Thursday, April 03, 2014

"On Stranger Tides", by Tim Powers

On Stranger TidesOn Stranger Tides by Tim Powers
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I'm a huge Powers fan, so it's no surprise that I loved this. It's not your typical pirate tale, but then what's typical? This is not YA. It is, however, obvious to me that the writers of the "Pirates of the Caribbean" films had a copy of this in their possession from early on. In fact, I'd surmise that it has been the inspiration for the franchise since day one and not just for the fourth film, which bears almost no resemblance to this novel beyond the title and the fact that there are pirates, including Blackbeard (named "Thatch" instead of "Teach" in the novel), and a trip to the "fountain of youth".

***** minor spoilers *****

So many elements from the films seem cherry-picked from this novel that I couldn't get through more than a handful of scenes without flashing to aspects of the PotC franchise. Ironically, the only element that seems original is Cpt. Jack Sparrow, who has no counterpart in the book. Here you will find the basis for all the "voodoo"-inspired magic and sorcery, including crews of "undead" sailors, which add up to what amounts to a perfect back-story for Cpt. Barbossa (Phil Davies in the book). Although the female lead in the novel bears little resemblance to the films' Elizabeth Swann, it's no surprise that her name is "Elizabeth" and that she is placed in proximity to a mild-mannered but capable young man who ends up having to spend some time posing as a pirate.

My guess is that the screenwriters read this, saw it as great buffet of source material from which they selected a plate-full of tasty bits. Perhaps they optioned the book then and there. Perhaps they tried to get away with making enough changes that they wouldn't have to buy the option, but got called out on it after the first film and then entered in to a formal agreement with Powers, culminating in the fourth film using the book's title as the film's subtitle. Does it really matter? Not particularly. The films are what they are. The book is a separate entity. Powers certainly seems happy with the arrangement, and that's all that matters. To people who would cry, "But they ruined the book!" I would echo Powers' assertion that no film can "ruin" a book. The book stands alone. It has not changed. The films are what they are, which is to say that they are a different thing entirely. Nobody can change the content of a book by making a film that takes the story and turns it all topsy-turvy. That would be voodoo indeed.

I read some of this in paper, and listened to it all via audio book from Blackstone. The reader is pitch perfect, and manages to create distinctive voices from the very French Jack Shandy to the Robert Newton-esque Phil Davies to a hulking giant black voodoo practitioner with a voice like a sepulcher.  Imagine my surprise at finding it to be none other than.... Bronson Pinchot. I knew he was a good actor, but his character voices are a revelation. Well done.

By the way...  Tim, if you're reading this, I'm so sorry it took me so long to read this to completion. It seems like every time I picked it up something came up, or I had to read something else for a project, or who knows what else. Maybe I was hexed. Anyway, I hope they paid you a wheelbarrow of doubloons for the rights, because it looks like they were using it all along.

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Sunday, March 23, 2014

Victorian Heritage Festival recap

Cpt. Frye leads the cavalry.
This isn't much of a recap of the annual Port Townsend Victorian Heritage Festival since I was only there one day and worked most of it at the Old Consulate Inn (a fabulous place). I helped out with the parade as a cavalry "outwalker" and then rushed down the hill to shoot pics and video of the Gatling Gun demonstration. Next year I hope to be more involved...beyond just doing all the graphic design. I'd really like to have gone to some of the panels, and it's been ages since I've been able to get to a ball. 
Next year...
Col Marshall explains the gatling gun.
Cpt. Frye distracts the press at the gat demo.



Cpt. Frye and Mrs. Snow

Thursday, March 13, 2014

Port Townsend Victorian Heritage Festival 2014

My writing in general, and blogging specifically, has been a bit spotty lately as I've been teetering between nursing a bad back and grinding out graphics for the looming Victorian Heritage Festival in Pt. Townsend, WA. If you're interested at all in history, and in the Puget Sound area weekend after next, come pay us a visit!

Sunday, March 02, 2014

Film Sack: "The Man From Planet X", or "I'd Run a Mile for a Cuppa"

This is appearing a bit late in the week because life got in the way. Stupid "going places and doing things"! It's been a week since I sat down with the spouse and took in the wonder of The Man From Planet X (1951), but the experience lingers fresh in my mind like a pine cone on the noggin launched by an angry squirrel. As usual, the Film Sack treatment made up for any trauma experienced by viewing the film du jour. Just what the movie doctor ordered.

This movie tries so hard to be Serious Science Fiction but fails on almost every level. I'm fairly easy to entertain, but this cinematic relic is dangerously close to dull. From the overly formal and pretentious language of the principal characters, to the loving pans across the artificially moody "Scottish" landscape, to the slow-motion tussles of the listless alien with various ineffectual humans... I found myself checking my watch for the first time since The Thin Red Line.


Best to begin at the beginning, I suppose, and we don't have to wait long for the WTH? moments. Before even the first shot of the actual film, we're treated to a credit sequence created entirely from one inexplicable font, which I'll call Hobo Plank Sans, or maybe Paper Chain Rivets Extra Bold. Not just the main title, but the entire credit sequence uses this inappropriately whimsical type style. Somebody was dang proud of that font.

On to the first establishing shot, which is clearly a lovely stretch of the California coastline near Monterey. They immediately cut to an adorable model shot of the Scottish Moors: the comparison between the two shots does not reflect well on the model. Fog machines are used abundantly in this movie, but it doesn't really make things better. It just looks like a bad model/set with lots of fog. Also, I believe this is supposed to take place on an island. To my knowledge there are no "moors" on any small islands in the UK. You can have a rugged island setting or you can have creepy moors, not both, but the filmmakers were making use of leftover sets from Joan of Arc so there you go.

We then cut to an interior shot and an ominous voice over from "John", our male lead. The tone of this monologue is reminiscent of the opening words of H.G. Wells' War of the Worlds, and indeed the rest of the film is basically a flashback, but the rest of the film never really delivers on the promise set up here. Mostly we get a bunch of bad fake science gobbledegook that wouldn't impress the average primary schooler, a lethargic alien, the requisite smarmy male lead, and the requisite screaming ninny female lead.

There's really no excuse for the bad science and lazy characterizations in this. Actual good movies were being made in the early 50s, even good sci-fi like The Day the Earth Stood Still. When I saw William Schallert was in the cast I was kind of excited: Patty Duke's TV dad! This is an early role for him and he plays totally against type as a sneaky bad guy who, you guessed it, wants the alien tech to Rule the World! Yeah, I drop spoilers. You've had since 1951 to see this. Deal.

The usual parade of tropes are all present and correct: Leading man who is supposed to be worldly and wry but comes off as smarmy and patronizing ("Your face has changed, but I remember your legs...wink wink"): check! Frail old scientist with pretty daughter: check! Aforementioned Evil Scientist who screws everything up: check! Rustic but charming local rubes who alternately show the only common sense or get out the torches and pitchforks: check! Rustic locals with bad accents: check! Spaceship that wouldn't be safe at any speed: check! Terrible fake car driving: check! Female lead who screams at every little thing and exists solely as eye-candy and for the leading man to paw and condescend to: check! This female lead really takes the cake, too. Not only is she a screaming ninny, but she's so traumatized by being LOOKED AT by the slow-moving, not really scary alien that she spends a goodly portion of the film off-screen under sedation.

The Film Sack crew didn't care much for the score under this film, but I thought it was fine for the grade of film...with one caveat. The "lightening counting" scene. Every flash of lightening is accompanied by trilling flutes. Ouch. Treading dangerously close to Hannah-Barbara SFX there. We don't need musical punctuation, thanks. I didn't like the Don Ameche-esque mustache on the male lead, either. This is 1951, not 1931, and this guy is not old enough to work a look like that properly. Ronald Coleman called and he wants his look back! Clarke looks great without the 'stache. With it, he just looks like he's trying to be a 1930s leading man. My opinion, but there it is.

There's the requisite amount of 50s-era sexism here, too. It's not worth over-analyzing, but there are some cringe-worthy moments. The "I may not be much of a cook, but I can brew a mean cup of tea!" moment isn't particularly surprising or onerous, but the male lead basically leering at her every minute is beyond patronizing. It's an artifact of the times in a way, but there are plenty of films from the 50s that don't fall in to these traps, too. The actors are doing their jobs, and the director could have asked for more nuanced and less clichéd performances. Especially irritating was the female lead, "Enid", who drove me nuts with a really annoying yodeling/warbling vocal technique for conveying distress, excitement, or happiness. Picture Bobby Brady's voice cracking, with a forced trans-Atlantic accent, when he hit puberty. It gets really old after a few lines.

The movie ends with the "we must withhold this distressing knowledge from humanity for their own good" trope, which is so last century. The US government has been preaching this for years and it's not exactly a secret that they're keeping secrets. In 1951 we were just getting in to the age of the "flying saucer", MJ-12, and Project Blue Book. The epilogue of Man From Planet X is a perfect kick-off to this era.

The truth is out there, but it's kind of slow and can't reach its air valve.

Tuesday, February 18, 2014

The SFWA Kerfuffle and Why it Matters

I'm pretty oblivious of most mainstream current events. We don't take a newspaper or have a TV. I get my news and TV from the 'net, and I'm happy with that. My Twitter feed is like a little mini news ticker tailored exactly to my interests. It evolves over time, it's flexible, and it's far more up-to-the minute than mainstream news sources. I still miss a lot, but that's fine because I can only read so much in a day and still get anything done in my own life.

A few weeks ago, maybe months, I started to register recurring mentions of some kind of sexism flap in the science fiction and fantasy writing world. You'd think that this segment of society would be long past gender bias, but human nature is what it is. If you don't think there is raging sexism in the geek world, try to function as a female in the gaming community, especially online. For more on that, see Anita Sarkeesian's video series "Tropes vs. Women".

Anyway, there was talk of sexism rearing its ugly head again in the form of some person or persons involved with the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America (SFWA). There was mention of some kind of backlash to complaints about an demonstration of antiquated sexist views of women in SFF writing. Re-read the previous sentence in case my clumsy writing confused you: backlash to a complaint about sexism. People, not just women, called the writers of an opinion piece on their condescending references to women and the internet exploded. This kind of thing happens, unfortunately even in this enlightened age.

I wondered what had happened and assumed it was of recent origin. No, this particular poop storm started nearly a year ago with issue #200 of the SFWA bulletin. It contained a paid article (not a letter to the editor) by two writers that reads like it fell out of the Time Tunnel from sometime in the Edwardian Era. It became the last straw in a series of eyebrow-raising choices on the part of the bulletin's editors, such as this cover art (Bikini babe barbarian? Is is meant to be ironic?) The response from the writers of the original dialogue is summed up nicely here by Kameron Hurley as "... if I punched you, and you said 'Gosh, that really hurt' and I said, 'YOU ARE FUCKING CENSORING ME YOU FUCKING COMMUNIST' you’d think I was insane." If you want the Reader's Digest version of the whole kerfuffle, this is a good start.

Why are people so upset? Why is this such a big deal? Everybody is going to have an opinion, and this is mine. I'm personally saddened by the fact that there is still so much condescension toward women in any professional field, but especially writing and especially SFF writing. In genres that look to alternate realities and often posit scenarios where gender biases are stable or non-existent (Gene Roddenberry, anybody?), it's frustrating that there are content creators who think that patronizing behavior toward women is ok or cute or funny. What's more, this is not just an "old white guy" problem, as some have suggested. There are plenty of younger creators who are just as bad.

Every generation, every new batch of children, have to be educated about morals and manners and what we've learned from the past. Just because there is no more (overt) slavery in the civilized world, and women have the vote, and segregation by race is over, and people of color have equal rights, it doesn't mean that kids are born with these ideas hard-wired in to them. Anybody who deals with little kids knows that they are born barbarians with only self-interest in mind. They have to be taught that ostracizing, taunting, or attacking somebody because they are "different" in some way is unacceptable. The difference can be body shape, color, or gender, it doesn't matter. It can be as innocuous as red hair; kids will find something to pick on somebody about.

This sandbox behavior is all over the internet. Just look at YouTube comments on literally anything. The hills are alive with trolls who sound like dimwitted teenage boys. No offense meant to all the intelligent, well-spoken teenage boys out there. Some of them could be older, but that's how they sound.

Which all brings me to why I'm writing this today. When a known adult comes across as an immature, misogynistic idiot it's really disappointing. When a group of writers struggle for decades to garner credibility for their genre and then a few throwbacks threaten that credibility for the sake of a few yuks, it's careless at best and outrageous at worst. For one thing, it's sending out the message that misogyny is acceptable, and it's not surprising that the majority of the members of the SFWA don't want to be a part of that message.

Thanks to the information superhighway, this uproar isn't just a private argument behind the closed doors of the SFWA. People have been blogging about it for the last year. Google "sfwa kerfuffle" and knock yourself out. The dust was just starting to settle when links to a conversation on the SFF.net listserv began to appear. Details here. Particularly excecrable were some comments by one Sean Fodera, directed at Mary Robinette Kowal (author and former VP of SFWA), which ammounted to childish ranting and name-calling. When Fodera noticed that links to the thread were cropping up he lost his cool and threatened all linkers with an illogical suit of libel. It's 2014, most sentient life forms have figured out that what is posted online in public forums is public. Fodera is doing his impression of the teenager caught posting drunk pics of themselves on Facebook and then moaning because "My parents saw! Oh noooooooes!"

I think the time of "ignore it and it will go away" is over. I am also fully against angry women with torches having hissy fits. There's a middle ground where people tell bullies and sexist ding dongs, "Wait a minute. What you just said/did is not OK by me." If that person reacts with venom and cries of "censorship!" or "communist!" or "crazy bitch feminist!" then it's time to say, "This conversation is over." I've done that a couple of times in my life, in person and on the 'net. Why waste your time with somebody who just wants to be hateful? Why waste your time with somebody who's looking to be offended by your being offended? Applying this to companies and clubs and organizations is more difficult, but not impossible. I was sorry to hear that a number of people have left SFWA because of all the hoo hah. Fortunately, a greater number have stayed in order to "be the change."

One of the more colorful comments on that SFF.net thread likened the folks warring against misogyny as a "vocal minority of insects" who "don’t scramble for the shadows when outside lights shines on them—they bare their pincers and go for the jugular." John Scalzi (former president of the SFWA and thoroughly caught in the middle of all the uproar) has decided to turn that insult into a rallying cry:
"Join John and Mary’s Insect Army! You must write! You must be fearless! You must stand your ground in the face of deeply silly insults, clacking your pincers derisively at them! And, if you believe that every person — writer, “insect” and otherwise — should be treated with the same dignity and honor that you would accord yourself, so much the better. Together we can swarm to make science fiction and fantasy awesome!"
This stuff won't go away. Go ahead and get angry, but don't just be angry, be the change. Call people on their nonsense. Don't get all huffy and pitch a fit or take your toys and go home, but please DO let people know when you think they've said or done something hurtful, whatever their age. I guess it's still baby steps for civilization on this planet.

10 Disastrous Panels (from Mary Robinette Kowal's Twitter feed)

I'm about to dump my Tumblr account because it's just another social media site that I don't really need, and I don't find it particularly useful for discussions. Before I do, however, I'll post this one last link to "10 Disastrous Panels You Have Been on or Seen" by Mette Ivie Harrison. If you've attended even a few conventions and participated or seen a panel or two, you'll see something you recognize here. I'm not sure I would call any of the bullet points a "disaster". Somebody having a stroke or starting a fist fight during a panel would be a disaster. Still, it's a pretty spot not, if not comprehensive, list of typical annoyances and embarrassments.

The first point is something with which I'm going to have to respectfully disagree: "Microphone Hog who will grab it every change he has. Always a he. Sad, but true."

Always a "he"? Are you absolutely sure about that? I can't speak to your personal experience, but I've seen plenty where the mic hog was a woman. Granted, these panels were at more specialized conventions like Steampunk-themed and Historically-focused cons, but I'm sure there must be female mic hogs at comics conventions and other nerd fests, as well as more average settings. With all the talk around the web currently about sexism and discrimination and all that it entails, words like "always" in this context seem a bit careless.

My sympathies are definitely with the "Moderator looks ready to walk out...because no one actually answers the questions she asks and she is working so hard to try to get the panel to address the topic the audience came to hear about." Talk about herding cats. Ugh.

As for point "D"? "I think that I have something interesting to say, but I’ve hooked my mouth up directly to the rambling section of my brain and it will just keep pouring out words until someone takes away the mic." That's never happened to me. Well, hardly ever.