new on Patreon: NCIS, Dragon Precinct, and more

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Up on Patreon in the second half of June:

I’ll have reviews of The Incredibles 2 and Ocean’s Eight soon (seen both, just have to write them up) for $1/month and up, and there’ll be a review of Ant-Man & the Wasp some time in mid-July. Still playing catch-up on the $5/month and up TV reviews: I’ve got plans to, by the end of July, talk about New Tricks seasons 7-9 and 10-12, Doctor Who‘s Zygon two-parter (plus two more Who stories beyond that), M*A*S*H season 7, and looks back at The Alienist, Black Lightning, Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., and Deception.

And starting soon, both $7/month and up and $20/month and up will be getting excerpts from Mermaid Precinct!

 

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4-Color to 35-Millimeter: Batman Begins

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In 2005, Christopher Nolan rebooted the bat with a movie that lots of people thought was the best Batman movie made to that point, but which I saw as an inferior remake of an animated film from a dozen years earlier. The great superhero movie rewatch looks at the live-action version of Mask of the Phantasm or, as it was more popularly known, Batman Begins.

An excerpt:

Also, you’ll notice that I’ve been saying “parents” a lot, though you’d be forgiven if, after watching this movie, you’d be surprised to learn that Bruce Wayne had a mother. Played by Sara Stewart, they may as well have just hired a blonde extra, because she has no dialogue, no character, no personality, no relevance to the storyline. None of Bruce’s memories are of her, and nobody ever even mentions her, it’s always “your father” this and “your father” that. Zack Snyder has come in for lots of flack for trying to make Golden Age writers’ inability to come up with more than one name for their flagship heroes’ Moms into a plot point, but at least Batman v. Supermanacknowledged Martha Wayne’s existence.

Harlan Ellison, 1934-2018

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Pictured: Peter David and Harlan Ellison at the former’s wedding in 2001, at which the latter served as best man. Peter always said that this picture perfectly summed up his and Harlan’s relationship, with Peter as the Daffy Duck to Harlan’s Bugs Bunny.

Harlan Ellison died peacefully in his sleep last night at the age of 84, thus marking the first time in those 84 years he did anything peacefully.

Harlan was one of the giants of the speculative fiction field. He was one of the greatest short-fiction writers the genre has ever seen (a list of his best and most influential short stories would still be longer than most writers’ entire bibliographies). He was a great screenwriter, having penned what most consider to be the best episode of the original Star Trek, “The City on the Edge of Forever,” as well as the classic Outer Limits episodes “Demon with the Glass Hand” and “Soldier.” And he edited two of the most important anthologies ever to be published in speculative fiction, Dangerous Visions and Again, Dangerous Visions.

Harlan was also a big personality in a short body. He had very firm convictions and he not only never backed down from them, but he doubled down on them early and often. He did nothing halfway, and you always knew where you stood with him. This was not always a good thing, and it got him in trouble as often as it served him well. But he also often welcomed the trouble. Everything he did, he did with fervor, with energy.

A large chunk of that energy was used toward creators rights. He was a fierce, loud, and angry advocate of writers being treated well, of writers getting paid, of writers getting credit and recompense (the second being at least as important as the first) for their work. (Someone joked in my hearing once that his epitaph should be, “Here lies Harlan Ellison whose dying wish was that whoever wrote this gravestone damn well got paid.”)

I first started reading Harlan’s work as a teenager. His short-story collections were catnip to a young SF fan. I freely admit that my first exposure to him was through Trek. I wanted to know more about the guy who wrote “City,” and I quickly devoured whatever of his books I could get my hands on. I found myself more drawn to the introductions to his short stories and to his essays than I was to his fiction, and I honestly think those were even more influential on me as a nonfiction writer than his fiction was to me as an author. When I got my own column in the paper at Fordham University in 1987, which I called “Alarums and Diversions,” I imagined it being in the mode of Harlan’s L.A. Weekly column (collected in the volume An Edge in My Voice).

I first met Harlan in 1988 at the I-Con convention at Stony Brook University on Long Island, at which he was a regular guest. I got my copy of one of his short-story collections autographed, and I told him he was one of my heroes. He smiled and said, “You must be hard up for heroes,” and I said I prefer heroes who are real.

And Harlan was definitely real. Four years after that initial meeting, I wound up working for Byron Preiss, who had several projects going with Harlan. One of my earliest assignments there was to work on two anthologies, The Ultimate Alien and The Ultimate Dragon. Byron had talked Harlan and Robert Silverberg — two old friends — into collaborating on a short story, “The Dragon on the Bookshelf.” Then after they’d signed the contracts, but before the story was finished, Harlan and Bob had a falling out. So it was left to 25-year-old me to navigate these fraught waters, to coax Harlan into writing his half of the story (Bob had already done his part) and listen to each of them bitch about the other. (Within a year or two, of course, they were fast friends again.)

I remember one time Harlan came to New York, and he wanted to have dinner with a bunch of people he knew in town, and it included Byron, me, two other of Byron’s editors, and our respective spouses. So Marina and I went to the dinner, and it was amazing. When we got into the cab to go back home, Marina and I were both physically exhausted just from sitting at the same table as him. He was like a force of nature, a 5’2″ hurricane. (I also remember at the end of dinner, when he stood next to Marina, who is 5’11”. He was already sitting when we’d arrived, so this was his first time really standing next to her, and he looked up at her and said, “Jesus fucking Christ, you’re tall!”)

In 2001, Peter David married Kathleen O’Shea in Kath’s home town of Atlanta. At that point, Marina and I had split and I was dating Terri. We were invited to the wedding, and we weren’t sure if we were going to be able to swing the trip south. Then we found out Harlan was going to be the best man, and that clinched it. No way we were going to miss that. Harlan gave a hilarious best-man toast, while wearing orange shoes no less, and he was a joy to behold.

He also was responsible for one of the more surreal experiences of Terri’s life. She, he, and I were talking, waiting for Peter and Kathleen to come out from having their picture taken several dozen times, and I made some kind of crack or other that I thought was funny and Harlan obviously didn’t. He just stared at me, then turned to Terri, put what I’m sure he thought was a comforting hand on her shoulder, and said, “It doesn’t get any better than this, you know.”

(That wedding also gave me the opportunity to watch Harlan, Bill Mumy, and George Takei discuss things that are Jewish versus things that are goyish. As an example, a refrigerator is goyish; a frigidaire is Jewish.)

In April 2004, the Nebula Awards were held in Seattle, and I flew out there because a novelette in an anthology I edited, Imaginings: An Anthology of Long Short Fiction, was nominated in that category. (It was Adam-Troy Castro’s “Of a Sweet Slow Dance in the Wake of Temporary Dogs.” It didn’t win.) At the mass signing at a local Barnes & Noble at the beginning of the weekend, Harlan saw me, yelled across the bookstore, “Hey, DeCandido! You did Imaginings, right?” At my affirmative response, he continued, “That was fucking brilliant! Good job!” Coming from the editor of the Dangerous Visions anthos, this was the highest of high praise, and I still am extremely proud of that particular bit of kudos. I had envisioned Imaginings as being a long-running series of roughly biennial novelette anthologies that would showcase the longer short fiction that struggled to find homes in magazines with limited page count. Unfortunately, the editor gave the book no support whatsoever, and it died on the vine, getting only one review in a major publication, no award attention beyond this one nomination, and sales in the toilet. My one consolation to the general failure of Imaginings to be what I wanted it to be was that praise from Harlan.

Harlan was always very very good to his friends, and very very brutal to his enemies. And he didn’t always show rational or good judgment when it came to picking either one (nor did he much care). I remember one time at the Stoker Awards about 25 years ago, Harlan gleefully recounting a story where he tormented this guy in the production office of one of his publishers for a minor slight (and based on his description, it was extremely minor). He proudly went on about all the different things he did to this guy, including mailing him a dead rat.

I was lucky enough to be someone he considered a friend, so no dead rats in my mailbox, thankfully. He got pissed at me a few times, but every time he did, we talked about it and straightened it out. (Including one time at Dragon Con when I kissed him on the head in public.)

In fiction, there’s a common trope of the asshole who’s sufficiently good at what they do that they can get away with any awful behavior because they get results. (A particularly good semi-recent example being Hugh Laurie’s eponymous character on the TV show House.) Harlan was that trope in real life. He pretty much behaved how he wanted, as he wanted, without thought to consequence, because he was Harlan fucking Ellison, and he could. He once sued James Cameron for Terminator being a bit too close to his Outer Limits episode “Soldier,” and won — the movie is now forevermore listed as acknowledging the work of Harlan Ellison.

This sometimes made Harlan entertaining to watch from a distance, but had two rather unfortunate side effects. One was that his own behavior wasn’t always exemplary. Besides the tormenting-the-production-guy story I mentioned above, there was also his revolting public groping of Connie Willis at the Hugo Award ceremony at the 2006 WorldCon.

The second, more dangerous side effect is the emboldening effect it has had on other writers. I’ve lost track of the number of aspiring writers and very new writers who have seen Harlan as someone to emulate. One writer in particular was displeased with notes on a story I was editing, and started posturing and making threats that were very Harlan-esque. I was able to tamp it down, but just because Harlan did it and got away with it, doesn’t mean you can. Maybe if you actually get Harlan’s career, you can consider it, though it’s still a bad idea. You may need to drive back over that bridge you just burned.

But that was Harlan. He gave absolutely no fucks, which was both his greatest and his worst quality. As I said at the top of all this, he did nothing halfway.

He was a great man. He was a horrible man. He was a dear friend. He was a deadly enemy. He was a force of nature, in the same way that both a beautiful summer day and a Category 5 hurricane are forces of nature. There are writers — great ones — who owe their careers to his mentoring. There are others who were traumatized for life.

There was never anybody like him before. We’ll never see anybody like him again. This quote of his has been all over today, but it really fits, so I’ll end with it:

For a brief time I was here, and for a brief time, I mattered.

We should all be so lucky.

Rest well, Harlan.

 

I never could get the hang of Thursdays

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Freelance life remains insane, but we’re actually both doing well with it. Wrenn has several production/editorial clients right now and — after a slow first half of the year, at least in part grief-induced after Dale’s death in January — she’s finally getting into the swing of things, between editing, production, occasional bits of bookkeeping/office managing-type stuff, and stuffie-sewing. Let’s hope it keeps up.

For my part, I just finished revising the tie-in project based on information the licensor got to me that I needed to incorporate. Today is the great superhero movie rewatch, which for the next three weeks will be Christopher Nolan’s Bat-films, so today I do Batman Begins (or as I like to call it, the inferior live-action remake of Mask of the Phantasm). Next is to revise A Furnace Sealed to make it better, faster, stronger, and get it off to WordFire Press, and then I finally dive into Mermaid Precinct.

The school year is finished, which means my Mondays and Thursdays aren’t taken up with teaching the afterschool classes (I still am teaching my Friday kids fighting class at our dojo). While I will miss the income, getting the two-month break is a relief. Mind you, I love teaching, and I know I’ll be rip-roaring and ready to go in September. And I’ve got lots to keep me busy over the summer.

Wrenn and I also are making sure we still do fun things and aren’t about work all the time. That’s why we went to see Othello and have been going to see movies and stuff a lot more. We’re off to a party at a friend’s house on Saturday, and there will be conventions and things in July.

We’ve also been adjusting to life without Dale, which still, six months later, hits us at odd times. Wrenn’s cousin Matt has been living with us, and he took over Dale’s old room, but he’s away for the summer (he’ll be back at the end of July), so it’s just been the two of us. We thought of our household as three people for so long that it’s been weird to be only two. But we’re getting there.

One nice thing about our current situation is that there’s money! And more coming! It’s a miracle! Which means that, among other things, we were able to get both cats into the vet yesterday for way-overdue checkups and shots. They’re all happy and healthy and now up-to-date, which is a good thing. Kaylee peed and pooped in her cat carrier on the way to the vet, which was a bad thing, but we cleaned her and the carrier up. (She does not like to travel. In fact, half the reason we got her is because the place we adopted her from had taken her to adoption events and couldn’t show her because she messed her carrier on the way over.)

So overall, things be good. I am well pleased.

How are y’all?

 

from the archives: Moneyball, The Tree of Life, and why there’s no such thing as a bad idea

In 2011, Brad Pitt starred in two movies, Terence Malick’s The Tree of Life and Moneyball, based on the nonfiction book about the Oakland A’s of the early aughts by Michael Lewis. I saw the former at a free screening in the spring and thought I overpaid for it, and caught the latter in theatres when it was released in September. It prompted thoughts on the notion of ideas and their relationship to good stories, and I put them down on the LiveJournal blog on 25 September 2011, and I re-present it here.

One of the things I always tell people is that there’s really no such thing as a bad idea — and also that ideas are, fundamentally, meaningless when out of context of execution. This is why fears that people will steal your ideas are laughably ridiculous, because the idea isn’t a commodity worth stealing. Ideas are easy, ideas are a dime a dozen, and the quality of the idea by itself doesn’t mean a hill of beans — it’s the execution that matters.

I bring this up because Friday night I went to see Moneyball, the second Brad Pitt movie I’ve seen this year — the other being The Tree of Life — and the two movies perfectly encapsulate this.

First of all, let me say at the outset that the two movies’ commonality — Brad Pitt — help cement the fact that Pitt is far more than just a pretty face. Honestly, I thought that argument was settled years ago when he appeared in Kalifornia as a scruffy white-trash killer, but I still hear complaints about it no matter how many amazing performances the man turns in. In The Tree of Life, he was the closest the film had to a saving grace, brilliantly and subtly playing the angry, abusive father.

But that’s about it, as The Tree of Life (or, as I came to call it, The Existential Angst of Boring White People) is a simply awful movie, a pretentious pile of nonsense, with an incoherent structure masquerading as “arty,” and mistaking random time jumps (some of them as far back as prehistory) for complexity. When Ed Wood threw random images of buffalo stampeding in Glen or Glenda, it’s rightly regarded as incompetence, but when Terrence Malick does the same thing with random images of stellar phenomena and dinosaurs killing each other, it’s deep. Right.

The thing is, if you look at the plot of Tree — once you figure out what the fuck it is, anyhow — it should make a good movie. The story of a family in 1950s Texas should be compelling and could be interesting, but it so totally isn’t. (I was also boggled by people claiming it was about the grieving process — it began with the death that people are supposed to be grieving from, then has those random stellar and paleozoic images, then flashes back to life before that person died, with only occasional glimpses into the present day. The actual grief gets maybe ten minutes of screen time, and mostly it’s Sean Penn with his serious face.)

Contrast this with Moneyball. This is a baseball movie without a big game or even necessarily a happy ending. More to the point, it’s based on a nonfiction book that’s about a general manager trying to use advanced methods to build a team on the cheap. It’s about Billy Beane and how he built a contender in Oakland while on a budget that was a tiny fraction of that of the New York Yankees.

The film’s been in development for several years, with Steven Soderbergh set to direct originally, and at least three writers worked on it — with the last two passes being done by the two who were credited: Aaron Sorkin and Steve Zaillian. Sorkin’s fingerprints are all over this thing, and that’s a big part of the movie’s appeal: what makes the whole thing work is the sharp dialogue and the investment we have in the people involved. Beane, A’s manager Art Howe (brilliantly played by Phillip Seymour Hoffman), the assorted A’s players, coach Ron Washington (brilliantly played by Brent Jennings), and Peter Brand (the film’s version of Beane’s former assistant GM, and later GM for the Dodgers, Paul DePodesta, who declined to allow his name to be used). Sorkin and Zaillian even managed to provide a narrative structure, using the A’s 20-game winning streak in 2002 as a sort-of climax.

The movie does play fast and loose with reality in spots — Jeremy Giambi was already on the team prior to 2002, the Carlos Peña trade was actually a three-team deal with the Tigers and Yankees, and Scott Hatteberg, Ricardo Rincon, and Chad Bradford had a lot less to do with the A’s winning the AL West in 2002 than their starting pitching (Tim Hudson, Mark Mulder, and Barry Zito at the height of their powers) and AL MVP Miguel Tejada — but it still manages to be a compelling story.

Certainly a lot more so than The Tree of Life…..

all the Precinct books have been reissued!

It’s now official — all five extant Precinct books have been reissued by eSpec Books, as they’ve rereleased Gryphon Precinct (complete with the bonus story “Chaos Theory”).

Here are full ordering links for all five books:

Now I just have to write Mermaid Precinct……………….

Mine! nominated for a Ringo!

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I’m pleased to announce that Mine!: A Celebration of Liberty and Freedom For All Benefitting Planned Parenthood has been nominated for a Ringo Award. These are comics industry awards voted on by comics professionals, and awarded every year at the Baltimore Comic-Con. The awards are named after the late cartoonist Mike Wieringo, best known for his work on The Flash, Sensational Spider-Man, and Fantastic Four.

Mine! includes stories by a bunch of great folks, but I’m particularly thrilled by its nomination because I’m one of those great folks! “In Defense of Self” by myself and Tom Daly is one of the stories in the anthology.

If you’re a comics industry pro, please go vote.