Wednesday, September 3, 2014

Bunker 51



The next book is out, and the badness just got badder! And I don't mean the book is bad, no. I mean... ah hell, you know what I mean.

You do, don't you?

Look, it's the situation the characters are in that's bad, not the book, alright? Sheesh.

So what can fans of the series expect? Well, tons of action. In fact, I think the action quotient for this book is the highest in the series so far. That's a lot of cap-banging, alien-slotting (oh yes - and no, that's not what you think it is), knife slashing and knuckle bashing. The alien plot to take over the world is in full flow, and X-Troop are fighting hard to save the day. But it's not all violence and uncouth behaviour (though most of it is). Alex gets to meet a living icon (of sorts), Dolores finds she has an admirer and Sergei displays his maternal instincts.

Bunker 51 is a top secret facility deep in the Nevada Desert and X-Troop is approached by the US government to check it out, as they appear to have lost control of it, but they're not too sure what they've lost control of it to. Is it an escaped alien? A bio-engineered virus? As they venture deep underground, X-Troop are about to find out what the authorities have been hiding in there - and it really, really isn't good. I mean, really.

Familiar at all with the Resident Evil games and movies? Well, my lawyer informs me that this book bears no resemblance whatsoever to those works. None at all. I mean, really.

But don't take his word for it (psst! He's lying through his goddamn teeth! It's almost exactly like... what? Oh... right. Shhhh... ). Get it from Amazon or Amazon UK for just 99 cents (or 75p) until September 14th, 'cos the price is going up then.

So why are you still reading this? Get clicking now!

And didn't they have zombies in Resident Evil? Completely different genre altogether, right? Right?

Racoon City? *pfft*

Saturday, August 16, 2014

Influences

After reading William Vitka's blog post I thought I'd copy it take inspiration from it and display my own influences. What follows is a list of the things that have had some sort of effect on my imagination, and therefore my writing. It's a weird and eclectic mix of war, fantasy, sci-fi and new age romance (uhh, yes) - novels, movies, games and music. I can't promise it'll please everyone, or anyone, and I've had to whittle down the list to only include the important stuff, else I'll be writing it forever. It's still too long for just one post, so I'll be splitting it up over the coming weeks/months/whatever.

But if you've ever been curious to know why I write what I do, or why I write how I do, then this post may leave you as baffled as ever enlighten you or entertain you, whichever works best.

It's also a journey through my writing career, from daydreamer to writer, so to speak. So let's go back to the beginning to when I was a wee lad... (cue fade out and harp music).


633 Squadron

I read a lot of war novels as a teenager, but the ones that stand out in my memory were the 633 Squadron series by Frederick E Smith. I don't know what attracted me to them - maybe it was the stirring theme music from the movie - but I shelled out serious pocket money on gathering the series. Which was a big deal for me in those days, as I really didn't get much, and books were expensive.

Each book covered a different operation as the mixed nationality squadron flew out in their Mosquito fighter-bombers to hit Jerry where it hurt, culminating in a near-suicide mission at the end. It was stirring stuff, packed with detail and great characters. I don't own the books now and haven't read them for years, so I have no idea how well the novels have aged. Were they well written, or slightly cheesy? Your guess is as good as mine, but I enjoyed them and if some part of them hasn't sneaked into my writing style, I'd be very surprised.


Goodbye Mickey Mouse

Len Deighton was famous for his Cold War spy thrillers, including the Harry Palmer series, some of which were made into movies, starring Michael Caine as the laconic spy anti-hero who was supposed to be the antidote to the more fantasy-based James Bond. Harry Palmer is history now, while James Bond and his special effects stunt team remains. Draw your own conclusions.

But Len Deighton was also a fine historian and he wrote several historically accurate WWII novels, one of which was Goodbye Mickey Mouse.

I read Goodbye Mickey Mouse just as I was getting to the end of my war book phase, and it marked an interesting watershed for me. Unlike previous books I'd read, Goodbye Mickey Mouse is more about the characters than the action, and it was probably my first introduction into serious character development. The novel charts a brief spell in the lives of US pilots (and the women who loved them) in 1944. It covers airbase culture, combat operations, life in wartime England and the thoughts and feelings of young Americans, plucked from mid-west farms and east coast cities, strapped into the cockpit of powerful Mustangs and sent to fight over the turbulent skies of Europe, where a single missed dot in the distance could be the aircraft that kills you.

It's a powerful novel and the ending is a real kick in the guts. For me, it was an introduction to a different kind of story telling, and a lesson in brilliant, multi-layered plotting. I do still own this book and yes, it's still a good book.

I consider it to be one of Len Deighton's best.


The Sunset Warrior

The Sunset Warrior, by Eric Van Lustbader, was my first solo venture into fantasy books. I'd had The Hobbit read to me at school, and I have a vague recollection of someone reading a Narnia novel to the class at some point, but fantasy stories didn't grip me the way war stories did - not at that age anyway. As a teenager I attempted to read The Lord of the Rings, but the pace and complexity defeated my immature mind. I wanted action, not Hobbit birthday parties. I didn't appreciate that kind of writing until much, much later.

When I tired of reading war novels, but unwilling as yet to tackle Tolkien again, I ventured into my local library in Leicester and saw The Sunset Warrior on display. I liked the cover so I took it home to my bedroom to read.

I'd just bought the album Pyromania by Def Leppard (1983) and I was keen to listen to that too, so I put it on the record player (remember them?) and flopped down onto my bed to read.

To this day, Pyromania remains synonymous with The Sunset Warrior in my mind. I played the record over and over, and it became the soundtrack to the movie in my mind.

What kind of novel was The Sunset Warrior? Well, I remember lending it a few years later to a real fantasy buff, and he scoffed at it, saying it was cliched and derivative. He recommended another, more well known fantasy series to me.

I read his recommendation, but it turned out to be a right load of cheesy bollocks that looked as if it had been written by a five year old, so I don't know what that was all about.

But I liked Eric Van Lustbader's immediate writing style. It was quite stylised, almost literary, with flashbacks thrown in without warning, the drama accented by abrupt, punchy prose. I have a copy with me now - found recently second hand - and I'm still impressed.

The story was first published in 1977 and is set in a deep underground settlement that was built after some sort of apocalypse. I don't know how derivative that was for the time, but considering that Hugh Howey has recently hit the bestseller charts with Wool, which also features an underground post-apocalyptic society, I don't know how derivative it could have been. It certainly hasn't done Hugh Howey any harm.

Eric Van Lustbader is also known for his injection of Japanese culture into his novels, combining East with West, and the Sunset Warrior trilogy is packed full of samurai influences and eastern mythology. I'm not sure how common this was in 70s fantasy, but I can't imagine it was much.

It's not a particularly complex story, and the characters aren't that well developed, but it's cohesive, dramatic and features attractive fantasy settings (the sense-of-wonder factor).

The highlight, for me, was the journey into the old abandoned City of Ten Thousand Paths, with its dark mysteries and nameless, hidden horrors, while listening to the song Die Hard The Hunter.

Darkness is falling, danger is closing in and it doesn't look as if they're going to make it out of the city in time...

It still sends a chill down my spine to hear that song. Honestly, I don't know how you can ask for more.

But in time, I did.


The Lord of the Rings

Everyone's familiar with this book, so I don't need to describe its appeal, but I will say one thing about it. The Lord of the Rings has been described as a conservative book, but this is nonsense. The Lord of the Rings is steeped in liberalism - which is why it appealed so much to 60's hippies. Frodo is the archetypal liberal.

The book is about individual choices in a time of war. It's centred on the four hobbits, whose psychological journey mirrors that of Tolkien and his friends in WWI. The experience of that terrible conflict is what flows through the heart of The Lord of the Rings. As the world falls apart around them, the hobbits journey from innocence to hard choice. Each of them will, at some point, find themselves alone, taken from the safety of the group, separated from their friends and stripped of their culture. The choices they make are existential choices and, at the end, each comes back changed. Nothing is ever the same again. Frodo especially comes back traumatised. Being back in his community offers him no solace - neither tradition nor familiarity can bring him back to where he came from - and in the end he has to leave. Even Sam, the most grounded of the four, returns - in the last sentence - alone. He's home, he's with his family, but in his head, he's existentially very much alone - as many war veterans are.

It's a rich book, it's a heartbreaking book, it's funny and profound and there's something in it for everyone. But for me, the final part, The Scouring of the Shire, touched me at a time when I myself was alone.

It was a journey, and that too taught me what a story could be.


Michael Moorcock

Michael Moorcock was a huge influence on me, but I can't actually remember any of his books. I mean, I remember a scene from one of his Elric books (don't recall the title). I remember a couple of vague details from his Count Brass books. And I remember a single scene from The Ice Schooner. But other than that, his books haven't imprinted themselves in my mind at all. I remember better the two songs he co-wrote with Blue Oyster Cult, including my favourite: Veteran of the Psychic Wars.

And I enjoyed Diamond Head's nod in his direction too.

But his actual stories slip from my brain like water off a well oiled sword.

He was never a deep writer. He dashed off trilogies in three days when he was desperate for money. He dabbled in fantasy, sci-fi and magazine editing, and he went bankrupt twice. He worked hard, never stood still, and is understandably a bit pissed that no one really remembers him (compared to Tolkien). But that's just the way it goes. He never wrote anything as deep and enduring as The Lord of the Rings, and his books were never made into movies like those of Philip K Dick. And nobody these days cares about 70s Heavy Metal.

So how did he influence me?

I wasn't influenced by his stories, but I was influenced by his writing. Let me explain.

One winter I found myself stranded in the seaside town of Morecambe. Some people may be charmed by Morecambe's bucket-and-spade postcard qualities, but I remember it as a cold, miserable shithole - deader than a dead thing in a very dead place. Out of season, places like that just crawl into a grave during winter, waiting for next spring to resurrect. I was unemployed, living in a bedsit, and I had hardly any money for food and none at all for heating.

The only warm place to be was the public library, so that's where I spent my days.

It was during that time that I decided to be a writer, and the library seemed the perfect place to write. So I wrote.

And that's when I discovered I couldn't write. I hadn't paid attention in school. I didn't know how to use a comma, didn't know when to start a new paragraph, had never heard of section breaks and had no real idea how to use quotation marks. Primary nouns? Inserted clauses? No clue at all.

I can remember the view out of the classroom window quite well because I spent a lot of time gazing at it. But that was about the extent of my education.

Still, I did read a lot (and that's the weird thing) and there I was, in Morecambe, in a library and surrounded by books. If I wanted to write like an author, I just needed to check out their stuff and emulate their writing style. Simple, right?

Morecambe Library back then (this is 1988, I think) had a lot of Michael Moorcock books. I mean, a lot. And the good thing about Mr Moorcock is that he's very readable. He may not be very deep, but he's got a natural talent that just makes his stories flow. Bear in mind that some of his stuff was just first draft - with no rewrites - and you can see he's got a gift for story telling. So I took his books, examined his writing forensically and filled in the blanks in my knowledge:

...Oh that's how you use paragraph breaks for dramatic effect, gee that's clever...

I might have been hungry and freezing my butt off, but I did learn something that winter, and Michael Moorcock was my tutor. Which is why I write exactly like him.

Well, actually, I don't. My self-taught journey took a few more years, by which time I'd moved to other places and done other things. My own writing style took a while to mature, and I'm not done learning yet, but Michael Moorcock put me on the right road and, to be honest, it was a pretty good place to start.


More to follow...

That's enough of my influences for today. I'll reveal more in further posts - and I know you're just dying to find out about the new age romance, aren't you? - and just leave you with the news that Bunker 51 is in its final editing stages and should be out in a couple of weeks time. Subscribe to my New Releases blog if you want an email notification the minute it's released, and don't forget to subscribe to this Author blog too if you don't want to miss the next blog post. Until then, have fun.

Tuesday, June 17, 2014

Not Dead Yet

"Take him off my hands and we'll say nothing about it, how's that?"

Haven't posted for a while and the reason is that I'm such a lazy arse that I couldn't be bothered.

But that's a terrible reason and you don't want to hear that, do you? No, no, no, the real reason is that I've been too busy to post. Yes, that's it.

Damn, I almost convinced myself then. Okay, it's a bit of both (an easier sell, surely?). So what have I been up to? Well, I've been working on some completely new covers for the entire series and just finished the third one yesterday. I'll slap them onto the old books when I release book four in the series. For which I don't have a cover yet - but it does have a title. It'll be called Bunker 51, and you can play around with all the possible reasons why, but I'm not giving away any of the plot yet. So feel free to guess. It's looking on target for a summer release, and I've also been working on the plot for the fifth in the series, for continuity reasons. All I'll say is that Bunker 51 is set in the US, with X-Troop facing their toughest challenge yet - and it doesn't involve learning to drive on the right side of the road or saying tomayto instead of tomato. Or fries instead of chips.

But it does involve fried chicken. I'll say no more, but if you haven't read the second book X-Troop and you want to get it for free, I'll be doing a giveaway all next week, from 23rd June to the 27th, so get your grubby mitts on it while you can and I'll get back to arsing around working hard on the next exciting installment.

Freebies will be on Amazon and Amazon UK.

Friday, April 25, 2014

Photography



I've added a new tab to the top of the blog, marked Photography. This is a direct link to my Flickr page, where I showcase my art. Not that I produce a lot of pictures - it's just a hobby, and I'm still very much an amateur - but it's something I've taken to in the past few years and, when I have the time, it's something that brings me great pleasure. As I mentioned earlier in the blog, I'm a visual person and I find art stimulating.

But I'm not an art aficionado. Nor am I a great artist.

I used to draw a lot in school, but both my parents were factory workers and there was no history or knowledge of art in the family, so there was nothing to teach or influence me at home. Art lessons in school seemed fairly rudimentary - you were told what to draw or paint and then left to your own devices, with maybe a word from the teacher at the end. It might not really have been like that, but that's how I remember it. I don't recall being taught any particular technique or craft in any great detail, and I didn't enjoy school much anyway, so I spent most of my time blending into the background and trying to stay invisible. I had the desire to draw, and I had a little talent, but my basic knowledge was poor and my ability to improvise was abysmal. I had zero desire to experiment, and I had no idea how to handle colour, so anything that didn't involve a pencil was a struggle, and I never even mastered using a paintbrush. People who couldn't draw said I was good at it. People who really could draw knew I wasn't.

There was someone at school, however, who influenced me a lot and taught me a great deal, and his name was Nigel Heffernan. He wasn't a staff member, though, but a friend in my year. He didn't teach me directly, of course. I just kind of artistically stalked him for about five years, copying whatever he did. Unlike me, he had real talent, with a quick and creative mind, and he wasn't afraid to experiment. He would sketch cartoons and designs on whatever scrap of paper he could find, and he'd conjure up fantastic science fiction art using just coloured pencils or felt tip pens. I aped everything he did, staying forever in his shadow until the end of school. He wasn't in my art class, so I don't know what his work in other mediums was like, but I would be surprised if it wasn't equally amazing. For my part, I muddled through, just scraping a C grade in the end of school exams, and it was as an average artist that I ended my education.

I left school to work in a factory and didn't seriously pursue any kind of art for years after. I did draw a few cartoons at my gaffer's expense, sketching them on pieces of packing cardboard and hanging them up in the little room where we had our sandwiches. He was an alcoholic and perennially drunk, so I don't think he ever got the joke, which was probably a good job. After leaving factory life and bumming round the country for a bit, I briefly developed my cartoon skills and produced stuff that I was fairly pleased with, but I lost the drawings on my travels and I have no idea whether they were any good or not. Chances are they probably weren't.

A billion jobs and many years later I got the itch to try something artistic again and, for reasons that escape me, decided to try photography. Maturity made me smarter, so this time I actually did some research, reading books and following other photographers online to actually learn proper photography techniques. I scraped some money together to purchase a very old Minolta digital SLR (one of the first digital SLRs to be produced) and a couple of even older lenses. It's a heavy old thing but I love it, and I'm hoping it'll outlive me to be used by my boys. Mastering Photoshop has been a challenge, but my early scribblings were not in vain and my initial grounding in art has been a great help in picking up the necessary technique. It's also helped when it's come to doing my own book covers, which is a good job as I can't afford the services of a professional artist. They're worth every penny, I'm sure, but the satisfaction of doing my own covers has been a big part of my self-publishing odyssey, even if I've still got a lot to learn. Like growing your own food or customising your own car, there's a massive feeling of achievement that brings its own rewards. It might be a lot of hassle, and it might not make economic sense from a business point of view, but there are some things in life that can't be bought.

And if I was driven by economics, I probably wouldn't have bothered becoming a writer, never mind anything else. I've earned more being a cleaner.

So feel free to peruse my ham fisted efforts and, if you're an amateur photographer with a Flickr account of your own, follow me and I'll follow you back. Because there's nothing better than learning in company.

But I promise I won't stalk you. Not in a creepy way, anyway. And if you're still out there Nigel, I'd just like to say: I never forgot.


Sunday, April 20, 2014

Charlie Don't Tweet

"That's your hashtag right there, son. Now go to it."

Heinlein took a progressive step in his novel Starship Troopers. He gave women an equal role, as he saw it, in warfare, with women as the starship pilots and men as the troopers. Which was a bold portrayal at a time when women were present on the battlefield only as nurses.

Or maybe it wasn't, for according to Ty Franck, one half of the sci-fi writing duo James S.A. Corey, Heinlein was being sexist. His failure to portray women as combat soldiers, on the ground and at the sharp end, was tantamount to claiming that women can't do the job as well as men.

In the whole gender debate, there have been a few discussions about women in combat roles. One line of reasoning is that no job anywhere should be allowed to bar women. Period. The other is that upper body strength is no longer necessary in the modern age, for even child soldiers can handle automatic weapons, so there is nothing to prevent women from excelling as infantrypersons. After all, some already fly jets and helicopter gunships in combat, so what's the problem?

The problem is that strength is not the only issue in being a combat soldier, though even on today's technologically advanced battlefield, strength plays a bigger part than most people realise. What an infantryman really needs is aggression. Physical aggression.

Infantrymen must want to fight, and that includes the kind of brawling that frequently takes place in pubs and bars near army bases on a Saturday night. Just ask any military policeman.

So for women to be in the infantry in equal numbers, as Mr Franck sees it, they too must look forward to a punch up.

Yet feminists frequently decry the kind of aggression exhibited by men. The aggression of men is the focus of many campaigns, including one fronted by Hilary Clinton, to 'end violence against women'.

Not violence against anybody. Just women.

Even the UN has gotten in on the act, with Afghanistan topping their poll of places that are dangerous to women. Not dangerous to the men who are shot, skinned alive by rival tribesmen and tortured. Not dangerous to the young boys who are routinely raped by warlords and the Afghan police.

No. Just women.

The equality campaigns of the 50's and 60's were about freeing women from social constraints, so that they could go out into the world and do whatever men did, enjoying the freedoms and wealth-rewards that men received. Women were encouraged to be bold, brash and assertive. Under the circumstances, it was probably natural to assume that women would branch out into every aspect of life, including the military. For if the only thing holding women back was a conservative and patriarchal society, then the removal of those barriers would be like opening the gates of the prison. Women would come flooding out, leaving their aprons and wooden spoons behind.

And at first glance, that is what they appear to have done. It's a bit of an illusion, though, as the jobs that women have flooded into have been administrative and service industry jobs that are safe and clean. Jobs that involve being outdoors in all weathers, that involve taking risks, or are dirty and uncomfortable, haven't attracted women at all. Those are still left to men. So the idea that women will one day fight in equal numbers on the frontline does take a stretch of the imagination. Far from embracing discomfort and challenge, feminism today demands that men protect women from such things and desist from anything that appears to take advantage of women's vulnerabilities. Because women, it seems, are too weak to defend themselves. They don't put it like that of course, but that's the implication of what feminists in the popular and mainstream media are saying.

Take the recent twitter scandals for instance. This was where high profile women kicked up a fuss because of sexist abuse they received, 'just because they were women'. One woman who campaigned for a female historical character to appear on a banknote even managed to get the police to track down her sexist abusers, one of whom turned out to be a woman. But the idea that male misogynists were being unfair to women with their sexist bullying has become something of a meme, with women involved in a recent twitter argument over some subject in science fiction, for instance, complaining about the awful bullying and the sexist spite they had to endure - just because they were women.

Physically assaulting a weaker woman may involve an imbalance of power, but sending messages on twitter does not require upper body strength, physical aggression or the patriarchal patronage of an institution. Considering that women's greater communications skills have been lauded for some time now, one would think that they would be able to hold their own in a twitter argument without bursting into tears or demanding new laws to protect them. But no, it appears that women are victims in the virtual world too. Are these the future recruits who will go toe to toe with an enemy on the battlefield? We can only hope that the enemy don't get hold of their twitter accounts, as the resulting breakdown in the ranks could be eye watering.

Not all women are bothered by such things of course. Many of the victims in these scandals have tended to be upper middle class women, nurtured from the cradle by wealth, privilege, nannies and campus grievance committees. Such women were never going to sign up as lowly infantrypersons anyway, which is why they spend more time campaigning to get into executive posts than into trenches. But working class women, while being a lot more robust when it comes to replying to insults, online or off it, remain choosy about which occupation they venture into. They prefer childcare, hair and beauty or restaurant serving to bricklaying or road sweeping. If you're looking for women to fight and die in the squalor of battlefields all over the world, then it's these girls from the trailer parks and housing projects who will be recruited alongside their equally poorly-educated male peers to fix a bayonet to their rifle and assault their way out of an ambush (and yes, that kind of thing still does happen, even today). Decades of social engineering and gender education haven't changed much and, left to their own devices, men and women will still make different choices.

There are, and always have been, adventurous, physically robust women who can take their knocks and still go looking for more. But the truth of the matter is that such women are rare, which is why they make such great characters in stories. Such women who do get to serve on frontlines either learn to love the rough banter and culture of men, or end up leading a lonely existence because their sisters can't be persuaded to join them. No amount of legislation or affirmative action programs will change that, as evidenced when Norway decided to bring in conscription on an equal basis for men and women and received complaints from women's groups. Even though Norway isn't likely to get involved in many wars (if any), most women still don't want to do it.

Fiction is all about fantasy, of course. Do you want to take on a whole squad of Nazis or commies single-handed, with a gun that never runs out of ammo? Then a fiction writer will provide. Would you like to fly through the air in a cape and underpants? Have big breasts and a slim physique but still pack the punch of a heavyweight? Find the sensitive hunk of your dreams and live happy ever after? Have male and female space marines in equal numbers on a dropship, prior to a planetary assault? Then come to the world of fiction where, for just a few dollars, we will indulge, amaze and leave you feeling good about yourself and the world.

Just don't do what Ty Franck did and mistake it for reality, either now or in some surmised future. People read fiction to get away from reality, and while it may sometimes provoke some into asking questions of the world about them, it rarely provides correct answers.

That's what makes fiction so appealing. The incorrect answers are easier to bear.


Related posts:
Sherlock's Veiled Victorianism
What Women Want
What Women Want Too

Sunday, April 13, 2014

A Hobbit Too Far

Seriously, how many more fucking elves do we need?


Watched the Desolation of Smaug yesterday on DVD. I never thought I'd say this, but I'm getting sick to death of bloody elves.

My first recollection of Tolkein's The Hobbit was of having it read to us in primary school, by Mr Campbell as we all sat on the square of carpet in his classroom. I was probably eight or nine at the time. It was the only story I remember being read to us, and I was quite enchanted by the adventures of Bilbo and the dwarves as they battled spiders in the dark forest of Mirkwood.

I didn't read The Lord of the Rings until I was about eighteen, and I enjoyed that too. When I later played the RPG version of Middle Earth with some friends, I acted as gamesmaster and, as I couldn't afford the commercial supplements that contained the game missions, I created my own, using the original book as my guide. It would be no exaggeration to say that I studied The Lord of the Rings, cover to cover, appendixes included. Not out of undying fan devotion, but because I wanted to pillage it for game ideas.

The years passed by, leaving but a memory of moss covered stones and ruined troll towers, until Peter Jackson unleashed his recent movie extravaganza and I found myself in the cinema, bombarded by in-your-face special effects and nursing a bursting bladder as I sat through each marathon session praying I'd make it to the end without galloping to the toilet (alas, the final movie was just too long and I succumbed).

And it was okay. I mean, it was a pretty impressive effort, considering what there was to cram in. I wasn't impressed with Viggo Mortensen's debut - he made a fantastic action hero, but to my mind he wasn't really Strider. It was only near the end of the trilogy that he gained some of the necessary gravitas. And I thought the Nazgul were badly done - they were nowhere near as awesome and scary as they should have been. More like stiff, stupid robots than the tragic dread souls of ancient kings. But those are minor points. On the whole, I thought it passed, and it will probably be remembered as a great cinematic achievement.

Then we had The Hobbit. That slim book was really just a fun children's story. Peter Jackson obviously had the ambition and gall to make it something much more than that, and he had the reputation of his LoTR movies to build on, plus much of the original CGI and location teams. And New Zealand certainly needed the tourist funding. So off it went on the East-West road, over the hills and far away.

I had my doubts when I first saw the trailer for The Hobbit - An Unexpected Journey. To start with, the dwarves didn't look very dwarf-life, most of them. Thorin especially looked like a Viggo Mortensen clone - fit, young and proud, but nothing like a Dwarf at all. The dimensions were all wrong.

It also had that annoying idiot James Nesbitt, who plays the same part with the same accent in anything he stars in, and who comes across as someone taking the piss rather than acting. Thankfully he was upstaged by the rest of the cast, so I didn't have to endure his excruciating performance like I did when I watched Coriolanus. Whoever decided it would be a good idea to cast him as a Roman tribune ought to be fed to the lions.

Anyway, I watched the first Hobbit movie, and it turned out to be okay. My kids loved it, and that was fine by me. Then we got to the second movie...

It started well, with an inserted scene in Bree (cue Peter Jackson cameo in the first few seconds) that set the scene for those who'd forgotten the first movie. The goblins did their thing, Beorn came and went from the screen a little too quickly, the spiders caught the dwarves and Bilbo rescued them just as he did in the book. Then, for no reason at all, the elves were brought in to finish the spiders off, just to show what cool fighters they were. Orlando Bloom reappears as Legolas, with his amazing moves, and a she-elf is added for the ladies in the audience. Or for the guys to fantasise over, I don't know. And of course, because we're no longer in the dark ages, the she-elf is the obigatory kick-ass heroine.

Action movies used to have token females. Now they have token feminists.

But apart from displaying lightning fast reactions and swift martial arts moves, this elf needs to be given something to do in the story - so she falls in love with a dwarf who, as luck would have it, doesn't look like a stumpy, stout beardy dwarf, but like a young, handsome man. Lucky her, eh?

But we're soon back to Legolas and the she-elf defeating half the goblin hordes all by themselves.

In the LOTR movies, we were treated to a whole range of elven martial arts moves ripped straight from the Matrix movies. It was new and interesting then, with mind bogglingly complex choreography and impossible gravity-&-physics defying stunts to wow the audience. It was original.

It isn't now, though. As I watched Legolas twist, stab and shoot goblins at the rate of one a second in the water barrels scene, I felt weariness start to set in. The same moves that I'd seen in the LOTR, the same effortless smugness, even the same surfing-dude-with-a-bow move, this time with a dead goblin instead of a shield. If the elves are really as hard and as cool as that, one wonders how any goblins or orcs could possibly be left alive in Middle-Earth. And they go on stabbing and posing in Lake Town as well, even though they didn't in the book. I was getting sick of the sight of them by then and I just wanted them to piss off. Or maybe the pointy eared master race was going to conquer the whole of Erebor as well? Why not stick around to shoot the dragon, clear the mountains of orcs and take Dol Guldur as well, all before breakfast? And after that, they can drive their tanks through Poland.

Up till that point, the movie had been going fine for me, but worse was to come once Bilbo and the dwarves (remember them?) reached the mountain and slipped inside. After we got past the initial Sherlock and Watson Smaug and Bilbo encounter, we then got to see the (added on) spectacle of Thorin inflating his ego to no end, and the next thing you know, the dwarves are themselves swinging about pointlessly, leading the dragon to the forges, dragging out the movie with more impossible physics and special effects, just so the dragon can be covered in gold prior to pissing off to do what he was going to do anyway - which is to torch the town.

Except the bloody movie ends before that actually happens. Agh!

Would I pay money to watch the third one in the cinema? No I wouldn't, even if I could afford it. Three hobbit movies is too much - two would have been enough. The whole thing's been dragged out too far, with too much special-effects filler and too many desperate plot contortions.

Probably a great movie for kids - if you can get them to restlessly sit through it for long enough, as it's another marathon epic. Or maybe it just felt like that to me.

Still, at least the dwarves didn't sing in this one. And I got so pissed off at the elves and Thorin that I actually forgot James Nesbitt was there. So it wasn't all bad.

Sunday, March 30, 2014

Aliens Built The Pyramids?

Up, up and awaaay!!
I promised last week that I'd discuss the Mayan connections in my last novel, The Tollon Codex, so I'll show you now some of the things that influenced the fiction, though it's worth remembering that some of the influences are fiction themselves.

Are you familiar with the Ancient Astronaut theory? This is the belief that aliens landed on Earth many years ago and taught us civilization, because we humans were too thick to work it out ourselves. You see that played out at the beginning of Kubrick's movie 2001: A Space Odyssey, co-written by Arthur C Clarke, when the dumb ape is influenced by The Obelisk to pick up a bone and use it as a tool for the first time. From there it was a short step to the pyramids and smart phones, it seems. Erich von Däniken popularised the idea further with his book Chariots of the Gods, giving us explanations for why the Egyptians and the Aztec/Maya built similar looking pyramids, even though the civilizations never met. Mr Däniken, by the way, is an interesting guy, since he doesn't appear to be an expert in anything at all other than fraud, for which he's been convicted twice, and imprisoned, but that hasn't prevented his ideas from being wildly popular. I mean, it's such a great idea, and it's been used in Stargate, Prometheus and Aliens vs Predators, among other things.

His most enduring idea, however, concerns the Maya and King Pakal's spaceship.

King Pakal was a Mayan ruler who may or may not have been a King - the interpretations are sketchy and, unlike the Aztecs, the Maya did not constitute a single empire, but a series of competing city-states and regions. But King Pakal, whoever he was, was deemed grand enough to get a beautifully carved sarcophogus lid (see image above). I've manually coloured some bits of it for clarity, but this is the image that Mr Däniken claimed was evidence of ancient space travel, since it purports to show the royal personage ascending to the stars in his elaborately ornamented space chariot.

Now you may not have seen this particular image yourself, but the chances are that you will have seen the stuff inspired by it. In Ridley Scott's classic movie Alien, Giger, the famous concept artist and set designer for the movie, was, I believe, inspired by it to create the mysterious 'space jockey':


The structure that extends from the seated alien was never explained, and it seemed such a weird thing to have in a futuristic cockpit, but it looked great, and the spectacle was all that mattered. But I think we can thank King Pakal for it.

Ridley Scott wasn't done with the original, however, and so it surfaced again in Prometheus, in a deliberately altered form:


King Pakal gets an air-hose in his mouth to look more like the space jockey in this artful depiction of a Mayan tablet (glimpsed only briefly near the beginning of Prometheus), but the link is obvious, I think.

So, is it really a spaceship? Well, no. That theory's been debunked dozens of times. The image is actually meant to show Pakal descending to the underworld (whose jaws are opening beneath him), with the tree of life (in green) rising from him. That may be the rising of his soul or life force, but so little is truly known about Mayan religion (which varied from one city to the next), that we are left guessing. But the tree of life is a regular motif in Mayan art and appears on its own many times. I'm a science fiction writer, however, not a historical fiction writer, so I'm happy to hammer the wilder version of the myth in my story, though, as you will find, I have added a twist. I like the idea of the tree of life, the thing that connects the Underworld, the Earth and the Heavens. Not read the novel yet? Well, I won't give too much away.

But the bit in the book about the Guatemalan government encouraging the ancient astronaut myth for the sake of tourism? That's not something I completely made up. There's a lot of money in tourism, and it looks like a film-maker and a Mexican government official hoped to cash in with the alleged release of artifacts that 'proved' the link between aliens and Maya. Quite funny really, especially as the film-maker went bust before the film could be made, and the artifacts turned out to be fakes.

I also made use of a dummy called Maximon in the novel, and I didn't make him up either:

Photo by Ian Wikarski

Maximon is a popular effigy in local religion, also known as San Simon. He's the patron saint of health, crops, marriage, business, revenge and death. That's quite a combination. But locals build shrines for him and donate cigarettes and gifts as an offering. Then they burn him just before Easter Sunday. You see, he's also associated with Judas Iscariot, perhaps representing the dark side of people's character that must be indulged and then extinguished before the holiest day in the Christian calender. But he pre-dates Christianity and is thought to have originally been the Mayan god Mam (which means grandfather) who was a feared mountain spirit, so there's an interesting fusion of religions going on here.

Then there are the Tzitzimime.

Now these are more nebulous, and are thought to represent Star Demons, but information is sparse on the mythology, possibly because belief in them was not widespread. They are, in fact, an Aztec creation, but I used them anyway, because the existence of Star Demons in a novel about aliens was too attractive an idea to leave alone.

Oddly enough, Mr Däniken made no mention of them when he tried to connect meso-american culture with extra-terrestrial beings. Maybe the research books in the prison library had those pages ripped out for toilet paper. Maybe he was short of toilet paper himself.