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Monthly Archives: October 2013

Book Review: Forests of the Night by S. Andrew Swann

Reading 150S.A. Swann’s first novel — the beginning of a thematic trilogy — is set in a (by now) near-future America. It’s a 1990s cyberpunk-ish future, actually, where future-tech is still wired and location-based, the nation’s cities are in decline, and a world war involving nuclear weapons don’t necessarily mean the end of civilization as we know it. Japan and India are wastelands now, and the soldiers who were genetically engineered to fight in these wars have settled into an uneasy peace-time where they’re second-class citizens.

Nohar Rajasthan is the descendant of one of those soldiers, a human-animal hybrid named a ‘moreau’ for obvious reasons. He’s scraping together a good-enough existence as a private eye, living in the ghetto reserved for his kind. One day, a genetically-engineered human (called “frankensteins”) approaches him about investigating the murder of a baseline human. And if that didn’t make him uneasy enough, the victim just so happens to be linked to a well-known anti-moreau politicians with dreams of becoming a Senator. Despite his better judgement, he takes the case and quickly gets involved in a much bigger situation, because that’s how these things go.

Forests of the Night is a straightforward hybrid of detective noir and cyberpunk thriller, and it works pretty well. Swann has a solid handle on the tropes and structure of a good detective story, and he plugs in his own imaginative spins quite easily. This type of story hinges on the personality of its main character, how well the motivations of its supporting cast stays hidden (and seems plausible once they’re revealed) and how well you’re able to keep up with the many twists in the plot. I think it works on at least two of three levels, though I imagine your mileage may vary with the third.

Nohar is an uplifted tiger, essentially; a massive guy (around 8 feet and 500 pounds) who wants to do his work while staying out of trouble. In the grand noir tradition, however, trouble seems to find him no matter what. What’s interesting about Nohar, obviously, is his physical difference — we really buy into his character whenever Swann thinks through how life would be different for a guy with fur and claws. For the most part, that’s the only thing that really serves to set Nohar apart. He follows the template of your basic noir detective — gruff and stoic, with reserves of inner pain and a heart of gold. He doesn’t get in many fights because of a mental block, of sorts. When a switch gets flipped, he’s fantastically deadly, but turning on The Beast leaves him drained and shaky afterwards. It’s kind of interesting that we have a protagonist who is more than physically capable of wrecking house, but doesn’t do so because the drawbacks are far too high.

How could you say no to this cover?

Much tiger. Very wow.

The world that Nohar inhabits is pretty interesting as well. There’s a lot of social parallels between moreaus and just about any other minority with its own insular culture, and that part in particular helped to draw me in to the setting. Moreytown is a run-down area in Cleveland long ago abandoned by most humans, patrolled by a single pair of policemen to make sure any trouble inside the neighborhood doesn’t spill out into the rest of the city. Crumbling buildings, a thriving set of street gangs, bars with its own set of regulars and addicts — Moreytown has the works. And the people who get along inside of it are largely accepting of their fate, generally disinterested in a wider world that they see as hostile. Any involvement with humans, whether or not it’s positive on the surface, is a harbinger of trouble. It reminds me of my neighborhood growing up, come to think of it. The black urban community thinks the same way of the larger, white-dominated world around them.

Which is why it’s so odd that the one black person encountered in Forests of the Night — a cab driver that Nohar hires when he needs to check out a bunch of places around town — seems right out of central casting for an 80s cop movie. She’s a minor character in every possible way, but she still peppers her speech with outdated slang. “Sheeeee-it,” she says when she sees that her fare is a moreau.

The supporting cast, in general, are unquestionable allies of Nohar and his quest to uncover the truth. There’s Stephanie Weir, a human romantically connected to the victim fulfilling the femme fatale role. Manny, a mongoose moreau and Nohar’s best friend, is the voice of reason. And Angel is a lepine moreau who offers street-level pieces of the puzzle while being generally “tough” and obnoxious. Imagine a little rabbit voiced by Michelle Rodriguez, and you get the idea. We get a better sense of Nohar through his interactions with these people, and they offer vastly different perspectives of the world that help to deepen it and give it weight. For the most part, the world-building is deftly handled through character arcs and interactions, so well done there.

The mystery itself is a bit of a head-scratcher. There are so many players involved in so many different layers that it’s a little difficult to follow how one piece of the puzzle fits into the next. We don’t really get a good high-level view of what’s going on until the final confrontation, where Nohar puts everything together in a few pages of really late (and sort of convoluted) exposition. Still, it makes sense once things are figured out, and once it was all laid out I figured out the final twist perhaps a page or two ahead of the protagonist. The twists could stand to be a little more clearly sketched so it’s easier to know which direction Nohar has just been turned, but it’s also clear that Swann has a clear idea of what’s happening and it’s easy to trust in him to tie everything together. And to his credit, he does.

Ultimately this is a great little pot-boiler of a novel; nothing deep or thoughtful, but the action moves along at a rapid pace, the characters are intriguing enough to be taken along for the ride, and the world is fascinating enough that you’ll want to spend some time there. Forests of the Night is the first book in a trilogy featuring various characters in mid 21st-century America, and I’m looking forward to dipping back into the setting with the follow-up, Emperors of the Twilight. Nohar is a minor character there, alas, but it’ll be good to see how he’s doing.

 
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Posted by on October 28, 2013 in Furries, Novels, Reviews

 

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The AFI Top 100 Films: Chinatown (#19)

Entertainment 150Chinatown (1974)
Starring Jack Nicholson, Faye Dunaway and John Huston
Written by Robert Towne
Directed by Roman Polanski

Chinatown is a hell of a noir film. Set in the Los Angeles of the 1930s, it uses the acquisition of water by land barons to explore deeper themes of moral bankruptcy and how one man’s remorseless lust for power can override a system set up for the public good. The villain’s relentless drive for control creates victims of the near and dear as well as complete strangers. Everyone’s powerless against one person willing to exploit the system as much as possible.

Like most detective stories, this one starts simple. Jake Gittes (Nicholson) is approached by a woman to investigate her husband, Hollis Mulwray. Jake tails him, finds him protesting the creation of a new reservoir in town and then cheating on his wife. He takes pictures, gives them to Mrs. Mulwray, and finds them plastered all over the front pages of every newspaper in town the next morning. When he gets back to his office, he meets a woman (Dunaway) who insists on asking if they’ve ever met before. When Jake denies ever seeing her, she tells him that she’s actually Mrs. Mulwray and he can expect a lawsuit.

It gets more and more twisted from there. Jake, realizing he’s been set up, resolves to see the case through to the end. Every new clue leads him to another turn in the case, and every turn takes him away from the personal and towards the political. It isn’t long before Jake finds himself uncovering a massive plot to control the land and water for a great part of Los Angeles. Worse than that, the person at the head of this plot has ruined the life of the femme fatale he’s become entangled with. I won’t say any more about the plot here; if you don’t know what happens, it’s best if you find out along with Jake.

The ending, though, is a sucker-punch that leaves an indelible mark and — frankly — makes the movie great. Jake is left shaken by the ordeal he’s just been through, and I can only imagine that he’d struggle with where to go from there. What’s the point in trying to do anything in a world that allows the events in Chinatown to happen the way they do? What good could you possibly do when you’re working within a system that allows evil men to flourish?

His dilemma becomes ours, and we’re forced to confront a really basic question through this twisting little narrative. There are so many different ways to be “evil”, to visit harm onto your fellow man, and everywhere you turn you seem to find people who are connoisseurs of the practice. The society you live in makes it so difficult to be “good,” and often you find yourself swimming upstream if you try to do the right thing. There’s little reward or recognition; in fact, if you make too big of a splash you’ll likely be trampled down by the system. What makes the fight worth it? How do you recover from a setback or loss?

Jake Gittes doesn’t have an answer for it, and neither do any of his associates. “Forget it, Jake, it’s Chinatown.” He might as well be talking about the world, our whole experience. It feels like the movie leads you to the door of an existential void and simply drops you there at the end of it. What do you see when you look in?

It’s incredible that a noir could lead us here, starting from the titillating possibility of marital infidelity all the way to the question about why we even bother with morality in a cold, unfair universe. The writing of the story encourages us to think more and more broadly through the way it opens, each clue exposing a wider expanse of mystery until we’re left with the grandest one of all.

I suppose that’s one of the things that makes the noir detective such a crisp and engaging figure. He’s been hardened by the world but otherwise unchanged by it, constantly trying to do the right thing the best way he knows how. He’s a modern-day Sisyphus rolling a rock up a hill, only to watch it falling down again. The effort takes something out of him every time. But we imagine him returning to his office, taking other cases, going back down the hill and starting all over again. And depending on your outlook, that’s sad or inspiring. Or both.

Jack Nicholson is surprisingly great at playing Gittes, the private detective who’s competent but out of his depth here. He’s smart, wily and snarky, but there’s a severe power disbalance between the gumshoe and the ultimate target of his investigation. Nicholson seems to be the guy with all the power in the room whenever you see him most times, and there’s none of that here. It’s really intriguing to watch him struggle, be confused, try to get a handle on things.

Polanski does a great job as well, making sure every scene crackles with the energy it needs to, staying true to the noirish tropes of long shadows and stifling heat while making everything look distinctly southern Californian. For some reason, the sunny locale makes the darkness of the characters’ secrets that much more stark. He encourages Nicholson, Dunaway and Huston to be subsumed by their characters, and every bit of subtext he includes is understated, suggested by the performance. I imagine Chinatown would hold up well to repeat viewings for just that reason; there’s bound to be all sorts of stuff you missed the first time.

This movie is as good as film noir gets. It’s a great example of its genre, but it extends beyond it to play around with some really big ideas. Other movies might be a bit more entertaining, but none are as rich as Chinatown.

Rating: 9/10.

 
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Posted by on October 23, 2013 in AFI Top 100, Movies, Reviews

 

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Five Favorite Horror Films

Entertainment 150When I was but a wee leveret growing up in the wilds of Baltimore City, I really wasn’t able to watch many horror movies. We were a religious household, so anything seen as ‘celebrating’ the Devil or the occult were strictly off-limits. As is often the case with kids who grow up in oppressively spiritual households, there’s been a bit of a rubber-band effect. I now LOVE horror movies, and appreciate anything that scare the pants off of me. I didn’t really get a chance to indulge that love until I met Ryan, who has been kind enough to open me up to a wide variety of frightening films.

I now know the distinct flavors of horror films from each decade. The 70s are really impressive with their love of atmosphere, isolated places, insanity and gore. The 80s movies ratchet up the gore and really entrenched a lot of the tropes in horror we love to play around with; the slasher franchises mostly started here. In the 90s we became wry and self-aware with our horror movies, and our victims got younger — high school and college students are really common. We left the supernatural behind in favor of, well, crazy, demented and murderous people. The 2000s saw torture feature prominently, and our aesthetic grew dingier, grungier than ever before.

Since Halloween is only ten days away and a lot of our cable channels are doing their customary horror marathon thing, I thought it’d be fun to think about my favorite horror movies and exactly what it is I love about them. Horror movies are a great avenue into the fears we hold deep down in our lizard brains and exploring how and why they manifest the way they do. Here’s a few of the things I find especially scary. Probably not surprisingly, I have a preoccupation with the breakdown of society.

5. When A Stranger Calls. A year after Halloween blazed the trail of bringing insanely scary horrors right to your doorstep, this movie takes it to the next level. The first twenty minutes is an amazingly taut short film on its own; it’s earned its place on this list on the strength of that alone. “Have you checked the children?” and “The call is coming from inside the house!” are taken from this movie. After the first act, the movie becomes a detective story leading to another wonderfully twisty horror set-piece at the end. It’s a complete surprise — the creeping dread, paranoia, and obsession of the psychotic murderer and the private eye chasing him down is palpable. Wonderful stuff.

4. 28 Days Later/Dawn of the Dead (remake). I’ve included these two movies as a package deal because they occupy the same spot in my brain — they were what made me get zombies as a horror concept. 28 Days Later is celebrated for its “man wanders alone in deserted London” sequence, which is incredibly eerie, but the final act — which sees the survivors visiting a horror worse than the zombies they’re sheltered from — is even better. The sequel, 28 Weeks Later, is really solid as well; the scares have a lot more to do with the zombies in that one. Dawn of the Dead, remade by Zack Snyder from the George Romero original, opens with a sequence that brings the horror of zombies home in a very literal sense. I won’t spoil it here, but going to bed one night with everything normal and then waking up to find that the world has effectively ended has never been done better than it has been here. The lives the characters make for themselves hold up in an abandoned mall is fascinating, and the choices they make once they have to rebuild a society for themselves reveals a lot about our survivors. Both of these movies are the standard (to me) against which all zombie movies will be held.

3. The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. This is one intense movie. Even before the gang gets to the creepy house in the middle of the Texas wilderness, they get this weird harbinger of what they’ll be facing. They pick up a hitchhiker who pulls a knife, injures one of the passengers, and is summarily kicked out. It’s all downhill from there. What follows is a movie that’s shocking not only for its gore, but for how unabashedly, completely crazy its villains are. Just when you think you have a handle on how insane things can get, something comes along to top it. The dinner scene is just one of the most terrifying things ever. It’s one of the few movies I’ve ever seen that just makes me want to take a shower after watching it. So gnarly. I love it.

2. The Blair Witch Project. When The Blair Witch Project hit in 1999, it wasn’t so much a movie as it was an experience. It was one of the first films to use viral alternate-reality marketing really effectively, to the point that some audiences actually thought they were watching a snuff film on the big screen. Creating a totally believable legend from whole-cloth made the found-footage premise that much more terrifying, and the little bits that existed outside of the movie made the film itself that much scarier. Knowing the story of Rustin Parr makes the final image — already chilling — absolutely nightmarish. To this day, the woods at night are one of the scariest things on God’s green earth, and it’s all thanks to this one movie. It kickstarted my love of horror in a big way.

1. Threads. This is kind of a cop-out, especially since it’s not really horror and there are a lot of really GREAT horror movies out there. But this is the scariest movie I’ve ever seen, and not enough people have watched it. I need to be the evangelist for it! Set (and made) during the Cold War of the 1980s, Threads follows a woman named Ruth as she prepares to marry her high school sweetheart Jimmy. Then World War III breaks out. Told in a hybrid of drama and documentary styles, Threads is intensely graphic in its depiction of the run-up to nuclear war and the effects of us destroying ourselves. It’s insane to me to think that we could have come so close to doing something we’d never be able to recover from, especially when that decision rests in the hands of just a few people we’ve elected to keep us safe from just such a thing. What makes Threads so scary is not that it depicts the end of civilization in such an unblinking fashion; it shows us what our quality of life would be afterwards — practically non-existent.

What about you guys? What’s your personal favorite horror movie?

 
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Posted by on October 21, 2013 in Movies, Pop Culture

 

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The AFI Top 100 Films: One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (#20)

Entertainment 150One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest (1975)
Starring Jack Nicholson, Louise Fletcher and Will Sampson
Written by Lawrence Hauben and Bo Goldman (screenplay) and Ken Kesey (novel)
Directed by Milos Forman

Jon Ronson (he of The Men Who Stare at Goats¬†fame) submitted a report for NPR’s This American Life one week, about a man in England who pleaded insanity for a crime he committed. The defense worked; instead of going to jail, he went to a mental institution and thought he would get out in a matter of months. He discovered, with creeping dread, that proving that you’re sane once you’ve been branded insane is not easy at all. Decades later, he’s still there, fighting for his release.

This was a story that stuck with me, and I couldn’t help but remember it while watching One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest because it was so similar. McMuprhy (Nicholson) finds himself admitted to a mental institution after a short and troubled stint in prison for statutory rape; he figures that once he’s in he’ll simply do his time and leave without any issues. What he finds instead when he gets to the ward are a bunch of patients who voluntarily submit to the tyrannical rule of Nurse Ratched (Fletcher), a steely-eyed, soft-voiced disciplinarian whose power is gained by maintaining the status quo.

McMurphy immediately chafes under Ratched’s rules, and the basic conflict of the film is set. To all casual observers, Ratched is fighting the good fight; she’s gentle, reasonable, and tries to lead her patients to make wise decisions. What’s fascinating though, is that if you listen to the way she frames her Socratic questions, there’s a minefield underneath her delicate, innocent framing. She loads her interactions with half-insults meant to break down her patient, triggering guilt and uncertainty, setting herself up so that her “helpful suggestions” solve problems that she creates and advances. It’s insidious and ingenious. She takes great pains to cover her power through bland neutrality and misdirection.

That’s why McMurphy bucking against her authority seems to prove his insanity at first. But over time, his “coyote wisdom” has an effect on the patients and they begin to think things through for themselves. Her control slipping, Rached resorts to less subtle methods of regaining the upper hand, and the film escalates from there. It becomes apparent that only one of them can lead these broken men through their troubles, and both of them very badly want to be the singular leader of the ward.

Nicholson is affably unhinged here, crude but personable, as capable of insulting and complimenting you with equal sincerity. The film is populated with people who give singular but affecting performances (Fletcher won an Oscar for Best Supporting Actress here, and Will Sampson is really entrancing as the silent giant “Chief” Bromden) and recognizable, bona-fide stars in early roles (Danny DeVito, Christopher Lloyd and Brad Dourif, who was nominated for Best Supporting Actor). All of them carve distinctive and sympathetic characters with a minimum of screen time; I’m impressed not only with their ability to do the most with what they’ve been given, but the quality of the material they have to boot. By being incredibly flawed but relatable people, the chorus of the insane in the ward offer themselves up as real stakes for both Ratched and McMurphy; you want them to succeed, thus you want McMurphy to succeed.

The movie takes a rather dark turn towards its third act, and I won’t say much about it here in case you haven’t seen it yet. But the tonal shift proves to be the most problematic aspect of the movie — the escalating war between the nurse and the patient produces its first bit of collateral damage, and the immediate aftermath gives us something that can’t be condoned. I’ve been told that the scene in the book takes it much further than the movie, which introduces questions about misogyny on the part of the author and just what the intent is here. We’ve been with McMurphy up until this point of the film, so are we supposed to condone this too? If not, why take away our sympathy for the protagonist this late in the game? The story has so much momentum at this point, and it’s that much more jarring for the rug to be pulled out from under us in that way. What are we to make of what happens, and the consequences leading from that?

Still, you can’t help but wince at the ending, where the sudden and brutal conflict comes to its end. Both sides win, after a fashion, but the sacrifices they’ve had to make to get there are incredibly steep. I think your perception of it is determined by how optimistic you are; I think we’re meant to take away a bit of hope with the finish, though I could totally see if someone thought it tragic.

Very few people can manage to hang with Jack Nicholson at his prime, and it’s a testament to Louise Fletcher that she proved to be such a capable foil for him. The rivalry between Ratched and McMurphy prove to be the strong spine of the movie, capable of carrying the rest of the story on its back. Thankfully, it only has to do the heavy lifting in a couple of places; everyone else is on the game too.

Rating: 8/10.

 
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Posted by on October 10, 2013 in AFI Top 100, Movies, Reviews

 

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Rainfurrest 2013: Seattle Grunge

Fandom 150Last weekend I headed up to Seattle for the annual ode to anthropomorphics in the Pacific Northwest, Rainfurrest. It’s a really nice convention, and it’s positioned itself well — in the crowded furry con landscape, I don’t think there are too terribly many events in September. It’s also one of the only conventions that makes a concerted effort to distinguish itself by catering to a specific aspect of the fandom, and that’s something I wish other cons would gear towards. We’ve gotten big enough that some fragmentation would be a neat thing — while Further Confusion and Anthrocon could be the senses-shattering mega-events that draw the biggest crowds, the smaller, regional cons could forge their identities by taking advantage of their location (Rocket City, for example) or building a lot of their programming towards performance, writing, art or music.

Rainfurrest has become the convention to go to if you’re a furry writer, for example. They encourage furry publishers to debut new works at the con by throwing release parties, they pay quite a bit of attention to their Writing Guests of Honor, and the writing panel track is one of the most robust I’ve ever seen. Instead of the usual con-book that no one reads, they actually went out of their way to publish a full-fledged anthology for sale, with proceeds going towards the charities that were taken up that year. It’s really impressive, and a quite welcome focus. Most conventions are too concerned with keeping the lights on and making sure everything runs smoothly to take risks or be creative with the focus and goodies they provide. This con is a wonderful exception.

Ryan’s book God of Clay debuted this year, the first in a trilogy. There was a general book release party for Sofawolf Press, his publisher, and he got quite a bit of attention there. He was adorably shy through most of it, but all in all it was a great experience for him. He spent some time behind the Sofawolf Press desk in the dealer’s den, got in touch with his audience, signed some books and learned the importance of personal contact and marketing. (It sounds so crass when I say it that way.) He was on a panel or two and seemed to impress a few folks with what he had to say. He actually presented as a bona-fide writer, which was tremendously exciting to see. I have to tell you guys, I’m tremendously proud of him. He’s incredibly talented and passionate about what he does. And now he gets to live the dream for a little bit.

I may be biased, but God of Clay is still a great book and there’s nothing like it in the furry fandom right now — there’s very few books like it in the broader sci-fi/fantasy genre. I highly recommend picking up a copy if you haven’t already.

Otherwise, it was a really fun convention. I got to meet a couple of writers whom I’ve always heard about, Phil Geusz (Freedom City) and Mitch de la Guardia (N’duk the Hunter). Phil was the Writing Special Guest, and it was pretty awesome seeing him get something of the rock-star treatment; he constantly had a retinue surrounding him wherever he went. I managed to talk to him for a little bit about his Books of Lapinism setting, which sounds like something I’d love to read. Mitch and I already kind of know each other through the FBA; we both play polar bear centers in the league. But it was good talking to him outside of that connection, and seeing him in a more writerly context. I bought the first collection of N’duk stories, and I’m looking forward to reading it. I also got to talk to Daniel and Mary Lowd for a little bit. I came away from the weekend with a good sense of the writing community here in the fandom; that’s one of the things that Rainfurrest affords.

It’s also convinced me more than ever that the writing segment of the fandom is mature enough to stand up to criticism, and could serve to benefit from it. There are a lot of people who are serious about the craft, strive to be better, and like engaging in discussion about how best to do that. I think as long as the discussion is positive, constructive and respectful, criticism isn’t anything to be afraid of. It also reaffirms my belief that the big problem with criticism in the fandom so far is that it’s been used as a vehicle to boost personality and fame; there aren’t that many people who really scrutinize the work closely with an eye towards discussing its impact and meaning.

I’m really glad I was able to make this convention, and now I’m going to try and make it one of those things I get to every year. Ryan’s come away from it with a better sense of the work that goes into a book surrounding its publication. What’s better, I think he actually learned he does a pretty decent job with it as well. Win-win for all!

 
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Posted by on October 7, 2013 in Better Living Through Stories, Furries, Writing

 

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