Single Oh Seven: Licence to fanwank

SPOILERS AHOY for Spectre, Skyfall, Quantum of Solace, Casino Royale, On Her Majesty’s Secret Service and possibly for any of the nineteen other canonical Bond films I decide to chuck in

I have a theory.  I haven’t researched it at all, so there might be plenty of other people who have theorised the same thing.  Or there might be stuff out there refuting it, or confirming it.  But it’s my theory, and I’m going to put it here.

Casino Royale and Quantum of Solace, Daniel Craig’s first two James Bond movies, are pretty openly presented as the first two episodes of a trilogy dealing with the discovery and exploration of the top-secret global criminal superconspiracy, “Quantum”; and the end of Quantum of Solace—in which Bond takes Dominic Greene offscreen to interrogate him, and all we learn of that interrogation is when we cut back to Greene afterward and he screams, “Okay! I’ve told you all you wanted to know about Quantum!”—clearly set the third Daniel Craig film up as Bond’s big final showdown with Quantum and whatever shadowy mastermind was running it.

I’ve assumed it was because Quantum of Solace was so underwhelming (in terms of critical response and general narrative dissatisfaction, though certainly not in terms of box office) that the decision was taken to abandon the Quantum storyline completely in Skyfall.  Narratively, Skyfall stands completely apart from its two predecessors, with no mention of Quantum.  Even the characterisation of Bond has been reversed: not only has the first two films’ “Bond is too young, hotheaded, unpredictable and inexperienced” theme been jettisoned, it’s been replaced by its exact opposite, as Skyfall is centred on Bond being too old and past his prime to carry the physical demands of his job.

So here’s my theory.  I think that when the Bond people reacquired the rights to S.P.E.C.T.R.E. and the Blofeld character in 2013, they were so anxious to include them in the next Bond film (particularly given how successful Skyfall was at reintroducing elements that have been missing from the series, such as Q, Miss Moneypenny and even the 1960s Aston Martin), they were so eager to include them that they basically just dusted off the abandoned original storyline for the third Daniel Craig film and changed the name “Quantum” to “Spectre”.

This would explain why Blofeld in Spectre is essentially identical, in modus operandi, to Raoul Silva from Skyfall; because Silva would have been originally conceived of as the evil genius masterminding Quantum.  (Silva’s obsession with Judi Dench’s M fits in well here.  One thing the first three Daniel Craig Bonds did very well—I’ve raved about this many times in the past—was their extended exploration of the relationship between Bond and Dench’s M.  The treatment of the Bond–M relationship in Casino Royale and Quantum of Solace makes a lot of sense if the plan had always been to subject it to the same deconstruction it gets in Skyfall even when Skyfall hadn’t been intended to be Skyfall.)

This would also explain why it is that Spectre and Blofeld don’t actually seem to have any sort of evil goal.  They have want to link up the intelligence-gathering networks of Britain, South Africa, Japan, China and five other unnamed countries, and have access to the information produced by those networks, but there’s no explanation as to what they want to do with that network that would be so much more horrible than the fact that modernday governments already have access to that information in the first place.  Mounting terrorist attacks on Mexico City, Frankfurt, Tunisia and Cape Town?  Except that those terrorist attacks were staged as a means to get the Nine Eyes network up and running, and once that goal had been achieved, there wouldn’t have been any reason to keep them going.  To avoid prosecution for Spectre’s sex trafficking and counterfeit African drugs programmes?  They seem to be doing a pretty good job of that already, considering that they apparently have already cornered both those huge markets of global crime and yet still no one is even aware that their organisation exists.

(Really, if Bond had been a bit more cooperative with Ralph Fiennes’s M and told him he’d just discovered a secret global crime syndicate who are masterminding the distribution of counterfeit drugs in Africa, M could have saved everyone a lot of time just by saying, “Don’t worry about it, 007; your wife and I already took care of that.”)

There were parts of Spectre I thought worked well.  I really liked the Dia de los Muertes imagery in the opening shot.  Blofeld’s introduction at the Spectre board meeting in Rome was a really brilliant example of “this is how we take a quintessentially 60s cinematic moment and put it on the screen for a 2015 audience”.  The Bond torture scene was genuinely squeam-inducing.

But it was also a clunky film, and its biggest area of clunkiness was its complete lack of a coherent plot.  If that’s because it’s the product of an abandoned storyline that had already been cannibalised for parts in Skyfall, well, that would explain a lot.

Another area of clunk were elements that seemed to have been included as homages or tips of the hat, but that were just tossed into the background, glided quickly past and never mentioned or focused on. For instance, when Mr. Hinx popped out his opponent’s eyes, I could have sworn that he had steel-tipped thumbnails, which I took as a reference to Jaws’s steel teeth; but his thumbs were only onscreen for a second or two, and weren’t shown again, so I couldn’t check.

Similarly, Bond first finds Madeleine Swann at an ultra-exclusive, ultra-luxurious, secluded mental health clinic perched in isolation on a mountaintop in the Austrian Alps, and that has to be a reference to On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, right?  There’s no way that everyone involved in the production of Spectre can have been unaware that that’s a major part of OHMSS, particularly considering that OHMSS is not only one of the “Blofeld trilogy” of Bond films, but is also the only other Bond film that ends with Bond resigning from MI-6 and (literally) driving off to spend the rest of his days with the woman he loves?  And yet Dr. Swann’s milieu gets no special comment or focus; it’s just an exotic background like any of the many others that litter the opening acts of Spectre as they do all Bond films.

I’m a huge fan of ambiguous storytelling, but I didn’t find things like this to be ambiguous so much as I did frustrating.  Because they make you wonder if other parts of the movie are also references to previous films, or if you’re just pattern matching and there’s really nothing there.  For instance, when Bond and Dr. Swann arrive at Blofeld’s layer, and Swann finds that Blofeld has left a dress out for her on her bed in her room; Lisa was pretty sure that was a reference to Dr. No.  Or the fact that Bond’s ultimate defeat of Blofeld involves bringing his helicopter crashing down out of the sky over London—there are enough differences between how that’s realised in Spectre versus in For Your Eyes Only that I think it’s kiiiiiinda a stretch to see the two as related, unless Spectre has already been genuinely peppered with all these other moments and images from the previous films.

Anyway, that’s my theory, and I’m sticking to it.


He became more powerful than you could possibly imagine

I learn from Facebook comments that the “commonly accepted story” is that (SPOILERS AHEAD for A New Hope) Sir Alec Guinness persuaded George Lucas to kill off the character of Obi-Wan Kenobi so that he could avoid appearing in any Star Wars sequels. (Which, obviously, worked out real well for him.)

This is news to me.  If it’s commonly accepted, it must have only gained such acceptance relatively recently. (Granted, in my case, relative recency would be any time within the last fifteen or twenty years.)  When I was coming up through fandom in the 1990s, very much the commonly accepted story was that Lucas decided to kill off Ben Kenobi upon realising that there was nothing for him to do in the second half of the film other than hang around in the background being ineffective (something Princess Leia already had nailed down quite nicely), and that Guinness was in fact furious at the change.  Here he was, already leery at appearing in this latter-day Flash Gordon-esque, cheap sci fi potboiler, and only having agreed to do so because he had been so impressed by the enthusiastic young writer-director’s insistence that a dignified portrayal of the Kenobi character would imbue the film with a psychological believability—but now he was being told he would spend the second half of the picture as a disembodied voice.

Now, I’m not here arguing that my story is right and the new story is wrong, though personally, until I see a citation for the new version, I’ll be sticking with mine, because I first came across it in Skywalking, the 1983 George Lucas biography.  (In fact, the original account appears to be included in Google Books’s preview of Skywalking.)

No, rather, I’m just fascinated by how the story flipped completely around—from Lucas killing Obi-Wan off over Guinness’s objection to Guinness strong-arming Lucas doing it—yet both, entirely contradictory stories are to illustrate the same conclusion: that staid old Sir Alec Guinness was dismissive of science fiction and came to regret slumming it in Star Wars.

There’s something important (or at least mildly interesting) there, I think, about oral transmission and the myths we build about our past.


The philosophy of spoilers

I talked a while ago about when I realised how much more enjoyable becomes when I avoid spoilers, and the basic principle I derived from that.

Right now spoilers are a big topic, because of the Olympics.  If, like me, you’re on the East Coast, you have to wait until 8PM EDT for NBC to start their broadcast of the day’s major events.  That’s 1AM BST–in other words, it’s right when actual competition is wrapping up for the day, and it’s hours and hours after many of the events we’re most interested in have finished.  You have to wait three hours longer on the West Coast.

But while you’re waiting, lots of your friends on Twitter and Facebook already know the outcome, either because they watched it live in Europe or because they’ve gone online–maybe even to NBC’s website itself–so they don’t have to wait.  And they’re talking about it.

I’ve seen both extremes in reaction to this.  I’ve had someone in my stream declare that we need to hold our tongues even after this stuff airs on NBC, to accommodate those who are watching on DVR(!).  And I’ve had someone tell us all that you either can have Twitter, or you can not be spoilt, but that you’ve got no right to expect people online to consider others when spouting spoilers.

I think they’re both wrong.

I’ve thought about this quite a bit, and I’ve refined my position down to a basic standard:

If there’s a time we’re all supposed to gather together to watch something, I think it’s really rude to spoil it beforehand.  What this means, as far as the Olympics go, is that it’s my own responsibility to avoid what’s being said by the people I follow who are actually in Britain–they’ve all seen it live on TV (or in a few instances, in person).  But those in America, who are heading online to see it before the rest of us?  They should be taking the rest of us into consideration.  And I’m speaking here as someone who is far more interested in Team GB than Team USA, so this system leaves far more of the onus on me than it does on others.

Note that this does not mean that you can’t talk about what you know. Just have the politeness to ensure that people are able clearly to see that they’re about to read a spoiler before they read it.  Best way to do this is generally to start off with SPOILER in big, obnoxious capital letters.

For TV shows, that rule stands until the episode airs. (Yes, that includes not spoiling things that are being revealed in the adverts.) For a big movie, until it’s been in release for a week. For a book?  As long as it’s a new release (ninety days from publication), certainly, and then probably as long after that as it remains a top ten bestseller.

Note also that this is a minimum.  I for one have always tried to maintain a higher standard.  As far as movies, TV shows, books go?  I try always to include a spoiler warning in some form.  I was going on thirty the first time I saw The Third Man, and it was over sixty years after the film’s first release.  Yet somehow I’d managed never to be spoilt on one of the most famous movie twists of all time, and it was brand new to me.  If I’d known what was coming, it’s entirely possible I wouldn’t have nearly the appreciation for what’s now my all-time favourite film as I do.  But as far as sport goes?  If I’m watching a live event on TV, and I have something to say about it, I say it.

We can talk about the things that engage us.  But we don’t have to trample all over everyone else’s engagement with them to do it.


Nothing new under the sun

The first time it happened was this summer, when I happened to catch a showing of the (great) 1940 British spy thriller Night Train to Munich on TMC.  Night Train to Munich is set in the days leading up to the outbreak of war between Britain and Germany in September 1939.  The Nazis kidnap a Czechoslovak scientist and his daughter, and to rescue them, a British secret agent (played by a strikingly young Rex Harrison) travels to Berlin, dons a Gestapo uniform and bluffs his way into Gestapo headquarters.

Of course, there’s no way I could watch that scene and not instantly draw the connection to a similar episode in A Traitor’s Loyalty, in which the protagonist, a British spy, travels to Berlin to hunt a British defector and, in order to get information, disguises himself as a Gestapo officer and enters Gestapo headquarters.

Then over the holidays, I saw Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, and, as is my wont, got home from the film and immediately looked it up on Wikipedia.  And therein I discovered that, in the book on which the movie’s based, the codename that MI-6 gives to their star Soviet mole is Merlin.  In A Traitor’s Loyalty, by the by, the hero used to be MI-6’s star Nazi mole, and his codename back when he worked for MI-6 was Merlin.  (In A Traitor’s Loyalty, which takes place in a world where the Nazis defeated the Soviets, the cold war is fought between NATO and Nazi Germany rather than NATO and Soviet Russia.)


And then yesterday I saw Haywire.  At one point, in one small moment, after the heroine has had her employers turn against her, she searches her trusty rucksack and discovers, sewn into its lining, a small black device with an antenna on one end and a blinking red light on the other.  In A Traitor’s Loyalty, when the hero realises his masters have been manipulating behind his back, he searches the car they gave him and discovers, sewn into the upholstery of the boot, a “small radio transistor with a red light blinking slowly at one end”.


Your first reaction when you come across stuff like this–or my first reaction, at any rate–is to wince, to think that you’re a horribly derivative writer incapable of thinking up an idea someone else hasn’t thought of, and that you’re about to be exposed as such before the world.

After a little while, though, you start getting a little bit of perspective.  You realise, first of all, that it isn’t about having every element of your story be something no one’s ever thought of before–it’s about what you do with your story elements, combining them and presenting them in a way that people still find fresh and interesting.  Harry Potter and The Da Vinci Code are both famously made up of a multiplicity of sources from elsewhere, but even those readers who could spot and tease out the inspirations for the stories’ different elements still often found reading them very enjoyable.

Downtown Abbey could be summed up without much inaccuracy as a mashup of Pride and Prejudice and Upstairs Downstairs.  That was obvious to me within its first five minutes, but not only did it not do anything to dampen my appreciation of the show, it actually added another dimension to it for me.  I got to see how Downton took the premise of a country landowner who has fathered only daughters but whose estate is entailed upon the male line and how it treated that premise–doing some things that were similar to what Jane Austen did in Pride and Prejudice and some things that were very different.

And then the second thing you have to realise is that a lot you see, you only see because you’re you–you’re the author of the work in question.  The example from Haywire is a perfect incidence of that–I’d be stunned if anyone who were to see Haywire and read A Traitor’s Loyalty noticed such a tiny coincidence.  It gets about five seconds of screen time in both works, and “secret homing device” and “a spy discovers his (or her) masters have been spying on him” are hardly such unique, distinctive tropes that your first thought when you encounter them is, “That’s just like …!”

Ditto the codename “Merlin”–it’s such a minor point in both books (so minor in Tinker Tailor that it didn’t even make it into the movie) and the contexts surrounding it are so very different that I think anyone who picked up on it would simply give me the undeserved credit of thinking I’d done it deliberately, as a respectful homage to the work of John le Carré.

(That’s if they had the chance–I confess, I did email my editor and ask him to change the codename to Lancelot.  But A Traitor’s Loyalty does still have a genuine homage to le Carré–there’s a very minor character who’s named after two characters in my favourite le Carré book, The Spy Who Came in From the Cold.)

Your book is, of course, your baby, and as such, you’ve got a natural inclination to be highly sensitised to anything concerning it.  As authors we’re taught early on about having to let go of one part of that–about detaching ourselves when we receive feedback and critique.  This is another part, I think.  It’s a very human thing to draw connections and see patterns, and we’re so close to our own books that it’s inevitable for those to be what we draw the connections to.

I have a hypothesis that the reason I’ve started seeing elements of my story everywhere now is because the book is, essentially, now out of my hands–I no longer have the ability to make any significant changes to it.  In that sense, I’ve already let it go–I’ve had to.  And now I also have to let it go emotionally.


Cinema Sunday

This morning I went to see the new Steven Soderbergh movie, Haywire.  The plan was actually that I’d be seeing Contraband–according to Lisa’s plan, I’d see the 10.30 showing of Contraband, and she and the kids would see the Alvin and the Chipmunks movie at 10.50.  Contraband is twenty minutes longer than Alvin and the Chipmunks, so it would work out perfectly.

Well, except that when we got to the ticket machine, we discovered Contraband didn’t start till 11.40.  And that the Chipmunks started at 10.15.  (It was 10.13 when we discovered this.)  So I decided to see the 10.40 Haywire instead, while Lisa and the kids headed into Alvin and the Chipmunks.  As it turned out, they didn’t miss anything, because instead of the Chipmunks, the cinema put The Iron Lady onscreen instead.  (They fixed that, of course, and then gave everyone in the auditorium a free future admission.)  This was in contrast to the theatre where I was sitting waiting for Haywire, where rather than start the wrong movie, they didn’t start any movie at all–after that series of commercials-dressed-up-as-entertainment that cinemas show nowadays, we got five minutes of a screensaver on the screen, then ten minutes of sitting in the dark.  Presumably because whoever was in charge of getting the movie started was at the other end of the cinema, desperately trying to stop an auditorium full of six-year-olds having to watch Margaret Thatcher order the sinking of the General Belgrano.

It was a weird trip to the movies, is what I’m saying.  Weird enough that the discovery that there’s actually a church that’s located in one of our cinema’s auditoria on Sundays becomes just a sidenote.

(The review that’s about to follow is, I think, basically spoiler free.)

But so how, Haywire.  Good movie.  Utterly disposable, with a ridiculous plot–not a film I’ll ever see again.  But an enjoyable, watchable, well-done thriller.  But what made the biggest impression on me by far was the directorial style.

Style seems an odd word to use here, because what that style amounts to is a heightening of the realism of certain aspects of the film (certain aspects only–other parts of the film remain as preposterous as they generally are in this sort of thriller); but style is exactly what it was.

The fight scenes.  There are four or five hand-to-hand combat scenes in the film, distinctively choreographed–since Haywire has been put out as a vehicle for its star, female retired mixed martial artist Gina Carano, this isn’t much of a surprise.  The fights aren’t filmed in any sort of spectacular way; they’re presented matter-of-factly.  But impacts are emphasised in a way that highlights how painful they must be.

I don’t mean that they’re gory; as far as I recall, there isn’t a single drop of blood spilled during them, though they’d certainly produced blood in real life.  But whenever someone gets their face slammed into a mirror, or a wall, or the zinc counter in a diner, there’s a quick closeup of it that can’t help but you make wince.

The movie’s one car chase is probably the most realistic car chase I’ve ever seen–by which I mean, it’s the slowest car chase I’ve ever seen.  It starts off making you think it’s going to be a traditional high-speed chase: our heroine Carano is driving briskly down a long, straight US Highway in the middle of nowhere, surrounded on either side by a forest of bare, snow-covered trees, when she comes upon a police roadblock.  She slams on the brake and turns the wheel, and we get the traditional shot of the car spinning a hundred eight degrees as it stops, so that now she can slam on the accelerator and speed away.  Of course, the cops pursue her.

But a moment later, Carano turns off the highway onto a dirt path, and all pretence of a conventional, spectacle-laden car chase is abandoned.  She doesn’t slam on the break as she turns, so that the car slides along the road into its turn.  Instead, she does exactly what all of us do when we play Grand Theft Auto or the like (which is, I think, about as close as any of us ever get to being in an actual high-speed chase)–she slows down when she’s making the critical turn into a narrow space, to ensure that she takes it smoothly.

And once she’s made the turn, the chase is now taking place on a snowy dirt road, only the width of a single vehicle, that twists its way through the trees–so the cars involved move damn slowly.

And last, there are two scenes in which the tension is drawn out far longer than we’d ordinarily expect.  In the first, Carano emerges from a building, spots a man across the street who may or may not be tailing her, then turns and walks down the busy city street.  The man starts walking parallel to her, and she and we know that he is following her.

What would normally happen, of course, is that she’d therefore take some action to lose him–dash down a side street or get into a car–and a chase would ensue.  But not here–because there’s nowhere for us to go.  We stick with Carano as she walks, deliberately unhurried, the entire length of the city block, before finally turning the first time she comes to a corner.  Which is, of course, exactly how it would happen in real life, and it takes probably a full minute to play out onscreen.

There’s another moment like this, late in the movie.  A bad guy is lounging on his patio, with a much younger, bikini-clad companion canoodling with him on a cabana.  There’s a knock at the door, and the bikini bunny gets up and walks inside to go answer it.  She doesn’t come back.

Of course, we know what’s going on, and what danger the knock at the door and the woman’s failure to return signals for the bad guy.  But Soderbergh draws it out beautifully–and all through a single shot.  It has the bad guy’s face in the foreground on the right half of the screen, while on the left half of the screen we can see over his shoulder.  First we see the bikini buttocks departing, across the patio, then through the door into the kitchen, then disappearing through the kitchen doorway toward the front of the house.  And then we’re left with just the empty kitchen, while the bad guy contentedly lights a cigar, then has something occur to him and shouts an instruction to the woman in the house, then frown slightly and look over his shoulder as he realises it’s taking longer than he thought, then go back to puffing on his cigar, then finally realise that it’s taking way too long and get up to go investigate.  Again, it takes as long as it would take in real life.

I don’t want to give the impression that Haywire is some sort of cinema verité found-footage docudrama–the spy thriller genre’s answer to The Conversation.  It’s very much in the same boat with other identically-plotted movies like Hannah, The Bourne Identity and the first Mission Impossible film.  But even while playing in that fantasy world, it tips its hat toward reality, and I really liked that.



Eleventh Doctor and Amy Me and Idris

It’s been a hectic couple of weeks for me.  Earthquake one day.  The next day, I left on an unexpected trip to England, which then got unexpectedly protracted by two days.  I finally did get back, at ten p.m. Tuesday night.  Then, at nine a.m. Thursday, we headed out again.  First, we spent the morning at Boy’s orientation for kindergarten, meeting his teacher and seeing his classroom.

Then we set out directly for Atlanta, driving eleven hours that afternoon and evening and two hours the following morning, and by ten o’clock Friday we were at Dragon*Con.

Cosplaying children: soldier and princess Snake Eyes and the Baronness

This was our second year at the con, and I deliberately set out to make sure that we had a chance to have some experiences this year that we hadn’t had last year.  The first of those was getting Boy down there to take a look around.  (Last year, he spent the weekend touring Atlanta with his grandparents.  We’d planned for him to come down one afternoon, but he never made it.  I’m genuinely unsure whether his decidedly non-geek grandparents simply never found the time, or whether they were somehow trying to shield him from the geekery.)

So Friday afternoon I headed back to our hotel in Dunwoody, picked Boy up and headed into the city with him on the subway.  He was excited about going, but I was worried that once he got there in amongst the crowds and the cosplayers that he’d freak out.

Boy with the characters of Strawberry Shortcake

I needn’t have been concerned–he loved every second of it.  To the point of walking right up to Darth Vaders and Godzillas, tapping them to get their attention and asking to have his picture taken with them.  (We’d run into an Eleventh Doctor and River Song on the train, so I think that primed him on what to expect.)  Star Wars characters, Doctor Who characters, Disney characters–he got excited any time we saw any of them.

Saturday morning, I took him to the DragonCon parade.  The crowd in front of us let him through to the front so he could sit on the kerb, and again, he had a great time–especially when a pair of Ghostbusters in the parade mistook him for a poltergeist and attempted to set their trap for him.

The Ninth Doctor, Rose, the Tenth Doctor and Boy

Then Lisa took him with her to a Phineas and Ferb panel where, after initially being somewhat shy, he apparently not only started raising his hand to offer his own comments, but eventually refused to put it down, raising his hand for his next question or comment as soon as he had finished his last one.  After that, we took him to the lightsabre training for kids programme, where he had a blast learning how to whack other kids with sticks.

(In retrospect, maybe that wasn’t the best panel to take to him to three days before the first day of kindergarten.)

On a trip to Kings Dominion a couple of weeks ago, we got Boy a double-ended lightsabre.  I told him I wanted to take a picture of him wielding it, and he so perfectly dropped into character for the photo that I was convinced then that he’d enjoy cosplaying at DragonCon.

Boy with lightsabre

We therefore got him a gas mask, and though he wore it around the house all week (really creeping Lisa out by asking, “Are you my mummy?“), he proved entirely unwilling to don it once we got to the con.  I think perhaps next year we’ll try him with a costume that doesn’t require covering his face–I don’t know whether he felt like he was missing too much with the gas mask goggles on, or he was simply too aware of the fact that he was in fancy dress, but I do think the facemask was the root of his problem.  Friends have suggested he should dress as Harry Potter, but I’m inclined to wait on that until he at least knows who Harry Potter is.  Perhaps we’ll see about making him a miniature Doctor costume.

The other thing I wanted to do this DragonCon was sample a more varied array of programming.  This largely came about because of the con’s new smartphone app.  There’s so much different programming going on all the time at DragonCon that last year, using the huge, unwieldy paper grid, I basically just ended up going to most of the BritTrack panels, with a few big celebrity panels thrown in.

Eleventh Doctor and Amy Two young women as Robin and Batman

But with the app, I was able to see every panel for a given time in one place (critically, I was also able to see every panel’s description), and I could tag all the different ones that caught my eye.  So I ended up at the Star Trek track, the American Sci Fi Media track, the SF/Fantasy Literature track, the Alternate History track and a couple of others.

And it highlighted to me how Dragon is really about a half-dozen cons all coexisting side by side.  (Which is, obviously, the secret of its success–it attracts so much enthusiasm because of its huge population.)

Like on Sunday night, when I went to Michael Stackpole’s panel on Robert E. Howard’s original Conan the Barbarian stories (a panel that convinced me I finally need to crack open that copy of The Coming of Conan the Cimmerian I’ve had for several years).  I’d never been to any programming down in the Lit track’s little cave.  It turned out to be on the fourth floor down in the Hyatt.

Slave Leia Me with a pirate wench

The first floor one enters in the Hyatt has the hotel bar, the street entrance, reception, and the bridges to the Marriott and the food court/subway station, so it’s packed with con-goers and hotel guests and cosplayers.  Only the Marriott is busier or louder or more crowded or slower moving.  Then you go down a floor, and you’re in a big lobby giving access to another street entrance, to one of the con’s big ballrooms, and to the screening room for the con film festival.  So it’s almost as busy as upstairs.

The third floor down has some gaming tables and the comic book Artists’ Alley, so it has some much smaller, dedicated crowds for those two things, plus a bit of overflow from the two floors above.

And then you get down to the bottom floor, where the lit track is, and it’s honestly like stepping into another world.  Emptier.  Quieter.  Much older, with almost no one under forty.  And with many fewer cosplayers.  From one perspective, it’s a quiet retreat where people are celebrating the roots of where almost everything else at DragonCon comes from.  From another, it’s a bunch of people who are actually missing what most of us think of when we think of DragonCon.

Clockwork android Jessica Rabbit and me

Two last good bits I want to make sure to mention.  The first was Sylvester McCoy’s panel on Friday morning, where I got to hear Sylvester both play the spoons and do a dramatic reading of Matt Smith’s speech from “The Pandorica Opens”.  And the other was at the small Red Dwarf panel on Sunday morning, where the closest thing to a celebrity was the guy who voiced the toaster on the programme (actually, he was only on for three episodes, so it would be more accurate to describe him as the guy who originated the voice of the toaster)–who actually turned out to be one of the funniest, most engaging panelists I’ve ever encountered at a convention.

And in closing, an Ariel cosplayer.  These pictures were taken, respectively, Friday night and Saturday night, and I didn’t realise they had been of the same girl until yesterday.  Well-played, Ariel.  Well-played.

Ariel and Boy Ariel



ETA: more books to the list, as I think of them

The other day, I got in a discussion with @S_cerevisiae on the Twitter about whether or not to show the first Harry Potter movie to a five year old. Boy has been growing intrigued by the Boy Wizard because of the massive advertising campaign for Harry Potter 8, but Lisa and I have decided not to show him the first film (yet) because, six weeks before kindergarten starts, we don’t want to show him a movie about how school is really cliquish and kids are really nasty to the kids from the other cliques.

A really good point that got made during the discussion was the idea of waiting till the kids are old enough to first read the books before seeing the films, duplicating as much as possible the experience that we who are old enough to read the books upon publication have had.

That got me thinking about other, older children’s books that have been adapted into movies, and my experience with them. There are, to be sure, a few books that I probably haven’t read because I’d already seen the movie–I’m sure I’d have read Treasure Island by now if I hadn’t watched the movie so often as a child. (Though I do recall poring over an illustrated children’s abridgement of it when I was very little.)

But very often, that’s not the way it works. I think, rather, that when we do it right, it’s the movies themselves that keep the kids coming back to the books, generation after generation. So I’ve been making a list: books I had finished by the time I finished middle school, that I had read because I saw the movie or the TV series.

The list is, I’m sure, incomplete. But it contains classics of children’s literature; it contains classics of all literature; and it contains some major twentieth century fiction. It also contains dozens of Star Trek tie in novels, which, rather than listing all individually, I’ve simply gathered under “dozens of Star Trek tie in novels”. They might not have been edifying literature, but they had me reading an hour after bedtime, the fingers of my free hand poised over the lightswitch in case I heard my parents coming upstairs and had to turn it off. And I don’t think there’s any better way to turn a child into a lifelong reader.

Swallows and Amazons
The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe; Prince Caspian; The Voyage of the Dawn Treader
The Prydain books, because of The Black Cauldron
The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings
Charlie and the Chocolate Factory and Charlie and the Great Glass Elevator

The Three Musketeers, because of Dogtanian and the Three Muskehounds

I, Claudius
Jurassic Park
Dozens of Star Trek tie-in novels

I’m sure I can’t be the only one. Anyone else get led to their favourite childhood books by the movies?


Signature moment

Whenever a new actor is cast as the Doctor or as James Bond, one of the comments that invariable gets made is that now, that actor knows what the first line of his obituary will be. And it’s true–Matt Smith is twenty-nine years old, but he knows that no matter what else his life holds for him, his obituary will introduce him as, “the eleventh actor to portray the title role in the BBC television programme Doctor Who“. There are really only two actors across the two roles who’ve accomplished enough else in their careers that most people don’t automatically think of the Doctor or 007 when they see their faces–Sir Sean Connery and Peter Davison–but even both of them still know that those relatively brief periods of their early lives will still be the first thing that shows up in their obituaries.

Similarly, sportsmen and sportswomen have moments that define their career in much the same way. It’s pretty much impossible to run a news story about Joe Namath without showing the footage of him jogging off the field of Super Bowl III with the single finger raised over his head in victory. Brandi Chastain will for the rest of her life be the player who whipped her shirt off after scoring the goal that won the shootout against China in the final of the women’s World Cup. Whenever Michael Phelps gets mentioned on TV, we’ll see his one hundredth of a second victory over Milorad Čavić. Gordon Banks’s save against Pelé’s downward header at the 1970 World Cup finals in Mexico, when his body seemed to defy the laws of physics, is the signature moment for both players, as Pelé ruefully admits: “It’s amazing because it was 35 years ago, but people ask me about that save all the time–not just in England, but all over the world. You know, I scored a lot of goals in that World Cup, but people don’t remember them. Sometimes I watch TV and before games they show this save. I say, ‘Why don’t they show the goals?'”

There are several things I find interesting about these career-defining moments. The first is that we don’t know they’re coming. There was no reason, until it actually occurred, that the finish to Michael Phelps’s seventh final of the 2008 Summer Games should have been any more significant than the dozen or so races he’d already swum those Games (counting both qualifiers and finals), during which he’d already won six gold medals, or the following race, in which he hoped to win an eighth gold medal. There was no reason to expect that that one particular shot from Pelé would result in what most football analysts believe is the single greatest save a goalkeeper has ever made; indeed, it’s precisely because it was unexpected–that it looked, at the moment Pelé struck the ball, impossible–that it’s so great.

The second is that it’s not necessarily the player’s greatest moment. Phelps’s win was the first time, in seven attempts, that he failed to set a world record in a final race in Beijing. Brandi Chastain’s bra-bearing celebration came after she scored a penalty kick, probably the most routine and pedestrian thing a goal scorer can do. Indeed, sometimes it’s a really low moment that becomes the first thing people associate with a sportsman–the blood trickling down Greg Louganis’s forehead; Paul Gascoigne’s blubbering tears upon receiving a yellow card in the World Cup semi-final against West Germany.

So if it’s not necessarily their most brilliant moment, then what makes that indelible instant that will come to define a player’s career in the years ahead? It ends up being combination of factors. The spectacle of the moment is certainly important. But so is the importance and visibility of the context–who knows how many other acrobatic, apparently impossible saves Gordon Banks made, that happened to be in league matches for Leicester City against Blackpool or Burnley rather than for England at a World Cup finals?

Or there’s the possibility of the moment running against expectations. Like Pelé having his shot saved. Or Dennis Law, who scored about two hundred goals for Manchester United (his record as United’s most prolific scorer in European competition stood into the twenty-first century, when it was broken by Ruud Van Nistelrooy), but the goal that always gets mentioned is the one he scored against United, when he moved on to a season at Manchester City at the twilight of his career, for that was the goal that condemned United to relegation to the Second Division.

Wayne Rooney’s winning goal in Saturday’s Manchester derby has been getting reshown in sports coverage ever since he scored it. How big has it become? Big enough that it got discussed here on Washington, DC, talk radio, on Tony Kornheiser’s local show. And it didn’t even need to be introduced or given context–“Did you see Rooney’s goal?” was all Kornheiser was asked, to which he responded, “Yeah, I did.”

I think Rooney’s goal has a strong possibility to be that signature moment of his career–to be the first line of his footballing obituary, if you like; the one moment most likely to be referenced, to be replayed, every time Rooney is mentioned following his (eventual) retirement from football. So many factors are aligned in its favour.

It came against Manchester City. It came thirteen minutes from time, shortly after City had equalised. The eyes of the whole world were on that match; with United in first and City in third, it was the most significant Manchester derby since that 1974 meeting when Dennis Law scored for City. For Wayne Rooney personally it’s come after a very tough season–his controversy in the tabloids, his declaration (subsequently retracted) that he wished to leave Man United, and of course his ten months dry of goals scored in open play, a period he really only ended a couple of weeks ago with his two goals against Aston Villa.

And the goal itself is spectacular enough on its own that, even if it had come against Luton Town in the fourth round of the League Cup, it would still have made any Top Ten Goals of the Season list.

What it really depends on is how the rest of the season plays out. Should Man United lift the title in three months, then that goal will be cemented as the key image of Wayne Rooney’s career; only scoring the winner in a World Cup semi-final or final will be able to dislodge it.


The Tourist, or as it’s titled in Spain, El The Tourist

Image from The Tourist's movie poster“That’s disappointing,” Angelina Jolie tells Johnny Depp upon their first meeting in the film The Tourist.

They’re sitting next to each other on the train trip from Paris to Venice, and Depp’s character is trying to flirt with Jolie’s character. Worried that she might find his smoking distasteful, Depp has just explained that he’s actually smoking an electronic cigarette, and has lovingly detailed its features–it delivers just as much nicotine as a normal cigarette, but the smoke is only water vapour and the tip is merely an LED light, so it won’t burn anything it comes into contact with.

Depp is surprised and deflated when this revelation produces only disappointment in Jolie. “You’d rather I were smoking an actual cigarette?”

“I’d rather you were a man who does as he pleases,” Jolie tells him.

I’d encountered two reviews of The Tourist before I saw it: Roger Ebert’s and, on Tony Kornheiser’s local radio show, Washington Post movie critic Ann Hornaday’s. What had lowered my expectations wasn’t that neither of them had really liked the film, it was that they had both levelled the exact same accusation: that The Tourist aspires to be an old-fashioned, pseudo-Hitchcockian romantic thriller, but that while Jolie easily manages to play Grace Kelly or Audrey Hepburn, Depp doesn’t in any way measure up to Cary Grant.

You’d expect this to be a criticism that could very well kill the movie for me, as the genre of movie being referenced is one of my favourites. Since the two specific pairings Ebert mentions are Grant/Kelly and Grant/Hepburn, I’m guessing the two individual titles he’s thinking of are To Catch a Thief and Charade, which are both amongst my favourite filmsTo Catch a Thief in particular is one of my top three or four.

And it’s true, Depp is no Cary Grant here. But that wasn’t a problem for me, because that was so clearly the point.

I love old-fashioned Hollywood thrillers. The Third Man–very much of that genre, even if it’s not actually a Hollywood film–is my very favourite film. But one of the things that’s undeniably true about them (as it’s true of most genres of Hollywood film produced in the 30s, 40s, 50s and 60s) is that their leading men are cast not to play the main characters of the films’ stories, but are first and foremost cast to play Hollywood leading men.

The prime consideration when making these movies was always preserving the image of the star–what would show off his handsomeness, his virility, his charm, his man-of-action-ness, his wry sense of humour. Anything else came second. And because of this, what you ended up with was that each Hollywood leading man would end up playing the same character from film to film. He would, in fact, play himself–or rather, he’d play his public persona.

(George Raft had a list of conditions so specific–his character had always to be presented in a heroic light; his character had to be alive at the film’s conclusion; etc.–that the first director assigned to Background to Danger famously got up, left his meeting and enlisted to fight in the Pacific Theatre of the Second World War rather than have to work with Raft.)

Think of Cary Grant in Notorious or To Catch a Thief or North by Northwest or Charade. Think of Humphrey Bogart in The Maltese Falcon or Casablanca or All Through the Night or To Have and Have Not. Think of Joseph Cotten in Journey into Fear or The Third Man. Think of Robert Mitchum in Macao. Think of Paul Newman in The Prize. All these men, and all the characters they play (which is saying much the same thing), have one thing undeniably in common–they’re all Alpha Males.

And The Tourist is an attempt to see how this sort of thriller plays out when it’s a beta male who ends up in the leading role.

After having spent The Tourist’s opening sequence skilfully and mischievously escaping the high-tech pursuit of the French police, Jolie boards the train for Venice looking for Cary Grant. But instead she gets Frank Tupelo, a community college maths instructor from Wisconsin. Their first meeting lays the movie’s terms out about as explicitly as a movie ever will; the conversation bears more than a whiff of the post-modern.

First there’s the exchange about the cigarette, exposing that Depp is not the cocksure, charismatic Hollywood leading man for whom Jolie was looking. Then Depp asks about Jolie, to which she responds, “You read spy novels; I am a mysterious woman on a train. You tell me who I am.”–a signal that she is perfectly prepared to play her role in the story that’s about to unfold. But then the final part of the conversation indicates that Depp still isn’t, when Jolie instructs him to invite her to dinner.

“Would you like to have dinner?”

“That’s a question. Women don’t like questions.”

It’s hardly something that’s never been tried before–in fact, it very much put me in the mind of James Stewart in Hitchcock’s second version of The Man Who Knew Too Much. Depp and Stewart enjoy very similar arcs–both diffident, unsure men who spend much of the film being pushed around and bullied both by the bad guys and by the good guys who are supposed to be protecting them, until finally, in desperation, they lash out and take decisive action.

But it’s still an interesting and somewhat uncommon spin on one of Hollywood’s great templates. For one thing, it allows Jolie to become the Alpha Female for much of the film, to be the agent of a great deal of change–something the femme fatale doesn’t often to get to do in this sort of story.

I’m honestly surprised, considering how universal the assessment has been that Depp doesn’t measure up to the Cary Grant role, that no one (so far as I can see) has pointed out that that failure is deliberate. Especially someone like Ebert, who’s a truly brilliant scholar of film theory and history. It’s one thing to say, “The Tourist attempts to subvert the trope of the debonair, adventurous leading man in this sort of thriller, but the result is an unsuccessful film.” But it’s a whole other thing not to notice that that attempt is being made. It’s so clear to me that that’s what’s going on in the film that I’m honestly wondering if I’m missing something.

The Tourist certainly isn’t without problems; I’d call it average rather than great. Within minutes of Depp’s first appearance onstage, we learn he’s travelling in Europe to escape the death of his wife–who is then never mentioned again. Once the film enters its final act–right after Depp’s character has had his apotheosis moment–the plot starts taking a twist or two that had me thinking, “Oh, come on, guys. Really?”

But it was still decent, and I’m glad I saw it.


Cylons and Sithi and Sebaceans, oh my!

This is the place where I’d ordinarily craft a preamble that would lead logically into a list of my five favourite sci fi villains. But since today is the last day of the month, and therefore marks the successful conclusion of my October sally into NaBloPoMo (this year with only one genuine cop-out of a post), and therefore is the 31st consecutive day on which I’ve posted, and therefore I’d like nothing more right this second than to pick up this laptop and drop-kick off the balcony so that it describes a very pretty arc through the air as it descends the thirty-foot slope that drops sharply away from the rear of our building, let’s instead be just a bit postmodern about the whole thing, and tell you straight-out that this post is a list of my five favourite sci fi villains, and then simply get on with the whole thing.

(Stay with me through that whole sentence? Well done.)

Cylon centurion and Six5. Cylons, Battlestar Galactica. I’m speaking here specifically of the rebooted Battlestar Galactica, which has aired within the past decade. When the reboot production team set out to reimagine the Battlestar Galactica universe, the most fundamental change they made was to the story’s villain, the Cylons, the race of robots who wipe out human civilisation in the series’s opening episode. No longer were the Cylons of alien origin; now, they were manmade, our servants who had gained sentience and turned on their masters. And the face of the Cylons was no longer the lifeless, metal visage of a Centurion warrior, but instead the twelve different models of human Cylon, androids who looked, sounded and even registered medically as completely human, who felt emotions and who could move invisibly among the real humans, but who when killed would simply have their consciousnesses downloaded into a new body. I think the key facet in Battlestar Galactica’s success is that it is a story of its time, of the post-9/11 world. And the human Cylons play into that perfectly–the suspicion, the paranoia, the witch-hunts brought about by not knowing if the person next to you, apparently your friend, could in fact be your enemy, an enemy who has no fear of death because they know that death will only lead to their own resurrection.

4. The Storm King, the Memory, Sorrow and Thorn trilogy by Tad Williams. As a writer, I am intensely jealous of Ineluki the Storm King. He is the perfect villain: an evil, implacable, formless elemental force, possessed of great power, whose only goal is the complete destruction of humanity–and yet we sympathise with him. The tragedy of his fate tugs at us–that he had once been a member of the beautiful, peaceful, immortal elven race, the Sithi, and that it was a last, unsuccessful attempt to save the Sithi from genocide at the hands of humanity that led to his resurrection as a being of sheer malevolence. We can’t even really condemn him for wanting to revenge himself on humanity by wreaking our destruction.

Scorpius and Captain Crais3. Peacekeepers, Farscape. It is part of the central genius of Farscape that when American John Crichton finds himself stranded in a distant part of the universe, all the alien races he encounter look nothing like us–all except for the Peacekeepers, the ruthless, efficient, hierarchical mercenary military organisation whose various representatives hunt Crichton relentlessly over the course of the series. In other words, the only characters who look human in Farscape (apart from the two central characters, Crichton and renegade Peacekeeper Aeryn Sun) are the bad guys. In addition to the baseline appeal of that idea, there’s also the fact that it aids drama considerably–every new alien the main characters encounter assumes Crichton is a Sebacean (the Peacekeepers’ species), and therefore distrusts him; and Crichton is able to disguise himself and infiltrate the Peacekeepers when the situation warrants. And besides all that, the Peacekeepers are just deeply cool–all black leather with red accents, and warships whose bridges are decorated in a 1930s industrial art deco motif.

Darth Vader2. Darth Vader, Star Wars. Our society doesn’t do narrative tragedy anymore, and that’s a shame. While it’s certainly true, as well know, that George Lucas knew that A New Hope was in fact the middle of the Star Wars story even when it was released in 1977, it’s not true that the Star Wars story was always the fall and redemption of Anakin Skywalker. When, in A New Hope, Ben Kenobi tells Luke that his apprentice Darth Vader turned to evil and “betrayed and murdered your father”, he meant that quite literally, regardless of one’s point of view. It was only during the writing of The Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi that the full story was developed, including Vader’s true identity and his relationship to Luke and Leia. I think it’s no accident that during that process, Star Wars as a story shifted its emphasis steadily until Darth Vader is indisputably its main character. That shift reflected Darth Vader’s popularity, and his appeal both to storytellers and their audiences–because, like Ineluki the Storm King, he is a genuinely tragic figure. He turns the Dark Side because of motives we can all identify with and even applaud; in the end, he’s redeemed, but because of all the awful things he’s done in the meantime, that redemption can only come through death.

Three Daleks1. The Daleks, Doctor Who. It’s chic in certain circles nowadays to be tired of Daleks, to declare that they’re overrated. Pish tosh, I say. Daleks are badass. They turned a low-budget educational children’s show into one of the world’s two most science fiction franchises, now approaching its fiftieth year. They spawned two spin-off movies of their own. They appear in the Oxford. English. Dictionary. You don’t accomplish all that without being badass. Everyone always has a hypothesis to explain their universal appeal; I think it’s a combination of a number of factors. There’s their obvious function as Nazi-analogues; Nazis, with their combination of coolness, discipline and loathsome evilness, are simply always going to be appealing (so appealing that Republican congressional candidates dress up like them). Tying in with that, there’s the fact that they are essentially bullies–so relentless and invincible inside their travel machines, but with a powerless, pathetic little blob of a lifeform, the Kaled Mutant, inside them. (I’ve heard it hypothesised that every child identifies with the Kaled Mutant; that they all want to climb inside a Mark III Travel Machine and exterminate their parents and their teachers.) And chiefly, I think it’s that their utterly devoid of anything anthropoid in their appearance–they’re totally alien. No legs. No head. No humanoid limbs. That intonationless, wobulated voice.

Basically, they’re badass.


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