Sunday, December 7, 2008

One to grow on – NaNoWriMo

Well November’s come to an end and I’ve got a mostly finished first draft of a novel. Looks like the final word count is going to be somewhere between 65,000 and 70,000 words. I’ve just started the climax of the novel and I’ve got it pretty planned out, so it should be relatively easy to wrap up.

So what did my NaNoWriMo experience teach me? First off that it is possible to write 50,000 words in a month. Sure this November had an extra weekend, and that certainly came in handy. However, I now have a good idea about how long a first draft should take the next time I tackle one of this size.

I also was able to just focus on actual writing and not be too concerned about what I was writing (hope that makes sense). I’m sure that some of what came out (especially in my lengthy dialogue scenes) will need to be clipped. I mentioned the exposition issue in the middle of the book in my previous blog. There was also an awkward transition between the final portion of the story and the climax of the story. It felt boring to write and I’m sure that at this point it’s pretty boring to read.

I also noticed that the story has some pretty typical plot points in it, especially in the middle and end portions. When I go back to the draft, I’m going to have to see if I can shake up the narrative a bit. It doesn’t do any good to keep the story suspense free after a solid first portion.

I also learned that the plan I put in place last year, of writing 2,500 words each writing day really prepared me for the task of participating in NaNoWriMo this year. 3,000 words each writing night didn’t seem so impossible after the 2,500 words. In addition the whole plan helped me keep on track. I fell behind a few times, especially when some holiday craziness intervened. Luckily I was able to catch up on the weekends.

With all that said, I had a real good time working on NaNoWriMo. I’m looking forward to the challenge next year and I encourage anyone who is interested in novel writing to give it a try. If anything, I finally got another part of the larger dark fantasy story I’ve been working on for years out onto paper (or into my hard drive). And that’s a very good feeling.

Did you participate in NaNoWriMo this year (or previously)? What was your experience like? Do you have any questions about my experience that I didn’t bring up in my blog? Are you happy to see this over so I can get back to ranting and raving about movies, books and music?

Monday, December 1, 2008

A nice healthy info dump – NaNoWriMo

One of the main issues I've run into while working on my NaNoWriMo story was the problem of exposition. There are some minor issues. Characters all have pasts, and sometimes these pasts come up in conversation. So the reader, who doesn't know anything about these pasts, may find the conversation to be a little confusing. I usually keep these conversations short and to the point. In my second draft, I'll review these and see if they are necessary or just color that happened to appear in my first draft. Most can be culled without any affect to the reader.

The bigger problem comes from basic story construction. My main character, Martin, is given the ability to see layers beneath our world. This happens suddenly and creates much of the fear and uncertainty in the first portion of the story. Martin then tries to find out more about why this happened, and soon finds that he's a target for the cultists I mentioned in an earlier blog. The mystery of the cults’ goals, and their dedication to these goals compels Martin in several scenes and drives the tension up. The lack of information for Martin and reader keeps things interesting and drives the story at the same time.

Then comes the moment when the motives of the cult must be revealed. The story screeches to a halt while characters talk and talk and talk some more. Now, I don't mind writing dialogue, so I'm having fun with this section, but the story itself seems to be bogging a bit. For a first draft, I'm not too worried, I just want to get the story down and I'll work with it later.

It's the second draft I'm thinking about. How can I reduce the amount of talking in the middle? The first option is to keep some for the revelations secret even longer. Perhaps my font of knowledge doesn't have all the answers, and Martin and his comrades discover more as the story goes. This sounds like a good option, and I think that's where I'm leaning.

The other option is to have Martin learn a bit more about the cultists earlier in the story. Problem I have with that, is that much of the good and scary stuff comes from the unknown. Why are these freaks attacking Martin and why are they so determined? To undermine that mystery would hurt that first portion of the book.

The last option would be to continue the mystery without the "Fount of Knowledge" scene. I'm not too keen on that option either, only because Martin will still be clueless and it would be up to dumb luck that he even starts down the right path to completing the puzzle. Dumb luck is a little too close to happy chance and coincidence for my tastes. I think Martin must engage in the Fount of Knowledge scene for the story to head toward its climax.

Where does that leave me? Well right now, it leaves me with just finishing draft one and letting the whole story rest. But when I come back to it, I think I'll need to look at places where I can place hints for Martin before the Fount of Knowledge scene. This will make some of the conversation go a bit quicker, because Martin will not have to be brought up to speed. Second, I think that my Fount will not have all the answers. This will lead to some good surprises down the stretch. Heck just writing this, I've come up with a good twist that I telegraphed in my Font scene, and that would be much better without any warning... Hmmm.

Do you have any suggestions on handling the dreaded Info Dump scenes? Is this something that shouldn't be a concern in a first draft, or is it good to think about now? Have you read any books that handle this kind of problem well?

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Status Report - NaNoWriMo

Not much of a blog today. I'll try to get something else up later in the week about actual writing.

Currently I'm at 45,066 words into my novel and it looks like the finished work will be over the 50,000 mark. I'm heading toward the climax, but I haven't quite hit it's intro yet, so I'm guessing closer to 70,000 for the completed work.

I'm having a pretty good time, only a few bumpy patches so far, but once I hit some plotting ideas, I was able to steamroll over them.

It also looks like my writing plan has kept me on track.

That's it for now, I'll be back later this week with an examination of the dreaded Information Dump!

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Piecing Together the Story - NaNoWriMo

When I was thinking about what I wanted to write for NaNoWriMo this year I had a bit of a problem. No real great story ideas were circulating in my mind.

I had finished my long mythological novel, and so I was pretty sure I wanted to steer clear of fantasy. My space opera idea wasn't too appealing at the moment, (my last attempt at working on it was frustrating at best). This left my supernatural thriller ideas that I've been cooking around with for almost fifteen years. This slow and simmering evolution of stories, ideas, characters, settings and themes has been a bit of a pet project - something I'm not sure if I have the guts or skill to pull off. Over the years I've written two novels set in that genre with those characters and a pretty good sized fragment as well. A few of my more sinister short stories also fall in this realm.

The problem was, I didn't know what story I could tell (I've got a huge time line of events and characters, and picking is tough). So while I was rooting around in my hard drive, I came across a whole set of interesting short stories, story notes, and half started fragments. I started to see little hints of a story wanting to be told, but lacking a cohesive idea. Here's what I found.

Several of the fragments and short stories dealt with a man who was suddenly given the ability to see things that others could not see. In some cases it was visions of the future, sometimes it was the true faces of others, sometimes it was something just buried behind our reality.

So he became my protagonist.

I ran into a half finished novella about a cult that abducted a boy because they thought he was their god reborn. His best friend teams up with a group that is trying to stop the cultists. The two kids were just getting old enough to see each other as more than friends. It was an interesting idea that never really went anywhere.

But those cultists were pretty damn creepy, so they became my antagonists.

I also liked the idea about a childhood friend coming to the rescue of my protagonist. So I took that character and fleshed her out a bit (making her older to fit the protagonist's new age [mid twenties or so]).

I also ran into some great scenes that I wondered if I could use. One in particular was a visit to a museum where the paintings were so vivid they caused people who looked at them to react in disturbing ways.

That became my opening scene.

Finally I had a very strange image pop into my head a few years ago. It involved a song by ABBA, the cartoon Sailor Moon, and a synchronized dance number in a club that normally played techno music.

No, I wasn't drunk or high when I thought of that. But if you listen to enough ABBA you can feel drunk and high!

Believe it or not, I've worked all these things (and quite a few more odds and ends) into my NaNoWriMo story so far.

Have you ever tried to create a story from fragments of other work that you never finished? What do you find is the best way to come up with story ideas on the fly? What does the music of ABBA inspire you to do?

Thursday, November 13, 2008

Wax On, Wax Off - NaNoWriMo

Using my word count goal to write this mythological fantasy novel wasn't as tough as I thought it would be. Sure I ran into times when it was hard to push into that 2,500 words, especially at the very start and in the middle of the novel.

For some reason, starting is always really rough for me. I usually find myself over thinking the opening scenes and finding it difficult to get the flow. In this case I had a great opening scene, right from the classic myth, but after that moment, I wasn’t sure how to tie the rest of the story into it tone-wise. Over thinking! I just wrote and forgot about tone. After the first day or two, I have found the novel's grove and just worked through to the goal pretty easily.

Things went great till around the middle of the novel. Everything seemed to be sagging, and because of the nature of the story (my characters were searching for clues on unexplored islands) I found the whole narrative to be meandering and not much fun to write. It got to be a real struggle for a while to hit the 2,500 word mark. This went on for about a week and a half (and I wonder if I'm going to have to do some serious editing of those lifeless scenes), and then I found a good antagonist to really stir up the pot.
The book moved at a better pace after that (I hit a few bumps but I ended up just plowing over them). In the end, the scope of the book got out of hand and I stopped at what was the first third of the story. It was novel length, but I had lost interest in the characters. I had just put them through a good solid quest, and it set things up for the second stage (and a new quest) but I didn't have the energy or desire to really go into it. I put the whole thing aside with the thought to revisit it later.

Still I had stuck mostly to my schedule. Even when it was difficult, I would hit that 2,500 word mark. On good days I would easily pass it and go over the 3000 word limit. I felt comfortable with the schedule and waited for NaNoWriMo. In the mean time I worked on some more short stories and edited some other things I had around. I found some interesting fragments of ideas...

As NaNoWriMo came around I revisited my writing schedule. I knew that 2,500 words a night wasn't going to cover it, but how much would I have to go? Time for some more math. The big difference was that November had an extra day weekend (outside of what I had originally calculated). Good news! Ok, so with five weekends, how would this work out?

I counted up the potential writing days. I had four full weeks (4 writing days) and a weekend (1 writing day); Total was 17 days. This broke down to 2942 words a day. I could do that. I had done it easily over the summer with the myth novel - the only exception being on days where it was tough. The good thing was that I had plenty of wiggle room, especially with free days on the weekends when I could play catch-up if I needed to.

So I went ambitious - 3000 words a day for 17 days and I'd have the novel and some to spare. That means that by Sunday the 9th I needed to hit 15000 words. I managed to do it (even with some unexpected delays in getting started and my scheduled writing days getting pushed around because of my day job). I feel pretty good about hitting my personal goal.

Have you ever come up with a word count goal for writing long fiction? Was my technique too scientific? Do word count goals work for you? Anyone else have issues with the starting and middles of novels?

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Time for Some Math - NaNoWriMo

first heard about National Novel Writing Month last year, just as it was heading into full swing. At the time, I was already in the middle of working on a short story and didn't feel good about putting it down to work on something longer. I skipped last year but hatched a cunning plan instead. I would train for next year's event, and be completely prepared for some serious novel writing action.

Sometime in Spring, I was struck with a new mythological fantasy story, and decided to come up with a writing plan that I could use to keep me focused and prepare me for the weeks of NaNoWriMo. It was time for some calculations, 50,000 words divided by four would make up 12,500 words. I picked four because most months have four weeks in them. So if I could reach a goal of 12,500 words a week, I could finish a novel in time for NaNoWriMo.

OK, so the next task is to figure out how much I could write - while focused. I do most of my writing after dinner and before bed with some on the weekends. This means about three hours a night for three nights with about three hours on the weekend. OK, total of 12 hours a week. So to meet my goal of writing 12500 words a week, I would need to write about 1042 words an hour. Meaning each day I should write 3,126 words. Isn't math fun!

Since this was just training, I figured to start off with something a little lighter. and cut it down to 2,500 words a day for a grand total of 10,000 words a week. And with this schedule in mind I started my training montage using my new novel idea (cue: "You're the Best Around" from the "Karate Kid").

I wrote up a page outlining my writing commitments for the novel. The first was for the word count of 2,500 words. The second was for a limit of internet time (since my writing days are also the days I update my blog and do some surfing) to half an hour at the most! I printed this up and put it on the wall to the left of my monitor. It's there staring at me and actually helped me stay focused.

Did it work? Stop by for my next blog to see if I was able to meet my goal and how my first draft turned out.

Wednesday, November 5, 2008

NaNoWriMo - The Adventure Begins

Crazy week! = Short Blog

Just wanted to give everyone a heads up. I'm going to be participating in National Novel Writing Month, and that may cut into my blogging time. I'll still be around so feel free to drop me a message of encouragement or just find out how I'm doing.

Wanna check out my NaNoWriMo page - go here: my NaNoWriMo Page

I might be able to post a blog or two about my experience, but I'm already behind in my scheduled word count, so I'm off to put some more words on the page.

Have a great week!

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

Killer Application - Rope

Alfred Hitchcock is known as the master of suspense. Many of his films hinge up on a murder, or an unjustly accused victim. He builds suspense in his films by keeping the audience wondering when the murder is going to occur or when the hero on the run is going to get caught. Throw in some deadly obstacles and a double cross or two and you've got some solid suspense entertainment.

I've tackled Hitchcock twice before. In Suspicion we have only the heroine's point of view to guide us. She begins to suspect her charming husband of being something more than he appears to be. The tension builds on this suspicion. In Psycho, Hitchcock provides us with the woman on the run, and keeps us wondering if she'll get caught. Then he murders our "lead character" and closes the movie with other characters walking into the spider's den. This is a bit of a hybrid, half hero on the run: half waiting for the murderer to strike.

"Rope" is a different type of hybrid. The movie starts with the murder: a young man is strangled right in front of the camera. The rest of the film is contained in the apartment where the murder has occurred and the where the body is still hidden. The two murderers host a party, placing a feast on the chest where the body is hidden. The party guests include the father and aunt of the deceased man, his fiancée and best friend. Also invited is the old professor who was a favorite teacher of not only of the victim, but of the murderers.

This macabre setting acts like a pressure cooker. The murderers are so confident and smug that they don't believe they can be caught, and that what they have done (with the murder and the party) is actually a work of art. They tempt fate, and the notice of the very observant professor (played by the always solid Jimmy Stewart), but guilt starts to take its toll on one of the killers, threatening to ruin the whole work.

The audience is now waiting to see if the killers get caught, at the same time we get to find out more about them during the party. And as the party continues we find them deplorable, arrogant and (Brandon especially) a bit deranged. There is a logic to their reasoning, but it's a logic that seems to come from people who think they are better and smarter than everyone else. The audience wants them to get caught by the end, but the old professor is now in very real danger, trapped in an apartment with two killers, who admire and fear him.

"Rope" is often considered an experiment in Hitchcock’s filmography. All the action occurs in the apartment, and Hitchcock goes further by attempting to make the whole movie appear as if it has been filmed in on continuous shot. The illusion is interesting and it required the actors to be comfortable with performing the entire film in long takes. There is very little editing at all, but the camera is not locked off. It moves almost constantly, following the characters around the apartment, peering over shoulders and looking around doorframes. Anyone interested in camera work should check the film out for that alone.

Hitchcock stated that he wanted to create a filmed version of a play, something that was locked off to one set, but that allowed the freedom of movement that a film would offer. It's interesting and yet at the same time it hurts the film. Despite all of Hitchcock's efforts the film ends up feeling stagy. Some of the actors play very broadly (especially the killers) and while that would be fine on the stage a bit more subtly would have done wonders for the film. In the end, the tension is built, but not to the heights of the more masterful Hitchcock thrillers.

What I find interesting from the story point of view is the fact that the killers are the main characters in the film. We can't sympathize with these men, they are too arrogant and sociopathic to really like. The cold calculation of the act of murder and the party are intriguing, but after establishing their motive (they do it to prove a philosophical point), the audience is more engaged with the cat and mouse game. Will they get caught? If so, what will happen? Will the teacher, who exposed them to the philosophy they cling to, attempt to stop them or understand what they are doing? It's an intriguing set of questions, it's too bad the execution doesn't elevate these to a more surface level.

Have you seen "Rope"? What did you think of it? Have you read a story or seen another movie where remorseless killers were the main character? How did the creators attempt to make you sympathize with them, or were you just waiting for them to get caught?

Tuesday, October 7, 2008

Huge Horror - The Giant Gila Monster

Sometimes I wonder about what makes some people scared. I had a teacher that said that all fear was based on fear of death. Even stage-fright was based on performing so poorly on stage that the audience will rush you, strip you naked and then hang you from a scrim light cord. Yeah, I had my doubts about that one. But fear of death does seem to be the main cause of terror in horror fiction. Most books and movies put the perils in mortal peril and then you read about them trying to escape one way or the other.

What influences these terrors can come from what the writer of the story fears. For example, are you scared of clowns popping out from under your bed and pulling you into a knife filled embrace under the bed - don't watch "Poltergeist". And while fear of clowns (or of heavily made up humans trying to make you laugh) makes some sort of sense, you have to wonder about the inherent horror of "The Giant Gila Monster".

Now the Gila Monster is a lizard and some people hate reptiles of any kind. On top of that, the bite of a Gila monster is very poisonous. Ok, that's scary. And if you make a Gila monster HUGE then you've got dangers from being stepped on, or tail swiped or even being bitten half (poison followed by being severed in twain! That's really scary). So you see the potential for horror, right? Well kinda.

In the hit film "The Giant Gila Monster" the horror of the idea isn't translated well into existence. First off the low budget of the film made it impossible to show the Gila Monster actually on the screen with any humans. So instead of the stop motion wizardry of a Ray Harryhausen creature - we get a regular sized Gila Monster walking across model train sized sets. And these are obviously sets, or model train sets - whichever was cheaper. Sure our giant critter gets lots of close ups, and cut aways, so it appears he watching the action. But you can tell he's just looking for a quick way off the stupid plastic hill and find a rock to hide under.

When the movie tries to get the poor stunt lizard to interact with anything it's hilarious - not scary. He knocks over a model train, which gets an overlay of screams to create realism. All it really does is confirm that the sets are model train sets. He pops his head through some balsa wood to make it look like he's terrorizing a barn dance (you end up feeling sorry for him. You know some human just shoved his head through balsa wood). In my favorite scene from the movie, a toy truck is shown driving down a deserted road. Cut to Gila Monster. Cut to driver humming to himself, wondering if he'd get his tanker truck full of gasoline back to the gas station in time. Cut to the Gila Monster. Out shoots his tongue! Cut to the driver. Eyes bug out and he lets out a scream. The camera tilts crazily. Cut to a toy tanker truck on a fake road falling over and bursting into flames. One of my friends asked, "Did the Gila Monster destroy the truck with its tongue?" Yes... yes it did.

So, were the creators of the film delusional? Did they think that the Gila Monster's tongue was so horrible that it would terrify the multitudes? Did they have larger ambitions than their budget would allow? Of was it just a quick cash grab to make this movie (and "The Killer Shrews" ) to slap on a double bill for a drive in?

Yeah I pick option three.

But I can see how a giant poisonous lizard could be terrifying.

Do you have a favorite cheesy monster movie? Can you think of a way to make a giant Gila Monster scary? Would this same story have worked well in a short story or novel form? Have you seen this movie (with or without the help of Mystery Science Theater)?

Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Interview with Richard Bellush Jr. About "Slog".

I recently had the pleasure of reading the book “Slog” by Richard Bellush Jr. This novel is set in a post - apocalyptic future where the global warming has devastated the human race. Bellush weaves an adventure story with plenty of humor and some very interesting observations on human nature and our current society.

I asked Richard if he would mind being interviewed for my blog and he stepped up to the challenge. I tried to keep most of my questions based around elements of storytelling, but I just had to throw in a random question or two.

And now, Richard Bellush Jr. about his novel: “Slog”.

1) What drew you to write a post - apocalyptic story? It's been done before, what did you think you could add?

“Nothing is said that has not been said before.” – Terence, c. 160 BC

This is not quite true, of course. I just said, “Skateboarding wombats broke all my concrete soap dishes with Frisbees.” It is possible that someone has said that before, but I doubt it. Terence was closer to right in a less trivial sense. The fundamental human elements of good stories are what they always were. Yet, we still find new ways to present them, as Terence did himself.

In the case of science fiction, there likely hasn’t been a truly unprecedented premise for a story in 70 or more years. That’s OK, too. Authors still can bring us different and (one hopes) worthwhile personal perspectives. Moreover, every sf tale is a product of its particular time and place. Consider a few other post-apocalyptic novels: economic depression and fascism loom large in Well’s The “Shape of Things to Come” (1933), Vidal’s “Kalki” (1978) is inextricable from the political events and social developments of the 1970s, while the sensibility of the Cold War-era UK (including a twist on British fondness for dogs) pervades Hoban’s “Riddley Walker” (1980). At this point, these can be considered as much alternate histories as sf. All can be read today with enormous pleasure, but none would be written the same way today. Slog belongs to the 00s.

It wasn’t my primary plan to write a contemporary novel, however; this just happens whether you plan on it or not. I simply wanted to write an adventure tale – to invent characters and play with them. I did sneak political and social observations into their adventures, but hopefully in a light-footed way. Exotic locales are always good for such stories, and a post-civilized earth made even New Jersey (surely one of the most prosaic of places at present) exotic.

2) How did this book evolve? It feels like it might be a set of novellas united by its characters.

Actually, that is correct. Slog began life some 15 years ago as a short story: basically, chapter 1 of the novel. It was published in an early, and now-defunct, sf/horror webzine called “Clique of the Tomb Beetle”. For the next decade I wrote a variety of short stories, including one with the same characters as “Slog” (basically chapter 2 of the novel), many of which were published in webzines or in odd print lit-magazines.

In the early 2000s the idea of a full length novel became attractive. I already was half-way there with the two “Slog” stories, so I set to writing a couple more. I reworked the bunch (which made them of the 00s rather than the 90s) and the result was Slog, the novel.

Though the book is self-contained, I should add that there is one more novella in the series; it was begun after Slog was too far along with the publisher to be attached. “After Slog,” with one major character from the earlier novel, is included in the collection “Trash and Other Litter”. This was published a few months ago, and is available on Amazon and elsewhere.

3) How the does the title of book fit into the story?

I have a penchant for monosyllabic titles, e.g. “Scum,” “Trash,” and “Blow” (the latter short story about cocaine was published before the movie of the same name was made, but I don’t think the title was borrowed). In the original short story, “Slog” was meant to convey a sense of the wet jungle environment through which the characters had to, well, slog. I simply carried it over to the novel, though the characters there range over deserts and mountains, too.

4) Why climate change instead of war or famine or disease?

In part because it is topical. I didn’t want to get bogged down in the politics of it, though. This is why the change is attributed primarily to the sun being more variable than had been believed (as some stars are); it unexpectedly enters a hot phase. Disease and famine do the rest. This scenario also has the plot advantage of leaving the remains of civilization (including some dangerous weapons) decayed but largely intact.

5) Is there something I should know about Quebec's desire for world domination?

Aside from the chance it gave me to tease a friend and occasional horseback riding partner (he is a French Canadian physicist), it was meant to show that such ambitions are opportunistic. People and peoples are tempted to grab for power when the chance arises and the risk is low. It also let me play a bit of role reversal with language politics -- in this case English-speakers resisting the dominant French. Aujourd'hui Nouveau Jersey, demain le monde.

6) George Custer and Ulysses S. Johnston are obviously named after famous figures in American history. Why did you go with these names?

They are memorable, for one thing, and so the readers instantly can keep them straight; learning the names of major characters is always one of the readers’ tasks when picking up a book, so I cut them a rare break. For another, the names evoke an America that is past, for us almost as much as for the characters in the novel, which has some relevance in the West Virginia events. They also were an opportunity for irony. Unlike his namesake, an ambitious hero who charged into defeat, the George of the novel is a lazy loser who stumbles his way to success; the Ulysses of the novel is very much on the wrong side of the battles he picks, unlike (with apologies to my Southern friends) his namesake. There are more historical allusions when the scene shifts to the Black Hills.

7) Joelle, Selena and Maggie are very strong female characters. Did you make a conscious attempt to write strong and yet ruthless female characters?

Yes. We all draw on our own life experiences when creating characters, of course, and, though mixed and matched, the characteristics and dialogue of Joelle, Selena, and Maggie are not wholly invented. My lawyers tell me only the good characteristics are borrowed from real people, whereas the bad ones are entirely fictional.

Joelle wouldn’t think of herself as ruthless, though anyone in her way certainly would. She merely does what she needs to do to get her way, which, to her mind, is by definition the right thing. Ulysses, on the other hand, readily thinks of himself as ruthless and isn’t the least bit concerned about the right thing; he spouts propaganda to his followers, for example, but he considers them dolts for believing it. These characters are not intended to be a generalization of the difference in the ways that avaricious men and women pursue their ambitions. I won’t stick my foot that far in my mouth. However, misjudgment of the opposite sex (in both directions) does play a role in the plot more than once.

8) Where did your inspiration to have a major portion of the story told through court testimony come from?

The story required a flashback. The trial made this a natural, provided a subplot, and offered a resolution. Those are the reasons I adopted the idea. As for the source, I don’t know. Maybe I watched “Matlock” the night before.

9) What was the toughest part about writing this book?

Slicing away the excess during the edits. It is easier to write long than short – at least if you are conveying the same essential information – but short is more elegant. The first draft was a good 50% longer than the final one. I shortened speeches, tightened sentences, and cut out whole scenes and characters that weren’t sufficiently relevant to the theme or action. Still, one gets attached to one’s scenes and characters, even the peripheral ones, and, much like the memorabilia cluttering the attic, they are hard to throw out.

10) What was the most fun part of writing this book?

It is fun to put one’s feet up, daydream the next chapter, and, when someone asks what you are doing, say truthfully you are working. It also is fun to start writing that chapter and to find the characters insist on taking it in a different direction.

It is odd when characters hijack the plot, but this is a common experience. In fact, the company scarcely could be better. Mark Twain wrote that the eponymous “Pudd’nhead Wilson” was supposed to be a secondary character in a story about traveling Italian twins, but he kept pushing his way to the front. In the end, Twain gave up the fight and handed him the book. The twins even ceased to be twins, but he turned what he already had written about them into their own short story.

11) Is there something in this book you are particularly proud of?

I would like to meet all of the major characters. Obviously, I’m a bit prejudiced, but I think that means at least something about each of them turned out right.

12) Any writing or storytelling advice you'd like to share?

Handling exposition always is a challenge. Too little and the reader doesn’t know what is going on. Too much and the reader gets bored before the action starts and puts the book down. Do the minimum, but not less, and put what you can within the general text.

Set a minimum number of pages to write per day (mine was two). Don’t set it higher than you really can do on a bad day. Then, you’ll always make at least a little progress, and some days you’ll get on a roll and do page after page.

After the draft is done, cut the excess mercilessly.

Use Christopher Schenck for your cover art if you can get him. He was kind enough to do mine. Some of his work for Dark Horse Comics is here. http://www. darkhorse. com/Search/Christopher%20Schenck

13) If you could watch any movie tonight, what would it be?

Bogie and Bacall in “The Big Sleep”. Yes, I know that is not scifi – but neither is my noir-ish mystery novella “Trash.”

Monday, September 22, 2008

Killing the "nice guy" - Skeleton Crew: The Mist

It was interesting to read some of Stephen King's older short stories. For one thing, you got a glimpse of his style back in the mid 80's, when King was literally the King of horror. The stories in "Skeleton Crew" range from the 70's and go right up to 1985, when the book was first published. It contains an interesting collection of stories including the reliable monster under the bed tales, a twisted sci-fi romp, a meditation on death and a couple of poems. The mix of stories is solid and keeps you interested in seeing where he's going to go next.

One story in particular made me laugh, only because it was featured in a "Mystery Science Theater" film. It's the tale of a toy monkey that causes death each time he clashes his cymbals. King's story is pretty good, but the movie version is hilarious, and not on purpose. The movie was called "Merlin's Mystical Shop of Magical Wonders" and the monkey story is only part of the fun found within. I found a few of the tales in Skeleton Crew" to feel a bit stretched ("Gramma" feeling way too long for it's simple story), but I could also see hints of King's less horrific side (something that he let shine in his later work and in "Different Seasons").

Probably the best story of the bunch was the first, a novella called "The Mist". Recently this story was made into a feature film, and I can see its appeal. (Just warning you, there are going to be some serious spoilers here). The story starts with a family of three (Mom, Dad and son) enjoying a day in their house by the lake. Dad and son go for a quick trip to the market, and see some strange mist rolling across the lake as they leave. Upon reaching the store, the mist catches up and suddenly it becomes very obvious that the mist has brought something with it. Anyone venturing outside into the mist is immediately set upon by horrible creatures who want to do nothing more but messily devour humans. Dad and son are trapped in the supermarket with several other people. Panic sets in. Can they escape and if they do, is there any way out of the mist?

King does a great job of setting up our family, and putting the main characters into danger. The threat is real, random and vicious. The monsters can't be reasoned with, and are nearly invincible (it reminded me quite a bit of "Jurassic Park" in that respect). In addition to the creatures outside, there is simmering tension within. A highly unstable woman is convinced that the only way to stop the mist is to engage in human sacrifice. Yeah, real nice lady. It becomes important for the father and son to leave before the supermarket becomes a bloodbath. Allied with our main characters is a lowly checkout clerk named Ollie Weeks.

King goes out of his way to make us like Weeks. He is a nice enough guy (especially compared to the manager of the supermarket), but is described as a bit of a softy. When things start to go downhill, Weeks steps up. He is the voice of reason in the supermarket. He calms people down and gets everyone thinking clearly. He's not the leader of the group, but he offers advice and is rarely proven wrong. In addition it turns out that Weeks is the best shot of the group, and ends up with the only pistol the people in the market have access to. The little pudgy man becomes the key defender and hero of the group.

In a way it's obvious that Weeks has to go down. This is a horror story after all, and you can't have a knight in shining armor in a horror story: the readers won't feel any fear. King takes out some minor characters in quick and brutal ways, so we begin to doubt Weeks' role. But when he kills a creature with a well-placed shot, we breathe a sigh of relief. Even when the crazy woman has gathered disciples to her and is hunting down the little boy for their sacrifice it is Weeks to does what no one else can - he kills the ranting woman with the pistol. He saves the leads, but in that moment he dooms himself. He's killed another human, just like the monsters outside. On the flip side, the crazy woman was just as dangerous as the monsters, and so it fits that Weeks is able to stop both of them.

A small group makes a run for the lead character's car. They are attacked on the way and it's brutal. Weeks makes it to the car door and is very suddenly and swiftly killed. It happens so quickly that I found myself re-reading the sentence again. In a way it's King showing two things. First, he doesn't want Weeks to suffer, so his death is quick and final. Second, he wants to up the danger for our leads. Weeks is the brave knight and with him gone, do the heroes have a chance? The story ends on an ambiguous note, with the mist already covering much of Maine and our group still driving south hoping to find an end to it and a reprieve from the monsters.

Does the set up, execution and death of Ollie Weeks seem a bit technical? It does, but the story is told in such a way that you don't really notice it, and even if you do, it's still effective. I liked Weeks quite a bit and felt bad enough about his sudden death to go back and reread that sentence. It was only from the technical point of view that I was able to see his place in the narrative. In the depths of the story he works perfectly and if I had read the story in one sitting (possible for a faster reader than me), I'm guessing it works great.

A character like this is very important in horror fiction, or anywhere where thrills and suspense need to be generated. The key is to make the character believable, likable and set them up as an innocent, or heroic figure. Then at a key moment, you kill them off. If you do this right, the reader is going to gasp and feel "If the writer can kill off the 'nice guy', what hope the leads have?" Then you've got them where you want them.

Can you think of any other effective 'nice guy' characters? What did you think of "The Mist" in either the novel or movie form? Have you read an a non-effective use of the 'nice guy'? Why didn't it work?

Sunday, September 14, 2008

Switch it up - Bloody Mary

I imagine that one of the toughest things to do is to keep a series going.  It doesn't matter if it's a series of novels, series of television episodes or movie series - you have one goal, keep people wanting more.  There is a balance to keep.  On the one hand you have to keep the stories fresh and interesting.  On the other you can't change things too much, or you will alienate your readers/watchers.  This becomes a big challenge for nonconsecutive stories.  For example: if the "Friday the 13th" movie series decided to become a musical comedy/horror around the fifth installment - some of the audience may be upset.  (of course I think that's a great idea and would make a hilarious movie!  Do it!  Do it!)

There is also the dreaded Sophomore slump, a rule that says that the second outing is usually a poor relation to the first.  Sometimes the writer tries too hard to make it fresh, sometimes they try too hard to make it familiar.  Either way can make for a disappointing installment.  When I sat down with "Bloody Mary" I decided to see what author J.A. Konrath did to make this story fresh and familiar.

Right off the bat he starts with the familiar: the first chapter puts us in the mind of the killer.  The second chapter puts us back into detective Jack Daniels' mind and we get our bearings.  Old characters are introduced and some of the dilemmas take root here.  It was nice to see the humor was back, as well as the craziness that seemed to plague Jack in the first book.

What about the fresh?  Konrath does an interesting move, in which he allows the killer to be revealed and caught at about the half way point of the book.  Interesting.  Then he added a courtroom twist, in which the killer uses the fact that he had a brain tumor (which was removed after his capture), and it caused him to do the horrible deeds.  However the reader is privy to the man's twisted mind.  It is very apparent he is not "cured", in fact he is just waiting for his best opportunity to escape and track Jack and her family down.

This switch in the plot kept things interesting, and even allowed us to focus a bit on Jack's personal life, as well as the way her job starts to affect those around her.  I also enjoyed the subplot involving her partner's mid-life crisis.  

The end of the novel is the final showdown - just what we expect.  It's over the top and really pretty gruesome (the whole book seems to up the gore factor here), but it was a satisfying end to the tale.

I think Konrath did a good job keeping me off balance with his novel.  I was not expecting the murderer to be caught so quickly, and at the same time I enjoyed the subplots and supporting characters.  It was a solid follow-up and a quick read for summer.  I'll be interested to see where Konrath goes in the third book.  He's used serial killers twice and while he did switch things up a bit here, a third round of the same may be a bit much.  He's got some solid and entertaining characters here: I think it's time he pushed them a bit further and make things a little more interesting next time around.

Have you ever read a second book of a series that kept things in a good balance of Fresh and Familiar?  Have you attempted to do that same, and what obstacles did you face with the second story?  What did you think of "Bloody Mary"?

Monday, September 8, 2008

Say it all by saying nothing - 2001: A Space Odyssey

Usually when a list is made of some of the greatest films of all time, "2001: A Space Odyssey" ends up on it.  You always see it on a list of the best sci-fi films of all time, and I've even read some reviews that declare it the greatest movie of all time: period.  I'm a fan of the film, I think it's very well made and served as inspiration for several other films from things as silly as "Mystery Science Theater: The Movie" to the Japanese animated film "Akira".

But there is a flip side to all this adulation.  I've met several people, especially when I worked at the video store, that absolutely hated the film or at the least found it to be very boring and lacking in substance.  Arguments against the film include: it's pretentious, the bookend sequences don't have anything to do with anything, there are too many shots that glorify special effects over story telling, the basic story is so simple that it could be told in 30 minutes - Kubrick stretches it over two hours, the music is too annoying to allow the viewer to focus on the film.

One of the things the movie does - and this is what splits people the most- is that it keeps everything very ambiguous.  The movie is presented primarily in visuals, sound and music. It seems to shy away from direct narrative.  By reducing the narrative to images, sounds and music the message of the film is not focused, it becomes this nebulous thing.  This accounts for the amazing variety of interpretations of the film.  I've heard people say the movie is about alien life guiding our evolution.  I've heard it's about the way man evolves because of technology.  I've heard people say it's about God's guidance of man kinds journey into space.  None of these things seems very alike.

Part of the issue is the fact that black monolith is never clearly defined.  Great importance is placed on this image, signaled by the music (which overwhelms most of the other sounds) and the way the monolith is usually filmed - it towers over the other characters, and seems to cause them to look up toward it.  But what is that monolith?  The only clues you get are related to the context of the monolith's appearance and the events that follow it's appearance.

What it comes down to is what you think of this ambiguity.  Does the fact that the director doesn't seem to take a stance mean that he is being obtuse on purpose?  And if he is being obtuse does that make him pretentious?  Or is "2001" a perfect example of sloppy film making?

When it comes to the last question, I can say that if "2001" isn't anything, it's sloppy.  It is very controlled, and the amount of detail, the editing, the selection of shots and angles shows that this a film maker who had a definite idea that he was trying to get across.  If that idea was ambiguity itself - well that's another thing all together.  I enjoy films that make you think, that don't give you all the pieces and let you decide what the narrative or even the theme are.  "2001" is one of the best films to offer that type of movie experience.  David Lynch offers his dark vision of the inner journeys of his characters (especially in "Eraserhead" and "Inland Empire") and he is often accused of being obtuse and self indulgent.

When it comes down to it, I don't think "2001" is ever going to fall off those lists.  It is a unique film and a pioneer in many ways and for that alone it deserves praise.  For those of us who enjoy the ambiguity, we'll always find ourselves returning to space and another viewing of that black monolith.

What are your thoughts on “2001” - great film or overrated critic bait? Do you think that if a director (or writer) leaves things ambiguous that it makes the pretentious or lazy? What do you think the greatest sci-fi film yet made should be?

Tuesday, September 2, 2008

Nothing is for Free - The Gods Themselves

I ran into a recording by famed science fiction author Isaac Asimov and he mentioned that while he felt that he would be known for the "Foundation" series, he felt that he would like to be known for "The Gods Themselves".  I had checked out the "Foundation" trilogy back in my high school days and had reread them a couple of times.  But I had never really ventured into his other works.  Asimov tends to be on the dry side and I find that I have to be in the mood for his style.  Well, it just so happens that I was in the mood for his style and decided to seek out this book and see what I thought about it.

First thing I discovered was that I needed to review some of my knowledge of nuclear fission and fusion.  It's part of the main conceit of the novel and while I know a little about the subject, I was pretty rusty.  But after I got some on-line reading done on the subject I was OK.  For the most part the science aspect of the novel didn't go over my head.  Asimov usually has a layman character around who needs some additional explanation, so I often got up to speed.

The basic story for the novel revolves around the appearance of a massive amount of free energy.  All we have to do is leave some Tungsten hanging around, and a portal to another universe opens. The tungsten is traded for a radioactive and unstable bit of plutonium.  But this Plutonium creates a large amount of radiation as it decomposes in our universe (it is very stable where it came from).  This exchange with the parallel universe is wonderful, we get free energy in exchange for Tungsten we weren't using anyway.  Of course we all know that if something is too good to be true, then it probably isn't true.

This isn't free at all.  Each time the exchange is made, other things come from the parallel dimension.  Most importantly the actual laws that define that universe cross into ours and start affecting things.  Most dangerous is the idea that our sun would start being affected by these laws causing it to become unstable and explode.   Yeah, not a good thing.  The problem is that no one wants to acknowledge this or do anything about it because they love their free energy!

The novel is split into three parts.  The first deals with a scientist bent on proving that the exchange is causing more harm than good.  The middle section takes us to the parallel universe and delves into what is driving those beings to make the exchange in the first place.  The last section deals with the people of the colonized moon and how their advances in technology may save us all - unless they have another agenda...

This split carries the basics of the story from one section to the other, but there are interesting sub-themes to each section.  Most of the first part is driven by the ego's of the scientists involved.  The discovery of the exchange would not have been made without one of the scientists feeling like he was the little fish in the big pond.  In turn, the danger of the exchange would not have been discovered, unless the scientist hadn't been snubbed by the illustrious founder of the exchange.  The second section offers us a view of life forms that are interdependent and yet are very much separated.  This creates a struggle between the beings, and one that is resolved in an interesting way.  This theme of connection also goes back to how our universes are connected and what happens in one can affect what happens in the other.  The final section on the moon makes a statement about colonial attitudes and how the one-time colony now wants to break away.

I wasn't too surprised to find that the three sections were published separately.  This makes some sense, as each one carries it's own theme in addition to the overriding theme dealing with the "free energy".  What this reminded me was that good science fiction (and I'm not talking about Space Opera - like "Star Wars") is about ideas and themes.  This book is heavy on the dialogue and there really isn't much action.  What action there is happens in laboratories and testing environments.  The middle portion of the book is the most entertaining to read, because it deals with the alien beings and their perceptions.  It's more of a character story with some mystery thrown in, and the alien perspective is intriguing.  That's not to say that the bookend sections are weak, but they are very focused on ideas over action.  I was in the mood for that, so I didn't mind.  But I know it's one of the things that some readers find dull about Asimov.

"The Gods Themselves" is a novel rich in ideas, and it made me wonder if this kind of fiction is still popular.  People don't seem to like to slow down and think so much now.  And most of the books about writing I have read stress the movement of plot, the importance of action and the feeling that if you have a theme or two in your story, it's a lucky accident.  Reading something like this reminds me that books don't always have to fall in such a narrow view.

Do you think a book can balance multiple themes without become a talky bore?  Is science fiction better when it focuses on ideas over plot?  What do you think of this book or Asimov in general?

Saturday, August 23, 2008

The Perfect Film? - Seven Samurai

I ran into a few critical reviews of the film "Seven Samurai" that referred to it as "the perfect film"?  Usually the reviewer would go on to explain why they felt that this movie was perfect. They would often point out the many great things about "Seven Samurai" and I was left with a little doubt that it was, in fact, perfect.

Now let me start by saying that I really love "Seven Samurai". It's one of my favorite films by director Akira Kurosawa.  I usually recommend it to anyone who hasn't seen a Kurosawa film before.  But I always give out the same caveats - it's Japanese (meaning it's subtitled), it's black and white, and it's over three hours long.  Right off the bat there are three strikes against the film.  Most modern movie watchers will see these three elements as the kiss of death.  In addition, while it does have action, it is a slow builder.  The battle at the end of the film is fast and furious, but for the most part the samurai battles are relegated to that final hour.

I find it hard to label a movie "perfect" if I have to put disclaimers before it.  Now, maybe for a Japanese audience back in 1954 it was perfect (but looking at the box office, "Seven Samurai” was popular but not the years biggest grossing film).  In fact the movie is more and more a perfect film for cinema junkies.  It's a movie that becomes more and more impressive as you dissect it.  Many critics like to point out that there are no wasted scenes in this movie, and while that can be argued, it is amazing how lean and mean the storytelling is in the film.

What makes it such a good film is that it does so much with it's time.  It creates the problem: bandits are going to raid a helpless village.  It provides the solution: the villagers hire seven samurai to help protect them from the attack.  It provides an action packed climax: the villagers and samurai defend themselves and defeat the bandits, but at a cost.  Simple and effective.  But Kurosawa does more, he creates interesting characters, ones that you want to find out more about, ones that end up caring for, ones that make you empathize with them or admire them.  Then when things get nasty, the viewer is sitting on the edge of their seat wondering which samurai will survive, which villagers will step up to the challenge and if the young lovers will stay together.

Watching the film by itself or with the excellent critical commentary provided on the Criterion version of the DVD allows you to understand how well the movie is made.  The behind the scenes stories are almost as engrossing as the film itself.  I heartily recommend it for anyone willing to watch a black and white, Japanese film; as long as they have over three hours to spare (there is an intermission, so you can work your bathroom and food break in there).

This brings me back to the "perfect movie" idea.  Is there a movie similar to "Seven Samurai" that I could tell a modern viewer to enjoy?  This is really tough.  Something with the same entertainment value, and yet one that delivers an emotional punch at the end.  Something in color and preferably not three hours long.  I flipped and flopped for a while on this and only came up with a couple contenders: "Raiders of the Lost Ark" and "The Matrix".  Yeah it's a stretch, but both films are crowd pleasers with main characters that draw the viewer in and deliver some kind of message.  "Raiders" is a little light really - much more of an action picture than anything else.  "The Matrix" does have an interesting message, that loses it's punch with the "magic kiss" at the end.  @_@  Still bugs the hell out of me.

If I'm allowed to reach for the 3 hour time frame I would offer "Kingdom of Heaven: The Directors Cut" and "The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring".  In it's extended form "Kingdom of Heaven" is a excellent movie.  It's characters are much more defined and the ending packs a greater punch than it previously did.  It still suffers a bit in places, but this movie deserves more credit than it gets.  "Fellowship" is still my favorite of the Lord of the Ring trilogy.  On the downside it doesn't have a real ending, but the climax at the end is bittersweet and fits the rest of the film.  For the most part the story moves along briskly, adding new characters, giving them depth and then whisking you along for the ride.  I prefer the longer extended cut, because it does allow the viewer to settle into the world and see more of the characters.  But the theatrical cut is serviceable as well.

In the end, none of these choices seems to be a good fit.  They are all fine movies but they seem to lack the what makes "Seven Samurai" work so well on almost all levels.  Maybe I'm blanking on an obvious choice but that's where you come in...

What do you think of Seven Samurai?  If you've never seen it, would you ever?  Can you think of a modern movie that might be comparable to it or has the skill needed to make those types of movies passed us by?

Sunday, August 17, 2008

The Clones Strike Back - Attack of the Clones

Immediately after I saw "The Phantom Menace" in theaters, I became a apologist for the film.  I did my best to convince myself and others that it wasn't really that bad of a movie.  Time has passed and I realized that is was really that bad.  When "Attack of the Clones" was released I enjoyed moments, but found the whole thing to be lacking.  When I revisited this movie on DVD most of what I liked in the movie decreased with the shrinkage of the screen.  For example, the chase on Coruscant was no longer thrilling. It was extremely long and lacking the exhilarating feel that the music and visuals are going out of their way to sell.

This film suffers from many of the same ailments that "The Phantom Menace" suffers from: badly handled exposition, weak acting, horrible sci-fi names, countless shots of ships landing and taking off, a rough script and Jar Jar Binks.  What I want to focus on is the dialogue, one of the key points that really damages this film.  Simply put, this movie has the worst lines in the trilogy.  Obi-wan chiding Anakin and the "humorous" dialogue between them during the chase on Coruscant is truly wince inducing.  The banter of "A New Hope" is clearly missing here, but what we have instead isn't a substitute.  It tries way too hard to be funny and doesn’t flow in any natural way.

Of course the worst offenders are the romantic scenes.  Lucas could have and should have avoided all the talky stuff and gone with a more obvious physical attraction and wordless dynamic between Padme and Anakin (this would require some chemistry in these roles and the cast didn't seem to have much of that).  Instead he overlays the feelings with heavy handed and poorly worded dialogue.  None of it sounds genuine - and that is a problem.  Sure, this is Star Wars and even Han and Leia's scenes in "Empire" were not the pinnacle of romantic dialogue.  But we had a definite physical attraction there.  The words were playful and perhaps not natural sounding but at least sounded right from these characters.  Padme and Anakin sound very forced and when Padme confesses her love to Anakin - well, I always end up laughing.

Not nearly as funny are C-3PO's string of horrid and groan inducing puns.  The fact that these are supposed to be accidental puns makes it even worse. If 3PO is saying them on purpose - why?  He's never punned before and never puns again.  Why do it here?  As I mentioned most of the "humor" in this film is very forced and weak.

Even Yoda doesn't escape the damage. For some reason, and it's probably just me, I can't stand when he says something to the effect of "Around the survivors a perimeter make." Yoda-speak got out of hand in this movie, causing some seriously goofy sounding lines.  

After watching the film I usually come back to the same feeling.  This movie feels as long as "Phantom Menace" and just as painful.  Some think it is an improvement over the previous film, but I think the dialogue ends up damaging the few good battle scenes we do get.  Is there anything good about this movie?  Sure, the visuals are still top notch and paint an amazing series of worlds and characters.  The final battle scene is great popcorn for those who love lightsaber battles and lots of mechanical ships and walkers stomping around.

But you are saying "If you hate it so much, why do you watch it?"  Well I've got a Rifftrax for it, and it makes it actually fun to watch.  And I'm a Star Wars fan deep in my little black and bitter heart.  I enjoy the original trilogy a great deal, I just wished these prequels measured up.  You know you've got a problem when the Lego video game version of the story is better than your movie.

Monday, August 11, 2008

You don’t know Bond - Thunderball (Novel)

I really got into James Bond in the early 90's. I think it had something to do with the hype surrounding "Goldeneye", but I'm not sure I really remember. I had seen some James Bond movies, but they never completely pulled me in. But around the 90's it became my mission to watch all the James Bond films up to "Goldeneye" and in order no less. I did it and it was a lot of fun. A few of my coworkers at the video store also got into the movies and we often discussed our favorite James Bond films and actors. See what happens when throw a bunch of movie geeks together!

I determined at that time that my favorite Sean Connery James Bond film was "Thunderball". Sure lots of people say "Goldfinger" is superior, and you can argue it till the cows come home (where did those bovines get to anyway?). For me, this is the perfect retro-fun Bond film for a summer day, and it gets yearly play at my house, much to my wife's chagrin (she's not a Connery Bond fan).

It took me a while to get my hands on the actual Bond novels by Ian Fleming. For the longest time they were out of print in the US. I actually picked up four of them when I was in England and have the snazzy British covers. I grabbed "Thunderball" because of my fondness for the film - and boy was I surprised. This isn't James Bond as I knew him. Of course it was foolish of me to think that the movies didn't change things here and there, but for the character to be so different - well it was a shock.

As a novel, "Thunderball" is solid entertainment. The movie follows the book pretty well, but actually makes some plot changes that smooth out some of the rough edges of the book For example, in the novel, Bond is sent to the Shrublands spa because M is on a crazy health kick. He encounters the dangerous Count Lippe there, but the only reason Lippe is at the spa is so he can mail the ransom note from SPECTRE. The movie actually makes the spa a staging ground for the whole theft of the bomber. This allows Bond to be closer to the action than he knew, and it makes sense to use the spa as the staging ground with the agent recovering from his plastic surgery there.

The book has a very dry British sense of humor, one that is counter to most of the goofy humor seen in the Bond series (mostly in the 70's with Roger Moore's take on the character). The opening is especially funny with Bond aghast at M's obsession with health. The Bond of the novels is a hard drinker, frequent smoker and a man who doesn't care about his personal health, only because it doesn't make sense to - he's probably going to get killed on his next mission. He might as well live it up. Bond's reactions to the spa treatment and the fact that he actually does feel better after it's completed are well written and amusing.

The novel also spends lots of time describing the SPECTRE agency and it's leader Blofeld. A whole chapter is dedicated to Blofeld and his history. This is interesting stuff, but in the scheme of things, it doesn't fit into the story so much. Blofeld isn't the direct menace in the novel - that goes to Largo. As a whole, all the characters are much better developed in the novel. I especially liked the personality of Domino, the lovely and ultimately trapped woman. Her dialogue with Bond and discussion of the picture on a pack of cigarettes gives us a clear insight to her, and makes the ending a bit of a rough one.

It was the portrait of James Bond that was most remarkable. He was much more realistic in the novel. He's a damaged man, one that really doesn't like his job, but at the same time is too good at it to do anything else. He is a predator that dislikes the kill. It's a strange contradiction and it makes him much more interesting than most of the film incarnations. He is lucky and will use his luck to his advantage whenever he can. He also makes mistakes and pays for them, or worse someone else pays for them. There is an undercurrent of anger to him, and it's something that really came through in Timothy Dalton's portrayal of the character.

Of course the movies are always a different beast. James Bond is synonymous with escapism and fun. A serious, angry and cold character is not going to appeal to the summer crowds. And so James Bond adapted for the times and for the films. Connery plays him with an edge, no doubt about that, and it's especially there in "From Russia with Love", but for my money only Dalton has really matched the portrayal of James Bond as he is in the books.

Outside of the fun of comparing the two stories in different media, the book is a good summer read. Fleming doesn't move the story along too quickly, but he does create some great moments of intrigue and action. Really the last third of the book has the most action, with the rest of the novel working as a casual lead in. The pace picks up at the halfway point, but only a bit, What's interesting is that the movie has the same problem. The novel is not the best of Fleming's Bond books - check out "From Russia with Love" or "On Her Majesty's Secret Service" for those, but "Thunderball" is still a good time.

Have you had a chance to read Fleming's Bond novels? Do you think such a major change of character was needed from the novel to the film version of James Bond? Do you have a favorite Bond film? Why do you like it so much?

Sunday, August 3, 2008

Funny Uh oh - Galaxy Quest

I've recently read the comments from a few movie fan bloggers that feel that the art of comedy in movies is on the wane. They end up pointing at parody films like "Meet the Spartans", "Epic Movie" and "Date Movie" as evidence of this. These movies don't stand up to the first viewing much less repeat viewings. Their scripts are nothing but sight gags that aren't anything other then taking a scene from a popular film and recreating it with a twist (having the spartans from "300" dancing around and behaving stereotypically homosexual).

In a way these films are attempting to ape the popular Zucker brothers ("Naked Gun" and "Airplane") and Mel Brooks ("Blazing Saddles" and "Spaceballs") films from the past. The big difference is, those films actually provided some laughs even if they were on the stupid side of things. The idea was to bombard the audience with so many sight gags, word play, non sequiturs and actual jokes that something will end up sticking. Some of these films are more successful than others (and I think it has lots to do with which of these films you ended up watching first).

What is more difficult to pull off is to create a parody that not only succeeds in spoofing the film or genre, but to make it an entertaining movie in it's own right. The trick is to write a solid script, and to work the humor in creating a balance between comedy free from the parody and comedy based on the parody. I haven't seen one of these succeed in quite a while (a example of a spectacular failure of this was "My Super Ex-Girlfriend").

"Galaxy Quest" does it right. It takes a familiar genre - science fiction and specifically "Star Trek" and uses it as a jumping off point for the comedy. For those of you who haven't seen the film, the basic plot is the following. A group of actors of the popular sci-fi show "Galaxy Quest" encounter real aliens. These aliens think the television series are actual historical documents and that the actors really are the characters they play. At first the actors think that the adventure will be a bit of fun, but things go wrong when a sinister alien despot and his crew also believe the actors are real heroes. Can these actors step up to the challenge, or are they way out of their league?

One of my favorite moments is when the starship leaves it's space dock. In nearly every "Star Trek" film, this moment is accompanied by majestic music and special effects meant to create a sense of exhilaration that the adventure is getting underway. In "Galaxy Quest" the moment is handled in the same way... but our pilot isn't too good at his job. He ends up scraping the hull against the side of the space dock and making a sound like a giant car scraping the side of the garage. Anyone who's done this before gets a good chuckle out of this scene.

A great second dynamic is added to this and is the fact that our heroes are just actors, not space explorers. They are used to handling special effects, and written dialogue, not fighting aliens and flying space ships. On top of that each actor has a specific personality that helps or hinders. Tim Allen is perfect as the egotistical actor who plays the captain. He starts to believe his own hype but quickly finds out that he's not cut out to be a real captain. Nearly stealing every scene is Allen Rickmen who plays a Spock like character on the television series and loathes his lot in life. Now that he's in space with aliens that are convinced he's not human... well he's not the happiest of campers.

The parody moments are hilarious. Everything from the music, to the search of a mysterious planet, to the fact that everyone always goes flying out of their chairs in dangerous space battle is modeled after "Star Trek". For the most part, these parody moments doesn't feel mean spirited. More often they cause the viewer to wonder, "Hey, why does that seem to happen in nearly every 'Star Trek' film or episode".

Even if you are not very familiar with "Star Trek" or have only seen a few sci-fi movies, there's plenty to enjoy. The dialogue is funny, and the performances are spot on. The overarching plot of good versus evil is solid. There is also plenty of humor once the fans of the show appear near the end of the movie.

"Galaxy Quest" isn't the funniest movie ever made. And people more familiar with "Star TreK' will enjoy it more than people who haven't seen any of the series or films. However the film is re-watchable and good for a laugh on a Friday night. Certainly it's more entertaining them much of the "comedy" that's been released lately, especially those ill conceived spoofs. If you haven't seen it yet, I recommend it. And if you have, but haven't seen it in a while, check it out again. It still holds up well.

What did you think of "Galaxy Quest"? Do you think modern parody films are funny? Why or why not? Can you think of a film comparable to "Galaxy Quest"?

Sunday, July 27, 2008

It takes two - X-Files Season One

Nostalgia is a funny thing. Sometimes your memory of a film or TV show can be colored by so many things that when you go back and see it again you just shake your head and say "What was I thinking?" It makes the possibility of seeing old favorites in a new light a very scary thing. This time I got lucky and found that my memories of the show were pretty much right on. Yes the X-files still holds up.

I ended up re-watching the first season. We picked it up on DVD a few years ago (back when it was still in the huge boxes) but never really got around to watching all the episodes, mostly revisited our favorites. This time around I wanted to get a feel for the series in the order it was shown on TV and see how things developed. Sure time has affected some aspects of the series. The lack of cellphones and the size of the few you do see actually makes you wonder how this show would have played out if Mulder and Scully had tiny little phones to use at a moments notice with a handy camera to get pics of all those lovely spaceships, EBEs and monsters.

However everything else remained enjoyable and effectively moody. I realized how much shows like CSI borrowed their look from this series. The X-file was one of the first cinematic television series, bringing the look of the theatrical thriller to a small screen on a TV sized budget. The music is very atmospheric and atonal. It may not work well separated from the images on the screen, but while you are watching it really adds to the experience. The plots are usually very well written, balancing the supernatural, scientific, horrifying and paranoid very well. Even in this first season where things are just starting out, the threads that would drive the show later are laid out with enough depth to keep you interested but also keep you guessing.

However the linchpin for the show was the dynamic between Mulder and Scully. This was something that grew out of the writing, the acting and the chemistry between the leads. Without this chemistry the X-files wouldn't have survived more than a couple of seasons if it was lucky. The first season gives us these two characters, defines them and then starts screwing with them. Because the characters are defined well and the actors understood the characters, the writers are able to present situations that really explore the two agents and cause them to question and keep questioning. Tie this into the overall conspiracy plot and suddenly you have magic.

If I learned anything from rewatching this first season it was how important a good character dynamic is for a successful story. If you have partners they need to have some kind of difference to create conflict (Scully won't believe without proof, Mulder wants to believe it all). They need to have something that unites them (They both want to find the truth). They need to have strengths and weaknesses that compliment each other (Scully's analytical mind both blinds and aids the team). As a writer this is a great way to make a good team.
Do you think Scully and Mulder were a good team? From a writer's perspective would you have changed anything about their character dynamics? What other partner characters (in TV, film, books) do you think serve as good models of great character writing?

Sunday, July 20, 2008

The Two Sides of Truth- Shinju

I've always been interested in Japanese culture, history, films and animation. So when I went to my local mystery bookstore a very Japanese cover caught my eye. The novel was called "The Snow Empress". I read the back and it sounded interesting, but was obviously part of a series. I decided to check out the first book "Shinju" and see what it like.

I don't read mystery or thriller novels all that frequently, so I'm not the best critic when it comes to fresh new plot twists or refreshing characters for the genre. What I can say is that I enjoyed the book. It was a quick read, briskly paced, and fairly twisty. The main character and I were pretty much on the same page the whole book (I got slightly ahead of him near the end, but he caught up in a few pages).

The story concerns a samurai named Sano Ichiro, in the city of Edo in the year 1689. He recently obtains the position that is roughly the same as a head Lieutenant in the police force. It's a desk job, and Ichiro is more interested in actually stopping crime and upholding justice. He finds himself investigating a double suicide of two lovers, called a shinju. Very quickly Ichiro discovers that this is not a simple case. The two victims were probably murdered and the shinju was definitely staged. As he purses the case, Ichiro finds that many people would be very happy if he stopped investigating. Eventually not only is Ichiro's life on the line, but his honor and more importantly his family's honor is at stake.

Anyone with a passing knowledge of Japanese culture knows that honor is one of the top priorities for a samurai. Family honor is even greater. A samurai will do anything to avoid sullying their families name. But what happens when the pursuit of truth forces a samurai to pick between his honor and solving the crime?

Author, Laura Joh Rowland, gave Ichiro an interesting character. He is obsessed with finding the truth and making sure that justice is met. This obsession not only fuels his investigation, but it ends up causing him to do things that would be completely against the code of the samurai. As the book moves forward Ichiro is constantly put into situations where the only way to retain his honor would be to drop the whole case. His obsession fights against it. The need for justice forces his hand with terrible results. This dichotomy creates an internal struggle that nearly destroys Ichiro.

The book houses an intriguing mystery as well as paints a world of Edo during the Takagawa Shogunate. Definitely recommended for anyone who is interested in that period of Japanese history and looking for a good mystery as well.

Can you think of another example of a character who's main good point works against them as well as for them? If you've read "Shinju" what did you think of it?

Monday, July 14, 2008

A Writer’s New Home? - God of War

Being a fan of mythology can have strange side effects. I find myself drawn to myths in many of their diverse forms, merely to see what the retelling would be like. This can lead to some strange and unexpected discoveries. For example I found myself picking up a copy of the Playstation 2 game, "God of War". This game is set in a mythological Greek world, where the gods rule, monsters roam and heroes thrive. The main character is a Spartan warrior named Kratos. He is feared by men and cursed by the gods. However, he becomes the only one powerful enough to face Aries, the god of war. Looks like Aries decided that Olympus wasn't good enough and that he wanted to take the whole world. With the other gods guiding Kratos, you control the ghost of Sparta through his quest to find a way to defeat Aries and replace him as the new God of War.

The story was solid, the game play was fun, fast and furious, and the graphics captured a dark, bloody and nightmare version of Greek mythology that was refreshing (even if it was a bit messy. Got gore all over the screen). I especially liked the amoral nature of Kratos. Talk about an anti-hero!

The game did well enough to generate a sequel, and I ended up with that game too. In this story, Kratos finds himself unhappy as the new God of War. Things go really bad when the Olympians deem Kratos too dangerous and sap him of his powers and attempt to kill him. Well, Kratos isn't going to stand for it, so he aligns himself with the Titans (the original gods before the Olympians deposed them). Kratos mission is to take the reigns of fate and change history - this time, the Olympians will fail and the Titans will rule, with Kratos at their side.

It struck me as I having Kratos do battle with classic Greek heroes (Theseus, Jason and Perseus - played by Harry Hamlin no less!) that this revamp of mythology was ingenious and entertaining. It was something that I had been toying with for a while. My approach was not as graphic or bloody as this, but it was more modern than the classic approaches and still delivered the same thrills and themes that makes those stories timeless. To see it done in a game was something of a revelation.

This made me wonder - is this a new avenue for writers to explore? Could a story or series of stories that might not work so well in a novel form or screenplay form be used as a game instead. Suddenly the possibilities seemed very intriguing. God of War showed me that something I thought wouldn't really work so well as a novel, could be very effective if brought into a video game. Of course the flip side to this is that, like the movie industry, the video game industry is very much concerned with profit. It's a business and as such it might not be so open to radical departures. In addition a writer would find their work changed by programmers and graphic artists. But this wouldn't be any different from seeing a movie script changed by a director, actors and special effects. And at the moment it seems that the game industry (at least from my uniformed perspective) seems a bit more open to new ideas and directions than Hollywood.

What do you think of writers for games? Have you had any experiences with that industry? Do you have any ideas that might work for a game? Have you played God of War and what did you think of it?

Sunday, July 6, 2008

You got your sword in my sorcery - Lankhmar: Tales of Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser

In my continuing quest to read up on classic fantasy I ran into the works of Fritz Leiber. Turns out he is considered one of the great sword and sorcery writers of 50's and 60's. Like most writers of his time, Leiber's work appeared in fantasy and pulp magazines. Luckily for modern readers his stories have been collected in complete volumes and even arranged in chronological order.

I always approach writers from this time period with a little trepidation. I'm always afraid I'll find the style off-putting or uninteresting. Well, I didn't need to worry. Leiber tosses the reader right into his world and makes it click. The book I read was an older collection with a total of six stories (more resent collections contain four stories in the first book). The first story is really a short poem that teases the reader a bit. The second story "Snow Women", introduces the reader to the character Fafhrd, the world of Newhon, and a solid adventure all in one go.

In a way this world seems like a precursor to the world that was created for "Dungeons & Dragons" or "Forgotten Realms". It's filled with magic, ruins and dangers aplenty. Our heroes are really adventurers and soldiers of fortune. They don't want to save the world, they are only looking out for themselves and having a good time - with a little danger on the side. They battle sorcerers, meet lovely women, find themselves in mortal peril and get a taste of triumph and tragedy.

Of the stories I enjoyed the longer ones the most. "Ill Met in Lankmar" details an encounter between Fafhrd, the northern barbarian and Gray Mouser, a thief with a strange past. The story starts with a ambush on a group of thieves and ends up with our protagonists invading the Thieves Guild and getting in over their heads. I also enjoyed "The Jewels in the Forest". The task is as simple as the title, just enter some ruins and obtain the treasure. Of course it's not that easy and there is a deadly surprise for Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser when they finally make it into the cursed ruins.

This book was a quick read and lots of fun. From a writers point of view, it was interesting to see how Leiber set up his characters, reintroduced them in each story (this was published in magazines after all) and avoided boring exposition. These are lean and mean tales, crafted to deliver a taste of a new and dangerous world to the reader.

I started my quest looking for the works of Robert E. Howard, but was happy to run into Leiber instead. I'm interested enough to try and find more of his stories and see just where he took his characters.

Have you ever ready Leibers work? What did you think of it? Are there any other Sword and Sorcery tales or writers you'd recommend? Is there any modern writers still working in this style or genre?

Sunday, June 29, 2008

Narrative? We don’t need no stinking Narrative - The Legend of Zelda

Where would we be without the Nintendo Entertainment System? Don't answer that. Unfortunately for many of us, video games are a wonderful time waster and one of the pastimes we associate with leisure. Some youngsters remember Playstation 1 fondly, as an archaic dinosaur. Others remember their paddle version of Pong with it's black and white graphics. I fall in the middle. I had an old Atari system. My dad rented Atari games right up to the video game crash of 1983 (I just found out about that. Boy did it explain a bunch of strange memories I had of that time). But for me, the good ol' days of gaming was for the Nintendo Entertainment System (NES) in the mid 80's. Wow did this thing change a kid's world or what?

I used to wake up anticipating my favorite cartoons, and go to bed dreaming up new stories for "Star Wars" and "Transformers". When the NES hit, it was a whole new ballgame. Now I woke up with the theme from Super Mario in my head and went to sleep dreaming up new stories for "Metroid". It was all we talked about at school, and even when the cartoons of our favorite games came out, we lapped them up like tasty whipped topping. Yeah, I'm waxing nostalgic, but humor me for a minute.

This mania was really odd, because I didn't get an NES till nearly 1990 or so. When it first came out I had to play the stupid thing at friend or relative's houses. Maybe that is why my imagination was fueled by these 8 bit marvels a bit more. I never got to see a whole game beaten. I never knew what the hell happened when Mario finally got to the princess. I never saw Link defeat Gannon and save Zelda. I never got past level 1 of Metroid for God sakes. Instead, I wrote these expansive stories going far deeper than the video games could have gone. I ran into a few of these silly stories not to long ago and was amused by the insanity and joy of them. This kid was hooked.

When I finally got the NES and started to play through the games, I remembered feeling a bit disappointed. The biggy was "The Legend of Zelda", to me the kingpin of the NES games of my youth. It was epic in a way I couldn't imagine for a video game. It was a whole crazy world to explore (with the help of cheat maps and friend's clues), but I remember seriously getting wrapped up in the whole feel of the game. The music would often pop into my head and I wondered what it would be like of John Williams took a nice adaptation to the title theme.

The crazy thing is that the game itself (not including the stuff in the instruction manual) didn't really have a story per se. You were a little block with some features that wandered around a very blocky world attacked by blocky monsters and picking up rupees which looked like gold versions of the tiles we had in our pool. It didn't matter. In my mind, the story of Link, Zelda and Gannon was huge and powerful. It was good vs. evil. It was the saga of a boy becoming a hero. It discovery of powerful magic and paying the price for making bad decisions (why did I choose the red potion instead of the heart container?).

So when I got to the end of the game, and was presented with some text and a flashing screen, I was annoyed. That was it? I went through he whole damn game for that? No blocky animation of Link and Zelda riding off into the sunset. No massive explosion on skull mountain. No parade for the hero who finally figured out how to get out of the Lost Hills? It wasn't right. I felt good about completing the game, but decided the ending needed work. I wrote a new ending, even leaving room open for a sequel (a better one than the second game turned out to be). It was cathartic. But looking back I guess playing the game, and having all the fun I did have was what I ended up remembering fondly, not really the disappointment of the ending.

I'm still a gamer, but a casual one at best. I've got my Playstation 2, and I'm looking into getting Playstation 3 for "Final Fantasy XIII" or "God of War III", but the Nintendo Wii holds a powerful allure. I could play "Legend of Zelda" again. I'm afraid to revisit that old memory and find the 8 bit glory sad and outdated. Or will I find some joy making that little square move around the screen. Who knows?

Do you have any fond memories of early video games? Were you a fellow NES kid, or did you actually have a life? Were video games better without a narrative, or do you think that everything needs a story (even Tetris)?

Sunday, June 22, 2008

His Stories - The Histories

I'm a fan of history, even when I was a kid. The more ancient the history the better. I am fascinated with the early civilizations that thrived on our world when the ideas of civilization was new. In particular, I've always been interested in the ancient Greek civilization from it's early Minoan empire and up to the crumbling of Alexander's realm. I stumbled upon Herodotus, a man who is often credited with being the father of history in the western world. Of course there are plenty of people who also call Herodotus the father of lies - so it really depends on who you talk to.

Herodotus decided to tell the story of the Greek world and it's surrounding neighbors (mostly Persia and Egypt) from the birth of these civilizations and up to the final epic battle of the Greeks against the Persians (for those of you who are not history nerds, this includes the battles captured in the film "300") I didn't know what to expect, since Herodotus lived around 490-420 BC or so, and this book was obviously a translation, what would it be like?

It was nothing I ever expected in a history book. It was part travelogue, part history, part folk tale collection, part myth, part political analysis, part patriotic war story. Herodotus weaves all these things together, constantly adding new elements. It starts out as a analysis of why Europe (represented by the Greeks) and Asia (represented by the Persians) are destined to battle, and why it's essentially pointless. This theme seems to carry over in surprising ways throughout the history. Even when he takes a side chapter to explore Egyptian history and folklore, the theme of destiny and war appears time and again.

The basic impression I got was that Herodotus was not obsessed with facts. He wanted to tell a good story, with a theme and base it around true events, people and places. He gets away with this because much of his facts are really stories told to him by another person. He often starts a section with "The Egyptians say that..." and then will follow it up with "But the Greeks think that..." and end with "I lean toward the Egyptian tale, because it makes the most sense." So you get the outlandish stories of gold digging ants with the more mundane stories of vast gold mines in the rocky wastes of northern Asia.

In a way Herodotus was really the father of Historical Fiction. But in his day, a history was more story than fact - and it was acceptable. Each historian would put their own stamp on the history and even the perspective would change things. When Herodotus was writing the Greeks were fighting among themselves in the beginnings of what we would consider a civil war. In "The Histories" Herodotus stresses that the union of the bickering city-states is what helped the Greeks repel the Persians on two separate occasions. Later the Roman writer, Plutarch would write some less than flattering things about Herodotus and contradict much of what the earlier author said.

But things don't change. Perspective still frames history books: as they say, the winners write them. So it's difficult to say what is really true in history - it's all a story after all. However I think more histories should include amazing stories of gold digging ants and dog headed people - it would make things much more interesting.

Do you think History is defined by perspective? Do you think that Herodotus' style of history writing is too bias and crazy to be taken seriously? Do you have a favorite history or author who captures the feel of a time period well? Does all this talk about history make you feel dusty and sleepy?

Tuesday, June 17, 2008

My kind of town - Chicago

If you say "Hey let's watch a musical!" I'll roll my eyes and maybe fall over and pretend to be dead. It's not that I hate all musicals - it's just that I've had some bad experiences with them. A few bad apples spoil the cart, you know. For me to tolerate a musical, it's got to be light on the over-enthusiastic, bursting into song for no particular reason with a song that wants to be catchy but is really just annoying. I know, that pretty much covers all musicals known to man, right? Actually there are a few I can deal with "Yanky Doodle Dandy", "Moulin Rouge!" "The King and I" and that one episode of "Buffy the Vampire Slayer".

So my friends, who are fans of musical theater were ready to convince me that 2002's "Chicago" was a good movie and that I'd enjoy it. I already had a three problems with this idea. 1) it was a musical. 2) it had Richard Gere tap-dancing 3) It had Renee Zellwegger attempting that pouty look. But I decided to give it a try. After all, my wife said I'd like "The King and I" and she was right.

Well lo and behold, I did enjoy "Chicago". Almost all the musical moments are either actual performances in the story (characters performing on stage for other characters), or part of the deranged fantasies of one of the characters. This made the whole thing work. It makes sense that everyone was singing in the main characters fantasy land - she's a nut job! The music was jazzy, snappy and not annoying (of course if you hate jazz, you'll probably hate the music). Richard Gere was good, playing a role that wasn't a stretch for him (unlike say "First Knight". GAG!) Only Renee brought the movie down for me. I'm one of the few that finds her more annoying than cute, and here she was doing her full blown "aint I a cute little pouty thing" schtick - except that it fit her character. So in a way it didn't bother me as much.

I think what I liked best about the whole production was the camera work and production design. This is how you do a musical! Much like "Moulin Rouge" (which suffers from some of the over-enthusiastic acting that grates on me like nails on a chalkboard), the camera is not stage bound. It moves and flows like a real movie. The director and production designer went out of their way to make this a full blown movie with songs and not a stage play captured on camera. In addition the use of the fantasy sequences just about screamed for some creative design and you get it in spades here. It's not as dreamlike insane as "Moulin Rouge" but it just as effective to this story. Even people who dislike musicals more than I do should be able to appreciate the talent behind the camera in bringing this story to the screen.

So the final verdict was, I enjoyed the film. I don't know if I'd run out and purchase it or anything, but my knee-jerk reaction to the mention of it's name is gone. Now - as for it's winning of the academy award for best picture... I don't know about that. Of course I already think the academy awards are run by a bunch of loonies, so I don't trust their judgment to begin with. Still, the movie surprised me, and in a good way.

What did you think of Chicago? Have you seen any other musicals that are able to pull off a truly cinematic look and not feel stage bound? Can you explain reasoning behind the over-enthusiastic acting syndrome?

Sunday, June 8, 2008

More Human than Human - Bladerunner

When you ask fans of science fiction films what their favorite 80's sci-fi is, you'll get more than half of them replying with "Bladerunner". The rest will probably say "The Empire Strikes Back", but that's another blog. What makes "Bladerunner" such a popular film for sci-fi junkies?

I got my hands on Ridely Scott's "Final Cut" of this movie. It's been cleaned up, matte lines have vanished, there is more depth to the world, and a general improvement of the visual effects. Nothing drastic like the "Special Edition" version of the Star Wars trilogy. This is more along the lines of the polishing done on the "Indiana Jones" series. In fact, if no one told me they had cleaned up the effects, I probably wouldn't have noticed. This is probably the best version of the movie I've seen (and I've seen three other versions). If you've never seen the movie, go and check it out now, then come back and read this blog.

For the rest of you, I'll reveal something that may be blasphemous, but I think is pretty true. "Bladerunner" isn't a classic sci-fi film because of it's characters. In fact most of the characters in the film are pretty flat. Don't believe me? What do we know about Deckard? Not much, and he doesn't really seem to change or evolve as the film continues. In fact one of the main reasons you can believe he is a replicant, is that he seems to steadfast in his hunt of the fugitives. He seems effected by killing them, but this emotion runs through the entire movie. Deckard is basically your typical film noir detective or hit man. He's burnt out, drinks too much but gets the job done. He falls for the dame and runs off with her at the end. Not much new there.

I think there are two things that make "Bladerunner" such a classic: the incredible and immersive world Ridley Scott creates in the movie and the basic theme of "What does it mean to be human?". Now, even after over two decades of existing, "Bladerunner" has such a distinctive look. Sure it's an 80's vision of the future, but that vision is complete in everything around the characters, from their clothing to the grime in the streets. The detail is so complete that it houses the characters and seems to exist independently from them. You never feel that you are on a soundstage, or in front of the blue screen. You feel like Scott plunked down his camera in Los Angeles 2019 and filmed.

The look of this movie has inspired countless others, but none have really managed to pull it off as completely and realistically as Scott did. The only place I've seen it equaled is in Japanese animation, especially in the cyber-punk films "Ghost in the Shell" and "Akira". If anything many directors who have envisioned a dark, grimy, urban future owe this look to Scott's team one "Bladerunner."

The final element that makes this film so memorable is the question of what it means to be human. It's not the first film to explore this. You can go back to the silent movie "Metropolis" to see one of the earliest examples. You can't forget HAL in "2001" either. Here the idea is presented for the 80's audience. Are the replicants really so bad? They are like children given great power and now , just like anyone else, they are afraid to die. They will do anything to stop it from happening. Is Deckard a hero for hunting them down? And what does it mean if he's a replicant too? This added bit of depth keeps the movie alive for new viewers.

What do you think of "Bladrunner?" Is it a classic or is it over rated? Is it a product of it's time and was topped by the likes of "The Matrix" and "Ghost in the Shell"? Did there need to be a "Final Cut" or was a previous version good enough for you?