The Unbearable Lightness of Empty Shells

Reading through Tales of the Once and Future King, a collection of Arthurian stories published by Superversives Press, it’s striking how these stories of knightly honor are inseparable from their Christian roots.  Even when the action takes place in a strange steampunk fantasy world, the specter of the Holy Ghost looms over the proceedings and lends them a weight all out of proportion to the action.

To be sure, anyone can slap on some heavy armor and gallivant about the countryside waving a long, sharp stick around, but take away the chivalric code and its rooting in Christian ethics and morality, and you’re left with a guy with a stick.  He might be a hero, and he might fight evil with the best of them, but there’s something innately stirring about the noble sacrifices and piety of a man who fights for God first, and himself second.

There’s also something badass about the most powerful force on the field of battle who has put his time and effort and training and talents into the service of God – even if his service is filtered through a lord and king.  After years of reading gritty otherworld war stories by guys like Glen Cook and the courtly tales of soulless elves by guys like John C. Wright, reading about knights errant and otherwise whose spiritual might is as strong as their physical might – or even who are tested in such manner – has been an eye-opening experience.

First, because of a realization that so much of what knights represent is ingrained in our culture.  Despite centuries of Enlightenment scholarly effort (and especially the efforts of their modern heirs) to cast knights as eternal villains and base cutthroats, they remain the ultimate white hats of the pre-gunpowder days.  Give them a strong arm, a deft tongue, and an unflinching disdain for evil, and people will bring a lot of the best kind of baggage along for the ride.

Which explains why paladins (and later Cavaliers) always felt so flat in D&D.  Divorced from their roots and sworn to support some vague notion of celestial “good” rather than the rock solid code of the Christian God, they become empty shells of armor with a few magic doodads bolted on for effect.  They can be fun to play, and they have their role as front line fighter with a healbot patina, but they don’t narratively punch above their weight the way that their narrative counterparts.

They just don’t have the solid foundation of their narrative counterparts in the Arthurian myths, and it shows.

It’s probably not fixable in the supplement market – the SJWs in the hobby can no more stomach the sight of the cross anywhere near their games than they can form healthy adult relationships.  Few players, SJW or not, have the skill to manage a character laden with the social restrictions of a truly holy warrior, and fewer still play at tables where their compatriots would accept such restrictions.  Not when they would limit their tank-healer’s effectiveness in play.  But adding the visceral punch of a knight in shining armor dedicated to truth, justice, and the Cross to your game is something to consider if you want to add some beefy resonance to your role-playing sessions.

Anyway, Tales of the Once and Future King has certainly shifted the course of my own next fantasy novel.  If it doesn’t have strong yet tender and fierce yet protective knights in it, I’m not even going to bother.

First Draft, First Sequel

The first draft of my first ever sequel has wrapped.  Jack Dashing, the planetary romantic and hero of Adventure Constant returns to free an entire city from the clutches of tyranny in Adventure Rising.  He will once the book ages a bit and goes through two or three rounds of editing.

Meanwhile, I’ve been busy with holiday preparations including some high-intensity Warhammer 40k preparation.  Did you know they released yet another edition of the rules?  Crazy, right?  I just found out when I ran by the local nerdery to pick up some Christmas presents.  The prep isn’t for me, it’s for my son who figures a decent game with lots of opponents beats a great game played solo.  He can get away with that, as he is hip-deep in his college days, when time is in long supply.  We busy family men have no time for anything but painting and late night rules tinkering.

Over Thanksgiving, I didn’t manage to find Howardian cinema, so ratcheted my expectations way down and tried Valerian instead.  That is one fun movie with a few really neat ideas let down by the wooden performance of the leads and the bizarre decision to kick off the action with the hero begging his partner for a little affection.  Talk about off-putting.  Equally frustrating was casual way Sergeant Laureline repeatedly disobeyed Captain Valerian’s orders with no repercussions beyond a slight sigh from their superiors.  That relationship made no sense and turned what could have been a fun romp into an empty shell of a movie.  The three minute pause in the story to fulfill Rhianna’s demands for more screen time didn’t help either.

Honestly, I kind of want to see a prequel featuring the adventures of the busload of soldiers that helped the two leads early on in the movie.  Those guys had more personality than the leads.

I didn’t even mind the predictable plot nor the usual Hollywood boilerplating.  At a theme park, as I climb into one of the cars, I know where the roller coaster is going to end, but that doesn’t mean the loops and curves and sudden drops aren’t still a lot of fun.  Add in a better central relationship – like the one Luc Besson used in Fifth Element – and this could easily have been a film worth repeated watching.  As it is, it was just a pleasant and forgettable way to kill a couple of hours.

Not nearly as much fun as Tales of the Once and Future King.  A Superversive Press title, this might be my favorite collection of the year.  And when you consider that puts it up against Paragons and MAGA2020, that is really saying something.  Look for a detailed review at Castalia House sometime in the next few weeks.

Hey, did I mention that I had a story published recently in a superhero anthology called Paragons?  If you’re a fan of the genre, check it out.  If my name isn’t enough, maybe you’ll like this:  Kai Wai Cheah has a great story in it with strong undertones of a Christopher Nolan superhero film.  It also includes stories by Jon Del Arroz, Declan Finn, and longtime superhero author Steve Beaulieu.

 

Happy Thanksgiving

As part of my ongoing pushback against all things [Current Year], my kids will be receiving a healthy dose of factual history.  In addition to giving thanks for the blessings we enjoy and discussing how and to Whom we give thanks, my kids will receive a short explanation of how Thanksgiving is also a reminder of our American heritage and how blessed we are to be the descendants and inheritors of the pioneers who made America Great the First Time.  Yes, we’re going to talk about how hard it is to up stakes and rebuild your lives in a strange and foreign (and largely depopulated) land, and how it took a little luck, a lot of grit, and a whole lot of hard work to make it work.

We’re also going to try and track down a film about the Puritans.  Or at least one puritan.

Solomon Kane.  We’re going to try to watch Solomon Kane.

It’s a Robert E. Howard property, so my guess is that the film-makers took the name and botch the character, but it’s worth a shot.  Given that Conan was really the story of Kull, I’m hoping that Solomon Kane will be the story of Conan.

Arrival – Part Two

Did you know Arrival earned eight Oscar nominations?  It even won an Oscar for best sound editing.  It’s nice to see Hollywood take a sci-fi film seriously for once, even if the film they take seriously was one carefully crafted to make kind of smart people feel smarter than they really are.  Again, this is a fine movie, and hopefully Hollywood takes its success seriously and decides to make more movies like it.  The world could use more slow-burn sci-fi that reaches for the intellectual stars.  Throw enough on screen and we may eventually see a film as smart as Arrival pretends to be.

In yesterday’s analysis of this film I left out an important observation about how the resolution of the central mystery of Arrival kills the suspense of the “big actiony final boss fight”.  If you’ve seen the film, then you know that the quotes in that description underscore the irony of it.  There is no big action boss fight.  The climax of the film comes about when Amy Adams uses her oracular powers to convince the Chinese military to stand down and not attack the alien starship parked overhead.  Unlike most sci-fi films, it does not end with two men punching each other on top of a tall building or one super-powered man punching a horde of mooks.  It’s just a conversation.

It reminded me of the ending of Sum of All Fears, in which the dumbest looking Jack Ryan must convince the Russian Premier not to nuke Washington even though Washington is seconds away from nuking the Kremlin.  The climax is just one person on a phone trying to convince another person to trust them.  I like that.  It’s great to see that sort of contest of wills decide the fate of the world.  It’s a welcome change from the usual…but it doesn’t work in this case, specifically because it has already been revealed to us that the phone call was/will be successful.

Telegraphing the ending of the film (the Chinese back off, Amy Adams marries Dr. Jeremy Renner, and Amy Adams gives birth to a cancer-doomed daughter) completely sucks the suspense out of that phone call.  It’s the time travel paradox that nobody talks about – usually people talk about the in-fiction paradox, rather than the practical writing problems of time-travel.

A few movies have split the time-travel baby to good effect.  Twelve Monkeys shows the end bereft of meaning, and the mystery is how Bruce Willis gets to that ending.  Looper presents the future as one of two possibilities and the suspense arises from how the actions of today will determine which future will come to pass.  Hot Tub Time Machine demonstrates that actions in the movie-present do have significant effects on the future and explicitly states that the characters are re-writing the future with every action they take.  That’s a much better way to maintain the tension of the plot than broadcasting the ending early, and doing so over schmaltzy music and slow mo shots of undersaturated film to help congratulate the viewer for being smart enough to deduce the exposition-heavy dialogue and visuals.

That’s right, I said it, and I’m not wrong.  Hot Tub Time Machine handles time travel better than Arrival.  At least from a storytelling and suspense perspective.

So you know, take that into consideration when you think about Arrival.

Arrival – Part One

Arrival is one of those strange movies that you hear a lot about despite that fact that no one really talks about the movie itself. Now that I’ve seen it, I understand why. On the one hand, any discussion of the film’s critical plot points necessitates spoilers. On the other hand, any discussion of the underlying ideas beyond, “OMG, so smart”, would betray the fundamental stupidity of this movie.

I’m going to dissent from the closed mouth analysis of this movie and ruin both the plot and the precepts that underlie this movie. That can’t be done without copious spoilers, which I’m laying out on the table in the supreme hopes that I can dissuade you, dear reader, from wasting your time on this dullard in philosopher’s clothing. The hard part is not talking about the elephant in the room, it’s picking which of the three elephants to start with.

(And I’m not even including the elephant of Forest Whitaker’s presence making the film actively worse. The man is a charisma black hole, and how he continues to appear in big budget films is a mystery for the ages.)

First, the basic plot rundown. Aliens come to earth and hang out until Amy Adams deciphers their written language which grants her the ability to see through time. She uses that ability to stop the Russians, Chinese, and Pakistani’s from attacking the clearly superior tech of the aliens, who are called Heptopods because they have seven hand/feet/mouth/tentacle appendages. The gift of the magic aliens carries with it a curse, as it shows Amy that her marriage to Hawkeye will end in divorce and that their daughter will die of cancer, a fate she accepts because ‘tis better to have lived and lost etc.. Brilliant visuals combine with long, lingering wide shots and intensely personal close-ups of actors emoting so hard they almost break the camera to produce a film that allows the audience plenty of time to:

  1. consider the deep and multi-layered meaning of the ideas presented in Arrival,
  2. to huff their own farts and feel smug about how much better they are, as people, than the dullards in the next theater enjoying giant robots punching themselves amid an unfollowable storm of motion and noise.
  3. both of the above.

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Staying In Touch

Scuttlebutt has it that old @Jack is up to his usual tricks these days.  The House Un-Twitter Activities Committee is hard at work preparing yet another purge list for their latest pogrom.  For a site dedicated to helping people communicate, they sure do love to make it harder to reach people.  As a well known associate of such crimethinkers as Vox Day, Mike Cernovich, the Gamergate crowd, and now the ComicsGate crowd – to say nothing of a crimethinker in his own right – it’s a safe bet I’ll be swept up in the night of the Long Mutes.

To that end, I’m adding an email list/newsletter to JonMollison.com.  There’s a form over there to the right of the words you’re reading now, or you can subscribe here:

Email

Don’t worry, this list will only be used a few times each year to make the big announcements about new releases, upcoming signings, and those rare occasions where I want to reach my select fans for information too time sensitive or too personal to warrant a blog post.  I’ll send out a free e-novella to anyone who signs up over the next week, so don’t wait too long or you’ll miss out on the fun.

Thanks to everyone who has supported me over the past year – next year is going to be even better than this one!

Jaded Consumption And Secret Fandom

Photographic proof of the dealer’s room.

Inspired partially by a binge listen to Diversity and Comics and partially by several young daughters who enjoy finding ways to fly their own nerd-flags, I found myself at a small local comic and toy expo this past weekend.  After milling about and finding a few things for the girls, I left empty handed.  A shame, really, but the old IP just doesn’t sing to me the way it used to.  All the star wars and Marvel paraphernalia that once would have intrigued me just looked stale and lifeless.  What’s the point of finding a Captain America shirt at a show like this when you can’t turn around inside a Wal-Mart without finding one staring back at you from the shelves?

A part of me also found it harder than ever to part with my hard earned cash for a banner to nerd culture that would make me feel needlessly conspicuous were I to hang it someplace where others could see it.  Sure, it would spark a few conversations, but as a guy with serious reservations about all of the recognizable IP out and about these days, those would be awkward conversations.  It would present me with the choice of talking like a hipster who “liked it before it went Disney” or trying to explain the Pulp Revolution in a light, water cooler conversation.

And let’s face it, the vital role the PulpRev is playing in the gathering cultural storm isn’t exactly the kind of fluff that flies around the modern day water cooler.

Instead, I found myself walking down memory lane with no real desire to buy a house there.  All I wanted was my Alt*Hero shirt…

Which leads to an interesting observation about how Alt*Hero offers not just a return to the glory days of comics, when the story and the action and the adventure all came before the politics and the messaging.  It also offers a chance to recapture that sense of being in on an open secret.  Thirty years ago, it took a sort of bravery to wear an shirt with a d20 on it in public – it marked you as somebody who enjoyed things that polite society took a dim view of, but which you recognized had a meaning and value they just couldn’t grasp.  It was, in some sense, a thumb in the eye of the accepted social norms. An admission that you didn’t care what others thought, you were going to let your nerd flag fly.

Eventually, the nerd flag became cool.  Largely because of the brave souls who stopped caring what others thought.  The indifference to the opinions of others that nerds developed put them in good stead for events like GamerGate and the Hugo Puppy Fun, and eventually earned nerds the respect of the general public.  (Well, the indifference and the lucrative careers and effective use of the IP by the marketing departments at Marvel and Lucasfilm, but I digress.)

Backing Alt*Hero feels exactly the same.  It feels like you are in on something great, something that the vast masses have missed out on, and which they might never understand, but which you recognize instinctively.  This time around, with experience on our side, we intellectual and political rebels have more hope that the masses will circle around, but just as before, we sleep easy in our apathy toward their opinions.  It would be nice, but if they always reject the Alt*Hero brand…it’s not skin off my nose – I’ve still got the books to enjoy.

On Jeffro’s Departure

Jeffro Johnson blazed up through the game blogging scene in record time. Never one of the more prolific writers on gaming, his posts were nevertheless widely recognized as making up in for their lack of quantity with massive amounts of quality. Early on, his analytical gaze turned toward Car Wars, OSR scholarship, and gaming with kids. That was what initially drew me to him, but once he sat down at the bad kids table of sci-fi and fantasy, his fate was sealed. He could have been just another casualty of the War on Noticing, but instead of sitting down, shutting up, and obeying the orders of the gaming scenesters, he forged ahead with a very un-gamerlike survey of Appendix N, and the rest is history.

In doing so, he blazed a path for those of us lost in the woods to follow. After a decade of poking fun of the SJWs in gaming – to their faces – and repeated sanctions for violating one of the many taboos present in what passes for culture amongst the SJWs, he showed me that gaming existed outside of the rainbow haired fatty crowd. He showed me that fans of the Campbellian style of science fiction – and its predecessors – didn’t just exist, they had a strong enough presence in fandom to tilt the Hugo Awards away from the steady march of Progress(ivism). As a result, my steady output as a wargame blogger sequed into the vastly more lucrative and emotionally rewarding world of literary self-publishing.

If you’ve ever enjoyed any of my stories, or any of my columns here or at the Castalia House blog, you have Jeffro to thank for it. His influence in my own work should be plain to all but the most casual reader. (For the record, Alex over at Cirsova comes in a close second, with a veritable army of other writers tied for a distant third.)

So it is with some sadness that I learned of his decision to step down as the Editor of the CH blog. I can tell you that working with Jeffro is as much fun as reading his columns. He has an infectious enthusiasm for fantasy and sci-fi in all its forms and an unabashed love of Western culture. Together, those traits helped him inspire so many others to take up the fight to recapture the themes and styles that made sci-fi and fantasy tales such an important part of our culture, and his influence will continue to be felt long after he has hung up his editorship.

I know that his influence on me will remain. He has always been ready with advice when my own certitude wavered, and support when my own doubts cropped up. Even if he never writes another word, he has already set something big in motion that not even Jeffro himself could stop.   Even if the history books fail to recognize his influence – and many of those who would write such histories have already stuck his name down the memory hole for his crimethink – the fact of his influence will remain and linger for at least as long as my own works continue to hit the digital shelves over at Amazon.com.

On the bright side, his successor, Morgan Holmes, has been an excellent source of information about some relatively obscure topics in sf/f.  His long running series on forgotten sf/f artists has been fascinating, even for those of us who never paid much attention to art beyond Frazetta and a few of TSR’s stalwart painters.  Jeffro leaves the blog in good hands, and I continue to be excited to be a part of it.

Stranger Things 2: The Belated Review

Here we are, more than a week after the release of Stranger Things 2: The Enstrangering, and thanks to the magic of Netflix and a culture that struggles with portion control, talking about this show feels like old news.  My own family, dominated by young girls, followed the cultural trend on this one.  Their old man prefers to portion out his enjoyment and savor each episode for a spell before moving on to the next.  After day 8 and episode 8, it’s time for a general review.

It was fine.

The decision to elevate the threat from one flower-face to a pack of flower-face dogs led by a sky-spanning thing with roots that undergird the entire town was a great decision.  It certainly raises the stakes on the danger posed by the creatures of the Upside Down, and with a sympathetic Lab Director, we even get to raise the power level of the resistance, even if that more organized resistance turns out to be no real aid.

The addition of Sean Astin as a third point on a love triangle for the adults was a nice touch, as was his character’s ready acceptance of the supernatural.  That guy barely blinked, and didn’t waste a lot of time in shock once the proof of the supernatural was put in front of him.  That made for a doubly nice touch given that he was shown as a smart guy throughout the series.  Typically, writers would knock 40 points off his IQ just to advance the plot, but they didn’t do that here.

Winona Ryder’s performance was much better this go-round as well.  Instead of the one-note panic-stricken maniac, she was allowed a much more grounded and expansive role.  She provided some much needed support for the kids, and we know from experience that the crazed trashing of her house represents an important part of the monster puzzle.  We still get that Lovecraftian vibe of a person who only looks crazy because they have seen beyond the veil of reality that stories like this need, but without the overblown misery porn of Winona chewing the scenery.

Naturally, with another eight hours to fill and most of the relationship drama resolved in season one, they felt the need to add new characters.  The skater girl and her Steve-To-The-Max older brother made sense from a drama perspective, but both represent deeply flawed characters from a storytelling standpoint.

Which makes for a nice segue into how the writers dropped the ball on the 1980’s storytelling vibe.  As Hollywood is wont to do, they simply couldn’t resist telling a Current Year story set in Current Year Minus X.  The new girl had to be both tougher, braver, and more geeky than the four boys.  Her older brother had to be given a moment of semi-redemption by showing he isn’t the bad guy – it’s his father that’s the bad guy!

Naturally.  God forbid you have a father on TV that isn’t either grossly incompetent or inexplicably vile.  Even the adoptive father (Sheriff Hellboy) morphs from reasonable and friendly and wise lawman to irrational and shouty once he dons the mantle of fatherhood.  The only guy who approached the realm of decent father, Sean Astin, was a comic relief character only briefly allowed a moment of heroism and sacrifice.

The inability of storytellers to craft a decent tale that features a competent and loving father is a massive red flag that once you notice it, you can’t stop seeing it EVERYWHERE.  We can all connect the dots between these observations and the recent revelations about the sorts of critters who call the shots in Hollywood, so I won’t insult your intelligence by detailing the connection here.

What did Steve do?  What did New Girl do?  What did New Steve do?  (And no, giving Steve his final episode beat down doesn’t count.)  At least Sean Astin got to have a moment of heroism, but there were way too many characters doing way too little.

There were also way too many missed opportunities.  Sure, we can forgive a few characters being tight-lipped.  The kid impregnated by the monster.  The kid raising a small monster.  That’s what they do, but given the huge emphasis placed on the “Friends don’t lie,” that riddle the series, when the revelations dropped, everyone shrugged, and the viewer was left with no real payoff.

Which is also true of the lead-up to the next season.  The monster isn’t defeated, only locked outside for a little while.  Everything they went through, all of the motions from the first season that the characters repeated in this second season just bought them a little time.  Perhaps it is in keeping with the 1980s monster movie tradition, but that’s one tradition that made people roll their eyes thirty five years ago, and it’s one tradition that hasn’t changed.

So, in the final analysis, Stranger Things 2 is fine.  It’s better than most of the drek on TV these days, but it is not without some heavy flaws.  If you can ignore the usual Hollywood foibles and antagonism to middle-America, then there are worse ways to spend eight hours.

But break it up a little, would ya?  Go outside and take a walk or something instead of sitting in front of the TV for eight hours for God’s sake.

The PulpRev Sampler

Maybe you’ve been sitting on the fence, not sure whether these loud mouthed PulpRev guys really can back up their pulp talk with a little pulp walk.  No doubt, the crowd has an online swagger and confidence about their understanding of the pulp works and how to recreate the excitement and fun of the original pulps.  But can they really deliver?  You might not want to risk your hard earned cash on a full survey of the PulpRev works.  Maybe you’re already sold on the idea, but you don’t know where to start.  Either way, Jesse Abraham Lucas has your back.

Despite the lack of his name anywhere on the product – for shame! – he remains the central driver behind this tour de force walk through seventeen of the most exciting authors working today.  Generally independent, but universally fun and exciting, this anthology consists of seventeen short stories, each less than 2,500 words in length.  For less than a dollar on Amazon or for free when you sign up for the PulpRev newsletter, you can take these authors for a test drive.  But honestly, having read the book myself, I can tell you that this book won’t solve your problem.  Instead of wondering where to start, you’ll have a hard time choosing who to read next.  Because what each story lacks in length, it makes up for in punch!

From the otherworldy elven tournament on offer from N.A. Roberts to Jesse Abraham Lucas’ own tale of the lives of enchanted weapons to the weird alien-fantasy unlike any you’ve read elsewhere by Dominika Lein, you just can’t go wrong with any of these stories.  Give them a shot, even if they aren’t all your cup of tea, you’ll find a few gems and a few new authors to add to your won library.