Monday, July 30, 2007

Small Notice

Since it has come to my attention that I'm producing about as many factual errors as posts, I'm taking a short (very short) break. I'll be back soon...after the next post is fact-checked.

Sunday, July 29, 2007

Taylor vs. Cowan

A brief comparison between two non-Mormon books on Mormonism.

Tale of Two Cities: Mormons vs. Catholics by Rev. William Taylor. Second Edition. Little Re Hen, Inc.: 1980. 107 pages. $10.50. ISBN-10: 0933046022, ISBN-13: 978-0933046023.

Mormon Claims Answered by Marvin W. Cowan. Second Revised Edition. Utah Christian Publications (Salt Lake City): 1997. 120 pages. (Read it on-line here.)

It is a risky, even a foolish thing, to begin looking into a religion by seeing what its critics say about it. Since virtually everything I know about the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints comes from non-Mormon sources, I will need to severely limit my comments on that religion and instead try, with my limited knowledge, to make something resembling intelligent comments on two books by critics of Mormonism, which I have recently read.

Both of these books, it's safe to say, have certain positive aspects and certain shortcomings. These two books are written from two different perspectives, and those perspectives lend certain strengths and weaknesses to each.

Fr. William Taylor, Catholic priest and author of the unwisely titled A Tale of Two Cities, lays out his intentions when he writes, "I will try to state the Mormon viewpoint as honestly as possible, using Mormon sources and with apologies for any distortions. When I turn to the Catholic viewpoint, I will speak as a 'post-Vatican II,' Rocky Mountain Catholic in love with his faith" (p. 2). That's reasonably clear.

Marvin Cowan, by contrast, is more reticent about his own position; he prefers to enter the ring swinging without mentioning the place he's swinging from. With apologies to Cowan if I am incorrect, he is probably a Conservative Baptist and probably a Fundamentalist, as suggested not only by the book's contents but by his biographical blurb on the back, which indicates that, after leaving Mormonism, he obtained a master's degree from Denver Seminary, a Conservative Baptist seminary. Cowan summarizes his book's intentions thus: "The purpose of this book is not to attack, ridicule or persecute Mormons, but rather to show that LDS claims against historic Christianity are flawed. The LDS claim that they alone have the keys to salvation would mean that the LDS Church is a necessary 'mediator' between God and men and that conflicts with I Tim. 2:5 which declares that Jesus Christ is the only mediator!" (p. v).

On merely stylistic matters, Fr. Taylor is by far the superior writer. Although each book seeks in its own way to be respectful of Mormons, Cowan has a fondness for exclamation points that makes Mormon Claims Answered shrill. A Mormon reading the book might be too annoyed by the sloppy writing to be convinced by the arguments.

Cowan's book is vastly superior where it really counts, however. While Taylor is too busy trying to be respectful to make any stinging arguments, Cowan is plowing through Mormon sources and showing contradictions, radical developments in doctrine, and anachronisms in supposedly ancient texts. But Cowan's strength is also his weakness: he cites numerous sources, most of them Mormon and some of them not, but he has no bibliography. Anyone looking to verify his research would have to make a laborious trip through the book to find all the material he uses. Taylor is guilty of the same oversight, but in his case it matters less, for A Tale of Two Cities is disappointingly light on content.

The best section of A Tale of Two Cities is the second to last chapter, which explores some issues with The Book of Mormon. In particular, Taylor points out anachronisms in the texts of 1 and 2 Nephi, supposedly written around 587 B.C., including a developed concept of the Messiah, a reference to crucifixion, a developed concept of a devil, use of the word "Bible," a developed concept of the resurrection, and a Greek distinction between body and soul; Taylor also notes The Book of Mormon's preoccupation with skin color. Add the large sections cribbed from the King James Bible, the imitative style, the use of the word Christian in a pre-Christian context, and the claims about Lost Tribes of Israel in the New World, and The Book of Mormon has all the earmarks of a work composed in the first half of the nineteenth century. This is the only solid refutation of Mormonism Taylor attempts.

One thing Taylor misses is that Smith, in writing The Book of Mormon, did not have Mesoamerica in mind. Smith's ancient American civilizations were North American; specifically, they were the "Mound Builders," who others of Smith's time identified with Lost Tribes of Israel. Identification of these Lost Tribes with Mesoamerica has only happened since archaeology has failed to locate North American cities of the sort Smith describes, but Taylor assumes the modern Mormon identification with Mesoamerica is Smith's original intention.

On the whole, A Tale of Two Cities is not a particularly useful book, and it may even be misleading. Taylor seeks to give a good representation of Mormonism (a laudable goal), but fails to give an adequate representation of Catholicism. Through most of the chapters, Fr. Taylor attempts to explain that Mormons have definite answers to most serious doctrinal issues whereas Catholics have "mystery." In the final chapter, he states this: "In Mormonism and modern Catholicism, we have two explanations of man's deepest truths. I have chosen the word "explanation" because I think there is real freedom in abandoning the apples-vs.-oranges question: 'Which church is right?' in favor of a new question: 'Which religious explanation do I want to live?'" (p. 99).

So Taylor ends his book by insulting his reader's intelligence. I feel like Harry Potter: here I am seeking truth while those around me are telling me to choose what to believe. And here's a fact: Taylor's first sentence I quoted in the last paragraph is gibberish. Mormonism and Catholicism are not "two explanations of man's deepest truths" (whatever those are), but two mutually exclusive truth claims, at least one of which must be false. It does not matter which one you would prefer to live under; to live a false truth claim is to live a lie. Taylor is wasting paper giving "real freedom" when he should be defending his beliefs as the only correct ones or else seeking correct beliefs if he finds his own are inadequate. Here's Jesus on the subject of "real freedom": "You shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free" (John 8.32). I see nothing there about choosing what you'd prefer to believe. Add to that Taylor's implicit denial of the Real Presence in the Eucharist (or at least downplaying of it) and his suggestion that women can be priests and A Tale of Two Cities does indeed leave us with an important question: How did this book get an imprimatur?

Throwing that aside, let's spend a little time with Cowan. Cowan obviously comes from a perspective I disagree with, but he has his head screwed on straight. I cannot verify most of his charges against Mormonism (and it would take years of reading before I could), but assuming his presentation is accurate, his dismantling of the LDS religion is reasonably thorough. His book does suffer a few serious problems, however, most of which Mormons could probably point out.

Cowan appears blissfully unaware of a little historical event called "the Reformation." More than once, he tries to set Mormonism at odds with what he calls "historic Christianity," though he never explains what he means by historic. In particular, he rejects the Mormon claim that the Christian Church underwent a complete and utter apostasy soon after its formation (pp. 75-77); Cowan is apparently unaware that Protestantism has a similar doctrine, without which the Reformation would make little sense. Different Protestants date the occurrence of this apostasy to different times: in the famous Halley's Bible Handbook, a great apostasy is associated with the legalization and acceptance of Christianity in the Roman Empire, whereas in his book Faith Alone, for reasons he doesn't explain, R. C. Sproul chooses the High Middle Ages as the time when "the light of the Gospel went out." Whenever it is placed, a universal apostasy is necessary to Protestantism, so Cowan's denial of it is strange.

At any rate, Cowan's religious myopia mortally wounds his book. He presents historic Christianity as universally agreed on certain doctrines on which Christians are simply not agreed. In particular, he presents the Baptist view of baptism as one held by everybody and sets it against the Mormon view, which, ironically, is much closer to the historic viewpoint than Cowan's own:

Christians do not always agree on the details of water baptism, but they do agree that 'by one Spirit are we all baptized into one body' (I Cor. 12:13). That is the 'one baptism' mentioned in Eph. 4:5 without which water baptism has no meaning. That baptism is the spiritual birth experienced by every believer the moment he trusts Christ (Rom. 8:9). [p. 94]

This separation of water baptism and spiritual baptism is certainly not one on which Christians are agreed, and it has no biblical precedent. Catholics and many Protestants hold baptism to be water baptism. To make his point, Cowan distorts some scriptural passages: for example, he says, "Peter declared in 1 Peter 3:21 that baptism is a figure, or symbol" (p. 93). Here is the actual text of 1 Peter 3.21 (AV): "The like figure whereunto even baptism doth also now save us (not the putting away of the filth of the flesh, but the answer of a good conscience toward God,) by the resurrection of Jesus Christ." In case that's unclear, here it is in the NRSV: "And baptism, which this prefigured, now saves you--not as a removal of dirt from the body, but as an appeal to God for a good conscience." The figure refers to the preceding verse 20, which describes Noah and his family being saved through water in the ark; so the figure of the passage is Noah's Flood, whereas baptism is the actual thing the Flood prefigures. If Cowan has this much trouble understanding his Bible, I wonder how well he understands his Book of Mormon.

On the whole, Cowan's book is a good try. Assuming he usually reads his sources correctly and gives his information accurately, he succeeds at thoroughly critiquing Mormonism, though he is hindered by his own religious stance, his occasional confused reading, and his slovenly presentation. If he really wishes to direct Mormons away from the LDS church and into the Conservative Baptist communion or another Evangelical organization, he must wage his war on two fronts: rather than show that Mormonism is wrong and "historic Christianity" is right, he must show that both Mormonism and historic Christianity are wrong and only modern Evangelicalism is right, a task far more difficult. But Cowan at least has the right idea about how to engage in religious polemics. Taylor could learn from him.

I fear Mormons would be unconvinced by either of these books. Mormonism gives definite answers, for which Taylor offers the poor substitute of theological vagueness. Cowan recognizes that matters of absolute truth are on the line, but he presents an historic Christianity that is anything but historic. As I learn more about Mormonism, I come increasingly to the impression that the aftermath of the Reformation drove Joseph Smith to create his religion in the first place, seeking to build a final, true, authoritative church that would at last end the confusion of the multitudinous Christian sects, all of which claim to be the most correct representation of the Church Christ founded. Fr. Taylor, you've imbibed too much relativism and pluralism to help him or those like him. And Cowan, you are a Protestant: it is your spiritual forefathers who made this mess in the first place, so how are you going to clean it up?

The Guardian mentions The Sci Fi Catholic

The film blog at Guardian Unlimited has honored us with a mention of our review of Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix. Once again, one of my reviews is described as "scathing." Am I really that acerbic?

I need to make a correction, though. A commenter named TinRobot correctly catches an error I made; Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, not Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, is indeed the shortest of the movies so far. It didn't feel like it, at least to me, but he's nonetheless right and I am wrong. That makes Azkaban the second shortest. My apologies for the mistake. I'm sure it's only one of many, many others.

Saturday, July 28, 2007

Review of Shazam!

You can read my discussion of Shazam!: The Monster Society of Evil on the Holy Heroes!! blog.

Uploading an image for the blog...

Now that the last Harry Potter novel has come and gone, I've eliminated the ad and done some rearranging of the badges on this site, which have grown so numerous as to become congested. Maintenance has been needed here for a while; I'm planning to replace most of the giant badges with smaller ones and see about getting smaller versions of some of the widgets as well, or finding more attractive or sensible places to put them. In the meantime, I've moved our link to the CSFF Blog Tour to the spot on the sidebar with our other badges, and I've added this banner to the top:

I'm also planning at some point to beef up and reorganize the BlogRolls so we'll distinguish author and fan blogs from each other, and maybe lay and clerical blogs as well. There are also a whole bunch of blogs I want to add to the rolls but haven't yet. I'm also intending to add in the CSFF BlogRoll and maybe a few other such specialty rolls as well.

Harry News

Finally, I've managed to wrestle our copy of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows away from Snuffles.

In other Harry news, check out Claw of the Conciliator, who has a review and a list of links and info including some to debates about the Potter novels.

Also, the blog As in the Days of Noah has given us due warning that those who find Christian parallels in Harry Potter are going to Hell. Is it okay if I still find parallels in The Epic of Gilgamesh?

By contrast, the blog ephesians 4:14 has a largely negative but genuinely thoughtful discussion.

On the other hand, The Wittenburg Door Magazine has a parody of the whole Harry hysteria. It turns out that J. K. Rowling's name, with enough tweaking, equals 666!

For an excellent discussion see the post "Potter 'According to the Scriptures'?" at The Old in the New.

John C. Wright is wild about Harry. He gives a brief but sound defense of the books, and some spoilers.

All in all, I think Harry Potter's enemies have some serious backpedaling to do, and a few apologies to make.

Sunday, July 22, 2007

Book Review: Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows

Stop, you're both right.

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows by J. K. Rowling. Harry Potter, book 7. Scholastic (Harrisonburg, VA): 2007. 759 pages. $34.99. ISBN-13: 478-0-545-01022-1, ISBN-10: 0-545-01022-5.

Your local dragon blogger now finds himself in an interesting predicament: it is still the weekend of this novel's release, which has occurred with much hype, expectancy, and trepidation. In respect to all the fans, D. G. D. has instructed me in no uncertain terms that I must not discuss the plot in any detail until some weeks have passed. After he gets out of traction, maybe he'll be able to enforce that little rule; but at any rate, I too have some respect for Harry Potter fans, and so I am now going to attempt to honor his wishes in spite of my usual attempts to do otherwise.

So, to be as vague as possible, first point: all the plot threads are tied up. Yes, all of them. All I remember, anyway. Rowling ties up loose threads with such skill that half the time you may not know what she's talking about as she refers throughout the novel to minor events that happened, say, five or six books ago. If you're a really big fan, and a masochist, you might consider rereading the entire series before tackling the finale, in order to jog your memory.

Second point: this is a very, very satisfying conclusion to the series. Fans will not be disappointed. It is possibly the best of them all. Considering it is the seventh in the series, and considering the disappointment that accompanied book 6, Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince, the novel's high quality is quite a relief. But book 6 is second to last, and such things tend to sag, so the improvement at the end is not much of a surprise.

Third point, which may be a slight (very slight) giveaway, against which I warn the very sensitive: the book has a high body count, but I think everyone already knew it would a year ago. Rowling has previously shown a skill for action violence, and in this novel she gives little reprieve. At the close, the reader may be as exhausted as the characters, especially if he's been reading hard to write a review on Sunday night.

Fourth point: this novel has back stories like you wouldn't believe; soap opera writers will want to take notes. The number of flashbacks is almost bewildering, and yet somehow the pace never slows, probably because the various convolutions in the back stories make for good reading.

Fifth point: Contrary to many, I maintain that Rowling has become (starting with about book 3 or 4), a genuine master of her craft. This is undeniably a good story even if Rowling does not always pen it with a sure hand; I think quibbles with her style or delivery will necessarily be minor ones, and I won't bother with them here.

But enough about the plot (really, that's all you get). Now let's talk about the big issue, the issue that has made these novels a hot topic among Christian bloggers and has probably done a good deal to sustain the novels' fame. Is this book a full-on Christian allegory or an attempt to lure children into the arms of the devil? I must maintain, as D. G. D. has maintained, that it is neither.

Both opponents and defenders of the series will feel their respective positions are vindicated by this book. The novel opens with a quote from Aeschylus's The Libation Bearers (translated by Robert Fagles), which includes a prayer to "dark gods beneath the earth." Those accusing the books of teaching neo-paganism, witchcraft, or Satanism (which, f.y.i., are not to be identified with each other) may consider this the smoking gun. Defenders will, however, note that quoting pagan authors is hardly corban by any sane standard, and will add that, no doubt, it is the final phrase in the quote, "Bless the children, give them triumph now," that Rowling really views as important. No dark gods beneath the earth make an appearance in the story.

Defenders will delight in the novel's numerous intentional or unintentional Christian parallels, which are more explicit than any in the previous books. Here I must give another, very, very slight spoiler warning, but I will be as vague as possible, and present them as a laundry list:

1). Harry retrieves an important object described as a "cross" only by fully immersing himself in water, which produces a death-and-rebirth-like experience (reminiscent of baptism).

2). Especially in the novel's beginning, Harry is irritated with people who tell him to choose what to believe, whereas Harry is interested in learning truth, no matter how painful or uncomfortable truth is. This may be lost on some readers, but the novel is here teaching a basic idea that is the pillar of all sane thought and of Christian thought: truth exists independently of belief and cannot be molded by belief. This is quite contrary to the prevailing view of the culture, which sees truth as relative.

3). Harry's longstanding adoration or hatred of certain characters is moderated as he learns their histories, continuing a theme unevenly delivered in the series, that good and evil live together in everyone (a theme to which no Christian can object). Full forgiveness, however, is in some cases either lacking or not explicit.

4). The novel's heroes state explicitly that they stand for, among other noble things, the power of innocence. This phrase is radical enough to contradict not only the prevailing view of our culture but of any culture.

5). Hermione says to Ron, "Look, if I picked up a sword right now, Ron, and ran you through with it, I wouldn't damage your soul at all." (Sound familiar?) The existence and immortality of the soul is a theme Rowling has developed gradually, and it is vital to the plot of this last novel. The idea that what one does in life has serious consequences in the afterlife is present, as is a graphic depiction of both salvation and damnation.

6). This one includes a slight spoiler alert, but many Christian readers will love it: when the evil Lord Voldemort gains power, one of the first things he does is--wait for it--outlaw homeschooling. German readers won't miss this little barb.

7. Heroes in the story uphold, in no uncertain terms, every human being's intrinsic value and right to live, whereas the villains are champions of killing others in the name of convenience and eugenics.

8). This book proves the whole series to be a thoughtful and reasonably profound meditation on death, a subject Rowling has developed gradually. Personally, I am pleased to see someone confronting this issue squarely in a children's series. The villains of Harry Potter, the Death Eaters, are the same villains in C. S. Lewis's That Hideous Strength: they are those who wish to achieve immortality in the here and now, in this life. In Lewis's novel, they try to achieve it by science; in Rowling's, they try to achieve it by magic, which is analogous to science in the Potterverse.

To speak of death as an absolute evil is not merely an error but a heresy, a heresy to which Harry Potter concocts a strong antidote. Harry Potter acknowledges the immortality of the soul and treats it as a given, but those who try to master death and achieve an immortality in this world become corrupt. If D. G. D. were writing this, he would no doubt pause to direct the reader to Charles Stross's Glasshouse for an inadvertent example of just how corrupt such people can be; immortal, thanks to technology, the characters of Glasshouse have nothing left to do with their existence but entertain themselves, and so they spend most of their time concocting new perversities to stimulated their exhausted sexual appetites; this may look like Heaven to Charles Stross, but I suspect many of his readers, if they are not too disgusted to read it, will easily identify it with Hell.

At one point, Harry Potter sees a biblical quote, The last enemy that shall be destroyed is death (1 Corinthians 15.26). He is horrified, identifying it with Death Eater thinking, but Hermione corrects him: "It doesn't mean defeating death in the way the Death Eaters mean it, Harry.... It beyond death. Living after death." The difference between true immortality and false immortality achieved through technology is here sharply defined.

I could easily go on looking for such things, but I must give space to the other side of the table. Besides a few minor quibbles such as the Aeschylus quote or some "snogging" (how I hate that word!), and besides also the magic, which I insist be discussed as a separate issue, the opponents of the series will note a very, very serious moral flaw, and they will be entirely correct in pointing it out and condemning it. And now my claws are bound, for to discuss this, I must give away what, to a close reader of the series, will appear to be a serious revelation. Though I will still attempt vagueness, I must give a full-on spoiler alert.

And now I continue. This novel contains a mercy killing presented in positive fashion. Rowling's meditation on death is quite good on the whole but ultimately arrives defective.

Those who have claimed the novels are pure as wind-driven snow and those who have claimed they bear the devil's own signature may now pause to wipe the egg from their faces. As we finish the last novel in the epic Harry Potter series, we find in retrospect a competent fantasy series with some flaws (like any fantasy series), some wholesome elements (like any fantasy series), and some Christian parallels (like many fantasy series). It is, in other words, just another highly entertaining and well-written set of fictional books, no more and no less. Over-hyped? Maybe. Beneficial to some? Probably. Harmful to others? Perhaps. In a few years, when the movies are finished, these will be just another set of books to adorn the shelves of the imaginative.

But then comes the question, should your children read them? Because this blog comes from a house full of bachelors, it is the policy of The Sci Fi Catholic not to give parents instructions and to give fair warning before offering them advice. So there's the warning; now our advice is this: your children can read the books, but now that you know it is there, do not forget to discuss with them the immorality of mercy killing (and how it contradicts the prevailing theme of human life's intrinsic value), and while you're at it, you may discuss whether or not some of the physical relationships in the series are too intense or too shallow. There is nothing in these novels, as we see it, to drive concerned parents to keep the books out of the hands of children, but there is also no excuse for failing to discuss their objectionable elements as well as their positive elements. Behold, I have told you beforehand.

The Sci Fi Catholic's Rating for Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows:

Myth Level: High (quest, epic storyline, back stories that read like fairy tales)

Quality: High (ferocious, fast-paced, and generally well-written)

Ethics/Religion: Medium (a great deal to praise with one seriously objectionable element)

Saturday, July 21, 2007

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Received

One thing I have learned: even when the big bookstores are offering Harry Potter on pre-order only, you can always count on the supermarkets to have them in stock.

So, I get home from the grocery store with my coveted copy of the latest novel under my arm, ready to drop everything and begin reading. I open the door, but Snuffles somehow knew I would find a copy of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows while I was out. He was clinging to the ceiling Spider-Man-style right above the door, and as soon as I was inside, he jumped me!

I got a number of scratches, some of them bad, but I can under ordinary circumstances fight Snuffles off. This time, however, both Frederick the Unicorn and Phenny the Phoenix rushed me from the sides. I was soon pinned, and Phenny was even standing over me doing his flame-in-the-air trick, something he uses only when trying to intimidate someone.

"Frederick? Phenny?" I gasped. "Since when do you guys team up with Snuffles?"

"Listen, cheesecake," Snuffles said, "you've recently blogged about two family films, and I even hear you're planning to review some of Disney's last 2-D wide-release cartoons without my input in preparation for Enchanted. You're meddling in my territory, bucko: kid stuff and Japanese stuff, remember? Harry Potter is kiddie lit; therefore, it's mine."

"Kiddie lit?" I cried. "The actors in the movies are old enough to have their own kids!"

Frederick adjusted his spectacles and shook his head, making his goatee wag. "I'm sorry, Deej," he told me, "but Snuffles is right. You've overstepped your bounds: hand over the book."


"Now," Phenny added.

This I was not going to take. I had just gone through fire and shadow, or at least the Wal-Mart checkout line, to acquire this book, and I was not about to see it slip from my grasp. Spread-eagle on the floor though I was, I shouted, "They may take our lives, but they will never take...our novels!"

A fierce battle ensued during which half the living room was destroyed. I even used my new kung fu style of "Magic Kicks," but to no avail. When the smoke cleared, I found myself in the middle of the floor next to the broken cow lamp, nursing a dislocated shoulder (typing this hurts like you wouldn't believe), with no fantasy animals and no Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows anywhere in sight. I can only assume Snuffles will be reading the book and, in short order, reviewing it himself.

Heaven help us.

Harry Potter Released and the Latest

I haven't been posting because I've been in the field, and we're staying in a town where I'm having trouble finding public Internet access. I'm working on rectifying the situation; but of course, I'm still here on weekends. And I am now posting this early in the morning at a time when the rest of all y'all aren't up yet because you're still recovering from last night's big Harry Potter party at the bookstore and/or Wal-Mart.

If you have been living in a cave lately and don't know, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows is out, having been released last night at midnight. The series is finally, at last, over. Because I moved recently and because of some foolish actions (or rather, inactions) on my part, my personal copy of the novel has now become a free gift for whoever lives at my old apartment. Consider that my way of saying, "Welcome to the neighborhood."

What I'm getting at is, the review of the seventh and final Harry Potter may be delayed. However, I should have a review of Robert Silverberg's Gilgamesh the King real soon, and that's pretty sweet, right?

Sunday, July 15, 2007

Movie Review: Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix

Remember when Harry Potter was funny?

Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, directed by David Yates. Screenplay by Michael Goldenberg. Produced by David Barron and David Heyman. Starring Daniel Radcliffe, Rupert Grint, and Emma Watson. Warner Bros., 2007. Runtime 138 minutes. Rated PG-13. USCCB Rating is AII--Adults and Adolescents.

Read other reviews here.

A little while ago, Chris Columbus directed two agonizingly boring installments of the Harry Potter series, featuring mumbling actors who paced back and forth as if the director had never bothered to block them, a young Daniel Radcliffe who wandered around like a glass-eyed zombie, and choppy, underdeveloped storytelling. The over-the-top arguments usually ending in fistfights, not to mention the various gags at the expense of occult lore, so vital to the novels' likability, were nowhere to be found. Then came Alfonso Cuarón, who finally breathed life into the series with Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, which featured the imaginative images, beautiful setting, and visual gags the series so desperately needed. Cuarón also knew how to work his child actors: in this third movie, Radcliffe at last came into his own; he wasn't just playing Harry Potter, he was Harry Potter.

It was sad to see Cuarón go, but David Newell at least kept the momentum going with Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, even if that film lacked the gags and unique imagery of its predecessor. But now David Yates has returned the series to its roots with Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix. By that, I mean it's agonizingly boring. Worse still, it doesn't even make a pretense of being funny.

In this installment of the franchise, the evil Lord Voldemort (Ralph Fiennes, playing it surprisingly straight) has returned to his full power, but the Ministry of Magic headed by Cornelius Fudge (Robert Hardy) is in denial; only Harry Potter and Professor Dumbeldore (Michael Gambon) will admit the Dark Lord has returned. To keep Potter and Dumbledore under control, Fudge dispatches the cloying and odious Dolores Umbridge (Imelda Staunton) to Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry to be the new professor of Defense Against the Dark Arts and to keep the school on a tight leash. Because Umbridge isn't teaching the students necessary combat and defense skills, Harry's friends Hermione (Emma Watson) and Ron (Rupert Grint) convince Harry to teach his own, secret class, a group he calls Dumbeldore's Army.

This is based on the fifth novel in the series in which Harry goes through an angry teenage phase, spending most of the book screaming and throwing tantrums (and giving the lie to the books' detractors who mistakenly think Rowling is presenting Harry as a role model). Radcliffe, by contrast, gives a subdued performance with lots of seething but minimal shouting, successfully portraying a brooding, perpetually angry teenager (I suppose he's had lots of practice with that horse). By contrast, Watson and Grint have barely any screen time, and Watson, formerly the movies' shining light, now looks like she desperately wants to be anywhere but in another Potter film. On the other hand, the otherworldly and sprightly Evanna Lynch, playing Luna Lovegood, is a welcome addition to the cast and a ray of sunshine in the midst of a very dreary movie.

Cuarón (how we miss you!) recognized that the translation from book to film was not an easy one; he insisted the movie be short and tight, and that the greatest amount of editing must occur in the screenplay, not in the editing room, which probably explains why his film is not only the shortest in the series, but the least choppy. Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, however, is a bare outline of the gargantuan 896-page novel, flitting from event to event with no development and, consequently, no point: Hagrid is keeping a baby giant in the woods, but so what? Professor Snape is teaching Harry legilemency, but so what? Harry kisses a girl after his self-taught class, but so what? These events have meaning in the book because they get development, but in the movie, because the writer and direct can't decide what to cut and what to include and, most importantly, what to dwell on, the film is only a choppy sketch, not a real story. Book 5 is arguably the strongest in the series, but movie 5 is one of the weakest.

And making it all worse, the fun, humor, and fast pace that pervade the novels even in their darkest moments are absent. The color has been leached from the film after the manner of Minority Report, and even during the whiz-bang special effects scenes, the actors mostly stand around with glum looks on their faces. It's dreary and, what's more, it's sluggish.

The highlight of the novel is a rousing, slam-bang action sequence between members of Dumbledore's Army and Voldemort's Death Eaters; the sequence goes on for almost a hundred pages without getting boring. I eagerly anticipated this sequence through the whole movie, but when it comes, Harry and his faithful friends mostly spend their time battling flying clouds of sand. Wait a minute, I paid six hard-earned bucks to see some serious wizard dueling and I want to see it! And since when are wizards in the Potterverse able to transform into sand or fly under their own power, anyway?

As for moral and religious content, the enemies of the Harry Potter stories will want to focus their attention here. This is the novel and the movie that introduces the most moral complexity to Harry Potter's world. It introduces a character who is not only a professor but also a government representative and unabashedly evil as well as sweet. It features Harry's godfather (Gary Oldman in the film) telling Harry that no individual is either wholly good or wholly evil. It features shameless student rule-breaking on a greater level than that which has characterized the series generally. And of course, it features a very nasty, very selfish, and very loud Harry Potter.

In my own estimation, none of this ought to concern Christian parents or readers. The statement by Harry's godfather is only a reflection of reality; though some Christian critics have expressed the desire, or the demand, that all characters in fantasy be either sweetness and light or else orcs, the desire is not conducive to good storytelling. The weakness and sometimes wickedness of the government in the Harry Potter universe should not be a matter of concern: corrupt governments are a staple of fantasy as well as reality. The student rule-breaking, potentially more problematic, is mostly tongue-in-cheek, not to mention necessary to the characters' survival. And as for Harry himself, only the final novel will reveal exactly what Rowling plans to do with him, but there is no indication thus far that Harry's character flaws are meant to be anything other than character flaws, and no Christian reader has a right to be perturbed by flawed characters.

The Sci Fi Catholic's Rating for Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix:

Myth Level: Medium (it just doesn't have the effect, you know?)

Quality: Medium-Low (good cast, good sets, good effects, lousy directing, crummy script)

Ethics/Religion: High (nothing objectionable)

Filmography links and data courtesy of The Internet Movie Database.

Saturday, July 14, 2007

Harry Potter Review Coming

This weekend, I intend to view and review Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix

Also, i mentioned before an upcoming essay on the novels and how a Christian ought to view them. Expect that essay after the release of the final novel; arguably, that's too late as the hype will likely die with the series, but it will at least give me the benefit of hindsight and the entirety of the series, something writers on the subject have not so far had.

A Letter to the Editor and My Thoughts

I recently found in my in-box a letter to the editors of Discover that was courteously passed on to me (and which courteously included a link to this blog). As I've warned that the e-mails sent me are blog-able unless the writers ask for privacy, I reprint it here (with name deleted) and make some comments.


It is too bad that Mr. Bruno Maddox ("Blinded By Science"; Your most recent issue) went to an "old man's" Science Fiction convention rather than where the young people and minds are at, which is GenCon, now held in Indianapolis. Although GenCon is touted as a "gaming" convention, it is as much SF&F as that.

I devoured Astounding Science Fiction (And, its successor, Analog) for many years. I let my subscription lapse as it had become an "old man's" magazine and, although almost 69 years of age, I am NOT an old man.

The present (And immediate future) of SF&F is not in muscle bound, sword swinging, barbarians; But, in such "thought experiments" as represented by alternative histories, the disk world novels, various religion based books (Predicting a return to Faith or an end-battle between the traditional religions and the religion of secularism?) and other, non-technical, themes.

Respectfully submitted,

PS---Please pass a copy of this on to Mr. Maddox. Thank you!



This statement about thought experiments is an interesting one. If I look at science fiction today, I see such things as cyberpunk, transrealism, post-acceleration sf, the New Weird, posthumans, and the aforementioned alternate history, all of which can be characterized as "thought experiments." I also see concerns that sales of science fiction are dropping even as sales of fantasy are not. Different explanations for this have been proposed; Orson Scott Card suggested it has something to do with the state of science, where the greatest discoveries now have to do with such cabala as superstrings and subatomic particles, which in his view don't make for the greatest stories (though authors of the forms of sf mentioned above might disagree).

I fear these "thought experiment" forms of science fiction indicate the air of the genre has become too rarefied, and the esoterica and plain old strangeness might turn away potential new readers. I find myself drifting more to fantasy these days, for Stapledonian sf and its derivatives cause even me to hesitate before picking up a novel. I ask myself, "Do I really want to read 700 pages about posthuman immortal DNA computers living in multiple universal membranes connected through graviton transmitters when I could be reading about loincloth-clad he-men with swords?"

And think of the newbies! The newbies! I don't mean the hyper-evolved aliens in those lousy Doom novels; I mean the people new to the genre. Do you hand a newbie something by Rudy Rucker or do you hand him The Martian Chronicles? The sf genre has only gotten to its current place through years of development. I am reasonably comfortable with the new forms of sf, rather than completely lost, because my reading in the genre has also gone through years of development. I think the thought experiments are simply too weird to compel new readers: a few years ago I had opportunity to introduce someone unfamiliar with the genre to the peculiar joys of sf; after judging her personality and interests, I handed her a copy of Michael Bishop's "The House of Compassionate Sharers," which she enjoyed, but anything much weirder might have simply turned her off.

What I am saying is that the author of this letter may be slightly off-base: science fiction has not moved away from technical themes; if anything, it has perhaps become too technical. If the genre is to grow, there will always be a need for sword-swinging barbarians because it is characters like John Carter of Mars who draw people here in the first place. Only after a man has learned to appreciate Burroughs or Bradbury or McCaffrey can he learn to appreciate Dick or Gibson or Rucker. Ask yourself, when you were a kid, maybe in the '80s as I was, were you reading cyberpunk or were you reading Dragonriders of Pern?

On a slightly different note, his comment about religion-based sf is to me an interesting one, one I'm not sure I understand. He may be referring to the sub-genre of Christian sf, which might explain his link to this blog, which deals intermittently with that branch of literature. He might also simply be reading different books from what I'm reading. I see lots of religious themes in science fiction and I do see elements of the culture wars, but I'm not sure I see a great growth in "religion-based books" outside the Christian sub-genre, though I think we have seen a death of that old-fashioned sf in which religion is simply a non-issue superseded by science.

Give It Up for His Holiness...

The Pope, I mean, not the Dalai Lama.

I just ran across this little news item that the Pope made waves (?) by stating that the Catholic Church is the only true Church. I can't exactly link this to science fiction (well, I could, but there wouldn't be much point), so I'll just make a few brief observations instead.

It's a sad state of things when it's controversial to say that you believe your opinion is the correct one and that, therefore, other opinions are wrong. A Catholic can't be intellectually honest if he doesn't say the Catholic Church is the only true Church every once in a while, just as a Protestant can't be intellectually honest if he doesn't every once in a while say the Catholic Church is an institution of the devil. In my perfect world, instead of trying to make everything happy with false shows of toleration, we'd all be able to express our opinions, argue over them, have vehement disagreements, call each other infidels, and then shake hands and have a beer. But it's hard to make things work out like that.

Friday, July 13, 2007

Back on Track

This last week, I was in the field and we had a particularly hectic push to get some work done, leaving me little or no time in the evenings to write, blog, read, or do much of anything else. Hopefully, things are back on track here and I'll be giving regular posts again.

The Advanced Fiction Writing E-Zine Received


The Advanced Fiction Writing E-zine


Publisher: Randy Ingermanson ("the Snowflake guy")

Motto: "A Vision for Excellence"

Date: July 10, 2007
Issue: Volume 3, Number 7
Home Pages:

Circulation: 8000+ writers, each of them creating a
Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius.


What's in This Issue

1) Welcome to the Advanced Fiction Writing E-zine!
2) Recent Blog Articles
3) Creating Characters -- Part 5
4) Marketing is About You
5) What's New At
6) Steal This E-zine!
7) Reprint Rights


1) Welcome to the Advanced Fiction Writing E-zine!

This is the July issue of the Advanced Fiction Writing
E-zine. The normally scheduled date for this issue was
midnight on July 3. However, I figured that all my US
readers would be busy blowing up fireworks on July 4,
so I decided to hold this issue back for a week to let
the dust settle. August's issue will come out on the
normal schedule, the first Tuesday of the month.

Those of you who have joined in the past month (about
350 of you have joined since the last issue), welcome
to my e-zine!

You should be on this list only if you signed up for it
on my web site. If you no longer wish to hear from me,
don't be shy -- there's a link at the bottom of this
email that will put you out of your misery.

If you missed a back issue, remember that all previous
issues are archived on my web site at:

What's in this issue:

Have you been reading my Advanced Fiction Writing Blog
lately? If not, I'll give you a quick recap of what you

Several months ago, I began a series of articles on
creating characters. This month I'll talk about how
characters and plots grow up together.

We've talked about marketing many times in this e-zine,
and I've often said that marketing starts with the
brutal fact that "nobody cares about you." This is
true, but there's another side to consider. In a very
real sense, "marketing is all about you." We'll talk
about that paradox this month.


2) Recent Blog Articles

My new Advanced Fiction Writing Blog has gelled into an
active community of writers with hundreds of daily
readers and often dozens of comments. Here's a recap of
some recent things we've discussed there in the past

In early June, I asked my blog readers what stage of
their writing career they were in, and what was their
biggest obstacle at the moment. It turned out that a
number of writers were feeling oppressed by the
zillions of rules that well-meaning teachers give them.
That generated a discussion for several days on the
"rules" of writing and how and when to break them.

We then talked about why "bad" books get published when
there are tons of good books that don't.

That led us into a long discussion on the importance of
marketing and branding for all writers, even
pre-published ones. Not surprisingly, a lot of my blog
readers have felt some angst about branding. I
interviewed a couple of my author friends who I feel
have done a good job branding themselves. We talked
about the various branding problems that some of my
blog readers are facing now or will face as they head
towards publication.

More recently, we've had an extended discussion on the
structure of scenes in fiction. There are certain rules
of scene structure that an author violates only at
extreme peril.

If you've been missing out on my blog, you can read it


3) Creating Characters -- Part 5

In the last few months, we talked about how values,
motivations, and goals define a character, and the one
thing you must understand in order to write
three-dimensional characters. This month we're going to
talk about the process of creating characters.

This column is prompted by an email I received today
from one of this e-zine's subscribers, asking about how
exactly you develop characters.

Every writer is different, of course, so I can't give a
set of rules that will guarantee you'll come out with
interesting characters. Writing is not paint by
numbers. But I can give you some general guidelines.

Personally, I think characters are completely tied up
with plot. I develop my characters right alongside my

For starters, every one of my main characters will have
some sort of goal that motivates them to action. In my
view, if your character doesn't WANT something, then
you've got a boring character that nobody is going to
want to read about. Conversely, if you've got a
character who really, desperately WANTS something, then
that's an interesting character.

Some examples:

Can a machine be an interesting character? Yes . . . if
that machine is an android who wants very badly to kill
a woman named Sarah Connor before she has a son named
John who will save the world from androids. That's the
storyline for the robot played by Arnold Schwarzenegger

Can a six-year-old boy be an interesting character?
Yes . . . if that boy wants to get away from his
sadistic older brother and go to Battle School where he
has a chance to play war games with other kids and
possibly become the hero who will save the earth from
the invading alien "Buggers." That's the storyline for
Ender Wiggin in ENDER'S GAME.

Can a witless middle-aged mother of five girls be an
interesting character? Yes . . . if she's desperate to
marry off those daughters before her husband dies,
leaving them all penniless. That's the storyline of
Mrs. Bennett, mother of Lizzie Bennett in PRIDE AND
PREJUDICE. (And it hardly matters that Papa Bennett is
healthy as a horse. For Mama Bennett, the important
thing is that he COULD die. Hence, the need for rich
husbands, and plenty of them.)

The fact is that most of us, most of the time, play by
the rules and live pretty dull lives. But when a person
is desperate, when their back is to the wall, when
they'll do ANYTHING to get what they want or need,
that's when the rules all go out the window. That's
when you have a story.

Fiction is driven by people who desperately want
something and will do whatever it takes to get it. So
that's the first principle of creating characters.

But the second principle is that everybody is
different. We have different skills, different talents,
different limitations. Ender Wiggin, at six years old,
can't possibly travel through time like Arnie, stealing
guns, improvising explosions, and shooting up the cops.
But Ender is just as lethal, in his own way, on his own
turf, because Ender is a brilliant strategist and also
knows how to organize teams to get the best out of his

Mrs. Bennett can't run away from her problems to go to
Battle School, but she has plenty of other talents.
Such as talking. And, um, talking. And (the truth comes
out at last) talking. The woman is a chatterbox and a
half, and all that talking only makes things worse for
her poor daughters, who desperately don't need Mama
messing up their chances at marriage by being a dork in
public. Mrs. Bennett's role in life is to demolish her
daughters' chances by trying way too hard.

Arnie's robot in TERMINATOR has little talent for small
talk of the type Mrs. Bennett excels at. He has a few
good lines, but his strength is physical. The guy is
well-nigh unstoppable. Shoot him, stab him, burn him --
he just keeps going like the Energizer Bunny From Hell.

Plot comes when you have different characters, each of
whom desperately wants something -- and those
"somethings" are in conflict. Give each of these
characters different skills and your story writes
itself. In theory, anyway.

In practice, of course, your characters don't always
spring to life in full glory. Sometimes, you've got one
character and a weak plot and that's it. Then what do
you do?

What you do is ask what sort of character would cause
the most grief for the character you've got. That often
suggests a new character with particular strengths. Now
give that new character a burning desire that's totally
at odds with your first character.

Now you've got two strong characters and a strong plot.
Now you've got a story.

So in creating your novel, your characters define your
plot, and your plot defines your characters. If you
iterate between those a few times, you'll end up with
several strong characters, and a dynamite plot.


4) Marketing is About You

It may seem paradoxical for me to write an article with
the headline "Marketing is About You." After all, for a
long time, I've been saying in this e-zine that one of
the fundamental axioms of marketing is that "Nobody
cares about you."

How are we supposed to reconcile those two statements?

Well, it's very simple. Yes, it's true that nobody
cares about you -- yet. The goal of marketing is to
TEACH them to care about you.

But you don't do that by talking about yourself. Quick
-- think back to the last party you went to. There was
a guy there who only talked about himself. Remember? He
was buttonholing anybody he could latch onto and
telling them all about a) his great Amway products, or
b) his amazingly cool job designing relational
databases, or c) how well he's doing after his divorce,
or d) his fabulous collection of spider webs. Or
whatever. It was all about him.

Remember what tricks you had to pull to get away from
that guy? Yeah, you remember.

There was another guy there who, as luck would have it,
knew a whole lot about something you really cared
about. You remember him, right? It turned out you were
both really super-interested in a) the Yankees, or b)
French cooking, or c) gardening, or d) great literary
novels. Or whatever. You really hit it off because this
guy cared about stuff you cared about. Plus, he was
just fun to be around.

Remember how you barely got started talking before it
was time to leave? Yeah, you remember.

Now what's the difference here? Guy #1 may well have
been fun to be around, but you never found out, because
he was so obsessed with talking about stuff you didn't
care about. Guy #2 was definitely fun to be around, but
you only discovered that because he was interested in
the same stuff you're interested in.

When it comes to marketing your work, it's absolutely
true that "Nobody cares about you." But that sentence
is really incomplete. It should really read, "Nobody
cares about you, UNTIL they discover a common interest
AND they find that you're fun to be around."

In the past, when I've talked about marketing, I've
focused a lot on the first part -- that common
interest. If you've got a great web site on a) the
Yankees, or b) French cooking, or c) gardening, or d)
great literary novels, or whatever, then people who are
interested in your topic will come to your site.

That's all good -- traffic is essential -- but it's not
enough. People will VISIT your site for information,
but they'll STAY for you.

That's why I say that "Marketing is about you."
Because much as you love the Yankees or escargot or
zucchini or Austen, what you really want is for people
to read your novels. Which they will do if they like
you and if your novels are even remotely related to
their interests.

Here's where it gets tricky. How are you supposed to
get people to like you?

Strictly speaking, you can't make people like you. What
you can do is be yourself. You're a writer, and
therefore you are automatically unique, entertaining,
and fun to be around. Be yourself. Don't try to be
Stephen King or Tom Clancy or Danielle Steel.

Be yourself. A certain number of people will like you.
Those people are your natural fans. Tragically, a
certain number of other people won't like you. The only
way to get them to like you is to be somebody else,
which would probably alienate your real fans. So don't
even bother. Just be yourself. Focus on making your web
site (or your blog) reflect your unique, entertaining,
fun personality.

If that ultimately means that you only have ten real
fans, then maybe you'll never write a bestseller, but
you'll have nine more fans than most people do. And
you'll have the satisfaction of being authentic.

On the other hand, you might end up with thousands or
tens of thousands of fans -- people who like the real
you. Those are just the sort of people who'll buy your

All of this means, of course, that you need to figure
out who you really are, what you're truly interested
in, and how best to communicate all that to the world
via your web site.

There's a word for the process of figuring all that
out, the infamous "B-word" -- "branding."

If there is anything that has polarized writers in the
last ten years, it's the subject of branding. Some
writers spend inordinate amounts of time agonizing over
their "brand". Others sneer at the whole notion,
figuring that your brand will find you.

The truth is somewhere in the middle. An excellent
brand may attach itself to you, if you're lucky. Then
again, it's just as likely that a perfectly muddled and
incoherent brand may latch on to you.

My opinion is that it's nice to be lucky, but you
should also take steps to make your own luck. (In
exactly the same way, an excellent agent may find you,
if you're lucky, but it still makes sense to do your
part to find a good one. Right?)

Likewise with a brand. You can do nothing and hope
people just naturally figure out who you are and what
your writing is all about. But people don't always
understand you perfectly, and so the end result might
be that nobody really knows what you stand for.

Unless YOU take the time to figure out who you are,
what you do, and why you do it, nobody else is likely
to do that hard work for you. So you need to do it.

I'll say it again. Marketing your books is about
marketing YOU. And marketing you means creating a
recognizable brand for your writing that helps you
communicate to people who and what you are and what you

Want to get started on thinking about your brand right
now? Take out a pad of paper and answer three questions:
1) Who are you?
2) What do you write?
3) Why do you write it?

You don't have to answer those completely today. Your
answers don't have to be perfect. But if you put them
on paper, it'll start a process that will eventually
lead you to your brand. And then you'll know how to
market yourself effectively.

Branding and marketing don't happen in one day. It
takes time and effort to figure it all out. But once
you do, selling yourself to an agent, an editor, and
the reading public will become a whole lot easier.


5) What's New At

As you can tell by the above article on marketing, I've
recently turned my attention to the much-loved and
much-hated subject of "branding." This is a subject
I've neglected for most of my career, and that's been a
mistake. But it's never too late to do what you
desperately need to do.

In the month of June, I worked with strategic planning
expert Allison Bottke to create a teleseminar on
"Branding for Writers." We've now added that as #5 in
our popular series on "Strategic Planning for Writers."
You can read all about the whole series here:

While working with Allison on the teleseminar, I did
some hard rethinking of my own brand. The branding for
my novels has been in disarray for a long time. But
I've done some soul-searching and I've now got a new
direction for my fiction. I'll be rebuilding my brand
for my novels from the ground up in the coming months.

I also took a look at the branding for my Advanced
Fiction Writing web site, which includes this e-zine
and my blog. My Advanced Fiction Writing brand has been
pretty well-focused, but not perfectly so. One problem
was that some of my articles on writing have been on my
personal web site for a long time. (I wrote them long
before I launched this e-zine.) I've now moved those
articles, including the famous "Snowflake article" to
my Advanced Fiction Writing site. And I'm taking some
steps to increase my brand recognition.

The lesson here is that you can have multiple brands --
if you have the time and energy to build them both.
Viva la branding!


6) Steal This E-zine!

This E-zine is free, and I personally guarantee it's
worth at least 1844 times what you paid for it. I
invite you to "steal" it, but only if you do it nicely
. . .

Distasteful legal babble: This E-zine is copyright
Randall Ingermanson, 2007.

Extremely tasteful postscript: I encourage you to email
this E-zine to any writer friends of yours who might
benefit from it. I only ask that you email the whole
thing, not bits and pieces. Otherwise, you'll be
getting desperate calls at midnight from your friends
asking where they can get their own free subscription.

At the moment, there are two places to subscribe:
My personal web site:
My fiction site:


7) Reprint Rights

Permission is granted to use any of the articles in
this e-zine in your own e-zine or web site, as long as
you include the following blurb with it:

Award-winning novelist Randy Ingermanson, "the
Snowflake Guy," publishes the Advanced Fiction Writing
E-zine, with more than 8000 readers, every month. If
you want to learn the craft and marketing of fiction,
AND make your writing more valuable to editors, AND
have FUN doing it, visit Download your
free Special Report on Tiger Marketing and get a free
5-Day Course in How To Publish a Novel.


Randy Ingermanson
Publisher, Advanced Fiction Writing E-zine

Ingermanson Communications Inc.

2210 W. Main St., Suite 107, Box 103
Battle Ground, WA

Monday, July 9, 2007

Kung Fu Night! The Legend

What? Again? Already?

The Legend, directed by Cory Yuen. Written by Kay On, Chan Kin Chung, and Tsoi Kang Yung. Produced by Chui Po Chu. Executive Producer Jet Li. Golden Harvest. American release from Dimension Home Video. 95 minutes. Rated R.

I better stop winning the weekly wrestling match or else broaden my viewing habits or I'm going to have to rename this blog The Kung Fu Catholic and I don't think anybody wants that. It's just that I've been watching so much kung fu lately it's getting harder to lose when I fight, what with the ability to run up walls and fly short distances. Besides, the other members of the household are pretty easy to beat: Frederick the unicorn is a thinker, not a doer; Snuffles is all claws and teeth, but he's out instantly if you get him in a "sleeper" hold; and Phenny the Phoenix became a pushover after we instituted the "No Spontaneously Combusting Your Opponent" rule.

The good news about this particular kung fu movie is that I think I can understand the plot. In short, the corrupt Manchu emperor is threatened by the secretive Red Flower Society, and so he has dispatched an assassin to destroy them. But never mind that because meanwhile, a rich man named Tiger Liu (Sung Young Chen) has decided to hold a kung fu contest: whoever can beat Tiger's wife Siu-wan (Sibelle Hu) at kung fu can marry his daughter, the beautiful Ting Ting (Michelle Reis). The likable, funny, slightly zany, and highly energetic Fong Sai-Yuk (Jet Li) enters the contest and after a creative battle involving the ultimate form of crowd-surfing, very nearly wins--until he gets a look at a servant girl he mistakes for the bride, after which he purposely loses.

His equally funny, zany, and energetic mother Miu Chui-Fa (Josephine Siao) is displeased at the loss, and so she does the natural thing: she dresses as a man and wins the fight herself, thereby accidentally winning the heart of Tiger Liu's wife as well as the hand of his daughter. Tiger Liu insists somebody from the Fong household is going to marry his daughter, so he catches up with Fong Sai-yuk and captures him at swordpoint, leading to plenty more opportunities for misunderstandings, slapstick, and kung fu fighting.

In the movie's last third, the humor dries up because someone somewhere remembered the plot: it turns out Fong Sai-Yuk's deadpan father (some actor) is a member of the Red Flower Society, entrusted with a list of all the members' names, a list eagerly desired by the emperor's assassin (some other actor). There's a little tragedy, a good deal of melodrama, some severe beatings, and a character who's supposed to look important but who we don't care about because he gets no introduction.

The relatively streamlined plot puts this movie a notch above many kung fu films (and the excellent DVD rendering by Dimension helps immensely). The charismatic personalities of both Jet Li and Josephine Siao could make just about any movie enjoyable, and they have plenty of opportunity to shine here, especially when they're fighting side-by-side. The last act, too, has genuinely moving moments, but it weighs too heavily after all the silliness, making the movie decidely lopsided. And though the plot is worthy of Shakespeare, the script, at least in the English dub, is a major clunker.

My biggest beef with this movie, and it is major, is that one of the film's many crazy jokes involves wifebeating. Yes, you read that right. Someone should perhaps kindly inform the writing team of Kay On, Chan Kin Chung, and Tsoi Kang Yung that the subject simply isn't funny. I feel like I may be treading on historical issues here, but I don't care; it isn't funny. It's also slightly odd in a film where most of the women can kick most of the men's butts.

The Sci Fi Catholic's Rating for The Legend:

Myth Level: Medium (well, it's got wire-fu...)

Quality: Medium-High (good rendering, decent cinematography, good story, some heaviness in the last third)

Ethics/Religion: Medium-Low (we got heroism, a love of justice, some chaste marriage...and wife-beating)

Filmography links and data courtesy of The Internet Movie Database.

Beauty and the Beast Season 2 Scheduled for Release

Word from the Internet Movie Database is that season 2 of Beauty and the Beast is set for DVD release tomorrow.

I know I saw this show a few times when it was on, but I was way too young to either understand or remember it. Now that two seasons are out on DVD, I may have to consider acquiring them and meeting this cult classic again for the first time. I figure anything featuring impossible love and Ron Perlman in creature makeup can't be all bad...unless it's Guillermo del Toro's Hellboy movie.

Sunday, July 8, 2007

Book Review: Bone 6: Old Man's Cave

Our heroes are bone tired, but one of them has a bone to pick. Yet this bone of contention will cut too near the bone!

Bone 6: Old Man's Cave by Jeff Smith. Color by Steve Hamaker. Scholastic (New York): 2007. 118 pages. $9.99. ISBN-13: 978-0-439-70635-3, ISBN-10: 0-439-70635-1.

The interlude of Rock Jaw is over. Rat creatures rampage across the northern Valley, Thorn discovers her magic powers as she leads the villagers to safety, and Fone Bone and Smiley find themselves lost in the forest. Meanwhile, the mysterious and evil Hooded One closes in on Phoney Bone, who is part of his plan to unleash the Lord of the Locusts on the world. Troubled by more mysterious dreams, Gran'ma's dishonesty, and her own confusion, Thorn makes rash decisions that could threaten not only herself and her friends, but the entire world.

This volume is the last of the so-called second Bone trilogy, variously titled Solstice or Phoney Strikes Back. It marks a distinct end of the series's light humor and brings to the fore the grimmer elements that will dominate the final trilogy. That's not to say Old Man's Cave isn't funny (it begins with a hilarious moment involving a grouchy ground hog), but the drama and action have taken center stage.

Steve Hamaker's coloring keeps getting better. His color accents Smith's artwork with numerous subtle shades and highlights. Panels that are lamp or firelit are particularly well done, and some light forest backgrounds have been added to panels that in the original black and white were mostly empty. The color gives Bone a lush look and feel appropriate to the setting and action and complementary to Smith's brushwork. It also highlights the distinct contrast between the humans and the cartoonish bones. In particular, when Bone and Thorn are arguing on pages 76 to 77, note the difference between Bone's blank white body and the carefully shaded cloak Thorn is carrying.

After her absence in the last comic, the return of Thorn is refreshing, and her reunion with Bone is very sweet. Plus, this is the volume where Thorn finally puts on the cool warrior outfit with the war paint that has become iconic of her character. I especially like that she's planning to go on a stealth mission while wearing bright red.

This is the volume that explains many of the story's mysteries; the following three volumes will be devoted to bringing the series through its climax and conclusion. Followers of Bone thus far will be pleased with the fast pace, the many revelations, the increased mythic tone, and the continuation of the quality artwork.

The Sci Fi Catholic's Rating for Bone 6: Old Man's Cave:

Myth Level: High (this volume brings in the Bone cosmogony)

Quality: High (good art and good storytelling combined)

Ethics Religion: High (nothing objectionable, a few good messages about trust, etc.)

Friday, July 6, 2007

Space Vulture Website

The novel Space Vulture by Gary K. Wolf (creator of Roger Rabbit) and John J. Myers, the Archbishop of Newark, has a website, and you can visit it here to see the novel's cover and some laudatory quotes from big names, suggesting the book is going to be good. It's old-fashioned nostalgic space opera of the cheesy I'm-in-space-but-I-have-a-sword-and-I-don't-know-why variety, inspired by the pulpy Space Hawk by Anthony Gilmore (actually Harry Bates and Desmond Hall).

Release date for the novel is March 2008. Catholic science fiction fans everywhere, you've got a bishop in the business!