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These Violent Delights: HBOs Westworld

These Violent Delights: HBOs Westworld

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I don’t often find a lot I enjoy on TV. There are notable exceptions. I loved Battlestar Galactica and Sons of Anarchy, enjoyed a few seasons of Game of Thrones, Justified and Banshee, and dabble in Star Trek: Discovery.

A few years ago though, I was absolutely blown away by the first season of Westworld. Physical distancing has given me a bit of extra time and in Canada Westworld is on Crave premium, so I rewatched season one, blew through Season Two and found to my delight that new episodes of Season Three are appearing weekly.

What is it and why am I talking about it on Black Gate? It’s probably the most scientifically faithful science fiction I’ve ever seen on TV or the big screen, and yet it has the powerful literary and narrative qualities you’d expect in an HBO series. There is no hand-holding here for the viewer and no clumsy exposition. It’s keep up or go home all the way — the series treats you like you’re smart enough to keep up, which really means that Westworld has enough depth of character and story to leave you turning it over in your mind for quite some time.

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The Rise of Skywalker: A GREAT Ending to the Star Wars Saga

The Rise of Skywalker: A GREAT Ending to the Star Wars Saga

SW_RisePosterEDITEDI was ten years old in the summer of 1977, and my dad took me to Cinema East that summer to see Star Wars (A New Hope). Cinema East, then on Broad Street in Whitehall, but now long gone, had 70 MM screenings. I think it was the biggest screen in town.

Forty-two years and seven movies later this past Saturday, one day before my son turned twelve, I took him to see Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker. I have liked some of the series, and the ‘extra’ movies, and the animated shows. I didn’t like others. But I can value that generations have been able to share the Star Wars universe. That’s something powerful in our increasingly shallow culture.

I’m going to write a short, relatively spoiler-free post. I liked The Force Awakens, even though it seemed rather unoriginal. But after the second trilogy, which I didn’t care for, I was happy to enjoy a Star Wars movie again. And then came The Last Jedi. Had I not taken my son to see it, I probably would have either fallen asleep, or left before the end. It was a dull, plodding movie. And I feared the saga was going to limp to its final end.

But I’ve approached every Star Wars film with an open mind. I don’t have an agenda, or any strong feelings about it. I watched the first three movies, read a few books like Alan Dean Foster’s Splinter of the Mind’s Eye.  But I wasn’t overly big into Star Wars. I was more interested in fantasy than science fiction. I’d rather read Michael Moorcock, Terry Brooks, or Terry Pratchett, than dig deeper into Star Wars.

And The Rise of Skywalker was an excellent ending to the epic cycle. I don’t think they could have done a whole lot better in putting the original movie series to bed. It’s a movie about hope, redemption, courage, perseverance, honor, and commitment. It’s cool in our Dark Knight era of superhero movies (a genre created for kids and totally taken over by adults who really need to lighten up and examine their lives a bit), to denigrate uplifting, feel-good stories.

Rise is a return to the values, themes and messages of the original trilogy. It brings closure to a story begun over four decades ago. And it does it in a way that lets the movie-goer walk out of the theater satisfied. Especially someone who has been watching Star Wars for decades.

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Reworking A Classic: Frankenstein in Baghdad by Ahmed Saadawi

Reworking A Classic: Frankenstein in Baghdad by Ahmed Saadawi

9781786073976The Arabic world has seen an upsurge in speculative fiction in recent years. Some attribute it to the disappointments of the Arab Spring and the disaster of the U.S. invasion of Iraq. Others point to ready access to the Internet, allowing Arab writers to communicate more easily with genre fans in other parts of the world.

Of course this ignores the fact that Arabic literature has a long tradition of the fantastic. Arab writers are working from very deep roots. So it’s interesting that one of the most successful Arab speculative novels of the past decade takes its inspiration from a Western source.

Frankenstein in Baghdad retells Mary Shelley’s classic tale in American-occupied Baghdad in the early years of this decade. The book originally came out in Arabic in 2013. Baghdad is a nightmare of opposing factions shooting it out while a corrupt Iraqi government propped up by the clueless Americans tries to keep it all together.

***Spoilers follow. If you don’t like spoilers, just go out and buy the novel. You’ll be glad you did.***

Hadi is a junk dealer who drinks too much and works too little, living in an abandoned house and telling wild tales at the local cafe to anyone who listens. On his rounds he comes across the wreckage of countless car bombings. While the emergency crews try to clean up as much as possible, they often miss small body parts. Hadi decides to take these home and sew them together, making a complete body that would be suitable for burial.

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Wargaming with my Twelve-Year-Old

Wargaming with my Twelve-Year-Old

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It may be turning into an annual tradition here at the McLachlan-Alonso household–beating the Madrid heat by playing tabletop wargames. I first introduced my son to the concept of wargames with Soldiers 1918, an old Strategy & Tactics game.

This summer it was Outpost Gamma, an old Dwarfstar Games science fiction wargame available free online. Just download it, take it to your local printshop to get the board and chits on suitable card stock, and bingo! Old school fun.

This is a simple game, perfect for a kid who hasn’t done many wargames. The rules are clear and straightforward, and the game is pretty fast moving. Game time took about an hour.

Earthers have placed mining colonies on a distant planet ravaged by electrical storms. The native species isn’t too happy about it and decides to kick the miners and the space marines out. What results is basically a colonial warfare game, with a few heavily armed soldiers trying to beat off a superior force of poorly armed natives.

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The Darwin Variant by Kenneth Johnson Is a Thrilling and Frightening No-Empathy Apocalypse

The Darwin Variant by Kenneth Johnson Is a Thrilling and Frightening No-Empathy Apocalypse

darwin-variant-coverLast year I had the opportunity to interview Kenneth Johnson, the famed television writer-producer-director responsible for The Incredible Hulk, V: The Original Miniseries, The Bionic Woman, and Alien Nation, about his upcoming novel, The Man of Legends. Mr. Johnson, or “Kenny” as he prefers to be called, is the interview subject most writers dream about: warm, humorous, intelligent, and overflowing with anecdotes showing the amount of thought he infuses into his work. This depth of thinking shows in The Man of Legends, a multi-character epic about an immortal man and the people he encounters in his long past and the urgent crisis of his present. It was, without a doubt, my favorite new novel of 2017.

Plenty of readers agreed with my opinion and made The Man of Legends a bestseller. Amazon’s 47North imprint immediately asked the author for a sequel. Although there was room for a follow-up, Johnson had shifted onto an idea that could use the same multi-narrator structure of The Man of Legends to tell a different type of epic — a viral outbreak tale with a twist that goes into territory similar to V: The Original Miniseries.

When Kenny called me to ask if I wanted to read the new book, The Darwin Variant, and talk to him about it, I couldn’t say “yes” fast enough. This time I had the good fortune to interview him in person at his Sherman Oaks office, where photos covering the walls recount his own “Man of Legends” history with everyone from Bill Bixby and Vincent Price to George Burns and Nikita Khrushchev. (Actually a taxi driver from NY who posed as Kruschev for The Mike Douglas Show, which Kenny was producing at the time.)

The Darwin Variant explores what occurs when members of humanity make a sudden evolutionary surge. Their intelligence rises rapidly, but something else fails: their empathy. These superior humans are aggressive, dominant, compassionless, and they’re threatening to remake the world. In the chilling words of a leader of the evolutionarily elevated group calling themselves The Friends of America (or just “The Friends”), “We’ll do good — exactly as we want it.”

It’s a timely and terrifying concept. Johnson weaves it into a tight science fiction thriller offering hope among the horror, and a fascinating duel between the ethos of the Survival of the Fittest and the evolution of humanity toward a better humanity, not merely a smarter one. “More intelligent? Yes, you are,” a character challenges one of the infected Friends. “But more educated? Not at all.” Reaching that education is the journey the book takes readers on.

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STRANGE! WEIRD! EERIE! The Odd, Unusual, and Uncanny Biography of Lionel Fanthorpe

STRANGE! WEIRD! EERIE! The Odd, Unusual, and Uncanny Biography of Lionel Fanthorpe

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Some writers agonize over every line. Some are prolific like Andre Norton. Others are hyperprolific like Isaac Asimov.

But Lionel Fanthorpe stands alone. He isn’t the most prolific author out there, having written “only” about 200 books, but he had the distinction of having written 168 books in less than a decade. Many he wrote in a week. Some he wrote over a three-day weekend.

This fervid output was the result of his association with Badger Books, a cheap-as-they-come UK publisher that emphasized quantity over quality. The publisher would commission the cover art first (or steal it from some old American paperback), send it to the author, and have them write a 45,000 word novel, usually with a deadline of one week.

Fanthorpe wrote 168 books for Badger between 1961 and 1967, dictating his tales into a reel-to-reel recorder and sending the tapes into the publisher’s typist. Often he’d stay up late into the night, covering his head with a blanket so he could concentrate. The results were overwritten, padded, and compellingly bad.

The only biography of Lionel Fanthorpe, Down the Badger Hole by Debbie Cross, has long been out of print but has now been revised, expanded, and released as a free ebook on the TAFF website.

And what a book it is! Cross gives us generous helpings of Fanthorpe’s prose, including masterful examples of padding through repetition.

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Plants as Protagonists: An Interview with Semiosis author Sue Burke

Plants as Protagonists: An Interview with Semiosis author Sue Burke

Semiosis Sue Burke-smallThe science fiction world has been abuzz with the release of the novel Semiosis by Sue Burke. Known for her short stories in publications such as Interzone and Asimov’s, this Clarion alumnus is now making waves with her debut novel, out from Tor this month. James Patrick Kelly said it’s “a first contact novel like none you’ve ever read… The kind of story for which science fiction was invented.” David Brin wrote, “In Semiosis, Sue Burke blends science with adventure and fascinating characters, as a human colony desperately seeks to join the ecosystem of an alien world.”

Those recommendations would be enough for me to buy a copy if I hadn’t already read it several years ago. Sue and I used to be in the Madrid Writer’s Critique Group here in Spain before she moved back to Chicago. The early draft I read fascinated me with its tale of human colonists settling on a planet only to find that is already inhabited by intelligent life… plant life. I caught up with Sue to talk with her about her new publication.

What was the seed of an idea that grew into a giant, sentient plant?

Seed… I see what you did there.

It started back in the mid-1990s when a couple of my houseplants attacked other houseplants. One vine wrapped around a neighbor, and another vine tried to sink roots into another plant. I began researching botany and discovered that plants are active, aggressive, and fight to the death for sunlight. They have weapons and cunning strategies, both offensive and defensive.

For example, strangler figs (several varieties of Ficus) start as seedlings germinating up on tree branches and trunks in jungles, and as they grow, their roots wrap around the host tree and eventually strangle and kill it. The fig starts halfway up to sunshine, which is an advantage. But how do the seeds get up there? Birds eat fig fruit, and the seeds have a gluey covering that sticks to a bird’s feathers when it defecates. The bird wipes off its vent on tree branches and trunks, where the seeds adhere and germinate.

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Egyptian Dystopian Fiction: The Queue by Basma Abdel Aziz

Egyptian Dystopian Fiction: The Queue by Basma Abdel Aziz

the_queue_basma_abdel_aziz-smallSince the Arab Spring, there has been an upsurge in dystopian fiction coming out of the Middle East. The dashed hopes of that widespread popular uprising have found their expression in pessimistic novels such as Otared, (reviewed in an earlier post) and several other notable works of fiction.

One of the most lauded in the West is The Queue by Basma Abdel Aziz, an Egyptian writer and social activist.

In The Queue, we are transported to a strange near future where the civilian government has been taken over by a faceless entity called the Gate. The Gate issues a series of edicts that become ever more baffling and hard to obey. Companies are forced to changed what they produce, individuals need to get signed forms for even the most mundane matters, and little by little the Gate forces its way into every aspect of the city’s life.

The people rebel, in what the Gate refers to as the Disgraceful Events, which are suppressed with predictable police brutality. One of the casualties is a young man named Yehya, who is shot by a police officer. Yehya needs a form signed in order to have the bullet removed, but the Gate closes right after the Disgraceful Events.

As Yehya languishes, the Gate issues a continuous torrent of edicts, prompting more and more citizens to line up in front of the Gate hoping to get their forms filled out. The line soon stretches for miles, developing its own economy and culture. Street preachers rail against the citizens for their lack of faith in the Gate, shopkeepers try to make a living selling tea and snacks to the other people in line, and salesmen give away free mobile phones that are bugged.

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The 4th International Science Fiction Conference, Chengdu, China, November 2017

The 4th International Science Fiction Conference, Chengdu, China, November 2017

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I’ve been cataloguing some of my Paddington-the-Bear adventures in 2017. This year was the first time I went to New York (see A Babe in the Woods: Derek’s Literary Adventures, and Questing in New York! NYCC 2017). I had some other secret adventures this fall that I haven’t blogged about, but recently I had a bigger adventure!

For the first time ever, I was invited to a literary conference to be an Author Guest of Honor. It was the 4th International Science Fiction Conference in Chengdu, Sichuan, China. It was sponsored by SFWorld, a Chinese magazine and book publisher, with media and tech giant Tencent as one of the sponsors. I was one of about a dozen foreign authors and editors in attendance. Here’s a shot of some of the billboards outside the event.

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Black Gate Interviews Egyptian Science Fiction Author Mohammad Rabie

Black Gate Interviews Egyptian Science Fiction Author Mohammad Rabie

51JYgQ68kPL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_One pleasant stop on my recent trip to Cairo was the American University’s bookshop near Tahrir Square. It’s a treasure trove of books on Egyptology and Egyptian fiction in translation. Among the titles I picked up was the dystopian novel Otared by Mohammad Rabie.

This novel, originally published in Arabic in 2014 and published in English in 2016 by Hoopoe, the fiction imprint of the American University of Cairo, is a grim dystopian tale of Cairo in 2025.

After several botched revolutions in which the people repeatedly fail to effect real social and political change, Egypt is invaded by a foreign power. The army crumples, most of the police collude with the occupiers, and the general public doesn’t seem to care. A small rebel group decides to take back their nation, and one of its agents is former police officer turned sniper, Otared. The rebels basically become terrorists, deciding the only way to get the people to rise up is to make life under the occupation intolerable, which means killing as many innocent civilians as possible.

The world Rabie paints reminds me very much of the insane landscape in Paul Auster’s In the Country of Last Things, with its violence, its cruelty, and its bizarre customs (in Otared almost everyone wears a mask) that begin to make sense once you learn more about the world. Throw in a nightmarish disease that affects only children, plus a national death wish, and you have a grim but compelling read. No science fiction novel has gut punched me this hard for a long, long time.

Mohammad Rabie is an emerging force in Egyptian letters. Born in 1978, he graduated from the Faculty of Engineering in 2002. His first novel, Amber Planet, was released in 2010 and won first prize in the Emerging Writers category of the Sawiris Cultural Award Competition in 2011. His second novel, Year of the Dragon, came out in 2012. Otared was shortlisted for the International Prize for Arabic Fiction in 2016 (popularly referred to as the Arabic Booker). Curious to learn more, I sat down with Rabie (OK, I shot him an email) to speak with him about his writing.

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