Monday, December 31, 2012

100 Books a Year 2012

In 2010, Bruce and Leslie asked me if I thought I read 100 books a year. As noted, I tracked my reading in 2011 and came up a little short. But I kept tracking my reading this year, and as it turns out I finished the year's 100th book earlier this afternoon.

Here's the list, in order of completion:



Shoeless Joe (W.P. Kinsella, 1982)
The Hobbit (J.R.R. Tolkien, 1937)
The Wild Girls Plus… (Ursula K. Le Guin, 2011)
Star Trek The Next Generation: Indistinguishable from Magic (David A. McIntee, 2011)
In War Times (Kathleen Ann Goonan, 2007)
Directive 51 (John Barnes, 2010)
The Bible Repairman and Other Stories (Tim Powers, 2011)
Daybreak Zero (John Barnes, 2011)
Star Trek Department of Temporal Investigations: Watching the Clock (Christopher L. Bennett, 2011)
Who Has Seen the Wind? (W.O. Mitchell, 1947)
Icehenge (Kim Stanley Robinson, 1984)
40-Year Evolution: Planet of the Apes (Lee Pfeiffer & Dave Worrall, 2008)
7th Sigma (Steven Gould, 2011)
Fuzzy Nation (John Scalzi, 2011)
The Greatest Sci-Fi Movies Never Made (David Hughes, 2008)
Colonel Sun (Kingsley Amis writing as Robert Markham, 1968)
Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets (J.K. Rowling, 1998)
Worlds Apart (Joe Haldeman, 1983)
Worlds Enough and Time (Joe Haldeman, 1992)
Wonder (Robert J. Sawyer, 2011)
Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban (J.K. Rowling, 1999)
Hex (Allen Steele, 2011)
Tales from Development Hell (David Hughes, 2011)
Star Trek Department of Temporal Investigations: Forgotten History (Christopher L. Bennett, 2012)
In Search of the Multiverse (John Gribbin, 2009)
Fevre Dream (George R. R. Martin, 1982)
Carte Blanche (Jeffery Deaver, 2011)
The Hallowed Hunt (Lois McMaster Bujold, 2005)
All the Lives He Led (Frederik Pohl, 2011)
The Scarlet Plague (Jack London, 1912)
The Wind Through the Keyhole (Stephen King, 2012)
Forsake the Sky (Tim Powers, 1986)
A Bridge of Years (Robert Charles Wilson, 1991)
Vortex (Robert Charles Wilson, 2011)
A Pleasure to Burn: Fahrenheit 451 Stories (Ray Bradbury, 2010)
The Call of the Wild (Jack London, 1903)
The Night Sessions (Ken MacLeod, 2012)
The Murders in the Rue Morgue (Edgar Allan Poe, 1841)
Feed (Mira Grant, 2010)

The Complete Peanuts 1983 to 1984 (Charles M. Schulz with an introduction by Leonard Maltin, 2012)
The Walls of the Universe (Paul Melko, 2009)
Surfing the Gnarl Plus… (Rudy Rucker, 2012)
Report from Planet Midnight Plus… (Nalo Hopkinson, 2012)
Tin Woodman (David F. Bischoff and Dennis R. Bailey, 1979)
Year’s Best SF (David G. Hartwell, Editor, 1996)
The Company of the Dead (David J. Kowalski, 2012)
Year’s Best SF 2 (David G. Hartwell, Editor, 1997)
After the Golden Age (Carrie Vaughn, 2011)
Omnitopia Dawn (Diane Duane, 2010)
Year’s Best SF 3 (David G. Hartwell, Editor, 1998)
Dandelion Wine (Ray Bradbury, 1957)
Farewell Summer (Ray Bradbury, 2006)
Florida Roadkill (Tim Dorsey, 1999)
Science Fiction: The 101 Best Novels, 1985-2010 (Damien Broderick & Paul Di Filippo, 2012)
Science Fiction: The 100 Best Novels (David Pringle, 1985)
Super Sad True Love Story (Gary Shteyngart, 2010)
Year’s Best SF 5 (David G. Hartwell, Editor, 2000)
Firebird (Jack McDevitt, 2011)
Animal Farm (George Orwell, 1945)
Hammerhead Ranch Motel (Tim Dorsey, 2000)
This Dark Endeavour (Kenneth Oppel, 2011)
Orange Crush (Tim Dorsey, 2001)
The Poison Belt (Arthur Conan Doyle, 1913)
Triggerfish Twist (Tim Dorsey, 2002)
Star Trek New Frontier: Blind Man’s Bluff (Peter David, 2012)
Star Trek Voyager: Unworthy (Kirsten Beyer, 2009)

Star Trek Voyager: Children of the Storm (Kirsten Beyer, 2011)
Triggers (Robert J. Sawyer, 2012)
Fifty Who Made DC Great (Barry Marx, Editor, 1985)
The Adventures of Superman (George Lowther, 1942)
The Stingray Shuffle (Tim Dorsey, 2003)
Carnelians (Catherine Asaro, 2011)
The Red Badge of Courage (Stephen Crane, 1895)
Star Trek Voyager: The Eternal Tide (Kirsten Beyer, 2012)
After the Fall, Before the Fall, During the Fall (Nancy Kress, 2012)
The Toynbee Convector (Ray Bradbury, 1988)
Klingon Bird of Prey Owners’ Workshop Manual (Rick Sternbach and Ben Robinson, 2012)
The Nerd Who Loved Me (Liz Talley, 2012)
Osama (Lavie Tidhar, 2011)
The Stepford Wives (Ira Levin, 1972)
Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (Mark Twain, 1884)
The Wonderful Wizard of Oz (L. Frank Baum, 1900)
Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland (Lewis Carroll, 1865)
Through the Looking-Glass (Lewis Carroll, 1871)
The Complete Peanuts, 1985 to 1986 (Charles M. Schulz with an introduction by Patton Oswalt, 2012)
This Perfect Day (Ira Levin, 1970)
The Boys from Brazil (Ira Levin, 1976)
Rosemary’s Baby (Ira Levin, 1967)

Son of Rosemary (Ira Levin, 1997)
The High Crusade (Poul Anderson, 1960)
The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction (Walter Benjamin, 1936)
An Introduction to Studying Popular Culture (Dominic Strinati, 2000)
211 Things A Bright Boy Can Do (Tom Cutler, 2006)
The Old Man and the Sea (Ernest Hemingway, 1952)
Heart of Darkness (Joseph Conrad, 1899)
Star Trek: The Next Generation 365 (Paula M. Block and Terry J. Erdmann, 2012)
Federation: The First 150 Years (David A. Goodman, 2311)
Year’s Best SF 6 (David G. Hartwell, Editor, 2001)
Dancing with Bears (Michael Swanwick, 2011)
Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire (J.K. Rowling, 2000)

Fiction: 89
Nonfiction: 11
Science fiction: 47
Fantasy: 14
Romance: 1
Star Trek: 10
Peanuts collections: 2
Mainstream: 16

Female authors: 13
Male authors: 60

Top Authors
Tim Dorsey (5)
David G. Hartwell (5)
Ira Levin (5)
Ray Bradbury (4)
Kirsten Beyer (3)

J.K. Rowling (3)
John Barnes (2)
Christopher L. Bennett (2)
Lewis Carroll (2)
Joe Haldeman (2)
David Hughes (2)
Jack London (2)
Tim Powers (2)
Robert J. Sawyer (2)
Charles M. Schulz (2)
Robert Charles Wilson (2)

Books by Decade
1840s: 1
1850s: 0
1860s: 1
1870s: 1
1880s: 1
1890s: 2
1900s: 2

1910s: 2
1920s: 0
1930s: 2
1940s: 3
1950s: 2
1960s: 3
1970s: 4
1980s: 8
1990s: 10
2000s: 17
2010s: 40
2310s: 1

Oldest Title
The Murders in the Rue Morgue (Edgar Allan Poe, 1841)

Newest Title
Federation: The First 150 Years (David A. Goodman, 2311)

Final Thoughts

As might be expected, my list is a little genre heavy. Gender and temporal balance are also askew. Next year I'll see if I can increase the number of women authors and mainstream titles, as well as older works and nonfiction.

Tim Dorsey is my favourite find of 2012. His novels about murder, mayhem and mental illness in Florida are uproariously funny, but they can also be quite moving and insightful. I have another five of his books in my library, and I look forward to devouring them.

After having long read about Ira Levin, I finally sampled the man's work, reading five of his seven published novels. It's too bad he didn't write more; Levin's one of very few writers who can make me angry, and he did so in both The Stepford Wives and Rosemary's Baby, both of which centre around good women betrayed by their husbands.

This year I also knocked a few of the essential classics off my longstanding to-read list: The Old Man and the Sea, Heart of Darkness, Shoeless Joe, The Hobbit and a few others. The Hemingway was wonderful, but I found the Kinsella a little too syrupy, the Conrad too overwrought, and Tolkien, despite his nerd cred...well, maybe he's just not my sort of thing, but I'll give The Lord of the Rings a go in 2013 anyway.

After a three-decade break from Ray Bradbury, I returned to one of the greats this year and found his work as compelling (if sentimental) as ever. I read three of the four Bradbury titles on this list before he died, and I felt irrationally guilty about it. Maybe he would have lived if I hadn't picked up another of his books, or if I'd never stopped reading his work. Crazy, of course.

A few of the books on this list were duds, notably some of the media tie-in novels, but that's to be expected; as Theodore Sturgeon famously wrote, "Ninety percent of everything is crap." But we keep reading in search of those hidden gems.

Speaking of reading, thanks to everyone who read the blog this year - there seem to be more of you, and I'm happy that you're finding something entertaining here.

Happy New Year!

Sunday, December 30, 2012

If I'd Written Star Wars II, Part IV

Part I
Part II
Part III

Act IV
The two Moffs played by Lee and Reed (or similar) rush the Imperial copy of the Life Star to completion, despite considerable losses in the workforce - so many that some workers spit ironically, "The rebels build a Life Star and it turns out to be more of a Death Star than we ever came up with." But completed it is, and moves out of Imperial homeworld orbit accompanied by a massive fleet of warships, bound for Yavin. "The Life Star will render their defences inert, and then the fleet will smash their capital. Didn't the fools ever hear the old proverb about keeping all their eggs in one basket?" mocks the Grand Admiral.

Meanwhile, Luke, Leia, and Han reach Bespin, soaring down to Cloud City. Luke has calmed, but Leia and Han are still anxious, both of them hoping that they'll find Laurel and perhaps give Luke some measure of peace after all that he's lost. Luke, for his part, has realized that Vader showing up on Gatta Prime almost certainly means that he picked up the trail on Tatooine...and likely killed his friends. He shares his anxiety with Leia, who can do nothing to allay his fears; she knows he's almost certainly correct. But then they're landing on Bespin, and as they leave the shuttle they're greeted by an old friend of Han's one Lando Calrissian, the manager of Cloud City. Han explains why they've come, and Lando smiles widely.

"Laurel Sundiver? Yeah, she's here. She's my right-hand woman, the best all-around tech and problem solver I've ever seen," he says. Luke, delighted, grabs hold of Lando by the shoulders, demanding to see her immediately.

"Whoa, calm down there, friend," Lando says. "I'll take you right to her."

Lando guides Luke, Leia and Han to his office, offering them refreshments then summoning Sundiver to his office. Han and Leia are all smiles, trying to support an increasingly nervous and tongue-tied Luke. Sundiver arrives, a lovely creature despite her unkempt uniform and carbon scoring dirtying her hands and face. She eyes the newcomers quizzically, offering them a tentative smile.

"Laurel, these people have come a long way to see you," Lando says. But before he can say more, Luke leaps to his feet.

"I'm Luke Skywalker," he blurts. "Ben Kenobi sent me. I'm your son.

Sundiver reacts with a mixture of delight and disbelief. "Luke...Luke?! But...the war's not over...Darth Vader is still - "

"Darth Vader is dead," Luke says. "You don't have to worry about him anymore. We can be a family again."

They embrace. Han and Lando are all smiles, while Leia holds back tears of joy.

But it's chaos on the green moon of Yavin. Thanks to sheer good luck, a Red Squadron patrol led by Wedge Antilles has detected the Imperial Fleet just a parsec away. General Dodonna orders rebel defences hastily mobilized, including the incomplete Life Star. With communications jammed, he sends a runner to the Millennium Falcon, with orders for Chewbacca and R2-D2 to get word to Princess Leia, wherever she may be; if the green moon falls, a resurgent rebellion can only coalesce around her leadership.

Chewbacca and R2 escape on the Falcon just as the Second Battle of Yavin begins. The Imperial Life Star exits hyperspace and blasts half the rebel fleet, knocking out its electronics and leaving the ships drifting helplessly. But Wedge's advance warning allowed the rest of the fleet to disperse, a small complement protecting the retreating rebel Life Star with the bulk assembling a hasty assault on the Imperial duplicate. But Chewbacca and R2 can see that the battle is almost hopeless. Reluctantly they jump to hyperspace.

Wedge leads a valiant assault on the Life Star and the Imperial fleet, and despite the incredible odds, the hard-fought battle ends in a devastating draw, with the Imperial Life Star crippled and several Star Destroyers themselves destroyed - but at the cost of most of the surviving rebel fleet. And enough Imperials have survived to start landing troops on the green moon of Yavin. Before the base is overrun, General Dodonna orders Wedge to escort the rebel Life Star to safe harbour, and to regroup with Princess Leia whenever possible. Wedge wants to stay, but he can see that it's hopeless - better to retreat and live to fight another day. Wedge and the half-built Life Star and a few remaining rebel ships jump to lightspeed as the green moon of Yavin burns. One of the Grand Moffs (Lee or Reed, it hardly matters) watches with a smug grin as AT-ATs overrun the main rebel base. The Empire is well and truly back.

The film's denouement takes place on Bespin, Chewbacca and R2 having followed the same trail to Bespin as the others. The awful news is shared all 'round, with Luke and Leia berating themselves for not being there during the attack. But it's Laurel who shares the final words of wisdom:

"Perhaps the Force guided you all here," she says. "If you'd been in the Yavin system, you would have fallen with the others. But you all live, and with you also lives a beacon of hope. Darth Vader is dead, the Empire is still a shell of its former glory. Your friends here say that some of the rebel forces escape. Find them, regroup, resist, and never surrender. Trust in the Force and find your finest hour."

With all aboard, the Millennium Falcon leaves Bespin, jumping to lightspeed as the final credits roll.

Saturday, December 29, 2012

If I'd Written Star Wars II, Part III

Part I
Part II

Act III
On the rebel shuttle, Luke is practicing with his father's - rather, his - lightsaber, duelling against a remote slightly more sophisticated than the one seen in the first film. Blindfolded and expertly deflecting the remote's laser blasts, he fails to notice Leia enter the room. She watches with surprise and admiration, not yet having seen this side of Luke, nor his growing confidence. When the drill ends, Luke removes his blindfold and jerks in surprise when he sees Leia, blushing.

"I didn't mean to scare you," she says with gentle mockery.

"No, that's okay. I just...didn't sense you. I was so focussed on the remote that I guess I forgot to pay attention to my wider surroundings."

"Did Obi-Wan teach you how to do that?"

Luke nods sadly; it's clear he still misses his mentor. "He wanted me to be a Jedi, like my father. He said I was strong in the Force. Maybe he was right. I could never have hit that exhaust port without it, or without his guidance and wisdom. But how can I ever become a Jedi without him to teach me?"

Luke sits next to Leia to rest, his head hung low. In his grief for lost Ben, he's almost forgotten his post-adolescent crush on Leia...but she sees him in a new light. Intending at first only to comfort him, she wraps her arms around him, and suddenly they're locked in a kiss - just in time for Han Solo to enter with the news they're about to reach their destination. Han stops in his tracks, frozen in place, watching with growing dismay. Then, hurt and angry, he turns away, heading back to the cockpit, where Threepio informs him that Gatta Central - the main spaceport of Gatta Prime, planet Ben chose as Laurel Skywalker's initial hiding place - has sent landing coordinates. Han responds gruffly, bringing the shuttle in for a landing.

Meanwhile, a squadron of X-Wings led by Wedge Antilles lifts off from the green moon of Yavin and jumps to lightspeed for an initial recon of the Life Star Expeditionary Force's planned route to the Imperial homeworld. All seems quiet when they re-enter normal space, but unbeknownst to Wedge the Imperials on the Super Star Destroyer have decoded the Life Star plans. The haven't found any obvious weaknesses, so instead they've used the plans begun a crash construction program of their own Life Star, hoping to complete it before the rebels can attack. With the Empire's greater manufacturing capacity, it's possible they can launch a Life Star attack on the forces protecting Yavin, not only knocking out the rebel Life Star but leaving the rebel base vulnerable to conventional attack. Moffs Lee and Reed oversee the Imperial Life Star's rapid construction, ensuring airtight security so that word of the duplicate weapon doesn't leak back to the rebels.

Ignorant of all this, Wedge and his fellow X-Wing pilots map out the route to the Imperial homeworld, turning back before reaching the bulk of Imperial defenses.

"Freedom Corridor all clear," Wedge reports back. "There'll be fierce resistance closer to the Imperial core, but with the bulk of the fleet protecting the Life Star there'll be no way to stop us."

Back on Gatta Prime, Luke, Leia, Han and Threepio walk the streets of the vast city surrounding Gatta Central. Exotic alien life teems busily, but the quartet is virtually ignored - until tentacles snap out of an alley to snatch Threepio into the darkness. "Help, help!" Threepio shrieks, but Luke's lightsaber flashes faster than the eye can follow, sending chunks of tentacle flying. Threepio staggers to freedom with a "My goodness!" as the wounded alien scurries off to safety, howling.

Han and Leia are impressed by Luke's speed and skill, but they also note a sadistic, almost predatory gleam in Luke's eyes. He's about to give chase, to kill the alien, but Han rests a hand on his shoulder.

"Ease down, kid, you got him. He's not gonna bother us anymore."

Luke calms down, reluctantly. Without a mentor, the dark and light sides of the force war within his soul, and Luke doesn't have the knowledge to understand what's happening to him. "Let's just find my mother," he barks, leading the others toward the address Ben left.

At the edge of the Gatta system, Darth Vader jerks in his cockpit, as if suddenly sensing something - a powerful source of the Force. "Laurel..? No...Luke. Luke Skywalker. I have you now." He accelerates toward Gatta Prime.

Luke, Leia, Han and Threepio reach Laurel's home, but it's empty - long abandoned, as Luke half-suspected it would be. As the others look about for possible clues of her current location, Luke squats on the floor, closing his eyes, reaching out with the Force to see if he can track her presence. But he feels nothing, and his brow furrows with anger as his frustration grows.

"There's nothing! I can't feel anything!" he shouts. Leia kneels to calm him, and Han comes to the rescue with the news he's discovered a hidden vault with a holo imager inside.

"Old smuggler's trick," he notes with some admiration for their quarry. "False panel in the 'fresher. I'll bet she left this for you, kid."

Luke turns on the holo, and sure enough it's Laurel Skywalker, a beautiful young woman with a message nearly two decades old. "Hello, Luke. Or Obi-Wan, perhaps, but I hope it's you, Luke, who's seeing this message now. Either way, one or both of you have come looking for me, perhaps with the news that the dark times are over and we can be a family again. I'm sorry that I couldn't wait here; the agents of Darth Vader were getting too close and I fled to a place called Cloud City floating high in the atmosphere of the planet Bespin.Hopefully I'll still be living there by the time you see this message, and I can finally be a proper mother to you..."

Just as the message ends, Vader appears, igniting his lightsaber. Han pulls his blaster, but Vader yanks it out of his grip with telekinesis, and then uses the same power to casually fling Solo out a window; the smuggler lands in an unconscious heap in a garden outside. Threepio, in an uncharacteristic display of bravery, raises his hands as if to ward off Vader. "Stay back, Master Luke!" he cries, and those are the droid's last words, for Vader cleaves him in half straight down the middle, utterly destroying Threepio beyond repair.

Luke screams in rage, drawing his own lightsaber and charging Vader. "You killed him!" he screams. "And you killed Ben!"

Leia watches in horror as Luke and Vader duel. Vader should have the edge, but Luke's youth and rage have given the boy an uncanny ferocity that catches the Sith Lord off guard. Leia draws a sidearm, aiming for Vader, but the saber duel is so fast and unpredictable that she holds her fire, afraid of hitting Luke accidentally. It's a battle to the death, neither man speaking, lightsabers leaving streaks of neon light in their wake as they carve through the air and smash together, errant slashes slicing apart the walls and furniture. Realizing she can do little here, Leia retreats to the yard, finding Han and tending to the unconscious rogue. He awakens with a groan, and Leia helps him to his feet.

"Luke's fighting Vader! We've got to help him before - "

But suddenly there is a scream from within the house. A second later, something rolls out the door, something vaguely spherical, smoking...it's Vader's head. A second later, Luke steps into view, extinguishing his lightsaber.

"My father is avenged," he says, his eyes hollow. "My aunt and uncle and Ben...they can rest now."

It should be a moment of triumph. But Han and Leia's expressions are of horror as they feel the waves of dark rage emanating from their troubled young friend...

Friday, December 28, 2012

If I'd Written Star Wars II, Part II


For the backstory and Act I, click here. 

Act II
In a scene on the Imperial homeworld we see the Emperor for the first time - not the fearsome villain we know from the films, but the puppet described in Alan Dean Foster's novelization of Star Wars. Two Grand Moffs (played perhaps by Christoper Lee and Oliver Reed) flank the Emperor, looking far more dangerous than the withered old man slumped atop the Imperial throne. Before the Emperor kneels Darth Vader, stripped of his rank and prestige thanks to losing the Death Star plans and the station itself. In a clearly scripted speech prepared for him by the Moffs, the Emperor reluctantly banishes Darth to the galactic rim to show what happens to those who fail the Empire. Clearly the Moffs would have preferred execution, but Darth's mastery of the Force gives them just enough pause to order a lighter sentence. "You allowed a farm boy from some insignificant backwater to destroy the mightiest weapon the universe has ever seen," the Emperor quavers. "Even worse, you have given the rebels a hero to rally around, the name Luke Skywalker galvanizing not only the treacherous rebels, but instilling fear in our own populace. Begone! Let your name be first cursed, then forgotten."

With no cause and no mentor, Darth is left only with dreams of revenge and bitter regrets over the life he might have lived. He's now nothing more than a deformed freak in a life support suit, albeit a freak with some dangerous telekinetic powers. His only consolation is his murder of Obi-Wan Kenobi, but even that victory rings hollow given the mysterious evaporation of his old foe's body.

Darth leaves the Imperial palace to the jeers and catcalls of a riled-up mob, orchestrated, of course, by the Moffs. He's pelted with rotten fruit as he boards an ancient shuttle. His rage hidden by his awful mask, he slides into the pilot's seat and sets course for the edge of the Empire, silently plotting his next moves.

On their way back to the green moon of Yavin, Luke informs Han that if he can get permission from the Rebels for leave, he intends to search for his lost mother. "Kid, this is going to sound harsh but you're talking about a fool's errand. There's no way your mom is still on the same planet where old Ben dumped her - hell, if she had any smarts she'll be parsecs away from there."

But Luke is adamant that he can find her. He's been practicing with the Force, he admits, a revelation that makes Han roll his eyes. "You really believe that hocus pocus? Kid, it's going to get you killed."

"But if I can get close enough to her, if I can even get close to a place she's been, I'm sure that I'll be able to sense her trail," Luke whines. "It's worth a try. She's the only family I have left!" 

The argument continues on the green moon of Yavin. Han expects Leia to back him up, but to his shock and consternation not only does she give Luke permission to go, she insists on loaning him a fast ship - and even worse, she offers to go along. "I know what it's like to be an orphan," she says. "And diplomatic matters here are in good hands. You saved the Rebellion, Luke, maybe even the galaxy - we're in your debt, and the Organa family always pays its debts."

Han, suddenly not liking the idea of Luke and Leia alone together for weeks in a comfortable ship, decides that he'll go along too "To make sure you crazy kids don't get in over your heads!" Chewbacca and R2-D2 stay behind to oversee the latest overhaul of the Millennium Falcon, but Luke invites C-3PO along with his group; on the edge of the galaxy, a translator might come in handy.

As Luke, Leia, Han and Threepio zoom away from Yavin's moon, the sleek, dark shuttlecraft of the Imperial spy crosses into Imperial territory, zooming in toward a Super Star Destroyer. She delivers the plans to the Life Star, and a smirking Grand Admiral orders the plans analyzed, certain that the rebel secret weapon will have a fatal flaw. "Won't those rebel scum be surprised when we snuff out their Life Star just as they destroyed our glorious Death Star?"

Darth Vader flies to Tatooine, where he interrogates - or rather tortures - Luke's remaining childhood friends. To his shock, he learns enough to piece together the fact that Luke wasn't just another Skywalker - a common enough name in the galaxy - but the accursed son of his friend Anakin, the baby he tried and failed to kill two decades ago. And even worse, Obi-Wan had recruited the boy to the side of the rebellion, which ultimately led to Vader's disgrace. Mocked by the universe, hardly able to fathom such coincidences are possible given the vast size of the galaxy, Vader flies into a rage, killing Luke's friends and then tracking down Ben Kenobi's desert home, where he finds the same message meant for Luke. Grinning behind his mask, he follows the same trail as Luke and the others, just a few short steps behind...

Tomorrow: Act III!

Thursday, December 27, 2012

If I'd Written Star Wars II, Part I

Like most other kids who were lucky enough to see Star Wars during its original theatrical run, I fell in love with the film. I was enthralled by the space battles, intrigued by the exotic aliens, frightened by Darth Vader and, most of all, utterly captivated by the fictional universe George Lucas and his team crafted. In the beginning, it was a world of infinite possibilities - until succeeding films closed off those possibilities one by one. Sometimes I prefer to pretend that Star Wars was the first and last film set in Lucas' expansive universe, so that I can continue to imagine how the story of Luke, Leia, Han, Darth and the others may have turned out differently...

Though most critics identify The Empire Strikes Back as the strongest film in the series, Star Wars remains my favourite. Empire may feature stronger direction and editing, a more complex story and actors who have grown more confident in their roles, but it also marks the point when Lucas' universe started to contract rather than expand.

When I watched Star Wars though eight year old eyes, Luke Skywalker was my avatar. His trials were mine; his joy and sorrows shared. Like Luke, then, I fell in love with Princess Leia, and grew jealous when Han Solo showed an interest as well. And like Luke, I wished that I'd known my father, and felt hatred for Darth Vader, the dark warrior who'd killed him.

When the final credits rolled on that summer day in 1977, I speculated eagerly about what might happen next. Darth Vader had escaped, so naturally he and Luke would eventually wind up in a face-to-face confrontation. Luke and Han would jostle for Leia's affections. The Empire would launch some kind of counterattack in response to the loss of the Death Star. When I played with my Kenner Star Wars action figures on the sand dunes of Leaf Rapids, all kinds of possibilities raced through my mind. While my fantasies were never as coherent as I'm about to relate, here's what a sensible outline of my thoughts might have looked like...

ACT I
The opening narrative crawl - sans "Episode V" - would inform the audience that after the destruction of the Death Star, a host of new worlds had joined the Rebellion, fortifying the forest moon of Yavin and turning it into an impregnable fortress, the seat of a burgeoning new provisional government. Empire and Rebellion are now at about equal strength, and the as-yet-unseen Emperor has ordered his forces to fall back in an effort to keep any other potentially rebellious star systems under the heel of the Empire. With the fighting at a lull, Luke Skywalker returns to Tatooine with the droids, Chewbacca and Han Solo to tie up some loose ends...

As the narrative crawl disappears into the starfield, the camera pans down from the Millennium Falcon, coming in for a leisurely landing at Mos Eisley. While Han and Chewbacca use their reward from the last film to pay off Jabba the Hutt - without incident - Luke and the droids return to Anchorhead. Here Luke visits the graves of his aunt and uncle, learning that neighbours had to make arrangements for the burial after Luke's abrupt disappearance. He's reunited with his old friends, unseen in the first film: Deak, Windy, Camie and the rest. They hold a memorial for Biggs Darklighter, lost in the battle of Yavin. Luke reflects on how much has changed in his life in so short a time. As his friends depart - some proud of Luke, some angry that he couldn't save Biggs, some not knowing how to react to seeing a boy they called "Wormie" return home as a galactic hero - Luke is left feeling more alone than ever. He rents a landspeeder - the same, it turns out, that he sold in the first film, but Luke fails to recognize it thanks to a new paint job - and drives to the Lars farm to sift through whatever ruins remain. Finding nothing of value from his old life, he wills the farm to the neighbours who cleaned up the smoking ruins and makes one final stop - Ben Kenobi's small home. Intending only to secure Ben's home from Jawas and other scavenging intruders, he discovers that Ben had left a holographic message for him, perhaps foreseeing his own death and Luke's return:

"Luke," the hologram says, "If you're seeing me now, I can only assume our mission to Alderaan succeeded, but that I didn't survive our quest. I knew that you would return here if you could, so I left this message behind to tell you all that you need to know, all the things I didn't have time to share in our race to save the princess. I told you what happened to your father...but we never talked about your mother."

Luke, wide-eyed and shushing the interrupting droids, listens as Ben reveals that as far as he knows, his mother, Laurel Sundiver, still lives. She was an astromech, and she met Luke's father Anakin while servicing his starfighter. Unfortunately, Darth Vader, a rival Jedi, also loved Laurel, and betrayed and murdered Luke's father just as Ben claimed in the first film. In a jealous rage, he slew Anakin only months after Luke was born. Ben - or Obi-Wan, as he was then known - arrived just in time to prevent the sadistic Darth from killing Luke and Laurel as well. Obi-Wan maimed Darth horribly in the ferocious battle, but ensured that his former friend received the very best medical care...care that put Darth in the awful black metal armor and life support system so familiar to audiences of the first film. Darth should have served a long prison sentence, but he escaped medical custody, vowing revenge on Kenobi and the Skywalkers. Growing ever stronger in the dark side of the force, Darth became a constant threat to Laurel and Luke, and Obi-Wan arranged to send Laurel to one side of the galaxy and Luke to the other, to Tatooine.

Ben, via hologram, expresses his hopes that Vader is dead and that mother and son might be reunited. He cautions Luke to attempt reunion only after the war is over and Vader is vanquished, but Luke, still young, impatient and without mentors, vows to find his mother and protect her from Vader and the Empire.

Meanwhile, back on the green moon of Yavin, Princess Leia and the Rebel leadership continue to use diplomatic channels to bring more worlds to the side of the rebellion. Everyone knows the lull in hostilities can't last forever. That's why, aside from diplomatic initiatives, the rebels are working on a doomsday weapon of their own, a Life Star, a huge moon-sized ion cannon designed to render technology useless without harming life forms. A convoy of battleships leading the Life Star to the Imperial capital could end the war once and for all, with relatively minimal loss of life.

But a spy has stolen the Life Star plans, and prepares even now to make her escape...

Tomorrow: Act II!


Wednesday, December 26, 2012

Earl vs. Boxing Day

Of all holy days Boxing is the leet-est
The only holy day where you can't be defeatist
As Canadians we pummel the shadows of fe-ar
And we offer knuckle sandwiches as the only appe-teaser
Oh, Christmas is real fine but -

Hmmm? Sorry? It's not about the sport of boxing, but putting stuff in boxes?

But now my poem doesn't work. It's turned into free verse. And when Sylvia sees it she'll scream "My brain hurts!"


Tuesday, December 25, 2012

Iron Sean in the Christmas Kitchen Stadium

While Iron Chefs may be more famous - so far - than burgeoning kitchen gladiator Iron Sean, they cannot match his scrumptious bacon scalloped potatoes or his citrus brine turkey, which Mom and Dad and Sylvia and I devoured earlier tonight. Usually I'm not fussy about turkey; I find it dry. But tonight's turkey was so tender and juicy that my mouth just started watering again even as I type. Thanks for a wonderful dinner, Sean!

Sunday, December 23, 2012

Cranberry Christmas

Cranberries and Christmas go together like...well, turkey and cranberry sauce, I guess. Christmas also goes well with Cranberry Portage, Manitoba, where we often visited Grandma and Val for the holidays. I remember 80s winters as being a lot colder and snowier than we experience today, but then everything is colder and snowier in northern Manitoba. I'm not sure who took this shot of Grandma's place, but it feels festive despite the oppressive snow and darkness. This might have been four in the afternoon...

Saturday, December 22, 2012

Carrion Christmas


In 1992 several members of the University of Alberta Star Trek Club gathered at Susan Neumann's place to celebrate Christmas. Jeff, Susan, Ron and I concocted a plan to start filming a horror movie and then turn late arrival Doug into our victim by ambushing him once he finally showed up. I titled the film "Carrion Christmas" as an allusion to the popular British Carry On... films.

The film took only a couple of hours to shoot, with a budget of zero dollars thanks to the loan of Susan's home and stuff as our location and props, respectively. Originally edited on VHS, I've left pretty much everything alone, using modern software only to add the title at the beginning and my director credit at the end.

Friday, December 21, 2012

A Gun in Every Christmas Stocking

I should really commission my friend Jeff to paint a Christmas stocking with the butt of a pistol emerging from the hem, if only to illustrate the absurd depths to which the American gun lobby has fallen.

After a week of silence following the massacre of teachers and children in Connecticut, the National Rifle Association has finally proposed their solution to spree killing: post armed guards in every school in the USA. I guess irony really is dead, because this reads more like something from The Onion than a serious proposal.

From the point of view of the NRA, though, I can see how this must seem logical. Post armed guards at schools and there's a chance said guards might gun down a madman before he can shoot children. I suppose this is at least theoretically possible. Never mind that public schools in the United States don't even have enough funding for textbooks, let alone security guards...let's assume that somehow funds for such a project are made available. Doesn't that just mean that madmen will find softer targets?

"I need to kill a bunch of people! Can't go to the school, too many guards. I know! I'll shoot up a nursery/old folks home/Little League game."

So the massacres simply migrate, and in response to each tragedy the NRA response would surely be "We need armed guards here too." And then the spree killers move on to the next unguarded target, and the next, until suddenly every major public and private institution is crawling with armed guards, at heaven knows what cost to the economy and the national psyche. But even then, people can still be victimized on the street, out in the open, and suddenly armed guards aren't enough because the NRA has sold the idea that the proper authorities can't protect you, that the only real defense is owning your own gun - or ideally, your own collection of guns.

Over time, everyone in the USA is packing heat, as if the Wild West were transformed from mythology to reality. Children get guns for Christmas to fend off bullies. (Heaven knows what the gun-toting bullies will do.) Once everyone is armed...utopia?

I know I'm taking the NRA argument to its most ridiculous conclusion, but it does seem as though they really would prefer a fully-armed society, with a gun on every hip. The NRA and many others blame movies and video games for perpetuating a culture of violence, but from my perspective the inherent threat of even a single real-life gun looms much larger than a thousand Schwarzenegger movies. I can easily imagine living in a world where everyone around me carries a gun, but it's not the kind of society I'd enjoy, a culture drowning in fear and paranoia.

I suppose I have to admit that a fully armed society might curb violent crime. I have to; we haven't tried the experiment yet, so we can't say it wouldn't work. But I'd much rather see if we can lower violent crime by reducing income inequality, treating mental illness, improving public services, fighting intolerance and raising quality of life. But then I've always been a "you catch more flies with honey than vinegar" kind of guy. 

TL, DR: Let's try other solutions to violent crime before adding more guns to the fire.


Thursday, December 20, 2012

How I Experience Music

While I love music, I've often regretted my almost total ignorance of the art and science that makes it possible. I can't read music, nor do I have most of the vocabulary necessary to even speak intelligently about the subject.

Nonetheless, I feel compelled to throw caution to the wind and ask a question that's plagued me since junior high school: do others experience music in the same way I do?

When I listen to a song, especially in pitch darkness, my mind constructs structures of pulsing light, each piece of the structure corresponding to an element of the music. A song's bass line, for example, might represent itself as a coil of purple light stretching north and south to infinity, compressing and stretching like a spring being pulled in time with the music. Keyboard sounds (again, forgive my lack of proper vocabulary) might appear at right angles to the purple coil, again extending into infinity, perhaps represented as a jagged zigzag of a different colour: green or yellow. Drum impacts might burst like fireworks all around, while lyrics and supporting guitars might create spheres or pyramids that fade in and out of existence.

The effect is most intense with songs that, for lack of a better term, have a lot going on to my untrained ear, like "Heroes," above, or "Love and Anger," below.

It almost sounds as though I'm describing the common visualization effects that have long been seen on home computers, but my experience really isn't like that at all; it's much more vivid and three-dimensional, and there's also what I almost hesitate to call a transcendental feeling going on, a feeling of falling in multiple directions at once, like the music could carry me off somewhere if only I'd release my stubborn hold on conventional reality.

I've never spoken to anyone of this, and there's no pressing reason to do so now except that it's been on my mind for some time. It's quite possible that many people experience music this way and that I simply haven't been around when others speak of it. I'd certainly be very interested in knowing if others go through the same process, or one similar.

Wednesday, December 19, 2012

Mush, Mush

Since I posted about a cat the other day, today I'll post about dogs for the sake of balance. Leaf Rapids was once home to an annual dogsled race; I witnessed at least two such contests. This photo was taken sometime in the early 1970s, possibly before the road from Thompson to Leaf Rapids had even been completed, meaning that travel via dog team may still have been a viable option and not mere entertainment. To paraphrase Neil Armstrong, "Magnificent isolation."

Tuesday, December 18, 2012

The Voyageurs of Yx

Transcribed as closely as possible from the narration of last night's dream. 

The people of Dymansthya were climbers, nimble tree folk who explored the vast deciduous forests of Homeworld by clambering from branch to branch, sometimes fashioning rope bridges to allow them crossing from tree to tree when a creek or canyon drove a wedge of relative emptiness through the otherwise close-knit huddle of moss-blanketed trunks.

These curious and agile people were known collectively as the Folk. Though wise in the ways of science and technology, the Folk lived what would seem to us lives of relative simplicity, dressing plainly in earth-toned garments of cotton (or what appeared to be cotton). The Folk were spread wide across the world, in small bands of some fifteen to twenty-five members, about equally divided in sex; children and the elderly were rare, for the Folk generally lived thousands of years in a state of perpetual young adulthood.

Their lives were not perfectly idyllic. Though wars were rare, the Folk were vulnerable to folly once in a great while and every few generations there would come a self-inflicted culling. And as with any people, they endured the small everyday tragedies that none may yet escape: the broken heart, the trust betrayed, the opportunity lost.

But by and by the Folk were happy and lived as close to a state of grace as any member of the great human family scattered among the stars. Most members of that larger family ignore Dymansthya for that very reason; outsiders consider it a world lacking the intrigue and adventure that lend spice to the less harmonious worlds of the human sphere.

As is so often the case, this is a judgement made in ignorance, and my tale, if it should have purpose at all, is to show why the Folk's adventures rival even those of the Metaphorians or the Calumny. I bore witness to only the final half of the grand journey I am about to relate; but my sources for the beginning of the tale are impeccable, related to me by the very Folk who experienced the first days of an impossible quest: to follow the endless River Yx to its source. 

The River Yx is the vast blue-green ribbon of fresh water that girdles Dymansthya twice. Yx terminates at the Yx Delta on the northwestern coast of the continent Mu, at the great port city of Nogar, a metropolis home to nearly one hundred of the Folk. Nogar is nestled comfortably between the gentle ocean and the looming trees, into which the river winds, deep into the shaded dark. Most Folk of Nogar were content to while away the centuries playing games, frolicking on the beach, creating art or making love. But a few of the younger Folk - no one remembers exactly who first proposed the idea - grew restless and decided one day to follow the Yx into the wood.

They numbered five. There were three women: Zel, Pyv and Landa. There were two men: Jus and Ax. I was the sixth member of that party...but I came later.

The blue sun hung low against the horizon when the five Folk waved goodbye to the well-wishers of Nogar and began their ascent into the trees. Golden Pyv would die first, only a month into a journey that would last another two years. Pyv was fleet-footed, agile and possessed remarkable balance; it was merely the worst luck that she slipped on a rope bridge in the passage from one side of the river to the other and landed in shallow waters, knocking herself unconscious on a rock and drowning before the others could reach her.

It was the first tragedy; I would arrive just in time for the second.

Monday, December 17, 2012

LOEARLCAT

The Internet thrives on photos of cats, and yet I don't believe I've yet posted a single feline. Here's Alex, Sean's first cat, circa 1991. Shortly after acquiring kitten-aged Alex from the family of a high school classmate, my friend Jeff Pitts came over and introduced himself.

"Hello, kitty!" he said, leaning over to pet the harmless-seeming animal. Temperamental Alex responded by carving three deep slashes into Jeff's cheek, who yowled in a manner familiar to anyone who's known luckless Jeff for more than six months. Mom ran for the hydrogen peroxide and Jeff was none the worse for wear. When Steve Fitzpatrick visited a little later, Alex hid out of sight for a time. Steve and I talked in the living room, Steve on one couch, me on another, when suddenly Alex leaped across the room and pinned Steve's arm to the wall for an instant or two before scampering off again.

Alex calmed down as he aged, but not without leaving a few scratches in other people, myself included. He also enjoyed exploring the nooks and crannies of the basement ceiling, and often Sean and I would hear him walking around up there. Once he got into a fluorescent light fixture, and the panel wasn't strong enough to bear his weight; it shattered, raining shards of translucent plastic down onto Sean, who was working at the computer. Alex himself landed (appropriately cat-like) heavily upon Sean's startled shoulders before zipping off to safety.

Despite (or because of) my allergies and acknowledged general disdain for pets, Alex seemed somewhat sadistically fond of me and we often played hockey with plastic bottle caps. He also enjoyed rubbing cat fur all over me, which caused no end of sneezing, skin irritation and watery eyes. Aggravating cat.

Sunday, December 16, 2012

Harrier vs. Locomotive

Mom and Dad dropped in for a short visit today, and in passing I mentioned that I might accompany my friends Stephen and Audrey and their family to Churchill, Manitoba in August. I knew that Dad had made the trip, but until today I didn't know that his train voyage in 1972 also involved a game of chicken with a Harrier jump jet.

Dad was sent to Churchill by Acklands Ltd. on a business trip, who generously paid for a sleeper berth, which gave him access to the dining car and "the best prime rib I've ever had." The trip from Thompson to Churchill takes many hours, and the train would periodically stop in the middle of the bush to allow fur trappers to snip into their snowshoes and egress into the wild.

As the train approached Churchill station, Dad noticed a Harrier jump jet flying about. As he and other passengers craned their necks out the windows for a closer look, the jet swooped down to hover over the tracks, directly in the train's path. It was perhaps the deadliest game of chicken ever played, with the train's horn shrilling angrily and the exhaust from the jet's powerful engines blasting ground debris everywhere.

Of course in a game of chicken with a locomotive even a multimillion dollar fighter aircraft must yield, so at the last possible second the pilot cranked up the throttle and leaped forward and upward, soaring over the rumbling train.

"What happened to the pilot?" I asked Dad, who had made inquiries after the incident; the fellow was a British national.

"He got sent home," Dad answered solemnly.

What a photo or painting that would have made.

Saturday, December 15, 2012

Everyone Loves a Parade

In the mid 1980s, Leduc Senior High School was being renovated and expanded to become Leduc Composite High School. Student Council therefore decided our float for the 1985 Black Gold Days parade should be construction-themed. I'm not sure how my reporter character (centre) fit the theme, but I was on both Student Council and the Newspaper Club at the time, so I sneaked on board somehow. I don't remember the name of the girl sitting in front of me, but I do remember that she was very nice.

Friday, December 14, 2012

Another Day of Mourning

I don't often remark upon the day's tragedies. I avoid doing so for a couple of reasons: I have little wisdom to offer that hasn't already been said elsewhere, and there's so much sadness in the world that if I remarked upon each instance there would be nothing else to talk about.

My original plan for today was to blog about having just wrapped up the popular culture course I was tutoring online for MacEwan University. It wasn't until after sending a thank you note to Leslie for providing my first teaching opportunity that I turned my attention to the news and learned about the violence against children and teachers in China and the United States. It's hard to write something upbeat after reading those stories.

My recent work for MacEwan and the Alberta Teachers' Association has done a lot to put me back in touch with the educational experience. Over the last few weeks I've renewed and deepened my respect for teachers and my long-held belief that students deserve the best possible public education our society can provide. It goes without saying that schools and universities should be safe places for learning and freedom of expression.

Statistically, of course, the odds of being assaulted or murdered at school remain low. Any public policy should be guided by research, not emotion. But statistics are cold comfort to the victims and their families.

2012 was a violent year, all across the world.Surely the human family can do better.

We should start by paying closer attention to mental health. For years, Alberta's Auditor General harshly criticized our provincial government for not properly funding mental health care. Even here, in arguably the richest province in the richest country in the world, we are failing a significant percentage of our citizens because so many of us share the attitude that mental illness can somehow be overcome with will power, or the problem isn't real, or it's less significant than cancer or heart disease or other ailments. Early detection and treatment of mental illness would prevent a whole host of debilitating social problems. Ignoring mental illness causes the kinds of awful tragedy we see today, along with everyday misery with incalculable cumulative impact.

We cannot call ourselves truly civilized in a world where children are assaulted and the mentally ill go untreated. May time and the love of friends and family comfort those around the world who lost someone today. 

Thursday, December 13, 2012

2978

When we lived in Leaf Rapids (1973-79), our phone number was 2978. No area code, no three-digit prefix - just 2978. To connect with any of the Woods clan, all one had to do is dial those four numbers and the lovely 1970s Drab Yellow wall phone (pictured here next to Sean, who for some reason is balancing a piece of Lego on his head) would ring until someone answered - or until you gave up, for in those days we had no answering machine.

One of my friends had the number 2987. This always blew my mind, but in a town that small and with everyone using only four digits, the odds of close numbers were actually pretty good.

Wednesday, December 12, 2012

Secret of the Super-Sons

Chances are that if you're reading these panels in 2012, you're probably chuckling a little at the unintentional double entendre: to modern eyes, it seems as though World's Finest writer Bob Haney is suggesting that his creations, Clark Kent Jr. and Bruce Wayne Jr., might have an even closer relationship than their famous fathers - insert requisite "wink wink, nudge nudge" here.

But unless Bob Haney is even more clever than he's already given credit for, readers should probably assume that these 1970s tales were not intended as underground endorsement of alternative lifestyles. Indeed, most of the stories of the Super-Sons revolved around the then-current Generation Gap, with Clark Jr. and Bruce Jr. often agonizing about how they could never measure up to their dads and how their square fathers just didn't understand what it meant to be a teen in the swinging 70s. Taken at face value, as these stories probably should be, what we see here is simply close friendship between two young men, men who aren't afraid to express how much they need each other as they lean on one another for emotional support.

In chuckling at this scene and others like it, I have to ask myself if the laughter isn't simply some kind of strange defensive reaction. Intimacy between men, even in these relatively enlightened times, is still seen as somewhat effeminate (another moral land mine - assuming that femininity is somehow "weaker" or a bad thing) or at best, overly expressive. Or at least this seems to be true among WASPs; members of other cultures are often less inhibited.

I suppose the point I'm clumsily trying to raise is this: when we take a work of popular culture out of context and laugh at it, are we saying something about the artifact's failure to transition to our era, or are we saying something about our own inability to work past our own deeply ingrained attitudes and prejudices?

According to Rule 34, someone out there has already answered some of these questions by writing Super-Sons slash fiction. I'm not quite brave enough to look there for answers.


Tuesday, December 11, 2012

Thoughts on Man of Steel Trailer #2


I've been fooled by more-sizzle-than-steak director Zack Snyder before, but nonetheless I'm very excited by this new trailer for his upcoming Superman movie, Man of Steel. It looks as though Snyder will at least attempt to capture some of the more important elements of the mythos: why Superman does what he does, what it means to be a good person, the pain of balancing two sides of a dual nature, the enduring love of two sets of parents, the importance of supporting the rule of law when it's the right thing to do.

Judging by the trailer this film will probably overplay the angst-ridden elements of the Superman story while underplaying the joy and wonder so important to the character. If it manages to tell a compelling story I can live with that choice in the hopes that sequels will show a Superman who's grown into the role and a public that's more supportive of a guy who's trying to give them a helping hand. In fact, that sort of development would nicely parallel the evolution of the character in the comics: he started as a rather anarchist rogue, feared by criminals and the public as much as Batman was. Only later did he become the "big blue boy scout" most fans are familiar with today.

There's one pretty awe-inspiring moment in this trailer: when Superman launches himself into space. The short sequence really captures the otherworldly majesty of Superman's ability to fly.

My expectations are still tempered by Snyder's track record, but now my opinion is one of hopeful, guarded optimism.