Archive for April, 2012

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Television Review/Recap: Game of Thrones Season 2 Episode 5

Oh yeah, that's what they're doing up there.

Damn it all to hell. I had so hoped to start this review with, “Wow, that was the greatest smoke monster killing frenzy I have ever seen.” Ah well, we can’t always get what we want. The short, fast, and dirty of “The Ghost of Harrenhal” is that the only plots worth caring about are happening in the South of Westeros. The farther North and East the story is set, the more obvious it is that the writers are working overtime to keep the audience’s interest.

*Spoilers Ahead*

The Stormlands

The episode begins with Catelyn Stark negotiating a deal with Renly Baratheon. Renly’s content to let Robb be king of the North, so long as Robb swears fealty to Renly in the same way that Ned Stark swore his loyalty to Robert Baratheon. It’s probably the best deal either party could hope for, so of course it’s all going to go terribly wrong. Melisandre’s smoke baby apparates into Renly’s tent and stabs the man who would be king through the chest. Renly dies. Brienne screams, then cries, then kills a couple of guards who thought she killed Renly. Fearing that they will both be hung for treason, Catelyn convinces Brienne that she must flee in lieu of seeking revenge.

Dawn sees Stannis Baratheon’s fleet closing on Renly’s encampment. Little Finger bursts in on Margaery and Loras Tyrell holding vigil over Renly’s dead body. Margaery orders her brother to saddle their horses so that they, as well as the Tyrell banner men, can flee. We are, however, left with the implication that we haven’t seen the last of Margaery Tyrell. When Little Finger asks if she wants to be a queen, Margaery answers, “No, I want to be the Queen.”

Liam Cunningham (seen above) once thanked me for a compliment I paid him on twitter. True story.

Aboard Stannis’ flagship, Davos Seaworth attempts to confront his king about Melisandre’s smoke baby. Stannis, dour as ever, is hearing nothing of it. Citing the courage to give bad news as a key part of loyalty, Seaworth admits to Stannis that the men fear Melisandre will take King’s Landing from Stannis as easily as he took Renly Baratheon’s men. Reluctantly, Stannis agrees to leave Melisandre behind when they push on King’s Landing. Stannis also assigns Seaworth to command the invasion of the aforementioned city. I coudn’t quite tell if Stannis made the decision in the same way that Tywin Lannister assigned Tyrion to the front lines of his first battle against Robb Stark; the expectation being that he would die. Seaworth has been nothing but loyal, but he also knows that Melisandre is a magic user. If Stannis wins the Iron Throne, Seaworth, who knows that Stannis’ power base rests in sorcery, might prove a liability.

Elsewhere, between the Riverlands and the Strormlands, Catelyn and Brienne try to decide their next step. Brienne wants revenge, but Catelyn advises her against an inevitably suicidal effort. Instead, Brienne offers herself to Catelyn as bodyguard in exchange for a promise that when the time comes, Brienne will get to kill Stannis. It’s actually a rather touching scene to see two of the strongest characters, one literally the other spiritually, exchanging fealty with each other. In that moment the audience can truly understand why the Starks are so beloved by their people.

King’s Landing

Having heard of Renly’s death, Cersei Lannister is positively dripping with hubris. Despite the fact that the Lannisters are now outnumbered on land and sea by Stannis Baratheon’s forces, Cersei is confident in King Joffrey’s plans to deal with a siege of King’s Landing.

Yeah, I said King Joffrey’s plan. And as Bronn points out with his usual aplomb, the plan is bat shit crazy.

After pressing his cousin for information, Tyrion finds out that some combination of the Cersei/Joffrey brain trust has ordered the creation of something called Wild Fire aka Westeros’ version of Greek fire/napalm. And there’s something on the order of 9000 kegs of the stuff inside the walls of King’s Landing. So maybe the Lannisters will repel the invasion, or maybe, as Bronn suggested, they will burn the city around themselves trying to lob exploding Wild Fire projectiles from catapults.

We also learn that the people of King’s Landing are not particularly happy with good King Joffrey’s rule. One particular street preacher lets the audience in on the fact that the people don’t blame Joffrey, they blame Tyrion, the “Demon Monkey” pulling the king’s strings. Ah irony, it’s such a delicious thing. The one person who actually gives a shit about the people of King’s Landing is being written off as the reason for their suffering.

Pyke

Theon Greyjoy is back. In his one scene, he introduces himself to the crew of his ship, the Sea Bitch, like a preening fop. Low and behold, the crew don’t care about him. His first mate reminds him that they are iron islanders and thus accustomed to doing what they like. Translation: perhaps Theon should sack-up and do what he likes as well.

So instead of going to raid fishing villages, Theon decides/is manipulated into attacking a village near Winterfell. Though it’s never said, the implication is that once Bran Stark sends men to aid the village, Theon and his one ship will go besiege Wintefell itself.

I call shenanigans on that.

One sailboat with a crew of 150 men (just guessing based on the size of the ship – also if they don’t have cannon why would they square rig a ship?) can not possibly besiege, let alone capture, a castle. What are they going to do, throw rocks and foul language at Winterfell’s walls?

Winterfell

Bran continues to hold court as Lord of Winterfell. After dealing with pasture problems, word reaches him of the attack on the aforementioned village. Playing into Theon’s “plan” he dispatches 250 men to deal with the incursion. So now Winterfell is vulnerable, I guess. Things make even less sense after Bran talks to the wildling “slave” woman about a dream where the sea floods Winterfell keep. Okay, Bran has a bit of prescience happening if we view the sea as a metaphor for the imminent Greyjoy attack, that’s cool. But then the wildling “slave” confirms what we know from the show’s opening credits, Winterfell is a walled city in the interior of Westeros.

Maybe I’m missing something from not having read the books, but I don’t see what threat one ship full of surly pirates is against a land locked city. Perhaps Theon has some sort of semaphore system that he can use to signal his sister with her 30 ships…so they can all walk inland together?

North of the Wall

Does anybody remember why the men of the Night’s Watch went North of the Wall? I had a serious “oh yeah, that’s why” moment when the Watchmen reminded us that there’s some wilding king who has rallied all the other wildings behind him. Atop some mountain that was settled by the first people who lived in Westeros (narrative infodump warning) the Lord Commander and his rangers decide they need to send a small team of men to kill the wildling king rather than engaging him in pitched battle. So off Jon Snow goes with the rangers to do just that, I think.

Here’s the problem with this plot thread. It seems like the writers are desperate to come up with something for Jon Snow to do. Again, I haven’t read the books, so maybe the powers that be are doing exactly what they should be doing. However, it seems to me that they haven’t locked on to a motivation for Jon Snow that translates from text to television. Last season I knew why the Night’s Watch was important. This season they have spent so much time diddling around with Craster, Sam, Gilly, and dead babies that even though the white walkers are upon them and wildling kings are raising an armies, neither of the two seem very menacing. The entire expedition has the tone of camping trip, rather than an incursion into hostile territory.

So how about this, let’s kill Sam next week. Nothing would raise the stakes better than killing the nicest person on the show.

Qarth

Honestly baby, I want you for your body, not your dragons.

See Daenerys. See Daenerys go to parties. Party, Daenerys, party. Once again, Daenerys spends the episode alternating between confusion and outrage. First, she learns that Robert Baratheon is dead. Then Xaro Xhoan Daxos, the black guy who let her into Qarth, reveals that he is filthy stinking rich and wants Daenerys to marry him. In exchange he will outfit her with men, horses, and ships to mount a campaign against the Seven Kingdoms. Jorah Mormont convinces Daenerys that the men she needs to reclaim the Iron Throne are in Westeros, not Essos. Mormont then adds that she will need only one ship, a ship to carry her home.

So the plan is that Daenerys is going to walk into Westeros, announce to everybody that she has some baby dragons, and then those same people will forget about her father’s insane rule and rally behind her?

I don’t care if it’s a divergence from the novels, but it’s time to either do something very interesting with Daenerys Targaryen or kill her so we can focus on more interesting characters.

Harennhal

The eponymous ghost of Harrenhal turns out to be one of the men that Arya freed from the prison cart. After some talk about the Red God, he offers Arya three lives in exchange for the three that she spared. Arya first asks for the life of the man who was torturing the prisoners. The Ghost delivers it to her at the end of the episode.

The big question is this: will Arya ask for the life of Tywin Lannister. On the one hand he’s the man who saved her, Gendry, and the other prisoners from certain painful death. He’s also the man waging a losing war against her brother and is, indirectly, responsible for the death of her father. Arya statement to him that “any man can be killed” could certainly be construed as an adequate foreshadow of events to come. But Arya’s not stupid, there’s no real point in killing her benefactor without an exit strategy.

The man with no name.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

And that, as they say, is that. Five episodes down, five to go.


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Fiction Friday: The Aurora Awards Edition – Part I: Derek Kunsken’s To Live and Die in Gibbontown

Last year I had a brilliant idea: I would write a review on each of the Aurora Award nominees in the short fiction category. Of course, I had this idea a full nine days before voting closed. Needless to say, tracking down copies of the nominated stories turned into a giant pain in the ass.

Many interns were fired.

That’s not a problem this year as all the authors in the short fiction category have included a copy of their work in the voter’s package. Thanks, writers.

Starting today, and every Friday for the next four weeks, I’m going down the list of short stories contending for Aurora glory. Derek Künksen’s To live and Die in Gibbontown just happened to be on the top of the pile.

What’s it about

To Live and Die in Gibbontown is a black comedy about a hit man named Reggie. Reggie, and his partner/sidekick Murray aren’t typical contract killers. In fact, at the start of the story, Reggie isn’t even really a gun for hire. When faced with deportation, Reggie goes into business for himself as a hit man who offers an international spy theme to palliative care. If you’re old and want to die with a little excitement, Reggie can take care of you. Reggie’s also an ape, more specifically a Macaque. And his ticket to staying in Gibbon country involves offing the mother of the Bonobo ambassador.

But it’s okay, euthanasia is legal in Gibbon country. Also, Alexandria Bonobo is a mean old racist who hates Macaques.

Why it works

It’s a story about a trans-simian primate with genetic/cybernetic augmentations who circumvents immigration laws as a hit man for the elderly. Why wouldn’t it work?

Elements of the setting are familiar, Ford Broncos, international intrigue, hippie marketplaces, but viewed through this odd lens of primate society. The world, notwithstanding the fact that there are no humans, looks and sounds exactly like our own. Now I know what you’re thinking, because I was thinking about it too, this is the ending to Tim Burton’s god-awful Planet of the Apes remake. Perhaps Künksen did draw some inspiration from that piffle, but he’s elevated it far beyond anything Burton seemed capable of offering in that movie. How so? Well we could start with the fact that this story is a conversation on assisted suicide.

Perhaps telling a story about apes in a world that is so human that they might as well be human is a bit of a farce, but that small dash of absurdity is necessary to ease the reader into the essential details of the text. I’ll also concede that it treads very close to the “Heinlein Line” of “Rayguns in the suburbs”. However, force fields, gene hacking, and cybernetics combined with terrestrial non-human characters are necessary to create a buffer between the text and the contemporary issues orbiting assisted suicide.

Maybe if the story were simply asking and answering the Kevorkian question with a sombre and reflective affirmation of an individual’s right to choose their own end, it could get away with human characters. But creating a hit man whose motto is, “If you see it coming, you don’t pay.” turns the act of dying into an ultimately life affirming, and slightly fun, activity. I find that to be tremendously clever, and maybe even a healthy approach to death. Why go out with a whimper when you can, literally, go out with a bang? Isn’t it better than lying in a bed and pumping morphine into a person until they end up in a terminal coma?

Still, the issue remains controversial enough that there’s good reason to insulate the characters from potential reader outrage with a species change (even if most of us know that they are still human).

The most memorable part

When Reggie gives his business card to another character who wants to bring his aging mother-in-law to town for a “visit”. On one level, there’s the comedy in witnessing the unbridled joy that Reggie, as a small business owner, feels at making some face-to-face contacts. The fact that he’s going to have to kill somebody never enters the equation. On a deeper level, it speaks to the lack of agency that often accompanies a person’s end of life care. The message is clear, but it’s processed through a comedic filter.

The bottom line

In To Live and Die in Gibbontown Derek Künsken follows in the footsteps of George Orwell wherein he uses animals to ask a question about humans. Perhaps issues of end of life care are not as grand as the questions of political science that Orwell probed in Animal Farm. However, the developed world’s aging population should only accentuate the story’s direct, albeit comedic, approach to death becoming a cottage industry.

To Live and Die in Gibbontown was originally published in the October/November 2011 issue of Asimov’s. Check it out there, or join the CSFFA and get access to a voter’s package which contains this and many other great works of Canadian sci-fi/fantasy/horror.

Marie Bilodeau’s The Legend of Gluck is up next week. I’m told there are going to be decapitated heads.


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The Daily Shaft: Django Unchained – A Movie Duncan Jones Wants to See

Anybody who follows this website with any regularity knows that Duncan Jones is one of my favourite film makers. I hold him in such high esteem not simply because his debut movie Moon is, in my estimation, the best work of genre since Blade Runner – though that would be more than enough on its own. I like Duncan Jones because he seems like my kind of nerd. He grumbles about the state of contemporary video games. He promotes cool kickstarter projects. Hell, he even offers honest criticism about Hollywood movies from time to time. Assuming that the words he puts out there via twitter aren’t the brainchild of a genius publicist targeting the internet’s power geeks, Jones seems like the kind of chap I’d like to have a chat with over a pint or two.

So when Duncan Jones let fly the following two tweets this morning, they caught my attention.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

My first question: what the hell is Django Unchained?

When a quick google search revealed that it is Quentin Tarantino’s new movie, I promptly fired the people that I pay to maintain my information bubble. One of my peons, in a desperate attempt to save his job, suggested that other people might not have heard of this movie. His implication being that I should write about it.

It was a good idea; I still fired him.

So, what the hell is Django Unchained?

Entertainment Weekly is billing the movie as a revenge western starring Jamie Foxx in a role that combines “Shaft’s Richard Roundtree with Clint Eastwood”. Foxx plays the eponymous Django, a rebellious slave on a chain gang in the pre-war South. Django soon finds himself recruited by a German bounty hunter, played by Inglorious Basterd’s Christoph Waltz. Through a series of yet undisclosed events, Waltz’s character makes Django an offer: if the slave helps the German hunt down the Brittle Brothers, he will in turn free Django. Django can then rescue his wife, who has been sold to the notorious Calvin Candie played by Leonardo DiCaprio. DiCaprio’s character seems an American Caligula. On his Candie Land plantation, Candie regularly stages gladiator fights with his strongest slaves.

Foxx had this to say about the story of Django Unchained.

Christoph’s character is a little aloof to what slavery actually is. He’s not familiar with everything, and when he sees atrocities, it’s Greek to him, But Django lets him know this is the way the world is and we got to get used to it. He teaches Django certain things he needs to become a whole man, and Django also teaches Christoph that when life deals you these cards, here’s what you’ve got to do.

Given the gladiator slaves, the movie might not be the most historically accurate piece, but hey, neither was Inglorious Basterds. Django Unchained certainly seems like something that would fit into Tarantino’s recent trend of using history as a means to convey spectacle. I for one have no problem with that.

Big hat tip, as well as a standing invitation to come on the podcast, to Duncan Jones for not only making good movies, but promoting the good stuff as well.

Django Unchained is set to hit theatres on December 25, 2012

No peons were harmed/fired in the production of this post.


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Game Review: First Impressions of Diablo 3

First Impression: I like the look of it, but I can’t help but wonder if Blizzard has perhaps drawn too heavily on elements of World of Warcraft in producing Diablo 3.

Note: This post is based upon my experiences with the Diablo 3 open beta.

The experience of playing Diablo 3 was like reconnecting with an old girlfriend. In an instant I remembered all late nights, the skived off term papers, and all the friends who I ignored in exchange for a little more time with Diablo 2. Then, just like during those allegedly friendly dates with old flings, the initial euphoria wore off. Before long, all I could notice was the ways in which she had changed. So as much as I want her to be the same, Diablo 3 isn’t the girl I used to know.

NB: I don’t think Diablo is a girl. Feel free to change pronouns within the analogy to suit your gender / sexual orientation.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m probably still going to have a relationship with Diablo 3. I just wonder how much I’m going to be comparing her to more popular and not quite as smart cousin, World of Warcraft.

NB: I don’t think World of Warcraft is stupid per se, simply that it is less smart than Diablo 2.

Graphics

Diablo 3 is a very pretty game. Even on my mid-range system I could max out textures and shadows without any noticeable lag. I’m hesitant to carp on the odd graphical hiccup and frame rate drop as this was a stress test weekend. This next bit may go without saying, but do make sure your video card drivers are up to date. Mine were only two months old, yet they produced some serious ugliness in the animations.

Characters

Part of the “fun” of this weekend was not being able to log into Blizzard’s Diablo servers. As such, I only managed one complete play through. During that time I was a Demon Hunter named Phnogbar. Once I unlocked the rapid fire skill and paired that with an uncommon frost buffed cross bow, I felt like a god damn terminator. Nothing stood in my way. Yet, I didn’t particularly love the fact that the Demon Hunter seemed limited to ranged weapons. I was hoping for a bit of one-handed cross bow and knife action. Perhaps it will be unlocked in the main game.

Also, and I know this is a complaint late to the internet, how craptastic is it that there’s a Barbarian class but no Paladin? I liked being the Paladin.

Audio

Sound, music, and voice acting are essential parts in building not only the Diablo mythos, but also an overall game play atmosphere. Like any good Diablo player, I started my beta playthrough at 11pm, finishing sometime before 4am. During that time I sat in near darkness and ran the sound through my Sanheiser headphones. Between audio logs that build the game’s lore, and the squishy sound of worms exploding out of a bloated demon’s chest, the game’s sound quality is almost perfect.

Gameplay

This is where the nostalgia starts wearing a bit thin. Perhaps my gamer skills have developed a bit since I last courted Diablo 2, but the beta makes the game seem very easy. How easy? I only died once during my run through the campaign, and that was because I was mucking about in the inventory. I know, I can play the game on harder difficulties upon each subsequent run through, but the baseline game feels easier.

Even the interface feels safer. Rather having to switch between a variety of skills hot keyed from 1 to 9, Diablo now limits players to right and left mouse click for primary and secondary attack (Think Skyrim here) and four character defined skills on keys 1 to 4. Again, these are decisions that seem to make the game easier (or in the common parlance, more accessible). Call me a sadist if you will, but frantic skill switching and looming player death are what made Diablo 2 an edge-of-the-seat affair.

As was the case in World of Warcraft the equipment vendors generally cease to be useful after the game’s first half hour. The notable exception is that the blacksmith can now make uber equipment at the cost of loot found within the game. So when my Demon Hunter found a (useless) epic sword of epicness, I could break it down into elemental parts whereby the smithie would make things suitable to my character. So that’s something I’m looking forward to playing with in the release build.

As well, the follower system seems improved from Diablo 2. Though the beta only offers a templar (aka PALADIN) companion, his brawling skills perfectly complement my ranged attacks.

Finally combat effects (knockback, elemental damage, environment destruction) are much improved from Diablo 2. Seriously, I shouldn’t enjoy dropping a chandelier on a bunch of goons as much as I do.

Skill Trees / Leveling Up

I won’t lie, I don’t like what Blizzard is doing with this.

First, Diablo 3 manages stat bonuses upon leveling without any input from the player. Next, the once complex and layered skill trees from Diablo 2, a feature that allowed a player to customize their character class even further, have been streamlined into a series of level unlocks. To anybody who has ever played World of Warcraft, the system will be instantly familiar. Once again, this is an attempt on the part of Blizzard to make Diablo a more “accessible” game. But in making the tile more “accessible” they’ve made it more linear, and more importantly, taken away the capacity for a player to make mistakes.

Protip: Mistakes are essential parts of learning. Take away the ability to learn, and something, anything, becomes stagnant. Stagnant RPG’s that flirt with MMO status don’t make money.

Granted most RPGers worth their salt would never pour strength points into a wizard. Nor would they burden a barbarian with an excess of intelligence. But most RPGs trust players with the capacity to make that decision on their own. Diablo 3’s decision to do it for me evokes thoughts of a gaming nanny state, or Mass Effect 2. Take your pick.

Overall Impression

Diablo 2 was my obsession. She was the girl who I brought home to meet my parents, and my parents did not approve. Naturally, that made me want her even more. After spending a few hours with Diablo 3, she seems to have the makings of a very good mistress. She’s pretty, she’s fun, but I don’t see how she will intrude into my daily life. And if she can’t distract me from my work or make me sacrifice sleep for her attention, I doubt Diablo 3 will be able to enthrall me as did her predecessors.


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Television Review/Recap: Game of Thrones Season 2 Episode 4

Last week I saw a snarky tweet that said listening to people talk about Game of Thrones is the new listening to people talk about Lost. Before Sunday night’s episode, it seemed like nothing more than sour grapes. After watching Episode 4, “Garden of Bones” I guess I can see where they are coming from, at least on one particular point. Anyway, my take away for this week has less to do with smoke demons and more to do with the fact that the smallest people on this show are among its best actors.

*Spoilers ahead*

Like last week, we shall recap via geography.

Riverlands Battlefield

After two weeks of relative absence from the story, the episode opens in the aftermath of another successful battle for Robb Stark. The fighting itself is implied rather than shown (budgets and all that), but it’s quite clear that Robb is kicking ass and taking names. A conversation with a battlefield triage nurse (or whatever they are called in Westeros) yields information of much greater importance. Robb has zero endgame for this war. He doesn’t want to sit on the Iron Throne, nor does he have plans for anybody else to claim it. It opens the door to an interesting question: Did Robb Stark go to war for a good reason? Sure King Joffrey is a monster, and most of the Lannisters are dicks, but did justice demand the War of Five Kings?

Harrenhal

Harrenhal has turned into the Lannister version of Andersonville prison. Arya and Gendry find themselves stuffed in a pig pen where once a day the Lannisters haul somebody off for an interrogation and a modified Orwell style execution. Each night, Arya sleep talks her way through a litany that names the people complicit in her father’s death. After a few days in the camp, Gendry gets picked to face the terminal inquisition. It’s the ultimate moment of irony when Tywin Lannister arrives at Harrenhal and puts a stop to the wasteful executions. The Lannister patriarch also recognizes Arya as a girl. Arya admits that she is disguised as a boy because it’s safer to travel that way. Forthwith Tywin claims she’s smarter than most of his men and puts her to work as his cup bearer.

I know I’ve said it before but it bears repeating: Maisie Williams is a fantastic actress. If she was just playing Arya as a survivor, that would probably be enough to win me over. Yet she continues to pull off the early onset PTSD that the writers are working into her dialogue.

King’s Landing

Things get ugly in King’s Landing. Joffrey spends most of his screen time caressing a crossbow the same way Gomer Pile caressed his rifle.

First he blames Sansa for her brother’s victories. In front of the court he has her stripped and beaten. Only Tyrion’s timely intervention stops the spectacle from going any farther. In doing so, Tyrion reminds Joffrey that the Mad King did what he pleased, and it didn’t end well for him. As Tyrion helps Sansa out of the throne room he asks her if she still wants to marry Joffrey. Bruised and humiliated Sansa answers that Joffrey is her one true love. To which Tyrion replies that Sansa might outlive them all.

Shortly thereafter Bronn suggests to Tyrion that Joffrey might be more manageable if he wasn’t pent up with teenage hormones. Bronn also wins the best one liner of the episode with the line, “There’s no cure for being a cunt.”

Heeding Bronn’s words, Tyrion sends a couple of whores to the king’s chamber. And that’s when things get creepy again – way worse than Theon Greyjoy deedling his sister creepy. Light girl on girl spanking, at the behest of Joffrey, turns to belt whipping, and then morphs into a beat down with a staff. All the while Joffrey, expertly played by Jack Gleeson, watches and smiles. The little bastard oozes sadism at every turn. Again, it’s a combination of brilliant writing and expert casting.

The final story of note within King’s Landing involves Tyrion’s ongoing battle against Cersei. Cersei, absent from the episode, sends her cousin/lover with a warrant ordering Maester Pycell’s release from the Black Cells. Yet she does so late at night and after a roll in the hay. Whip smart as ever, Tyrion deduces that his cousin is Cersei’s new lover and threatens to go to the king with that information unless the Lannister brat starts informing on Cersei. It’s another brilliant power play from Tyrion, and more top form acting from Peter Dinklage.

Essos

I’m going to be honest here. I really don’t care about the plight of Daenerys Targaryen. I find Emilia Clarke a rather boring actress whose range is limited to being stoic or pitching a temper tantrum. Acting alongside Jason Momoa last season brought out a bit more depth to her personality, but now all she has is that tedious yes-man aka Smithers with a sword. After three weeks of watching Daenerys do nothing, I’m just not invested in the “Mother of Dragons” story arc. This week did nothing to change that.

Daenerys and her motley crew happen upon the city of Quarth. However the city fathers, locally known as The Thirteen, won’t let them in until they see one of Daenerys’ dragons. Daenerys pitches a fit, threatening to burn the city down when the dragons are fully grown. Naturally The Thirteen tell her to bugger off. But then one of The Thirteen decides they should come in; so they do. How very exciting.

The Stormlands

Little Finger arrives in the Stormlands and begins doing what he does best: duplicitous grovelling. First he approaches Renly Baratheon, who tells him to get bent. Though Little Finger does hint that with a few friends in the palace, Renly might find the gates of King’s Landing open to him. In her only scene of the episode, Queen Margaery also tells Little Finger to get bent. In fairness, he was trying to pump her for courtly gossip relating to Renly’s suspected homosexual leanings. Finally, Little Finger arrives in the tent of Catelyn Stark, who uses a knife to tell him to get bent. He does however extend Tyrion’s offer to Catelyn: give back Jamie and get Sansa and Arya in exchange. Baelish also returns the, alleged, remains of Ned Stark as a show of good faith. Though I suspect they could be anybody’s remains given how adamant Cersei was about refusing any accommodation to the Starks.

Meanwhile on the war front, Stannis arrives to have a little chat with his brother. The brothers Baratheon trade insults until Stannis issues an ultimatum demanding Renly’s surrender before the next sunrise. Creepy red haired lady also manages to sneak in a few references to the lord of light, just for good measure. With an army of one hundred thousand men behind him, Renly sees little reason to take his brother seriously.

Later that night Stannis orders Davos Seaworth to smuggle Melisandre, the creepy red haired lady, ashore – presumably into Renly’s camp. Apparently, she is some sort of super weapon. It didn’t make much sense until she got naked (wait for it), showing herself to be spontaneously pregnant (wait for it) and then gave birth to the smoke monster from Lost (there it is).

The Bottom Line

I’ve had my fair share of “Holy shit, I can’t believe they did that” moments while watching Game of Thrones. However, I think the smoke monster baby was my first genuine “What the fuck was that?” moment. Bearing that in mind, I think there’s only one question left to ask, do we get a shadow monster killing spree next week?


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The Daily Shaft: The 2012 Prix Aurora Nominees

Ladies and gentlemen, it’s that time of the year again. The nominees for the 2012 Prix Aurora Awards have been announced. Voting opened up on April 16, 2012.

Any Canadian citizen or permanent resident can join the Canadian Science Fiction and Fantasy Association whereby they will get a voting ballot for the Auroras. This year, however, the ten dollar registration fee buys you more than a franchise. Members of the CSFFA get e-book access to a voter’s package that contains excerpts and some complete editions of the nominated titles.

So if you fancy yourself a literary critic or just want to have a hand in supporting your favourite author, then there’s really no excuse not to get yourself registered.

Here’s the list of the nominees and here’s a link to the Prix Aurora Award homepage. Deadline for all ballots is July 23, 2012.

Best Novel – English

Enter, Night by Michael Rowe, ChiZine Publications

Eutopia: A Novel of Terrible Optimism by David Nickle, ChiZine Publications

Napier’s Bones by Derryl Murphy, ChiZine Publications

The Pattern Scars by Caitlin Sweet, ChiZine Publications

Technicolor Ultra Mall by Ryan Oakley, EDGE

Wonder by Robert J. Sawyer, Penguin Canada

 

Best Short Fiction – English

“The Legend of Gluck” by Marie Bilodeau, When the Hero Comes Home, Dragon Moon Press

“The Needle’s Eye” by Suzanne Church, Chilling Tales: Evil Did I Dwell; Lewd Did I Live, EDGE

“One Horrible Day” by Randy McCharles, The 2nd Circle, The 10th Circle Project

“Turning It Off” by Susan Forest, Analog, December

“To Live and Die in Gibbontown” by Derek Künsken, Asimov’s, October/November

 

Best Poem / Song – English

“A Good Catch” by Colleen Anderson, Polu Texni, April

“Ode to the Mongolian Death Worm” by Sandra Kasturi, ChiZine, Supergod Mega-Issue, Volume 47

“Skeleton Leaves” by Helen Marshall, Kelp Queen Press

“Skeleton Woman” by Heather Dale and Ben Deschamps, Fairytale, CD

“Zombie Bees of Winnipeg” by Carolyn Clink, ChiZine, Supergod Mega-Issue, Volume 47

 

Best Graphic Novel – English

Goblins, webcomic, created by Tarol Hunt

Imagination Manifesto, Book 2 by GMB Chomichuk, James Rewucki and John Toone, Alchemical Press

Weregeek, webcomic, created by Alina Pete

 

Best Related Work – English

Fairytale, CD by Heather Dale, HeatherDale.com

The First Circle: Volume One of the Tenth Circle Project, edited by Eileen Bell and Ryan McFadden

Neo-Opsis, edited by Karl Johanson

On Spec,published by the Copper Pig Writers’ Society

Tesseracts Fifteen: A Case of Quite Curious Tales, edited by Julie Czerneda and Susan MacGregor, EDGE

 

Best Artist (Professional and Amateur Nominations)

(An example of each artist’s work is listed below but they are to be judged on the body of work they have produced in the award year)

Janice Blaine, “Cat in Space”, Cover art for Neo-Opsis, Issue 20

Costi Gurgu,cover art for Outer Diverse, Starfire

Erik Mohr, cover art for ChiZine Publications

Dan O’Driscoll, “Deep Blue Seven”, cover art for On Spec magazine, Summer issue

Martin Springett, Interior art for The Pattern Scars, ChiZine

Fan/Volunteer Award Nominations

Best Fan Publication

BCSFAzine,edited by Felicity Walker

Bourbon and Eggnog by Eileen Bell, Ryan McFadden, Billie Milholland and Randy McCharles, 10th Circle Project

In Places Between: The Robin Herrington Memorial Short Story Contest book,edited by Reneé Bennett

Sol Rising newsmagazine, edited by Michael Matheson

Space Cadet, edited by R. Graeme Cameron

 

Best Fan Filk

Stone Dragons (Tom and Sue Jeffers), concert at FilKONtario

Phil Mills, Body of Song-Writing Work including FAWM and 50/90

Cindy Turner, Interfilk concert at OVFF

 

Best Fan Organization

Andrew Gurudata, chair of the Constellation Awards committee

Peter Halasz, administrator of the Sunburst Awards

Helen Marshall and Sandra Kasturi, chairs of the Chiaroscuro Reading Series (Toronto)

Randy McCharles, founder and chair of When Words Collide (Calgary)

Alex von Thorn, chair of SFContario 2 (Toronto)

Rose Wilson, for organizing the Art Show at V-Con (Vancouver)

 

Best Fan Other

Lloyd Penney, letters of comment

Peter Watts, “Reality: The Ultimate Mythology” lecture, Toronto SpecFic Colloquium

Taral Wayne, Canadian Fanzine Fanac Awards art

 


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Fiction Friday: A Review of James Bambury’s Estimated Time of Arrival

Summary Judgement: An excellent piece of frontier science fiction.

Story by: James Bambury

Image by: MK01 via DeviantArt

I had a hard time trying to classify James Bambury’s Estimated Time of Arrival. The story is funny, but it’s not a comedy. There are well crafted technical elements, but it’s not hard science fiction. Political motifs seem skillfully plucked from contemporary society, but the story’s anything but a manifesto. I suppose the best thing to do is simply reiterate what was said in the summary judgement; this is a fine example of frontier/colonial (not in the Foucaultian sense of the word) science fiction.

Estimated Time of Arrival is set on a planet called HD 156668, commonly known to its human colonists as Saskadelphia. The story begins when two colonists, Ori and Violet, notice an “alien” starship streaking into their atmosphere. When the vessel lands, it reveals two men from Earth, one of whom claims that he has bought Saskadelphia. At that point, the story begins having fun with some of the tropes of sub-light and FTL travel. Specifically, ETA plays with one of the oldest questions asked by hard-SF aficionados: what happens when the vast distances involved in space travel result in first expeditions being superseded by subsequent ones?

But rather than letting the pace get bogged down in relativistic real estate claims, Bambury keeps the focus on events as they unfold. In doing so, Mr. Smesh, the most recent clamant to  Saskadelphia, evokes memories of the Earth government in Kim Stanley Robinson’s Red Mars. As the hard working colonial commune talks about rights and principles, Smesh bandies about euphemisms that would see the colonists reduced to peonage. His foremost concern, much like that of the Earth’s, is stripping the colonial world for its mineral wealth, regardless of the current inhabitants’ claims to settler’s rights via government mandate.

Perhaps it is an inevitable comparison given the current state of affairs in the world, but I couldn’t help but see Smesh as a caricature of populist outrage against the hyper rich. It’s not simply that the character is rich enough to afford an entire planet; he’s also utterly dismissive of the “bumpkins” who live on Saskadelphia. When they form a mob in front of his self-constructing nanotech mansion, Smesh callously orders his lawyer/attaché/Smithers, Tehva, to spray them with a jet of nanites that would deconstruct the colonists into their base elements. There’s something wonderfully repulsive about a character who views people as “human resources” in the most literal sense of the phrase.

Yet even after reading the story a couple of times, and letting the ideas percolate in my head, I don’t know that I’m totally sold on the romantic thread that is woven through the plot. The narrative hints at an extremely complex relationship between Violet and Ori, beyond their most recent tryst that Ori’s narration uses to introduce the text. Although their banter seems quite honest and contributes to the comedy of the story, it doesn’t do much to enrich the overall experience until the very last paragraph. In that moment Ori’s actual audience  becomes clear, and the relationship therein takes on a redemptive tone.

I suppose I just wanted a better motivation for that redemption than what I could glean from Ori and Violet’s “John Crichton vs Aeryn Sun” sniping. It’s far from poorly done, but perhaps lacking sufficient gusto to justify, in my mind at least, what seemed like Violet’s impulsive decision to leave the colony in the story’s final act. If a little misdirection from her fellow colonists was too much for Violet, imagine how bad life will be on an Earth that is two thousand years removed from where she left it.

Overall, the story is a supremely enjoyable jaunt that blends comedy, politics, economics, individual liberties, and even a little romance, into a cohesive frontier narrative. I look forward to seeing what James Bambury comes up with next.

Click here to read Estimated Time of Arrival at Ray Gun Revival.


3

The Daily Shaft: Karl Schroeder and Non-Violent Resistance in The Hunger Games

Weeks ago I was wasting time on twitter when Canada’s own Karl Schroeder began a series of tweets about non-violent resistance and Suzanne Collins’ YA novel The Hunger Games. I’ve reproduced his ideas below so that we can all get on the same page.

“Hunger Games: good movie, but suffers the same flaw as the book: it does not present nonviolent resistance as a valid moral option”

“No character chooses to deliberately demonstrate a willingness to be killed rather than kill–not even Peeta”

“This removes an entire moral stance from the table, making The Hunger Games’s conversation about moral choices incomplete”

“Note especially that the value of nonviolent resistance cannot be judged by its immediate effectiveness, i.e. as a means of ‘winning’”

“Imagine Hunger Games with a tribute character who yells “I will not play your game” and then jumps off a cliff. That’s what’s missing”

“The reason it’s missing is that such an act would undermine every other moral choice in the story–actually raise uncomfortable questions”

Though I’ve yet to see The Hunger Games screen adaptation, I was captivated by Schroeder’s ideas. At no point during my own critical interaction with the text did I ever stop to think about non-violent resistance on the part of the tributes or the people of Panem’s districts. For the sake of this post, I thought I would work through the first question that I came up with upon thinking about Mr. Schroeder’s words.

What would happen if a tribute said no?

Let us assume that our would-be tribute has found the remains of some pre-cataclysm library, and is therefore intellectually and spiritually prepared to reject any role in the institution of the Hunger Games. When Reaping day comes, their name gets called. Yet our tribute is nowhere to be found. As a show of protest they decide to sleep through Reaping day.

I imagine the state’s response would be two-fold. First the Peacekeepers would track down the offending tribute. Then I expect the Capitol’s representative would begin a systematic shaming against the family of our tribute; after all it is an honour to be selected for the Games. Assuming the limited free-market economy that exists within district twelve, as seen in the novel, is endemic of all of Panem, exclusion from society could be a powerful weapon of social control. However, shame is a tricky thing. It assumes that the people instigating the shame can appeal to shared values with those evoking the shame.

Despite the fact that some critics like to draw comparisons between Collins and Orwell, Panem is not Oceania. It’s not even Rome. The people who live in the districts are not subject to systematic thought control/modification. The Capitol primarily holds its power through the apathy of the districts and its military might. In fact, if we trust Rue’s description of district eleven and Katniss’ vision of district twelve as accurate, then the vast majority of the people who live in Panem’s districts actively dislike the Capitol and President Snow, including the Peacekeepers who deal in Katniss’ black market goods. Ergo, attempts at state sanctioned shaming might have the opposite effect whereby they generate a sense of community within a district.

Things get less optimistic once the tribute is relocated to the Capitol. At that point non-violent resistance must take one of two forms, suicide or willing slaughter in the arena. An interesting question then emerges: is it still an act of non-violent resistance if a tribute steals a knife from the dining room of their quarters and cuts open their wrists in the bathroom? If death is inevitable, how much value do we put on the agency of that death? Is a conscious decision to self-terminate equal to allowing oneself to be killed?

If the Medium is the Message, make sure to control the Medium.

Remember that those in power within the Capitol are experts at manipulating the media. The message of non-violent resistance, the essential refusal to be a party to blood sports and its associated social structures, would never make it out into the districts. Be it a bedroom suicide or a tribute stepping into the active mines surrounding their entry point into the arena, the facts would get edited, spun, and managed into oblivion. This begs the question, if there’s no audience for non-violent resistance, does it still have a purpose?

From a critical and moral point of view, I can completely see what Schroeder means about not letting the discussion happen within the book. Yet questions of non-violent resistance within the world of The Hunger Games would likely turn into a discussion that rationalizes suicide. Personally, I think that would be interesting. But I wonder how many publishers would want to add that particular layer to a book that already pushes boundaries of acceptable taste in framing state sanctioned teenage death matches within the lens of faux-Orwellian dystopia.

To put it another way: how would the public respond to a young adult novel that legitimized suicide as a form of political dissidence? If you thought the Harry Potter controversies were bad, imagine Collins’ novel being framed within the context of self-immolating Buddhist monks.


0

The Daily Shaft: A Quick Look at Tron: Uprising

Shortly after the release of TRON: Legacy, Disney began hinting that they would reformat 1982’s favourite security program for the small screen. The concept seemed interesting, but in the wake of Legacy’s painfully mediocre storytelling, I wasn’t quite ready to let myself get invested in this project. Months past and thoughts of Tron on television drifted from my mind. This morning, as I waited for the Wednesday update to one of my guilty pleasures, a gaming web series called Continue?, I saw the brand new preview trailer for TRON: Uprising. I don’t know how Disney keeps doing it, but once again they’ve managed to suck me into the grid. Here’s the video.

The concept actually seems like something that could work. Given that Legacy glazed over CLU’s rise to power, the very conflict that the series is set to explore, there’s certainly room for some creative freedom. Yet CLU’s war against Flynn, free programs, and the ISOs had a particularly dark air about it; words like “purge” and “holocaust” featured prominently within the discourse, if I recall correctly. Beyond that, there’s the “Bread and Circuses” nature of life in CLU’s regime that sees unregistered programs and political dissidents executed in public spectacles. To my recollection, only two western animated series have ever dealt with ideas of genocide, asynchronous warfare, and the totalitarian state with any level of sophistication: Exo-Squad and Transformers: Beast Machines. I’d love it if TRON: Uprising became the third, but the giant Disney production stamp gives me pause for consideration.

I’m also interested to see what sort of hand waving, or perhaps even retconning, will be used to deal with the Tron/Rinzler question. The trailer suggests that Tron is dead. Yet the implication is that Beck is being trained by a growly voiced Bruce Boxleitner. I imagine the series will give us an episode or two of Tron training Beck before Bruce Boxleitner gets too expensive bad things happen and a fully indoctrinated Rinzler emerges. Then again, if they can afford Elijah Wood, Lance Henriksen, Mandy Moore, and Emmanuelle Chriqui, Boxleitner’s presence might be more than a short-term way to lure existing fans into the series.

Speaking of luring people in, I really hope that the series keeps using Daft Punk’s TRON: Legacy soundtrack. The mind boggles at how it didn’t earn an Oscar nomination for best original soundtrack.

The only other concern that comes to mind after watching Uprising’s trailer is the inevitable question of prequels: how do you keep the audience interested if they already know the ending? It’s certainly possible, as evidenced by the success of Star Wars: The Clone Wars, which is returning for a fifth season in the Fall of 2012.

So let’s recap. If we take it as a given that Tron: Uprising is going to look pretty as all hell, the series is already teasing us with solid voice actors, a potentially smart concept, and more Daft Punk. I think that’s a win.

TRON: Uprising releases on Disney XD and bit torrents near you in June of 2012.


4

The Daily Shaft: Why I Was Wrong About Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back

Though a glorious experience, I came home from Ad Astra 2012 exhausted in every sense of the word. After summoning the strength to do the bare minimum of unpacking, I collapsed on the couch in search of the dumbest thing on television. There upon I came across Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back.

““Perfect,” I said to myself. “I thought this movie was stupid when I saw it in theatres eleven years ago, so it’s sure to be a brainless affair now.”

I mean really, who expects to have to turn on their cognitive functions when a movie starts like this…

Two thoughts occurred to me as I watched Jason Mewes and Kevin Smith navigate the cultural ephemera of the late 90s and very early 2000s. One was that the movie’s endless supply of fart and fellatio jokes are funnier than I remembered. The other inescapable conclusion was that Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back is actually a smart movie. If I didn’t know better, I’d think it was something directed recently by Dan Harmon.

So why did twenty-year-old Adam think it was stupid? Well, let’s start with I was twenty.

My initial screening only revealed the story’s first meta layer. Therefore, I saw Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back as incredibly self-referential to Kevin Smith’s corpus of work up to that point. I think I might have bandied about words like “shameless vanity project” in discussing the movie with my other twenty-year-old friends. And since my friends and I were completely indoctrinated into the mythology of Hollywood “art”, it never occurred to us to look at Jay and Silent Bob as a commentary on the business of movie making. I mean, why would we? Who would ever dream of putting something as pedestrian as box office returns above the purity of telling a story, right? Oh 2001 Adam, how innocent you were.

Then, out of my near comatose post-con state, another idea dawned upon me; I didn’t watch Kevin Smith’s movies in the right order. Chasing Amy was my first exposure to Kevin Smith. Despite the fact it too was wrapped in dick and fart jokes, Chasing Amy was the first movie that made fifteen/sixteen-year-old Adam start to  think seriously about the fact that there were other people out there who did things differently than I did (Yeah yeah, you try growing up in St. Catharines, Ontario and see how worldly it makes you).

Two years later I was in a theatre watching Dogma, which I saw as a legitimizing force for a case “Obnoxiously Vocal Juvenile Atheism” that emerged sometime around my seventeenth birthday. Despite this lack of social graces, I began to understand Kevin Smith as a director who used comedy to make social commentary. Chasing Amy attempted to contextualize and perhaps even normalize homosexuality for a teenage audience. Dogma, for all its slandering of Catholicism, wanted people to believe in ideas rather than ideologies. Jay and Silent Bob used Hollywood to subvert Hollywood as embodied by Miramax. But at age twenty, I wasn’t quite plugged in enough to film culture to pick up on that message. Thus I assumed there was no message other than one that served to gratify Kevin Smith’s ego whereby I wrote off the entire picture until this past Sunday night.

So if you, gentle reader, watched Jay and Silent Bob in your younger years and found it wanting, but now you can’t stop talking about how much you love Community, Harold and Kumar, or Tropic Thunder, then it might be time to revisit Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back.