Wednesday, August 24, 2016

The Desolation of Tolkien: Not a Movie Review [Guest Post]

By GW Thomas

First, a little explanation of the title. I saw that one of the chapters in John C Wright's book, Transhuman and Subhuman (2014) was "The Desolation of Tolkien" and I thought, "Finally, someone is going to talk about it!" Imagine my surprise when I read it and all Wright was doing was reviewing the second Hobbit film. (I agree with his review, but still: disappointed.) I realized after that, I'd have to write about it.

What I am referring to is: how does a fantasy writer work today? You have no choice but to decide you will ignore Tolkien, consciously write against him, or accept him and sadly give up and run down to Hobbiton. Tolkien casts a long shadow, and a wide one. You have no choice. Decide. In this way, Tolkien has desolated the fantasy field, though I doubt that was ever his intention.

Let me explain better. Imagine if you will, you are a writer. You want to create a fantastic story that is not explainable as science fiction, nor intended to solely chill you like horror. It's a tale of wonders, set in an imaginary world perhaps. If you include even one non-human race your reader will wonder, are they elves or orcs or ents or somesuch? (And if you don't use any, does the reader feel cheated?) If you have cities in your world, that reader will expect that armies will march from said centers to engage in battle. You may not want to do any of these things, but the expectation is there. Lin Carter proved this with the Ballantine Fantasy Series back in 1971. According to an interview he gave Amazing Stories, the books that were most like Tolkien sold the best. According to ST Joshi, even masters of early fantasy like Clark Ashton Smith failed to sell. Carter did us a great service, introducing many forgotten books like Poul Anderson's The Broken Sword (1951), but it had elves and it did better. Enough so that Anderson wrote some new books in the series. Tolkien is everywhere.

Don't believe me? What are they calling George RR Martin, who married the popular Lord of the Rings with Dune to create A Song of Ice and Fire? The American Tolkien! Game of Thrones was sold to HBO as "Sopranos in Middle Earth." George made his decision. He can work within the Tolkien tradition. I think he does it better than Terry Brooks or Stephen R Donaldson or David Eddings or any of those endless series writers, but they all dwell in the Land of Tolkien. In Brooks' case, intentionally.

As Peter S Beagle explains in The Secret History of Fantasy (2010), the Ballantines knew what the reading public wanted, knowing The Sword of Shannara was a pale imitation, but a guaranteed money-maker. I heard Terry Brooks talk on the radio back in the 1980s. From his words you would have thought nobody had written a fantasy before that Oxford Don with the extra middle initials. And perhaps he is right? Who cares about William Morris or Lord Dunsany, ER Eddison or James Branch Cabell or... Have we learned nothing from Richard Adams' Watership Down? A bestseller that looked more to Homer than Tolkien. It can be done, but it isn't.

What of sword-and-sorcery? Robert E Howard predates Tolkien; exists without him. But Howard's shadow is almost as big. Choose one form of darkness or another. (So LOTR fans will get it, do you choose Sauron or Sarumon?) Many choose to write under Howard's umbrella, seeking their own place there, much as some horror writers are perfectly happy to lie under Lovecraft's Mythos shadow. No one exists in a vacuum, but a good writer needs to feel the sun on his or her face once in awhile. To breath the fresh air and spy out their own landscapes.

One thing both Howard and Tolkien (as well as CS Lewis and ER Eddison) would agree on is a love of the "Northern Thing." What is that? It's an old sensation that anyone reading through a copy of East of the Sun and West of the Moon or seeing the artwork of Kay Nielsen or John Bauer for the first time understands. Related to that is a love of the Arabesque, that you can find when you read One Thousand and One Nights. Does commercial chock-a-block fantasy do this anymore? Do any of these fat paperback writers make you feel that Northern breeze? The heft of the sword in your hand? The pulse of magic in the air? Would a photocopy of a photocopy of the Mona Lisa amaze you the same way as standing in front the original painting? You might glimpse some sense of Da Vinci's brilliance, but not all. Is it any different with Tolkienesque fantasy? I think not. The Ballantines created a new publishing market and that's good for writers (food and paying the electrical bills are always good), but it is bad for readers. Innovation can't dwell in the shadow of old John Ronald Reuel.

So what can we do? How do we write something new about something old? I have no idea. If I did, I'd be doing it right now. And making a killing setting up the next wave of fantasy books. Will someone some day accomplish this? I think so. It may take a century or so, but one day Tolkien will fade into the background, as did Morris, Dunsany, and the rest. In our time now, with our still-current Peter Jackson films, a Game of Thrones TV show, (not to mention The Shannara Chronicles!), video games like World of Warcraft, and all those fat paperbacks... well, we will have to wait. That long, cold shadow isn't going anywhere soon.

GW Thomas has appeared in over 400 different books, magazines and ezines including The Writer, Writer's Digest, Black October Magazine and Contact. His website is gwthomas.org. He is editor of Dark Worlds magazine.

Tuesday, August 23, 2016

Dragonfly Ripple Live!: Star Trek Animated and Raiders of the Lost Ark



Remember how we recorded an in-person episode of Dragonfly Ripple when David, Diane, and I were in Tallahassee? And how Pax from Nerd Lunch and Hellbent for Letterbox was there, too? Well, now you can listen to it!

The agenda has David and I discussing Star Trek: The Animated Series and Carlin and Annaliese talking about Raiders of the Lost Ark. Then in Dash's "JetPack Tiger" segment, he and Carlin go over Guardians of the Galaxy. And we wrap up by picking TV and movie series that we wish had animated shows.

It's cool to me how sitting around the same, actual dinner table influences the flow of the conversation. This is easily my favorite Dragonfly Ripple episode that we've done, partly because of the memory of how we recorded it, but also because of how natural the finished product sounds.



Monday, August 22, 2016

Thy kind hath podcasted too far already



Last month, Nerd Lunch celebrated Star Trek's 50th anniversary with four episodes about the show. And they were nice enough to let me join one of them for a discussion of everyone's favorite, godlike child, Q from Next Generation. (And Deep Space Nine and Voyager, but we all agreed that he works best with the TNG crew.) We dissect what his role was on the show and which episodes made the best use of him.





Then over at Starmageddon, we did back-to-back episodes with our new pal Tristan, first talking about the introduction of Star Trek's first gay character and whether or not Sulu was the best choice for that milestone. Then a couple of days later, we also released our review of Star Trek Beyond. Lots of spoilers in the second one, so stay away until you've seen the film.



Wednesday, August 17, 2016

Stranded on a Fearsome Planet: Two Novels of Survival [Guest Post]

By GW Thomas

There is something immediately appealing about a killer planet. Science fiction has used the idea on numerous occasions, but the idea remains simple and the same: this planet is deadly. Why? There is the usual bad weather: it may be freezing cold, or burning hot, or have frequently changing weather, or just as likely earthquakes, volcanic eruptions, you name it. Add to this jungles teeming with killer plants and animals, hostile locals, and sometimes, when we're lucky, a terrible secret or two to be discovered. People who come from such places, survivors, are always bad-ass whether they are the hero like Leigh Brackett's Eric John Stark, who grew up on Mercury, or the ranks of Sardaukar from the imperial prison planet Salusa Secundus in Frank Herbert's Dune, soldiers so tough their very name sends chills down your back. It's pulpy, but it's fun.

I want to look at two novels here. One I came across by accident and was charmed. The other I saw as a kid and always wanted to read it. Comparing these two books got me to see a few things about this theme.

The first book is called Space Prison (1960) by Tom Godwin, which is also known as The Survivors (1958). No matter which title you encounter it under doesn't matter. This book moves. The idea is that an evil race of space creatures called the Gerns strand a number of humans on the planet Ragnorak, expecting them to perish. The icy world is filled with nasty creatures, but the humans don't die off. They get stronger and stronger. Eventually, they even capture a spaceship and go after the Gerns for revenge. Godwin tells the story in segments about different characters. Since their individual life expectancy is not so good, he tells how the group survives, not just one character. (I love that he named them the Gerns, probably after Hugo Gernsback, the father of magazine science fiction. This plot of humans triumphing over alien invaders is a theme Hugo cultivated back in Amazing Stories in 1926.)

The second book is Syd Logsdon's Jandrax from 1975. I saw this book way back in my youth and wanted to read it. It looked like a good adventure in the Edgar Rice Burroughs mode. I'm glad I missed it, because the story is so much more complex and I would not have been able to grasp its full meaning. The book's theme is so much more than a mere adventure story. The plot concerns a group of religious exiles who are stranded on a cold, inhospitable planet (sound familiar?). Jan Andrax (later known as Jandrax) is a planetary scout and the first half of the novel concerns him and his helping the colonists to survive. The colony builds a stockade and stores up food for the long winter. Eventually, he and all the other religious outsiders are driven out, forming a second group of people simply known as the Others. Jandrax realizes that for them to survive they must become nomads, following the Melt, the short summer-like period, across the planet.

The second half of the book follows Jean Dubois, a colonist who is crippled by a rival for a girl named Chloe. Dubois becomes a gunsmith, then leaves the colony to explore. He finds an island filled with mysteries, explaining where the extinct elder race that lived on the planet had gone. He leaves the island, shaken by the mystical experience, and ends up with the Others. He returns to the colony to face his rival and take back the son he left behind. Later Jean will return to the island as the Others' prophet of a new religion, leaving behind his grown son. Logsdon doesn't wrap it up neatly, but leaves many questions for the reader to think about.

Comparing these two novels got me thinking about crucibles. That's a good term for hell planets that forge humans into something stronger. None of us would ever want to go to such a place, but we all love the hero who comes out of them: cool, deadly, and usually pretty buff. It's why we love Tarzan, John Rambo, Wolverine, Jason Bourne, etc. All these characters had to endure some horrific event in their lives. Even Robin Williams in Jumanji fills this category. The man who survived the insane jungle of the Jumanji world. We like to identify with characters of this sort. We think in the back of our minds: they survived and became something more; so could I. This is a very old way of thinking. It is no doubt where the idea of the hero comes from originally, in the days of caves and smilodons. Tales that helped people living in dangerous times to be brave; to keep fighting. You will survive. Stories of this sort ignore such realities as PTSD, but offer something else: Courage in the face of adversity. So whether you go to a hell planet or find some hell right here on earth, the hero walks away. We will survive...

GW Thomas has appeared in over 400 different books, magazines and ezines including The Writer, Writer's Digest, Black October Magazine and Contact. His website is gwthomas.org. He is editor of Dark Worlds magazine.

Tuesday, August 16, 2016

British History in Film | Edward II (1970)



Braveheart introduced us to Edward II, the weak prince who constantly disappointed his father, Edward Longshanks. Not being super concerned about historical accuracy, it added a couple of weird things to his story. First, it put him in a relationship with someone named Phillip who gets thrown out of a window by the elder Edward. It seems probable that Edward II was at least bisexual, but as far as we know, his dad never murdered any of his boyfriends.

An even stranger change though is how the movie more than implies that the first son of Edward II is actually the child of William Wallace. Learning that is a nice bit of comeuppance for Longshanks on his deathbed, but it's also a fantasy. In real life, Edward II's wife Princess Isabelle was about four years old when Wallace was fighting the English. Edward II would have been about 15.

But Braveheart does depict Edward's fondness for men, which leads nicely into Christopher Marlowe's play, Edward II. My first exposure to the play was Derek Jarman's 1991 film adaptation, but that was a challenging introduction. Jarman set the film in modern day, but includes lots of medieval props for reasons that 1991 me couldn't decipher. He also makes significant changes in order to turn the play's gay subtext into the main point. It's a fascinating take, but not the best way to be introduced to the story for those who don't already know it.

A better initiation is the Prospect Theatre Company's 1970 version starring very young Ian McKellen as the title character. It's a bare-boned production, but it's set in the proper time period and is a faithful presentation of the play. And of course McKellen makes it extremely watchable.

It's difficult to follow, though. Marlowe's play already condenses a ton of history into a rapid-fire sequence of events and the production's lack of set dressing makes it even more confusing. There aren't enough clues to help understand the passage of time or even a change of location. Fortunately, the actors help make it possible to follow the action. McKellen isn't the only one in the production who's worth watching. The cast is all very good and everyone keeps the dialogue understandable.

One of the most interesting characters - especially after watching Braveheart - is Queen Isabella. It's fascinating to think about Sophie Marceau's long-suffering version while watching Diane Fletcher in the Prospect version. Isabella begins the play more or less patiently enduring Edward and his obvious love for someone else, but she becomes less tolerant as time goes by. Ultimately, she takes a lover of her own and allies with him to overthrow and murder Edward.

At least, that's what she tries to do. The Prospect production of Marlowe's play makes it clear that Isabella succeeded, but Jarman's 1991 film goes a different direction. As does the mini-series, World Without End, based on Ken Follett's sequel to his novel Pillars of the Earth. But that's for our next post.

Monday, August 15, 2016

Hellbent for Letterbox: Rustlers' Rhapsody (1985)



I need to catch you up on some recent podcasts I've been on, but don't want to dump them all in one post, so I'll spread this out over a few days. At the end of July, Pax and I finally discussed one of the greatest Westerns of all time. Or at least, certainly one of our very favorites. So grab your feather cape and gather 'round the campfire as we talk about 1985's Rustlers' Rhapsody, the comedy classic (yes, it is!) starring Tom Berenger, GW Bailey, Marilu Henner, Sela Ward, Andy Griffith, and Carson from Downton Abbey.

Also up for discussion were the comic book series Six-Gun Gorilla and Trailblazer, Gary Cooper in 1929's The Virginian, Jackie Chan and Owen Wilson's Shanghai Noon and Shanghai Knights, and the pulp magazine adventures of Señorita Scorpion. We also gave quick shout-outs to The Sixth Gun, the role-playing game Deadlands (which I whiffed on the name of), and the idea of Western comedies in general.













Friday, August 12, 2016

The Call from Beyond: HP Lovecraft and Clifford D Simak [Guest Post]

By GW Thomas

HP Lovecraft shows up in the darnedest places. His influence is obvious in Weird Tales, but outside that magazine you had to look harder in 1950. Arkham House published Lovecraft in hard cover, but in the world of science fiction, a genre now dominated by gears and the scientific ideas of John W Campbell, HPL and cosmic horror were of little interest. But there was at least one exception...

Clifford D Simak is probably best remembered for City (1954), a series of interconnected short stories that form a kind of novel. In that book, humans migrate into space, leaving the planet to the dogs, who remember us vaguely as gods. Simak also has a lonely robot left behind and a race of intelligent ants. CDS tells it all with subtlety, wit, and pathos. He is best know for his love of ordinary people, rural settings, and human foibles. It is this predominate trend that named him the Pastoral Poet of Science Fiction. About as un-Lovecraftian as you can get...

We have to remember something about these two authors. They were very much contemporaries. HP Lovecraft wrote for Hugo Gernsback's Amazing Stories ("The Colour Out of Space, March 1927). Clifford Simak started writing SF in 1931 for Gernsback's Wonder Stories. Simak gave up on SF in 1935 and only returned in 1938 when John W Campbell took over at Astounding. Lovecraft died in 1937, and so missed the changes that came to SF. Both the early Simak and the more SF Lovecraft, like "At the Mountains of Madness" (Astounding, February 1936) and "A Shadow Out of Time" (Astounding Stories, June 1936) belong to this earlier era of Age of Wonder Science Fiction. Simak could have forgotten all about those days, but...

The May 1950 issue of Super Science Stories has a Simak story called "The Call From Beyond." The very title rings of Lovecraft's "From Beyond" and "The Call of Cthulhu." In this tale, a mutant named West, fleeing an Earth pogrom, comes to a moon of Pluto to find Louis Nevin, a missing scientist who is drinking himself to death as his gigantic pyramid of empties proves. Before he dies, he hints to West that a mystery lies on Pluto, in the old station supposedly abandoned and invaded by weird forces. The planet has been banned and is guarded by the space patrol because a group of scientists had been working there on several projects, including a miracle hormone that would expand human ability, and research for an interstellar drive that leads to contact with a dimensional terror so great the government of Earth must guard everyone from it. West takes Nevin's weird pet, Annabelle, and sneaks past the patrol.

On the planet, in the old base, West finds three survivors: Henderson, Cartwright, and Belden, who do little but talk in riddles about an enchanting painting and strange visitors, as well as the freakish woman-like alien called the White Singer:
A woman had appeared in the doorway, a woman with violet eyes and platinum hair and wrapped in an ermine opera cloak. She moved forward and the light from the flaring tapers fell across her face. West stiffened at the sight, felt the blood run cold as ice within his veins. For the face was not a woman’s face. It was like a furry skull, like a moth’s face that had attempted to turn human and had stuck halfway.
The scientists have sent the White Singer's sister to Earth, where she is a sensation with her beautiful but eerie voice...

The three scientists accept West, because he has Nevin's pet. They think he is in the know about their secret. They also hope that West can help them find Nevin's hidden hormone, so they tolerate him, bringing him into the group of conspirators. Cartwright tells him about how the hormone was created, and how once-successful Nevin has stolen it, hidden it, and accepted exile for his crime. He had been allowed to take only his pet and one other thing of his choice: the whiskey.

West learns about their other discovery, a method for transcending dimensions. It takes a while for the newcomer to learn all this. When Belden comes to him, he tells him he knows West is a fake. The two begin to collaborate, but Henderson kills Belden, seeing him as a traitor. West shoots Henderson in the head in a Western-style shoot-out. (Simak had recently finished writing his Western fiction before 1950, but we'll look at those stories in a future piece. The Western mechanics of a gun battle were of help to the author here.)

The finale comes when Cartwright shows West the painting he had heard so much about. In a scene reminiscent of MR James' "The Mezzotint," we see Cartwright come out of the painting and die horribly. West uses his blaster to destroy the canvas and the link to the terrible Lovecraftian beings of the other dimension. The plot to take over the Earth ends there too, for the White Singer's sister was meant to be the first in a line of fifth columnists for the eldritch beings.

West takes down a bottle of whiskey from the fireplace mantle, a last remnant of the pact the scientists had: the last man to drink the others' health. West's brain screams and expands as he drinks. He has found Nevin's hidden hormone solution. In a moment (so familiar to viewers of Limitless and the drug N-Zee-Tee), West's mind expands and he clearly sees how to fix the great spaceship and its interstellar drive. He will take that vessel to the stars.

I haven't read every Simak story or novel, but I do know most of his other stuff is different than "The Call From Beyond." He obviously had a lot of fun with the Lovecraftian elements, though they made the story unsellable to John W Campbell at Astounding. Thus Super Science Stories, a crappy low-pay mag. Critical reception for "The Call from Beyond" was probably non-existent (though that could be said of most of the contents of Super Science Stories) as science fiction didn't care about Lovecraft or his Cthulhu Mythos. If anyone did comment on this story, it would most likely be dismissive or derogatory. What is more interesting is that the horror community didn't champion the tale either. I doubt they even knew about it.

In When the Fires Burn High and the Wind Is In the North: The Pastoral Science Fiction of Clifford D Simak (2006) by Robert J Ewald, the author describes the story as "another mediocre story very beautifully illustrated by Virgil Finlay." Ewald points out that the weird, other dimensional creatures resemble the Cobblies from City, and that Simak's idea of aliens' inspiring all the supernatural monsters like goblins and ghosts would be developed later in The Goblin Reservation (1967).

Still, "The Call From Beyond" wasn't the only time Simak got Lovecraftian. In his episodic novel Where Evil Dwells (1982), he has his adventurers enter an ancient temple filled with creatures older than the gods known as The Elder Ones:
Far back in that enormous space that loomed in front of them, eyes gleamed with a fiercely golden light—more eyes now than there had been before. Some great monster was purring, and the silky, deliberate purr, like the purring of a million house cats, rumbled in the air. But behind the purring, laced into the interstices of the rumbling purr, were other sounds that were as chilling as the purr—the sliding sound of writhing wigglers that had no feet to walk on, the nervous chittering of crouchers huddling in the dark, the click-clack of scampering hooves, the wheezing and the slobbering of those who waited for a feast, tucking mushroomed napkins underneath their chins, and of the drooler that hunkered somewhere with thick ropes of saliva dripping.
Despite "The Call From Beyond" being a one-off, CDS was obviously a fan of HP Lovecraft's weird cosmic terror, and its themes did find a place within Simak's larger context, though subtly. Whenever Simak wrote of aliens such as Catface in Mastodonia (1978) he tried to capture a little Lovecraftian strangeness. Simak never sank to the humans-in-green-skin kind of short hand that science fiction sometimes suffers from. In this way, Lovecraft may have had as much influence on the early Simak as John W Campbell.

GW Thomas has appeared in over 400 different books, magazines and ezines including The Writer, Writer's Digest, Black October Magazine and Contact. His website is gwthomas.org. He is editor of Dark Worlds magazine.

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