John Carter, a Review

I’m actually surprised to be writing this review. I thought I would have written one long ago, when I first saw this movie. Searching through the archives, though, it seems I totally missed it.

John Carter is an adaptation of A Princess of Mars by Edgar Rice Burroughs. In it, an American Civil War veteran finds himself transported to Mars, which is a planet of both high technology and sword-and-sandals style action. The eponymous John Carter has heightened strength which is mostly showcased through his ability to leap tall build . . . hills in a single bound. Carter unites the peoples of Mars and saves it from the threat posed by super-sciency alien types known as the Therns.

I read A Princess of Mars, but it was about ten years ago, and I honestly don’t remember that many details about the plot. I can’t really comment on the adaptation, but I can say that I am a real fan of the movie. It’s hard to discuss this movie objectively because I generally get so wrapped up in the action and adventure that I’m not paying much attention to the story. The villains’ plans seem questionable. They had various stated goals, some of them contradictory. I also found the bookending dragged a little bit. That being said, everything else was a treat.

I think Taylor Kitsch did a great job playing the hero, and I didn’t mind the hesitation he evidenced on accepting that mantle. I like how his backstory came in a collection of glimpses until an important action set-piece. I liked Lynn Collins’ depiction of Dejah Thoris, although even with the updating and empowerment provided by the script, it remains a character founded in 1930s pulp and so might not be appreciated by everyone. I loved seeing so many great actors showing up from Rome – with Ciaran Hinds and James Purefoy in noticeable roles but also Polly Walker provided the voice for Sarkoja the Thark and Nicholas Woodeson as Carter’s attorney.

The worldbuilding is great, envisioning the technology and fauna of Mars. I totally accepted the CGI Tharks and for the most part, the flyers seemed to have real heft, but I can be very forgiving of a movie that gives me so much action in the service of a great planetary romance adventure.

John Carter didn’t make back its budget, so we are very unlikely to see a sequel. That’s pretty depressing. This was a fantastic movie, but I guess the effects – pretty necessary to deliver the Barsoom experience – made it too costly. At least we got this one.

I give John Carter 4.5 Thern medallions out of 5. This is a fantastic action adventure though I think the bookending could have worked better and I didn’t find the villains’ plans comprehensible.

You can read more about John Carter at Wikipedia or IMDB.

You can read more about John Carter and Barsoom at Encyclopedia Barsoomia.

Posted in Review | 4 Comments

Write What You Read

Everyone has heard “write what you know.” How people define “know” is, of course, variable, but it is fair enough advice on the face of it – if you don’t know about sub-hunting in WWII, don’t write fiction about sub-hunting in WWII because it’s going to come off as inauthentic. That’s not to say you had to hunt subs in WWII or that you need to be the leading expert in that field, just that you need to have knowledge of the subject to make the fiction convincing and authentic.

I would suggest we also add “write what you read.” This is part of “write what you know.” If you don’t read hardboiled detective fiction, don’t try to write it. If you don’t read sword & sorcery fantasy, don’t try to write it.

Every genre has its tropes as well as its clichés, and without reading them, you probably won’t know which is which. You also won’t know what has been done in the genre, and what has been done to death. You may believe you have a fresh take on the genre, but without reading widely in it, you honestly don’t know. You are making choices based on assumptions, and we all know how well that usually turns out.

Some writers don’t want to read in a genre as it will taint what they consider their fresh perspective. If so, than it behooves that writer to look at scholarly works on the genre or otherwise learn about the genre if they refuse to read it. Still, if one’s voice is so distinct, should one fear reading in the genre? Relying on retrospectives or inventories of works in a genre is kind of like taking a Ph. D. in Korean History and refusing to learn Korean – you are relying on interpretations and translations rather than primary sources.

I think the only way you can write fiction that can impact on a genre in a positive way is by knowing that genre. This does not mean you must adapt to it, it just means you have surveyed the beach in which you are going to swim so if you appear without your bathing suit it is because it is actually accepted in that area rather than because you assumed it would be.

Posted in Articles, Writing | Tagged , , | Leave a comment

Peter Capaldi’s Doctor

Netflix has added season 8 of the revived Doctor Who, the one with Peter Capaldi has the Doctor. My wife and I had enjoyed the revived Doctor Who but lost track somewhere around Matt Smith’s second or third season. I did get a chance to see “Day of the Doctor” and “Time of the Doctor,” also on Netflix, and I was well aware of the hand-over from media.

I have to say that I quite like the Peter Capaldi Doctor. I have enjoyed all the actors who have undertaken the role in the revived series, and I don’t know yet where I would place Capaldi. I have a feeling he’s going to become one of my favourites. Right now, I would have to say Christopher Eccleston’s short-lived, cynical and dangerous Doctor has been my favourite – though that might be because he’s the one who returned me to Doctor Who. I grew up watching re-runs on TV Ontario of the Jon Pertwee and Tom Baker Doctors, and Capaldi seems to be a throwback to these.

I also like that the Doctor is now questioning his effect on the universe. In the first four episodes, he’s questioning if he is a good man. He also tinges cynicism and prickliness with a certain immaturity – kind of a hybrid of Pertwee and Baker. I’m digging this interpretation so far. It’s also nice that the sexual tension that marked so much of David Tennant’s and Matt Smith’s runs is gone. It’s not that those were bad storylines, but that has been done, so let’s try something else.

All in all, I’m very happy with the new Doctor and the stories so far in season 8. I hope BBC keeps making these and Netflix keeps licencing them.

You can learn more about Doctor Who here.

You can learn more about the awesome TV Ontario here.

Posted in Review | Tagged , , , | 2 Comments

Friday Fiction: The Boltcutter – Intrigue

The Boltcutter: Intrigue

They had turned onto an exceptionally wide track – Reno had stopped calling them roads – and Deng pointed along their route. “I’ve got a place right there, next to the construction . . .”

Deng’s voice trailed off. Reno scanned the construction site – Deng surely had noticed something. They took the next left, onto a smaller track, only wide enough for people to walk past the Prada as it inched along the divots and fissures.

“I saw a man on the second floor with binoculars,” Deng said.

“Guy on the roof lying flat, something beside him,” Reno said. “Sorry buddy, but that might be a house, but I’d question the safe.”

“Only one man knew of that safehouse.” Deng parked.

“Yeah, maybe you only dealt with one man, but who’d he deal with?” Reno slid the SIG into his waistband and the magazines into his pocket. “Can I borrow your MP7?”

Deng had his Browning under his shirt. He pulled out a rucksack, a worn, canvas one Reno swore he recognized from the bush in the 90s. “You can take the HK and I’ll take the Uzi. But remember that neither are silenced.”

“Understood.” Reno patted the SIG. “For my nerves.”

Reno had no chance of blending into the surroundings, so the two found a good perch on a building roof some blocks away and watched through their own binoculars. One man played at working on the engine of an old landcruiser at the side of the road while another sat in a plastic chair and jabbered to him. Reno guessed the one in the seat had a sub-machine gun in easy reach among the scattered tools and containers while the other probably had an AKM under that hood.

The guy sitting on the second story of the construction site – a skeletal, unfinished structure of metal poles and some poured concrete – pretended to eat his lunch all day long without actually eating anything. Any movement approaching from the main, paved road brought the binoculars to his eyes. The angle prevented getting a good look at the prone man on the roof, but he was likely the sniper with a longarm close by.

The man running the corner bodega that sold sundries and water had too much beef to be an actual merchant. He interacted stiffly whenever anyone bought anything from him, and his customers revealed no comfort or community. They did not know him and he didn’t know them. His eyes went to the construction site often.

The sun had almost touched the horizon when Deng and Reno returned to the Prada. Weapons remained in easy reach.

Deng took out his Browning and checked its magazine yet again. “I cannot believe this is a coincidence.”

“Alor could have killed us at the meeting if that’s what he wanted,” Reno said. “It’s not a hit. . . I don’t think.”

Deng shook his head. “But there is no one else. No one else wants my blood so bad, and no one knows I am back. They are Alor’s men.”

“There’s plenty of cover around back, and they don’t seem particularly vigilant.” Reno scratched his jaw. “Do we chance it? If they’re Alor’s men, they won’t be gunning for us until the job is done.”

“That is a bet I do not wish to take.” Deng frowned. “I have a second safehouse. A cot, a toilet, nothing more. It will work for now.” The Prada pulled into the road.

Reno pressed one hand against the roof to try to jam himself into the seat as the truck danced through the canyons of the back tracks. “Sounds lovely, but first let’s go talk to an old friend.” Reno took one of the three cell phones lying in the console between driver and passenger. “John’s in town. I told him I’d meet him for dinner.”

“You do that. I have some people I need to speak to. I need to try to get someplace clean.”

Along the river, far back from the main road on its own, private track, AFEX had both quarters and restaurants. The living quarters had been tents back in 2006, and those remained, but now it boasted both real rooms and those built from containers. Visiting businessmen, diplomats and even the occasional movie star, come to lend his considerable charm to the country’s cause, roomed at AFEX.

No one would notice two ex-pats having pizza and beer on a Wednesday night.

Like so many other restaurants in the city, the restaurant at AFEX Camp had nothing resembling local food. It had, however, local beer. John had started into a tall, cold bottle of Nile Lager, half of it in the glass he held. He stood and offered Reno his hand. Reno took it, returning John’s smile.

Tall and lanky, the American had spiky blonde hair, sparkling eyes, and a youthful enthusiasm that no European could comfortably wear. Sitting, he took a long sip of his beer. “Godammit, but this place is hot. I mean, real hot. Like humid hot. You know?”

Pleasantries. John always started with small talk – at least with people he liked. Calm and cool, he wore his composure like a suit. He looked good in it, but when the time came, he could slip it off, roll up his sleeves, and dig in. As long as he spoke in his affable, unidentifiable, almost flat English, he hadn’t started the clock. When his easy, agreeable attitude left him, he was getting ready for business.

You didn’t want to be John’s business.

“Yeah, uncomfortable weather.” Reno considered heading to the bar to get himself a drink, but then he saw the waiter approach with two tall bottles of Nile Lager. The condensation on their sides said they were cold.

Since the place didn’t have wait-staff, John must have dropped some serious money in the past. They’d remember that. Reno and John exchanged weather wisdom until the waiter departed.

John considered the beer already in his glass. “You here for a vacation?”

“Business.” The waiter had left a bottle opener, which Reno used on one of the bottles. “I felt obliged. You can imagine why.”

“Frankly, I can’t.” John’s smile lost some of its luster as he leaned on his elbow, bringing himself closer to Reno. “What the hell are you doing here? After 2006, I thought you’d be gone for good. There are plenty of people in this city that’d gut you for the change in my pocket.”

“I got called back in.”

John shook his head. “No you didn’t. No one’s got that pull. No one’s got that weight.”

Around most people, Reno could hold it all in. Nothing touched his face and nothing tinged his voice. John put him at ease. He always had. Did something reach his face? It must have, because John’s smile slowly slid away.

“Someone got to Deng.” John paused, watching Reno. “No, Deng got to you. Deng’s back?” John leaned back in his chair, his mouth hanging limp for a moment. Silence lingered. Around them, voices chattered, music insisted, the river groaned. John rubbed his face. “Tell me.”

“I need an ID. Ahmed Hussein Qassim, or maybe just Okema. Ugandan. He’s done work in Somalia. They say he’s working for you now.”

John didn’t dodge. He didn’t obfuscate. “Boltcutter.”

“Yes, Boltcutter. What’s with that name?”

“In Mogadishu, he used a Vikhr, a silenced Russian carbine designed for the Spetznatz, or the FSB.” John’s smile returned, heralded by a chuckle. “Someone thought it was the Vintorez, the silenced sniper rifle, uses the same cartridge.”

“The Threadcutter?”

“Yeah. Someone messed up the name. Boltcutter.”

Reno released a long breath through his nose. “Go figure. Okay. So who is the Boltcutter?”

“He works for us.” John refilled his empty glass. “And?”

“Deng and I have been hired to kill him.”

To his credit, John didn’t spill a drop as he poured, though the bottle did shake for an instant. “Who?”

“Major General David Alor.”

“Oh fuck me.” John’s face tensed around his eye, showcasing ridges and wear hidden a moment before. “When?”

“Got the briefcase full of money this afternoon. We’ve got three days to get this done.”

“You’re going to do it?”

“Are you kidding me? You say he’s yours.”

John flexed his right hand and the joints cracked. A pistol in that hand would hit any target within 300 metres. Reno waited, knowing John ran through options in his head, considering, weighing, deciding. John ran a finger along the side of his glass, creating a path through the condensation. “I have an out. I can get you to Frankfurt. No questions asked and no trail left behind. I can guarantee your contract is paid and there’ll be no blowback. It’ll take a few years, but you’ll be able to come back. If you want.”

“What is he doing?” Reno asked. “He’s not a CI, he’s not placed to inform. He’s an operative. What’s the operation?”

For a few heartbeats, John just stared at Reno. In those heartbeats, his youthful, sparkling eyes went cold. John calculated. One eye tightened slightly. “Al Shabaab is moving people through the city. Some are going west to connect with other extremists in Nigeria and the Maghreb. Some are coming east after finishing training. This is the crossroads. The country’s a fucking mess. Everyone is up for grabs. Fertile ground for that kind of traffic. The connection is here.”

The realization of how it all fit left Reno unable to stop the smile from reaching his face. “Boltcutter has sniffed out the connection.”

“Seems he has.” John finished the beer in his glass. “Still, we’re not done. The op is running. I know you well enough to know you’re not going to spike it. You have your out.”

“Deng and I both.”

“It’s an out for one.” John said. “That’s how it’s been set up. It’s my goddamn out, okay? This is my escape pod, but I’ll give you the keys. I’m going to have to vacate to Nairobi tonight. I won’t be back until we get another out in place.” He considered his empty glass. “You’re welcome.”

“Give it to Deng.”

John’s eyes narrowed. “Seriously? That leaves you exposed. Really exposed. I can’t stay here without an out. You bail with me or you are totally screwed. Alor’s connected. And he holds a grudge. ”

“He’s holding one against Deng,” Reno said. “That’s what this is about. Two birds: Boltcutter and Deng both. You protect your operative. I’ll protect my friend.”

“You know what’ll happen once he drops off the map.” John clasped his hands before him on the table. “You owe him that much?”

“Do you remember Morocco?”

“Of course.” Barely a muscle twitched on John’s face, but his tone said that no one could forget that kind of debt.

“It’s like that.”

John’s lips pursed, then they flowed into a kind of sad grin. “You get him to agree, you’ve got my number. Call me. Give me a go or no go.” He rose.

Reno stood and held out his hand. “Slate’s clean.”

John’s grip had lost none of its gentle strength. “The slate will never be clean.”

Deng picked up Reno at the main road, making a wide turn to change directions. Deng didn’t drive the Prada. He had a white Toyota Landcruiser, and it looked rough. The dash had bubbled, kind of melted. Reno had seen it before working in the Sahel and along the Sahara. You leave a vehicle in the sun and that black dash will get hot, hot enough to melt.

Reno slid into his seat. “We’re right fucked.”

“That is obvious.” Deng gestured to the glove compartment. “At least we have somewhat secure comms.”

In the glove compartment, Reno found two Iridium satellite phones, and a wad of money.

“That is the good news.” Deng’s eyes did not leave the road, which lacked any illumination beyond the landcruiser’s headlights. “The bad news is that we are flying solo. I have no one left in the city I can trust. I need to get back into the safehouse to get the money and equipment.”

“No you don’t.” Reno also watched the road, it being so much easier to speak when not facing with the other. “John has an out. It’s yours.”

“I leave now and I don’t come back.” Nothing reached Deng’s voice. They might have been discussing the best route to get to a good Ethiopian restaurant. “Alor is it. He is the last of them. He goes or I do, and I will never be able to return.”

“Then we talk to this Boltcutter.” Reno picked one of the sat phones. “I’ll let John know we’re staying put. He’ll get us a meet. We’ll figure this out.”

“Boltcutter is theirs?” Deng’s tone said that he didn’t need an answer.

Reno gave him one. “He is. And Alor is into some nasty shit. Not that that’s a surprise. You said it’s either you or Alor. I know which one I pick.”

“Then make your call, but we need to pass a message on also,” Deng said. “Not by phone. Some other way.”

Reno didn’t ask. He keyed the number, confident John wouldn’t say no, even if that’s what he wanted.

You can find part one of “The Boltcutter” here.

Look for more Friday Fiction here.

Posted in Fiction | Tagged , , , , | Leave a comment

Unconscious Inspiration

Sometimes, you find inspiration in another work and you don’t even try to hide it: my story “Farewell, Something Lovely” is a rip-off of the Raymond Chandler novel Farewell, My Lovely. I’m okay with admitting my story uses the ideas and structure of the other. If it’s good enough for Shakespeare, why should I have a problem with it?

Sometimes, you take a bunch of different inspirations and mix them all together to produce a work that is different than its components. “The Boltcutter” is a product of both non-fiction articles regarding the region, time spent there, and espionage and military thrillers I’ve read. There’s no single point of inspiration that I could point to and say “that inspired the story.”

And sometimes, you think it’s column B, but really it’s column A.

From the movie Tears of the Sun, set in Nigeria

I had started a story some time back about a team of Canadian special operators tasked with protecting a government figure in an east-central African country. Its working title is “the Detachment.” I thought it was something different, an amalgam of thrillers read and action movies seen. Then I was re-watching episodes of the Unit – it’s on Netflix and sometimes I’m bored – and I stumble upon the episode “Unannounced,” and many of the aspects of my story were there.

Inspiration is funny that way. No matter how original you might be, you can’t help but be influenced by other works that you have seen and enjoyed – or have not enjoyed but have marveled at how the creator employed a certain technique or idea.

I honestly don’t think there’s much original about anything I write, the key is to present it in a different way and present it in my voice. I am trying to entertain with my writing. I am not and will never be a great artist. And even great artists are inspired by existing works.

In my mind, creators need to worry less about being wholly original than about being good and being entertaining. If you find something that inspires you, wear it on your sleeve. There’s no need to hide it. Those that enjoy your work are going to seek out that inspiration and then you can help to bring something you love to a wider audience.

I’m not, however, a big believer in many of the romantic myths about writing, so your mileage may vary.

Have you not read Farewell, My Lovely? Do so!

“Unannounced” was on the first season of the Unit.

I showcased the opening of the draft of “the Detachment” here. It is undergoing revisions.

“The Boltcutter” is the first story I’m presenting for Friday Fiction, and you can find part 1 here.

Posted in Articles, Writing | Tagged , , | Leave a comment

Cities of the Ancient World: Review

I’m fascinated by ancient history, by the societies and political entities that existed before the Greek city-states. I’m not going to lie to you, most of my reading in history is Roman or medieval rather than ancient, however I have a great resource to feed my curiosity: the Great Courses series.

The latest of the Great Courses series in which I’ve indulged was Cities of the Ancient World, delivered by Dr. Steven L. Tuck. It was the perfect course for me because along with interest in ancient history, I’m very interested in urban societies, both in my fiction writing and also for my role-playing games.

The course looks at a collection of major urban sites up to and including Constantinople (was that Istanbul? No, Constantinople)*. Some of these are based only on archaeological evidence, but for many there are texts – be they the records of earlier oral histories, legends, myths, or other primary sources – to help fit all the pieces together.

And Dr. Tuck does a fantastic job of fitting together all those pieces. He gives us an idea of the physical layout of the city, how it formed, and how it evolved. He provides insights into the growth of urban planning, which was interesting, but not something for which I had hoped when I picked up the series.

I loved the discussion of life within the city. Dr. Tuck talks about class and social differences, as well as pointing out some of the industry that might take place in the city. For each site, he provides an analysis of the role of that particular city in history as well as within its own political entity. Many of these cities are capitals, but there are plenty that are not, and those that were not had some other importance that allowed them to grow and prosper.

This is a great addition to lecture series like Origins of Great Ancient Civilizations from Dr. Kenneth Harl and Great Battles of the Ancient World by Dr. Garret Fagan (both of which I own) to educate one and if one is working creatively, to inspire one.

The only real criticism – other than that, for me, time spent discussing urban planning would be better spent talking about the interaction of citizens, trade and contact with other societies – was that while Dr. Tuck is a good speaker, I don’t find him as engaging as Dr. Harl or Dr. Fagan. That’s not to deride his delivery, because he’s excellent, but he suffers by comparison.

I give Cities of the Ancient World 4.75 orthogonal plans out of 5. This is an amazing lecture series, but loses a few points for the urban planning inclusion and Dr. Tuck is not perfectly engaging.

*Obligatory They Might Be Giants reference.

You can find Cities of the Ancient World at the Great Courses and at Audible.

You can find Origins of Great Ancient Civilizations at the Great Courses and at Audible.

You can find Great Battles of the Ancient World at the Great Courses and at Audible.

Note: This is very idiosyncratic and probably sounds crazy to most people, butI am very torn about buying Great Courses’ series at Audible. I have spent a lot of money on courses at the Great Courses (always while the courses were on sale because the regular price is frankly insane) because I love these lecture series and I want more of them. Having been directed to Audible thought Google+, I saw how much cheaper they were there. I really, really want to support the Great Courses, but not enough to pay double or triple Audible’s price. I have purchased 20 Great Courses, so I think I’ve done my bit. If they can’t afford to sell titles through Audible, they shouldn’t offer them for distribution there. I honestly feel guilty, but at least I’m not pirating their product.

Posted in Review | Tagged , , , | Leave a comment

Character Letter Writing

Back in the day, I used to listen to a writing podcast put out by Michael Stackpole called the Secrets. It was really good. The site is still up, but I don’t think any of the episodes remain available. There were other writing podcasts to which I listened, and I believe I got this idea from the Secrets, but I’m not sure. The idea was on fleshing out characters.

Write a letter from the character. It might be to a character in the story, it might be to a character not in the story, or it might be to a real world personage, but write a letter as the character.

I would expand this to include writing journal entries or even reports. Anything from your character’s point of view and in your character’s voice. Letter writing and journals are great because they are generally first person. A letter works well if you want the narrator to be unreliable when we are in the character’s point of view. If we accept that the journal is actually honest and non-evasive – at least in the sincere belief of the character – than this is closer to what we could expect from a confessional character – a character not intentionally trying to hide anything.

A report is interesting, because it is generally closer to third person – which is the most prominent and popular POV for long fiction – and is the character putting on a character, or at least a voice. Writing a report, the character will need to put everything in relatively official form and this is unlikely to be the character’s natural style. A newspaper article is a kind of report, except for an opinion piece, which is another interesting form of letter-writing.

These are all ways to capture the voice of a character that can help translate that character into the limited third person POV. It would certainly work for first person as well, but I think its real value comes if you have rotating POVs: when you need to get into character, re-read the letter or journal. All the better if there are more. It will help you to get back into the character’s head, remembering the character’s mannerisms, foibles, and prejudices while also reminding yourself how that character sounds.

Because each character should sound different, and sometimes that’s a really hard trick to pull off.

You can find the Secrets writing podcast page here.

Posted in Articles, Writing | Tagged , , | Leave a comment