Monday, May 22, 2017

The Alt-Hist File: Escape Pod


It a started in whim more than anything else. It started on a whim, but it became a wildly popular, and much beloved, recurring series. It seems like it was only yesterday that I was reviewing short story audio fiction for The Alternate History Weekly Update. Now, at long last, it has come home. And what more fitting place to call home than a blog called The Audiophile?

Okay, I'm starting to ramble here. As I previously announced, I'm reviving my old audio fiction review column The Audio File. I'm splitting it into two halves, one for alternate history and one for all other genres. With that in mind, I welcome you to the inaugural installment of The Alt-Hist File. The Audio File is being reserved for all the other great, and occasionally not so great, stories that I review. I like to use to use The Alt-Hist File to shine a spotlight on the individual podcasts that I feature. With that in mind, let's meet today's podcast.

Today we're talking about Escape Pod. Founded in 2005 by Serah (formerly Steve) Eley, as a way of showcasing some of the best talent in the field of science fiction. At the time, it wasn't known how long Escape Pod would last. Twelve years and over 500 episodes later, as of this writing, Escape Pod is stronger than ever and more successful than Eley could ever have imagined. Escape Pod's success helped prove the viability of online short story podcast magazines and led to the creation of two other Escape Artists podcasts: Pseudopod for horror and PodCastle for fantasy. In time, the Escape Artists family of podcasts adopted the young adult podcast Cast of Wonders, and started the Mothership Zeta E-zine. We'll talk more about the other members of the Escape Artist family in future posts.

Over the years, Escape Pod has featured numerous host including Mur Lafferty, Norm Sherman, Alasdair Stuart, Tina Connolly, Adam Pracht and Divya Breed. There's also numerous hardworking people toiling away behind the scenes. I don't have time to name you all, but know that you are appreciated, and we couldn't have the Escape Artists podcasts without you. They’ve featured narrators from all walks of life, both professional and amateur. The intro and outro music, provided by monster surf rock band Daikaiju, is another of those little personal touches I adore.

Originally, the text of the stories themselves wasn't included, but after a certain point that changed. As much of a fan as I am, even I can't tell you when exactly that was, but suffice it to say the more recent the story the more likely it is the text will be included on the website.  In any event, many Escape Pod stories were originally published elsewhere, but just as many, if not more, are totally original to Escape Pod. If they don't have the text they will usually link to it.

Now that we've shined a spotlight on Escape Pod, let's move to the stories. Remember, these stories are released on a Creative Commons, attribution, non-commercial, no derivatives license; feel free to share them all you like, just don't change or sell them. Now, get ready, because it's story time...

"Joe Steele" by Harry Turtledove
Narrated by Serah Eley

Those of you familiar with Harry Turtledove's work have probably heard of this one, but it's still worth going over.  The basic premise is the Joseph Stalin's parents immigrated to the United States during the 19th century, and Stalin grew up in Fresno, California.  Stalin eventually takes the more American name Joe Steele and is later elected president via some shady dealings.  This being Stalin, however, means that the next few decades aren't exactly sunshine and lollipops.

Now, the plausibility hounds in the audience are probably complaining that Stalin ought to have a different worldview if he was raised in America. To be sure that's probably true, but Steele still needed to act recognizably like Stalin or else we have no story. Stalin or not, the Depression was a rough time, and I can easily see the conditions giving rise to an extremist movement.  Especially if FDR were out of the picture, as he is in the short story.

As for the writing, it has a very 1940s newsreel quality to it, and Serah does a really good job of conveying that feeling. All in all this was a very fun story, and as a bonus you get to hear the song that inspired this story, "God & The FBI", in its entirety right after the episode.

"Good Hunting" by Ken Liu
Narrated by John Chu
Originally published in Strange Horizons

There are not nearly enough words to describe how much I love Ken Liu. Every story he makes is a masterfully crafted work of art.  He knows just how to tug on your heartstrings, make you connect with his characters, leave you wanting more and so many other things. Seriously, people are always talking about who's going to be the next big thing in speculative fiction; well behold the next big thing people.  Need proof?  This is a man who has won pretty much every major science fiction and fantasy award, and he's only been seriously writing since about 2009.

Okay, enough gushing, onto the story. "Good Hunting" takes place during and in the years following the Opium Wars, but a steampunk version of the war.  There's also magic in this alternate China featuring everything from hopping ghosts, spirits and huli jing (Chinese fox spirits that take the form of beautiful women).  Our story follows a young ghost hunter and a huli jing as they watch the world around them change with the coming of British colonization.  Besides the usual troubles that come with colonization there's an added issue; the British have built a railway right on top of a qi vein, and this is having extremely negative consequences on the supernatural world.

One of the things I love about Ken's work is that no matter what story he writes I always learn something new. In this case I got to learn what huli jing are, and as a lover of mythology and folklore that was a big plus. I also appreciated how Ken didn't pull any punches with his depiction of colonialism and the darker side of steampunk. You could easily see the blocked qi vein, and the impact it has on the supernatural community, as a metaphor for the impact that colonizers often have on native cultures. Throughout the story there's a feeling of sadness for the passing of old traditions as new ways are forced upon China.

However, the story ultimately ends on an optimistic note. Without giving too much away I can best summarize the ending like this: sometimes forces beyond our control change our lives in major ways, and that means old traditions will die, but we can adapt and keep those old ways alive in a new form. A bit of advice about the narration; John Chu can seem a little...off, when you first hear his voice. Give your ears a minute or so to get use to his narration voice and you'll find he's the perfect man to convey Ken's story.

It starts as a whimsical Chinese fairy tale and ends as a gritty steampunk.  I couldn't recommend it more.

"Soft Currency" by Seth Gordon
Narrated by Melissa Bugaj
An Escape Pod Original

This story takes place in an alternate 1970s America in which men and women use separate money. Men use dollars and coins while women use coupons and stamps (they come in the same denominations as dollars and coins).  For the sake of time, the cliff notes version is that this was started after World War II to help returning GIs regain their old jobs; if you want the full history you'll have to listen to/read the short story.  Certain businesses only take dollars while other only take coupons; the system is partially justified by claiming that men and women buy different things. Unfortunately, the exchange rate is not 1:1 and often favors the dollar more than the coupon.  As such many illegal currency exchanges have popped up over the years. Our protagonist Cassie, a clerk at a coupon only grocery store, find herself drawn into such an operation.

Part of the reason I've been reposting my old reviews is because, with the passage of time, my views on certain stories have changed. Some stories seem even better and more resonant. For other stories, such as this one, well...time has not been so kind. When I first read this story I hadn't really been red pilled, as they say. Now, having gained some perspective, I can no longer recommend this story.

I'll be blunt, this story is a painfully obvious allegory for the myth of the Gender Wage Gap. For those who don't know, that's the claim that women only make $0.75 for every dollar men make. Problem is, that's actually the average earnings of men and women. It's doesn't take into account hours worked, different jobs or different positions. It has nothing to do with the same jobs, nods does it have anything to do with discrimination. In fact, since 1963 it has been illegal, in the United States, to pay men and women different wages for the same work.

Unfortunately, this myth continues to get spread by feminist activism groups, despite numerous debunkings. In light of this, the story falls flat on its face. That's one of the problems I have with fiction that actively tries to convey a social/political message. Not only do a lot of them focus too much on preaching, at the expense of story telling, but often times they inadvertently spread misinformation. That's not to say message fic can't be done well, but please, make sure you have your facts straight.

A failed attempt to address a problem that doesn't exist. Don't waste your time with this one.

"Southpaw" by Bruce McAllister
Narrated by Brian Liberman
Originally published in Asimov's Science Fiction

The myth that Fidel Castro was given the chance to play baseball for the New York Giants has long been discredited. Suppose, however, that not only was he given the chance, but that he'd said yes. In this story that's exactly what happens. Castro plays for the New York Giants and has a wonderful girlfriend named Nancy. Life seems good, but Cuba is on his mind so much lately, especially once he begins having visions of a strange world where he, not Batista, is the leader of Cuba.

For those of you concerned about the plausibly of this story, the author himself admits that he's fully aware Castro never got a chance to play baseball for America. Nevertheless, he thought it would make an interesting story. Admittedly I'm not much of a sports person, but I feel like this story is written well enough to be enjoyed even if sports isn't your thing. At the risk of sounding like a broken record, I thought the narrator did an excellent job. What can I say?  Escape Pod knows how to pick narrators.

Without giving away too much I can say that there was a bit of this story that reminded me of The Man in the High Castle and I enjoyed that. I also appreciated how Castro was depicted as a very human character.  He knows just how lucky he is to have risen through the ranks of society, and he's keenly aware of how much suffering his fellow Cuban are going through. At the same time, there's no clear answer for fixing this problem.

For a look at a different side of Fidel Castro I'd recommend giving this story a try.

"The Eckener Alternative" by James L. Cambias
Narrated by Mur Lafferty
Originally published in All-Star Zeppelin Adventure Stories

This story's a little different than the ones we've talked about. It's not initially set in an alternate history, but follows someone's attempt to make one. Our protagonist, John Cavalli, is a student at a university for training time travelers. He's also a lover of airships and is determined to save them from dying out. After a few failed attempts to change history his path becomes clear. He's going to prevent World War II from ever happening, but is that really such a good idea?

Admittedly this story was more action than dialogue, but since it features a male protagonist I initially wasn't sure if Mur was going to be the right fit for this story. All things considered, I think Mur handled the narration of this story excellently. The story itself made some pretty good observations such as why airships, cool as they are, were ultimately replaced by airplanes.

There this scene in the cafeteria I found particularly amusing. The students are all talking about what they'd go back in time and change. You get the standard answer: stop Cortez, save Lincoln, but then there's the guy wanted to give machine guns to the Confederates. It appears Harry Turtledove will still be read even after we invent time travel.

This one was short, sweet and to the point. I recommend it.

"The '76 Goldwater Dime" by John Medaille
Narrated by Norm Sherman
Originally published in Residential Aliens

Okay, this one might not exactly be alternate history per say, but it's still pretty fun. Our protagonist is a numismatist trying to convince someone that he has come into possession of coins from alternate universes. Instead of the usual presidents, these coins depict figures such as Barry Goldwater, Benedict Arnold and Eugene V. Debs.

Norm absolutely nailed it with his performance of the crazed coin collector; if you think this is good you should see him in his native habitat over at the Drabblecast.  I also like how the story is presented in the form of a conversion, but we never hear the other person, just the narrator's reactions and remarks. It was fun imagining the kinds of world's these coins might have come from.

All in all a very fun little story. Definitely worth checking out.

"Why I left Harry's All-Night Hamburgers" by Lawrence Watt-Evens
Narrated by Jonathon Hawkins
Winner of the Hugo Award for Best Short Story

In this story, our protagonist gets a job at a hamburger joint in West Virginia, but this isn't just any hamburger joint. Harry's All-Night Hamburgers serves as a hub for travelers from different alternate universes; it seems West Virginia is always out of the way and unassuming no matter what the universe. Our protagonist soon faces a choice; continue life as it is, or travel to new and exotic universes, but risk never seeing this one again.

You're probably expecting me to say I liked the narrator at this point. Well...you'd be absolute correct.  As for the story itself, I enjoyed getting to see glimpse of the different worlds and letting my imagination fill in the blanks. I was mildly amused at how one of the character came from a world that sounded rather similar to the plot of Bioshock: Infinite, but keep in mind this story was written well before Bioshock: Infinite came out. I also enjoyed the advice the protagonist received on how to resolve his dilemma. I'm struggling to find the right words, but seriously this is an excellent story.

Defiantly earned its Hugo, and should probably earn your time as well.

"Homecoming at the Borderlands Cafe" by Carole McDonnell
Narrated by Serah Eley
Originally published in Jigsaw Nation

Well, they can't all be winners. There had to be at least some rotten apples in this bushel. Hey, at least this proves I can actually not like something and have a negative opinion. First some background, Jigsaw Nation is a collection of short stories with the central premise that around 2004, Red and Blue States (or in some case, Red and Blue districts) became two separate nations.  All the stories have their own take on the how this happened and what the results were. Most of them are rather interesting and though provoking, but this one...I was seriously considering leaving it out altogether.

Okay, I'll try my best to be as neutral possible. So the basic set up is that Red States are known as the Confederacy and Blue States are called Columbia.  I know what the author was trying to do here, but Columbia as a name has already been taken. Anyway, our protagonist is a Confederate cafe owner talking with some recent immigrants from Columbia. The couple is mixed race, but the Confederacy is a heavily segregated society, but the narrator assures us it’s all separate but equal. I really hope that was in character and not the author, herself a black woman, doing the talking.

So why would a mixed race couple knowingly move to such a racist society? You see, Columbia still allows Christianity, but has banned the Bible for being homophobic. The authorities were also going to take the couple's child away if they educated it with the Bible. No seriously, that's what the story says. Look, if the premise is that things split in 2004 you're not going to get anything like that without diving into strawman territory. It's a strait up example of the Golden Means Fallacy/Balance Fallacy. Atheists (and I say this as one myself) don't want to take away your Bibles, your kids or ban religion. What we want is to be treated equally and we want everyone else to be treated equally as well. We might not agree with what you say, but we'll fight to the death for your right to say it.

Don’t waste your time with this stinker. Pick one of the other stories I've featured.

"Punk Voyager" by Shaenon Garrity
Narrated by Nathaniel Lee
An Escape Pod Original

This story is set during the 1980s and follows a group of punks. The punks are bummed about the fact that the records on the Voyager Probes only contain classical music. To combat this, they decide create their own probe loaded with punk music. A few years later, some amoeba aliens arrive and...punch Ronald Reagan in the crotch, turn out to be huge punk enthusiasts and...yeah, this one's kind of crazy.

Personally, I found this story enjoyable. It didn't take itself too seriously and overall it was a pretty fun ride. That said, I can understand that this story's sense of humor might not be for everyone. When I listened to this story, i was reminded of those screwball comedies Hollywood constantly churns out. However, if this story was turned into a movie, I like to think it would be a bit better than most of those films.

In terms of narrations, I thought that Nathaniel did an excellent job. A fun story with hardly a single serious moment. I recommend it.

"The Color of a Brontosaurus" by Paul E. Martens
Narrated by Serah Eley
Originally Published in Andromeda Spaceways Inflight Magazine

This story follows a paleontologist named Stu. He and his team have made a seemingly impossible discovery: a perfectly preserved human femur in the same rock stratum as an allosaurus fossil! This can only mean one thing: time travel is going to be invented. Stu has always dreamed of seeing his beloved dinosaurs in the flesh. It's a cause for celebration, yet his wife seems oddly blasé. Almost as though she's hiding something.

When I listened to this story, I was reminded of something Richard Dawkins once said. Paraphrased, he said that if we were to find a rabbit skeleton in the pre-Cambrian it would cause us to serious question the theory of evolution. Now, personally, if that were to happen, I'd probably be a bit like Stu. That is, I'd view it as concrete proof that time travel will be invented someday.

At one point or another, every paleontology fan has dreamed of traveling through time to see dinosaurs and other prehistoric animals. I know that I've experienced that desire on more than a few occasions. This story really spoke to that feeling. I was able to spot the twists about halfway through the story, but that didn't make it any less enjoyable.

As for the narration, I thought that Serah did a great job. A fun little story about time travel wanderlust. I couldn't recommend it more.

"Frankie and the Spook" by Mike Resnick
Narrated by Serah Eley
Originally Published in The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction

This story follows a computer genius, and wannabe writer, named Marvin. He was created a program/hologram that perfectly simulates the mind of Sir Francis Bacon. In doing so he learns that Bacon, not Shakespeare, was the one who wrote all of the plays. Hilarity ensues as the two, much to the Bacon simulacrum's dismay, embark on a series of literary collaborations.

Okay, so let's address the elephant in the room here. For those who don't know, there's a series of conspiracy theories that Shakespeare didn't actually write his plays. Popular candidates include Christopher Marlo and the Earl of Oxford. First of all, plays were often a collaborative effort. Second, many of Shakespeare's plays drew inspiration from preexisting poems and stories. Finally, there's simply too much evidence that Shakespeare was, in fact, the author of his plays. Though, obviously, it would take too much time to list them all here.

Now, with all of that in mind, I don't think that this story was meant to entertain the authorship conspiracy theory. It has a very laid back feel and doesn't take itself seriously. In fact, I don't think there was a single serious line of text in the whole story. As a comedic farce, it more than succeeds. It's one of those stories were the smart guys has to work, against his will, with a complete bumbling idiot. Also, there is a scene where the two collaborate to write an alternate history novel.

Once again, Serah knock it out of the park with the narration. A fun, if slightly controversial story. I recommend it.

"A Gun for Dinosaur" by L. Sprague de Camp
Narrated by Ayoub Khote
Originally Published in Galaxy Science Fiction

This story follows a pair of time travel tour guides as they prepare to take some guests on a dinosaur safari. While they wait for things to be set up they relate the story of a previous, and rather disastrous, dinosaur safari they conducted.

Don't get me wrong, overall this is a fairly fun story. It's a fun story, but it definitely shows its age. Many of the dinosaurs are depicted as slow, lumbering giants. These days, we know that dinosaurs were probably fairly active. There's also mention of some dinosaurs having second brains to help them move their large bodies. I can remember hearing this hypothesis when I was growing up in the 1990s, but it's since been disproved. One of the hazards the characters encounter is giant leeches that feed on the dinos. Again, most likely leeches of this size didn't actually exist.

I know it seems kind of negative, but I'm a paleontology nerd. These things stick out to me. If you can ignore the dated science, it's still actually a reasonably enjoyable story. For what it's worth, I thought that Ayoub handled the narration well.

It's reasonably enjoyable, even if the science is rather dated. I say give it a shot.

"Prophet of Dogs" by Bethany Edwards
Narrated by George Hrab
An Escape Pod Original

This story follows an average guy who works for community arts magazine. He always takes his cigarette breaks at a small park next to his office. He's been noticing a girl preaching doom and gloom. On a whim, he decides to talk to her. It turns out that she's a time traveler from the future, and she's here to witness an alien invasion that is about to happen.

There a central moral dilemma at the heart of this story: if you know something bad is about to happen, but you can only save one person, would you? Perhaps a better question, as the story itself concedes is, would that person even want to be saved?

One point I thought was particularly well done is when the protagonist and the time traveler discuss future events. Apparently, 9/11 is considered merely a footnote by future historians. There plenty of events that hold significance to us because we have an emotional connection to them. For future, generations, however, they'll just be a topic they learn about in history class. More cynically, there's always the possibility that something worse will happen at some point or another.

In terms of narration, I thought that Greg did a good job. A story that's sure to have you thinking for quite some time. It's also one I recommend.

"Parallel Moons" by Mario Milosevic
Narrated by Bill Bowman
Originally Published in Space and Time Magazine

This story is a three-for-one special. In the first story, a group of alien spaceships have encircled the Moon and are towing it away. In the second story, a group of nerds are petitioning to have the Moon reclassified as a planet. In the final story, a reporter is conducting an interview with a reclusive millionaire who is funding a project to blot out the Moon's reflective light.

Strictly speaking, I'm not sure that these stories count as alternate history. However, they do depict three different timelines and three very different fates for the Moon. That is good enough for my purposes. Also, thought they are three separate stories, they are tied together by the theme of the Moon being taken away from us somehow.

I enjoyed the structure of this story. It reminded me of Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell, a book that I am very fond of. The way that the three stories, though seemly separate, were connected by a common theme, plenty reminded me of the novel. Each of the stories themselves were well done. The first story gives a sense of how small humanity is in relationship to the universe. We don't know who the aliens are, or why they want the Moon, and humanity is powerless to stop them.

The second story actually has parallels to debates that are going on in the astronomical community. There actually is some debate about whether the Moon should be considered a planet because of its size. Though, within the story, the nerds are motivated by their desire to preserve artifacts from the Apollo missions. This put them in sharp contrast with the subject of the final story, millionaire Richard Mollene. He claims to be covering the Moon in ash because it reminds him of his deceased wife. However, given how smug, self-center and egotistical he comes off as, I'm inclined to think he did it just because he could.
                                                                                                              
You get three complete stories, and none of them feel out of place. To the contrary, they all complement each other quite nicely. This story requires a narrator who can juggle three different, yet connected, stories. Thankfully, Bill is the narrator this story needs.

Three stories for the price of one, all of them excellent. You won't want to miss this one.

"The Snow Woman's Daughter" by Eugie Foster
Narrated by Cunning Minx
Originally Published in Cricket Magazine

This story is set in Ancient Japan. It follows a young girl whose mother is a yuki-onna. Her mother has come to visit and invite the girl to live with her in the mountains as an immortal. It's a tempting offer, but the girl feels connected to the village she's grown up in. In particular, she rather fancies her neighbor boy Roku. What shall she choose?

I do love retellings of folktales and mythology. For those who don't know, yuki-onna are mythical creature from Japanese mythology. They are beautiful women with powers of snow and ice. They appear during snow storms and, depending on which legend you read, either guide travelers to safety or lure them to their death and suck out their heat. There's not too much to really say, it's short, sweet and satisfying.

Now, this story actually has a bit of a special place in the history of the Escape Artists podcasts. Not too long after this story was released, PodCastle premiered. One of those critical moments in the history of the Escape Artists captured in amber for all time. Getting back to the story, I thought that Cunning Minx really capture the emotional heart of the story.

It's short, perhaps a bit familiar, but ultimately quite satisfying. I say give it a try.

"The Battaile of the Mudde" by Anthony Tardiff
Narrated by J.J. Campanella
An Escape Pod Original

This story follows two teenage boys named Vincent and Dave. Vincent is a social awkward genius inventor, while Dave is his best friend who tries his best to keep Vincent out of trouble. Vincent is trying to impress a girl he likes named Melissa. She's taking part in a school play set in medieval times, so Vincent has built a time machine to get a dress for Melissa. Unfortunately, due to a miscalculation, his machine transports a medieval girl named Katherine along with the dress. Soon a zany misadventure ensues as the boys try to keep Melissa out of the loop, while trying to get the dress from Katherine.

We've got another story that is pure and unabashed fun. One particular funny part is when Vincent makes a translator for Katherine, since she speaks Middle English. However, since one of the sources he uses is a dictionary of slang, the resulting translations are usually rather humorous. I enjoyed Dave's snarky asides and commentary on everything. It really is an all around good time, and J.J. did an excellent job with the narration.

If I did have one criticism, it would be the host segment. I really could have done without Adam Pracht's political soapboxing. Now look, I understand that everyone at Escape Artists had strong feelings about the election. However, I also expect a certain degree of professionalism. We listeners come to Escape Pod to experience some of the best science fiction week after week. Treat this as you would any other job, and check your personal issues at the door. Besides, in these chaotic times, don't we all need a little escapism every now and again?

Now, on a related note, I understand that the Escape Artists have been increasing their push for diversity lately. That's is all very well and good, there's all sorts of great stories out their, penned by people from all walks of life. However, I would hope that you welcome authors who think differently than you, in addition to authors who look different than you. I guess what I'm trying to say is, promoting diversity of skin tone and sexuality mean nothing without promoting diversity of thought as well.

I didn't mean the above as a response to anything in particular. I just wanted to add a bit of food for thought, and I'm sorry if I came across as harsher than I meant to be. I have seen all of the Escape Artists podcasts do amazing things, and want to continue to see them be the best that they can be. I've seen you fly, and I know you can soar. Now then, allow me to wrap up this review.

A fun story about time traveling shenanigans, just be sure to skip the outro.

Conclusion


I don't want to end on too sour of a note. Sometimes, when I finish these lists, I like to take a moment to reflect on all the great stories that I’ve featured. I invite you to take a moment of reflection as well. This is just the start of the amazing journey through free audio fiction I’m going to take you guys on. I hope you enjoyed these sampling and give them a try. And hey, these as just the alternate history related stories, there's hundreds of other amazing stories just waiting to be listened to as well. Remember, if you like what you hear don't be shy about dropping a donation, Escape Pod is funded by its fans. 

There's so many great stories at Escape Pod, I've had to split this edition of the Alt-His File. Stay tuned for part 2 of our look at Escape Pod. Well, that enough from me for now. I will see you guys next time. 

Wednesday, April 26, 2017

I'm On Patreon and Some Announcements

So I thought I'd make a quick blog post about some recent happenings around the blog.  First of all, you will notice that we are now known as The Audiophile.  I'd been meaning to find a better name for quite some time now, and I figured there could be no better name than one the reflects my love of audio fiction.  It's also a nod to The Audio File, the audio fiction review column I ran for Alternate History Weekly Update and Amazing Stories.

That brings me to my second big announcement.   Yes, I am bringing The Audio File to this blog.  All the stories related to alternate history and thereabout will be known as The Alt-Hist File, while the stories related to other subjects will be known as The Audio File proper.  The alternate history stories we just so big, and such an important part of what I do, I just had to spin them off into their own thing.

Now for the final big announcement: I'm on Patreon now.  If you love me enough to throw a few buck my way on a monthly basis, or if you possibly need to waste some money (hey, I don't judge) click that link and become one of my patrons today.  You can get all kinds of neat perks when you support me on Patreon, so become a patron today.

Well, that about wraps things up...oh, almost forgot!  I'm going to be starting up a Facebook page for this blog soon.  I'll keep you update on how that turns out and when it launches.  In the meantime, I'll leave you with this logo I made.

That officially wraps things up, and I'll see you guys next time


Flag of the Commonwealth of California

I'm back with another flag.  So without further ado, let's dive into it:

This is the flag of The Commonwealth of California.  It comes from a world where the Constitution was never ratified, and the Articles of Confederation remained the primary governing document for the United States.  Unfortunately, this meant that the federal government remained weak and ineffectual.  The states soon began to question why they needed to take orders from Washington, and regionalist movements began to spring up.  By the early 19th century the United States had completely collapsed.  Each state became its own nation, with smaller states joining bigger ones either willingly or by force.  Though the United States had failed as a nation, the idea of the United States inspired other colonies to rebel against their mother nations and seek independence.

The ideal of Manifest Destiny never really became a thing, but there was a general westward movement among the peoples of North America.  However, how they got westward was considerably different than in our world.  That brings us to California.  It was primarily settled by British colonist from the Oregon Territory.  This had multiple effects on California's development.  For example, California is governed by a parliament, led by a prime minister, and the Queen's Birthday is a national holiday.  California is also a proud member of the Commonwealth of Nations.  Just as in our world California has a significant Mexican minority, and most Californians are bilingual. 

California is one of the most prosperous nations in North America. It has a booming tech sector, and it's farms help feed people across North America. In the past California had a history in intervening in wars, but it has back off from that in more recent times.  The big focus now is space exploration.  California has launched multiple missions to the Moon and now there's talk of a possible Mars mission.


California's British heritage is very much reflected on its flag with the blue background and St. George's canton.  The seal hearkens back to the early days of British settlement, all under the watchful eye of Britannia herself. 


Monday, April 17, 2017

Interview: LadyLoriel

Today we've got another interview from one of the artists I frequently commission things from. She's known as LadyLoriel over on Deviantart, but in real life her name is Sofie. She's an artist from Sweden, and without further ado let's get on to the interview.




1) In your own words, tell us who you are.

Well, my name is Sofie but I’m also known as LadyLoriel and some other names on the internet, though LadyLoriel is the main one. I’m mainly a hobby artist and writer who enjoy working with Fantasy themes a lot.

2) I understand that you are from Sweden, can you tell us a bit about what life is like in Sweden?

Well, I guess peaceful is the best word to use in my case. I live in the north of Sweden in the middle of a forest at the moment. So, as you can imagine I don’t exactly have to deal with loud neighbours or anything like that. Over all I’m not sure how to describe the life here as I never lived in a different country. But I can say that if you like snow and long dark winters, and not a lot of people around then North Sweden is a good place to be.

3) Is there any story behind your user name?

There isn’t much of a story behind the username LadyLoriel to be honest. Loriel was the name of a city in a Fantasy series written by Niklas Krog that I enjoyed a lot when I was younger. So, I started of using that as a name for a character I played when I tried Utopia for the first time about 11-12 years ago. And Lady later became added to it as it was a title I gained in Utopia. Since then it just got stuck with me.

4) What inspired you to be an artist?

I don’t know if there was ever a specific inspiration as much as it was just something I enjoyed at first. I didn’t start drawing until I was about 16-17 and I thought it was fun and sort of relaxing so I just kept doing it and along the way I got to know other artists who in turn inspired me to improve and try new things with art.

5) What works of fiction are you a fan of?

There are a lot, but the first thing that comes to mind is the Locke Lamora book series. I absolutely love those stories and eagerly await the 4th book now. But besides that I do enjoy J.R.R Tolkin’s work, The Discworld series by Terry Pratchett, and similar Fantasy books.

6) What other interests or hobbies do you have?

Well, video games are one of the things that take my time. Especially when I get a sudden urge to play through old LucasArt or Sierra games, or reply Skyrim. I also do bake a lot (but might also come from that I studied to be a baker)

7) What's a typical day like for you?

It mostly consists of waiting to be called in for work (which can be a day, evening, or night shifts) and looking for a more stable job. And walking the dogs of course. When I have some time for it I do work on art (be it commissions or for myself. Depends on what kind of art day I have)

8) What advice do you have for aspiring artists?

Keep drawing what you like to draw, if someone gives you constructive critic or give you an advice do take it and learn from it. You might not have to follow it, but it can contain a point that helps you improve. And lastly… Don’t shy away from references, they are excellent to help you get a pose down or see how proportions and anatomy work. Learn from references and you will be able to learn to break things down and work without them in the future.

9) What are you working on at the moment?

Well commissions are my main priority at the moment. Got more at once than I thought I would, which surprised me. But other than that, I do have my own project that I work on, there are about 15 of them. I have finally started to write some properly and not just small scenes. I also sometimes draw some quick things for contests and groups on dA.

10) Do you have any plans for the future?

Well, getting a stable job first of all. But, when it comes to my art and writing, I do hope to one day be able to publish one of my stories, and maybe try to learn to draw comics (since it’s a thing I would like to do but have yet to learn).

11) Obviously, I've commissioned a lot of stuff from you, but before you go tell us where other people can commission you and find you?


Well easiest way to contact me would be to send me a note on ladyloriel.deviantart.com/
but you may also get a hold of me at toyhou.se/Ladyloriel
In the future I might also set up a specific email address for those who aren’t comfortable with using these sites, but as it is right now I don’t have one set up.
I also have a page on Facebook, that is rather new, where I can be reached. It’s simply called Art of LadyLoriel

Thursday, April 13, 2017

TV Review: Childhood's End

There have been multiple attempts to adapt Arthur C.Clarke's classic novel Childhood's End to the silver screen and the small screen.  The most well-known attempt was by famed director Stanley Kubrick.  Unfortunately, at the time someone else had the movie rights, so Kubrick and Clarke collaborated to adapt Clarke's short story "The Sentinel" into what eventually became 2001: A Space Odyssey.  There were other attempts over the years, but for one reason or another the plans always fell apart.  That is, until 2015 when Syfy, former known as The Sci-Fi Channel, adapted Childhood's End intoa three-part miniseries.  Adapting such a beloved novel is no easy task, so how does it hold up?  Let's take a look.


I should preface this by saying that spoilers ahoy will be occurring from this point forward.  Turn back now if you don't like that sort of thing.  

Okay, so first of all let's discuss the setting.  The novel was published in 1953 and is set, at least initially, in what was then the relatively near future.  The miniseries, by contrast, is set in the present day.  In the book the United States and the Soviet Union are involved in a Space Race and teetering on the edge of nuclear war.  This gives the Overlords' intervention a seems of urgency, though they probably still would have intervened anyway.  In the miniseries, the Overlords still justify their intervention on the grounds that humanity is destroying itself.  Don't get me wrong, they have a point, but pollution and climate change just don't have the same sense of urgency that nuclear war do.  To be fair, Clarke himself admitted that assuming the Soviet Union would still be around was, in hindsight, a mistake on his part.  

All things considered I think they made the right call with the settings update.  What about the characters?  Before we get to that I think I should also address the time span of the series.  The book spans of multiple decades of history, but the miniseries greatly condenses the time span.  This was most likely so that they could use the same actors throughout the whole production.  It might upset purists, but I understand why the change had to be made, and it didn't really bother me that much.  Now then, let's talk characters.

First, we have Ricky Stormgren.  In the book, he worked for the United Nations, but in the miniseries he's a farmer from Missouri.  He's noted for his ability to broker peace during times of crisis and tension.  He's about to marry a beautiful woman named Ellie, but he's still haunted by the memory of deceased wife Annabelle.  Now, in the book, Ricky's love life didn't really factor into things.  Some might say that this was pandering to the lowest common denominator, but I disagree.  I thought it added depth to Ricky's character.  He's been asked to shoulder an enormous burden for an alien race who, initially, won't even show him their faces.  He certainly more than rises to the challenge, but at the end of the day he's still just a man.  He has hopes, fears and dreams just like the rest of us.  There are times he isn't perfect, but he tires his best to do right by those he cares about.  

I actually think making Ricky an average Joe was a smart move.  Everyone would expect the Overlords to pull the "take me to your leader" cliché.  Plus, let's be honest, the United Nations is hardly the most objective organization in the world.  They bully Israel, but never condemn atrocities of the Islamic world.  They condemn American slavery, 160 years after the fact, but not the slavery going on the Islamic world here and now.  They give equal speaking time to nations that deny freedom of speech to their own citizens.  They even...well, you get the point.  Again, this is another example of time working against the book's original setting.  Moreover, I think Karellen does a good job justifying why he picked Ricky to be his representative.  

Something else of note is that Ricky's actor, Mike Vogel, is pretty much the sole American actor among a cast of Australians, Brits and the odd Irishman or two.  This is in large part because the miniseries was primarily filmed in Australia.  Now, most of the actors involved with the miniseries have appeared on America TV shows and, in some cases, American movies.  So it not like they're a cast of nobodies hired to cut down cost.  On the whole, they do a good job of faking American accents.  That having been said, it does make for a jarring experience to hear them speak in their natural voices during interviews.

In other notable characters, we have Milo Rodericks.  In the book his name was Jan Rodericks and was half-white and half-black.  In the miniseries, besides the new name, he appears to be fully black.  I don't know why they felt compelled to change his name; it certainly seems to be something of a trend for Syfy to change at least one name with each of their adaptations.  Leaving their mark on the production perhaps?  Anyway, what drives Milo more than anything else is his quest for knowledge.  He wants to know everything about the universe, but interest in science start to decline as the Overlords make the world into a utopia.  

Like Ricky, Milo's relationship with his girlfriend gets a lot more focus in the miniseries.  Again, I think this was a smart move on the producer's part.  In the book, when Milo's decides to stow away on a ship bound for the Overlord's homeworld, he leaps at the opportunity without hesitation.  In the miniseries, his decision carries more weight because now he stands to lose something.  There's a certain poetic element in how he ultimately becomes the last of the old humans and dies in Africa.  Humans originated in Africa, so it makes a sort of poetic sense that the last human would be of African heritage.  

So that brings us to the Overlords themselves, specifically Karellen.  First of all, let's talk about their appearance.  Yes, it is a bit on the nose to have them look like stereotypical red devils, but I think it kind of works out.  In the years since Childhood's End was first published, science fiction writers have dream up all sort of weird and wonderful winged aliens.  The Overlords had to look more obviously demonic so that would look like they inspired the Medieval image of demons.  Otherwise people would be more likely to compare them to science fiction aliens.  

I think pretty much everyone was expecting that Karellen was going to be a CGI character, but nope, not the case.  Charles Dance appears in full make-up and prosthetics to portray Karellen.  Though a few shots are obviously manipulated to make him appear taller and more imposing, since Charles Dance isn't quite as tall as Karellen is supposed to be.  I gotta admit that is impressive; especially considering the hell is must have been to have all of that make-up and prosthetics put on every day of filming.  The scene where Karellen finally reveals himself to humanity is one of my favorite bits.  I knew what was going to happen, but it was just shot so well I had goosebumps the whole time.  

The plot of the miniseries actually follows the plot of the books fairly closely.  I'm certainly impressed that Syfy was able to pull it off.  Don't get me wrong, Childhood's End is a great book, but it never struck me as particularly filmable. I always figured that was one of the reason it took so long to get a solid production going.  Each episode, each of which clocks in at a little less than a hour and twenty minutes, adapts a third of the book.  The first episode is excellent.  Pacing is good, acting is also good, it's an all-around good time.  I do find it a bit funny that the leader of the anti-Overlords faction vaguely looks and sounds like Alex Jones.  Granted, it was probably unintentional on the producer's part, but I thought it was humorous. 

Of the three, episode two is definitely the weakest.  I feel like some of the stuff in episode three should maybe have been in episode two.  It would have helped things out with pacing of episode three, but we'll get to that in just a minute.  Now, the middle part of the book is primarily just characters talking and that would have been a bit difficult to translate to a visual medium.  It also kind of feels like the original script wasn't quite long enough and the producers were struggling to fill the extra time.  They also kind of half-assed it when it came to addressing the quasi-supernatural elements.  It's like they wanted to keep it true to the book, but they got cold feet half way through production.   

The biggest flaw, however, came towards the end of the episode.  Karellen pays Ricky a visit...in the middle of broad daylight, while there's a large crowd of people around Ricky's house.  One of the subplots of the episode has followed this woman named Peretta.  She used to work as a missionary with her mother, but religion more or less died out after the Overlords showed up, and she thinks they're demons.  She decides to see Ricky and Ellie for...some reason, and hang out with the other people hanging around their house.  So, Karellen shows up and she sneaks past the rope, which is guarded by police.  She does this by saying that she's a friend of Ellie.  Uh, what?  You seriously expect me to be live that nobody else pulled that sort of stunt?  I mean, how dumb were those police?!  

Oh, but there's more.  Ricky has been shooting tin cans to blow off steam and brings his gun with him to meet Karellen.  Karellen is there to explain why Ricky and Ellie are having trouble conceiving...despite that fact that it's implied he already did that earlier in the episode.  Then Peretta bursts in and start blabbering about Ricky being a false prophet, and Karellen being a servant of Satan.  Despite the fact that there is a crazy woman in his barn, Ricky doesn't do anything to prevent his gun from getting grabbed.  And wouldn't you know it, Peretta grabs the gun and shoots Karellen.  Thankfully, Karellen has given a panacea earlier, and Ricky selflessly uses it to save Karellen.  Peretta is completely crestfallen, leaves in defeat and commits suicide by jumping off of a building.

What irked me the most about this scene was that it required pretty much everyone involved to act like idiots.  I get what the producers were trying to do with Peretta.  They want to show that, even in this world of plenty, there are still those who are dissatisfied.  Problem is that they already have that opportunity with the island of New Athens.  As I was watching this episode I was wondering if they were gonna drop the New Athens subplot, but it appears in episode three.  We'll get back to that in just a minute.  There's also a bit of a plot hole when Karellen gets shot.  In the first episode, Milo got shot, but the Overlords transferred his injury to the person who shot him.  Why couldn't they do the same with Karellen?  Granted you could argue that humans and Overlords are different species, so it might not work, but it irks me still.  

For that matter, why didn't Karellen just send a hologram instead of showing up in person?  Again, I see the intention.  They want to show that Ricky is selfless and willing to put other's needs ahead of his own.  I can see the intention, but it wreaks of bad writing.  I also don't like that it's implied that the children awaken their psychic abilities because of stuff the Overlords did, rather than a natural evolutionary process.  I know it gave it a hard time, but there were some good moments in episode two, mostly set up for the final episode.  Okay, enough about episode two, let's move onto the final episode.

Overall, I'd say episode three did a pretty good job.  Like I said, we get a proper view of New Athens in this episode.  Everything about it checks out fairly well in relation to the book.  We also see the children awaken their powers and their leader comes to embrace her destiny.  What is the name of the leader of these children?  Her name is...Jennifer.  Granted, there was a character by that name in the book, though not nearly as important.  It just struck me as...I don't know, anti-climactic?  The scene where the children all chant her name just wound up look more silly than creepy, in my opinion.  

In other developments, Ricky finally succumbs to his illness because he used his panacea on Karellen.  In the process of his dying he finally makes his peace with Annabelle's death. There's some really touching scene of Ricky spending his last moments gazing at the stars with Ellie.  We also get a brief montage of their happy times together.  Okay, it wasn't actually a montage, and I do think it would have been better to have lingered just a little longer.  I mean, a major character whom we have become emotionally invested in has just died.  I'd say that merits a bit more lingering.  

So, Milo embarks on his journey to the Overlords' homeworld, gets to meet the Overmind and then immediately demands to be taken back to Earth.  Yeah, I get the feeling that the production team were pressed for time by this point.  They probably could have avoided that, if they hadn't dawdled around with episode two.  This is one of the big reveals the series has been working towards, and they kind of just drop it within a few minutes.  I would have liked to have seen more of the Overlords' homeworld, and their museums, but I understand that might have been outside the budget of the miniseries.  Plus, more Overlords means more people sitting through hours of makeup and prosthetics, and that's bound to drive up cost.  

Milo returns to Earth, and since it was a eighty year round trip, he's now a the last human on Earth.  His girlfriend Rachael, and presumably her and Milo's fellow scientists, appear to have died in a cryonics accident.  It's time for the kids to join the Overmind, and Earth must be destroyed for that to happen.  This is an instance where being true to the book actually works against the miniseries. When the book was written, environmentalism hadn't really taken off, so it glossed over the fact that all life on Earth is being destroyed.  They kind of address this with all of the animals the Overlords were taking to be part of their zoos, but it's seems kind of flimsy to me.  Why not use one of the many lifeless planets in the solar system for the energy and spare Earth?

Anyway, let's talk about the ending.  Karellen offers to let Milo explore the universe with the Overlords, but Milo rejects the offer.  Instead, he chooses to report and record the last moments of Earth from the surface.  We're back to where the miniseries started.  He's scared, but he has Karellen's kind words to comfort him.  As the world crumbles around him Milo begs Karellen to save something to serve as the enduring memory of the human race.  Karellen complies and plays a recording of the orchestral song "The Lark Ascending".  Everything about that scene is just so perfect.  The music is perfect, Milo and Karellen's expression are perfect, the pacing is perfect.  

And so the Earth is destroyed, humanity joins the Overmind, and the Overlords move on.  Karellen leaves the music for whomever passes by to hear.  It was such a beautiful ending, and I can't think of any way it could have possibly been better. 

Alright, that's all well and good, but what's the verdict on this one?  I'm giving it a thumbs-up and a happy recommendation.  I know I kind of dwell on stuff that could have been improved, but that's always a bit easier than talking about what I liked.  When I consider Childhood's End as a whole, I really think that it got far more right than it got wrong.  Even if it wasn't always perfect, they followed the method of adaptions that I prefer the best.  They stayed true to the source material, but made change where necessary to better fit the new medium and time.  It's clear that the producers had a great amount of respect for the book.  Some people have been waiting their entire lives for this miniseries, and I promise you, it is well worth the wait.  

I think that it's really great that Syfy is getting back to its roots and adapting great works of speculative fiction, both classic and modern.  So there you have it.  Childhood's End is a worthy adaptation that should appeal to fans of the book and the general population.  With that I wish you all the best, and I will see you guys next time.