The Boys: More of the Same

What if the supervillains won, and then hid behind a front-facing good-guy façade?

That could be an interesting premise for a TV show*.  Particularly so given the ongoing revelations about the private peccadillo’s and past-times of the real world’s elites.  We live in a time when the panopticon allows the jailed to get a good solid look at their jailors, when conspiracy theories are upgraded to known facts on a regular basis.  The media watchmen, having been subsumed by the elites, daily remind us that of their function as water carriers for our betters.  It’s a cynical world out there, and the time is perfect for stories of brave souls shining a light into the dark halls of power.

That’s what The Boys wants to be.  Unfortunately, the producers lack the courage to pursue that vision to the bitter end.

The show opens with the needlessly graphic death of our main protagonist’s girlfriend at the hands of a self-absorbed and recklessly callous speedster hero named A-Train.  His refusal to accept hush money offered by the mega-corporation who sponsors A-Train catches the notice of the world’s chief anti-superhero vigilante, Billy Butcher.  The story follows our hero, Howie, as he seeks revenge for his girl’s death.  He signs on with Billy Butcher and engages in theft, murder, and blackmail to bring A-Train to justice, learns about the vast conspiracy behind A-Train and the rest of his superteam, finds love in a surprisingly touching romance with another superhero, and completes his own little redemption arc.  That’s a lot for one guy to go through, and the pacing of things works well, at least for the half of the show that I watched before getting bored, losing interest, and tuning out.

It’s a splashy show, pretty in all the right ways.  The production values of The Boys are stellar.  The special effects used to illustrate the super powers are seamless.  The acting is phenomenal, even for most of the minor players.  It’s everywhere else that the show fails to deliver, most particularly on the meta-level.  The show is filled with contradictions that result in an awkward mess of a production.

The producers are still trapped in the mindset of old Hollywood.  They still think of themselves as the underdogs who sneer at the powers that be.  They still think that graphic sex scenes are grown-up.  They think that a deluge of vulgar language is “more realistic”.  They think that gratuitous gore adds shock value to a scene.  It’s all very 2004-era edgy, and it comes off as trite and ridiculous as a ten-year swearing into his XBOX headset.  It’s cute, Junior, ya got anything for us that we can’t find after a two-second search of YouTube?

They don’t.  They are out of tricks.  All of the sex and violence that might once have papered over the emptiness of the show have lost their power to paper over a show’s shortcomings.  And once that power has been lost, it becomes clear that The Boys doesn’t have anything interesting, or new, or unusual, to say.

They have a lot to say, but none of it is novel in any way, shape, or form.  All of the raging against the machine presented in the show is easily predicted by anyone paying even a modicum of attention to the state of American culture.  One example:  The Senator from Oklahoma shows up.  The big reveal of his hypocrisy falls flat because of course he is.  One long thread takes place at a Christian revival.   The big reveal that the cult of personality founder of the place is a closet sodomite lacks any punch because of course he is.  The Not-WonderWoman member of the supervillain team turns out to be one of the few good people in the show.  The big reveal of her lesbian nature means nothing because of course she is.

The show asks some tough questions.  It presents some great scenes.  But the inherent cowardice of the producers to step out of the carefully proscribed lines of modern culture – their slavish devotion to the cult of the Narrative, results in a dull as dishwater show that plays it safe and winds with a forward motion as predicatable as the hands of an unbroken clock.  I found myself tagging the ‘skip ahead ten seconds’ button so fast that eventually the Amazon servers couldn’t keep up with me.  And at that point I shifted my finger over to the “Abort” button.

Not out of outrage.  Not out of disgust.  Not even out of sadness that so much money was squandered wasting the potential of the show.

Just out of boredom.

The Boys just isn’t that interesting.

Thank the Dark Lord we’ve got new issues of Alt*Hero coming out soon – somebody has to do something different and fresh with the genre, and it ain’t going to be people who hate superheroism.

*Please don’t insult the both of us by retreating to the comic books that inspired the show.  Every TV show has to stand or fall on its own merits.  While the trappings of The Boys possess merits in abundance, they cannot overcome the basic tediousness of the underlying structure of the thing.

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Heroes Unleashed

That Thomas Plutarch, what a prodigiously productive writer!

The latest in the shared-universe series, Heroes Unleashed dropped into the market this week, and it’s a little bit different from the previous fare.  Morgon Newquist’s Heroes Fall and Kai Wai Cheah’s Hollow City took a more traditional and fast paced approach to the genre.  Now JD Cowan brings the feel of full blown pulp adventure to the world of Serenity City and the Triumvirate.  Not content to globe trot, his story globe hops from street-level heroics to planetary adventure in fine style:

The night shift at a science lab sounds like the break Matthew White has been waiting for. A steady paycheck. A simple job. Absolutely no contact with another human being.

It’s perfect.

But Matthew gets more than he bargained for when he accepts a different position with the company. A job that is highly paid – and highly bizarre. He is plunged into the terrible machinations of his new boss, Mrs. Stohl, and a sullen teenaged boy named Jason is along for the ride. The fact that Jason is practically his twin only makes it all creepier.

Dragged through a mirror into an alien dimension, Matthew is in way over his head. He should have known the job was too good to be true. To escape, Matthew and Jason must brave the wilds of this new universe and learn to control their new powers.

And hardest of all, Matthew must learn to be a hero.

Will they escape Mrs. Stohl’s terrible plans for them? Can they make it home to their world, or will they be trapped in the mirror dimension forever?

Join Matthew and Jason on their pulp superhero adventure. Read Gemini Warrior today!

And stay tuned for more word on my own contribution to the universe, which takes the street level super-spy genre and throws in more Easter eggs than the White House lawn in April.  If you don’t want to miss the references, keep up with the universe as it rolls hot off the Silver Empire presses.

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StoryHack IV: The Russian Collusioning

Do you like the Rocky refence in the title?  Sorry, it’s got nothing to do with today’s naked shilling for the fourth issue of StoryHack Magazine.

If you think you know what happened last night at O’Reilly’s, you don’t know the half of it. This issue features the third installment in the series.  If you’ve read issues two and three, you’ll recall the role that gambler and the dealer played in the festivities.  This issue of StoryHack presents the exact same night as seen through the eyes of Robert “Bomber” Robinson, the doorman, bouncer, and mob enforcer on duty when things went very, very wrong.  The Bouncer’s Tale offers up more answers, and more mysteries that you’ll have to wait for Issue Five to unravel, when we see the same night from yet another perspective.

It also features stories by the always on-point Misha Burnett, a Dragon-Biplane duel by the deliciously named Damascus Mincemeyer, a Spencer Hart bareknuckle modern day action piece, and more werewolvish fun from Julie Frost.  Best of all, Jason Restrick takes us back to the Temple of Baktaar, featured in another story presented in Issue Two of StoryHack!

At four bucks for 220-pages of fun, you just can’t beat it!

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Dancing Around the Fire

Watching Amazon’s The Boys – more on that soonish – reminded me of my last desperate days stuck under the thumb of the Dinosaur Publishers.  Back in the bad old days when I only rarely dipped my toes into NYC publishing waters in search of a rare good read, a brother recommended the First Law books by Joe Abercrombie, and so with the trepidation of a man burned once too often, I grabbed a copy of Red Country from the library and proceeded to get burned once again.  As a novel it failed to clear every bar set before it.  It failed to deliver adventure.  It failed to deliver heroism.  Worst of all, it failed to deliver fun.

We’ve been down this road before.  We’ve talked about Red Country as a sterling example of how to suck the life out of fantasy adventure and prop up the desiccated corpse for acclaim.  So we’re not going to talk about why it fails.  Instead, let’s take a look at what it represents.

One of the few scenes in Red Country that stuck in my craw through all these years was one where the vicious and bloody and greedy mercenary army (because that’s the only kind of army there ever is amirite lol?) attacks some sort of fantasy-hippy religious commune (that’s actually a front for some other materialist greed because that’s the only kind of religious communal living there ever is amirite lol?).  One of the members of the mercenary army delights in the destruction of wooden totems carved lovingly and painstakingly over hundreds of years and the camera lingers in its portrayal of the sheer malignant joy the petty little mercenary takes in destruction.  It was one of the few genuine moments in the novel, and it was this more than the vindictiveness of the unnamed soldier that stuck with me – although that was a part of it, this was just one of countless scenes that wallowed in misery in Red Country.

These days, rather than feel disgust at the scene itself, I laugh at the sheer self-unawareness of a man who could write such a scene without realizing that his own efforts to drag fantasy literature away from the high minded ideals of yesterday and down into the mud of a bleak and empty humanism mimic those of the one character in Red Country that he manages to write with enough depth and believability to stick in the reader’s mind for years to come.

Deconstructionist artwork is cheap, lazy, and ultimately forgettable.  It’s as common as the sunrise, but without the illumination and hope for a new day.  It might sell to a market run by jaded humanists and the black-pill junkies who can’t take their eyes off the mud to look to the heavens, but it’s no way to build a better world or inspire readers to live better lives and be better people.  For that, you need real heroism and real heroes.

As for me, rather than try to one-up Tolkien by crafting a mockery of the greats, I’ll aspire to reach his lofty heights as an author.  Even if I never get there, at least I’ll have a better view of the land far below and the blue skies above than authors who spend their time rolling in the grit and the grime of this fallen world.

Think I’m crazy?  See for yourself.

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Better Writing for a Better Tomorrow

It turns out that rebuilding an sf/f publishing civilization from the ruins left behind by the Boomer generation requires a lot of effort on a lot of different fronts.  The one that we upstarts in the publishing world seek to rebuild is a complex civilization, and carving our own pale imitation of it out of the wilderness of modern publishing takes a lot of work.

  • Jeffro Johnson’s archaeological efforts to understand our roots were instrumental in showing us what we we’ve lost, and how we might regain it.
  • A whole team of people have helped to perform triage on the dying patient of sf/f.  By exploring the roots of the terminal disease purposefully injected into the culture and tracking the slow decline over the decades, they have helped us understand how things came to their current grim pass.
  • The grand vision of Brian Niemeier helps us understand how we can inject the necessary antibodies into our own work to inoculate it against the creeping disease memes of the enemies of civilization.
  • The solid investment and nurturing of publisherCirsova demonstrates the existence of a market and proves the sustainability of the business model.
  • The marketing genius of Jon Del Arroz spreads the word of the blossoming sf/f Elysium free from the mud-eating modrenists, a missionary work that benefits all of us working in the trenches to restack the rocks of sf/f into something resembling the grand cathedrals of yesteryear.

The efforts of these fine gentlemen have been supplemented by a host of others too numerous to name here.  We all engage in the day to day vivisection of Hollywood’s bumbling attempts to combine political action with entertainment that resonates, and cheer along with renegade publishing success stories like Nick Cole and Gardner Fox.

And yet, there’s one aspect of this thing of ours that has gone unheralded for too long, and that’s the nuts and bolts of stringing words together in a conscious way.  The technical side of writing might be the least glamorous aspect of rebuilding an sf/f civilization worth living in, but it might also be the most important.

One of the great problems facing the OldPub dinosaurs is their decision to go all in on the Clarion Workshop style of writing.  The gray-goo McDonald’s style “adventure” fiction hawked by the merchants of NYC suffers from more than just hollow shell philosophies and naked propaganda – the Clarion Workshop style of writing is just plain dull as dishwater to read.

If we’re going to compete on what passes for an open market these days, we’ve got to do better.  And when it comes to building a better writer, no one has done better work than Xavier Lastra.  A solid writer in his own right, Emperor Ponders regularly drops detailed blog posts delving into the mysteries of lost methods of writing that are as fun to read as they are informative.  Take a quick scroll through his posts and you’ll see what I mean:

The act of speaking, as well as other auxilliary descriptions (like the speech tone) are placed before the things being said. It makes sense, really, because first you describe the action (he spoke and how) then the result. Unfortunately, for whatever reason, this style has fallen out of fashion and now forward dialogue tags are literary unicorns. They have been replaced by dialogue tags written after or, with increasing frequency, in the middle of the speech.”

Latching a narrator onto a single POV has many unintended consequences, and these are unfortunately invisible until they explode in your face, so one can read (or write) texts that should be, in theory, bristling with excitement but, in reality, are dull and shallow.

I’ll show you a trick to help you with indirect characterization. Well, actually, I will tell you why you shouldn’t do that — or not as much as is common nowadays.

But that’s old news.  Recently, a new challenger has arisen in the form of Real Paul Lucas.  His recent summary review of Cirsova – a single post covering two weeks worth of my own blog-fodder reviews – veers off into a technical writing tutorial that anyone working to string words together to elicit an emotional reaction should read.  Scroll down to his review of The Idol in the Sewers by Kenneth R. Gower and you’ll find this:

Everything in the story is told at a remove, through slightly abstracted descriptions. The story telling concentrates on the things within the story or on the attributes of the characters, and not so much the characters themselves.  It’s hard for me to explain without going into a little detail, so here’s the first sentence of the story.

“The sewer’s fetid stench threated to overpower Kral Mazan completely.”

The first ‘character’ in the story isn’t Kral Mazan, but the sewer. It has a stench. To use the jargon, the sewer is the subject (the doer), Kral Mazan is the object (the recipient of the action).

And then keep reading.  And then think about what he says when you sit down to the keyboard.  Everybody knows that the passive voice leads to weak writing.  Like a good lover, prose should not just lay there flat – it should actively participate in the story.  No one wants to read about things that simply exist, they want to read about things that act, that strive, that pursue aims and goals, that drive a story forward.  It looks to me like Mr. Gowers has avoided the dreaded passive voice trap by finding objects that can act.  A stench threatens.  A torch burns.  A rat scurries.  All of these provide motion and deliberate action, but none of them draw the reader’s eye toward the protagonist.  That’s a problem.  And calling our attention to that problem allows us to avoid falling into the same snare.

That’s solid writing advice, and I for one appreciate Mr. Lucas taking the time to share it with us.  We need to do more of this.  The kind of growth that arises from these discussions are vital in rebuilding what we have lost.

Go forth and do likewise.

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Pup Kult Stephenson

Is it just me, or did this feel a lot like a Stephenson novel?

It features the weird future of Snowcrash and the abrupt lurch of an ending of…

Well, pretty much every novel Stephenson ever wrote.

Not a complaint.  Just an observation.  Nick Cole’s first-person spycraft novels typically feature first person tales written in the present tense.  We’ve seen it in the Galaxy’s Edge series, the Wyrd novel that follows the spy-slash-lounge-singer, and now twice in the Soda Pop series.  It’s a heady feeling, reading his works, and Cole’s skills at manipulating the reader are legendary.  In this series, he does Ready Player One a step better by ditching the snark and ironic self-awareness and simply embracing the love of the IP’s that get referenced throughout the novels.

Good stuff.  The world will be a better place once Virus Films gets the scratch together and builds the army of technicians required to bring these films to life.  Of course, how they show all those Hollywood properties while keeping within the bounds of “Fair Use” should prove as interesting as the narratives themselves.  Once might almost say that doing so is half the battle.

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Cirsova – Moonshot

Gag stories.  They’re a lot harder than most writers realize, particularly when the joke at the core of the story has to sustain several thousand words.  Not joke stories that amount to one long setup for a snappy punchline, but full blown shaggy dog stories that revolve around an absurd situation.  Most humorous concepts wear out their welcome long before the words “The End” appear in fancy script in the reader’s mind’s eye.

Not so with Moonshot.  Michael Wiesenberg finishes off this issue of Cirsova in style with the story of a rejuvenated NASA proving her chops by landing a Wisconsin barn on the moon.  Not content with lampooning the bureaucratic hobbling of scientific inquiry, Wisenberg spoofs Midwest practicality with a light touch, and even manages to deftly cram some serious orbital physics lessons into the story.  Where Moonshot lacks the belly-laughs of a Ring Lardner story, it more than makes up for it with a constant haze of amusement that reminded me very much of a Garrison Keillor work.  And that’s a huge compliment.  Keillor was a master at the enthralling story that hovers for long periods just on the cusp of open laughter, with a steady dose of light chuckles sprinkled throughout the narrative.  If Keillor was a science nerd instead of a literary nerd, Moonshot is the kind of story that he would have written.

A fitting end to a fine issue, and a great bookend to the Tarzan tale that kicked off this second volume of strange and wonderful tales.  Really looking forward to Issue Two.




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Cirsova – The Elephant Idol

This might be my favorite story in this issue of Cirsova.  Xavier Lastra, the author of The Elephant Idol, is a good friend of mine.  He has edited a few of my short stories, and his blog has played a vital role in improving my writing.  Reading this story reminds me of exactly why, when he speaks about writing, one should listen.  Many of the recent crop of new writers seeking to revive the sf/f genre after its long bout of SocJus cancer have written at length on the trappings of sf/f, myself included.  We wax prolific about the old masters, about how to keep your political messaging subtle and unobtrusive, and about how to write for a better tomorrow.  Xavier is one of the few who rolls up his sleeve and writes about the nuts and bolts of wordcraft.

He also writes in English as a second language, so it’s doubly not fair that he can string words together so more prettier than writer me.

The Elephant Idol presents a simple heist tale gone wrong.  And by wrong, I mean about as wrong as a heist can possibly go.  I’m talking Lovecraftian wrong.  And I’m not just talking “stick some tentacles all up in there – BOOM, Lovecraft”.

Instead, I’m talking about somebody messin’ where they shouldn’t have been a-messin’ and winding up in a Very Bad Place.  The action takes place in an opera house filled with colorful characters who get even more colorful when a ragamuffin thief makes the mistake of stealing the wrong idol.  The curse he brings down upon his head transports him into a hellish upside-down version of the opera-house populated by cancerous funhouse-mirror versions of the colorful characters already introduced.  It’s a freakish and foul place that evokes a truly original sense of mystery and uncertainty and danger.

A lot of people talk about finding new ways to do Lovecraft without tentacles, but Xavier just went out and did it, and he did it in a way that adds a touch of honest to goodness romance?  Full marks for this unsettling tale.

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Cirsova – Seeds of the Dreaming Tree

Lost tribe tales set in the modern day fell out of fashion shortly after the last few corners of the map were filled in by intrepid explorers.  The extra challenge of squeezing a bit of mystery into our digitized and sanitized world thwarts many a good adventure tale. Harold R. Thompson’ neatly sidesteps the issue by creating a new steam-age world in which a scientist and her guide attempt to recover the seeds of a possibly magical demon tree.  It might rightly be considered a steampunk tale, but it feels so much like our own world that it’s easy to forget the place names aren’t from around here.

Once again Cirsova presents a compact quest, and this time adds a dash of truly dark and alien menace.  Squint your eyes a bit, and you’re reading an Indiana Jones story, complete with two-fisted action, native death cults, Daddy issues, and a bit of surprise occult activity.

A solid entry overall, my personal preference would have been to go full historical.  The hints that this Dreaming Tree exists in our own world, that the events might just be autobiographical, would have added a bit more impact to the story.



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Quick Movie Hits

Long flights with no laptop and an empty reading queue on the trusty kindle make things so dull that one might be tempted to run through a quick scan of the free Hollywood fare provided by the airline.  That’s how I discovered the little gem of Stan and Ollie.  This time around the results possessed considerably less sparkle.  My own interest in Hollywood films has flagged so much that I barely recognized most of the titles, but gave a couple of interesting looking covers a shot, and came up empty.

Escape Room amounts to a low-rent Saw where the people in the death trap dungeon don’t deserve to be there and don’t give you any reason to root for their survival.  It’s a fun puzzler let down by the presence of a vacuous leading lady, an obvious “surprise” reveal, and a rushed ending that sets up a too-obvious sequel.

The latest Mark Walburg empty action movie, Mile 22, really wants to be a smart boy.  The action sequences are great.  The simple escort mission has defined stakes and enough little twists to keep things interesting.  It’s let down a little by a face-heel turn at the end that feels a little cheap given the heavy-handed red herrings blasted through the film, and the lack of any real clues along the way.  But it’s a Wahlburg movie – no one goes into one of those looking for an intellectual challenge.

Which leads to the biggest annoyance of the film – Wahlburg plays a dumb person’s idea of a smart person.  That’s his entire personality.  His character is a super genius, you see, and the film-makers show us this in two ways.  One, he completes “world’s hardest jigsaw puzzles”.  Two, he constantly pauses in the middle of conversations to go off on bizarre rants about…stuff.  In most cases, he just explains things that everyone in the room already knows in a very convoluted way.  He snaps a rubber band on his wrist to keep himself focused, because as a smart person, he needs the reminder.  Otherwise, his attention tends to drift away into his own thoughts even in the middle of public firefights against teams of black clad assassins.

I can’t provide a full review Into the Spider-Verse given that I bailed out when Peter Parker got ganked like a chump twenty minutes into the film.  What makes Spiderman is not his powers or his costume – it’s the character.  Remove the character, and you’ve removed the heart and soul of Spiderman.  It’s a bait and switch, which we all know is a con.

There was a fourth film in there somewhere – it was a long flight – but I can’t even remember what it was, it was that forgettable.

So…yeah.  Not good.  At least I managed to finish the excellent Soda Pop Soldier and Pop Kult Warlord.  The latter of which features an ending as abrupt as any Neal Stephenson book.

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