The World in the Satin Bag has moved to my new website.  If you want to see what I'm up to, head on over there!

Saturday, June 30, 2012

Question: When Will the Tramp-Stamp Urban Fantasy Novels Die?

Anthony Stevens was kind enough to ask the following question my Google+ page:
When are the mass-market paperback publishers going to outgrow the cute-young-thing-with-the-tramp-stamp-and-a-sword/pistol/flaming-ball-of-plasma cover art? What comes next to catch our eye?
Technically, that's two questions, but I don't have a life to prevent me from answering them.

First, the "tramp stamp" urban fantasy cover trend is unlikely to go away anytime soon.  Why?  The simplest reason:  they're selling.  The best way to change the way publishers package books is to change the way the public reacts to book covers.  Publishers aren't stupid.  When they have a

Friday, June 29, 2012

The #1 Thing I Want on Extended Cut or Special Edition DVDs

By "Extended Cut" or "Special Edition," I am referring to any DVD release which includes additional footage in the movie itself or special features which otherwise are not available in previous versions.

And what is it that I want from these special editions? The Theatrical Version!

One of the things that drives me up the wall with DVDs is when the extended cut doesn't come with the original theatrical release. If you go mucking about with a movie, I still want to be able to enjoy the film as it was seen by movie-goers. Star Wars fans were pissed off when George Lucas released the original trilogy on DVD without the original versions; we didn't want the Special

Tuesday, June 26, 2012

Book Review: Silver by Rhiannon Held

Every time I read an urban fantasy, I remind myself that I am not the primary audience.  After all, much of what I dislike about urban fantasy are the very things I dislike about bad books.  Stereotypical characterization, repetitive narratives, and repetitive tropes (if I see one more tramp stamp cover I'm going to blow a gasket).  But Rhiannon Held's Silver bucked the trend, taking what should have been yet another stupid werewolf novel and turning it into a rigorously constructed sociological foray into a potential werewolf culture.

The novel's focus, oddly enough, is on Andrew Dare, not the character from which the novel draws its title.  A werewolf pack enforcer, Dare discoveres Silver wandering in Roanoke territory, seemingly delirious and injected with, well, silver (the connection to her name is explained in the novel).  Silver's condition reminds Dare of a past that he would rather forget, and one which we

Sunday, June 24, 2012

10 Things I've Learned From Prometheus (Or, Prometheus: A Testament to the Stupidity of Mankind)

Because everyone is poking fun at Prometheus, I've decided to join in on the festivities.

Here goes:

1. Only an American-based expedition could be based solely on the personal beliefs of someone claiming themselves to be a scientist.
The Evidence: Shaw and Holloway, the two archaeologists responsible for the Prometheus mission, have nothing but a handful of cave paintings to suggest that aliens visited Earth in the

Friday, June 22, 2012

Mid-Year Movie Roundup: My Brief Thoughts On What I've Seen So Far This Year

Thus far this year, I have seen the following movies:
The Hunger Games
The Avengers
John Carter
Snow White and the Huntsman
American Reunion
The Cabin in the Woods

Not many, I know.  Most of them are genre fiction, minus American Reunion.  There are two proper science fiction movies (The Hunger Games and Prometheus), one that could very well be science fiction, but treats its universe like a fantasy one (The Avengers), and some that are technically science fiction, but really fantasy with some technological wonders (John Carter and The Cabin in the Woods).  The last is a pure fantasy (Snow White and the Huntsman).

The movie I liked enough to see it twice falls to one film: The Avengers.

The movies I thought were quite good: Chronicle (one of the few good uses of shaky cam I've seen), The Hunger Games (solid acting with a cool, slightly used-up idea), The Avengers (so far the best movie of the year -- Joss Whedon at his best), John Carter (beautiful film with a decent little story), The Cabin in the Woods (Joss Whedon at his best again, ripping apart the tropes of the horror genre).

The movie that were better than I expected: Snow White and the Huntsman (some really nice twists on the classic story). 

The movies that were so-so overall: Snow White and the Huntsman, American Reunion (they tried to take us to a new level, but didn't quite get there; still, it was a fun movie).

The greatest disappointment: Prometheus (in fact, the more I think about this movie, the more I really hate it)

Have you seen any of these movies? If so, place them in the categories I've given above and let me know what you think!

Thursday, June 21, 2012

First Novels: Are They Forgivable?

While listening to SF Squeecast's discussion of Kameron Hurley's novel, God's War, I was struck by the suggestion that the novel's perceived faults were forgivable because it is a first novel. Not having read God's War, I cannot speak to the accuracy of the suggested faults, and therefore cannot directly discuss Hurley's novel. However, the question raised by the hosts compelled me to consider my own position on first novels. Are mistakes in first novels forgivable? If so, when do we start to fault an author for not being up to par?

There are no quick and easy answers to this question for me, in part because I don't think a first novel is a relevant starting point for the discussion. What matters, in my mind, is the reader's first experience with an author, which may occur with that author's first novel, or may occur at any other point in the author's career. From my own experience, once I've read a bad book by an author, it casts the rest of their work in a different light. If I happened to have started with better work, then I can probably forgive that author for a crummier novel, regardless of when it arrives

Wednesday, June 20, 2012

Gritty Fantasy: Why Do I Love It So?

Today's post is based on a question from Dirk Reul:
What is it that people find fascinating about gritty fantasy compared to the classic story types like The Hero's Journey?
As I noted when the question was asked, I can only talk about this topic from my personal perspective.  Sadly, the radiation from Japan's nuclear power plan problems has yet to give me the ability to read the minds of everyone on the planet.  I'm as upset about it as you (admit it, you wanted to get super powers too).

First, to definitions, just so we're clear what we mean (or I mean) by "gritty fantasy."  George R. R. Martin's A Song of Ice and Fire is gritty fantasy.  J. R. R. Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings and successor works are the classic "hero's journey" stories.  The difference between the two isn't so much the lack of a quest, but rather a rejection on the part of gritty fantasy of romantic notions

Tuesday, June 19, 2012

Game of Thrones vs. People Who Only Threw a Fit After-the-fact

George Bush is in the HBO production of Game of Thrones (season one).  Not really.  A replica of his head was dressed up in a manky wig and put on a spike to represent one of the heads King Joffrey lobbed off towards the end of the first season.  Said replica was on the screen for such a short amount of time that nobody figured it out until someone made a passing comment in the commentary on the DVD suggesting as much.  Oh.  My.  God.  The world has just ended.  It's over.  Hollywood wants to kill George Bush.  It's finally true!  The liberals have come to kill our babies and eat our brains using parasitic tube monkeys.  And then they're going to cut off George Bush's head and put it up on a spike with a nasty black wig!

None of that is true.  Well, except everything before "Oh.  My.  God."  In truth, this is one of the stupidest things people have gotten upset about in Hollywood this year, let alone this decade (and the one before it).  There are a lot of more important things to get pissed about.  Such as how women are portrayed in films and TV.  Or representations of people of color.  Or the fact that most of the crap they put on TV looks like it was written by a 5-year-old missing half a brain.  But this?  Please.  Grow up.

And, yes, contrary to what some of a different political persuasion than myself might say, I would not have cared either if the bust was Barack Obama, except for the fact that there are almost no black people in Game of Thrones (season one) to begin with.  Putting him up on a spike wouldn't make any sense, and I might get a little annoyed at that if I actually noticed it.  But would I have?  No.  I didn't notice George Bush either, and I don't even like him as a President.

That said, I don't really know where I stand with the producers' rational for why they used a replica of his head.  Is it possible they couldn't afford to rent or make a whole bunch more body parts and heads?  Maybe.  Could it also be a veiled political statement?  I guess.  But that would assume David Benioff and D. B. Weiss are stupid enough to a) put it in their movie knowing some place like Big Hollywood will scrutinize everything they do, and b) mention doing so in the commentary.  If you wanted to make a political point, I'd think you'd take the moment to say something in the commentary.  Maybe they're that dumb, but I find that hard to believe, and I don't feel like making that judgment right now.

So I will officially file this in my "stupid crap that the world got upset about" bin.  Do with it what you will.

Monday, June 18, 2012

Question: Is "Solar System SF" the future of Space Opera?

Paul Weimer (who podcasted a review of Prometheus with me about a week ago) was kind enough to ask the question in the title, perhaps in some vain hope that I actually know what I'm talking about.  I'll start by first saying much of what follows is uneducated speculation, in part because predicting trends in SF is a crapshoot (remember when Mundane SF was the "next big thing"?) and in part because I am not familiar with all the SF novels being published (traditionally or otherwise) simply because it is not my job to be familiar, and I've got 20 other things going on -- some of them actual jobs or job-related.

That said, one of the curious things about this question is that it wasn't immediately clear to me what Paul meant by "Space Opera."  As a narrative tradition, Space Opera has been identified as the "high adventure" genre, often coupled, in some ways, to Planetary Romance (Burroughs, for example), but with greater reach, greater inherent optimism, and an extraordinary love affair with the infamous "sensawunda" (also:  colonialism, but you can read John Rieder's book for that).  It's a

Friday, June 15, 2012

Retro Nostalgia: The Fifth Element (1997) and the Legacy of Camp

The Fifth Element is one of those films that the genre community loves not because it is a good film, but because it's actually pretty awful, and intentionally so.  At least, that's how I interpret it.  It has always seemed like a film that deliberately sought out science fiction's pension for high-flying, mythological fantasy (in space).  In some sense, it's the opposite of Starships Troopers, released in the same year.  Both films are satires:  Starship Troopers a more socio-political satire of the military industrial complex, and The Fifth Element a satire of genre -- or what I call the  "legacy of camp."
What amuses me about The Fifth Element is how easily it manipulates genre conventions to produce a narrative that functions in part through humorous hyperbole, and yet never needs to make a whole lot of sense.  The central premise, for those that don't know or only vaguely remember, is much like any Doctor Who season finale:  some kind of evil, ancient alien force appears out of nowhere (in the form of a planet that gobbles up aggressive energy, like missiles, to increase its size), and the only one who can stop it is a genetically engineered messiah (Leeloo, played by Milla Jovovich) and an ex-soldier.  Of course, there are lots of obstacles in the way:  an inept human government/military, an evil corporate loon with the weirdest hairdo in history (Gary Oldman), some evil mercenary space orcs, and a couple of socially awkward priests.  Let's also not forget that one of the most important scenes in the entire movie is an opera/faux-future-pop mashup laid over Leeloo's comical smackdown of those absurd space orcs.  And did I mention that the music in said scene is performed by a blue alien diva with tentacles?  Yeah.
The plot is eccentric enough -- and ever so genre -- but the film's technological imagination is where the nonsensical really shines.  Take, for example, the main city:  hover cars are everywhere, despite societal evidence that this would be a complete disaster; Chinese restaurants deliver in person, flying around in makeshift sailing ships; Korben Dallas (Bruce Willis) has enough high-powered rifles to make even an NRA activist scared (and apparently he's not the only one); and homes are equipped with self-cleaning showers and other gadgets that would make Bill Gates wet himself.  Elsewhere, we're to believe that scientists can reconstruct any biological being from a handful of cells; luxury cruise ships roam the stars undefended, while mercenaries destroy everything they're paid to eliminate; and aliens of unimaginable cleverness (who made Leeloo) are so inept at protecting their own ships that their destruction becomes a convenient plot device.  It's the kind of movie that, if it took itself seriously, would fall apart the moment someone started to think about it all.

But The Fifth Element doesn't take itself too seriously.  It's camp through and through.  The acting is overboard, right down to a somewhat dumbfounded Tommy Lister playing President of, well, everything and Gary Oldman pulling out all the stops as the ridiculous Zorg, weird hairdo, accent, and all.  It's as if the creators sat down one day and said, "How can we make this movie so ridiculous it's actually entertaining?"  And it's that willingness to embrace the campy side of SF that makes The Fifth Element one of those rare humorous gems, memorable not for being a gamestopper like 2001:  A Space Odyssey or Blade Runner, but for being that absurd movie we can all watch and love together.  It never needed to be a good movie.  It only ever needed to be that right mixture of camp and humor (a skill Joss Whedon has learned to master quite well).
This is where I have to wonder:  What other films do the same thing?  Do they work as well as The Fifth Element?  Why or why not?


Retro Nostalgia is the product of my compulsive re-watching of classic and/or quality science fiction and fantasy films (and their related components).  In each feature, I'll cover some element of a particular film that interests me, sometimes from an academic perspective and other times as a simple fan.  Previous columns can be easily found via the "Movie Rants" label.

Tuesday, June 12, 2012

Live-writing: Experiments Be Fun

For the curious, I've been doing irregular live-writing sessions for a short story to appear on this blog called "Lendergross and Eaves" (a weird fantasy crime noir involving a toad-person drug lord and a female police inspecter--the latter of these is to be played by my friend Jen).  Live-writing is more or less like it sounds:  I create a Google Doc, share the link with everyone, and then for 30 minutes do nothing but write while random strangers watch me and read up on my progress.

Thus far, the experiment has been fantastic.  I've written a considerable amount (about 2,000 words in two sessions) and have decided to open up the comments feature so people can ask me questions while I'm writing.  In other words, I'm loving it.

For anyone interested in watching me work, or seeing my progress on your own time, all you have to do is go to this link.  I will announce live-writing sessions on my Twitter and Google+ pages.  And if you show up during one of those sessions, feel free to leave a comment with a question!


Sunday, June 10, 2012

Retro Nostalgia: Alien (1979) and the Uncanny Valley

Having recently viewed and podcasted about Ridley Scott's prequel, Prometheus, I decided it would be a great idea to revisit the Alien franchise by re-watching Ridley Scott's original:  Alien.  Released in 1979, the film remains one of the most terrifying science fiction movies to hit the big screen, despite the obvious dating in its technology (updated considerably in Prometheus -- because computers with green letters and typewriter clicking sounds are so obviously old school).  But what is it that terrifies us about the xenomorph in this film and its immediate sequels (Aliens and Alien 3)?
For me, it has to do with the premise behind the concept of the Uncanny Valley:
At its most basic, Masahiro Mori's concept suggests that the more human an inhuman thing appears, the more uncomfortable human beings become.  Many have applied the concept to robotics and video games, but I think the above image shows how it can also apply more broadly to the fantastic.  While some research suggests that the hypothesis doesn't hold up under scrutiny, I do think it remains an important explanation for why we are terrified of the xenomorph and other science fiction creations (perhaps someone could explore how it relates to Splice, which seems to dig into an even greater human terror:  our creations turning on us).
Where the xenomorph sits on the scale is up to speculation, but re-watching Alien reminded me how human these creatures really are.  It's against those humanoid features that its most terrifying aspects play out on the screen.  It's a bipedal creature with arms and hands not unlike our own, with an identifiable head, pelvis, and similar humanoid features, such as feet.  But its skin is insect-like; it's mouth is full of sharp teeth and hides a second mouth that shoots out to puncture flesh; it's head is elongated to exaggerated levels; its blood is acidic; and it has a long, skeletal and pointed tail, which it uses to coax terrified prey closer to its mouth.

All of these features at once remind us of ourselves, but also remind us of what we are not.  And for me, that's bloody terrifying.  Giant squid other kinds of incredibly inhuman creatures don't terrify me nearly as much as those beings that verge into human territory.*  This is perhaps why the Space Jockey, as re-imagined by Ridley Scott in Prometheus, made me uneasy.  Once you see what they look like underneath all that bizarre armor, they are surprisingly human, more so even than the xenomorph.  And something about that makes their actions in the movie more terrifying, but also strangely more familiar (but that's perhaps something to think about another day...).
What about you?  What terrifies you about the xenomorph or other science fiction monsters?  The comments are yours.


*I'm speaking about terror with regards to the unreal.  If a xenomorph and a giant squid showed up in my living room, both with the intent to kill me, I would be equally terrified of both.  Thankfully, that would never happen.

Saturday, June 09, 2012

Shoot the WISB #01: Prometheus (2012) Reviewed w/ Paul Weimer

Spoiler Alert:  the following podcast contains spoilers for the film being reviewed; enjoy at your own risk (or something like that).

Paul Weimer was kind enough to spend a little time with me talking about the release of Ridley Scott's long-anticipated Alien prequel, Prometheus.  If you've seen the film and want to offer your two cents, feel free to do so in the comments.

You can download or stream the mp3 from this link.

Friday, June 08, 2012

Google+ Writing Hangouts Coming: Who's wants in?

I've decided that I'm going to start hosting a regular Google+ Hangout for the purposes of stimulating writing -- technology permitting, of course.  How regular these will be depends on a lot of factors, such as who is interested, schedules, and so on.  These hangouts will be done alongside my live writing feature, both of which I'll announce on Twitter when it goes live.

For those that don't know anything about the writing hangouts, they are pretty simple:  for about 15 minutes, everyone talks about whatever floats their boat, giving people time to get into the room and settle into their writing mode; after that, everyone writes, usually for 15 to 30 minutes, sometimes more.  The hope is that these little hangouts will progress into cyclical writing binges for an hour or so, but we'll see.

If you're interested in participating, leave a comment with your weekly schedule!

Thursday, June 07, 2012

Urban Fantasy: Ignoring the big question?

In a recent episode of Read It and Weep, one of the hosts criticized urban fantasy's strange habit of ignoring what I call "the big question."  The criticism was fairly light -- being a humorous podcast and all -- but it convinced me to blog about it here.

First, the big question:
Why do so few urban fantasy novels explore the spiritual, religious, and historical impacts inherent in discovering the existence of the supernatural?
This is a huge question for me, in part because it is also a little pet peeve of mine.  Some of the least interesting UF novels avoid the question altogether.  And they do it at the expense of the smidgen of realism necessary to make such a work, well, work.  If your characters go through life believing dragons and fairies and what not don't exist, why would they suddenly buy into some relatively mundane hints to the contrary?  Even big, in-your-face hints (i.e., seemingly irrefutable evidence) would be taken by a lot of us with a grain of salt; many would assume they've gone completely

Tuesday, June 05, 2012

Retro Nostalgia: Sunshine (2007) and Science Fiction's Supreme Optimism

I've argued before that science fiction is a naturally optimistic genre.  One of the main reasons for this is the fact that SF almost always imagines a future in which we still exist.  While watching Sunshine, however, my position became more nuanced.  It's not that we are still alive; it's that we've survived.

Sunshine is one such movie.  Set in a future in which the Sun has prematurely begun to die out, humanity has been given the seemingly impossible task of jump-starting the gas furnace of the Sun and save Earth.  Impossible is an understatement, really.  It's pretty clear from the start of the film that humanity has not progressed all that far from our present in terms of technology.  We've mastered a few more stages of spaceflight, put bases and communication arrays on the moon, managed to solve gravity issues on long-range spaceships, figured out how to maximize oxygen production, plant growth, etc., and built ships large enough to house multiple humans and to protect them from radiation, the Sun's heat, and so on.  None of that should inspire confidence in our ability to control stars.

And as the opening moments remind us, this is more true than we can possibly know.  The first

Monday, June 04, 2012

Poll: Would you watch or tune in to a live-writing event?

One of the interesting things I did with my friend Adam last year was a collaboration in which we more or less wrote a story live. While that story didn't pan out (still have it and think it's a wicked piece of work that we should one day finish -- Andy Remic would love it), it made me think about how I might use Google Docs to let people sneak a peak at my writing process. Google lets you share a document with anyone, and it shows updates more or less as they are happening.

Since I'm working on WISB-related stuff, I thought some of you might like to see me at work (and to see the rough drafts as they come into being).  I could select a time (maybe a daily time or something) and give the link out on my blog.  Even if you couldn't make it to the live event, you could still check in on the progress.

Would any of you be interested in this?  Let me know by clicking on the little poll.

Sunday, June 03, 2012

Retro Nostalgia: The Fascinating Paradox of Sphere (1998) (Or, Why Science Fiction Makes Us Think)

I recently re-watched the 1998 film adaptation of Michael Crichton's Sphere (starring Dustin Hoffman, Sharon Stone, and Samuel L. Jackson, among others).  What fascinated me about the film was that despite all its flaws, it is still an example of science fiction doing what it does best:  explore the big ideas (Wikipedia tells me this is also true of the book, but since I haven't read it, I can only comment on what is in the film).

For those that have not seen Sphere, I suggest you watch it before reading beyond this point, because I'm going to ruin the ending.  Starting now...

The big idea in Sphere is a twist on the traditional "first contact" story.  A ragtag bunch of scientists (and a psychologist played by Hoffman) are brought in secret to an underwater facility by the U.S. military.  There they learn that the military has discovered a 300-year-old spacecraft, which they suspect to be alien.  It turns out, however, that the craft is neither 300-years-old nor alien; rather, it is of American origin and from the future, having crashlanded in Earth's past after a brush with a black hole.  To add to the mystery, the characters discover a strange sphere inside the ship (nobody knows if it's alien or not, and no answers are ever actually given).  Eventually we discover that all those who go inside the sphere gain the ability to bring their thoughts to life.

In the concluding scenes (inside a decompression chamber), the surviving members of the team consider the implications of what they've learned.  Hoffman's character rightly concludes that humanity is too primitive for the kind of power granted by the sphere, as their nightmarish foray in the underwater facility shows (they all more or less bring their nightmares to life).  And so all three characters decide they will use the power to forget what happened, thereby denying humanity access to the information.

What I find compelling about this ending is how it fulfills its own prophecy.  Because the ship is from the future, we're drawn to the realization that the choice of the characters to forget means that the mistakes which led them to this realization must always happen.  It also means that humanity never actually learns the lesson that these individuals do, making it impossible for any kind of species-centered growth -- there will be no forewarning of the dangers, no future-reversion, in which technology from the future influences the technology of the past, leading us to that future point (yay, a paradox!).  But the paradox lies in that problem:  if the spacecraft has no record of what the scientists discovered in the past, then something must have happened to prevent that information from reaching the authorities.  We're led to believe that this means nobody is meant to survive, but the truth is that the information is destroyed, making certain that nobody knows and that everything proceeds in blindness.  Anyone thinking about this problem knows that something must happen or the whole world collapses (which is a problem for Sphere, a serious film, but not really one for Back to the Future, a humorous film).

That idea -- of meeting our future head-on and grappling with its implications, both technologically, socially, and psychologically -- is what SF does best.  It doesn't really matter if Sphere is a great movie on its own; what matters is if its ending compels one to think -- and ask the big questions.  How do we grapple with technology that makes the "dreams come true" idea a reality?  What do we do when we know our own future, and it's immediate ramifications?  And is it really possible to forget such power and history?  And if you don't forget, does that mean your future changes?  Do we fall into one of those weird Back to the Future paradoxes?  Would you know if things changed?

And, of course, there's this one:  What is the sphere?  Where did it come from?  Will we ever know?

I'll leave it there for now, because I want to see what others thought about the conclusion of Sphere.  How did you interpret the paradoxes and ideas presented in those final moments?

Saturday, June 02, 2012

Movie Review (Preliminary Thoughts): Snow White and the Huntsman

(These are my early "just got home from the movie" thoughts.  They do not represent my final verdict on the film, which will come when I've had time to let things stew.  That said, I don't expect my opinion to change terribly much over time, as they did for The Happening, which I would now give a 1/5 if I were to review it again.)

Here goes:

Friday, June 01, 2012

Adventures in Worldbuilding: Early Mapping My World (or, Fun with Generators)

I've been playing around with a lot of different mapping software lately, in part because the epic fantasy series I'm working on has need of a map and I haven't a clue what to do.  I've wandered around through all of the various programs for creating maps and the best one I've found that takes into account things like temperature, geographic features, etc. is one called Hero Extant (mostly because it's free and doesn't crash; suggestions of better programs are welcome).

In any case, these are what I've come up with so far.  I'll likely decide on one that gives me most of what I want and then re-map from hand to rework the mountains and other features to fit what I need.  But for now, preliminary mapping is necessary!

Feel free to poke through and let me know what you think!

Here goes:

Adventures in Worldbuilding: Questions I ask myself (because I'm mental)...

1) How the heck do I write a mystery story involving a framing of a drug dealer in a fantasy world?

2) Is it possible to have a continent that spirals out from a central point with three arms (kind of like a galaxy), or is that just fantasy nonsense? Something like this:
3) How much information is too much for a short story set in a fantasy world? In a novel, you would have the option to spend a considerable amount of time establishing scene, but not so in a short story. Confusing.

4) What is it like being a giant frog person? How do I get in the head of such a person, considering that I have never been a frog before (though I may have dressed up as one when I was a youngin')?

5) What is the best beverage for stirring the creative juices? Hmm...


(This whole "Adventures in Worldbuilding" thing has become a real feature, hasn't it?  So be it.  I like talking about what I'm doing in the writing world, even if it's completely random and weird.)