Space Ramblings

The Hobbit Doesn’t Work if Bilbo Baggins Isn’t a Fat Coward

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I haven’t seen any of the 500 Hobbit movies, The Hobbit: Attack of the Nine Barrels, The Hobbit: Bilbo vs. Frankenstein, The  Hobbit: The Legend of Bagger Vance, but I did see some clips last night.

The most obvious problem, aside from Jackson taking the style that made the Lord of the Rings movies and beating it so far into the ground that not even an army of dwarves could dig it up again, is that the titular Hobbit isn’t in any of the movies.

Bilbo Baggins is a fat coward.

That’s the one joke that keeps the book going. He isn’t Frodo. He’s not towed by the ring or desperation. He wants to prove that he isn’t a joke. And Tolkien eventually lets him do it. It’s a kindness that helped make the book beloved.

Bilbo comes into existence as a joke. He’s a fat cowardly little man who is allowed to be something more.

The Hobbit movies discard this central theme from the start because it’s okay for your hero to be a few feet tall, but he can’t be fat.

And yet when he isn’t fat, there’s no story. The whole plates gag is vaudeville comedy. It works if it’s built around a little fat guy who loves his stuff. It doesn’t work when a vaguely nervous and skinny Martin Freeman is in it.

The rest of it doesn’t work either.

Tolkien wrote this for kids. Bilbo Baggins is given a name that’s one step away from Fatty McFatster. He’s a broad joke. If you replace the joke, you replace the story, which is what Jackson seems to have done anyway. And there’s nothing to hang it on.

All of Peter Jackson’s changes in the Lord of the Rings movies were bad. Now he seems to have built a bunch of movies that are nothing but changes while casting Tumblr friendly actors. He’s gone as deep into CG as George Lucas so that it all looks like one big video game cutscene and has no point. The remaining actors, mainly Ian McKellen, are doing broad pastiches of their old roles. And there’s nothing at the center because there is no center.

Martin Freeman’s Bilbo feels like some obscure fifth hobbit from the Lord of the Rings movies. A fifth wheel who might have joined up without being wanted. The movies drown him in CG battles in a desperate attempt at distracting everyone from their emptiness.

Tolkien told a very simple and appealing story. Jackson killed its simplicity and appeal.

Why George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Fire and Ice Novels Suck

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I’m talking about the George R.R. Martin novels, not the terrible campy TV show that hipsters watch in soccer bars. That’s just Deathstalker the 100 million dollar TV show with a better class of actors, slightly less nudity and more gay references than a season of South Park.

I liked Game of Thrones. I liked Clash of Kings. By Storm of Swords, I was having my doubts. By Feast of Crows, the problems were too obvious to ignore.

 

1. A Song of Fire and Ice depends on soap opera gimmicks, not consistent plotting

Think of 24. The show’s plot was incoherent but it kept you watching by constantly throwing in twists and turns. An entire season made no sense but it didn’t matter because you were watching for the suspense and the shocking turn. The Following does the same thing now.

The Game of Thrones novels are a novelistic version of 24.

George R.R. Martin depends on gimmicks to make up for what he lacks in plotting. His original novels, Dying of the Light, Armageddon Rag, were big on atmosphere, but their plots made no sense. That’s still true in Game of Thrones, but Martin spent enough time working in television to borrow its plot gimmicks.

Characters are killed unexpectedly. Characters seem like they’ve been killed off, but they’re actually alive. (Martin has at least twice shown the body of a character only to reveal that he’s alive. Or is that three times?)

Some characters rise unexpectedly and then fall equally unexpectedly. There’s a name for this. Soap opera.

And just like on a soap opera, the gimmicks worked for a while until they became repetitive.

How many times have you seen this one? A character with no real battlefield experience, Robb, Daenerys, Tyrion, suddenly turns out to be Napoleon until they suffer an unexpected setback and lose everything.

All this furious activity disguises the fact that the novels are going nowhere and readers have figured it out. A lot of the frustration isn’t just because Martin isn’t writing novels, it’s because he isn’t moving the story forward. He knows he can’t move it forward. All he has is a bag of tricks. And he’s repeating them too often.

George R.R. Martin’s final trick is to sell the lack of forward motion and consistent plotting as gritty and realistic. Peel away all the gritty medievalism and it’s as gritty and realistic as Days of Our Lives.

 

 

2. Martin is good at Character, Bad at Endings

Do you know what Martin’s early novels all had in common? Botched endings. If you’re waiting for A Song of Fire and Ice sequel that gives you what you want, don’t wait. Martin isn’t capable of it. He’s a good writer, but a bad novelist.

Think of Lost. The show was great at telling the stories of individual characters. It just couldn’t do anything with them in a story. The character sketches were compelling. The story went nowhere. The ending was a disaster.

After five novels, Daenerys is the only character with a meaningful arc whose story has been advanced. Tyrion has a meaningful arc but his only job is going in circles. The less said of the rest of the crew, the better.

In Game of Thrones and Clash of Kings, Martin builds the equivalent of Lost’s early seasons. But once that’s done, like the show, he has nowhere to go. He’s bad at plot and he doesn’t care about it. Like the Lost writers, he just wants to play with character sketches. He doesn’t want to do anything more with them.

Like Lost, Martin randomly kills off characters. He brings in new compelling characters. But the real goal is a status quo in which the setting continues and nothing gets resolved.

Lost wasn’t a mystery about a secret island. Viewers just thought that. It was a way of letting the writers play with a bunch of characters. A Song of Fire and Ice is about letting Martin play with characters. It’s not about big battles or figuring out the mystery of what lies beyond the wall or how the dead can walk again. Readers just think it is.

They’ve been wrong all along.

 

 

3. George R.R. Martin isn’t Tolkien

The Game of Thrones novels are promoted by claiming that George R.R. Martin is the American Tolkien. There are writers who might deserve that honor, probably Robert E. Howard, but Martin isn’t one of them.

There’s very little original worldbuilding in Game of Thrones. Most readers never realize that because the books are told intensely through first person immersion that create a sense of unearned reality. The world seems like it exists, even though it’s very thinly sketched.

Also most of them have never read Tad Williams’ Memory, Sorrow and Thorn series. The similarities are so heavy that if Williams had the guts he could put “The Series that Inspired Game of Thrones” on the reprints and dare Martin to do anything about it. And while Williams isn’t as good at the characters or the intrigue, his world is more realized than Martin’s poor copy of it.

The pseudo-medieval European religion and history are far more realized in Memory, Sorrow and Thorn. Martin just tosses them out there inconsistently. He doesn’t create a compelling fantasy universe the way that Williams does. George R.R. Martin creates compelling characters. That’s a lot, but it’s not great fantasy.

Martin’s early novels and stories did do some compelling worldbuilding with the Manrealm. It could have been one of Science Fiction’s great universes. But Martin dropped it and did a lot of television. And television is the only thing he can do.

The HBO series Game of Thrones bastardized Martin’s novels, but before it did that, Martin bastardized other people’s work to create A Song of Fire and Ice.

 

 

4. Martin is a good writer, but he never learned to write novels

George R.R. Martin has written some amazing short stories and novellas, but he never learned to write novels. Instead he gave up and went into television. He still doesn’t know how to write a novel.

A Song of Fire and Ice is popular because he used television writing gimmicks to disguise that fact. But the novels stretch on indefinitely because it’s all gimmicks and filler.

Martin can’t end the series because he’s never successfully ended a novel before. Each new novel in the Fire and Ice series just drags on even more. By Dance with Dragons, Martin wasn’t even bothering to pretend that he was ending a novel. And he didn’t. It’s just a chapter in a serial. And the serial can go on forever if the audience doesn’t notice that it’s going nowhere.

Kill a character. Bring him back to life. Up. Down. It’s all an attempt to avoid another failed ending.

If Martin really wants to do right by his audience, he needs to take a break from the universe, which he’s been doing anyway, and write a separate unrelated novel, and not one of the Cards universe collections, plot it out and end it successfully. Then he can take what he learned and apply it to the series.

Not that he will. The HBO cash and all the associated merchandising money keeps flowing in. Martin has become ridiculously famous. He can keep cashing in without delivering. By the time the HBO series ends, he can copy whatever it did with the elements he laid out or he can drag it out for another ten years.

But whatever he does, A Song of Fire and Ice will be mostly forgotten in a generation. The novels are not going to stick around because Martin can’t deliver and soap operas have limited rereadability.

I wouldn’t be too surprised if Martin, like David Gerrold, never releases a final chapter, but just basks in the fame until it goes away.

 

Privateer’s Working Class Universe

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Open world space games are back. Post-EVE they’re multiplayer oriented. Elite Dangerous decided to drop its single player. Star Citizen and No Man’s Sky may have single player campaigns, but they aren’t out yet.

The last great space open world game was Privateer and it was its world that made it worked. Privateer succeeded where Freelancer failed because it was a different kind of game. It wasn’t just an open world Wing Commander. Instead you started out in a flying crate that couldn’t stand up to a single fighter. It was dirty and ugly. Getting by took running odd jobs delivering ore around a single backward solar system.

It should have sucked and sometimes it did, but it also made it real.

You weren’t a hero in Privateer. Until the end there were no big stakes. You were just a truck driver in space (that game was actually made and Dennis Hopper was in it) trying to get by. Everything was broken and everything cost money. Keeping your ship flying so you could get work was about stretching a tight budget even tighter.

You could eventually buy the big ship and the top of the line weapons, but only after a lot of sweat and toil. And it wasn’t just you. Your enemies weren’t Kilrathi, though they were in there. You were fighting petty pirates flying basic fighters or crazy retro fanatics. They were just as much at the bottom of the ladder as you. You were flying through industrial zones where militia in basic fighters fought it out with pirates trying to steal some cargo or smugglers moving drugs and slaves.

And you could become a drug dealer or a slaver too. It was an option.

Privateer was a bad neighborhood, a working class universe in which you could make good or bad choices, but there wasn’t anywhere to go. You could run cargo or hunt down pirates. Those are the same limitations you find in other open world space games, but here they were the character of the universe you lived in. They didn’t feel like bad game design, but like a matter of fact statement.

For the few glamorous fighter pilots, there was the opportunity to do something big and take on the Kilrathi in a war for humanity. Everyone else was just working a 9 to 5 job. They might be doing it in space, but it was still the same old.

Space wasn’t glamorous. It wasn’t exciting. It was miserable and dirty. And it was amazing.

Star Citizen’s promos borrow from the same toolbox, but it will be interesting to see if it can capture that feeling. Freelancer didn’t.

Amy Heckerling’s Vamps Movie – What Went Wrong

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It’s easy to tell a bad movie from a good movie, but sometimes it’s interesting to look at a movie that was almost good.

Everyone knows Clueless. Few ever saw Vamps even though it reteams Alicia Silverstone with director Amy Heckerling. Vamps’ elevator pitch was probably Clueless meets Sex in the City.

The setting may be Sex in the City, but the cultural commentary is Clueless. Vamps has a lot in common stylistically with the original Buffy movie which was fun in its own way. Its gags are a lot like the gags in the original Buffy flick, goofy and self-consciously over the top with a plot that has elements of Death Becomes Her.

Vamps is very much a 90s movie even though it was released in 2012. Even its desperate contemporary references, to the Patriot Act and the iPhone, feel barely post-90s. There’s actually a screenshot of Napster at one point. In 2012.

Its version of New York City seems to come from Friends. It exists in that universe in which the city was a guilt-free playground for wacky free spirits who walked around with their own laugh tracks. But Silverstone’s Goody shares Cher’s sweet nature and helpful ways and the movie even has a lot of the same charm as Clueless.

There are good performances here, including a surprisingly understated moving one from Richard Lewis. There’s also an over the top bad one from Sigourney Weaver. The special effects are bad, but there are lovely scenes of Goody seeing flashes of the old New York City across the new one.

This is a movie with gags and meditations about age. It has plenty of funny and touching moments. So what went wrong?

Vamps takes on aging the way that Clueless took on cliques. But not nearly as well. It almost worked. Vamps on one level offers a commentary about the social cost of aging and trying to look young. And on another, it’s a vampire spoof in which a modern Van Helsing uses bureaucracy to pursue vampires.

Both ideas have a lot of promise and they lift up the movie, but they never do the really hard thing, which is come together. Instead Heckerling sharply transitions from Wallace Shawn’s Van Helsing going from being ready to stake Goody to empathizing with her past tragedies. Awkward bridges like that show their stitching.

The funniest stuff in Vamps comes from the supporting cast of vampires, from Malcolm McDowell to Justin Kirk. It comes from Wallace Shawn’s hunt for them. The least funny stuff is at the center of the movie, Alicia Silverstone and Kyrsten Ritter in pink coffins. And so Vamps isn’t a particularly funny movie when they’re on screen.

Vamps could have been a biting commentary on aging and dating in New York City, but Heckerling doesn’t let it get anywhere near biting territory. It’s not just the coffins that are pink. Heckerling avoids sharp writing and conflict and darker emotions. Instead Vamps is a PG movie dressed in more adult clothing.

That leaves Vamps not funny enough to be the Arachnophobia or Buffy (the movie, not the show) that it could have been and not sharp enough to be the dark biting social critique that it could have been.

Unlike Loser, Heckerling doesn’t even manage to convincingly show the sweet good people at the center winning against evil. There may be blood and bodies, but no real evil in Vamps. Vamps has an emptiness at the center of it that it never fills. Neither do its protagonists.

Amy Heckerling brings her own obsessions with the younger man and older woman pairing to create some embarrassing scenes. The entire movie can be seen as a vehicle for letting Krysten Ritter’s 80s girl Stacey have a baby and a younger man. It doesn’t help that Ritter could also stand in for Amy Heckerling.

Clueless talked over teens, but it also talked to them. Vamps is full of rants about cell phones and instant messaging. Alicia Silverstone plays them as sweetly as she can, but it’s hard to disguise how different they are from Cher’s cultural critiques in Clueless. Clueless didn’t hate teens. Vamps sets out to alienate an audience it dislikes.

Retooled, Vamps could have played to teens. But Heckerling didn’t want to speak to them. She was talking to an older audience. An audience that might have been in their teens when it saw Clueless, but isn’t looking to go any deeper, just older. And that might have worked too. But there are other problems.

Amy Heckerling has gotten sloppy. Not a lot, but enough that some scenes don’t flow well and the pacing is off. It’s not punishing, but it weakens the movie and kills gags that might have worked. Heckerling’s brand of comedy depends on characters. The movie is weakest when Silverstone and Ritter can’t carry it.

And it’s Krysten Ritter that’s the problem.

Ritter is a good actress, but she’s not the best choice to play an innocent and naive 80s teen. Maybe she’s the worst choice. Her best moments are darker ones. Matching her with Silverstone’s blithe Goody doesn’t work. The two actresses don’t gel well. Ritter can’t breathe feeling into bland dialogue the way Alicia Silverstone does. It’s the nastier comebacks and scenes where she shines. A smarter movie would have played that in a Single White Female way. Vamps could done that, but then it would have been forced to take away Heckerling’s happy ending in which Ritter walks away with a younger man and a baby.

Amy Heckerling sacrificed Vamps to her idea of the happy ending.

You can read Vamps as a coda to Heckerling’s career. She’s been associated with teen movies and she’s tired of it. At the end, she doesn’t want to try and keep up with teen slang or understand why they text each other instead of talking. She wants her main character to walk away 40, but looking like 20, with a baby and a man half her age.

Audiences can swallow vampires, but some fantasies are too hard to accept.

George R.R. Martin’s Comments on the Hugos/Sad Puppies Don’t Endorse SJWs

Humpty Dumpty By Aravindan Rajasingham

Humpty Dumpty
By Aravindan Rajasingham

Papers that can’t be bothered with knowing anything about SF have gotten their pullquote on the Hugos/Sad Puppies situation from George R.R. Martin, the one living SF/F writer non-SF people actually know.

The Hugos have been broken. They’ve fallen and can’t get back up again. That’s what GRM said. Commence the SAD PUPPIES BROKE THE HUGOS FOREVER stories.

Just completely ignore his larger range of commentary across three blog posts in which he

1. Fails to call the Sad Puppies slate racists, sexists and cis scum and warns others who agree with him to refrain from doing so. The same sites and scribes quoting him to support an accusation that he rejects.

[[Once again, comments and dissent are welcome, but I expect courtesy from all parties. And yes, that means those of you who are on “my side” as well. Let’s not throw around insults, or charges of misogyny and racism, please.

And he tosses out the SJW tone policing argument

There’s a thing out there on the internet called “the Tone Argument.” Supposedly this is a bad, bad thing to do. In online discussions, one must never use the Tone Argument.

The way I have seen it work, dozens of times now, is that a debate or discussion starts out as a reasonable exchange of ideas, but then grows heated. Tempers fray, names are called, the posts get uglier and angrier… and someone, or maybe a bunch of someones, steps over the line and says something truly cruel or hurtful or just nasty. And the target, or maybe a bystander, objects and says, “no call for language like that” or “can’t we all calm down” or something along that line… whereupon a loud cry of “Tone Argument, Tone Argument, Tone Argument” goes up, and person who called for calm is shouted down or torn apart.

The essence of the trope seems to be that if you’re on my side, you can say anything you like, no matter how vicious or unkind or inflammatory, and I will defend not only your argument but your “right” to be as nasty as you want. If you’re on the other side, of course, well, that’s a whole different story. Then you might get silenced or moderated or banned.

There’s also a lot of rhetoric about kicking down and punching up and the like.

I say it’s spinach, and I say the hell with it.

I am against punching and kicking. Up, down, or sideways. No punching here, please.

I applaud the Tone Argument. The Tone Argument is valid. Yay for the Tone Argument.

Martin just shut down a major SJW tactic.

Why does Martin think Sad Puppies broke the Hugos? Context.

The Sad Puppies did not invent Hugo campaigning, by any means. But they escalated it, just as that magazine/publisher partnership did way back when. They turned it up to eleven. Their slate was more effective that anyone could ever have dreamed, so effective that they drowned out pretty much all the other voices. They ran the best organized, most focused, and most effective awards campaign in the history of our genre, and showed everyone else how it’s done.

The lesson will be learned. The Sad Puppies have already announced that they intend to do it again next year. Which means that other factions in fandom will have to do it as well. Just as happened with the “let me tell you about my eligible works,” the rest of the field is going to need to field slates of their own in self-defense.

I don’t look forward to that. It cheapens the Hugos. Will future winners actually be the best books or stories? Or only the books and stories that ran the best campaigns?

Martin is taking issue with the effectiveness of the Sad Puppies slate. He admits with some caveats that campaigning always existed, but that it’s going to scale up. He criticizes Sad Puppies for controlling the outcome, but the outcome was already being controlled for a while before Sad Puppies got into the mix.

He ought to know that.

George R.R. Martin makes other objections, mostly cultural stuff that pigeonholes the Sad Puppies guys and girls as military SF fans who should stay out of WorldCon (someone should have told Heinlein that) because it’s not really theirs. That’s Trufan stuff I’m not going to bother parsing. I have issues with the SP people, but they’re truer fans than the Neil Gaiman and Joss Whedon fangirls who took a field defined by Asimov, Clarke and Heinlein and tried to turn it into a bad emo graphic novel.

The objections are weak and he recognizes that. They’re Get Off My Lawn stuff.

An honest sum of Martin’s posts is that he thinks that things are changing in ways that he doesn’t like, and he directs some of the blame at Sad Puppies, people he doesn’t seem too familiar with and doesn’t like, but that he admits were happening anyway.

He’s complaining because a good type of campaigning (insiders trading votes) got traded for a bad type of campaigning (online faction slates out in the open).

I’m not a fan of Martin or Sad Puppies, but I can see their good sides. I see nothing good about the current rotten system. It was a comfortable state of affairs in Martin’s day and some writers lost out but the overall quality was high. The overall quality is terrible now and Science Fiction is losing out.

Hugo Awards Still a Politicized Pile of Shit

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If you’re paying attention, you know you’re supposed to be outraged because Kevin J. Anderson got nominated for a Hugo instead of Random Tor Discovery of the Month Writer.

And I would be outraged, really, if the Hugo Awards hadn’t devolved into a pile of politicized worthless shit that gave awards to worthless writers. Kevin J. Anderson sucks. So does John Scalzi.

If I have to live in a world in which Neil Gaiman, Michael Chabon and China Mieville get awards for just showing up (at least they can actually write) and in which John Scalzi and Cory Doctorow get nominations for just being around (they can’t write, not on that level) then don’t expect me to care about Kevin J. Anderson and Vox Day ending up there.

Sad Puppies didn’t nuke the fridge. John Scalzi did with a Hugo for Redshirts. The last time the Hugo Best Novel award wasn’t a joke was 2007 with Vinge and Rainbow’s End. It’s been a shitshow ever since.

I can’t even say if 2015 is worse than 2011 – 2014 when everyone stopped pretending that this was anything except insider blowjobs.

Finally the Hugos will be entertaining. We’ll get to see which slate recruits enough people to give a Hugo to Charlie Stross or Vox Day, Ted Chiang or Brad Torgensen, Mira Grant or whoever. We can stop pretending this has anything to do with merit and just watch the hair-pulling and name-calling.

The Hugos have a messy history, but there’s never been an ongoing shitshow like this when worthless writers are promoted because of politics, e.g. Ted Chiang, John Scalzi, N.K. Jemsin, and when insiders create the myth that a few of their darlings are the only ones worth watching.

If fandom is going to be an adjunct of The Onion’s A/R or The Mary Sue, then let’s just kill it now. It’ll be a mercy killing.

And say what you will about Sad Puppies, any list of short stories on which John C. Wright appears and “If You Were a Dinosaur, My Love” doesn’t is a major improvement in the genre.

 

Go Home The Following Season 3, You’re Boring

It's happening again... no really, it is.

It’s happening again… no really, it is.

The first episode of The Following Season 3 is named New Blood. If Only.

Instead we get a serial killer conspiracy headed by the dumbest and dimmest member of a second group of serial killers that were the B Team last season. And that was a season running on fumes.

Season 1 of The Following was brilliant. And then it was over. Season 2 tried to say something about religion. It failed because it couldn’t shake its addiction to Joe Carroll. And Joe Carroll still isn’t dead and probably is running the whole game from behind bars. And that’s probably optimistic.

Instead of moving on to new threats, The Following Season 3 is about more amateur serial killers recreating murders. Kevin Bacon’s Ryan Hardy is reduced to constantly pointing out that something had happened before. And that’s the writers announcing their own repetitiveness.

Why?

Lilly Gray might have been just as compelling as Joe Carroll in her own right. Instead it was the Joe Carroll show. And that meant turning a mediocre novelist into a cult leader obsessed with religion. It didn’t work. Now what’s left of the band is back together again. And it’s a bad band.

Season 1 wasn’t afraid to kill people. Season 3 burdens us not only with Max, but with every boring second banana. The episode opens with the lesbian wedding of the FBI boss who was stupid enough to serve as an unwitting back channel to Joe Carroll. All that was forgiven, but we’re supposed to believe that Congress cared enough to hold hearings on their tactics for catching the serial killers. Or that anyone in the FBI would take accusations from crazed serial killers written in bodies seriously.

Season 2 was critically panned. Why after getting another season would The Following dig through the trash of its failed last season?

The Following Season 3 isn’t bringing anything new to the table. It’s a watered down version of the last season just like that was a watered down version of its edgy raw first season. It’s spending so much time rehashing what happened last season that it won’t attract new viewers or even win back old ones.

Mansions. Messages left for Ryan. Ryan wavering over whether to get close to someone. Captured serial killers sneering at Ryan. Ryan telling him that he had done this before. Because it’s all been done before.

 

Willful Child by Steven Erikson Book Review, a Lame $25 Star Trek Parody

Willful Child by Steven Erikson is supposed to be a Star Trek parody, but its real joke is about the publishing industry which will put out a 50 year joke as a 25 dollar hardcover novel because its author has a few bestsellers under his belt.

Funny parodies have been written about Star Trek. Take John M. Ford’s How Much for Just the Planet? Or Peter David’s New Frontier novels which take the basic MPQAngag of Erikson’s Willful Child about a psychotic Kirk-like captain and play it straight while adding characters and deadpan comedy.

If you ever heard The Firm’s Star Trekkin’ with its chorus of “We come in peace/Shoot to kill” then you’ve already sat through Willful Child, but without reading through hundreds of pages.

That’s all there is to it.

Willful Child’s captain Hadrian Alan Sawbuck is a psycho who wears stretchy shirts, seduces female crew members and blows up aliens. And he’s the only realized character in this. He’s Futurama’s Zapp Brannigan without a Kif, just a bunch of disposable female sidekicks with names like Joss Sticks (Yes, Steven Erikson is a master of comedy) whose only joke is saying “Like” in every sentence.

And that’s just for starters.

If you wanted to read the kind of groundbreaking comedy about Star Trek that dates back to the 60s, Steven Erikson delivers. There are jokes about how fake the sets look and how other planets look like Northern California. Did you ever notice that?

But Steven Erikson also daringly ventures into the 80s and even the 90s by making jokes about how awful Celine Dion and Barry Manilow are.

This is material that Jay Leno would call lame. Guys doing standup in Branson would ask for something fresher. The only people who didn’t are Tor editors.

It’s a bunch of a Mad Magazine gags with a glowing recommendation from Robert J. Sawyer, because that’s just how the publishing industry works. And considering how old the jokes are, it wouldn’t surprise me at all if this was just a trunk novel/bunch of papers Erikson had lying around in his desk from high school that he handed over to Tor to buy some time. And they published it. As a novel.

Want proof? Sulu is renamed Zulu. I refuse to believe that an adult did that.

This is a 25 dollar hardcover novel in which the characters actually keep shouting that their adventures are “episodic”. They keep doing it like a standup comedian getting up off stage and elbowing you in the ribs to laugh at his joke about how white guys are all like this and black guys are all like that.

It’s not just that Willful Child’s jokes are lame. A lot of them aren’t even jokes.

Like the name of the ship. Willful Child. Or the rogue AI named Tammy Wynette. They’re placeholders for jokes. Or desperate randomness.

And those are the good parts. Two thirds of the way, Erikson loses whatever is left of his plot and begins randomly throwing out alien attacks. It might have made Willful Child worse if ‘worse’ was an option. It’s not.

Erikson interjects lectures on how social media is destroying our society. Willful Child is so bad that I can’t tell if he’s being serious. It’s so bad that I don’t really care.

The only joke here is what a miserable mess the publishing industry has become. The joke is that Tor will publish this, but it won’t publish actual Science Fiction. The only actual big picture SF novel I see in their new releases in John C. Wright’s Judge of Ages.

What Willful Child reminds me most of all is when execs chose to turn Batman into a bad TV gagfest because they refused to take the original material seriously. The last laugh was had and it wasn’t by the executives who refused to take comic books seriously.

Putting out Willful Child while boycotting actual blue sky Science Fiction is an act of contempt by Tor’s editors who refuse to take Science Fiction, the traditional kind, seriously. Science Fiction, with its spaceships and galactic empires and silly men in silly suits exploring the stars, will have the last laugh.

It’ll have to because there are no laughs to be had in Willful Child. Not unless you think jokes about Celine Dion hold music are as funny as it gets.

Terrible Books – A Barnstormer in Oz by Philip Jose Farmer

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Philip Jose Farmer was famous for writing unofficial sequels to famous works that no one wanted and would have paid money to pretend never existed.

A Barnstormer in Oz is probably the worst unofficial Oz sequel and considering some of the terrible ones that have been written, that’s saying a lot. But A Barnstormer in Oz might also be the worst sequel to have been written to anything.

How bad is it?

Around page 11 there’s a description of Glinda’s nipples. Glinda the Good. But for equal time, Farmer also offers horrified readers a description of the Tin Woodman’s nipples. And his cock.

But that’s not even what makes A Barnstormer in Oz so horrifyingly bad. Philip Jose Farmer was a writer who flew by the seat of his pants and he might have made a book in which Hank, the pilot son of Dorothy, visits Oz and lusts after Glinda while fighting off the armies of President Harding and made it work.

But no. It’s the Tin Woodman’s cock that’s the problem. Philip Jose Farmer decided that the best approach to take with a modern fairy tale about a fantasy world with talking animals was hard science.

Yes, hard science.

A Barnstormer in Oz sets out to explain every detail of the imaginary world based on some kind of science. The munchkins are humans who moved through an inter-dimensional doorway to Oz and then intermarried with neanderthals. The Tin Woodman, Glinda transferred his consciousness into a tin robot. With nipples.

People reach Oz because the air force is conducting experiments in inter-dimensional travel. In 1923.

Since there are talking animals, the hard science approach doesn’t get very far. But it does fill up huge chunks of the book. Instead of an adventure, A Barnstormer in Oz really follows Hank around as he tries to explain an imaginary world based on even more imaginary science with concepts that no one had heard of in 1923.

None of this is exciting. It is very boring.

Most of the Oz characters are not recognizable. Glinda dominates the book and the main character as a ‘good witch’ who rules as an immortal dictator who kills munchkins who don’t follow her One Child Policy and sends hawks after her enemies. What makes her different than a bad witch? Hank wants to sleep with her.

That’s basically it.

I gave up on A Barnstormer in Oz around the time that Hank writes a 5 page letter to President Harding renouncing his American citizenship. It was either that or renounce my sanity.

In a Barnstormer in Oz, Philip Jose Farmer manages to take a pilot from 1923 reaching Oz and fighting flying monkeys and makes it as boring as dry paint. And that’s not even mentioning the racism and sexism. The creepy sex. And the Tin Woodman’s anatomically correct buttocks on the cover.

Old Mars by George R.R. Martin and Gardner Dozois Book Review

oldmars

Price: Several Slightly Less Mediocre Softcover Themed Anthologies

Number of Inner Light Ripoffs: 6

Number of Good Stories: 3

Number of Great Stories: 1

Number of Stories by Martin Pals: Too Many

Reason for Existence: George R.R. Martin Twinkie Fund

Themed anthologies are invariably bad. Asking readers to pay 30 bucks for a hardcover themed anthology is insane hubris even for George R. R. Martin who put out a hardcover collection consisting of things like his unpublished TV scripts. But here’s Old Mars anyway.

On paper, unpublished paper, Old Mars sounds like a good idea. A tribute to the Mars of John Carter that we lost when we saw the real Mars.

On actual paper, Old Mars is a miserable collection of bad writing from both good and bad writers. The worst offenders are Chris Roberson and Melinda Snodgrass with stories that are terrible and mediocre at the same time. But that’s also the overall tone of Old Mars.

Old Mars has more ripoffs of the Star Trek TNG episode The Inner Light than an entire fanzine. This collection is filled with humans encountering Martian artifacts and getting visions through them of the lost Mars that was.

Story after story of the same thing. And almost none of them are any good.

Aside from S.M Stirling and Mike Resnick turning in another overpulped homage, this isn’t John Carter’s Mars. It’s supposed to be Ray Bradbury’s Mars if Bradbury had been a hack who could barely spell his name. Countless stories of conflict between human settlers and Martian archeology. Countless stories of the one human who can magically detect the original Martians while no one else believes him.

That’s not even the weirdest part there. There are two, count em two, stories of 16th century British sailing ships traveling to Mars at the command of an English King. The second story was by Martin pal Daniel Abraham, but it’s still too much.

Some of the mess that is Old Mars can be put down to mediocre writers. Who picks out Melinda Snodgrass for a theme anthology? Or Chris Roberson, a guy whose story about pirates on Mars reads like something a six year old would come up with? But how do you explain Michael Moorcock’s pulpy entry which is bad enough to be pulp, well enough written to remind you that Moorcock can write, but still a bad story?

The closest to the advertised vision of Old Mars comes from S.M. Stirling’s Sword of Zar-Tu-Kan. But that’s just another story set in Stirling’s own Old Mars, an idea he had long before this anthology and extends from his novel, In the Courts of the Crimson Kings. Old Mars is just a paying market for an existing Stirling universe.

Phyllis Eisenstein’s The Sunstone is YAish, but is the best of the Inner Light reworkings because its Martians are understated tour guides keeping a hidden culture alive, instead of the ridiculous visions in other stories.

The Queen of Night’s Aria by Ian McDonald is the best and only genuinely great story of the lot. Martin and Dozois know it which is why they positioned last. And that means they also know the value of the rest of the lot. McDonald delivers a personal story of an eccentric Irish musician contrasted with a world in which War of the Worlds has been going on since the invasion, the British and the Ottoman Empire are trying to occupy Mars while dealing with a bewildering array of species and a ruthless Martian Queen plotting under the surface.

Queen does what the rest of the stories in Old Mars fumble to accomplish, casually tossing off locations, technologies and a war without infodumps and while keeping the focus on an eccentric character and his ambitions. It’s a masterful performance that only makes the rest of the volume seem that much worse.

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