City Beyond Belief

A friend recommended John C. Wright’s City Beyond Time: Tales of the Fall of Metachronopolis for a little light reading.  It is possible that my friend is a sadist, or forgets that while I do engage some in philosophy and logic, logic puzzles are really not my thing.  With some major flaws, the book was interesting for a read-through.

If you like to ponder the difference between potentialactualprobable, and revision, then this is the book for you.  This is intellectual nerd candy for people with philosophy degrees, or for people who want to think they don’t need philosophy degrees because they are just that smart.

I do not have one and don’t remember ever wanting one.

The premise is interesting enough, a city at the end of time is full of Time Wardens.  The book was pitched to me as a combination of Dr. Who meets Amber (in case you have been living in a closet those are two seriously inventive series about parallel worlds and time travel).

I would say that the series has the morbid fatalism of Amber to suck all the joy out of the freewheeling possibility of Dr. Who.  Wright’s vision of Time Travel is that it is evil, that people will use it only for bad, and we get drug through a grand world tour of wanna-be Time Lords destroying themselves, kidnapping and enslaving people, lying, tricking, cheating, and then perishing in their own futility.  I lost count of the characters who know their ending sucks, and chose to be trapped in their shitty endings anyway, either because they want the case more, they think they can avoid it, or they make the wrong choices, again, infinitely.

If you want a thesis on the banal depravity of man, I recommend Faust, it is just as depressing and much shorter.  The e-book is well edited but poorly formatted.  It does not even have a table of contents so I had no idea I was reading a collection of short stories until the scenes changed around me completely and a chapter in revisited none of the previous chapter’s plots.

Wright’s appeals are that he is Christian (Roman Catholic) a philospher (who is still a Christian) and a writer.

I found his writing technically gifted, and the rest masturbatory and pedantic.  There is one really enjoyable short story about a man on the run from a thought-eating nightmare that was both original, clever, and not overly concerned with details.  There was a second about a dying man that was rather well written and strongly reminiscent of Isaac Asimov’s robot short stories, tightly woven, sensible, and rewarding after a twist ending.

The rest of the collection weighed upon me like lead.  The first short story was a murder mystery about a man’s own murder, with an interesting backdrop, but the logic behind it, no matter how thoroughly philosophically stable, was so much work that by the end I was just glad it was done.  Similarly, the last mystery centers around rape and murder between multiple JFK’s and Marilyn Monroe as Helen of Troy that dwelled on how arousing she was and then a lot of rape, murder, and some nihilistic despair.

The morality that does show up is secular Catholic through-and-through.  Your salvation is accomplished through your own decisions and hard work.  Jesus? Never mentioned.  Grace?  You have to kill yourself, not in devotion but as an act of contrition, in works righteousness.  Then other people who have done the same will lift you back up and you will be pure.  This book works more as a poster philosophy for Mormonism and Arianism than actual Christianity, as it is missing faith, deity, loyalty, and compassion in every way.

Also, the mythology irritated me.  Infinite-multiverse fiction has always left a bad taste in my mouth because it always turns out to be a loose and lazy mechanic.  So what if there is another version of someone?  The writer has already established that there are infinite everyones, so big deal… 

There is a serious lack of good guys in this collection of short stories.  You have anti-heroes, victims, and villains.  The list is short by the following sets: redeemers, forgivers, heroes, role-models, and saviors.  The most frustrating thing was that there are hints at a better world, a happier version of time travel, and it is never really shown at all.  I feel like Wright wants me to know that he’s aware how dystopian his stories are, shows me the contrast, then rubs my nose in his shitty little darkness while hiding the light behind his back.

The jerk.

It was a technically solid read, and if you are smart enough that this does not constitute work to read (as the man who lent it to me) or if you are pretentious enough to want a book that makes you feel comfortably mentally superior, this book will give you a refreshing chance to flex some mental muscles without leaving the dim fog of perpetual crappy sin, despair, and ruin.

Recommended for geniuses and wannabe intellectuals.  Not for anyone seeking peace, joy, or an easy read.  

Exiting Cargo Lock 5

N. R. Burnette asked me to read his new novel Cargo Lock 5.  He provided a copy for free but when I realized how excoriating the upcoming review would be I decided I needed to buy a copy for myself.

I’m 15% of the way through the story, and mostly I am still reading in the hopes that I will get to read about the main character suffering and dying.

I refer to one of Kurt Vonnegut’s little rules for writing from Bogombo Snuffbox.  It is a rule about characterization.  In essence, no matter what you’re writing about, every scene needs to have someone that your audience can identify and root for.

Mr. Burnette has, instead, provided me with the the most unpleasant sphincter of a protagonist I have run across in living memory.  Our “hero” is a narcissistic sociopath who somehow has managed to work in a police department without getting shot to death by “accidental discharge.”  My current theory is that Mr. Burnette went through all the detective novels ever written, saw that most detective protagonists have one or two character flaws, and thought it would be fun to make a character with nothing but character flaws.  So instead of a good man with an Achilles’ Heel, we get a heel with no redeeming qualities whatsoever.  15% of the way into the book the hero has cheated on his wife, stolen drugs and guns from a teenage prostitute, wandered the street high on the drugs he stole from a prostitute, hoped that the gun he lost kills his girlfriend’s teenage son, and brags to himself endlessly about how much he enjoys being an asshole to everyone around him.

Good detective stories include someone with a motivation to solve a crime.  The final straw for me in this story was when Jake Taylor, the protagonist, encounters a father who was forced to murder his own son to stop the son’s slower death by torture.  Taylor realizes that the father is about to commit suicide and decides that he wants to go for a walk because the case bores him.

I’m sorry, but there is no reason for someone this unbelievably repulsive to become a detective.  He could be a traffic cop and get his rocks off ticketing people.  He has no motive to solve the crime.  And frankly I care more about the bad guy than the “hero”.

Characterization is appalling throughout the story so far.  Mr. Burnette has obviously never been or known a 15-year-old boy, because his mommy calls home at 8 pm at his bedtime, and checks to make sure he brushed his teeth.  So the 15-year-old is apparently seven years old.

Jake’s secretary, of course, lives only to please and be with him as an adulterous harlot, to the point of ignoring her own child, who is simultaneously 8 and 15.  She maintains this attitude even though Jake makes a point of shoving a pillow in her face while they have sex so that he doesn’t have to see how much she looks on him with love.

Do you want this character to die yet?  I do.

In fact, I’m going to stop reading this story and pretend that the bad guy wins.  The world would be better off.  I have no reason to care about any of the characters, and I can only believe that a third of them could possibly even exist.

The book is well-edited for an indie novel.  I have found only one typo in about an hour’s worth of reading.

Pity, because it might distract me from how much I despise everyone in this book.

Sorry, folks, but a fifteen year old is either going to hate or worship her mom’s new boyfriend, pretty much, and he sure as hell isn’t going to bed at 8 pm to sleep through them having sex in the next room.  The sex in this book is like the fantasy of a demented sociopath.  It makes me feel nauseated, not because it is graphic, but because there is someone alive who thought this would entertain someone.  The main concept of the story is that a city this bad needs a hero as bad as Jake Taylor, but the concept fails twice.  First, I haven’t witnessed anything bad about the city other than it contains Jake Taylor.  Second, any city that deserves a character this horrible deserves a nuke, not a plot line.

Return to Crystal Valley

The best laid plans of mice and men gang aft agley.  -Robert Burns (same clan, no other relation)

When a trained sniper tells you to drop your current project and provide another book in a series for him, only the most dedicated or foolhardy of nerds would ignore that request.

So… unless someone else with similar or greater firepower has other claims on my time…

*wait for it*

*crickets*

The long-suffering Giant’s Rage manuscript is heading back to the recycling bin, to be pulled back out at a later date when it has had time to ferment.  That means it’s time to get back to work on my lifelong project, reworking a series of YA books from my outdoor ministry past into an adult series roughly the length of The Wheel of Time.

What is The Song of Lagrandil?  Well, if you’ve read the earlier books, or you’ve read the current reboot, you already have the answer to that question.  If you haven’t, then here is a little bit of what I’m working on.

Helm meets Safehold blended with Zorro and not a little bit of Dragonball Z. Oh yeah, book four will also have a lot more Cutthroat Island tossed in for kicks.  For gravitas toss in topics from Rid of My DisgraceThe Cost of Discipleship, and Enemy Mine.

(Are you cross-referencing yet?  What is wrong with you?  Get to it!)

Those of you who know the series and want to hear more, now is your chance to tell me what, in particular you want to see.  Remember spoilers!

Even if you haven’t read the series, and you want to hear more about a particular issue or ethical question in Christianity, chime on in!  This series does not pull punches.  Topics already covered include rape, abuse survival, murder, salvation, betrayal, redemption, family loyalty versus faith, just war theory, and more.

If you haven’t read the series, it takes me three to six months to write a novel and get it out on Kindle and Nook.  So that should be more than enough time to get caught up!

Let the adventure begin!

A Scaly Sequel [Non-Spoilers]

The second installment of How to Train Your Dragon hit theaters with a bang this weekend.

I enjoyed every moment of it.

Too many sequels attempt to make money by recreating the first movie as closely as possible on every point.  From a timid, money-seeking perspective there may be some weak arguments for that.  But the truly great stories continue on from the first movie, weaving what has happened before into a more enjoyable whole.  The Matrix trilogy (plus assorted anime and game elements) are a classic example, and though reactions are mixed as the journey went to the metaphorical digital underworld and back, it earned those reactions because it dared to continue to tell the tale.  Star Wars Episodes 4 – 6 (you know, the real movies that should be red along with the Timothy Zahn Heirs of the Empire trilogy and then left in a box) did the same thing.

How to Train Your Dragon  was a coming-of-age tale about an adolescent boy and dragon, both misfits, finding the powerful love of true friendship, and then through that power they transformed their war-torn village into a tiny little paradise.  That was an excellent story, but Dreamworks did not return to those elements.  The story picks up five years later with Hiccup and Toothless as young adults on the verge of complete independence.  Dragon-slaying has disappeared and dragon-racing is the primary pass-time, much to the terror of adorable and hilarious digital sheep used to keep score.

All the elements from the original movie that I loved are present.  The visual effects are fully worth the 3-D.  The voice acting is a constant treasure, frequently over the top in all the same glorious ways.  I particularly enjoyed the constant by-play in the background.  There is either snarky commentary by Gobber, eye-popping visuals, or entertaining dragon’s doing a puppy/kitten impersonation with their playful manners.

The film does an excellent job with character development.  With the cast at twenty, that fascinating age where young people seem to flip back and forth between thirteen and thirty like switches, there are some fun and sometimes heavy-handed attempts to make humor accessible to all audiences, which means that it has to be silly enough and blatant enough to entertain a seven-year-old.  There are a few romantic character issues (both the sexual kind and the asexual kind with love of friends, allies, and pets) that are there purely for the grown-ups in the audience.  When Hiccup and his girlfriend finish each others sentences for a scene at a time, it is obvious that their fates are sealed.

Creature design is excellent.  There is a slight inconsistency in the idea of shot count that was a critical point in the original film and does not appear to be a big deal here.  Perhaps the trained dragons have been working out?

Djimon Hansou has been a vocal presence since Gladiator and he services an excellent bad guy.  What gamers call power creep (the idea that every new adventure must have a higher level of power than the ones before it to maintain dramatic tension) is here in spades, but it makes sense as part of Burke’s expanding resources and mobility.

Now for a handful of awesome truths without too much in the way of spoilers.

1] There are things more important than family (see the Patriot and the Bible for starters) but family is always going to be critically important, and they pay a price when we must choose larger things over them.  It’s not impossible for this to be true, I mean the apostles left their homes and families to follow Jesus around, and soldiers are not all single bachelors.

2] True love, real, true love, has the power to overcome the most incredible pains in life.  There is no loss or hurt that love cannot overcome if you endure in love.  This was present in the first story as well.  Hiccup crippled Toothless for life when he didn’t understand the harm he was doing, and they grew together closer than brothers as they learned to accept and love one another afterwards.  I can’t say how this principle shows up in this film without spoiling anything.  Here on earth, it showed up as a cross.

3] Love appears a lot in romance, but there is a ton of love outside of romance, and Family is what we make it.  Stoick’s best friend Gobber is as much part of their family as the rest, the crazy uncle who is not actually related.  Then a pet-oriented movie is perhaps the best genre to explore non-sexual love and passion for our loved ones.  It is a truth that we lose too easily as adults to our great detriment.

4] The pursuit of peace is very brave and noble.  The statement from First Knight that “There is a peace that can only be found on the other side of war.” is also true.  It is weaker to never make peace, and weaker to hold to pacifism beyond rationality like a child clinging to a worn out safety blanket that has no real power to banish the monsters in the world.  I love this film because it is about dragon-riding Viking warriors who seek peace first, and can really kick some butt without crying about it later when they need to.  Even Stoick the Vast, who seems to be the warmonger in this film, turns out to be a peacemaker who has a better read on the situation than his less-experienced son.

5] Hormones fire fast but they frequently miss the target.  (Right, twins?)

Right.  There is a lot more to say about this, but I will dig into the film some more with spoilers next weekend.

Mother’s Night Out

I just got back from Mom’s Night Out.

I laughed so hard that I cried.

There were no off moments in this film.  Hilarious guest appearances by Trace Adkins and Manuel Reyes of Group 1 Crew only added spice to a superlative family-friendly comedy.

I spent the first ten minutes of the film fighting back tears of laughter.  There was an excellent mix of drama and mother-affirming soft-core Christian message mixed in, but that is not what makes this film stand out.  There are some over-the-top moments but the true strength of the story is the humor of true life.  Parenthood sometimes approached what this film achieves with none of the raunch or off-color humor.

Most secular films do not have such a crisp sense of timing, or try half as hard as this film’s producers, screen writers, and actors.  Everything works here.

Everything.

I am going to own this movie, but I may have to see it in theaters at least two more times.

I very rarely give completely unmixed reviews.

I do not endorse this movie.  I demand that you go see it.

Now.

Superlative.

Simply superlative.

Banlieue Brick Mansions

Brick Mansions is this week’s film offering for the action-adventure crowd.  Fast cars, free-running, martial arts, and a thousand beat-up bangers top the list of general descriptions.  Brick Mansions is also the late Paul Walker’s last film.  People clued in to the international martial arts/action film scene know that Brick Mansions is a remake of the breakaway French film hit Banlieue13 (2004 in France released as District 13 in 2006 in the USA).

The big bonus draw for Brick Mansions was the return of the original Banlieue 13 star, the founder of Parkour itself, David Belle.  This is the man who made a hobby, a passion, and then a worldwide sensation racing across the roofs of French cities.  Digging into the credits reveals that Luc Besson (of whom I am a big fan) and Bibi Naceri returned as screen writers from the original film.

Brick Mansions delivered the contents of its previews.  A pair of forty-year-old actors did their best to play acrobatic action stars racing through the slums (Detroit this time instead of Paris, because to find the right kind of slum you need to find a city district the Democrats planned based on Soviet Communist models, and note that they got the same results, a collapsed economy and half-ruined buildings everywhere.  This quick history lesson provided gratis.)  David Belle provided an amazing athletic performance for a man his age.

I was very excited by the idea that Paul Walker, a life-long martial artist himself, was going to get to have a martial arts film on screen to add to his lifelong legacy.  But his performance was largely unmemorable.  Walker’s MMA style is solid, occasionally impressive as it integrated some nice joint manipulation in a fight scene handcuffed to a steering wheel, but a very poor fit for the Brick Mansions film.  David Belle’s spinning, flipping style stole every scene.  Walker phoned the acting in as well.  He was capable of much better performances.

There were a couple of breakout performances in this film.  RZA played Tremaine (replacing the French version’s Taho as gang leader in the abandoned slum).  Tremaine carried a great deal of charisma into the villain role, and it was easy to see how such a personality could lead among the evil people who followed him.  The newly added female villain Rayzah introduced a touch of low-rent James Bond villain into the mix.

Just as David Belle has lost a step from 29 to 39 years of age as a far-leaping acrobat and fighter, Brick Mansions comes in a step behind District 13 in every dimension except set design.

David Belle originally played against Cyril Raffaelli, an acrobat, stuntman, and whose Wushu-cum-Karate fighting style is a perfect spinning eye candy to stand up right along with Belle’s.  Several car chase scenes were added to service Paul Walker’s fan-base, but they did not advance the plot, and four minutes of Paul Walker clinging to a speeding car cannot replace Raffaelli ninja-ing the crap out of twenty stuntment in a casino.

Luc Besson’s original film had much better dialogue and interplay.  Brick Mansions is aimed for the fourth-to-sixth grade reading level for sure.  Banlieue 13 has a sweet speech by the cop that goes something like this (I may not get this word for word as I am translating from the French in my head):

“I’m here [in the slum that is not my home] fighting to save it because I believe in Liberty, Equality, and Fraternity [the core values of the French Republic], not just for some, but for all people, including the people here.  I believe in equal justice under the law, for all, not just for some, and that is what I’m fighting for.” -Raffaelli

Now for you in the American audience:

“I’m here trying to do the right thing.  Not everyone out there are assholes.” -Walker

Seriously?!

The fight scenes are cut down.  Banlieue 13 contained wide-angle shots in the Hong Kong style, meaning that every body motion of everyone involved is visible.  This film style is preferred among serious action afficionados because there is no room to hide.  David Belle really did thirty-foot leaps in the original movie, and we know because they were shot, uncut, from half a block away and a hundred feet up.  Brick Mansions choreographs jumps half as long and still cuts from the leap to the landing.  Maybe the director thought an ADHD American audience couldn’t sit still for the .304 seconds that it would take the actor to fly through the air, but it comes across as a cheat and makes it look like David Belle can’t do the stunt.  They are also cut down for Paul Walker’s lack of skill (relative to Belle and Raffaelli, who is one of the most famous fight choreographers to come out of Europe in the last fifteen years).

Then there are changes in plot and characterization that go against my grain.  We’re about to get briefly into spoiler land here, though the story has been out there for a decade so I’m not sure how much I can ruin.  I will try to be brief.

Instead of fighting for his kidnapped sister, David Belle’s hero now fights for an ex-girlfriend he doesn’t see any more.  Then instead of seeing the sister fight her chains to try and disarm a rocket, we get a semi-eroticized chick fight that is disturbingly brutal and bondage-themed.  The police investigator isn’t an idealist, so the plot arc that see his idealism grow and triumph in the end is replaced with some mob violence against the police.  The leader of the gangs, an open drug-dealer, murderer, kidnapper, and arms dealer, ends up being the savior of the city.  That’s what you get for casting RZA.

Though, since this is Detroit, I may agree that it would be a step up, not morally, but at least openly.  Wasn’t there a California state senator (a Democrat) arrested for gun smuggling with the Chinese Triad gangs after he passed a bunch of laws saying the law abiding people couldn’t have firearms?  Hm….

Brick Mansions is not bad.  It’s pretty good.  If it weren’t a remake of the truly excellent Banlieue 13 it wouldn’t lose by comparison.  Fortunately, the better movie is available on Amazon.com.

Noah: Genesis as told by Satan. Part One: [Spoilers]

UNDER NO CIRCUMSTANCES WATCH THIS MOVIE OR SUBSIDIZE IT WITH YOUR MONEY.

For those of you who are not about to take my advice, and want to witness it for yourself, or if you want a really quick education on what Satanic propaganda looks like, you should know that a ton of spoilers are about to ensue.

For the rest of you, this major big-budget film, while insidious and disgusting on many levels, is well-cast, beautifully acted, rich in graphics, much higher drama than I expected, and aesthetically pleasing in many ways.  It really does deserve a complete workup and analysis.  But I don’t have time since I have a job interview tomorrow morning more than two hours outside of town.  So here is the crash-course in how horrible a beautiful and well-made movie can truly be.

[SPOILERS]

The magic skin of Satan (as a snake) from the garden of Eden is how the faithful anoint their children at puberty, while they live off of moss and the Creator’s invisible power.
That’s right folks.  Satan’s body = baptism/circumcision.The Watchers are fallen angels.  Fallen angels fell because men sinned and they loved men SO much that they wanted to come down and help us, but God forbade it.  So they came to help us anyway, and mean old God warped them and trapped them in rock and refused their prayers for mercy and forgiveness.  [I shit you not, folks.  This line is straight out of old-school Alistair Crowley Satanism 1.0.  The Satanic party line is part of the mythology of the story.]
Noah attempts infanticide to save the world from the corrupt presence of people thereby restoring Eden.  Yep.  Noah is an abortionist and that is how to purify the planet.  Kill all the people so that creation can be right.
Noah’s sons Shem and Japheth don’t pass or hit (respectively) puberty and their wives don’t exist so we have to have some new babies so that they can be pedophiles later on in life.
The sin of man is not about how we treat men.  It is about how we treat nature.
The only person accurately quoting scripture’s command for man and creation is the murdering semi-cannibalistic bad guy.  Put God’s true word in the hands of the villain and Satanism a-la Greenpeace in the mouth of Noah.
Methuselah is Gandalf.  Deal with it.  There is even a you shall not pass moment where he slaughters hundreds of people to save the poor innocent demons fallen angels after the creation of cities and industry corrupted them all.
God wants people to live as hunter-gatherers, never mind that 60-80% infant mortality rate.
People eat meat before the flood.
Noah is appointed to judge people guilty, because God saw that he would be a good judge.  The arc is his instrument not his salvation.  His mission is to kill everyone and have men die out.  He fails and men survive.  Noah’s redemption as a hero is to reject God’s plan for the flood and let his family live.
But God is OK with that, returns the magic skin of Satan so the church can continue to bless future generations.
Noah doesn’t call anyone to repentance.  The ark is there because they need to die.

The ark is built by Noah’s pet demons.  Literally.

There is more.  There is so much more.  But this should suffice for now.