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David Moldawer

Mur Lafferty’s Playing for Keeps is Available As a Free PDF

Today, my buddy Mur Lafferty (author and podcaster extraordinaire) releases her excellent novel Playing for Keeps in a dead-tree version (available at Amazon) and as a free PDF.

Playing for Keeps is set in Mur’s Third Wave universe, where the world’s “other” superheroes—who don’t have the first-pick superpowers like flight and invisibility—try to make their own contributions to society with more colorful, if less overtly useful, powers. Mur has made this universe a sandbox for other writers to play in with great results. It’s a riveting read, and well worth the purchase or the download.

Playing for Keeps is available as:

* a serialized podcast (RSS),
* a free e-book PDF, and
* an actual honest-to-goodness book! (Amazon) <—Go buy this one!

Howdy from the West Coast

This is me playing the Star Wars slots on a stopover in the Las Vegas airport, on my way to sunny California for a week of sun, fun, and the San Francisco Writing for Change Conference (come on by if you happen to be in the SF area).

The Force wasn’t with me on this one, unfortunately. My five bucks were gone in the flash of a lightsaber.

I may be on vacation, but I still plan to post a few times over the next week, so if anyone has any California-centric SF-related stories they’d like me to cover, drop a comment below.

The Montauk Monster–Just a Scout?

Cryptozoologists of the world, rejoice. If you haven’t seen it already, the blogosphere and real-world-o-sphere alike are buzzing with excitement about this amazing find.

 

Seriously, what the hell is that thing?

I raise the issue here because I want your feedback. If this little guy is more than just an everyday cryptid, more than just a previously unknown species or some sort of freakishly mutated cat, if it’s a scout—I’ve always believed that, should an alien invasion actually come to pass, SF fans are the ones to keep company with if you want to survive.

[More horror below the fold…]

SDCC: Fraggle Rock Season 4 on DVD

In 1983, Jim Henson created Fraggle Rock, a groundbreaking piece of children’s television that still feels fresh and relevant 25 years later. To celebrate the release of season 4 on DVD, as well as a 20-DVD, extras-packed set of the entire show run (both coming in November), Red Fraggle was on hand (with her “friend,” Karen Prell), for a sing-along with a packed audience:

The video quality stinks, but it was also the only public appearance of a Fraggle ever, so hopefully any fans out there will get a kick out of it.

Dave Goelz (voice of Boober Fraggle, among many other Fraggles and Muppets) was also on hand to talk about the amazing environment Jim Henson created on-set.

Explaining his idea for the show, Henson told Goelz, “I want to do a television show that could stop war.” Henson wasn’t naive, Goelz explained, but he was an incredibly optimistic person. Henson wanted Fraggle Rock to be an allegory for the real world, offering lessons to kids (and adults) about resolving conflicts between individuals, species, and the environment.

Members of the cast and crew who came into the project less than thrilled about “working on a puppet show” soon became convinced that they had the best jobs around thanks to Henson’s passion and vision for the show, and footage of the last day of shooting (part of the DVD extras) made it clear that nobody wanted to leave Fraggle Rock behind, despite the punishing weekly shooting schedule and long nights (the DVDs are worth the purchase for extras like that alone). I remember the show fondly (and my wife’s crazy about it) so season 4 will be going on my Netflix queue.

Special Bonus Photo:

Some guy in the audience had an awesome Kermit puppet:


kermit the frog at Comic-Con

Unfortunately, I didn’t get a chance to see if he could do the voice…

SDCC: SF authors panel

 

SF authors are some of the most compelling thinkers around. Scientists might be closer to the cutting edge of human understanding, but SF authors often possess a combination of amateur knowledge, curiosity, open-mindedness, and sheer instinct for entertainment that makes for really insightful commentary and discussion.

Yesterday’s panel, Looking at Our World: Eye on the Future, featured a rousing discussion of the future by some eminent author/futurists: Robert J. Sawyer, Ann Aguirre, Tobias S. Buckell, William C. Dietz, Alan Dean Foster, Charles Stross, and John Zakour. Here are some highlights:

The panelists were asked why they prefer to write science fiction over other genres. Sawyer replied, “The future is indeterminate. Writing SF is an opportunity for me to be a part of the dialogue that determines what it’s going to be.”

And when it comes to getting the predictions right or wrong, he added, “If I say something will happen 100 years in the future, you have to understand that I plan to be alive then, so if you disagree with me on something I’ve written, we can argue about it then. You can’t complain until the imaginary date has passed.”

(Read more below the fold.)

Foster blamed his choice of genre on his love of travel. Although he has traveled a lot in his life, he said, “The world isn’t enough. So I invent others.” He described himself as an “interstellar travel agent.” (If I were an SF author, I would totally put that on my business card right now.)

Dietz writes for “a sense of joy,” and describes SF as “the heroin of literature. You get one hit and you have to come back for more.” Very true.

During a discussion of imagining future technologies, Sawyer, a strong believer in the Singularity, talked about how, no matter how rapid the pace of change has been, it will only accelerate, making the futurist’s job truly difficult:

The last 5 decades years aren’t a good yardstick for the next 50 years. SF says more about the science of the time it’s written than the future. One day, we’ll be able to date a work of SF to within 12 to 18 months based on the implicit scientific assumptions in the text: the age of the Earth, what’s encoded in DNA, and so on.

Sawyer collects toy dinosaurs, and he will only add a toy to his collection if it’s accurate according to the scientific consensus at the time of its manufacture:

Today, we believe that the brontosaurus’s tail stuck straight out from its body. If I see a new toy brontosaurus with its tail on the ground, I won’t buy it. But if it was made 50 years ago, when they thought the tail lay flat, that’s OK.

Stross, another Singularity proponent, warned against the idea that the technologies of the future would entirely replace the technologies of the past:

In some parts of the world, steam engines are still used to move people around. In others, it’s mag-lev trains. As William Gibson said, ‘The future is here, it just isn’t evenly distributed.’ Things will only get more complex. The future is now, with extra stuff added.

Near the end of the panel, when asked for one piece of SF technology they would like to see realized, Dietz suggested a phone for speaking to the dead. “If you accept the idea that we continue on in some form after death as conscious beings, you have to accept that there must be some way of communicating with the dead.”

Dietz asked the audience to consider what a development like that would mean to our society, once the secrets people took to their graves were no longer secrets. Author David Brin, who happened to be in the audience, joined in the conversation:

That idea illustrates what separates comic books and SF, and why comic books never seem to get SF stories right. Comics are descended from The Odyssey and The Iliad. Superheroes are demigods, wielding powers only they possess. SF is about the effects of technologies that anyone can use, and how those technologies would change the way we live.

SDCC: Reinventing the Superhero

Put on your thinking caps, kids, because I’m about to get academic on your asses.

(Speaking of which, I would love to have an actual, honest-to-goodness thinking cap. Is that something you can buy on Etsy? What does one even look like?)

The vast majority of panels here at Comic Con seem to be glorified press junkets, content-lite presentations that culminate in “sneak peeks” of something you’ll be able to watch on YouTube the next morning (a thrill you’re expected to wait in line an hour or more for the privilege of enjoying). When I saw a panel on the schedule promising an in-depth discussion of comic books that wouldn’t actually be promoting something, well, I was thrilled.

The tiny room was at best a quarter full, natch. (A sneak peek of the new season of Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles was taking place at the same time.) But plenty of insightful things were said, and I can still put Terminator episodes on my Netflix queue when they become available, so it’s a win-win.

Dana Anderson, of the Maine Maritime Academy, compared the X-Men to Romantic heroes in literature. According to Anderson, what distinguishes the protagonists in the works of Shelley (both), Byron, et al from their predecessors is the fact that “they are self-aware”: They know they are unique.

On the one hand, they have special talents, genius and creative inspiration. On the other, they are scorned and feared by the Industrial masses. They endure a “deep aloneness.” (In other words, they are proto-geeks.)

(Read more below the fold.)

Similarly, the X-Men are “inspired,” but their “inspiration lies in their genes, which flower forth with powers.” For the Romantics, poets and geniuses were the unappreciated freaks. For Marvel, it’s superpowered mutants.

Throughout comic book literature, you see the same Jungian archetypes and Campbellian patterns repeated again and again. The success of a superhero character in terms of actual market success is often directly commensurate with how well that hero fulfills the role of one or more archetypes, how well it scratches our collective unconscious itch.

Charles Hatfield, of CSU Northridge, gave a fascinating presentation on Jack Kirby and the “technological sublime”—and whatever that means, you have to admit it sounds pretty cool.

Hatfield actually spent much of his talk defining how he intended to use the term: the technological sublime is “ineffable, awful in the original sense of the word.” It’s the monolith in 2001: A Space Odyssey, disorienting, strange, and terrible. (Kirby actually did a comic book adaptation in the mid-70s that looks even trippier than the film.)

Hatfield also showed us some amazing panels from Kirby’s comics, including one of a planet-sized Promethean creature eternally chained to an asteroid while an ant-sized person looks on from the very corner of the frame. And another of Johnny Storm, having traveled the galaxy for a special weapon to defeat Galactus, tripping out now that he’s realized his own insignificance on the galactic scale. “We’re ants…just ants.”

Kirby wasn’t a scientist or a scientific thinker. His grasp of technology was so loose that Hatfield remembers finding factual errors in his comics even as a child. In fact, Kirby often mixed high technology with ancient mysteries. Doctor Doom was identified as a “scientist and a sorceror.” Kirby was evoking the technological sublime by creating a universe that was “awe-inspiring, existentially dizzying,” one that, next to which, even these superheroic demigods were ants.

Immanuel Kant defined the sublime as that which “does violence to our imagination.” Can you imagine higher praise of a comic book than that?

Seth Blazer of the University of Florida discussed how 9/11 gave birth to the deluge of comic book superhero films in the last seven years. Apparently nebulous threats make us crave a unified hero to rally behind, and a black-and-white conflict of good vs. evil. Sounds right to me.

An interesting question about what defines a superhero—if a werewolf fought crime, would that qualify?—was rudely quashed by a moderator who, after tossing out a quick definition of his own, declared the subject his personal area of academic expertise and thus ineligible for discussion at a panel that didn’t revolve around him. (Sorry, but even the academic comic-book guys sometimes fit the stereotype.)

So I put the question to you: If a werewolf decides to fight crime, would he or she be a superhero? If not, what would it take to make that werewolf qualify? A cape? A secret identity?

(Image courtesy of Wikipedia.)

SDCC: Marvel

 

Con fatigue. It’s inevitable. My fellow Tor.com bloggers are seasoned SF conners, able to trudge through miles of booths and shoulder aside hordes of sweaty fans while subsisting on nothing more than lukewarm con pretzels. But the sensory overload gets to me after only a day or so, and at this point I’m ready for a weekend of detox at Kripalu. Can anyone spare an ear candle?

To make things worse, despite the fact that it’s a lovely city, San Diego pales in comparison to New York on two very important metrics: tap water and pizza. The water tastes like it was strained through a beet, and the pizza is more of a floppy cheese-flavored fruit roll-up than a proper pie. What’s worse, my childhood heroes the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles were standing outside the pizza joint loudly trumpeting its quality. Et tu, Donatello?

When you’re feeling overwhelmed, it’s usually a good idea to pick something specific and cling to it like a raft in a storm. So I made today a Marvel day, following editor-in-chief Joe Quesada (see photo) and his merry crew through a series of panels.

The first two sessions made me feel very small. I’m a geek, obviously, and even though I’ve read hundreds of comic books—and dozens of books about comic books—I can’t even come close to the depth and breadth of geek knowledge on display here. Not on the panel, although Quesada’s a really smart and interesting speaker, but in the audience.

(Read more below the fold.)

Nothing makes a geek feel worse than missing an inside joke while in a big crowd of geeks, and the inside jokes were flying fast and furious. Pop quiz: who the heck is the Dazzler (beyond being a superheroine in the Marvel universe), and why is the mere mention of her name enough to elicit laughter out of a crowd of hundreds of comic book fans?

After a certain point, I felt like everyone was speaking a foreign language, as the audience peppered the panels with question after obscure question that left me completely in the dark even after they were answered.

I did manage to come back to you guys with some news:

  • A Black Panther animated series is coming to BET.
  • Quesada is seriously considering bringing Dr. Strange and other magic-based Marvel characters back into regular circulation. (I do love that trippy Dr. Strange.)
  • Marvel Illustrated will release what looks like a gorgeous and visually fresh comic book version of The Wizard of Oz, written by Eric Shanower and drawn by Skottie Young. (No, I don’t know their work, but from the sample we saw, I’m set on buying it when it comes out.)
  • We saw some previews of the upcoming Ender’s Game comic book. We may never see a completed live-action feature film, but at least with the comic they seem to have gotten it right. Orson Scott Card was on hand to give the project his full and enthusiastic approval.
  • 2009 will mark the 70th anniversary of Marvel Comics, and we were told to expect even more big news in the Marvel universe than we’ve seen in 2008.

The third and final panel was Marvel to the Nth Degree. The description in the con schedule was remarkably vague, and it speaks to the power of the Marvel brand right now that the large hall was at least half full of people willing to wait in line for something they knew nothing about.

We learned that book publisher Scribner is releasing on Monday Stephen King’s N, a never-before-seen short story that’s been adapted by Marvel into a mobile-based animation for viewing on your fancier cell phones, as well as online via an embeddable player. (Animation is a bit misleading—each comic panel pans from side-to-side or features a small moving element like a TV screen, that’s it.)

As is usual with all announcements about “entertainment on your cell phone,” the panel was really sketchy on the technical details: what phone carriers would offer the animation, what kinds of phones were compatible, etc., how many episodes and of what length, and so on.

Scribner publisher Susan Moldaw informed the crowd that only “sophisticated cell phones, so, iPhones and better” would be able to play the animations. Which phones would be more sophisticated than the iPhone again?

At the end of the panel, we got to see episode 1 of N, which was incredibly short, a mere wisp of narrative. The story is apparently about a psychiatrist with OCD who finds his compulsions blurring where reality ends and fantasy begins.

I’ll give King and Marvel the benefit of the doubt and assume that N gets cooking at some point, but I remain unimpressed by what I’ve seen of cellphone-based animation. Doesn’t seem worth the hassle yet. They tend to feel more like corporate “initiatives” than the genuine result of a creative desire to use a new medium.

If you’d like to take a look, a sneak peek is already live at NisHere.com. If you register, you can see the entire first episode before its Monday premiere. Hint: Don’t blink.

 

SDCC: The Greatest American Hero comic book

 

Enjoyed a lively session about classic TV series The Greatest American Hero, held to announce the launch of a new GAH comic book series coming out from Catastrophic Comics (star William Katt is the CEO).

The whole cast was there—William Katt, Robert Culp, and Connie Sellecca—as well as Dennis “Danger” Madalone, Katt’s stunt double.

When I entered the conference room, they were playing a reel of what seemed to be every single instance of red-pajama-fueled hijinks from the show, with Danger as main character Ralph Hinkley crashing into walls, through windows, onto cars, and so on.

It was easily five full minutes long, set to the strains of Elton John’s “Rocket Man.” (Unfortunately, they haven’t put the video online where I can find it, but I found a shorter one with the same general idea here.)

Brown-haired Madalone explained that, the first time he met Katt on set and saw that big, curly blond coif, he thought to himself: “We’re gonna have to put a brown wig on that guy.” He also wistfully recalled how, at age 5, wearing his own red pajamas, he would dive off the bed face-first into the dresser and throwing himself down the stairs. His parents thought he had a brain disease, but he was just a budding stuntman.

“Life,” he thought, the first time he wore the suit, “takes you on a beautiful circle.”

(Read more below the fold.)

Despite having worked on a host of other shows, including 3 flavors of Star Trek, GAH was Madalone’s hands-down favorite to work on.

Katt seemed a lot like his character. He said that, the first time he tried on the outfit, he felt a lot like Hinkley did on the show: “I was mortified.” Katt went on to say, though, that he “gets it” now, and understands why fans of the show are so passionate about it.

Sellecca looked great—she truly hadn’t aged a day—and reminisced that Culp used to call her “the skirt” back on the set. (It was a different era.)

“I always wanted to wear the suit,” she declared. “We wanted to see you in it, too,” Culp shot back.

Culp actually had some of the most insightful commentary of the panel, explaining that, at heart, The Greatest American Hero was the story of Arthur and Merlin, with Merlin, Culp’s character Maxwell, showing Arthur, Ralph Hinkley, how to pull the sword out of the stone, i.e. how to use the suit. “And bossed him around thereafter,” Culp added.

Culp explained: “The juice of the show is that Ralph is an ordinary man, and everyone involved worked really hard to keep everything in the world as real as possible.”

He urged against a fan’s suggestion that the comic book introduce super-villains or other supernatural threats that would be more evenly matched against Ralph’s powers. He believes that the strength of GAH lies in the story of a regular guy in the real world, dealing with this responsibility he simply doesn’t want.

(I have to say though that a real regular guy would be pretty thrilled about being able to fly and punch through concrete, red pajamas or no.)

The creator of the show, Steven J. Cannell, couldn’t make it to the panel but sent a videotaped greeting, pointing out that of all his many, many hit TV shows, the DVD set of GAH has sold the best, even though it wasn’t all that successful in its initial run as far as Nielsen numbers go.

Remember that Saturday Night Live sketch where rabid Star Trek fans confront William Shatner with questions about the most minute trivia from the show (transcript here)? A similar moment occurred at the GAH panel, although no one was exhorted to “get a life.” A superfan asked Katt whether the new comic books would feature a reappearance of “the gray suit.”

Blank looks from the whole panel. The fan explained that, in one episode, we met the man who had been tasked by the aliens to fight evil before Ralph was, and apparently his suit was gray rather than red. Gray-suit guy apparently gave Bill his instruction manual, which which would have been great if that second manual hadn’t been abruptly lost as well (hadn’t the Xerox been invented yet?).

This anecdote sparked Katt’s memory, and as thanks the fan’s photo was taken for inclusion in a background shot of the an upcoming issue of the comic. (It felt a bit like an Oprah moment: He’s going in the comic! He’s going in the comic!)

The GAH comic will last 6 issues to start, with more to come depending on the response, so get out there and buy lots of copies. The first issues will retell the story of the pilot (updated from the 80s to the modern day): aliens give schoolteacher Ralph Hinkley a set of red pajamas that gives him super strength, flight, and an assortment of other superpowers, in order to fight crime and protect humanity. And then he loses the instruction manual.

(On a vaguer note, there was mention of a live-action feature film adaptation being put together by Cannell. And also some 3D animated shorts. Lots of GAH goodies are on the way.)

The highlight of the entire panel was hearing Robert Culp declare, “You gotta go put the jammies on.”

SDCC: Jim Butcher Interview

Jim Butcher, New York Times-bestselling author of The Dresden Files, as well as the Codex Alera series, sat down with me for an interview in a cozy nook of the convention center—OK, it was a storage area.

I have to say, Butcher met a series of technical gaffes on my end with a degree of patience that would have filled his most famous creation, Chicago wizard detective Harry Dresden, with pride.

I asked Butcher about the origins of the Dresden Files: “I was in a writing class taught by Deborah Chester,” he explained. “I had a degree in English literature, so I felt like I had to prove all her born-in-the-trenches theories of novel-writing wrong.”

Butcher, who began the class set on writing a novel of sword-and-sorcery, struggled mightily until deciding (out of frustration) to reverse course and follow Chester’s rigorous writing techniques to the letter, doing all the plot outlining and character background sheets and so on that the English literature folks often scoff at as the workmanlike tools of genre hacks. But in trying to prove Chester wrong, he ended up vindicating her theories.

“She looked at the first chapter and said, ‘You did it. You’re going to sell this.’ ” And Chester was right—Butcher had, out of sheer passive aggressiveness, given birth to the character that would make his name: Harry Dresden, a curmudgeonly professional wizard operating out of modern-day Chicago and listed in the Yellow Pages.

It took 5 years to go from that draft in the writing class to a finished book, but since then things have accelerated: the most recent novel in the series, Small Favor, debuted at #2 on the New York Times hardcover bestseller list, Butcher’s highest spot yet.

“When a young writer comes up to me with an ambitious idea for a 20-book series,” Butcher said, “I usually tell him to maybe try something smaller to start off with. But being ambitious worked for me because I didn’t know how hard it is to get something like this published. That’s why I celebrate ignorance—it’s gotten me far.”

(Read more below the fold.)

I asked Butcher why his author bio identifies him first-off as a martial arts “enthusiast”—did he read books like The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Karate like I do, or was he a trained killer being modest? The latter: “I’ve gotten into two fights since I’ve begun studying the martial arts, and each time I was worried I’d kill the guy. One of my teachers always told me I had good power, but bad control.”

Sounds to me a lot like Butcher’s hero Dresden, whose raw destructive power sometimes gets him into trouble (burning down a mansion filled with vampires, and maybe humans, at one point).

Butcher has studied several forms of Okinawan karate, judo, jujitsu, kempo, kung fu, and tae kwan do, among others. He actually used the martial arts as inspiration for the way magic works in the Dresden Files. (In fact, I recall that at one point in the books Dresden describes membership in the wizardly White Council as equivalent to a “black belt” for wizards.)

If you haven’t read the books, or if last year’s one-season television adaptation on SciFi turned you off, I urge you to give them a try. They’re great reads. Butcher actually recommends beginning with book 7, Dead Beat—it’s his favorite—but I’ve enjoyed them from the beginning.

Special Bonus Video:

For those who’ve read the books, here’s a quick video of Butcher explaining the “soulgaze” from the Dresden Files:

(Butcher was doing the rounds at Comic-Con with his friend Cam Banks, author of The Sellsword, a new Dragonlance novel. If you’re a Dragonlance fan, go check it out.)

SDCC: Doc Savage film announced

At a panel on Doc Savage, the pulp hero who inspired/was ripped off by the creators of Superman and Batman, among other creators of your favorite Golden Age comic book superheroes, long-time superhero movie producer Michael Uslan (who is also producing the upcoming Captain Marvel film) let slip that a new Doc Savage film adaptation is in the works.

Nice.

I recently read panelist Anthony Tollin’s reprints of some Man of Bronze adventures—for those who don’t know, the moniker refers to Savage’s awesome tan—and while I wasn’t blown away by it as pop literature, I did see some obvious seeds of Superman, including the snow-bound Fortress of Solitude.

So here’s hoping the new Doc Savage movie is an improvement on the first one, Doc Savage: Man of Bronze (1975), and the second one, The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai Across the Eighth Dimension (1984).

(Joke. Kind of.)

SDCC: First Impressions

Good morning, Tor.com!

I’m David Moldawer, associate editor at St. Martin’s Press and longtime SF podcaster at the Kick-Ass Mystic Ninjas podcast. I’ll be part of the Tor.com team here in San Diego covering this astounding orgy of geek-hood.

My geek-gasms started early: My flight was due to depart Newark Airport at 6pm last night. As I wandered the airport corridors, I spotted a much-more-petite-in-person Jennifer Connelly, along with that tall blond English guy from A Knight’s Tale—I guess that’s her husband (if I used emoticons, this is where I’d put a frowny face).

[More below the fold…]

Figuring I was cool because I’m a SF blogger now, I was like, “Hey Jennifer, loved you in Labyrinth, you guys want to hang out in the Newark Airport food court?” And she was like, “Yeah, cool, let’s be best friends. Paul, hold my coat.”

OK, that didn’t actually happen. Connelly and Bettany were on their way to Comic-Con as well, but they didn’t end up on my flight—time will tell if she makes it to her panel, which I’m hoping to live-blog if she does.

My flight was absurdly delayed, and I only arrived at the Holiday Inn around 3 am last night (San Diego time) to find fellow Tor.com blogger Pablo diligently prepping his Steven Moffat/Doctor Who post. Despite a slight case of sleep deprivation, I’m totally jazzed to be covering Comic-Con with my fellow Tor.comers. (We’ll come up with a better name than that at some point.)

Some first impressions from wandering the floor: Total sensory overload. Giant Pikachu. A live, working Stargate. Lots of Jedi, and lots and lots of girls in skimpy vinyl outfits. Many black T-shirts. Favorite booth so far: Some sort of manga publisher featuring women in nurse outfits working the table and a giant poster with an illustration of a pink-haired woman, some Japanese text, and the words “Let’s Be Perverts.”

I’m assuming something’s been lost in translation there.

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