Well another Rainforest Retreat has come and gone for me. This is going to be a good year, I think.
I wrote a little over 42,000 words, rough and ready style…they’re going to need a lot of TLC and sculpting in future drafts, but I got the emotional core of the novel down, I think. Now I just need to write the antagonist POVs and some kick ass space battles. Should be fun. I’m even writing in the morning again/finally. Stealing time has been hard for me but I’m hopeful that this year I’ll be more focused.
If any of you out there cherish writing ambitions and want a place with very bad cell phone reception and internet access to help you focus, I highly suggest the Rainforest Writer’s Retreat.
One theme that I’m exploring in this new novel is love. That might seem odd in a military space opera where I’ve already killed 53 characters (including one POV character) and nuked a planetary capital with a ripple of multi-megaton missiles, further adding to the body count. But the reasons why people fight and why they keep fighting isn’t always due to anger or hate. There is a strong element of revenge, thanks to some dastardly acts, including that nuclear attack. But most of my POV characters in here are motivated by other things. By pride in themselves or their unit or their race. Or by love. Familial love, love of country and even romantic love. Like I said, that may sound strange but we’ll see how it works as the drafting process goes on.
I also wanted to put lots of cool mechs and powered armor and blasters and lazers in a book. Basically I want my inner 13 year old to go and play. Blame Guardians of the Galaxy, if I have to chose to live in one cinematic universe, it’s not going to be the hard sci-fi world of Gravity or Interstellar. I want to be with the cool guy who carries a double-barrelled blaster, has his own space ship and bangs hot alien chicks. Plus I am enjoying writing again and that hasn’t happened for a long year or more.
Terms of Enlistment review and Lines of Depature
So here’s the short version of the review for you TL;DR folks: If you like Military Space Opera, you’ll like this book. It is immersive and a page turner. I’d consider it a good heir to Starship Troopers but it lacks the humanism.
Now for the slightly longer review. First the good stuff.
Terms of Enlistment does a good job of dropping you into the future and getting you to care about the main character, Andrew Grayson. The author’s military background shows so it has that nice ring of verisimilitude I look for in Miltary Sci Fi. It’s written in first person, present tense (ala Hunger Games) which is a good decision for creating sympathy. The worldbuilding is slight, which also works well, we knew just enough to build the story around. There’s no discussion of ‘how things ended up this way’, technology isn’t too terribly advanced so it’s not a post-singularity novel, which makes it easier to understand the world. People remain people, with real and understandable motivations. It’s fairly PG (or PG-13) as for sex, violence and language. It’s about soldiers, not plaster saints but it’s not a Joe Abercombie or Mark Lawrence novel. It also has enough tips of the hat to the PC police to please those who want to see female soldiers as well. On the whole, I enjoyed it, I burned through the first book and bought the second immediately (Thank you, Amazon One Click) and devoured it. Only then did I start to digest the story and that’s made me pause in buying any more books in the series, but I do want to read more of what Marko Kloos has written. So, now onto the bad stuff, don’t worry it’s not really a damning list, at least for the first book.
What was strange is the trajectory of the first novel. Andrew Grayson is set up as a pretty straightforward infantryman, he shows aptitude for small unit tactics and doesn’t pitch too much of a fit when he’s assigned to the Territorial Army rather than the more glamourous (and space-based) Marines. So far, we’re following the Starship Troopers playbook, even down to the romance with the pretty pilot girl…though unlike Rico, Grayson actually gets the girl. But then things go awry. Grayson ends up causing some serious civilian casualties, collateral damage from a rocket round. The character looks to be set up for a fall but ends up transferring to a different MOS and a different branch of the service, the Navy. This is a bizarre plot twist and though I followed it, in retrospect, it really bumps me. We’re set up for one story but then it goes off in a different direction for reasons I’m not clear on. So we basically have two ‘fish out of water’ stories here, one going into the Army and one going into the Navy. And then the aliens show up. Which tosses us in yet another plot trajectory.
So we have two stories going on here, maybe three. One, the ‘US’ vs the Chinese and Russians, then we have the humans vs the aliens. (We also have a civilian vs military plot but that emerges more in the second book) There’s no sign anywhere early in the book that we’re going to be dealing with aliens. Remember, with Starship Troopers, we start off in combat with aliens, so we know what to expect even if we backtrack to follow Rico’s boyhood and enlistment/training. Now, the whiplash almost works, the main character of course doesn’t know anything about the aliens until they show up. But that’s one of the weaknesses of first person present tense, we the reader don’t know anything that the main character doesn’t know. But we the readers should know what kind of story we’re getting into. The author makes promises in their first chapters (and pages, really) that they need to keep. Surprise aliens sorta breaks that. Not enough to ruin the novel but…it bumped me.
The main character doesn’t really drive this plot in the first book. He just sort of…watches things happen. That almost makes sense for a military novel, there’s always someone up higher in the chain of command telling you what to do, but the main character doesn’t solve any problems…unless we count the problem of a sniper in one fight and the problem of some heavy machine guns in the second. Now that almost works, as this first novel is almost more of a travelogue to the future, but it’s imperfect storytelling, I think. It’s realistic but not satisfying but that’s just me, I prefer heroic stories with active characters.
The next is a bit of a nit pick but it’s worth talking about for the longer review here. There’s a lot of ‘telling’ here, Grayson tells us a lot of what he feels…but we don’t actually feel it. We don’t actually see it. We don’t see fear, we don’t see remorse. That latter is a big problem with the theme of the second book. We don’t see love, lust, affection or camaraderie. Grayson is an empty man, a gray man. The closest we get to real emotion is early in the first book when we see how he feels about his father and mother and where’s he’s grown up. It’s not quite a fatal flaw and I probably will pick up later books to see if he ‘fixes’ that in his later novels but it’s a bit of a problem. But not as much as the last one is for me.
But the big one is the lack of humanity. This is much more of an issue in the second book, which is why I paused before buying book three. But Grayson repeatedly says that he doesn’t think humanity deserves to live. The plot, at least for the first two books, shows the inability of humans to co-operate or solve problems (until the main character is there…which is a bump I’ll get to in the second book). It’s an almost George Romero level of nihilism. It’s like the author or the main character is saying you can’t trust anyone above your squad. And the novel plot seems to reflect this, even in the face of unstoppable aliens, humanity can’t put its differences aside to co-operate to save their own lives. Scientists can’t work with military types to save humanity. Society can’t feed itself, can’t police itself, can’t be trusted with nice things. We’re basically confronted with a Welfarepocalypse where the state rations everything but can’t manage to feed everyone or provide sufficient basic services (which I think works as a cautionary tale about the welfare state and state control in general but I’m not sure that’s intended) We also have an over-population problem, which is almost optimistic in a sense, in the light of declining birth rates in China, Russia, Europe and most of the world outside of Africa and the Islamic nations.
So since we’re basically talking about the second novel’s themes, let’s go right into Lines of Departure.
First the TL;DR summary. We continue to follow the adventures of Andrew Grayson as he struggles to survive against unstoppable aliens. Grayson struggles not just with his military duties but ultimately his own conscience.
So we start out after a 5 year time skip. Once again, Grayson has changed specialty. Now he’s an air-weapon command and control specialist inserting with Spec Ops squads to call in air/space support. Now what he was doing in the first book, which is a bit jarring. But he’s still sweet on his girlfriend and that emotional connection is one of the best parts of the character’s inner life. He also cares about his mother, and the scenes with her are well worth reading as well. More good stuff, the main character makes real decisions and manages to affect the plot in a real way. Unkillable aliens get killed.
But we also start seeing the breakdown of society back on earth. Food rations keep being cut, riots are constant, the welfare class is in open revolt and the news censored to cover it up. The military/civilian break is almost total. The aliens are gassing and destroying millions of people and then….Grayson says to himself that he doesn’t care if the aliens kill everyone on earth. And that’s where the book lost me.
Because if your main character doesn’t care about something, it makes it hard to care about him. All Grayson cares about in this book is his family, his girlfriend and his squad. It’s an almost tribal existence. And that’s a rich vein to mine for a writer but I don’t think that’s what the author was going for. I’m a humanist. I think humans are awesome. We are the top of the food chain and we fought our way there. Humans might be half devil as well as half angel, we are also capable of terrible things. But to write off the entire species like Grayson does, it really made me dislike him. To me, he became a traitor. Which is ironic because he becomes that again later in the book.
So let’s talk about the rebellion and the treason and lawful and unlawful orders. Since the Nazi’s made it clear that we can’t have nice things, there has been in the Western world, the idea of unlawful orders. Orders that an officer gives you that can be disobeyed. In this case, Grayson and a bunch of other people are given orders to seize the food supplies of the colony that they’ve arrived at. Note, all we and the character knows is that the order was given to take them. There was no joking and laughing about starving civilians (and if you ARE starving and have a gun and there are folks who have food and don’t have guns….um…they guys with guns will not starve), the main character and his buddy assume that, but they don’t know it. All they’re given is an order to secure the food supplies. This is not an unlawful order. Shooting unarmed civilians is an unlawful order, something Grayson did in the first novel. But securing the food supplies is not. But based on that and their assumptions about their officers, Grayson and his buddies rebel. They mutiny. They shoot and kill their fellow soldiers.
To me, there was insufficient justification for this act. If the main character had taken the commanding officer into custody, which is also mutiny, I’d have gone along with it. But they just hunker down, declare the local civilians to be their new chain of command and begin a shooting war with their former comrades. This is heavy stuff. And to be honest, I don’t think its handled well. “Luckily” the invincible aliens arrive and the other officers flee so that rebellion is never really satisfactorily resolved (in this book) but it just doesn’t work for me. Let me explain why.
A big deal is made about how the military is deploying more and more against the civilians, who are fighting back and basically turning the welfare zones into ‘No go’ zones. Grayson SAYS he is haunted by killing civilians in the first book. He says he’s troubled by the decision to fight his fellow soldiers. But I don’t believe any of it. Now, I read these two books back to back over two days, so the first book was very fresh in my mind. At no time in the first book do we see Grayson feeling regret over killing the civilians in his previous life in the Territorial Army. At the time, all he cares about is getting in trouble for it. Now the circumstances were very clearly life or death, he killed to protect himself and his squad. And he ended up killing some non-combatants. It sucks but war sucks. It was not a war crime in my opinion and in the opinion of his squad leader. But at no time did he say what he did was wrong. And we never see him bothered by it. And yet this event is the justification for him that his military commanders no longer adhered to their vows to protect the lives and rights of the citizens.
It’s too thin. And that’s part of the problem I touched on earlier, there’s too much going on too quickly. If the novel was just about the dystopia back on Earth and if the author had spent a bit more time showing Grayson’s feelings, then yeah, I could buy that plotline a little more. But the story is divided into Grayson vs Aliens, Grayson vs China/Russia, Grayson vs civilians is just a tertiary plot line at best.
In the end, they find a way to kill the unkillable alien ships, which is a solution that seems so simple that I’m confused why any spacefaring culture didn’t come up with it in five years previously.
So…what do I do here? Do I keep reading? Is the third novel back on track? Or will we verge more into this Romero-esque anti-humanism? I did enjoy the first two books, at least until Grayson said humans don’t deserve to live. The books are pretty fast-paced, they have great verisimilitude, it’s good military sci-fi, I like his relationship with his girlfriend. The people and dialog felt real, mostly.
If you can ignore the things that bumped me, then you’ll love this book. If you need a bit more…I’m a bit hesitant. The first book is highly recommended but maybe not the second.
Ok, now as a bonus, for myself mostly, some more nit pick questions that came up as I was reading.
Nit picks: Why no advanced infantry training? Grayson goes from basic into combat with almost no additional training. I’ll buy that to a point, weirder things have happened in history even as recently as Vietnam and I don’t mind Grayson doing well in his deployments. I like heroic characters. But it seems odd and unnecessary and dangerous. I can’t think of a bigger recipe for disaster as tossing new people into gunfights with only a few months training.
Why are the military units so small? The US has pretty much gone to a small unit/heavy support model. You have companies and platoons doing jobs today that would have a Battalion or a Brigade doing thirty years ago. And air support and body armor are great force multipliers (Go Air Force, go CAS! A-10’s forever, baby.) but they aren’t the only models and for a population-chocked world, it makes even less sense. Modern Chinese military units are much larger than any we are fielding. They use their manpower advantage. I’d love to have seen a simulation of how the US model works vs the Chinese, I think about that a lot, actually. But everyone fights ‘light’, seems odd, especially when total war breaks out.
Why so few kinetic weapon usages? We have one usage of a kinetic weapon used late in the second book and they even mention how it does nuclear damage without radiation or fallout. This is one of the big reasons you need space supremacy, if you have the high ground you can throw rocks (literal or figurative) on the enemy’s heads. But they’re using nukes against the alien structures. Why not more kinetic weapons if we’re so concerned about ecological damage to our former colonies?
Why no new weapon development? Seriously, in 5 years of fighting against the aliens we have one new gun (a double barreled shotgun basically) and that’s it. No nuke-pumped X-ray lasers, no mass drivers (which exist as cargo orbiters so we know they have the tech), no particle beams, no petawatt lasers, no robotic soldiers. Nothing. We fill a ship full of water, accelerate it to 10% light speed and that kills the enemy ship. Our sensor tech doesn’t improve either. In wartime, human ingenuity hits its peak. Which is why some people (prior to WW I mostly) though war was both good and useful to society. But we don’t see that here, look at what the wars in Iraq and AfPak have done for armor development, drone usage, communication, etc.
Why no full-scale militarization of society? We’re facing an existential threat to our race, yet despite having an all-powerful state that’s been rationing food for decades, we don’t see any attempt to organize society. Look at the US, Japan, German and Russia in WWII, they were hitting peak production after 5 years, cranking out tanks faster than crews could be trained.
Why no communication with the Sino-Rus? There’s no attempt made at the end of the book to communicate with the SinoRussian ships. We never hear of any peace talks or negations with them, even the failure of them. There’s no attempt to communicate with the aliens either.
Where are the welfare rats getting military weapons and training? In the big dust up in Detroit and later, we see welfare rats (who are poor indeed) showing up with military hardware. And I don’t mean AR-15 or civilian clones of military arms, in the US at least, that’s easy to believe. But they have heavy machine guns. Those beasts are hungry and maintenance intensive. Where did they come from? And where did all the advanced tactics they showed come from? Maybe this is discussed in later books but so far, feels like a plot hole.
Where is Europe? South America? Africa? No mention is made of any of them, apart from some country in the Balkans declaring independence and attacking the ‘US’ embassy. Seems like a miss.
The relations between the sexes was also pretty PG in the first book. Only the main character and his girl are getting it on in his squad? Don’t believe it. No other girls hitting on other girls (or guy on guy, now that DADT has been pulled) either. Teenagers have sex. As much as they can, ingeniously. Hell most of my ROTC detachment paired up, as far as we could with the relatively few female cadets. And there was some…trouble around that, too. Maybe they’re putting saltpeter back in the rations again :)
I’ve been trying to amp up my reading, both as a way of weaning myself off my video game addiction and as a way of slowly chipping away at my to-read bookcase. Yes, not a to-read pile, I have a full bookcase full of books I need to read. That was a wakeup call. Along the way, I’m seeing good writers make bad mistakes. I won’t call anyone out by name but I do want talk about what we can do as writers to make it easy for readers to pick up our work and immerse themselves in our world.
To start with, minimize slang and world-specific words. I committed to reviewing a novel for another writer (it’s coming, it’s coming, I swear) but when I picked up the book from Amazon, I immediately bounced off the text. The prose was fine, the descriptions were good and even the characters were interesting enough. However it was a fantasy novel set in a secondary world and nearly everything in the book had it’s own slang name or a world-specific name. I had to decode every other sentence. It was and is painful. For example (not a quote from the book):
“Chop kept his face sunsetside, letting his wide-brimmed talen shade his features. Tinder played in the streets, distracting the merchants along the dongalle canal so their trained chermink could steal cool and sweet podoods in their hook-like claws. Chop’s hand rested on his xiphos hilt, with a little luck no one would tumble and he could keep it resting-like.”
Translated into more normal English, that should read:
“Chop kept his face towards the west, letting his wide-brimmed hat shade his features. Street kids played in the streets, distracting the merchants along the canals so their tamed and trained chermink* coold steal the cool and sweet melons in their hook-like claws. Chop’s hand rested on his sword’s hilt. With a little luck, no one would recognize him and he could keep it in its sheath.”
Now the good thing about the first passage is that it shows that the author has really crafted their world, that they know it well enough to actually create its own slang. But look how many strange words and and strange usages of words we have. Most readers will bounce right off. A few, a good core, will get into the story and let that level of world detail absorb into themselves. They will love your book. And good for them, we need more readers like that. But a larger majority of readers will be turned off. There can be very good writers and very good stories that are nearly impenetrable. Trainspotting, A Clockwork Orange, Finnegan’s Wake all create a huge language barrier that rewards the patient reader willing to work at it.
Most readers don’t want to work. That’s just the way it is, for better or for worse. When you’re writing, strive for clarity. You don’t have to write ‘down’ and if you’re a language stylist, go for it. Write what is true to yourself. But if you have any mental flexibility in your work, make it easy for your reader. Don’t call a melon a ‘podood’, call it a melon. Now part of the appeal of fantasy is to write about settings and cultures and creatures that don’t exist. So how do you handle those?
Clarity first. Describe what you’re showing the reader. Don’t just toss out an archaic or created word and hope your readers will understand it**. Describe it. There might be good reasons you’re having the main character use a xiphos instead of a more conventional fantasy broadsword. So show the reader the short two foot length, the narrow waisted, leaf-shaped double edged blade. If it’s a fictional food or race, all the more reason to describe it. You don’t have to go on for pages, a couple of sentences of description will usually suffice.
But you don’t want to drown the reader in description after description either. So space out your created words. Use slang sparingly and make it clear in dialog context what the words mean. One sentence from a character that’s full of made up words can be a delightful puzzle for the reader. A page that’s full of them is a minotaur’s maze that many readers won’t make it through. A good rule of thumb for me is no more than three or four world-specific words per page. Even that might be a bit much but I think that’s reasonable. Same with slang and make sure you’re using your words consistently. Repetition will help recognition in readers, just again, try not to overdo it.
Next time, I’ll look at sequels and how to build on what you’ve written while making it accessible to more casual readers.
*this actually is a world-specific animal, sort of a monkey cat so it really doesn’t have a good translatable name
**I got dinged on this recently so it’s fresh in my mind.
So, video games. My nemesis or my writing career’s nemesis, at least. I am a gamer. I grew up Atari, went Nintendo and Genesis, lived the Playstation lifestyle and then settled down as PC (though I am buying more Mac's these days, I don't game on them).
Video games, at the best, are more than just time sinks. They are a way to stimulate my imagination. Would my time have been better spent reading or writing rather than playing these games? Yes, undoubtedly. But I can’t say they haven’t been a significant part of my life. That’s what this list is for, not the list of the best games but games that represented something to me, that occupied a lot of time or taught me something. Yes, you can learn things from video games. Let’s begin.
Most significant games, in less-significant order:
10. Ogre Battle – This is an odd one. I played it on NES and then bought it on Playstation but it wasn’t the same or I wasn’t. At the time, the mix of real-time strategy (you’d send your units off on the main map to explore or capture points, then go into a turn-based brawl if and when you ran into an enemy unit) and turn-based party fight was unique. It added in pseudo tarot cards that could give your team a buff or damage opponents and the cards you earned were randomized and permanently expended when used. But what really hooked me was the leveling system. Your base characters were pretty weak but they could level up and specialize. An Amazon archer could become an angel eventually or a Valkerie, raining down lightning. I’m a sucker for character development. Special mention also for the world map in the game. I always thought it would be a great setting for a fantasy novel and the map really helped sell that.
9. Age of Empires – I could have chosen a number of real-time strategy games, I played a lot of the: Command and Conquer, Dune, Warcraft 2. But Age of Empires was not only one of the best games Microsoft ever made, mechanically, it was also at least somewhat historically accurate. The Egyptians, the Hitties, the Babylonians were all fielding units that their historical culture favored. Be it Egyptian archers and charioteers or what have you. The architecture also had nods towards archaeologically accurate structure. As a history buff, it was like finding little Easter eggs when the game referenced dead cultures correctly. It really added something and made me want to read more, outside of the game.
8. Call of Duty 2 – I like shooters. This was one of the best. Unlike many of the later incarnations, you weren’t as restricted in what routes you could take and enemies didn’t spawn infinitely. There was a finite number of bad guys and if you killed them all, you won. The game also made if feel like you were fighting alongside other soldiers, they’d fight with you, and actually help without getting in the way. There was a sense of accomplishment in keeping as much of your friends alive as possible. And cleaning out the tank factory by finding a good sniping spot inside an oil pipeline was awesome. Real guns and some real tactics. I still like shooters today, Borderlands 2 has devoured a lot of my time, but I have fondest memories for fighting fictionally alongside the Greatest Generation.
7. Streetfighter 2 – This was the game me and my friends played in college. After classes, two or more of us would be in front of the TV, playing. With varying degrees of success. Chun Li was a favorite for ease and deadliness of her kicks while Guile won with style points. It’s not the only fighter on the list but it was the one I was most in sync with. I was accused of witchcraft powers over this game. Which I deny. I was just….in tune with it. In fact, I once beat one of my fellow friends one-handed. I played Guile, moved with one thumb and used my pinkie to heavy kick. Won three games in a row. I don’t know about witchcraft but it was sure magic.
6. Dawn of War – The Warhammer 40,000 series is ridiculous. Let’s get that out of the way. No matter how much Dan Abnett humanized the world and characters in his Gaunt’s Ghosts series, the dark and grim world of orcs, elves and surgically-modified Space Marines in powered armor is pretty silly. But this game, oh this game is solid. It not only captures the flavor of the world, it mechanically is different from the other real-time strategy games of the time. You seized control points to gain resources to call in reinforcements rather than just cranking out workers and mining or harvesting. The focus was on the squads taking and holding terrain. And there was something very cool about two squads of Space Marines, both with Sergeants and with Apothecaries attached, buffed up with two Heavy Bolters and Two Rocket Launchers. I’d take that up against any force in the game.
5. Rome: Total War – Another one for the history nut inside me. This had history and strategy on and off the battlefield. The supremacy of the Roman Legion was breathtaking….and the limitations were there as well. The Roman faction had great infantry but relied on mercenaries for archers and cavalry. That would bite them in the ass in future centuries, though this game is set in the range of 100 BC to 50 AD. The wide variety of factions to play is a great selling point, you didn’t have to play the Romans. If you want, you could try conquering Europe with Celtic chariot archers from Britannia. Though the Romans tended to be the richest, if internally faction-ridden. The computer AI was not perfect but it was good enough for real tactics (speed, morale, flanking) to be useful. Another great piece of history come to life in game form.
4. Master of Orion – The game I still play to this day. The graphics are dated as all get out but the AI is as good as it gets. The game mostly plays fair, unlike the Total War game at higher difficulties. The computer players have the same economy you do and they are all motivated by self-interest and not just ‘gang up on the human’, which is sadly rare in most games. The ship design is amazing, the randomized tech tree and galaxy layout will keep you playing and playing. Still available on GOG.com and worth ten times what they charge for a modern pc-compatible version. The second game is good, too but the first one is a model of simplicity and replayability.
3. Dead or Alive – The ‘last’ fighting game me and my friends played (so far). This is on the list for two, jiggling reasons. I like the characters. They are fun to look at. I don’t mind losing over and over to Kasumi, I really don’t. It is a good, deep fighter as well, a solid game. But some part of every man stays 14 forever and this game is for him. Hotness without quite crossing the line, Playboy-with-clothes-on as opposed to Hustler. (Mortal Kombat, for me, crosses over that line)
2. Panzer General – Re-fighting World War 2 may be a hobby for the rest of western civilization, much the way past generations re-fought Waterloo. (In fact, one friend still plays Napoleonic battles). This game does it better than most. Persistent units you keep and upgrade from scenario to scenario gives weight to every fight. Because new recruits cost money and they never are QUITE as good as the unit you had since Poland 1939. Yes, you play the Germans in this, which can be a sticking point for some. I don’t disagree. But there is something very, very satisfying in crushing the Soviets and taking Moscow early in 1941. This game will keep you fighting for Major Victories in each scenario. And it does illustrate just how close some turning points in history can be. Luck as well as audacity can be and has been the difference between defeat and victory.
1. City of Heroes – In a way, World of Warcraft should be on this list. It, after all, is still around and collecting money month after month from millions of subscribers. But it was City of Heroes, launched at the same time, that meant the most to me. I miss this game more than any other on the list. There are other superhero games out there, some still with players, even. But this game just worked. It made you feel like a hero. You could take on five or six goons at once and not have your hat handed to you. And the character creator! No other game has done it better, given you more choices and options. You could easily duplicate real people….and fake ones. Trademarked by Marvel, say. Which is why the game is no more, thanks to a lawsuit with undisclosed settlement terms, City of Heroes never found a new owner when the publisher, may they burn in hell, decided to kill off a game with people still willing to pay them money for it. Perfect? No, it had flaws, a lack of late-game content for one. But you could fly, shoot radioactive beams from your eyes and act like a hero. Or a villain, both were options in the game, eventually. I liked putting on the spandex and getting my super-leap on.
The Guardians of the Galaxy was not only my favorite movie of 2014, it is one of my favorite movies ever. And I say that advisedly. I watched it six times in theaters. Butt in seat, watching. I never do that anymore. So there is some fanboy gushing to come here but I hope to also look at the movie critically in this review.
So, here’s the TL;DR version. The movie is fun. It’s funny, colorful, action-packed and fast-paced with characters you care about. If you like fun science fiction, you’ll love this. I recommend it.
Now for those of you who really want to dig in, let’s grab a shovel.
Plot summary first, you can skip down to the commentary if you've already seen the film:
Peter Quill is a boy who runs from his mother’s death (cancer is implied), figuratively and literally. He is abducted by aliens and grows up a pistol-packing outlaw who romances hot alien women and flies around in his own private spaceship, stealing stuff and getting in fights*.
Actually I want to stop right there for a second. That is a story every red-blooded man in the word wants to see. Hell, wants to live. The box office receipts bear that out.
Moving on: the movie opens with Quill going to an alien world to salvage an ancient artifact also sought by a genocidal maniac named Ronan. Ronan hates the Xandarian empire and wants to wipe it out. Ronan sends Gamora, a supposed assassin and adopted daughter of a very, very bad demigod named Thantos. Ronan wants the artifact to give to Thantos. Thantos has promised to destroy the planet Xandar for him in return.
Another quick break there…that’s pretty high stakes. Destroying an entire planet full of mostly-innocent people. Dude.
Quill has, however, backstabbed his former (?) kidnapper by stealing the artifact and selling it himself. That kidnapper, a pirate named Yondu, places a bounty on Quill’s head. That brings us to Rocket Racoon and Groot, a surgically modified raccoon and an intelligent, mobile tree. These two are working as bounty hunters on Xandar, spot Quill and attack him. However Gamora is also on hand trying to recover the artifact and a three-sided fight breaks out which gets everyone thrown into prison.
In prison, they meet a Ronan-hating killing machine called Drax. Drax’s family was murdered by Roana and he recognizes Gamora as Ronan’s minion. However, Gamora no longer wishes to serve Ronan and was planning to sell the artifact to a very odd, very rich person called The Collector. She offers to split the huge reward for the artifact among them if they help her escape. The group escapes in an epic, violent jailbreak and heads to a giant floating skull up in space that’s being mined from the inside out to sell the artifact.
I want to break here again. The movie shows us a skull big enough to have its own atmosphere inside of it. Not only does that show us that the universe is strange, it reinforces how small the heroes are in comparison. Also, the visuals of the mining colony inside of the skull are breathtaking. It’s just…cool.
Inside the head, the group squabbles. Drax gets drunk and calls Ronan, desiring nothing more than revenge and…not thinking things through very well. Meanwhile the artifact is taken to the Collector where it is revealed as one of the Infinity Stones, this one is powerful enough to destroy a planet in one blow but it so powerful that attempting to wield it basically is a death sentence unless you are inhumanly powerful.
Which…Ronan happens to be. Ronan shows up with part of his army, takes the stone from the heroes and beats Drax within an inch of his life. At the same time. Yondu shows up to capture Peter Quill. After some fast talking, Peter convinces Yondu they have a plan to steal the stone back. Yondu spares his life in promise of the Infinity Stone after defeating Ronan.
The heroes pursue Ronan with Yondu’s fleet to Xandar where he is preparing to destroy the planet with the Infinity Stone himself, abandoning his deal with Thantos. The heroes break into Ronan’s ship and attempt to assassinate him.
The Xandarians attempt and fail to hold Ronan’s ship back.
Ronan crash-lands onto Xandar but the heroes destroy the war hammer that Ronan has embedded the Infinity Stone into. Quill grabs it and, with the aid of his friends, manages to hold the stone long enough to destroy Ronan and save Xandar and the galaxy.
In the end, Peter and his fellow Guardians are pardoned of their crimes, thanked for saving the world and fly off to new adventrues.
Friends…this is how it’s done.
If you know the movie, you’ll know I skimmed over some characters and complications but that’s the basic plot. VERY misfit heroes do the right thing despite overwhelming odds. Evil is confronted and defeated. It’s a simple story and, unlike the Hobbit trilogy, it doesn’t mess up the plot or the theme.
Casting to start with. Chris Pratt is charming, roguish and masculine as Peter Quill. He’s not quite as smooth, skillful or charming as he thinks he is…but he’s not a man-child. Rocket and Groot steal the show with some of the best dialog in the film. Mad props to Vin Diesel as Groot and Bradley Cooper (and the on-set actors) as Rocket. Even David Bautista as Drax is given some good lines and comedy as someone who takes everything literally. Characters. IF you have good characters, your audience will want to follow them. This movie pulled of character better than any I’ve seen in a long, long time.
Tone also needs a hat tip. The movie has a lot of comedy in it, thanks to James Gunn, the director and Nicole Perlman who worked with him on the screenplay. This movie played serious would have been deadly dull. The squabbling among the heroes made for good drama and tension and kept us laughing. The light tone was spiked with some pain. Peter’s mother dies before his eyes, unable to take her hand** Drax had his wife and daughter murdered before his eyes. Rocket was ripped apart and experimented on. Likewise Gamora, tonally weakest of the characters, had her entire race destroyed by Thantos. Only Groot seems to lack a dark side, but his childlike attitude doesn’t make him any less powerful and intimidating in a fight.
Visuals were top notch. We live in a world where, with sufficient money, anything you imagine can be shown. So the question is increasingly, what do you choose to show? Guardians of the Galaxy chooses to show a bright, colorful, optimistic world. There are a lot of tangents we could follow about design language, how Ronan’s ships and allies seemed to use stone or how the lights in Knowhere show a technicolor Christmas tree of beauty. I do want to give a special nod of the head in how the CGI was used to make things, impossible things, feel real. Rocket looks like a real raccoon. With a gun. Wearing a jumpsuit. And it all looks legit!
Theme and story are what make this movie go past simple Buck Rogers popcorn entertainment. The bad guys here are at least unambiguously bad. The heroes chose risk even against the odds of success because opposing evil is the right thing to do. For once, the heroes, or one at least, actually sacrifices themselves for their friends. Which is the meaning of true love and of true heroism if you ask me. The heroes choose not to be selfish in the end, even if some come into it kicking and screaming. And though they change, they aren’t utterly transformed. Drax is still violent and dangerous. Rocket is still amoral and scheming. Peter is still roguish enough to want to do good and bad mixed together. Good wins, evil loses. This is primal stuff and weather the fans realize it or not, they absorb that theme and it resonates with the best part of us.
No movie is perfect and the Guardians does have flaws. I want to touch on them each out of fairness and in the hope that I and other writers might avoid similar mistakes in our own work.
Ronan is at best a serviceable villain. He does have a very early ‘kick the dog’ moment in his introduction where he murders a captured Xandarian Nova Centurion and monologues about his refusal to accept the peace treaty between his people and Xandar. But he has little complexity. He wants to destroy Xandar. He did lose is father and grandfather to war with Xandar but that’s a thin sheet to wrap around him. He’s arrogant, petulant and ambitious. However, he is easy to hate and he comes off as powerful enough to be a credible threat. But the bad guys in this movie are easily the weakest point of the film. And that’s not to be taken lightly. Your protagonist is only as powerful as the threats they face. Ronan is physically a threat but doesn’t feel real enough to be really imposing.
Gamora and Zoe Saldana didn’t work either. I don’t know what’s awry here, if it’s casting or writing…or both. Gamora in the comics is sex and death incarnate. The kind of woman who could unashamedly wear a black bikini with a hood and pull it off. In the comic you get the feeling she revels in slaughter and would rock the world of any man she took to bed (and there was never any doubt that it would be her idea). Zoe is very, very pretty but she did not pull this character off. Even in the movie, she’s supposed to be an assassin, you know, someone who murders someone for pay or by command. But we see none of that. She isn’t established as a character before she’s turning her coat against Ronan. Also, for someone who murders people (remember, she’s an assassin, not a soldier) she seems obsessed with ‘honor’ and honorable behavior. That is more than a little discordant. Either another actress should have been cast or her backstory should have been tinkered with more so she’s shown to have a strong moral code. As it is, she is just as flat as Ronan and Zoe’s performance comes off stilted and wooden.
The dance-off at the end really, really walks the line, and it may even cross it going into silly territory. The idea of Peter Quill interrupting Ronan’s murderous soliloquy with karaoke and dancing…doesn’t quite work. It is a distraction and it is sold as that if you watch the movie closely you can see the heroes exchanging glances prior to Quill getting up and dancing. And, I have to admit, choosing to get up and confront Ronan after he crashed to earth in a starship and survived does show some courage. But it is just…silly. And I say that as a man who has been pressed into performing the ‘naked troll maneuver’ as a way of distracting a security guard.
Ultimately, this movie made me happy. When I was depressed or down, I could go to the theater, pay my $11 and sit with a smile on my face for two solid hours. That is so, so rare. Recommended without reservations .
*He also wants people to call him Star Lord, with mixed success.
**Which I bought. When my grandmother was dying, I didn’t want to touch her, I was about the same age. Death and dying scared me.
If you want to move a reader (or just as important, an editor or agent), you need to think about what emotions you want a story to invoke.
I see this a lot in my own work, the stuff that ‘works’ is often stories where I was trying to get the reader to feel something. Stories without an emotional trigger of some sort seem to come off as bland or unmemorable, at least mine do. Stories where I wanted the reader to laugh or cry tend to hit home the hardest.
Which emotion you want to evoke is up to you, the writer. Laughter or pride (for the reader or for the protagonist) is something I want to aim for. Wonder is also good, and also harder. But there are times for sadness or horror, catharsis can be healthy to get those feelings out of our system. Though it can be tough. A well-written story will have those emotions linger in the reader, so I’d honestly try to avoid wistfulness or melancholy in stories you’re writing for someone else.
How do we do that? Well, keeping in mind this is all my bright idea and not of anyone really, really skilled at this, I think you the writer have to feel it first. Readers, I think, can spot it when we’re going through the motions*. So what you right needs to make you happy or laugh or nostalgic or even aroused. If you’re writing a love scene and you don’t need a trip to the shower afterwards, scrap it and try again. If the fight scene doesn’t get your heart pumping, put it down, summon up the blood and disguise fair nature with hard-favored rage.
Once you’re feeling it, write it. Stay in that emotional state as long as you can. Write fast, let it flow. You can go back and correct mistakes in verb tense and spelling later. You want to get the emotion of the scene down first because that spirit comes from the inside where we don’t think about usage who vs whom. If you can get the emotions down, the rest can be fiddled with by your logical side.
Next, vary your scenes. Don’t put action scene after action scene. Let your reader recover, channel their emotions into something different, take them on a ride. Rollercoasters are never all downhill. Anticipation is part of the fun and it’s a great way to hook a reader to signal a change in mood just as you end a chapter. Break up horror with comedy, if you can, laughter is louder after a scare…thought that’s a tough rope to follow. End action with a melancholy coda, dealing with the aftermath of adrenaline and bloodshed…though I advise against ending a story that way, just my two cents.
End the story in a way that is satisfying emotionally. Make them want to read about that character again or at the very least, to read more of your work. That’s why I suggest ending ‘up’. One of the feedback I got most often in the past year on my problem stories seem to have that at its core, the ending didn’t satisfy. People like happy endings, if they’re earned. They WANT to root for your protagonists, let them. People are afraid of cliché or tropes but they exist for a reason. They meet a need in us. We want to believe there is justice in the end, that journeys end in lovers meeting, that sacrifice buys something, that evil can be vanquished by courage, that the good guys win. Remember, we’re telling stories, dreaming dreams. Don’t write real life, write better than life.
So before you start writing, take a moment while the stew is simmering in your head and think about what emotional seasoning you want to add. Because that’s what’s going to linger on after your reader consumes your story. Now if you’ll excuse me, I seem to be hungry for some reason.
*Though they can’t seem to spot which sections came easily and which ones you sweated blood over. Which is odd.
Maybe I should make this a new feature, where I sit on my porch in a red flannel shirt and shake my cane and winge about movies, television shows and books that fail to measure up to my standards. This is a blog after all.
Well, we'll see. But I do want to talk about the TV Series Hannibal, at least Season 1, which I watched thanks to my Amazon Prime membership and my Roku box. (As as aside, technology is cool.) And they did tremendous job and made tremendous mistakes.
Now, I'm a fan of the Thomas Harris books (Red Dragon and Silence of the Lambs, in particular. Hannibal, not so much) and I dearly hope he's been busy writing under a pen name rather than sitting around, cashing royalty checks and brooding. He's a damn good writer and wrote damn good stories. These stories are also perfect examples of the dangers of secondary characters running away with you.
The first thing you need to know about the series is that it is a Horror show, in the most specific meaning of the word. There are images so horrific and gory in this show that I can't believe this was ever shown on television. Things have changed a lot since I canceled my cable in 1999.
The second thing you need to know about the show is that this is a world without lawyers. This is important for dramatic reasons, in real life and in books, lawyers ruin everyone's fun. Yet, in small doses, lawyers to perform a useful function, reminding people that certain actions are illegal, unethical and providing useful cannon fodder. Related, the FBI's once-famed and respected Office of Professional Responsibility doesn't show up even once and it dearly needs to.
Third, and this is mostly for fans of the books and movies, this seems to be a case of alternate continuity. So much depicted here directly contradicts what Thomas Harris wrote that, if you're like me and take your stories too seriously, you might need to medicate yourself to the point that you forget the books and movies ever existed. Of course, if you could do that, why would you bother watching the show in the first place. Well, I'll tell you. Then I'll rip the show a new hole that it clearly would enjoy televising.
The performances (with the possible exception of Lawrence Fishburne) are uniformly good, at least for the leads. Mads Mikklesen does a remarkable job playing Hannibal Lecter, managing to step out of Anthony Hopkin's shadow. I can't say enough what an accomplishment this is. He is courtly, suave but with an air of subtle danger about him. I have some nits to pick but he did a fine job. Same with Hugh Dancy, who plays the Byronic Hero in the series, Will Graham. There are fatal flaws in the characterization but his performance is well done.
It is daring. It reminds me a lot of Millennium (which I'm not the only one who sees that show as an inspiration. They have a cameo by Lance Henriksen who played Frank Black in that show). Millennium gave us visuals and stories that got under your skin and squirmed around. Hannibal goes even further, with even more horrific images and crimes. I don't know if that's a good thing or not culturally, but i can recognize the skill with which it was done.
The arcs are well written. There are some mis-steps but they are conceptual, not in execution. The arcs include: Will Graham losing his mind, Hannibal's attraction to Will (non-sexual, he sees will as a kindred soul), Will's PTSD from shooting a serial killer in episode 1, Abigail Hobbs flirting with the killer in her and her own responsibility in her father's crimes and Dr. Gideon's red herring role about being the Chesapeake Ripper. Each arc is very well done, paced with great skill, each is resolved in a way that leads to new plot arcs.
The final image is very cool, if utterly out of canon. So let's use that as the transition to what doesn't work. The final image is Will Grant in the Baltimore State Hospital for the Criminally Insane, behind bars. Saying, with a crazed look, 'Hello Doctor Lecter', who is visiting him. Cool? Yes. A great reversal from the first time we see Hannibal in Silence of the Lambs. And it's a crowning example of what the writers did wrong.
The biggest problem is with that final image and the whole Will Graham insanity plot. Will Graham (and for that matter, Jack Crawford) is loosely based on John Douglas*, the real-life FBI agent who created profiles for Bundy, Gein and other serial killers. In the book, he's the man who caught Hannibal, earning Lecter's hate. Hate. You can't describe it any other way, both in the book and the movies, Lecter hates Graham who deprived him of his freedom. Famously, Graham caught Lecter, not because he was smarter but because Lecter had a disadvantage: he was insane. This who plot, Will going crazy, takes away the advantage Will Graham had in the original story: his sanity. Will fought with monsters and made it out alive. He didn't become a monster. He didn't fall. He didn't lose. He didn't make it out unscathed, he stopped profiling serial killers because they'd take up headspace inside his mind, that's true. But he didn't succumb. Putting Will in the Hannibal cell and putting a clear lucite mask on him is daring but its also a betrayal of the original character. As a practical matter, it stretches the credibility that Will can effectively operate as a teacher and investigator while his mind is deteriorating.
I'm also seriously doubting how much research the writing or directors did about procedures and policies in the FBI. You get a feel for how much ice there is below the surface of the water and I'm not feeling a lot. The X-Files had a lot of ice, so did Millennium. Hannibal has a culinary advisor but if there's a technical advisor, I'm not seeing it. Some details could be dropped for drama but I've yet to see anyone Mirandized, even Will when he's arrested at the end of the first series. Nobody has an attorney present during questioning. Ever. Ever,ever,ever. And they make a huge deal out of Will Graham being a 'Special Agent' instead of a 'full Agent', which is a fake distinction. They're same thing. Does the character have a badge and a gun and investigates crimes (as Will has) ? They they're a Special Agent. I'm starting to doubt they even used Wikipedia, let alone the contacts a major network would have with the FBI.
That ties into one of my surprise gripes, that of Lawrence Fishburne's performance as Jack Crawford. It's not just that I feel Scott Glenn did a better job. It's that Fishburne's leadership style seems to be 'leadership by yelling' and 'leadership by endangering my employees'. Seriously, the guy has already gotten one student killed by sending them after serial killers. Yes, Jack Crawford did send Clarice Starling to Hannibal Lecter but he was in prison at the time. He didn't send her after Buffalo Bill. Fishburne's character is told, and believes, that Will Graham is deteriorating mentally, but not only does he keep using him, he justifies it as 'saving lives'. I don't know any professional law enforcement officer who would operate like that. And if they did, the OPR would be down on him like a ton of bricks and he'd be supervising cactus in New Mexico by the end of the week.
The support characters don't really shine. Scott Thompson keeps reminding me of the Kids in the Hall and though he isn't as arch as he was then, he doesn't quite feel like a tech geek or a professional CSI admin. Hettienne Park is cute, but she can't act and she doesn't behave like a professional either.** The reporter character, played by Lara Jean Chorostecki, is also cute but her TMZ style reporting ought to earn her the fate that the similar male character in Red Dragon suffered.***
I have other nit picks, Hannibal throwing dinner parties and inviting Jack Crawford and his wife, Hannibal offering marriage counseling to the same, the plausibility of erecting a totem pole made of human body parts without discovery, etc. But that's enough to go by.
In conclusion, Hannibal is a well-written Horror show, if you can ignore the lack of research and suspend your knowledge of the books/movies. Good performances, no lawyers. For better or for worse.
* I HIGHLY recommend his book, Mindhunter. I bought it back in the 90's
** She wanders around, sorta flirty, disturbing Graham when he's working and her speech to Will Graham when she's scraping blood from under his nails is especially cringe-worthy
***Gruesome death. But I'm sure you knew that.
Well it must be something in the air. Last night I watched "The Cabin in the Woods" and tomorrow I'm going to World Horror in Portland.
A few of my fellow Wordslingers, as well as wonder-editor Jennifer Brozek, will be attending as well. There seem to be a few really interesting writing panels this Saturday that I'm looking forward to attending.
I have an odd relationship to horror. I do write a little horror, I'm working on a Lovecraftian story set in Aberdeen right now. And I love Richard Laymon, John Everson and I have a lot of respect for at least half of Stephen King's output. I was a big horror fan back in the '90s but after 9-11, I lost my taste for tragedy and torture. But there is one thing the horror genre does that no other genre can: It takes away the certainty that things are going to end ok.
In horror, there are not guarantees that the main character will succeed or even survive. And on one level, I really like that. Uncertainty drives tension, so long as it doesn't swerve into confusion. But as much as I appreciate that tool in the toolbox,it can be mis-used. And that brings me to "Cabin in the Woods".
While I admire the concept and enjoyed some of the performances, it didn't work for me. And a big part of that is the ending.
So, let me talk spoiler first and I'll backtrack. Jump out now if you haven't seen or if you have and want to talk about it at World Horror, look me up. I'll be the big, bald guy in black...or one of them.
So the central concept of Cabin in the Woods is that all the slasher and horror killings are real and they have a purpose. They are human sacrifices that are used to appease sleeping elder gods and keep them asleep. These killings are stage-managed by a mundane company hidden beneath (in this case) the titular cabin. If the killings are not accomplished, and in a specific-ish order, the world ends. Those are the stakes.
Either we (humanity) kills 5 kids a year, making them suffer, or the world ends*. And the stoner character fucks us all up, destroying the world. It's almost the biggest anti-drug movie since "Requiem for a Dream". Or it should be. I can't tell you how much I hate that character and his actions. But I don't just want to rail against the character, I want to rail against the writing. So let's do that.
Ok, now that I spoiled the ending, I'll back up and describe the rest of the story. The movie opens with a couple of office/corporate types talking inanely about work. Then there's a big title drop, deliberately over the top. We get introduced to the young characters, the designated 'survivor girl' walking around in her panties and a tee shirt while the 'slut' is fully dressed.
This is what the movie does well and does wrong. First, it's playing with our expectation. Like showing the 'virgin' character...isn't a virgin. Far from it. And showing 'behind the curtain' at the technicians who'll be stage-managing the horror. And, with the title leaping out, telling the audience that it's not taking itself seriously. And all of this, with the exception of playing with expectations, is a mistake. But let me go on.
After we're introduced to all five characters (including the hated stoner character who is driving around bombed out of his head. If he was drunk instead, I wonder if people would have laughed as hard at him. Or maybe they're showing us early just how irresponsible he is, which still doesn't endear me to him). The five kids to to a cabin in the woods, vaguely owned by a relative of one of them. On their way to the cabin, the are met by a creepy guy who warns them away. They ignore him, go to the cabin and settle in for some good times.
Down below, we see the techs debating the morality of what they're going to do. We see themes of voyeurism and horror, right out in the open. All good so far. Then a basement door is opened and a variety of occult objects are discovered. Still good. Whichever item they are drawn to, determines which monster they will be stalked and killed by. An old diary containing some spooky Latin-esque text is read aloud, inbred zombies rise and begin the killing.
There is a lot going on here. Still good stuff, lots of genre-aware commentary by characters in the cabin and downstairs in the control room. Still good. There's some nudity (but no sex, though we get plenty of gore...sigh. I miss the old 80s movies that served up both) and one by one the kids are killed by zombies or by traps or by the control panel folks just being bastards. Chris Hemswroth shows a LOT of charisma in this movie. He doesn't really have much screen time...and that's another huge mistake...but he seems noble, active, protective. His supporting cast is a bit in his shadow but ultimately he dies as does everyone but the last girl.
Only....that isn't what happened. In a hard-to-believe twist, the stoner character gets the better of his killer. Off screen. After being stabbed in the back. And with him alive, they survivor girl can't be killed. Again, the order of the death matters because otherwise the elder god won't be appeased. Again, this is important, end-of-the-world kind of important.
The two surviving kids get into an elevator that leads down, which somehow the stoner knows how to hotwire. They go down into the complex, discover a HUGE collection of monsters, free them, cause everyone in the facility to get killed, and end up confronting the director of the company/organization. She tells them about the purpose of the killings, about the stakes and they see the temple holding the elder god as he slumbers. And...though a variety of contrivances, manage to outsmart and overpower and trick the remaining monster and the Director and...let the world get destroyed. While they light up a joint and say that maybe someone else's turn will come next, that humanity doesn't deserve to survive. They die as a huge hand breaks free from the prison, the end.
So, back where I came in. This ending really, really pissed me off. If the stoner had been right and refusing to kill himself or let himself die somehow did not unleash the elder god or if the survivors had found some other way to avoid the god's awakening, I could have bought the ending. The movie would still have serious flaws, which I'll get to next, but it would have ended 'well'. Or if he or the survivor girl had killed the stoner and saved the world, it would have ended well. Or even if they tried to avert the awakening of the god and failed, it would have ended well. Or if the characters had been LIKABLE, it would have felt like tragedy. But it didn't.
See, this is where the strength of the horror genre, that happy endings are not guaranteed, is wasted. Because a 'down' ending only works if you care about the characters. And we don't here. And I don't think it's just because of my dislike of the stoner character. The problem with the movie's ending is structural.
We open on the real protagonists, the techs. They're the ones trying to save the world. They are making the hard choices, sacrificing not just the 'teens' but their own honor and morality. But we're wired to like the kids, to want them to survive and triumph and the movie half supports that. But only half. See, it's not just the opening that's the problem. Opening on the techs does fake out the audience but it also spends precious minutes establishing characters that we aren't supposed to be rooting for. And the normalcy of these guys going to work wastes time that could be used creating tension.
Because the Cabin in the Woods is neither a comedy, nor a horror movie. It's trying to be both and it fails. Comedy and horror are conflicting emotions and themes. Comedies are cathartic. Horror is creating tension. Laughter removes tension. It distances the audience from what they're seeing. It's insulation when what you need is a live wire.**
If it had committed to comedy, the movie could have worked, despite the gore. But a comedy can't have a down ending. Down endings don't make you laugh and the purpose of a comedy is to make the audience laugh and feel good at the end.
If it had committed to horror, the movie could have worked, despite the humor. Humor is a great tool in defusing tension, in creating a positive catharsis, just as the 'kills' create a negative catharsis. A horror movie can have a down ending, if you care about the characters. It's still risky, which is why most 'down' endings are surprise or stinger endings (like the last shot of Carrie or the last image of Prince of Darkness) but it can be done but only if you are invested in the characters.
And this is the other big failure of the movie: we don't have focus on either possible protagonist(s). The movie jumps from the control room to the teens, never spending enough time with either of them to let us get immersed in their struggles. We're robbed from feeling the tension of the dead rising and stalking the main characters because we keep jumping to the control room. We're robbed from caring about the protagonist(s) by having to split precious screen minutes with the other characters, separated from each other in every way. The teens are painted as archtypes by the control room people and despite the fact we're 'told' that they aren't cliched characters, we aren't given time to be shown how they aren't cardboard cutouts.
So the deaths mean less. We don't have a clear rooting interest in either side. The control room people have the high stakes, higher than just their own life and death. But they don't have the majority of the screen time. The teens have the emotional sympathies of the audience but they aren't given time to develop and become real people.
There's a lot more I could talk about, things that worked and things that didn't. But I'll stop here.
"The Cabin in the Woods" is basically a 'Scary Movie' title with a bigger budget and subtler gags...and a worse ending.
*This sort of plot is handled with much better grace in the story " The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas" by Ursula K. Le Guin
**There are very, very few movies that work as both.
Tucker and Dave vs Evil " is a similar movie but despite the gore, it's a comedy. "The Evil Dead" crosses both lines but is ultimately a horror movie with lots of cathartic laughter and silliness.
It is with great joy and tremulous humility that I come to you, electronically.
My short story, "The Body as a Ship", was purchased by Evil Girlfriend Media last fall. It appears now in the anthology, Bless Your Mechanical Heart. (You can buy it on Amazon here or for other platforms here) It was edited by the talented Jennifer Brozek.
As Katie Cord, the publisher, has kindly said, this is the story that sort of inspired the anthology. I met Katie when we were both workshopping stories at the Cascade Writer's Workshop about two years ago. Katie, by the way, is all kinds of awesome. Talented, ambitious, hard working and beautiful. And, no, I'm not saying that because she liked my story. She really is.
"The Body as a Ship" was my first attempt to do real science fiction, something that was about man and technology and the future. It is about body replacement but in an optimistic future or I see it that way. Though you can't gain things without losing other things, I feel, so there is a certain wistfulness, a longing in the main character. Or that was what I was going for.
The book, and surprisingly my story, are both getting good reviews. If you read it and like it, let me know.
The Dragon's Path surprised me, pleasantly.
I didn't know much about Daniel Abraham, going into this. He was suggested by a friend of a friend kind of thing and somehow, in my head, I got him mixed up with Peter Orullian. Don't ask. I have not read his Long Price quartet, but now I think I will.
This is a pretty straightforward secondary-world Fantasy. It's a low magic world, one where Dragons magically created a number of human sub-races and then killed each other off in near-legendary past. The sub-races are one of the few stumbles. The idea is cool but trying to keep clear the difference between a Tralgu and a Yemmu is hard. If ever a book needed accompanying illustrations, it's this one. It's a concept that belongs more in a role playing game than in a novel or maybe the author just didn't' do enough description up front. That's a tough balancing act, I know, between too much info and too little. Where it came to the races, I'm afraid he erred on the side of too little but that was the only thing to take me out of the story. Well that and one of the characters burning a city of ten thousand people in a fit of pique.
There is a lot of politics, which I love, but not a ton of action. That doesn't mean there isn't tension, though. There is, on nearly every page there is conflict. Just don't expect a lot of sword fights or magical duels.
What you do have are pretty compelling characters, with flaws the reader can see that the characters themselves can't (nice bit of tension and irony there as you are mentally yelling at people not to do something). There are no clear villains in this book, either and the traditional hero, Marcus, isn't really the focus of the book. This is the first in a 3+ book series so what we're mostly doing here is setup and worldbuilding but most of the characters (but not Marcus) do get a story arc that resolves in the best way possible: by making space for more stories.
I'm being a bit vague on the plot, but not deliberately. There's no earth-shaking mysteries here, just a lot of characters. This is fantasy VERY much in the George R. Martin mold, albeit, without the GRRM bodycount of main characters. If you like A Game of Thrones, I can safely say you'll like this book.
Ok, let me dig in a little bit more about what worked and what didn't for me.
The good: I like most of the characters. They felt real and where they didn't feel real, they felt interesting. For example, Cithrin is a very interesting female protagonist. She's very intellectual, very smart but she doesn't feel like the teenager she's supposed to be. I can feel the author trying but she just feels too mature. That's not a serious dig, though, because I did find her interesting and I cared about her and her problems. Geder, different story but I'll get to him in the 'bad' section below.
The world is also interesting. I like that the world feels lived in, people have prejudices, needs, wants, conflicting desires. The world had dragons ruling humans, changing them, making them into purpose-made slave races. That's very cool. The main kingdom we see, Antea, feels Roman, specifically Republican era room where nobles jostled to be 'First Man', albeit, there is a king in Antea. Still, I like Rome and the Republican era so that really worked for me.
Daniel Abraham does a good job of keeping the reader's interest. Good pacing, good use of tension and plot hooks. He's definitely a good writer and, again that surprised me just because I hadn't heard of him.
Ok, on to the bad:
I had a real problem with Geder who ends up with the biggest changes in the book. He starts out a bookworm and a buffoon but ends up rising the highest in society by being the right pawn in the right place with the right (lack) of connections. He's the guy who burned an entire city to the ground and, yes, he regrets it and is even haunted by it. But that doesn't explain WHY he would think mass murder would be a good idea. It is baffling. Also, his return back to the main capital he uncovers a conspiracy and becomes renowned all in the course of one chapter. This really should have been drawn out, with us seeing him interacting with more people and him uncovering more over time. I don't know if this was an editorial decision or if the author was just rushing towards the ending. Which I get, I've done that, too. But it stood out.
Also Marcus Wester is unused here. He's just a mass of unresolved tensions and unrealized action. He's supposed to be a deadly swordsman, reputed to be a literally legendary leader but we never see him fight. Never see him do much of anything. God knows, David Gemmell would have known what to do with this character but I get the feeling David Abraham put this character into the book because he felt he needed to but they didn't know how to actually write an action hero. Dunno. It's like putting a legendary gunslinger in a western novel and then never having him draw his gun. It's just odd.
The only real misstep is the number of races and the difficulty in picturing them, though. The issues I have with Marcus and Geder are mostly nit picks. It's a good book and I'll be buying the rest of the series.