Category Archives: General Stuff

Backwards Compatible – Part 7: Double Vision

[Note: It’s been almost two years since the last installment of this series. Since there’s been something of a resurgence of The Backwards Mask lately, I think it deserves a continuation. This series was meant to inform folks of the odd experience of writing my first novel, and this part explains some of the confusion surrounding it.]

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Fun Fact: Foreigner’s hit “Urgent” was an oft-repeated song on my writing playlist for this book.

To recap, I found myself with the opportunity to complete a trilogy that had been started by another author, Paul Brunette. This new book had to pull double duty as both the conclusion of a trilogy, wrapping up the loose ends set up in the first two books, as well as a standalone novel since years had passed since the previous volume in the series.

I finally had the dark counterpart for to challenge my antagonist, and the stage was set for a final showdown between the two them. Development of the manuscript continued as I finally began to find traction with each character. Many of them were inherited from the previous books, so it took a while for them to really speak to me, and for me to make them my own. Everything just sort of clicked.

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Full speed ahead, Colonel Sanders!

 

Some of the most intense writing sessions I’ve ever had occurred during this time. Understand, I’m a pretty slow writer. Maybe not GRRM slow, but I’m lucky to write 500-750 words in an hour when I’m really on it. Once during this time, I wrote more than 13,000 words, with minimal errors, in a session lasting only a little more than three hours. That goes to show how dialed in I was to the character and the stories.

It was so strong…(How strong was it?)

It was so strong…that a character I fully intended to kill off in an escape attempt utterly defied me. I tried several ways to kill this character and nothing worked. She survived until the end of the story. (I’ll leave you guessing which one it was.)

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A life of its own, indeed.

At this point, the manuscript was about 80% done, and it was pretty long already. Still, everything was coming together. I knew what needed to happen. Now I just needed to get it down on paper. And that’s when it happened…

Paul Brunette’s version of The Backwards Mask surfaced online, on a fan fiction site. Neither I nor Marc Miller had any clue that it existed. As far as we knew, it had been discussed before Game Designer’s Workshop closed its doors in the ’90s, but never written.

But there it was, staring us in the face. Worse, (for me, at least) it was complete. Suddenly all the work I had put into the project seemed in jeopardy. I was an outsider to the series, and my book wasn’t finished. Here was a manuscript, by the original author, that was done and ready to go. Further, I was afraid that fans of Traveller or the first two Brunette novels would see his version as the ‘real’ version, and mine as some sort of weird exercise in fan fiction, or relegated to ‘rogue’ status. You know, like Never Say Never Again, the Bond film that doesn’t ‘count.’

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Not exactly what I had mind…

Thankfully, Marc Miller didn’t kick me to the curb. Instead, he made the decision to make both versions of The Backwards Mask available to the public. So you see, that is why there are two versions of the book floating around out there.

Naturally, this has led some to ask me: Did you take any cues or inspiration from the Brunette version? The answer is simple – no.

I made it a point not to read any of the other version until months after I had already turned my finished manuscript into Marc Miller. Even then, I got a few chapters in before I decided to read no more. To this day, I’ve never read it to completion. Not because it’s bad, but because it is uniquely weird to me as a reader.

It took me about three years to write The Backwards Mask. If you’ve read this blog series from the beginning you can see that there were many obstacles I had to overcome as far as finding a direction, guessing at the previous author’s intent, and generally trying to deliver the best book I could. After all that, reading the other version was like looking into some Twilight Zone/alternate timeline where I hadn’t put in hours upon hours exploring the mindset of the characters, plotting out action sequences, or rewriting whole tracks of dialogue.

I never realized how much ownership I had put into my manuscript until I began reading someone else’s take on the material. It’s a kind of weirdness that only affects me, but I just couldn’t read it. I still can’t. Even though I didn’t create Coeur, Dropkick, Crowbar, and Deep Six, I still feel the connection I forged with them years ago. Writing the final lines of the last chapter was bittersweet. Coeur’s frame of mind closely mirrored mine as the story came to a close.

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“Then again, all good things must come to an end.”

So now there were two versions of The Backwards Mask slated for release, and we were on the countdown to launch. And next time, we’ll talk about my scramble to get everything ready for publication.

[Check out The Backwards Mask on Kindle.]


State of the Sector Address: 2017

My Fellow Sectorians,

Welcome to my first ever ‘State of the Sector’ address, where I share with you all the stuff going on at Sector M for the coming year. So without further ado, here’s what’s going on in 2017!

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First, all the stuff for you guys:

Sector M Fan Group: A longtime fan created a Facebook discussion group for fellow fans of my various geeky endeavors. It’s my hope to build a community over there where Sectorians can gather together to chat, get know one another, and share passions for fandom and geekiness, in general. If you want to join, just friend this guy (don’t worry, it’s just a proxy account), and you’ll be added to the group posthaste.

Website Revamp: I’m in the midst of a revamp of the Sector M website. This will include migrating all of the ‘merch table’ to the website proper. I also want to expand the available merch options out there. This one has a lot of moving parts, so I will announce more as things progress.

Goodreads: I’m on Goodreads.com now! I’ll try my best to keep you guys up-to-date on what I’m reading. Also, The Backwards Mask is on there, with a fair amount of ratings. If you’ve read my book, I urge you go over there and give it a rating and/or a review. Also, feel free to ‘friend’ me on there.

Now all of my author-y stuff:

Finish My Current Novel, Start The Next One: I’m about 70% of the way through the initial draft of my current novel. My goal is to have the draft completed by June 1st of this year (my birthday, as it happens). I’ll do edits and rewrites over the summer to hopefully have a presentable draft by Labor Day. Chances are, I’ll begin my next novel around that time as well. I’ve enjoyed my foray into fantasy, but my next book will be a return to science fiction.

Short Story Anthology: I’m collecting a number of my short fiction pieces into an anthology that I’m tentatively calling, Strange Reports from Sector M. More on this as it develops, but I hope to release this in July or August.

Blog Posts: In 2016 I was pretty inconsistent about when I released blog posts. I want to be more reliable about it, so my plan is to release at least one a month on the third Friday of each the month. There could well be more than that, but at least one per month. Mark your calendars.

Writing T-Shirts: This started this off as a sort of geeky in-joke on Instagram, but it seems to have caught on. I will be continuing this bit in 2017, though intermittently. While I own many, many geeky T-shirts, I did burn through quite a few of them this past year, so it won’t be every Sunday. But I will try to do it as often as I’m able. If you have a suggestion for a writing shirt, feel free to post it on Facebook, send me a tweet, or email me at: TheSectorM@gmail.com. I’ll be sure to give you a shout-out if I wind up picking one that you suggest.

How you can help:

If you’d like to support Sector M in its ongoing geekiness, you can follow me on any of these platforms:

Facebook

Twitter and Instagram: @TheSectorM

The Sector M Blog 

My YouTube Channel

You can also download my novel, The Backwards Mask, from Amazon and Barnes&Noble.com. If you do, please make sure to leave a review. And if you’ve read it already, please (pretty please with a cherry on top) leave a review. That is the best thing you can do to help me as an author.

 

I can’t thank you guys enough for your continued support! Full speed ahead for 2017!


Fanboy Review #6 – Rogue One: A Star Wars Story

Before I get into the particulars of the movie, I wanted to say a few words about Carrie Fisher. Like so many, I was shocked to hear of her passing. First there was the news of her heart attack, then her death, AND THEN her mother’s death. I can only imagine what the family is going through right now, and my heart goes out to them.

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To me, she’s royalty.

Of course, growing up with Star Wars I had a huge crush on Princess Leia. Yeah, I know what you’re thinking, and it actually wasn’t her slave-girl outfit that did it for me. The moment that I think I truly fell in love with Princess Leia is when she removed her helmet after thawing Han out of the carbonite. “Someone who loves you,” she said, and there were anime-style hearts in my eyes. And if that didn’t really drive it home, the moment when she turns the tables on Han on Endor, stealing his own line of “I know” just before she zaps a Stormtrooper cemented in my mind that she was no wilting daisy. True, she was the damsel in distress in Episode IV, but her sass and overall attitude showed us that she was anything but the standard-issue screen heroine of the day. Bear in mind that is was 1977, a time when the changing role of women in fiction, particularly science fiction, wasn’t even a conversation we were having as a society.

But fan worship aside, I respected Carrie Fisher for her abilities as a writer, and for her outspoken stances on mental health and substance abuse. Unfortunately (for me, at least), in all the sci-fi conventions and events that I’ve attended over the years, I never had the privilege of meeting her. From what I hear, she was quite a lady. And though Leia Organa may be the role she is remembered for the most, I appreciate the real person who brought her to life, and the lasting impact her work has had on the world. Rest in peace, Carrie Fisher.

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Now, to the review. Roll the standard spoiler warning:

[Note: I do not consider myself a movie critic. What follows is just one fanboy’s opinion based off of a single viewing of the film. Oh, and there are SPOILERS ahead, so take heed.]

The first of what could be an endless series of standalone Star Wars movies, Rogue One: A Star Wars Story hit theatres a couple of weeks ago. In that time, it’s made over $650 million worldwide. With the original extended universe cannon gone, Rogue One steps up to fill the gap of how the Rebel Alliance got its hands on the Death Star plans. With a new cast of characters, we embark upon the first of the non-episodic Star War stories.

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The ‘One’ and only. Trust me.

First Impressions:  Despite my damaged-but-still-intact love of the franchise, I wasn’t looking forward to this movie. It felt unnecessary, like an obvious attempt by Disney to milk their purchase of its revenue potential. The trailers didn’t do much to change that idea. Still, it is a return to the era of Star Wars that I love the best, so it’s not like I wasn’t going to see it. (Let’s be real here.) I liked but didn’t love The Force Awakens, so let’s see how it goes.

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LIKE. A. BOSS!

What I Liked:

DARTH FRIGGIN’ VADER! I thought he really was going to be a minor cameo in the movie, but Great Scott…that end corridor scene. Why do people fear Darth Vader? This is why. Plus, it also seems to give us an answer to why Vader is so angry when he first boards the Tantive IV. He’s calm and collected the rest of the time, but I now see why he wants to ‘tear the ship apart’ when he finally catches up to it.

– The Battle of Scarif. If you’ve read my sci-fi, you know I’m a sucker for a ground battle going on while a gigantic space battle rages overhead. We got that in Return of the Jedi, and the climactic battle sequence here is pretty much everything I could have hoped for, and more.  This definitely puts the ‘wars’ back in ‘Star Wars.’

– Perhaps a better name for the movie should be ‘Suicide Squad.’  The movie pulls no punches. I had thought that perhaps our band of misfits might be return for a sequel, but that will not be the case. One of the problems with an epic story like Star Wars is that the death of a major character will be rare. For a one-time cast, each of our intrepid heroes steps up, does their job, and goes down like a boss. When the bill came due for Imwe and Malbus, I genuinely teared up. I am one with the force, and the force is with me. I am one with the force, and the force is with me.

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– Seeing Biggs and the Red and Yellow squadron leaders back in action through unused footage from Star Wars. Now we know why there was a vacancy for Luke in the form of Red-5, and why there was no Blue Squadron attacking the Death Star around Yavin. Plus, seeing some minor characters like General Jan Dodonna  and Mon Mothma recast so that they can still be a part of story was cool as well. And that leads me to my next point…

– CGI Characters. This is perhaps my most divisive opinion on the film. Bringing characters back to life was handled pretty well and with respect, I thought. When I first saw Governor Tarkin, I thought he would be a brief cameo. Nope. He plays more of a part in the story than I would have thought. While we’re not quite there yet with the technology, we’re still better than we were with Jeff Bridges in Tron: Legacy. I do wish the voice actor for some of Tarkin’s lines had stayed more with Cushing’s sharp British delivery, but that we got as much as we did was great. CGI Leia was a bit less impressive, but hearing Carrie Fisher say “Hope” was moving, especially now.

– The Score. John Williams didn’t do the soundtrack for this movie, but Michael Giacchino does a pretty good job at capturing Williams’ trademark Star Wars style. I do wish the main theme had been used a bit more, though. It’s not just for Luke!

– Expansion of the New Lore. From the Guardians of the Whills, to reaffirming Kyber crystals while establishing that this is what powered the Death Star’s planet killer, this story does a lot to fill in the gaps of the continuity, particularly since the old lore is dead, dead, dead.

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Cool shot. Too bad it’s ‘Sir-Not-Appearing-In-This-Film.’

What I Didn’t Like:

– The TRAILER. Part of the reason I wasn’t excited about the movie was because of the trailers leading up to it. It felt like one big warning that Jyn might somehow betray the Rebellion and join the Empire, that she should remain true to herself no matter what came her way. Well, almost none of the footage or lines from the movie trailer made it into the final movie. Jyn’s dramatic turn in an Imperial uniform while the lights in the corridor go up? Nope. Any hint of her joining the Empire? Nope. Cassian and Jyn on the beach fighting AT-ATs? Nope. Vader talking with Krennic on the Death Star? Nope. Jyn’s whimsical line of “It’s a rebellion. I rebelled”? Nowhere to be found. I understand that footage can be cut different ways to dramatically change its meaning, but the footage they used is not even in the movie. Not just a scene here or there, but a sizeable chunks of what was shown just isn’t there. It’s too bad, because I enjoyed the movie that I got a whole lot more than the movie the trailer previewed.

– No Title Crawl. Yeah, I know that it’s not part of the trilogies, but I still missed it. The slow scroll of words while the Star Wars theme blasts is an essential part of getting me hyped for what’s to come. It wasn’t there at all, and its absence was ringing.

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Yaaaaas!

– The Names. Aside from Krennic, Jyn and Galen, I had a hard time remembering the names of the characters. Maybe it’s just how long the Star Wars universe has been around, and the memes that go with it, but the names sort of went in one ear and out the other. They also didn’t seem to use them in dialogue very much, so that part made it even harder to catch them. If you don’t know a character’s name, I think it’s a little harder to sink your teeth into them, figuratively speaking.

– The Beginning of the Film. It felt slow and overly complicated. To be fair, there were a bunch of characters to introduce, but it seemed like a lot of explaining on a theme that we likely already know going in. We get to Jedha and things pick up, and then sort of fades again at Eadu. Scarif is pure joy and awesome, however.

– This is kind of a weird one, but important to me nonetheless: I know that having the Rebellion do shady and horrible stuff is a way to make it more realistic, but I like the clear dichotomy between the good guys and bad guys in this franchise. I generally prefer more morally ambiguous stories…just not in Star Wars. It’s for all the same reasons why the ‘Section 31’ episodes of Star Trek: Deep Space 9 don’t work for me. Yeah, that’s great for another sci-fi property, but keep it out of this one.

– A Nerdy Nitpick: I realize that Diego Luna was using his normal speaking voice in his portrayal of Cassian Andor. While he is from Mexico, his accent came off as French (which struck me as on-the-nose considering he’s in the resistance against a jack-booted fascist regime). We’ve never had much variance of accents in Star Wars, just the occasional British accent, so that was a little distracting from his performance.

– A REALLY Nerdy Nitpick: Galen’s farm at the beginning bears a striking resemblance to Uncle Owen’s farm on Tattooine. The equipment, the interiors, even the layout all have a similar look. The thing is, Uncle Owen wasn’t into growing crops — he was a moisture farmer. Tatooine has so little moisture that a whole industry had to spring up around coaxing moisture from the air and turning it into usable drinking water. The planet Lah’mu, however, is wet. Really wet. So wet that Krennic walks through a puddle to get to it and it’s sprinkling while they are talking. So what kind of farming was Galen doing?

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Questions you have. Resolution to them we have not.

Unresolved Questions:

If anything, Rogue One does a pretty good job of tying up loose ends, especially with its rather Shakespearean ending. If Galen thought that the Empire would never find the hidden weakness he installed, why was it found so easily in A New Hope, leading to Tarkin’s “moment of triumph” speech? Also, why would Leia even pretend to be on an ambassadorial mission when it was clear that she had just been at Scarif? Vader would be like, “Dude, I saw you take off from that Mon Calamari ship like 30 minutes ago.” Deny it to the end, I guess. And would Leia be surprised that Darth Vader was on her tail when she says, “Only you would be so bold.” Or was that, again, for some sort of deniability?

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So what’s your point, Matt?

Conclusions:  I realize that it might be hard to know whether or not I liked this film based on what I stated above. I like this movie, I really, really do. Rogue One: A Star Wars Story was far better than any one-off film had any right to be. Believe it or not, it reignited my love for the franchise far more than did last year’s The Force Awakens. While I still worry that the anthology stories may overstay their welcome in the future, this was a welcome addition to the Star Wars universe, and a pleasant surprise to this very jaded and cautious fan.

And that’s the way this fanboy sees it.


Garden of the Gods: An Interview with Author Stephen J. Stirling

I recently had the pleasure of speaking with Stephen J. Stirling about his latest novel, Garden of the Gods. I was lucky enough to read it early and found it to be an concise and poignant thriller. I highly recommend it for anyone who likes what I call ‘introspective action.’ That is, the kind of book that is action-packed, but keeps you pondering its message and themes for days afterward.

This is something of a first on this blog, but it has given me the idea on having other authors on to talk about their work. For now, though, let’s talk to the man himself about Garden of the Gods!

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Hello, Stephen. We’re so glad to have you on Sector M! I always appreciate the opportunity to speak with another author about their methods and body of work. So, if you’re ready, let’s dive right in, shall we?

Thank you for having me! I always enjoy my chats with the leadership of Sector M and our glimpses into the future.

Let’s talk about your latest book, Garden of the Gods. Without giving too much away for readers, what can you tell us about the story and your influences for it?

The story itself revolves around a Native American tribe in the northeast Arizona desert. But Garden is largely a statement about worship—any worship—how it enriches our lives and what belief for each of us is really all about. The fact that we live in an age that needs religion so badly was the driving force behind writing this story.

I remember that Alan Moore used to say that the plot of a story is wholly different from what it’s about, meaning the themes, allegory, morals, and all that good stuff. So, what is Garden of the Gods about?

Well, Garden of the Gods is about Native Americans, their rich heritage, their connection with the past, and their hope for the future. . . (and it is also about monsters). But to call it a simple action/adventure would do the story a disservice. The story’s subplot proves that every resolution within this book was motivated by faith, or the lack of it.

The book is a period piece, in more than one sense of the term. What kind of research and preparation did you do about the time period, the various species you include, and native tribes when writing it?

The American southwest is a treasure of unique people and, as of yet, not wholly discovered zoological life. It is a human and animal ecosystem in constant flux, breathing and pulsating with the drama of life. Writing is a funny thing. You begin researching one topic, and end up somewhere entirely different. The Native American people against the backdrop of wartime America was where I tried to focus my research—I wanted to do them and their heritage justice.

When you are writing a book, what is your method? Are you more of a ‘planner,’ who outlines everything in great detail ahead of time, or are you more of a ‘gardener,’ who throws characters into a situation and lets it develop organically without preconceived notions of the outcome? Where you do you fall in that continuum, do you think?

This question is very important, and my answer is—yes. You think you’re one kind of writer who has all the characters lined up and ready to do what they’re told, and suddenly they turn on you. They come out fighting and you’re left to clean up their messes. I guess you could say I fall somewhere in between the two methods.

Let’s talk about your main character, Matt Hayden. He strikes me as being cut from the same cloth as many two-fisted pulp-era adventurers, like Allan Quartermaine and Indiana Jones, and perhaps even a hint of Cussler’s Dirk Pitt. What were your influences and thoughts when creating your leading man?

Hayden is a hero cut from whole cloth, at the same time with a huge wrinkle broadening him into a sympathetic strength that is instantly likable. I did craft him between literature’s Allan Quartermaine and living legend Bring Em’ Back Alive Frank Buck, and yet the combination makes him unique among American characters.

And what about the secondary and/or support characters? What were their roles when placing them into the overall ensemble?

Read the book carefully and you’ll discover that every character has a religious angle. Every character worships something. Every character (even “non-believers”) believes in something. Every character has to fight for something, and every character has to abandon something in the process.

The Nyah Gwaheh, the armored bear, has a very complex role in the story. In some ways it serves as the primary antagonist, but it’s clear that it has a deeper, more symbolic role to play within the narrative. What sort of metaphor does it represent?

The Nyah Gwaheh is a living parable of religious value and the things that we worship, whether we know it or not. He is the driving force of the book.

Any chance or thoughts on a sequel? No pressure…

Oh good, because I don’t see a sequel in the future. I think I’ll leave the characters to their own devices for a while.

This last question is pretty free-form. What would you like the readers out there to know about your book? Anything you like. Here, I’ll hand you the proverbial megaphone.

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Well thank you! I’ve never used a proverbial megaphone before. I’d like to leave you by saying I hope others will find as much joy in reading this book as I found in writing it; and if they find an introspective moment—or two—to contemplate their own spirituality I will have accomplished even more.

Thank you for taking time out of your schedule to chat, Stephen! It’s been a rare pleasure.

The pleasure is mine! Thank you for your interest in my project and your insightful questions. Talking with you has been a rare treat.

Take care now, and don’t be a stranger!

 

There you have it, folks – right from the source himself. Garden of the Gods is on bookshelves now at Deseret Book stores. It’s also available in print or digital format on Amazon and Barnes & Noble.com.

CHECK. IT. OUT.


My (Most Recent) Trip to the National Museum of the Pacific War

Down in the south Texas hill country, situated between vast open green fields and numerous vineyards, sits the picturesque town of Fredricksburg. Many of the buildings are built of white stone flecked with streaks of orange. The people are friendly, and the whole place just has a good vibe to it, with rows of antique shops, restaurants, and boutiques along the main strip. If you’re ever in the area, I highly recommend stopping over there.

Fredricksburg also has the distinction of being the hometown of Fleet Admiral Chester Nimitz, the Commander-in-Chief of the Pacific Fleet during World War II. In fact, there’s a large bronze statue of him right next to the old hotel where he grew up, which is now the Nimitz Museum. Just look for the distinctive ‘steamboat’ structure off the main street – you can’t miss it.

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The man himself.

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The Old Nimitz Hotel (Now the Admiral Nimitz Museum).

If you circle that block, you’ll also find that the town is home to the National Museum of the Pacific War. The place is enormous. It contains hundreds of displays and exhibits, models of ships, uniforms, presentations, and mini-featurettes. It starts with the roots of the conflict between China and Japan, and then takes you all the way through the Pacific War, from Pearl Harbor to the U.S.S. Missouri . Every major engagement and landing is covered here, and in pretty extensive depth. If you tried to read every panel and display, it would take you days to get through it all. Believe me, I’ve tried.

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Just around the corner.

Full disclosure: This latest outing to the museum is my fourth trip there. Each time I go, something new resonates with me. The last time I went was when my son was two. The thing that moved me the most then was the famous “Bloody Saturday” photo of a baby crying amid the ruins of a bombed out train station in Shanghai. It’s still a powerful photo, and indeed the entire museum is a moving experience. It’s hard to look at the dizzying scope of the conflict, along with the countless examples of courage and valor, and the loss of so many lives, and not feel something.

Case and point:  Just after the presentation about Pearl Harbor, there is a little alcove that contains a rusty metal hatch. There is a noticeable black stain across the middle of it. Above those black lines is an egg-shaped hole cut into the metal.

At first, it might seem an odd artifact – that is until you realize that it is a hatch from U.S.S. Arizona. The black line is where the oil floated at the waterline. The hole was cut by Navy divers to see if there were any survivors in the compartment. Powerful stuff. Just seeing it is enough to make me tear up.

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Every. Time.

We see it all in black-and-white photos and newsreels, but the time that has passed disconnects us from it. This one piece of rusted metal has a way of bringing me back to one of the darkest days in U.S. naval history.

I hasten to add that, though the museum does present the war from the USA’s point of view, it does not balk at showing the devastation and loss that Japan endured. There’s always the temptation to downplay that aspect of the war, but the museum does not. When a warship went down in the Pacific, several hundred people died, regardless of which flag it was flying, hundreds or thousands at a time.

Horrific.

In fact, on this trip the image that struck me the most was a photo of two dead Japanese soldiers washed up on the shore Guadalcanal. Both were half-buried in the tide, and looked painfully young. I can’t imagine they were older than 18 or 19. I won’t display it here, but you can find it easily enough on Google.

Now I’m not trying to diminish the impact of those photos of dead American soldiers, such as those taken from the Bataan Death March, just simply reflecting that wars have a cost on both sides. Every one of those boys that didn’t go home left a hole in someone’s life. A mother, a father, wife, son, daughter – you name it. You don’t have to go much farther than the exhibit about the five Sullivan brothers aboard the U.S.S. Juneau to see what I mean.

But, as an anodyne to these feelings of loss and pain, there is one other feature of the grounds that is a ‘must see’ as far as I’m concerned. Just behind the Nimitz museum, there is a Japanese peace garden, a gift to from a group of retired Japanese admirals.

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May peace endure.

It is absolutely stunning. There’s a koi pond, with a flowing water course that winds around the periphery to a replica of Admiral Togo’s study. In the middle of the garden there is a zen garden made of raked white stone. It’s…pretty sublime standing there, a place of tranquility and introspection.

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Profound.

If you’re ever at the museum and things get just a little too intense, stepping into the garden is a good way to reaffirm the beauty that people can create, even between those who were former enemies. I always like to end a tour of the museum with a stop here. Just my personal preference. It’s the cleansing breath that brings you back to center.

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Beautiful. Absolutely beautiful.

Again, if you’re ever in the area, I can’t say enough good things about Fredericksburg and the Pacific War Museum.  I hope that you find it as illuminating, emotional, and powerful as I have.

But don’t take my word for it…


Life, Death, and Avatar: The Last Airbender

I’m late to the party on Avatar: The Last Airbender, as in a full decade late. I finally finished the series. (To be clear, this is the animated series, and not the M. Night Shyamalan movie.) Riding high on the incredible culmination of that storyline, I immediately started up The Legend of Korra.

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But I believe Aang can save the world…*cues the music*

Something struck me as I got into the next series: When we last see Aang in the show, he is thirteen, just barely a teenager. In the intro to Korra, we learn that Aang has died.  That’s certainly no surprise; both Korra and Avatar are predicated on the idea that when the Avatar dies, that he or she is immediately reincarnated into the next life. We knew that’s part of it when we were following the adventures of Aang, since he was preceded by Avatar Roku.

But with Korra, it’s a little different. Aang is already dead when she comes along, and if you dig into the lore, he died at the relatively young biological age of sixty-six. Bear in mind that this is in a setting where some characters live to be well over a hundred. Avatar Kyoshi lived to be well over two hundred.

Why does this matter? Well, we don’t normally follow a protagonist to the grave if they live to the end of the story. There are exceptions, of course, but think about it like this: Do we know how Captain Malcolm Reynolds dies? Or Scotty? Or James Bond? Or Luke Skywalker? (I’m really hoping the new Star Wars movies don’t inform me of that last one.)

Even if we know on an intellectual level that these characters don’t live forever, there’s a certain kind of immortality that we grant them if they just ride off into the sunset, or if they’re lucky enough to get a ‘happily ever after’ ending.

Avatar doesn’t play that way. Characters are born, they live their life, and then they die. We don’t get the standard fictional insulation from the real-world cycle of life and death.  And should there be another series set after Korra, we’ll have to resolve her death as well.

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This blog post has a soundtrack. Just click here.

But there is a certain honesty in that idea that I find both sad and refreshing (which is also one of the rejected slogans for New Coke, BTW). We all like to think of the time in which we live as ‘the’ time, rather than just a single point on a very large timeline. Thousands of generations have come before us, and (we can hope) thousands of generations will come after us. We have our time in the sun, and then the sun sets.

I’m not saying anything we don’t already know, and neither am I trying to bum anyone out. Quite the opposite, in fact. So where am I going with this? Well, there’s a short sidebar first.

Story time: So, a few weeks, I was coming home from a dinner with a bunch of friends. I was alone and on a stretch of highway with very few cars around, none of them close to me. In less than a second, that changed. A car zoomed in from behind at close to a hundred miles an hour. The headlights went from being a distant sparkle to nearly on my rear bumper in less time than it takes for you to read this sentence. The driver turned right to avoid me, but in that moment it didn’t look like he would make it. I swerved left and almost hit his buddy who was in my blind spot. Somehow we avoided hitting each other, though I still don’t know how. Had he hit me, it I almost certainly wouldn’t be writing this blog post.

The worst part was not that sudden bolt of sick terror that went through me, but that both of the cars in question kept on going, weaving in out of the traffic ahead of me. They were racing. RACING! I might have lost my life due to someone else’s poor judgement, a causality of nothing more than an automotive pissing contest.

Yeesh.

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Included for no other reason than because the art is AWESOME!

I’ve had some close calls in the past.  One nearly got me at age nineteen, but I’ve never had one quite like this before. The whole thing had me rattled for a while. It still rears its ugly head from time to time, the what-ifs and what-could-have-beens. Those suck, especially now that I have a family of my own.

But, if anything, this experience has shocked me out of the weird funk I didn’t even realize I was in. Knowing that my life almost ended has made things more vibrant, more beautiful. I feel a deeper empathy to others now, and I am more motivated to be better than I was before. I know it’s trite, I know it’s cliché, but it’s no less true.  In that sense, maybe the upfront candor of Avatar and Korra came into my life at precisely the right time.

Look, we all face down our own mortality at some point in our lives. 2016 has been the year for realizing that death comes for everyone, even Alan Rickman and David Bowie. Sure, we know that already on some level, but it’s a lesson we have to keep relearning during our lifetime.

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For it is the doom of men that they forget.

Ultimately, what I’m trying to say is that we have a limited time on this Earth, no matter how long we live. It’s not always feasible to live life like there’s no tomorrow (we still have to pay our bills, mortgage, whatever), so let’s do this instead: Enjoy your time in the sun. Live a lot and love a lot.

Be someone’s hero.

Go save the world.

It’s what Aang and Korra would do.

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My Love/Hate Relationship with Transformers: The Movie

In honor of the 30th anniversary of Transformers: The Movie, which premiered in U.S. theatres in August of 1986, I thought I would comment on what was simultaneously one of the fanboy landmarks of my childhood AND perhaps the movie that scarred me the most as a kid. No really, the emotional scar tissue is still there. First world problems, yeah?

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I mean, what’s the worst that could happen?

If you’ve been with me on this blog for any length of time, you know that I love Gen 1 Transformers. It is both my favorite toy line of all time as well as my favorite ‘80s cartoon. Of course, the cynical adult side of me sees the cartoon for what it was: a half-hour commercial designed to sell more toys. But there’s also the kid in me that remembers when I could come home from school to be greeted by Prime, Bumblebee, Jazz, Hound, Prowl, and the irascible Ironhide. They were friends of mine, and in my mind’s eye I rode shotgun with them through a hundred adventures.

I remember well when I first saw the teasers for Transformers: The Movie. It looked incredible, with some of the slickest animation Sunbow has ever produced. “Two years in the making,” the TV spots proclaimed, “an incredible adventure and spectacular wide-screen animation with an original story that will shock and surprise you!”

Boy, did they have that right.

Before we get to the crying-so-hard-I-had-to-be-taken-out-of-the-theatre part, there are some things I genuinely love about this movie. Let me spell those out first.

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I may or may not have a replica of this sitting on my writing desk.

1.) The Lore – In the comics, the Matrix of Leadership was just a computer program in Prime’s head. The movie is where we first see the iconic, semi-mystical talisman, and find that the one who carries it is the anointed Prime, AND that it has a will and power of its own. Throw on top of that the Universal Greeting (say it with me: Bah-weep-grah-na-weep-ninni-bong), Unicron the Chaosbringer, Autobot City, and the saying ‘Till All Are One! We meet the Quintessons for the first time, along with the Junkions and the ill-fated Lithonians. The Transformers universe expanded well out of its TV cartoon roots with this movie.

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Yeaaaaaaaaaaaaah!!!

2.) The Soundtrack/ScoreYou got the Touch! You got the Pow-wwwwer! Yeaaah! From the mindblowing hard-rock reimagining of the main theme by Lion, to both of Stan Bush’s classic TF anthems (The Touch and Dare), this soundtrack is great throughout every track. At times it almost gives the movie a kind of Heavy Metal feel to it. That’s Heavy Metal in a ‘one-way ticket to midnight’ kind of way with rock paired with animation. There’s also Nothin’s Gonna Stand in Our Way, Hunger, and Instrument of Destruction. And did I mention that Weird Al Yankovic has a spot on this album? That’s right, Dare to be Stupid. And my hat’s off to Vince DiCola on his scoring the movie itself. It really added some emotional weight to a certain scene I’ve yet to discuss.

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The man himself.

3.) The Voice Cast – I met Peter Cullen once at a convention. It was less than a minute, and I was just one fan out of a hundred waiting to get something signed. Even though it was only a few seconds of my life, I will remember it always. Always. These names, now so familiar, like: Scatman Crothers, Jack Angel, Chris Latta, Frank Welker, and many others, are the ones who really brought the characters to life with their voice work. This dream team of actors was then joined by the likes of Eric Idle, Robert Stack, Susan Blue, Leonard Nimoy, and friggin’ Orson Welles as the voice of Unicron. I think even the much-maligned Judd Nelson did a fine job as Hot Rod and Rodimus. All those talents under one roof…it’s amazing.

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Gorgeous. Simply Gorgeous.

4.) The Animation – Once again, this is some of the most beautiful animation that Sunbow ever created. The coloration, the cell-shading, the grace with which characters move through the frame, all of it is beautiful. The characters seem to take on a new life and vitality, and look better here than just about anywhere outside of Transformers: Retribution.

And here are the parts that left their mark on me as a child:

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Pretty much the look on my face, too.

1.) The Casual Deaths of Supporting Characters – The first scene, the destruction and subsequent consumption of Lithone, really set the tone for the movie. But then we get the credits sequence, and we’re back to the Autobots that we know and love. Previously, we’ve seen the Autobots get hurt or shot up, but they were all better by the end of the episode. The one ‘perma-death’ they had in the cartoon, Skyfire, was later undone by Wheeljack and an ice jackhammer.

I still remember the battle on the Autobot starship. Prowl, one of my favorite characters, takes a direct hit in the opening shots. Fire comes out of his eyes and mouth, and he falls over dead.

Let me say that again: Fire came out of his eyes and mouth.

I remember trying to explain why I was so upset by this to my mom and she didn’t get it. She thought that was just one of his special feature or powers, like he had fire breath or heat-ray eyes or something. Nope, that was the Autobot version of blood coming out of his mouth before he died.

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Wut?

But it didn’t stop there. In a scene that takes less than a minute of screen time, we see Ratchet riddled with holes and die, Ironhide is given a contemptuous coup de grace by Megatron, and Brawn charges the Decepticons only to take a hit in the shoulder and fall, presumably finished off afterwards (though he does make an appearance in Season Three, so perhaps not all was lost.) In a word: Brutal.

Then we get to Autobot City. We see RC dragging the corpse of Windcharger, which she dumps next to poor old Wheeljack. We don’t even know how they died. We don’t see them make some heroic sacrifice or stand their ground against impossible odds. We just see their dead bodies, discarded and sad. By this point in the movie, Kidd-Matt was mighty uncomfortable with how things were going in that movie theatre in Athens, Texas. But none of those deaths prepared me for the emotional gut-punch of what was to come.

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Worst. Marketing. Decision. EVER.

2.)  The Death of Optimus Prime – Let’s talk about the elephant in the room, shall we? Remember those TV spots I mentioned? Well, as an adjunct, there was a Transformers toy commercial tie-in. It featured Frank Welker in his Megatron voice introducing the heinous Galvatron toy, and Peter Cullen’s Prime introducing Ultra Magnus. At the end, there’s a movie tag that shows Optimus being shot up pretty badly and the announcer asks “Does Prime die?” I remember watching that in my grandfather’s living room and thinking, “Naah, they’d never kill off Optimus Prime.”

Right?

But, as Kidd-Matt watched several of his favorite bots terminated with extreme prejudice, a gnawing suspicion began to dawn that his favorite of favorite characters was about to go down. We get the glorious fight with Megatron, Prime at his fighting best, and then the idiot Hot Rod gets in the way. Way to go. Perhaps just saying “Hey, watch out! He’s reaching for a gun! Shoot him!” would have been better, yeah?

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Way to go, Hot Rod. Tool.

But with one final, mighty uppercut, Prime ends Megatron’s reign of tyranny before collapsing. As Kup says, he turned the tide in the deadliest battle us little’uns had ever seen these characters fight. Not content with that, the sadistic bastards making this movie make us watch as Prime slowly slips away on life support to a musical score that STILL hurts to listen to. He gives the Matrix to Ultra Magnus, tells us not to grieve, and then the bright blue light fades from his eyes. And in case that wasn’t enough to show us that Prime is finally, irrevocably dead, we see his iconic red and blue color drain away to a grey-black, and then his head lolls to the side.

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😥 *buckets*

 

At this point, my godmother had to take me into the hall because I was crying so hard. Like snot-coming- out-of-my-nose-with-my-bottom-lip-quivering-uncontrollably kind of crying. I missed the next 10 minutes of the movie, and didn’t see that part until a few years later when I chanced to watch it again on VHS.

So, seeing my favorite childhood character die hurt pretty bad, but what hurt worse was when I learned the real reason that had Prime died. Hasbro wasn’t going to sell the Optimus toy the next season. They were clearing the way for new characters to sit on the shelves, and killing them off in the story was the perfect way to get them out of the way and explain their absence at the storefront.

Ouch.

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“…”

Even as a kid, I knew that the cartoon was just a way to promote sales, but I was okay with it because I was already sold on the toys. But to cynically kill off a fan favorite just because he wasn’t being sold anymore? What. The. Hell? Worse, this set the precedent for Prime dying in other interpretations of the character. Revenge of the Fallen, anyone? Transformers: Prime?

But in a twist of what I guess is karma, I wasn’t the only kid who had a freakout moment in the theatre. Lots of parents complained, and there was so much fan outrage over Prime’s death that Hasbro brought him back six months later in the two-part episode aptly named The Return of Optimus Prime. Of course, that was right as Transformers as a cartoon was sinking into the morass of “Seasons” 4 & 5, but at least Hasbro did the right thing in the end.

But the scars remain. #thankshasbro

3.) A Whole New Cast – Take a look at the official movie poster. Go ahead, take a look.

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Despite it all, I have this framed.

Notice anything? If you aren’t familiar with the characters, here’s a hint: All of them are new. Every character displayed here, with the exception of what might be Laserbeak in the background, is first introduced to American audiences in this movie. I remember seeing this poster hanging in the lobby of the movie theatre and wondering why Bumblebee, Prime, Jazz, Prowl, and the others weren’t on it. Sure, these new guys looked cool, but who were they?

So, if you had been watching the cartoon for two years, and then went into the movie thinking the main story would revolve around those guys (as I naturally assumed it would), that’s a negatory, Ghostrider. Only the Dinobots play any significant role, and live. Old characters die and are replaced, or are reborn as other characters, complete with new voice actors. It’s a bit of a cinematic bait-and-switch when you think about it, like going into the next Avengers movie to find that all the main heroes have been replaced with Squadron Supreme. Nothing against Squadron Supreme, but that wasn’t exactly what I thought I was getting.

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Eh, not so much.

4.) Rodimus Prime – To be fair, Optimus Prime is a tough act to follow. But since Prime dies, the Powers-That-Be apparently had to have another Prime. Instead of picking Ultra Magnus, who shares a lot in common with Prime, including a fancy name made up of superlatives, and an identical base toy, the Matrix instead goes for the punk kid, Hot Rod. Because…reasons. There is an admittedly cool transformation scene where we see Rodimus grow in size and the ghostly voice of Optimus saying, “Arise, Rodimus Prime.” He quickly kicks Galvatron’s butt and goes on to declare an end to the Great War. Roll Credits.

But then we get Season 3 of the cartoon, now with the new guys in lead roles, with little of the old guard remaining. Rodimus is now the Autobot Supreme Commander, and it’s clear that he’s no Optimus Prime, either in the strength of his leadership abilities, his ability to inspire others, or his lackluster combat skills (especially compared to Galvatron who seems waaaaay more powerful by comparison). Worse yet, Rodimus knows he’s not nearly the leader that Optimus was. And he’s right, he isn’t. So it goes.

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I much prefer this version, even if it’s a tad misleading. I also have this one framed.

Conclusions: 

As you can see there’s a lot to love and hate about this movie. In only 85 minutes, it embodies both the best and worst of what Transformers had to offer in the 1980s: callous disregard for what fans wanted based off of changes in a toy line, mixed with incredible jumps forward in the universe of Transformers, given to us with animation that looks like visual candy.

So when it comes to the cinematic vomit/explosion orgy offered up in the new series of Transformers movies, I honestly can’t say that Michael Bay is stepping all over my childhood. Transformers: The Movie did that during my childhood. And yet, there’s still a part of me that can’t help but smile when I hear Stan Bush belt out The Touch.