UNCERTAIN LOGIC: Draft is done (almost)

I haven’t posted in a while since I’ve been focused on getting Uncertain Logic done. I just wrapped up the first draft today… a day after my nominal deadline. Unfortunately I suffered a schedule setback: I decided a while back to split the process into two phases, first finishing up the A plot of the book, then going back and filling in the independent B plot. The problem is, the A plot ended up considerably longer than I’d expected, so I had to rethink the B plot and trim it down substantially. Which is okay, since I’ve planned this all along as a 2-book arc, so it’s just a matter of moving elements of it to Book 4. Which I think will actually work better, because then there’s something new to be revealed in Book 4 rather than just having it be the fallout from all that was discovered in Book 3. But the need to pause and re-plot this storyline for Book 3 threw me off schedule. Fortunately, I was able to get an extension from my editor, which kept me from stressing out too much like I did when I was pushing against the deadline on Book 2. So I’m really grateful to Margaret for that.

As it happened, I finished the B plot’s climax yesterday and then spent today on the denouement — then quickly arrived at a solution to a flaw I’d recognized in the climax of the A plot, which left a couple of the main characters a little too passive. I have to thank Marco Palmieri for inadvertently helping me realize the problem; during the “Villain’s Journey” panel at Shore Leave a few weeks ago, someone asked him his thoughts on what defined a good villain, and he said (paraphrasing), “Good villains are defined by the choices they force the heroes to make.” That reminder, that stories are about choices rather than simply events, pointed me in the right direction, not only to improve the climax of the A plot, but to decide what really needed to happen in the B plot climax as well.

One way I helped myself, meanwhile, was by periodically going over to the university campus to work. Getting out of my chair and getting some exercise and a change of scenery helps, and being away from my DSL connection means I don’t get as distracted by the Internet while I’m trying to work (although having a smartphone now has cut into that a bit). I’ve actually done it twice in the past three days. On Sunday, I decided to bike over to campus. That’s right, I’m finally getting back into cycling after letting my bike sit dormant for a couple of years, since I really need to get back into shape. This was my first big excursion, the first ride that wasn’t just over to the nearby park and a bunch of laps around the footpath. I kind of bit off more than I could chew, since I’d forgotten what an uphill climb it was to get home from the part of campus I rode to, so I mostly had to walk my bike back uphill. I was pretty sore after that. But I got a good amount of work done. I packed a lunch and went over to the main campus library, not realizing that it wouldn’t open until noon; but I sat in the shade in the outdoor study area next to the library and got a scene or two written there, then had my lunch, then went into the library and got some more done, finding my way toward the climax — though I was too tired after I got home to finish it that day.

Anyway, I got through the climax yesterday at home, but still didn’t quite have the denouement solved until this morning. But today was apparently the day that the apartment building had the railings on its entranceway stairs replaced, so that made a lot of noise outside my apartment. So I took a walk up to Panera to work over lunch and finish the B plot, then I figured out that fix for the A plot on the walk from there to the nearest campus library, where I wrote that additional scene, then paged through the whole thing and figured out chapter breaks (tentatively). Oh, and I put back in a couple of character-moment scenes that I’d pulled out for length, once I determined I’d have room for them. There are a couple more scenes I wish I could put back in, but they’re not really essential, they probably slow the pacing too much in the early chapters, and I’m pushing the maximum word count enough as it is.

So now comes the polishing, where hopefully I can trim out excesses, flesh out the bits that need it, refine the timing of events, and maybe find improvements for some tentative elements. I’m hoping to get that done by the end of the month. But I think it’s turned out reasonably well so far. Streamlining the B plot helps keep it more focused as well as cutting down on the clutter the book might otherwise have had. And it lets the A plot have the space it needs. (And since it’s a 2-book arc, any imbalance in character emphasis in this book can be complemented in the next.) More basically, I made a point of telling a story that challenged the characters more and raised the personal stakes and consequences higher than Tower of Babel did, while still keeping the astropolitical stakes high and adding new complications and new antagonists to the Rise of the Federation milieu. I think I’ve improved considerably on the previous volume, though I hope I can improve it a bit more over the next few days.

And after this, I really need to keep my momentum going if I can. I want to get Book 4 outlined as soon as possible so I can hopefully get ahead of schedule for once, as well as knowing if events from Book 4 will require me to make any changes to Book 3 in copyedits. Plus I’m hoping to come up with a new pitch or two for my next Trek project after Book 4, and there are some original projects I hope I can get around to in the months ahead.

Oh yeah… and I really have to come up with a title for Book 4 sooner or later, don’t I?

DC DVD movie reviews: JUSTICE LEAGUE: WAR, SON OF BATMAN, JLA TRAPPED IN TIME (Spoilers)

Lately, since James Tucker replaced Bruce Timm as the producer of the DC Universe Animated Original Movies DVD line, the series has begun adapting storylines from the current “New 52″ comics continuity, as opposed to the classic adaptations and original stories they’d been doing before (although there are still original movies in other continuities on the upcoming slate — the next movie, for instance, is a new story in the universe of the Arkham Asylum computer games). Here are my reviews of the first two, Justice League: War (based on the introductory JL story in the New 52) and Son of Batman (based on Grant Morrison’s Damien Wayne storyline which I think began before the New 52 but was folded into it).

Justice League: War (review reposted from The TrekBBS)

I finally saw this… and I wish I hadn’t. It was pretty bad. Mostly nonstop action without a lot of characterization. It had a few nice moments, but they were outnumbered by the weak or stupid moments.

Superman, who should be the heart of the team, was barely even there as a character, just a big dumb overconfident lug who punched things and flirted with Diana. Wonder Woman herself was far worse, a caricature who claimed to be a “warrior” but was shallow, impulsive, and reckless without a trace of discipline. Come on, no “warrior” is going to casually swing her sword around and point it at people merely as a form of address. A warrior would have more respect for her weapon and its danger.

Didn’t think much of how the other characters were handled either, but the worst was probably Darkseid. He’s supposed to be a monarch, a commanding figure who rarely needs to dirty his hands with actual combat because he has so many underlings to do it for him. The threat he poses is generally more psychological, in the way he manipulates and corrupts and bends people to his will. So when he does strike physically, it has a real impact from a story point of view. But this Darkseid was a barely literate, grunting thug. They pretty much turned him into Doomsday, a threat that’s all brute force and no personality or intelligence. I wondered why they even bothered to call him Darkseid.

Some of the voices were fairly good, but they didn’t have much to work with. Even Alan Tudyk wasn’t all that much of a standout, since he was given such a shallow, one-note Superman to portray. The one real standout was Marjorie Monaghan as Wonder Woman, who stood out for how terrible she was — although I think the blame there lies more with how the character was written.

If this is going to be the DCU movies’ primary continuity from now on, I’m not optimistic about what lies ahead.

Son of Batman

This one started out problematically, with a battle scene in which mercenaries led by Deathstroke launched an attack on the League of Assassins led by Ra’s al Ghul, with tons of bloodshed. The movie is full of the most graphic violence I’ve seen in the DCU line, to the point that I’m surprised it got away with merely a PG-13 rating. And a lot of it was gratuitous and badly handled. In the climactic fight between the boy Damien Wayne and Deathstroke, Damien sustains some very serious and graphic stab wounds in his arms, yet they do nothing to impede his fighting ability afterward, at a time when he should be unable to use his arms at all and passing out from shock and blood loss. If they’re going to put in so much gore, it should at least be relevant. Otherwise it’s purely a gratuitous indulgence.

Still, there is some merit to the story, scripted by Joe R. Lansdale from a story by James Robinson based on the Grant Morrison/Andy Kubert comics, and directed by Avatar: The Last Airbender‘s Ethan Spaulding. My favorite part is the portrayal of Alfred as he meets Damien’s imperious condescension with scathing sarcasm. And there’s some decent character interaction between Batman, his son, and his surrogate son Nightwing. As for the animation, it’s kind of stiff without a lot of expressiveness to the characters, but the design work by Phil Bourassa is reasonably good.

But there is just so much that doesn’t work. For one thing, the film’s treatment of women is poor. Pretty much every female character in the film, of which there are only a few, is there to be either a wife, lover, daughter, mother, or hostage to a male character — the one exception being a member of a gaggle of Wayne Industries execs talking business with Bruce Wayne. Even Talia al Ghul, the only major female role, is there mainly as a love interest, mother, and hostage, and the times when she’s portrayed as a warrior are undermined by the fact that she’s showing off an enormous amount of cleavage in every single scene she’s in. But the creepiest part by far is when it’s pretty much stated outright that she gave Batman a roofie in order to put him in the amorous mood that led to Damien’s conception. In other words, she raped him. But because a woman did it to a man, the blatant double standard of so much fiction is entirely in force here, with Batman being pretty much okay with it and saying it wasn’t that bad. That’s just sick and wrong. And it’s so unnecessary to the story. Couldn’t they have just said that Batman had a moment of weakness that he later regretted? Or even that he actually just cared for Talia and their son’s conception was an act of love, however doomed and forbidden? Did they have to send the viewers such distorted, outdated messages about gender and consent?

And speaking of distorted messages, the ending of the movie is awful on that count. Throughout the movie, Batman is trying to teach Damien, who was raised as an assassin, that there’s a better way than killing, and of course in the climax Damien chooses not to take lethal revenge on Deathstroke. Fine, all well and good. But then Batman and Damien blithely leave the injured, immobile Deathstroke lying there in a flooding undersea base! How completely hypocritical is it to have Batman spend the movie arguing that killing is wrong and then unhesitatingly leave a wounded man to die? How is that supposed to be different? It’s a corruption of everything Batman stands for, and it ruins a story that had been going relatively well up to that point.

The casting is mixed but reasonably good. Jason O’Mara returns from JL: War as Batman, and though his voice is unusual for Batman, he gives a pretty good, nuanced performance with the emotional stuff here. Stuart Allan is reasonably good as Damien, allowing for the low expectations I’d generally have for a preteen actor. David McCallum is awesome as Alfred (a role he previously played in the Gotham Knight DVD anthology that was more or less set in the Nolan films’ universe). Sean Maher is an interesting and very effective choice for Nightwing/Dick Grayson, and his Firefly co-star Morena Baccarin (whose voice work I’ve found rather mixed in the past) is reasonably good as Talia. Giancarlo Esposito does a fairly good job in a brief role as Ra’s al Ghul, and Xander Berkeley does well enough as Langstrom. But Thomas Gibson is utterly awful as Deathstroke, giving a broad, forced, cartoon-villain performance with no nuance or sincerity. It does almost as much to undermine the story as the other problems I’ve mentioned.

It’s becoming increasingly evident to me that these movies are being targeted to an audience that no longer includes me. That seems to be the direction DC’s going in general these days; what I’ve glimpsed of the New 52 comics is just as self-consciously grimdark and gory, and Warner Bros. seems committed to making DC-based movies that are all as dark and somber as they can be. I’ve seen DC’s current attitude compared to that of a teenager self-consciously acting all adult and serious in an effort to prove their maturity, which is an intrinsically juvenile view of maturity. Those who are really mature aren’t afraid to have fun and be a little childish sometimes. Which is why I’m so much looking forward to the CW’s The Flash series, since — even though it spins off from the somber and Nolanesque Arrow — it looks like it’s going to be embracing a much lighter, more upbeat tone, something that we rarely see being done with DC characters anymore.

Which reminds me, I should also talk about the other DC animated movie I’ve recently seen, the younger-skewing JLA Adventures: Trapped in Time. This was originally a Target exclusive (now more widely available, including on Netflix) that was released with little fanfare compared to the increasingly kid-unfriendly DC Universe line, but in a lot of ways it’s a more satisfying adventure — a bit simple, but willing to have fun with its idea and its characters. It’s directed by Giancarlo Volpe of Avatar: The Last Airbender and Star Wars: The Clone Wars, and it’s basically an updated, more sophisticated Super Friends type of story, with the Justice League fighting the Legion of Doom, and both operating out of their Super Friends-style headquarters (including the Hall of Justice based on my favorite Art Deco building, Cincinnati’s Union Terminal). When Lex Luthor (Fred Tatasciore) is frozen in Arctic ice and apparently killed, he’s then thawed out a thousand years later and uses time travel to go back and erase Superman and the League from existence, and the only people who can stop him are a pair of wannabe Legion of Super Heroes members, Karate Kid (Avatar‘s Dante Basco) and Dawnstar (Laura Bailey), who have to learn to have faith in their abilities and correct their mistakes that led to the situation in the first place. The temporal physics make no sense whatsoever, but then, they rarely do in any time-travel story. The danger in the climax is also very unclear and arbitrary. Sure, it’s a little simple, but it doesn’t have the disturbing elements or gratuitous excesses of the so-called “adult-oriented” movies.

Peter Jessop (the Vision from The Avengers: Earth’s Mightiest Heroes) is a decent but unremarkable Superman. Diedrich Bader reprises Batman from Batman: The Brave and the Bold, and the endlessly versatile Grey DeLisle Griffin (Avatar‘s Azula) does an effective Wonder Woman (her debut in the role, though she’s played Wonder Girl in the Super Best Friends Forever shorts). Kevin Michael Richardson reprises Black Manta from TB&TB as well as playing Solomon Grundy, and Jason Spisak, Young Justice‘s Kid Flash/Wally West, plays the Flash (which may or may not be a reprise, but it seems more like Wally in the suit than Barry Allen). Volpe brings another A:TLA veteran, Jack DeSena, in to play Robin, though it’s an unusual portrayal, as if Robin is still new and trying to prove himself to Batman. Corey Burton (Clone Wars‘ Count Dooku, among many other roles) plays the Time Trapper, the time-manipulating entity that’s basically the genie in the lamp for Luthor — until he gets out of Luthor’s control.

As for the decision to focus on Dawnstar and Karate Kid, I can’t blame the filmmakers for wanting to focus on just about the only two LSH characters who aren’t white — after all, the kids watching this movie are sure to be a diverse group and they all deserve inclusion — but I’d be happier if they weren’t both such blatant stereotypes in conception, the Asian guy defined by knowing martial arts and the Native American defined by tracking abilities and psionic “arrows.” Unfortunately that’s the problem with using decades-old characters, no matter how much the current storytellers try to downplay the stereotypes. (Although apparently the psi arrows were an invention of the movie, so maybe they weren’t downplaying the stereotypes as much as I thought. She was also given some kind of shamanistic spiritual powers.)

So pretty much all we have to choose from in DC animation these days are the really adult-skewing, grim and violent and female-unfriendly stuff and the kid-skewing, light and silly stuff. Anything that aspires to the middle ground between those, like Young Justice or Beware the Batman, has a short lifespan because WB and Cartoon Network don’t perceive a market for it anymore. And that’s a shame, because it was in that middle ground that Batman: TAS and the DC Animated Universe were created and thrived, setting the stage for the animation boom that followed. But even though the kid stuff isn’t entirely satisfying to me, I know I found Trapped in Time more watchable than the PG-13 movies.

Categories: Reviews Tags: , , ,

Thoughts on GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY (Spoilers)

Yup, for once I get a review out in a movie’s first week of release. I figured I should see it before I got spoiled any further by the Internet.

So, yeah, it’s a pretty good movie for what it is, an effective space-opera action comedy with some heartfelt character stuff. I did like the story of the rogues and scoundrels and loners discovering what they could gain from one another as friends and choosing to embrace a nobler, more selfless purpose. This is the second team-oriented movie in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, but in some ways it uses the team idea better than The Avengers. The Avengers may have had personality conflicts they had to overcome to work together, but they’d all more or less chosen already to adopt heroic roles. Here, it’s only as a team that these guys are able to amount to anything at all, and that’s driven home explicitly in the climax, when their combined strength lets them survive the effects of the Infinity Stone when none of them could alone.

And the cast was pretty good. I found Chris Pratt rather annoying in the trailers, just something about his snarky attitude seeming obnoxious to me, but he was definitely more sympathetic here. The rest of the cast did okay, though there were no real standouts for me — except for Karen Gillan, who did a terrific job with the limited amount she was given, and whose makeup design was striking and weirdly beautiful. It’s a great-looking film; the Xandarian capital city looks like a place I’d like to live, very Federationy (in fact, it does a much better job of feeling like Star Trek‘s Federation than the Bad Robot version of San Francisco has done). And while the other locations weren’t as liveable, they were well-designed. (I should note that a lot of the design work was done by Stephan Martiniere, who did the cover to my novel The Buried Age, as well as the ST:TNG anthology The Sky’s the Limit, which includes a story of mine.) The exceptions were the Kree ships and interiors, which didn’t work that well for me.

But it wasn’t perfect by a long shot. Although I enjoyed the story of redemption, I started to realize after a while that I could see the writers at work, the almost mechanical way in which every Guardian was given some personal limitation that he or she later grew beyond to demonstrate their growth under their friends’ influence — e.g. Drax couldn’t use metaphors and then he did, Groot only knew three words until the climactic moment, etc. It worked, but it was a bit calculated and not very deep. Really, the movie was just so cluttered with characters and ideas that it was hard to develop any part of it with any real depth. The moment when I started to realize it had too much going on was when we suddenly got this whole new subplot with the Collector’s assistant (Carina, apparently) coming out of nowhere. This is the problem with basing movies on long-running comics continuities. There’s a lot of material to draw on, sure, but there’s a risk of trying to cram in too many characters and references and plot threads. Green Lantern had that problem and it collapsed under the weight of all the continuity porn. This film has somehow managed to avoid that, perhaps because it has a stronger core story, but it could’ve been better if it hadn’t had quite so many characters and subplots.

In particular, the villains are practically non-entities. Ronan the Accuser is, I gather, a fairly complex and ambiguous figure in the comics, but this version of Ronan has got to be the most superficial, zero-dimensional villain in any MCU film to date. Who was this guy? What were his motives? What was his point of view? Where were his nuances? All we learned about him was that he was a fanatic who hated Xandarians, but we don’t know why. And Thanos was equally one-note, just some big guy who wants to destroy stuff for no clear reason. Yes, comics fans know the reason, I know the reason, but movies need to be able to stand on their own and be comprehensible to the majority of viewers who aren’t familiar with the source. Within this movie itself, we don’t know what Thanos wants or why he loaned his daughters to Ronan or why he even has (adopted?) daughters. And I’m sorry, Marvel fans, but translating the visual of Thanos literally to (simulated) live action, complete with the exaggerated body proportions and the rocket throne thingy, just looked silly. Too much fidelity to the source is often a bad thing.

In fact, I’m not crazy about the CGI character work overall here. Groot was fine, but Rocket looked like a computer-animated character, not nearly as convincing as the ultra-lifelike apes in Dawn of the Planet of the Apes. And spoiler alert: That was a totally hideous, crude bit of CG animation on a certain duck in the post-credits scene. Not to mention how pointless the post-credits scene was overall. For once, I was in a theater where the majority of the audience knew they should stick around to the end of the credits, but this time they weren’t given anything that was worth their patience.

Indeed, this film was startlingly devoid of references to the rest of the MCU, compared to its predecessors. Understandable given its cosmic setting, but there really was very little. Sure, the Collector showed up at the end of Thor: The Dark World, but that was that movie making a reference to this one, not the other way around. And this film’s exposition of the Infinity Stones didn’t reference the prior ones much, although we did see an image of the Tesseract in the Collector’s light show. I guess the main thing is the return appearance of Alexis Denisof as Thanos’s lieutenant, The Other — but we’ve obviously seen the last of him.

Oh, that reminds me — one of my other problems with the script was the overabundance of exposition. So many characters just spouted big chunks of exposition at the drop of a hat. The Collector had no good reason to give Quill and the others this big expository multimedia show about the Infinity Stones, except that it was necessary to fill things in for the audience. Similarly, Rocket was far more garrulous about his past and his origins than seemed reasonable for a character as bitter and closed-off as he is. It’s another artifact of cramming so much into the story — not only was there too much that needed to be explained, but there was too little time to get to the exposition subtly or organically, so characters just had to spout whatever information the audience needed as soon as they arrived.

It bugs me a bit that the Xandarians and so many other aliens were so much like 21st-century American humans in their appearance, speech, culture, and the like. The slang and profanity in particular were the hardest to buy — usually there’s at least a token effort to have English-speaking, human-appearing aliens have their own distinct idioms, or at least speak more formally. Here, Drax was like that, but every other alien in the galaxy seemed totally conversant with 21st-century American slang and cussing. (Or could that be because we’re hearing it interpreted through Quill’s translator implant, as mentioned in the graphics in his “lineup” scene? Of course, a lot of it was in scenes where he wasn’t present.) These days there seems to be a perception that space operas have to be populated with characters who are as ordinary and familiar to contemporary audiences as possible, for fear that those audiences won’t identify with anyone more exotic. But I like exotic. That’s what draws me to science fiction, the chance to see things — and people — that are new and alien and unfamiliar. As pleasant a place as Xandar Prime appeared to be, it still felt too much like an idealized Earth setting.

One thing I loved, though: The movie had an actual main titles sequence! Credits at the start of the film instead of the end! I love that! Of course, it was probably part of the whole Raiders of the Lost Ark homage they were going for in that opening sequence. (Edited to add: By the way, the other day I said that Dawn of the Planet of the Apes was probably the first film that billed its unseen performance-capture actors equally with the on-camera actors. Well, this film does something similar, because Vin Diesel and Bradley Cooper were billed right up there as the fourth and fifth names in the opening credits. Except that those two weren’t the main performance-capture artists; the director’s brother Sean Gunn was “On Set Rocket” and Krystian Godlewski was “On Set Groot.” But both those actors are listed pretty high in the supporting cast credits. So there’s definitely a move toward more egalitarian billing between seen and unseen actors.)

So, all in all, a fun adventure movie, but too cluttered and needing better-drawn villains. Hopefully, now that the huge torrent of exposition is out of the way, the sequel will have more room to breathe and develop things.

Shore Leave: Over already? I just got there!

Wow, where did the weekend go? This year’s Shore Leave was a whirlwind, over so fast it hardly had time to sink in. Maybe it’s because I flew there this time. Not only did I get in later than usual on Friday and leave early on Sunday, making for a total of only about 48 hours spent in the hotel (c. 2 PM Friday to c. 2 PM Sunday), but maybe the quicker travel time made the whole thing feel more abrupt somehow.

But let’s see what I can extract from the sensory blur in my memories.

The flight out from Cincinnati to Baltimore went fairly well. I seemed to get through the airport amazingly quickly, in part because I got randomly assigned to the expedited TSA check which is simply a walk through a metal detector (along with everyone else around me — making it seem like an implicit admission that all the security theater of the past few years doesn’t really make much difference after all). I took a quick flight to Philadelphia on a medium-sized plane and then a short hop to Baltimore on a small turboprop — the first propeller plane I think I’ve ever been on, and the first plane where the cabin has been under the wing, so I could actually see the landing gear from my window. A little scary at first, but I reminded myself that if it weren’t a proven and reliable technology, it wouldn’t still be in use after a century. And the props were clearly made of carbon composite, which was reassuringly modern.

Then came the long ride on the Light Rail, literally from the very start to the very end of the route. But it didn’t feel like it took too long, even though I gave up trying to listen to music on my phone because the train was too noisy. (Maybe I should’ve brought my other earbuds, which block sound better. Plus they don’t get tangled as easily, I think because one earbud is on a shorter cord than the other so there’s less there to tangle.) The one hitch was that I got a sandwich at the airport planning to eat it on the train — and then saw that eating on the train is prohibited. So since I’m an extremely law-abiding sort, I had to wait another hour and a half to eat my lunch. I had half the sandwich while walking from the light rail station to the hotel, and the other half once I got into my room (which was quick and easy because I arrived late enough that it was already prepared).

When I visited the vendors’ area, I was pleased to run into Sally Malcolm and her husband, the founders of Fandemonium Books, the British company that publishes Stargate SG-1 and Stargate Atlantis tie-in novels. They were there along with New York writer Diana Dru Botsford, who’s done a number of SG novels for Fandemonium as well as having written for ST:TNG on television. I was glad that this year they were able to come to Shore Leave and bring the two tie-in franchises together, as it were. And now I know who to contact if and when I have a Stargate novel pitch… ;)

At dinnertime, I ran into Greg Cox and some other folks at the hotel’s little cafe/lounge place, which is now open for business again since the hotel came under new management. We had a nice talk there, and later we were seated together at Meet the Pros, though we had less time to talk there since it was really well-attended and busy — another reason it seemed to go by so fast. I signed a lot of copies of Tower of Babel. Unfortunately only one guest bought a copy of Only Superhuman for me to sign, since the book vendor only had it in hardcover. The dearth of mass-market paperbacks of OS continues to bewilder and frustrate me. (It’s still available by print-on-demand, but getting paperbacks in stores is better for getting casual readers interested. Or would have been…)

I also finally got to meet Australian uberfan Ian McLean, aka Therin of Andor, who’s probably the one person who loves Star Trek: The Motion Picture more than I do, and after whom I named an Andorian character in Ex Machina, a character who’s been picked up on by other authors and taken on a life of his own. He brought me an awesome gift, an Australian edition of the ST:TMP novelization from Futura Books, with a lovely photo insert section and a few bits of additional description in the text. He even got it autographed by Billy Van Zandt, the actor who played the Rhaandarite “alien ensign” in TMP, whom I made into a major character, Vaylin Zaand, in ExM. It is a cool thing to have.

Let’s see, panels… Before Meet the Pros, I was on a panel about comedy science fiction, in which I got to talk about my Hub stories, though my comedy contributions are fairly limited in comparison to fellow panelist Peter David — though he demurred that most of his overt comedy writing is fantasy rather than SF. Also in attendance were Aaron Rosenberg, co-founder of Crazy 8 Press, and two authors who’ve had comedies published by Crazy 8, Lorraine Anderson and Russ Colchamiro.

But the rest of my panels were on Saturday, so I was kept pretty busy that day. First was the panel on writing movie-era Trek, which was intended to focus on the original series’ movie era, but ended up being broadened to include TNG movie-era books. Greg and I were on that along with Peter David and Dayton Ward (who did In the Name of Honor in the post-ST V era as well as A Time to Sow/A Time to Reap with Kevin Dilmore in the TNG movie era). Greg pitched his upcoming Foul Deeds Will Rise, set in the post-ST V era, and I just talked about ExM.

Then came “60 Years of Godzilla,” with Greg again (since he novelized the recent movie) as well as Jeffrey Lang and Andrew Gaska. I got to do my spiel summarizing the history of the franchise, based on my posts on this blog, but I think I went a little too much in-depth, since people were walking out by the end. I was afraid that would happen.

I got a burger and fries for lunch in the cafe, where I’d previously gotten a breakfast of cereal, milk, orange juice, and a banana. Both meals cost me 9 dollars. Each. Hotels are so expensive! I also attended a “Writing Stargate” panel by the Fandemonium bunch, and learned some more about their approach and interests. Apparently they’ve been trying to convince MGM to let them do a post-finale series of SG-1 as they’re already doing for SGA, but with no luck as yet; and they don’t have a Stargate Universe license, which is too bad, since I woul’dve liked to write for that one. They explained that the new movie reboot that’s being developed has nothing to do with the show’s continuity and doesn’t affect the books. (I can’t understand MGM’s decision to let Devlin and Emmerich resume their vastly inferior version of Stargate rather than continuing the TV universe.) I also sat in the audience for a panel called “The Villain’s Journey,” with quite a few people including Kathleen David (Peter’s wife), David Mack, and Marco Palmieri exploring the question of whether there was a Villain’s Journey model to complement the standard Campbellian Hero’s Journey. An interesting talk, but it got a bit too philosophical for me at times.

And then I was a member of two more consecutive panels. First was “Writing Action Scenes,” with Dave Mack, Kirsten Beyer, Keith R.A. DeCandido, and a couple of others I didn’t know. I felt a little out of place there, since my approach to action is a little more understated and less based on experience than that of some of the other panelists. But it was informative; Keith’s experience with karate brought some useful insights into the experience of being in a fight, which hopefully can be useful to me in future writing.

Finally was “Series in the Sandbox” with Dave, Kirsten, Dayton, and Kevin, focusing on ongoing single-author or single-team series in Trek (since SG author Jo Graham couldn’t make it). This was supposed to be my big chance to promote what I’m doing in Rise of the Federation, but I can’t remember whether I really talked about it much. By that point I was so frazzled that I wasn’t really sure what was going on.

But fortunately a bunch of us went out to dinner at that really good barbecue place near the hotel, Andy Nelson’s Barbecue Restaurant. It’s the second time I’ve been taken there, and I think I had the same thing I had the first time: a pulled turkey BBQ sandwich, cornbread, and cole slaw, along with a much-needed iced tea. I generally don’t like either cornbread or cole slaw that much, but both were excellent here. It was nice to get to hang out with the group, but the problem with being in such a large group at such a long table — especially since I was sitting at one end — is that you don’t really get to talk to everyone. I was hoping to get to talk more with Kirsten Beyer this weekend, for instance, just to catch up, but we only got to talk briefly a couple of times. (Usually, these past few years, Meet the Pros has died down early enough that the writers have had more time to wander the hall and socialize, but this year we were kept pretty busy throughout.)

I just went back to my room after that, since I needed the peace and quiet after that long, long day. By the time I got up Sunday morning, it was almost time for the author breakfast in the hotel bar. After that I attended the memorial service for the late Ann (A.C.) Crispin, though I’m not sure I really belonged there, since it turned out to be more of a private gathering for her friends, and I was never more than passingly acquainted with her. But I wanted to show my respects. It was a nice service, and the stories her friends told made me regret that I didn’t get to know her better.

I don’t remember what I did for the next hour — probably just went back to my room — but then I went to a panel about Orphan Black that Marco was on along with… oh, man, I totally don’t remember. I think Aaron Rosenberg was there? It was a fun panel, though. After that, I went to a presentation by artist Rob Caswell, whose art inspired the Star Trek: Seekers novel series that Dave, Dayton, and Kevin have just debuted. But halfway through that, I realized I’d been so caught up in panel after panel that I’d totally forgotten to go down to the book vendors’ table and do my stint in the author chimney, the little recessed space between brick columns where we authors sit for an hour or so to sign autographs. And I’d arranged to get a ride to the mall (where I could get lunch and wait for the light rail) right after that panel ended, so I was only able to give the book folks half an hour, during which it was almost totally dead because it was the afternoon of the last day and everyone had already spent whatever they had to spend. I regret that I let this slip my mind until it was almost too late.

So I got a good lunch at the mall, which Marco very nicely picked up the tab for, and then my light rail trip began. And this is where the fun ended. I got mixed messages about whether the train I caught was going to the airport, and it turned out not to be, so I realized I’d have to transfer. Although it became evident that if I’d waited 2-3 more minutes, I would’ve caught the airport train. And halfway through the trip on the train I was on, it got overloaded with Orioles fans who I guess were going home from a game, and it was hellishly noisy and crowded, and I wasn’t comfortable about being on the wrong train. I mean, logically I knew that the right train was behind this one on the same track so I couldn’t possibly miss it, but neurotically, all I knew was Oh my gawd I’m on the wrong train!!  And I was fatigued enough that neurosis won out over logic. I could’ve transferred much earlier, but I checked the MTA website and there was a travel advisory about a power outage on the tracks and the need to take a bus from a certain station, so I wanted to wait to transfer at that station just in case the problem was still around. And once the gaggle of fans boarded, I had to wait until the crowd thinned anyway. But once I finally got on the right train, it was so very empty compared to the one I’d been on. Oh, if only I’d waited those 2-3 minutes more! To add insult to injury, midway through the ride I discovered that I could access a tracking page on my smartphone which showed me exactly where the trains were. If I’d looked into that before my trip, I could’ve determined in advance which train I wanted.

And then I had to wait in a long line at the airport and do the whole rigmarole of taking everything out of my pockets and storing it in my bags and jacket — only to end up in the expedited line at the end of the process and learn too late that none of that had been necessary at all. You couldn’t have told us sooner, guys? By this point I was tired of spending extravagant prices on food, and my late lunch had been satisfying, so my “supper” consisted of a protein bar I bought at BWI and a smoothie I later bought at the Philly airport. The flight to Philly was uneventful but the taxiing took forever. For some reason, they used a huge plane for such a short hop (although it was going on to Dallas afterward) — it probably seated more people than both my Friday flights combined. The flight from Philly to CVG also took forever to get takeoff clearance, and we hit some bad weather along the way and there were some scary moments of turbulence. I was struck when I looked out the window and realized the flashing wing lights were illuminating a spray of raindrops streaking backward relative to the jet. No, I didn’t see a gremlin on the wing, but there was a moment there when I wouldn’t have been surprised to.

The weather delayed us just enough that I missed the last bus from CVG to downtown Cincy, and I learned that a taxi ride home would cost 42 bucks. So I caught an executive shuttle van for only 22 bucks to get to the bus stop downtown — only to learn at the last moment that I could have arranged a ride all the way home for a few bucks more, but that the driver couldn’t accept any additional payment at that point. Argh. And then it looked like I’d missed the bus I wanted and would have to wait 40 minutes, but then the bus came late, which was a relief. It didn’t get me as close to home as the later bus would’ve, though, so I had to walk a few blocks at night in what isn’t the best neighborhood, which wasn’t fun. By the time I finally got home well after midnight, I was too tired to do anything but shower off the travel sweat and go right to bed.

I decided to fly because I didn’t want to go through the long slog of spending 2 days driving each way and not getting any sleep at motels, and risking drives through terrible weather. But after all this, driving is looking a lot better. At least it’s a lot quieter, giving me a lot of time to think. Which can get boring, but it’s not as harrowing as all this. Maybe I’d have a better memory of the con this year if the trip home hadn’t been so hectic. Also — between buses, planes, and trains, my outgoing trip took over seven hours from home to hotel, and my return trip took over nine hours the other way. The drive to or from Shore Leave is 10-11 hours split over 2 days. So maybe I don’t save so much time by flying after all.

I don’t mean to sound negative. Shore Leave itself was great, and I got a lot out of it this year. It just went by so fast. Maybe next year I should use more restraint in volunteering for panels, so I have more downtime. Although I guess that wouldn’t rule out having most of my panels scheduled on one day.

And who knows? Maybe next year I’ll have more new work to promote and talk about. I certainly hope I will. To that end, though, I should probably get back to work…

PS — Shore Leave schedule now up

The schedule’s now up at the Shore Leave site:

http://www.shore-leave.com/schedule/

And there are no evident changes from what I reported last night.

By the way, I’ve just realized: This will be my 10th Shore Leave. I first went to Shore Leave 27 in 2005, and I’ve gone every year since.

Shore Leave 2014 tentative schedule

The official Shore Leave schedule hasn’t gone up on the site yet, but here’s a list of the panels I expect to be on:

FRIDAY 8/1

Comedy of Sci-Fi — 8 PM, Hunt Ballroom

I don’t know if I’m officially on this panel, but I’ve requested it as a chance to talk about my Hub series of comedy novelettes in Analog. Also featuring Aaron Rosenberg, Russ Colchamiro, Peter David, and Lorraine Anderson.

Tor Books : The Year Ahead — 9 PM, Hunt Ballroom

I don’t think I’ll actually be on this panel this time, since I don’t have anything new for Tor yet, but I figure I should mention it anyway, since I’ll at least be around for it. Tor editors Marco Palmieri and Greg Cox will give what’s become their regular preview of next year’s SF/fantasy slate from Tor, which I really wish I were on, but I’m not. Well, maybe next year.

Meet the Pros — 10 PM, Hunt/Valley Corridor

The annual 2-hour mass signing event where all the author guests will be available to autograph whatever you bring or buy.

SATURDAY 8/2

Star Trek Novels: Writing in the Movie Era — 10 AM, Derby Room

Pretty self-explanatory.  I’ll be the only one representing the post-TMP era of Ex Machina, The Darkness Drops Again, and Forgotten History, while the other panelists all represent the post-Final Frontier period: Dayton Ward (In the Name of Honor), Peter David (The Rift), and Greg Cox (the upcoming Foul Deeds Will Rise).

Sixty Years of Godzilla — 11 AM, Hunt Ballroom

Also self-explanatory, and also featuring Greg Cox and myself along with Jeffrey Lang, Andrew Gaska, Bob Greenberger, and Richard C. White. Greg, of course, wrote the novelization of the recent Godzilla movie, while Bob wrote a 2005 nonfiction book about the franchise. I’m there just because I’ve seen and reviewed most of the films within the past couple of years, as Written Worlds followers are aware.

Writing Action Scenes — 4 PM, Concierge Lounge

Something I have some experience with, particularly through Only Superhuman. With myself, Keith R.A. DeCandido, Kirsten Beyer, David Mack, Danielle Ackley-McPhail, and Eric Bakutis.

Series in the Sandbox — 5 PM, Derby Room

This one’s a little harder to explain. It’s basically devoted to single-author or single-team ongoing series in Trek and tie-in literature, with myself (representing Rise of the Federation), Kirsten Beyer (Voyager), the Vanguard/Seekers trio of David Mack, Dayton Ward, and Kevin Dilmore, and Stargate: SG-1/Atlantis novelist Jo Graham.

SUNDAY 8/3

Unfortunately, both the Sunday panels I wanted to be on are too late for me to attend, since I’m flying in and out this year for the first time, and I need to leave in mid-afternoon to get to the airport in time. So I probably won’t be on any panels on Sunday. But I’ll be generally around, and I’ll try to spend an hour in the Author Chimney at the book vendor’s table down below the escalators, so folks can drop by and find me.

And no, I’m not doing a personal Q&A panel this year. I don’t have enough going on this year to justify it, and the couple I did before were not well-attended. But I’ve tried to get on panels that will let me discuss my various works, so those would be the places to ask questions or just generally lavish praise upon me.

If any of this information is changed once the official schedule goes up, I’ll update this article. But there’s not much time to go!

This is my first Shore Leave with a smartphone, and I’m finding it useful for entering my schedule and important notes into. I’ve even entered my panels into the calendar app. It should also help me keep up with e-mail and Internet during the con, and to look up information if I need to (I’ve already got the Shore Leave page and the Baltimore Light Rail schedule bookmarked). And I’m remembering to bring my backup charger pack.

DAWN OF THE PLANET OF THE APES Review (Spoilers)

Three years ago, Rise of the Planet of the Apes showed us the dawn of a new species of intelligent ape. Now, Dawn of the Planet of the Apes shows us their rise to — wait, something’s not right there… Better start over.

Ahem. Well, I finally saw this movie, and it’s pretty awesome. The first thing I noted was how extraordinarily realistic the CGI was — that first close-up shot on Caesar’s face looked utterly real and convincing, and I was thinking, “Wow, we’ve really arrived now; there’s no longer any discernible difference between good CGI and reality.” But then the bear attacked and didn’t move like a convincing bear, and I realized that while the technology has fully arrived, it’s still only as good as the way it’s used. Don’t get me wrong, most of the CG work here was fantastic, but it occasionally had enough imperfections to remind us that it’s still a human creation. And maybe that’s for the best. Later on, during the no doubt digitally created shots of the abandoned, decaying San Francisco, I found myself idly missing the days when matte paintings were clearly identifiable as paintings — convincing enough that you were willing to buy into them, but still recognizably the work of talented human hands. Of course, the CG in this film was the work of many, many talented human hands, but not so recognizable as such, and not as easily credited to any one artist, like, say, an Albert Whitlock matte painting in a Hitchcock film would’ve been. (Or Emil Kosa, Jr.’s painting of the Statue of Liberty at the end of the original Planet of the Apes, for that matter.)

I found the apes far more convincing than the bear, though, and that owes a lot to the human performers underlying the animation (although it should be understood that the performances we saw were no doubt mediated heavily by the animators, as in all performance-capture work). One of the last things I noticed, but by far one of the most important things for the film industry as a whole, is that this is probably the first motion picture in which performance-captured actors whose faces never appeared on camera were assigned billing no differently than the on-camera actors were — meaning that Andy Serkis finally, finally got the honest-to-goodness no-kidding star billing that he should’ve gotten in the first film. And it’s not just Serkis’s clout that achieved this, since other ape actors like Toby Kebbel (Koba) and Nick Thurston (Blue Eyes) had their credits mixed in with the “human” actors like Jason Clarke, Gary Oldman, Keri Russell, and Kirk Acevedo. It was really good to see, because they really deserved it. This is at least as much the apes’ movie as the humans’. Come to think of it, the original series went through a similar progression; the first two movies, the ones with Charlton Heston, were from the perspective of human protagonists, but the later three elevated Roddy McDowall to the starring role; he was the viewpoint character, as both Cornelius and the original Caesar, and the humans were the exotic creatures he had to contend with, or the sticking point in a conflict between him and a rival ape faction. Whereas the previous film was a loose reworking of the premise of Conquest of the Planet of the Apes, this one has clear similarities to Battle for…, the final film in the original series.

But while Battle was probably the weakest installment in its series, this film is probably better than its predecessor, even though — or perhaps because — most of its running time is devoted to nonhuman leads who only occasionally speak aloud. The apes have a lot of personality and an interesting society, and I like the hybrid of natural ape behavior (like the outstretched hand as an appeasement gesture), taught sign language, and human cultural elements appropriated knowingly or accidentally. Caesar is the same intelligent, well-intentioned, but psychologically scarred character he was at the end of the first film, but more seasoned and tempered by being a family, err, ape  and a tribal leader/community alpha male. He’s brilliantly played by Serkis, although I profoundly doubt the Oscars will have the good sense to nominate Serkis for lead actor. Koba, Caesar’s main antagonist and the leading warmonger in the film, is something of a caricature, a bit one-note in his hatred and self-serving hunger for power, and unfortunately coded according to “ugly = evil” screen conventions (although his design is left over from the previous film), but he’s an engaging and cunning villain; I love the way he uses the facade of humor and friendliness to get his human foes off their guard. And Maurice (Karin Konoval), the orangutan Lawgiver (essentially), is a lot more charming than his, err, namesake Dr. Zaius (Maurice Evans, of course, from the original film) — a bit of a one-dimensional character, but still memorable.

I’m not sure I found the human cast quite as rich. There’s the friendly, understanding hero (Clarke) who’s pretty much explicitly described as a stand-in for James Franco from the first film. There’s his kind, compassionate wife (Russell) who wants to help, and the son (Kodi Smit-McPhee) who’s having trouble getting over his mother, and the hardass authority figure (Oldman) whose blind bigotry leads him to violence, and the hair-trigger angry guy (Kirk Acevedo) who’s a secondary source of conflict. Not much more than one dimension to any of these guys. And I couldn’t help being bothered that the story of human survival was carried almost entirely by white characters. There were a couple of black people, but they were just there to be supporting players, and the closest we got to an Asian face was Acevedo, who’s Puerto Rican/Chinese (although he’s never been cast as Asian) and was stuck playing an irrationally violent, cowardly, and doomed supporting character. Demographically speaking, that doesn’t make sense; assuming these survivors came from the San Francisco area, then maybe one in three should be Asian and only two in five should be non-Hispanic Caucasians. The first film did better in this regard, giving us Freida Pinto and David Oyelowo in key roles. (Oh, and if the intent was that white people were somehow more genetically predisposed to immunity, that’s disturbing in its own way — and hard to buy, given that the first two victims of the disease in the first film were both white.)

And while this was a potent and often tragic tale of how hate and intolerance lead to war, and while the battle scenes were effectively un-glamorous and brutal and un-sensationalized, I found myself taken out of the film by one thing: Bottomless Magazines. The way Koba and the others were firing those automatic rifles, they should’ve been out of bullets in five seconds. They clearly didn’t have the training to show any kind of firing discipline. Yet they were able to keep firing in full auto mode throughout the entire battle without ever running dry. Ditto for the humans at Fort Point who were “testing” the surviving artillery by blasting away endlessly. These supplies are finite and they have no idea how numerous the enemy is — should they be wasting so many bullets on “testing” that’s clearly more about macho self-indulgence? Well, I could buy that as the civilians not really knowing what they were doing when it came to firearms, but in the context of the endless ammo throughout the rest of the movie, it feels like part of the larger problem. (There’s also the fact that you can’t just pick up a gun and expect to be able to use it effectively in battle if you’ve never handled one before, if you don’t know how to clean or strip or prime or do whatever to the thing that you need to do. Look, I don’t know guns, I don’t ever want to be in the same room as one, but I read an article a while back debunking this particular myth and talking about how much training it takes to be able to use a firearm effectively and safely. Add on the fact that the guns were designed for human rather than chimpanzee or gorilla hands, and the apes should’ve been doing more damage to each other with those guns than to the humans.)

But those were the three main things I had issues with. Everything else worked well. Michael Giacchino’s score was excellent; he has a knack for evoking the sound and flavor of vintage scores from the ’60s or ’70s, and this score felt like it was a cousin of Jerry Goldsmith’s and Leonard Rosenman’s scores for the original films. (Oddly, Giacchino doesn’t seem to use that knack in his Star Trek film scores, which are the only scores of his that I don’t particularly enjoy.)

So that’s Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, which came after Rise of the Planet of the Apes. Come back in a few years for the third film, Prelude to the Planet of the Apes. Or something. It’s a madhouse! A madhouse!

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 413 other followers