Friday, October 31, 2014

An interview with fellow writer Brandon Engel on all things science fiction

Brandon and I met through the blogosphere and have been corresponding via email about science fiction for a little while now. He already wrote one post for my blog regarding the "Deans of Science Fiction" and you can find that post HERE. I intend to post his next article on Monday. However, I thought all of you might like to know a little more about Mr. Engel, and you're all in luck because he allowed me to interview him.

So if you have twitter, please follow @BrandonEngel2 and without further ado, let's get started.

Q: Brandon, please share with us that special moment in your life when a story really grabbed you and you had that "this is really cool" moment.
Brandon being inspired by The Cask of
Amontillado is just in time for Halloween.
Oh the horror of being buried alive!

A: One of the defining moments of my childhood was picking up an Edgar Allan Poe anthology and reading The Cask of Amontillado. I was spellbound. That book (along with One Fish, Two Fish, Red Fish Blue Fish) made me recognize the escapist value of literature. Conan the Barbarian comics, and the work of Robert E. Howard, were also hugely significant to me early on.

Q: What kinds of things do you write? Someone as creative as you must have a pretty wild imagination.

A:  I write mostly non-fiction these days; typically analyses of vintage speculative fiction or films. I'm working on a few scripts for comic books now (with the goal of ultimately handing them over to friends who are trained illustrators) and I've also written a few plays. Ultimately, I'd love to tap out a novel, but it will be a few years before that happens.

Q: If someone were to ask you if Star Wars were science fiction or fantasy, how would you answer and why?

A: That is an excellent question. It's only science-fiction superficially. Science-fiction tropes and textures are integrated, but I've always had the sense that the primary focus of Lucas with this film is the mythology and his treatment of archetypes. Hard science, or musings about sciences in the future, seem to be largely absent or intellectually pedestrian when you measure that aspect of Lucas's work against say, Arthur C. Clarke's work. So much of his mythology is also so metaphysical, that it's hard to think of it as true science-fiction.

I was thinking of World War Z when I
asked the question about movies being
adapted from books. But there are many
others out there. Last Airbender anyone?
Q: If a movie is adapted from a book, how do you feel about the film maker taking liberties with the source material and changing the ending or altering the story significantly?

A: With film and literature you are dealing with two completely different forms. And what's more, because film integrates virtually every known artistic discipline there are more devices that can be employed. Music and imagery go a long way towards providing the tone that a reader might have to otherwise infer for themselves. The problem with film is that everything is basically being handed to you, having already been per-interpreted.  But with that being said, a filmmaker, who has an understanding of how to employ cinematic devices, is perhaps best equipped to understand what works on the screen as opposed to what works on the page, and should, therefore, have artistic input. I'm okay with it, so long as it serves the story.

Q: What is your opinion regarding young adult dystopian fiction (examples being The Hunger Games or The Maze Runner)?
Actor Reeve Carney plays my favorite Dorian
Gray in the Showtime series, Penny Dreadful.

A: Children will always have grim/macabre fantasies, and I don't have any issue on principle with contemporary authors pandering to that. That's one of the true values of escapist literature, in my opinion it enables us to confront real-world anxieties in a safe way. This is especially important for kids. With that said, though, I think younger readers would be better off reading something like Harry Harrison's Make Room! Make Room!

Q:What is your favorite story of all time (film or book) and why?

A: My all time favorite has to be The Picture of Dorian Gray by Oscar Wilde. It's sharp, quotable, self-reflexive, and really calls into question both the role of art in modern society, and the struggle that creative people face to reconcile their ideas and perversions with the (often hypocritical and counterproductive) puritanical mores of modern society.

Wednesday, October 29, 2014

If the Odin Force determines who is worthy to receive the power of Thor then Loki may have a thing or two to say about that

What makes a person worthy to wield the hammer of Thor? Screen cap
from the upcoming Avengers: Age of Ultron. The clip aired last night
during the Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. scheduled broadcast. 
Last night, during Marvel's Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.'s broadcast, they ran a cut scene from the upcoming Avengers movie, Age of Ultron. Gathered around the coffee table in Stark's tower were the Avengers, all taking turns at lifting Thor's hammer Mjolnir. The only one that even came close was Steven Rogers, a.k.a. Captain America. Thor's hammer budged, which made Thor just about spit his beer, but the scene resolved itself in that this is all that happened, leaving Thor self-assured that he alone remains the possessor of the "power of Thor."

But it does make me wonder what makes a person worthy to lift Mjolnir in the first place? Do you have to be a warrior? Do you have to be pure of heart? Do you have to be willing to kill? Do you have to be honorable? Do you have to be humble? Or is it all of the above? The comics have given us over a dozen characters through the years that share all or some of these traits (and yes, Captain America was one of them).

So here's what I think: the enchantment placed on Thor's hammer that reads: "Whosoever holds this hammer, be he worthy, shall posses the power of Thor" has to do with Odin's will (or perhaps his bias). And since Odin wields the "Odin Force," which is the most powerful magic in existence possessed by the king of all Asgard, I am drawing a strange but inevitable conclusion: if my theory is correct about the Odin Force being ultimately responsible for judging the wielder of the hammer "worthy" then at some point Thor's going to be in big trouble.
Thor without Mjolnir from a screen capture of the Avenger's Age of Ultron
trailer. Is Loki responsible because he now wields the Odin Force?
Recall please last year's movie Thor: The Dark World. At the end of The Dark World (weak spoiler warning but you've had a year) Loki deposes Odin to sit on the throne of Asgard. If Loki now wields the "Odin Force" then the magic that serves as the enchantment on Mjolnir will have to start reflecting upon the new ruler's biases. Loki has no honor, so it's quite possible that Mjolnir at some point will find its way into a villain's hands. I think we may have gotten a small hint of this in the Avenger's: Age of Ultron trailer with what looks like a very upset Thor turning his eyes to the heavens and screaming (and he doesn't appear to be holding Mjolnir at all). Now keep in mind that this is purely my speculation. But don't you think it would be interesting if Thor no longer being able to lift Mjolnir was the first clue that all is not right with the Asgardian throne?

Monday, October 27, 2014

An animated guide to breathing displays the awesome power of GIF animation

If you've ever been to tumblr, then you know what a GIF is. The acronym stands for "graphics interchange format" and was first introduced to the world by CompuServe in 1987. All you really need to know about GIF's are the words "animated image." I presently have two friends that design their own GIF's in Blender (an open-source free software downloadable on the internet). Both have had exhibits at UMOCA here in Salt Lake City (UMOCA stands for "Utah Museum of Contemporary Art"). They have thousands of fans on Tumblr and have even been contacted by the likes of Miley Cyrus for custom-designed GIF's to play in the background of their stage shows.

However, what designer Eleanor Lutz does with GIF's is pretty darn amazing. Rather than splashes of color, Ms. Lutz uses GIF's to teach people science. Her latest work is what io9 calls "a mesmerizing look a the weird and wonderful ways that animals breathe." Cool right? I kind of sort of knew how humans breathed. But grasshoppers? No idea. Below is her illustration of three species she picked.

Friday, October 24, 2014

Assuming Black Panther is in Age of Ultron my vote goes to Dave Ramsey to be cast as the Wakandan King

Unless you've been living under a rock, you know that the Avengers: Age of Ultron trailer is now live online. I guess Marvel decided to dump it early instead of airing it during Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. next Tuesday because it got leaked. Their loss and our gain. Embedded within the trailer is a lot of information. Intriguing to me is a shot of Andy Serkis who is rumored to be playing Ulysses Klaw. So what does that mean exactly?
This is Ultron's hand taking a vibranium bath. That's bad for people who
don't like Ultron. 
Well one, it means that vibranium is a big part of Avengers 2. According to the Marvel Wiki, "Vibranium is a rare, naturally occurring meteoric ore, theorized to be extraterrestrial in origin, and mostly comes from the country of Wakanda. It is capable of absorbing vibratory energy in its vicinity (such as sound waves) and it stores this energy within the bonds between the molecules making up the Vibranium. As a result, a chunk of Vibranium which has absorbed a considerable amount of vibratory energy would be exceedingly hard to demolish." Captain America's shield is made of vibranium, and the trailer suggests that Ultron (built by Tony Stark?) also takes a bath in it, making him essentially invulnerable. A foe for the Avengers indeed!
The scientist Ulysses Klaw is the guy that found all the vibranium in Wakanda. Chieftans (known as kings) had guarded the mound for generations. In order to get some, Ulysses kills King T'Chaka. His son, Prince T'Challa is the superhero Black Panther. So yeah, the idea that Ulysses Klaw is in the Avengers basically means that we are getting Black Panther, and this is very exciting.

Who should be cast to play Black Panther? I'd love to see David Ramsey (he
plays "Diggle" on the CW's Arrow). 
This is Dave Ramsey. As "Diggle" in Arrow, he's Oliver Queen's "Voice of Reason."
First off the name is a title. The "Panther" gets to eat a special heart-shaped herb which forges a connection to the Wakandan Panther God and grants superhuman senses, increased strength, speed stamina, reflexes, and agility. As king, the Panther has access to a vast collection of magical artifacts, advanced Wakandan technological and military hardware, as well as the support of his nation's wide array of scientists, warriors, and mystics. In the comics, the Wakandan military is one of the most powerful on Earth. In addition to all of this, Prince T'Challa is also one of the eight smartest people on the planet (Reed Richards is the smartest).


This question is pretty easy to answer. Having Black Panther in the stories means that we're probably going to get a Namor storyline pretty soon. Plus, to be honest, I'm a little jaded with all the white washing that Marvel has. I mean these are great stories, but women and men of color or minorities in general have no "leading" roles. The big heroes are Thor (white), Captain America (white), and Iron Man (white). Black Widow is basically a footnote, although outcry over her super tiny role is starting to build momentum. Maybe Marvel will someday invest some money in a franchise actually starring Scarlett Johansson, but as of this writing I've heard of none. And I'm also pleased that Don Cheadle may have a guest star role in Avengers: Age of Ultron because he's pretty much a supporting character. The same goes for Falcon...supporting character material in Winter Soldier, and the pessimist in me says there's no way he makes the transition to the Avenger's movie despite having nailed the role.

Below is the embedded video for the trailer so you can watch it again and compare notes with me.

Wednesday, October 22, 2014

The Flash got poisoned after Firestorm got born and Harrison Wells is a very bad man

Barry got poisoned by "The Mist" who is now trapped in their fancy
prison for meta-humans built from the ashes of a state-of-the-art particle
accelerator. Convenient that one of those was just lying around.
We are three weeks into The Flash on the CW, and it has shattered the CW's ratings records as the most watched series premiere in the network's history. I'm not surprised that it has now been given a full-season order (yay!). Honestly, the trifecta of Flash, Arrow, and Gotham (Fox) is a renaissance for cinematic quality genre TV, and I'm really loving it.

So where are we exactly with The Flash? Well, by the end of the third episode Barry Allen is finally growing comfortable with his powers. He can save someone behind Iris's back while she's on the phone arguing with her boyfriend and be back in time to see if she wants to go get something to eat (even though they already had dinner and a huge bowl of buttered popcorn--what I wouldn't give for that kind of metabolism?)

Barry's world emerged from the first episode as fully realized. It's the objective of what so many of us strive for in our writing, because who hasn't been told at some point or another by an agent that you need to start in the middle of the action and you only have fifteen seconds to grab the attention of your reader (or maybe that's just something literary agents say). Anyway, all of you writers out there know what I mean, and all of you writers know just how hard that is to pull off.

So we have Barry now grown comfortable in his role as the Red Streak. We have Iris who is the obsessive stalker of "The Red Streak" and falling into the role that makes Lois Lane such an interesting character. We have Cisco and Caitlin Snow playing scientists that support Team Flash, and Harrison Wells as (from what I can tell) the ultimate villain of the first season, Reverse Flash or Professor Zoom. This hasn't been confirmed by anyone. It's just what I think.

From little things that Wells has dropped in dialogue, I know he's at least two-hundred years old, has been to the future, knows a hell of a lot about Barry Allen and engineered the accident that created him. Wells also isn't shy about killing people (lots of people if you consider all the meta-humans his experiment created). My guess is that Barry's whole life has been a manipulation by Wells. What I can't piece together is what does he get out of it?

Perhaps Zoom wasn't trying to kill Barry's mother but instead, murder Barry the kid in the pilot episode. Barry stopped that from happening by rescuing his kid self and Zoom took his rage out on Barry's mom? Does that sound plausible? So that would mean that (in the pilot) when we see red and yellow streaking around, the red is in fact Barry from the future trying to stop Professor Zoom from completing his objective, which then leads to Barry's mom being murdered and Barry's dad going to jail for it. That one scene is like a huge time paradox that blows my mind. Because Barry stopped him from completing his objective, Zoom has to create Flash in order to satisfy paradox.

Are you lost yet?
And for Flash fanatics like me, there was another Easter egg planted: we got to see the birth of one part of Firestorm. Ronnie Raymond (in a flashback), who is Caitlin's dead boyfriend, got trapped inside the particle accelerator and had a moment very reminiscent of Dr. Manhattan from The Watchmen. Firestorm (in case you don't know) is also known as "The Nuclear Man." He has the ability to rearrange the atomic and subatomic structure of inorganic matter. In other words, more special effects are incoming. I don't know about you, but when I watch comic book shows, I like to see special effects.

So in conclusion, in last night's episode the Flash got poisoned after Firestorm got born and Harrison Wells is a very bad man. Ayep, and now I'm ready for next week's episode. Hopefully, I will start getting some answers.

Monday, October 20, 2014

Common Sense is in short supply on the Walking Dead as Bob goes for a walk in the dark woods alone.

I kind of expected what happened to Bob in last night's episode of The Walking Dead, but I was hoping they wouldn't go there. In the comics, it's Dale that gets his legs amputated and eaten by the Hunters (in a world with no refrigeration a tourniquet is a handy cannibal item). However, Dale died in season two, so that wasn't a possibility. And then there's the whole fact that the guy that threatened baby Judith in the season premiere last week, remains alive. So yeah, Tyrese didn't kill him even though he was hitting him so hard I thought it plausible that the guy wouldn't survive. But did Tyrese know the guy wasn't dead? He stopped Carol from going into the cabin covered in zombie guts, reassuring her that he finished the job. Oy, I just don't know. Needless to say, it's disappointing. In Rick Grimes words to Carl, "You are not safe. You are never safe." And leaving loose ends of the "cannibal" kind will always come back and bite you in the ass.

But "Bob B Que" aside, the title of last night's episode, Strangers, is probably a nod to Father Gabriel, a preacher incapable of protecting himself who has been hiding out in a church, eating what remains of the food drive before the apocalypse started, and apparently the subject of something scrawled on the backside of the church that reads, "You will burn for what you did." Hmm. He did lead the group to the food bank, but the imagery of his arms against the wall in the pool of slime was too much like a guy just accepting his fate in a crucifixion to a walker that we later learned was probably his wife before the apocalypse. I'd be remiss to say that I don't trust Father Gabriel all that much at this point, and this leads me to my next subject: trust (or the lack thereof).

Trust is what makes societies work, and it's probably one of the single elements that has the most impact on a story being considered "dark." We've all seen or read stories where there's violence and death, and there are plenty of examples of such stories that I wouldn't brand as "dark" fiction. Rather, I'd consider them "action" stories or possibly in the "thriller" genre but not "dark." However, when you start to mess with trust, that turns a story away from the sunlight. American Horror Story: Murder House is a masterwork in this respect. The first season eroded all trust that Vivien had for Ben by exposing lie after lie after lie.

By contrast, the world of The Walking Dead is a place where trust is a scarce commodity. Rick and crew decided to trust that Terminus would be a sanctuary for them and instead, it became a slaughterhouse. They escaped, but only because Carol decided to morph into the most badass female heroine of all time, single-handedly assaulting the prison with a zombie army and facilitating the implosion of a place that was a hive of institutional evil. This is the push and pull of this world, and is its most hopeless aspect.

Sigh. Oh Bob, why oh why did you go for a stroll in the dark woods away from the church? The world may never know. It kinda sucks though that I was just starting to like his character. 

Friday, October 17, 2014

Feast is to Big Hero 6 what Icing is to Cake

I love the fact that running in front of animated films from Pixar and Disney are delightful shorts that are so good they're like icing on a big delicious cake. With Big Hero Six set to come out soon, Disney's released a trailer for its new short film Feast, and it looks pretty awesome. I'm reminded of when Julia Child said, "People who love to eat are always the best people." In this case, I think it applies to puppies too. But really, food is one of those things through which we are all connected kinda like the Force (is it ironic that Star Wars is also owned by Disney? Hmm).
From what I can tell, the plot of Feast is pretty simple. An adorable and hungry Boston Terrier puppy gets fed all kinds of nice things, and we get taken along for the journey through some pretty amazing animation. Seriously, I love the style of this animation and wish that more films got made that use the techniques on display in Feast. So if you haven't stumbled across this trailer for the short film yet, then click play on the embedded video below.