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.

Advertisements

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.

Random older movie review: DREAMSCAPE (1984) (spoilers)

I happened to notice recently that ShoutFactory TV‘s free streaming site offers the 1984 Dennis Quaid thriller Dreamscape, a movie I was aware of through commercials and magazine articles back in the day but that I don’t recall ever seeing, except maybe on TV so long ago that I’ve forgotten. I was in the mood for an older movie, and according to Wikipedia it’s relatively well-regarded, so I decided to check it out. In the pantheon of ’80s SF/fantasy films, I wouldn’t call it one of the greats, but it’s good enough to be worth attention.

Dreamscape is directed by Joseph Ruben (whose only other film credit I recognize is Sleeping With the Enemy) and written by David Loughery (Star Trek V: The Final Frontier), Chuck Russell (A Nightmare on Elm Street 3: Dream Warriors), and Ruben. It stars Quaid as Alex Gardner, a psychic who was studied in his teens by Dr. Paul Novotny (Max von Sydow) but who rebelled against being a lab rat and has gone on to a dissolute life where he uses his gifts to cheat at gambling on horses. He’s roped back in by Novotny over his resistance, convinced to join a project for using psychic abilities to enter people’s dreams for therapeutic purposes. He flirts with Novotny’s assistant Jane DeVries (Kate Capshaw) and clashes with slimy rival psychic Tommy Ray Glatman (David Patrick Kelly), but finally gets into the work when he realizes he can help a young boy conquer his nightmares, showing he has a decent side after all. But the project’s backer, government spook Bob Blair (Christopher Plummer), has more sinister designs for the project, as Alex learns when he stumbles upon a plot of Blair’s to use Glatman to undetectably assassinate the President of the United States (Eddie Albert) in a dream before he can make what, in Blair’s view, is the fatal mistake of signing a nuclear disarmament treaty. Alex teams up with the POTUS in the latter’s post-apocalyptic nightmare in order to defeat Glatman.

A sci-fi movie treating psychic research as a legitimate scientific study is the sort of thing you saw a lot in the ’70s and ’80s, but the idea of entering and manipulating people’s dreams foreshadows Christopher Nolan’s Inception. Dreamscape is nowhere near as twisty a thriller as Inception, though, keeping things rather straightforward and sometimes a bit broad in its action or comedy. It also reminds me of the new Sarah Shahi series Reverie on NBC, involving an experimental VR/mind interface tech that lets the lead character help people cope with their problems (and has the backing of a government agent who may have a hidden agenda). A portion of the film is similarly episodic in the way Alex moves from one patient’s dream to the next, an impression intensified by the casting of frequent sitcom guest actor Larry Gelman as a comic-relief client dealing with marital anxieties. But there’s an effort to tie the dream episodes into the larger plot, since a scary monster from the boy’s dream is carried forward into the climax through the slightly clumsy contrivance of having Alex draw a picture of it afterward and discuss it with Glatman, who uses it against him in the climax.

A couple of the thriller elements are even clumsier. George Wendt has a minor role as Charlie, a novelist whose research has somehow led him to discover Blair’s evil agenda and clue Alex into it, even somehow revealing details that seem impossible for anyone other than Blair and Glatman to know. It’s a very awkward way of revealing the truth to Alex, almost feeling like the screenwriters stepping into the story for a moment to tell their character about the villain’s plan and point him in the right direction. Charlie then gets killed after he’s played his part, and it happens because he’s wearing a very conspicuous red baseball hat while trying to hide from Blair’s assassins in a crowd. (I kept expecting Alex to tell Charlie to put the hat on someone else as a decoy, but he never did. Why put him in such a bright red hat in the first place if they weren’t going to do anything with it?) Once Alex ends up on the run from Blair’s men, the film digresses into an action-packed vehicle chase for much longer than it needs to, with Alex suddenly becoming an expert stunt motorcyclist even though nothing in the film has previously justified him having that talent.

I also wasn’t happy with the way Blair was dealt with at the end, with Alex basically sinking to his level and using his own dream-murder tactics against him. Much of the film was devoted to showing us that Glatman was a bad guy because he was willing to use his psychic powers to assassinate people, and that Alex was better and more compassionate than that. So suddenly having Alex be just as casual about assassination at the end seems incongruous. If he’s supposed to be different from Glatman, then he should’ve tried to find another way. The setup was that nobody would believe the President or Alex if they claimed that Blair tried to kill them in a dream, so the only way to stop him from trying again was to take him out first. But that doesn’t really work, because Novotny’s dream-interaction experiment was not a secret, and there was extensive documentation of the researchers’ experimental results, so there would’ve been corroboration for their claims.

Still, aside from those shortcomings, the basic storyline is reasonably satisfying, and the cast is pretty good. Christopher Plummer in particular is superb as Blair, playing him as a calm, controlled, self-assuredly ruthless pragmatist whose very casual, matter-of-fact attitude toward his murderous plans is what makes him so menacing. As amiable as Blair seemed at first, it wasn’t hard to figure out he’d be the villain, especially once I realized that Plummer was basically playing the same role he would 7 years later as General Chang in Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country, a conspirator seeking to assassinate a peacemaking leader because he saw it as surrendering the cold war.

The part that’s most dated and problematical to modern eyes is a scene where Alex finds Jane asleep and nonconsensually projects himself into her sex dream about him. To the film’s credit, Jane is quite angry about the violation when she wakes up and tells him in no uncertain terms that what he did was wrong, but she is a bit too quick to forgive him afterward, and the fact that Alex would attempt it at all is troubling, especially in light of Novotny’s earlier remark that Alex used his psychic abilities to hustle women. Still, as ’80s movie portrayals of sexual consent go, this is better than many. At least it acknowledged that it was a violation, even if it downplayed the severity of it.

Another dated element, but a less disquieting one, is the visual effects work by Peter Kuran (Buckaroo Banzai, RoboCop, Beetlejuice). I’ve always been a fan of old-school, pre-CGI visual effects, but I’m afraid to say that I’ve apparently grown so spoiled by modern VFX that I had trouble judging whether Dreamscape‘s effects in the dream sequences would’ve been good or bad by the standards of the time. Thinking it over, my best assessment is that they were average, not quite living up to their ambitions. Bluescreen mattes were never a very convincing process (because the photographic process that created the mattes had trouble perfectly aligning the edges on different negatives, often creating visible matte lines around the images), but the mattes here tend to have even sloppier edges than usual. The miniature landscapes are okay, but the stop-motion animation on the featured Snakeman monster is fairly average. For what it’s worth, the film doesn’t seem to have gotten any award nominations for its effects work. (The Oscar nominations in the category for 1984 went to 2010, Ghostbusters, and the victorious Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, so this film had pretty steep competition.) Even more dated is the electronic score by Maurice Jarre, which the composer reportedly chose because he thought it fit the film’s subject and tone better than an orchestral score. I just find it reedy and annoying, not good even by the usual standards of ’80s synth music. Given how much a good or bad musical score can affect my enjoyment of a film, I’m surprised how satisfying I found this film even with a score I deeply disliked. I guess that speaks well of it overall — even if the plot doesn’t really hold up to analysis.

Categories: Reviews Tags: , ,

“And He Built a Crooked Hub” in the Sept/Oct ANALOG!

Analog‘s July/August issue has recently come out, and the Next Issue page on their site confirms that the second story in my new Hub trilogy, “…And He Built a Crooked Hub,” will appear in the September/October 2018 issue, which goes on sale August 21. The page describes it as “a comedy of tesseract errors.” Fans of Robert A. Heinlein should get a sense of what one of my main inspirations was, although there’s a certain Marx Brothers film that was a major influence as well.

I’ve updated my homepage with the release date for “Crooked Hub,” as well as updating the ordering information for the May/June Analog containing “Hubpoint of No Return,” since only Magzter and Google Play seem to allow ordering specific back issues rather than defaulting to the current issue. I also found a couple more review quotes for “Hubpoint” and added them, a bit belatedly.

My very late and, surprisingly, rather positive JUSTICE LEAGUE review (spoilers)

Yes, I finally rose to the top of the library’s long waiting list for another DVD, this time Warner Bros.’ Justice League, directed partly by Zack Snyder with the completion and reshoots done by an uncredited Joss Whedon (who did get a co-screenplay credit with Chris Terrio). This is the fifth movie in the film continuity nicknamed the DC Extended Universe, and readers of my blog may remember that the only prior film in that series that I liked was Wonder Woman. I thought Snyder’s Man of Steel was strong and promising (though flawed) in the first two acts but was totally ruined by the dreadful and crass choices made in the third act. Whereas its sequel Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice (also from Snyder) was utterly incoherent, a loosely movie-shaped hodgepodge of unconnected moments revolving around ciphers failing to qualify as characters. I didn’t review Suicide Squad for this blog, but it was also pretty incoherent and clumsy. Its ensemble cast only had 2 or 3 characters with any development, and it put them in totally the wrong story for their purpose and powers. It had an inept story structure that spent too much of the first act on exposition and setup with no plot or stakes to motivate our interest, and that then jumped straight into third-act-level crisis with no buildup.

So I didn’t have much reason to be optimistic about Justice League, especially with Snyder being involved for a third time. Whedon’s reshoots gave me hope for a more coherent and character-driven story, but I heard a lot of negative reviews and fan complaints about the finished product, so I didn’t expect much. To my pleasant surprise, though, Justice League is a fun, watchable, largely coherent film, though not a brilliant one or an especially good-looking one. It’s no Wonder Woman, but it feels the way a movie about the Justice League should feel. It’s the only DCEU movie other than WW that I’d be willing to watch a second time, and indeed I already did before writing this review.

Certainly the Macguffin driving the plot is nothing special. CGI baddie Steppenwolf comes to Earth, steals three Mother Boxes he can put together to destroy the Earth, fights and trash-talks the heroes, yadda yadda. It’s the most superficial possible story you could get out of Jack Kirby’s New Gods characters and concepts, though Ciarán Hinds does a fairly good job of making an interesting vocal performance out of a very one-dimensional role, a villain who’s essentially just a video game’s final boss and looks like one too. Steppenwolf does have a motivation that could’ve been interesting — he’s an exile seeking to conquer Earth to earn the right to return home — but hardly anything is done with it, and usually he’s just a generic megalomaniac seeking to be worshipped. And the premise is illogical; if putting these three boxes together could destroy the Earth, why keep all three on Earth after that first ancient invasion was repelled, when the Green Lanterns and Greek gods who had cameos in the flashback battle could’ve taken them to space or destroyed them?

But that doesn’t really matter, because the plot is just the excuse for getting the team together, and that’s the heart of the story. It’s the characters and the cast that make the movie satisfying for me, even though the big cluttered Snyderesque CGI action sequences do little for me. (Some of the action works, though. I really liked Wonder Woman’s bursts of superspeed in her first fight scene against the terrorists.)

Well, I need to qualify that. The two main characters driving the story are Ben Affleck’s Batman/Bruce Wayne and Gal Gadot’s Diana (who still has never been called Wonder Woman by any character in the films). Affleck is okay as an affable lead, but I’m not entirely sold on him as Batman, and the attempts to lighten him up and give him a sense of humor feel weird for Batman, though he does have some nice moments of characterization regarding his history (such as it is) with Superman. And Gadot is oddly less expressive and engaging here than in her previous two turns in the role, as if she wasn’t as invested in it this time.

On the other hand, I quite liked the newcomers Ezra Miller as Barry Allen (never called the Flash onscreen) and Ray Fisher as Victor Stone/Cyborg (Bruce does call him “the cyborg” at one point — close enough). This version of Barry has more in common with the comics’ Wally West or Supergirl‘s Winn Schott, and it feels redundant to give him the exact same backstory involving his father in prison that the entire first season of The CW’s The Flash was built around. But Miller is funny and charming and vulnerable, and he brings a lot of entertainment value. I particularly like the “save one person” scene where Batman teaches him how to be a hero. Given that Snyder’s previous films largely ignored the whole “saving people” aspect of superheroics, it’s nice to see this one focusing on it more directly (I suspect that’s Whedon’s influence, given how much he emphasized rescuing civilians in the Avengers films). The Flash costume is pretty cool too — the design is a bit cluttered, but I like the idea of it as an anti-friction design, and the cowl has a nice bike-helmet quality to it that makes sense for a speedster.

As for Fisher, he wasn’t given too much to work with, just a couple of brief but effective scenes about his struggles with his new cyborg form and his resentment toward his father Silas (Joe Morton) for creating him. And his performance was hurt by the heavy CGI overlaid on it — oddly, even the human part of Cyborg’s face seemed to be a digital construct nestled in the Uncanny Valley alongside Steppenwolf. But Fisher’s vocal performance is very strong (though his voice sounds too much like Affleck’s and I sometimes got their off-camera lines confused) and he makes Victor an engaging and potent presence with a quiet intensity. As for Morton, he’s always nice to see, though casting him makes for a more sympathetic Silas than the comics version was, I think.

There’s also Jason Momoa as Aquaman/Arthur Curry. He was kind of okay, which is more than I would’ve expected from him. It helps that, in the years since Stargate Atlantis, he’s gotten somewhat better at enunciation and showing some expressiveness rather than just mumbling everything in a monotone. Although he did tend to be a bit too monosyllabic in the action scenes, without a lot in the way of decent banter, even though it seemed they were trying to play him as one of the funny ones. Meanwhile, Amber Heard was underwhelming in her one scene as Mera, Aquaman’s leading lady. Mera is supposed to be regal, commanding, and heroic, and Heard conveyed none of that. But then, she had nothing to work with besides a few lines of exposition, so maybe she’ll be better in the Aquaman solo film.

Of course, it took until late in the second act for Henry Cavill to be resurrected as Superman, except for the “phone video” scene at the start, which is kind of fun (“Did you ever fight a hippo?”). He did a fairly good job as Superman in the few scenes he got, certainly better than in BvS where he was more a plot device than a character. He finally got to play Superman as he should be, a positive, kind, optimistic figure whose priority is helping civilians and bringing inspiration. The movie’s plot depended on the premise that Superman had already been that to the world before his death, and that losing that hope had plunged the world into despair — which is a huge retcon from BvS, where Superman was portrayed as a subject of fear and mistrust for much of the world. And that’s another plot hole in the premise, by the way. The film claims that the world’s despair at the death of Superman was a moment of great enough darkness to trigger the reawakening of the Mother Boxes and the summoning of Steppenwolf after thousands of years. Really? Losing a superhero the world had barely had time to get to know was the darkest ebb in human history? More so than slavery or WWII? That seems unlikely.

That aside, it’s a retcon I’m okay with, because it’s the way Superman should’ve been portrayed all along. It’s notable that Superman is the one character here who gets frequently addressed by his superhero name even by people who know his given name, whereas the previous two films were embarrassed to call him that. (Although the film overall is incredibly sloppy with secret identities, with Lois calling the resurrected Superman “Clark” in front of witnesses, and Bruce and Arthur openly talking about Batman in front of a bunch of villagers who evidently don’t speak English but should certainly be able to recognize the name “Batman.”)

On the downside, Amy Adams did nothing here to change my opinion that she’s the blandest Lois Lane ever — especially since her whole arc revolved around her becoming useless without a super man in her life and no longer being Lois Lane in a meaningful sense, which is a highly unflattering portrayal. In Lois’s scene with Martha Kent, I couldn’t help thinking that Diane Lane would’ve been a far better Lois in her prime.

I guess the other main supporting player of note should be J.K. Simmons as Commissioner Gordon. He kinda worked in the role, but he had so little to do here that he didn’t leave much impression. As with most of the other supporting players (including an uncredited Billy Crudup as Henry Allen), he was mainly there to set up an appearance in a future solo film for his associated hero — a film that may or may not happen, given how chaotic WB’s development slate has been in response to the lukewarm performance of Justice League.

By the way, while the CGI on Cyborg and Steppenwolf was distinctly video-gamey, I didn’t really notice the infamous digital upper lip on Henry Cavill, added in reshoots because Paramount pettily wouldn’t let him shave his Mission: Impossible — Fallout character’s mustache. But then, I wasn’t really trying to spot it. There were one or two closeups where I could tell that something was a little off, but not enough to be distracting from the movie. Maybe it doesn’t stand out for me because I’ve never been that good with facial recognition.

Danny Elfman’s score was pretty good, giving the film a nice old-school superhero-movie sound that probably helped make it more satisfying. But while Elfman reused his own Batman theme and included quotes of Hans Zimmer & Junkie XL’s Wonder Woman theme and John Williams’s Superman theme, I was disappointed that he didn’t revive his Flash theme from the 1990 CBS series. I can see why he didn’t use it; Elfman’s Flash theme was tonally a lot like his Batman theme, and it would’ve been a poor fit for this version of Barry Allen. Instead, Elfman contributed a more ethereal, slightly Philip Glass-ish piece, also slightly reminiscent of Blake Neely’s themes for The CW’s Flash, for the slowed-down Speed Force sequences. (Slow motion to represent superspeed? Holy Steve Austin, Batman!). Still, it would’ve been nice if he’d found a way to incorporate the melody of his 1990 Flash theme somehow.

All in all, Justice League is an imperfect film, and there are times when you can see the seams of the somewhat messy production process. The bits with the Russian family needing rescue, for instance, feel like an attempt by Whedon to add human interest to a sequence that Snyder probably designed to be in a totally abandoned area so that he could have large-scale CGI mayhem without having to bother with civilians, as he did in BvS. If so, it’s a limited and imperfect fix, but probably the best that could be managed within the parameters of the existing footage.

Still, the version of the film that we ended up with is watchable and satisfying because of the effectiveness of the characters and their interplay, and because it corrected or avoided so many of the previous films’ mistakes, despite the superficiality of the underlying plot and the weakness of a lot of the character animation. Honestly, it’s not that different from “Secret Origins,” the series premiere of the 2001 Justice League animated series, which also used a rather simplistic, underwhelming alien invasion plot (rather blatantly ripped off from The War of the Worlds, in fact) as a catalyst for uniting a team of heroes who were mostly being seen for the first time. The movie does feel like the pilot for an ongoing series, and it succeeded in making me want to see more, unlike nearly every one of its predecessors. The film apparently didn’t perform that well at the box office and threw the future of the DCEU into question, but for me, it succeeded in setting the franchise on roughly the right course at last.