Hey, I have an author profile on Goodreads now! Both my published books are on there, too, so if you use Goodreads, I'd really appreciate it if you'd add my books to your shelves, rate and review them, and maybe even recommend them to other folks. (Also let me know if my author photo is too ridiculous; I thought it was funny.) I added some Goodreads widgets to my website, so it should be easy to do. Thanks!
The great thing about self-publishing is that you can publish whatever you want, whenever you want! The bad thing about self-publishing is that you can publish whatever you want, whenever you want. After waiting eleven years to publish my book, I got a little too eager and pulled the trigger too quickly. I noticed when preparing the manuscript for another online store (more on that soon, I hope) that it had some errors. The great majority were formatting issues, although there was also a spelling mistake, and then I decided to move some commas around. The point is, the first printing was not perfect, and for that, I apologize.
The good news is, both the paperback and eBook versions of Tree and Beast have now been updated and corrected on Amazon.
I've also been tinkering with my website. I added a new section: Published Works. And I also made various other small updates, and tried to make the site more mobile-friendly overall. You can let me know how successful I've been.
I'm gonna do this like one of those online recipes, with the big long story up front and the stuff you actually want at the end, so feel free to scroll down to the bottom now; I'll never know.
It's November! November is National Novel Writing Month, or NaNoWriMo. The idea behind NaNoWriMo is to jumpstart your writing by giving you a challenge: write 50,000 words (the minimum word count for a novel) in a single month. That means an average of almost 2,000 words a day. It's like climbing a word mountain! It can be difficult, but it does force you to get words on the page every day - any kind of words! They don't have to be good, you just need more! And that's good. Before you can have a finished novel, you need to have a first draft. That first draft can be absolutely awful. Who cares? You can fix it later. But you need some material to start with or you'll never get anywhere.
Back in 2009 (oh, such an innocent time), I decided to take part in NaNoWriMo. Poppy, my wife, was pregnant with our first child, but she gave her blessing to my insane project anyway. I think she said something like, "Once this baby comes you certainly won't have time, so you might as well do it now."
One of the few rules for NaNoWriMo is, no actual writing before November 1st. However, you can take some notes or do a basic outline beforehand. So I started trying to work out what my story would be about. My original concept was that I'd have a pair of characters (a guy and a creature that couldn't really talk; sort of a Han Solo and Chewbacca duo) go on a series of adventures while travelling between different worlds or universes. But that just remained a vague idea and didn't really coalesce for me.
Meanwhile, of course, I was all caught up in the idea that I was about to have a son, and wondering what he would be like, and thinking of all the things I wanted to show him and do with him. And then I thought, well, why not make him the main character of my book? My imaginary future boy could be the hero. Heck, I could be in the book, too. It could be a story about fathers and sons, and about stories, and about everything that boys like - because of course one day I'd want to hand the book to the real boy, and say, "Here, I wrote this for you."
I held onto the idea of traveling between worlds, and decided the story would be split into nine parts, each one a separate adventure that the boy would go on, each one involving a treasure he'd find and a guardian monster he'd have to fight. Then I realized nine was really a lot, and I cut it back to six. There would be forests and monsters and magic and swords and pirates and anything and everything I could think of.
NaNoWriMo gets a little wild. I thought about the story all the time. Everything that happened to me, everything I thought of, went into the book. Bees were getting into the house somehow - they had built a nest in the wall - so that went into the book as a magical bee curse. I had a dream about being attacked by some creature - maybe a demon - and I had to cast a spell on it to stop it right before it got me. That went into the book. "What about a giant octopus?" I thought. And I answered, "Sure," and that went into the book.
And by the end of November, I'd done it. In fact, I had more than 50,000 words! But what I didn't have was a finished book. I was maybe a third of the way through the fifth part of my planned six parts. I'd gotten my boy, Hunter, onto an endless stairway leading down into darkness. And for quite a while, I left him there.
My son, Griffin, was born. I poked at the book on and off over the following years, rewriting the beginning over and over. I finally got Hunter down those stairs, and further, and on and on. At last, I finished the book. It was huge. I started sending query letters to agents, trying to sell it. I aimed high - my first query letter went to Neil Gaiman's agency in New York. And they asked for a sample! And they liked it! They asked for the full manuscript!
I've been writing books for as long as I can remember. When my brother and I were kids, we'd write and draw little stories on printer paper. Are you old enough to remember that paper that had holes down either side so the printer could feed it through? Those bits were perforated so you could tear them off after. Yeah, we used a lot of that paper. I remember I wrote a sci-fi/mystery story called "Space Case" where these two brothers solved crimes together. One of them got his arm shot off, but it was okay, because it was immediately replaced with a bionic arm. I wrote and drew comic books about a ninja who could shoot flames out of his body. Later, when I was in my Ancient Egypt phase (we all had one of those, right?) I wrote a big fantasy epic where this group of aliens from different worlds became reincarnations of the Ancient Egyptian Gods. That one I actually finished. I also wrote a vampire novel that I don't think I ever finished, although I did get all the way to the final battle. I wrote poems and short stories. I wanted to be a writer - a published writer. It's pretty much all I've ever wanted.
So, when I got that request for my manuscript, I thought, this is it! I made it! It's gonna happen! This agency was old school, and wanted you to send them actual paper in the actual mail. At this point in time, my novel was called Doors to Other Places. It was over 600 pages and almost 200,000 words. So I bought some extra ink cartridges and some extra paper and a big box and I printed the whole damn thing off and I mailed it in. And I waited. And waited.
Well, I never got any response to my manuscript. I'm pretty sure the intern who requested it moved on to another job and whoever took over after just wasn't interested.
That was pretty crushing. But I kept going. I kept sending out queries and getting back rejections. After quite a lot of these, I finally did a bit of market research and realized that my book was not Young Adult, as I'd been presenting it, but really Middle Grade - meaning, it was for tweens and Harry Potter fans, not for teens. And I also realized that it was way, way too long. First-time novelists are pretty unlikely to sell a 600-page novel, because who's going to make that kind of investment in some guy they've never heard of? Plus, Middle Grade books are supposed to be pretty short in general.
So, I went back to the drawing board. How do I break up this gigantic book? Well, it was already split into six parts - why not just make each part its own book? Easy! Except now I had the opposite problem: a lot of the parts were too short to be standalone books. So, I'd have to flesh them out. And while I was at it, maybe I'd change the genders and sexual orientations of some of the characters. And rewrite the beginning again. And then rewrite it again. And change the vocabulary level and narrative voice throughout. And add an entirely new character and storyline...
So yeah, that took a while. And meanwhile, I kept sending out queries, trying to sell the now much shorter first book in my series. And right around the time I finally finished converting my one massive book into six much more reasonably-sized books, I got what I'd been waiting for: another request for the full manuscript.
This was really it this time! I was going to make it!
So I emailed the file (because that's the way every agency does it these days; I still can't believe that first place I contacted wanted paper in the mail...), and I waited. And waited. I was sick to my stomach almost every day. Which isn't that unusual for me, really, but still.
A month went by. Then two. And I realized, it's not happening. And it's not going to happen.
It was 2020 now, eleven years since I'd started writing these books, and I was tired, and I wanted to see one of them published, damn it. I wanted to hold the book in my hand. And I had a couple of friends who'd successfully self-published (hi, Dan and Neil), and managed to convert that into a sale to a publisher. So what the hell?
So I asked my brother if he'd be up for making me a book cover. And here we are.
So, here it is. The first book is now called Tree and Beast: A Stranger World Adventure. You can buy it on Amazon in real, actual paperback format. Or you can pre-order the eBook, if you prefer that format (that version comes out later this week). I plan to sell the book on the Google Play store, too, and whatever other online bookstores I can manage to get it on. I can't wait to get my copy, and hold it in my hands.
I'm doing a promotion, too! Since it's November, the eleventh month, and it's eleven years since I started writing, the first eleven people who buy the book, in any format, will receive a personal gift from me! Just email proof of purchase (a screenshot of the Amazon "thank you for your purchase" page will do fine) to feanor AT feanorsworkshop DOT com, and I will send you ONE or BOTH (your choice) of the following:
A picture of my dog, Lady. She's cute.
A poem written by me, on a subject and in a style of your choosing (or I can choose for you if that's too much pressure).
I really hope you like the book. Theoretically it's for kids, but really it's for anybody. It's been a labor of love for me, and I want as many people to read it as possible. Send the link to your friends! Send it to your enemies! Let them borrow your copy! Buy it for everyone on your Christmas list! Once you do read it, please leave a (five star, I hope) review on Amazon. I would really, really appreciate that.
Also, keep in mind, this first book has a bit of a cliffhanger ending, and the more people who buy this one, the sooner I'll release the second one. So really I'm just trying to help you.
I meant to see Rise of Skywalker again before I wrote about it, but... whatevs. It's a pretty good movie - certainly a better movie than any of the prequels - but it's also often very silly, sometimes in a good way, sometimes in a bad way.
I mean, right off the bat (and I don't think this is a spoiler, given the trailers and the opening crawl and all), they bring back the Emperor. Which is like, what? That is frustrating. We killed that guy. He was the bad guy for six movies, but then he died. His story ended. Anakin's final act was finishing him off. That was his redemption arc, for God's sake! Why are we bringing this guy back? How the hell is he supposed to have survived falling down an endless pit and blowing up? There's no real explanation.
This is a problem sequels often have, where they kind of undo things you thought were resolved in the previous movie, and take away some of the satisfying completion and finality that movie had, retroactively messing it up. I mean, Return of the Jedi is certainly not the best Star Wars movie, but I love it for what it is, and the death of Palpatine is such an important capstone on Anakin's story.
Honestly, I was worried about Rise of Skywalker as soon as the title was announced. Skywalker? Uh, I don't know if you heard, but Luke died at the end of the last movie. Anakin's been dead for a while. We all know Carrie Fisher died, so she can't have a huge part here. The Skywalkers are done. That story ended, dudes. This new trilogy is supposed to be about new characters. We're supposed to be leaving the Skywalkers behind, moving on, passing the torch. The Last Jedi was all about the way the past can drag you down, and how, yeah you have to bring some of it with you, deal with it in some way, but you've got to be able to also set a lot of it aside and move on to get anywhere. So what the hell is Skywalker doing rising? And why is Palpatine back??
Ahoy and avast: there be spoilers on the horizon.
Sadly, J. J. Abrams is not terribly interested in moving on or focusing on new characters. Instead, he goes and brings back, not just Ian McDiarmid's Palpatine, but also Billy D. Williams' Lando Calrissian (and don't get me wrong, it was great to see him again, but still), Nien Nunb, Denis Lawson's Wedge Antilles (who I just barely recognized as he flashed past), Warwick Davis' Wicket the Ewok, and the voices of many Jedi past (most of whom I didn't recognize; you can read about them here). Abrams even manages to give Leia a number of scenes despite the fact that the actor playing her is dead. In fact, every major character that died in the previous movies gets to appear in this movie - by which I mean, both Luke and Han. Meanwhile, Rose Tico, an interesting new character introduced in the last movie whose relationship with Finn had just begun to go somewhere, is left completely on the sidelines. The relationships between all of the new characters - Rey, Kylo Ren, Finn, Poe Dameron, Rose Tico - are all left unresolved. They toy with having Finn express his true feelings to Rey, but never actually go there. I mean, they do develop some of these relationships. There's a lot of fun chemistry between Rey and Kylo, and between Finn and Poe, and between Finn and Rey, and even between Rey and Poe, and there are a number of fun, emotional, and funny scenes where these characters get to interact. But in the final movie of a trilogy, and the final movie of a saga, I kind of expected some more... consummation? I don't know.
And I know I was complaining about all the old characters being brought back, but there's also too many new characters introduced. New characters would be fine, if we didn't already have so many, and if the movie had the time to devote to them, but we do, and it doesn't. It turns out Poe has a sketchy past (which comes out of nowhere) and an ex he left behind - Zorii Bliss (Keri Russell, apparently, although we never even see her whole face, thanks to the giant helmet she is always wearing). The movie only has time to sketch out a really generic "old flame" story between the two of them before it barrels on to other things. Then there's Jannah (Naomi Ackie), another former First Order Stormtrooper. Which, hey, cool idea! You could do a lot with that, and with the connection that creates between her and Finn. But the movie just... doesn't. And why give Finn yet another semi-romantic entanglement when he already has like three other ones? And why, at the very end of the movie, throw in the fact that Jannah doesn't know who her father is, and have Lando offer to help her figure it out? What is the point of this? According to what I've read, it's revealed in a Star Wars book somewhere that Lando himself is actually Jannah's father. I'm really glad they didn't try to shoehorn that into the movie - I'm so tired of the surprise parentage shenanigans in Star Wars - but if you're not going to fit that in, why mention her parentage at all? This is just a plotline you clearly did not have time or space for, so why even bring it up?
And speaking of annoying surprise parentage reveals, surprise! Even though we already established in the previous movie - again, in a scene I really, really liked - that Rey's parents were nobodies, we now reveal that Rey's grandfather is the Emperor. Are you serious? I literally gave the movie the raspberry and a big thumbs down when this came out. I mean, that is just dumb as hell. It sounds like a bad fan theory. Just stop it.
Admittedly, they almost do some interesting things with the idea. Rey has to struggle with the fact that she comes from this incredibly evil man, and that that evil might live on in her, and she might not be able to escape it. In one scene, Rey lets her anger get out of control, and she shoots a transport with Force lightning by mistake, blowing it up. The movie leads us to believe the transport contains her friend Chewbacca, and that she has just killed him. On the one hand, if they had really killed Chewbacca, I might never have forgiven them. (I actually turned to my brother and said, "If they kill Chewie, I'm walking out.") But on the other hand, this would have been an interesting thing for the characters to contend with: the fact that Rey, in a moment of anger, let her incredible power get away from her and accidentally killed her friend. In a real Star War, this is a thing that could happen! But the movie steps away from actually contending with this, and it turns out that Chewie was on a different transport. I was relieved, of course, as I was supposed to be, but it also felt like a cop-out. (And I'm pretty sure they stole the entire sequence from Raiders of the Lost Ark. "Must have switched baskets.")
Admittedly Star Wars plots are often pretty flimsy, but this one hangs almost entirely on a single object: a Sith dagger that is not only, improbably, the very weapon that killed Rey's parents, but also the key to discovering the location of the Emperor, complete with a secret map device that springs out when you push the right bit. Which feels like another thing out of an Indiana Jones movie, actually.
A lot of things come out of nowhere in this movie, and just as quickly disappear. Somehow Luke's old saber is back, despite the fact that it got torn in half in the previous movie, in one of my favorite scenes in that movie. Why bring this back, and with no explanation? The answer is, the movie wants to have Rey struggle with the idea of earning this saber, of living up to the Skywalker legacy. But couldn't we do that another way that wasn't a retcon? Why not have Rey build her own saber as part of her training? Maybe she could even incorporate part of the old saber into hers. (She does, in the very last scene, reveal that she has built her own saber, and even flicks it on really quick seemingly for no other reason than to show it to the audience, but this just feels really tacked on.)
Also, suddenly Rey has a bunch of old notebooks Luke used to record his search for an ancient Sith planet which we've never heard of before. Where did these come from, and what the hell? Also, we suddenly learn that Luke trained Leia as a Jedi and she had her own saber and had a vision about it and made a prophecy that Rey is going to fulfill. While it is very cool, actually, that Leia was trained as a Jedi and had a lightsaber of her own, why are we only just now hearing about it? Why only after she's dead do we finally get to see her come into her power? We give Leia a saber, and then in that same moment retcon a reason for her to have never wielded it? Lame. It's also pretty lame to reveal a prophecy was made only at the moment you're claiming it's being fulfilled.
Also, the weird psychic Force link between Rey and Kylo, which we were told in the last movie was a thing Snoke created to trick them, turns out to now be a totally different thing called a Force dyad. What? Where did this come from? I mean, I'm not that mad about it, as I really like their Force connection - it's a neat idea and makes for some great visuals and great drama. Plus, their fight that they have across space, where items from each of their locations spill into the other, is cool as hell. I'm also kind of okay with Rey (and later Kylo) suddenly having Force healing powers. They actually set this up a little bit in The Mandalorian, and anyway, pretty much every Star Wars movie has revealed some new Force power; it's kind of a tradition. But having the healing power show up along with all the other random new stuff does make it feel a bit like just another wild plot device dropped onto a pile of wild plot devices.
Speaking of wild plot devices, the movie throws so many of them at us during the wild conclusion that it's hard not to laugh. The Emperor explains that he has all the Sith inside him (?), and that Rey needs to kill him so he can like... sort of possess her? Then she'll be Sith Lord, but kind of also he will be. But then Kylo shows up and suddenly the Emperor can suck out their powers because they're a dyad? So now apparently the Emperor doesn't want Rey to kill him. And now, because he doesn't want her to, it's okay for her to kill him? And also to commit mass murder against all the Emperor's followers, who are watching from the stands. Which, okay, where did all these guys come from? Do they live here? What do they eat? And where did the resources come from to build this enormous fleet of Star Destroyers with Death Star lasers stuck on them? How did no one know about this fleet until now? And why, no matter what, is there always another goddamn Death Star??
This movie really brings forward a logical/ethical problem at the center of a lot of the Star Wars movies, and makes it an even bigger problem than it has ever been before. It's the problem of the very black and white distinction between the Dark Side and the Light Side, but the very thin line drawn between the two. The question that a lot of the movies end up asking implicitly is, when is it okay to kill somebody? When is the act of killing evil and when is it good? Let's look again at that big final scene at the end of Return of the Jedi. This is another scene where the Emperor is goading a Jedi to kill, because killing would be evil, and it would turn that Jedi to the Dark Side. In this case, Luke is supposed to kill Vader. But Luke sees at the last moment that through this act he is becoming like Vader, so he refuses to kill, throws his weapon away, and becomes a Jedi. But, of course, this now means the Emperor is going to kill Luke. Except Vader, standing on the sidelines, finds he cannot watch his son be murdered, so he picks up the Emperor and tosses him into a pit.
The movie clearly wants us to believe this killing is good, and that murdering an old man is in fact an act so good that it redeems Vader and brings him back from the Dark Side. But why was Luke's potential murder of Vader bad (even though Vader certainly seemed to be trying to kill him), while Vader's murder of the Emperor is good? We can certainly come up with answers - Luke would have been killing his own father, who at that moment looked pretty defenseless, while Vader is saving his son from death, and eliminating an undeniably evil person who is responsible for mass murder - but the fact that murder was Anakin's redeeming act has always made me a bit uncomfortable. In Rise of Skywalker, the whole question is even more... questionable. One minute, it is capital "B" Bad to kill the Emperor, and then not even ten minutes later, it is capital "G" Good to kill him, along with all of his friends. How does that work? Who is the arbiter of what is Light Side murder and Dark Side murder? Is it all about timing, or how you feel in the moment? Can you challenge? Are there instant replays?
While all this is going on, there is of course also a gigantic space battle, as is customary. We are told that, for reasons, the good guys need to blow up a single tower to stop the bad guys (because the bad guys always have that one little weakness that will totally obliterate them), but then later on, that tower gets turned off, and now they need to blow up a different tower. Okay. Then the Emperor is shooting all the Resistance ships with lightning (somehow he has become super uber powerful from sucking Force dyad energy or something. Sure) and it looks like the Resistance is doomed and lots of people are dying. Then, despite the fact that the Resistance was utterly destroyed in the last couple movies and nobody else in the galaxy offered to help before, all the sudden Lando manages to whip up an absolutely enormous fleet out of nowhere, and then everybody is okay again despite the lightning attack earlier and now the good guys are winning. Rey beats the Emperor, but dies (because she used too much power maybe?), but then Ben climbs back out of an endless pit (like you do) and heals her back to life, and they finally kiss! And all the Reylos out there cheer! But then he dies, I guess because he gave her all his life force. And all the Reylos boo. We're all the way down, then we're all the way up, then we're all the way down again! It's like riding a really dumb roller coaster.
But I don't mean to trash the movie so hard. There are a lot of parts I really enjoyed, and that I found really moving and well done. Kylo Ren/Ben Solo's arc through the trilogy is strong, Adam Driver is great, and the scene between him and Harrison Ford's Solo, which is an echo of their scene in Force Awakens, with a callback to that most famous of moments between Solo and Leia in Empire Strikes Back, is so powerful. And even the parts of the movie I thought were dumb at least look really cool. The effects are great, and the visualization of the resurrected Emperor, hanging off a giant metal claw, and the Sith planet, with its huge imposing temple and throne, is just amazingly well done. There's also a lot of humor here, what with C-3PO losing his memory and refusing to translate evil languages. I also loved the wordless moment at the very end where Poe gives his ex a questioning sexy look, she shakes her head in answer, and he shrugs and walks off.
Also during this final celebration scene there is a much vaunted lesbian kiss between two tertiary characters. Which, okay, that's cool. Baby steps, I guess. I'm glad we finally got something explicitly gay into Star Wars. But, come on. What about Poe and Finn? Why don't they get to make out? Or even, have Poe and Rey and Finn all make out together! Get Chewie in there, too, what the hell! But no. That would be too much for people, I guess. Sigh.
Oh hey, the Knights of Ren are also in the movie! They are hilarious. They just kind of prowl around in the background like a vaguely threatening goth emo band, and then eventually Ben kills them all. I wanted more out of them, but they're just another thing this trilogy introduced and then never really did much with.
Anyway, I did enjoy the movie, despite how it may sound. I will certainly buy it on blu-ray and watch it again. But it did disappoint me, too. It's interesting to think about what Rian Johnson would have done if he had been in charge - if he'd been able to deliver another movie as great as The Last Jedi. But I guess we'll never know.
I hadn't seen The Black Hole since I was a little kid, but I had powerful, positive isolated memories of it. Recently somebody online mentioned that it was available on Disney+, so I fired it up.
Oh my god, this movie is bonkers.
It came out in 1979, long before Disney owned Star Wars, and was apparently the studio's attempt to copy the success of A New Hope, which had just been released two years previously. It features cute little droids with goofy names, just like Star Wars, although they star alongside far less cute robot villains. The cast is pretty crazy, with Robert Forster as Captain Dan Holland, the hero and skipper of the starship Palomino; Anthony Perkins (!) as Dr. Alex Durant, the Palomino's lead scientist; Ernest Borgnine (!!) as journalist Harry Booth (who I guess tagged along to document the mission); Yvette Mimieux as psychic scientist Dr. Kate McCrae (who doubles as sort of a last minute love interest for Captain Holland); Joseph Bottoms as Holland's brave young first officer, Charlie Pizer; and Roddy McDowall (!!!) and Slim Pickens (!!!) as the voices of the two cute robots, V.I.N.CENT and B.O.B.
The guy with the meatiest part, however, is Maximilian Schell, who plays Dr. Hans Reinhardt, a mad scientist and the only remaining (sort of) crewmember of a gigantic spaceship called the Cygnus. I'm convinced that it is not a coincidence that Reinhardt's deadly robotic lieutenant - a floating blood-red enforcer armed with lasers and spinning blades - shares its name with the actor who plays Reinhardt: Maximilian. Their twisted relationship is one of the more interesting things in the film.
On its way home from an exploration mission, the Palomino comes upon what appears to be the abandoned hulk of the Cygnus floating perilously near an enormous black hole. The Cygnus had been on a similar mission of exploration, and had been ordered to return years ago, but never did. McCrae's father had been on the Cygnus, so the Palomino takes a closer look. Suddenly the Cygnus comes to life, its lights all flipping on at once. So the Palomino docks and the crew begins to cautiously explore the seemingly empty ship, doors opening and closing to lead them toward a particular destination...
The first half or so of the movie is basically gothic horror, but set on an enormous haunted spaceship next to a black hole, instead of an enormous haunted mansion on the moors. Reinhardt is the tall, dark stranger with the mysterious past who presides over the vast structure. He gives off a kind of Captain Nemo vibe - educated, intelligent, but with something dark and savage underneath. He'll subtly threaten you, then serve you a nice dinner off china plates.
Reinhardt claims he sent the rest of the crew home and expresses mild surprise that they never returned home. He stayed because his work was too important to leave. He puts the moves on Dr. McCrae, who is perhaps slightly charmed, but it's Dr. Durant who's really starstruck. Reinhardt strokes his ego and presents him with an opportunity to be part of amazing discoveries. Reinhardt claims he's worked out a way to pass through the black hole and survive, and he expects to find on the other side the answers to everything: the face of God, life everlasting.
It's clear to everybody but Durant that something is not quite right with Reinhardt, and that his story about what happened seems a bit fishy. As they continue to explore the vessel, they see more unsettling things that don't seem to jibe with Reinhardt's explanations. The tension and creepiness heighten steadily. The visuals are very effective. The special effects are certainly not up to modern standards, but the vast corridors of the haunted ship and the mirror-masked faces of the humanoid robots, who stand silent sentinel at control panels like mindless zombies, really get into your brain and stick there.
Eventually the tension is broken and the gothic horror gives way to Star Wars-inspired action sequences. Our heroes exchange laser fire with evil robots and then end up running from gigantic meteors that show up without warning seemingly just to pad the film out with even more destruction and drama. This part of the movie feels like Disney floating some ideas for a new theme park ride.
One really strange and fascinating moment in the film comes in this section: Maximilian kills somebody, Reinhardt kind of halfheartedly scolds him for it, then he steps up close to Dr. McCrae and says, "Please protect me from Maximilian." He's been giving orders to Maximilian throughout, which the robot has followed, but maybe he's not as in control as he appears. Indeed, when Reinhardt is crushed under a piece of wreckage in his crumbling control room, and pleads with Maximilian to help him, the robot ignores him and leaves him to die.
The very end of the film is where things really go off the rails, in a psychedelic, 2001: A Space Odyssey kind of way. Everybody goes through the black hole and the trip becomes, not so much metaphorically, but actually literally, a passage into the afterlife. Maximilian and Reinhardt tumble into each other on their way into the hole and a strange merging occurs. A closeup on Maximilian's red visor reveals Reinhardt's eyes inside. A slow zoom out reveals that Maximilian/Reinhardt is standing above a rocky, flaming, Bosch-esque hellscape peopled by long lines of shuffling humanoid robots. Meanwhile, our heroes travel along a crystal corridor to a heavenly alien world ringed with light.
I'd like to point out here that this was a movie made by Disney for kids! They even sold toys of the robots! I know because me and my brother had a couple.
Anyway, the point is, I love this movie. It's ridiculous and crazy and amazing. If you're looking for something to watch on Disney+, drop some acid and check it out.
I could have sworn I'd read Dan Simmons' Hyperion before and been disappointed by it, but maybe I was thinking of some other book. The overall story was vaguely familiar, especially "The Priest's Tale," but most of it was entirely new to me. And I'm still not sure how I feel about it. But I did read the whole thing, and now I want to read the sequel, so I certainly didn't hate it. It's a really interesting book, with some fascinating ideas and moving stories. Plus it ends on a damn cliffhanger, and I have to know what happens next!! But for a famous entry in a genre that is meant to be so forward-looking, it's an oddly backward-looking book.
I should note, I was going to try to leave spoilers out of my write-up, but I ended up... not doing that. So beware!
Hyperion is a sci-fi version of The Canterbury Tales, set in a future when humanity has left its dead home behind and formed an interstellar web of societies known as The Hegemony of Man ("Man"? Really?). Like The Canterbury Tales, it's about a small group of pilgrims on a religious journey who spend their travel time each telling a tale of how they came to be on the pilgrimage. The tales are used to critique modern society and religion. There's a twist, though: we're informed at the beginning that one of the pilgrims is a spy and a traitor to the Hegemony. Which is it?
Taken together, the tales also tell an over-arching story about a mysterious, monstrous, and possibly wish-fulfilling Lord of Pain (also known as the Shrike) that lives among time-travelling tombs on a haunted, alien world. That world, Hyperion, is the destination of the pilgrimage, and it's also become the center of an interstellar conflict that may very well flare up into a war that will end humanity. The combatants in the conflict include Hegemony military forces, a nomadic space-bound group known as the Ousters (sort of outerspace Vikings), and a group of artificial intelligences known as the TechnoCore. Each of the pilgrims has their own secrets - most of them quite horrific - and their own perspectives on the Shrike.
"The Priest's Tale: The Man Who Cried God" is first, and is unabashedly a horror story, even making use of the epistolary format that Stoker leverages so effectively in Dracula. The horror of "The Priest's Tale" is religious, existential, and physical. Unfortunately, it also relies a bit on ableism. The story is told at a remove, as our narrator is presenting the journal of another character who he knew only slightly years ago, although he does eventually become caught up in the tale himself. The journal slowly reveals the horrific details of an awful parody of Catholicism that exists in secret on Hyperion, and which seems to have some distant connection to the Shrike (although the nature of that connection remains unclear). This tale is the least connected and the most unnecessary to the overarching story of the novel, but it is disturbing and effective. What it's trying to say about religion I'm not totally sure. In the face of this twisted mimicry of his religion, one character actually finds his faith is restored. But he also ends up crucified on an electrified tree, dying over and over again in horrible agony, so maybe that changes his mind.
Next is "The Soldier's Tale: The War Lovers." That title can be taken in two ways, and both are accurate to the story: it is about those who love war, but also about those who love each other in the midst of war. An infamous colonel tells the secret history of his love affair with a dream woman, and her connection to the Shrike, and to his own transformation from a military man to a man who fights for peace. The sex scenes are graphic and pretty gross. This book is very much a straight white man's book; even the one story told from the perspective of a woman (which we'll get to in a bit) feels weighted with a male outlook. For a book about cultures on alien worlds in the far future, it's also stubbornly heteronormative and really rather conservative in its descriptions of culture, gender, and sex. I don't think the existence of gay people is even mentioned in its entire length. The woman in this story is a kind of succubus; a feminine embodiment of war. Violence and sex are blended together until one final act of love looks likely to bring about a galactic apocalypse. How exactly, it's unclear. Although this is science fiction, a lot of what happens in it feels more in the fantasy vein, with monsters and magic and maidens struck down by terrible curses. But more of the overarching story is revealed in this tale: the Shrike appears to be seeking the end of the universe through some ultimate conflict, and is trying to use the Colonel as its instrument.
The third story is "The Poet's Tale: Hyperion Cantos." This story would seem to be particularly important, as the series of which this novel is the first entry shares its name (Hyperion Cantos). It's meta in more than just that way, too; the main character here is a famous poet who has come to believe he wrote the Shrike into existence and is in some sense responsible for the death and destruction it's caused. He even seems to believe that as he continues to write his Hyperion Cantos, he is writing the future - creating reality. It's possible we're meant to think of him as the author of this book - as if he has somehow written the story he's a character in. But again, for a character in a book about the future, he is very traditional, to the point of being almost antiquated. He's a bawdy, grossly male and heterosexual hedonist. He's constantly compared to a satyr, and most of his references and quotations (in fact most of the references and quotations in the book) are to very old works of art. Admittedly, references to made-up future works that the reader doesn't know about wouldn't have as much of an impact, but this book was published in 1989. Why have your poet quote Shakespeare, the Bible, and John Keats? Why is the only movie referenced The Wizard of Oz? Other art was made in between The Wizard of Oz and 1989! Our poet does admit he is very backward-looking, and his most famous work, The Dying Earth (which shares its title with a famous series by Jack Vance, a fact which Simmons slyly mentions in the book) is an elegy to "Old Earth," humanity's now dead (murdered, in fact, by an event known as "The Big Mistake") home planet. And later in the book, a character decries this civilization's increasingly desperate and violent attempts to hold onto old ways. But is that just lampshading, or is the backward nature of these characters and their society a legitimate theme of the novel? I'm not sure. I know I really disliked the Poet's Tale until its narrator's mind is destroyed by cheap suspended animation, and he has to rebuild his vocabulary from nine words (most scatological profanity). This section is poignant and funny. I was also fascinated by the idea of the poet writing the Shrike into existence, and the drama and romance of him haunting the ruins of the Poet's City on Hyperion, and his fiery confrontation with Sad King Billy and his Muse.
The most effective and moving story is definitely "The Scholar's Tale: The River Lethe's Taste Is Bitter." As you might have guessed from the ancient reference in the title, it also features some of the most traditional, conservative characters and societies that we've yet seen in the book. It's hard to believe a family unit and small town this traditional could exist in the future; it wouldn't be out of place in '50s America. The husband calls his wife "Mother," and the wife calls her husband "Father," and they bought their little girl a bike for her birthday, and the couple met at a college party where the man spilled something on the woman. The man is a scholar and researcher, but his research topics are things like a story in the Bible, and a writer who would be even more ancient in his time than he is already in ours. The scholar's name is also an extremely traditional Jewish name: Sol Weintraub. He is even dubbed The Wandering Jew in the tale. Why is this future so old?
Still, maybe it's partly because this setting and cast are so familiar that this story is so effective. Weintraub's daughter (who also has an incredibly traditional name: Rachel Sarah Weintraub) ends up traveling to Hyperion to perform research there for her graduate dissertation. While she's alone one night in one of the mysterious structures called the Time Tombs (structures that are somehow moving backward through time, and that appear to be connected somehow to the Shrike), she experiences a paranormal-like event that infects her with a unique disease: Merlin syndrome. She begins living backwards, becoming younger and younger each day, and each time she sleeps, her memories reset to what they were when she was originally that age, and she forgets everything she experienced since then. What follows is a brutal, heart-rending tale, as her parents try desperately to help their daughter while she fades slowly and inexorably away from them. Weintraub begins to have a dream where he is ordered by a God-like figure (possibly the Shrike) to bring his daughter to Hyperion and sacrifice her, and he becomes obsessed with the story in the Bible where Abraham is ordered by God to sacrifice his son Isaac. Weintraub ultimately decides that any God who demands obedience before all else, any God who would expect a worshiper to be willing to execute his own family member, is an evil God that does not deserve worship. This is a deep and powerful story and probably the best in the book.
The next story is "The Detective's Tale: The Long Good-bye." Yes, it's really called that! And indeed it's very much in the format of an old-school film noir murder mystery/detective story, complete with a rough-and-tumble private dick armed with her father's automatic (his death by "suicide" inspired her to become a detective, natch), a mysterious femme fatale client who becomes a romantic interest for the detective, and a labyrinthine case that ultimately uncovers a gigantic conspiracy and brings to light the evils of society. The interesting bit (as you might have guessed from the pronouns used above) is that the two main characters are gender-swapped: the detective and narrator is a woman, and the femme fatale is a man. Well, "man" is a bit misleading; he's actually a male avatar for an artificial intelligence modeled on the poet John Keats. Oh, and the detective's name is Lamia. Yeah.
This one is rough. I found myself rolling my eyes a bit at all the detective story tropes, even though I actually like a good film noir. We also get some cyberpunk tropes thrown in for good measure, as this story explores the seedy underside of the equivalent of the internet that's envisioned by the novel. There are definitely some fascinating ideas here, though: the warring factions of AIs, their Ultimate Intelligence project, their attempts to fully predict the future by taking into account all possible variables (that reminded me a little bit of Asimov's Foundation novels), and the way the inexplicable, incalculable variable of Hyperion and the Shrike keeps frustrating their efforts. There's another weird religious thing going on in this story, as our detective ends up being revered by the Church of the Shrike as the future mother of some kind of messianic figure. (Yes, somehow she is having the John Keats cyborg's baby, like you do.) I haven't mentioned the Church of the Shrike before, but they're an interesting bunch who show up again and again throughout the novel. Adherents of the religion are often broken, suicidal people, but not all of them are. There's definitely something creepy and mystical going on with them. What it is exactly is - like so many other things - not explained in the novel.
The final story is "The Consul's Tale: Remembering Siri," and it's definitely one of my least favorite. Like "The Priest's Tale," it's also told at a remove, with a grandson presenting the journal of his grandfather, and then adding his own story onto the end. The journal jumps back and forth through time in a confusing fashion. This is probably an attempt to mirror the time-fractured nature of the relationship that is at the center of the story. The author of the journal is a "shipman" named Merin Aspic (Aspic? Really?) who, as part of his work to build the farcaster portal that will bring the Maui Covenant colony into the Hegemony, is constantly traveling between the stars at relativistic speeds, and so incurring enormous amounts of "time debt." Against orders, and in search of "nookie" (ugh), he mingles with the natives while on shore leave and ends up in a relationship with a (criminally young!!) girl who is unfortunately named Siri. (Constantly being reminded of Apple's voice-activated AI assistant made it hard to take her seriously as a character, although that's hardly Simmons' fault.) She's only 16! I mean, he's only 19 at the time, but still. It is very hard to like Merin, and very hard to understand what Siri sees in him, especially after he ends up murdering her cousin (!) at the end of their first meeting. But their time-fractured romance becomes legendary among her people. Each time he returns to meet her again, he's aged maybe a year or two, while she's aged decades. She has kids by him and raises them into men while he's off working on his spaceship. It's pretty gross. The tale very much follows in the tired vein of the "civilized white man is converted to the side of the primitive natives by their charming culture as personified by a sexy young girl" story (although in this case she doesn't remain young for long). The most recent example of this genre is probably John Cameron's Avatar, but there's also Dances With Wolves (which came out only a year after Hyperion), and I'm sure plenty more, much older examples. What we come to realize, as we jump back and forth through Siri and Merin's very strange relationship, is that the culture of Maui Covenant, and many of the people and animals that live there, will be utterly destroyed by the Hegemony when it takes over. It's old school Imperialism in its purest form. Which, okay. But the way the native culture is exoticized and romanticized, while we are given almost no details about it, is clumsy. And, again, it's hard to understand how a culture so traditional, archaic, and without technology would exist in this future universe. I appreciate that you're telling a story about how Hegemonic Imperialism is bad and destroying aboriginal societies is bad. But why does it have to be from the perspective of one of the White Imperialists, a dumb young jerk who's having lots of sex with the young native woman?
At the end of this story, the Consul - grandson to Merin and Siri, and high ranking official in the Hegemony government - reveals that the way the Hegemony treated Maui Covenant is the way it treats pretty much all colony worlds. It shows up, wipes out the natives, and takes control. The Hegemony, in other words, is pretty awful. We have learned almost nothing about the Hegemony's enemy, the Ousters, in the rest of the book; they're just kind of a barbarian boogey man banging at the gates. The Consul now gives us a rough sketch of the beauty of their culture, and reveals that he is the spy and the traitor. However, he is also a traitor to the Ousters. A kind of triple agent. His goal seems to be to eliminate everyone, to end the conflict by letting the combatants destroy each other. To let the Shrike loose on the universe to wreak whatever retribution it sees necessary on all of humanity.
Interestingly, his fellow pilgrims react by hugging him and absolving him. Then they all walk together down to the Shrike and the Time Tombs, hand in hand, singing "We're Off to See the Wizard." And that's how the book ends.
I'm not even kidding!
I've almost talked myself into hating the book by writing about it here. It's got a lot of ridiculous tropey bits. And I find it hard to take a book seriously anymore that is so stubbornly traditional and stereotypical and heteronormative. It definitely made me think a lot about my own novel and its own flaws, and how I should probably revise it again to include more minorities and more queerness. White hetero male stories are pretty dull and old anymore.
All that being said, the book is well written, with some great ideas, and I really would like to know what the Shrike does when the pilgrims show up, and who lives and who dies, and what the deal is with the Time Tombs. So I'll probably read the next one eventually.
A benefit of being unemployed: I watched four (4) movies today. And most of them were good!
Shazam! - This was great. A ton of fun, with a moving character arc, and a wonderful message. Also, funny! Always nice to see an actually really good movie from DC that isn't unrelentingly grimdark.
Hellboy (2019) - This was disappointing. Some cool ideas, a few cool moments, but poor writing and execution. Usually I love Ian McShane, but I hated him in this for some reason. His character was just poorly written I think. There was also an undercurrent of misogyny that grossed me out.
Alita: Battle Angel - I didn't expect much out of this one. A post-apocalyptic sci-fi action thriller with lots of cyborgs and a CG main character with weird bug eyes. But I actually really enjoyed it. Cool effects and action, and an engaging story. Not the most imaginative plot, but I liked it anyway.
Master Z: Ip Man Legacy - I'd been craving a bad-ass, old school, period martial arts film, and this was that film. So great. Jin Zhang! Dave Bautista! Michelle Yeoh! And even a cameo from Tony Jaa! Fantastic fighting, and a good story with a character arc and everything. Man, I really need to watch more martial arts movies.
I really enjoyed Middlemarch. A tragicomedy of the human experience. A romantic drama that's often laugh-out-loud funny, with many wonderfully realized portraits of very memorable, very real characters.
My favorite character: Mrs. Cadwallader. She's hilarious. I wish there'd been more of her. Most likable character: Caleb Garth. Runner-up: Mr. Farebrother. Both just really nice, decent guys. Most unlikable character: Rosamond Vincy. John Raffles is also awful, but ugh, Rosamond just drove me nuts.
Fred Vincy is kind of a self-absorbed ass, and, as everyone agrees (even Fred!), Mary Garth (who is awesome) could have done so much better than him, but they end up happy together, so it's all good. I also really enjoyed Celia and Mr. Brooke (up to a point, of course, only up to a point, as he would say), and of course I was happy to see Dorothea and Will end up together in the end.
Looks like there was a well-received BBC miniseries adaptation in 1994, so I'll have to check that out some time.