Monday, December 04, 2017

Legends Never Die: Lando Calrissian and the Mindharp of Sharu

The Lando Calrissian Adventures are a fascinating slice of Star Wars history. It was 1983 and Return of the Jedi had just hit theaters. Star Wars novelizations had taken a break after The Han Solo Adventures and the only consistent inter-movie tie-ins were the Marvel Comics ongoing series.

All of a sudden, a new trilogy of pre-movie adventures hits, centering around dashing gambler, future Baron-Administrator of Cloud City, and Colt 45 spokesman, Lando Calrissian.

Tasked with writing them was L. Neil Smith (the L stands for Lester). Smith was an early adopter of Libertarianism, joining the party in 1972 and becoming very active in it and running, unsuccessfully, for office several times. This includes an awkward run for President in the 2000 election where he was only on the ballot in Arizona thanks to a dispute with the leading national Libertarian candidate, Harry Browne.

Failed presidential bids aside, his first published sci-fi novel was The Probability Broach in 1979-1980, an alternate history story in his North American Confederacy series. After four of those, Lando Calrissian and the Mindharp of Sharu was his fourth novel.

The book features a young, fresh-faced Lando as the new owner of a beat up transport named the Millennium Falcon. He doesn't really know how to fly. He doesn't even have his signature moustache yet. What he does have is exceptional skill at the game of sabacc. Lando wins a droid from an academic during one such game, but he has to travel to the Rafa system to claim it.

Once there, the droid turns out to be the chipper, helpful, oddly starfish-shaped Vuffi Raa. Lando also runs afoul of the local governor, Duttes Mer, who strongarms him into searching for a lost artifact, the Mindharp, which once belonged to the long-lost Sharu race that populated the system. Supervising Mer is the sinister robed figure of Rokur Gepta, the last Sorcerer of Tund, a Dark Side Force tradition that I can best describe as “flamboyant insane space wizard” and I love it.

After a few misadventures, run-ins, and a psychedelic trip through space and time inside an ancient pyramid, Lando finally finds the Mindharp and, naturally, its more than it seems.

A couple observations. The Libertarianism really shows. Lando is a freewheeling adventurer with no patience for the government or taxation. Lando also doesn't kill anybody, which contrasts him nicely with the Han Solo Adventures where Han & Chewie solved most problems guns blazing. Lando's a talker, Han's a fighter. While the Han Solo Adventures had their share of comedy, here, Lando is frequently the one cracking jokes, usually in sardonic response to something Vuffi Raa says.

Lando without his moustache is just...wrong

Not that there aren't action sequences. Even the sabacc game at the beginning is written as exciting as a made-up card game with constantly changing cards can be.

It also sets a precedent that would carry through with Lando throughout the Expanded Universe. Since Lando's more of a face than a brawler, he always seems to end up in weird situations where shooting his way out is impossible, or at least, not ideal.

Lando Calrissian and the Mindharp of Sharu is an oddball story that doesn't have the pulpy action movie heritage of the Han Solo Adventures, but works as a slower burn of weirdness. I liked it, because a) I really like Lando, and b) its really funny, but I can see why not everyone would be into it. That said, I do recommend it as Expanded Universe reading material. 

Thursday, November 30, 2017

NaNoWriMo 2017 Damage Report & Year in Review

NaNoWriMo has always been kind of a disaster for me every time I've tried. This year went better than most.

The Space Opera I'm working on evolved a lot from a third-person perspective largely following one character to a first-person narration from a different character. So most of what I wrote this month was relegated to backstory. It happened to the characters, and its good that I know what it was, but it wasn't clicking in a way that was satisfying. It was merely stuff happening.

Changing the viewpoint opened a lot up, since the main character now is a 20th century man who's been stuck in a stasis capsule for 500 years and wakes up in the far future. It gives the reader something more relatable to latch onto, and someone who can have stuff explained to him without coming off like a complete rube like the previous viewpoint character (who spent his whole life working in a domed city, so he's kind of a sheltered rube anyway). The side effect is that now the original viewpoint character is a lot more likable too. 

So the actual story will be better for it, there's just no way it would be finished for NaNoWriMo. The sad irony here is that if I had a rigid outline of events, I might not have come to that conclusion so fast and wasted more pages on backstory. So I guess minimalist outliner it is.

That's okay. This year's been kind of a sea change in my writing patterns anyway. I've been trying to unlearn the Capital L Literary tricks that were drummed into me in college and go back to having much more fun when I'm writing. This is all thanks to the Pulp Revolution that I've jumped aboard. I recommend it too, since Robert E. Howard is ten times the writer John Steinbeck ever was, and is infinitely more entertaining to read. Helps that he'd rather tell a story about killing monsters than shove an ideology down your throat that turns people into monsters like Steinbeck. The old Pulp masters wrote at incredible speeds because they were working authors and not some trust fund babies drinking it up in Paris after WWI.

What I'm saying is that the Modernists are lionized as great talents, but they really weren't. Some were technically very adept wordsmiths, like James Joyce, but most were pompous, self-important sad sacks like Virginia Woolf or pompous trainwrecks who brought misery wherever they went and compulsively destroyed their relationships like F. Scott Fitzgerald. Screw them. A few sentence in A. Merritt's The Moon Pool were more effective at explaining the existential horrors of World War I than vast swaths of the Lost Generation's musings.

It doesn't scare me one little bit, old boy. The pretty devil lady's got the wrong slant. When you've had a pal standing beside you one moment—full of life, and joy, and power, and potentialities, telling what he's going to do to make the world hum when he gets through the slaughter, just running over with zip and pep of life, Doc—and the next instant, right in the middle of a laugh—a piece of damned shell takes off half his head and with it joy and power and all the rest of it”—his face twitched—“well, old man, in the face of that mystery a disappearing act such as the devil lady treated us to doesn't make much of a dent. Not on me.”
-A. Merritt, The Moon Pool (1919)

So screw the Modernists. If their bad habits have infected the entirety of Respectable Literature, I'd rather roll around in the dirt with Howard, Merritt, Moore, & Burroughs. The people who stirred the imagination and the heart with wild tales of high adventure in the deep places of the Earth and among the stars.

Which doesn't mean its been an easy transition from Fugitive Academic to Pulp Journeyman. While working on adjustments, I've tried fixups of some older stories and submitted them to a few outlets. Fortunately, they were rejected by outlets I'd proudly submit to again once I GIT GUD. Still kind of sucks to get the rejection email, but if it doesn't hurt, then you didn't care in the first place, right?

There's another story I wrote this year for a project that's been put on a backburner for the time being (not by me.) I think its a firecracker, and the best thing I've written all year. It WILL be published in some form or another soon.

This month's space opera? That'll be done when its done. There's good days and bad days working on it, work schedule permitting. A lot of scribbled notes of things that are supposed to happen in it, which is the closest it'll get to an outline.

That's secondary to December's real project. A final revision of an urban fantasy story that I wrote back in 2006-2008, edited several times, revised a couple times, and submitted to agents a couple times to no avail. That was around 2010-2012, so right as ebooks started to get a true marketshare while the Tradpub dinosaurs still maintained the public face of “One True Path to Publishing Success.” I bought into it at the time, and why not? THIS IS HOW THINGS ARE DONE is a convincing statement when said with enough authority. Now in 2017, that monolithic structure is decaying and all sorts of new talent gets to play in the ruins.

Its not a huge revision at this point. Just going through and fixing grammar and sentence economy. The plot is pretty much set. Once that's done, its time to recruit some hapless lucky beta readers and move from there.

I'm pulling for this story, because after the first three chapters, I wrote the rest of it in a single month in 2008, which is the closest I got to Pulp Speed, and is where I want to get back to in 2018. That, and my early beta readers said it was a real page-turner, so there's that going for it too.

Book reviews will continue as I finish reading them. Legends Never Die Expanded Universe stuff has been popular, and I can bitch about Star Wars all day long, so those will be more regular. Probably going to do more Pulp Revolution stuff as well when I figure out a consistent disclosure policy (still not sure how I feel about Amazon reviews for people that I'm internet friends with). Movie reviews might slow down as I try and figure out how I want to format those better.

So that's the year in review, I guess. A. Merritt is my spirit animal, John Steinbeck is literary cancer, writing has hit a bumpy period of transition but is now leveling out and increasing productivity. A lot of seed planting for next year's harvest. 

Tuesday, November 21, 2017

Appendix N Review: The Metal Monster

After jumping face-first into old pulp novels this year, my personal standout (and author I've been most angry about never hearing of before) is Abraham Merritt. His 1918-1919 debut The Moon Pool was mind-blowingly fun and 1924's The Ship of Ishtar is a bona fide fantasy masterpiece. Seriously. Read it. Read them both. They're great.

In 1920, Merritt wrote The Metal Monster as the sequel to The Moon Pool featuring the same narrator/protagonist, Dr. Walter T. Goodwin, off on another exotic adventure. Originally serialized in the Argosy All-Story Weekly, it was later edited into a full-length book and published in 1941.

In it, Goodwin is traipsing around Central Asia near the Himalayas where he meets Dick Drake, adventurer son of an old acquaintance of Goodwin's. Then, investigating a strange aurora, they discover Martin Ventnor and his sister Ruth. Then they're chased by a group descended from a lost city of Persians (who war full battle armor and use spears and bows). With their guides dead and most of the pack animals run off, things look bad until a strange but beautiful and very, very powerful redhead named Norhala rescues them. Human, but also something else, Norhala can command electrical and magnetic forces and is connected to a bizarre city made up millions of ever-shifting living metal Things.

It should work, and in many places it does, such as in Merritt's specific style of beautifully grotesque action sequences. The beginning sets a remote and bleak mood fitting for the setting and the ending is wonderfully apocalyptic.

Unfortunately, its all the stuff in the middle that doesn't quite click.

The Metal Things are suitably weird, and possibly an alien hive mind. Its difficult to tell, since they can't speak human languages. Their origins are vague, as are their motives, but they're capable of draining direct energy from the Sun and causing sunspots (in a fun scene that actually takes into account the speed of light). The Things themselves can move and combine and shape themselves into various forms, including flying cubes, lumbering giants, and the very structures of their city.

They're weird and wonderful and predate John von Neumann's 1948 theory by 28 years and John Bernal's 1929 lecture “The World, the flesh and the Devil” anticipating self-replicating machines by 9 years. (Suck on that, Commies!)

They also have a staggering visual and “sociological” similarity to D&D Modrons, 63 years before their first appearance. And a full 94 years before Knack!

Seriously, they form up and move around like Knack

The bad part is that Merritt spends a staggering amount of time trying to explain how wondrous this is. The characters spend four full chapters on a flying cube trying to wrap their heads around what's going on. That's...not great pacing for an ADVENTURE story. There are great ideas being played around with, but the closer it gets to Hard Sci-Fi, the more it bogs down and frankly, starts to get boring.

Pacing issues give way to a very clear demonstration that Merritt likes to use certain stock characters: There's two intellectuals, except Martin Ventnor spends most of the book either worrying about his sister or in a coma. There's the two-fisted, upright man of action, except Drake is a pale shadow of the quirky Larry O'Keefe from The Moon Pool. There's a hunched, ugly but surprisingly strong servant figure, only Yuruk is more treacherous than The Ship of Ishtar's Gigi.

Then there's the elephant in the room: This is the third Merritt book I've read that prominently features an exotic, beautiful, immensely powerful redhead. Lakla, Sharane, and now Norhala.

Merritt clearly likes what he likes, and I'm more than fine with that.

Unlike the other two, Norhala is destructively ferocious when roused (as the Persians eventually learn) and never fully becomes a hero or a love interest. There's the barest hint of a connection between her and Goodwin, but that's all.

Ruth is no slouch either, despite being off-camera taking care of her comatose brother for most of the book. When it comes to shooting, she's got the biggest body count out of the four protagonists.

I'm beginning to suspect Merritt didn't know how to write weak women.

Finally got the hair right on this cover

For me, the biggest problem with the book is that the main characters remain observers throughout. Goodwin and Drake set out to try and find a solution to the predicament, but merely end up going on a Scooby-Doo chase through the Metal Monster city as they try to figure out what the hell's going on.

The plot carries on whether they get involved or not, and the climax is spent on a hill watching the fireworks.

I can see how this would impress H. P. Lovecraft (who crowed about the story in a letter) with its unfathomable alien beings dwarfing human understanding, but the characters don't glue the whole thing together. Its difficult to care and Goodwin's dry personality works better in The Moon Pool where he has the hot-blooded O'Keefe to bounce off of. There's no real antagonist to speak of. The Persian leader shows up for one chapter near the end and he's dealt with handily by Norhala (in one of the best sequences in the entire book)

The Metal Monster isn't bad. The Metal Monster is a great concept and Norhala is a scene-stealer. It just grinds itself to a halt describing the Metal Monster's mechanics and Merritt does action/adventure/romance much better in other stories.

This one's optional. 

Friday, November 10, 2017

Dead Reckoning (1947)

This one's a real hidden gem of deceit and twists and Humphrey Bogart turning in a solid performance in a lesser-known noir from 1947. It's Dead Reckoning.

Bogey plays Rip Murdock, former army captain and war hero. He's in a place named Gulf City looking for his wartime pal Johnny, who mysteriously hopped off a train in Philadelphia rather than receive a Medal of Honor from Uncle Sam. The two are supposed to meet, but one fiery car crash later, that's not going to happen, and Murdock runs afoul of a local mobster named Martinelli (Morris Carnovsky) and the woman Johnny was involved with. And what a woman Coral “Dusty” Chandler (Lizabeth Scott) turns out to be. A husky-voiced blonde who was a former singer at Martinelli's nightclub and is central to everything.

Directed by John Cromwell, the movie with a very solid look. Some scenes really stand out, like the one near the beginning where Rip chases Johnny in vain around some train cars at night, the final showdown and a couple others. Its solid, but there’s not a whole lot there that really pops out in terms of camera tricks and so on.

So, story by Gerald Adams & Sidney Biddell, adaptation by Allen Rivkin & screenplay by Oliver H.P. Garrett & Steve Fisher. That’s quite a few names for a 100 minute picture. Character dialogue is actually really solid, especially between Bogart and Scott. The best scenes are the ones in cars where Rip & Dusty are talking. I’d say the downside is that the plot is fairly easy to figure out at a certain point, though the film doesn’t try and cop out on the ending at least.

one of the most interesting traits that Rip has in comparison to other characters I’ve seen him play is that there’s a surprising level of misogyny in our hero. Not just like a “typical for the times” way, but the character’s got some real bitterness buried in there. And then of course he ends up falling in love with the femme fatale of the film and the relationship goes to some REALLY interesting places.

Dead Reckoning might not bring a whole lot of innovation to the table, but it is great seeing Bogart and the severely underrated Scott (who made quite a few noirs in her day) really get into things. Its a hidden gem of the genre. Totally recommended.

Friday, November 03, 2017

Panic in the Streets (1950)

I'm unrolling something I've wanted to do for some time now: Noirvember. I've loved film noir ever since I discovered the Maltese Falcon (the book) in high school, and have wanted to do a month specifically dedicated to it for a while, especially as an excuse to discuss lesser-known noir. So here we are.

Does an outbreak of plague belong in film noir? Offhand, I'd say no, but Elia Kazan proved me wrong with 1950's Panic in the Streets.

Dockside New Orleans. A poker game turns sour when one of the players, a recently arrived illegal immigrant, starts acting sick and leaves suddenly. His cousin tries to calm him down, but Blackie (Jack Palance in his first movie role) and his toadie Raymond Fitch (Zero Mostel in his second movie role) take issue with that and try to get their money back. One dead john doe later, they do, and dump his body into the harbor, where it washes up the next day for the police to find.

Except the autopsy reveals he was carrying pneumonic plague (a real version of the plague that infects the lungs rather than the lymph nodes). With no identity, no leads and a big port city to incubate it, Lt. Commander Clint Reed of the US Public Health Service (Richard Widmark), has three days to prevent an outbreak that could ravage the country. Along the way he butts heads with Police Captain Tom Warren (Paul Douglas) and strains his relationship with his wife, Nancy (Barbara Bel Geddes).

This was Kazan's last film noir before moving onto bigger pictures (his next movie would be A Streetcar Named Desire) and it shows a confident, technically adept hand behind the camera. The action sequences are few, but the ones that are there are excellently executed in prime noir style.

The middle bogs down a little bit, but there's a constant tension as the stress takes its toll on Dr. Reed as he tries to convince both government officials and simple dockworkers of the seriousness of the threat.

Panic in the Streets is a good film well executed. I'm not sure I'd put it in my film noir top ten, but I definitely enjoyed it more than Streetcar.


Monday, October 30, 2017

Legends Never Die: Han Solo and the Lost Legacy

Han Solo and the Lost Legacy caps off Brian Daley's Han Solo trilogy, and was published four months after The Empire Strikes Back was released.

Frozen in carbonite, book trilogy ended. 1980 was a rough year to be Han Solo.

After making haste out of the Corporate Sector, Han, Chewie, Bollux and Blue Max are bumming around a backwater sector called the Tion Hegemony doing odd jobs like working for a flying circus.

Adventure comes calling in the form of one of Han's old academy instructors turned treasure hunter: Trooper Badure. Badure's recruits Han to get to the planet Dellalt to find a long-lost treasure ship, The Queen of Ranroon. The ship belonged to a fabled pre-Old Republic conqueror, Xim the Despot, and is said to be guarded by a legion of his deadly war robots. The ship has been the stuff of spacer legends for generations.

After a high-speed chase across a university, Han agrees and meets the rest of Badure's team: Hasti, a miner who's sister discovered the clue to the treasure's location and was killed for it, and Skynx, an eager Ruurian historian who's just about the most adorable fuzzy caterpillar person in the galaxy.

Dellalt proves to be a dangerous world, with a criminal mining operation, a reclusive group of deadly cultists in the mountains, and centuries-old war robots that are just as deadly as their reputation.

And then Gallandro shows up with a grudge against Solo for being humiliated in Han Solo's Revenge.

Considering Raiders of the Lost Ark came out a year later in 1981, the comparisons are inescapable. A character played by Harrison Ford goes on a hunt for ancient treasure and has to deal with angry natives and hostile armies. Probably coincidental, but the pulp element convergence here is striking.

Gallandro himself works as a stand-in for the sinister Setenza from The Good, The Band and the Ugly. His moustache is a little more flamboyant, but there's a lot of Lee Van Cleef in the character. He is one of the few people in the galaxy that Han is legitimately frightened of.

Like the rest of the trilogy, Daley's action sequences are fast-paced and exciting. The aforementioned university chase (which itself has a lot of similarities to one of the few bright spots in Kingdom of the Crystal Skull), then there's a mountain chase on a giant metal disc, and a large-scale battle at the climax where everyone's fighting everyone as the war robots advance.

This time, though, there's a tinge of melancholy throughout. Its been a fun ride, but the party's coming to a close. Han makes more mistakes. Hasti, the potential love interest, rejects his advances, saying she wants something real and not a love-em-and-leave-em type. The ancient labor droid Bollux has a touching conversation about obsolescence and free will with the war robot commander. Skynx the academic is rushing to get as much adventure and knowledge into his life before he matures to a full adult and turns into a near-mindless butterfly. Bollux and Blue max have to leave Han by the end because they're not in the movies.

The passage of time undercuts everything in this book, and by the end, Han & Chewie have managed to piss off everyone important in the Corporate Sector and Tion Hegemony, so they bounce around the idea of doing a simple spice run for Jabba the Hutt.

The Han Solo Adventures are a blast to read and can be found individually or in omnibus formats. If you're of a tabletop persuasion, its essential reading for a Scum & Villainy type of game. Highly recommended and essential Expanded Universe reading.

Brian Daley would continue on with a few Star Wars projects, but not more novels. He wrote the script adaptations for the Star Wars Radio dramas (1981, 1983 and 1996, respectively). The audio dramas are really quite good, by the way, and expanded on a few themes that weren't in the movies.

Daley himself died in 1996 of pancreatic cancer shortly after recording of the Return of the Jedi radio drama wrapped. According to his official website, which is still up as a memorial to him, some of his ashes were to be scattered at the Little Big Horn Spirit Gate memorial to help defend it from inter-dimensional threats. 

Monday, October 16, 2017

Octoverride '17: Blacula (1972)

Blacula. This little 1972 Blaxploitation horror movie has quite a reputation for its name alone. Black Dracula, essentially. Directed by William Crain, a black director with a few other Blaxploitation movies to his credit, along with several tv shows, including some episodes of The Dukes of Hazzard, and with a screenplay written by Joan Torres and Raymond Koenig, the movie starts out strong.

Campy, but strong.

In 1780, Prince Mamuwalde (William Marshall, the Future King of Cartoons on Pee-Wee's Playhouse) and his wife Luva (Vonetta McGee) are on a diplomatic tour of Europe and end up in Transylvania. Count Dracula (Charles Macaulay) patronizes them and constantly needles the prince about race until Mamuwalde tries to leave, and Dracula captures him, turns him into a vampire, and buries him in a coffin in his castle because Dracula is an asshole. Oh yeah, and Dracula dubs Mamuwalde “Blacula.”

Because Dracula's an asshole.

Fast forward to the 70s and an interracial gay couple of interior decorators buy up a bunch of stuff in Dracula's castle, including Mamuwalde's coffin. They're goofy, and definitely campy, but they're also innocent of what's about to happen, so there's definitely sympathy for them when they inadvertently ship Blacula to Los Angeles and awaken him and get killed.

After that, it slows down pretty hard. A doctor, Gordon Thomas (Thalmus Rasulala) begins investigating the deaths and turns into this movie's Abraham Van Helsing. Meanwhile, Mamuwalde runs into Tina (Vonetta McGee again) who's a dead ringer for his long-lost love and he chases her, getting run over by a taxi, and exsanguinating the sassy black cabbie lady as consolation.

Then it turns into a slow build of Dr. Thomas figuring out Mamuwalde is Blacula, and his allies trying to save Tina and stop a vampire outbreak across the city. There's a fun scene of a photographer developing a photo of Mamuwalde that he doesn't show up in (before she gets eaten by Blacula, of course), the vampire Cabbie waking up in the hospital and charging down character actor Elisha Cook Jr (from The Maltese Falcon) that's actually kind of spooky, some vampires in cheap capes get thrown into cardboard boxes, and a bunch of extras dressed like motorcycle cops get killed.

There's really not a whole lot to the movie, actually. It borrows heavily from the classic Bela Lugosi Dracula plot while throwing in the love story angle from Boris Karloff's The Mummy. That's fine, its just very pedestrian. The cast is fine, the effects are low budget, and it would be rather forgettable if not for one thing: William Marshall.

Marshall anchors and elevates the movie above its shortcomings by bringing a sense of tragic gravitas to the character. His rumbling bass voice helps too, along with his Shakespearean background. He's more sympathetic than Dracula traditionally is, and despite running rampant across LA for several nights, his death at the end of the movie is handled with a lot of dignity. After he is denied love one last time, he chooses to walk out into the morning sunlight. Marshall makes a scene where he walks up a flight of stairs and falls over dead into something not goofy. That's some real talent there.

Blacula occupies a kind of middle ground of averageness in the Blaxploitation genre. Its inoffensive, competent enough and mostly forgettable. I do, however, recommend it for William Marshall's performance as Mamuwalde. That's worth seeing.