Life, The Universe, and ConFusion this weekend

This weekend I'll be attending the 42nd annual ConFusion science fiction and fantasy convention, aptly dubbed "Life, The Universe, and ConFusion."

I'm not on any panels, because I didn't want to be on any panels. I'm not selling anything, because I didn't want to be stuck in the dealers' room. I'll have a badge, but I'm not really *at* the convention as anything other than an attendee who is taking a vacation this weekend.

Except, of course, for the bit where I'm running a Planet Mercenary RPG session on Saturday morning with several of the convention's notable guests as players. That's a little bit like work, and it's something that fans can come and watch. When it's done, I will hide in my room and edit a bunch of the Planet Mercenary stuff, focusing on the bits my party of fine storytellers and wordsmiths ran roughshod over.

If you want me to sign something, or sketch in a book, I will do that for you, provided you don't try to get me to do it during the RPG session, or while I'm eating.

If you want to talk to me, hey, that's cool, assuming you choose to do this in a setting where approaching people for conversation is appropriate. If I'm not feeling approachable, I'll probably hide in my room and write.

First Blog Post of the New Year!

Seems I waited quite a while before putting up a new blog post here. 2016 has been really busy so far, which is nice, because it's the "getting things done" kind of busy, rather than the "putting out fires" kind of busy.

I'll write more later, I guess? At this moment I'm waiting for food to come out of the food machine, and then I will eat the food and start getting more things done. 

I really hope I do not need to put out a fire in the food machine. 

Barsk: The Elephants' Graveyard, by Lawrence M. Schoen

Finally, you get to read Barsk: The Elephants' Graveyard, by Lawrence Schoen.

I got to read it early this year, and I loved it. I wanted to tell you about it, but I was told in no uncertain terms that I needed to wait, because you would not be able to have it until the very endmost days of the year, and we would all be happier (you, me, Lawrence, and the publisher) if I held off.

This is science fiction that gets the aliens right. With no human POV characters, our only eyes into the story are alien ones, and Lawrence does this so well I felt like I was a wrinkled, hairless historian with a prehensile snout and oversized ears.

I say "aliens," but that term will get quibbled over. Barsk is a wet, cloudy world settled by the Fant, creatures who, as the full title of the story suggests, bear a non-coincidental resemblance to Earth's elephants. The setting is, technically, an anthropomorphic one, but saying "oh, it's an anthro story" does the book an enormous disservice. Barsk is to anthropomorphic, "furry" fiction as Heinlein's Starship Troopers is to Lucas's stormtroopers.

The story is part detective story, part adventure, and part "idea" story whose central conceits do a delightful job of blurring that line between sufficiently advanced technology and magic. It hits familiar notes in ways that tell me "this is like other books I love," and then delivers new notes in ways that remind me why I like reading stuff that is actually new.

I've raved over Lawrence's "Amazing Conroy" stories before. As delightful as those were, Barsk: The Elephant's Graveyard is better, and for all the right reasons.    

(originally posted at howardtayler.com)

Star Wars: The Force Awakens

It's been a week. If you haven't seen Star Wars: The Force Awakens yet, I completely understand. Theaters have been packed. This review may spoil some things, however, so by all means click away from this page now.

Still reading? 

Still?

Okay, then. Before I tell you how awesome it was, let me get something out of the way. Star Wars: The Force Awakens does NOT take my top spot for 2015. The Martian set a very high bar.

Look at it this way: Star Wars: The Force Awakens was amazing, and restored my faith in the cinematic tradition and my hopes for the franchise. The Martian, however, gave me hope for humanity. The Martian penetrated all the way to my soul and changed me a little. Star Wars: The Force Awakens simply made me very, very happy to have seen a movie.

Don't get me wrong, however. Star Wars: The Force Awakens was an amazing and powerful film. The Star Wars prequels made so many terrible mistakes that they ruined the franchise for me. That I again have interest in, and hope for the Star Wars franchise is close to miraculous.

An examination of the craft of film making is in order here, but I need to see the film a few more times to cement my thoughts. For now, I'll summarize. Everything the filmmakers did wrong with Episodes I, II, and III were done right (or simply not done) in Episode VII. More amazingly, almost everything that was done well in Episodes IV, V, and VI was done better in Episode VII.

And I mean "better."

Not "bigger" or "louder" or "more." BETTER. 

  • The emotional highs and lows? Better.
  • Connection with the characters? Better.
  • Special effects? Better.
  • Practical effects? Better.
  • Comprehensibility of action? Better.
  • The cantina music? Beeeyeah no. I like the original better. But give me time.

That said, Star Wars: The Force Awakens suffers from a story structure problem, likely  the result of a decision to move away from the Campbellian Monomyth, or at least obscure the Hero's Journey a bit. On the upside, it makes the film less predictable. On the downside by stepping outside the syntax of Western cinema, the audience may end up confused. There are several places that feel weird, moments about which my inner writer is complaining. I don't think those problems are accidents are oversights. I think the writers are experimenting, or perhaps playing the long game. I'll reserve judgement for now.

The film's biggest weakness, to my mind, is that Star Wars: The Force Awakens cannot escape the legacy of the films that came before it. In 1977 Star Wars changed the face of science fiction forever. That level of surprise at what a film can be is impossible to deliver again. In 1999 Lucasfilm tried to incite a similar revolution in the industry, and they gave us some of the most reviled blockbuster movies of all time. Like it or not, that's also part of the legacy behind Star Wars: The Force Awakens. 

In short, we remember having been amazed, and having been betrayed by this franchise. We cannot help but compare Star Wars: The Force Awakens to six other films.

Me, I think it stands up really well.  

(originally posted at howardtayler.com)

Hot Cocoa Almond Deluxe

During the early part of this year I posted "Hot Cocoa, My Way." Here's the concoction I came up with this morning. It's more complex, but the basic principle is the same: start with cocoa powder, and go dark.

  • 1/2 c Hershey's cocoa
  • 1/3 c sugar
  • 1 tbsp Agave
  • 1 tsp maple syrup
  • 1 tsp Terva siirappi
  • 2 tbsp tar syrup liqueur.
  • 2 tsp vanilla extract
  • 1 tiny sprinkle cayenne
  • 1 dash nutmeg
  • 1 dash salt
  • 2 cinnamon sticks
  • 1 dash allspice
  • 3 cups Silk brand "light" vanilla almond milk.

Put the cocoa, sugar, agave, tar syrup, tar liqueur, and vanilla in a pot with 1 cup of the almond milk. Bring to a slow boil while whisking and stirring with one of these flat sauce-whisk thingies. Start slow so you don't throw powdered cocoa everywhere.

Once everything's wet, go crazy. Foam is fine. You want it SMOOOTH.

Add the spices, and simmer until the alcohol in the liqueur and the vanilla has boiled off. Ten minutes? Dunno. With the exception of the cinnamon sticks and some foam, the stuff should be very, very smooth. If you have a silicone spatula, you'll probably want to scrape the sides and whisk that stuff back in.

Mix in the rest of the almond milk, and gently whisk everything together. Let it stand so the cinnamon sticks can steep for a bit. The longer it stands, the cinnamonnier it gets. You can get some real bite to it if you've got half a day to kill.

When it's done, it may be cold. Bummer. You can heat it back up on the stove, or just microwave it a cup at a time.

This stuff is *strong.* You may want to cut it with more almond milk, or even just water if you're a real light-weight.

If you don't have tar syrup or tar liqueur, you have my sympathy. I'm almost out of both, and I haven't yet found anybody importing it (besides my friends from Helsinki.) You might be able to get by with a drop of liquid smoke, and more maple syrup. I know that's what I might be reduced to in a few short weeks.

(cross-posted from howardtayler.com)

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