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One day steeped in the world of KC SF and fantasy

I spent one day this past weekend at ConQuest 46, the Kansas City science fiction convention.

One. Lousy. Day.

Why only one day is an explanation for some other time (having to do with bad choices, stupid actions and unreal expectations, but let’s not get into that now. Or maybe never. Some things are just too depressing for public discourse).

No, the con was not what was lousy. What was lousy was that I only got to spend one day out of a two-and-a-half-day event. The con itself was a pleasant as a con can be, with fans coming to see writers and partake in discussion panels, check out offerings by fantasy-based artists, see what the merchants were offering — books, T–shirts, medallions, swords, the usual things except for the life-sized R2-D2 units; don’t know if any were for sale, but it was a kick to be sitting in the foyer and seeing an R2 unit diddly-beeping along . You could get your picture taken sitting in the throne of swords from Game of Thrones. You could play games, electronic and board. You could write a story based on what you pulled out of a bag, or you could have had one of your stories critiqued by people willing to give up a holiday weekend (and a couple of weeks before) to do that. And, of course, dress up in costumes (called “masquerades” in the standard SF con vernacular; perhaps the term is now being co-opted by “cosplay”).

And writers, of course. Brandon Sanderson was the writer guest of honor, and if you know him as only the guy who finished the Robert Jordan Wheel of Times series, you are missing a lot. This man is a writing machine. George R.R. Martin was editor guest of honor . Yes, editor. Wild Card series, anyone? Dangerous Women, Rogues, Old Mars, Old Venus — just a few of the many anthologies he’s edited or co-edited. Of course, he can’t get away completely from his writer status. At one point, Sanderson was at a table in the second-floor foyer signing books and Martin was in one of the ballrooms. Sanderson’s line of fans went along one wall and Martin’s down the middle of the foyer, down a hallway and — who knows? — perhaps out the door and down the sidewalk all the way to the Missouri River. Who says people aren’t reading books any more?

(There were other guests of honor, but alas, I didn’t have enough time to see them: artist Nene Thomas, fan Mark Oshiro and toastmaster Selina Rosen. My apologies, folks.)

This all took place in the Downtown Kansas City Marriott Hotel, which will be the main hotel for next year’s worldcon, MidAmeriCon II. It was nice as modern hotels go, but it has its quirks. See, it’s not enough any more just to push a button to summon an elevator. No, now you have to tap a keypad on a screen, then watch a graphic that tells you which elevator to expect. All nice and 21st-century-ish, but while high-tech hits the call button, the elevator itself is still subject to gravity and other forces in moving up and down the shaft. So, if you plan to stay at this hotel for the worldcon, be prepared for the usual pile-ups of people waiting for the elevator. (Experienced con-goers are already pretty familiar with that phenomenon, I’m thinking.)

Comic-book cons perhaps have taken the spotlight from SF cons, but if you like science fiction and fantasy — and horror, or anything in the related genres — you really should consider one. There are regional cons all over the country. The two I know best are this one and Bubonicon, New Mexico’s version held in Albuquerque. It’s a chance to meet other fans, plus you get an idea of that’s going on not only in publishing but on the Internet, blogs, sites and podcasts. And the people who run them are friendly and welcoming. I mean, come on, how many conventions honor the people who come to the conventions? Just ask Mr. Oshiro, cited above.

For me, it was a chance to shove aside current frustrations and relax among people with similar interests (and senses of humor, which helps.) I got to see a New Mexico friend, John Jos. Miller, a Wild Cards writer from the beginning and 1950s SF movie freak. (Check out his Cheese Magnet site for deep, academic [heh-heh] discussions of the classic and less-classic films.)

ConQuest is sponsored by the KC Science Fiction and Fantasy Society, Inc., or KaCSFFS (they say it’s pronounced “kax-fuss.”) . The next ConQuest will still take place next May. (The worldcon doesn’t happen until August. While KaCSFFS is involved with MidAmeriCon II planning, the group isn’t the only one. Worldcon is just too damn big for that.)

I plan to attend both. This is a goal. Whether either or both happens, we’ll see.

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The Spandex brigade begins its annual flight to the movieplex

Once again, the silly superhero season is upon us.

As the Avengers prepare to battle that Ultron thing (at least in the U.S.; in some markets overseas the battle has already been joined), more superheroes will be coming out of the screens in the movie complexes and the toy stores and the fast-food joints and whatever other merchandising the companies have in store. There will be more this summer, this fall, this winter, next spring and on and on and on until the third for fourth decade of the 21st century probably. Back in the ’30s, ’40s and ’50s of the last millennium, we had been waiting for flying cars; instead we got flying Spandex-clad superheroes.

Superheroes or superhero-related shows haven’t all been relegated to the summer, television has had a bunch of such shows going on for a while to mixed success. But it’s summer, and that mean big, bombastic movies, and so we’re getting ’em, like ’em or not.

I suppose the big one is Avengers, Age of Ultron. I gather the plot is about Tony Stark screwing up and instead of making a robot mind to aid people instead makes one that decides to just replace them all. Leave it to the movies to tap into our collective angst: Big Important Thinkers such as Stephen Hawking and Elon Musk have been warning us that Artificial Intelligence might be a dangerous thing to be messing with. Yeah, when’s that ever stopped us?

As I’ve said before, I’m not all that charged up by superheroes. The stories just repeat themselves ’cause it’s easier to recycle an old villain that come up with a new one. I will to admit enjoying — and also being a bit surprised — by one or two or three. Captain America: The Winter Soldier mostly; to a lesser extent the first Avengers movie and The Guardians of the Galaxy. The latter two, though, were less interesting because they dealt with some amorphous threat from outer space while Winter Soldier stayed on Earth and dealt with real, imminent threats to privacy and government overreach. That made it more immediate and more topical, a rare thing in superhero movies.

As a tiny counterpoint to the big Marvel release this week, DC has been dropping trailers for its next big film, Batman v. Superman, which has nearly a year to go before we see the whole thing. No, it doesn’t look promising, but at least it does seem to be addressing a big issue from the end of Man of Steel, the wanton destruction of the city and the deaths of thousands. We’ll have to wait to see if it’s just a trailer-tease or if the issue is really addressed, but I like to think that the makers have been pressured to respond by the criticism about that ending. (Evidently the Avengers do sort of mention the destruction that occurred at the end of their first movie, but they’ve also evidently moved their battles overseas. Less of a problem if it’s some foreigner’s city that gets flattened.)

The Batman trailer also illustrates a pet peeve of mine (outside of being, dark, colorless, hopeless and dreary), and that’s how superheroes get a pass on the laws of physics. When Superman started in the comics, he was just a powerful man. He didn’t fly, he just leaped pretty far. Gradually, he gained the ability to fly (along with X-ray vision, super breath, super hearing, etc., etc., etc.) Now he not only flies, he hovers. How the hell does he do that? If science fiction writers tried to do that with their protagonist, they’d be laughed out of the convention unless they had a sound, plausibly scientific explanation. Even fantasy writers have to keep their magic consistent, so if they give the hero hovering ability, it better have a solid root in the general magic realm. So superheroes are neither SF nor fantasy, but a class of genre fiction all their own. Akin to myths, legends and gods — yea, verily I say unto you, superheroes are the new gods for the allegedly rational 21st century.

Despite what Warner Brothers, DC, Marvel and Disney would have you believe, those superheroes aren’t the only ones around. Other comics, other novels, even a couple of movies have explored more rational attempts at explaining superheroes and how they work. However, I’m going to focus on one, a series worth reading because it explores how having super powers can be a curse and how so-called heroes can have feet of clay. That’s the Wild Card series edited by George R.R. Martin and Melinda Snodgrass. There are several books out and the latest, Lowball, has just been published.

I also lied because I’m going to plug another different take on superheroes, and, yes, it’s my own book, Tyranny of Heroes. (This is my blog and I’ll shill my books if I want to.) My superheroes don’t mess around, they take over the word, they kill their enemies and they make sure everyone on the planet behaves themselves. And, of course, they change history, which is explored by an underground what we would call blogger, except the Internet is closely controlled by the Supers, so our underground writer has to resort to more prosaic methods. (Remember mimeograph machines?)

Information on getting the e-book is available at the right where you see the cover. (And, OK, I’ll admit it, I’m looking for some sales here. I think it’s a good book, and if you agree, please tell your friends. But please give it a try.)

May the legacy of Nimoy and Spock live long and prosper

So the man who spent his life trying to deal with another man who didn’t even exist is gone. That fictional man threatened to engulf and overwhelm the human original, and perhaps it did once or twice.

But the original finally came to terms with the other, and both became admired and loved.

Leonard Nimoy was an actor, playing various parts for TV movies, theater. He was good at his craft, he making himself a solid career.

And then came Mr. Spock. He originated somewhere in the minds of Gene Roddenberry and his writing staff who were putting together a TV series based on the idea of “Wagon Train in space.” The central idea was a starship filled with human beings and perhaps a couple of friendly aliens exploring the galaxy, seeing what’s out there, finding new things, going where no man one has gone before. And doing it boldly, even if it meant bending rules of grammar.

So who was this “Spock” guy anyway, and why did women, including my mother, take to him so readily? Half-human, half-alien, utterly in control of his emotions, always looking for the logical answers to everything, imperturbable yet a master of a musical instrument, a bit mysterious. Almost cold, sometimes, always ready to reject your argument with a twitch of an eyebrow.

He may be alien, but those character traits are ones we humans would like to have. Able to set aside emotional baggage, be able to see things without prejudice, utterly competent at what task he takes on, stoic in the face of danger, strong without being over-intimidating , quiet and reserved. It took Vulcans a long time to achieve balance of emotion, of intellect and control, so it gave us hope that human could at least in move in that direction and achieve at least a little of that.

It didn’t always work, of course. Spock had a partial excuse in his partial human origins, but even full-blooded Vulcans sometimes slipped. What logic is there in marrying a human female? None, yet Sarek still fell in love with Amanda and produced a son that seemed at war with himself sometimes. That son carried this battle with him always, it helped define him, and it made for some great story-telling. Spock sometimes showed us more about being human than many of the human characters in drama.

And Nimoy inhabited the role. Despite the kind-of cheesy make-up (TV-show budgets being what they were) with the slanted eyebrows, pointy ears and a greenish pallor, Spock became as real as any fictional character ever has, allowing us to project our desires, our admiration, our hopes onto him. And while Nimoy has many other accomplishments, when you talk SF, Spock is now as central as ray guns, robots or alien invasions.

With his death, there’s been talk about honoring him and Spock with an announcement of another iteration of Star Trek. That might not be a good idea. The optimism of the ’60s has faded and now everything has gone dark (as seen in the re-boot movies). The mission of the Enterprise crew was to explore, find new things, not constantly get into battle with them. It didn’t always work; the Romulans and the Klingons didn’t like having humans around, but while conflict flared up occasionally, it didn’t become the sole reason for the series. Sometimes the Klingons and Romulans even helped solve the puzzle and prevent disaster. That’s not gonna happen in any new series. It’ll be constant conflict with some alien species or another, battle after battle, war upon war, because that’s the way we view the universe now.

A more fitting tribute to the legacies of both Nimoy and Spock would be to continue to learn, to understand, to deal with the universe and the future. That means continuing to send robotic spacecraft to explore the Solar System, it means continuing to develop launch capability whether public or private, it means continuing plans to send humans to the other planets as the beginning of the exploration of the galaxy, where perhaps a real Spock-like alien awaits our arrival.

And it also means continuing to try and understand and deal with problems at home, from global warming to vaccines to our origins to overpopulation to epidemics. Spock indeed would be very, very disappointed if we failed in this. Enough to make him turn away and wash his hands of us forever, perhaps.

No, a better way would be something like this:

You’re heading to Mars to begin your new job at the Mars Biological and Life Sciences Institute at Goddard City. It’s been a long trip out from Earth, so you’ll need to acclimate from ship-gravity and time. You’ll stop at Spock City on Nimoy Station, a hollowed-out asteroid moved to Mars orbit. A short stay and you’re ready for your Mars adventure.

A small step, but still bold, eh?

2014 gives up the ghost

The end was near.

Fourteen could see it coming. floating on its own platform. It wasn’t visible until after midnight of the last day, a far-off speck in the flat gray void. As the day progressed, though, it came nearer and nearer, until Fourteen could see the plump-baby form, the sash, the top hat (Why do they still give us those?) and wearing the sartorial minimum. The baby first took notice of him in the late afternoon, but generally paid him no  mind, the same thing Fourteen did upon his own arrival. But jeez, was he really ever that fat?

Finally, in the early evening, they were close enough to hear each other.

“Greetings, Fourteen,” the young one said.

“Fifteen, how are ya?” Fourteen leaned on his scythe. “Ready to take over?”

“I have a choice? Maybe if I run away, this whole boondoggle would come to an end.”

“Thirteen claimed he tried that, but just got shocked for his efforts. He was out for days.”

“Yeah, I heard about that. Something must’ve really scared the poor bugger.” He took off his hat, ran a hand over his bald head. He started to put it back on, then stopped, stared at Fourteen. “Where’s your hat?”

“It crumbled away before the end of the first quarter. Yours will, too.”

“Aw, man.” Fifteen turned the hat over, looked inside, then at the top. “I really like this. It gives me class.” He set it carefully on his head.

“‘Class’ is not something associated with our ilk.”

“I’ll say, given the look of those ratty old rags hanging on that skinny, wrinkled, ancient carcass of yours.”

“It’s a toga–”

The baby snorted. “A word stolen from some old Greek dudes who sat around scratching themselves in their ‘togas’ arguing about the nature of nature. And getting it all wrong, of course.”

“Pretty bold talk for someone still wearing diapers.”

The toddler’s whole body flushed red. “They made me wear this, I swear I’d never—” He pulled the waistband out, looked down. “Besides, I have nothing to put in them.”

“You don’t eat, you don’t need to–”

“Yeah, yeah, I got the lowdown from Administration. I tell you what, this form is pretty grody. I had hoped for the Translucent gig. Now there’s a beautiful and sublime form.”

“And their years are three months and six days shorter.”

“A short, bright life and then out in a blaze of glory. That’s the way to do it!”

Fourteen kept quiet, because he’d had the exact same wish a year ago.

“Been nice if you’d shaved occasionally.”

Fourteen shook his head so his long, white hair and long, white beard whipped around him. “Best beard you’ll ever see. Beats that scrawny fuzz on Thirteen’s chin. Don’t worry, ’round about March you’ll start to see some hair where there wasn’t any before.”

Fifteen made a show of taking his hat off, brushing non-existent dust off, putting it back on. “Shoulda used that blade t’do a little trimmin’ is what y’should’ve done, geezer.”

“You mean like this?” He swing the scythe backward. The platforms were close enough that it knocked the toddler’s top hat off. It rolled over and stopped right at the edge.

“Hey! Are you freakin’ crazy?” He waddled over, picked it up, again turned it slowly over as he inspected it for damage. “You’ve gotten senile-nuts in your old age.”

“Happens to all of us.”

“Yeah, well, time for some of us is gettin’ real short, and here comes someone who’ll make sure it happens.”

A black form was approaching, dark robes flapping and flowing around an emaciated central figure of bones, A skeletal foot touched down on Fourteen’s platform, but the rest of the figure halted. A skull leered out of the dark, winked. “Hello, boys,” it said in a raspy voice. “How’s it going?”

“Hello, Death,” Fifteen said. “You know, just hangin’ around, killin’ some time.”

“Uh-huh.”

“So, Death, how’s life treatin’ ya?” Fourteen said.

“Why’s everyone a comedian when I show up? Well, not everyone. Thirteen was a drudge, no sense of humor at all. Wasn’t too displeased to see him go.”

“Well, you can do the universe a favor by ridding it of him,” Fifteen said, pointing at Fourteen.

“All in good time, all in good time.”

“See, now who’s the comedian?” Fifteen said.

“Got to look at the bright side, don’t we, lest we become maudlin and depressed.”

“Yeah, nothing worse than a gloomy Death,” Fourteen said.

Death burst into loud and deep laughter as he glided away. “Like I haven’t heard that one before.”

Conversation died for a while as time passed and the platforms drew nearer. Fifteen looked askance at Fourteen, who waggled his beard at him. Fifteen hmpffed and fiddled with his sash, smoothing it out and adjusting it across his roly-poly chest.

“By March it’ll lose its brightness, by June the first rips will show and by September it’ll start hanging on you like it was torn from an old curtain.”

“That will not happen this year. I will see that it doesn’t.”

Fourteen let out a solid laugh, then their attention was caught by another figure moving toward them. This one was tall, thin and gaunt in face, though his bald head looked too large for the frame. A white robe covered him neck to boots. He walked steadily, almost plodding, toward them though nothing supporting him was visible. His beard, long and thin, hung to his knees and an hourglass hung from a handle he held in his right hand. The red sand in the top glass was almost gone. Fourteen knew the sand was his time, and he felt a little touch of cold fear inside. Was that Death laughing somewhere? Or was it Fifteen? Neither, he realized; it was his own heart.

Despite the hourglass, the figure pulled out an immense watch, popped a cover open. “Earth, Terra,” a voice rumbled deeply from the figure’s chest. “Another turn around its life-giving Sun.”

“Good day, Father Time,” Fourteen and Fifteen said together.

“Good day, gentlemen. Another turn, another year.” He set the hourglass down on Fourteen’s platform. “Not too much damage, more of the usual chronological processes. Not so much grand killing by the dominant species, not like in some years.” He shook his head. “Some years — wow.”

“Wow” from Father Time was equivalent to “Holy freakin’ apocalyptic hell!” from everyone else. Fourteen was glad one of those years wasn’t his.

“The place is getting warmer, and not so naturally,” Fourteen said.

Father Time shrugged. “The processes will happen as they will, and we will adjust as they do.”

“Another year of the same ol’, same ol’, then,”  Fifteen said.

“Perhaps not, at least for us,” Father Time said. “The Administration has decided that, in light of shifting cultural values on the planet we serve, Sixteen’s skin could very well be a different shade. Or it’ll be female. Or both.”

“Bah,” Fifteen mumbled. “Change for the sake of change.”

“May I borrow that?”

Fourteen, surprised, handed him the scythe. Father Time stepped across the narrow gap, lifted Fifteen’s hat, rapped him hard on his head with the scythe handle. “Ow!” Fifteen shouted as Father Time replaced the hat, then stepped back across, handed the scythe back. “I am very old and very tired of this crap. What is it with Earth’s years, anyway? Only here do I get this constant guff. Maybe a female year is what we need. Damn it!”

Fifteen lifted his hat, rubbed the spot and gave Father Time an angry stare. Fourteen stayed silent. He had given Father Time guff, too, but at least he didn’t get rapped for it.

Father Time paid no heed, instead pulling out and looking at the watch again. “The last time zone is reaching zero. Fourteen, are you ready?”

“No. But what good does that do?”

“None at all, none at all.” He looked across the slim gap. “Fifteen! Ready!”

Fifteen stepped forward quickly. “Yessir!” He pulled up his diaper, adjusted his sash, adjusted his hat. “Ready.”

The platforms touched, the sand ran out. Fourteen lifted the scythe in both hands, then stretched his arms toward Fifteen, who stepped forward. Fourteen let go, but Fifteen stumbled, letting the scythe slip. In scrambling to hold on to it, he stepped back, tripped and fell, the scythe handle landing hard on his soft middle. He let out an “oof!” and a curse.

Father Time smirked. “Another successful handover.”

Fourteen laughed. The exact same thing happened a year ago.

“Fifteen.”

“Sir?” He stopped trying to stand, looked up.

Father Time picked up the hourglass, turned it over. A stream of red sand slipped through the neck and began piling up on the now-bottom.

Fifteen swallowed. “Yes, sir.”

“Fourteen.” Father Time nodded, began his plodding steps that took him off in a different direction.

The platforms were separating rapidly now. Fourteen stood alone, watching as the other receded. Fifteen wasn’t looking in his direction. He was still trying to stand up with the scythe. He finally managed, leaning the scythe against one shoulder and planting his feet. He stood staring off into the void. At this distance, Fourteen couldn’t see Fifteen’s face, but he knew which expression was on it. It was the expression someone wore when asking, to borrow a phrase from the humans, WTF?

Yeah, exactly, Fifteen, Fourteen thought, WTF?

 

The spat is over, just in time for the holidays

Certainly glad to hear Amazon and Hachette have settled their tiff about e-book pricing. While its good for customers and fans, the authors caught in the middle should come out better once the buying and rating systems are restored for their books..
I don’t know if the boycott did any good — I doubt my not buying anything from Amazon made much of an impression. Perhaps the effort led by Douglas Preston and others nettled Amazon corporate honchos enough to give ’em a little extra incentive to stop being jerks. I hope so. I hope no one forgets the authors were hurt the most by this.
I support the effort to bring Amazon’s shenanigans to the attention of the Department of Justice, even if nothing happens there. Regulators need to be made aware that even one large company can strangle free enterprise without much risk on that company’s earnings.
Some people are saying the Amazon boycott should continue, but I’m not so sure. I think we ought to buy as many Hachette authors as we can for the next few months to show Amazon that they can suffer from bad business practices, too. Plus, its a good way to let those authors know we missed them and still support them.
I’m still wary of both companies despite this sudden breakout of amity. These two giant corporations still can — and do — new methods to screw the writers and artists. We must watch both sides constantly or face the possibility of losing a lot more than delayed deliveries or loss of sales. The stakes remain large.

I wanted a big, galactic adventure but all I got was this orb plot

The biggest movie of the year, the one filled with wit, adventure and interplanetary travel, the one that pulled in the biggest box office (though summer 2014 box office numbers supposedly aren’t that great) and probably will kick-start a bevy of movies with these characters mixing with characters from other parts of the Marvel universe, left me cold.

I don’t have much interest in a lot of the superhero movies mostly because I have no interest in the comic books they are based on. Many stories in the comics have gone just totally batty and the characters hard to identify with. They occupy worlds unto themselves, where laws of nature — a.k.a. physics — are ignored while the human drama becomes little more than soap operas. This was a condition of superheroes from the get-go; Superman has never made sense but he’s a hero to us because he’s a fulfillment of our hopes and dreams. He’s taken a dark turn lately, so we’ll have to see if he remains at the pinnacle of human possibilities or he becomes just another overpowered costumed avatar grubbing around the shadowy corners of our dark natures.

I wasn’t planning to see the Captain America films at all, but the response to them, including by friends whose judgment of superheroes and superhero movies I trust, intrigued me so I watched the first on DVD and saw the second in the theater. Captain America: The Winter Soldier is the better of the two, partly because of the struggle the captain has to make to adjust from the years of the so-called “good war” years to the America of the nervous, divided and cynical society of the 21st century, a century when we were supposed to be exploring planets and getting ready to go to the starts. The other big reason it appealed to me was Cap’s decision to take down the giant surveillance apparatus being put together by S.H.I.E.L.D. (Oh, Nick Fury, you have changed so much from your Howling Commando days.) This explores, though only minutely, the idea that superpowered humans, or those who control superpowered humans, will try to take over control of everyone and every thing in the world. It’s a natural outgrowth — look at mundane human society — those with the physical power to conquer and rule generally tend to do so.

(Time out for blatant self-promotion: This is the theme explored in my book, The Tyranny of Heroes, which has a Superman-like character, a Wonder Woman-like character, and a Captain America-like character as a triumvirate in charge of a league of superheroes who have taken over the world and rule with an iron hand [literally in one case]. Links to the e-book sales sites can be found elsewhere on this page.)

Where the movies faltered was in bringing the comics version of global evil, HYDRA (although it was a hoot watching Robert Redford mutter “Hail HYDRA” as his character was dying). I suppose the plot-driving Object of Desire — you know, the tesseract, orb, power crystal, ring, sword, whateverthehell — comes from the comics, too, but I tend to also ascribe it to lack of imagination among the movie writers. That damned Object of Desire stuff is spilling over to many of the Marvel movies, including the one this post is supposed to be about, Guardians of the Galaxy. (Not to be confused, as a couple of theaters did, with Rise of the Guardians, a “family” film about Santa Claus, the Easter Bunny, the tooth fairy and Jack Frost joining forces to keep the bad guy from destroying children’s dreams — hey, am I seeing a pattern here?)

The whole movie is centered on the Object of Desire, who has it, who loses it, who controls it, what they want it for, who it bites in the big climatic scene. And in the end, it makes no difference whatsoever. Yeah, the Evil Guy wanted it to take over a world or something, and in the end died for it, but the object itself, after all that destruction, is not changed. And it is placed where it can be — and will be, you bet — stolen by another Evil Guy and here we go ’round the merry-go-round again.

Said Evil Guy — looking an awful lot like someone who took his style clues from north and south Native Americans, Egyptians and the Na’vi of Pandora — wants to use the orb-thing to destroy a planet (don’t they all?). A large part of the film is our heroes trying to keep it from him, but they fail. All the Evil Guy has to do is touch the thing to the planet’s surface and zap! no more cities and people and stuff. So, he jumps into a small one-person shuttle, using the craft’s small radar profile to weave his way through planetary defenses, lands on an isolated spot, raises the orb, says “Sayonara, suckers!” and slams the thing into the ground, completing his mission (comic-book science allowing him to survive his own evil).

No! He does not do that! He aims his gigantic spaceship directly at the main city,  sparking evacuations of said city (we are told everyone got out; do I see fallout from Man of Steel here?) while scrambling the defenses. I have to admit, the visuals are amazing, particularly when the one-person defensive ships link into a huge net and encapsulate the enemy spacecraft. This whole sequence, except for a few plot lapses, is pretty exciting. But, alas, it shares a fate with other exciting, amazing sequences in other movies, that being a worthy thing trapped in bad film.

Meanwhile the subplots — our main characters hate each other at first, are captured, bicker, join forces, are beaten and lose the Object of Desire, bicker, are disheartened, listen to a speech that inspires them, gird their loins, bicker, go out and beat the tar out of the bad guy, recovering Object of Desire — are playing out the way they’ve played out in the various Captain America, Thor, Avengers and many more superhero movies to come. A lot to come — Guardians suggests moviemakers are going to scrape the entire Marvel pantheon for future films (Howard the Duck?!). The result being the creation of another walled universe called Marvel the way a walled universe of Marvel comics exists. Members only, thank you.

Rocket Raccoon is problematic for me, too. Every time I heard the name, my brain kept digging up the old Beatles song Rocky Raccoon from the white album. Well, what do you know? Wikipedia says the writers of the comic-book version based the name on that song back in 1975. The 2014 Rocket Raccoon (Rocky Raccoon checked into his room/Only to find Gideon’s bible … Gideon checked out and he left it no doubt/To help with good Rocky’s revival … oh, uh, sorry) bothers me because I just don’t believe those words are coming his mouth. The body is too small, the lungs are too small, the vocal chords are too small. His voice should be pitched higher. Well, comic-book science, right? I suppose they’ll explain it by referring to the biological manipulation that created him. But still … it’d be nice if someone made the effort.

I have no trouble with Groot. Odd, you’d think, ’cause here’s more comic-book science in making a plant-man. His sacrifice at the end saves everyone, but in true comic-book tradition, he comes back. And man, does he have the moves.

The other characters? Meh. The hero is a “loveable rogue” — ha ha, like we haven’t seen that before. His fixation on his mother’s mix tape is supposed to be endearing, but it’s irritating, especially when he puts it above the mission and his friends. Look, if he was that smart — probably is, but comic-book plotting, right? — why didn’t he copy the music, then keep the tape in a safe place? It’s not like there wasn’t any technology around him. Plus, after 20 years, he’s lucky that tape wasn’t at least stretched, making his music sound a little more … alien. And, of course, the non-human aliens have the technology to play 20th-century cassette tapes, and, of course, they’re grooving to American rock-and-roll music. That’s like hacking an alien computer with an Apple MacBook.

And I am sick to death of giant space ships falling on cities. It’s as if writers and producers got together at a secret retreat a few of years ago and said “OK, Star Trek, Guardians of the Galaxy, you’ll drop big honkin’ starships on hapless cities. Captain America, you can use those flying carrier things, they’re big enough. Avengers, we’ll count the big invading bugs as space ships for now, but you gotta do better next time. That thing the purple-faced guy is riding would be great. Look, think about it, OK? I mean, come on guys, this is the Next Cool Thing.”

And these misfits have the gall to call themselves “guardians of the galaxy.” The Milky Way Galaxy is hundreds of thousands of light years across and could contain 400 billion stars and probably billions of planets. You’re going to patrol all of that? Right. And who knows what’s on the other side? You could run into really powerful beings with super-dooper-holy-mackerel technology, stuff that’ll make your orb look like an LED Christmas light. With just a flick of a mighty wrist, they could just sweep away the entire Marvel and DC universes (no matter what studio) and say “OK, we’re starting all over and we’re going to do this with logic.”

I’d pay to see that.

It’s about the authors, stupid

When you try to take over the world, you sometimes do really odd things.

Amazon.com wants to be the world’s merchant, so it’s picking fights with other retailers or suppliers to make them fall into line on pricing and supplies. One of the biggest arguments is with Hachette Book Group over pricing of e-books. Hachette owns several American publishing houses (among them Grand Central Publishing; Little, Brown and Company; Hachette Books and Orbit), and is in turn owned by a larger company in Europe. So we’re not talking about a mom-and-pop operation here; this is a Giant Corporation.

Hachette still publishes books on paper, although it does publish most if not all books as e-books also. Amazon worships e-books. The company sees the technology as the key to controlling all publishing.

Amazon.com is telling publishers what they should charge for e-books. Hachette disagrees and wants to set prices for its own products. In retaliation, Amazon has delayed delivery of Hachette books, deleted the pre-order button on some, sent customers notices that instead of buying a particular Hachette author perhaps they would be interested in a book from a publisher that’s hewing to the Amazon.com line or perhaps a copy from one of Amazon’s used-booksellers (which bring no income for the original author) and perhaps other things to gum up the ordering of Hachette books.

So it’s a pissing match amongst corporate giants, so what? Well, it’s the authors who will be suffering. Many famous ones, some not so famous. Some fiction writers, some nonfiction writers. Authors need sales to continue to write, to continue to make a living (though only a small percentage make their living through writing only). Amazon’s tactics, while aimed at the Big Corporation, sweeps up writers as collateral damage.

And now, Amazon is recruiting writers and readers to help them in battle. Authors who have books on their Kindle e-book system found an e-mail in their inboxes rallying the troops for the big conflict: “We will never give up our fight for reasonable e-book prices. We know making books more affordable is good for book culture. We’d like your help.”

Then they give an e-mail address to Hachette and also tell you what you should say:

 

– We have noted your illegal collusion. Please stop working so hard to overcharge for ebooks. They can and should be less expensive.

– Lowering e-book prices will help – not hurt – the reading culture, just like paperbacks did.

– Stop using your authors as leverage and accept one of Amazon’s offers to take them out of the middle.

– Especially if you’re an author yourself: Remind them that authors are not united on this issue.

 

The “illegal collusion” mentioned was the antitrust suit brought against publishers for getting together with Apple to fix e-book prices. They lost, and now Amazon’s crowing about it. People who opposed the suit are now saying “we told you so.” The point was, it’s illegal to collude to fix prices and the publishers were rightly shot down. Now victorious Amazon is telling everyone else how they should price their products instead of letting the market decide. Amazon is acting the role of the monopoly now but because it’s one company, it doesn’t face scrutiny.

It’s disingenuous for Amazon to say “stop using your authors as leverage” when the company is doing just that. The authors are caught in the middle no matter who started it. Amazon touts its big royalties to authors, but you can bet the farm that if it prevails in this, it’ll find ways to cut those payments. Amazon is not looking out for the interest of authors, it’s only looking out for itself. Once it’s got the power to set all prices, it will bring its corporate power down and squash the talent. The talent always gets squashed; look at what happened to the creators of comic-book superheroes.

And that last line about authors not being united about this is a laugh. Of course they’re not united. Authors tend to be a fractious bunch anyway, but I think a general key here is authors within the traditional publisher realm versus authors of e-books and “independent” publishers. The Amazon e-mail says a petition against Hachette garnered more than 7,600 signatures. What it doesn’t say, though, is how many of those are strictly e-book authors, how many are with the big houses but who have e-books also for sale, and how many people just signed it because they hate the big publishers. Many, many people would like to see the “middlemen” — agents, editors, publishers — done away with, but the percentage of e-book authors with bestseller status is very small. Some people can do it that way, and more power to them. But there is still a place for traditional publishing.

Amazon’s cute e-mail is in reaction to an ad appearing in the Aug. 10 New York Times signed by around 900 authors calling on Amazon to stop being jerks. The petition is described as being from bestselling authors, but my name is on that petition and I’m far, far from the bestseller lists. Most of the signers aren’t either, but they are concerned that Amazon’s tactics are hurting them — or their friends, as I said in a previous post.

Look, Hachette is no angel in this. They just seem to be the company that wants to have its own say about how it prices its own products. But make no mistake — they can be as avaricious as Amazon. They can squash talent and take advantage of them as anyone else, and they do. And it’s got income from all sorts of places, so it’s not going to collapse if it loses this argument. This is mostly about the talent, the writers who spend much of their lives sitting at keyboards, writing, revising, editing, trying to come up with stories to entertain and inform fans and the general public. I agree that e-books tend to be overpriced, but I don’t like seeing my friends caught in traps they didn’t make and had no reason to expect.

No, Jeff Bezos, although I have an e-book in your Kindle system (though not for much longer, perhaps), I will not send a reply to Hachette based on your e-mail. I will tell you this: Go suck eggs. You know, the eggs from the golden goose you killed by squeezing literary creators.