Vintage Science Fiction Month: Worlds of the Imperium

Vintage Science Fiction Month is the brainchild of the Little Red Reviewer. The objective: Read and discuss “older than I am” Science Fiction in the month of January.

Keith Laumer is most famous for his series about the beleaguered diplomat Retief, which I think are a lot of fun, but he has a few other series that are well regarded too. Worlds of the Imperium is the first in a series of stories about parallel worlds explored by the Imperium, a government on one such alternate earth.

Worlds of the Imperium book cover

This first installment begins with the kidnapping of one Brion Bayard, an American diplomat visiting Stockholm. Laumer has a thing for diplomat protagonists, having served in the US Foreign Service himself. They say write what you know, so like Sturgeon and bulldozers, Laumer wrote about diplomats. Anyway, Bayard is whisked away in a strange vehicle and subjected to questioning about rudimentary history. As it turns out, he’s been kidnapped by the Imperium, a government from an alternate timeline that has developed a method of travel to alternate universes.

Thus far, they’ve only found two that were inhabitable (in others, earth had destroyed itself or never developed civilization in the first place). One is Bayard’s home (which appears to be our timeline), and the other features an earth ruled by a vicious dictator who has declared war on the Imperium. That dictator’s name happens to be… Brion Bayard. Can the Imperium convince Bayard to travel to the third timeline, impersonate the dictator, and halt the war? Spoiler alert: they can. But can Bayard succeed? That’s the rub.

The setup is all typical exposition-heavy SF info-dumping, but once the story proper gets going, it turns into more of a twisty espionage thriller. It helps that the info-dumping and alternate reality concept are pretty well done (if perhaps a bit elementary by today’s standards, I’m guessing it was more remarkable in its time). It’s very short and snappy, not wasting much time moving from one bit to the next, so even the info-dumps aren’t a real strain.

This might leave you wanting more in terms of characterization though, as the only person we really get to know at all is Bayard himself. He’s got a sharp and cynical edge to him that is well suited to his mission, but other aspects are left unexplored. There’s a perfunctory romantic angle that is simply tacked on and it feels like Bayard gets over his kidnapping and the implied permanent exile from his home a little too easily (did he have no attachments at home? No family? Friends?) Wait, I just realized that the government of the Imperium is based in Stockholm and Bayard is bonding with his kidnappers… this is surely not a coincidence. Anyways, in general, a lack of characterization doesn’t bother me much, so long as you make up for it with something else, which Laumer certainly manages.

It’s a fun, pulpy espionage thriller with a few interesting twists and turns. It might not get you thinking grand thoughts about the nature of the universe (though I suppose the SFnal concepts are interesting enough and well thought out, especially for its time), but it will keep you thoroughly entertained for the few hours it takes to read. If you’re looking to introduce yourself to Laumer, though, I’d recommend picking up the Retief! collection (there’s that exclamation point in the title again, something we don’t see much these days – maybe modern SF would be more fun if people wrote more stories that warranted a title with an exclamation point) before this. They’re entertaining stories too, and they also more prominently feature Laumer’s over-the-top sense of humor. Still, I wouldn’t mind visiting the Imperium again at some point, which is usually a good sign.

Vintage Science Fiction Month: Killdozer!

Vintage Science Fiction Month is the brainchild of the Little Red Reviewer. The objective: Read and discuss “older than I am” Science Fiction in the month of January.

Say it with me: Killdozer! Don’t forget the exclamation point. It’s an evocative name for a story. Just filled with schlocky potential. Depending on your point of view, it may be a tad misleading though. I mean, don’t get me wrong – it really is a story about an ancient energy being that possesses a bulldozer and goes on a rampage. It’s like a mashup of SF and slasher film, with the killer being a giant damn bulldozer.

I don’t want to spend too much time on the slasher comparison because, well, the SF part is more interesting. But I do have an inexplicable love of slashers, so really quickly: there’s a sense of a historical tragedy of the past being revisited upon the present (the energy being was part of an ancient war, got buried in some ancient island temple that gets opened up by a construction crew, at which point the war is rekindled). The killer is wearing a mask of sorts (shaped like a bulldozer – a stretch, but work with me here). The killer stalks its unsuspecting prey, picking them off one by one, sometimes using creative methods of murder. The only things that’re really missing are a holiday (not strictly necessary) and a final girl (we have to settle for a final boy, er, final middle-aged-dude, which is a bit of a bummer.)

Well maybe I should stay on this track a bit. In preparation for last year’s Vintage SF Month, I wrote a post on the intersection of Horror and Science Fiction. I’ll let that post speak for itself, but the key distinction is thus:

While both genres often portray spine-tingling confrontations with a terrifying unknown, the chief difference between them is not the events depicted, but how the response to those events is characterized. The horror or gothic response is generally one of acceptance and surrender, while science fiction’s reaction is one of rational curiosity. To drastically simplify the sitation: horror thrives in a lack of understanding while science fiction sees such threats as a challenge to be overcome, a problem to be solved. These are generalizations, of course, and there are certainly exceptions and cross-genre exercises that straddle the line.

“Killdozer!” is a good example of such things. So far, I’ve leaned into the horror and action genre to describe the story, but the actual exercise of reading the story is tempered by a very Science Fictional approach. Author Theodore Sturgeon spends an inordinate amount of time detailing the minutiae of bulldozer technology and operations. And when I say “minutiae”, I mean it. Some examples:

The hoist and swing frictions and the brake linings had heated and dried themselves of the night’s condensation moisture, and she answered the controls in a way that delighted the operator in him. … Tom snapped the hoist lever back hard, and the bucket rose, letting the tractor run underneath. Tom punched the bucket trip, and the great steel jaw opened, cascading marl down on the broken hood. …

… Tom pushed the swing gear control down and pulled up on the travel. The clutches involved were jaw clutches, not frictions, so that he had to throttle down on an idle before he could make the castellations mesh.

Pages 156-157, The Complete Stories of Theodore Sturgeon: Volume III: Killdozer!

There’s much more of that talk throughout the story. Sturgeon had a 4-F classification during WWII due to health issues, but he still contributed to the war effort, mainly by working on construction of airfields in the tropics. He became quite adept and knowledgeable of bulldozers during this period. In terms of his writing, this was an unproductive period for him, with “Killdozer!” being written right smack in the middle of several years of writers’ block (other things on his mind at the time, I guess). Sturgeon’s expertise certainly shows throughout the story, possibly to its detriment. I say “possibly” because it’s the sort of thing that really does give the story an interesting and distinct tone, especially when you consider the sensationalism involved in the premise.

I can see this sort of attention to detail turning off casual readers, and it certainly impacts pacing. However, it really does speak to the Science Fiction mindset. This is not a story where our heroes cower in fear of the seemingly haunted bulldozer. They brainstorm, they speculate, they devise clever strategies for avoiding, combatting, and eventually defeating the dozer and its mysterious driving force. This quote is the sort of thing you don’t see in much horror fiction (at least, not from people who survive!):

He was not the type of man who, when faced with something beyond his understanding, would begin to doubt his own sanity. His was a dogged insistence that what he saw and sensed was what had actually happened. In him was none of the fainting fear of madness that another, more sensitive, man might feel.

Page 131, The Complete Stories of Theodore Sturgeon: Volume III: Killdozer!

For its part, the energy being that possesses the dozer also demonstrates intelligence, devising its own ingenious solutions to the attacks our protagonists throw its way. It’s a rational opponent, but one that can be defeated, so long as you don’t lose your own head.

Speaking of which, the group of humans has its own interesting dynamics at work. This is not a long story, but Sturgeon does make an effort to get to know each member of the team. Characters include a young Puerto Rican who doesn’t have much formal training, but does have experience as a dozer operator. Another character is older and perhaps too straightforward for his own good, but has wisdom born of experience. The most notable, though, is a rabble-rouser who has a penchant for needless back-stabbing office politics and racism (since this has been a week in which such real-world political strife has spilled over to embarrassing proportions, it’s interesting to see a character like this portrayed as a sorta secondary villain.)

It’s a fascinating story, if not one that is perhaps suited to beginners. It’s certainly not Sturgeon’s best work, but I do enjoy the contrasts it presents. There was also a TV movie made in the 70s that is apparently worth seeking out (though I feel certain that the SFnal elements would be toned down in such an adaptation). Originally published in Astounding magazine (John Campbell was a big booster of young Sturgeon), this story has appeared in all sorts of collections over the years (and even won a Retro Hugo last year), but I read it as part of The Complete Stories of Theodore Sturgeon: Volume III: Killdozer!

The collection includes some pre-war and post-war Sturgeon stories, and it’s actually still somewhat early in his career. You can see a marked difference between the older and newer stories, with Sturgeon’s emphasis on psychological motivations and therapy emerging in the latter stories. Many of the tales portray a similar Science Fictional take on a Horror or Fantasy premise, with clever heroes that solve problems using rational problem solving.

“Killdozer!” is the standout story, but other prominent entries include “Mewhu’s Jet”, which is often seen as a precursor to Spielberg’s E.T. (though I’m not sure if that has been strictly confirmed, it makes sense), and “Memorial”, an early recognition of the danger of atomic power/bombs (Sturgeon and SF writers in general seemed to be ahead of the curve on this sort of thing). I also enjoyed stories like “Blabbermouth”, “The Chromium Helmet”, and honestly, most of the stories were worthwhile, even if Sturgeon would get better as time went on. I might recommend some of Sturgeon’s other works before this, but it’s a decent collection of stories and it showcases how a writer’s early career can evolve over time.

2020 in Books

We’ve finally reached the end of 2020 and, much as we might not want to, it’s always a bit natural to take step back and examine where we are and what we’ve done. In this case, I’m focusing on one of the brighter spots of 2020, which was my year in books. I was very fortunate to have a job that easily transitioned to work-from-home, but even then, it’s obvious that the pandemic had a large impact on my reading habits.

I keep track of my reading at Goodreads (we should be friends there), and they have a bunch of fancy statistical visualization tools that give a nice overview of my reading habits over time, especially now that I’ve been logging books there for over a decade.

Graphs

I read 69 books in 2020. Nice.

Number of Books Read in 2020 (and previous years)

You can see the full list on Goodreads. This basically blows all previous years away and is an obvious consequence of spending more time at home due to pandemic lockdowns &c. While there was the usual sprinkling of shorter-than-novel fiction throughout the year, I will note that it was actually less than usual since I finally gave up on Hugo short stories this year. The list also includes a pretty good proportion of audio books, probably more than normal since I was taking more walks (trying to get some movement into my life since sitting at my computer all day is not great), though also driving less, so maybe it was a wash? Anyway, in the past, large increases of quantity generally coincided with less pages read… but not really this year.

Average pages read was 343, just a hair off from last year’s 345 and not that far off the record set in 2013 (which was 356, but that’s over only 31 books). And in absolute terms, overall pages in 2020 still far exceeded all other years in recorded history.

Number of pages read in 2020 (and previous years)

As usual, you have to acknowledge the inherent variability in page numbers, but even doing so, it was a pretty productive year in reading.

The Extremes

Interesting note here: three of these four extremes are non-fiction (and it makes sense that the “shortest book” wouldn’t be non-fiction because I don’t really track short non-fiction that I read, which does exist in terms of long-form journalism). I’ll also note that The Hollywood Economist, while not perfect, is fascinating reading for anyone who wants to know how movies are financed. Er, were financed. I suspect almost all of it is now in tremendous flux due to pandemic woes, but still. The book is worth reading just to see how things work. The devil is in the details, and there are a lot of details here that rarely come up in online film discussion.

Assorted Observations

At this point, I’d normally show the graph of books by publication date… but I made the mistake of reading Twelfth Night, by Shakespeare this year. It was published in 1601, which has net effect of ruining the default Goodreads graph. I’ll try to make some ad-hoc observations below.

  • 19 Non-Fiction books in 2020, a significant improvement over the last few years, though not exactly a huge improvement in proportional terms (still, a 500 basis point increase, not bad at all).
  • Only 10 books written by women this year, which is abysmal. A decrease in absolute terms from last year, and a major decrease in proportionality. Of course, this wasn’t intentionally planned this way or anything, it just shook out like this.
  • Twelfth Night, or What You Will by William Shakespeare was the oldest book I read in 2020. Or in all of my Goodreads history, for that matter. To Marry Medusa, by Theodore Sturgeon was the second oldest, having been published in 1958.
  • Approximately 30 books were Science Fiction, which is proportionally down a bit from previous years, but still relatively consistent.
  • I didn’t really crunch the numbers, but my gut feeling is that I read more stuff from the 80s and 90s this year than in previous years, though there’s still an obvious recency bias, with lots of new books. Even with declining participation in the Hugos, I still seem to have that recency bias.

So there you have it, a pretty fabulous year in books. That said, I’ll appreciate when things start to return to normal. I love books and am a massive introvert, but even I’m starting to get a bit antsy. Also, while I love stats and tracking my habits, it might be worth taking a step back from Books (and Movies) this year? Or maybe not, but worth considering.

The Great Movie Catch-Up, 2020 Edition

Around this time of year, I usually make up a list of 2020 movie releases to catch-up on, but this year? The pandemic obviously had a huge impact on movies this year, in some cases pushing up releases and making them more accessible through streaming, in other cases pushing them back to next year. As of this moment, I’ve seen 66 movies that could be considered a 2020 release, which is significantly less than what I’d seen at this point last year. Is that because there’s less to see?

After a brief spin around the moviesphere, I observe that there are a lot of movies that I could catch-up with. Standard disclaimers apply: I consider some 2019 releases a 2020 release if it didn’t get released in the US until 2020. This list is not comprehensive. I probably won’t watch everything on this list. And so on. Let’s get to it:

Blockbusters

Tenet – Christopher Nolan’s latest is an obvious must, and I guess I’m part of the problem that theaters are facing, because I never got off my arse to watch the thing in theaters. I don’t want to make this a referendum on theaters though, so I’ll just say that duh, yeah, I need to see this movie before I put together a 2020 movie recap/top 10.

Tenet

Update: I’ve seen it! It’s great, just… don’t ask me to explain it. It’s certainly part of Nolan’s cinematic puzzle tradition, and everything seems to fit together… but I may need to watch it again. And again. (It’s worth noting that I actually do want to watch it again. And again. Which I think says something important.)

Wonder Woman 1984 – Another movie I’ve been looking forward to for a while. I really enjoyed the first movie and in a year that’s lacking in superhero flicks, this one kinda corners the market, right? Update: I have also seen this! It’s… not great. Or, at least, very disappointing. The thing that kept it afloat for me is the performances, innate charisma, and chemistry between all the stars. The first hour is decent, if a bit disjointed, but it’s not a solid foundation for the rest of the movie, which just continually devolves. I don’t know that it’s quite the disaster that some are portraying it as, and it’s eminently watchable, but it does have some troubling interpretations and whatnot, and it definitely just doesn’t fit. A big letdown from the first movie.

Soul – Pixar’s quality level has dipped a bit from its heyday, but I’ll always give a new release a look. This one is getting some good early buzz and it’s not a sequel, so I’m looking forward to it.

Hamilton – I guess I should finally watch this thing. It’s cultural dominance over the past few years is a bit of a turnoff, but I always appreciated the idea behind it, so I’ll most certainly have to catch up with it.

The King of Staten Island – I know what you’re thinking – is this really a blockbuster? Well, in 2020 it probably counts as such. I’m hit or miss on Judd Apatow’s directorial efforts and I don’t have much love for Pete Davidson, but I’m guessing this movie will at least be worth the watch…

Streaming Exclusives

On the Rocks – Sofia Coppola’s latest and a reunion with Bill Murray, the biggest thing holding me back from this is that it only appears to be available on Apple TV+, which I don’t have and dammit, how many streaming services do I need to subscribe to? This one alone might not get me to subscribe… but then…

Greyhound – Another Apple TV+ exclusive. It’s a Tom Hanks led WWII naval battle movie that seems like it’d be right up my alley, even if it has no real chance of channeling the C.S. Forester source material.

Let Them All Talk – Steven Soderbergh is always worth a watch. Even if he doesn’t seem to be working in the genre or mode that I tend to love from him. HBO Max exclusive.

The Devil All the Time – Netflix thriller that seems like it could be a step above the usual Netflix mediocrity, maybe?

My Octopus Teacher – Netflix documentary about a filmmaker’s relationship… with an octopus? Sounds like my preferred mode of documentary filmmaking.

Anything for Jackson – Shudder is one of the more underrated streaming service. So I’ll definitely make time for some of their exclusives, including this Satanist jam.

Independent and Art House

Possessor – Brandon Cronenberg is following in his father’s footsteps? This sounds great and for some reason, I just haven’t caught up with it yet. This will be rectified in the near future!

She Dies Tomorrow – Amy Seimetz’s tale of a contagious feeling that you’re going to die tomorrow sounds interesting enough.

First Cow – I guess I should watch this, as it’s at the top of nearly every critic’s list. Director Kelly Reichardt doesn’t usually work for me, but who knows, maybe I’ll be surprised.

Small Axe – Is it a movie? Is it a TV show? Is it a TV show that consists of episodes that are actually movies? Does it matter? Another critical darling from Steve McQueen, I guess I should watch at least a couple of these.

Another Round – Four teachers launch an experiment to see how their lives will be improved by a constant, low-level alcohol consumption. The perfect 2020 movie concept?

Miscellaneous, Genre, &c.

Alone – Sounds like a rock solid thriller about a woman escaping from her kidnapper. Looking forward to this one.

Archive – Small science fiction flick that sounds interesting enough. This has been on my radar for a while, not sure why I never got to it.

Ava – This Jessica Chastain action vehicle has been getting mixed reviews, but it sounds great on paper at least.

Save Yourselves! – Some Brooklyn hipsters go on vacation to escape their phones, only to realize that they missed an alien invasion or something. Sounds like fun…

The Pale Door – A horror western with train robbers and witches, what’s not to like?

Time to Hunt – Korean flick about a dystopian world and a heist or something, sounds interesting…

The Call – Another Korean movie, this one has a high concept serial killer thing going on that sounds like it could be good.

Bulbbul – Indian horror flick about a town plagued by mysterious deaths…

News of the World – Tom Hanks teams up with Paul Greengrass for a western? Sure, why not?

So there you have it, 25 movies that I am going to try and catch up with before doing the traditional year end movie traditions.

Link Dump

Ringing in the holiday season with a few interesting links from the depths of ye olde internets:

  • Death of the Author (& Beyond) – The notion that an author’s intent is unimportant to your interpretation of their work can make for an interesting discussion, but people generally take the concept much further. This guy just put a name on half of the poor takes we see on social media (I particularly like “Weekend at Bernie’s of the Author”)
  • Alien Hunters Discover Mysterious Signal from Proxima Centauri – I don’t know why, but I almost always click into these articles that are really trying to ride the “It’s probably not aliens, but it’s not not aliens yet either” line. As usual, when it comes to the existence of aliens, no news is actually good news because the Fermi Paradox has some terrifying implications.
  • Verifying that you’re not a robot – Well observed…
  • Pretending to Press Buttons on a Space Ship – People are really handling lockdown well (this is low-key impressive though).
  • Nickelback – Trying Not To Love You – Wait, so, Jason Alexander was in a Nickleback video where he plays a barista who gets into a competition with a fedora and ascot wearing version of himself? How was I not aware of this? Oh wow, it wasn’t that long ago? This is weird. Like, good weird? I don’t know? I’m so confused by this video. How did this happen?
  • Alienware – Three armed humans? (Honestly though, what were they thinking with that design?)

That’s all for now. Look, not every post can be as great as last week’s Christmas movie roundup…. so enjoy these links… Happy holidays folks!

Silent Night, Deadly Night

Two years ago, I watched all of the films in the Silent Night, Deadly Night franchise. This post was started at that time, but for reasons beyond remembrance, I never posted about this absolutely insane series of movies. I probably missed the Christmas window and who wants to read about killer Santas in February? I mean, sure, I do and I’m betting a significant portion of the people reading this do, but there’s only about five of you, so that’s not saying much. Anyway, when I upgraded the blog earlier this year, the draft of this post is surfaced every time I bring up the WordPress dashboard, and this is the perfect time to cover the lunacy of the Silent Night, Deadly Night series. Buckle up, it’s gonna get weird.


Silent Night, Deadly Night – I covered the original during the Six Weeks of Halloween a little over a decade ago. I wasn’t particularly impressed back then, but I liked the Christmas setting and loved the grizzled old man that tells young Billy that “Christmas Eve is the scariest damn night of the year!” After a decade of exploring other Santa slashers and some repeat viewings, I have to say that this movie has grown on me. I still can’t really claim it’s good, but as these movies go, it actually has some things on its mind. It’s not just controversy and sex and gore; it genuinely tries to explore things like repression and guilt. Lilyan Chauvin’s performance as Mother Superior drives the point home with a straight-faced intensity that contrasts the silly material in a way that can be offputting at first, but which I have come around to.

Silent Night, Deadly Night

Indeed, the whole film is a study in contrasts. The joyous nature of Christmas versus the nudity and violence of a slasher? It’s mean spirited but somehow also feels good-natured? Again, I can’t claim it’s great at that and the filmmakers were certainly well aware that they were working within an exploitation framework, but they were at least trying something. Also of note: an infamous Linnea Quigley performance. Small, but memorable. Look, if you’re still reading this, you’ve already seen this and know that the really weird stuff happens later in the series.


Silent Night, Deadly Night Part 2 – I first watched this around the same time as the original, and was severely disappointed. It turns out that approximately 50% of this movie is just clips from the first film. Low-budget 80s sequels did stuff like this all the time, but this is excessive even by those standards. As the story goes, the producers actually wanted to stitch the entire sequel together with old footage. Director Lee Harry claims he was able to convince them to pony up some cash for new scenes. And that stuff is bonkers.

Eric Freeman in Silent Night, Deadly Night Part 2: Garbage Day!
Garbage Day!

Eric Freeman gives an outlandish, truly unhinged performance, and the “Garbage Day!” sequence has rightly become a cult classic in its own right. As such, it has risen in my estimation over the years… but I’m still annoyed by the first half of the movie. Maybe it would work better if you hadn’t just watched the first movie? This is objectively bad in most respects, but it’s a sorta fascinating and wildly entertaining failure.


Silent Night, Deadly Night 3: Better Watch Out! – This movie should be so much better than it actually is. I’m going to describe a bunch of stuff about this movie, and it’s going to sound awesome… but it is emphatically not so. Unlike the first two movies, whose inadequacies are somehow endearing, this one just plods limply to the finish line without anything of real interest. So here goes: The infamous “killer Santa Claus” Ricky Caldwell has miraculously been kept alive in a coma for six years by a mad scientist/doctor experimenting with ESP. Inevitably, he awakes from his coma and sets off to kill a young woman who has some psychic connection to him, leaving a trail of dead bodies in his wake.

Bill Moseley in Silent Night Deadly Night Part 3: Better Watch Out!

It’s directed by Monte Hellman! It stars Bill Moseley as Ricky! Both of those guys are great! Robert Culp shows up as a cop chasing Ricky! The character design of Ricky replaces the entire top of his head with a glass dome, revealing his brain! Hell, just writing this makes me want to revisit this. It can’t possibly be as bad as I remember, can it? And yet, I’m virtually certain it’s even worse than my memory of it. That I’ve, like, repressed how bad it is. The best thing I can say about it is that you might be able to watch this closely and analyze enough of it to figure out what NOT to do in a slasher movie.


Initiation: Silent Night, Deadly Night 4 – At this point, the series basically abandons any pretense of being a sequel. This is one of those I can’t get this script made unless I pretend its a sequel to an existing franchise sorta jams. As such, there’s no connection whatsoever to the previous three movies. It’s about a reporter who stumbles upon a coven of witches that worship some sort of satanic bug larvae or somesuch. It does take place during Christmas, but it’s barely got any of that sort of atmosphere.

Clint Howard in Initiation: Silent Night Deadly Night 4

It’s actually all just an excuse to Screaming Mad George’s bizarre FX and concepts. As such, this movie gets really grody. Along the way, we’re treated to a quintessential Clint Howard performance as Ricky, the gross errand boy of the witches. So this isn’t really a sequel in anything but name, but it does bring the whole “interesting failure” component back to the franchise. It’s hard to recommend because it’s just so… grody (which I already said but it’s really the one word review of this movie), but if you’re into that sort of thing…


Silent Night, Deadly Night 5: The Toy Maker – This is it, folks. The series culminates in one of the most bizarre takes on Christmas horror ever put to film. Like Initiation, this has no connection to the first three films and is basically a sequel in name only, but it has more Christmas atmosphere and yes, even some form of ambition. It’s a sorta mashup of Santa Slasher and… Pinocchio?

Mysterious killer toys are being delivered throughout the land, and a young boy who witnesses the death of his father becomes too traumatized to speak. His mother must try to get him past his trauma. Perhaps with the help of local toymaker, Joe Petto and his nefarious son, Pino. Oh, and Joe Petto is played by Mickey Rooney. Clint Howard kinda/sorta reprises his role as Ricky, though he’s not a grody servant of witches anymore (or yet? Is this a prequel to part 4? I mean, it doesn’t really matter, but still.)

And that’s just the beginning. This thing gets more and more bananapants as it goes, leading to a truly insane finale. I might be building this up a bit too much in my head right now, but this movie was the thing that convinced me that writing a post like this would be a worthwhile affair. Like, really, this is a terrible movie, but I love it. That’s kinda the story of the entire series, and this one is a prime example.


So there you have it, five truly awful movies… with lots to love if you’re a fan of bad movies, which I apparently am. If you want to put yourself through this, all of the sequels are available for free (with commercials) on Tubi (at least, as of this writing). As for me, I’m making preparations to watch the remake/reboot/whatever this year. I’m sure it will be terrible. I’ll probably enjoy it. I don’t know if I have the stomach for the fan-made Silent Night, Deadly Night 6: Santa’s Watching, but you never know. Merry Christmas!

SF Book Review – Part 35: Network Effect and Moar

Between Halloween Season’s Readings and a bunch of non-fiction, I’ve been slacking a little on my SF reading. I’ve definitely not kept up writing about it, but that’s what we’re here for now. Let’s get to it…


Network Effect by Martha Wells – The Muderbot Diaries series of novellas are great, and author Martha Wells has now made the leap to novel-sized tales. Murderbot is just minding her own business, catching up on her favorite television shows, when her human associates are attacked and some captured. It turns out that a sorta friend from her past is also in trouble, so Murderbot has to abandon her TV shows and save everyone.

Network Effect Book Cover

This is par for the Murderbot course, which is to say, it’s very good. The transition to novel-length has not dulled the characters or the story much, and I still quite enjoy seeing the interactions between the characters and moody AIs. For fans of the series, ART (named so by Muderbot, an acronym for Asshole Research Transport – they’re kinda friends) shows up and requires Murderbot’s assistance, and while Wells is always able to generate conflict between the characters, it always feels more like a good natured thing. Everyone likes each other, but they can get on each other’s nerves at times.

Lots of well plotted and executed action sequences keep the pace moving briskly. Murderbot is also quite clever at times, even (especially?) when she’s got limited resources. The ultimate villains aren’t particularly notable, just the standard Corporate hacks, though some particularly deadly technology is deployed at times. All well and good for the first novel, but I’m hoping for more substantial villainy in future installments. If I get around to nominating for the Hugos next year, this will definitely be on my list. It’s probably a shoe-in for at least a nomination as well. (If you’re at all interested in the SF fandom’s culture wars, this series in general is something that could appeal to all, I think.) While this is the first novel and you could probably read it as a standalone, I’d still start with the preceding novellas, which add background and depth (and they’re really good too!)


Calculating God by Robert J. Sawyer – An alien spacecraft lands near a museum and a spider-like, 8 limbed alien pops out, enters the building and politely requests, speaking in perfect English, that the security guard take him to a paleontologist. After some discussion, it turns out that the aliens have discovered that three different races on three different planets have all experienced the same five cataclysmic events at about the same time. This includes things like the meteor strike that wiped out the dinosaurs, making it unlikely to be a coincidence. When a threatening supernova is observed, aliens and humans alike wonder if another cataclysm is on its way…

Sawyer is trying to flip the debate on creationism here by positing scientific evidence of an “intelligent designer.” The visiting aliens all believe in God, while the human paleontologist represents atheists in the debate. Now, when I say that the aliens believe in God, let’s be clear that it’s not the Christian God or really anything represented by organized religion. To underline that fact, Sawyer introduces a couple of bumbling fundamentalist Christian terrorists, one of whom is literally named Cooter. Anyway, it’s all interesting as a thought experiment, though I don’t think that Sawyer’s aliens demonstrate the proof they say they have for God’s existence. Still, there are some speculations that do tip things towards an intelligent creator guiding creation (and the ending leans even further).

The book primarily consists of conversations. Sure, they’re between a spider-like alien and a human, and they are discussing genuinely interesting concepts, but as storytelling… it’s the sort of thing only a Science Fiction fan would love. Fortunately… I’m a science fiction fan. Sawyer’s bald style is unlikely to win converts from the literary crowd, but science fiction fans would enjoy the interplay of ideas here. I enjoyed it, but I totally get why some would be turned off by it


Star Wars: Thrawn Ascendancy (Book I: Chaos Rising) by Timothy Zahn – Alright, let’s get this straight. Timothy Zahn kicked off the modern Star Wars era in the early 1990s with Heir to the Empire (first in a trilogy of novels taking place after Jedi). It was a great continuation of the series (better than all of the subsequent films, that’s for sure) and Zahn introduced a great villain: Grand Admiral Thrawn. A military genius, he collected the shattered pieces of the Empire and organized them into an effective threat. A clever idea, and Thrawn represented a different but still memorable and interesting villain.

Since then, Zahn has periodically returned to the character of Thrawn. Especially recently. There was a trilogy covering Thrawn’s joining the empire and rise through the ranks… and now, we go further down the prequel path to cover Thrawn’s rise through the Chiss Ascendancy. As per usual, Zahn is a workhorse who puts out reliably entertaining stories, and the story here is as effective as any of the recent books… But I can’t help but think that we’re really just treading water here.

Thrawn is a great character, but his genius makes it difficult to tell the story without surrounding him with other characters who have to react to him. Zahn is good at this and manages to tell fun stories, but Thrawn is less and less of a villain in these stories, and thus it feels like we’re losing something. I still hold out hope that we’ll see Thrawn in cinematic form some day (and yes, I’m aware, that’s almost certainly happening soon, but I’ll avoid spoilers here). Anyway, this book is fine, but it’s sorta disposable entertainment rather than vital.


Axiomatic by Greg Egan – A collection of short stories ranging from Egan’s trademark diamond-hard-SF mode to more humane explorations of technology to some fantastical premises that seem uncharacteristic. As with most collections, there are some stories that work better than others, but as a whole, it explores a lot of fascinating, sometimes scary ideas. Take “A Kidnapping”, which I’ll try not to spoil here… and thus, can’t really talk about. But once it becomes clear what’s happening, it’s devastating. A lot of the concepts here show up in Egan’s other work, like the idea of “neural mods”, which crops up in a couple of stories.

Uploaded human minds play a big role in Egan’s work and there are a few stories here that explore that territory well. The notion of a neural implant called a “Jewel” is an interesting take on this idea. It’s a small computer inserted in the brain at birth. It monitors and simulates brain activity such that, by the time someone reaches adulthood, it has learned to mimic brain behavior perfectly. At this point, the brain can be switched out in favor of the Jewel, which will operate in basically the same fashion (and which, effectively, confers a form of immortality and even a kind of continuity of consciousness).

Lots of good stuff here, weighty and sometimes scary, it nevertheless entertains. I still think Quarantine is Egan’s best, though stuff like Permutation City and Diaspora are more ambitious and challenging. I need to keep exploring Egan’s work, is what I’m saying.


Yendi by Steven Brust – The second novel in the Vlad Taltos series, this one concerns a sorta gang war. Take traditional high fantasy tropes and layer Goodfellas style gangster wars on top of it, and you’ve got Yendi. It’s very entertaining, and Brust has done a good amount of worldbuilding, so the fantasy folks will enjoy that side of things well enough. I found myself more intrigued by the nuts-and-bolts of the warring criminal enterprises here though, and Brust does a great job fleshing out some of the more procedural aspects of that. Again, pretty good mixture of that procedural stuff and magic and dragons and stuff. It’s been a while since I read this, and I took quite a break between the first and second books in the series, but I suspect it’s a series I’ll dip into again sometime.

The 1978 Project: Part VII

After a spin through some of the more obscure horror films of 1978, the 1978 Project resumes its normal, lumbering schedule. For the uninitiated, I’m doing a deep dive into the cinema of the year of my birth. At this point, I’ve seen 77 films that were released in 1978, which is a pretty respectable number. That being said, I keep finding new and intriguing pockets of films that I want to watch, so I’ve got at least 10 more movies to go.

At some point, we’ll do our traditional roundup of Movie Awards and a Top 10, but it might still be a while. Or maybe January? Instead of doing 2020 movies (since so many are on hold), maybe I’ll do 1978? Only time will tell. I’ve actually seen a fair amount of 2020 flicks, perhaps enough to justify the exercise. But I digress, let’s check out some 1978 movies (fair warning, I watched some of these before the Six Weeks of Halloween started, so my memory has faded a bit and thus my thoughts might not be as insanely insightful as usual).


The Star Wars Holiday Special – I’ve seen bits and pieces of this notorious abomination before, but I’ve never sat through the entire thing. I wish I could say that the experience was worthwhile. That it’s so bad it’s good. But really, it’s just plain bad. Maybe the tragically ironic hipsters could find a way to enjoy it, but I suspect even the most devoted would break down by the end.

It starts off kinda promising, with the Millenium Falcon being chased by some Star Destroyers, but it quickly becomes clear that they’re just using remaindered footage from the movie, and that nothing seems quite right. Then we’re introduced to Chewbacca’s family, which consists of a few Wookies grunting at each other (with no subtitles) for nigh-on 10 minutes. And, like, they’re not fighting the empire or anything. It’s just mundane domestic activities. From there, we get various musical numbers, psychadelic bits, more musical numbers, a four-armed space-Julia-Child cooking segment that goes on for about 5 minutes, and some terrible animation that is the only part of this thing that has any sort of plot (it is famously the first appearance of Boba Fett).

It’s mind-blowing that anyone thought this would be a good way to follow up on the massive success of Star Wars, even if it’s only a TV movie. *


Magnificent Bodyguards – Early Jackie Chan vehicle that stifles Chan’s natural charisma by forcing him to play it straight. Chan plays a bodyguard who is protecting a wealthy woman and her clan as they travel to find a doctor for her sick brother. What follows is a by-the-numbers kung-fu flick that is perfectly cromulent, but really pales in comparison to the rest of the thriving Hong Kong action scene at the time. This was apparently released in 3D at the time, but obviously that’s not what I was watching. The sound effects are particularly glaring here, though one scene works well enough I guess: a fight enters a building and the sound effects continue even though we can’t see it anymore. Ultimately, though, this won’t come anywhere close to the top of 1978, even when restricted to purely martial arts movies (of which there were a ton). There are far better Jackie Chan vehicles in 1978 alone. **


Flying Guillotine II: Palace Carnage – Speaking of better 1978 martial arts films, this is another in a long line of Flying Guillotine sequels (depending on how you count the unofficial entries, this could actually be the fourth installment?) The emperor has expanded his reign of terror, aided by his squad of Flying Guillotine carrying troops. A band of rebels has devised a novel defense against the undefeatable and deadly weapon, but they don’t know that the emperor has commissioned a new version of the Flying Guillotine that is deadlier and undefeatablier. Unlike a lot of these films, the plot here is actually pretty engaging. The pacing is action packed and the decapitations are plentiful. There’s an all-female guillotine squad dressed in pink, iron umbrellas, lots of well choreographed spear battles, a massive body count, and a climax that tops the first film. I can see why there are so many of these films, and this is a fantastic sequel. ***


Cleopatra Wong – Part of the Phillipino exploitation boom, this is grindhouse kung-fu mixed with Bond-esque globe trotting and action. Star Marrie Lee was given the surname of Lee because Bruce Lee was insanely popular at the time and apparently when fans would greet her, they’d tell her that they enjoyed both her movies and her brother’s too. Lee plays the titular Cleopatra Wong, Singapore’s top policewoman who is working with an Interpol task force to take down counterfeiters. The ring is traced to Manila where the counterfeiters have taken up residence in a monastery populated by gun-toting nuns.

Gun-Toting Nuns from Cleopatra Wong

Look, this isn’t exactly fine cinema. It’s the product of cheapo, guerrilla-style filmmaking and it shows. Once you get past that, it’s pretty damn fun. The martial arts are nowhere near its Hong Kong contemporaries, but they make up for it by having Cleopatra blow up a helicopter with exploding arrows or shooting a four-barreled shotgun. It’s silly, but kinda fun if you can get on its wavelength. **


Silver Saddle (aka They Died With Their Boots On) – A young boy sees his father gunned down, but manages to kill the assassin. Years later, he’s become a feared bounty hunter, but now he’s discovered some secrets from his past… One of the last major Spaghetti Westerns, it’s a good example of why the genre was dying. It’s not terrible or anything, but there’s absolutely nothing new or even particularly distinctive here. It doesn’t look bad, but it pales in comparison to other Spaghetti Westerns. Director Lucio Fulci must have been restrained in some way here, because there’s no over-the-top violence or gore (though I suppose both are present). There’s not even a Fulci-trademark eye gouging scene! So yeah, not a bad movie, but a mostly forgettable one that doesn’t really rank anywhere near the pantheon of Spaghetti Westerns… **


I do feel like I’m coming down the homestretch of the 1978 Project. I could probably cobble together a credible Top 10 right now, but there are definitely 2-3 contenders, and maybe 10 more films I’d like to watch before really trying. Alas, some of these are more difficult to track down (which is partly why this project is taking a while). If not January, the 1978 Movie Awards will probably happen in February or March. Stay tuned!

The Book Queue

It’s been a while since I put together a list of things to read from the book queue, so it doesn’t really matter if I do so now, but I’m going to do it anyway. You’re welcome. We’ve got some interesting non-fiction on the list, a holiday offering, some candidates for Vintage SF Month, and the usual smattering of nerdy literature.

  • Master of the Revels by Nicole Galland – This is the sequel to The Rise and Fall of D.O.D.O.. Galland collaborated with Neal Stephenson on that first book, but is apparently on her own here. Of course, the cover emphasizes Stephenson more than anything else, which is funny. I’m never clear on how author collaborations actually work, but as I understand it, Galland did the bulk of writing on the first book, so hopefully she’ll be able to keep it up on this one. I’m actually quite looking forward to this, since the first book ended sorta weird.
  • The Complete Stories of Theodore Sturgeon, Volume III: Killdozer! – I tackled Sturgeon’s To Marry Medusa for the last Vintage SF Month, and in keeping with my recent affinity for short story collections, I figured I’d take a crack at this one, which famously contains Killdozer!, a Retro Hugo award winning novella about a possessed killer bulldozer. What’s not to like?
  • The Lincoln Hunters by Wilson Tucker (1958) – Time travel about a historian sent back to record a Lincoln speech, but he finds out that he’s been sent back before. Or later. Something paradoxy like that. This was on my list for Vintage SF Month last year, but I never got to it. I think it’ll make the cut this year. Or, er, next year.

Alrighty then, that should keep be busy for a couple months…

Link Dump

The usual link dump of interesting stuff, plumbed from the depths of ye olde internets:

Stomp on the Mystery Box – An exploration of the merits (and lack therein) of J.J. Abrams’ concept of the Mystery Box.

A mystery box is an effective way to get the audience into the characters’ head space. We want to know what the answer is. They want to know what the answer is. We are instantly on the same team.

The fact that the mystery box is empty is extremely handy because it ensures that nobody can guess the ending ahead of time. Just keep tabs on the fan theories and you can stay way out in front of them. If you do have any particular plans in mind, and somebody gets close, throw out your plan and throw a new element into the story which voids that possibility. If asked directly whether a theory is correct, say no. By definition, it can’t be correct — because it was asked. And because there is no solution. Relatedly, a mystery box makes it very difficult for anybody involved in the production to leak the ending.

And finally, obviously, a mystery box saves you some (but not all) of the work of constructing the story in the first place. You have a solid beginning, you have some sketch ideas for the middle, and… you’re done. This is an especially efficient use of your time if your project is, for example, a television show with a strong possibility of being cancelled before it goes anywhere, or the first film in an ongoing franchise.

The Answer to Why Humans Are So Central in Star Trek – I don’t remember what made me look this up again, but this is some classic Star Trek nerd humor (that is genuinely funny, not, like, sad or something). I’m glad someone collected all the ancillary thoughts too. For the record, the actual original post is here.

That Federation vessels in Star Trek seem to experience bizarre malfunctions with such overwhelming frequency isn’t just an artefact of the television serial format. Rather, it’s because the Federation as a culture are a bunch of deranged hyper-neophiles, tooling around in ships packed full of beyond-cutting-edge tech they don’t really understand. Endlessly frustrating if you have to fight them, because they can pull an effectively unlimited number of bullshit space-magic countermeasures out of their arses – but they’re as likely as not to give themselves a lethal five-dimensional wedgie in the process. 

the girl from the movie who doesn’t believe in love – Pitch perfect parody of romantic comedies…

The Decay is Real: Streaming Films on Netflix (and others) Lose Viewership Very Quickly. Interesting data here. Kinda resembles movie theater blockbuster performance, only dropoff from week to week seems even steeper. I have to wonder how much of this is driven by Netflix’s advertising and curation strategy (i.e. when a movie is first released, Netflix pushes it hard by making it the first thing you see when you fire up the app… but then it disappears and gets harder and harder to find as time moves on…) While interesting, this is still based on a very small dataset, but it appears to be better than the “anecdata” that Netflix releases themselves…

John Waters bequeaths his art collection to Baltimore Museum of Art, whose bathrooms will be named in his honor – If you find this “honor” to be odd, you need to watch some John Waters movies. It’s perfect.