Saturday, February 18, 2017

We Were Soldiers Once—and Young

Lt. General Harold (Hal) Moore passed away recently. He was the author of We Were Soldiers Once—and Young. Back when he was a lieutenant colonel, he was in command of the 7th Airborne Cavalry during the Vietnam War. On November 4, 1965, they engaged the North Vietnamese Army (NVA). This was the first major battle between the U.S. Army and the NVA, and they thought they were outnumbered three to one. Now that the government of Vietnam has released many of their records, I believe it was more like four or five to one. They were completely surrounded.

The book describes the battle in bloody detail. Artillery shells blew the bodies of the NVA soldiers to pieces when they launched human wave attacks. Rocket-propelled grenades were used to deadly effect. The main action was with rifle fire. But as the ammo ran out, the fighting could be hand-to-hand.



I have read ten books on the Vietnam War, and this one was by far the best. Do you dislike guns or have never read a gritty account of modern warfare? Read this book. (Just as in a previous post, I advised readers who think psychology is bunk to read an issue of Psychology Today.)

Some standout scenes:
-The cutoff platoon: In rapid succession, the lieutenant was killed, the platoon sergeant was killed, another sergeant was killed. Where were the maps? Where were the call signs to use over the radio? And the medic was killed.
-Modern artillery: The artillery was five miles away. But from highly precise instructions from the front of the battle, the artillery shells could land as close as thirty yards to the American troops. High explosive, napalm, white phosphorus. Some were timed to explode in mid-air.
-Crazy pilots: Some would fly less than a hundred feet off the ground, releasing their bombs on the North Vietnamese.
-The home front: This was the first battle in which telegrams notifying family members of soldiers’ deaths arrived while the battle still raged. The Army sent cab drivers—cab drivers!—to deliver them. When one particular officer found out, he insisted that an officer and a chaplain deliver any further ones. 

The co-author was Joseph Galloway. He became a real combat reporter. When he arrived at the battle, he tripped and fell on his face in the dirt, along with his cameras, amusing Hal Moore.

When the movie version, We Were Soldiers, came out, Galloway had to excuse himself from a friendly fire scene he knew was coming up. His attempt to save a horribly burned soldier is portrayed with brutal accuracy.


I remember a scholar once saying that Alexander the Great was the first of his soldiers to step over the wall of a city to attack it, and that cannot occur in modern warfare. But it did. Hal Moore was the first to step off a helicopter into the unfriendly landing zone. He was the last to leave, stepping onto a helicopter after what had become a battlefield was cleared of American bodies. 

Tuesday, February 7, 2017

If Chins Could Kill—Book Review

Bruce Campbell’s If Chins Could Kill: Confessions of a B Movie Actor is a surprisingly detailed account of all aspects of his life that relate to movie-making. This started in childhood, where he went beyond making G.I. Joes look wounded by burning them to charging fees for a makeshift golf course to purloining construction material to build a tree fortress.

Perhaps the most fascinating part describes how in high school Campbell acted with friends in a number of super-8 movies, made for a hundred dollars each that would actually play in theaters. By the time he was college age, he had more practical experience than a lot of drama majors.

Like so many who have unorthodox careers, he pretty much skipped college. But what steered him to horror movies? He had mostly done comedy, but he and his friends noticed that a scary scene in a horror movie always made an audience react. Campbell eventually made the lower than low budget Evil Dead movies, and the rest is history.



It’s hard to convey how uproariously funny If Chins Could Kill is. No matter how serious the event or how rocky the road to movie-making was, Campbell will describe it all with wry humor and exaggeration, as if his entire life has been one grand wink at his audience.

Almost every page has a photo or a diagram on it, which I’ve never seen in an autobiography before. This includes a diagram of how holes were cut into a floor so actors could stick their arms and legs through, to be filmed as disembodied limbs. (Remember: lower than low.)

He even goes into fundraising, which most books of this sort don’t describe. It was a matter of approaching businessmen, relatives, friends, and friends of friends, and trying to talk them into forking over money for a share in whatever profits the movie will make. I think most books don’t cover this because the process is so humiliating.


To stipulate: Chins does not cover the current Evil Dead series on Starz. But even if you’re not an Evil Dead fan (and I’m not), you’ll find this book hilarious. 

Monday, January 30, 2017

Oh no, John Hurt Passed Away

I really liked John Hurt. He was so convincing as Winston Smith getting tortured inside the Ministry of Love in 1984, I was always surprised to see him alive and looking okay afterwards.


photo by Georges Seguin

It kind of shows my taste in movies that I remember him from 1984, and as the guy who had an alien implanted on his face in Alien, and as the Viking king in Outlander (the science fiction version of Beowulf).


I know he played Caligula in I, Claudius, but I can't really think of him as playing that role, though I vividly remember a number of the Caligula scenes. As an odd twist, my mother said she recognized him in Alien from his body, not his face, because she had seen him doing his odd dance in I, Claudius

Wednesday, January 25, 2017

Progress—Writing Submissions

In late August, I sent my vampire parody to a major agent I had pitched to at a writers conference. That was the Pacific Northwest Writers Conference in July, which I described here. Although the word was that the market was too saturated with vampire submissions, one agent thought it was intriguing.

Then in November, I sent it to a major science fiction/fantasy publishing house. Why did I wait so long? Probably because I was transitioning between jobs.

During the conference, Andrea Hurst, a major agent, was very generous in giving free advice. She recommended the book Self-Editing for Fiction Writers.



This was the most helpful work I’ve read in a long time. I thought that internal dialog was one of my strengths. This consists of a character thinking to herself, denoted by italics. I had my main character Dee do this while contemplating a neighbor’s lamp:

. . . and admired the two-headed floor lamp in the corner with orange and white panels. Practical for reading to the kids. She didn’t think Hope would mind if she reached back to turn—

But much of the time, this can be part of the narrative. It actually has a stronger feel to it when done this way:

. . . and admired the two-headed floor lamp in the corner with orange and white panels. Practical for reading to the kids. She didn’t think Hope would mind if she reached back to turn—

Of course, sometimes internal dialog is so idiomatic, it should just stay as internal dialog,  as when Dee’s younger sister discovers an important file:

“Alchemical Source of Vampires.” The holy grail. I’m so good, I don’t know what to do with myself.

An unrelated but similar-looking correction from Self-Editing is the overuse of italicized words to indicate which words are stressed in a sentence. I can’t find an example from my old writing too quickly, though books with that minor problem do get published, as my previous post indicated.

And sometimes it is necessary to italicize a word, as when Dee’s older sister tells her during an online chat that something is behind her.

It was some thing, heading away from or towards . . . the kids.

So I’ve thoroughly gone through my science fiction manuscript Alpha Shift and my science fiction/fantasy take on the The War of the Worlds and made a number of corrections. Now I’m going to do the same for a historical fantasy that I’ve never posted excerpts for yet. Stay tuned. 

Saturday, January 21, 2017

Young, Blonde, and Captain—Review of The Oncoming Storm

Kat Falcone is only twenty-nine but looks nineteen thanks to her flawless genes, and she is suddenly promoted to captain of a heavy cruiser in her Commonwealth of worlds. Although she was a capable officer, thirty others more senior than her should have been considered for this command. She was given it because her extremely wealthy and politically powerful father pulled strings for her.

Though infuriated at being given special treatment, Kat’s father informs her she is to investigate Cadiz—their farthest world. A rival power is obviously preparing for war, refugees have streamed into their Commonwealth, raider attacks on their civilian ships have increased, and the admiral in charge of Cadiz might not be up to the task of defending them. Kat must go there and report back.

She boards her ship and meets her executive officer, who is in his sixties and has gray hair at the temples. He thinks she looks like a child.



With The Oncoming Storm, Christopher Nuttall has established a fresh voice in military science fiction. Instead of detailing the workings of military equipment or all the ratings and sub-ratings of the non-commissioned, he realistically describes the thoughts and emotions of two people put in impossible positions: Kat, who knows that everyone realizes how young and inexperienced she is, and William her executive officer, who must do everything to support her while knowing he is the most experienced officer on the ship.


The tension between the two is not as great as Nuttall led us to expect from this setup, since Kat is incredibly competent and William is dedicated to his duty. Also, Nuttall italicizes too many words for emphasis—often the wrong word in a sentence, if you know what I mean. But the tension is high throughout the book as they take their dangerous journey to Cadiz and there confront an unexpected situation when they arrive. 

Thursday, January 19, 2017

Another One Bites the Dust—Barnes & Noble

The Barnes & Noble at the Crossroads Mall in Bellevue, WA, where I spent many an hour, closed on December 31.




What hit me was I could still see the desks inside, where I often spent time writing fiction. 

It reminds me of my previous post, which showed how a Borders bookstore became a Forever 21 store. What will happen to this closed store?

Saturday, January 7, 2017

Dollhouse Cascade Effect

If you read my previous post, you’ll know that a little girl was talking to the Alexa feature of Amazon’s Echo Dot, and the next thing you know it delivered four pounds of cookies and a huge, expensive dollhouse to her home.

And here’s the cascade effect: A number of other people who left their Echo Dot on while watching this story on TV have said that Amazon delivered dollhouses to them. This will become another news story, and on and on. Eventually, the North American continent will sink under the weight of the dollhouses.


public domain dollhouse by Thomas Quine

Echo Dot is voice-activated. How does this work? Well, in order to voice activate it, the thing has to always be listening to you: in the living room, bathroom, bedroom, etc. Um, are you really comfortable with that?


You can imagine what will happen if people add other listening devices to their homes. Men will have to stop any women from wishing out loud for diamonds. (Wait, I just discovered Amazon delivers jewelry. “Honey, I ordered that on accident.”) Of if you have security listening devices installed, you could be watching a gunfight on TV where someone cries for help, and the next thing you know a SWAT team will show up. 

Wednesday, January 4, 2017

Cookies and Airlocks—The Perils and Virtues of Voice Commands

A six-year-old girl in Texas was delighted when the family received an Echo Dot for a holiday gift. It features Alexa, the digital assistant that answers questions and handles calendars, etc. The girl asked Alexa questions about cookies and a dollhouse.

The next thing you know, Amazon delivered four pounds of cookies and a $170 dollhouse. Alexa had interpreted the conversation as an order.

All this goes to show the danger of voice commands. It also serves as a segue to an excerpt from my latest science fiction manuscript, Alpha Shift.

 photo by Constantin Barbu 
  
“Emergency shutdown of docking.” Akajima spoke slowly and clearly into the arm of his chair. The ship’s systems were mostly not operated by voice commands, since past experience had shown that an officer lecturing his crew on how to fire weapons could have disastrous results.

But officers could still speak certain emergency measures into life.

A watch stander jerked his head at a monitor. “Shutdown confirmed.”

Akajima knew that in that distant part of the ship a sheet of metal as thick as the hull had rammed down at great speed in front of the airlock, sealing off the ship from its connection with the shuttle. It didn’t matter if the armor detected by the scan was armored crewmen coming out of the cylinder into the main part of the shuttle in order to board the Panama, or an armored crawler meant to speed its way through the passageways. They were denied.

His next words were addressed to the appropriate crew around him. “Action Stations Yellow. All off-duty personnel confined to their berthing compartments.”


Flashing amber lights and a shrill alarm assaulted the senses—not just any alarm, but discordant high notes mixed with simulated baby screams that threatened to crack the brain case of all who heard. Some off-duty crew had been known to sleep through fistfights in their berthing compartments, but this combination of nightmare sounds would jolt them off the bunks. 

Monday, December 26, 2016

Robinson Crusoe and his Girl Friday in Space—Review of Passengers

Suppose you were on a voyage to a colony on another planet, and you’re in one of those sleep chambers. Then you wake up, recover from years of suspended animation, then stroll through the ship—and find no one else awake.

That is the puzzle Jim Preston (Chris Pratt), a mechanic, finds himself in. When he makes inquiries, he gets frustrating responses from cheerful holograms. He finally figures out he was woken up early—ninety years early. Unless he can figure out a solution, he will die on the spaceship, alone.

As you can see from the previews, there’s a girl involved, Aurora Lane (Jennifer Lawrence). While Jim wants the challenges of putting his skills to work on a new planet, she’s a writer who paid for a round trip to get new experiences to write about. They are the unlikeliest of couples.



Passengers is a fun and satisfying movie, in contrast to the awful movie Arrival, which I reviewed here. The holograms who give Jim cheerful answers to his awful fate are genuinely funny. And the total despair he falls into after being alone for a year, eating bland food and having no human to talk to, is an experience easy to sympathize with, thanks to the affable and engaging performance by Chris Pratt. Although his portrayal of a man struggling against the universe is good, he gives the most depth to the man struggling against himself.

When Aurora comes along, they have their awkward initial scenes, then an extremely fun date  (I don’t think I’m revealing anything by saying they fall in love.) There are a couple of implied sex scenes I could have done without, though oddly enough Jennifer Lawrence’s swimsuit made me more uncomfortable. But the story goes into full swing as we watch them fall madly in love, do stupid things together, and inevitably throw stuff against the wall.

Although the rotating spaceship, shown from multiple angles, is an awesome spectacle, their artificial gravity wouldn’t actually work the way they show it. And there are problems with the climactic actions scenes—like staring at nuclear fusion without eye protection. But if you want someone who likes romance to watch science fiction, or vice versa, Passengers is a worthy experience.


P.S. In Disney’s Sleeping Beauty, wasn’t she named Aurora? Yeah. 

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