Friday, June 24, 2022

Top Gun: Maverick, a review

From Mustangs to modernity... looking forward, and back.
I had more fun watching Top Gun: Maverick than I had any right to.

I trekked to the theater the other night to catch a viewing and am so glad I did. You could not wipe the grin off my face. Not from the moment Tom Cruise delivered a classy, simple, direct, pre-movie thank you message to the audience, to the end credits, where I said to myself, damn, that was fun.

This film was just what I needed at the moment, and I think a lot of Americans did as well.

I cannot begin to express how much I enjoyed the absence of political messages. The cast is diverse, but naturally so. There is no demoralizing, divisive moralizing. No 50 shades of gray, everyone is shit including the heroes-type messages. 

And yet, this film has a heart, and more complexity than the original. It is pro-American but without being jingoistic. Just optimistic. 

Optimism … remember that? We all could use some of that right now, in this torrent of daily negative news, and divisive nastiness. The film delivers it. I suspect it’s part of the reason for its smashing box office success. A needed message, at the right time.

Top Gun: Maverick could have gone in a different direction. The broad lines of the plot are that the Navy calls upon an aging Cruise/Maverick to instruct a group of young pilots, who are needed to fly a dangerous, low altitude bombing mission to destroy a nuclear enrichment plant. This naturally raises some questions. Who is the country that wants to enrich uranium? Shouldn’t a sovereign country have this right? Why should the U.S. be the world’s police? Etc.

The film avoids asking them.

These are fine questions … but they don’t belong in a film like this, which served a different purpose. That Top Gun: Maverick doesn’t dwell on them not make it a bad film. Just a film with a different lens. You can say that this simplicity is a fault, but I disagree.

So, is this just a simple, dumb action film? Surprisingly, no. It is a commentary on aging gracefully. Letting go of the need to control everything, and accepting help—which is not a weakness, but rather a sign of growth and maturity. Tom Cruise’s character was finally able to do this, completing an arc which began in the first film when he famously abandoned his wingman.

I loved the commentary on the role of humans in an increasingly technological age. The drone revolution is coming, unmanned planes are on the horizon. We can all see this, and wonder what it will mean. But as Cruise says in the film—that time ain’t yet. Bravery and ambition still have a place, people have a role to play in the fortunes of the world. You can feel that same sentiment at a meta level, in the film goer experience too. Leaving your house and watching a movie on a big screen with a group of people in all their messiness, still has value, still delivers something that a solitary Netflix viewing on a computer cannot replicate.

Top Gun: Maverick acknowledges that the world has changed in the last 35 years, and that more changes are on the horizon, but also acknowledges there is still value in the old ways. If that makes the film conservative on some level, then so be it. But without any tradition, shorn of our old stories, what do we have? There is value in looking forward, and back.

I’m not afraid to admit that I enjoy nostalgia. I understand it can be manipulative, even harmful if the intent is to obscure the truth. In large, heavy doses it becomes cloying, even sickening, like eating too much sugar. This movie struck the right balance. A love and respect for the original film, many nostalgic callbacks and references but not obnoxious.

It is far-fetched? Of course. [MINOR SPOILER ALERT] When Cruise and Goose’s son find a fueled up, fully operating enemy F-14 to effect their escape, it nearly broke the third wall for me. Nearly, but not quite. And hell, was it ever fun.

Speaking of fun… the jets are a marvel, but then again I'm smack-dab in the target audience. My dad used to take me to air shows as a kid and I have seen the Thunderbirds and Blue Angels fly. I have seen F-14s and F-16s and F-18s up close, felt the roar of their afterburners in my chest. I’ve been to the Air Force National Museum in Dayton, OH. I have a deep respect for military aircraft. Fighter jets are impressive, their raw power and maneuverability. And in Top Gun the F-18 is on full, glorious display. The film contains very little CGI compared to most modern action films and as a result felt entirely convincing. The stunts are real, performed in real planes flown by highly skilled pilots with the actors filmed in the same planes, experiencing the same G forces. 

This is one you should catch while it’s still in the theaters. The studio held this until the pandemic subsided and I can see why. The medium, the message, factored in the decision to get people back in the flesh in real theaters, enjoying the experience together. It worked, at least for this guy.

Wednesday, June 22, 2022

Whetstone #5: A review

Where do new sword-and-sorcery authors go to test their mettle in the arena, seeking glory (or at least, companionship with fellow brothers and sisters-in-arms)? And where might you find the occasional veteran belly up to the bar, with a rousing tale to add to the cacophony of combat?

Why, in the pages of Whetstone, the amateur journal of sword-and-sorcery.

I just finished reading Whetstone #5 and wanted to share a few impressions.

First of all, look at the cover of this thing. This is as close to perfect as it gets. While you could say it leaves you with the wrong impression—Whetstone is not an OSR gaming publication—it conveys what the contents are all about—nostalgia for an old(er) subgenre of fantasy, given new life with new interpretations and new voices.

Editor Jason Ray Carney’s intro is worth reading. So many of us have spent much digital ink, arguably too much, trying to find some precise definition for sword-and-sorcery. At times it gets tedious--this coming from a guy who wrote a complete non-fiction treatment (as Arnold said in Conan the Destroyer, “Enough Talk!”)

Carney boils down S&S to a general feeling rather than specific tropes. This is as good as lens as any when analyzing the genre. Carney instead focuses on why we like S&S, which he identifies as its depiction of conflict, often against an amorphous threat that is simultaneously tangible and supernatural, and possibly representational or symbolic:

What do we feel when we imagine a brutalized sword and sorcery writer laughing at the stars? What do we feel when we read about a mere mortal--an ephemeral form--violently confronting eternity, the cosmos, the infinite in all its eternal strangeness? Why are sword and sorcery writers obsessively drawn to their primary theme: the unresolved antagonism between the natural and the supernatural? The profane and the sacred? The individual and the cosmos?

On to the contents.

Reviewing collections of short stories by multiple authors is tricky. Attempting to review 20 stories one-by-one is folly, not something I have the time to do, and the result would be brief unhelpful encapsulations. The stories are all very short, as the submission guidelines call for stories between 1500-2500 words, no more no less. So even if they are not to your taste, they pass quickly.

This is an amateur magazine so don’t go into it expecting to read peak Robert E. Howard, Clark Ashton Smith, Manly Wade Wellman, or even some of the better modern authors like Schuyler Hernstrom. A couple of the writers have recognized names and bodies of work, but most are cutting their teeth. As a whole, almost all the stories were entertaining (some were deliberate and welcomed tongue-in-cheek, for example the charming yet gory “The Riddle of Spice”). I detected some obvious Conan the Barbarian (film) influence, Howard, Smith, and Fritz Leiber and Michael Moorcock notes and influences in many of the stories. Gladiatorial pits feature prominently, as do stories of vengeance. Some stories feel like unfinished parts of a bigger story, interludes or chapters. There are some recurring heroes from previous issues of Whetstone, old champions making their returns to the ring.

Naturally I liked some more than others and wanted to call out a few highlights.

I enjoyed T.A. Markitan’s “Just Desserts,” specifically for the tone it strikes, and its inventiveness: A warrior accompanied by a playful ghost, and a village with dark secrets. It’s well-conceived, and well-executed, a cascade of weird elements in a tightly-plotted little gem of a story with a fun reveal at the end.

Gregory D. Mele’s “Salt Tears” deftly sketches an island culture and customs and tells a compelling little story of muted heroism and regret. He does a fine job making a foil, Bembe, both a bastard and somewhat sympathetic. It also comes to a satisfying, thoughtful conclusion. Well done stuff.

Chuck Clark’s “Doors” leaves you wanting more of his recurring character Turkael, who is a hero but with a mysterious past, one of a group of faceless men with crystal bones and uncanny swords. It feels like you’ve been dropped into a larger story, both for better and for worse, but more of this character is revealed in previous issues and I expect future installments of his story will be coming.

Nathaniel Webb’s “The Smoke Ship” has possibly the best depiction of battle in the issue (the last story in the collection might have it beat), a weird and ghostly sea battle that feels desperate and real, and a nice blend of the historical and mysterious.

I really enjoyed Cora Buhlert’s “Village of the Unavenged Dead.” It reads like Clark Ashton Smith but without the baroque language. There is a detached air to the writing, almost a fairytale feel, yet it's a fast-moving story of revenge with sympathetic protagonist and a satisfying resolution. The story could have gone ultra-dark but Buhlert reins it in nicely.

Whetstone #5 concludes with a tale by polished veteran of the craft, Scott Oden’s “At the Gate of Bone.” This story reminded me very much of David Gemmell or Steven Pressfield, a grizzled warrior relaying an old tale of a valiant but doomed last stand against an overwhelming horde. Orcs and badass horn-helmed warlords and spilled viscera. Really good stuff if you like that sort of thing.

What are you waiting for? Whetstone is free; test its steel and see if it’s to your liking.

Sunday, June 19, 2022

A lucky man this Father's Day

The Murphy Clan.

These tasted as good as they look.

My old man is 78 years old and not in the best of health, but today he was doing OK and so I got to spend a few hours with him on Father's Day.

We drank a couple beers in the driveway and ate some pretty good ribs I spent the day smoking. It was overcast and cool, perfect weather to sit outside and shoot the shit.

One story I don't believe I ever relayed here: When I was a boy my dad read to my brother and I Jack London's "The Call of the Wild." We were very young, I was no more than 7 or 8. It's probably unheard of these days to read something that old and raw and primitive and violent, but I loved every page of it, and am quite certain it fueled my love of the fantastic. 

The t-shirt I'm wearing in this picture above was purchased in Ireland in 2007, during a trip I got to take with him. Ireland has a Murphy's Pub? Who knew. 

Thanks for everything Dad. Happy Father's Day dude. Love you.

Friday, June 17, 2022

Lin Carter: Enthusiast of the Fantastic

My latest post for the blog of Tales from the Magician's Skull is up: Lin Carter: Enthusiast of the Fantastic.

The world needs more Lin Carters: Enthusiasts who love sword-and-sorcery and sword-and-planet and wear that passion on their sleeve.

Thursday, June 16, 2022

On staying in and weaving out of reading lanes, and Stephen King’s Christine

Feel the fury, of a possessed 1958 Plymouth Fury

My reading often keeps me in a well-worn, familiar travel lane. 

That lane is, broadly, fantasy. Sword-and-sorcery being the sweet spot.

Adjacent lanes are horror, SF, and adventure fiction/historical fiction.

I also read a lot of non-fiction—some for work, some for self-improvement, but also stuff like WWII history, true crime, maritime disasters. I put non-fiction in a separate category. I read it with a destination in mind, getting things done for important reasons, like learning a new skill. Think airline business travel. As opposed to fiction which (ideally) is like getting behind the wheel of a 1969 Chevelle SS and hitting the gas.

Come to think of it, sword-and-sorcery is like a 1960s/70s muscle car. Loud, powerful, a little dangerous. Like a vintage muscle car I enjoy its aesthetics, how it performs. It has its drawbacks. It’s not always safe, or reliable. It has poor gas mileage. But, when its Robert E. Howard, or Fritz Leiber, or Poul Anderson, or Jack Vance, it’s pretty reliably fun, at least. Sometimes, more than that.

But occasionally I turn the wheel, to the left and right, and veer out of my reading lane. Once in a while I go off-roading, or change cars altogether.

The driving metaphors are coming freely/obnoxiously because right now I’m immersed in Stephen King’s Christine. I haven’t read this one in oh… 25 years? 30? I don’t know about you, but my mind is a sieve when it comes to retaining (most) details of books read long ago. So my memory of Christine is awful scant. The good news is, this 40-year-old book (published 1983) is almost new to me at this point.

Christine is quite good so far, very compelling. As King often is, especially his older stuff.

Anyways, the experience got me to thinking… what is my lane, and why do I stay in it? What causes me to drift, or swerve?

Underneath it’s all the same urge. To find great writing.

I place good, entertaining writing as the highest value in my fiction reading, regardless of what form it takes. Good writing is followed by interesting ideas. Third, but still important, are the comfortable, familiar tropes (swords, wizards, battles, magic, monsters). 

It’s rare to get all of these in the same spot. When it does occur, as with something like The Lord of the Rings, “Beyond the Black River,” or Watership Down, it’s a book or a story that I will cherish, and return to again and again.

Back to Christine. This book definitely checks the first two boxes. It’s out of my fantasy/S&S lane. But, it delivers with good writing that is just plain fun. It almost feels cozy, with its ability to put me back in a time (it’s set in 1978) that is pretty close to my youth. The nostalgia is nice.

And, it contains an interesting idea.

The idea is the dangerous transition to adulthood. That’s what Christine represents. She is the machine that kids inherit, at 16 or 17 or 18, that guides them into a different phase of life. Buying your first car is a rite of passage. It feels adult, but it also allows you to escape the confines of your home, or immediate neighborhood, and go places. Making the transition to adulthood is something we all must do, and not all of us make it (literally—some die on the roadways, and figuratively--some remain stuck in perpetual childhood or adolescence). 

That’s scary, and King skillfully handles this idea in Christine. As with this passage, my favorite so far:

By the time I had the mounted tire back in my trunk and had paid the guy two bucks for the job, the early evening light had become the fading purple of late evening. The shadow of each bush was long and velvety, and as I cruised slowly back up the street I saw the day’s last light streaming almost horizontally through the trash-littered space between the Arby’s and the bowling alley. That light, so much flooding gold, was nearly terrible in its strange, unexpected beauty.

I was surprised by a choking panic that climbed up in my throat like dry fire. It was the first time a feeling like that came over me that year—that long, strange year—but not the last. Yet it’s hard for me to explain, or even define. It had something to do with realizing that it was August 11, 1978, that I was going to be a senior in high school next month, and that when school started again it meant the end of a long, quiet phase of my life. I was getting ready to be a grown-up, and I saw that somehow—saw it for sure, for the first time in that lovely but somehow ancient spill of golden light flooding down the alleyway between a bowling alley and a roast beef joint. And I think I understood then that what really scares people about growing up is that you stop trying on the life-mask and start trying on another one. If being a kid is about learning how to live, then being a grown-up is about learning how to die.

I love that line, “end of a long, quiet phase of my life”… that so describes my early years, too. And King’s familiar, blue-collar details—the Arby’s, the bowling alley—make it feel real, and relatable.

I suspect King was remembering a similar scene from his past, that flood of golden light, and that realization. And channeling his own experiences of growing up, and making the difficult transition to adulthood.

Christine also has something of the tropes I like. A demonic, ghostly car. But, this comes third. A possessed car is kind of a dumb idea to be honest. King makes it work, because he has the first two elements down pat.

In summary, here’s what I like about fiction.

  1. A great story that takes you to another place. When the author does so with tension, spooled out, building to a crescendo, maybe 2-3 times during the same book or story, I’ll read this book.
  2. The interesting idea underneath.
  3. The cool details, the paint and polish and shiny hood ornaments. Aka, the genre.

A bad story will miss on all three, or focus on one to the detriment of the others. You need balance. The worst is probably the story that aims at no. 3 and fails even at that. Think of the loud and dumb barbarian that apes Howard, the splatterpunk horror author who copies King’s gruesome details but whose writing lacks heart or purpose, or the requisite skill.

So yeah, Christine is not sword-and-sorcery, but is very much in an adjacent lane of my reading tastes. It checks (most of) the boxes I enjoy. 

Now we’ll see if King can stick the landing—not his strongest suit.

Wednesday, June 15, 2022

Thune's Vision/Schuyler Hernstrom

I love this cover... weird and trippy, violence beneath, like the contents.

DMR Books/Dave Ritzlin has published my review of Thune's Vision, by Schuyler Hernstrom. Head over and give it a read; it's spoiler free but hopefully speaks to why I think so highly of it, and this author.

If you like sword-and-sorcery/sword-and-planet/weird fiction, and care as to whether it will survive in the current era, you should support good modern authors who practice it. Try this, or his The Eye of Sounnu. You won't be disappointed. In an age when Brandon Sanderson can net $41M on a kickstarter (seriously? what the fuck) we need to find a way to support sword-and-sorcery authors who can deliver great storytelling, and paint worlds, and make you think, in 1/4 of the real estate of most "fat fantasy."

Thune's Vision is now available for purchase on Amazon. I believe DMR will be reselling as well.

Tuesday, June 14, 2022

S&S updates: Scaling the walls of Venarium, and assorted essays

A couple updates from my corner of S&S fandom.

I’m psyched/pumped/jacked to announce that I was honored with the Venarium award from the Robert E. Howard Foundation, at the recent Robert E. Howard Days in Cross Plains, TX.

The Venarium is given to an emerging scholar in Robert E. Howard studies. Per the foundation, candidates must have recently begun making significant contributions to Howard scholarship through publications and/or presentations over the past few years.

I’ve been at this stuff since 2007, but really in two distinct phases. As you will see from the absence of posts from 2013-2019, I took a long “break” from blogging, writing essays, etc. to work on Flame and Crimson, and I believe the publication of the book, coupled with my recent re-investment in the blog, writing REH related material for The Dark Man, The Journal of American Culture, DMR/Goodman Games, etc., rendered me eligible. In a rare tie I shared the award with Willard M. Oliver. Congrats Will!

I’m honored, and doubly disappointed I could not be at Cross Plains to receive the award in person. I’ve already told my wife that I’m absolutely going next year, unless Russia decides to invade, or North America sinks Atlantis-like under the waves of the rising oceans. The theme next year I believe is the Weird Tales centennial (first issue 1923), which could make for some excellent panel sessions.

Congratulations to all the winners. I was particularly happy to see Jason M. Waltz win the Valusian award for his work as editor of Robert E. Howard Changed My Life, which I reviewed here on the blog, and Jason Ray Carney win the Costigan for his efforts editing Whetstone: Amateur Magazine of Pulp Sword and Sorcery. Both very worthy.

And a sincere thank you to the Robert E. Howard Foundation for hosting the awards and honoring the work of those who keep REH’s name alive.

In other news…

This week I have two essays scheduled for publication, for the two websites I presently write for.

Tomorrow I expect to see a review of Schuyler Hernstrom’s Thune’s Vision up on DMR Books. Spoiler alert: Loved it.

Friday I expect to see “Lin Carter: Enthusiast of the Fantastic” up on the site of Goodman Games/Tales from the Magician’s Skull. Carter was born this month in 1930 and passed away in 1988. My stance on him, while never close to negative, was perhaps ambivalent. It’s softened in recent years. I summarize his contributions as enthusiastic and influential editor and general spectator on the S&S scene in the 60s through the 80s, concluding that we need more Lin Carters these days.

I’ll link to both of those here when they appear.