber or Moore or Brackett.

In chasing respectability, it forfeited adventure, danger and even its own history. The great advantage of SF/F is that literally and literarily, anything goes. Instead, the Fantasy selection at your local big box store is Urban Fantasy and some flavor of Gritty Medieval Fantasy.

“Fun” got inherited by a growing Young Adult market because “eh, they're just kids books.” Nevermind that the Harry Potter books have a gigantic adult reader base and that Deathly Hallows is a doorstopper that would make Tolstoy's nose bleed with envy.

Again, I don't think its anyone's specific fault that the current state of mainstream Sci-Fi and Fantasy except the growing need for traditional publishers and retailers to make safe bets to turn a profit. So the covers are safe. The titles are safe. The author selection is safe.

Its all quite boring unless you are looking for a specific author or their work.

There was exactly one book on the shelves that stood out completely with unique and eye-catching art: A new edition of Neil Gaiman's Anansi Boys.



Just look at that cover. Its magnificent. Its evocative. Its even a little outrageous. It was unlike anything else taking up shelf space next to it, but it stood alone next to its much more serious looking previous editions.

I think this is a root of the problem facing mainstream SF/F at the moment. Stagnation in presentation.


Thank god that there's a growing indie scene grumbling at the fringes, because if anyone can safe SF/F from the Sisyphean hell of trying to be Serious Literature, its going to be the ragtag group of misfits slapped together at the last minute.   

Thursday, January 05, 2017

REEEEEE Vult, a Response to The Economist's "Medieval Memes" Article



Yesterday I became aware of an article published by The Economist on January 2nd titled “Medieval Memes: The far right's new fascination with the Middle Ages.” It is an irritating piece of clickbait, that I normally would ignore, but this time its in my wheelhouse. Here it is.

Here is the Archive link if you don't feel like giving the Economist clicks for it (or in case it is somehow edited or removed)

I recommend reading along, because otherwise my ramblings won't make any sense.

Some credentials. I have a Master's Degree in Humanities, which is a small department at my alma mater that focused on a more Classical fusion of philosophy, literature, history and so on pertaining to a historical area. It was very niche, and allowed the student and department to work together to develop a focused curriculum suitable to their field of study. Mine was the 14th-15th centuries and more specifically the Northern Crusades. So while I am not currently employed as a Medievalist (it is a very small field and good luck getting your foot in the door unless you want to take a Marxist or Feminist approach to the subject, then you can be swimming in grant money. Sadly not a joke), nor am I by any means an expert in the field, I still am a historian thanks to my academic training, and I will be viewing this article though that lens.

First, the byline. The initials “S.N.” which tell me nothing. I have no idea who or what the author of the piece is, nor their credentials, if they even have them. A quick search of the initials in connection to The Economist bring up several “The Economist Explains” articles. One about Dutch people working part time, another about some economists wanting to get rid of cash and so on. A dead end, then. Next to it is “Claremont, California,” which a quick search shows is a primarily residential town at the Eastern edge of Los Angeles County that is home to a collection of seven colleges, both undergrad and graduate. So its a college town, and a large one at that. So the author of the piece is more likely to be a professor, or staffer, or student than, say, a pipe fitter.

Below that is a photograph from Game of Thrones featuring horsemen in armor that is clearly more fantastical than real. (Seriously, Lamellar? In a Wars of the Roses ripoff?) I suppose that's to be expected, since GoT is visually synonymous with “standard fantasy” in the eyes of modern pop culture. Ten years ago, it would've been a picture from Lord of the Rings. Yet it has nothing to do with actual Medieval scholarship outside of the visual cue of armored men on horseback.

The text begins with a contradiction. The first sentence asserts that until recently “it was rare to find Americans who were passionate about both medieval history and contemporary politics.” First, this is an anecdotal assumption without evidence provided (which is most of the article). Second, it mentions “the odd Christian conservative,” “a Marxist grad student” and “an environmental activist” in a list of hypothetical examples of your average medievalist. Each of these hypothetical people is identified as someone deeply rooted in contemporary politics. It is a Christian conservative, a Marxist grad student, and an Environmental activist.

None of these is a prerequisite for studying the past. Moreover, one need not have a modern political agenda to be fascinated by land ownership patterns or vegetable dyes. The Society for Creative Anachronism in particular is deeply interested in rediscovering how authentic Medieval clothing was constructed for the purposes of recreating it.

Moreover still, the odd “Christian Conservative” is less odd than one would think. I went to a Jesuit university. One of my grad school mentors was a Jesuit, and another was a devout layman who headed up the Catholic Studies department. I shared several classes with a few seminarians. The encompassed a broad spectrum of political alignment. In my experience, you could not throw a copy of Summa Theologi√¶ without hitting a fellow Catholic. Which is not a surprise, considering that Europe during the time period in question was dominated by the Roman Catholic Church.

“Since the September 11th attacks." The current year is 2017. 9/11 happened sixteen years ago. There are people who were born after the event who are now learning how to drive. “Fairly recently” is a stretch at this point. “The American far right has developed a fascination with the Middle Ages and the Renaissance—in particular, with the idea of the West as a united civilisation that was fending off a challenge from the East.” The idea of a unified Western European civilization (interestingly, the spelling of “civilization” uses the British variant, a possible clue to our mystery author) is one that the Medieval Europeans themselves held. It was called Christendom, and referred generally to the lands where Christianity was the dominant religion as opposed to neighboring Islam or paganism. The notion of “whiteness” was much less important than being Christian to the Medieval mind. This is part of the reason why Europeans were so enamored with the legend of Prestor John's distant, but very Christian, kingdom providing assistance to greater Christendom in a time of need.

In function "Christendom" was more of a cultural identity than an established geopolitical unit, since Christian kings and nobles were constantly fighting each other over worldly disputes well before the Reformation fractured the religion in Western Europe. There's also the constant friction between the Papal States and the Holy Roman Empire over who should lead the general Christian community, the Popes or the Imperial heirs of Charlemagne, that frequently led to wars and excommunications of Emperors. The idea of “Christendom” is by no means new. It is also no surprise that when Islamic extremists refer to their own attacks as literal holy jihads, that there are people who would take to the idea that “Christendom” is under attack again. In many ways, it is, or are we ignoring the criticisms of the “decadent West” and the rhetoric of how America is “The Great Satan” which was used by the Ayatollah of Iran in the 1970s? The far-right of the West are not the only ones dredging this imagery up.

“The embrace of the medieval extends from the alt-right online forum culture that has exploded in the last few years to stodgier old-school racists.” Oh boy, here we go. Deus Vult memes from Reddit and Twitter are very, very, very rarely to be taken seriously, as are photoshops of Donald Trump in crusader armor shouting “Deus Vult!” as a reference to his saber rattling against ISIS. Internet “shitposting” as its called (if you'll pardon my French) is mostly to be taken ironically or deliberately contrarian to get a rise out of people. A quick look at Know Your Meme would provide plenty of stupid jokes that display this.

“Anti-Islam journals and websites name themselves after the Frankish king Charles Martel, who fought Muslim armies in the 8th century.” I have never heard of a website named after Charles Martel, but I know for a fact that he was the father of the man who would establish the Carolingian Dynasty (Pepin the Short) and while Charles himself would functionally rule as Mayor of the Palace and Duke and Prince of the Franks, he never, EVER became king and deliberately left the throne vacant during his time as regent.

This is not some nobody. This is the grandfather of Charlemagne and a major early Medieval figure in his own right. He is well documented, and a MEDIEVALIST, even one not focusing on the Carolingian period, could verify this information with even a quick glance at any online encyclopedia. This is an insultingly amateurish error in basic research.

Curiously, the article mentions that modern Jihadists use their own memes and images to promote the idea that they are in a cultural war against a reincarnated Byzantium. Sounds like an interesting counterpoint, but is not addressed again.

We continue. “For Americans who are indifferent to the Middle Ages, or think of it as an unpleasant plague-ridden prelude to the present, this might be of little consequence. But millions of others with mainstream or left-leaning beliefs are attracted to the medieval era—witness the popularity of Renaissance reenactments, or medieval-inspired fantasies like "Game of Thrones".” I will meet anecdote with anecdote: Most of the people I know who view the Medieval period as “a plague-ridden prelude to the present” are left-leaning or Progressive in some form or another.

Why is there an automatic assumption that it is only millions of left-leaning or “mainstream” people that are attracted to the time period? For a theologically minded conservative Christian, the works of Aquinas, Augustine, More, Erasmus, and Dante are THE bedrock of academic scholarship. And “mainstream” is as vague a category as can be imagined. Besides, aren't the masses of average people the ones who don't care about the Medieval period that much anyway? I'm getting deeply mixed signals here.

Then it mentions conservative firebrand Milo Yiannapoulis for some reason (probably clickbait algorithms). He's irrelevant to the article, but regardless of what one thinks of Milo, he's such a self-promoter who puts his name out as much and as far as possible that it should be easy to copy and paste his last name into an article so that it can be spelled properly. “Yiannopoulos.” There. I just did it myself. Also, “including a preference for a preference for “homogeneity over diversity.” is a sentence where a big red circle from a professor would go to mark the error. Proofreading is essential to presenting a academically professional argument.

The following paragraph quotes an essay by Sierra Lomuto (I had to look up her credentials because the article did not provide them: she is a doctoral candidate at the University of Pennsylvania with a background in women's studies and English) at “In the Middle” a left-wing academic blog that I have never heard of but has 2,895,500 page views. Here's the essay in full, if you are of a mind to read it since the author of the piece did not provide a link.

It is left-wing and intersectional, which is a topic of social justice controversy (and beyond the scope of this already too-long response), but the crux of its argument is that it is a moral imperative for Medievalists as a whole to resist white nationalism from pointing to the Middle Ages to justify their own viewpoints. Fair enough, I suppose, but could it not also be argued by a Medievalist who does not subscribe to intersectional feminism that they too must be resisted from pointing to the Middle Ages to justify their own viewpoints if they are counterfactual? The end goal of historical study should be historical accuracy, regardless of agenda.

Art historians document the appearances of dark-skinned migrants in northern Europe to show that medieval populations, if not quite as mobile as today, were still pretty mobile.” The “art historians” mentioned is one person, the person who runs the People of Color in European Art History page (medievalpoc.tumblr.com), which received considerable attention from left-wing outlets in 2014 (including NPR), has apparently received harrassment (which is never acceptable) but has also been rightly criticized for presenting factually incorrect information (the criticism of which is entirely acceptable for someone purporting to be historically accurate). Here's an example. (yes, its somebody roleplaying a Dalek, because Tumblr is a bizarre place, but at least they show their work and sources). Interestingly, the “In The Middle” essay also links to the Medieval POC Tumblr page.

The paragraph ends with: “Progressives and reactionaries may both be drawn to the Middle Ages out of an affinity for “tradition,” says Shirin Khanmohamadi, a professor of literature at San Francisco State University who teaches a course called the Multicultural Middle Ages. But progressives would find it most interesting to explore "the premodern contribution to 'multiculturalism' and to other modes taken for granted as modern."” Khanmohamadi has published one book, “In Light of Another's Word European Ethnography in the Middle Ages” in 2013 through the University of Pennsylvania Press. The description of which seems to explore Medieval European travel accounts, like those of “John Mandeville”, Gerald of Wales, and William of Rubruck. Fair enough, that's an interesting subject. What is much more controversial is her name attached to a list of 465 members of the MLA Members for Justice in Palestine resolution. The Modern Language Association is a huge body of academics who study modern languages and literature and have created the MLA Style Manual, which dictates the proper format for academic writing (in the Liberal Arts, at least). I say controversial because the resolution would call on the MLA to boycott Israeli academic institutions until political criteria are met by the state of Israel. That's uncomfortable territory for both sides of the Israel-Palestine dispute.

Then there is a small dig at people who enjoy movies and video games because that's somehow a sign of intellectual inferiority somehow? The very existence of Crusader Kings II, which is a very, very deep Medieval Spreadsheet Simulator, points to the opposite, that these mediums, while at times very flawed (such as Braveheart's Battle of Stamford Bridge Without the Bridge or the blatant Soviet propaganda of the 1938 film Aleksandr Nevskiy), they can be a valuable tool in promoting the study of the time period. Yet while absorbing medieval information primarily through movies is implied to be wrong, Game of Thrones is somehow fine, despite being a show many people watch for “titties and dragons.” If it is because George R.R. Martin has the “correct” political opinions, then this is, to appropriate a phrase, deeply problematic.

On the surface, it is a poorly-written article by an anonymous author with multiple proofreading errors, one glaring factual error, nonexistent citations, and a decidedly one-sided political slant that requires research on the part of the reader to discover.

The article's true argument seems to be that the Medieval period is one of deep historical complexity and nuance (I agree) and that it is a moral imperative that the gatekeepers of that academic knowledge must resist political stances that they deem to be wrong by teaching the benighted populist masses the error of their ways. On this I vehemently disagree. An “Ivory Tower” approach to teaching about the Medieval and Renaissance periods that presupposes the moral authority of a particular modern political philosophy is a dangerous slippery slope that discourages debate, encourages intellectual stagnation, and ultimately drives people interested in the subject matter away if they do not have the "correct" identity politics. No matter how well-intentioned it may be, that kind of mindset is identical to justifying every action with cries of “Deus Vult!”

Closing the academic gates against the supposed intellectual barbarians is not the answer. Those hungry for knowledge will seek it elsewhere, and the increasingly available translations of primary source documents, living history groups like the Society for Creative Anachronism (SCA) or several Historical European Martial Arts (HEMA) schools or the slowly growing number of very knowledgeable Youtubers will be happy to quench that thirst for knowledge.


Monday, October 03, 2016

"I am Torgo. I take care of the place while the Master is away."


So yes, Manos: The Hands of Fate is an infamous little movie from 1966 that is often mentioned in conversations about the "Worst Movie Ever Made." While I don't think its the actual worst movie ever made (that's a matter of personal taste), it is a colossal turkey that earns its reputation.

Written, produced, directed and starring Harold P. Warren, an insurance and fertilizer salesman from El Paso, Texas, the movie was famously made on a bet with a Hollywood location scout named Stirling Silliphant, who would himself go on to great acclaim as the screenwriter of such classics as In the Heat of the Night, The Towering Inferno, The Poseidon Adventure, and, uh, Over the Top. The bet was that Warren could complete a low budget horror film on his own.

After a tumultuous production and failing miserably in the Southwest, the film languished in obscurity until the famous MST3K episode aired in 1993. After that, it turned into a Z-movie icon, eventually spawning a mobile game, a blu ray digital remaster, and a successful crowdfunded project for Manos Returns, which is due some time this year if IMDB is correct. Much like Troll 2, its not exactly obscure anymore, but that doesn't change the fact that its still awful.

What's it about? 

After eight minutes of driving around the El Paso countryside, a family on vacation get lost looking for Valley Lodge. The father, Mike, is played by Hal P. Warren himself. The mom is Margaret, played by Diane Mahree, who would later find success in fashion modeling, and their daughter, Debbie, played by Jackey Neyman, but dubbed into incomprehensibility. They stop at a house that “wasn't there before” first to ask for directions, then for lodging as night approaches. The caretaker is a twitchy and awkward man with strange knees (whether he was supposed to be a satyr or “like a hunchback, only hunchknees” seems a bit ambiguous, since I've seen both reported. Doesn't really matter, anyway.) He's named Torgo, and played by John Reynolds, a troubled young man who was apparently on LSD during filming and committed suicide at the age of 25 a month before the movie was released to theaters. 

So that's depressing.

Torgo's weird as hell, speaking in halting sentences and stumbling around with his own theme song. He takes care of the place while the Master is away, and while reluctant to allow the family to stay, he lusts for Margaret.

The Master is played by Tom Neyman, and is the leader of a mysterious and vague cult of possibly immortal, possibly undead people. He worships an abyssal being of primordial darkness named Manos that has a hand motif, and his cult centers their worship around a macabre bonfire where they sit, talk, argue, and eventually get into a catfight around. Essentially the Dark Souls of movies.

I'm only half joking. The similarities might be purely coincidental, but they are striking.

Tom Neyman is essentially the unsung hero of this movie. In addition to being the villain, his daughter played Debbie, his dog played the devil dog, he helped make Torgo's knees, built some of the props and his wife designed most of the costumes. He also gives the best performance of the movie, for what its worth.

I've noticed that in the best worst movies made, there's always some person with talent that is applying genuine effort to elevate the movie above its massive failings. Here, its clearly Neyman who gave it his best effort.



So what doesn't work? Saying “Everything” is a cop out, and also untrue. The editing is bad, with long and short cuts jumping around the place and long stretches of boredom that help drag its run time over 60 minutes. The cinematography is bad, with mostly dull scene composition, flat interior lighting and absolutely horrible exterior night lighting. There's the occasional flash of an interesting shot, but it passes just as quickly as it arrived. The acting is bad, with flat deliveries of dull dialogue. The female characters have it worse, with weird delays in their reactions and awkward expressions and just generally weird timing issues with their delivery. The audio itself was bad, and every sound, including dialogue, was added in post production, with voice recording occasionally being drowned out by sound effects. The smooth jazz soundtrack also doesn't fit the tone of a legitimate horror movie at all, with its flutes and saxophones and pianos.

So what's good about it? Or at least “good” with air quotes?

Torgo has become such an iconic character because he's so damn weird. He's a filthy creepy pervert that peeps through windows, yet he's the most sympathetic character because its obvious he's an unwilling servant of the Master who's fed up with being treated like dirt for a very long time.

The Master himself chews the scenery and glowers like a madman. There's even a kernel of a moody, mysterious horror film buried at the core (brigadoon house, strange cult, creepy caretaker, supernatural goings-on, etc), but the execution is so un-salvageable that it adds to the boredom and, oddly, its bizarro charm.

Like so many of its Z-level kin, Manos: The Hands of Fate ends up being a trainwreck that is simultaneously boring and utterly surreal.


Do I recommend it? As a movie that fulfills the basic requirements of entertainment, no, HELL NO. For the certain masochistic subset that has conditioned itself to find joy in weird cinematic failures this is absolutely essential, like a rite of passage. 


Tuesday, August 23, 2016

"Talk about a workplace romance gone wrong."


Warner Brothers and DC continue to chase the dragon that is the Marvel Cinematic Universe with Suicide Squad, and they continue to make weird creative and tonal decisions that continuously hamstring that effort.

It made me think a lot of thoughts, so buckle up, this is going to be a long one.



Task Force X, more commonly referred to as the Suicide Squad, dates back to a couple issues of The Brave and the Bold in 1959 where it was a government agency formed when the Justice Society disappeared for a while. They were mostly military people and disappeared into retirement/obscurity after a while. 


The second, more popular, critically acclaimed version that this movie is largely based on, dates back to 1987, where a government official rounds up a bunch of hardened criminals with super powers or advanced technology, and sends them across the world to do government wetwork where they either succeed or get themselves killed. Either way, its a win-win for Uncle Sam. But not THE Uncle Sam, who actually is a character in the DC Universe. 


Told you so.



 There's also a modern version of the team similar to the 80s-90s version, but this time with a little less inter-team backstabbing and with Harley Quinn attached because its a new continuity and they needed a popular character to add to it because that's what temporarily sells comic books.

What this means is that in one form or another, the Suicide Squad has existed in three different major DC comics continuities (Pre-Crisis, New Earth, and New 52). This is also why explaining comic books to normies is both frustrating and time consuming.

So before we get into it, here's the Spoiler-free Review: Suicide Squad is the most entertaining movie of the DC Cinematic Universe, but its still not very good and continues to be frustrating in how close it can get to getting it right and how painfully often it misses the mark. 5/10.

Anyway, the movie version is assembled much like the 80s team. Amanda Waller (Viola Davis) proposes a disposable black ops team made up of hardened super criminals in the wake of Superman's bland death in Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice so that the government has some way to check the next Superman who shows up and isn't interested in Truth, Justice, and the culturally sensitive way.

Oh yeah. Spoilers for Batman v Superman.

Waller is pretty spot on for what the comic version is all about and is herself a bad, bad lady when she needs to be. She recruits decorated war hero golden boy Rick Flag (Joel Kinnaman) to serve as field commander and babysitter for her team. She does this by setting him up with an archeologist named June Moon (Cara Delevingne) who is possessed by an ancient entity called the Enchantress who is obviously magical but they persist in calling it extradimensional. Waller has the Enchantress' heart in a suitcase that she can stab voodoo-doll style if the freaky witch lady starts getting out of line.

The rest of the team consists of Deadshot (Will Smith), a world-class assassin and marksman; Harley Quinn (Margot Robbie), the Joker's girlfriend and equal in lunacy; Captain Boomerang (Jai Courtney), an Australian crook who uses trick boomerangs and fought the Flash; Diablo (Jay Hernandez), a former gangbanger with deadly pyrokinetic abilities and a desire for redemption; Killer Croc (Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje) the Batman villain who looks like a crocodile; Slipknot (Adam Beach), a jobber from Firestorm's old series who's good at climbing things. Oh, and they're also joined by Katana (Karen Fukuhara) who isn't a villain at all, but she does have a magical sword that captures the souls of the people killed with it. To their credit, they don't even bother trying to explain that one away as being extradimensional vaguely advanced science. She's a left field pick, but its fine, and it has me crossing my fingers that they actually go and make a Batman and the Outsiders movie. Because I'm the lunatic who wants to see them pull off live action Metamorpho and Geo-Force.


GEO-FORCE!

Anyway....

We're introduced to most of the team through flashbacks as to how they got arrested, usually through Batman and in Boomer's case, the Flash in a brief cameo.

While the team is being assembled, Enchantress goes off the reservation and frees her brother, Incubus, only instead of meeting him in outer space, they meet up in a subway. She goes rogue, Waller tries and fails to kill her, Incubus powers her up and gives her a cleaner costume, and the two proceed to build a gigantic glowing bomb that may or may not be a light grenade for vaguely defined reasons. But its definitely a threat. Because Waller says so.

The squad mounts up and chafes under Flag's gung-ho leadership and they fight their way through a city crawling with relatively easily killed minions and yadda yadda yadda, the villains end up bonding with each other and who's the real monster blah blah blah and it literally ends like Ghostbusters.

No, not this year's biggest movie trainwreck. I mean the original Ghostbusters.

The plot is derivative as hell and the only reason it isn't linear is because its broken up by numerous flashbacks. The editing is also really weird and reeks of executive meddling, since there are introductions, then introductions again, then recaps of things that happened half an hour ago, and other messes like that.

The meat of the movie is a ensemble character piece as these weirdos are thrust into an increasingly bizarre adventure. A lot happens, but the actual plot is surprisingly simple. Curiously for a character piece, the three top billed characters are the ones I had the most problems with.


Deadshot. So Floyd Lawton comes from a well-to-do but messed up family and his killing days started early. He tried to challenge Batman with a tuxedo and mask, got arrested, developed a nihilistic “death wish” which was him mostly not caring about whether he lived or died and eventually found out he had a daughter which gave him some semblance of something to live for. Death wish, sleazy white trash moustache, selfish prick, sarcasm, eventual discovery of a daughter that gave him something to live for. These are Deadshot's biggest character traits, and the movie only bothers with the last two. He only ever wears his iconic mask twice, which I understand. You pay for Will Smith, you damn well better use all of Will Smith. Its the lack of a death wish that really makes him generic anti-hero here. The whole appeal of Deadshot is to see him be enormously casual about the deaths of his teammates and about the danger around him, which ironically enough, makes him the perfect member of the Squad because all he cares about is himself and shooting people that annoy him.




Harley Quinn. Personal taste is personal taste, but I prefer the harlequin version from the Animated Series to the modern Suicide Girls camwhore version, mostly because I prefer minimalist designs. Character-wise, this Harley is cheerful, bubbly, and thoroughly psychotic, which is in keeping with the character, but she also lacks an innocence that detracts subtlety from the character. This isn't a knock on her performance, that's fine. My beef is with the writing. 


Part of the bizarre appeal of Harley is her innocence. When she's happy, its a childlike joy. When she's angry, its a tantrum, albeit a deadly one that usually involves hyenas tearing someone apart. She taps into a trickster archetype, a prankster. Making her a sexpot doesn't work for me because it means the Joker regressed her to a teenager instead of a pre-adolescent, which is less horrifying. And let's not bandy about here, the Joker taking an intelligent psychologist and manipulating her into loving him and then fracturing her personality into a thousand broken pieces is HORRIFYING. That's the point.




Joker. I haven't mentioned Jared Leto's Joker for a couple of reasons. First, he has absolutely no bearing on the plot. Whatsoever. You could cut every one of his scenes and it would work out exactly the same. Second, its the arguably the worst on-screen portrayal of the Joker, and definitely the worst live-action one. The Joker's entire existence serves as a mockery. A mockery of sanity, good taste, morality, style, taste, whatever you can think of, the Joker exists to deliberately subvert it. The argument can be made that this version's a mockery of modern day gangsters and their aspirations of opulence. My counter-argument is that its simply not funny in its execution. They get the off-putting weirdness of the Joker down on screen, but they miss the point that he's the Clown Prince of Crime. 


Much of Joker's atrocities are committed because he thinks they're funny. He's even go so far as to let people live because killing them wouldn't be funny. Its also why his history is littered with outlandish gag weapons and deathtraps. Its because he finds his brand of nihilistic absurdity hilarious, and when the writers are good, we too find it hilarious, which is the greatest element of the horror that is the Joker. We can identify with the Joker's sense of humor, which in turn repulses us, because there's that little bit of the Joker inside us all. Much like Lex Luthor in Batman V Superman, the misinterpretation of such an archetypal character as the Joker is downright tragic.

Now, as to the portrayal of Joker & Harley's relationship. The Joker is the primary mover and his erratic, often dangerous treatment of Harley is also part of his villainy. He created her on a whim, and just as often, casts her aside for those same reasons. HOWEVER, on the flipside, Harley is a monster of his creation and is psychotically devoted to him, in a “if I can't have him, no one can” sort of way, which is also comical because its a kind of karmic retribution for ol' Puddin'. Its a relationship built out of two horrible people who are always on the verge of killing each other. Its anything but healthy, but the abuse runs both ways.



Enchantress. Oddly enough, June Moon is fairly close to her comic counterpart, where she is wildly powerful but wildly dangerous. The problem is that she's also the primary antagonist so she has nothing to do with the rest of the team and does little besides sneer, move around creepily, and give Rick Flag something to angst about. Also, I do miss the green witch's hat.


Rick Flag. He starts out as a standard military action movie guy, then he gets involved with Enchantress, then he turns into the team's wet blanket, and then he gets a little more interesting, but not much. He has to play the straight shooter compared to all the villains, but he mostly gets lost in the crowd, and even his “rivalry” with Deadshot feels hollow.

So with all the legitimate complaints about the movie, there are some real bright spots that stand out, even if they're underutilized.



Killer Croc's a lot of fun as dumb muscle comic relief. He buddies up with Diablo, but aside from a few moments where he rips and tears or tosses off an occasional one-liner, he doesn't really do anything. Which is a shame, since the makeup work on him is fantastic.




Captain Boomerang steals every scene he's in because, like the comics, he's a complete and total shitbag. Drunk, filthy, womanizing, cowardly, backstabbing, and yet a survivor who, in the comics at least, is capable of giving the Flash a legitimate fight because he's such a tricky bastard. The scene where he dupes Slipknot into making a break for it only for the bomb to go off is lifted from the comics (except in the books, Slipknot lost an arm, not his head, so he could come back later and job some more). 



The part where Flag smashes the detonator and sets the Squad free because he's mopey about Enchantress is perfectly punctuated by Boomer grabbing his beer and bolting from the bar they're in. Of course its ruined by him showing up again outside when they all march off to the final action sequence for no reason that makes any sense outside of a shoehorned attempt to make these villains into “A FAMILY.” It would've been more in character if Boomer actually did run off only to get dragged back after the final battle's over. But whatever, I'm a big Flash fan, and seeing them otherwise get Captain Freakin' Boomerang done right on the big screen gives me some hope for the Flash movie. Not a lot, but some.



The real standout of the movie, and the character who legitimately gives it heart and soul is Diablo. He's soulful, mournful, and his self-imposed pacifism and hopeless quest for redemption is the actual beating heart of this movie. Sure, his arc's predictable like most of the rest of the movie, but its also the best executed and genuinely more compelling than Deadshot learning how to be an antihero or Harley being an awful person and getting away with it because “WE'RE A FAMILY NOW!”


Top-to-bottom, this is a deeply flawed movie with a lot of bad narrative decisions, but there's also some flashes of gold in there that make it the best entry in the DC Cinematic Universe. Its just a shame that “The best entry” in this case is a mediocre 5/10. Not recommended, unless you like C- and D-listers like I do.