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The H Word

In about a week, I will be breaking down the desk at which I’m currently sitting so I can load it on a truck. In the intervening time, I have to package and send things to various places, sort out what stays and what goes, make all sorts of arrangements, and generally try to keep my head screwed on tight. The only way to describe the status of my life at the current moment is “in upheaval”, perhaps in way unrivaled since the dark days of December 10 years ago.

The need to write nags me. It’s been difficult to carve out the time to work on the necessary steps to finally finish Cold Streets, or even get a blog post like this up in what I feel is a timely fashion. But now is not the time for such additional stress. I don’t want to burn out right before one of the most significant changes of my entire life.

So with that in mind, I am putting the blog on hiatus for a couple of weeks.

Look for new posts here starting September 3rd, and keep an eye on my Twitter and Tumblr in the meantime. Just because I’m focusing on getting my stuff sorted out doesn’t mean I won’t have something to say. I almost always do.

It might not always be relevant, but I almost always have something to say.

Thank you for reading my words, for being patient with me, and encouraging me to continue doing better. I will certainly redouble my efforts to do that as this new chapter of my life gets started.

Excelsior!

From the Vault: The Limitless Genre

With the smashing success of Guardians of the Galaxy, let’s take another look at what can be done within sci-fi.


Courtesy Eidos Interactive

If you step away from science fiction, you may see a tendency among its writers and creators to divide it up into different sub-genres. Time travel is practically its own sort of story, as is ‘hard’ sci-fi, along with various “_____punk” styles and derivations of the space opera. I mean, Blade Runner is noir, Flash Gordon is camp, and never the twain shall meet. Right?

This doesn’t always have to be the case. Imposing the limits of a particular style of story can make writing said story easier, but you also run the risk of falling into cliches and conventions of said style. At a Barnes & Noble yesterday, I saw that a good portion of the sci-fi & fantasy racks had been set aside specifically for “teen paranormal romance.” Something tells me I have a good idea as to the content of those books, and of their average quality. Some may be spectacular, but I suspect others are sub-par to the point of making Twilight look good.

Let’s get back to science fiction as an overarching genre. I don’t feel you need to pick a particular sub-category into which you must pigeonhole your story. Deux Ex: Human Revolution doesn’t. The game has noir & renaissance overtones throughout but goes from conspiracy intrigue and solid character moments to incredible action and out-there sciences within moments. Yet none of it feels out of place. It is consistent with the themes and timbre of the story. Adam Jensen is a man reborn and remade, both struggling to maintain his identity and utilizing the benefits of his augmentations to do his job and find his answers. In most detective yarns, a scene where the protagonist punches through a wall before turning invisible would be rather out of place. Likewise, few are the space operas that truly tackle the aftermath of a tragedy the way this game does. The elements are balanced in such a way that all of them combine without losing sync and creating a richer, more rewarding storytelling experience.

Why shouldn’t sci-fi go for multiple tones and moods? Obviously this needs to be done with care, lest the emotional moments become too saturnine or the high-action ones come off as overly ridiculous. In a story like this, you only get so many style points in your tale with which you can get away with “cool shit” moments. Too many and you’ve become style over substance. Too few, however, and your story becomes dry and plodding. Again, the watchword is balance.

And I believe it is a balance worth striking. Science fiction can include all sorts of threads from other genres of storytelling, from romance to horror to crime to adventure. Once all is said and done, be able to look over the work and say, “I’ve got a _______punk action-mystery” can be useful for marketing it, but my point is the genre only has the limits we choose to impose. Moon is phenomenal because of how hard its science is, and if your goal in writing is to go for something similar, by all means work within those constraints. There is, however, no obligation to pick a particular pigeonhole from the outset. Science fiction is our contemplation of the heavens, the nature of the universe, the exploration of the impossible, and the examination of the individual within all of it. It is, like those heavens, and like our imaginations, limitless.

What examples of sci-fi that break from traditional molds come to mind for you?

Movie Review: Guardians of the Galaxy

It really feels like Marvel Studios can do just about anything. Back when it was announced as a film, Guardians of the Galaxy felt like a risk, an out-of-the-blue change in direction. Most franchises prefer to play it safe, sticking with the recognized story and character beats known to work. But Marvel’s big idea dreamers do not rest on their laurels. They looked outward from the world of the Avengers and began to pull in more threads from the greater universe. But they’ve done this before – several years ago, Iron Man was relatively obscure in comparison to other superheroes that have graced the silver screen, and now Tony Stark and Robert Downey Jr are practically synonymous. Marvel takes chances. They try new things. And they went back to the well of obscurity and elevated a band of five cosmic misfits into this summer’s most anticipated blockbuster.

Courtesy Marvel Studios

Peter Quill was eight years old when he got abducted from his homeworld. Having grown up among a rather nasty band of pirates called the Ravagers, the Terran is on the trail of a mysterious orb people are paying good money to acquire. There are also those who would rather kill than pay: Ronan the Accuser, a Kree extremist, dispatches one of his chief lackey, Korath the Pursuer, to retrieve the orb. Quill (who for some reason calls himself ‘Star-Lord’) escapes to Xandar, home of Ronan’s enemies. Ronan sets the assassin Gamora on the trail, while the Ravagers post a bounty for Quill, a hefty sum saught by Rocket (an enhanced raccoon) and his best friend Groot. When they wind up in prison together, along with a well-spoken but driven maniac named Drax, they hatch a scheme to escape and split the reward for the orb, even as Ronan hunts them down.

As a complete, start-to-finish film, Guardians of the Galaxy has a consistent and strong storyline that is not difficult to follow. Its tone has a tendency to vary, but that is definitely a strength rather than a weakness. James Gunn, director of Slither and Super, is just as adept with comedy as he is with emotional scenes heavy with pathos. In the final equation, it balances out extremely well. The heavier scenes pulls us into sympathetic embraces with our characters, and their comedic turns let off some of the pressure to pave the way for more antics and action.

Courtesy Marvel Studios
Something tells me they don’t want to talk about having a personal relationship with Galactus.

These characters, in addition, are definitely worthy of their places in Marvel’s cinematic universe. In particular, I was very happy with Gamora’s characterization. In my previous discussion, purely based on some erroneous conjecture, I feared that she would exist as the ‘token girl’ and disappoint in doing little more than rolling her eyes at the tomfoolery of the males. Thankfully, she is very much her own character, with agency, drive, and independence, from start to finish. I was wrong in what I said before; I couldn’t be happier to admit that. What we see on screens is most definitely the deadliest woman in the galaxy, and Zoe Saldana brings her to vibrant, captivating life.

The two CG characters, Rocket and Groot, are incredibly well-realized. Rocket, in particular, is a wonder just to behold. While we’ve seen mo-cap characters before, Rocket is easily believable with his attitude, outlook, pain, and power. You actually feel something for the little guy. Similiarly, Groot conveys a great deal without saying more than a few words. His expressions, actions, and presence all speak to an individual that means well, and that can’t help but stand out in light of other characters behaving in very selfish ways. As for Drax, I definitely need to see the movie again because I swear I missed some of his loquacious dialog in the middle of all the ray-guns and explosions. I like what they’ve done with him and I’m eager to see more.

Courtesy Marvel Studios
“I’d flash you my business card, but my hands are too full of guns.”

The glue holding the entire endeavour together, however, is Chris Pratt as Peter Quill. This man is going to be very busy in the years to come. He carries the mantle of leading man very well. His performance draws out the best in the cast around him, and he very much gets both what motivates his character and how the audience can relate to him. Under the flippant demeanor and die-hard nostalgia is some very real pain and more than a couple unresolved issues, and as I mentioned before, the whole film exists in the same balance between the two feelings. Both the actor and the story do more than just walk that line, however; they outright dance on it.

I could spend a lot more time discussing the villains, universe, and greater implications of Guardians of the Galaxy, as it is a surprisingly dense film in terms of lore and setting. There is a huge universe implied in almost every shot of the movie, and I am merely scratching the surface. What I will say is this: we have not had a romp through space like this since Serenity, and even that had a rather intimate scope within which to tell its tale. In many ways, Guardians of the Galaxy is the direct opposite of the previous Marvel film, Captain America: The Winter Soldier, but that just makes them two sides of the same excellent coin. The previous film was a powerful story of intrigue and personal trial with a very modern bent; this one is a deliberate throwback to more whimsical tales like Flash Gordon or Star Wars, but bearing extremely modern sensibilities. The universe we behold has a very lived-in feel, is filled with color and wonder, and clearly contains perils and unknown terrors that are ripe for the exploration. It expands Marvel’s cinematic arm exponentially, and gives us just the right mix of heroes and villains to leave us wanting more.

Courtesy Marvel Studios
Even minor characters have distinct personalities and memorable traits.

As a movie-goer and erstwhile critic, I would say Guardians of the Galaxy is exemplary science-fiction action-adventure storytelling that I unreservedly recommend. As a long-standing fan of the comics, particularly since I picked it up back when Dan Abnett was starting to write the team we see on screen, I could not be happier. Much like our first real shot of the Avengers, seeing these misfits, murderers, and makers of mayhem come to vibrant life tugs at all of the right strings in my heart. Guardians of the Galaxy is exactly what you want and precisely what we need in the middle of summer surrounded by drek and drudgery: a damn good time at the movies. It is definitely worth seeing. Just don’t be surprised if you do, in fact, get hooked on a feeling.

Return of the Jedi (or possibly Sith)

Courtesy LucasArts

Maybe it’s because I’m hopeful Guardians of the Galaxy evokes the old feelings of wonder that came with A New Hope. Maybe it’s the discovery of the excellent X-Wing Miniatures game. Maybe it’s just nostalgia. But whatever the cause, I have been on a sizable Star Wars kick lately, and a big part of that is the time I’ve been spending in Star Wars: The Old Republic.

I did a first impressions post a few years ago when the game was in beta, and upon reflection, I ended up being a bit harsh in the name of blunting my nostalgia. I think leaning towards objectivity is good for anybody looking to present a review of entertainment for a wide audience, but I think it would have been okay if I had talked more about my curiosity and excitement about a new facet of the universe opening up and less about the clunky mechanics and the opinions of non-fans.

Playing it now, I’m definitely hooked. I’m curious to see where the various stories go. I’m doing my utmost to avoid spoilers, and I’m actually enjoying the quest structure. It doesn’t feel like a grind – I’ve never had more than two or three quests in my log at any given time. “Kill X amount of Y” only pops up as a bonus, and since I get jumped by uppity bunches of Y on my way to the objective anyway, why not pull in a little extra XP? It does still have a lot of mechanical similarities to World of Warcraft, but the little differences do more than their fair share in setting the game apart. The bottom line is, even moreso now than back in the game’s beta days, I see potential.

I think that’s been what keeps Star Wars a positive thing in my mind. For all of its flaws and missteps, the universe Lucas created has always contained the potential for truly great storytelling. The military sci-fi bent of Rogue Squadron stories, the antiquated feel of Tales of the Jedi, the way Dark Forces felt like so much more than a DOOM clone because you were stealing the Death Star plans… I could go on. Lucas may not be the best director or a very good scriptwriter, but the seeds he sowed almost 40 years ago were in very fertile ground indeed.

I’m interested in exploring the Edge of the Empire RPG, probably after I move, if I can rope my new housemates into it. I’m expanding my collection of X-Wing Miniatures. I’m going to play a lot more of The Old Republic. And I am keeping a wary eye on this new film of theirs. While I don’t agree with the official word ejecting the expanded universe as canon, JJ Abrams has always been more of a whiz-bang director than the intellectual contemplation that Star Trek really demands. In spite of my cautious curiosity, though, one thing is certainly clear.

Star Wars is back in my life. I enjoy Star Wars quite a bit. And there’s nothing wrong with that.

Ongoing Progress

Test Pattern

I will be the first to admit that I am a work in progress. The person I am now is not the person I want to be, and I have goals I continue to work and struggle towards. The work is not always clean, and nowhere near as ordered as I would like. Change does not happen overnight. I still have a solid idea of how I want my schedule to look, but I can’t flip a switch and make that happen, unfortunately.

With a pending cross-country move, loose ends to tie up here, and all sorts of other obligations and diversions, it’s been difficult to nail things down and stick with them. More than anything, though, I’m trying not to focus on my failures. I’d much rather spend my time setting up for future success, even if it means my goals aren’t being realized as expediently as I would like.

I’m simply trying to keep myself honest and moving forward. Not to mention sane. I’m hopeful that, by this time next month, the path forward will be clearer, and something that I have defined for myself.

It’s never too late to start over, to try again. It’s only quitting if you stop trying.