Monday, January 26, 2015

Hasbro Unveils Plans for My Little Pony G5

It is no surprise, now that G4 shows signs of winding down, that Hasbro is already putting together its plans to revamp the My Little Pony franchise yet again. The new version, which Hasbro executives recently revealed to Entertainment Weekly in an exclusive screening, is designed with a number of arguably conflicting goals in mind.

First, Hasbro wants to maintain the core base of young children, which means the content has to be such that will interest them, and which their parents will approve. Second, Hasbro wants to maintain the audience of older girls by placing more emphasis on romance and adolescent drama. Third, Hasbro hopes to keep the new peripheral fandom by adding more complex themes and storylines. Finally, Hasbro also hopes to bring back to the franchise the older generations of fans and collectors who were turned off by G4; thus, G5 will have a lusher look with more overt fantasy elements, and it will blend components of all the previous generations into a single world.

The pilot of the new series, tentatively entitled My Little Pony: Equestrienne Girls, has almost completed filming, and the production as it currently stands was revealed to Entertainment Weekly in a three-hour session. A complete copy of the script is unavailable at present, of course, but we can piece together most of the content of the pilot, which will take the form of a two-hour movie slated to air on Discovery Kids in the fall of 2017.

The story does not begin in the land of ponies at all, but in a high school. The heroine, fourteen-year-old Megan, is a freshman girl madly in love with horses and all things horse-related. Alas, like many young girls who want ponies, she doesn’t have one. She does however have six friends who are accomplished equestriennes: there’s the bookish Tina, who rides a Dales Pony named Twilight Sparkle; the elegant Rowellina, whose beautiful Fell Pony mare Rarity has won many pleasure riding competitions; the cowgirl Amelia, who rides her hardy Criollo Applejack in Western competitions; the spunky Roxy, who rides a feisty Caspian-Welsh cross named Rainbow Dash; the shy Faith, who rides a gentle Batak named Fluttershy; and the hyperactive Paulina, whose energetic Dartmoor Pinkie Pie has won many jumping contests.

Megan, though she doesn’t have a pony to call her own, nonetheless knows everything there is to know about horses, and she is an excellent rider in her own right, having frequently ridden the horses of her friends. Megan’s passion for the equestrian arts is matched only by her curious penchant for certain anachronisms, which have earned her a reputation as an eccentric. She wears long and frilly dresses to school, keeps a complete tea service in her locker (she brings it out at lunchtime), and speaks in an arch fashion.

Unbeknownst to her, Megan’s strange ways have gained her the attentions of a new boy in town, Spike Hawterson, who was the star quarterback at his former school. So far, on account of her mannerisms, he hasn’t worked up the courage to speak to her. For her part, Megan shows no interest in Spike whatsoever, but Spike has caught the eye of both Tina and Rowellina, who sigh over his chiseled frame and rakish good looks.

The yet-to-be-produced movie introduces this sizable and decidedly cumbersome cast of characters quite rapidly and quickly finds an excuse to bring them together: the Equestrienne Girls are planning for a big riding competition coming up on the weekend, and Megan is planning to watch. Spike, though he has no interest in horses, has an interest in Megan, so he plans to attend as well. The competition is about to start, and Spike confronts Megan behind the stables with the hopes of asking her on a date. Before he can untie his tongue, however, a transdimensional vortex opens, swallowing Megan, Spike, the Equestrienne Girls, and the six ponies.

Screenshot from My Little Pony: Equestrienne Girls.

They come to themselves in a beautiful and fantastic place called Ponyland, the inhabitants of which are various magical creatures, including a race of colorful, talking ponies, who rule over a kingdom called Equestria. To the girls’ surprise, their own ponies, under the influence of Ponyland’s magic, develop the ability to speak; soon after, each pony changes color and takes on the attributes of one of Ponyland’s three breeds, Earth, Unicorn, and Pegasus.

This of course thrills the Equestrienne Girls: they quickly become fast friends with their respective ponies, with whom they even start wearing matching outfits with interchangeable accessories, suitable for children ages three to seven.

Even Spike, though disoriented at first by the interdimensional travel and the strangeness of Ponyland, soon becomes good pals with a Pegasus named Flash Sentry, who teaches him many of Equestria’s martial arts, including the use of spear, broadsword, and poleax. Spike takes readily to this teaching, and his manful exertions often cause him to glisten shirtlessly. After his many bouts in the practice arena, he cools his overwarm flesh by pouring water on his face from a bucket, in slow motion, while doves take flight behind him.

The ponies of Equestria are a friendly lot, and they take the Equestrienne Girls on a whirlwind tour of Ponyland: they visit Ponyville, where they enjoy sweets at the Sugarcube Corner Playset; they visit the sprawling city of Unicornia, where they see Sweetie Belle’s Gumdrop House Playset with its spinning elevator; they go to the beach (each Equestrienne Girl and her pony in a matching swimsuit and sunbonnet) where they cavort with the sea ponies and mermares in the Undersea Castle Playset; and at last they travel to the capital city of Canterlot to see the greatest marvel in the land: the Dream Castle Playset.

Yet, through it all, Megan still hasn’t found a pony friend, and thus she waxes angsty.

At Dream Castle, the Equestrienne Girls and their companions are summoned before the benevolent rulers of this shining land, Princess Celestia and King Sombra. The princess and king officially welcome the newcomers to Equestria, but warn them that this paradisiacal kingdom holds great dangers as well as great wonders.

Leading them up to a high tower, Princess Celestia, with the wind whipping her long and beautiful mane, points to the east, where the girls can spy a high wall of marble and gold, beyond which swirls a dark cloud, in which nothing can be seen.

“A thousand years since,” Celestia intones, “my sister Luna waxed jealous of the ponies’ love for me, and thus she sought solace in the pursuit of profane power. She conjured divels out of Tartaros and had truck with the spirits of the middle air. After the darkness consumed her soul, she prostrated herself before the lords of the House of Silence, and thus she cast all the lands to the east in eternal shadow. If any of her servants catch a pony out after the sun has fallen, they drag her back to my sister’s sunless land. There, by her dark arts, she transforms that hapless pony into one of the slavering Wraiths who serve her.”

Celestia heaves a deep sigh. “The wall you see, which I erected nine hundred years gone, is our only defense against my sister’s malice. On its parapets, my guards stand vigilant, their magical spears charged with power and dripping golden fire. They are ever watchful to turn back any Wraiths who would profane our fair land, but nonetheless, our enemies sometimes slip through. I believe they have grown bolder of late, for, since you first appeared in our land, many ponies have disappeared without a trace, and I fear Luna has already perverted their souls and warped their bodies in her torture pits.”

The other girls listen raptly, but Megan broods on these words and, brooding, descends back into Dream Castle alone. On a winding staircase, she comes upon King Sombra, who nods to her gravely. “I have scried in my glass,” he says, “and have determined that Equestria’s fate is bound up with thine. Come with me.”

Without a word, Megan follows Sombra, who takes her to a lavishly decorated boudoir where a white pony is gazing into a mirror and brushing her bright pink hair.

“Sundance, my daughter,” Sombra says, “is this the strange creature—fair of mane, hairless on its body, and armed with hands—that thou beholdest in thy dreams?”

Sundance carefully lowers her brush. She says not a word, but when she looks at Megan, her eyes shine. She rises from her seat, walks to the girl, and kisses her on the mouth.

From that day forth, Megan and Sundance are inseparable. They wear matching outfits as the Equestrienne Girls and their ponies do, and they often take lavish tea parties in the beautiful gardens around Dream Castle. Megan cannot tell whether she is in heaven or on earth, now that she at last has a pony friend of her own.

Yet from time to time, Sundance turns pensive and taciturn, and Megan often notices Sombra, his grave face never cracking a smile, watching the two of them from corners or through windows.

At last, late at night, Sombra, with a wrinkled and heavily bearded pony by his side, rouses Megan and Sundance from their slumber and leads them down a dark passage into a series of cold and dank caverns beneath the castle.

In a deep cave, they come upon a tiny island in the middle of an underground pool. The pool glows an unearthly green, and seated in the center of the island is a wizened gnome, his eyes closed as if in sleep.

The bearded pony at last speaks, and his voice is dry and husky with age. “This is Moochick,” he says, “my mentor. Five hundred years ago, he entered his meditations and never returned to his corporeal form. His spirit still hovers about us, watching and guiding us. Because of his protections, the Wraiths of the Dark Princess, though they oft transgress our land, never dare to enter Canterlot herself.”

“The talisman, Star Swirl,” Sombra says with a note of impatience. “Test them with the talisman.”

With a grunt, Star Swirl walks to Moochick and lifts from his neck a gold chain from which hangs a heart-shaped jewel, red like blood.

“This is the Rainbow Locket,” Star Swirl says. “It is a great power, and yet no pony can wield it. The prophecies speak of one from another land, one whose heart is pure, who will use its magic to cleanse Ponyland of darkness.” He places the Locket around Megan’s neck. “If you are the one of whom the sages speak, the magic of the Rainbow Locket will lead you.”

“And if I am not?” Megan asks.

Star Swirl merely shrugs, but his eyes look troubled. “I cannot say. But I possess the gift of Far Seeing, and I know that, whether you be the one we have awaited or no, you are destined for the falling and rising of many in Ponyland.” He turns to Sundance and adds, “And a sword will pierce your own soul also.” Then he pulls up his cloak to hide his face.

The morning after this strange interview, Megan is wild with grief, for Sundance has disappeared, and none can find trace of her.

At the news of the disappearance of her only daughter, Celestia tears the beautiful mane from her head and sits in dust and ashes. Sombra remains on his throne, though his brow is furrowed and his eyes are dark with pain. The courtiers and guards cast suspicion on Megan and her companions; some point out that these strange disappearances only began after the humans and these foreign ponies entered their land. A din of accusations fills Dream Castle’s grand audience hall.

A crack of thunder silences the noise, and all turn to stare at Star Swirl, who holds his knotted staff of oak over his head. “Fools!” he cries. “Has this soft and decadent age no reverence for the higher things? Behold, the girl-child wears the Rainbow Locket! Dare you accuse her to her face, you churls?”

At that, the courtiers stand chastened and abashed, and all turn to Megan and do her homage.

For her part, Megan feels some power, perhaps from the Locket, tugging at her heart, leading her and pointing her almost as a compass might.

She gasps, “I . . . I think I know where Sundance is.”

Star Swirl smiles. “Her heart is bound with thine. Go now and seek her. If, in thy journeys, thou losest thy way, remember these words: wither you wander, hither and yonder, let your heart be your guide.”

Megan nods.

Roxy and Rainbow Dash speak up as one and say, “If she’s goin’, we’re goin’ too!” The other Equestrienne Girls and their ponies quickly agree. Spike, struggling to hide his warm blush, gazes at Megan and announces his intention to follow as well. Flash Sentry asks leave to do the same, though his warm blush is not for Megan, but for Tina’s pony Twilight Sparkle.

The friends set forth on a lengthy journey. Megan, guided by the tugging on her heart, leads the way. Having no pony any longer, she rides in the saddle with Spike, whom she considers an untutored and simple fool, he being unable to form but broken sentences in her presence.

The friends range far and wide over Equestria, encountering many dangers, vanquishing many foes, and exploring many playsets (some readily available and some exclusive) until at last they make their way through a dark and mysterious forest to a high and forbidding range of mountains on Equestria’s southern end.

“I don’t get it,” Twilight Sparkle says. “I thought we’d be heading into the Realm of Nightmare.”

Flash Sentry, with his two riders on his back, steps up alongside her and says kindly, “The servants of the Dark Princess take many forms and burrow in many places, milady.”

Twilight turns from him, uncertain why such a simple and polite address should bring heat to her face.

Megan points to a dark cave. “The Locket is leading me there,” she says. Impatient, she reaches back and smites Flash Sentry on the haunch, cutting short his conversation with the fair Twilight and driving him toward the cave.

After many hours of journeying in darkness and beholding strange wonders, the friends at last peer down into a deep cavern, wondering if it might be a pit of hell itself, for down below, many ponies, their necks in chains, are digging at the cavern walls with cracked and bleeding hooves while monstrous cave trolls, their cavernous mouths dripping drool, lash them with whips.

“Oh, how vile, to chain a pony of Equestria!” Flash breathes. Teeth clenched with barely restrained passion, he turns to Twilight and says, “Milady, but grant me some token—a tassle from thy bridle, perhaps—so that, seeing it, I may think of thee and not faint in battle, and I shall slaughter the lot of these beasts in thy honor.”

Twilight, unable to think of what to say, turns her burning face away from him while, on her back, Tina gazes at Spike fondly and thinks of how gallant he looks in the golden armor Equestria’s artificers have furnished for him.

But then Megan leaps from Flash Sentry’s back and screams out, “No! No!” For, down below, she has spotted Sundance. Two great trolls stand over the little pony: one has her crushed against the ground with his enormous knee on her neck, and the other, with a grin of triumph on his hideous face, holds up two small, blood-clotted orbs, which Megan realizes, with a pang of horror sharp as a dagger digging into her innards, are Sundance’s eyes.

The scream has given away the companions’ position, so now they have no choice but to fight. Wave after wave of trolls, all of them bearing truncheons, rush upon the friends. Flash Sentry and Spike both give a battle cry. Flash fixes a lance to his tack, and Spike draws his great ax. Together, working as one, pony and rider smite troll after troll. Flash runs them through their soft underbellies, causing them to scream like wounded pigs, and Spike silences them with the edge of his blade, cleaving their heavy skulls in twain.

The other ponies fight with less skill but much gusto—as well as desperation. Rainbow Dash and Applejack prove strong, and they deliver punishing kicks with their hard hooves. Twilight Sparkle, now a unicorn, and having spent much time already in the tutelage of Star Swirl, casts fearsome spells that burn away the trolls’ faces or cause their innards to bleed out through their lower orifices. Rarity, though less skilled, nonetheless harries the trolls with spells of her own.

In spite of the heroes’ valiant effort, the trolls soon capture them and drag them before their master, a stooped and wrinkled wizard who sits upon a high throne made entirely of glowing, sparkling jewels.

The wizard gazes at them for several minutes, but at last his lips curl into a sneer. “As for the ponies,” he says in a high and reedy voice, “put out their eyes and put them to work with the others. As for the humans—kill them.”

An especially enormous and hulking troll, carrying a truncheon as thick as a tree stump, steps forward, eager to carry out the latter command.

Megan is certain the end is come, and she bows her neck in expectation of the killing blow, but then a voice, Sundance’s voice, whispers from across the chamber: “Megan. Oh, Megan, where are you?”

Then the Rainbow Locket burns as if it has turned to fire. Megan’s chains fall away, and a burst of light from the Locket consumes her, driving back the trolls, who clutch at their eyes and scream.

When the light subsides, Megan has transformed into Magical Girl Mega Megan. Her ordinary clothes have been replaced by jodhpurs, riding boots, a waistcoat, dressage tails, and a felt riding helmet, all of them in gaudy colors and decorated with frills and bows. With her magical riding crop, Mega Megan fires a blast of rainbow-colored light at the wizard.

Early concept art for Magical Girl Mega Megan.

The wizard utters a shrill cry, and the jewels of his throne glow. Mega Megan’s magic is deflected, and then the jewels fire many beams of hard light, all of which strike Mega Megan in the chest.

This magical attack proves so much less effective than a conventional weapon, as Mega Megan merely falls to her knees and looks despondent. She can feel her magic weakening quickly: she realizes her magic is powered by her heart, but her heart has darkened at the sight of Sundance being so cruelly maimed, and she is certain that their friendship must be ended, since she could not save her.

But then Sundance calls out again, “Megan! Megan, I believe in you!” And the Equestrienne Girls and their ponies cry out the same thing.

Mega Megan feels energy surging within her. She leaps to her feet and shouts, “By the power of friendship!” Then she casts another great bolt of rainbow-colored light. This time, the wizard puts up his hands and whimpers. Mega Megan’s attack bursts through his defenses, strikes him full in the face, and topples him into a conveniently placed crevasse.

With another spell, Mega Megan bursts the chains on all the prisoners. The Equestrienne Girls quickly mount their ponies, and Spike mounts Flash Sentry. The trolls, confused and panicking, rush about the chamber. Those that can, escape, but the others Flash and Spike slaughter with great slaughter until Flash’s breath comes in steaming snorts and trolls’ blood mats his fur to his hide.

A loud rumbling comes from the enormous throne of jewels, and the throne is rent asunder from top to bottom. The Equestrienne Girls and their ponies, seeing what is about to take place, duck behind rocks, but the imprisoned ponies of Equestria, all of whom had been blinded, do not know what is happening and make no effort to protect themselves.

The throne explodes, sending fragments of crystal ricocheting throughout the chamber. Then the captive ponies send up a great wailing, for each of them has been struck in her empty eye sockets by the razor-sharp crystal shards.

When the throne erupts, Mega Megan is still exposed. Spike, seeing this, runs to her, clutches her, and shields her with his own body.

Until then, Megan had thought little of Spike and had felt nothing but impatience with the way Tina and Rowellina mooned over him. But now she notices for the first time how his long and delicate lashes frame his kindly eyes, and how firmly his well-formed lips sit one atop the other, giving him a look of strength and determination.

After the blast has subsided, Spike lifts Megan in his thewy arms; she neither complains nor resists as he carries her, with overpowering strength as well as overpowering gentleness, out of the caves and into the sunlight. At the very mouth of the cave, he at last collapses, and now Megan can see that hundreds of crystal shards, each marked by a gush of blood, had pierced his armor and entered his back.

The friends, now weary, lead the rescued ponies back toward Canterlot. The ponies whose eyes had been put out, and who had been struck with crystals, soon heal: the crystals grow, fill the empty sockets, and take the place of their eyes.

Only Sundance, who had not been struck by the crystal shards, remains blinded.

Spike, though he breathes regularly, is senseless throughout the trip, and Flash carries him on his back. The crystals in Spike’s back dig deep and begin to spread; his flesh takes on a violet hue and turns rough.

Megan leads the blinded Sundance gently by her bridle, weeping all the while. “I’m so sorry, Sundance,” she whispers. “Can you ever forgive me?”

“You came to save me,” Sundance answers. “There’s nothing to forgive.”

When they return to Canterlot, Sombra, seeing his daughter maimed, topples from his throne. His servants retire him to his bed, where he lies for many days on the brink of death. Celestia, however, though grief is plain on her face, welcomes the heroes and embraces her daughter.

The guards of Dream Castle quickly place Spike in confinement, for they recognize that the magic jewels are transforming him into a dragon—and dragons are the ancient enemies of the ponies.

Though Megan, the Equestrienne Girls, and their pony friends have returned as heroes, they receive a heroes’ welcome—and a subdued one at that—only from Princess Celestia. The courtiers at Dream Castle are inclined to blame these foreigners for the blinding of the heir to Equestria’s throne, and they are suspicious, too, of the former prisoners who have returned to them, on account of their mysterious, jeweled eyes.

The ponies of the jeweled eyes soon become known as the Twinkle Eyes, and they are given to strange visions, for their eyes reveal to them things ponies were not meant to see: often they quail in fear at sights only they can behold, and one of them, Sky Rocket, even goes mad, murmuring disquieting things about the Pallid Mask and the Slowly Turning Wheel.

As for Megan, she sits before a window and gazes out over Equestria as the sun sets. In the east, the dark cloud over the Nightmare Realm roils and seethes, suggesting that the Wraiths have grown restless. Glancing at Sundance, who lies in bed and sleeps heavily, Megan fingers the Rainbow Locket around her neck as she muses that, perhaps very soon, Ponyland will have need once again of Magical Mega Megan and the Equestrienne Girls.

Sunday, January 25, 2015

Cute Girl with Giant Robot . . . in Real Life

Good old Japan.  A reader sent me a link to this video dating to 2012, and though it took me a little time, I came to the conclusion that it's legitimate and not a joke.

This company, Suidobashi Heavy Industry, is apparently selling a mecha, called a Kuratas, armed with BB miniguns and some sort of water bottle rocket thingy.

I have no idea what you're supposed to do with this thing.  Drive it to a party?  Use it to play Airsoft?  It costs 1.3 million dollars, so who has money for this sort of toy?

Saturday, January 24, 2015

If Megan Doesn't Appear in Season 5, I'm Gonna Flip a Table

Oh crud, guys, we've cheesed her off!

Seriously, Hasbro, I've been watching your stupid magic pony show for, like, four years now, plus the comic books (which are kinda awesome), plus the chapbooks (which kinda suck), plus the movies in which the talking horses transform into teeny-boppers (WTF?), and you still haven't given me what I want.

I give you one more chance.  That is, I give you one more season.  If Megan doesn't show up in Season 5, I'm gonna ragequit.  In case you don't know, that's internet-speak for getting really angry and quitting.

And make sure you ASK A PARENT FIRST!

So after I watched that video, I did what it said and asked my parents, and they told me to grow up and stop playing with ponies.  Now I'm conflicted and confused.

Wait, where was I?  Oh, right.  Megan.  You see, the cartoony show My Little Pony: Friendship Has a Really Long Subtitle for a Kids' Cartoon and It's Kinda Awkward and Only Gets Worse in the Expanded Universe Stuff Where You Sometimes Even Have Two or Three Subtitles Such as the Chapbook My Little Pony: Equestria Girls: Rainbow Rocks: The Mane Event, and What the Hell Is Up with That? is entering its fifth season this coming spring, and teaser trailers (such as the one shown above) have been coming out . . .

. . . And there's still no sign of Megan!

This table.  I flip it for you.

Who is Megan, you ask?  Megan was the star of the original My Little Pony, the good one, back in the Eighties.  All the best stuff is from the Eighties.  Like mullets.  And Megan was awesome.

Megan was all, like, cool and stuff, because she, like, flew around on horses.  And stuff.

In the last couple of years, I managed to acquire a DVD set of the original My Little Pony.  The show was on when I was seven, and my memories of it were vague, so I assumed I only watched it occasionally.  Upon rewatching it as an adult, however, I discovered that I recognized something from most every episode, which means I didn't watch it occasionally.  I watched it religiously.  And I'm pretty sure the main reason I watched it was Megan.

I consider Megan my first magical girl.

Although it has its merits, nobody in his right mind claims the original My Little Pony was a great work of art.  The animation quality was on the lower end of what was passable, the writing varied in quality but was mostly so-so, and the musical numbers were an affront to the very existence of eardrums.  But Megan, the farm girl who got to hang out with the talking magic ponies, is one of those characters who transcend the inadequate media in which they are depicted.  Wise beyond her years, throwing herself into danger for others' sake, motherly yet short-tempered, armed with a deus ex machina device, always ready to give an impromptu lecture on the virtues of love and friendship, and willing to seriously kick butt when necessary, Megan is the best thing the My Little Pony franchise has ever produced.

In all honesty, that's not saying much.  But still.

Dangerous when provoked.

The thing is, even Tirek the Centaur, a loser villain from G1—whom Megan killed—got shoehorned into the current generation of My Little Pony; he was the villain in the finale of Season Four.  I thought, since Tirek was coming back, that Megan might at least get a small cameo in the same episode, but nooo.  It was after viewing the season finale that I flipped my first table ever . . . and found out I liked it.

So this is my ultimatum to Hasbro:  Starting with my very own dining room table and moving from there, I am going to flip a different table every day until Megan makes her triumphal reappearance in My Little Pony.  The flippings will continue until Megan sightings improve.

In time, I will have, through the repeated flippings of tables, so leveled-up my table-flipping power that I will at last flip the big oaken table in the boardroom of Hasbro's executive offices.  That's, like, the final boss or something.

Yeah.  Oh yeah.  This is gonna be flipping awesome.

I'm coming for you, punk.

Friday, January 23, 2015

Hugo Nominations and Sad Puppies 3

The Hugo Awards are coming, and anyone interested in nominating and voting for them must register before the end of January.  You can go here to do so.

In recent years, the Hugo Awards have been hijacked by "Social Justice Warriors" who hand the awards to lousy fiction that preaches messages they like.  A perfect example of this, which sf fans of a more conservative bent spent a lot of time hooting at last year, is the story "If You were a Dinosaur My Love" by Rachel Swirsky, which won a Nebula and was nominated for the Hugo.  It's written at about the fifth grade level, is not science fiction, and pretty much all-around suxx.  It's about some paleontologist who gets beaten into a coma in a hick bar, and about his fiancée fantasizing about his turning into a dinosaur and getting revenge for the attack . . . unexplained is what he was doing in the bar in the first place, why a paleontologist who moves heavy rocks for a living couldn't defend himself, why some hicks wanted to beat him up anyway, and why the hicks were drinking gin of all things.  It's a stupid story, but SJWs like it because the bad guys are white.  You can read the story here and revel in the badness.  This is how far the Nebulas and Hugos have sunk from their former days of greatness.

The purpose of the Sad Puppies campaign, started by Larry Correia and this year carried on by Brad R. Torgersen, is to get people to register with WorldCon in order to nominate and vote for stuff that's actually good.  Not stuff that has any particular message.  Just stuff that's good, entertaining science fiction.  The ultimate purpose is not to turn the Hugo from Leftist to Rightist, but to turn it back into a serious award.

While I'm at it, I strongly recommend John C. Wright's "Queen of the Tyrant Lizards," which he wrote in response to "If You Were a Dinosaur."  It appeared first on his blog here and then again in the collection The Book of Feasts and Seasons.  It features brain-bending time-travel paradoxes, and it gives the white hicks an actual motive for attacking that dude.  Most importantly, the dude's bereft fiancée really does turn him into a dinosaur because she has way-cool time travel superpower thingies.  It's awesome, and unlike the story that inspired it, it's actually science fiction.  Read it here.

I invite you to read the two stories linked above, compare them, and then decide for yourself which one really deserves to be a Hugo nominee.  Then you will understand the reason for Sad Puppies.

Remember:  awarding the Hugo to preachy, poorly written Leftist tripe is the leading cause of puppy-related sadness!

Sad Puppies Announcement and What You Can Do.

Thursday, January 22, 2015

March for Life Goes Underreported as Usual

As discussed over at Little Shop of Words, the March for Life is today and tomorrow.  Around 650,000 participated last year, and since the numbers have been steadily growing, the count will probably be even larger this year, but don't expect to hear much of anything about it on most news networks.

Last year, ABC and NBC gave the March for Life a combined 46 seconds of air time, donating nearly 5 times that much to BaoBao, a new panda cub at the National Zoo. CBS didn’t even mention the March. The year before, networks gave 521 times more coverage to Manti Te’o and his fictional girlfriend than they gave to a rally that effectively shuts down Capitol Hill. Whatever your stance on abortion, certainly we can agree that the issue is more important that the birth of a baby panda or some football player’s love life!  [More...]

He forgot to mention that most of the networks also underreport the number of people participating.

Sunday, January 18, 2015

Larry Correia on Guns

I recently ran into this interview with Larry Correia, the author of Hard Magic and Monster Hunter International, on the subject of firearms in fiction.  Correia is a former firearms instructor and knows the subject well.

Most of these really glaring errors can be taken care of with a little bit of cursory research. Technical things can be taken care of by a few minutes on the manufacturer’s webpage, which will keep your characters from dramatically flipping off the safety on a gun that doesn’t have one.

Beyond that, however, is the actual use of the gun. The character using it should have a realistic amount of knowledge based on their skill, knowledge, ability, and training. If you are gong to be writing about a character who is a professional gunslinger, then you need to do some research to make sure that person does what a professional gunslinger would do.  [More...]

Correia is a sarcastic fellow, but when gets down to business, I've been impressed by his ability to talk sense.  He doesn't get the chance to go into a lot of detail, but his discussion here is a very reasonable overview of the subject of doing the appropriate research for a work of fiction.

Also, remember what kind of story you are telling. If you are writing a techno thriller for the Tom Clancy audience, you can drop a paragraph of detailed information in there about wound ballistics. If you are writing a romance novel and the hero needs a gun, you’re not going to go all nitty-gritty like that.  [More...]

This subject is on my mind at the moment because I'm editing my dungeon punk magical girl noir novel Rag & Muffin and rewriting large parts of it.  I decided early on that all the small arms in the book would be real, and although I stand by the decision, it's given me nothing but trouble, since I am not a shootist myself.  Rag & Muffin probably lies somewhere between a Tom Clancy novel and a romance novel in terms of how much detail is required, but there's also the issue of realism and how much BS I can get away with.

In the end, I think it will probably fall, in terms of realism, somewhere around the same place as the manga Gunslinger Girl, by which I mean the guns will be correct in design, and that will be about it.  The actual action will be more like The Lone Ranger, in which the protagonists can shoot with freakishly unrealistic accuracy, and Full Metal Panic? FUMOFFU, in which less-lethal rounds never kill anyone or do permanent damage.  Basically, my tweenage characters can shoot rubber bullets with such accuracy that they can hit precise combinations of pressure points, because they have mystical Kung fu skills.  I have no idea if I can convince gun aficionados to put up with that kind of crap.

At the very least, I don't want to do anything really stupid, like have the sidekick flicking off the safety on his Glock (I'm looking at you, James Patterson).

Recently, I've been revisiting Miss Rags's firearms.  For a while, she's been carrying a pair of Jericho 941s, but I was considering changing that out, and in particular I was looking at the Coonan .357 Magnum automatic, partly because it's a freaking cool handgun, and partly because it's a version of the 1911—and if memory serves, a pair of 1911s were wielded by The Shadow.

On the other hand, that's an awful lot of dang firepower when you're just trying to tap pressure points.  Previously, I was hoping she could switch back and forth between rubber bullets for mere mortals and armor-piercing rounds for the heavily armored demon-possessed robots, but I think I'll have to nix that idea, as everything I've been able to find on the subject indicates there's no pistol that can be expected to pierce anything more than soft armor, Battlestar Galactica's depiction of the effective use of pistols on high-tech fighting robots notwithstanding.

So I've decided it would be more realistic if my magical girl heroine, instead of loading her handguns with AP rounds, fought the demon-possessed robots hand-to-hand and ripped their armor off with her fingers.  Because she has mystical Kung fu, remember?  Then when she shoves explosives deep into their mechanical guts, she'll have to jump away before the blast goes off and cracks the robots' magical Tuaoi Stones, because that will cause them to "go rogue" and attempt to drag any living beings in the vicinity down into hell.

Granted, nothing I originally wanted to do is anything I haven't seen existing comics or movies do, but I decided from the beginning to take as few liberties as possible with the firearms in spite of the story's silly premise.  Besides, I hear gun aficionados aren't very forgiving if you make a mistake.

Love and Friendship! Technical Difficulties! Go!

Gratuitous magical girl picture to mitigate the sting of a post about technical difficulties.

This blog at the moment is loaded with anachronisms and probably dead links.  Lately, we've had some problems with the commenting system; comments were getting duplicated onto posts they didn't belong on, and I just discovered that the mobile version of the site was attributing all comments to me.

This appears to have stemmed from some incompatibility between Disqus (our commenting system) and Blogger's built-in commenting system, which arose during my year hiatus.

I just backed up the HTML, crossed my fingers, and reinstalled Disqus in the hopes that this would fix the problem rather than, say, created two versions of Disqus on the site.  Near as I can tell, it's working, at least so far.

Let me know if you notice any problems with the comments, or any other problems with the site.  I will be gradually going through the various widgets to remove the outdated or useless ones and update the others.

Also let me know any other matters you think ought to be addressed.

Saturday, January 17, 2015

Television Review: 'Captain Power and the Soldiers of the Future'

All hail the Machine!  All glory to my Lord Dread!

Captain Power and the Soldiers of the Future, starring Tim Dunigan, Peter MacNeill, and Sven-Ole Thorsen.  Created by Gary Goddard and Tony Christopher.  Head screenwriter J. Michael Straczynski.  Landmark Entertainment Group, Mattel, and Ventura Pictures Inc., 1987.  22 episodes of 20 minutes (approximately 440 minutes).  Not rated.

Jim Bawden of the Toronto Star once called Captain Power and the Soldiers of the Future "the most ambitious series ever made for television," and he did not exaggerate.  For a short period during my childhood, this show was all the rage, but it lasted only one season:  Mattel pulled the money when the toy tie-in sold poorly, so it swiftly fell into obscurity, though it continues to enjoy a cult following.  There were VHS releases of all the episodes back in the '80s, but aside from those, Captain Power was for many years available only on fan-made bootlegs, but in 2011 VSC at last produced an official DVD release.  This is a great boon, for Captain Power is is a show that should not be lost.

Captain Power's history much resembles that of the similarly ambitious and ill-fated 1979 Battlestar Galactica, though Captain Power has yet to see a melodramatic, humorless, and oversexed remake.  There were attempts to remake it, and for a while a new show called Phoenix Rising was in the works, though as far as I have been able to discover, it died in preproduction hell.

Funded by Mattel and billed as children's TV, Captain Power sparked controversy for its high levels of violence.  It was expensive, costing a million dollars per episode, with innovative special effects, including the first regular appearances of CGI characters in a live-action TV series.  It is of continued interest in part because the lead writer was for a time J. Michael Straczynski, who went on to create Babylon 5.  There is a place called Babylon 5 in Captain Power, so Straczynski had that name in mind even back then.

But what really made Captain Power unique is now hard to appreciate:  it was the first and last interactive TV show.  The Mattel toy line included action figures and a few other items, but the most important toys were the XT-7 and the BioDread Phantom Striker, both futuristic jet fighters.  They were light-sensitive, and they would react to certain special colors on the screen.  With the toys, you could shoot the villains, and they would shoot back.  Hitting them earned you Power Points, and getting hit took your Power Points away.  If you lost all your Power Points, the cockpit would eject and send your action figure flying across the room.  The toys also had a "room mode" that allowed you to shoot them at each other like laser tag.  It was good, clean, potentially-put-somebody's-eye-out fun.  Unfortunately, the interactivity hasn't survived the digital transfer, so don't expect to dig out your old XT-7, load in the DVDs, and blast away at BioDreads on your flatscreen.

The premise of Captain Power is a pastiche of science fictional awesomesauce from the 1980s and late '70s.  Star Wars and The Terminator are obvious influences, with a concept from Tron thrown in.  Environmental designs, especially the frequent miniatures, show influence from Blade Runner.  One episode is an homage to William Gibson's cyberpunk novel Neuromancer, and there are also references and nods to old-school science fiction, most especially Arthur C. Clarke's Childhood's End and E. M. Forster's "The Machine Stops."  The pop philosophy underlying the show, especially the idea that humans are defined primarily by emotion, probably comes from Star Trek.

The story is set in the year 2147, shortly after the "Metal Wars," a war between man and machine, which man lost.  The earth is in ruins, and the last remaining humans, called Survivors, live by roaming from place to place.  The world is overrun with faceless robot mooks called Troopers, which have approximately half the competence of Imperial Stormtroopers, and raining terror from the skies is Soaron (voice of Deryck Hazel), a goofy-looking CGI monstrosity, a "BioDread," which is a living robot with DNA, capable of regenerating when damaged.  Soaron is armed with a digitizer ray that can turn humans into computer data, which he then feeds to a supercomputer called Overmind.

Behold the greatest minute and a half of your life.

Leader of the evil robots is a cyborg named Lord Dread, played by a scenery-devouring David Hemblen.  Formerly, his name was Taggart, and he dreamt of ending forever all war and crime by taking weak, emotional humans and turning them into perfectly logical machines, for the purpose of which he unleashed his robot armies all over the globe.  He got in a fight to the death with his best friend Dr. Power, and he became a cyborg after he fell in a volcano . . . er, I mean, after he got blown up in a geothermal plant, so he is more machine now than man, twisted and evil.

After Dr. Power dies fighting Taggart, his son Jonathan Power carries on the battle, assisted by his Five-Man Band, all of whom are armed with "Power Suits," powered armor that they can call into existence by tapping their badges and shouting, "Power on!"  The Power Suits render the Soldiers of the Future immune to the weapons of their enemies, but they can only take so many hits, or function for so long, before they run out of power and deactivate.

Captain Power is campy in the extreme, but it's the good kind of campy.  Most episodes are made up largely of scenes of guys in patched-together fiberglass armor shooting pew-pew weapons at each other, and the combat displays not even a rudimentary knowledge of military tactics (I could not count the number of times Power or a member of his team stands up on a pile of rubble, completely exposed before the enemy, to pose dramatically while shooting his laser gun).  But even when the show is at its worst, it's bad-good rather than straight-up bad.  My favorite scene is the one in which Power uses his rocket pack to do a dramatic backflip over some Troopers in order to blow them away from behind, and then afterwards stretches his arm behind himself to blast a sniper out of a window without looking.  Captain Power shoots guys without even glancing at them, because he's just that cool.

The world is ending, but there's always time for Charlie's Angels poses!

Even the special effects and obvious miniatures, which are cheesy by today's standards, lend to the show's overall ambiance, making the series more immersive rather than less, much as the stop-motion skeletons in Jason and the Argonauts or the deliberately employed fakery in Jackson's Lord of the Rings capture an otherworldly feel.  Even the primitive CGI used for Soaron and (later) Blastarr serves to reinforce the idea that the BioDreads are a new order of being.

And I just have to add that, when I was a kid, Soaron was my favorite character.  I loved his high-pitched metallic Snidely Whiplash voice, and I laughed hysterically whenever he came on screen.

Oh, Soaron, you so silly.

The actors in Captain Power are all likeable, but Tim Dunigan, who plays Captain Power himself, is the weak link, though that's largely because he has little material to work with.  While the other Soldiers of the Future all get intriguing backstories sooner or later, Power never manages to be more than the hardened soldier whose stoical façade masks his underlying rage over the death of his father.  However, this is fitting, because Captain Power deals in unusually subtle irony for a children's show:  although Power ostensibly stands for human life and the full range of human existence, especially emotion, he has trouble getting in touch with his feelings.  Meanwhile, Lord Dread, who wants to eliminate emotion in favor of pure logic, is a highly emotional villain, and the BioDreads behave like temperamental children.

Dread is the most compelling character, easily one of the most interesting villains ever to appear in children's TV, and David Hemblen's performance is pitch-perfect.  In his dark chamber atop his stronghold Volcania, Dread rages, boasts, and vacillates as he struggles to carry out his plans.  As the show develops, Dread enters a cat-and-mouse game with Overmind (voice of Ted Dillon), who frequently corrects Dread for his emotional volatility and even creates a robot, Lacchi (voice of Don Francks), to spy on Dread and keep him in line.  Dread's verbal jousts with Lacchi make for some of the best scenes.  Dread is a man tortured by conscience:  he has convinced himself that he can do evil that good may result, but under his surficial bravado, he knows better.

The worldbuilding of Captain Power is unusually good for the time and the medium.  The Survivors are depicted as having developed a gypsy-like culture complete with its own slang, and one episode taking place in a location called Tech City has a unique slang as well, though most of it is pulled from the aforementioned Neuromancer.  Dread's move to turn men into machines also comes complete with its own ideology:  Dread has an organization called the Dread Youth (based, obviously, on the Hitler Youth) that trains his "Overunits," un-digitized humans in charge of the robot armies.  The Overunits are fanatics dedicated to "The Machine," an apparent homage to E. M. Forster's famous dystopia.  The Machine of which they speak seems to be no particular machine, but an abstract ideal of machine-ness as such, which they view as a sort of god.  To emphasize this, an early scene even features Dread sitting in his evil overlord chair and dictating his own version of the Bible, in which man creates the Machine and is then perfected by the Machine.

My Lord Dread can brood with the best of them.

But I like this show mostly because it is in conversation with Clarke's Childhood's End.  I am certain it is no coincidence that the supercomputer who pulls the strings behind Dread is called Overmind.  Clarke's novel is a Gnostic parable, depicting a future in which humanity dies out, replaced by our inhuman and amoral but powerful offspring, who are then absorbed into a sort of materialist cosmic soul called Overmind.  Serving Overmind are the Overlords, benevolent beings that look like devils, and one of the Overlords' first task in their project to perfect humanity is to eliminate human religion.  Captain Power rejects the projected future of Childhood's End or any Transhumanism, exactly because a post-human is by definition not human anymore, and Captain Power takes it for granted that human life is good in itself.  Religion gets only passing references in Captain Power, but the famous words of Isaiah 2:4 are presented in a positive context and contrasted with Dread's mission to create a new world by burning the old.  There are also hints that the war between man and machine is part of something bigger, as the Overmind computer is as an unambiguously evil force:  at one point, Dread asks Overmind how many "voices" are inside it, and it replies, "We are legion."  These individual "voices" inside the Overmind are used to create the A.I.s of the BioDreads, and the BioDreads are not built on an assembly line, but appear out of an opening in Overmind as if being birthed from a womb.  All this hints, perhaps, that these are not actually machines, but evil spirits given physical form.  That would at least explain the BioDreads' rage-filled personalities.

Blastarr has the five-finger laser death punch.

I'll give a spoiler alert before I discuss the end.

The final four episodes of Captain Power are both melancholy and very satisfying.  Throughout the series, which was supposed to be only the first season, Dread puts into action what he calls Project New Order while Power and his team fight to discover what New Order is and put a stop to it.  They at last discover that Dread intends to put into orbit a long-range digitizer that can digitize people from space.  Stopping the satellite for some reason requires them to fly down a trench Star Wars-style, and then they send the satellite crashing into Dread's base, Volcania.  Altogether, it involves a lot of elaborate action set-pieces and some very exciting scenes.  After this, in the two-parter that closes out the season and thus the series, the BioDread Blastarr (voice of John S. Davies) discovers the location of the Power Base and attacks it.  Power's right-hand woman Jennifer "Pilot" Chase (Jessica Steen), shortly after she finally confesses that she's been in love with Power all this time, destroys the base and herself with it to keep its technology away from Dread's forces.  The last moments of this sequence are stilted, but the episode overall is well constructed.  This episode was also, apparently, the final straw that provoked Mattel to pull the plug.

The Captain and the Pilot.

At the same time (and in my opinion this is much more interesting), Dread makes the decision to shrug off the bonds of weak human flesh—but first he kills Lacchi, perhaps out of spite, or perhaps as part of a larger plan.  Overmind sends two Troopers to take Dread to be digitized, perhaps to force him if he hesitates, and Dread walks away between them like a condemned man going to his execution.

Thus the series ends when the Power team has lost an important member as well as its base, which contains the device that can recharge their Power Suits, while Dread goes to his (possible) destruction.  The second season was planned but never made, though synopses of the un-filmed episodes are floating around the Internet.  My own humble opinion is that the second season probably would not have been very good.  Some years ago, I read an interview with one of the series creators (Gary Goddard, I believe), who said they were planning to drastically reduced Soaron and Blastarr's parts because the company doing the CGI could not deliver all it promised.  I have also read that the killing off of Lacchi was intended to be permanent because the writers didn't know what to do with him.  They also killed off the only female character in the main cast, though they intended to replace her with another.  They planned to bring Dread back, but in a nastier and more robotic version.

The second season, then, would have been without much of what made the show so good.  If the writers really couldn't figure out what to do with Lacchi, then the writers were crazy, because his interaction with Dread is one of the best things in the show.  Reducing the parts of Soaron and Blastarr, the second and third best things in the show respectively, also would have harmed the series.   And a robo-Dread without the weaknesses of the human Dread, if that's really what they were planning, would have been much less interesting that the villain we have in the first season.  According to an interview with some of the writers and producers in Starlog, they were also going to replace the whole digitizing concept with Overmind and Dread just deciding to wipe humanity out, and Power was going to collapse into psychological issues while his second-in-command Hawk took over.

This would have sucked.  Perhaps the series cancellation is a blessing in disguise.

Regarding the DVD collection from VSC, it is good on the whole, but the final disc, which contains the extras and the never-aired made-for-TV movie The Legend Begins will not play.  I don't know if this is a problem for others or only for me.  Cleaning the disc hasn't helped.  In any case, the whole TV series plays with no problems.  It is a little grainy, but I noticed no artifacts from the digital transfer.

Originally, there were three animated Future Force Training Videos depicting a first-person fly-through with lots of baddies to shoot at, and who shoot back.  These animated films, made in Japan by AIC and Anime R, were designed to be played with the XT-7.  Unfortunately, they are not included in the DVD package.  Though designed specifically for use with the toys, they are well-made and entertaining animated short films, and they deserve to be preserved with the rest of Captain Power.

This is a fun show, and watching it is a must for any fan of '80s television.

Content advisory:  The typical episode is mostly action sequences with plenty of shooting and explosions, but most (not all) of the violence is bloodless.  There is one implied sexual encounter (because apparently they wanted to get cancelled).  Some characters get killed, and the overall tone is fairly dark, though not oppressively so.  In terms of suitability, it hovers between a children's show and an adult show; it's probably too much for young kids, but it's pretty corny for adults.  The best audience is child-like man-children.

Monday, January 12, 2015

The Sci Fi Catholic 2015 Lenten Read-a-Thon

Now that we're getting the blog back in order, I am also starting back up a tradition we used to have here, the Lenten Read-a-Thon.

To put it simply, the Lenten Read-a-Thon is where we set aside novels, short stories, movies, and television for Lent and pick up some edifying nonfiction.  Ash Wednesday this year is February 18th, but I am posting about this now so anyone who wants to join in will have opportunity to acquire this year's books.  Behold, I have told you before.

The first time we did this, we read The New Complete Works of Josephus, which was some serious marathon reading.  Although it was somewhat edifying, in order to finish in time, I had to read so much material that most of it went in one ear and out the other, or in one eye and out the other, as it were.  I was considering repeating that folly with The Works of Philo, which, though shorter than Josephus, would still have meant twenty pages a day of tiny print.  I'd rather read Philo at a slower and more meditative pace, so I decided to nix that idea.

Instead, I have alighted on two shorter works.  The first is my selection and the second was selected for me; that is, it was given to me free by a priest who is urging his whole congregation to read it, and I figure Lent will be a good time to do so.

So the first book is this:

The Meditations of Marcus Aurelius

And the second is like unto it:

The Call to Joy of Matthew Kelly

Anyone at all is welcome to join in.  With the editions I have, given that the forty-day fast of Lent is forty-six days (because that's how we Catholics roll), the reading comes out to a healthy and very do-able eight pages a day.  Anyone who finishes early can feel free to start in on Philo.

Everyone is welcome to join.  Reading begins next month on the 18th, and everyone is encouraged to finish the books before the Easter Vigil on April 4th.

Sunday, January 11, 2015

Anime Review: 'Princess Tutu'

Dude.  I mean, seriously, duuuude.

Princess Tutu, directed by Shogo Koumoto. Starring Nanae Kato, Noboru Mitani, and Takahiro Sakurai. Story by Ikuko Itoh. Hal Film Maker, 2002-2003. DVDs produced by AEsir Holdings.  26 episodes of 25 minutes (approximately 650 minutes). Rated TV-14.

After I got an Amazon gift card for Christmas, I thought to myself that I could use it to buy some edifying, uplifting literature, or I could use it to acquire more brain-rotting magical girl junk.  It's no mystery which choice I made, and I have no regrets:  I picked up a complete DVD set of Princess Tutu, which I knew by rumor and reputation, but had not previously seen myself.  Just to warn you, this is going to be less a review than an example of a guy fangirling all over the place, and I might even drool a little bit.  So if you don't want to see that, go read something else.

The first time I heard of Princess Tutu, the tale of a clumsy girl who receives the power to transform into a magical ballerina, I assumed it was a saccharine, fluffy, and disposable story on a par with something like Lilpri.  I would have been cool with it if that were the case—since I'm totally into that crap—but in fact my assumption was entirely incorrect because HOLY COW IS THIS FREAKING GOOD.  Go watch this show.  Like, right now.  This is easily one of the best anime series I have ever seen.  It is the best magical girl series I have ever seen.  This is an anime that rises, at least at times, to the level of high art.

Duck in duck form.

As the story opens, a duck watches a boy dancing on the surface of her lake.  She wishes she could dance a pas de deux with him, and her wish is granted when a mysterious and menacing figure named Drosselmeyer gives her a pendant that transforms her into a girl.  In human form, Duck is clumsy, socially awkward, and blessed with a scratchy voice that sounds like a duck quacking.  She studies ballet at an arts academy, where she is the worst student.

Duck in human form with her Obsessive Best Friends.

Duck hangs out with two other students, Pike and Lilie, who simultaneously fill the role of Those Two Girls (normal characters meant to contrast with all the weirdness) and a common figure in magical girl anime that I have come to call the Obsessive Best Friend.  As a rule, magical girl heroines have a tall order to fill:  on the one hand, they are supposed to be ordinary girls such as might live on your street, whereas on the other hand they are supposed to be ideal personifications of the power of love and friendship.  To make sure the audience gets it, the protagonist usually hangs out with another girl who has no purpose in life except to advertise protagonist's pure-heartedness or physical beauty or whatever virtues she's supposed to have.  I think these characters are meant to be funny, but I typically find their monomania disturbing.  Pike and Lilie, however, are amusing because they live for the sole purpose of watching Duck screw up.

Duck being Duck.

Duck herself is an endearing character, adorably klutzy and spastic.  In a riff on the typical technique of displaying a heroine's virtue by depicting her as a friend of animals, Duck opens her window every morning to be mobbed by flocks of birds that knock her to the floor.  Furthermore, the town where the story takes place, a town designed to look like the walled village of Nördlingen in Germany, is full of funny animal people, and the most frequently appearing is Mr. Cat, a ballet instructor with the curious habit of threatening to force his worst students to marry him.  The most common recipient of this threat, of course, is Duck.

"I will make you . . . mai waifu!"

The mysterious boy from the lake, Mytho, is also a ballet student, and he is furthermore a prince from a fairy tale who escaped into the real world.  Having shattered his own heart to defeat an evil raven, Mytho can feel no emotions, but he retains, by force of habit, a compassion that drives him to throw himself into danger to protect others.  When he hurls himself out a window to rescue a baby bird, Duck runs to save him and thereby discovers that her pendant contains an additional power—the power to transform her into Princess Tutu, a character from the fairy tale with great magic but a tragic fate.  Only Tutu can find and restore the missing fragments of the prince's heart, but she cannot confess her love for him, or she will turn into a speck of light and disappear.

Most of the townsfolk are unaware of Mytho's identity, but Tutu soon finds herself opposed by others who have designs on the prince—Mytho's roommate Fakir and another magical ballerina named Princess Kraehe, both of whose motives remain for a long time obscure.

That prince guy has some serious trouble keeping his pants on.

Princess Tutu takes place in a sort of ballet universe.  The soundtrack and many of the plot elements are taken from ballets, especially The Nutcracker and Swan Lake.  Tutu uses her magic by dancing ballet, the action sequences are choreographed like ballet, and most episodes climax with a dance sequence, though all but the most important of these are told largely through still frames, the animation budget presumably not allowing for much more.  A real ballet studio assisted with the production, and it shows:  I do not pretend to be knowledgeable of the artform myself, but at least to the layman, the dancing looks like the real thing, and not simply like the animators put the characters on their tippy-toes and had them bounce around.

Duck and Fakir.  Because love triangles.

But strictly speaking, Princess Tutu is not a dance show; that is, the story is not an excuse to showcase dancing.  Tutu is first and foremost about good storytelling, and I mean that in two senses:  it is good storytelling—really, really good storytelling—and it is also about storytelling.  Drosselmeyer, the man who gave Duck her pendant, is also able to watch her every move, and we soon learn he is the author of the story from which the prince escaped.  He is intent on finishing his tale, only now he means to use real people in place of the fictional ones.  His plan is to create a grand tragedy, but the people forced into his story have other ideas, the question throughout being whether Drosselmeyer or the characters will get the upper hand.  In a sense, Princess Tutu depicts a writer as a type of sadist; since stories require conflict, the writer can only do what he does by making his characters miserable.  Princess Tutu depicts characters who become aware that they are being manipulated by the author.

Seriously, dude, get some pants.

As its plot gradually develops and its mysteries are gradually revealed, Princess Tutu turns really weird.  On account of its surrealism, it is often considered a spiritual successor to Revolutionary Girl Utena, the first of the "deconstructive" magical girl shows, but I am inclined to suppose its dreamlike quality, bizarre visuals, and metafictional concerns are inspired more by the German Romanticism that influences some of the ballet to which it pays homage.  The choice of the name Drosselmeyer for Princess Tutu's sinister narrator may be a clue:  he is of course inspired by the Drosselmeyer of The Nutcracker, who is himself a mysterious and arguably sinister figure who appears to be manipulating events from the background.  The Nutcracker is ultimately based on the short story "The Nutcracker and the Kind of Mice" by the German Romanticist E. T. A. Hoffmann, in which Drosselmeyer is clearly an author self-insert.

Pretty sure he isn't wearing pants in this one, either.

Princess Tutu has a few big ideas on its mind.  The characters spend some time digressing on the nature of true vs. selfish love, but the show is most especially preoccupied with the subject of free will and fate.  Early in the first act, a strange character named Edel, who shows up at odd times playing a street organ and speaking in riddles, announces, "May those who accept their fate find happiness.  May those who defy their fate find glory."  That line, in different forms, gets repeated on occasion throughout the series.  As the story draws toward its climax, the characters caught up in Drosselmeyer's tale fight to escape the tragic ends Drosselmeyer has mapped out for them.  Admittedly, the situation depicted in the show is so singular that I am at a loss to say whether it is trying to make any kind of comment on real life.

Princess Tutu dancing.

Princess Tutu is not without some small defects.  It contains dancing mostly in short snippets, and some scenes told through still frames could probably have had more impact if they were animated.  There are moments of obvious CGI, though that is, fortunately, limited mostly to water and fog effects.  A handful of episodes, particularly in the first half of the second act, are repetitious and feel like filler.  These are, however, minor complaints.  This is a well-structured show, especially for one having such an ambitious storyline.  Unlike some other surreal and self-consciously weighty anime that preceded it, it never collapses into incoherency.  By the end, everything is satisfactorily explained and wrapped up.

Say what you like, but I still think Duck and Fakir make a cute couple.

But more than that, this is a show containing much beauty and a heavy emotional impact.  I was not far into the series before I was committed to the characters, and the grand finale, though absurd if taken in isolation, had me weeping.  I can't describe it; I can only urge you to watch it.

Content Advisory:  Princess Tutu is pretty tame.  Violence is mild and bloodless.  There is some occasional slight innuendo in the dialogue.  A running gag involves Duck losing her clothes when she switches from human to avine form and back again, but it isn't particularly graphic.  Rating is TV-14.

Sunday, January 4, 2015

Double Book Review: 'Bambi' vs. 'Watership Down'

Sometimes, when I've had a bad day, I just want to watch some cuddly talking animals bleed to death.

Bambiby Felix Salten. Translated by Whittaker Chambers. Grosset and Dunlap (New York): 1929. 293 pages.

Watership Downby Richard Adams. Scribner (New York): 2005 (Reprint). 499 pages.

There's an old joke on the Internet about what would happen if Bambi fought Godzilla.  The correct answer, known to anyone who's read the original novel Bambi by Felix Salten, is that Godzilla would get his ass kicked, at least if he made the mistake of standing between Bambi and a doe in rut.

Something similar would occur if Godzilla made the mistake of harassing the lady friends of the bunny rabbits from Watership Down, except the rabbits would mostly likely coerce somebody else into delivering the beat-down for them.

And if Bambi teamed up with the Watership Down rabbits to open a can of whoopass on Godzilla, especially if they maybe, I dunno, used some powered mecha armor that somebody left in the woods or something, that would be freaking awesomesauce.  Or maybe the rabbits could all drive armored vehicles that look like giant rabbits that shoot lasers out of their ears, and then Bambi could drive a vehicle that looks like a giant deer, and then they could combine together into a super giant robot, except they would get in a huge fight with one another over which would form the head, and then they would destroy half the world in their quest for domination, so desperate humans would have to get Godzilla to team up with Gigan and Ebirah as the only hope for the planet's salvation.  Somebody should look into putting together the rights for that, like, right freaking now.  I would totally watch the Bambi vs. Godzilla movie in the theater, like, twenty freaking times.

. . . Sorry, I got a little overexcited there.  But my point is that fuzzy talking animals are totally badass, and you definitely don't want to mess with their women.

*Ahem.*  I happen to have a copy of Bambi that I picked up several years ago from a church library that was giving away old books, and a few months back I finally sat down to read it.  Then I raved about it for weeks afterwards.  Bambi reminded me of Watership Down, which I had not read since seventh grade, so I picked it up to compare the two and was pleased to find it had lost nothing.  It was just as impressive a novel to me as an adult as it had been to me as a youth.

Both of these are billed as children's books, and thus both can catch a reader unaware; though they are about animals that talk, they are uncompromising depictions of nature red in tooth and claw.  Both star characters who are hardy survivors in a deadly world, and who learn to be pragmatic in the face of violence and death.  Both are blunt and abrupt in their descriptions of bloodshed.

Both, also, can be enjoyably and profitably read by adults.  Of the two, Bambi is probably the easier read for children.  Watership Down is a great deal longer and more complex both in plot and in prose, but Bambi is deeper in its themes.

It is worth pausing to note that both have been adapted to animated film.  These films are famous for emotional shock, and they demonstrate that what works well in one medium doesn't necessarily work well in another.  Walt Disney wisely perceived that a faithful adaptation of Bambi would not go over well with general audiences, so his movie has only a tangential relationship to its source material.  That movie is of course a beloved classic that stands on its own merits.  The film adaptation of Watership Down, on the other hand, is more faithful to its book, and though considered a classic in its own right, it is well known mostly for traumatizing children.  I have several times spoken to people who saw Watership Down as kids, and all told me they found its violence disturbing, and that they avoided the novel because of it.

The kids are gonna love this.

Richard Adams is one of the author success stories that other writers admire and possibly envy.  Watership Down was his first book, but it became one of the best-selling novels of the Twentieth Century and has never been out of print.  I don't think you usually see it on those "top novels of the century" lists, but that's only because those lists are made by effete pseudo-intellectuals from the English Department who think a novel is no good unless it's depressing and pointless.  Lord of the Rings is novel numero uno of the Twentieth Century—deal with it—but Watership Down deserves a spot very close to it, at least in the top ten.

Yeah, I don't remember any rabbits fighting to the death in Ulysses.  Your argument is invalid.

Okay, seriously, when I first saw the title of this novel, I thought it was about sinking boats or something, but it's actually an adventure epic about a group of rabbits who leave their home to found a new warren.  Our main protagonist is Hazel, a natural leader.  His young brother Fiver is a seer, which means he sometimes has plot-relevant visions of the future accompanied by epileptic fits.  Fiver is able to sense vaguely that some terrible disaster will soon befall the warren, and because the book is written in the omniscient third-person, the reader knows what Fiver and Hazel do not, that the warren is soon to be gassed and bulldozed for a housing development.

After an ineffective attempt to warn the "chief rabbit" of the danger, these two gather a small band of malcontents and (after an obligatory fight sequence with some guards) set off on a dangerous journey, surviving on a combination of their wits, their good luck, and their claws, until they can start a new colony on the top of a high hill, the Watership Down of the title, which is from the rabbits' perspective something like a natural fortress.

These rabbits are depicted as innovators with an unusual amount of brains.  Among the most implausible of their accomplishments, they manage to befriend a gull.  And after they're mostly settled into their new home, they come to realize they don't have any females among them, so, along with their gull friend, they hatch an elaborate and harrowing plan to kidnap some does from another warren, whose tyrannical chief rabbit, an especially huge buck named General Woundwort, rules it with an iron paw.  The book is peppered throughout with fighting and death and narrow escapes therefrom, and it builds to a bloody and satisfying climax.

Although sometimes breaking from it to make the reader aware of something, the story for the most part remains at a rabbit's-eye view.  The geography of the novel is real, and from the human perspective the tale does not cover much ground, but from the perspective of the rabbits has a vast and sprawling landscape.  Although Adams takes various liberties for the story's sake, the book is based largely on R. M. Lockley's nonfictional Private Life of the Rabbit, and Adams writes in the foreword of a later edition that he set himself a rule that the rabbits in the book would not be physically capable of anything a rabbit couldn't do in real life, though I'm not convinced he stuck to this rule throughout.

Adams is a polymath and a renaissance man, and his wide reading and familiarity with the classics is evident throughout Watership Down.  The tale is suggestive of the Odyssey and the Aeneid, and occurring occasionally through the book are brilliantly written side-stories taking the form of fairy tales:  the character Dandelion is storyteller for the band, and several chapters are dedicated to his recitations about the rabbits' legendary ancestor El-ahrairah, the "Prince with a Thousand Enemies," a trickster figure who uses his wits to procure food and get the best of his antagonists.  Peopling these tales are supernatural characters such as Lord Frith, the sun-god, and the Black Rabbit of Inlé, who is the rabbits' personification of death.

Seriously, I just know the kids are gonna be totally into this.

The novel has been oft over-analyzed, but Adams insists that he meant it only as an adventure story.  According to him, Watership Down began its life as a tale he told to entertain his daughters during a car trip, and which they asked him to write down.

Watership Down was a challenge to me when I read it as a kid, but that was partly why I loved it.  I believe I was twelve when I read it the first time, and though I found it difficult, it was well worth the effort.  When I revisited it as an adult, I was surprised at how easy it was to read, and at how quickly the pages turned.  I finished it rapidly, even though it's just about 500 pages in length.  Adams is an extremely talented adventure writer.

Ages twelve and up seem about right for this book.  The characters, dialogue, and plot are straightforward, but Adams's prose is sometimes complex and would probably confuse very young readers, but then again, if small children can plow through the later volumes of the Harry Potter series, they can probably handle Watership Down.  In any case, this is a must-read for any fantasy lover.


Bambi is a many-layered story.  It is first a more-or-less accurate depiction of the life of a deer, with the added flourish that the animals can talk.  It is also possible to read it as an allegory for the plight of Austrian Jews in the 1920s, or at least the Nazis thought so, which is presumably why they burned copies of it.  It is also a perceptive description of a lifelong spiritual journey reminiscent of Herman Hesse's Siddhartha.

In my humble opinion, the novel Bambi and the movie Bambi should be viewed as if unrelated to each other.  It is popular to rag on Disney for grinding off the sharp edges of his source material, and few of his alterations are as severe as in this case. However, Disney was making movies for broad audiences, and the animated Bambi is a worthy work of art in its own right, but its intentions and themes are markedly different from those of the book.

I don't remember any philosophical digressions in Disney's Bambi.

The story follows the titular protagonist through his life.  As in the movie, the tale begins with Bambi's birth and his childhood with his mother, and then it continues to his youth when he learns to fight and love, but it also moves past where the movie ends, to Bambi's old age, when he learns wisdom.

Disney made it a point in the animated film to show the animals living in harmony in the forest, their only enemy being man.  In the book, however, man is only the worst and most mysterious of the dangers the animals regularly face.  Bambi's early childhood is largely idyllic, but when the first winter comes, Salten begins to narrate the casual violence that will characterize the rest of the novel:

Another time the squirrel raced about with a great wound in his neck where the ferret had caught him.  By a miracle the squirrel had escaped.  He could not talk because of the pain, but he ran up and down the branches.  Everyone could see him.  He ran like mad.  From time to time he stopped, sat down, raised his forepaws desperately and clutched his head in terror and agony while the red blood oozed on his white chest.

The dangers from creatures like ferrets the animals understand, but they cannot comprehend man, whom they refer to simply as He.  Early in the book, Bambi's mother teaches him to run away at the sight of a man, and afterward says to him simply, "Did you see Him?  That was He."  It is much more strange, and much more poetical, than the film version's comparatively mundane, "Man has entered the forest."

One of the novel's greatest scenes takes place during a winter in which the deer gather together and speculate on His nature.  Some suggest that He can kill from a distance because He tears His hand off and throws it.  Another suggests that it must be a tooth He throws, since it makes only a small hole.  But they agree that the inside of His body is fire, since there is a loud crack and a flash when He kills.  Then comes this fantastic passage:

"Will He never stop hunting us?" young Karus sighed.

Then Marena spoke, the young half-grown doe.  "They say that sometime He'll come to live with us and be as gentle as we are.  He'll play with us then and the whole forest will be happy, and we'll be friends with Him."

Old Nettla burst out laughing.  "Let Him stay where He is and leave us in peace," she said.

Aunt Ena said reprovingly, "You shouldn't talk that way."

"And why not?" old Nettla replied hotly, "I really don't see why not.  Friends with Him!  He's murdered us ever since we can remember, every one of us, our sisters, our mothers, our brothers!   Ever since we came into the world He's given us no peace, but has killed us wherever we showed our heads.  And now we're going to be friends with Him.  What nonsense!"

Marena looked at all of them out of her big, calm, shining eyes.  "Love is no nonsense," she said.  "It has to come."

I'll give here a spoiler warning, and to be clear, I'm going to discuss a lot of stuff not in the movie, so this is a spoiler warning for the book.

Readers are probably aware that Bambi's childhood comes to a close when his mother is killed.  But the implied violence of the movie, which is enough to jerk the heartstrings of generations of viewers, is nothing compared to the scene of terror and bedlam in the novel, wherein there is a large-scale hunt during which the deer and other animals flee every which way in terror while being indiscriminately cut down.  The death of Bambi's mother happens off the page; Bambi simply never sees her again.  More terrifying is the fate of Bambi's friend Gobo, whose leg is caught in hardpack snow, rendering him unable to run.

The story moves from there to Bambi's youth.  He spends his first mating season getting his butt kicked by bucks who were formerly his friends while he searches in vain for Faline, a doe he had known as a child, and whose scent now drives him crazy.  When his second mating season rolls around, he dishes back out all the punishment he got the first time:  to win Faline, he fights two bucks, both former friends whom nature has now made enemies.  One of them Bambi drives off, and the other he tears open.  Faline is impressed, but though Salten plays this more-or-less like a love story, there are hints that she would have just as readily gone with whichever buck won the fight.

I dunno, Walt.  It's an okay little romance, but maybe it needs more blood and guts.

The story's turning point comes when Gobo reappears.  As it turns out, he did not die during the hunt; instead, He picked Gobo up, took him home, and made a pet of him.  Gobo either escaped or more likely was let go when he grew too big and aggressive to be a suitable playmate for children, but in any case Gobo has lost all ability to survive in the forest, and is quite proud of himself, considering himself a friend of His.  When another hunter enters the forest, the other deer wish to flee, but Gobo says, "Run as much as you like.  I won't stop you.  If He's there I want to talk with Him."

Of course, when Gobo presents himself to the hunter, he gets killed.  The reader can easily understand what has happened, but the animals cannot distinguish one man from another; to them, His decision first to make a pet of Gobo and then to kill him looks like mere caprice.  This and other scenes emphasize Him as an incomprehensible and increasingly menacing figure.

The most spectacular such scene is one in which a hound hunts a fox, and while the fox lies dying and pleading for its life, all the animals gather round and accuse the hound of treachery for serving Him, to which the hound replies, "What are you talking about?  Everything belongs to Him, just as I do.  But I, I love Him.  I worship Him, I serve Him.  Do you think you can oppose Him, poor creatures like you?  He's all-powerful."

As Bambi grows older, he leaves Faline behind.  He takes up the company of the Old Prince of the Woods, the eldest of the deer who has survived by staying off the well-trodden trails and by living his life alone.  He is, it is hinted, Bambi's father, though neither he nor Bambi knows it.  He teaches Bambi many things, especially how to survive by avoiding the company of other deer, and that brings us to one of the book's central messages:

Then and afterwards the old stag had revealed much wisdom and many secrets to him.  But of all his teachings this had been the most important; you must live alone, if you wanted to preserve yourself, if you understood existence, if you wanted to attain wisdom, you had to live alone.

"Also, your mom gave you a sissy name."

In the final moments, the old stag shows Bambi the truth about Him.  We discover in the end that most of the hunting in the woods has been by poachers, and one of these poachers is at last shot and killed.  Then the old stag leads Bambi to where the body lies, with a bullet through the throat, in the midst of a pool of blood that slowly melts the snow.

"Do you see, Bambi," the old stag went on, "do you see how He's lying there dead, like one of us?   Listen, Bambi.  He isn't all-powerful as they say.  Everything that lives and grows doesn't come from Him.  He isn't above us. He's just the same as we are.   He has the same fears, the same needs, and suffers in the same way.  He can be killed like us, and then He lies helpless on the ground like all the rest of us, as you see Him now."

There was a silence.

"Do you understand me, Bambi?" asked the old stag.

"I think so," Bambi said in a whisper.

"Then speak," the old stag commanded.

Bambi was inspired, and said trembling, "There is Another who is over us all, over us and over Him."

Felix Salten was an Austrian Jew whose books the Nazis banned in 1936.  He fled to Switzerland in 1938.  Some interpreters suggest that the hardships of the animals are based on the plight of Jews in Austria during this time, and that the hunting scene in which Bambi's mother dies is an allegorical pogrom.  This may indeed be Salten's intent, but it would be a disservice to this novel to limit its allegory to a specific time and place.  More immediately accessible to a reader of any generation is its depiction of the phases of life, which, as I mentioned before, mirrors Siddhartha.  The book moves Bambi through childhood to a hotblooded youth and finally to an old age in which he is a hermit occupied with spiritual rather than worldly concerns.

I know of few other novels as moving as Bambi, and in fact I teared up simply by hunting for passages to use in this blog post.  It is unfair that the book forming the basis of Disney's film is now largely forgotten; indeed, when I told people I was reading this, someone asked me if it was a pop-up book.  Although a story about deer, it is really a reflection on man.  To the animals, man is incomprehensible:  some see him as a devil, others as a god.  Salten explores these images from all sides, twisting them every which way until at last the conclusion brings a burst of clarity both simple and profound.

Bambi is superb both as a storybook for children and as a meditation for adults.  The violence is frequent and sometimes graphic, but don't let that stop you.  Read it.