Friday, July 23, 2021

I'm taking a blogging break until the first Wednesday of August but until then let's contemplate the majesty of Denis Villeneuve's Dune adaptation.

This is the cover for the Dune roleplaying game. It's filled with some
really impressive art, and every page is covered in detail and color.
I'll post some art samples from it, or inspired by it, in a post when I
return from blogging in August.

The second trailer for Dune arrived online yesterday. It's about three minutes long, but I sure like what I saw although I do have a few questions. One of them is (namely) why Timothee Chalamet's Paul Atreides is dressed in golden armor like Iron Man in one scene in the trailer. I assume it is creative license, but I don't think it adds to the story. However, seeing as this is the first part of this movie saga (it has been split into two parts), and I haven't seen it...I'm willing to give it the benefit of the doubt that it will still be amazing and blow my mind.

My next big reading project is to start over with the Dune novels, seeing as the universe has been greatly expanded by Herbert's son. I'm interested to see what other kinds of things have been written about. In my first go of the Dune books, I never made it past God Emperor of Dune. But, I'm now a more disciplined and advanced reader, and I think that I have a wider acceptance of what is entertaining. So I think I might make it through all of them and satisfy my curiosity regarding the whole story. I also (recently) participated in the Kickstarter for the Dune roleplaying game put out by a company called Modiphius (based in England I think). I've been slowly reading the book, which arrived a few weeks ago along with dice that you need to play the game colored the same as the spice Melange. I thought that was a nice touch.

I was a fan of David Lynch's Dune adaptation. And I thought that there would never be another movie. It's interesting that a person like Denis Villeneuve can come along and have enough influence that they just reboot an entire franchise with the best actors in Hollywood. I wonder how much money this thing is going to make, how successful it will be, and if there will be sequels in the works. The Herbert estate must be very happy.

I'm going to take a short blogging break, so this will be my last post until the first Wednesday of August (August 4th). Insecure Writer's Support group day always seems like a nice day to come back. It's kinda like the holiday that always comes around.

Wednesday, July 21, 2021

Lost Gods by Gerald Brom is a lavishly illustrated tale that manages to channel Neil Gaiman and Ray Bradbury in a hero's quest through Purgatory.

On Monday evening, I finished reading Lost Gods by Brom. Here's my synopsis of the book:

A young man descends into Purgatory on a quest for a key that will save his wife and unborn child from an evil demon named Lamia who has murdered hundreds of children.

Sounds interesting, right? It was, and I give it four stars out of five. Now here are the details:

The reading of this book reminded me a lot of American Gods by Neil Gaiman. To elaborate, I think that both writers have visceral and gritty prose, and both books take on worlds that are filled with chaos, where ancient/mythical gods interact with us common-folk in mysterious and aggressive ways. The way Brom's novel differs from Gaiman, is that the gods are all dead and on the verge of being forgotten, and the main character (named Chet) only interacts with them through the Purgatory in which they rule.

It also reminds me a lot of Ray Bradbury's writing in the sense that with Something Wicked This Way Comes you get spooks dressed up in a circus tent...only in this case, the circus tent is a political society run by gods (and their sycophants and enemies who range from goblins to fallen angels). With Brom's writing, you get spooks dressed up as lost souls wandering the cities of Purgatory trying to find some kind of meaning with the eternity that faces them. Fans of writer/illustrator Gerald Brom know that he loves shadowy and creepy stuff, and were he to be anyone's neighbor, I'd fully expect Halloween to be the holiday of the year.

This novel gives us pretty much everything you might expect from an urban fantasy perspective as well. You've got fallen angels and the mythology around that, references to Lucifer, smart and cunning demons, the River Styx, the River Lethe, souls toiling away just as hard in death as they did in life, and there's even killing...which took extra effort for me to suspend disbelief on because all of these people are already dead. The book never does provide a satisfying conclusion to the question: what happens if you die when you are already dead. About the only thing that it does answer is 1) nobody knows and 2) it's probably something akin to utter oblivion and nothingness. Most of the book is spent with Chet, who wanders the plain of Purgatory searching for his grandfather, amidst a landscape that is obviously underground and lit by this sun-like being called "Mother Eye." When it gets tired, the eye closes and plunges the world into a kind of night.

Lost Gods in its reading is not a happy tale. There are many parts of it that are outright horrifying. But one of the satisfying things about the book is to follow Chet Moran's journey into the underworld following his gruesome murder at the hands of his own grandmother (who eats him), and how his perception of what is good and what is evil changes with every encounter along the road. The other part of it that is pretty darn amazing are the visual encounters with the mythologicals...each god that Brom introduces us to is described in lavish detail, and all of them are important to the overall story of the book. In all of its pages, the author keeps that feeling of other-worldliness that is common in Twilight-Zone-esque stories. You always feel like you are one step removed from the real world, and that there is some horror lurking just at the edge of your vision that you would be better off not ever meeting or even understanding.

In finishing, it's the first book I've ever read where the author manages to make a character who commits a heinous murder into a hero worthy of Elysium, which is the book's equivalent of heaven. That was a mind twist that I didn't expect.

Here are some of the illustrations from the book; they are done by Brom himself. I think it's incredible when someone can both write and draw. 

Monday, July 19, 2021

Scientific research into toxic narcissism has discovered a link between aggression and this terrible personality disorder.

My friend Geneva sent me this link from Dr. Ramani Durvasula, and it's about the link between aggression and diagnosable and toxic narcissism. It confirmed (as she says in the video that it did for many others) a suspicion I had regarding those who exhibit the traits of this nasty personality disorder. Dr. Durvasula is an American clinical psychologist, professor of psychology, media expert, and author.

If you are interested in narcissism either because it affects you directly or you've come to understand that our nation is awash with those who have this personality disorder, I would recommend you watch this video. If anything, it gave me some coping strategies for people within my social circle who have dangerous levels of grandiose narcissism. Additionally, this information has equipped me with the ability to make healthy boundaries to make sure that these dangerous individuals are kept from influencing my life in even a small way.

One of my very religious and toxic narcissistic acquaintances got married last year, and I warned his future spouse but she didn't listen. Now a year later, she looks and behaves like a zombie, having aged probably ten years. I knew it was going to be this way, so I don't have any mercy. He had a job with some white collar criminals that went to prison for embezzling money from the government. As a general manager, his title was "President," and boy did she sop that up with a biscuit, buying jewelry, going on vacations, etc. What she didn't know was that he was up to his eyeballs in debt with buying new cars, and living in the basement apartment of his aunt for $300 a month (subsidized by family) was not a red flag because he had $100 bills on hand. 

Shortly after they got married, he got fired from his job, because he never went to work and stayed at home playing video games while telling people to do stuff by phone. They got sick of it. And he's been unemployed ever since, drawing down weekly unemployment checks, eating his Chick-Fil-A, voting for Trump, and looking for another job in his forties that will pay $150,000 a year. He wasn't happy when the unemployment stimulus ran out (Utah Republicans ended it). That was weird because...well...he votes Republican. But no one is biting, because what he really qualifies for is a job at Taco Bell. Debt collectors hound them, and while he stays home and plays video games, she has to work to pay everything. I think there's a weird irony that her wedding ring cost about $10,000, but it was purchased with a loan. And now she's paying down the loan. I think maybe she's too stupid to realize that she bought her own wedding ring. My prediction: he will never work again, because every job that doesn't pay $100.00 per hour is "beneath him." That spells trouble for her, a woman who dreamed of owning a home and living the good life. Meh. Don't ever marry a grandiose narcissist. The abuse will kill you.

But these people always have a "couplesplain" way of talking down to us single folk who know what's up. My favorite from the horse's mouth is, "Marriage is tough and you really got to work hard to keep it together." shouldn't be working that hard only a year into it. That outdated saying also discounts personality disorders, which are a wrecking ball. I honestly feel like a relationship between two people who don't exhibit narcissism, Machiavellianism, and sociopathy (the dark triad) wouldn't be difficult at all. You just need to be able to spot the toxicity, have the courage to label it with very visible stickers for the world to see, and then attack it like cancer. A grandiose narcissist in the wrong place (like the oval office) did incredible damage in just four short years. I'm surprised we even have a democracy left after January 6th, 2021.

Anyway, this video from Dr. Ramani is eye opening. I hope you watch it, and then tell me of your own experiences with narcissistic assholes in your own life.

Friday, July 16, 2021

Loki was a baffling chaotic hot mess of a series that is a clarion call of things to come.

He Who Remains in the middle of his villainous monologue

Spoiler Alert: We are talking about Loki today. Proceed at your own peril.

Loki season 1 (there will be a season 2 according to the stinger embedded after the credits sequence of the season finale) ended by introducing us to a character called "He Who Remains." Played by Jonathan Majors from HBO's now canceled Lovecraft Country, he was a monologuing villain. However, his monologue wasn't boring, as he spoke to both Loki and Sylvie in the house at the end of time.

Who "He Who Remains" actually is...has yet to be revealed. But most sources who have read comic books say that this is Nathaniel Richards. They also say that Kang the Conqueror is one of many versions of Richards, which echoes a sentiment shared by He Who Remains when he referred to one of his variants as a "conqueror." This particular version of Kang was just a nerd who became a tyrant kind of accidentally. Not because he actually wanted to rule, but because he thought he knew what was best and had the means to achieve it.

As a villain, I found this character of He Who Remains to be affably evil with his pseudo arguments of, "What would you do in my place? All of your lives were necessary collateral damage...a sacrifice to keep the timeline pure. If you think you can do better, then you should and just take over." I also liked the line, "We're all villains here." It seemed appropriate given the circumstance that Sylvie and Loki had somehow managed to achieve the high ground of morality despite their storied history of death and destruction. The difference then seemed to be in the growth of the Loki character played by Hiddleston, who learnt to consider what if he is wrong and how that can affect others. This was unique, as Sylvie (to the very bitter end) was consumed by revenge for the wrongs that had been done to her.

In watching these six episodes of the first season, I've got to say that none of this went in the direction that I thought it would. Loki was singularly the most baffling of the Disney + series that include WandaVision and The Falcon and the Winter Soldier. It was also the most revealing into the MCU's future, by giving us a glimpse of all the time travel quackery that is going to consume the multiverse. I wonder how the writers are even going to keep track of all the timelines that are going to explode, and all the various iterations of the characters we know and how they will face the threat of Kang the Conqueror. I worry that it will become confusing in the same way that Dark on Netflix got really confusing and not at all enjoyable. I also wonder if Kang will fall short of the impressiveness of Thanos. I don't really know much about him, so I'm excited to learn. I definitely think that Marvel is trying to go in a different direction, and try out a completely polar opposite of Thanos by recognizing that you can't capture lightning in a bottle more than once.

And I had a parting thought I wanted to share sparked by the Loki mini-series. Maybe the common thread of the future movies is going to be the TVA (Time Variance Authority), and how everyone is going to try for a better version of the TVA. In other words, stopping Kangs from warring across multiverses seems necessary, but not if the cost is free will and the destruction of so many other lives. I also wonder if the timelines diverging means that there are now multiple instances of the TVA. Loki landed in a very different version--one with Kang's statues and no one remembering him. So what exactly does that mean if the TVA itself has been rewritten other than to send the basic message that nothing that has happened thus far in the Marvel Cinematic Universe accounts for anything. It seems like a weird place to go with these stories, but maybe a great reset is what they needed to break away from the comic book peak that they reached with the Infinity Gauntlet story.

Do any of you have any thoughts or considerations regarding the Loki mini-series? 

Wednesday, July 14, 2021

Disney Studios does a great job in rotating major characters out of their Marvel properties. Black Widow is the latest example of this.

A bunch of people around the world watched Black Widow this past weekend. I was one of them. By the time it was over, I had thought yet again on why Marvel (when run by Disney) seems to keep hitting things out of the park. Every film has a freshness to it that you don't get with new Batman and Superman movies where they have recast the old character with whatever the new hotness is in Hollywood. It occurred to me that one of the things that Disney really has going for it is its willingness to just let things go and move on.

For example, Captain America, Iron Man, and Black Widow had run their course. So they let those characters go. There may be new ones that pop up in the future. Anthony Mackey is going to be a "Captain America." But he will never be "The Captain America," and I'm not bothered by that at all. That old "cap" is done as far as I'm concerned (and I really do love me some Chris Evans). The reel's been run out on that particular iteration of the character and what they wanted to do with their life. I gotta say though, that I'm a little in awe of Disney's bold moves to just toss aside old characters that have made them a ton of money. Lesser studios might have tried to woo the actor back with a salary increase or some other such nonsense, but not Disney.

Black Widow (of course) is the latest of the bunch that gets their swan song in a motion picture. When the character was first introduced, female members of "The Avengers" and female superheroes in general were kind of rare. However, we can't say that anymore (and it's only been ten or so years--that isn't that long, folks!). And as much as Natasha spent posing and doing the things that she does really well for the entirety of her run in the MCU, the film was also a highlight of Natasha's greatest hits, showing us one more time just why she was an Avenger in the first place (even though she had no actual super powers). The film also was an excellent springboard to introduce us to someone who is going to be "a Black Widow," even if she isn't the Black Widow. And that's actually exciting, because I love this new character (her name is Yelena Belova and is the younger sister of Natasha but not by blood). Progression and change is so much better than just rebooting characters and asking everyone to pretend that they don't know the origin story one more time.

In watching all of these comic book movies and television adaptations, I feel like studios (and Hollywood) too often keep reaching for the same bag of tricks to try and capture lightning in a bottle. The characters of Superman, the Batman, Spiderman, and the Joker have been done to death. As much as I love Tom Holland in the role of Spiderman, it's going to be fun to see what Disney does with the character next as Holland's contract is up. I read online that Holland is hoping that they will renew his contract, but I actually hope they don't. With the MCU providing a guiding hand to the property of Spiderman, I would assume that we are going to see an expansion of the character into the many alternate realms and earths, giving us all kinds of "Spider people." This hasn't ever been done before in live-action, and it's going to inject some badly needed freshness into a very stale franchise.

Change is a good thing. Capitalism doesn't agree with this statement of course. With regard to entertainment, what capitalism tends to do is to seize upon a successful thing...and then clone it with something that is only marginally different. The up and coming Windows 11 operating system reminds me of this, because Gizmodo's screen shots show that its interface will be almost identical to Mac OS. So, they are copying Apple to try and catch lightning in a bottle. Only Apple already caught the lightning in a bottle, so I don't think it will end up being any more successful than Windows 10 was (I'm actually a fan of Windows 10). And that's why what Disney does by tossing out these old characters in favor of trying out new ones is remarkable by any capitalist measuring stick.

Anyway, Black Widow was a great film that didn't feel stale, and it opened the doors to many other fun opportunities to explore within the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Anyone else see it this weekend? I'll look for your responses in the comments.

Monday, July 12, 2021

Lin-Manuel Miranda's In the Heights brought me joy.

This weekend I watched In the Heights, the movie adaptation of Lin-Manuel Miranda's stage musical of the same name. I loved it so much that I watched it on Friday night and then again on Saturday night. The musical itself is the story of several families who live in Washington Heights, which is a neighborhood in New York City that (in 2021) is largely associated with people from the Dominican Republic.

All of them to one extent or another are followers of el sueñito, which is Spanish for "the dream." In the 1950's, when the abuela of the movie was following her sueñito, all they wanted was to have and provide for children who would not have to struggle and experience the losses that they did. In a musical number called Calor, which is Spanish for "heat," this same abuela to the neighborhood sings about the terrible heat wave that claims her life, and how hard it was to leave Cuba, a place where they had clear skies and stars but no food. Her dream wasn't ever to go and be a cleaning lady. But in order to get what she wanted, this is what life dealt her. So she lived in a way that allowed her to have dignity in small places so that she could tell the world that she was not invisible.

The timeframe for In the Heights is vague. It is set around a blackout that lasts for days in July. Miranda wrote it in the nineties, and he drew inspiration for it from events in the 70's. The original show premiered on Broadway in 2008. But the theatrical musical adaptation that was on HBO Max through June and July (and in theaters) was set right now. This is more than clear with the issues surrounding one of the undocumented dreamers in the show who desperately wants a green card and citizenship in the United States during a time when racism and white nationalism is on the rise nationwide.

Although I can identify with everyone's sueñito in the movie, the theme that struck me most was the idea of being able to forge a life with people in one place and to call that place home. Too often, people are pulled in different directions in life. They move away to different zip codes or country codes, and it can feel like (for those who stay) that the place they called home is dying. The thing I found remarkable was that this story was a way in which young people transitioned to adulthood, yet still came back home to live their lives and continue their story among friends and family. That certainly might have been one thing I would have welcomed in my own life, but I was never able to stick any kind of landing in the place where I was born and have long since left that place and all those who I knew that I might have called, "friend."

If you haven't seen the show, I recommend that you take some time out of your schedule and earnestly watch it. In the Heights resonated with me, because I've experienced discomfort and isolation in schools and workplaces for the way I looked, my lack of religious beliefs, and for my sexuality. I existed in a space and aspired to goals that in many ways, the widespread population of Idaho and Utah would say was not intended for me to achieve. And that's just the truth of it. In the Heights was in many ways about the "otheringness" that Puerto Ricans feel. But anyone who is part of a minority can definitely relate, and feel the power it takes to have pride in oneself and not be apologetic for it. This show brought me joy, and I'm glad it was so readily available to watch.

Friday, July 9, 2021

Ready Player Two is the sequel that didn't need to be written.

I finished reading Ready Player Two this week by author, Ernest Cline. As a novel, it wasn't as good as the first installment which got made into a movie. However, even knowing this...knowing that it is generally impossible to catch lightning in a bottle twice in a row...I wasn't prepared for how "dystopian" the world of Ready Player One actually is. And maybe I should have been. In the first book, the character of Daito got murdered when he was thrown out a window by Sorrento. The event is shocking in the book (not seen in the movie), but it was easy to ignore some of those things (like the stacks getting blown up by IOI/Sorrento), because the Oasis was so much fun visualizing it all.

Ready Player Two picks up where the novel pretty much left off. It turns the page and quickly closes a chapter on the Wade and Samantha romance because Wade is pretty much a huge douchebag. He's like the stereotypical incel character that you hear about on the news, who is really into video games and gets so enraged when women rebuff him that he commits crimes. I was really surprised by this, but I probably shouldn't have been. Wade was always this character, I just refused to see it. Even though Wade shares "ownership" of the company they formed that took over the Oasis, he consistently talks over Samantha and doesn't listen to a thing that she says. She ends up breaking up with him after only a week, because he's changed so much.

Because Wade is Halliday's heir, he wears the "Robes of Anorak." This pretty much makes him a god in the Oasis. So, what does he do with that power? He monitors all the chats for anyone who disparages him in a public way, and then kills their character with a level 99 Finger of Death spell by teleporting to their location while invisible and then snipes them off. He also stalks his ex, Samantha (Artemis), by watching when she logs onto the Oasis, and then he sifts through her private conversations. It's actually super creepy, and I have no idea why Ernest Cline went this direction with Wade in this book.

At the soul of this book is a new discovery that means huge implications for the human race, and it is through this discovery that Wade regains an opportunity to patch things up with Artemis. However, it all seems just a bit too contrived that she'd forgive him for all the creepy things he does and immediately fall back into his arms (which is pretty much what ends up happening). The discovery is another Easter Egg left by Halliday in a corporate vault: a pair of glasses that when worn turn the entire Oasis into a holodeck simulation from Star Trek. In other words, you can feel the wind on your face, you can taste food, you can feel pain and pleasure, etc. All it requires is that anyone who wears it must fork over their brain patterns to this thing for up to twelve hours a day. Any more than this, and you would risk lobotomizing yourself, as the human brain cannot put up with that kind of connection for longer than that. And therein is the plot of the book: by setting a limit on this new headset, the plot has to take us there in a "what if" scenario that evolves into a huge world engulfing crisis.

When Wade announces the new headset to his friends who control the corporation, Aech and Shoto both think it is amazing. Artemis thinks the world isn't ready for the technology, and in many ways she's right. Once again, Wade votes her down and then they go on to patent and sell the glasses to the public. They make so much money on them that they are able to pay off the national debt of the United States. While Artemis/Samantha uses her share of the profits to try to improve the world they live in (the real world), Wade just thinks the planet is f*cked anyway and he, Aech, and Shoto spend their money creating a spaceship that they can fly to Proxima Centauri, a nearby star system that may have planets that can support life. The trip will take 43 years and they will just have their bodies plugged into the Oasis the entire time, so they won't care. Basically, pack up, skip town, and kiss the planet Earth goodbye. You can really see why Samantha wants nothing to do with Wade.

And then, the villain of the story shows up: Anorak. This was the avatar of the now dead Halliday character, but you come to find out that Anorak is a ghost in the machine. He's an artificial intelligence that can think for himself and has Halliday's memory as well as many of Halliday's worst vices that are very "incel-like." He asks Wade to solve a puzzle left behind by Halliday, and he has to do it within twelve hours. If not, then everyone...billions of people worldwide...will not be able to log out of the Oasis, and they will all experience brain death because they are all using those headsets that Wade sold. And this number includes Wade. The only major character who refused to wear one of those new headsets was Samantha, who still logged into the Oasis using the old haptic gear from the first book. She manages to log out, so Anorak tries to kill her by having the plane fall out of the sky (similar to the events of 9/11). 

And then the rest of the book is just puzzle solving to beat Anorak's timer (and to come up with a way to beat Anorak without having to destroy the Oasis with the big red button). The book has a happy ending, but in many ways it seems very contrived. I'm not sure why Wade and Samantha reconcile and become a couple again, but maybe it has something to do with personality disorders and codependency. 

Ready Player Two ended up being the book that I honestly think didn't need to be written. The new headset is cool, and so are the implications of what such technology could do for the human race. But for those saving graces, the nostalgia from the eighties became a bit much. I mean there's a part in the book where they have to take on seven different versions of the Artist formerly known as Prince in a musical competition to the death while being aided by Morris Day and Janet Jackson and the Rhythm Nation. I was is dumb. Entertaining...but dumb. If anything, reading Ready Player Two made me realize that the original story was always a depressing vision of the future of the Earth, and that if everyone had the ability to escape into the Oasis, then no one would ever interact in person with each other ever again. It would be the end of the human extinction by apathy for real life. I think that I much preferred not knowing about all of that, and should have just left well enough alone with the first book, and it's somewhat "Happily Ever After" ending.

I know that the movie is being directed and produced by Steven Spielberg, and I think it is set to come out in 2022. I just hope that Spielberg does what he's famous for doing and that he changes practically everything in it. In tone, it should match the first movie. And I hope that he makes Wade into a likeable character and ditches all that creepy, stalker stuff. I also hope that the movie packs a powerful environmental message of hope, instead of going "all in" on Wade wanting to flee the solar system by using his wealth to escape a dying Earth. I also hope that they skip that battle with Prince. It went on for way too many pages.

Wednesday, July 7, 2021

For the Independence Day IWSG post we are asked to ponder what would make us quit writing.

 It's Wednesday, July 7th and Salt Lake City is in the middle of a historic drought and another heat wave. And it's also time for the monthly Insecure Writer's Support Group blogfest.

The Insecure Writer's Support Group was originally started by Alex J. Cavanaugh, who is an excellent science fiction writer. It's purpose is to share knowledge and inspire/encourage other writers. The rules for the blogfest are simple: you post the first Wednesday of every month. The post can be about writing, or you can take a turn at answering the monthly question which can be found HERE along with the signup.

The awesome co-hosts for the July 7 posting of the IWSG are Pat Garcia, Victoria Marie Lees, and Louise – Fundy Blue!

Now, and with that out of the way, why don't we answer the question.

July 7 question: What would make you quit writing?

This is an easy question to answer: not having any ideas. But (thus far) I've always had things that I want to write and/or talk about. My problem isn't that I don't have enough to write about. Rather, it is that I don't have the time, discipline, or the energy to complete all the projects that I want to do. I'm sure that I'm not the only one.

There are other more obvious answers to this question as well. Lets say I got disabled, could no longer use my hands and speech to text wasn't an option, or let's say that my brain wasn't working like it should. I remember reading about how Terry Pratchett succumbed to Alzheimer's disease prior to his death, and I thought...yeah that's one way to silence a writer forever.

Anyway, those are the answers to the July questions. I hope that all you writers are having a nice summer, and that things are working out well for you. I also hope that your creative well never runs dry.