Tag Archives: Alien visitors

The Aliens Are Here: What You Can Expect

As McFarland have the cover ready for The Aliens are Here (originally titled Alien Visitors so you’ll find relevant blog posts under both tags) I’m guessing it’ll be out before the end of the year. So here’s a preview of what it’ll cover.

The introduction covers the general history of alien visitors in fiction, then film and TV. It also delves into “real” encounters with ETs because UFOlogy is deeply interwoven with fictional saucers. Movies adapt “true” stories (The UFO Incident, Fire in the Sky); UFO encounters borrow from film (sightings went up after Day the Earth Stood Still came out).

Subsequent chapters include an overview introducing the topic, then a detailed look at two or three movies:

Alien Invaders: The 1953 War of the Worlds, Spielberg’s remake and Independence Day.

Friendly Aliens: The 1951 Day the Earth Stood Still and V — because sometimes when they say they come in peace, they’re lying.Alien infiltrators: Invasion of the Bodysnatchers, both the 1956 and 1978 versions. It took some work to say something fresh and not just copy what I wrote in Screen Enemies of the American Way but I think I succeeded.Alien superheroes: Superman and Superman II.

UFO Abductions: Fire in the Sky and The Fourth Kind.

Alien Immigrants: Brother From Another Planet and Alien Nation.

Alien impregnation: Village of the Damned (both versions) and the 1964 Children of the Damned.

Ancient Astronauts: Quatermass and the Pit and Eternals.

Alien Monsters: The Thing From Another World, John Carpenter’s The Thing and The Andromeda Strain.

Alien Romance: Starman.

Aliens and Kids: E.T., The Whispers and The Faculty.

Alien Comedies: Tribulation 99, The Coneheads and Resident Alien.

Government cover-ups: The X-Files.

Genre Mashups: Predator, Predator 2 and Attack of the 50-Foot Woman.

I also include some shorter synopses of other films or TV shows in the same subgenre, and a list of added productions at the end of each chapter.

You’ll know more about its progress through editing when I do.

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Women of the suburbs, the West and the future

THE DAY THE WOMEN GOT EVEN (1980) was a TV “cozy” pilot about four suburban women (Barbara Rhoades, Georgia Engel, Jo Ann Pflug and Tina Louise) with an interest in theater who discover Julie Hagerty (soon to be much better known for airplane) is suicidal over being blackmailed by a sleazeball producer with nude shots from her “audition.” Can they take the sleazeball down with their acting skills and the help of a street-smart Latino sidekick? I’m guessing this bland film was inspired by North Avenue Irregulars, a Disney housewives vs. crooks film from the previous year, not that knowing this makes it more interesting. “Pardon me but do you have a brother in Savannah?”

CAT BALLOU (1965) is a great deal more fun, though some of the elements (a Sioux played by a guy in redface, plus scalping jokes!) haven’t aged well. And as you can see, the movie had to qualms playing up sex along with the humor (the trailer makes the most of the star’s looks). Jane Fonda plays Katherine Ballou, back in the West after a few years at finishing school. Unfortunately the town has been taken over by corrupt business interests willing to do anything to drive her father off his land, including hiring a murderous gunfighter (Lee Marvin).

As the two outlaws she’s fallen in with are hardly tough guys, Cat recruits the legendary Kid Shelleen (Marvin too) only to discover he’s a pathetic, broken-down drunk (“He did it! He missed the barn!”). The odds are against her but Cat’s very determined … A good Western parody that netted Marvin an Oscar for his double role. Stubby Kaye and Nat King Cole play a banjo-strumming Greek chorus, a detail I liked but I’ve had friends who thought it was ridiculous. “There are a lot of people who are just as depraved and cowardly as they think they are.”

After watching the second season of EXTANT (S1 review here), I wish I’d finished the series before finishing The Aliens Are Here. Mollie’s (Hallee Berry) half-alien son initially appears to remake Species, propagating his kind by impregnating women who die giving birth to the aliens. By the time Molly catches up with him, the hybrids have adapted: they don’t have to kill to reproduce. But the authorities don’t see it that way and they’re about to unleash an army of Humanich soldiers to eliminate the threat. Fortunately there’s no way letting a bunch of humanoid machines off the leash could go wrong, right? The suggestion that we and the hybrids can actually share the Earth is refreshing compared to all the othering I usually witness. “A super-computer in charge of an army of killer robots — it’s a futurist’s nightmare.”

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Hating the alien: the othering of extraterrestrials

One of the things that struck me as I kept watching films for The Aliens Are Here was how much Othering some of these movies engage in.

Othering, as most of you probably know, is the process of distinguishing between Us and Them, and not in a good or harmless way (e.g., loving cricket marks off the UK and many former colonies from the US, but the difference doesn’t come with judgmental overtones). As this article explains, when a group is Othered they’re branded as less deserving of equal rights with the Us group. They can’t even be tolerated, they’re so foreign and creepy. Jews have been Othered for centuries. The Japanese were Othered as soon as they started emigrating to America. In Bogart’s Across the Pacific (1942), Victor Sen Yung plays a slang-spouting Nisei college student, apparently as all-American as they come. Underneath his American surface he’s all Japanese, a stone-cold killer in the service of his Emperor. When a people are Othered, they never truly belong.

Othering also ignores differences between individual Them. If They are the enemy, there are no dissenters, no pacifists among them; they’re all in on war. In Live and Let Die, every single African-American in Harlem and New Orleans apparently works for Kananga (Yaphet Kott0; the only good black is a CIA agent sent to back up Bond. It’s much the same way Japanese Americans were portrayed during WW II: all Japanese, zero American (Germany, by contrast, was often portrayed as a good country oppressed by an evil ideology).

Othering is a lot harder to pull off these days. A movie that, like Little Tokyo USA (1942), showed every Japanese resident of Los Angeles as an enemy and suggested shipping the Japanese to concentration camps was a necessary security measure would bring a shit-ton of flak down on people’s heads. Othering aliens isn’t going to generate angry letters from members of groups opposing ET defamation.

That makes it easy for Independence Day (1996). In a convenient telepathic flash, Whitmore learns there’s no hope in negotiating with the invaders: they’re merciless and want only to wipe us out, thens strip-mine Earth of its resources. He describes them as “locusts,” which is classic dehumanizing language, comparing the Other to animals, particularly insects. But the aliens just blew up Los Angeles and Washington DC, so who’s going to say they’re being portrayed badly?Battleship (2012) takes the same slant, and also gets exposition across by convenient telepathy. The aliens are ruthless monsters, they’re going to destroy us, there’s no point inn playing nice or showing them mercy. One character suggests even attempts to contact aliens are a catastrophe waiting to happen: if they’re advanced enough in technology to reach Earth, they’re advanced enough to annihilate us, therefore they will. The impossibility of mutual co-existence is a given.

This happens in print fiction too. In John W. Campbell’s Who Goes There? — the source of the Howard Hawks and John Carpenter Thing movies — after the scientists recover an alien body from a crashed ship, they debate whether it’s safe to revive it. Several scientists emphasize the evil expression on its face; the counter-argument is that we have no idea what that facial expression means on its world, and expecting a friendly, happy face at the moment of Oh, Shit, I’m Going To Crash! is a bit much. But of course, the rational explanations are wrong: the creature is pure evil.

It’s why I was so impressed by V. As I said Saturday, there’s no Othering in this story. Most of the Visitors are evil but some are good and not happy with the conquest of Earth; others are active resisters. This mirrors the situation among the humans, some of whom collaborate, some of whom oppose, and many just keep their heads down and hope not to get caught.

A few other movies give their alien invaders some personality beyond Evil. But they’re regrettably an exception to the rule.

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A product of its storytelling time, but in a good way: V

Dealing with Trixie’s diarrhea kept me too zonked to watch any movies last weekend. That works out well as I realized when writing up movies watched for The Aliens Are Here, I forgot the two-part TV movie V (1983), even though it’s one of the films I spotlight. Rewatching it after so many years made me appreciate what a remarkable movie it is, and how it’s very much the product of its time.

For once I don’t mean that in a bad way. It’s a product of the era when complex, multi-story TV shows with big casts were in vogue. First came Hill Street Blues (1981), a serious drama about cops operating out of the Hill Street station, then St. Elsewhere and LA Law. Kenneth Johnson’s ambitious script fits the same mode: more than 50 speaking parts (he didn’t even give them names in the treatment he gave NBC, figuring The Cameraman and The Thief would be easier to follow) in multiple plotlines and individual dramas: a thief rebelling against family expectations, a doctor whose marriage collapses, a loser who sees new opportunities in a world conquered by alien fascists.

Johnson originally pitched this to NBC programming guru Brandon Tartikoff as Storm Warning, about a homegrown fascist takeover of the United States (something the 1968 movie Shadow on the Land tried unsuccessfully). Tartikoff replied that audiences would find it easier if the USSR or China conquered us but Johnson wanted to spin off a series and didn’t think that would fly. Alien fascists was the solution.

In the opening scenes we meet the massive cast, though it turns out many of them are tied together, either by family or living in the same neighborhood. Key players include medical student/biochemist Juliet Parrish (Faye Grant), reporter Donovan (Marc Singer), Holocaust survivor Abraham (Leonard Cimino), Julie’s colleague Ben Taylor (Richard Lawson) and Ben’s brother, burglar Elias (Michael Wright). The cast includes men, women, teens and seniors, black, white and Hispanic (nobody gay — that was a rare thing still in 1980s TV, and rarer to be done well).

We meet Donovan and his partner Tony (Evan Kim) reporting on a rebel camp in El Salvador. At the time the U.S. backed Salvadorian government was deploying death squads to execute “communists,” which often meant “teaching the peasants to read and count so they know if their contracts and paychecks are fair.” The movie thereby declares its politics, much like Rick in Casablanca having run guns to anti-fascists in Ethiopia and Spain.

The government forces arrive and a chopper is about to blast Donovan when it suddenly flees. Turning around, Donovan sees a giant saucer flying behind him, which turns out to be one of several appearing around the world (because of budget limitations these were done by the traveling matte process, something akin to a double exposure, rather than models). The result is 24/7 news coverage including interviews with an off-screen Ray Bradbury and Arthur C. Clarke. Eventually a shuttle craft lands and the aliens, to everyone’s relief, turn out to be human, except for their strange voices (Johnson says that was to simplify the plot choices — the Visitors can’t pass among us unnoticed). They’re here to obtain chemicals their planet needs; in return, they offer scientific breakthroughs.

Even so the reactions range from wariness to enthusiasm (Kenner puts out a full line of Visitor action figures and ships) to calculated ambition: Donovan’s mother Eleanor (Neve Patterson) quickly sucks up to them to ensure her businessman second husband gains an edge in whatever business transactions develop. Her ambition captures a running theme in the show, power: who has it? Who fights it? Who kisses it’s ass?

Unsurprisingly, things soon go pear-shaped. The Visitors discover a cabal of scientists plotting to exploit their technology (they make public confessions); outraged, they have no choice but to seize control of the world’s governments. Julie and other scientists become pariahs, the counterpart to Jews in the Visitors’ New World Order. This didn’t entirely work for me — unlike Jews, “scientist” isn’t a sharply defined group and they don’t have centuries of hate against them. Recent anti-covid reactions against doctors and health officials prove it’s not as farfetched as I thought. Julie’s stockbroker husband finds he’s losing a lot of business from being married to a scientist, which ends the marriage; surprisingly he vanishes from the story after that, including the various sequels.

As the Visitors tighten their grip, Julie and some of the other characters form a resistance cell. Julie slides into leadership without trying. When they’re not sure what to do, she suggests something; when nobody volunteers, she does. As leadership duties pile up, she comes close to cracking, but takes advice from a friend to just bluff her way through — nobody will know. Putting a woman in a leadership role was a novel idea back then, and it’s impressive still today. I’d figured Grant for a rising star but after she married Stephen Collins she wound up staying home with the kids.

Donovan, who eventually hooks up with Julie’s resistance cell, learns the truth about the Visitors. First, under their human masks they’re reptilians. The chemicals are a red herring; their goal is to drain Earth of its water and abduct most of the population. Some will be brainwashed into fighting in Visitor wars elsewhere; some will be food. The cabal of scientists doesn’t exist: their confessions were the result of Visitor scientist Diana’s (Jane Badler) brainwashing techniques.

A number of alien invasion movies such as Battleship or Independence Day thoroughly Other the aliens (I’ll be blogging about that soon). They’re monsters, fiends, merciless, and want nothing but to exterminate the human race. They won’t have any mercy so we don’t have to. V doesn’t go that way. There’s a resistance that makes common cause with the human rebels, as well as non-resistance good aliens such as Willie (Robert Englund, before he became big with Nightmare on Elm Street). Some humans are happy to go Nazi (so to speak): along with Eleanor, teenage Daniel (David Packer) is a frustrated loser whose new role in the equivalent of the Hitler Youth gives him power and influence he’s never tasted before. He doesn’t use them well. At the end of the series, all the sides — Visitors, resistance, rebels, quislings — are set up for more adventures.

V set records in the ratings and Johnson was optimistic it could go to series. NBC told him they couldn’ afford it, so he proposed a series of TV movies instead; NBC didn’t bite (later Johnson’s Alien Nation TV series on Fox did wrap up its plotlines by going this route). Johnson then wrote V: The Final Battle to wrap things up but didn’t think the budget would let him do a good job and walked away. It’s good, but not as good; the one-season series that followed isn’t good at all.

This one was a pleasure to rewatch. I highly recommend it.

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A cover reveal and thoughts on goals

Much to my surprise — they hadn’t told me — McFarland has already picked a cover for The Aliens Are Here. I’m not sure what the illustration is from, because it’s not one of the ones I submitted for the book. But that’s fine, because it looks fabulous and captures the tone better than anything I would have chosen.

This was a good week for writing. I put in a lot of work rewriting Don’t Pay the Merryman (oh, it so needs a better title) and read the first section for the writing group. They loved it; now I just have to get the rest of the story up to that level. Several people said the section would work fine as itself if I strengthen the character arcs, so I’ll think about that option.

I rewrote The Adventure of the Red Leech and finally fixed the plot. Holmes is able to crack the mystery and thwart the killer without having to conveniently have a suitable mystic talisman (the rather hand-wave finish of the original published version). Still needs work, but it’s getting there.

I’ve also considerably reworked the plot of Impossible Takes A Little Longer and I’m pleased with it. No more long stretches of talk without compensating action. I managed to restore a lot of the characters who fell out of the previous draft — Rachel Chang, Darla Jeffries — and I think some of the key turning points are better placed. I shall start the next draft this month, with 25,000 words as the minimum goal. Plus fixing the remaining plot issues later in the book.

I didn’t achieve as much on my writing goals (or others) as I wanted to. I keep setting a goal to be more aware of local politics but I just can’t seem to make time. I did, however, send off another 60 postcards encouraging people around the country to vote (while this isn’t the exact link, you can find opportunities to help out here). I didn’t finish Red Leech or get Don’t Pay the Merryman as far along as I wanted. But the goals were ambitious enough to push me: everything’s progressing, even if it’s not as fast as I’d like. There are times when no matter how much I rewrite a story, I end up not improving. That’s not the case now. So setting the goals is doing the job it’s supposed to.

Oh, and I finished the tax forms. Now it’s just a matter of signing them and mailing them out. Once again I made a mistake in the write-off for our HSA, which upped our taxable income by $5,000. I caught that today, so yay!

Overall, I did complete enough goals to reward myself by buying the second Epic Iron Man Collection, which runs from midway through his time in Tales of Suspense through the launch of his own series (Gene Colan provides the cover).

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What a difference a year makes!

My birthday 2021 was, I wrote, “meh,” starting with having had almost no sleep. I woke up this morning refreshed. Last year we didn’t do anything much because of the pandemic; this year we’re boosted, covid’s dying down (yes, I’m aware a new variant is on the horizon) and we’re going to have fun.

It’s a sign of the changes that last weekend was well, strange. No, not because of an eclipse, that photo’s from the lunar one in December. But TYG and I were actually social, in person, for the first time in ages. A friend of ours was in town so she came over to meet the dogs and then go out to dinner. Sunday I went to my friend and fellow writer Allegra Gullino‘s birthday party (TYG had to work). I ate, chatted with Allegra and a bunch of our fellow writers and had a terrific time.

It’s also been, looking back, a good year. I didn’t get much fiction done but I finished The Aliens Are Here, finished Undead Sexist Cliches (and I hand-sold one to my friend), and finished the golem article I was working on (looking back a year ago, it’s striking how much golem-fiction I was reading). Now I’m looking at a year with lots of time to write fiction.

And of course I have TYG — my personal happy ever after — and the pups, and the cats. I know none of this is forever because nothing is (and lord knows what Republicans will do to this country before I die) but life is better right now than I ever imagined it would be at 64.

Happy birthday to me.


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Two that didn’t work for me (and why)

Can we learn from failure? With the obvious caveat that one viewer’s failure is another viewer’s work of genius, yes. Caution: spoilers ahead.

UNDERMIND (1965) is a British series I started watching for The Aliens Are Here, then dropped when it didn’t appear to have an ET element (I was wrong, but I’m focused primarily on US TV so no big). Anne Herriot (Rosemary Nicols) and her brother-in-law Drew (Jeremy Wilkin) discover Drew’s brother Frank has been brainwashed into committing acts of sabotage. Frank is unusually sensitive to high frequency sound, which is the method fo control; Drew and Anne stop the sabotage plot (Frank dies) but realize there are others out there. The enemy, whoever they are, will stop at nothing to see Britian … undermined.

What follows is a variety of plotlines dealing with ripped-from-the-headlines stuff (prostitution, corrupt politicians and juvenile delinquency) mixed in with more tongue in cheek stories: using children’s books to make them accepting of human sacrifice, arranging for incompetent students to cheat on their tests so that Britain’s best will be incompetent, unimaginative failures. A plot about Irish opposition to British rule treats the Irish as comic-relief seniors when (according to this review) the “Troubles” were already ramping up. The comedy could have worked on The Avengers but we’re supposed to take Undermind more seriously.

Doctor Who writer Robert Holmes comes on for the last two episodes and does as good a job as possible wrapping things up. It turns out “Undermind” is extraterrestrial-based (they’d hedged on the possibility before) but the sonic brainwashing is wearing off; an agent in British intelligence tries to reboot their puppets but fails. In the process we learn their agenda is to build a stargate that will bring their invasion forces to Earth. Of course that raises the question of why they bother with tricks involving children’s literature or discrediting politicians; we don’t get an answer. On the whole it’s watchable, but not satisfying. And the ending for Anne — she’s dating one of the security men they met in the course of the adventure — comes as out of the blue as Leila pairing off at the end of Doctor Who: Invasion of Time. “You can’t legislate against an alien radio signal!”

IN THE SHADOW OF THE MOON (2019) is a lot less watchable. In 1988, several people’s heads mysteriously explode; Lockhart (Boyd Holbrook), a cop, becomes convinced there’s a serial killer behind it.When he meets her, Rya (Cleopatra Coleman) knows a lot about him and also that she’s going to die, accidentally, in a matter of minutes. She does — but several years later there’s another wave of exploding heads and Rya shows up again.

Having literally written the book on movie time travel. it wasn’t hard to guess that Rya was a time traveler, and that she was also Lockhart’s granddaughter. In a more entertaining movie that would be forgivable but this one’s too much a plodding obsessed cop vs. relentless killer yarn.

What makes it a failure, though, is the backstory. It turns out Rya isn’t killing at random: she’s changing the future to prevent a 2024 terrorist incident (implied to be 9/11 level) followed by civil war. Rya is using time-travel tech developed by Dr. Rao (Rudi Dharmalingam), who explains her mission to Lockhart midway through the film. Rather than just kill the people who led the country into Civil War, she’s out to kill the people who inspired them with their ideas. His comparison is that to stop the 1860 Civil War it wouldn’t be enough to kill Lincoln, Jefferson Davis and Robert E. Lee — you’d have to kill the people who influenced and inspired them to see Civil War as the answer.

Dude, WTF? Are writers Gregory Weidman and Geoff Tock seriously equating Jefferson Davis, who led a secessionist nation founded on race-based slavery, with Abraham Lincoln, an opponent of slavery? And the script makes it sound as if civil war was the idea in 1860, rather than stemming from two conflicting underlying ideas, that humans can become property or that they can’t. Spoiler, these ideas are not comparable; it’s not “there’s some good and bad on both sides.” Slavery is bad. Treating human beings as property is bad.

Nor is it easy to see how this maps to a near-future civil war, but perhaps that’s the point. By implying both sides in whatever conflict lies ahead are equally objectionable the movie doesn’t have to take sides; by not saying what the conflict is about, it avoids offending anyone. But when you’re going back and killing people who, according to Rao, are not directly responsible for what happened, it requires a clear case to convince me that right is on Rya’s side (Lockhart eventually sides with her). If the movie were a lot better otherwise, that would still sink it for me. “If it begins with you warning me here on this beach then it always ends with me dying.”

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As expected, a slight drop in productivity

As I’ve mentioned frequently in this week-in-review posts, if I’m performing way above average or way below average the odds are that by random chance I’ll do less well the following week. When I’m at my very best it’s just easier to drop to a lower level than stay at the top. That’s the nature of averages.

So unsurprisingly, this wasn’t as good a week as the previous two. For one thing I gave myself Wednesday off: I had to take the car in for annual inspection and checkup and decided I’d just bring a book rather than my computer. Then I kept reading that afternoon. It felt good, so no regrets. We also had the housekeepers in Thursday. I thought we’d be dealing with the new dishwasher Tuesday but that fell through — there’s a part that was out (supply chain issues) so we’re rescheduled for a couple of weeks.

My dizziness continues but at a much reduced level so my daily exercises are apparently fixing things or buying time for them to fix themselves. I could drive safely to the car place and back so that’s good enough. I’m sticking with exercises that do not involve heavy head-jerking for now, though.

This week’s big breakthrough was figuring out the problem with the ending of Oh the Places You’ll Go! My new ending, with everyone in the future world of 2015, works much better though it does need some fixing and editing. I also figured out that the problem with Adventure of the Red Leech is the third quarter: there’s a lot of necessary exposition but no tension, nothing to up the stakes. I don’t quite know how to fix it yet, though.

Other than that, it was mostly Leafs, plus a new client asking for similar business articles. Better paying per article but not as many articles available.

And I had to resolve a problem with a couple of missing photos from the set I sent in as illustrations for The Aliens Are Here. All taken care of now.

All in all, not bad for the last week of the month. Month-in-review post will come next week.

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Perhaps this time, the impossible takes a little shorter.

As I’ve said before, my list of 2022 goals doesn’t include a lot of specifics. One of the specific goals is that I want to finish rewriting Impossible Takes a Little Longer and send it off to someone (or alternatively, have it ready to self-publish).

I’ve never managed to write anything that quickly but I think it’s doable. With Aliens Are Here and Undead Sexist Cliches done, I have no other major project (lots of little ones). And this is book that I’ve rewritten several times already so it’s not like I’m starting from scratch.

I’ve been approaching the current draft like a NaNoNaNo project. Figure out where I’m going next and then just charge ahead writing the sucker. If I see possible problems, keep going. I know from experience that can waste a shit-ton of time — I get to the end, realize the draft is completely wrong — but it’s coming along well. A number of chunks are still usable, I just had to shift them around to meet my new plot structure. It’s tighter, tenser (I think) and less rambling.

It’s also created a raft of new problems. In my previous, more rambling plot, the Big Bad doesn’t become aware of KC until halfway through the book (she assumes he’s behind all her problems but it’s coincidence). Now he needs to be working against her much sooner, which will require some changes. I’m not sure what, though. And his biggest moments with her take place in scenes that got cut a couple of drafts ago. Writing now, I definitely need to build up his presence more.

Matt, KC’s close buddy, barely appears in the new manuscript. That’s bad because later events have no emotional punch if I don’t build up their friendship. I’m not sure where I fit him in. Or should I drop him and give his role to Rachel? She’s another friend of KC but much of her original subplot has been cut or handed off to KC’s best friend Sarah. This would give her something to do — perhaps there’s no longer enough material for two characters. Carla Jeffries, the mayor of New York, played a much larger role in the previous draft. It’s much diminished now, which is a shame. She’s a good character and I’d like to expand it when I rewrite this draft, if I can.

There’s also the problem of when KC learns things. A lot of the reveals got moved up much earlier, which has a ripple effect on how she reacts in later scenes and what the conversations cover. Twists I’d have preferred to hold off on until later now happen earlier. But I’m stuck with that unless I can think of a plausible reason for someone not to tell her.

Another problem could be that it’s only running into 60,000-plus words now. However that’s less of an issue than it used to be — there are publishers who’ll take a book that short — and it’ll probably expand in the next revision.

Still, I think the problems are fixable and that this rewrite is much stronger than what went before. We’ll see if I still think so when it’s done and I look it over.

Below, a paining by Giorgio De Chirico, one of my favorite surrealists, simply because I like his work.

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From New Orleans to Charleston to London: Books read

Heather Graham’s THE UNKNOWN: A Krewe of Hunters Novel is part of a long-running series about a New Orleans based society that sees dead people and fights crime. In this installment, a woman whose grandmother’s ghost has twice warned her about a dangerous arsonist looks like the firebug herself (how else did she know the neighbor’s house was on fire); fortunately one of the Krewe realizes she has the same gift they all do. But when the killer realizes she Knows Too Much, will she be able to survive? This one didn’t work for me — it’s romantic suspense and apparently that’s not my type of thing (it’s not a genre I read much), so that’s not a reflection on the book.

Having read a fair amount of John Wyndham working on The Aliens Are Here, I continued on and read his 1953 THE KRAKEN WAKES. Two married journalists — given the sexism of some Wyndham, the wife is surprisingly competent — witness mysterious meteors falling into the depths of the ocean. It eventually becomes clear the “meteors” were alien vessels, but even though we have no use for the depths of the Marianas Trench, the world’s governments decide they can’t coexist with the aliens. When our attack doesn’t wipe them out, retaliation is inevitable …

This is surprisingly contemporary in its portrayal of our leaders just twiddling their thumbs while the world burns. Nobody wants to evacuate the sea coast or detour shipping around the occupied ocean floor so government try to pretend everything’s fine, no need to do anything drastic that might lose popular support or displease powerful business leaders. Certainly no need to acknowledge that one scientist was spot on in predicting what would happen. The downside is that it’s very, very, very talky to the point I started skipping large chunks of it. And fresh off my movie book, the degree of Othering didn’t help. Efforts to establish communication with the aliens might have been interesting — how do we do it when we can’t go down that low and they don’t want us there anyway? — but this just assumes coexistence is impossible so of course, we must go to war. And the final victory is achieved off-stage by the kind of “deus ex laboratoria” Wyndham mocks in The Midwich Cuckoos.

MADNESS RULES THE HOUR: Charleston, 1860 and the Mania For War by Paul Starobin looks at how South Carolina approached the election of 1860 determined to preserve their right to treat human beings as property but unsure of the best path — immediate secession? Wait until the rest of the “slave power” was ready to join them? Work within the Union for now? Key factors include a firebrand secesh newspaper editor, working classes who wanted to eliminate competition from free black labor, Lincoln’s election (the firebrands were delighted, figuring the less abolitionist Stephen Douglas might have defanged the push for immediate secession) and starry-eyed optimism about their future. Good, with some memorable characters including a seamstress jailed merely for having abolitionist views and free blacks terrified to discover their rights were suddenly disappearing.

Twenty years after Edmond Hamilton’s The Star Kings ended with John Gordon cast back to the present, cut off from his future friends and his lover Liana, he finally made his RETURN TO THE STARS (I imagine the first book coming out in paperback generated enough interest for the sequel). After several years sleepwalking through 20th century life, Gordon is physically returned to the future instead of just his mind. This proves a mixed blessing as he and Liana have to adjust to the new status quo and, of course, there’s a new threat to the peace of the galaxy. Great fun, and the conniving villain Shorr Kahn (now on the heroes’ team) steals most of his scenes. There are some added short stories in the series I may pick up eventually though the crossover with Leigh Brackett’s Eric John Stark is way pricey.

POPULUXE was Great Funk author Thomas Hine’s first book on pop-culture design and artifacts, focusing on the 1954-64 period when cars got tailfins, Americans got suburban homes and everything from motels to time pieces borrowed design tips from satellites and atomic research. Hine argues this was partly America’s sunny conviction that they were hurtling into a newer, cooler future and partly the working class having money to spend and a willingness to do so (tailfins were originally for Cadillacs so they suggested status even on cheaper cars). It was also partly marketing: once most people had a car, encouraging them to upgrade for style and design was a way to keep sales going. This book didn’t work for me as well as Great Funk, partly because I’m more attached to the 1970s. Also, though, because Populuxe needed more photos and possibly more scope (he mentions Barbie but he could have spent more time with her, and with toys in general).  Overall, though, very interesting with details such as Hine’s defense of the suburbs (arguing they were less conformist than old ethnic neighborhoods) and looking at contemporary worries the family fallout shelter meant a loss of community spirit (would you let your neighbor in if there was a crisis?).

Last week I mentioned reading THE DOMESTIC REVOLUTION: How the Introduction of Coal Into Victorian Homes Changed Everything, by Ruth Goodman, an excellent look at how increasing deforestation around London led to the city becoming an early adopter of coal for heating and cooking (in some parts of England, wood fires were the norm into living memory). As coal burns hotter and stays hotter longer — and gives out unpleasant, dirty smoke — this had a ripple effect on methods of cooking (boiling works very well with coal), cleaning and home construction. Goodman has worked in a lot of living history projects (including one of those PBS series) so having hands on experience with old-school cleaning, baking and firemaking adds some interest — though you have to want nerdy immersion in the topic to enjoy the book I think.

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