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.

Halloween – A Christian Holiday

Time once again for your annual reminder that in a lot of ways the secular holiday of Halloween is, in fact, one of the single most Christian holidays celebrated by Americans. It is a unique blend of sacred and civic holiday and one well worth preserving in its most pure (1970s and 1980s) form.

Of course Christmas and Easter and Thanksgiving are explicitly Christian in nature, but consider that Halloweeen is extraordinarily Christian in practice. The other three holidays are largely celebrated amongst close friends and family, with the odd work function thrown in.  That impersonal community building exercises increase in November and December is nice, but that doesn’t have the same community building and ice breaking effect that a good round of trick or treating does.

Halloween is the one holiday specifically celebrated as a community. It’s the one in which everyone puts in considerable effort to make the celebration more enjoyable for complete strangers.  People set aside money to buy treats for kids they spend the rest of the year shouting at to keep of their lawns.   (Hello, Mr. Smith, where ever you are you racist, cantankerous old bastard!)  They decorate their houses with lights and spooks and invite the entire neighborhood to stop by for a moment of fun.

As a kid, I always thought we had the best part of the deal.  We got to dress up, run around like maniacs, and make off with piles of free candy.  It never occurred to me that the adults might have just as much fun watching the steady parade of kids march past their door.  Now that I’m old and cantankerous myself, I know better.  Watching the young families send their toddlers up the driveway and try to complete the steps necessary for a treat is heartwarming and personal in a way dropping a new, unwrapped toy into the Toys For Tots bin can never match.

Even the process of showing young children that the monsters are not real – that the man in the scary mask is nothing more than a man in the scary mask – takes on an incredibly important role in forming a healthy society.  Like the old C. S. Lewis maxim goes, it’s good to show children monsters to teach them that the stuff of their nightmares is either a figment of their imagination or to help them master and control their own fear even (and especially) during times when the fight or flight adrenaline rush of fear is justified.

The annual pleas by churches for a “safe” Halloween spent at the church hall, huddled together with the same people you see every Sunday is a cancer, to say nothing of those who would replace Halloween with a generic “Harvest Festival”.  We have one of those already – its called Thanksgiving.  This TradCath takes a dim view of Churches who do such things.  They always smack of a marketing ploy to entice more parishioners to show up on Sundays, and a step backwards into increasing insularity.  True Christians look forward to going out and celebrating with their actual, live-next-door neighbors.  That’s the kind of community building that America could use a lot more of in these days when the establishment politicians are so hell-bent (and as a TradCatholic I use that term literally) on tearing us apart.

And lest you think I’m being hyperbolic about the foolishness and opportunism of those who resort to the fig leaf of “safety”:

Happy Halloween!

 

Writing Advice for RPGs

Like many writers, my first real storytelling experiences came about through tabletop RPGs.  Like many gamers, I found the fiction sections included with most RPGs to be wasted space.  Even worse were the needlessly convoluted backstories to otherwise simple adventures, and despite (or perhaps because of my) owning and reading more than a few issues of Dungeon Magazine back in the day, I was never able to use the adventures to run more than one dog’s breakfast of a campaign.

For the most part, things have only gotten worse since the 1980s.  Luckily for us, one man is fighting to change all of that and elevate RPG adventure design out of the muck of ‘failed fiction writer’ and into the stratosphere of ‘actually useful at the table when running a D&D session’.

Bryce Lynch is the best adventure reviewer out there.  I’ve bought a fair few adventures from the fine folks at DriveThruRPG based on his recommendations.  And now he has a summation of all the things that went wrong (and a few that went right) at Dungeon Magazine in his Final Retrospective.

I have review standards and strong beliefs on what makes a good adventure. First and foremost it has to be useful to the DM at the table while they running it. This is the primary purpose of every adventure ever written, even if the designer didn’t understand that fact. You can use it as inspiration, steal parts from it, or use it as a doorstop if you want, but, judged as an adventure, it has to be useful at the table. My standards are VERY high.

Bingo.  The best backstory in the world is useless if you can’t find the relevant information within seconds of being asked by the players.

Dungeon Magazine is an abject failure in this regard. It is VERBOSE. Mountains of backstory, mountains of room text. All of it fights the DM running it at the table. If you are including something in the main text then it has to be directly useful for play. If it’s not then it needs to be removed or moved to an appendix where it can be ignored. Dungeon Magazine didn’t do this. It reveled in useless detail. A LONG room description that describes a trophy room, all of the trophies and accomplishments, and then ends “but it was long ago looted and now nothing remains but dust.”

I remember that adventure, though not that room description.  That adventure marked the moment in which I gave up on Dungeon Magazine.  Even at the tender age of 16, unable to identify WHY, I could at least recognize that the time had come to turn away from ‘modern’ published adventures.

Go read the whole thing.  If you’ve ever thought about publishing adventures, it’s well worth it.  The ‘Best Of’ list can be skipped, but his break down of what makes an adventure work is Plinkett-ian.

 

 

Why PulpRev?

Late in the most recent episode of Geek Gab, the inestimable host asks (relative) newcomer to the PulpRev a very interesting question: Why Pulp Revolution?  Her answer  (at 35:00) is very telling:

“The enthusiasm.”

It was great to hear that question asked of Dominika.  Her first novella, I, The One, is an outstanding work of creativity and literary craft.  It reminded me of a number of the Hugo nominated works, but done right.  (By which I mean without all the navel gazing and axe grinding.)  Ever since reading her novella, I have wondered why Dominika – or anyone for that matter – would choose to associate with the misfit and unabashed gutter style prosesmiths of the PulpRev.

Just a few short minutes later, while wallowing in the mire of Twitter, a post crossed my feed in which a writer dropped a jokey little bon motte about why she had an hour to write and chose not to.  Those jokes are like weeds among most writer’s groups, and they are a big reason that I could never stomach the few writer forums that I visited in my ‘pre-writer’ years.  For some bizarre reason, most writers think making excuses is cute and clever rather than self-defeating and off-putting.

The guys that you follow in the PulpRev don’t do it.  I can’t think of a single example of a PulpRev writer treating not-writing lightly.  In those rare instances where they discuss a reduced out-put they treat the situation very matter-of-factly.  They admit to an issue that keeps them away from the keyboard, but focus on how to overcome that issue, or they focus on how long before they can put it behind them and get back to cranking out words.

You can call it enthusiasm.  I call it mindset.  The PulpRev crowd has a very output focused mindset.

They don’t dwell on process – except as it relates to output.  They don’t dwell on problems – except as it relates to finding solutions.  They don’t dwell on being unmotivated – except as  means to find motivation and get back to grinding out those words.

It’s different.  It’s refreshing.  It’s inspirational.

And it’s why I’m part of the PulpRev.

Space Princess: The Early Review

That all-important first review came in over the transom, and it is a beauty, not the least of which because it came in from somebody who has never read any of my other works:

I knew I wasn’t the only Catholic lunatic writing speculative fiction that rests on a Christian foundation. But I’d come away dissatisfied with the offerings of other writers of that sort. I hardly expected to be blown away by a writer I’d never heard of. But this novel, despite the plethora of low-level mistakes (missing word errors, wrong word errors, spelling, and punctuation) that seem to plague every indie writer, is so imaginative, so filled with color, and so all-around stirring that it gets my highest accolade: I wish I’d written it, but I know I couldn’t have.

“Catholic lunatic”?  Can definitely confirm.  Heck, I have been Confirmed!