Tor.com content by

Robert Repino

Fiction and Excerpts [4]
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Fiction and Excerpts [4]

D’Arc

, || Book 3 in the War With No Name series. An unstoppable monster terrorizes a nearby settlement of beavers. A serial killer runs amok in the holy city of Hosanna. An apocalyptic cult threatens the fragile peace. And a mysterious race of amphibious creatures rises from the seas, intent on fulfilling the Colony’s destiny and ridding the world of all humans.

Forty Years Later, What Makes John Carpenter’s The Thing So Effing Scary?

Some masterpieces of cinema are simply doomed at the box office and destined to be savaged by critics. Very often the culprit is bad timing, or a weak marketing effort, or internal disputes at the studio. All three of those played a role in the brutal reception that greeted John Carpenter’s The Thing (1982), which is today recognized as one of the most effective, shocking, and suspenseful horror movies of all time.

[Read more]

The Brilliant Ambiguity of Conan the Barbarian’s “Riddle of Steel”

An authentic and raw performance by a budding superstar. A rousing score. Bloody, emotional battle sequences. A terrifying but charismatic villain. A Valkyrie with a big heart. And a hero’s journey for the ages. These are a few of the reasons I give whenever I’m trying to convince someone to watch the classic Conan the Barbarian, which happens more often than I care to admit. Conan turns forty years old this spring, and its influence on my youth was so strong that its references formed a kind of dialect among the kids in my neighborhood. It was simply the coolest movie we could have hoped to see in the early 1980s.

In addition to being cool, the movie has a depth that might surprise viewers who know it only by its macho reputation. That depth derives mostly from a worldbuilding device that is rare among genre films—so rare, in fact, that I have struggled to find another example. When I pitched this essay to Tor.com, I asked the editors if they could recommend any comparisons, and they were equally stumped.

The worldbuilding device is The Riddle of Steel, which brings Conan’s culture to life, and provides a basis for his underlying motivation. Ask any fan of the movie what the riddle actually is, and you’ll get a different answer every time. Ask them how the riddle can be solved, and you’ll get an even wider array of possible answers…

[Read more]

Six Bizarro Made-for-TV SFF Movies That Actually Exist

In a classic episode of The Simpsons, a beaming Troy McClure introduces three new Fox shows set in the Springfield universe. “Spin-off!” he shouts. “Is there any word more thrilling to the human soul?” What follows are some of the most hopeless TV pilots you’ve ever seen: the New Orleans crime drama Chief Wiggum, P.I.; the supernatural comedy The Love-Matic Grampa; and The Simpson Family Smile-Time Variety Hour, based on a similar experiment/horror show involving The Brady Bunch. They’re all hilariously worse than you can imagine, though completely plausible in the age of the three major networks.

Spin-offs have since become somewhat more acceptable, in part because there have been so many of them, both in film and TV. Some of them had to be good. But one relic of the late twentieth century whose reputation may never be rehabilitated is the made-for-TV movie, an equally cynical example of pop culture debris. Ubiquitous, cheaply made, heavily advertised then quickly forgotten, the TV movie reached its peak in the mid-’90s, when over 250 were released by the major networks in a single year. Many were failed TV pilots filling in the slots amid the summer reruns. Some were sequels that no one asked for (High Noon, Part II, anyone?). But most of them were mysteries, family dramedies, or issue-of-the-day dramas. I remember, for example, a very serious movie about child abuse with the unbelievably creepy title Do You Know the Muffin Man? To advertise the movie, CBS asked its NFL announcers to mention it during the Sunday game. So, during timeouts and commercial breaks, the announcers repeated that ridiculous title over and over until you didn’t know whether to laugh or cry.

[Read more]

Beyond the Beatles: George Harrison’s Unexpected Connections to SFF

Marking the twentieth anniversary of George Harrison’s death last week, I recalled a line from an obituary I read at the time—something that’s stuck with me for years. I knew it had the word “subtract” in it, so I went to the source, and searched for the term. And there it was, in all its brutality, and slightly more bitter than I remembered:

Harrison’s death, however premature, feels different [from John Lennon’s]. It is more in the ordinary course of things, a reminder that the simple passage of time is all that will be needed to complete the work that Mark David Chapman [Lennon’s assassin] began, subtracting the Beatles from the world.

The author goes on to say that Harrison’s death occurred in a season of loss, in the midst of mourning and war. “We have seen things pass,” he says. “We listen to his song differently now, cherishing it as a warning against old complacencies and a promise that the darkness of this moment too shall pass.”

[Read more]

Six Bizarro Made-for-TV Movies That Actually Exist, Somehow

In a classic episode of The Simpsons, a beaming Troy McClure introduces three new Fox shows set in the Springfield universe. “Spin-off!” he shouts. “Is there any word more thrilling to the human soul?” What follows are some of the most hopeless TV pilots you’ve ever seen: the New Orleans crime drama Chief Wiggum, P.I.; the supernatural comedy The Love-Matic Grampa; and The Simpson Family Smile-Time Variety Hour, based on a similar experiment/horror show involving The Brady Bunch. They’re all hilariously worse than you can imagine, though completely plausible in the age of the three major networks.

Spin-offs have since become somewhat more acceptable, in part because there have been so many of them, both in film and TV. Some of them had to be good. But one relic of the late twentieth century whose reputation may never be rehabilitated is the made-for-TV movie, an equally cynical example of pop culture debris. Ubiquitous, cheaply made, heavily advertised then quickly forgotten, the TV movie reached its peak in the mid-’90s, when over 250 were released by the major networks in a single year. Many were failed TV pilots filling in the slots amid the summer reruns. Some were sequels that no one asked for (High Noon, Part II, anyone?). But most of them were mysteries, family dramedies, or issue-of-the-day dramas. I remember, for example, a very serious movie about child abuse with the unbelievably creepy title Do You Know the Muffin Man? To advertise the movie, CBS asked its NFL announcers to mention it during the Sunday game. So, during timeouts and commercial breaks, the announcers repeated that ridiculous title over and over until you didn’t know whether to laugh or cry.

[Every once in a while, they’d make a science fiction or fantasy film…]

What Makes John Carpenter’s The Thing So Effing Scary?

Some masterpieces of cinema are simply doomed at the box office and destined to be savaged by critics. Very often the culprit is bad timing, or a weak marketing effort, or internal disputes at the studio. All three of those played a role in the brutal reception that greeted John Carpenter’s The Thing (1982), which is today recognized as one of the most effective, shocking, and suspenseful horror movies of all time.

[Read more]

Empathy Machines: Nine Deeply Humanist Science Fiction Films

According to the late film critic Roger Ebert, cinema is one of the most effective venues for bringing people from different backgrounds together. “For me, the movies are like a machine that generates empathy,” he once said:

If it’s a great movie, it lets you understand a little bit more about what it’s like to be a different gender, a different race, a different age, a different economic class, a different nationality, a different profession, different hopes, aspirations, dreams and fears. It helps us to identify with the people who are sharing this journey with us.

Ebert described himself as a humanist, and his idea of film as an “empathy machine” fits perfectly with some of the best works of science fiction. Perhaps more than any other genre, science fiction is connected with humanism, which we can define as an ethical stance that emphasizes the rights, responsibilities, and ultimate value of people within a naturalistic framework—that is, a framework that does not rely on supernatural beliefs. Thus, a humanist film, if one could call it that, would depict people helping each other, or forging their own destiny, mainly through reason and compassion. Humanist stories also emphasize the preciousness of sentient life, on the assumption that it is the only one we have—though some films, as we’ll see, have depicted a satirical or otherwise secularized version of the afterlife.

[Read more]

What Mister Rogers Can Teach Us About Storytelling

After nearly forty years, I still maintain that the greatest moment in the history of television took place on February 6, 1980. That day, in episode #1468 of Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood, Fred Rogers famously visited the set of The Incredible Hulk, devoting nearly an entire episode to the artistry, the science, and the people who made the show come to life. Even in our age of pop culture crossovers, I wonder if anything could top Mister Rogers sitting with a shirtless Lou Ferrigno while he puts on his green makeup, asking, “What do you do when you get angry?”

Like many members of my generation, I looked up to Mister Rogers as if he were an extra parent. 2018 marks a half century since his show debuted, and numerous retrospectives, documentaries, and even a quasi-biopic starring Tom Hanks will celebrate his achievements in the coming months. Moments such as his appearance on Hulk remind me that Fred Rogers’ exploration of “make-believe” not only helped children to grow up, but also cultivated a love of storytelling, planting the seeds for creativity and experimentation. Every week, Mister Rogers challenged his viewers to ask questions, to build their empathy, and to be unafraid of failure.

[Try rewatching a few episodes and you’ll pick up more than a few lessons…]

Sex, Love, and Humanism: Reimagining Religion in #gods

Creating a fictional religion is one of the most difficult feats in literature. A religion that feels real requires a sense of place, a set of rituals and terms, and a shared history in which fact, legend, and politics meld together. In other words, it requires the elements of worldbuilding that make fiction—especially science fiction and fantasy—so difficult. Writers who venture into this territory run the risk of romanticizing religion or demonizing it; of oversimplifying religion or making it so nebulous that it loses meaning for both the characters and the reader. Successful examples include the Bene Gesserit of Dune, as well as the Earthseed faith from Parable of the Sower, an idea so potent that it has even inspired real life imitation.

The 21st century has given writers a new urgency in engaging and reimagining religion. The reasons are so ubiquitous that a list quickly becomes unwieldy: 9/11, the continued rise of the religious right, the war on science (specifically evolution and climate change), sex scandals, financial scandals, and the collision of mainstream religious institutions and various social justice movements. Looming in the background is an unprecedented demographic shift, evidenced in virtually every survey on the topic, in which an increasing number of people simply walk away from traditional religion. One thing that both the fiercest atheist and the most pious apologist can agree on is this: the traditional sources of religious authority have been badly compromised, in some cases eroded to almost nothing, leading many people to seek what could be called spiritual fulfillment elsewhere.

[Read more]

Blue Thunder Is Watching You: Advanced Tech Meets Cold War Paranoia

The phrase “80s action movie” elicits images of a musclebound Übermensch dispatching dozens of faceless enemies, all while his girlfriend/wife/daughter waits helplessly for rescue. For those who grew up with this particular genre, looking back can be tricky. On the one hand, these films provided a kind of giddy, addictive fun. At the same time, they illustrate so many things that were wrong with the era of Reagan and the Cold War—perhaps not as much as the slasher genre, but close. Their single-minded violence, lack of nuance, frequent demonization of foreigners, and almost childish misogyny cannot be shrugged away, no matter how much we love them.

Of all of these films, John Badham’s 1983 tech thriller Blue Thunder has perhaps the most complicated legacy. Unlike many other movies from the genre, Blue Thunder has a decidedly subversive message—a warning of what happens when the government, specifically the police, uses advanced technology to override the rule of law. Rather than celebrating the vigilantism and “get tough on crime” rhetoric of the era, Badham’s work actively challenges such thinking. And yet somehow, that concept became muddled in the years that followed, as a series of movies and television shows mimicked Blue Thunder while projecting the exact opposite message.

[Read more]

Is Magic the Cause of Westeros’ Problems?

There comes a moment in the fifth season of Game of Thrones (and I believe the third book of A Song of Ice and Fire) when Lord Varys, of all people, possibly reveals what the entire series is all about. In pleading with Tyrion Lannister to hold on to hope at the lowest point of his life, Varys asks him to imagine a world in which the strong do not prey on the weak, and where the neverending political intrigue and blood feuds are left behind. This being the shifty Varys, such lofty words are best taken with a grain of salt. Still, his suggestion makes one wonder: Is A Song of Ice and Fire ultimately the story of a long, bloody transition from a feudal, monarchical system to some kind of proto-democracy, in which all castes have a voice, and the nobles and the various religions must yield to the rule of law? In other words, can the game of thrones finally end, replaced by a civilization that actually works?

This leads to another question, a far simpler one: Why is Westeros so hopelessly f*cked up in the first place? We are told that recorded history goes back over 10,000 years, much longer than our own, and yet we find so little in the way of progress, innovation, new theories, or new philosophies. It’s a wonder Varys even considers an alternative to the status quo. What gives?

[Read more]

What Beavers Can Teach Us About Hope, Resilience, and the End of the World

The process of evolution can provide some jarring examples of what animals must do in order to survive. Predation, warfare, cannibalism, kidnapping, fratricide—all of these things can be considered normal in nature. Learning about them for the first time can be shocking, even depressing, especially when we consider the implications for our own species. And yet, the meat grinder of natural selection has also encouraged some altruistic traits, such as loyalty, empathy, sacrifice, and even love. One animal in particular that encompasses these gentler qualities is the astonishing, resilient, clever American beaver, an animal that has some surprising things to tell us about kinship and survival in the face of upheaval and extinction.

[Read more]

“Stick Around”: A Schwarzenegger Guide for the Uninitiated

For better or worse, Arnold Schwarzenegger occupies a prominent place in the science fiction and fantasy of the late 20th and early 21st century. Years from now, scholars of film will no doubt wonder how it happened: a muscleman from Austria with a thick accent and dubious acting chops somehow enjoyed an incredible run of blockbusters from the early 1980s to the late-1990s. Action stars of the past—like Steve McQueen or John Wayne—were generally respected as actors as well, with both being recognized by the Academy. Schwarzenegger, on the other hand, crafted himself into something entirely different, a pop cultural oddity combining athletics, politics, and (intentionally or not) comedy.  While there are no Oscar nominations on the horizon for Arnold, virtually everything he says becomes a quotable line. And, improbably, he has successfully cashed in on the nostalgia craze of our time, making movies that relive his glory days.

The Expendables franchise notwithstanding, Arnold has not headlined a blockbuster since Batman and Robin (1997), and that disaster of a film proved to be a harbinger of a long decline. I’m therefore writing this for those people who remain mostly unfamiliar with his work. Especially those who have an annoying friend—let’s call him Robert—who constantly, incessantly quotes Arnold’s most memorable one-liners. Such people may wonder: where do I begin with the massive Schwarzenegger archive? Consider this a brief guide.

[Read more]

D’Arc

In the aftermath of the War With No Name, the Colony has been defeated, its queen lies dead, and the world left behind will never be the same. In her madness, the queen used a strange technology to uplift the surface animals, turning dogs and cats, bats and bears, pigs and wolves into intelligent, highly evolved creatures who rise up and kill their oppressors. And now, after years of bloodshed, these sentient beasts must learn to live alongside their sworn enemies—humans.

Far removed from this newly emerging civilization, a housecat turned war hero named Mort(e) lives a quiet life with the love he thought he had lost, a dog named Sheba. But before long, the chaos that they escaped comes crashing in around them. An unstoppable monster terrorizes a nearby settlement of beavers. A serial killer runs amok in the holy city of Hosanna. An apocalyptic cult threatens the fragile peace. And a mysterious race of amphibious creatures rises from the seas, intent on fulfilling the Colony’s destiny and ridding the world of all humans. No longer able to run away, Sheba and Mort(e) rush headlong into the conflict, ready to fight but unprepared for a world that seems hell-bent on tearing them apart. In the twilight of all life on Earth, love survives, but at a cost that only the desperate and the reckless are willing to pay.

Robert Repino’s D’Arc is book three in the War With No Name series, available May 9th from Soho Press.

[Read an Excerpt]

All Hail the Defiant Science Fictional Weirdness of Queen!

Please enjoy this encore post on the wonders of Queen, originally published on April 19, 2016.

No band is more intimately connected with the world of science fiction and fantasy than the legendary Queen. From their prog experiments of the ’70s to their power rock of the ’80s, the band provided the escapist soundtrack to a number of films—some of which would barely be remembered at all were it not for the music. I like to think that there is something deeper at work here, but I’ll settle for saying that Queen had a knack for producing catchy earworms that seemed to fit with almost any movie.

Please bear with me here: much of this article will be spent gushing over my love for Queen, and for the movies that have utilized the band’s iconic sound. You’ve been warned.

[Read more]

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