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I, not quite the jury

December 5, 2018 2 comments

I mentioned a couple of months ago that I got a summons for jury duty while I was busy writing Star Trek: The Captain’s Oath, so I managed to get it postponed for a couple of months — meaning until last Monday.

I went in hoping it would go like my first jury service nearly a decade ago, which I actually kind of enjoyed. That time, I was only called in for Monday to Wednesday the first week and just Wednesday the second week, and the one time I got called up for a trial, it was right before lunch and the parties settled during the break, so I never actually got inside a courtroom. (This is apparently very common — often, just the threat of a jury trial is enough to get someone to settle or plead out, so just being on call in the jury pool is all we need to do.) The rest of the time, I just sat around in the jurors’ lounge waiting to be called if needed. I was literally paid just to show up. And I was working on a rewrite of Only Superhuman at the time, so getting to spend a few hours a day in a quiet study lounge with a workspace for my laptop was perfect for my needs. That time, I found the experience so positive that I occasionally wondered if I could volunteer for another tour rather than having to wait to be summoned.

But this time was different. Given all the stress and anxiety I’ve been dealing with this past year thanks to my financial woes, I didn’t know how well I’d cope emotionally if I got assigned to be a juror on any kind of a serious or challenging case. Also, in recent years I’ve grown increasingly concerned about the racial injustice, police violence, and political corruption in America’s institutions, so I have less faith in the justice system than I used to. So this time around, I was very nervous about the whole thing. I spent the whole time on edge, afraid of having my name called.

It didn’t help that the daily stipend for being a juror is still exactly the same amount that it was nearly 10 years ago. I’d expected it to have increased by now. And I made the mistake of driving there on my first day, and I didn’t realize that my preferred downtown garage had raised its rates, so that parking alone ate up nearly 1/3 of my first day’s stipend. (The validated parking lots near the courthouse would’ve cost just as much, as it turned out.) I took the bus down after that, which meant walking several blocks in frigid weather.

Anyway, my first week did turn out to be uncannily similar to my first week 9 1/2 years ago. I showed up Monday morning and got the whole orientation speech, but I wasn’t called for a jury until Wednesday just before lunch (I got a hot dog from the courthouse convenience store, and it was pretty bad), and when I got back, we were kept waiting for more than an additional hour; then it finally turned out that the defendant had taken a plea, and since we’d been kept so late, we were released for the rest of the week. I was quite relieved that things had played out so much like they did the first time. (Oh, and we got free donuts Wednesday morning.)

The main difference is that I didn’t have a work in progress to rewrite this time. I’m between projects and was trying to come up with a plot idea for my next story, something I was able to do on Tuesday and Wednesday while riding the bus and walking the courthouse halls for exercise. (If you sign out for your 15-minute break and write “Walking” on the form, they cut you some slack if it takes longer than that to complete a mile, which is 7 laps around the corridors on the jurors’ floor.) Otherwise, I used the time to read the latest Analog issue, the one containing my story “Hubstitute Creatures.” I got it a couple of weeks ago, but I saved it for jury duty. There are some impressive stories in this one; I particularly liked “Pandora’s Pantry” by Stephen L. Burns, a robot-chef story that went in an unexpected and very satisfying direction, and “Learning the Ropes” by Tom Jolly, a story of interplanetary intrigue and tether propulsion in a setting that could almost be part of the historical backstory of Only Superhuman. I finished the magazine in my first week, and on Wednesday after I was released, I went over to the downtown library and picked up some books so I’d have something to read over the weekend and on week 2. One was a collection of Will Elder-illustrated comics stories from EC Comics’s 1950s SF, horror, and humor anthologies; most of them weren’t great, but there were a couple of Ray Bradbury adaptations and a couple of impressive tales that were almost Twilight Zone-worthy. And some of the parody stories were nostalgic for me, since I remembered reading them in my father’s pile of old humor comics back in the day.

So anyway, I was hopeful that week 2 would recapitulate my first time as closely as week 1 did. And I did get Monday and Tuesday off, which was good, because over the weekend, I came down with a bug of some kind — the inevitable result of having spent three days surrounded by dozens of people in public places in winter. If the pattern had continued to match the first time, I’d be called in on Wednesday and that would be it. But of course, there was still the chance that I’d be called to another jury and all bets would be off.

So imagine my surprise and relief when I checked the website Tuesday afternoon and it said that, for jurors of my group number who’d started on November 26, “your service is now complete.” I wasn’t needed back again at all! I guess it must be a slow week for crime and lawsuits. Maybe it’s the weather. But I’m glad I didn’t have to lug myself to the bus stop while I was sick. And now I’ve done jury service twice in my life and have yet to see the inside of a courtroom.

Of course, I wouldn’t have minded making more than three days’ worth of money from this (especially since parking and bus fare ate up so much of it already), but another day or two wouldn’t have made much difference. Fortunately, my manuscript for The Captain’s Oath has now been approved, so I should be getting my final advance from that pretty soon. And now I have about a week and a half until the copyedits for that are due in, which I hope will be enough time to write that new short story I plotted last week. It’s for an open-call anthology whose submission deadline is the end of the month, so I’m cutting it pretty close. But at least I’m free to focus on it now.

So that’s my jury-duty story. Maybe you were hoping for something more exciting, but I’m quite glad it turned out to be so uneventful.

GraphicAudio sale this weekend!

Heads up: GraphicAudio is running a sale this weekend on its comics/superhero-related audiobooks, with 20% off when you buy 2 or more. This sale includes their adaptations of two of my novels, Only Superhuman and Spider-Man: Drowned in Thunder, so that works out nicely. The ordering links are here:

Only Superhuman audiobook  Only Superhuman

Spider-Man: Drowned in Thunder audiobook  Spider-Man: Drowned in Thunder

It looks like OS is only available in digital audio formats, but DiT is still available in a 5-CD box set as well as digitally.

Admittedly, Only Superhuman has never been done in comics (not yet, anyway), but it’s a superhero story and is largely an homage to superhero comics, so GraphicAudio lists it along with their comics titles. Anyway, this is a good time to call new attention to OS, considering that my story collection Among the Wild Cybers: Tales Beyond the Superhuman, featuring the brand-new Only Superhuman prequel story “Aspiring to Be Angels,” is due out later this year.

And finally, Erlanger LibraryCon followup

November 12, 2017 1 comment

Yep, the Kenton County Public Library’s Erlanger branch held its LibraryCon yesterday. Unfortunately, it wasn’t very well-attended, at least not by people interested in my books. Maybe I should’ve remembered to remind people of the event a couple of days ago. But the cold weather was probably the reason not many people came out. Or maybe this is just a lean year — the current economic uncertainties may make people more reluctant to engage in recreational spending. This is my second signing in a row to have a disappointing turnout.

Still, I got some things out of it. I got to meet a few local creators and publishers, and I got to meet the “other” David Mack — the comics artist/writer known for his work on Kabuki, Daredevil, and the comics adaptation of Neil Gaiman’s American Gods, as opposed to my friend David (Alan) Mack who writes Star Trek novels for Pocket and the upcoming Dark Arts: The Midnight Front for Tor. I hadn’t known that the comics’ David Mack was originally from the Cincinnati/Northern Kentucky area. He’s a lot more down-to-earth than I would’ve expected from his rather ethereal art. Anyway, it was nice to meet him at last.

I also got a free meal out of it, at least. I actually brought my own lunch, since I didn’t know they’d be providing one, and since my metabolism’s still on Daylight Time, I ate it early, just before the convention formally started at 11. Not long thereafter, they passed around the catering order sheet from Chipotle — d’oh! Although lunch didn’t arrive until after 2, so I would’ve been starving by that point if I hadn’t eaten something earlier. And the burrito I ordered was so big and filling that I didn’t even need to have dinner later on, just an evening snack.

Anyway, the Erlanger branch was a pretty nice library, and it’s too bad I didn’t get a chance to take more of a look around. It’s a bit too far from home to drop into casually. But even with the underwhelming turnout, I’m grateful to the Erlanger staff for having me, and maybe they’ll have me back next year. The library’s apparently having an extension built, so it should be an even bigger space by then and hopefully able to host a larger convention, or so they told me. Maybe I’ll be able to sell more books next year. I should have at least one new thing to offer by then, which I’ll hopefully be able to announce pretty soon.

Thoughts on WONDER WOMAN (2017) (Spoilers)

I finally saw Wonder Woman today, and I pretty much agree with the critical consensus — it’s a terrific movie, and the first DC Extended Universe movie that not only isn’t fatally flawed, but is genuinely excellent and has a coherent, well-defined heroic journey at its heart. Gal Gadot is fantastic in the role, not only a sublimely beautiful, poised, and powerful physical presence but a strong lead actress who handles all the emotional range the film requires of her, which is a lot more than any of the previous three DCEU films have demanded of their leads. Chris Pine is also remarkably good as Steve Trevor, bringing enormous wit and charm to the proceedings (in fact, there were moments when he reminded me more of William Shatner here than he does in the Star Trek movies). The rest of the supporting cast was good too, with Lucy Davis a standout as Etta Candy.

Oh, and first off, let me respond to the inane “Gal Gadot isn’t buff enough” meme that I’m still seeing floating around online, even from the occasional female reviewer. It’s a myth that people have to be bulky to be strong — a myth that comic books have helped to promote by embracing bodybuilders as their standard character design reference over the past few decades. But bodybuilders bulk up for display. Muscles meant for practical use can be strong yet still quite lean; after all, muscle cells are basically long, thin fibers. And people with naturally tall, slender builds can be very strong while still being slender — look at Venus Williams or Maria Sharapova. This is, of course, leaving aside the fact that Diana of Themyscira is a demigoddess with superhuman strength anyway, so even if she were scrawny (which she isn’t by any realistic standard), she could probably still kick any mere mortal’s ass.

I do have some quibbles with the origin presented in the film. I don’t like the retcon that the Amazons were created by Zeus, and that Diana is the daughter of Zeus. In the original comics, it was Aphrodite, goddess of love, who created the Amazons and breathed life into Diana. Making it Zeus makes the backstory too male-dominated, and makes the Amazons feel like an extension of a male agenda. I also wish Kid Diana hadn’t been quite so enthralled with fighting and weapons; I would’ve liked to see more of her well-rounded education in the more positive things that drive her as an adult. (The actress playing Kid Diana was adorably badass, though. Give her a Wonder Tot prequel, stat!) Still, I guess that preoccupation is part of the naivete she has to outgrow over the film. She has a romanticized, simplified notion of what war is, resulting from the fact that she’s never seen it except as a bunch of awesome athletic feats her elder sisters perform.

And I like the acrobatic horseback combat, by the way. The Amazons of Greek myth were probably based on some of the horse-nomad peoples of Asia Minor, peoples that had a fair amount of gender equality (out of necessity — nomads can’t afford to have anyone not pulling their weight) and thus could’ve been seen as female-dominated by the intensely misogynistic Athenians. And horse nomads were historically known for their impressive mounted-fighting abilities, which seemed to be the basis for the Amazon combat methods shown in the film. So that’s a nice bit of historical context in a film with a generally fanciful portrait of antiquity.

In thinking back on the film, considering how it succeeds where the previous DCEU films failed, I realize that on the surface, it doesn’t seem that different from the previous films. It has a very dark and grim subject matter — it’s set in the quagmire of World War I and has characters lecturing Diana on humanity’s fundamental capacity for evil and self-destruction. It has a hero who kills. And, like Man of Steel, it has a hero whose journey to adopt the role is in defiance of a parental figure trying to hold them back. So why does it work so much better when it has many of the same elements?

As for the parental-defiance issue, part of it is that it fits the character better. Wonder Woman’s origin story has always involved her defying Hippolyta to leave Paradise Island/Themyscira — and has always had Hippolyta grudgingly accept her daughter’s decision and allow her to make her own path in the world. But Superman’s backstory has usually portrayed Pa Kent as Clark’s inspiration and role model, the one who taught him his value system and implored him to use his gifts to help others. Making Jonathan Kent someone whose advice Clark had to reject in order to become a force for good was too great a change, and too cynical for the Superman narrative. Then again, as much as I hated Man of Steel‘s version of Jonathan, I felt one of the more successful aspects of the film was the way Clark refused to be guided by his father’s fear and pettiness, and instead innately tried to do the right thing. So the thing that worked best about MoS’s Clark Kent is also something that worked about Diana of Themyscira. The difference is, in the case of Wonder Woman, it worked for the parental figure too.

As for the dark and grim subject matter, I think part of the difference is that the grimness was necessary in the context of the WWI setting, rather than just being there for its own sake. More importantly, the difference is that the Snyder Superman films tried to impose the darkness on Superman himself, to make him succumb to it and thus diminish him as a figure of nobility and inspiration. MoS and BvS paid lip service to some people seeing Superman as a savior and inspiration, but they didn’t really earn those reactions because they were more interested in showing Superman failing and struggling than in showing him actually helping anyone. BvS also defaulted to grim version of Batman based on a graphic novel (Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns) that was meant to be an exaggerated, worst-case extreme and that’s too often been misinterpreted as a template for how Batman should normally be portrayed.  But in Wonder Woman, the grimness is around Diana. It doesn’t become a part of her. On the contrary, her basic goodness and compassion stand against the darkness of her surroundings and give hope and inspiration to others. She does what a superhero should do — she makes things better. The darkness is her incentive to shine, rather than something that infuses and darkens her. And though she sees the darkness in humanity, she also sees the goodness and love, and stands up for it and instills it in others. This is what Superman should do. It’s even what Batman should do — by using his own darkness to counter the crime and corruption of Gotham, he brings hope to its people and to its forces of law and order, and by taking Robin under his wing, he gives him a better life and allows him to be purer and happier than Batman was in the same circumstances. But Wonder Woman is the first DCEU protagonist who’s actually done that as a central element of her film.

As for the violence… yeah, I’m not a fan of heroes who kill, so that is an issue for me. But it helps somewhat that it’s in the context of a war story, rather than a crimefighting story where that level of force seems excessive. And it helps more that it’s balanced by the more positive things Diana does. The problem with Superman’s actions in Snyder’s films is that they’re too detached, too impersonal. In MoS, he’s literally on the opposite side of the planet while the people of Metropolis are fleeing in terror and dying in droves, and then he (or rather, Snyder) doesn’t even seem aware of the civilians while he and Zod are smashing up the city. In BvS, his acts of heroism are impersonal vignettes about Superman manipulating big heavy objects, and whatever people he’s helping in the process are barely noticed — whereas the film focuses more on his failures to save people when it bothers to pay attention to him at all. But Wonder Woman’s battles are clearly, centrally about saving people. We see the people she’s helping, and we see her connect to them. So there’s a better sense of who and what she’s fighting for, and a greater emphasis on that human element rather than just nonstop CGI destruction. The climax does get a bit heavy on the CGI for a few minutes, but unlike MoS, it doesn’t grind the story to a halt and lose focus on the human stakes of the battle.

A key difference: In both MoS and WW, the climax has the villain urging the hero to accept his nihilistic view and kill an enemy. MoS has Kal-El succumb to the argument and choose to kill, which means that the villain basically wins the philosophical battle and the hero is thus weakened. But here, Diana makes the opposite choice, sparing Dr. Maru. (At least, I think she does. The editing is a bit unclear, since she seems to throw the tank in the same direction Maru ran, and we don’t see Maru after that. But I presume the intention is that she defied Ares and spared Maru.) Okay, yeah, she also kills Ares, but the difference is, it’s not because he told her to. Both sparing Maru and killing Ares are her own choice, driven by her own judgment. Throughout the film, she had a strong point of view and wouldn’t let anyone tell her what to do. She did listen and learn, did modulate her actions in response to what she learned, but her choices were always her own. Even though I might wish she’d made a different choice in the case of Ares, she still ends up a stronger protagonist than Clark did, because she didn’t just let the villain talk her into abandoning everything she believed in. And her choice not to show mercy to a predator is balanced by the fact that she did show mercy to someone she recognized as a victim.

Of course, part of the reason the film worked so much better than its predecessors is simply that it had a more coherent story with a better narrative flow and pacing. It felt like a normal movie with a good balance of character, action, ideas, emotion, and humor. It wasn’t trying too hard to affect a certain style or attitude as an end in itself, but was telling a story in the way that worked best for that story. And most importantly for a superhero franchise, it was actually about heroism and inspiration.

There was also a lot of respect for the source material, with some nice homages to the comics. There are two points in the film where Diana recreates the pose Wonder Woman struck on the cover of her debut issue — when she smashes through the window to rescue the hostages (I think it is), and in the final shot of the film (though I think she’s in the mirror-image pose there). The montage of her childhood seems to homage the three life stages that were frequently featured in ’50s and ’60s WW stories by Robert Kanigher — Wonder Tot, Wonder Girl, and Wonder Woman. (Kanigher started out telling stories about Wondy’s youth, then got into the habit of doing “imaginary stories” where the child, teen, and adult versions of Diana impossibly hung out together. Then another writer failed to realize that Wonder Girl was a younger Wonder Woman in the past and added her to the Teen Titans comic that was set in the present, so they had to retcon her into being a separate character, and it got immensely more complicated from there.) The climactic battle with Ares even nods at William Moulton Marston’s heavy use of bondage in the early WW comics, when she’s wrapped up and squeezed in the armor plates.

One thing we didn’t get was the name “Wonder Woman” actually being spoken at any point in the film. I think they missed an opportunity to use it in the Veld scenes. It seems that it would’ve been fairly natural for the rescued villagers to call her Das Wunder-Fraulein, and for Steve to translate it into English as “the Wonder Woman.” It was German that gave us wunderkind, after all, so it seems like it would’ve been a plausible origin for the name.

By the way, I’ve seen a number of people say that the Wonder Woman theme used in BvS and here reminds them of a riff from Led Zeppelin’s “Immigrant Song” — but I can’t help but notice that it has the same 7/8 time signature and 3-note ostinato as Joseph Lo Duca’s Xena: Warrior Princess theme. Fitting, no?

A pretty good day

Well, at least it was better than it has been for a while. About a week ago, I came down with a dreadful cold and fever. For days, I wasn’t up to doing anything but lying down and watching TV or just napping, and I just felt miserable. I spent more time sitting and lying down than is probably good for me, judging from the twinges I was starting to get in my leg.  Yesterday, I finally felt well enough to go get some much-needed groceries, but it was hard to get up the energy to do it, and my joints were sore afterward. But I also felt more energy that evening. I think what happens to me when I have a bad bout with sickness is that the days of inactivity make my metabolism slow down, and eventually it’s hard to tell whether I’m still sick or just stuck in low-energy mode. I think going grocery-shopping helped get the blood flowing again. So I felt more like myself today, well enough to go for a brief walk in the park and enjoy the sunny day. I felt pretty energetic at first, though it didn’t last long.

But when I got home and checked the mailbox, I was surprised to see my last advance check for Patterns of Interference! I only got notification of the approval 9 days ago, so I hadn’t expected to see this check for another week or two. Needless to say, I was quite pleased. It lets me recharge my bank account just in time to pay my rent and some other bills.  Luckily I still had my shoes and jacket on from my walk, since it let me go right back out and drive to the bank right away.

After that, I went to the library near the bank, and I happened upon some nice finds there — the fourth collection of Ryan North and Erica Henderson’s hilarious The Unbeatable Squirrel Girl from Marvel, the DVD of Star Trek Beyond (which I’ve been wanting to see again but haven’t found at the library until now), and all four Hunger Games movies, which I’ve been meaning to check out and watch back-to-back at some point (to date, I’ve only read the books and seen the first two films). Although I realized I haven’t gotten vol. 3 of Squirrel Girl yet, so I requested it, but I’ll have to wait to read that. And a couple of the Hunger Games discs look a little scratched, so I just hope they play back well enough for my binge to work.

So overall, a reasonably good day. Still, one thing I didn’t manage to do was to refocus on the story I’m writing, which I need to do now that I’m feeling functional again. I did get an idea for how to handle the next scene, but actually getting it done is another matter. Anyway, I need to get a move on with this and other projects. It’s cool that I got my check, but it’s a reminder that I need to get more paying work lined up soon.

What if STAR TREK had been a ’40s radio show?

In the interests of having something to post so this blog doesn’t go dead again (it’s already been 10 days since my last post — sorry), I’m going to repost something fun I contributed to a TrekBBS thread last year musing about what TOS might’ve been like as a radio adventure show from the ’30s or ’40s. Based on the binge-listen I’d done of old The Adventures of Superman radio shows online a couple of years earlier, I ended up putting together a hypothetical scene from an episode, a riff on how radio characters had to narrate the action for the audience’s benefit. I’m reposting it here, with a bit of narration added in response to other posters’ comments:

“Yes! Punching the Gorn’s ears seems to have disoriented him. I’ve got to get away… get some distance! Yes! That rise over there.”
(Panting sounds.)
“Yes… this rock should do nicely.”
(Grunt of exertion.)
“He’s recovering. Now — heave!”
(Sound of object whooshing through the air and striking a leathery surface. Growl of pain from the Gorn.)
“Yes! A hit! But — no, it’s barely staggered him! What incredible strength! Now he’s — no — he’s heading for that large boulder! There’s no way he could — but he is! He’s… lifting it above his head! It must weigh over a ton! Could he possibly throw it hard enough –”
(A loud grunt of exertion from the Gorn, and a heavier whooshing sound.)
“He did! Have to dodge, dodge for all I’m worth!”
(Heavy thud of the boulder striking rock, rolling downhill.)
“Whew! That was close! I could feel the breeze as it blew past! Better not take any chances — up the mountain, quickly! My speed is my only advantage!”
(The sound of swift footsteps on stone, and Kirk panting. Fade out these sounds and asteroid ambience; fade in bridge background audio.)

“Meanwhile, far out in space, the star cruiser Enterprise is trapped, held motionless in a powerful force ray by the mysterious Metrons! Under the cool, logical leadership of the half-Vulcanian Mister Spock, the crew now strives to break free of the Metrons’ relentless grip!”
“Have you tried overload, Mr. Scott?”
“Aye, Mr. Spock. It does no good…”

Just something I tossed together on a lark, but I was happy with how it turned out. Credit where it’s due: This is, of course, an adaptation of a scene from “Arena,” written by Gene L. Coon, from the story by Fredric Brown. Acknowledgment is also due to The Adventures of Superman‘s star Bud Collyer and narrator Jackson Beck for inspiration.

One further thought about CAPTAIN AMERICA: CIVIL WAR (spoilers, probably)

I was just reading this article at Forbes comparing the success of Captain America: Civil War to the failure of Batman v Superman y Tu Wonder Woman Tambien at telling the same kind of story about heroes in conflict, and it made me think of something:

Everyone agrees that the big hero fight at the airport in CA:CW is one of the best superhero action sequences ever committed to film, and you know what? It features very little destruction. It doesn’t have whole city blocks collapsing. It doesn’t indulge in 9/11 imagery or disaster porn. The entire airport isn’t destroyed — just a jet and a couple of trucks, maybe. There aren’t a bunch of bystanders screaming and running for cover — presumably Team Iron Man had the airport evacuated in advance. (At least, I think so. Maybe there were bystanders in the part where Spidey was fighting Falcon and Bucky inside the building, but I don’t recall any.) And the climactic fight doesn’t go bigger and indulge in an orgy of mass devastation — it goes smaller, more personal, more concentrated. Once again, it’s someplace where no bystanders are endangered. And that’s just why it works. Mass devastation doesn’t matter without a personal impact. If anything, the smaller scale of the destruction makes the two acts of mass violence we do get — the accident in Lagos and the bombing of the Vienna conference — feel more potent. The death of a few dozen people can be felt and grieved over as the tragedy it is, rather than trivialized in comparison to the destruction of whole cities.

Granted, I’ve always preferred it when superhero stories were about the heroes saving people rather than fighting. One thing that makes the mass-destruction sequences in the Avengers movies work better than most such scenes in modern film is that the Avengers focus so heavily on rescuing innocents. Civil War doesn’t have much in the way of rescuing, now that I think about it (although there is a lot of guilt about their failures to rescue, so there’s that). But movies today have gotten to a point where the spectacle of mass destruction has become overindulged to such a degree that the CGI tends to overwhelm the story and characters. Civil War shows that a movie doesn’t need cataclysms to be powerful. Going bigger doesn’t have to mean wreaking more physical havoc — it just has to mean going for bigger personal, emotional, or ideological stakes. That’s something more filmmakers and studio executives could stand to learn from.