Friday, April 28, 2017

A true artist is someone that lives in another realm and just visits those of us that live in common reality some of the time

Alien: Covenant comes out May 19th. It's less than a month away, and I'm not ignoring all the love from Twentieth Century Fox. If you don't know, the studio's been releasing (ahead of the premiere) lots of promotional materials that include pictures and videos related to the film. One of the more serendipitous finds that came out was a walk through of the Australian set for Alien: Covenant done by former Myth Buster's engineer, Adam Savage. 
If you watch the short clip, you can see how Adam gets totally sucked in by the details of the alien ship that Dr. Shaw and David the robot (from Prometheus) use to pilot the vessel to the home-world of the Engineers (I'm guessing that's what the photos released by 20th Century Fox are showing when they give us images of the ship that Shaw's piloting, rotating in the air and docking with a much larger vessel). I've included a still of that image below so you can see what I'm talking about (fans are calling the other ship "The Scorpion" because of its tail-like appearance).
Below the ships is some kind of city, obviously not populated by humans but by Engineers (the tall muscly beings from Prometheus). I love how all of these images appear so the true sense of the word. In other words, they inspire "awe" in me because they don't look like anything that I've ever seen before.
I think that if I were lucky enough to be in the same situation, I'd be just like Adam. That is, in a state of wonder, looking at the carefully designed set pieces in Australia and just allowing myself to drown in this world that Ridley Scott envisioned decades ago and brought to life alongside H.R. Giger. Just look at the attention to detail in the video, all the controls on the console, the pilot chair designed for the much larger Engineers, and the space suits and ribbing along the corridors. This is A-list treatment and production values applied to a fantastical science-fiction story. Below is a short that includes a lot of details from the ship, and bridges the gap of time between Prometheus and Covenant wherein we learn some of the fate of David and Noomi Rapace (Dr. Shaw). I expect that these are part of the main film, and it's a joy to watch.
I've thought about H.R. Giger quite a bit these last two weeks, not only spurred on by Covenant's impending release, but because I wanted a simple print of one of his well-known alien works (to get framed at some point) to hang on my wall in my new home. But good lord are they expensive, and it's not like I'm buying an original. This is just a photographic print, and they are definitely not in the "affordable" range unless you want one that's no bigger than a small plate. I suppose I could get something H.R. Giger-inspired, but it's not the same thing.

To clarify, nowadays there's lots of copycats for the late H.R. Giger's work. And the artists that are "Giger-inspired" definitely know how to draw as well as he did, but they don't possess any of his genius. People that have transformational ideas only come around once in a generation it seems (if we're lucky). Aside from Giger, two that I can think of that created the kind of transformations that inspired copycats galore are Kurt Cobain and Steve Jobs. These are by no means the only ones, but you can at least understand where I'm coming from and get the gist of how important I think H.R. Giger was as an individual.

Is there anything wrong with a knock-off? Of course not. But it doesn't inspire love, you know? We see this in genre writing all the time. Fantasy is replete with Tolkien and Martin knock-offs, because people develop this urge to consume more and there's only a finite amount of stuff to consume. 

It got me thinking about the nature of reality, and how I make assumptions all the time that people share my same reality. Maybe this is wrong though. I can never be sure, right? Earlier this week when I was at work, the janitor came through the door as I was watching the front desk. Where I work, there's a front desk office, and at the time, I was the only one there. When the janitor pushed his garbage can through, he stopped, looked at me, and asked, "Are you watching the front desk?" My first instinct was to think, "Why would he ask that when I'm the only one here? Isn't it obvious I'm watching the front desk." But then I thought...maybe he sees a different reality. I can't just assume that he's in the same reality as me. He could be seeing three different people here, and he may just be asking me to validate that I'm the only one here so that he could be more firmly anchored to the reality that everyone believes is the real reality.

So I answered his question, "Yes, I'm the only one watching the desk."

And I saw a little relief in his eyes as he went about his work. You know...the kind of relief that someone gets when they ask for affirmation about something, and they get it. The whole experience was kind of mind opening.

So then I started to think that maybe transformational geniuses like H.R. Giger, Kurt Cobain, and others aren't really part of the reality that you and I take for granted (if you and I even exist in the same reality to begin with). When you start to think like this, then you realize that what those people saw was probably normal for them. In a way, through their art they were just able to share that other reality with us in ways that we felt alien, but allowed us to grow creatively in an entirely new direction.

Maybe that's the whole point of art, and a true artist is someone that lives in another realm and just visits those of us that live in the most common realm some of the time because everyone's reality is just a little different from our own.

Wednesday, April 26, 2017

I think I know the identity of Savitar on the Flash.

The whole season 3 arc of The Flash has been either dealing with the repercussions of Flashpoint, or the cautionary story of Barry Allen deciding not to play with time anymore and live with the consequences of the reality he creates. So what if the rub of the great unanswered question of the season, i.e., Who Is Savitar, is just a version of Barry Allen whose reality was completely destroyed when Flashpoint was created. If you remember what happened in the season 2 finale of The Flash, Barry destroyed one of his own time remnants. But maybe that time remnant just got trapped in the Speed Force, not unlike Savitar, and having lost everything is destroying those things that main Barry Allen cares about, starting with Iris.

The time travel mechanics of The Flash are kind of mind-bending, and I have to hand it to the writers to weave these tales within tales, because they keep me guessing. I've pretty much loved this third season of the Flash, and at times I forget that it's an alternate timeline that shouldn't really exist. But that it does exist should have some kind of repercussion on Barry. I can't help but think how cool it might be that Barry is fighting himself, which is why he can't win.
Perhaps last night's episode of The Flash, entitled "The Once and Future Flash," is one huge Easter egg. Grant Gustin (who plays Barry Allen) said in an interview that it was one of the most challenging episodes to film in the season because it has a lot of scenes with Barry and Barry. Basically, he's his own scene partner. And the main villains of the night were Mirror Master and Top. The fact that Mirror Master is there makes me think that there's a strong hint of "look in the mirror and you'll have your answer," especially given that the only reason Barry meets Mirror Master in the first place is because he's looking for the identity of Savitar. Maybe he need look no further than himself.

I know I like to make predictions, especially when I sense that a series is building toward a season finale. So my prediction is that the big bad of the entire season, a.k.a. Savitar, is none other than a Time Remnant of Barry Allen himself.

Monday, April 24, 2017

The Juicero juicer is just the latest money grab from unscrupulous people in a long list of money grabs.

This blog post is a rant. By now, you've probably heard that Juicero, the $400.00 juice machine that used to be $700.00, was based on a lie. In case you haven't heard of it, the juicer was the vision of yet another capitalist crook who wanted to reinvent something that didn't need to be reinvented, only this time, it's actually caving in on him and his start-up (which the world didn't need in the first place).

There are actually a lot of things that the world doesn't need, but because of capitalism and greed we have them anyway. We didn't need Uber or Lyft. Society had taxi drivers who were doing just fine, as hobbled as the industry was with local laws and regulations. But that's just the thing...those laws and regulations are there for a reason and when a start-up brands itself as "genius" because it smells a way to make tons of money by ignoring those aforementioned regulations to conduct business, it is not "disruption" or "brilliant." No, it's being an asshole.

More examples of things the world doesn't need? How about planned obsolescence. Planned obsolescence is why you have to buy a new phone every two to three years, or why you have to upgrade your computer, or why you need to change your light bulbs. Things are made to expire. Wouldn't it be great to live in a world where things didn't expire because humans programmed them to? It would certainly help people get ahead on things that matter.

And what about monthly payment plans? The monthly bill that never ends is starting to spook me. It seems like no one wants to sell you just one thing and be done with it anymore. In today's day and age, for a company to be successful, they need to deliver a bill to you on a monthly basis. I dread the day when movie theaters reinvent themselves and refuse to sell tickets. Instead, you'll need a subscription that you just pay monthly, in order to see new release movies. Or the day when your Windows operating system on the computer becomes subscription-based, and if you don't pay up, you don't get access to any of your files.

Being able to buy one thing that lasts for a long time is a cornerstone to being able to build wealth. For example, I bought a really nice saute pan with a lid this weekend, and it is guaranteed for life. I may use this thing for the next thirty years. That's a great deal. More things in life should come with that kind of longevity. It would be better for the health and well being of the nation.

I think I'm more bothered today by what I'm seeing "out there" than ever before. In my parent's day and age, it was a given that a person could expect to be treated fairly whenever business was conducted. People had a switch in their heads that made them realize it was morally wrong to cheat someone. But in today's America, you have to be extra vigilant to be able to get even a fair deal. On most business transactions, you've probably been taken advantage of and just don't know it. And more and more, business transactions are going horribly wrong. The mortgage and home building industry (as just one example) seems to be teeming with sharks ready to tear anyone to pieces that dares to dream of owning a house. I was sickened when I saw how a local home builder here in Utah out in this place called "Daybreak" had cheated a bunch of people that had bought townhouses by using the cheapest, shoddiest materials for construction and then hiding it. Only, it didn't stay hidden for very long because things started crumbling, which is now costing hundreds of thousands of dollars to fix, big lawsuit incoming.

Some days I feel like everyone is lying, I feel like everyone is dishonest, and I feel like facts no longer matter. I feel like there's a reason for all of this, and it's because we (as a society) overemphasize and worship the rich. I wish there was someway to make it stop. It's not that I'm against capitalism, but I am against cheating someone just to make a buck. If you have an honest invention that people need, then you should be paid a "fair" price for it. But never, in any reality, should a juicer cost $400.00 (and that's just one example).

Friday, April 21, 2017

I think Alien Covenant is a 2017 homage to H.P. Lovecraft.

I finally put into words what I've been feeling for a long time. The universe in which Alien, Prometheus, and other films take place (under the guidance of Ridley Scott and not the other directors) has a distinct Lovecraftian atmosphere to it. Though I'm no fan of Lovecraft's actual writing (which I find borish), I think that the man had excellent science fictional ideas and poor execution. That, however, could simply be because of the era in which Lovecraft lived.
For one, Alien has the same kinds of themes as Lovecraft: we aren't alone in the universe and if we could grasp the whole truth of what's really out there, it would drive us insane. That pretty much sums up how I feel about the whole xenomorph egg to chest-burster thing. The aliens themselves might not be godlike, but the ones that created them, a.k.a. the Engineers, certainly are.

Second, Lovecraft uses words like "cyclopean" and "non-Euclidean" and "primordial" to describe the Great Old Ones. In Prometheus (certainly) in the heiroglyphs left by the Engineers and in the opening montage, there is a feeling of something ancient and powerful and beyond our ability to understand going on in the worlds that are visited by the Engineers. If these aren't "cyclopean" and "non-Euclidean" I'm not sure what qualifies to fit in those descriptions.
And last, the set pieces were designed by H.R. Giger, whose work has a definite cosmic horror feel to them. Giger's most famous book after all is called The Necronomicon.

Think about it for a moment. The Alien movies (Covenant included--which is out this May) would fit quite well with the more science-fiction bent that Lovecraft explored as it developed, probably most evident in the novella, At The Mountains of Madness, where a group of explorers in Antarctica find a lost city that holds some kind of monster (I think it was an Elder Thing).

Anyway, that's my case and I'm sticking to it. It's also (probably) why I just love everything Alien. I think I just love stories that have to do with ancient unknown civilizations from another time (similar to what you get in the background of the 1930's version of King Kong). 

Wednesday, April 19, 2017

What is the Bottle City of Kandor?

If you watch Big Bang Theory, or read comic books, or are any kind of fan of Superman, you may be familiar with the bottle city of Kandor. It has a unique look. Imagine a city in a glass dome, and I'm including a couple illustrations of it in this post so that we can all be on the same page for the discussion of what it is exactly. Because, I'm sure you wanted to know.

Kandor is the name of the former capital city of the planet Krypton, and it is best known for being miniaturized and then stolen by the supervillain Brainiac. When Superman recovered it, he basically stored it in the Fortress of Solitude (Superman's home in the North Pole). version of Brainiac was into collecting cities. Eventually (in Superman #338 which came out in August 1979) Superman was able to restore Kandor to normal size, and they settled on another planet that revolved around a red sun. And that's about as far as my knowledge goes. I have no idea how it's been re-written since then, but I'm sure that some of that history remains somewhat the same.

So you might ask, "Why is Mike talking about Kandor?"

Well, another show that takes place in the Superman universe is headed to television, but it's a prequel to Kal-El (a.k.a. Superman). It takes place on Krypton, and the main characters are Superman's grandparents. A lot of it also takes place in Kandor. And rumors have it that the writing is going to channel the court-intrigue/melodrama that has distinguished Game of Thrones in the fantasy genre. Just imagine the pitch to this show to SyFy executives... "It's like Game of Thrones. But in Krypton." This is so unlike The Expanse, which is like Game of Thrones only in space. For what it's worth, I love The Expanse.

The audience for this show is obviously the same one that keeps Gotham running on Fox (I suppose I'm guilty). But I'm intrigued. If it looks good, I'll watch it. Especially if we get to see Brainiac steal Kandor and other such marvels from Krypton's dying days.

Monday, April 17, 2017

Star Wars Rebels is already over.

Well that's a disappointment. At Star Wars Celebration Orlando, Disney announced that the upcoming fourth season of Star Wars Rebels will be its last. I'm disappointed, only because I rather liked Star Wars Rebels. It had interesting connections with the universe at large, introduced us to the screen version of Grand Admiral Thrawn, drew connections to the movies, and allowed us to revisit beloved characters like Wedge Antilles (he's so goofy that it's pretty adorable).

The trailer (which I embedded below) for the upcoming fourth season is pretty heavy. But maybe Star Wars is at its best when the stakes are high and everything is falling apart. When Rebels first launched, I had my concerns that it would never live up to the growth I saw in Star Wars: The Clone Wars by Cartoon Network. But Rebels established itself pretty quickly as a show willing to commit to its premise and conflict especially in the back half of each season. Yeah, it was kind of goofy as a kid's show is aught to be, but it also got serious when it needed to (like in the showdown fight between Darth Vader and Ahsoka Tano--a character arc that was literally seven years in the making).

The most interesting character by far has been Kanan, mostly due to the fact that he's basically a fallen Jedi, and the Jedi are very interesting plot devices. However, Sabine has really grown on me, and her Mandalorian connections and the fact that she has the darksaber is quite cool. I also like the influences from Princess Mononoke that obviously made their way into this trailer for the fourth season.

I'm also still convinced that Ezra will end up being Snoke at some point. I guess we'll see.

Maybe by ending this series in season four, it means that the last season will be spectacular. Let's hope Disney gives it the sendoff that it deserves.

Friday, April 14, 2017

Is schadenfreude the most dangerous emotion?

When you derive pleasure from someone else's misfortune, you are experiencing an emotion called "schadenfreude." This may be the first time you've  heard of it, or maybe you got your introduction to it through the musical Avenue Q. But whatever you think of it, the power of schadenfreude is present everywhere in our society. I'm here to argue the point that it is more destructive than emotions most of us can relate to, i.e., joy, sadness, anger, and jealousy (just to name a few). In fact, I even think the Pixar movie, Inside Out, would have been better if it had included schadenfreude.

I started seriously thinking about schadenfreude in the aftermath of the 2016 presidential election. In conservative Utah, it's a given that I'm surrounded by Trump supporters all the time, and I'm used to being drowned out, talked over, condescended upon, insulted by, and being routinely micro-aggressed to as I walk the steps of my daily life. It's just how reality is for those liberals choosing to plant their roots in a blood red state where political conviction stands tall upon the shoulders of Heavenly Father. For example, the Mormons here all believe the United States constitution was divinely inspired. I'm not even sure what that means, but what I do know is that god had nothing to do with it any more than god had to do with Harry Potter. Great minds are perfectly capable of coming up with great works without any intervention of the divine.
Anyway, something changed in the atmosphere with the election of the billionaire businessman. Several of my friends have children that experienced bullying at school, "Get out of our country you ****!" talk and one of my black friends was called a "N****r!" while walking along the street (accompanied with a strongly worded suggestion for what she should do with her life). I'd never seen this kind of behavior before, and rather than react emotionally, I was intrigued. I started reading online comment boards on Breitbart news, in particular the venom from those on the right who just wanted to see liberals suffer. Yes, my analysis of this really does show that (in many cases), seeing liberals suffer was the number one reason that drove many people to support Trump. His policies, and the way he acted, etc. was all secondary. It didn't matter if they got hurt in the process...all that mattered were "tasty liberal tears." And it's just a matter of fact that when someone takes legitimate pleasure at another person's suffering, we (the German's invented the word) call that "schadenfreude."

So I started googling articles to get to the bottom of this educate myself as it were on why people love to see others suffer. I for one have come to realize that I have a great deal of empathy. I don't like to see people suffer and take no pleasure from it. I've had to adopt emotional blinders to keep the awful reality of what it takes to survive every day in this world from getting to me. Until we get beyond an economy of scarcity (Star Trek anyone?) this will be the norm for our speck of a blue dot hurtling through the universe. Where does my food come from? It's best not to think about that. Are there people starving to death in Nigeria? Well, it won't emotionally cripple me if I put on blinders and watch a movie on Netflix. It sounds horrific, and to be honest, it totally is. But this world is so filled with misery and terribleness that one person cannot process it all. It would totally shut you down. So you have to cherry pick your battles in order to remain functional. Whether or not any of us will admit to this, it's a thing that most emotionally healthy people take part in every day.

But what about those people that revel in suffering? That's a different thing entirely. So why does it happen? Do they have something to gain in the misfortune of others? Does it make them feel powerful? Are more resources made available for those who don't have the misfortune? Or is it simply a way to assuage those feelings of envy and contempt usually stemming from low self-esteem? Maybe it's all of these things. I know only one thing for certain: it's been going on for a long time. For example, Romans used to feed Christians to lions in front of a crowd of people gathered to have fun at seeing such events. What about witches burned at the stake? This being god's will was a great rationalization to avoid feeling guilty about the horrific nature of the crime. Taking joy from someone else's misfortune fills some people with feelings of power and of control, because what's happening doesn't involve you. Mel Brooks said it best: "Tragedy is when I cut my finger. Comedy is when you fall into an open sewer and die." Perhaps a lot of this has to do with deeply seated ideals revolving around justice and fairness. The fact that life isn't fair makes us all acutely aware of the transgressions that life deals us, and many of us derive pleasure when (certainly) someone that we perceive as having it too good gets their comeuppance.

The reason I think that schadenfreude may be more dangerous, more insidious than anger (or any other emotion for that matter) is because of the reward (positive feelings) one gets when another is inflicted with misfortune. In fact, I postulate that on a widespread scale, it could tear a society or civilization apart at the seams. For example, it's arguably one of the driving forces behind polarization, where one side of a debate tries to get the upper hand to achieve an agenda and then laughs at the misfortune of those on the losing side (because they obviously have something to gain in another's misfortune). But why is this destructive socially? Because you have one team in a society hoping that another side actually fails. The only thing is, everyone is in the same boat, and if one side fails, it's likely that the other side will too.

Until we can all embrace the idea that someone else's failure is a failure for us too, I doubt that we'll solve any of our world's enormous problems. Just like in that popular Billy Joel song from the early nineties, the fire will keep on burning despite the fact that we never started it in the first place (and can enjoy a good laugh at the expense of those particularly close to the flames). 

Wednesday, April 12, 2017

La La Land was a good movie but it's narcissism really bugged me a lot.

I feel like I'm behind with my blog because I have so many movies I want to discuss. Today I wanted to talk about La La Land, even though it isn't necessarily something that people are talking about anymore. So obligatory SPOILER WARNING.

I saw La La Land in January, and I honestly wasn't surprised that it didn't win Best Picture at the Academy Awards (although I was surprised at the mixup on stage when Faye Dunaway and Warren Beatty announced the wrong winner). I admit to being one of those people that thought the mixup was due to Warren's age. I'm glad it wasn't. However, I've been watching the Oscars for decades now and don't ever recall a flub of that magnitude. Best Picture award aside, La La Land was stylistically an important movie and a musical (I like musicals). But here's the thing: I thought it was merely okay.

I have my reasons. First, I wasn't expecting the overall film to be about narcissism. I thought it would have been more whimsical and fun. Instead it was about this story of two people with ambitions, paying lip-service to those ambitions, forsaking love, luckily achieving those ambitions, and then experiencing a weird kind of regret that they both chose wrong but in the end...were somehow okay with it because it allowed them to achieve lofty goals by giving each other what they needed. Why not? Right? Give up on one fantastic life to embrace another fantastic life. It doesn't sound all that bad.

Personally, I don't like these kinds of stories, because I feel that too many people have unrealistic expectations toward life already (job, income, sexual partners). I would even say a majority of Americans fall into this group. That being said, this same majority is going to defend against my assault of "you have unrealistic expectations" with something like, "I loved it. It reminds me of how the real world is."

Really? The real world doesn't look anything like this except for a select few (maybe less than 1% of the population).

So here's my rebuttal to that idea. If you loved La La Land because you are part of this majority, and thereby have a very different ideology to mine in that, if something isn't right you just make it happen...then I applaud you for making that work. However, my ideology has been shaped with my own ambitions, failures, achievements, and education. My ideology is that people indeed have distinct limitations, and there are simply some things that certain people cannot do no matter how hard they wish it to be true.

It is the anti, "You can accomplish anything!" speech. It is the anti, "Sometimes you have to sacrifice to get your dream!" In my world, "sacrifice" can get you a shot at a dream, but it is not a guaranteed thing. There are lots of people who sacrifice, and the shot they think they would get never shows up. And no, in every single one of these situations, the sacrifice was not worth it, because their lives are worse off. That is reality. Where are those stories? Where are the stories of the people who were delusional, sacrificed a good thing thinking that a great thing was within reach (when it never was), reality handed them the badly needed "reality check," they realized their mistake (and tried to backtrack), and found out that the road to that previously good thing they used to enjoy had evaporated? Where are those stories? You know...the ones that end in failure--the end--that's all folks! Because I know a lot of people from my home town who fall into this category. They were young and handsome men, circled by a plethora of choices, but they never settled because they always deserved more. I'm sure their thoughts went something like this: I'll settle down when I get a prettier girlfriend. I'm going to quit this job because I deserve better. I'm going to leave this relationship because all my friends say I deserve better. They embraced unrealistic expectations. Now, they find themselves at the age of 40 living in poverty with no options at all. It is the epitome of a mid-life crisis. Now they are angry white men that squandered their privilege of choice, whose joints are causing pain in the morning, and who want to burn down the world because they have become the losers.

To steal a quote from another great movie, Inception, these people become, "an old [person] filled with regret." In the original quote the word "man" is used, but it is relevant nonetheless.

La La Land is a movie that is a fantasy, and for that it should be appreciated. Some women going to it are probably envisioning themselves as the beautiful Emma Stone with all of the options in life at their fingertips (including being able to shag Ryan Gosling). Please don't be mad if I insert an eye-roll here. It's good to have a fantasy. These people (in the indulgence of their fantasy) may see themselves as once having those kinds of options, choosing one, and then experiencing the regret of leaving behind the incredibly beautiful boy because they chose yet another drop dead gorgeous man to be the father of their child and a life filled with riches and loveliness. Sigh. If only.

But the truth is that a lot of these people would never have a chance with Ryan Gosling, and never had any such choices in life. The gulf between many women and Emma Stone's character is the same gulf as a homeless person and Donald Trump. It's just not possible to bridge that gap. Ever.

In finishing this rant, I think that La La Land is particularly an American movie. It reminds me of a quote from "Shameless" when the Russian woman (Svetlana) in a relationship with Vi and Kev responds to Fiona. Fiona walks in on her and Svetlana says, "You are all the same. You think you are up here, but in reality quite a few of you are down here [puts hand just above floor]. You make bad decisions because you think something better is always going to come along. You never check where you actually are in life. I recognize I am whore. But I put money away to buy my own Quiznos. When I have business, I will be above you, because you are still waiting for something that will never come."

Malcolm Gladwell, the author of Outliers, has something more to add to this topic. There is a story that is usually told about extremely successful people, a story that focuses on intelligence and ambition. Gladwell argues that the true story of success is very different, and that if we want to understand how some people thrive, we should spend more time looking around them--at such things as their family, their birthplace, or even their birth date. And in revealing that hidden logic, Gladwell presents a fascinating and provocative blueprint for making the most of human potential. And the fact is, some people are just outliers, and their success is not something that can be reproduced.

The majority of us will live average lives. William David Thoreau wrote, "The mass of men live lives of quiet desperation." This is as real a quote as it has ever been.

Friday, I want to talk about how I think schadenfreude is the most dangerous emotion in the world.

Monday, April 10, 2017

Ghost in the Shell was a visual feast of a movie that ended up generating a lot of questions that I'd like answers to.

I saw Ghost in the Shell a couple of weeks ago. My thoughts on the movie took a while to gel, particularly regarding the whitewashing. My first thoughts center around why? As in why does Hollywood whitewash in the first place? Studio executives who greenlight projects obviously have their own answers, and they certainly don't owe me an explanation. But in my head, I think that whitewashing occurs for a few reasons (some of which I post about below):

1) Lack of racial, ethnic, and cultural sensitivity. This one's easy to point out (especially post-presidential election). "Back in the day," minority characters were typically characterized as immoral, criminal, simpletons, or as comedic relief to the white protagonists in film. But why is it still happening today? To be honest, I'm not quite sure, but there's plenty of evidence to suggest that America in general still looks down in its minorities.

2) However, maybe the answer is just capitalism? After all, Hollywood is in the business of making movies that appeal to a specific audience, and most of America is still white. And it's really not that far of a stretch to assume that people like to see stories with others that look like them. Psychologists have known about this phenomenon for a long time now. And it's why a lot of young adult books feature female protagonists (because the audience of young adult books skews heavily female).

3) Or maybe the answer is inertia? The people in charge of the studios might be coasting on the success (and assumptions) of yesteryear and make casting calls based on what they expect US film-goers are looking for, all in the pursuit of repeated hopes and dreams.

But whatever the answer may be, Ghost in the Shell was a visual feast, full of action and coherent writing, and (as a result) an entertaining movie (in the same vein as Doctor Strange was entertaining) even though both of these contemporary movies whitewashed certain characters for no apparent reason. That being said, I also want to pick your mind (as it were) on another point of thought.

For those of you that saw the film, did any of you draw an obvious connection between Ghost in the Shell and HBO's Westworld? I know Westworld came first, and was originally written by Michael Crichton (who was a genius I might add). However, I didn't immediately see the connection. It only became obvious later during the context of a conversation I had with the guy I've been kind of dating (may be a strong word to use but I'm going there) when we both brought up the morality of having robots that are so lifelike that they are indistinguishable from actual humans. When does exploitation start? When would it be amoral to expect a robot to perform a task that you would never ask a human to do? These kinds of questions are made even more fascinating if you consider that Disney is (more and more) commissioning the use of life-like robots in its theme parks. Sure it's a ways off, but you know that someday there are going to be life-like robots. We might as well start thinking about them (as a society) to try and anticipate what we can expect them to do and not to do. It's all very creepy, isn't it?

And then there's the question about immortality that's triggered by the film. SPOILER ALERT...the protagonist of Ghost in the Shell has her brain basically loaded into a synthetic body. She retains her essence (called her ghost) but the body is completely different to the one in which she was born. If this were a medical option and not science fiction, would anyone actually take it? In other words, if (at your death) you could be saved by having your brain/ghost loaded into a robot body, would you ever choose to do that? For me the answer is a resounding "no." I think living a lifespan that long would greatly diminish my ability to experience happiness, and I'm pretty sure I'd just get tired of all the long years.

However, I'm interested in hearing if any of you would take that option. Please respond in the comments :).

Friday, April 7, 2017

Every page of The Summer Dragon is dripping with the passion of Todd Lockwood

Before I dive into my review of The Summer Dragon by author Todd Lockwood, I wanted to first tell you a little about who he is. I first came across Todd Lockwood's artwork when I saw the picture below, called Cerberus. I was moved by how detailed and grotesque the art piece happened to be. And the one that pointed out how brilliant a piece it was happened to be another artist that I greatly admired: Michael Whelan.
Some of  you may find the art piece absolutely grotesque, and I get that. But I was hooked by this piece and knew that there was something special about Todd. I was overjoyed when Dungeons & Dragons hired him as an artist to do their third edition of the game. More than anything, Todd's passion really seemed to emerge in drawing dragons (one of my favorite mythical creatures). His attention to detail is incredible, and seemed to lend itself well to what I considered to be a tired and cliche kind of creature. The way Todd thought about them gave all the notions of dragons that I had clunking around in my head a completely fresh take. Here are a few pictures that I've included below so you can see what I mean:

In the three pictures, each dragon has a completely different personality and build. Todd just didn't color them differently, he thought of his dragons as possessing wildly different head qualities and neck lengths and musculature. To be fair, a lot of this groundwork had been laid with artists Larry Elmore, Jeff Easley, Kevin Parkinson, and Clyde Caldwell. However, Todd really struck a nerve with me as  his portrayals of dragons were incredibly graceful, and his use of color was very modern as opposed to the loud, stark oil colors that screamed "I was painted in the 1980's!" that decorated every Dungeons and Dragons 2nd edition module published by TSR (the parent company of D&D before Wizards of the Coast acquired them with their truckload of money made on Magic: The Gathering).

When Hasbro bought out Wizards of the Coast in and around 2002, they fired all of their art staff (Todd included). He remarks in The Summer Dragon that it was painful to hear the executives come in and say, "Fantasy art is a dime a dozen." It's a crude way to think about art, and it's probably true for the most part. Just look at all the art that graces each Magic: The Gathering card (it's 74th expansion releases this month). They probably pay (at most) a hundred bucks a piece for those art pieces because there are so many "artists" out there begging for employment (yes, the market is flooded). And don't get me wrong...some of the art on Magic: The Gathering is quite good, but a lot of it (in my opinion) is just junk. You can tell someone spent an hour on it. I suppose this brings me to one important point I want to make: being able to draw, especially with Photoshop's tools, has never been easier. Photoshop has the ability to make drawings photo-realistic, and to do backgrounds so easily that it's kind of ridiculous. All you have to do is just create another layer and go to town. You do still have to have some talent to draw faces and shapes, but a lot of it can be done by a person who's just savvy enough to use all the tools that the program has to offer.

As an amateur that has dabbled in fantasy art, I can tell you that for me, it used to be a priority to try and get as photo-realistic as possible. Think of it as increasing the resolution on your television. The more the resolution, the better, right? It becomes more "realistic" that way. But with everybody doing it through computers (and achieving that goal), I've found that I have a new appreciation for art that looks hand drawn/painted, where I can see a blurriness and stroke lines to the edges and I think, "I know how they accomplished this effect."

Anyway, after Todd Lockwood was no longer employed by WOTC, I kind of lost track of him. I still recognized his art whenever it popped up here and there because it always has this effect of making me pause when I spot it out of the corner of my eye. I'll be just going about my business when I see a painting he's done on a book cover, stop, stare at it, and then investigate to see who the artist is. Nearly every single time, it was a new Lockwood painting. And that's what happened with The Summer Dragon.
I was in Barnes and Noble looking for a book to read because of my lack of internets at home when I saw this cover in the "New Release" section. I remember thinking, "Wow this is beautiful," and then glanced up at the author and saw "Todd Lockwood" written there. I thought, "Is this a book of his art?" So I picked it up and started flipping through it. Lo and behold, it was his debut novel, and I was like..."Okay, I have to buy this. I don't care that it's like $20.00 for a hardcover." I immediately knew that this was a work of passion for Todd. He book-ended the hardcover with an illustration of a dragon aerie (a place where dragons are raised) that is situated on a cliff. The illustration in the front of the book shows what it looks like to approach from one side; the illustration in the back of the book shows what it looks like to approach from the rear (waterfall, winding road, etc.). I was blown away. And then, he also drew the interior maps, one of which is in complete 3D.
There are 21 total interior illustrations, all done by Lockwood. For a debut author to have that kind of support from a major publisher is incredible. But then I thought, "It's not like they could have hired anyone to do all of this stuff because the best artist in the business right now is either Todd Lockwood or Michael Whelan." It's at that point that I realized the publishing company probably didn't even pay him for these illustrations. This was Todd's book, and he was breathing life into his world with all the passion that he could. That's when you know a story is going to be incredible: the author is involved with every step of development. Below is one of the interior illustrations (just a chapter head) that shows Maia, the protag of the book:
So you may be asking at this point, "Did I like the book, despite being a fanboy of this artist/writer?" The answer is an emphatic yes. I'd give this book five stars in a heartbeat. It's part one of a larger story called "The Evertide" so you need to know that going into this thing, you'll be waiting for the author to finish the story in installments (although I seriously doubt we are looking at a George R.R. Martin span of decades).

On the surface, the story is one of good versus evil. However, what Lockwood does differently is to subtly tweak and reinvent things I've seen in the fantasy genre without going into what Brandon Sanderson says is a must: magic systems. Lockwood is in love with his dragons. He explores the training of them, the cutting of holes in wings to put saddles on them, the flight training and mating of the dragons, and just about any detail you could possibly want so that they seem like real characters to you by the end of the book. He fleshes out each character to the point that you can visualize them in your head and can pick out who's talking simply by reading a quote. 

The main character is Maia, a girl who lives in a dragon aerie (a keep that specializes in raising dragons from qits) for an empire that needs them. When the empire takes all of one year's harvest of qits, she goes to find a wild qit (spurred on by a sighting of a rare mythical dragon called "the Summer Dragon.") The world-building that takes place in the story is subtle, but fast-paced. We learn that a lot of the population of the world is ignorant of its history. Ruins that Maia explores on her own are mysterious to her (even though they are next to where she lives) because little is known of who built them. And the religion of the world is closely tied to what the population believes at large. If there's a group of people that believe one thing, then there's a kind of god or mythology that arises out of that. With the growing presence of evil, it becomes apparent that there's also a change happening in the group think of the world, i.e., a large population of people are embracing evil ways. It's really interesting and different to fantasy ideologies that I've seen in the past.

I won't spoil any more of the plot details, but if you are looking for a good book to read, it would behoove you to check out The Summer Dragon. Every page is dripping with the author's passion for his own story. 

Wednesday, April 5, 2017

Have you taken advantage of the annual A to Z challenge in terms of marketing and publicity?

The April 5th question for the Insecure Writer's Support Group over on this page is:

Have you taken advantage of the annual A to Z challenge in terms of marketing, networking, publicity for your book? What were the results?

I had to think about this for a bit. I think I've somewhat indirectly taken advantage of the annual A to Z challenge in terms of marketing et al, as in I participated twice but didn't blog about my stories except in one or two areas (if I remember correctly it was some character descriptions and maybe some of the stuff I made up like fancy metals and such). And I'm actually not certain how successful any of it was, as most of the people who blog are not my intended audience for the things I write. I've found a much more direct way to market to those people, via email blasts, etc. from story sites I visit wherein I post a chapter a week or so of something I'm working on and solicit feedback from readers.

But it did build my blog following, which to this day seems pretty loyal as they come and visit my page and still read my articles (so there's that). And from years of doing this kind of thing (blogging), I've built up a network of blogger friends who have my link on their page. This in turn helps with visibility in the search engines, which I've discovered is a pretty big boon to a writer.

Also, let's not underestimate the power of just having a ton of content on your blog, and participating in the A to Z challenge is a good way to create content. While I was away from the blog awaiting internets at home, I got significant amounts of traffic (on average about 1000 visits a day) from people just stumbling across my articles via Google search in different countries (although I'm convinced that most of my Russian visitors are probably bots looking to spam a comment link here or there). In January, I made the most money I ever got paid from Amazon due to people finding (and buying) my book and I hadn't been blogging for two months :/  And it was a pretty decent sized check, so I'm not really all that certain that blogging does anything, other than give you (with every entry) another fishing hook to dangle in the waters of the internet.

I think A to Z can do nothing but help a writer, but I totally get why people like Alex or even myself don't participate. It's a lot of work. Reading Alex's reasons for not doing it this year made me exhausted just thinking about all the hundreds of names he had to cull from the lists to keep them nice and tidy.

On Friday, I'm going to post my review of The Summer Dragon, by Todd Lockwood. 

Monday, April 3, 2017

I got my internet hooked up and will be publishing my blog three times a week

I got my internet hooked up by Comcast last week, and I'm very satisfied with the results. So I guess I have no more excuses as to why I haven't been publishing my blog on its normal schedule of three days a week: Monday, Wednesday, and Friday.

This Wednesday, I'm looking forward to participating in the Insecure Writer's Support Group. Has A to Z started yet? I'm a little out of touch. For those who are participating, I wish you the stamina to succeed.

I'm pretty excited to start giving my opinions on science fiction books, television shows, and movies again. One book that I read (in the hiatus) that I really liked was Todd Lockwood's The Summer Dragon. To explain a little, I absolutely love Todd Lockwood's artwork. I've been following his career for years and years as he draws dragons probably better than any modern artist I have ever seen. He helped out a lot with the third edition of Dungeons and Dragons, and his art isn't just limited to paintings but he can do maps too (like the best three-dimensional black and white maps you've ever seen).

Anyway, I had no idea that he was an author in addition to his painting talents (or that he had aspirations to even become an author in the first place). Then lo and behold, I was in Barnes and Noble one day looking for a story to read, and I stumbled across his debut novel in the "new release" section. It's fully illustrated by him, with interior art as good as anything that graced modules for Dungeons and Dragons (and some really cool maps of a dragon aerie). I had to have it, and devoured it within days. Now I'm waiting for book two.

It's my goal to post a really solid review of it soon, because it was deeply satisfying. If you love dragons, you should really check it out (and splurge for the hardcover, because it's gorgeous).