Thursday, December 29, 2011

Christmas Noir No. 9

From behind came a scream of pure rage. Sugarplum Mary looked over her shoulder and saw Mrs. Claus pause in the kitchen doorway, her lace trimmed white apron was splattered with dark brown stains and her eyes were wide and not at all sane behind her round, wire-rim glasses. Raising a heavy cleaver in her right hand, Mrs. Claus screamed again and charged across the chocolate checkerboard floor.

Mary felt hot breath on the back of her neck, and then she was grabbed by the collar of her dress and yanked up and back, out of the Gingerbread House and into the snow-swirled night. Blitzen's great horns passed on either side of her and she landed astride his broad, shaggy shoulders, automatically grasping at his coat of shaggy coat of fur. Blitzen reared and his font legs kicked the door shut on the charging horror in the kitchen. Quick as frostbite, the great reindeer hopped backwards and leapt into the air just as Mrs. Claus came through the cottage door, splinters of layered gingerbread flying to all sides, her great cleaver swinging as Blitzen and Mary shot over her.

Blitzen was fast, but not quite fast enough. Mrs. Claus' cleaver carved a line of red pain across inside of his right hind-leg. "Santa's fucking balls that hurts!" he screamed.

Their flight over the house wavered, but Blitzen recovered with a snarl, lowering his head as they pushed into the snowstorm. Mary looked down at Christmas Village and gasped. Below them the cafeteria building next to the toy factory was engulfed in flames and while the surrounding elves and reindeer were doing their best to fight the blaze, their efforts were obviously too little, too late. The place was an inferno and the flames lit the arctic night like a hellish flare.

Sugarplum Mary turned away, and leaned forward to speak to her rescuer. "Blitzen, thank you, but I thought, I mean Sparky said that..."

"That I was behind all of the strange stuff happening lately?" Blitzen snorted in disgust. "Elves. I don't know how you people manage to breed, sometimes. Sparky went off half-cocked, as always."

"Well what is going on, then?"

"Tell you what... how's about we get somewhere safe where we can get back on the ground, then maybe slap a fuckin' band-aid or ten on Mother Christmas' little parting gift, and then I'll fill you in. Until then, why don't we play a game I like to call 'Shut the Fuck Up Mary'?"

They dove into the night, the only sounds the whistling of the air and Mary's quiet sobs.

Monday, December 26, 2011

BtVS's "Chosen" Live on Twitter From My Living-room Tonight

Well, it's been one hell of an eventful year Readers Mine, and one of those events is coming to an end tomorrow night at 8pm EST as the final post in the Great Buffy Re-Watch of 2011 goes up on Nik at Night. Great praise and burnt offerings go to the one and only Nikki Stafford (who has written lots of books you should buy) for what turned out to be a full year's worth of chasing down guest bloggers, editing and formatting posts, organizing the whole shebang, and cranking out not one but two blog posts every Tuesday night on top of all the other writing, editing, child rearing, and husband-wrangling this remarkable woman does. Many thanks Nikki! You're just insanely cool.

The Slayer and the Scoobies

In honor of the Great Buffy Re-Watch Finale, a few of us are getting together from our various points on this good Earth at 7pm EST to re-watch "Chosen," the final televised episode of Buffy the Vampire Slayer and to Tweet about it as we do so. You can find all of the fun under #gbrfinale over on Twitter, and of course, you're welcome to get there by following me via the handy and nifty button you see under the pic of yours truly at the top right of the page.

For those who may not be either fond or familiar of/with Twitter, you can follow the entire re-watch and Tweet-fest by simply typing in #gbrfinale in the search box at the top of the Twitter page, which will give you all the posts by everyone taking part in the live-Tweet. Then just sit back and watch the fun, or, even better, grab the last disc of Season Seven and watch and Tweet along with us. Remember, we're starting tonight at 7pm EST, and we'd love to see you there!

Monday, December 19, 2011

Christmas Noir No. 8

Donner slid-staggered on the ice-covered flagstones, all four of his legs going wide before he caught his balance and his hooves dug through the almost invisible ice sheet. He snorted, cursed under his breath, and looked up at the home of the Krampus. It rose from the glacial ice like some clay-mation holiday special anachronism, the rough-cut stone of its thick walls a dark and brooding presence looming out of the blowing snow and Arctic night. No Disney fantasy or late medieval royal whim of a castle, the Fortress of the Krampus was the real thing, a squat and deadly 14th century fortification that promised only murder and pain to anyone unlucky enough to enter its walls.

Donner reached out, caught the bell-chain between his jaws, and pulled. From within came the first few bars of “Jingle Bells,” rendered in the screams of children.

“Fucking Krampus,” Donner muttered, and settled in to wait. 

Thursday, December 15, 2011


My wife and I live in North Carolina, where the state's General Assembly has whipped up a referendum to change the state constitution to define marriage as being only between a man and a woman. Of course a law stating the same thing is already on the books, so what the GA is trying to do with the proposed amendment is to make it more difficult to challenge that law through judicial review. I'm pleased to report that that many people in my state are speaking out against this amendment, and against discriminatory marriage laws in general. On a statewide level, Equality North Carolina is working hard, and I'm delighted to report that another group, Neighbors for Equality, has sprung up in a little town near my home whose biggest claim to fame is a private Baptist university. Neighbors for Equality is currently running their Twelve Days of Equality campaign, where ordinary citizens are asked to speak out against "Amendment One" and for equality. My wonderful wife is a part of this campaign, and has also been speaking out on her blog, and I am, as usual, so extremely proud to be married to such an incredible person. It's a shame that everyone in my state isn't allowed to experience that kind of pride... Yet.

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

A Very Whedon Christmas!!

In a nod to the holiday season, I'm pleased to announce the first-ever Whedon Christmas Shopping Guide here at Solomon Mao's!
Joss Whedon his own bad self!
In the comments below you'll find a (hopefully) wide selection of the best writing on the work and worlds of Joss Whedon, from Buffy the Vampire Slayer to Dollhouse and beyond, by some of the most brilliant and talented minds around. Here at last are the perfect gifts you've been searching for, and just (barely!) in time for Christmas! 

At this point I have to give a nod to John Scalzi, who's series of Whatever Shopping Guides inspired this little effort. You should read his blog and books too!

Here's the rules:

This comment thread is for authors and editors of books on the works of Joss Whedon and the Whedonverses only. Please do not leave other comments, as they will be removed by the moderator.

1.) Posts by authors and editors of books only. If you are not the author/editor of the book you're posting about, please do not post.

2.) Your book must currently be in print and available.

3.) One post per author, please. Those among you who have authored/edited more than one book, feel free to post about multiple works, but all in the same post please.

4.) Please keep your description of your book brief and entertaining, as if you were talking to someone at a signing who might buy your book!

5.) Include a link to your book at an online bookseller. You can use standard HTML link scripting, a useful guide for which can be found here.

6.) Feel free to share and link to this blog post on Twitter, Facebook, Google +, or any other social media.

7.) As noted above, comment posts that are not by authors/editors promoting their own books will be deleted by the moderator.

Okay: now tell us all about your book!

Monday, December 12, 2011

Christmas Noir No.7

Sugarplum Mary the Christmas Elf carefully tensed and relaxed the muscles in her legs, trying to keep her blood circulating and ward off the pins and needles that were threatening to settle in from so many hours spent cramped in the small cabinet. Suddenly, from outside the Gingerbread House she heard the muffled sounds of shouting, quick and panicked, but she couldn’t make out what was going on through the thick butter-cream coating on the House’s exterior. Her every nerve came alive, however, when she heard Mrs. Claus push up out of her candy-cane-back chair and move towards the front of the house, where the sugar glazed windows looked out onto Tannenbaum Lane. Now was her chance, probably the only one she would get. She waited until she heard the old witch’s heavy tread leave the dining room, and made a supreme effort.

Sugarplum Mary threw open the cabinet door and lurched out onto the checkerboard dark and white chocolate tiles of the kitchen, already turning for the back door, when her legs, numb despite all of her efforts, betrayed her sending her sprawling with a crash as she instinctively grabbed at one of the lollipop stools around the kitchen island to steady herself and brought it down with her instead.

“Mary?” said a delighted voice from the front room, “is that you dear?”

Mrs. Claus’ feet thudded on the floor, moving quickly. Crying now, Sugarplum Mary scrabbled across the kitchen floor on all fours, her nails leaving deep furrows n the hard chocolate flooring, as she heard the insane woman enter the dining room, just one small room away. Mary reached the door, desperately clutching the rock-candy doorknob. “Pleasebeunlockedpleasebeunlocked,” she chanted under her breath like the holiest rosary.

The doorknob turned, Mary fell out into the cold night, her mouth already open to call for help when she saw the great, hard hooves before her.

“Hello, Mary,” Blitzen said. “I’ve been looking for you.” 

Sunday, December 11, 2011

Christmas Noir No. 6

Polly Mistletoe rolled her pretty green eyes. “Oh it’s not that bad, silly! Okay, there’ve been a few accidents, bu…”

“Accidents?!?” Comet shouted, his nostrils flaring. “Accidents? A full third of the Christmas Elves burned alive, Rudolf torn into bloody gobbets and scattered over a square mile, Sparky gone, Sugarplum Mary nowhere to be found, and that psychotic bitch Mrs. Claus out roaming around doing God knows what, and you think it’s all accidental? Reindeer shit!”

“You’re blowing everything out of proportion, Comet!”

“Oh for fuck’s sake!” He leaned in close; his wide antlers thudding against the wall on either side of Polly, pinning her in place as his wild eyes bored into hers, his hot breath on her fine-boned face. “This isn’t some twinkly-ass vampire movie, Polly! This is real, and it’s ugly, and you have got to face up to it. Someone is trying to kill every single one of us, and if we don’t figure out what the hell is going on, they’re going to do it!”

“It’ll be okay, though. Santa…”

“Santa?” Comet snorted. “The only thing that sack of fat is interested in is finding the bottom of every bottle in Miami. No. Santa abandoned us a long time ago, Polly. We’re on our own. God help us, but we really are.”

Friday, December 9, 2011

Christmas Noir No. 5

Third shift was in the cafeteria when the fires started. Later it would be discovered that the alarm and automatic fire suppression systems had been carefully sabotaged. By the time the Kitchen Elves realized there was a problem, it was far too late. The staff and worker elves had all beb well trained for just such an emergency, however, so at first everyone remained orderly and relatively calm. Until the doors to the outside wouldn’t open. Not the main entrances or the rear, and the side doors were blocked by the fires which were burning hot and fast, fueled by acetone accelerants that had the Elves all but surrounded in mere minutes. The panic started then, like something out of an old disaster story, the elves pushing against each other, the ones in front slowly being crushed against the unmoving doors, and everyone screaming, screaming as the fires moved in. That was what woke the rest of Christmas Village – the screaming. The screaming of the Elves.

Thursday, December 8, 2011

Christmas Noir No. 4

The snow fell more quickly now, coating his shoulders and the uppermost curves of his antlers. It was nights like this Donner wished he still smoked. Sparky and Sugarplum Mary had been missing for days, Santa was nowhere to be found, and Rudolph. Christ, what they’d done to Rudolph! To hell with it. Spotting a huddle of elves huddled in the sodium-arc glow of the Workshop’s loading docks, Donner shook off the snow and ambled over. The group of four little creatures fell silent as they noticed him.

“H-hey, Donner,” Skip the Christmas Elf said, “w-what’s up?”

 “Got a smoke?” the reindeer asked. The elf blinked, shivered, and dug out a butt, lit it for the waiting reindeer. Donner took a deep drag and sighed, thick grey smoke flowing out of his wide nostrils. “God that’s good. Thanks, Skip.” He turned to leave but the Elf’s voice stopped him.

“What are you gonna do now, Donner?”

Another drag, another, deeper sigh. “The only thing I can,” Donner said. “I’m going to see the Krampus.”

The Elves eyes widened in shock, and the wind picked back up, howling down the empty streets of Christmas Village. “The Krampus?” Little Ginny Gumdrop Elf asked. “Jesus wept.”

“Yeah,” Donner said over his shoulder as he moved into the night, “so will the rest of us before this is over. Whoever’s left, that is.”

The Elves looked after him until he disappeared into the blowing snow, and then scurried back inside.

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Christmas Noir No. 3

Sugarplum Mary the Christmas Elf clutched her knees to her chest and tried not to breathe. The cabinet she was hiding in had no lock, and small as she was, and unarmed, she wouldn't stand a chance against the horror stalking the Gingerbread House. "Mary!" came the deceptively soft, comforting mother-voice, "Marieeee! Come out, come out where ever you are..." One of the candy-cane chairs squeaked across the hard-chocolate floor as it was pulled out from the lollipop table, then groaned as it took the heavy weight of its new occupant. "That's okay, sweetheart, I can wait. I can wait all winter, if need be."

Christmas Noir No. 2

Outside the wind came off the Arctic Sea like sleeting razors, and the Aurora lashed the night with neon fire, but inside the stable, everything was absolutely still. Comet shook his head, blowing air from his nostrils with explosive disgust to try and clear his nose and throat. No use. The smell of the blood was cloying; old pennies and rusted iron in an ozone haze. Rudolph had died hard.

Christmas Noir No. 1

From somewhere behind him there came the unmistakable sound of a pump-action shotgun chambering a shell. Sparky the Elf suddenly felt a cold certainty that he would never see the North Pole, Santa's Workshop, or that bastard Blitzen ever again...

Monday, November 28, 2011

Infidel by Kameron Hurley is the Book O' the Fortnight

You may have noticed some changes here at Solomon Mao’s recently, Readers Mine. I decided it was time to refresh the look of things a little and add some new bells and whistles, among which is the Book O’ the Week, which you see to the upper left. The theory is that every week I’ll choose a book I’ve read and really enjoyed, write a quick review post, and then leave a linked cover shot up until the next week. Of course, in reality, I’ve had Vernor Vinge’s Children of the Sky up for a good two and a half weeks now, so maybe I should call the piece the “Book O’ the Fortnight,” which doesn’t sound all that bad actually.

God's War by Kameron Hurley
Anyway, I’m pleased to put up Kameron Hurley’s Infidel as the new Book O’! Hurley’s a recent discovery on my part, as I picked up her first novel, God’s War, this summer and pretty much was instantly hooked on the worlds she has made and the words she uses to make them. God’s War and Infidel are the first two books in a series set on the planet Umayma (an Arabic name meaning “high mother” or “little mother”), a world originally fundamentally hostile to human life which was roughly terraformed many centuries ago and thus at the time of the novels is merely inhospitable. Not that you can really blame the planet. See, the terraforming was carried out by semi-mythical “magicians” using bugs, bioengineered insects which presumably breathed in whatever mix of atmospheric gases was originally present and belched out a good ol’ nitrogen-oxygen-argon-etc mix, and broke down and fertilized the soil, made the water drinkable, etc, etc, until the planet’s putative population, until this time eaking out an existence on the several moons around Umayma, could come on down, though they may have done so before things were quite ready. Of course, like all human technologies the bugs had – well – bugs, and sometimes the terraforming… got interesting.

Anyway, the settlers were largely of a faith derived from Islam, with a few non-Muslim groups thrown in. At first Umayma had a planetary government and a kind of all powerful, all female planetary special forces/religious police force, the bel dames. As in “sans merci.” Soon enough, people being people, this set up went to hell, several separate nations states emerged from the chaos, and two hundred odd years ago, two of those, Nasheen and Chenja, started a war that’s been going strong ever since, fueled by religious intolerance, nationalism, and chemical and biological weapons that make a genegineered ebola-smallpox hybrid look like dessert topping.

Out of this world and this war steps Nyxnissa so Dasheem, “Nyx” – ex soldier, ex-bel dame, and one of the hardest boiled anti-heroes to come down the pike in a long while. Nyx isn’t just hard, she’s brutal. Not driven, but ruthless. Just to give you some idea, here’s the very first line of God’s War:

“Nyx sold her womb somewhere between Punjai and Faleen, on the edge of the desert.”

Yeah. Like that. Hurley’s prose is tight and hard, sometimes coming so fast and clipped that it reads like the sound of a master chef chopping celery. Nyx is a product of her world, and Hurley somehow makes you want to love and hate her at the same time. Her foil is Rhys, a tall drink of water, half-assed magician, and observant Muslim who is soft where Nyx is hard, and hard where she is, unexpectedly, soft.

I’m not going to go into the story of Infidel here, because it’s the second book in the series, and because the tale it tells is inextricably bound up in the world Hurley has created. This truly is one of the most magnificent examples of world-building I’ve seen in decades, and the characters are a part and parcel of that building. Be advised, this ain’t your granny’s SF/F. Hurley pulls no punches, gives no easy answers, and she shies away from nothing. Race, religion, gender roles, sex, drugs, violence, war, politics, business… all of that is here in all of its rotting glory, but there are also people desperately looking for something to believe in, something to live by and for, even if they have to invent it for themselves. I’ve seen Hurley’s work called “feminist science fiction,” “bug noir,” even “bug punk.” Whatever. I call it fast-paced, well written, meticulously detailed, character-driven, bad-ass writing, and I think you will too.

Buy her stuff. You’ll like it.

Sunday, November 20, 2011

The "First Triumvirate," in Review

The last decades of the Roman Republic were dominated by the ambitions and machinations of three figures: Cn. Pompieus Strabo Magnus (Pompey), M. Licinius Crassus, and C. Julius Caesar. Any examination of the period from 70 to 44 BC inevitably hinges on one, two, or all three of these men at any given time, and therefore their biographies become essential to the student of the period. In their attempts to reveal and evaluate the lives of these figures, Robin Seager’s Pompey the Great: A Political Biography, Allen M. Ward’s Marcus Crassus and the Late Roman Republic, and Richard A. Billows’ Julius Caesar: The Colossus of Rome, present the reader with both the best and worst of the art of historical biography.

Cn. Pompeius Strabo Magnus
Robin Seager makes no bones about his intent with his Pompey the Great: A Political Biography, stating in his preface that “the subtitle of the present work is intended to warn the reader to expect no treatment of the detail of Pompeius’ wars and no estimate of him as a commander,” and indeed, the following sixteen chapters give only the briefest treatment of Pompey’s military career. Seager begins with a brief introduction giving an overview of Roman political history from 133 – 79 BC, and begins his biography proper with the career and death of Pompey’s father, Cn. Pompeius Strabo senior. He then proceeds chronologically through Pompey’s life, paralleling political events in Rome with Pompey’s overseas dispositions, paying particular attention in both cases to Pompey’s time in the East from 66 – 62 BC. Seager presents a portrait of Pompey as a man of overweening ambition and political acumen, whose desire for public recognition from the Senate as the traditional ruling body of the Republic was both in opposition to his life-long willingness to stretch the unwritten Roman constitution and traditions, the mos maiorum, to the breaking point, and yet also functioned as a restraint on that same ambition. As Seager concludes, “[Pompey’s] eagerness for honors to be granted him willingly had compelled him to acknowledge the right of the senate and people to deny him if they chose. He had wanted to be the dominant figure in the senate, but in a senate that was still the ruler of Rome… Pompeius then did not want to destroy the republic.” Seager places the blame for that squarely on Caesar’s shoulders, but does not neglect to point out that Pompey’s own actions did little or nothing to preserve the system he so desperately sought command of and approval from.

M. Licinius Crassus
Allen M. Ward presents the reader with another political biography with his Marcus Crassus and the Late Roman Republic. Here again, Crassus’ military career is only briefly described, and his final, fatal campaign against the Parthians almost not at all. Ward too devotes his first chapter to setting the historical scene, and uses chapter appendices to this and chapters VIII and IX to provide the reader with detailed prosopographical data which serves to illuminate his research process and the conclusions reached in the chapters themselves. These appendices strike a nice balance between relying on overly long footnotes and the traditional consignment of the appendices to the back of the book, and serve well in providing the reader with further information without bogging down the primary narrative, which proceeds in chronological order from the scarce sources surrounding Crassus’ birth ca.115 BC to his defeat and death at Carrhae in 53 BC. Ward is particularly painstaking in his analysis of the known political and legislative events in Rome with an eye to discovering the probable prime movers behind various proposed laws, prosecutions, defenses, speeches, and other public performances in Rome during Crassus’ career. Ward presents Crassus as something of a moderate optimate; an inherently conservative politician who was nonetheless generally amenable to compromise when possible, and who “often tended towards the via media,” the middle road.
C. Julius Caesar Dictator
Richard A. Billows’ Julius Caesar: the Colossus of Rome, is part of Routledge’s Roman Imperial Biographies series, and proves to be a readable and concise addition to the many biographies of Caesar. Billows begins with a prologue that also serves as a bibliographic essay with an emphasis on works which challenge the traditional interpretations, and which Billows, while not necessarily in agreement with them, credits as valuable lenses for providing fresh perspectives on his subject. Billows also provides historical background and context in his first chapter, devoting fully a fifth of his text to the history of Rome and Italy in the second century BC, before proceeding chronologically through Caesar’s life, with the exception of chapter VIII: “Caesar’s Place in Roman Literature and Culture,” a thematic interlude placed between the flight northward of the tribunes M. Antonius and Q. Cassius in late 50, and the crossing of the Rubicon in early 49. Billows’ Caesar is a popularis through and through, becoming the central figure in a movement that Billows sees as springing from, and directly connected with the Marian and Cinnan movement of the 80s BC. He also fixes Caesar as the lynchpin in what Ronald Syme has termed the “Roman Revolution,” and his associates and followers as the power behind it both during Caesar’s life, and beyond.

Taken together, these three biographies provide an uneven look at the three men who comprised what historians refer to as the First Triumvirate. Ward is working from the fewest sources, and thus is necessarily the most reliant on prosopographic and legislative analysis. Though he is careful to acknowledge the problems inherent in this approach, his analyses are impressive, and more often than not, convincing. He also provides a valuable counterpoint to the traditional portrayal of Crassus as a paragon of ruthless greed, pointing out that both Pompey and Caesar became far wealthier than Crassus, yet were not condemned for their wealth due to the way in which they acquired it: by conquest. Crassus, who made his money through business deals and speculation which were considered beneath the Roman nobility, “became the subject of a hostile literary tradition that was set by his political enemies, who scorned the methods Crassus adopted…” Nonetheless, due to the paucity of source material, and the fact that Crassus seems to have often preferred to work behind the scenes rather than openly on the public stage, makes Ward’s efforts, even at their best, more speculative than not.

Seager confronts similar problems, and handles them poorly. His political and legislative analysis often seems to be naïve, as when he states that the assignment of the forests and cow-paths of Italy as the provinces of the consuls of 59 was not a move by the optimates in the senate to curtail Caesar’s growing power and ambition by denying him the prospect of a foreign war. According to Seager, “at the time when the allocation [of provinces] was made… Caesar had not yet been elected, and even if the optimates had already felt certain that he was bound to take one place, they would not have wanted to rob their own candidate Bibulus of a proper command.” To suggest that the optimates, no strangers to the realities of Roman politics, could not foresee that Caesar, who had won election to every magistracy on the cursus honorum up to the praetorship in the first year he was eligible, and whose status, wealth, and political power had only increased during his propraetorian command in Spain, was almost certain to secure the consulship, is bordering on the absurd.

Seager’s greatest fault, and one shared with Ward, is his choice to largely omit any examination of Pompey’s military career. The distinction between civil and military power in ancient Rome was nonexistent, and each affected the other profoundly. In the case of Pompey, his entire political career was predicated on his military activities, and largely consisted in repeated attempts to secure special commands, and with them, praise and power in Rome. It is not going too far to say that without his military achievements and ambitions, Pompey would have had no political career, or if he had it would have been a far different, likely much less pivotal one. In a very real way Seager gives the reader half a man, and half the story.

Ward too fails to detail Crassus’s military career, though he does slightly better than Seager with his discussions of Crassus’ service during Sulla’s civil war, though Crassus’ role in the victory of the Battle of the Colline Gate in 82 BC does not receive nearly the attention which it deserves, nor does his successful campaign against Spartacus in 72/1. Most unfortunately, however, Ward chooses not to detail Crassus campaign leading up to Carrhae at all, thus omitting the vital ending to Crassus’ tale. Again the choice to focus on the political at the complete expense of the military, particularly when examining Roman statesmen, proves to be a grave error.

Billows, does not fall into this trap, and combines astute political analysis—though not, perhaps, at the level offered by Ward—with a thorough understanding of the importance of Caesar’s military career to the man and his life as a whole. Billows does an excellent job of covering Caesar’s campaigns in Gaul, and the Civil War against Pompey while also tying these campaigns into the larger picture of Caesar as statesman. Indeed, over all, Billows’ work is of high quality, and made even more impressive for being so complete within the space of some 263 pages. The one place where he stumbles is in the thematic chapter VIII, mentioned above. Though it provides valuable information, it is oddly placed within the narrative, and disrupts the heretofore chronological structure of the historical narrative to no truly good end. This chapter might have been of better service as an appendix, or even woven into the primary narrative as part of Caesar’s life in the 60s BC. Another glaring weak point lies in Billows claim that the young Octavian was to have served as Caesar’s Master of the Horse during the Parthian campaign planned for 44/3, a claim for which Billows presents no source or argument, and which the present reviewer’s research turned up no evidence. These oddities aside, Billows provides the best of the three biographies reviewed here, and certainly one of the best resources for a student of the period, combining his bibliographic prologue with a standard bibliographic list at the end of the text.
Though each of the biographies reviewed here has its strengths, neither separately nor together do they provide a complete picture of the First Triumvirs, or of their time. At best they provide a starting point for further research, and a general overview of the period from which to begin such research. There is still much to learn, and one hopes many more biographies on all three of these men to come.

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Filmic Adventures

So during the recent way-too-many-plates-spinning-at-once hiatus from Solomon Mao’s, I did manage to watch a few flicks, so I thought I’d take a moment here and spout off some reviews.

Bridesmaids: F
Sometime in September, Mock’ and I lost count of just exactly how many people had raved about this movie to us, so one night at Family Video we broke down and rented it. Rest assured that if you are one of the people who recommended this move to me, you will pay. So women can do gross-out comedy as well as men. Okay. What else you got? Look! Women in groups are bitchy, fake, manipulative, insecure, and jealous of and among each other! Isn’t that funny? Nope. Not really. What else? Oh, I see, this film is a TWO-trick pony, and both of them are bad. Look, people, this isn’t character-driven humor, it’s characters written around a style of humor, and badly. I think Mock laughed three times in the first forty-five minutes, and I admit to laughing once, but the laughs weren’t all that hearty, and once we’d seen all two of the movies tricks—repeatedly—we turned the thing off and went on to better, and funnier things, like clipping our toenails. I can count on one hand the number of films that were so bad that I just couldn’t finish watching them, and Bridesmaids is one of them.

Hanna: D
Oh look, its The Bourne Identity meets Run Lola Run, only with better actors than the former and much less interesting than the latter! Not to mention plot holes large enough to steer a Maersk container-ship through. For instance, why, exactly, is it necessary to activate a radio-homing beacon and thereby let the evil CIA-Bitch (played by the usually amazing Cate Blanchett, who really disappoints here) know where young Hanna is when Hanna and her “father” have managed to disappear so successfully for at least thirteen or fourteen years? Seriously, if they can’t find your cabin in BF-Finland, they probably won’t be able to catch up to you in, say, London, either. Also, what’s with the awesomely ineffectual Euro-trash, metrosexual assassin whose habit of constantly whistling loudly would seem to provide any target plenty of warning that he’s in the neighborhood. Rather than creepy, that little tick turned out to be clownish. I’m not sure I get the press about Hanna being such a strong female character, either. The entire film revolves around Hanna doing just exactly what her father has trained her to do and the bad guys expect her to do. Hanna is more puppet than empowered female.

Inception: C
The theory here seems to be that if the action and pacing are kept fast, are combined with some truly stunning visual effects, and aided and abetted by the skills of Leonardo DiCaprio and Ken Watanabe, the audience will fail to realize exactly how little sense the premise upon which the entire film hangs makes. In truth I’m a big fan of both DiCaprio and Watanabe, but neither actor is anywhere near the top of his game in this film. I’m going to step aside here and let Trey Parker and Matt Stone finish this review with a clip from South Park’s “Insheeption” which pretty much sums this movie up:

The Bad Sleep Well: A
Ah! Thank God for Akira Kurosawa! (NOT the first time I've said that.) This very dark piece from 1960 is a tale of greed, revenge, and murder. Koichi Nishi (played by the incredible Toshiro Mifune), enacts an elaborate ruse in order to take revenge against the corrupt post-war Japanese corporate system. The film is a surprisingly brutal indictment of a corporate culture in which loyalty to the company is the ultimate measure of a man’s worth, more important than friendship, family, love, or any traditional moral code. Decades before No Country For Old Men, Kurosawa crafts an evil which is equally disturbing, and perhaps even more horrifying than the Coen brothers’ Chigurh for being so ruthlessly mundane. Warning: there’s no happy ending here, just brilliant, scathing filmmaking.   

Puss in Boots (2D): A
To wrap up with the most recent film here, it’s a delight to have enjoyed this animated adventure as much as I did. Puss (voiced by a scenery-chewing Antonio Banderas), turns out to be from a place that resembles Extremadura more than a little, and has all of the legendary traits of the region. He is dashing, daring, proud, foolish, undefeatable, and absolutely sure of himself. He is also unapologetically male in the Don Juan mode. Puss meets his match, however, in the dangerously lovely Kitty Softpaws (Salma Hayek), as he becomes involved in the twisted and nefarious schemes of Humpty Dumpty (Zach Galifianakis). The film has some lovely bits, particularly a flashback sequence in which Dumpty is revealed to have been in the background of every major plot point of the story, the rotundly ovoid puppet-master leading Puss to disgrace and dishonor. The cast obviously had tremendous fun with the film and it shows in every frame. The story was very well done, and I don’t feel as if I missed anything by eschewing a pair of clunky plastic spectacles. 3D had nothing to add except the usual “oh look, it’s kinda like it’s coming near me, sorta,” and I’ll pass on paying three extra bucks for that!

So, anyone else been watching movies lately?  

Monday, November 7, 2011

What's On My TV, Part II

Deadwood: A+.
David Milch’s masterful HBO series is one that I’ve been wanting to revisit for some time now, and lately I’ve been relaxing a couple of times a week with Al Swearengen (Ian McShane), Seth Bullock (Timothy Oliphant), and the rest of the magnificent cast of this one of a kind show. Milch comes at the 1870s American western frontier and boomtown from seemingly every direction at once, and with meticulous attention to every grime-encrusted detail of a mining-camp staggering its way towards becoming a town along streets paved in mud and excrement, both animal and human. The language is foul, yet rises to incredibly delightful heights of poetry echoing, and I believe firmly sliding into, iambic pentameter. Milch brings the dirt, violence, cursing, and fucking of humanity on the edge of the world vividly to life in this genre-defying piece of art. There’s never been anything like Deadwood, before or since, but there is hope, as Milch returns to HBO this December with Luck.

Alphas: B-.
The strangely re-named SyFy network, lately more famous for its C-grade TV movies than shows, came up with in interesting twist on an old trope that has a hell of a lot of promise. Basically, there are certain people who are born with extraordinary abilities, like super-strength, far beyond the usual human norm. However, such genetic gifts are seemingly always accompanied by some sort of disability. The super-strength results in metabolic overload guaranteed to eventually bring on a massive heart attack, for instance. Or the ability to understand any language, or create new ones, and write unbreakable code being accompanied by severe apraxia. As Dr. Lee Rosen, David Strathairn leads a solid cast including the breakout Ryan Cartwright as Gary Bell, an autistic who can pull all types of electronic signals out of the air without any technological aid, and whose on-screen chemistry with Bill Harken (Malik Yoba), the afore-mentioned super-strong guy with a dodgy heart, is simply brilliant. Unfortunately, the show’s primary romantic entanglement between Nina Theroux (Laura Mennell) and Cameron Hicks (Warren Christie) tends to bring the show to a screeching halt with their wooden dialogue and clunky attempts at a complicated relationship. Which is a shame, as both are fine actors, as Christie proved to my satisfaction in his recent big-screen role in Apollo 18. In addition, at the end of the series’ first season, the most interesting of the “bad guys”, the genius apraxic linguist Anna (Liane Balaban), was killed off in favor of a far more conventional (and boring!) Big Bad in the form of the urbane immortal Stanton Parrish (John Pyper-Ferguson).  Alphas has been renewed for a second season next Summer, though, and the show still holds a great deal of promise, so we’ll see.

Grimm: + (only two episodes have aired at time of writing but it looks good!)
The big surprise for me this season has definitely been NBC’s Grimm, from Joss Whedon alums David Greenwalt (Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Angel) and Jim Kouf (Angel). The series is a generic hybrid, mixing urban fantasy/fairy-tales with police drama. Nick Burckhardt (David Giuntoli) is a homicide detective with an uncanny deductive ability. Turns out he’s also a direct descendent of the brothers Grimm, of fairy-tale fame. Only the tales weren’t really fiction, and we are definitely dealing with the original, not-for-kids Grimm’s Tales. The Grimms have been defending humanity from the various critters that hide among them for centuries now, the gift of being able to see the monsters among us passing from one descendent to another as the previous Grimm dies. (Slayer-syndrome, anyone?) The summary sounds like something that could be really bad, but the show pulls it off, largely through meticulous attention to the details of the fairy-tales, including some brilliant Easter-eggs for the viewer, as when the co-ed jogger in the first episode dons her red sorority hoodie to go into the woods and down “Talon Trail,” where she is dismembered and partially eaten by a wolf-ting with a penchant for the color red. Red Riding-hood has left the path again. The acting is good, and I think I can already call the breakaway talent as Silas Weir Mitchell, who plays the wise-cracking, pilates-fanatic, coffee-gourmandizing side-kick to Giuntoli’s befuddled detective, a side-kick who, by the way, is also a blutbad, better known to us kids as a Big Bad Wolf. Mitchell’s comic timing and rapid dialogue are both equally brilliant, and he provides a much needed stream of exasperated, why-can’t-you-just-leave-me-alone-already humor to what could otherwise be a very, very dark show. Honestly, the only reason I haven’t given Grimm an “A” is that I’ve only seen two episodes, so who knows where the show will actually go. Looking good so far though!

Well, that hits the high-spots, readers mine, or at least most of them. How about you? What’re you watching these days?

Saturday, November 5, 2011

What's On My TV, Part I

Technologically speaking I live in a bit of a mixed environment. In my garret student-apartment where I live during the week, I don’t have cable, but I do have a really nice LCD TV with a built in DVD-player and HDMI jack, so between my computer and Netflix, I manage to watch as much TV as I like during a week. The great advantage to this system is that it allows me to watch only shows which I choose, which leads to a pretty solid stream of Quality TV. Since this is an area I am coming more and more to focus on in my writing, I thought I’d start a semi-regular column here and let you know what’s going on in my own personal TV-land. Of course, you’ll see some currently airing shows here as well, because at home Mock’ and I most certainly do have cable, and a DVR, and all the modern TV conveniences. So, Readers Mine, here’s what’s on my TV.

Breaking Bad: So Good It Doesn’t Fit on the Scale, A+.
Seriously, if you haven’t been watching Breaking Bad, which just finished up its fourth season, get your ass to Amazon or iTunes or wherever and buy all four. This is, beyond a shadow of a doubt, the best show on TV and for my money may well rank as the current pinnacle of Quality Television as a whole. In brief, the show follows Walter White (Bryan Cranston) and Jesse Pinkman (Aaron Paul) into the world of mass production and distribution of crystal methamphetamine, which Walt and a genius chemist, knows how to make better than anyone. The show brilliantly places the viewer in the most morally ambiguous of relationships with the  main characters, who you like, but know damn well are going places from which they can never, should never be allowed to, return. Alongside a humor so black it often reminds you of the gulf between stars, show creator and showrunner Vince Gilligan and his crew pay exquisite attention to detail, and there are no true minor characters, every one being fleshed out as a unique individual, from the criminal lawyer Saul Goodman (Bob Odenkirk) to the meth-whore Wendy (Julia Minesci), to Goodman’s secretary Francesca (Tina Parker), Gilligan & Co. take the time to make them all real. Watch this show, and watch out for more about it right here.

Justified: A-.
A show recommended to me over a year ago by the great Mary Alice Money, which I finally got around to watching this fall. I’ve been a Timothy Olyphant fan since Deadwood so I was happy to see him getting regular work, and tuned in expecting a pretty standard police procedural. Happily, I was completely wrong. Oh, there are elements of that, but Justified goes much farther. Olyphant plays Deputy U.S. Marshall Raylan Givens, something of an anachronism with a Stetson and a Glock whose sense of justice winds up getting him exiled from the Marshalls office in Miami, to Lexington, Kentucky which is too close to the infamous coal fields of Harlan County, where Raylan grew up, and where his father, a ne’er-do-well lifelong criminal, still lives. The series is based on the character of Givens as created by Elmore Leonard, and sucked me in immediately. As with Breaking Bad local color is a huge part of this show, but instead of the hard, arid spaces of New Mexico, Justified takes the viewer into the almost claustrophobic lushness and humidity of Southern forests and small towns, and lives that are consumed in the black hells of the coal mines. The reality of Eastern Kentucky is a hard land with hard people, and Justified brings them eloquently to the small screen. Again, character realization here is exquisite, particularly in the case of recurring sort-of villain Boyd Crowder (Walton Goggins). My one complaint is that the series doesn’t do so well by its women characters, although I have only seen the first season, so things may well improve. Indeed there are strong hints that they will in the burgeoning characters of Ava Crowder (Joelle Carter) and Helen Givens (Linda Gehringer). A tremendously well-acted show with a solid blend of humor throughout. Another that’s at the top of my list.

Babylon 5: A.
The oldest show I’m currently rewatching, and still one of the very best. Babylon 5 is J. Michael Straczynski’s epic, ground-breaking, Hugo award-winning science fiction series detailing five tumultuous years in the lives of a group of humans and aliens who live in “one million, five hundred thousand tons of spinning metal… all alone in the night.” Straczynski plotted out the show as a five season arc before the first episode was ever written. This intricate plotting and extended arcs earned the series the reputation of a “novel for television,” and the five seasons can be read as the five basic parts of a novel: exposition, rising action, climax, falling action, and dénouement. This was something new in television, and although long story arcs are now part and parcel of the small screen experience, Straczynski started it all. Not to mention using groundbreaking CGI on a weekly basis, and attracting some of the best and brightest in SF to script individual episodes (including D.C. Fontana, Harlan Ellison, Neil Gaiman, and David Gerrold). Again, it's an exquisitely acted show with an incredible ensemble cast including Bruce Boxleitner (John Sheridan) Mira Furlan (Deleen), the late, great Andreas Katsulas (G'kar) and the unforgettable Peter Jurasik (Londo Mollari). 

More than all of that, however, Babylon 5 was the first time I realized how powerful, how wonderful, TV could be. Back in the early 1990s, when the show first aired, I didn’t have cable, and the local station that broadcast B5 did so at 2 am on Sunday morning, so every Saturday, without fail, I stayed up to watch it. It was the first time a TV show ever made me tense up in my chair, made me laugh out loud, tear up, and spring from my seat with a “Holy Shit! Did you see that?!??!” Babylon 5 is where Quality TV begins for me, and now after several years, I’ve finally convinced Mock’ to watch it with me. So far, it holds up beautifully, and watching it with her, seeing her see it for the first time, is absolutely incredible. The entire series is available in whatever format you prefer. Watch it. You’ll never regret it.

Well, this turned out to be longer than I was thinking it would be, so I’m going to dub it “Part I,” and break up my TV post into several. Tune in soon, Readers Mine, and in the meantime, happy TV watching!

Saturday, October 29, 2011

Catching Up A Bit

Okay, it’s been more than a while since I’ve posted here and I’m sorry for that, but to be fair I did warn you that this semester the blog might get few and far between. Fear not, though, I’m still kicking!

In NOLA, plotting a bit of the ol' ultraviolence.
To briefly catch up, the PCAS conference in New Orleans was an absolute blast, and Mock’ and I managed to eat our way through the French Quarter with some fantastically smart, fun, and funny friends whom we see far too rarely. Our presentations went off well, and we enjoyed a nice long weekend together away from all of the usual routines. I’m not sure what it says about us that having someone come into the room and make the bed while we’re gone, and replace all of the towels we’ve thrown into the bathroom floor with freshly laundered ones feels like luxury bordering on decadence, but it does, and we enjoyed every minute of it. For more details, head on over to Mockingbird’s professional blog, Unfettered Brilliance, for her NOLA wrap-up as well as a look at the ongoing Great Buffy Rewatch and her Intro to Film class.

In school news, classes are going very well, and I’m pleased to announce that the GRE is done with and my scores look to be pretty good, all told. Now to start cranking out the applications! I’ve also been expanding my “new media presence,” which translates into setting up a Twitter account. You can follow me there as @EnsleyFGuffey, should you be inclined to internet-stalk me. The Farscape paper has been submitted, approved, and is in my pile of stuff to do awaiting some tweaking, and so you can look for my chapter, “War and Peace by Woody Allen Or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Wormhole Weapon” in Tormented Space, Uncharted Territories, and Wormhole Weapons: Critical Explorations of the Farscape Universe, edited by Sherry Ginn from McFarland and Co. in early 2013. Pretty groovy, huh?

There are some other plates spinning and some I’m in the process of trying to get spinning, but that covers all the highlights for now. Now that my schedule seems to have produced a relatively clear space for a bit, I’ll try to make up for some lost time here, Readers Mine, with a few posts in the coming week, starting out with some reviews of what I’ve been reading and watching recently. The reading has been pretty good, the watching (at least when it comes to movies) not so much. Until then, be well.

Thursday, September 22, 2011

What I Would Do at Geek Girl Con, Part I

While I’m in New Orleans in October, Seattle will be playing host to the first Geek Girl Con on October 8 and 9an event described by the GGC’s press kit as “dedicated to promoting awareness of and celebrating the contribution and involvement of women in all aspects of the sciences, science fiction, comics, gaming and related Geek culture through conventions and events that emphasize both the historic and ongoing contribution and influence of women in thisculture.” Good enough!

Honestly, this is a Con I’d love to go to, and a great one to get in on the ground floor of, because I have a feeling it’s going to go huge, fast. Unfortunately the scheduling conflict with the Popular Culture in the South Conference (you didn’t think I’d be completely self-promotion free here did you?), as well as a lamentably tight travel budget, means that I will have to miss Geek Girl Con. However, this does nothing to stop me from idly fantasizing about going, and what I might do while there.

So, if I were able to attend Geek Girl Con:

I would seek out Chase Masterson and ask her to autograph the largest boxed ear-wax removal system I could find (fellow ST:DS9 fans will understand).

After a Friday night in the hotel room spent with a highlighter and the GGC Programming Guide, I’d get up Saturday morning and start hitting panels:

10:00 – 11:00: Star Trek & Beyond with Chase Masterson. The actor who launched her career as Leeta on Star Trek: Deep Space Nine and who now continues to act, sing, and produce speaks on fan-activism among genre fans.

11:00 – 12:30: The Heroine: Journey, Culture and Narrative. Haviva Avirom (mod.), Sara Freeman, Catherine Bailey, and Erin Lovejoy-Guron discuss the heroine’s journey in popular culture from Claudette Colbert to Wonder Woman to RPGs. I think I’d come prepared to ask about their takes on Haley Atwell’s character Peggy Carter in Captain America: the First Avenger.

12:30 – 1:00: Some kind of junk food lunch.

1:00 – 2:00: Trina Robbins on Tarpé Mills and Miss Fury. I don’t know Tarpé Mills but the programming guide makes me want to: “Trina Robbins, ground-breaking herstorian and comic author, introduces you to one of the greatest female creators you never knew existed. Author Tarpé Mills’ created Marla Drake, aka Miss Fury, has been described as the “grandmother that Buffy Summers and Sydney Bristow didn’t know they had.” Time for a history lesson!” I will even be willing to overlook the twinge that “herstorian” gives me. For now.

2:00-2:30: Shopping for cool stuff, particularly books!

2:30-4:00: History of the Universe as Told by Wonder Woman. Kristy Guevara-Flanagan (mod.), Gail Simone, Trina Robbins, Jennifer K. Stuller, Mike Madrid. Footage from Guevara-Flanagan’s documentary History of the Universe as Told by Wonder Woman will be shown, and the panelists will discuss our obsession with superheroes, and the evolution of female empowerment in the culture. Note historians Trina Robbins and Jen Stuller. Jen is one of the most delightful, brilliant people it’s ever been my pleasure to know, and both women are applying the historian’s art to fields too long neglected by traditional historiography. Definitely a professional interest in this one for me, but also (hopefully) a chance to catch up with someone I haven’t seen face-to-face in too long.

4:00 – 5:00: Character Studies: Geek Girls in Popular Culture. Jennifer K. Stuller (mod. [okay, obviously we’ll have to catch up later, Jen!]), Amy Berg, Javier Grillo-Marxuach, Sara Kuhn, Jessica Mills, and Stephanie Thorpe take a look at geek girls in film, TV, comics, etc. They’ll also discuss the status of geek girls in our culture. Good stuff.

5:00 – 5:30: Snack? Sit dazed for half an hour? Cat-nap?

5:30 – 6:30: Whedonistas. Naturally. Teresa Jusino (mod.), Jane Espenson, Nancy Holder, Mariah Huener discuss Joss Whedon’s work and the impact his shows have had on them, on the culture, and on Whdeon’s fans, who have become some of the world’s most active, particularly for women’s rights.

6:30 – 7:00: Dinner. See Lunch above.

7:00 – 8:30: Viscera Film Fest. I’ll let GGC’s program guide have this one: “Heidi Honeycutt hosts a mini-Viscera Film Fest. They will screen selected horror short films created, written, directed, produced, acted, goredup, and designed by women. You’ve never seen horror like this before. Operating since 2007, Viscera is committed to expanding opportunities for female horror creators.” How frakkin’ cool does this sound? I know, right!

9:00 – 11:00: Whedonesque Burlesque. “Man, if you gotta ask, you’ll never know.”

Then, I’d stagger back to the hotel, collapse into bed, and rest up for Sunday’s events… Which will constitute Part II of this little exercise in imagination. Until then, Reader’s Mine, maybe some of you might need to book a flight or two to Seattle, eh? Failing that, you can show your support forGeek Girl Con, by donating here.

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Goings On

Well, there’s a Latin exam tomorrow, but I’ve spent four days studying for it, and believe I’ve reached the point of diminishing returns, which, with other homework being done, leads me here. It’s been a busy couple of weeks since my last post, Readers Mine. School is rolling along, and there is an ever growing stack of books threatening to overflow my shelves on everything from Samuel Colt to the Late Roman Republic to the Alhambra and Moorish Grenada to the cuneiform tablets of Sargon II. There is much reading still to be done, followed by much writing. Also test taking.

Samuel Colt
First up (aside from the aforementioned Latin exam) is the Popular Culture/American Culture in the South Conference, which is being held in New Orleans in October. I’m presenting a paper which uses the character of Sam Colt in Supernatural as a springboard to examine the historical Samuel Colt and his place and part in American popular culture. I hope to have that written by the end of this weekend. Good thing too, as the conference falls right before UNCG’s fall break, meaning that all of my midterm exams, papers, etc need to be finished and turned in before I head south, so I’ll probably need all of next week to gear up for that. The up-side, of course, is that I can enjoy the conference and the city with a pure heart unburdened by looming assignments.

Ed, Spike, Faye, and Jett
And one hell of a conference it promises to be! Along with the usual PCA/ACA crowd, the first LOST mini-conference will be held, featuring the one and only Nikki Stafford as keynote speaker. I’m looking forward to the whole shebang, not merely for the usual crop of great papers, but for the all too rare opportunity to catch up with friends from hither and yon face-to-face rather than by Facebook or e-mail. Mockingbird and I are both going, as usual, and she will be unveiling the first part of a look at the influences of Cowboy Bebop on Joss Whedon’s Firefly. Part II she’s saving for Slayage 5 in Vancouver next summer.

Gigi Edgley as Chiana
After the conference I’ll have two and a half weeks before taking the GRE, by which point the application process needs to already be rolling along. I am seriously hoping that I manage to get accepted into a school where I can go straight through to a doctorate, as applying for school is one of the more tediously stressful things in life. Almost as much so as applying for jobs. Along with graduate school applications, there will still be regular undergraduate work to be done, and also, sometime before the end of the year, I should be seeing my Farscape chapter come back to me with notes for revision. It’ll also be time to start the research for my own paper to be presented at Slayage 5, which reminds me, the deadline for proposals there is 1 December!

Like I said, busy semester.

In other news, the GOTP (Grand Ol’ Tea Party) is gleefully fucking up my home state of North Carolina through a series of legislative actions which have gutted the education budget, set women’s rights back by a few decades, and now they seem to think that putting civil rights up for a popular vote is sensible (which it is, assuming your goal is to deny a minority group its civil rights). My hope is that the conservative movement has overreached at last, and that the fine people of North Carolina will stand up, throw the bums out, and tell the next bunch of “representatives” that we’re looking for frakin’ jobs, not laws that make things harder on all of us. Jackasses.

Finally (for now), it seems I'm precognitive. If you are not watching Breaking Bad, you are missing a masterpiece of storytelling, and film. Don’t let the fact that its television fool you, this is something special. It’s on AMC. Watch it, bitch!

Sunday, September 4, 2011

Apollo 18: "A-"

Russian poster for Apollo 18,
where it apparently was first released!
To celebrate a long weekend together, Mockingbird and I decided to take in a movie (among other things), and since we were looking for more of a popcorn flick than art film, we decided to check out Apollo 18. The film’s premise is pretty straightforward: after Apollo 17, the last official moon mission, NASA and the Department of Defense sent another Apollo mission to the moon, this time in secret. Ostensibly there to set up a series of early-warning devices to detect a Soviet nuclear ballistic missile launch against the US, the intrepid three-man crew discovers… something else.

I have to say that we were pleasantly surprised by the film. The back-story is that the audience is watching an edited version of some eighty-five hours of video files recently uploaded to (which, in a further touch, has apparently been “blocked,” making it unavailable), exposing the mission, so all of the film is ostensibly from the cameras aboard the Apollo module and lunar lander, as well as a battery of hand-held and spacesuit-mounted 16mm cameras, and some tripod-mounted automatic cameras which the astronauts set up here and there. This leads to one of the more brilliant aspects of the film, as it has been meticulously made to appear as if it was actually shot using this equipment, and the film “stock” has been appropriately aged to give it an early 1970s unrestored archival look. The viewable area of the theater screen is even cropped to a square area with rounded corners to further the effect of watching old 16mm film. The technical work done here is astounding, as is the films attention to detail in recreating the living conditions of the Apollo astronauts in what were truly tiny metal shells fully equipped with such delicacies as “ham paste.”

In a nice change from frantic SF pacing, the movie builds slowly and evenly, ratcheting up the tension through several seeming climaxes which serve only to wind things a bit tighter still. It is as much a psychological thriller as it is an alien menace piece, and director Gonzalo Lopez-Gallego does a brilliant job of using the strange mix of claustrophobic spacecraft and utterly inhospitable lunar space to work on both the astronauts and the audience. I was also pleased to see lead actor Warren Christie, who can also be seen weekly on SyFy’s Alphas, get some big-screen time, and prove that he has the chops to be there. Christie brilliantly portrays the deep confusion and mistrust of a young career military officer who has been badly shaken by the Watergate scandal, reminding the audience that the film is set in a time when the now habitual mistrust of the American government on the part of its citizens was only just beginning to take root, and betrayal by that government was as unexpected as it was bitter.

I give Apollo 18 an “A-” over-all, however, because there were unfortunately times when the close-ups of frantic astronauts had me thinking “Look, it’s Blair Witch in Space!” but that has more to do with brief visuals than writing, directing, acting, or overall cinematography. Also, there remains the somewhat glaring plot-hole of just exactly how the footage from the hand-held and suit cameras made it back to Earth! Overall though, Apollo 18 is a thoughtful thriller that relies on acting and artistry to achieve its chills, and takes the time to build a real story rather than endless shrapnel-filled explosions and plucky-humans-against-evil-aliens clichés. Go see it.