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Archive for July, 2018

Catching up on Netflix’s LOST IN SPACE (spoilers)

I’d heard mixed reviews of the new Lost in Space series on Netflix, but I was interested enough that it was one of the first things I watched after finally renewing my subscription to the service. And it didn’t take me long at all to decide that I really, really like it. The writing is solid, the characters and cast are good, the production values are terrific, and it’s just very entertaining all around.

I think what I like most about the new LIS, though, is that it succeeds in capturing what the 1965 Irwin Allen series was originally supposed to be before Jonathan Harris’s Dr. Smith took over the show: A drama about a family of very smart, resourceful people struggling to survive on a dangerous, hostile planet. A lot of LIS fans, myself included, have long lamented the wasted potential of the series, imagining the show it could’ve been if Harris’s popularity and ego hadn’t yanked it off course, marginalized most of the cast, and turned the show toward pure camp. There was a 1990s comic book sequel/revival from Innovation Comics, mostly written by original series star Bill Mumy, that was in that vein, getting back to the storytelling style of the early first season (updated for the era) and retconning the later, campier seasons as younger daughter Penny’s whimsical retellings of events in her diary. That comic ended up going a lot darker and somewhat more adult than the Netflix show, but I felt they were both trying for many of the same things.

There has been some reshuffling of character traits in the new show, though. The original John Robinson’s traits have been split between the new John (Toby Stephens) and his wife Maureen (Molly Parker), with John retaining the action-hero attributes and Maureen getting the scientific smarts and leadership skills, both of the mission and the family. I wasn’t crazy about this part, since the show starts off with John and Maureen estranged, much like in the disappointing 1998 feature film version. To me growing up, Guy Williams’s John Robinson was something of an ideal father figure, so I don’t like seeing him reimagined as a dysfunctional dad, although the new series doesn’t take it as far as the movie did and doesn’t take too long to heal the relationship. And it’s good that it makes Maureen a more dynamic and commanding figure. But I do wonder why modern mass-media fiction has so much trouble portraying good fathers.

Meanwhile, the original Maureen’s medical skills have been transferred to eldest daughter Judy (Taylor Russell), who’s only 18 here but had her medical training fast-tracked for the colony expedition. Penny (Mina Sundwall) is now an aspiring writer and is also the family’s resident wiseass — which seems inspired by Lacey Chabert’s snarky, scene-stealing Penny from the ’98 film, though Sundwall’s Penny is more laid-back, wry, and sardonic than Chabert’s chipmunk-voiced spitfire. Will (Maxwell Jenkins) is still a smart kid, but more timid and vulnerable than Mumy’s Will. They’re all very good in their roles, particularly Jenkins. Will Robinson is a critical role in Lost in Space, so it was important to find a child actor who could really step up and give a star-worthy performance, and Jenkins does really well.

The biggest changes are made to the Robot, Don West, and Dr. Smith, as well as to the nature of the Alpha Centauri expedition. Here, instead of the Robinsons and the Jupiter 2 making the journey alone, they’re one of multiple families aboard a larger colony starship, the Resolute, with the Jupiters being lifeboats that they and the other families use when the ship comes under alien attack — an idea also used by the failed 2004 The Robinsons: Lost in Space pilot from Douglas Petrie and John Woo. After the Robinsons crash, Will is separated from the others and comes across a damaged alien robot and its ship in damaged condition. Will plays Androcles, overcoming his initial fear of the Robot and selflessly helping it get free when they’re both endangered by a forest fire, which leads the Robot to save him in turn and forges a bond between them. I loved it that the bond was forged by Will doing something so kind, which really solidified him as a character to root for. It’s soon revealed to the audience that it was the Robot that attacked the Resolute, but apparently it has amnesia, and Will is convinced it (or rather, “he”) is good now. It even morphs itself into a more human shape (played by suit actor Brian Steele in an elaborate costume, when it’s not a CGI construct) and starts to emulate Will’s behavior, though it never talks other than to say “Danger, Will Robinson” or variations thereon. That bit kind of annoys me, an overreliance on a familiar catchphrase, and it’s hard to understand why it doesn’t say anything else. But the Will-Robot relationship and the questions raised by the Robot are handled nicely, and the costume is so cleverly designed that I was unsure whether it was real or CGI.

Meanwhile, the new Don West is no longer a major and hotshot pilot (come to think of it, the new John has inherited Major West’s military background, as he did in the 2004 pilot) but a working-class Resolute mechanic, smuggler, and hustler. He’s initially paired with the new version of Dr. Smith, played by Parker Posey — actually an impostor who’s stolen the identity of the real Smith (Mumy in a cameo) and will go to any lengths to cover up the crimes she was about to get imprisoned or spaced for when the Resolute was attacked. Posey’s “Smith” is an interesting reinterpretation, keeping the basics of Smith as a pathological liar driven by self-interest and cowardice but putting them together in a more nuanced, less comical way that’s marvelously, subtly played by Posey. Her Smith is not outright malevolent, nor is she a paid saboteur like the original Smith was at the start; she’s just a scared and broken person who tells herself she doesn’t want to hurt anyone, but who will do whatever she must to protect herself and her secrets, no matter who else has to suffer. It’s interesting the way the show manages to preserve the core relationships of the original in its own way. It gives Don West a reason to mistrust and dislike Smith (after they initially bond somewhat in episode 2, before her sudden and inevitable betrayal). It gives Smith an ongoing interest in the Robot (which she wants to turn to her side as her protector/enforcer) and in Will as the means of getting to the Robot, and essentially reinvents the first few 1965 episodes’ arc of Dr. Smith reprogramming and corrupting the Robot to serve his ends and Will trying to win it back. It’s a clever remix. One novelty is that Smith’s main relationship here is really with Maureen, who sees the other mature woman as a friend before eventually learning of her betrayal. But even that has a sort of a precedent in the original, since Smith and Maureen seemed to get along relatively well there (in part because he saved her life in the first episode).

The new show differs from the old in that it doesn’t deal with sapient aliens aside from the Robot and his mysterious builders. Here, the reason for settling Alpha Centauri is that Earth has been devastated by an impact event, and it eventually gets hinted — and it isn’t hard to guess — that the impactor was actually a crashed alien ship from which humanity stole an FTL technology allowing the Resolute to function, and that the Robot attacked it to recover the stolen property. (This is another idea the new series shares with the ’90s Innovation comic, which revealed that the Jupiter 2‘s FTL drive was salvaged from a crashed alien ship and that the “enemy agents” who hired Smith to sabotage the Jupiter 2 were actually aliens trying to keep humanity from reaching their homeworld. It’s interesting how this version seems to draw elements from every previous version, or at least coincidentally arrive at some of the same choices.) Otherwise, though, the Robinsons deal mostly with the dangers of the planet where they’re wrecked, both environmental hazards and dangerous animals, as well as with the other survivors who crashlanded in other Jupiters — an interesting innovation to the premise that allows a wider range of characters than just the Robinsons, Don, and Smith to be involved in the stories. It also allows for a more ethnically diverse cast; of the main leads, the only nonwhite character is Judy, who’s biracial, a product of Maureen’s first marriage before John. The supporting characters are far more diverse, such as the friendly Watanabe family (including Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa and Heroes Reborn‘s Kiki Sukezane); the prickly colony administrator Victor Dhar (Raza Jaffrey) and his son Vijay (Ajay Friese), who’s a love interest for Penny; and crash survivor Angela Goddard (played by Siren‘s Sibongile Mlambo and named for original LIS cast members Angela Cartwright and Mark Goddard), who was an eyewitness to the Robot’s attack and hates it for what it did. It’s unfortunate that the season ends with the Robinsons apparently isolated from the others once again, though perhaps there’s still room to bring them back as the series goes on.

But the focus on survival in a hostile environment, as well as the debates with the other colonists about how to deal with the problems and dangers they face, are a large part of what make the show so engaging. I like the kind of adventure stories driven by creative problem-solving more than the kind driven by fighting and violence, and this show is all about really smart people using their brains to figure out clever solutions to life-threatening problems, to rescue each other or themselves from impossible deathtraps, and so on. It’s just the thing I love to see, and it’s very satisfying. It also does a good job using the crises as an opportunity to advance character dynamics and drive emotional beats, and to generate conflicts over the best way to proceed in a situation with no good options. I mentioned not liking the ’98 movie’s dysfunctional version of the Robinsons, and that’s because I don’t care for the kind of conflict that would be easily avoidable if the characters weren’t emotionally immature jerks. That kind of conflict is a lazy cheat that writers too often fall back on. I prefer the kind of conflicts that arise between people who mean well and care for each other, the kind that come from impossible dilemmas where there is no simple answer and solutions are genuinely hard to find. One of my favorite episodes from the original LIS is episode 6, “Welcome Stranger,” where the idealized and loving parents John and Maureen nonetheless get into a serious debate about whether it’s better to split the family up to give Will and Penny a chance to get home or to keep the family together no matter what. It shows how you can generate meaningful conflict without requiring the characters to be screwed up or motivated by anything other than love and good intentions. That’s the kind of conflict that features heavily in the new show, although there are some tenser and more hostile moments in the early episodes before the planet’s challenges bring the family closer. While less idealized than the original show, it still strikes a pretty good balance that keeps the family more likeable than they were in the movie.

The show is also gorgeous to look at. The set, tech, and costume designs are bright and functional and plausible and excellent. The location work and visual effects for creating the nameless alien planet are terrific; the show is shot in British Columbia, but it mostly manages to avoid looking like just another show shot in the woods outside Vancouver. The tech and science are fairly well thought out and somewhat plausible, though there are a couple of scientific boners here and there (like Maureen talking about the difference between visual, eclipsing, and spectroscopic binaries as if that made a physical difference to the stars themselves rather than just how they were detected by Earth astronomers). The music is effective too, a rich orchestral score by Christopher Lennertz (Supernatural, Agent Carter) that incorporates John Williams’s third-season LIS main title theme as its principal motif (though I’m disappointed it doesn’t also reuse Williams’s leitmotif for the Chariot, the Robinsons’ ground vehicle). It’s a strong and entertaining show all around. It’s a family show, suitable for all ages, with very little profanity and only very chaste romance — but that’s also presumably why it’s focused so much on problem-solving and fighting natural dangers rather than interpersonal violence, and that’s a large part of what I like about it. And a family show that adults could watch with their kids was exactly what the original LIS was meant to be, just as it was meant to be a show about family survival in a dangerous alien realm.

All in all, it’s impressive that the Lost in Space remake has managed to fulfill the intended goals of the original show more successfully than the original did, as well as far surpassing both previous attempts at a revival. It took over half a century, but I’m happy to say that someone finally got Lost in Space right. And I look forward to seeing where they take it next.

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Thoughts on GODZILLA: CITY ON THE EDGE OF BATTLE (spoilers)

With my financial situation starting to improve again, I decided I might as well spend the 8 bucks a month to re-up my Netflix subscription, and the first thing I decided to watch was the second part of the anime Godzilla trilogy that began with Godzilla: Planet of the Monsters. Part 2 is called City on the Edge of Battle in English, which means somebody’s a fan of Star Trek and/or Harlan Ellison, since the original title of the film, Gojira Kessen Kidō Zōshoku Toshi, translates more literally as Godzilla: Battle Mobile Proliferation City, or alternately The City Mechanized for the Final Battle.

The sequel picks up right where Part 1 left off, with the only recap being a brief opening scene of the shipboard crew hearing the panicked reports of the ground team being devastated and discovering the existence of a 300-meter-high Godzilla, apparently the original having grown immense over 20,000 years on the long-abandoned Earth. We then cut to our protagonist, Captain Sakaki Haruo, as he recovers in the wake of Godzilla’s attack and finds that his wounds have been treated by a mysterious, initially shy elfin woman who’s apparently native to the Earth. He reunites with most of the surviving members of his team, and after an initial conflict with the native humanoids that luckily doesn’t kill anyone, the survivors are captured and taken to the underground village of the natives, who are called the Houtua. The native woman, Miana, turns out to have a twin sister, Maina, with whom she telepathically speaks in unison to let the soldiers understand their language. (The soldiers are oddly bewildered by the concept of identical twins, but then, they’ve grown up among a smallish refugee population, so maybe they’ve never met any twins before.) The Houtua are covered in a sort of scaly dust, their “bangs” look more like feathery antennae on closer inspection, and the team’s science guy, Professor Martin, thinks they might be descended from insects instead of humans, despite appearances. And they worship something called the Egg, which seems to rest behind a massive wall carving resembling a stylized winged insect. By this point, it was pretty clear to me that these are a new interpretation of the Infant Island tribe that worships Mothra, and Maina and Miana are the latest version of Mothra’s twin heralds the Shobijin (aka Cosmos aka Elias), despite being normal-sized. (The Netflix subtitles render their names as “mAina” and “mIana,” but I guess that’s meant to stress the difference.)

Once Haruo tells the Houtua that his team is there to destroy Godzilla, their weapons are returned and they’re allowed to leave, and the twins come along to guide them. Galu-Gu and Belu-Be, the two team members belonging to the highly rational, technological Bilusaludo (or Bilsard) species, hold the Houtua in contempt for their “primitive” lifestyle, but notice that their spear points are made of the advanced nanometal that the Bilsard (that’s easier to type) used 20,000 years before in their abortive attempt to create Mechagodzilla to save the Earth from Godzilla. The twins guide them to the source of the nanometal, which turns out to be a city-sized industrial complex that’s evolved and metastasized from the intelligent nanometal that Mechagodzilla was made of. Thus, they dub it Mechagodzilla City and make it their new base of operations. The Bilsard are confident that its superior tech will give them all the resources they need to kill the giant Godzilla Earth by scaling up the plan that killed the smaller Godzilla Filius.

Haruo, to his credit, has some doubts about all this. He was stupidly gung-ho in the first film, not at all likeable, but his defeat at the hands of Godzilla Earth has humbled him somewhat. He still believes that, since his initial plan was a success (however Pyrhhic), the basic idea of killing Godzilla to reclaim Earth for humanity can still work even against a bigger Godzilla. But he’s no longer blindly obsessed with that goal. He pauses to question his own motives, he takes responsibility for his failures, and he shows more consideration for his troops, asking them to join him only on a volunteer basis, which most of them do. It’s a major improvement. He also gets the inevitable romance with the token female soldier Yuko, who’s cast in a more conventional love-interest role this time around — which is not much of an improvement, though at least it gives her more to do.

The Bilsard, meanwhile, are quite gung-ho about the power of their technology to destroy Godzilla, to the point that the subordinate ones willingly let the city’s nanometal assimilate them, giving up their biological lives so their minds can boost Mechagodzilla City’s processing power. This leads to a heated debate where Haruo, Martin, and the humans question whether Mechagodzilla City will become a monster of its own and take over the planet after it destroys Godzilla. Galu-Gu and Belu-Be make it clear that they consider surrendering their flesh to technology to be a desirable goal, that they admire humanity’s achievement in “creating” Godzilla as something more powerful than themselves (or rather, creating the environmental damage that provoked the evolution of Godzilla as the ecosystem’s defense mechanism), and they think the only downside of Godzilla’s creation was humanity’s failure to control it. The Bilsard are happy to create and become a monster if it makes them smarter, more advanced, and more powerful. Yuko actually gets to be more than the love interest when she agrees with the Bilsard’s side of the argument over Haruo’s, at least insofar as the immediate crisis is concerned.

But the moral debate must be set aside when Godzilla awakens and begins to sense the city’s activity as it prepares the weapons for its attack on Godzilla. This requires them to launch their anti-Godzilla plan prematurely, with their weapons incomplete. This includes only three modified powersuits (called “Vultures”), which Haruo, Yuko, and Belu-Be take out to harry Godzilla with in order to lure him into the trap. As with the first film, Godzilla shows up only in the last third and the battle takes up most of the final act. The CG animation and design of Godzilla Earth don’t seem quite as clumsy as in the first film; maybe I’m just more used to it, or maybe it works better on this larger scale. Godzilla moves extremely slowly, but that makes sense for a creature so vast.

Anyway, their attempt to blow up Godzilla with his own disrupted internal energies eventually goes according to plan, but he doesn’t quite blow up, instead dissipating the energy as an immense quantity of heat, so that the attackers can’t get anywhere near him to continue the attack. Galu-Gu, as fanatically obsessed with destroying Godzilla as Haruo was in the first film, causes the nanometal in the Vultures to begin assimilating their pilots to give them the heat resistance they need. Belu-Be gives in willingly, but Haruo and Yuko resist, and Haruo is somehow able to fight it off (probably due to the moth-dust healing balm he was given by the Houtua between movies), but Yuko isn’t. Haruo is contacted by his friend Metphies (pronounced “Metophius”), the religious, androgynous Exif alien from the first film, who’s played a background role in this one (despite his sinister agenda revealed at the end of Part 1). Metphies tells Haruo that the only way to stop the nanometal from consuming Yuko is to destroy Galu-Gu’s command center, shutting down all the nanometal — which means the only way Haruo can save Yuko is to give up his vendetta for good and allow Godzilla to live. Of course, that’s exactly what he does, and the freed Godzilla destroys Mechagodzilla City — but is it too late for Yuko? We’ll have to wait for Part 3, Godzilla: Planet Eater, due in November.

This is a definite improvement on Part 1, with Haruo’s character growth making him more sympathetic, and with somewhat better characterization all around, though most of the supporting cast still isn’t developed that much. The twins provide a bit more of a female presence this time, and the characters actually have some limited wardrobe changes. There’s still not much of a sense of scale to the Godzilla battle, though; he is placed against the context of Mechagodzilla City rather than just generic woods, and we had earlier seen how vast that city was next to humans, but the city is still too alien a setting to let us really feel the scale of it all.

I found the Bilsard to be too much of a cliche, the alien culture that’s hyper-logical and scornful of emotion, but it’s interesting that they still basically share the same goal as the human protagonists even though they have deep philosophical differences in how to achieve it. And I’m a bit concerned that apparently both of humanity’s alien allies seem to have harmful agendas, given the first film’s intimations that Metphies worshipped kaiju as sacred destroyers and orchestrated Godzilla Earth’s awakening. Metphies seems helpful enough here, but he gets the Bilsards’ help in repairing some supposedly harmless religious trinket that is probably not harmless. He also reveals to Haruo the name of the kaiju that destroyed the Exif homeworld, a cosmic force of destruction far greater than Godzilla — and it was easy to guess who that would be even before we heard the name in the post-credits stinger. Given the implication that the Houtua are connected to Mothra — and given the cryptic references they made to “the Baby Chick,” a term which (if translated correctly) may suggest Rodan — we may be in for the same monster team-up in Planet Eater that Legendary Pictures is delivering in Godzilla: King of the Monsters next year.

So after a slow and disappointing start to the trilogy, we get a stronger middle. Hopefully the filmmakers will continue to build on what the first two films have established about the characters and the world and make Planet Eater the richest and deepest of the three. If they do, the trilogy as a whole may prove worthwhile after all.

Car followup

I got the call that my car was fixed about 45 minutes before the garage closed. I had to decide whether to walk there while it was still raining and thundering — and I was still under the weather — or wait to get it back until Monday. I don’t have any plans for it on the weekend, but I figured it was better to get it back just in case, so I braved the rain, which fortunately was letting up, the thunder off in the distance. Although I did almost get run over in a crosswalk by someone who didn’t understand the rules of right of way. Well, that’s an overstatement, but it was still unnerving.

The car is fixed okay, and the new light control lever is almost indistinguishable from the old one, except it sounds a bit different. The lights seem to work okay now. But I noticed something odd. When checking the rear-view mirror, I noticed that the fabric lining the top of the car’s interior — which apparently is called the headliner, an incongruous name for such an obscure and generally overlooked component — was sagging in the rear corners, blocking a bit of the top of the rear window. I could swear it wasn’t like that before, but the garage guy couldn’t figure out how it could’ve just happened. I don’t know, maybe it was like that before and I just didn’t notice because the mirror angle was too low or something. He suggested using a staple gun, which he didn’t have and neither do I. So I’m not sure what to do about it at the moment.

But at least I have a working car again, and I managed to make the shopping trip I wanted to make this morning, and I’m just now having dinner with some corn chips I bought there. So hopefully everything’s okay now. I know, don’t jinx it…

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More car woes

Even though I was feeling a little under the weather this morning, and even though we had actual rainy weather this morning, I decided to take a quick shopping trip during the lull in the rain, to visit a local store I haven’t been to in a while and need one or two things from now that I have some money again. Imagine my surprise when my car wouldn’t start. I just got a new battery a few weeks ago!! Luckily the building maintenance guys were right there, and they gave me a jump start and determined that the battery was still holding a charge; it had just been drained by something. I realized my headlights were reflecting off their truck, and when I tried to turn them off, nothing happened. Somehow, they were stuck in high-beam mode.

So I drove straight to the garage, and the guy there told me he had a lot of jobs and couldn’t get to me until Tuesday. I was just about resigned to driving back home and getting another jump start on Tuesday, but he decided to take a quick look at the problem, and in trying to force the lever on the steering column to turn off the lights, he managed to break the lever altogether. So now I had to leave it in the shop. (Is it even street legal to drive without working lights or turn signals? I guess I could’ve stuck my hand out the window and signalled turns manually the old-fashioned way.) But to his credit, the guy tried harder to find a solution and promised me he could get a new part delivered and installed by tonight.

But I wasn’t up to walking home in my condition, and it had started to rain again, and I’d forgotten my umbrella. Not to worry, though; the guy offered to arrange a ride for me, on the garage’s dime. So I’ve now taken my first ever Uber ride. There was an Uber driver just a minute or two away at the university, so I didn’t have to wait long at all. So that was handy, although it meant I had to skip my shopping trip. Hopefully I’ll be up to walking to the garage to pick the car up whenever they’re done with it.

I think there may have been a harbinger of this problem on my recent Shore Leave trip. On the way back, I was returning to my car at a rest stop when I noticed the high beams were on. It took me a while to remember how to turn them off, and when I determined it was by pulling the lever toward me, I figured I must’ve accidentally done so at some point. But maybe it happened spontaneously and was a warning sign of the problem. But because I’d had that problem before, I was extra-careful the last time I used the car to make sure the lights were off when I was done with it. But it looks like there’s a problem with the internal switch, so that didn’t make a difference after all.

It’s always the way, isn’t it? As soon as you get money, new expenses crop up. Well, I guess it’s better than having it happen before you get money.

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My check came!

I can’t yet say what it’s for, but I got a nice hefty advance check at last. It came Monday afternoon, too late to go to the bank, but I deposited it early Tuesday morning, and this morning the funds cleared and I was finally able to pay off my entire line of credit attached to that account, after which I paid off my other remaining late bills. It’s a good feeling. I’m still dealing with a substantially larger load of credit card debt, but I should be getting a second advance before too long that will help me somewhat with that.

The timing was good, since Tuesdays are discount days at the movie theater, so I decided to splurge 5 bucks and take in Ant-Man and the Wasp to celebrate. I don’t feel like writing a full review, but it was a pretty good movie, a nice change of pace after Infinity War. I liked the smaller, more personal stakes. Hannah John-Kamen’s Ghost struck me as the kind of villain that might show up in an episode of Agents of SHIELD, and I mean that in a good way, in that it’s a more intimate, character-driven kind of conflict. (Not to mention a backstory that ties directly into SHIELD’s past, probably the Hydra side of it.) This was a movie about family for most of the major characters, and that made it meaningful and effective. (And Michelle Pfeiffer still looks pretty amazing.) Also, an excellent plot-relevant use of Luis’s chaotic storytelling style.

I kind of wish I’d gone on a different day, though, because I was stuck sitting near a woman who was very impatient with the characters. Whenever they were in a hurry but paused for a moment to exchange some meaningful dialogue, or even just to wait for their equipment to warm up before they could get underway, she’d loudly complain to her seatmate with “They’re still there?” or “Just go already!” or the like. She didn’t comment on much else (though she was vocally confused at first about the mid-credits scene until it finally sank in), but she really had an issue with people dawdling. Granted, she kind of had a point, since the characters’ delays usually meant that they ended up getting caught or surrounded, but still, it got kind of distracting.

I think I’ll re-subscribe to Netflix soon so I can catch up with the Marvel shows and other stuff I’ve missed over the past several months, including the second seasons of both Jessica Jones and Luke Cage. Still, I need to save most of my expenditures for important things. I’m way overdue for new eyeglasses, and could use some new clothes, plus maybe a couple of new skillets for the kitchen and a new set of drinking glasses. I actually went to the small local Target by the university this morning to see if they had more of the jeans I bought a pair of there last year, but the only ones they had of that brand were pre-faded, and I hate that. I’ll have to try a bigger department store.

In other news, I’m arranging a radio interview with a local public radio station, probably for September or October. I’d hoped to do it in conjunction with the release of Among the Wild Cybers, but I’ve been so preoccupied with my money woes that I waited too long to schedule it, so now it’ll have to just be a general overview of my work, including that book. Although the good news is that I should be able to talk about my new thing by then. Anyway, I went down to the station yesterday to deliver a copy of AtWC to the interviewer. It’s the same building that houses the radio station where my father worked, though it’s been a few years since I was down there and they’ve taken away the streetside parking meters to make a bike lane. So I had to try to contend with the garage, and I didn’t have 3 singles and the machine at the gate wouldn’t take my $5 bill, and finally an attendant came over and tried to direct me around the block to the rear garage, which took a while since I’m bad at understanding directions. And then it took me a while to find my way into the building proper, since I’d never parked in the rear garage before. After that, the attendant was very solicitous about making sure I knew where to go, since he apparently figured I was an idiot. Anyway, I don’t get why the attendant wasn’t just in the booth and able to make change himself. Anyway, the machine at the rear entrance did take my fiver, but as change it gave me back two $1 coins (one Susan B. Anthony and one Sacagawea). What the heck do I do with those? I’ll probably just trade them in for singles or quarters the next time I go to the bank.

Meanwhile, though, I really do need to refocus on writing the thing I’m getting paid to write. Hopefully it won’t be much longer before I can say what it is.

I’ve sold my first fantasy story!

In my last post, I mentioned waking up Saturday morning at Shore Leave to find good news in my e-mail. The good news is that I’ve finally sold my first-ever short story in the fantasy genre rather than science fiction. It’s a fairly short piece called “The Melody Lingers,” a tale of magic harnessed through music, and I’ve been trying to sell it for years, honing it through various rejections. I’d pretty much run out of markets for it until I learned that Galaxy’s Edge Magazine, edited by fellow Cincinnatian Mike Resnick, was opening to general submissions. It was too long for Mike as written, but he said he’d take another look if I trimmed it down considerably — which is ironic, because the version I submitted was expanded from the first draft. I ended up going pretty much back to the story’s original structure, although incorporating enough of the improvements I’d made along the way to make it work. It was on Saturday morning that I got the acceptance and the contract, and fortunately they accepted an electronically signed contract, so I could send it right back without needing to wait until I could get it printed out and find a post office (or, well, I guess hotels can mail things for their guests). I just got the check today, which is very fast service.

“The Melody Lingers” is set in a fantasy world called Thayara that I’ve been developing since the ’90s (probably inspired by my college friends who were heavily into fantasy) and have made occasional attempts on and off to write stories in. This particular story focuses only on one limited part of that larger world, and it isn’t the tale I’d imagined as being the introduction to Thayara, but hey, it’s a start. I can finally say I’ve written fantasy professionally. And now that I’ve sold this one, it might inspire me to put renewed effort into writing more stories in this setting — sooner or later, once more pressing responsibilities are past.

I don’t yet know the publication date, but I’ll post it once I do.

Finally, my post-Shore Leave post (on Shore Leave)

Sorry it took me so long to write this — it’s been an exhausting week. As I mentioned, I had to leave a day early and drive a fair distance out of my way to pick up some belongings for a relative who recently moved to the DC area. So I spent 6 hours driving on Wednesday. I stayed with my relative’s friends, who were nice and welcoming, but I never get any sleep on my first night in an unfamiliar place (I recently read an article about this — it has to do with the brain’s instinctive alertness to danger, so it’s not just me), so not only was the big drive to DC on Thursday really long — more than 12 hours, as it turned out, including the frequent rest breaks I needed — but I was making it on no sleep and plenty of coffee. The folks I stayed with were kind enough to let me have a travel mug full of coffee to take with me on my drive, in addition to the first cup I had that morning, so that was pretty much all that kept me functional through that really long trip. Oddly, though, even with my car packed with a significant amount of extra weight, I got the best gas mileage I’ve ever had on that part of the journey, even topping 32 MPG. (I learned the habit from my father of always writing down mileage and gallons when I fill the tank to calculate MPG.) I wonder what made it so efficient. Could the extra weight have actually improved mileage somehow by giving me a bit more traction or something? That seems counterintuitive.

(Oh, and when I accidentally stretched out my laptop’s power cord too far Wednesday night and it came unplugged, I discovered the battery is dead. Something I’ll need to take care of when I can afford to.)

The drive out wasn’t entirely smooth, though. I committed to making it in one day because I didn’t want to pay for a motel and because the forecast called for heavy rain in the DC/Baltimore area on Friday — but as it turned out, Friday was quite clear, whereas I hit a fierce, intense thunderstorm at one point on Thursday. The weather radar at the Pennsylvania Turnpike’s travel plazas didn’t show its position clearly — I’m not sure it was a live feed, since it didn’t match what was on my phone’s radar app. But then, that app didn’t seem to show where the storm actually was either. (I wish there were a way to combine it with Google Maps, get both route and weather info at the same time.) Still, as scary as it was, it was mercifully brief, and was the one period of significant rainfall I experienced on the trip.

I made it to Cousin Barb’s home near DC a little before nightfall on Thursday, though I had to wait in the car for a while until she made it home. I hoped I’d be exhausted enough to get some real sleep despite being in a relatively unfamiliar place, but it was very humid, so I got almost none, though I do remember a couple of brief dreams, so there was at least a bit of REM sleep in there. Anyway, on Friday morning, I relied on my new travel mug full of coffee to keep me going as I drove my relative’s belongings to their new place, though I spilled a fair amount of coffee on an empty bookcase and my own tote bag because I overestimated how well the mug’s lid was secured. Nothing important was damaged, though.

After spending the rest of the morning with the family, I finally headed off to the Shore Leave hotel, which was another hour’s drive. I was so worn out by this point that I don’t really remember much detail, but I did the usual thing — shower, change clothes, rest up for a while, then finally venture out into the hotel and look for friends to talk to. As usual, fellow Star Trek novelist and Only Superhuman editor Greg Cox was one of the first people I ran into, and we and some others sat in the hotel Starbucks and chatted for a while about various things. I’m pretty sure Bob Greenberger (former DC Comics editor and Trek novelist) was there too, and Trek novelist Dayton Ward showed up for a time, but I’m not sure who else was there or what we talked about.

Eventually, at 7 PM, I had my first panel, which let me show off Among the Wild Cybers for the first time. Though the panel was nominally about anthologies, i.e. collections of stories by multiple authors, single-author collections like mine were included in the discussion too, so I got to talk about such things as how we chose the story order.

The big debut of the collection was supposed to be that night at Meet the Pros, but I got bad news from the book vendor: the distributor had failed to deliver the books in time for the convention. They were slated to reach his store on Monday, which was after Shore Leave ended. This was very frustrating. I’d brought a half-dozen copies with me (albeit slightly imperfect ones, from the first print run that left out the Only Superhuman preview at the back), but I’d given two to family members and I needed to keep one for my later panels, so I only had three copies to offer him to sell on consignment. As it happened, nobody bought any at Meet the Pros anyway, though all three copies sold on Saturday. Still, Meet the Pros was busier this year than it’s been in a while — perhaps because William Shatner was a guest at the con this year so there was larger attendance — and I did a good job selling the backlist Star Trek novels I brought with me.

But my favorite memory from Meet the Pros was getting to meet Michael Okuda, the longtime illustrator and technical consultant for the Trek franchise from Star Trek IV through Enterprise, as well as the co-author of the Star Trek Chronology and Encyclopedia, a member of the team that created Star Trek Remastered, and a graphic designer for NASA. He’s kind of a Trek legend (along with his wife/collaborator Denise, also in attendance), and he’s been of great help over e-mail with a number of my books, but this was his first Shore Leave. I was pleasantly surprised when he came up to me at my Meet the Pros table in order to meet me in person at last. Turns out he’s a really friendly guy. I went to one of his and Denise’s talks later on Sunday, and they’re both really nice people, who later on insisted on taking a picture with me.

In the less fun category, one of my pens started leaking in the pocket of one of my best shirts and left a stain that just got bigger the more I tried to wipe at it. I had to spend most of Friday night hiding the stain under my jacket. The next day I changed back into the shirt I’d worn previously (I didn’t have many other options, since I packed light to make room for my relative’s stuff), only to find it had a smaller ink stain in the same place. Anybody know how to get ink stains out of cotton/polyester?

I actually got a fair night’s sleep after MtP, though not a full night’s sleep, because MtP runs to midnight and I woke up sometime after 5 AM. I remembered a trick I finally figured out last year — since the hotel mattresses are a bit too firm for me, sleeping on top of the comforter makes it soft enough to be comfortable. Although using the other half of the comforter as a blanket made me too hot, which may be why I woke up early. Anyway, when I checked my e-mail on my phone that morning, I got a nice bit of good news, which I’ll share in a later post.

I had a pretty early panel on science fact in fiction, and… I can hardly remember anything we talked about. I’m starting to think I should’ve been more diligent about keeping this blog during the convention, as much as an aid for my own sleep-deprived memory as for anyone else. I remember it being a pretty good panel, moderated by Kelli Fitzpatrick, a new writer friend I met at last year’s Shore Leave and who’s already become an integral member of the gang. After the panel, I tagged along with Kelli and sat in the audience on a panel on cultural and gender representation in fiction, moderated by author/editor Mary Fan, and with my former Trek editor Marco Palmieri on the panel as well. It was pretty interesting, and when the question was raised about the difference between cultural representation and appropriation, I had a thought that I didn’t have the opportunity to express during the Q&A but mentioned to Mary afterward: That maybe the difference is akin to the difference between symbiosis and parasitism, in that it’s about whether the entity that takes something from another also gives something back to it in turn.

At noon, I had a panel on the Star Trek Adventures game, with my editor Jim Johnson and moderator Stephen Kozeniewski. I finally got to see some of the game books in hardcopy form and see the final formatted version of some of the adventures, although Jim tells me that my first couple of adventures probably won’t be published until August or so. Since I have little prior experience with gaming, it was an informative panel for me, even though I can’t clearly remember all of it. But I remember talking about the challenge of adapting my writing style to stories where I don’t know who the main characters will be, and figuring out how to create situations that are at once generic and adaptable to any characters yet designed to encourage character development and growth — for instance, a situation that forces the characters to address a moral dilemma, or to try to convince a character of something by drawing on their personal experience and values, or the like.

It turned out that I had a third Saturday panel that I failed to mention in my schedule post, because I’d forgotten applying for it and my name didn’t seem attached to it on the copy of the schedule I got. It was a panel about Sherlock Holmes and his various adaptations, and fortunately the moderator Roberta Rogow reminded me of it the night before. I was probably the one panelist least qualified to be there, since most of the others (including Keith R.A. DeCandido and Mary Fan) had written various Holmes pastiches, whereas my only bit of Holmes-related writing is that Locus Online post I did a few years ago, plus my blog reviews of the Rathbone films and whatnot last year. But I managed to hold my own, I think.

Let’s see, after that I went down to the book vendors and spent some time catching up with David Mack, who was doing his hour in the Author Chimney, the narrow space between brick columns which is where authors spend an hour at a time signing books for passersby. Dave has grown a goatee and dyed his hair bright blue, apparently in homage to or solidarity with his old boss on Deep Space Nine, Ira Steven Behr. He also had some good insights about Star Trek: Discovery through his connections to the show’s staff, and his words encouraged me about the future of the show after its recent staff upheavals. I did my own hour in the Chimney after Dave left and sold a few more of the books I brought with me. They’d already sold out of the three copies of Among the Wild Cybers I’d provided, which was good, though it’s a shame they didn’t have more copies available.

But the highlight for us authors on Shore Leave Saturdays is the annual group visit to Andy Nelson’s BBQ for dinner and conversation. Since I was so broke, I mostly just ate food I brought from home or from the folks I stayed with en route, but Andy Nelson’s is a tradition, and fortunately I’d made enough on book sales to feel comfortable paying for it.  We managed to get the indoor dining room to ourselves for only the second time since I started going along, which was good, since it was way too hot and humid outside. My usual pulled turkey sandwich was drier than usual, but a bit of BBQ sauce helped with that, and I was given extra stewed tomatoes on the side since my first helping got partly spilled. I had some nice conversation with Keith DeCandido, his wife Wrenn, Kelli Fitzpatrick, and others, and afterward Keith and Wrenn treated me to an Italian ice at a place Wrenn spotted along the way and apparently knew from the past. I got a banana-flavor one and was pleasantly surprised to find it had real banana puree and chunks in it.

It was kind of late when we got back and I was still sleepy, so after enough time to digest my big dinner and dessert, I turned in early. This time, I got more than a full night’s sleep, managing to sleep in well past 7 AM. I mostly just puttered around in my room until it was time to check out, which I did before the Okudas’ presentation at 11. After that, just the once, I splurged on a burger and orange juice at the hotel Starbuck’s — which, interestingly, cost exactly 1 cent more than my entire dinner at Andy Nelson’s the night before. So I was well-nourished for my personal Q&A panel at 1 PM. It was surprisingly well-attended for a Sunday afternoon, and though I didn’t have any specific presentation prepared, there were plenty of questions and we kept up a good conversation about Among the Wild Cybers and my other writing. Afterward, I managed to sell most of the remaining books I had with me, even including two hardcover copies of Only Superhuman.

The remainder of the con was just hanging out in the autograph section talking to other writers. I finally made a bit more progress in the discussion of a project that I’ve been talking about with someone for several Shore Leaves now but that’s been slow to get going. I now at least know the specifics of what I should aim for, and now it’s just a question of actually bringing it about, though at this point I’m not holding my breath for it to progress rapidly. I also let a certain editor know I’d be interested in pitching to their next anthology, a project I think it would be cool to be part of. So we’ll see how that goes. Oh, and this is also when I posed for that photo with Mike & Denise Okuda. (I didn’t manage to meet any of the actor guests this year.) Before I left, I made sure to find Kelli, since she was one of the lucky few who managed to buy a copy of Among the Wild Cybers and had let me know she wanted me to sign it. I’m glad I got to sign at least one copy of the book, especially for a friend.

After that was the usual deal, spending Sunday night at Barb’s again. I considered sticking around for another day or so, but I was getting eager to get home. I gathered that a bunch of the other writers had been invited to visit the Goddard Space Flight Center with the Okudas, and I would’ve liked to be part of that, but apparently they were all booked up already and couldn’t accommodate another guest, so I had to miss out. So on Monday morning I just set out on the long drive home. Having survived the even longer drive I made on Thursday, and remembering how smoothly this return trip on the fastest possible route had gone last year, I felt pretty confident I could make the trip in one day, though I still made sure to have a full travel mug of coffee before I left. Anyway, it was an uneventful trip and I got home safely and I’m still recovering 3 days later. That was a heck of a long trip.

Still, it turned out to be a good trip. I got some significant stuff accomplished both in terms of career and family, and for once I made significantly more money than I spent, partly because I economized all I could and partly because it was a busy con and my book sales were quite good (despite the lack of Wild Cybers). Plus I got a cool new coffee mug!

Shore Leave 40 — my schedule

The Shore Leave 40 schedule is now up at the main site:

https://www.shore-leave.com/programming/schedule.htm

Here are my panels, with descriptions quoted from the convention booklet:

FRIDAY 7/6:

Anthologies – Share The Love — 7 PM, Salon E
What attracts readers to short story collections? Do you prefer themed collections, single author collections, or a Whitman’s Sampler of stories? What draws authors to write for anthologies?
Greg Cox (M), Phil Giunta, Jenifer Rosenberg, Keith R. A. DeCandido, Christopher L. Bennett, Joshua Palmatier, Richard C. White
Meet the Pros — Hunt/Valley Corridor, 10 PM – midnight
The usual mass signing event for all the authors, where Among the Wild Cybers will make its formal debut. I also plan to have copies of older books to sell and sign, including Only Superhuman and some Star Trek back titles.
SATURDAY 7/7:
Science Fact — 9 AM, Derby Room
What really cool recent technologies and scientific breakthroughs or discoveries will shape our near future reality, as well as the way we tell genre stories?
Kelli Fitzpatrick (M), Phil Giunta, Christopher L. Bennett, Glenn Hauman, Mary Louise Davie
Star Trek Adventures RPG — 12 PM, Salon E
Starfleet needs a new crew! Come hear about how you can boldly explore strange new worlds at the game table with friends.
Stephen Kozeniewski (M), Jim Johnson, Christopher L. Bennett
SUNDAY 7/8:
Christopher L. Bennett Q&A — 1 PM, Derby Room
In connection with the Shore Leave premiere of Among the Wild Cybers, the author talks about his 20-year career writing original and tie-in fiction.
So pretty much just Salon E and Derby for me, both relatively small meeting rooms. I wasn’t expecting a huge crowd for my solo panel anyway, not on a Sunday afternoon. But it’s a chance to talk about AtWC and its stories, including the new Only Superhuman prequel story “Aspiring to Be Angels.” Aside from the panels, I’ll probably do a stint or two at the book vendors’ table.

Almost there

The good news I’ve been awaiting for months is finally here — almost. I can’t say what it is yet, but paperwork has been signed, and I can say with confidence that I will soon be able to start climbing out of my current deep financial hole, probably within the next 2-3 weeks, which is just in the nick of time. The worst should be almost over.

Unfortunately, I can’t feel that much relief at the moment, since my trip to the Shore Leave Convention in Baltimore is just a couple of days away now. In fact, I’m going by a roundabout route, since I’ve agreed to run an errand for a family member who recently moved to the DC area while I’m heading that way, so the outbound part of the trip is going to be significantly longer than usual. If all goes according to plan, though, the trip won’t cost me more than the price of gas and food, and maybe a night in a motel along the way, depending on my endurance. If my book sales at the convention are good enough, I may even come out a bit ahead. But it’s cutting it really, really close, and I don’t like having to go on a trip when I have so little money to spare for emergencies (although at least my auto insurance is paid up).

Also, there were things I was hoping I’d be able to afford to buy before my trip, like new glasses and new clothes. Nothing I can’t do without, but some things that would’ve been good to have ahead of time. This is going to be my big book premiere for Among the Wild Cybers, so I can’t miss it, but I wish it were happening a few weeks later, or that my good news had come a few weeks earlier, so that I’d be in a position to relax and enjoy the trip more.

Well, I guess it’s good that what I’m worried about now is optional stuff I can’t afford rather than essential stuff I can’t afford. And I’m better off than I was a week ago, when I was on the verge of panic over whether I’d even be able to pay August’s rent if my good news were delayed any further. It’s a relief, intellectually, to have my longer-term concerns eased somewhat, but it’s hard to shake off my worries after they’ve been with me for so long. Hopefully getting to see my family, friends, and fans during this trip will help me feel better.

It’s also starting to sink in that my good news will only be a moderate improvement on my financial situation. It’s a start, and it should make me more comfortable for the rest of this year at least, but it’s a stopgap until I find other sources of income. Hopefully the royalties from Among the Wild Cybers will be significant, and there are other works I’m hoping to sell that could help too. And while the job-hunting efforts I made over the past few months never quite came to fruition, I could always try again later on.

Sometimes I look at my priorities in life and I hate it that my level of contentment and satisfaction has become so closely linked with how much money I have. I never wanted my priorities in life to be centered around money as a requirement for happiness. But the way our society is structured, it’s kind of hard not to end up thinking that way, because you can’t have much in the way of quality of life if you can’t afford to. Although, ironically, the people who have more money than they’ll ever need are somehow the ones who are most desperate to get more. And it’s because of them that the rest of us have so little.

Anyway, thanks for listening/reading, guys. Your support has kept me going through this rough time in more ways than one.

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