Monday, November 30, 2015

Robots Can't Lie: SF Mysteries Before Asimov [Guest Post]

By GW Thomas

Isaac Asimov claims that the science fiction story was never truly married with the mystery story before 1953. Some authors tried, while others danced around the problem, like Anthony Boucher who wrote the mystery novel, Rocket to the Morgue in 1942, about science fiction fans, rather than being science fiction itself. It was Asimov who took this challenge most seriously. In his book Asimov's Mysteries (1968) he wrote of his quest:
But talk is cheap, so I put my typewriter where my mouth was, and in 1953 wrote a science fiction mystery novel called The Caves of Steel (published, 1954). It was accepted by the critics as a good science fiction novel and a good mystery and after it appeared I never heard anyone say that science fiction mysteries were impossible to write. I even wrote a sequel called The Naked Sun (published, 1957) just to show that the first book wasn't an accident. Between and after these novels, moreover, I also wrote several short stories intended to prove that science fiction mysteries could be written in all lengths.
The Caves of Steel and its sequels feature murders that involve robots. Was this an original idea? Hardly. Eando Binder had made robots famous as early as 1939 with his stories of Adam Link, a robot that is accused of murder and faces trial. Asimov's interest is not to turn robots into protagonists, but to explore his Three Laws of Robots (and how a clever murderer might get around them.)

So imagine my surprise when I stumbled across "Robots Can't Lie" by Robert Leslie Bellem in a copy of Fantastic Adventures, July 1941. This murder mystery has a man, Tim Kermit, framed for murder by a robot that identifies him as the killer. Because of the way robots record what they see, they are considered infallible witnesses. Tim's only chance of avoiding the Lethal Chamber is to escape and repair another robot that was found broken at the murder scene. In the end the escape and repair are a trick that brings out the real killer.

Bellem tells the tale in his usual loose, noir style with Q-rays replacing .38s and gliders replacing cars. What the author lacks in style he makes up for in pace. Editor Ray Palmer interrupts in Hugo Gernsback fashion (with footnotes) to explain the SF trappings such as the Q-bolt used in the murder weapon, the viso lens of the robot, and the personal radio wave of the autorad, all in pseudo-scientific gooblygook that does nothing to further the story.

Now to go back to Asimov. He never said that no one ever tried to do it, only that it had never succeeded. What strikes me first off, is how similar the mystery ideas are between "Robots Can't Lie" and his Lije Bailey novels. I doubt Bellem was familiar with Adam Link (though he may have been), but Ray Palmer certainly was aware of his competition. Isaac Asimov was also fully aware of the Binders. He had permission to use the title I, Robot from the brother duo who had used it earlier. Was Asimov familiar with "Robots Can't Lie"? He was a bit of an Astounding/John W Campbell snob, so would he have read anything as pulpy as Fantastic Adventures? Unlikely, but his interest in robot stories may have superseded his snobbery.

Does "Robots Can't Lie" work as an SF-Mystery? Better than Asimov might have liked to admit. The robot-witness idea certainly could not happen in a regular mystery. This is one of Asimov's key criteria: a good SF-Mystery can't work as a regular mystery, nor is it simply SF. I'm not going to say you couldn't rewrite this story without SF trappings or robots. Replace the robots with human witnesses and it would work. (There is even a chance Bellem's story was largely rewritten by Palmer, though I have no proof of this.) Bellem was a high production writer, pumping out millions of words a year, and his ploy of trapping the villain is hardly novel. Asimov's novels by comparison could not be rewritten in this fashion. Even if Asimov wasn't the first, he certainly was the best at creating such SF Mysteries.

The other thing that makes me giggle is the 1980s adoration of how William Gibson brought a Raymond Chandler style to Cyberpunk. You want full-bore noir SF, here it is, the real thing from one of noir's cheesier hacks, back when Gibson's father was still reading Thrilling Wonder Stories.

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 He is editor of Dark Worlds magazine.

The Christmas Carol Project | His Usual Melancholy Tavern

It's almost December again and time to get back to our annual look at everyone's favorite Christmas/ghost story, Charles Dickens' A Christmas Carol. If you're new to this, the idea is to pay attention to the way Scrooge's story has been interpreted and adapted to other media over the years. I’ve broken the story into scenes (or sometimes parts of scenes) in order to look at their translation to 19 different films, TV shows, and comics.

Here's the list of adaptations in the order I'll take them:

• Classics Illustrated #53 (1948)
• Marvel Classics Comics #36 (Marvel; 1978)
• A Christmas Carol: The Graphic Novel (Classical Comics; 2008)
• A Christmas Carol (Campfire; 2010)
• "A Christmas Carol" in Graphic Classics, Vol. 19: Christmas Classics (Eureka; 2010)
• Teen Titans #13 (DC; 1968)
• A Christmas Carol cartoon (1971) starring Alastair Sim
• The Stingiest Man in Town (1978) starring Walter Matthau
• Mickey’s Christmas Carol (1983) starring Scrooge McDuck
• A Christmas Carol (2009) starring Jim Carrey
A Christmas Carol (1910) starring Marc McDermott
Scrooge (1935) starring Seymour Hicks
A Christmas Carol (1938) starring Reginald Owen
Scrooge (1951) starring Alastair Sim
"A Christmas Carol" episode of Shower of Stars (1954) starring Fredric March
Scrooge (1970) starring Albert Finney
A Christmas Carol (1984) starring George C. Scott
The Muppet Christmas Carol (1992) starring Michael Caine
A Christmas Carol (1999) starring Patrick Stewart

Annual Disclaimer: This obviously isn’t an exhaustive list. I started with my favorites, added some that people have recommended over the years, and then threw in some others that just caught my curiosity. We can talk about the ones I left out, but I will say that the reason Mr Magoo’s Christmas Carol isn’t here is because I hate it with a passion. It’s neither a good Christmas Carol nor a good Mister Magoo cartoon. There’s also no Scrooged or An American Christmas Carol or Ghosts of Girlfriends Past. When I first started this, I tried to stick to more or less faithful adaptations, but even though I've since added Teen Titans to the list, I'd rather that be a fun exception and not have to figure out where I'm going to draw the line.

This is going to take years. Every December we'll look at one scene, starting with Dickens' version, then exploring individual adaptations of that scene in the days leading up to Christmas. This year's scene is pretty short. One paragraph of Dickens, really. It covers from when Scrooge leaves his office to when he arrives at the front door of his house. As you might expect, a lot of adaptations leave this out and just cut from the office to the famous doorknocker bit. But others take the opportunity to add material here, so we'll keep it separate instead of just rolling it into his meeting with Marley.

The fun starts tomorrow!

Friday, November 27, 2015

Complete, these Nerd Lunch drill-downs are (for now)

The sixth and final (until December 18th) Nerd Lunch Star Wars drill-down came out on Tuesday with me, Kay, and the Nerd Lunch fellas talking about Revenge of the Sith. To no one's shock, it was everyone's favorite of the prequels, but I think we were all a little surprised at how much we enjoyed it. It still has big problems - and we talk about those - but I enjoy it more and more every time I watch it. There's some legitimately great stuff in there and we talk about that, too. Also: Clone Wars cartoons and a truly awesome Star Wars-related Carryover Question.

Wednesday, November 25, 2015

Sword and Sorcery Cliche No. 1: The Ming the Merciless Haircut [Guest Post]

By GW Thomas

I am currently re-reading John Jakes's entire Brak the Barbarian saga, and I was struck by an odd thought. Why do wizards in sword-and-sorcery always dress like Ming the Merciless? In "The Unspeakable Shrine," Brak meets his nemesis, Septegundus, the Amyr of Evil and high priest of Yob-Haggoth:
And from the black portal silently glided the Amyr of Evil upon Earth...The man was not of overwhelming stature. He was clad in a plain black robe with voluminous sleeves into which his hands were folded. His pate was closely shaven, his nose aquiline, his lips thin. His chin formed a sharp point, and the upper parts of his ears were pointed, too. His eyes were large, dark, staring, nearly all pupil. Very little white showed. He had no eyelids. Evidently they had been removed by a crude surgical procedure. Light pads of scar tissue had encrusted above the sockets which held eyes that never closed.
Septegundus is far from an anomaly. He is the stereotypical sword-and-sorcery wizard. Bald, weird-looking, powerful, with evil eyes. Compare him to Gandalf from The Lord of the Rings:
An old man was driving it all alone. He wore a tall pointed blue hat, a long grey cloak, and a silver scarf. He had a long white beard and bushy eyebrows that stuck out beyond the brim of his hat.
Tolkien derived Gandalf's look from the Scandinavian tales of Odin who traveled in the guise of "The Grey God," a man in a wide-brimmed hat dressed in grey. The Ming stereotype is coming from a different lineage, the gothics.

The horror tradition in fiction begins in England with The Castle of Otranto (1765) by Horace Walpole. These novels, especially those of Ann Radcliffe, feature creepy houses, lost heirs, fake monsters, and a lot of shocks for shock sake. This tradition would eventually dissolve into other forms of storytelling, including detective and mystery fiction and the psychological horror tales of Edgar Allan Poe. Do they feature bald-headed wizards? Not really. Though Ambrosio from MG Lewis's The Monk (1796) is certainly the most influential of all gothic characters:
He was a Man of noble port and commanding presence. His stature was lofty, and his features uncommonly handsome. His Nose was aquiline, his eyes large black and sparkling, and his dark brows almost joined together. His complexion was of a deep but clear Brown; Study and watching had entirely deprived his cheek of colour. Tranquillity reigned upon his smooth unwrinkled forehead; and Content, expressed upon every feature, seemed to announce the Man equally unacquainted with cares and crimes. He bowed himself with humility to the audience: Still there was a certain severity in his look and manner that inspired universal awe, and few could sustain the glance of his eye at once fiery and penetrating. Such was Ambrosio, Abbot of the Capuchins, and surnamed, 'The Man of Holiness'.
So how did the bald look find its way into sword-and-sorcery? You can thank Weird Tales. You have to remember that sword-and-sorcery as Robert E Howard created it was half fantasy and half horror. He had to sell these stories to Farnsworth Wright after all, and WT was a horror pulp. In the stories that Howard wanted to sell to Adventure (Stories like "By This Axe I Rule" or "Kings of the Night") he drops almost all the horror trimmings, writing something closer to a Harold Lamb or Talbot Mundy tale. He was a professional and he wanted to crack more prestigious magazines.

So, Weird Tales is the gateway. Howard introduces Thoth-Amon in "The Phoenix on the Sword" (December 1932) and this evil Stygian priest doesn't bear the look (not yet, later in the Marvel Comics and the L Sprague de Camp pastiches he would get the buzz cut.) Even though Thoth-Amon didn't get much description, his activities are similar to another character, Fu Manchu:
Of him it had been fitly said that he had a brow like Shakespeare and a face like Satan. Something serpentine, hypnotic, was in his very presence. Smith drew one sharp breath, and was silent. Together, chained to the wall, two mediaeval captives, living mockeries of our boasted modern security, we crouched before Dr. Fu-Manchu.
Robert E Howard had written of his own version of Fu named Kathulos of Egypt in "Skull-Face" (October-December 1929):
The hands--but, oh God, the face! A skull to which no vestige of flesh seemed to remain but on which taut brownish-yellow skin grew fast, etching out every detail of that terrible death's-head. The forehead was high and in a way magnificent, but the head was curiously narrow through the temples, and from under penthouse brows great eyes glimmered like pools of yellow fire. The nose was high-bridged and very thin; the mouth was a mere colorless gash between thin, cruel lips. A long, bony neck supported this frightful vision and completed the effect of a reptilian demon from some medieval hell.
Howard, after Rohmer, is clearly working in a tradition descended from Otranto, with men reborn from Ancient Asia, whether China or Egypt, the cradle of mysterious wisdom and evil.

To make this even clearer, there are two major undercurrents in the gothics that truly pin down the evil wizard type. The first is that the underlying plot of gothic stories is about something from the past terrorizing the present. In Otranto, this is the specter of the giant knight who crushes Manfred's heir with a helmet, steps out of paintings, and ultimately destroys him. In later years this can be seen in horror fiction in any story in which an ancient object haunts a family like in "The Stone Idol" by Seabury Quinn, or in ghost stories like MR James' "Lost Hearts." In mystery fiction this is the crime that haunts the perpetrator such as the classic Wilkie Collins story The Moonstone (1868) or Arthur Conan Doyle's Sherlock tale, "The Adventure of the Crooked Man" (The Strand, July 1893). In the noir branch, it's the unknown crime in Cornell Woolrich's The Black Curtain (1941). In sword-and-sorcery (and other forms of fantasy), this is Bilbo's Ring or the ancient snake worshippers of Set, who harken back to the Snake Men of Prehistory. It can be any object, book, knowledge, god, or monster that returns centuries later. And that's our sorcerer buddy. He is either such a person, or works for such a deity, or possesses such an object. They buy into the idea that ancient power can make them powerful now. It is up to the barbarian hero to thwart such ideas.

The second theme that the gothics give us is the idea that old things are evil and new things are our savior. This is immediately evident when you look at the hero, Brak:
The mendicant seemed to hunch in fright cowed by the figure before him: the bigger man plainly was an outlander, a huge, yellow-headed giant whose hair was plaited in a single long braid that hung down his back. A glossy fur cloak and cowl around the barbarian’s shoulders reflected the torchglare dimly. The big man was naked save for this fur and a garment of lion’s hide about his hips.
Brak is young, well-maned, and virile. The female characters are usually voluptuous, fecund, and available. Villains such as Ariane are usually too beautiful, hinting at their deceit, and often prove to be withered crones or monsters when their magic is dispelled. The wizard is the exact opposite to Brak, old-looking, bald, and with eyes that contain evil powers. The baldness is important, for it is a sign of age, impotence and decay. In gothic texts, the authors often suggested that the Roman Catholic religion was likewise decrepit and oppressive; old, but evil. The gothics weren't anti-religion, just anti-Catholic, for the hero (no longer disguised as a peasant, returned to his true lordship) marries the heroine in a good Anglican church, with a bright future ahead. The evil, old dude gets his comeuppance and if he has time says something akin to "And I would have gotten away with to too, if it weren't for you meddling kids." This kind of shorthand works for all kinds of villains and comics certainly have had their share, such as The Red Skull in Captain America.

Lastly, to cement the point, let's consider Elric of Melnibone. Michael Moorcock created Elric as a kind of anti-Conan. Instead of strong, he is a weak albino. Instead of handsome, he is freakish. In fact, Moorcock uses many of the villain characteristics to create his anti-hero. He is haunted by his sword, Stormbringer, who must be fed souls to keep the weak body going. This sword is the object from the past that haunts his present, dooming his future. In many ways, Elric is the image of the sorcerer, not the swordsman. In some ways but not all. Elric is not bald but has a flowing white mane. He is also resourceful, able to have companions, and is capable of love. Moorcock created a hero who is halfway between the two types. This should not be surprising when you consider one of his influences was Mervyn Peake, who wrote the Gormenghast trilogy, undoubtedly the most gothic of the fantasy sagas. Unlike Tolkien, Moorcock is consciously choosing to work inside the gothic tradition, though bending and stretching it to his own ends. This opening of gothic elements helped allow sword-and-sorcery to evolve past the Howardian formula. Series like Gene Wolfe's The Book of New Sun and Samuel R Delaney's Neveryona play with these elements in fresh ways. (Though read any Conan novel by Robert Jordan, Leonard Carpenter, or others and you will find any number of baldies trying to resurrect ancient gods. Even worse, consider Skeletor from The Masters of the Universe! Alas, some like the formulas as is).

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 He is editor of Dark Worlds magazine.

Monday, November 23, 2015

Join me on Letterboxd

I had to let the "7 Days in May" feature slip over the summer as I was getting caught up on Bond, but intended to come back to it. But since I was mostly using that for capsule reviews of things I've been watching, I realized that Letterboxd is a better way of doing that. So I started a page there.

I love the design of the site and how it lets me keep a diary of what I'm watching as well as create lists. Sadly, it doesn't let me track TV series as well, so it doesn't fully replace IMDB, but it's much prettier and consolidates all my activity into a single, easy-to-navigate page. So I probably won't be coming back to "7 Days in May," but if you want to read short thoughts on what I've been watching - and to share your own thoughts on what you've been watching - follow me on Letterboxd and I'll follow you back. I'm still in early days there and would love to add to the people I'm interacting with.

I used to worry about dispersing my content too much over multiple platforms, but now I enjoy having different tools for different jobs. Tumblr works really well for quickly sharing news links and inspirational artwork; Letterboxd is great for movie discussion. Blogging is still perfect for longer essays, so that's what this site has almost exclusively become. There's much less daily content than I used to put up back in the day, but my hope and goal has been that what does show up here will be more thoughtful.

Wednesday, November 18, 2015

SPECTRE (2015)

This isn't going to be my full run-down on SPECTRE the way I covered the other movies so far. I'll need to watch it a few more times for that. But I have seen it a couple of times now and like Quantum of Solace and Skyfall, I can at least talk about some initial impressions. There will be SPOILERS.

First, I should say that I wasn't all that excited about the movie. The trailers played up the Rogue Bond angle and mentioned distrust a couple of times, and those are both things that have been thoroughly exhausted over the last few movies. Bond has quit or gone off the grid in every film since Die Another Day and the first three Craig movies could very appropriately be called the Trust Trilogy. Did not want more of that.

And while I know that the quality of the theme song doesn't have a direct relationship to the quality of the movie, the dullness of Sam Smith's number didn't encourage me about the level of inspiration in the film. I ended up waiting a week before going to see it.

Happily, the trailers didn't reflect the actual themes of the movie and even Sam Smith's boring song was improved by one of the best title sequences I've ever seen. (Easily in the Top Three with Casino Royale and Skyfall.) Bond does go off the grid again, but it's not because he doesn't trust anyone. In fact, he's doing it to protect people that he does trust. One of the nicest things about Skyfall was how it reintroduced the idea of Bond's having a support team and that pays off beautifully in SPECTRE. Moneypenny, Q, and Bill Tanner are all trusted team members and become even more so as the story progresses. Bond's even keeping M out of the loop for his own protection, due to the impending governance of the all-seeing Centre of National Security.

The CNS' oversight continues another big theme that was introduced in Skyfall, but not fully explored. Judi Dench's M has to undergo an inquiry because the government no longer believes that MI6s methods are useful. As Mallory says early on, "We can't keep working in the shadows. There are no more shadows."

M begs to differ and says so during the inquiry. "Look around you. Who do you fear? Can you see a face? A uniform? A flag? No. Our world is not more transparent now. It's more opaque. It's in the shadows. That's where we must do battle." She doesn't get to expand on that, but it's an intriguing thesis and I love that SPECTRE develops it. The real world - especially where security organizations are concerned - does feel more transparent. And that's for the good most of the time, but it makes for dull spy movies.

I appreciate that the Bond movies are addressing the tension between transparency and shadows, but I'm also eager for MI6 and its Double-Os to move back into the darkness where they can work uninhibited by anything but the filmmakers' imaginations. So I'm encouraged at the direction that the series looks to be headed in. They've tried transparency with the big, public MI6 building and it hasn't worked. At every turn, the villains have proven that they can't be fought on an open field. I'm hoping that as a result of SPECTRE's activities, the next Bond movie gives Her Majesty a truly Secret Service.

I love how SPECTRE ties all four Craig movies so far into a continuing story. It does this far from perfectly, but the Bond films have become truly a series, with Christoph Waltz' character revealed as the mastermind working behind-the-scenes on all of them. I also love that Waltz himself is a big liar and that yes, he's Blofeld. He needed to be. I didn't want SPECTRE without him.

More specifically though, I love the kind of villain that Blofeld is in this movie. He's such an attention whore. He couldn't stand being less important than Bond to his father as a kid and was crazy enough to let that shape his entire life. He has planned and schemed for decades to utterly ruin Bond and cannot wait to reveal himself. In fact, he says this explicitly. He's so happy to confess that "it was always me. The author of all your pain." At long last, his revenge is complete.

Except that Bond couldn't care less.

That's so rich and glorious. It denies Blofeld the importance in Bond's life that he so desperately craves, but it also puts a wonderful cap on Bond's emotional journey since Casino. The Bond of Casino and Quantum would have gone after Blofeld with everything he had. But he's matured since then. To the point that he can find a tape labeled "Vesper Lynd - Interrogation" and not even be tempted to look. Because of the events of Quantum of Solace; because of the time that passed before Skyfall; Bond has moved on and is looking for something else in his life.

That lets SPECTRE be the most whimsical of the Craig movies, which was something else I was looking forward to after Skyfall. What's the use of reintroducing all these traditional elements to the series if you're not also going to reintroduce the humor? We've had our dark, gritty Bond and I was a huge fan. But I'm also happy to see one who can smile and crack a joke.

Sadly, I don't think it will last. What's going to make Blofeld a compelling, recurring villain isn't that he shares an origin story with Bond; it's that he's absolutely not going to let Bond ignore him and live a happy life. I fear for Madeleine Swann and suspect that we're headed for a Tracy situation all over again. I have 0.25% doubt that this is what's going to kick off the next Bond movie, but I'm glad that whatever happens next will get covered there and that - for now anyway - Bond gets a happy ending.

Wednesday, November 11, 2015

Mastodonia: A Message from the Past [Guest Post]

By GW Thomas

Sometimes writers write messages for their future selves. A great example of one who did this was Clifford D Simak. The March 1955 Galaxy published a Simak story called "Project Mastodon." And it was a worthy time travel tale about creating new countries in time, not space. Three friends invent a primitive time machine that can make 50,000 year leaps, but find it very hard to profit by it when nobody will take them seriously. The US military treats them like a bunch of crackpots. When the men get stranded in the past after a mammoth crashes into their helicopter, they wrack their brains for someway to get back. The problem isn't the time machine, but the height. If they were to go back standing in Mastodonia they would end up under tons of earth. In the end, one man manages to get home but we have to wait to see if he can save his friends, even with the help of the military man who never lost faith that the travelers would return.

As time travel stories go, it is typical of the 1950s. No Morlocks here, only a puzzle story and a little action with sabertooths and mammoths. But buried in that story is a nugget, a time-release seed that will twenty-three years later become the novel Mastodonia. That little, almost unimportant fragment is a character named Pritchard, who is studying Law while the time machine inventors study Engineering. During a bull session on time travel, Pritchard pipes in: "If you guys ever do travel in time, you'll run up against more than you bargain for. I don't mean the climate or the terrain or the fauna, but the economics and the politics." In the scope of "Project Mastodon" this means the stuffy military men who poo-poo their suggestion of recognizing Mastodonia as a country and using it as a sanctuary in the case of a nuclear strike.

Twenty-three years come and go. The Golden Age turns into the New Wave and then into the age of Star Wars. It's 1978 and Simak gets that message from himself and thinks, "I left all the best stuff unwritten!" And so the novel Mastodonia (Catface in the UK) is penned and we see Clifford D Simak at his finest. Instead of a mere puzzle story, we get a tale about living characters. Asa Steele, a professor who has returned to the town where he grew up. Rila Elliot, a woman from Asa's past, come back into his life just as things get weird. Ben Page, the local bank manager, who becomes his business partner along with Rila. Instrumental to the story is Hiram, the simpleton who talks to Asa's dog Bowser, robins, and best of all to Catface, an alien who has been stranded in Asa's backyard for thousands of years. Unlike in "Project Mastodon," it is Catface who creates the time paths. This weird bunch, along with lawyers and publicists, establish Mastodonia and offer time paths for hunters to stalk T-Rex in his own Cretaceous period.

Simak is great for showing how time travel would bring on some big social issues (largely ignored in the earlier story). A religious coalition wants to pay Time Travel Associates to never go to the time of Jesus. The IRS sniffs around for tax income, but having established their own country, the time travelers are safe. Speculators want to go to Gold Rush areas before the big strike and skim off the easy gold. The federal government even gets in on it when they come up with the idea of sending the disadvantaged into the past to create a new, successful life (or simply to get rid of the deadbeats and criminals.) Asa is a simple man and all this is too much for him. All he craves is solitude in his own time period of Mastodonia where he and Rila will build a beautiful home. In their time country, Asa and Rila and Hiram enjoy the company of (the unfortunately named) Stiffy, an elderly mastodon. Unlike the excitement in "Project Mastodon," Stiffy doesn't strand anyone in time, but only trashes their mobile home. In fact, the novel isn't a series of spectacular action sequences involving prehistoric life (though it has a couple of good dinosaur scenes), but a story about how a man makes decisions about what he wants. This is the brilliance of the twenty-three year older novel. Simak writes science fiction, but like his contemporary Theodore Sturgeon, he has learned that good SF isn't puzzles or action scenes, but stories about people and how the SF elements affect them. You come to like these characters and wish the best for them. Simak keeps you guessing to the literal last chapter what will happen to Mastodonia.

Clifford D Simak's career ran for five decades, beginning with "The World of the Red Sun" in Wonder Stories (December 1931) to his final novel, Highway to Eternity in 1986. In those fifty-five years he wrote about time travel many times in novels like Time and Again (1951), Ring Around the Sun (1953), Time is the Simplest Thing (1961) and the short story "Grotto of the Dancing Deer" (1980), but Mastodonia is my favorite of all of his time stories, largely because it best captures this philosophy that Simak stated in one of the introductions to a book of stories:

"Overall, I have written in a quiet manner; there is little violence in my work. My focus has been on people, not on events. More often than not I have struck a hopeful note... I have, on occasions, tried to speak out for decency and compassion, for understanding, not only in the human, but in the cosmic sense. I have tried at times to place humans in perspective against the vastness of universal time and space. I have been concerned where we, as a race, may be going, and what may be our purpose in the universal scheme—if we have a purpose. In general, I believe we do, and perhaps an important one."

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 He is editor of Dark Worlds magazine.

Monday, November 09, 2015

The Balance of the Force (or, How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Anakin's Journey)

I knew at the beginning of the year that I'd want to write about Star Wars some, but I wasn't sure how to fit it in with all the James Bond I had going on. Then the Nerd Lunch guys invited me to be a recurring panelist on their Star Wars episodes. And then Dan Taylor and I started the Starmageddon podcast. So I've had way more opportunity to think about and discuss Star Wars than I imagined I would just writing a few posts on this blog.

But as we come into the final stretch for The Force Awakens, I want to put together my thoughts so far in one place. It helps me process to write things down and it'll help me talk more coherently in coming podcast episodes if I get this all straightened out. Because finally, at long last, I think it's possible to even get it straightened out. I wasn't able to do it on my own, but thanks to many different people (some friends, some online writers, and some professionals working in the Star Wars universe) I think I've finally figured out what George Lucas was trying to say about Anakin's journey and what it means for Luke. He did this so imperfectly, but I can at least finally see the bones of the story I think he was trying to build.

If you've listened to the Nerd Lunch episodes covering Phantom Menace and Attack of the Clones, you've heard me talk about the revelation that the Jedi aren't the perfect good guys that we expected them to be after the original trilogy. Obi-Wan paints a romantic picture of the Jedi for Luke, but that's the memories of an old man romanticizing the past. And to be fair, Obi-Wan never sees the Jedi for what they are, not even in the prequels. They're arrogant and complacent and sadly, so is he.

The Clone Wars series drives this home in a powerful way, especially in the last couple of seasons, but the evidence is all over the prequels, too. Mace Windu is the prime example of this. I had to get past my preconceived notions of Samuel L Jackson as a righteous, noble character, but once I was able to let that go, I realized that Mace is the personification of hubris. Every line out of his mouth in The Phantom Menace is just wrong.

"The Sith would not have returned without us sensing it."

"We'll discover the identity of your attacker."

"He will not be trained."

Yoda tries to temper it some, but as the spokesperson for the Council, Mace makes the wrong decisions over and over again.

And Qui-Gon totally knows it. That's why he has a history of defying the Council. Which is why he's also the best character in Phantom Menace. And it's why he had to die. In order for Anakin to ultimately fall to the Dark Side, Qui-Gon can't stick around. If Qui-Gon had trained Anakin, there never would have been a Darth Vader. It took Obi-Wan's blind trust in the Council to push Anakin away. All through Phantom Menace, Obi-Wan is critical of Qui-Gon's methods. He's trained with Qui-Gon, but his allegiance is squarely with the Council. Because of that, as Anakin's teacher, he tries to keep Anakin under tight control in hopes that Anakin will also learn to trust the Council. But he's wrong and it leads to tragedy.

The Coucil's complacency and hubris is even more evident in Attack of the Clones. Mace again refuses to believe something that doesn't fit his extremely narrow worldview. He rejects the idea that Count Dooku may be a bad guy, simply because Dooku used to be a Jedi. "It's not in his nature."

Yoda admits that arrogance is "a flaw more and more common among Jedi. Too sure of themselves they are. Even the older, more experienced ones."

Dex has a line where he says, "I should think that you Jedi would have more respect for the difference between knowledge and wisdom." He gets it.

You have the librarian saying, "If an item doesn't appear in our records, it doesn't exist." And Obi-Wan, bless him, totally buys it until he goes to Yoda, where it takes a little kid to see the obvious that Kamino has been deleted from the archive. All of the adult Jedi are too trusting of the system. That's also why the mystery of the clone army's origin is dropped so abruptly. Once Obi-Wan learns that it was commissioned by a Jedi, no one questions it anymore. The Jedi just claim it. Clearly it's theirs.

This is why Anakin has a hard time fitting in. He's too much like Qui-Gon. He's too willing to question everything, which annoys the crap out of all the other Jedi and simply widens the rift. One of my favorite scenes in Attack of the Clones is when Padme questions Anakin about love. She says that she thought love was forbidden for a Jedi.

Anakin's response is that attachment and possession are both forbidden, but that "compassion, which I would define as unconditional love, is central to a Jedi's life. So you might say we're encouraged to love." Lucas isn't generally a great writer, but I love that line. It does so much. It shows Anakin trying to find loopholes in the Jedi system, but it also shows how broken that system really is. Attachment is forbidden?

Look, I get it to a certain extent. It's the whole "fear leads to anger leads to hate" argument. When Yoda first meets Anakin, he's concerned about Anakin's attachment to his mom. That's why the Jedi usually grab Padawans so young, before they can form attachments. But like Pax said in one of the Nerd Lunch episodes, the Jedi have made this a stringent rule that they believe applies to everyone regardless of individual circumstances. There is wisdom in the awareness that attachment can lead to negative things. But to suggest that attachment always leads to negative things and so prohibit it... that's bantha poodoo.

By trying to find loopholes around these unthinking restrictions, Anakin is also trying to fulfill the prophecy about bringing balance to the Force. The Force is a living thing, but the Jedi have turned it into a legalistic system of rules. We had some discussion on Nerd Lunch about what the Jedi expected a balanced Force to look like. We never figured it out though, because I don't think even the Jedi know. (Or if they do, Lucas isn't telling us.) But what I think it means now (and thanks to Starmageddon co-host Ron Ankeny for pointing this out to me) is that Anakin is working on marrying both sides of the Force: Light and Dark.

We're told that the Light and Dark sides represent Good and Evil, but what if it isn't that simple? The Jedi - contrary to how Obi-Wan remembers them in Star Wars - are not wholly Good. And Anakin's slide to the Dark Side is not because he suddenly turns Evil. It's at least in part a sacrifice that he makes out of love for Padme. As they're practiced in the prequels, the Light and Dark sides are better redefined as Reason and Passion. The Jedi have gone full Vulcan, while Palpatine and the Sith are all about the emotions. The thing is though that the emotions and passions in question are always negative as discussed by both sides. The Sith are only interested in fear and anger and hate. And the Jedi have gone too far the other direction in trying to avoid those feelings. What Anakin argues - and he's totally right - is that there's a middle approach. A person can be passionate and feeling without giving in to negative emotions. It's risky and potentially dangerous, but it's also far more rewarding and potentially beneficial than the alternative.

Unfortunately, Anakin goes too far. His love for Padme does open him up to Palpatine's manipulation and the Sith Lord succeeds in widening the chasm between Anakin and the Jedi to an uncrossable level. But it's super important to realize that this absolutely could not have happened had the Jedi not been every bit as tired and ineffective as Palpatine claimed that they were. That - in addition to Anakin's fears about Padme's safety - is what pushes him to assist Palpatine in killing Mace Windu. And that's the step too far for Anakin. After that moment, he realizes that he can't go back and that he has to be all in with Palpatine. That's why he goes to the Jedi Temple and kills everyone, including the younglings. It's not that he's suddenly evil and all into it. As unconvincing as Hayden Christiansen is most of the time, I can see on his face at the temple that he doesn't want to be doing what he's doing. It's crushing his soul.

Palpatine's torture of Anakin doesn't stop there. One of my biggest issues with Revenge of the Sith has always been Padme's "death by sadness," but writer Joseph Tavano explains that that's not what happened at all. Click that link for the full theory, but the short of it is that Padme's death is actually orchestrated by Palpatine. He told Anakin earlier that he didn't know how to bring someone back to life, but that he and Anakin could discover the power together. That's exactly what happens. Anakin should have died after his fight with Obi-Wan, but Palpatine keeps him alive long enough to put him through a painful, horrifying surgery that amplifies Anakin's hate and anger to uncontrollable levels. With all of his considerable power, this ball of rage fights to survive and reaches out with the Force to literally steal life from the person he's most connected to.

That's why Padme's medical droid makes such a big deal out of her being completely healthy. That line has always thrown me, because I knew that Lucas was trying to say something specific with it. I just couldn't figure out what that was. Without the line, we could explain away Padme's death as simply a complicated pregnancy, but Lucas specifically wants us to know that that's not what's going on. Tavano's reading of the scene explains what's really happening. Anakin is killing Padme to stay alive. When Palpatine tells him, "You killed her," he's not lying. Palpatine's not only aware of her death, he intentionally set up the circumstances to bring it about, serving two purposes at once by pushing Anakin completely into the Dark Side and also eliminating Anakin's last tie to the person he was.

The prequels aren't a grand adventure story in the tradition of the original trilogy. They are - by genre - a Tragedy. We see the decline and fall of the Jedi (helped along by Palpatine, but also by the weight of their own complacency) and the utter destruction of Anakin Skywalker who has failed to fulfill the prophecy. He has not brought balance to the Force.

But his son might.

And I would argue that he does. When Luke leaves Dagobah in Empire, Yoda and Obi-Wan's biggest concern is that Luke isn't ready to face Vader. That's often interpreted as concern that Luke will learn the truth about his father, but it's not just about that. From Yoda and Obi-Wan's point of view, there's more at stake than simply Luke's figuring out he's been lied to. They're concerned about his potentially falling to the Dark Side. "Remember your failure in the cave." Facing Vader will bring up all sorts of emotions that Luke hasn't yet been trained to suppress. And will do so in the presence of the person best suited to encourage and exploit those feelings.

Because Luke is sidetracked after facing Vader (gotta rescue Han!), he never returns to learn about all the restrictions against attachment. His feelings have opened him up to the Dark Side, which is why he seems way more powerful at the beginning of Return of the Jedi than his training in Empire would suggest. We also see him doing questionable things in Jedi like Force-choking Gamorreans. He's even wearing Sith robes.

But he never completely gives in. Not completely. I mean, he stumbles several times. He does go after the Emperor with his lightsaber and fully intends to murder the old man. Since Vader stops him, I used to read that as Vader's (probably unintentionally, but who knows?) saving Luke from the Dark Side. As if the Emperor's actual death was really what would magically complete Luke's fall. It doesn't matter whether Luke's attack was successful. What mattered was that he give in to his feelings of anger and hate. And that's exactly what he did in that moment. He gave in to the Dark Side.

But there's another moment shortly after when Luke is blind with rage and about to murder his own father and he pulls back. His love for his dad - his attachment - saves him.

My point is that Luke is all over the place in regards to the Dark and Light sides of the Force. He uses both; never fully falling into either. I don't know if Obi-Wan knew what he meant when he told Luke to "trust your feelings." I'd like to think that he matured and grew more wise in his later years on Tatooine, but he still doesn't seem to get it when he's talking to Luke on Dagobah. The irony though is that Luke has learned to trust his feelings. Because he didn't complete his training with Yoda, he never learned to suppress them. He's a mixture of Reason and Emotion; able to use his feelings to manipulate his power without sliding completely into negativity and darkness. Supporting Ron's reading that I mentioned earlier, Luke has finally brought balance to the Force.

On a recent episode of Starmageddon, Dan and I talked about why Luke hasn't been in the most recent marketing for The Force Awakens. He's not in the final trailer (except for an arm that we assume is his) and he's not on the posters. When asked about that, JJ Abrams' response was, "A-ha! You noticed!" leading to much speculation about what Luke's role in the new movie will be. The rest of this article will be me summing up the theory that Dan and I came up with. There are no spoilers, because neither of us actually know anything, but if you'd prefer to see The Force Awakens completely untainted by speculation, you should quit reading here. You've got all my thoughts on Anakin's journey, the Balance of the Force, and how Luke fulfills that prophecy in the original trilogy.

But if you're curious about some thoughts on what that could mean for the future... read on!

I reject the idea that Luke will become the villain of the next few Star Wars movies. Partly because he's the hero of the original trilogy and it would be cheap to turn him evil, but mostly for all the reasons I mentioned above. He's Balance.

But as Dan said in the Starmageddon episode, Luke could very well be the MacGuffin that both the good guys and bad guys are after in The Force Awakens. If he's the Balance, then there's the opportunity for either side to tip him to their cause. If Luke realizes that, it's completely plausible that he's attempted to remove that opportunity by going into hiding (especially if he's had some scary failures in the last 30 years). So a big part of the plot of The Force Awakens could be about trying to bring Luke - and so the Force itself - back into play. Don't know. Just sayin'. Give the whole Starmageddon episode a listen if you want to hear more.

Monday, November 02, 2015

Ranking the Bond Movies through Skyfall

Before SPECTRE comes out this weekend, here's my ranking of all the Bond movies so far (minus the '60s Casino Royal spoof). I'm guessing that some of those rankings will be controversial. For instance, I have Quantum of Solace pretty high and I'm bucking conventional wisdom that Die Another Day is the worst ever. Let's talk it out in the comments if you want.

1. Casino Royale
2. From Russia With Love
3. The Living Daylights
4. On Her Majesty's Secret Service 
5. For Your Eyes Only
6. Quantum of Solace
7. Dr No
8. Thunderball
9. The Spy Who Loved Me
10. GoldenEye
11. Skyfall
12. Licence to Kill
13. The Man with Golden Gun
14. The World Is Not Enough
15. Never Say Never Again
16. Goldfinger 
17. Live and Let Die
18. A View to a Kill
19. Tomorrrow Never Dies
20. Die Another Day
21. Octopussy
22. Moonraker
23. You Only Live Twice
24. Diamonds Are Forever

Just for fun, here's my list based on the accumulated rankings of the individual parts I've been measuring: women, villains, theme song, cold open, gadgets, henchmen, and title sequence. As usual, there's a complicated, Top Secret algorithm for assigning a total points value to each movie. Here's how they fall when measured that way.

1. Thunderball (77 points)
2. On Her Majesty's Secret Service (72 points)
3. Casino Royale (69 points)
4. Goldfinger (48 points)
5. From Russia With Love (46 points)
6. Never Say Never Again (45 points)
7. The Living Daylights (36 points)
8 and 9. [TIE] The Spy Who Loved Me and Skyfall (35 points)
10. A View to a Kill (33 points)
11. Tomorrrow Never Dies (31 points)
12 and 13. [TIE] The Man with Golden Gun and For Your Eyes Only (24 points)
14. Live and Let Die (22 points)
15. Quantum of Solace (21 points)
16. GoldenEye (20 points)
17. Moonraker (14 points)
18 and 19. [TIE] Dr No and Octopussy (10 points)
20 and 21. [TIE] The World Is Not Enough and Die Another Day (7 points)
22. Diamonds Are Forever (6 points)
23. You Only Live Twice (4 points)
24. Licence to Kill (0 points)

And for completeness' sake, here are the final Top Ten lists of the various categories.

Top 10 Cold Opens

1. GoldenEye
2. Casino Royale
3. The Spy Who Loved Me
4. Moonraker
5. Thunderball
6. On Her Majesty's Secret Service
7. A View to a Kill
8. Goldfinger
9. The Man with the Golden Gun
10. The Living Daylights

Top Ten Theme Songs

1. Skyfall
2. A View to a Kill
3. "Surrender" (end credits of Tomorrow Never Dies)
4. "You Know My Name" (Casino Royale)
5. The Living Daylights
6. "Nobody Does It Better" (The Spy Who Loved Me)
7. On Her Majesty's Secret Service
8. Diamonds Are Forever
9. You Only Live Twice
10. From Russia With Love (instrumental version)

Top Ten Title Sequences

1. Casino Royale
2. Skyfall
3. On Her Majesty's Secret Service
4. Dr No
5. Thunderball
6. Goldfinger
7. GoldenEye
8. From Russia with Love
9. The Spy Who Loved Me
10. Die Another Day

Top Ten Gadgets

1. Lotus Esprit (The Spy Who Loved Me)
2. Aston Martin DB V (Goldfinger and Thunderball)
3. Jet pack (Thunderball)
4. Iceberg boat (A View to a Kill)
5. The Q Boat (The World Is Not Enough)
6. Aston Martin V8 Vantage (The Living Daylights)
7. Glastron CV23HT speed boat (Moonraker)
8. Acrostar Mini Jet (Octopussy)
9. Crocodile submarine (Octopussy)
10. X-Ray Specs (The World Is Not Enough)

Top Ten Henchmen

1. Baron Samedi (Live and Let Die)
2. Fiona Volpe (Thunderball)
3. Grant (From Russia with Love)
4. Nick Nack (The Man with the Golden Gun)
5. Zao (Die Another Day)
6. Gobinda (Octopussy)
7. May Day (A View to a Kill)
8. Jaws (The Spy Who Loved Me and Moonraker)
9. Naomi (The Spy Who Loved Me)
10. Oddjob (Goldfinger)

Top Ten Villains

1. Auric Goldfinger (Goldfinger)
2. Ernst Stavro Blofeld (Never Say Never Again)
3. Ernst Stavro Blofeld (From Russia With Love and Thunderball)
4. Ernst Stavro Blofeld (On Her Majesty's Secret Service)
5. Maximilian Largo (Never Say Never Again)
6. Francisco Scaramanga (The Man with the Golden Gun)
7. Dr. Kananga (Live and Let Die)
8. Le Chiffre (Casino Royale)
9. Raoul Silva (Skyfall)
10. Doctor No (Dr. No)

My Favorite Bond Women

1. Tracy Bond (On Her Majesty's Secret Service)
2. Vesper Lynd (Casino Royale)
3. Melina Havelock (For Your Eyes Only)
4. Camille Montes (Quantum of Solace)
5. Kara Milovy (The Living Daylights)
6. Wai Lin (Tomorrow Never Dies)
7. Paula Caplan (Thunderball)
8. Tatiana Romanova (From Russia With Love)
9. Natalya Simonova (GoldenEye)
10. Fiona Volpe (Thunderball)


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