Friday, July 26, 2013

Stuff and Nonsense

There have been a lot of things happening and mentions on the web recently, and I thought I would collate them here. One thing that I have noticed in the Facebook Marching Society is that we often fire off a like, or a share, or a note and then it gets completely lost in the thundering avalanche of cat pictures and posts about lunch.

First off, the Kobolds. Wolfgang Baur and his merry crew are offering a Bundle of Zobeck, a collection of DRM-free PDFs, all for the price of ... whatever you want to pay. That simple and that complex. We're talking a lot of good gaming product here, at a cost of ... whatever. But wait, there's more! You can designate a part of your payment for charity. Wolf has chosen two charities - Heifer International, and the American Association for the Advancement of Science. PLUS the bundle includes the frankly-amazing Midgard Campaign Setting, to which this humble author has contributed.

Go Vote. You know you want to.
Speaking of Kobolds, the Midgard Campaign Setting and things that this humble author has contributed to, voting for the ENnies is open. The ENnies, given at Gencon, are gamer-voter awards and .. well, the voting is a bit more complicated than the Washington State Primary, but if you understand THAC0 and Pathfinder, I think you'll manage just fine. The Midgard Campaign Setting (edited by the masterful Michele Carter) is up for Best Setting, while the Kobold Guide to Worldbuilding (which this humble author has also contributed to but, more importantly, was edited by the joyous Janna Silverstein) has been nominated for Best Writing and Best Game-Related Project. Dark Roads and Golden Hells (which this humble author did NOT contribute to, but still is really good product) is up for Best Supplement. Voting is until the end of the July.

Meanwhile, in non-Kobold gaming material, a lot of the old TSR/WotC gang are working on cool stuff. First up is Lester Smith with a Kickstarter for his Clashing Blades card game. Lester designed this game ages ago and this is for printing a customized deck. Then, Tim Brown is returned to his Dark Sunish roots with Dragon Kings, which will be a combination music/game product with art by Brom and design from the talented Thomas Reid. And Rich Baker and Dave Noonan have formed up Sasquatch Game Studios, and are Kickstarting their first project, Primeval Thule.

And as for me, I seem to be popping up in a number of places. Ten Ton Hammer did a "where are they now" bit on me, which was nice, and Ranting Dragon did a review of my first novel, Azure Bonds (written with Kate Novak, also known as the Lovely Bride), which was also nice. Topless Robot talks about my work in the little-known but apparently-appreciated game Dyvil, which I literally wrote on a dare for Steve Miller. Blog of Holding mentions a proposal I wrote years ago involbing a world wrapped in clouds. The Star Wars site Rooqoo Station gave a mention of my Pacific Rim review and Jay Lake (whose work I admire and whose blog I regularly scan for his link salad, though I don't know how he does it daily) mentioned my piece on Lovecraft. AND there's an interview with myself and fellow Loremasters Ree Soesbee and Scott McGough on Guildmag

And I have in my hands a copy of 13th Age, by former WotCites Rob Heinsoo and Jonathan Tweet, with art by Lee Moyer and Aaron McConnell. I read one of the early drafts, and was impressed enough to blurb it (and yeah, I meant what I said on the back cover) and now I look forward to reading it in the final form.

So for an old guy, and I don't seem to be slowing down too much. And that's a good thing.

More later,

Thursday, July 25, 2013

The Political Desk: The Jeff Recommends

So, to sum up. In this lackluster election primary, there are just a few things to vote on up here on Grubb Street. The reasons and general complaints are elsewhere in the blog. Here's my take:

King County Proposition No. 1 Parks Levy - Vote Approved, but go ahead, grumble about it.

King County Executive - Dow Constantine, with no one as a second choice.

Port of Seattle Commissioned Position No. 3 - Stephanie Bowman, with Michael Wolfe as a second choice.

City of Kent Council Position No. 6 - Bailey Stober, with Ken Sharp as a second choice.

Kent School District No. 415, Director District No.5 - Three-way tie with Bruce Elliot, Carmen Goers, and Maya Vengadasalam. (Don't let anyone tell you I'm dictating your choice, here).

Sadly, I am not involved with the Seattle Mayor Contest, which looks like it will be the most amusing of the lot, but as we say up here on Grubb Street, More Later.

Monday, July 22, 2013

The Political Desk: Chevy to the Levy

The last official thing on my ballot is the King County Proposition No. 1 Parks Levy, which feels like a repeat, since there ALWAYS seems to be King County Proposition, and it is always No. 1, and it often involves funding out parks. It is the electoral version of an Eagles farewell tour- even if we like it, we keep seeing it come back.

And I've gone on about this sort of thing before - THIS they let us vote on. It is the cute bunny of the budgetary items, because it is after all, for the parks and recreation and the zoo, after all. And no one hates the zoo, right? It feels like I'm being approached by Jimmy Fallon on one of those credit card commercials, and I'm the little kid in the jumper who comically says no.

Well, I don't say no - though I feel like a soft touch whenever I get to this part of the ballot. If you hate taxes, parks, cute bunnies, laughing children, and freedom, you should definitely vote NO, but I'm going to bite the bullet, take the tough stand (yeah, right), and recommend APPROVED on this one. But I am going to be a grumpy cat about it.

More later,

The Political Desk: A City Called Kent

So now we are really granular with the analysis, getting to the point where less than a handful of people that read this will actually vote in the election, and some of them will be the candidates googling their own names. Where even the Muni League doesn't cover them. We are talking about City Council for Kent (Position 6) and a School District Director (District #415, Director District No. 5).

And it is at this level that political barriers tend to break down. You have to do some hunting in the endorsements to figure out if you're dealing with Dem or a Rep. And really, that is not as important at this point because the people involved tend to represent their communities beyond just political faction. These are positions where they have the meetings, hold the votes, and drive fifteen minutes to get home for a late supper. They are in contact with their constituents on a daily basis, and it reflects in their approach and attitude.

This is also where people get their start politically, where they are running for elections and getting into the tedious parts of government where to meet and you listen. And listen some more. So this is the minor leagues, but truly where people get tested.

Not everyone is a pro - For the City Council position, only one of the candidates has a working web site up. One of the others lacks one mentioned the Voter's Guide, and a third has a site, which at the time of this writing, consists of a single image of the campaign logo. Seriously, we are in a technology-rich area - there are people available who can do this sort of thing (and I may have some leads - email me).

However, I really want to state that, based upon the write-up the Voters' Guide,  my initial approach to all of these candidates is that they are sane. I know this sounds like a gag, but it's not - just look at some of the candidates elsewhere. There is not a lot of warning signs, not that tell-tale that, entrusted with the vote, they will go haring off in some strange direction. And actually, that makes me feel pretty good.

So, Kent City Council. Barbara Phillips has previous experience with the Land Use and Planning Board. Bailey Stober worked previously on the Washington State Commission on African American Affairs, and has a host of endorsements (he's also the one with functioning web site). Ken Sharp is a local businessman and former president of the Chamber of Commerce. All want to see Kent grow as a safe and prosperous community, Forced into a corner, I would go for Mr. Stober, and say that Ms. Phillips would be chopped not go on to the General, but to be truthful, I wouldn't call this one way or the other.

Similarly, the school board. Bruce Elliot, Carmen Goers, and Maya Vengadasalam all present a personal stake in education. None of them are professional pols. All of them want to give the kids a good education. And while I am happy to see three solid candidates, I'm not going to tell you which is best - take a look at their own write-ups. There are no really bad choices.

And that's kind of a good thing.

More later,

The Political Desk: Hey, the Airport is a Port!

Back to stuff that I can actually vote on - Position 3, Port Commissioner. This is a board which oversees not only the sea port (bringing things in) but the airport (bringing people in). And it is interesting in that this year, all three candidates actually talk about the airport in the Voter's Guide.

Also interesting is that the Port Commission has been for years the easy target for looking for corruption. Yet for the past few, things have honestly gotten quieter. So while the humor factor is definitely reduced, it is in danger of slipping into the type of quiet competency that the PNW likes.

Anyway, the candidates are (pick two - well, pick one but the top two go on to the General Election):

First up is Stephanie Bowman, of whom we said nice things about when she was running for State Legislature, and has been temping in the job for a while. She is also the one who alludes (blink and you'll miss it) in her write-up to not wanting to export fossil fuels through the ports, which is a reference to the proposed coal trains coming into downtown Seattle. Michael Wolf is packing a lot of endorsements, and his main thrust is tourism coming in through the airport. Andrew Pilloud is a software engineer, and of the three touches on the idea that we may have too much security, to the point where we are terrorizing ourselves (which you must admit, is a time-saver, as opposed to waiting around to be terrorized). I like the cut of Andrew's jib, but I am afraid he will be the one to pack his knives and go be eliminated. Stephanie Bowman is a good call, and like Michael Wolf as well, so I will have to revisit this one.

More later,

Sunday, July 21, 2013

The Political Desk: The Rest of King County

So, I get to vote for the King County Exec, but I don't get to vote in the primary for either of the two positions for King County Council that have three+ candidates. This is because a few years ago, we switched from at-large positions (where a candidate has to appeal to everyone in the county) to district positions (where a candidate only has to appeal to those in his/her district).


District elections, top-two primaries, "preferred" political parties. I swear I am just one more bone-headed move away from getting my Mossback card and being allowed to complain about how nice Seattle was before all these Californians moved up here and raised the housing prices.

On the other hand, I have come to like our mail-in elections, so there's that.

Anyway, King County Council, where the primary will get rid of one of the challengers who will face the incumbent, who is better known anyway. We have two races here (neither of which I can vote on, but you've probably heard about that).

Position 1 has a relatively young incumbent, Rod Dembowski, who was chosen to fill out previous incumbent Bob Ferguson's term when he ascended to be Attorney General. He gets good marks from the usual suspects, has a slew of endorsements (including Bob Ferguson), and according to his write-up in the guide, wants to protect the environment, fund transportation, push health care, reduce crime, and increase transparency. Naomi Wilson wants to push health care, fund transportation, and improve social services. John Fray wants to protect the environment, fight for veterans, likes Patty Murray, and quotes Al Gore. I'm going to say that Mr. Fray will not be the Next Food Network Star King County Councilperson, and that, long-term, Rod Dembowski will get a full term.

Position 9 has Reagan Dunn as its incumbent, and he'll go on to the general, which is kind of a pity, since he's had a hard time making meetings, and shows up to vote against anything that even hints at effective revenue increases. He's got good hair and a known name (his mom was a moderate Republican in the days before you had to put air-quotes around the word moderate) and was beat up by Bob Ferguson when he ascended to be Attorney General, so you'll see him again. Shari Song is a reasonable challenger, who is running as not being Reagan Dunn, and has a fistful of solid endorsements. Kristina Macomber is also a newcomer, and while she identifies herself as being the only Democrat in the race, most of the Democrats have endorsed Ms. Song. Ms. Macomber will likely have to leave Masterchef kitchen be eliminated in the primary, and Position 9 would be well-served to consider Shari Song.

Next up, the Port!

More later

Saturday, July 20, 2013

The Political Desk: King County Executive

OK, Let's put aside the whinging and get down to actually things I will have to vote on.

The position of King County Executive is, in the words of a friend, "The mayor of the county". That's a pretty good description, as it covers both those areas not covered by other municipalities (so it is in charge of the King County Sheriff's Office), as well as services that span multiple communities (such as transportation). It has a lack-luster name, and to be frank, is not a gold and glory position. The current office-holder is Dow Constantine.

Two candidates will emerge from this primary, Dow Constantine, and the Guy Who Will Lose to Dow Constantine. This is because Mr. Constantine has pretty much acquitted himself well, and has showed wisdom in working with the King County Council (yeah, we have one of those as well). Strong on environment and transportation, strong on consensus, reduced the cost of government, and most importantly, hasn't done anything to embarrass us. No, really, that's a big thing we look for in a politician. Don't make me sorry I voted for you.

So what about the other guys? For them, low on cash and exposure, the Voter's Guide is their Oscar moment, the place where they can talk to on an equal footing with a better known, better funded, more experienced opponent. Let's take a look.

Allan E. Lobdell is a bit earnest in his presentation and has a tendency to put everything in bold and underlining it. Still, he touts a Civil Engineering background, and I am a sucker for that sort of organization. If you hate Dow Constantine for some reason (he backed out of your driveway and took out the mailbox, or something), he'd be the good choice.

Goodspaceguy is a perennial candidate. When I first moved out here, he would run for local offices on a platform of how we can solve all out problems by going out into space (and yet the King County Aeronautical and Space Administration remains woefully underfunded to this day). He has since evolved his positions from being a single-issue candidate on space to being a single-issue candidate on destroying the minimum wage, which is responsible for all unemployment and crime (meanwhile, in Reality, King County has a hefty minimum wage and the lowest unemployment in the state. Crime's on the downswing, too). But don't let that stop statements like this:
"If right now the minimum wage were raised to $100 per hour, most people would lose their jobs, and our competitive free market economy, that works for you the consumer, would collapse. Crime and violence would skyrocket."
And pondering the truth of this statement, I must add that if bears were 200 feet tall, then we would have to construct giant twin-piloted battlesuits in order to protect our National Parks. So where ARE our Smokeyjaegers, eh?

Lastly, Everett A. Stewart comes with strong ideas on transportation, which is good, since that is something that actually the King County Executive is involved with. And some of the ideas he pitches are downright lefty - a carbon tax, a tax on the wealthy (income? estate? luxury?), and more electric buses. Then he gets bogged down on the question of bus drivers having to go the bathroom, and how long hours create duress and unsafe situations (I get the feeling there was a real-life situation that spawned this, and yeah, being in a vehicle when you need the loo is not a pleasant situation - now imagine it when you have a schedule and about thirty people sitting behind you). He wants to address this by not granting overtime and by using part-time bus drivers. Hang on, I'm not quite sure how that the latter part quite agrees with the first part, but by that time the orchestra is warming up to play him off.

In any event, I'll just say Dow Constantine here, with Mr. Lobdell as "The Other Guy".

More later.

The Political Desk: Enter, Ranting

Let us start of off with a bit of rant, which involves absolutely nothing that I can vote on this primary, but does cast a long shadow over the election.

Washington State is lucky in that it is dominated by the Democratic party, which means it tends to avoid the worst effects of the Banana Republic of Texas, the Plunderocracy of Wisconsin, or the Mad Max Kingdom of Florida. In each of these states a Republican majority has proceeded to dramatically drive the wealth and well-being of the state off a cliff. In state after state, letting the GOP drive the car has resulted in spectacular headlines, baffling decisions, lousy economies, and general misery.

Washington? Not so much. We are gifted with a sense of moderation, and even our Republican (in general) are of the relatively sane version (though we have those who are completely creatures of ALEC, they are in the minority). Similarly, we seem to be cautiously progressive at best, our Dems wary of wholesale social engineering and government activism. Part of it, I think, is the fact that a lot of power is placed within our legislature as opposed to our executive, and that legislature is a part-time operation.

So this year, something changed. A couple Democrats flipped in the State Senate, led by Rodney Tom, a Medina-based Republican-turned-Democrat-turned-SURPRISE! So their switch of caucuses, plus the re-acquisition of a GOP Senator who had been previously banned from caucusing for reported abuses gave the GOP a "Majority Coalition" - meaning all the Reps and the two Dems who changed sides.

OK, the Republican party gets to drive the Senate for a while. And while there have not been the almost-daily embarrassments you get with in other GOP-held provinces, their tenure has not been particularly stellar. The budget, the prime raison d'etre of the body, was a pale, tepid thing, delivered in overtime, threatening to shut down the state government, failing to address the biggest problem in the state (education funding), failing on transportation and, most importantly, walking away from a sweet deal to build a new bridge over the Columbia at Portland. Oregon wanted it, the Feds were willing to underwrite the bulk of it, but the Senate just brought it to a halt. I suppose we will have to wait for a truck to hit it wrong and bring the entire structure down before they react.

So the Republican-dominated coalition have yet again gone out of their way to show that government doesn't work by getting in charge and proving it. To paraphrase Groucho - "Just what the fine-tuned machinery of government needs - five feet of sand." And in keeping with the GOP, the leader of this "Majority Coalition" seems to be totally unaware that people are unhappy with their performance.

But that's not the rant - that's just whining. The rant comes up for the Dems. Now, you'd think that given the palace coup and the lack of progress from the resulting coalition, the State Democratic party would be fired up for the election to retake the Senate. Put on a full-court press. Recruit some decent candidates and push the State GOP on a broad front.

Again, not so much. There are only three elections in the primary that have three candidates for them, and of the nine people vying for State Senate positions, only one of them "Prefers Democratic Party"(1). Really? There are no Dems east of the Cascades? Has the Democratic hierarchy been so burned by Rodney Tom's flip that they won't seek out conservative, pro-small-business Dems on the far side of the mountains? Are they so comfortable with the bulk of the population (and the parts of the state that are recovering nicely from the recession) that they can cast loose the eastern half of the state? For the supposedly more big-tented of the two parties, it is sad to see such a surrender of territory and viewpoints (and yeah, the Reps do this electoral calculus as well - running as GOP is a challenge in Seattle, at best).

But, given the near-miss with shutting down the entire pinball machine this session, the Dems should be out in force to regain, and, properly chastised, lead. And this oddly has an effect some other races (which I also am not voting for, but which are going to affect my life.)

More later on that,

(1) Yeah, we don't have recognized political parties in the election, but rather candidate-stated "Preferences". Its more than a little bit dumb, but that's a rant for another day.

Thursday, July 18, 2013

The Political Desk: Summer Session

What fresh hell is this? It is Mid-July, and already yard signs are appearing, mailings are starting to flow into the mailbox, and the Stranger and Seattle Times are making their normally bewildering endorsements (Note that only the Stranger makes theirs purposefully bewildering). It cannot be election season already, can it?

Indeed it is, hitting everyone up with the unwanted vibe of a back-to-school sale. The election deadline is in early August, and if you are in Washington State, you should be getting ballots any time now. So it is time to pull the blue tarpaulin off the Political Desk, chase out the raccoons that were nesting there, and start thinking about the citizen's contribution to the democratic process.

But it all feels so ... minor league. Triple A ball. Friday Night bowling tourney. Nickel and dime poker. After last year, we are facing a deficit of interesting challenges. Part of this is because of the nature of the top-two primary system. Since it is the top-two, only races that have three or more candidates will be considered at the moment. But part of the weakness of this year is also the timing. We have NOTHING at the national level. We are NOT electing the entire state executive branch. There are NO Judges under consideration in the Primary, and Initiatives and Referendums wait for the General Election. We are choosing (kinda) a King County Executive, there is a levy proposal, but other than that, I'm looking at School Boards, City Councils, a Port position. It is pretty lean times.

There ARE state legislature races, but I'm not voting in any of them that have three candidates. And the City of Seattle is choosing a mayor, and while it will have effects on my life, that race is not on my ballot. So I will make do, and lay out the stuff I know, and may just give some bonus points as well.

I am armed with not only the Stranger and Times' recommendations, but, as always, the relatively-trusty Municipal League ratings and the online Voter's Handbook. From this thin gruel I hope to seek enlightenment for the future, but this is really just pre-season - Cactus League Baseball, as we set up for the long, slow grind of the general. Bear with me.

More later (I'm afraid).

Wednesday, July 17, 2013

Beyond the Mountains of Bigotry

Here’s my problem.

I like the stories. I really want to see the movie. But the original writer of the stories is a stone-cold bigot, and I detest many of the ideas he endorses and espouses.

Oddly, I am not talking about Orson Card Scott and Ender’s Game. I am talking about HPLovecraft and the oft-proposed Mountains of Madness.

[OK, talking about OSC for a moment. I never read Ender’s Game – it came out in the mid-80s, when I was busy with a lot of other stuff, and I never caught the wave. I did read some of his Worthing Saga from the 70s and found that its central conceit (skipping through time by recorded memory) to be interesting but the delivery to be heavy-handed in its moralizing. That’s about it for me.]

Back to Lovecraft. I enjoy the sense of despair he evokes with an uncaring universe, his “Cosmicism” – that not only we are not the center of the universe; we don’t even matter to it. I also love his “Yog-Sothery” – his created world of strange gods that he hangs on his best tales, a universe which has expanded through other creatives into a greater creation – one of the first modern shared worlds.

But let’s face it – the man was a racist. Not just a creature of his times. Not a youthful indiscretion. Not just viewed with a modern lens. Not just misinformed. A barking mad racist. To him, pretty much all peoples who are not rock-ribbed white New Englanders were inferior, and the less you resembled Lovecraft, the worse you looked to him. His dark mutterings of subhumans and mongrel races permeates his text, and once he gets rolling, his is a most odious and repellent form of bigotry.

I like the man’s work (the parts where he not being barking mad), and I deeply love what he created, but to be honest, after five minutes in his presence, I would likely come across the table at him. He is petty and venal and a bigot.

And others have had to deal with this bigotry on a deeper level than I – talented writers of color who have been recognized for their work by awards with the Noted Racist’s head on it. The stalwart representative of Weird Tales, of that curious creation that is American Fantasy as a separate entity from its European forebears, is a poster boy for intolerance. What can be done?

Ignoring it is a mistake, a white-washing of the past, a denialism that does nothing for confronting the racism of its age and its metamorphed descendants in the present. Bowdlerizing his more offensive statements and pushing them to the back of the closest is dishonest to both him and ourselves. But how to accommodate the talent of the work with the failings of the author?

I think we simply say no. We tell him that this is not yours anymore.

This comes to me via the Call of Cthulhu RPG, where I have told numerous stories set in the Lovecraftian universe, a universe of the '20s, when overt racism (sexism, and any number of other isms) was more acceptable. So I have run adventures that have a strong racial or gender or nationalist component. Which means I and my players can choose what we want to talk about regarding those matters in the adventures.

[Indeed, this is something that CoC, with its limited Player Character empowerment and its deadly combat system does well. In CoC, you CAN bully the character around with hostile NPCs or a hateful universe. In D&D, you can have an Elf Warrior being refused service in a tavern, but if the Elf is 14th level, the tavern will likely not last long].

Many years ago, I ran the Beyond the Mountains of Madness campaign from Chaosium, a huge and recommended campaign that is a sequel to the story by Lovecraft. And one player wanted to run and African-American polar explorer.

OK, how to handle it? Saying no didn't work for me – there is a history of African American Arctic Explorers, and besides, player agency, the ability to do as they see fit within the parameters of the story, is part of the game. Instead I did the research and tried to treat the character accurately, but without frustrating the hell out of the player (it is a game, and he is a protagonist).

As a result, the institutional racism of the time kept hitting him with a thousand small cuts and the occasional two-by-four to the forehead, particularly in the “civilized” world. When the funders of the expedition first meet him, they are taken aback by his presence. Indeed, his character is interviewed last, left in the waiting room while the rest of the team gets the story pitch. One of the leaders of the expedition was an obvious racist, and barely concealed his disdain.  In NYC, the character is asked to used the service entrance, is initially denied access to the expedition’s hotel, and suffers from suspicion and latent hostility.

And when they get clear of New York, when the expedition heads south, that drops away, as the coherence of the team overwhelms the societal roles. I was actually pretty happy with the result (though in the adventure, they later meet Nazis (spoilers) and while I wanted to include an overly earnest German officer who “Really, really admires your Jesse Owens”, I never had the chance).  The comparison between the mores of larger society and the smaller expedition was marked. It was a good story, remained true to the era, and none of the challenges were squamous or tentacled.

In this I and the players have taken it all away from Lovecraft. We have said. “No. This is not solely yours anymore. We recognize your creation, but all like creations, it has gone beyond you.”

This should not be a surprise, I suppose. Creations, once they leave their originators, often evolve into new forms, forms that those originators would hardly recognize. Moving to a new media, be it games or movies, changes the substance of  the creation, and allows reinvention, for better or for worse.  O course, this is based on the assumption that the movie will be an exact representation of the book and the author’s original intentions. I mean, hasn't every new media adaption treated the works of, say, Frank Herbert (the David Lynch version of Dune), Ursula K. LeGuin (the Syfy Earthsea) or Alan Moore (just about everything) with respect and an eye towards the author's original intent? No. It is beyond the original creator when it gets to that stage.

And it is more than just a corporate control issue. Look at Star Wars. Lucas may have controlled the IP for many years, and his original three movies hold a deep place in the hearts of many of us, but his return to the universe for three more films elicited strong pushback from the very people who embraced his earlier work so dearly. The fans, in effect said “No. This is not yours anymore. Not yours alone.”

I think that is where I stand on Lovecraft. I want to haul out into the light of day his inherent and detestable racism, and to take this creation from him and make anew. Let us not sugar coat it. Let us take the ideas and press forward. The author, the artist, the original creator controls his or her vision, but as that vision passes through others (particularly in a large operation as a motion picture, or a shared universe as created with other creatives, or in RPGs), then the provenance is both weakened and broadened. It becomes part and parcel of our larger universe.

In effect, the same process that allowed OSC to re-imagine Hamlet as a hateful homophobic screed in turn allows others to influence, develop, and evolve his work. And will be the same process that will turn At the Mountains of Madness: The Movie, should it ever happen, into something that reflects other sensibilities than those of the author.

And I think I will go see that movie. And I will leave poor Howard, impoverished and barking mad, at the door, letting him howl and moon and wet himself publicly in whatever afterlife that would admit him. Let him rage against the presumption of those who work to get beyond his odious attitudes. I’m good with that.

More later, 

Sunday, July 14, 2013

Performance: A Bit of Gilbert and Sullivan

The Gondoliers (or, The King of Barataria) performed by the Seattle Gilbert & Sullivan Society, Seattle Rep, until July 27th

Even if you've only grazed Gilbert & Sullivan in popular culture (Linda Ronstadt, Groucho Marx, Sideshow Bob), you know about the big guns in their canon - Mikado, Penzanze, and Pinafore. Then there is the second tier not so well known - Utopia, Limited, Iolanthe, and here, The Gondoliers is godood G&S, but not one where everyone is aware of the plot. So let's call it minor canon, lesser Gilbert, reduced Sullivan.

And this is a performance of the Seattle Gilbert & Sullivan Society, which each year in the summer does about three weeks of Messrs G&S, rolling out the big guns and also paying attention to the second tier of the canon - the ones that won't get a major motion picture.

So, the Gondoliers, set in Venice and Spain - a light, sunny, breezy comic opera with just a bit of the Spanish Inquisition. No, that comes later. Let me fill you in on the plot, which is a simply tangled as a Gilbert plot can be: Two brothers who are gondoliers in Venice get married. Except it turns out they aren't really brothers, as one was brought to the city as an infant to escape the influence of his father, the King of Barataria, who became a Wesleyan Methodist and was later killed with the rest of the royal family, leaving the son the singular heir. But no one is particularly sure of which brother is the king, and which remains the gondolier. Oh, and the one that is the king was also married by proxy as an infant to Casilda, the daughter of the Duke of Plaza-Toro an impoverished noble (whose suite consists of a single drummer, who Casilda loves). No one is pleased with the situation, as the unknown king is also an unknown bigamist, and who is truly married to whom drives the play (though with several diversions).

The gondolier semi-brothers decamp to Spain, where they enact a Monarchy with Republican principles where they end up doing most of the work and living like less-than-kings. Their brides follow them and all discover the situation with Casilda. The nurse, mother to the drummer, who brought the infant king to exile is produced  to reveal who is the rightful ruler, and who remains married to whom. And then it is all wrapped up with a neat little bow.

And yeah, it doesn't make much sense than what I described, but it was light and appealing, and every single character is not the sharpest halberd in the guard. Except the ensemble. Someone has probably done a doctorate on this, but in Gilbert's work there is a tendency that the chorus does the best of the characters on-stage - and they seem to be at least a half-step ahead of the primaries and more than willing to take advantage.

There are light jabs at the monarchy and republicanism and corporatism, the last with the Duke, who escapes his impoverishment by turning himself into a Limited Liability Corporation. However, the singing good and the performances are top-notch and the chorus, as always, is solid and inventive. And it is hard to say whose story is the center - Casilda, whose marriage is in question, or the Palmieri brothers and their brides. All are good, though one Palmieri is a stronger singer while the other has better comedic moves, but they are both played by actors named Derek so I have a bit of a challenge determining who is who.

And there is a through-line with Grand Inquisitor, Don Alhambra, who is the closest thing that you get to a villain in a G&S production, who moves the action along, lays out the challenge of the unknown brothers, summons the resolution, and still has some time for a bit of torture on the rack. It is light and breezy bit of torture, but doesn't seem to be in my copy of the libretto, so I wonder if it a stage tradition or was part of the original play. I mean, one of the stop-the-presses the moment in the production was a Spanish Dance, which is merely noted in my print version as "(Cachucha)" inserted between the lines. Perhaps the torture is in the same mode.

In any event, it is a little gem of a operetta, put together in a sharp and enthusiastic production. If you are a fan of Gilbert & Sullivan, it is well worth your time. If not, you might want to hang out with the wiki entry before you go, just to get an idea of what's driving the play.

More later,

Friday, July 12, 2013

Pacific Rim and Star Wars

The gang at the office went out yesterday for an early viewing of the Guillermo del Toro movie Pacific Rim. I liked it a lot, and it reminded me of the original Star Wars from back in 1977.

OK, bear with me. I know a lot of you weren't even alive in 1977, and the thirty-five years since deposited an accretion of sequels, prequels, expanded universes, tech manuals, and a holiday-special-no-one-may-speak of on the film that obscures the heart of the franchise. But watching Pacific Rim, I got that smiling-despite-myself vibe of something new and exciting, and being there at the near-start.

Back in 1977, Star Wars was not expected to do much. The studio had banked on a much more traditional movie, a film with Jackie Gleason called Mr. Billion, to carry it through the summer, and Star Wars was a genre film, a space opera, that Sci-Fi stuff. There were radio ads, and Time Magazine ran an article talking about the special effects (because that was the only reason to go to a Sci-Fi picture), but there were no great expectations, and the film opened in all of 32 cinemas. In Pittsburgh, it was way the heck out in Monroeville in one of those new-fangled multiplexes.

Yeah, I couldn't resist
There are similarities and differences between the environments that the two films emerged into. Feuding between the distributors for Pacific Rim has resulted in leaked predictions of a horrible opening weekend. But to those paying attention, the trailers had a sense of wonder that hit an particular audience. And in this Internet world, those relinked, passed-along, peer-to-peer recommendations carry weight.

[As an aside, I first heard about Star Wars at the Pizza Keg in Purdue, where another member of the SCA, John M. Ford, was talking about this new SF movie that was coming out, where the BAD guys wear white space armor.]

The comparisons between the two films go deeper. Pacific Rim, like the original Star Wars, is a very straight-forward story. Very much the hero's journey. Luke Skywalker and Raleigh Becket are cousins. Here are the fun droids, and over here are the whacky scientists, one of which evokes C3P0 in his fussy mannerisms. Here's the hot-shot pilot with the funky name - am I talking about Han Solo or Hercules Hansen?  Princess Leia and Mako Mori both had their worlds destroyed, and yeah, you could see Carrie Fisher in a jaeger. Gipsy Danger, meet Millenium Falcon. The characters are not deep, but have that feeling that there is more to them than what we are being shown.

Ditto the universe. Original Star Wars did not name the aliens in the cantina - that would come later with the lateral development in the West End game. The kaiju are no more the stars of this film than the Death Star. The center of the film is with the humans, not their tools. Yeah, we have the desktop backdrops of the jaegers and the monster posters and someone HAS to have the RPG rights (or maybe not - they didn't think of that for Star Wars), so all the filling-in of the universe is already engaged. And it is all set dressing, assuring us there is a world behind this movie. But for right now, before the universe expands, we are standing at the first few moments of creation.

There is more than enough room for criticism and analysis, and it will come. It paces through a three-act structure - Act 1 (Chase the Hero up a tree) resolves before the opening credits, Act 2 (Throw rocks at him) is the bulk of the picture, and Act 3 (Get him down) kicks in with a St. Crispin's Day speech. This film fails the Bechdel test spectacularly. Mori demonstrates her fighting prowess early, but Becket has to fight for her honor. Threatening Hong Kong is aimed at the Chinese market, echoing such other films like Looper. Despite the diverse population of pilots, this ends up an American show. Plot holes will yawn wide over time with continual examination.  And I probably am already late to party comparing kaiju to terrorist attacks. But that is yet in the future - for the moment it is shiny and new and as yet unspoiled.

I think that's what made me smile. It was an original thing, a new universe. Yeah, I can see all the antecedents in Godzilla films and anime (and really, Ron Perlman is pretty much an anime character to start with). It is a beautifully-shot film that misses all the visual chaff we see with a lot of CGI - it actually has focus and continuity in almost all its shots. Hearing that most of the battle sequences were to be at night, in the rain gave me fears of the American Godzilla of 1998, but here it creates a feeling of menace and super-powered threat. It is not some road-tested and comfortable Intellectual Property of the past that is sold with the idea of a guaranteed audience, an audience they then cheese off by ignoring its previous core ethos. This is a good thing, and like the original Star Wars, feels complete in and of itself. I don't doubt that as I write this someone is threading the continuity needles to gin up a sequel, but for the moment, it stands alone. Enjoy that moment. And go see the film.

More later,