Tuesday, November 29, 2016

Reviews: Sci-fi Triple Feature

Over the past couple of weeks, I watched three fun movies, and I would recommend all three. Here they are!

#1) Doctor Strange

I know. It's another one of those Marvel movies, but an impressive one that reaches further than I've seen before. It's almost like Marvel's version of Inception, though not quite as intelligent.

Benedict Cumberbatch plays Doctor Strange, a world-class surgeon who loses most of his hand mobility in a car accident. Desperate to find purpose in his life, he seeks answers, which leads him to a group of people who specialize in the mystic arts.

The whole idea of the movie is that there is an unseen world outside of our mortal world, and wow -- is it imaginative! With top-notch special effects, the mystical world comes to life and makes it feel real. Marvel successfully brings magic into the mix.

As usual, Giacchino's music is always appropriate and interesting -- though, I did recognize a few Star Trek chord progressions in the closing credits.

The movie's main weakness is that it is a Marvel movie, and as such, certain steps are taken to make sure it merges with the rest of the universe. Oh, how I wished this movie could have been a standalone! Do we really need random references to the Hulk or Ironman?

Also, I felt that even though Doctor Strange's origin story started out so well, his transformation from egomaniac jerk to humble superhero was way too rushed. It was almost like: Okay, he can do that now.

Weaknesses aside, overall it was a well-done effort. I would recommend catching it in 3D even though it's all converted. Fun for the whole family!

#2) Arrival

I wasn't prepared for how good this movie was going to be. It may seem on the low end budget-wise, but its unique use of effects, color, music, and human story brings across an excellent delivery.

The movie starts with a lonely and broken Louise Banks. As aliens appear on our doorstep, Louise couldn't care less. What good is anything in her life? She suddenly finds purpose when she's recruited to help break the aliens' language.

What follows is good science fiction that strives to stick with the possible, while at the same time providing us something fantastic, and taking us on a 2001-like journey.

The minimalistic music and cinematography set a perfect alien-feeling atmosphere. The non-Hollywood-formulaic writing is a breath of fresh air. In fact, I found it very difficult to predict how it was all going to end.

And when it was all over, all I could say was, "Wow."

Highly recommended. Watch and enjoy.

#3) Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them

I went in with low expectations and was pleasantly surprised. It felt like another typical Harry Potter movie. Only, this one is set in the past. Around the 1920s, maybe? This is long before Harry Potter was born, and when Riddle was most likely an infant.

Newt Scamander arrives in New York City with high hopes of breeding one or more of his creatures, which he keeps safe in his magical briefcase. However, things go south when a wannabe baker accidentally swaps briefcases.

The result is a funny story mixed with fun action as Newt ends up fighting a new (to us) bad guy.

Some parts are just plain silly, and the movie often suffers from "this ought to kill a lot of people but it doesn't" syndrome, but I didn't really seem to care. The movie kept my attention the whole time, and it was fun.

Go watch it with the family, though younger children might be scared by some of the scenes.

Monday, November 28, 2016

Two Month Update - #5

Here I am, a little late reporting again, and I bet you already know what my excuse is going to be. I've been devoting nearly 100% of my free time working on my new music publishing company.

You can check it out here if you wish.

Having come to a temporary stopping point, I've decided to devote today to getting back to other aspects of my life I've been neglecting.

So, in this penultimate checkpoint report for the year, I'm happy to report that work progresses forward on my planned short story: "The Last Actuary." I will be submitting it in the Actuarial Speculative Fiction Contest this coming January.

I am not happy to report that I haven't been submitting other short stories. All of my outstanding stories have received their rejection letters, and I now have nothing out -- not a good feeling. My only excuse is that I hope to make money in my other music venture. But success in another venture should be no excuse of failure in another. Is that how that quote goes?

Anyway, I hope your writing year is going well. Anyone doing NaNoWriMo?

Sunday, September 25, 2016

Two Month Update - Checkpoint #4

Yes, I know I'm late again checking in. The biggest reason: I've been dedicating nearly 100% of my time preparing for the opening of my music publishing business. You can read more about that on my music blog.

But never fear. This is a planned outage, and I will get right back to work in the later part of October, starting with the planned short story, "The Last Actuary." And early next year, I will start the final process of getting "Justice" published.

I'll be back ...

Monday, July 25, 2016

Two Month Update - Checkpoint #3

Okay, I'm a whole month late checking in. I was supposed to report on June 30, but I'll explain what happened.

As of the end of June, I had made terrible progress toward my writing goals. Life was getting in the way, stress was increasing at work, depression was getting strong, and blah, blah, blah.

Then I made up my mind. I was tired of not getting my book editing finished. At the same time, I've been trying to get my music business ready, but even that was suffering, since I was so depressed about not finishing the book and getting it out of the way. So, I decided to drop everything and finish that book. No more "just one chapter a week" nonsense. Just get it all done, and move on to the next project.

And that's what I did. I took two weeks and knocked out the remaining seven or eight chapters. Some I did in one day, and some I did in two days. Now it's ... Boom, baby! That goal is finished and done.

I only submitted one story during that two-month period (May and June), bringing my total to six for the year. Only twenty left to meet my yearly goal. If I do one a week going forward, I can still do it.

For blog writing, in May and June, I wrote eight posts in three of my blogs (just under one a week).

For the next bit couple of months, I'll be concentrating on my music business and getting that thing launched, so look for posts primarily on my music blog. I'll be back at the end of August to give my next report.

Good luck on your goals!

Monday, June 13, 2016

Saying Nice Things About Warcraft

As I mentioned last week, I really like earlier works of director Duncan Jones. I also played Warcraft, the first two games, hours upon hours about a decade ago.

So I went in to see Warcraft armed with all the negative reviews I had heard, and you know what? I actually enjoyed it. Duncan placed several easter eggs throughout the whole game, bringing back good memories. The story wasn't too terrible, and the plot was mostly easy to follow. There were actual characters that I could relate to, and the special effects were pretty decent.

The music caught the mood of the games, with drums, brass, and a plethora of minor chords, though I didn't recognize any specific tunes. The imagery caught the look and feel of the game. At one point we even get to see a battle from above, watching warriors raze a city.

With all that said, I can understand the negative reviews. If I had to sum up what I think the issue is, I would venture to speculate that Duncan was given the go-ahead on his first large project, and that he decided to go the uber-epic route. He wanted to create a movie so awesome that it would make Star Wars look like a Disney movie. ... um ... wait ...

A good epic movie has perhaps four or five really awesome scenes and some slightly boring, but important, setup. However, it seemed that Duncan wanted every scene to be epic, which didn't leave much time for setup. I thought there were some really cool scenes, but they were mostly hit or miss.

Either way I look forward to another project from Duncan. I would love another sci-fi movie that really makes you think. Please! Please! Please!

My recommendation: if you enjoyed playing the Warcraft games, go see this in the theater. Ignore the critics and go enjoy it. What's good for the Chinese is good for you -- right?

On the other hand, if you've never even heard of the game, you might want to sit this one out.

Monday, June 6, 2016

Jones: Moon and Source Code

Before paying good money in a couple of days to watch possibly the worst movie ever made, I'd like to first praise two really good movies made by the same director, Duncan Jones.

First in 2009, is Moon, starring Sam Rockwell. In this indie sci-fi movie with cheap but excellent effects, Sam is finishing up a three-year mission on the moon. With only a few days left, while longing to return to his family, things start to go wrong.

Before The Martian had even started to be written, this movie came out featuring a scientist using hard science to survive. This movie is a must for anyone interested in sci-fi in any way, shape, or form.

Be aware, though, that F-bombs abound. I'm not sure why, as the plot is really PG-13. Yet somehow, Sam Rockwell has a cute, funny way of dropping those gems. My more conservative friends may consider trying the movie out on VidAngel.com for a dollar or two, which will silence all 35 bombs, and help you enjoy the story.

Then, two years later, Jones released Source Code, starring Jake Gyllenhaal. This movie takes on time travel with a cool twist. Not only does it provide fun action, but it's also very good science-fiction in that it actually finds a way to make time travel work. It really makes you think, even years after watching.

I'd say more, but the trailer attached above pretty much says it all. It's cool. It's fun.

I watched both of these movies about the same time back in 2011, and was impressed with the high level of intelligence, exciting action, effective exploration of human interactions with very likable characters, and very intriguing sci-fi concepts.

I was so impressed that I vowed to watch his next film, whatever and whenever that film would come out. I looked forward to that awesome third movie from an uprising and promising director. And that movie comes out in a couple of days ... Warcraft. Yes, you read that right -- the film that's panned by so many critics before it even comes out of the gate.

So, in a couple of days I'm going to watch, hoping to see a little of what I saw in these two great movies. It can't be that bad ... right?

Saturday, June 4, 2016

Jim Butcher: Storm Front

After having watched the Dresden Files on Syfy a decade ago, I decided to give the books a try. Storm Front is the first in Jim Butcher's series.

Harry Dresden is a wizard, who also happens to be detective. Why one would want to be the other, I'd never guess, but it sure makes for interesting reading. It provides the noir feel mixed with fantasy, featuring vampires, fairies, demons, ghosts, and even a guild of wizards.

The book is nonstop, giving no time for boring bits. It has a perfect mixture of humor and action. It contains a full cast of characters, but don't expect too much in the way of character development, as seems normal in noir novels.

Butcher provides a very imaginative backdrop for an exciting case to solve. He goes into great detail to explain how the magic works, and often why it doesn't. However, I struggle to picture consistency in the rules. It seems that the characters are either too powerful at times, and impotent at others, much like those alien battle scenes we see in several movies where the good guys would be dead in a matter of minutes, but somehow seem to last hours. Then again, this has never really bothered me before - just a funny observation.

If you're looking for fun light reading that'll give you both noir and fantasy, then read this book. I promise an enjoyable read.

Tuesday, May 31, 2016

Double Feature: Civil War and Jungle Book

Today I'll review two movies I've watched recently.

Overall, the 2016 reincarnation of The Jungle Book was a fun ride for the whole family. The live action animals were well done, even looking natural as they spoke. Successfully capturing the spirit of the Kipling books, the movie provides a story full of action, entertainment, and lessons learned.

Cub Scouts, in particular, should love the inclusion of Akela and a version of the Law of the Pack. Throughout the whole story, we learn some of the other laws the different animals live by, which some try to subvert and/or bend.

The man-cub, Mowgli, gets stuck in the middle, as he embarks on an adventure to escape the evil tiger, Shere Khan.

My only complaint is that halfway through the movie, the writers/directors thought to bring in songs from the Disney animated movie released in 1967. I thought the movie was doing fine without them. Sure, the songs are cool and catchy, but as soon as I heard the first couple of notes, the memories of the cartoon took me out of the experience completely. With that said, I'll concede that it was still a pretty darn good rendition of "I Wanna Be Like You."

In the end, my children liked the movie so much, they decided to add the name of Bagheera to our black cat's already long name.

This is a good movie to catch while it's still in theaters.

The third Captain America movie, Civil War, was also a fun ride, but not really too much of a departure from the MARVEL movie formula. Like all other Avenger movies, it has its superhero action, conspiracies, twists, "tough" decisions, silly excuses to explain the absences of certain players, misunderstandings, and so on.

In a sense, this movie is Batman v. Superman except with many more superheroes, and much better done. Both movies have similarities, such as Batman/Ironman having stupid reasons to fights Superman/Captain America, and the addition of one or more super characters with no real development, who exist only to provide eye candy. And a couple of weeks after viewing, the plot begins to leave me, with some confusing parts diffusing away into nothingness.

Some people ask why this isn't an Avengers movie. The answer is simple. The writers choose two regulars to sit this one out (remember the silly excuses I mentioned earlier?), as if every Avenger were to be accounted for, then it would be an Avengers movie.

Still, it was fun watching the big fight. It made for a good date night.

My advice: catch it in the theater. Take a date. Have fun.

Saturday, April 30, 2016

Two Month Update - Checkpoint #2

Here I am again, reporting on my progress on 2016 goals. This is number 2 of 6.

For blog writing in the past two months, I've slowed down to an average just a smidge above one post a week, either in this blog, or in one of my other three blogs. This is fine as I try to concentrate on other efforts.

I performed slightly better in the area of editing my novel Justice. In the past two months, I've edited six chapters, bringing me up to Chapter 13. I had hoped to be up to Chapter 16 by now, but I'm still well on track to finishing by October. Plus, I'm starting to hit the really exciting part of the novel, where it appears I had been more engaged, and where it appears to need less editing.

For magazine submissions, I only submitted to three more in the past two months, bringing me up to a total of five. It's kind of funny, but I'm starting to have to wait for responses. I currently have only four marketable short stories (that haven't yet been published anywhere), and three of them are tied up under consideration. I suppose that could be a good problem to have?

The next two months: I could feasibly finish Justice. I have ten more chapters left and nine weeks. If there are two particularly short chapters next to each other, I could do both in one week. But I need to work more on my music publishing company, so I'll back it up to eight chapters, bringing me to Chapter 21, and leaving the last two chapters for July.

I'll try to catch up with the magazine submissions by submitting one each week until I have all four stories tied up. Then when one becomes free, I can send it off the next week. (Or maybe one will be published. That would be cool.)

I'll also keep up with the one-post-a-week rate in my blogs.

How are you doing on your writing goals?

Friday, April 15, 2016

The Dark Forest: The Epic Continues

Cixin Liu does it again in the second book of his Remembrance of Earth's Past trilogy. The one word to sum up The Dark Forest is "epic."

The first book establishes that an advanced race has started a 400-year journey to our planet with the intention of wiping us out. The second book covers the first 200 years, detailing how the Earth prepares for the oncoming onslaught.

Just like with the first book, it took me about 70 pages to finally get a grasp on what was going on. The first pages are spent presenting the main characters with vignettes that don't seem to connect with each other. But then it all starts to come together with Luo Ji emerging as the main character, someone who unwittingly finds himself at the center of Earth's strategy.

Not only do we get a story of Earth coming together to fight a common enemy, but we also get the stories of individuals who struggle with their missions, who wonder if the Earth is really worth saving, and trying to live a normal life.

The book is full of epic imagery, and it does a wonderful job of staying within the realm of "real" science. The images were so vivid and believable that I often had to remind myself, as I went around doing my daily duties, that there was not indeed a group of aliens headed our way.

The book comes to a satisfying end and sets the stage for the next 200 years. Unfortunately, we English readers will have to wait till September 2016 for the translation of the last novel. Or, as my Cambodian friend tells me, "You could always learn Chinese."

I strongly recommend this series. Pick it up and prepare to be amazed.

Wednesday, March 30, 2016

Batman v Superman: Not That Bad

Critics hated Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice, but it's making a killing in the box office.

Sucks to be a critic.

It wasn't so bad. I at least felt like I got my money's worth. It was mostly everything I expected. In some areas, it delivered more, and in others it delivered less. The CGI was fantastic. The usual Snyder comic cinematography was awesome, both in visual grandeur and in emotional content. The darkness was refreshing after seeing so many MARVEL movies. The big fight was fantastic and worth the money all by itself, thus answering a decades-old question. And the plot ... well ... not all movies can be perfect. At least it was Shakespeare compared with Jupiter Ascending.

Batman's story was a little disappointing. It started out very well with Bruce living out the death of his parents, and then experiencing the Kal-el v Zod showdown with strong overtones of 9/11. That part pulled me in. But his hatred of Superman felt like a stretch. Why didn't Bruce fall in line with most other people realizing Zod was the baddy and Superman was saving their butts? Bruce's dream sequences were confusing and sometimes misleading.

Overall it painted a nice, dark picture of Batman, but it no longer pulled me in. I wanted to yell, "Come on, Affleck. Stop being sad and get over it!"

Jessie Eisenberg was ... different ... playing Lex Luther. It was almost as if he was trying to out-Heath the Ledger. He somewhat pulls off crazy, but he comes off as very harmless until you realize later in the movie exactly what he's capable of.

And did you notice that if you took Wonder Woman out of the movie completely, it would make the movie about 20 minutes shorter, but change nothing else? In one of the trailers, Superman (or Batman) says, "Who's she?" The other says, "I don't know. I thought she was with you." And that's how I felt. But then again, I didn't hear too many people complaining.

My recommendation: Big Fight. Big Screen. Loud Sounds. See it now.

With the movie's success, we are sure to get more DC/Snyder movies. Yay!

Tuesday, March 29, 2016

10 Cloverfield Lane: See It While You Can

To be honest, when I saw this Super Bowl trailer, I though 10 Cloverfield Lane was going to be a remake of The Amityville Horror. Sure, the house looks nothing the same, but I didn't know what else it could be. The name "Cloverfield" in the title clued me in that this was some kind of horror film by J. J. Abrams, similar what he released eight years ago.

I almost passed it up until I read that this was actually a sequel to Cloverfield ... well ... kind of. So, I went and was surprised at how good the movie is.

John Goodman plays a man who takes in an injured woman, locks her in a cellar with him, and nurses her back to health. He says the world has come to an end, and she needs to stay inside. However, she doesn't know what to believe, and senses that he may be crazy. A third party also stays with them, adding to the whole mix.

The direction, by Dan Trachtenberg is superb, very much like Alfred Hitchcock, but better. The acting is good from all three main actors. John Goodman is freaky good. At times it got a little slow, but everything seems to fit the story as a whole. Also, it shows you don't need to breach Rated R territory to be scary.

My recommendation: go see this movie before it leaves the theater.

Wednesday, March 9, 2016

Serafina and the Black Cloak

Have you ever come across a relatively unknown book that was so good that you wondered why most people haven't heard about it? This may be one of those books. Serafina and the Black Cloak by Robert Beatty is new, just published this past July 2015 through Disney's Hyperion line. I only came across Serafina when I went to a local book festival. The author Robert Beatty described his novel to an audience of about fifty, and practically all of us were hooked in a matter of minutes.

Serafina is a young girl with interesting talents. She's good at catching rats, she's sneaky, and she has yellow eyes. She lives with her poor father in the basement of the Biltmore Estate in Asheville, NC. When a mysterious man comes to the Biltmore with a mysterious black cloak, children start disappearing. Serafina decides to come out of hiding and see if she can help find the missing children. Along the way, she comes to learn of her unknown past.

The main target of this book seems to be middle-school-aged children. It's a little too dark for younger kids -- similar to Harry Potter. The writing style is very simple and effectively stays out of the way of the story. Sometimes it gets a little too simple, but the story is so interesting that it's hard to notice. The use of the Biltmore estate is both interesting and daring, even though a few times I found myself thinking, "I heard about that in the tour." At least Beatty did his research. The Biltmore Estate did approve his use of the house and the Vanderbilts as characters. The house fits the story well, and the interactions with the Vanderbilts seem believable.

Overall the book has good pacing and a satisfying ending. Plus it sets up nicely for a sequel (which will come out this July 2016).

I highly recommend Serafina to anyone with children in the 11-18 age range, and for adults who happened to like reading the Harry Potter series.

Monday, February 29, 2016

Two Month Update - Checkpoint #1

In January, I set some goals for the year and promised to check in every two months. Now on this wonderful leap day, I give this first report.

In general, I have increased the amount of writing, compared with before. I've written a few posts in this blog as well as a couple on my other special-interest blogs. I'm also doing more editing of my book than before.

However, I'm still behind in my goals.

The novel Justice: I had to go back and fix some earlier chapters, and I had a few struggles with scheduling and technology, but I did finish everything up through Chapter 7. I expected to be closer to Chapter 10 at this stage, but I'm still on target to finishing way before October, so I won't try to catch up. By next check-in (April 30), I should be up to Chapter 16.

Short-story submissions: I had set the goal for 26 submissions this year. The good news is that I got one out there two weeks ago. Bad news is that I should be up to 4 already. I'll shoot for 6 submissions over the next two months to start catching up.

How are you doing on your writing goals?

Tuesday, February 2, 2016

Pratchett: Going Postal

Terry Pratchett's recent death reminded me that I had yet to read one of his books. I had tried The Colour of Magic a couple of years ago, but couldn't get past the first couple of chapters. Back then a friend said, "Perhaps you should try Going Postal." At first I thought she was crazy, as I couldn't do that to my friends, but then I realized she was saying the name of another Discworld book.

Hearing of the author's death, I finally took up my friend's suggestion, and was pleasantly surprised. Well, maybe not that surprised. Could all my fantasy-loving friends be so wrong in their love for him?

Going Postal is full of out-loud laughing moments, so be careful reading around solemn people. Even though this book is written late in the whole slew of Discworld books, I only came across a couple pieces of mythology I didn't understand. I've found that my friends were happy to explain without spoiling anything.

The book features Moist Van Lipwig, one of the most successful con artists ever born. This is until he was caught and hanged, and then ... brought back to life? I'm not sure how that part worked, but Lord Vetinari, the Patrician of Ankh-Morpork, saved his life so that he could be voluntold into becoming the new Postmaster. The only problem? The Post Office had gone defunct decades before, with letters piled high, busting through walls, and all that good stuff.

Moist comes across a motley crew of unforgettable characters, a sorting machine no one can touch because someone accidentally built it such that pi equaled only three, golems who never sleep, and even a cat.

Torn between trying to find a way to escape and actually wanting to do some good in his life, Moist tries his best to resurrect the past, even if it means using his awesome con skills.

Overall, it was a satisfying read, though I thought the ending was a little too easy. Maybe it was just that I didn't want it to end.

If you're looking to enter the worlds of Pratchett, I concur with my friends. Going Postal is a good place to start. Plus ... I just learned that there's a TV series based on the book, and with high-ish ratings. Maybe I'll check it out ...

Saturday, January 23, 2016

X-Files: The Original Series

I avoided watching The X-Files for decades. I have always been an open believer in UFOs, but I was also one to know the real from the hoax. Little green men? Hoax. That UFO in the poster Mulder had hanging on his wall for so long? Hoax. That's just a prop hanging by a string. The O'Hare UFO sighting? Real.

Something's out there, whether it be government tests or aliens.

Growing up, though, I had the impression that X-Files was about the fake stuff. I did not want the stigma of believing in that brand of UFOs. Also, I was afraid that the show would try to "prove" the existence of UFOs by showing one on screen and having a character say, "See? I told you so." This is pretty much what the recent disappointment, Proof, did on TNT on the subject of life after death. That circular reasoning trope never proves anything.

When I heard of the X-Files revival (which starts tomorrow), and when all my facebook friends talked about how awesome the original show was, and when I learned the whole series was on Netflix, I decided to give it a try. Plus, with the Vince Gilligan connection, it couldn't be that bad, right? (Warning -- spoilers follow for those who still haven't seen the original series.)

I was hooked in one episode. The X-Files didn't try to prove anything, but instead gave us interesting story lines, government conspiracies, a smoking man, and even a love story. It was almost like the writers saying, "Yeah, we know you don't really believe this--or maybe you do--but either way, sit back and enjoy the ride."

And it was great. At least for the first five seasons. We had a consistent storyline about aliens wanting to colonize our planet. There was this black oil virus, and clone people who oozed poisonous green blood who could be killed at the backs of their necks.

Then something happened at the end of Season 5. With the X Files destroyed and with Scully and Mulder reassigned, a cliffhanger was met with ... a in-between-seasons movie? It wasn't just an off-on-the-side story, but rather "required" watching. In fact, the previews of the Season 6 opener included scenes from the movie. I think that if I were a fan back then, I would have been angry having to fork over money to watch something that wasn't free. It was a decent movie, but it didn't feel like an X-Files episode. It didn't start off with the iconic theme. It had cool special effects, though, and a fun ending.

Season 6 was still pretty good. There's a resistance of blind aliens, the syndicate dies. (Did they really, really die?) We learn that aliens created life on our planet. Cool stuff.

Season 7 was also strong, ending with the (second?) death of the Smoking Man and the abduction of Mulder.

But then Seasons 8 and 9 went to plaid. It felt like Duchovny was done playing the role of Mulder, and the writers had to come up with something. The introduction of the Robert Patrick was interesting. The writers made it work, and it was fun to see him do several times his signature Terminator "I'm running after you" look. And what was he being chased by? They were other indestructible Terminators called super soldiers.

That plot line didn't work for me at all. Super soldiers were indestructible, incredibly strong, and they're everywhere. But yet they couldn't take over the world? And the only way to destroy them was to get them near magnetite (which they can't detect until it's too late)? Also, Mulder dying and coming back to life infected with a super-soldier virus that Scully was able to counteract without any alien technology help? And all this came at the expense of the earlier consistent plot. That is, we didn't see any more green-blooded clones, or the resistance, etc.

It felt like the show was losing direction.

Perhaps Carter felt the same. In Season 9, he took steps to end the show--major characters dying and all that. The season finale was decent. It made a really good attempt to tie up and/or explain all loose ends. Though, the super soldiers line is still weak. We got to see the Smoking Man die again (a third time?).

The show ends with Mulder revealing to Scully what he had learned. There's a date: December 22, 2012, when the aliens will enact their colonization. We're all doomed. It can't be stopped. Scully says, "Well, we still have hope," and the music plays the X-Files theme in a major key instead of minor (probably the only time this happens in the entire season).

The 2008 movie was okay, but very disappointing. It answered no real questions, and it had no cool special effects, and definitely no aliens. It would have made a great two-parter TV episode.

Now that the new series is about to start, some big questions remain:

#1) Is the Smoking Man still alive? We saw the skin peel off of his bones! Yet, he's listed in the credits in the upcoming show. Was he a clone? Did he store his consciousness somewhere? Is he still going to have that freaky smoking hole in his throat?

Perhaps we'll only see him in flashbacks? Note that Frohike is also listed in the upcoming credits, who we know can't be brought back to life. So maybe it will all be flashbacks or ghosts talking to Mulder.

#2) What happened to the 12/22/12 deadline? It's 2016 now. Did the aliens cancel their invasion? I hope this is addressed.

#3) Which stories are coming back? The green-blooded clones? The killer bees? The super soldiers (please not them)?

We'll see. Carter says he has some new ideas. We'll see how it pans out. I hope it's good.

Saturday, January 9, 2016

Winter 2016 New Shows

Now that the Fall shows are in full force, this is the time that the mid-season shows kick in. Here are four shows that I'm checking out. Though, I'll have to warn these shows -- I'm already pretty booked. If they don't deliver, they're gone.

The Expanse (SyFy Tuesday 10PM) - This show actually started last month. I've seen five episodes so far, and it's enough to catch my attention. It contains hints of Battlestar Galactica, Babylon 5 (without the aliens), and the movie Outland.

The first episode was very confusing, but starting with the second episode, it got to be pretty exciting. The story takes place in the near future when we have colonies and bases on Mars, on the Moon, and several other moons and asteroids. The main action takes place around Ceres, where a mining colony is stationed. Tensions are high between Earth and Mars. A group called the OPA continually protests for the rights of those not born on Earth or Mars. (Or at least I think that's what they do -- I'm still unclear.)

Some party, as yet to be identified, seems bent to start a war between Earth and Mars. And something else seems to be going on.

What gets me excited is how much the writers are trying to stay within the realm of real science, and give us a sci-fi story that could really happen. I'll keep watching.

You can catch up on the first five episodes on SyFy.com.

The X-Files (SyFy premieres Sunday Jan. 24, then Mondays at 8PM) - Back in August or September, I heard about the upcoming X-Files revival. So, I decided to give the old series a try. As I described before, I found a list of have-to-watch episodes to help me catch up. After I catch the 2008 movie, I'll be ready.

I was pleasantly surprised with the original series. With the Vince Gilligan connection (of Breaking Bad fame), I should have expected it would be a good show. I'll give a full report on the old series next week, but for now, I'm looking forward to some new episodes.

The truth is out there!

Colony (USA premieres Thursday Jan. 14 10PM) - This looks interesting. Sawyer from LOST, producer Carlton Cuse from LOST, the girl everyone seems to hate from The Walking Dead but loved in Prison Break? I don't know much about it, but it looks better than the Minority Report TV show, so I'll give it a shot.

The Magicians (SyFy premieres Monday Jan. 25 9PM) - This is probably the most iffy of the four shows I'm looking at. It looks like a cross between Hogwarts for grownups and Alphas. It could be interesting, but also a regurgitation of something I've already seen. We'll see how it goes ...

2015: The Shows That Ended

2015 was a year where several of my shows ended. Let us all enjoy a moment of silence as we remember these shows. As usual, thar be spoilers.

Haven (SyFy) - It started off strong, and had a couple of good seasons. Audrey Parker comes to investigate Haven and finds strange things going on. She learns about the "troubles." Then she learns that she's immune, and that she looks amazingly like someone from the past. Later she learns that she's not really Audrey Parker.

Then came a couple of seasons that seemed to lose direction. I came really close to quitting the show, but I always wanted to see how it would end. I was ready for it to end.

All the inconsistencies annoyed me. In the first couple of seasons, the troubles was something that came in cycles. Every time the incarnation of Mara (Audrey) stepped into the barn, the troubles stopped. It also seemed that if someone moved away from Haven, they'd be free from the troubles. But then for some reason, the troubles became more of something that always happened, regardless of whether Mara went into the barn or not. And now you can't escape the troubles by moving somewhere else.

And then there were all the disasters that were severe enough to kill the whole town ten times over. Somehow a majority of people always seems to survive, and hardly anyone moved away! Do you remember how people used to joke about M*A*S*H how it went on longer than there were years in the Korean War itself, and how they only moved their "mobile" unit once? Well, in Haven, I'm pretty sure I saw more people die than there were people living there.

Getting past these annoyances, the fifth and final season (both parts taking more than a year to show) made a good attempt to pull all the loose ends back together. It answered most of the big questions, and even though I felt they were making it up as they went along, I was impressed with what was achieved. I just wish it were 13 episodes instead of 26.

Now it's all over. Everyone's happy. The ending was cool.

But wait ... couldn't William create troubles, too? (No ... I need to stop analyzing ...)

P. S. Who does the Duke Mascot look like to you?

Minority Report (FOX) - Can I pretend that the TV series didn't happen? Maybe in a couple of years, it will be forgotten. I only watched because the movie is by far one of my favorites. There's just something magical when you combine Phillip K. Dick, Spielberg, and a hint of Kubric.

The TV show had Spielberg, but not much else. The show attempted to explain further how the trio of Precogs worked together. Agatha was the best and the strongest. Dash saw all the gore, and Arthur got the names. My response: No, no, no, no, no! That's not how it was in the movie. That just doesn't work. Why did they want to ruin a good thing like that?

Also, the whole time I asked myself, "Why do they call this 'Minority Report' when the writers don't even use that one specific plot device?" Well, in the very last episode, Dash has his minority report, and I slapped my head. No, no, no, no, no! That's not how it works!

Despite all that, I made it through all 10 episodes. There were some good parts. I liked the little twists at the end. I liked how they ran away (everybody runs), setting up for a second season. But at the same time I had had enough. I didn't care what happened next. Goodbye!

Continuum (SyFy) - This was another one of those good shows that went on a little too long, but then wrapped up nicely at the end.

The first season was awesome. There were some strange editing choices, which confused the flow, but that might actually be the fault of SyFy, who most likely cut out some parts to fit in one hour with commercials. Other than that, the time travel rules were consistent and well thought out. The story was interesting. The bad guys had a really good reason for being bad. (We need to make sure corporations don't take control of the government.)

I waited for what seemed to be a long time for season 2 on SyFy. That was another strong season, ending with Alex going back in time in an attempt to save his girlfriend.

Somewhere in there, a couple of funny things happened in regards to time travel mechanics. Kellogg's grandmother died, but Kellogg kept on living. Also, Kiera gave her future mother an artifact, which would be returned to Kiera in the future (the never-ending time loop artifact). Both of these triggered lots of discussion among those of us analyzing this stuff.

Season 3 took off on its own path. The original timeline collapses because Alex no longer exists (however or why that's supposed to happen), and these magical people give Kiera the means to go to an alternative timeline where Alex went. This is where the timeline mechanics broke down, and the story turned into "we're making this up as we go along." The lack of direction and what seemed to be weaker writing pushed this once-loved show near the bottom of my viewing order.

But then Season 4 came back to the rescue. It attempted to finish the Season 3 storyline, while at the same time returning back to the first two seasons. It was also a short six episode season. They successfully changed the timeline. Corporations are no longer in power. Kiera still desired to return back to the future, even though it couldn't possibly be the same as it was before. I was pleased to find that the writers found an acceptable way to have her return to her son. It would have to be in a timeline where the Kiera-yet-to-be grows up in a time where everyone's happy and she never has to go back in time. That Kiera is with her son, never having left him. And our Kiera has a bittersweet ending realizing she can only see her son, but never being able to touch him because he belongs to that other Kiera. Ah!

But wait ... if Kiera is such a big hero, wouldn't the new Kiera know about her? And couldn't they work something out? (Need to stop analyzing!)

Even with the annoyances I listed, I'm planning on watching the whole series again on Netflix. Maybe without the SyFy cuts and with watching more episodes closer together, it'll make more sense. 42 episodes. I can do that.

Resurrection (ABC) - I'm really going to miss this show, and I'm disappointed with its premature ending. I realize many people stopped watching, either because it became "boring" or "stranger," but I never felt the show had much time at all to go astray.

I tuned into the first episode, expecting the usual ABC schtick, but was pleasantly surprised with an interesting story. Decades after having died, Jacob, a young boy, comes back to life and returns to his parents, who are now old enough to be his grandparents. Soon, other deceased people start coming back to visit their prior loved ones. What makes the show interesting is how the people, both inside and outside of Arcadia, react to this phenomenon.

Some are happy with the returned. Others think they are abominations, especially when they exhume a grave to find the original body still laying there. The clashes between people rejecting their loved ones and people trying to protect them sets up the stage for some pretty sad situations. After watching a couple of episodes, it got to where the mini-opening credits started getting to me.

Sure, I can see why people complained about the slowness of the story. The second season seemed to go slower than the first. Yet, I saw it as the writers taking the time to explore different situations.

The religious angle of the second season was also a little strange, especially the whole thing about the birth of the one kid at the end, and that evil preacher dude. The show ends without an explanation, and no real indication of how things will ultimately end up. In fact I'm having trouble remembering how it ends.

You may enjoy watching a few episodes, but be prepared to feel unfulfilled at the end.

Falling Skies (TNT) - I'll finish off this list with another good show that went on too long, and one that became more about how awesome the main character was.

It was an awesome first two seasons, up to where the 2nd Mass makes it to Charleston. The story lines were gripping, and action was cool. My only complaint was the one episode where the enemy was easily thwarted by emitting a certain frequency over the radio. Really? That was the best they could come up with?

Still, I remember the first time they killed their first skitter, and many other stepping stones as they got closer to taking back our planet.

The third season went okay, though it seemed like they were spending a lot of time in Charleston without much going on.

The fourth season went to plaid, with Tom Mason escaping the prison, and with Lexi becoming an adult hybrid overnight, and with children being captured and brainwashed. It just didn't fit with the first three seasons. Still, I watched and tried to enjoy.

The fifth season brought everything to an end. There were a couple of really good episodes in there, but I think they went over the top turning Sawyer into a bad guy. That was pretty silly. Though, Sawyer was right about one thing: the show really was all about Tom Mason. The world really did revolve around him.

Out of all the shows I listed in this post, the final episode of Falling Skies was the most disappointing. All Tom had to do was to hit the queen with that magic bullet, and she practically sat there and let him do it. And then all the ships in orbit exploded?! I really, really, really, really hate that trope.

It all ends with a corny speech at Washington DC where Tom Mason is elected President of the World. Yay!

At least the beginning of the show was awesome.

Finally some honorable mentions. I was about to put Wayward Pines (FOX) on this list, but was pleasantly surprised to learn that it's coming back this summer. Yay! I'll have to come back later and report on this short show that I enjoyed this past summer.

I'm pretty sure Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell (BBC) will not be having a second season, but I want to wait and report on that show separately in a few weeks. As far as I know, Susanna Clarke has started a sequel novel. Unless she gives up writing this book to instead write a second series, I doubt that BBC would produce a sequel that would deviate from the book she's currently writing. We'll see, though.

Friday, January 8, 2016

The Hunger Games: Mockingjay (Movies)

It's finally over. The Hunger Games trilogy is done (now a tetralogy). Was it worth splitting the last book into two movies?

Together, the two movies are 4 hours and 20 minutes of Katniss goodness. That's a lot of time spent on what many call the weakest of the three books, but I'm not sure what could be left out, as that last book contains the most cinematic writing. As it is now, the two movies capture the best parts, and stays true, changing only a few plot lines to speed up some action.

The result is two almost entirely different movies. The first is more about building up the resistance. The second is more about the actual war. Many of my friends like either the first or the second, but not always both. If you prefer all the talk and excitement of preparations, you'd probably like the first. If instead, you prefer watching all the action go down, you'd probably like the last.

I was impressed overall with both movies and enjoyed them both. When they deviated from the book, it sometimes worked, and sometimes not. For example, near the end of the second movie, they added a death trap that didn't work at all. It was too random, too easy to avoid, and too flashy.

I was a little disappointed with the final ending, not because it wasn't decent, but because I prefer how the book ends with Katniss. It was still entertaining.

My favorite of the series: the second movie (Catching Fire).

Overall, it's a good series. Well done, Liongate!

Thursday, January 7, 2016

Struggling With Justice

I wish I could always write positive things, but today I'm going to write about when I'm not at my best. I know many of my readers could care less about my whining and excuses, so I'll let you know in advance. I do not write this post for you, but for those who may have, or currently are experiencing these same issues. Perhaps you could learn what NOT to do, or how to recover.

Also, I'll go ahead and report that I feel like I'm currently in a good spot again. I'm back to writing. I have a plan. I'm pushing forward. So, what you're about to read is in the past, and this is my post-mortem.

As I've mentioned at least twice in the past week, I came to a complete standstill in my writing for months. There were no excuses, no tests, no busies at work, no nothing. Yet there were struggles and depression. The main cause? There's no way around it ... it was mainly coming from working on my book Escape From the Planet Justice (which is now called just plain Justice).

I had finished my 4th draft of Justice years ago, and I set it aside for a long time. Then mid-2014, I decided to self-publish the book. After all, I had already sent it to all the major publishers, and received several rejections and a couple of ignores. What did I have to lose? Get the book ready, put it out there for people to buy. No gatekeepers -- just my book standing on its own, letting the people decide if it was worth buying.

It was a great plan. Get the 4th draft critiqued, make final revisions, get a professional editor, publish it, and sell it. Little did I know that I was going to get stuck at Step 1.

First I went to the online critique service Critters.org. It is probably the best critique service out there for science fiction. (One day I'll give a fuller review.) Up through mid-2014, I had been critiquing several short stories and even a couple of novels. I think I did three total, and those critiques were awesome. I was honest, and I provided what I thought would be the most useful feedback, along with detailed suggestions.

I posted Justice, hoping to get the same treatment in return. I put up the first chapter for everyone to read, and sent details for those wanting to critique the full book. I received four critiques of the first chapter, and just one person -- yes, ONE -- took up the task of critiquing the whole book. That guy, John, read the whole thing in like a day, and he gave me a page-long critique, which provided good overall suggestions, but no details on any specific passages.

Overall, I felt jipped. Not by John, who critiqued the whole novel, but by the lack of other independent critiques that are necessary in order to identify what the real problems are. Critters.org had let me down.

That's when I decided to turn to my friends. They could critique my novel.

But first, the Critter.org experience wasn't a complete waste. All those critiquers agreed on one thing: I needed to add something to the beginning, something short to build the world and set the stage, instead of just barging into the action. So I added something: two new chapters at the beginning, plus a major edit on the old-first-now-third chapter.

And then I went to facebook and asked who wanted to do a critique. I got two handfuls of volunteers.

Only three of them critiqued the first three chapters. I sent follow-up emails to try to get feedback from my other friends, but they were all ignored.

Out of the three, one of the friends had already critiqued the 3rd draft, so I only gave her three chapters. She says she'll critique future revisions once I'm done.

One of the others stopped at three chapters and wouldn't provide any more feedback.

The last of the three, Will, who had originally gotten me started down the path of serious writing, made it as far as Chapter 7 and then he went ballistic on me. He picked up that Chapters 4 and beyond were written earlier, and he went on about how much of a cardinal sin it was to send a critiquer such a mish-mash of writing and about how pissed off he was. He made me wish I had sent him just the old stuff without the insert at the beginning. Since he had already helped with the 2nd draft, I let him off the hook for the rest of the book.

Other than that, Will gave a very valuable critique on those first seven chapters.

Then I realized that was it. Critters.org let me down. My friends let me down. My perfect plan to self-pulish this book came to a total standstill.

And here comes the big kicker. What did I do next? I did the wrong thing. I asked myself, "Why did I get so few critiques on this novel? How can I progress without a full critique?" My answer to myself: "It must be total crap. They must have started reading it, got bored, and set it aside. There must have been a good reason why nobody wanted to publish it earlier."

I didn't have any other projects planned to work on, so I just came to a complete stop. Did the world really need another second-rate science fiction author?

Even though I wasn't writing, I still had this urge. Stories were still wanting to come out of me. I had to do something to fix this. That's when I decided to hire a life coach. We discussed different options. One choice would have been to set aside Justice and move on to something else, but I realized I needed to conquer this book. If I could get it ready for publishing, and actually get it out on the market, then I could do anything with my other works.

I decided to give it one more try. First I read through all the critiques I did get, and I realized the answers I sought were in there, even if my friends hadn't done the whole thing.

So, I got over my whining, self-pitying, and self-loathing, and went to work. The first three chapters went rather smoothly. I had to rewrite some sections to help the flow. And then when I hit the fourth chapter, I hit me why Will (and possibly others) got so pissed off. The older writing was terrible. Well, "terrible" is too strong a word, but it was still a dozen cringes per page. I saw why Will hated the protagonist so much. And it wasn't too difficult to fix the problems.

Chapter 4 ended up suffering some major rewrites.

When I stopped for Christmas, I made it as far as the beginning of Chapter 5. Starting next week, I'll be back in business, shooting for one chapter a week. Then I'll be done in about four months. Next I'll send it to a professional editor, shooting for a release in 2017.

It's a plan.

Wednesday, January 6, 2016

The Three-Body Problem: Good For Blowing the Mind

What attracted me to Cixin Liu's The Three-Body Problem was the fact that a Chinese novel had won the Hugo award for 2015. I had never read a Chinese novel, but I figured it was worth a shot.

Overall, I was pleasantly surprised. The book's greatest strength is to deliver strangeness while at the same time making it accessible. The imagery was so great, it triggered for me several vivid dreams.

This first of a trilogy recounts a series of mysterious events. Wang Miao, a prominent nanomaterials scientist, becomes caught up in the investigation of unexplained scientist suicides. This leads him to a virtual-reality video game, called "Three Body," which describes a world with chaotic seasons. And this is just the beginning of that strangeness I mentioned earlier.

The name of the book, itself, provides clues as to what's going on. It's a physics/math problem that has yet to be solved explicitly. In the Two-Body problem, two masses in a system will end up in some predictable orbit around each other. But throw in a third mass, and the system becomes unpredictable.

You may ask: what does this have to do with anything? You'll have to read it to find out. I was pleased with how Cixin Liu pulls it off.

Be prepared, though, for a different kind of reading experience. I'm not sure if it's the translation, or the author's writing style, but I found the prose often going into "legend" mode, much like what you might find in the stories of Paul Bunyan or Pecos Bill. Or probably more appropriately, some old Chinese story. This was a little strange to me, but I found the imagery beautiful and worth reading.

I strongly recommend this book, so you can also enjoy a different kind of sci-fi. In another month or so, I will pick up the sequel, The Dark Forest. The third book hasn't been translated yet, but will come out later this year. And a Chinese film will be released this year as well. Perhaps some theaters in the US will show it?

Monday, January 4, 2016

Star Wars VII: Doing It Right

Disney and J. J. Abrams pulled it off. They did Star Wars better than George Lucas! Well, at least better than the prequels.

First off, they didn't ruin it. They could have displayed the Disney castle at the beginning. Or Abrams could have used more than a few lens flares (I think I counted about 10 total?). Disney could have turned it into a musical.

It felt like ... get this ... a Star Wars movie. I loved it. The fans who caught it with me the night before opening loved it. Even a couple of days ago, there was someone clapping at the end when I saw it for a third time at an obscure theatre in Roanoke, Virginia.

So, who doesn't like it? I've seen a few negative reviews but they are a vast minority. The complaints are along the lines of "it's basically A New Hope rehashed" and "why didn't such-and-such get answered?" Then again, aren't all the other Star Wars movies variations on A New Hope? And we have two more movies on the way for answering questions.

Like I've posited before, sometimes critics give negative reviews just to remind the world that they're real critics. "I was one who gave a top-grossing film a bad review when everyone else loved it!"

Yet, even the negative critics agree: Disney and Abrams delivered, and it was well received.

P. S. I'll venture a small spoiler and impart my wisdom. Star Wars VII finally reveals why storm troopers always seem to miss their targets. Think about it. As soon as one of them takes off his helmet, he's suddenly able to hit his targets. Could it be ...? No, it couldn't be that!

Friday, January 1, 2016

2016 Preview

2016 is going to be an awesome year, because it's divisible by 32, which is 2x2x2x2x2. Check out its binary representation: 11111100000. That's six ones followed by five zeroes. Awesome! It's also the last year divisible by 32 before 2048, which will be 2x2x2x2x2x2x2x2x2x2x2 -- eleven twos! And finally, let's check out the full prime factorization of 2016: 2x2x2x2x2x3x3x7. No 2-digit prime divisors, which is only the second time this has happened in my lifetime (the other time being 2000).

Anyhow, as I mentioned in my last post, I determined that I didn't do so well in 2015 because I lacked focus (of which I will give more details in a later post). Around August, I decided to hire a life coach to help me get back on track. We're still working on it, but I've come to learn what my main priorities are, and I'm already making headway.

After doing some math, I've determined that the fastest way for me to start earning a profit is to publish music (of which I'll give more detail in my Music blog when the time is right). A big chunk of my free time in 2016 will go into that venture.

My efforts in fiction writing will be less, but more directed. My life coach explains that a good goal has to be specific (S), measurable (M), actionable (A), realistic (R), and timely (T). So, if I can set more directed goals, it drastically increases the success rate of achieving the goals.

So, here's what I have for 2016:
  • "Justice": Finish the 6th draft and submit to a professional editor (prior to self-publishing).
    • After a couple of weeks preparation in January, edit/rewrite one chapter a week until the draft is finished.
    • During the editing stage, research reputable editors, and choose one to go with.
    • When the entire draft is finished, submit to the editor.
    • If time permits, institute/correct editor's changes.
    • Final preparations for the book will be done in 2017.
  • "The Last Actuary": Prepare another short story for the 2017 Actuarial Speculative Fiction contest.
    • Start writing Oct. 1.
    • Finish first draft by Dec. 1.
    • Submit for critique targeting first part of Jan 2017.
    • Final edit and submission will be during Jan 2017.
  • 26 magazine submissions (every other week).
There will be 5 goal review sessions at the end of every other month to make sure I stay on track. The first will be around Feb. 28.

There you have it: direct, actionable, specific goals. I'll let you know how it goes along the way.

Good luck with your own goals, and shoot for a productive year!