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Author of queer, wry sci fi/fantasy books. On Amazon.
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Sunday 27 May 2012

It's The End of The World as We Know It (And Why That's Fine)

Hello hello! Thank you for tuning in to this episode of Radio SciFiMagpie, your source for goofy reviews, insight, genre fiction, and quotable fuckery related to all of the above.
Today, we're talking about dystopian fiction: I have mentioned my love for it in previous posts, and since the Hunger Games is still warming the front shelves of book store windows, I figured it was time for a review of why some of us love talking about the end of the world.
Dystopian fiction--Wait, what?: Sometimes also known as social science fiction, takes its roots in the idea of a dystopia, literally a "bad world" (Greek "dys", meaning bad, and "topia", world). A story centred in or around a dystopia tends to have a hint of horror or suspense, but is generally more psychological than action-packed. It is very seldom, if ever, that you will get a propery fantasy seting with this fiction type. Sometimes the setting will be post-apocolyptic; it is pretty impossible to distinguish them, since disasters of various kinds are usually the driving force behind the development of a dystopia. The old stuff was generally centred around a world that was ruined by government control, but technically any vision of the world that is a) bad and b) vaguely futuristic or "not right now" counts as a dystopia. And lately, of course, the hottest trend in teen literature has been a re-tread of the "star-crossed lovers" theme with the state or world acting as Romeo and Juliet's interfering parents. We'll get to that in a minute. Have some theme music first.

Here, have some examples!: Say "dystopia" and the one most people think of is 1984, George Orwell's famous work about a communist police state. It's nightmarish, violent, dirty, and grimy: this is not a shiny future filled with fast cars and elegant technology. In contrast, Aldous Huxley's Brave New World has the shiny technology and a tidy, beautiful world, but the darkness comes from the lack of freedom from the caste system and the meaninglessness of the lifestyle there. Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, a.k.a Blade Runner, and pretty much everything else Phillip K. Dick has written are also good examples of dark, ugly worlds torn by ideological conflict, environmental ruin, and class war.V for Vendetta or The Ballad of Halo Jones by Alan Moore are graphic illustrated dystopias, in case you want something with a little more visual detail. If Politics don't turn your crank, Nick Sagan's Idlewild series and Feed by M.T. Anderson are fast-paced, short, and teen-friendly options in the 'world sucks' area. There are also more anime and manga options than can be safely mentioned by a sane person, if you want something other than the Euro/American flavours.
Before you fall asleep or skip back to the blog about Space Boobies, I ought to mention that the dystopian perspective is not restricted to rectangular paper things or those files that are clogging up your Kobo. Portal and Portal 2 are both, technically, dystopian games. Everything in the Resident Evil series would also count, as would the world of Bioshock, Metro 2033, and, of course, the beloved Fallout games.
(If you aren't familiar with any of these games, google "Steam games", find the game website, and buy all of them for your computer. Alternately, find a friend who likes them and have them play while you watch. Or, if you're a lazy fuck, and shame on you, go read about them on Wikipedia. Each one of them represents a fine and rich gaming experience and excellent story-writing, or in the case of the the Resident Evil games, writing so bad, it's good.)
So, now that we've established what dystopias are, and that there are lots of good ones for you to enjoy, why the hell do you care? A lot of people find them unpleasantly hopeless. Darkened settings are part of sci fi, but a dystopia is something a little more hopeless and strange and distant than the usual faraway planet or not-so-distant future. They have come in and out on a regular basis since the 1980s, more often in books and games than movies, but a really pure dystopian story isn't all that common. Or rather, it wasn't, but they've gotten a lot more attention recently.
Why? Between environmental destruction and its effects, rapidly more apparent, and political uncertainty, we have the basic ingredients of the end of the world. (I'm not going to derail this into a political rant, because you can probably judge the importance of those factors for yourself.) And yet, there are billions of us, the technology of movies and television has become real enough to hold, and there is a sense that we, humanity, are too big and heroic and important to fail. It is impossible to picture the end of the world as it is now, because so many endings are possible. The urge to explore the method of our own destruction is irresistible, the human impulsive curiosity about death. Like Narcissus, we stare into the pond's mirror in fascination, unable to abandon the deadly and tempting image of ourselves.
Of course there are less serious reasons: the technology is damn cool. In the pre-assembled world of developed countries, jury-rigging ersatz tech and clothing is cool as all get out. Alternate times have always interested us; the idea of magic or a now-and-not-now world compelled us as soon as our brains were complex enough to think about it. A world really and truly working against the hero is both more relatable and a higher-stakes game than usual. it is more fun to be in love when the world is falling apart, too, because the struggle of the characters seems more important and less so at the same time, a pleasing contradiction. Maybe it is even related to the joy in destroying things: everyone loves a good disaster.

Source. Ahhh. a destroyed New York. It is as soothing as peting a fluffy kitten. Made of rainbows.
Or, just maybe, it is because we are playing through our nightmares and trying to defeat them. One theory about dreams suggests that the brain creates them partly to play through its fears and develop alternate coping strategies, solutions. Dystopias, strange as it may sound, are always about surviving. If you can think of a dystopian story with a genuine unhappy ending, bring it back. The rest of us will wait.
As for me, I love thinking about, experiencing, and talking about every possible way the world could end, and what it would look like. I love it. Odd technology, traumatized characters, personal interactions that matter to survival instead of just existing to amuse, a cut-throat world, and, ultimately, a crazy kind of hope that makes protagonists persevere: these are ingredients of epics, both great and minuscule, and in the dystopia, they get a special sharpening. I think what keeps me coming back to the end of the world is a mixture of all of these things, of the factors that make us as people long to explore them, and the challenge of making it realistic. Expect more end-of-the-world/evil world settings as you keep reading my releases.
Well, every love song needs a coda, and I have come to mine. Unless the world actually ends, and we end up huddled around campfires again, you can expect a steady supply of these settings in entertainment for years to come. Until then, I'll be working on this hydrogen-cell-powered double-engine deathmobile, just in case. Actually, before you go, could you pass me the duct tape?
Thanks for coming to visit again. More hilarity and occasional brilliance can be found on Twitter, at SciFiMagpie. Until then, this is your SciFiMagpie, over and out! Unless, that is, you want to trade some fuel cells for sexual favours and this cabbage...

Saturday 19 May 2012

The Long-Awaited Tease

Hello hello, everyone!

Well, as those of you who've been reading for a bit know already, I have a novella by the name of "And the Stars Will Sing" available on Kindle and now, Smashwords. Here are the links to that, in case you missed it:



Since it has lots of amusing dialogue, space pirates, a charming romance, and alien cuisine, you should go download it now, and review it, too. I'll wait.

Now that that's done, I'm going to let you in on a taste of what's to come. Back on Terra, at the other end of the galaxy, a friend of Crystal's is slaving away at an Orwellian workplace filled with peace, love, and light.

For the one-hundred fifteen-thousand, six-hundred ninety-fourth time since she'd begun working at the Langplex, under DOLMAC, Sara wondered why she'd taken the job. Once again, the usual answers presented themselves: I needed money, life on Luna was sucking because they made all those infrastructure cuts, I wanted to see more of the solar system, my Literature degree was only in demand out here, Tranquility University was having budget cutbacks...blah, blah, blah, blah. And still, a job at one of the hole-edge diners was starting to look pretty good...

Just then, someone knocked on the door, interrupting her mental bitch session. “Come in!”

“Hey,” said Julia. “How are you?” Sara’s blank face relaxed. Julia quietly closed the doorlet.

“Umm….what am I supposed to be doing again?

“I think you’re writing a recommendation on whether or not Heartbreak House should be totally eliminated from the Shaw canon, or whether it can be modified enough to maintain the integrity of spiritual love without the suggestion of too many base, unevolved sexual desires.”

“Wow, Julia. Your grasp of the TorYoBiKo never fails to amaze me,” she said, confining the irony in her tone to a delicate suggestion.

“Well, must maintain the image of orthodoxy, musn’t we?” Julia mouthed. “Watch out or they’ll can you. Try to fake reverence, Sara, or they’ll never let you out of here alive.”

Sara beckoned to Julia with one crooked finger. Julia slipped over and behind her. Onscreen, Sara typed,

Somehow I doubt that. Anyway, I can think of a few people who’d get plenty of shaudenfreude out of that. Fuck it, Julia, let’s have some fun. Round up Andie and Trops after work. Let’s go out for a drink.

Julia shook her head and shooed Sara’s fingers from the keyboard. Deleting everything that had just been written, she typed her response.

Will you at least pretend to do some work? You don’t want to lose café privileges. If you have to work in solitary for any length of time, that’s a black mark on your record.

Julia shook her head, and Sara skirted her away.

Yeah, right. Miss the blandwiches for a month? I’m shaking in my grav boots, baby. Loosen up. I have to go kill Bernard Shaw. Are we on for after work?

Well, you know about the alcohol rationing—

Fuck it. There are other things we can do. Not even coffee?

Did you forget about the embargo on products from Phoebus?

Chikusho! Yes, I did. Right. Tea? Or we could get some rotgut.

Are you swearing in Japanese to impress me?

Oh, Julia, honey, why do that when I can swear in German, too? Ch gebe nicht einen Scheiß! It’s all about flouting regulations.

You’re going to be fired. And so am I, if I don’t run. Seven o’clock at the Old Museum?

You got it. Now I have to delete this before someone sees it. They’re all Corinthenkackers, anyway. 

Okay, okay, extra points for the untranslatable pun. Aren’t we supposed to be killing words like those?

No shit.

Gotta run.  Don’t get into too much trouble.

Julia slipped out, straightening the folds of her uniform for a moment. Returning to her own cube, she glanced around, and Sara watched her disappear. So far, so good. Not too much time lost: she would be able to stay under the radar, unlike last week. Julia could be officiously rule-abiding, but that didn’t mean Sara wanted to see her get in trouble. 

...and if I see some comments, you guys will get another excerpt! So, get writing, people! Wordthieves, the story this excerpt was taken from, will be up on Kindle and Smashwords soon. A release link will be up on the blog as soon as it's done. Keep your eyes peeled!

Well, that's the long and the short of it for today...for more updates, funny crap, and interesting things, follow me on Twitter, at SciFiMagpie. SciFiMagpie, over and out!

Thursday 10 May 2012

Stark Raving Mad: The Avengers Review (Part 2)

Aaaand we're back!

I mentioned high-pitched squealing noises in my previous review, and I have to say, I'm making them. This movie was not just good, it induced multiple awesomegasms. I realise that this sentiment has been echoing across the internet (and movie theatres)

What has been said before shall be said again:


There. You have been warned. Now shut the hell up and enjoy the ride.

It barely needs saying, but The Avengers is a delicious, whole-hearted, gleeful joyride into and through the heart of superhero movies. From the first shots of Samuel L. Jackson badassing his way through the role of Nick Fury to the action-packed, exploding space whale finale in New York, it's a loving tribute to the comics that goes above and beyond its origins.


Plot: The plot is pretty straightforward: Find the McGuffin Cube, fight over it with the bad guys, find McGuffin Cube again and prevent its use as a weapon to bring the armies of Gears of War aliens to shitstorm Earth. It's not exactly rocket science, unlike the delightful technobabble swapped by Stark and Banner's characters. There is a lot of shiny technology, 'I WANT ONE OF THOSE' moments, and all of the pretty stuff--even Scarlett Johannson's costume--is practical. Joss Whedon knew that we weren't going to see a Marvel movie for the plot, but he respects the audience's intelligence, and that's a nice change. Sure, there's lots of booming noises and pretty explosions, and the glorious special effects that $220 million can buy, but the really special thing about this movie is the character interaction.

The Special Sauce:And oh, the character interaction. My inner quote monster is tempted to copy/paste every beautiful line I can think of, but this is one of those times when that would be insufficient. With Tony Stark bouncing around, exuding as much charisma as only Robert Downey Jr. can bring, and several alpha males in the same room, you're bound to have a great mix. And, to their credit, not only do the actors play off each other well, the comedy feels genuine and spontaneous. It's a definite Whedon touch. I was never much of a Whedon fangirl, being lukewarm on Buffy the Vampire Slayer and, yes, Firefly, but when a film like this showcases such a deft touch of comedy, it's impossible not to melt. Avengers is a fantastic action movie, but like Iron Man, it is hilarious and may just be the funniest movie of the year. Small visual jokes, such as Tony Stark's Black Sabbath t-shirt, and fast-paced, off-the-cuff verbal wit make it a delectably quotable film.

The other (pardon the pun) marvel in this film is the way the alpha males fight and jockey for their positions. It makes sense that a bunch of super-powered larger-than-life dudes in the same room would start to compete, and Whedon takes this to its logical extremes. The scenes involving the various Avengers fighting each other literally (not figuratively) made my jaw drop in delight. Watching Tony Stark and Thor pummel each other, and Stark take the piss out of Steve Rogers, were some of the most delightful moments in the movie. Roger Ebert flippantly passed over the chest-pounding, testosterone-contest moments, but they really do establish that a team is built, not just assembled like a crew of Transformers toys in a Chinese factory.

Notable Characters:

Black Widow:There is a heavy emphasis on men in the movie--virtually all of the heroes are male, and with a comic book audience, it's impossible not to be aware that the majority of fans will be dudes. However, in spite of her Smurfette role within the group, Natasha Romanoff is a pretty solid addition. The fact that her Russian is terrible is forgiveable because her character is quietly complex. Johansson makes for a solid Black Widow who seems aware that she is not super-powered. She never tries to compete with the men on the same level, but she uses her presumed feminine weakness to emotionally manipulate him. Apart from the supernumerative shots of her Calliphygean butt, her costume is relatively practical--waterproof and skintight, and including full coverage of all parts, without even a stupid cleavage rip. She acts like a spy and remains committed to S.H.I.E.L.D. when others lose faith, and her romance(?) is given far less emphasis and airtime than the mentions of her history as a vicious assasin. In other words, they treat her like a man without making a fuss about it, and boy is it a pleasant change from every other hero film ever. I hope it continues, with more chicks in the cast, because it's a lot more fun to watch a film when the female lead isn't given as much of a boobs-centred special status.

Iron Man:Tony Stark is a scene-stealing delight every single moment he's on screen. Robert Downey Jr. manages to play desperate wit with savage humour and self-respect that some 'real' comedians could do well to learn from. He also ends up commanding respect from the uptight Captain America and smug Thor, which is no small task. Most touching moments centred around the way his love for Pepper Potts was subtly emphasized and his immediate attachment to Bruce Banner. Mark Ruffalo played a compassionate scientist perfectly and believably--it was hard to believe his name wasn't Steve and that he didn't work in a physics lab in real life. The way these two intelligent men struck up a buddy relationship was--I have no other word for this--adorable.I'm just going to leave this picture here now.

Sorry, no source for this awesomeness.

Faults:Technically, because I like to review things (even though I fuck with the formatting for newer releases, rather than being consistent as in 'Missed It' reviews--I do that to bother you) I am supposed to pick holes in them. And I'm having a hard time doing that with The Avengers, but it is possible. I'm relying heavily on Andrey for this, since the large group of attractive and charismatic geek friends that I saw this with were unable to come up with problems for it. Still, as was noted in the Thor review, Loki is a villain with very poorly defined motivations. Sure, he's fun to watch, but "I want to take over the world!...Vaguely!" is pretty blah. One isn't necessarily expecting Shakespearean complexity (I'm looking at you, Branaugh) but some complexity is nice. What we get is "Hey, I just got here, and I am crazy, but you're all ants and I'm conquering, maybe." I guess a poorly-defined "I want to rule the world!" villain is sort of refreshing after all the 'revenge/competition/he stole my idea and my girl' plots we're usually offered. Still, something deeper would have been appreciated. The alien Chitauri are also sort of lame, but hey, they have space whales, so it's okay.

Also, we're not going to talk about science, because trying to explain the science in Marvel comics movies makes the people with physics and chemistry degrees end up in the rooms with the padded walls and curiously restrictive white tuxes whilst making high-pitched buzzing noises. My aforementioned buddies agreed that a formidable drinking game could be constructed around every moment in which comics violate real-world science. Other than these nitpicks, and the usual whingeing about 3-D being all blurry and shit (I enjoyed it for this movie, actually), it's pretty hard to punch holes in such a wonderful, childishly awesome action movie. And with that, I'm going to end the review on plans to schedule in my next viewing, preferably with as many of my friends as possible.

Well, that's our show for today. Get your asses back here for more reviews, funny and insightful thoughts, and teasing information about my more formal writing. Yes, I know I keep promising it, and it's coming. We'll be back to destroying the future you know and love soon, but in the meantime, follow me on Twitter at SciFiMagpie. This is your SciFiMagpie, over and out!

Wednesday 9 May 2012

Still Thor About It: The Avengers Reviews (Part 1)

Hello hello!

There comes a time when one must bite the bullet and see a movie whether or not it's good for the sake of reviewing. Even if watching it is agonizingly boring, or even painful, there are things that as reviewers, we have a duty to talk about. Captain America and yes, Thor, were movies that fit into this category. The Avengers, however, was not. Before I get to the high-pitched squealing noises that are going to accompany the review for The Avengers, though, I feel duty-bound to yell at Marvel for a few minutes regarding the shameful fuckery that was Thor and the somewhat decent Captain America movie. Also,


There. You have been warned. Now shut the hell up and enjoy the ride.

So: Thor and Captain America: The First Avenger. The reason I'm even making this a menage a' trois is that in order to understand and enjoy what the fuck was going on in the Avengers movie, I deemed it necessary to force these two down my throat the night before. Since Andrey liked both Hulk movies, and since both of us loved the Iron Man movies, those were no-brainers. Robert Downey Jr.'s charisma and wit as Stark were so enjoyable that nothing more can be said about him in the role, and Edward Norton played a sensitive, intelligent, haunted Hulk to perfection. Sure, all four movies had some very ridiculous moments, but the Hulk movies were nicely dark and atmospheric and the Iron Man movies were funny, enthusiastic, and got the updated atmosphere across nicely.

Oh, how I wish I could say the same for Thor. At the risk of getting crucified by the fangirls drooling over the admittedly luscious Chris Hemsworth, this movie sucked. I'm always down for a B-movie, don't get me wrong. I have a review of Wrath of the Titans that will be up soon. Give me gloriously goofy overacting, give me crazy effects, and I am one happy little bird. However, Thor just...failed. Roger Ebert, in spite of his relentless geek-spearing, has already gutted this one pretty nicely, but I'm going to have to add my voice to the small crowd of people proclaiming that it just sucked.

Source.Thanks, Wiki, this summarizes the movie nicely.

The forced romance with Natalie Portman's character was about as natural as my "Kissing Simba and Nala" toys in childhood, and a lot less adorable. Hemsworth is a surprisingly boring Thor, playing a boorish and dully adaptable thug who under-hulks The Hulk. Odin is fine, sure, but it's Anthony Hopkins; and even then, he seems pretty bored. Loki is a lot more interesting than Thor, which unfortunately isn't saying much. His motivation as a villain is basically the adolescent rebellion of an adopted child. I'm not even going to mention what happened to mythology in this film, because it will give me an anyeurism, but suffice to say that the great Edith Hamilton's Mythology was probably not a reference guide. That's a big problem, because the Norse gods had a sense of grandeur that derived from a very dark and not-happy history. Putting Thor in a silly, brightly-coloured movie means you need to either overdo the darkness or find a good way to compensate for its disappearance, and that just doesn't happen here. And without the darkness, you have a hero that is just impossible to care about.Thor has nothing to lose annd his origins aren't very interesting, and when you take those away, you lose the propellants of superhero movies.

This isn't a veggie burger when you're expecting a double-patty bacon cheeseburger--it's more like two buns with some ketchup and lettuce. The scariest and saddest thing about this piece of drek was that it was directed by Kenneth Branaugh, the gentleman who does a most bitchin' job with Shakespeare and is usually a good director. What went wrong, Kenneth? What went wrong? the script-writing was obviously hurried to save some resources for the Avengers, but there is neither the grandeur and conviction I was hoping for nor the balls-out full-bore goofiness that would also have been acceptable. It's closer to the latter than the former, but the note just doesn't work. A little more comedy would have fixed this movie up nicely, but unfortunately, there were no lols to be had. What can I say? Son, I am disappoint.

Source.And it is, in fact, an origin story. Imagine that.

Now that you've probably flipped a table, let's give Captain America: The First Avenger a run-down. This film was much better--deliciously goofy 'scary' Nazis, Hugo Weaving as a villain (that's a bonus in itself), a nicely sepia'd atmosphere, and a suggestion of humanity and personality to the other Big Blue Boy Scout, Captain America. The lack of fulfilment with the female candy character and a faint suggestion that she was actually capable of doing her job well were nice elements. The hint of loss and sweet banality that their relationship brought to the movie made her time on-screen a million times more tolerable than every teeth-gritting moment with Natalie Portman's 'astrophysicist' in Thor. Also, there's something about the way he said, "I had a date" that really haunted me. You can tell he cared about that date.

The biggest weakness in the film is its uneven pacing. For some reason, it seems to speed up, then slow down, then speed up again. Possibly the late-night, post-Thor timing was to blame, but the middle of this movie is hard to sit through and drags like a Libyan bottom-trawler's nets. The awkward 'is the movie done?' feeling that comes after the first act was also confusing; I suspect there were some director's cuts that messed up the flow. Finally, I'm going to complain that Bucky is kind of a crappy friend. He picks on Steve Rogers, which is sort of fine, but you don't really get the sense of support. If anything, Tony Stark's father is more supportive, and a real scene-stealer.

Still, I was expecting a bland, hyper-American patriotism sandwich. Shockingly, it wasn't anything like that--if anything, the patriotism was underplayed. The metaphors got heavy-handed, but for a superhero movie it wasn't too bad. The biggest strength is that the actor, Chris Evans, did a really fine job as Captain America. Steve Rogers is a skinny geek with a tough heart, and even after being juiced up, he never really loses that scrappy soldier vibe. He's got a certain earnest goodness that was surprisingly refreshing. Given that he ends up in a block of ice at the end (and beginning) of the movie, we're not going to get a Captain America 2, but I for one would be willing to watch him walk around the 21st century world for a bit and adjust to it. The magnificent Alan Moore gave us an inside look at what the world is like for vigilantes and superheroes in The Watchmen,and it's almost a shame that we'll never get to see a Watchmen style realistic treatment for the Captain.

That concludes the first part of our program...stay tuned for a review of The Avengers in the second half! The SciFiMagpie will be back after these messages.