Friday, December 25, 2015

There Are Sentences I Should Just Keep Away From (The World Is Not Enough)

fig. 1: Look, the name wouldn't even be a problem if you didn't have the overwhelming sense it was kept in some writer's back pocket just so's he can one day make an off-color Pussy Galore-level joke.
What makes a good Bond Girl?

Much hay was made last year when Monica Bellucci was cast as one of two Bond Girls in the then-upcoming film Spectre. Morning talk shows were abuzz. They talked as though this were some progressive milestone, as though casting one of the most beautiful women in the world was somehow not obvious, simply because she was fifty years old. At four years older than lead Daniel Craig, Bellucci has the distinction of being the only Bond Girl--and, beyond that, a positive rarity in mainstream cinema--to actually be older than the male lead. Of course, those morning news programs didn't focus nearly as much on the casting of Lea Seydoux, a French actress and the second part of this double bill. Clocking in at seventeen years younger than Craig, she is what the James Bond franchise, and Hollywood cinema in general, is more used to. For those of us who have seen the James Bond films (and I've seen them all), the pattern is obvious. You know which of that pair the film is going to focus on.

fig. 2: Just the idea of the press roll-out of "Here are the people he's going to fuck in this movie" is pretty strange.
True to form, Bellucci plays what I like to call the Act Two Girl, the girl that James Bond interacts with and beds before the close of the second act. Frequently, this lady is murdered, sometimes quite theatrically, by the lead bad guy or one of his lackeys. See also: Strawberry Fields, Tilly Masterton, Plenty O'Toole, etc. Seydoux, on the other hand, plays the Act Three Girl, the lady who might show up earlier, but her romance with James Bond is a sort of simmering thing eventually consummated at the close of the film's final act. So it is with Seydoux, with Eva Green's Vesper Lynd, and with every Act Three Girl of the Brosnan era like clock work. Sometimes this formula is played with. In the Brosnan films, however, it's pretty rote. It happens with Isabella Scorupco's Natalya in GoldenEye, with Michelle Yeoh's Wai Lin in Tomorrow Never Dies, and with Halle Berry's Jinx in Die Another Day.

And boy oh boy does it happen here, in 1999's The World is Not Enough.

fig. 3: Ugh.

The World Is Not Enough is infamous for its casting of Denise Richards as nuclear physicist Christmas Jones, the Act Three Girl. This is the era of Peak Denise Richards. After starring in 1997's Starship Troopers and 1998's Wild Things, she was a hot commodity, guaranteed to put asses in seats. She is not, however, ever going to be considered among the bright lights of the modern thespian tradition. She delivers the scientific technobabble with which Jones is burdened with such vapid lack of conviction it's though she's learning English for the first time. But enough about Richards. Picking on her lack of technical expertise, or on the franchise for hopping on a hot property when they had the chance, is like shooting particularly dead-eyed fish in a barrel. Instead, for the moment, let's focus on Act Two's Girl, and curiously the only Bond Girl to also be a level antagonist: Elektra King.

There have been others, sure. Lady assassins, mainly, variations on that other Bond Film Trope, the Bad Guy's Girlfriend. The Bond franchise is in the position of having to negotiate between its fifty-year history and the audience expectations as a result of that history, and the changing landscape of culture surrounding it. This is probably no more better exemplified in these films than in The World Is Not Enough. Elektra King, played by French actress Sophie Marceau (herself a hot ticket after 1995's Braveheart) is a much more fully realized character than Richards' Jones, capable of standing toe-to-toe with Bond and of hatching her own ludicrously violent scheme to grab hold of a precious resource and make just tons of money in the process.

fig. 4: Remind you of anyone?
The closest the franchise gets to this sort of lady supervillainy elsewhere is Octopussy's eponymous Act Three Girl, though Bond soon sets her to rights and we find that the bad guy all along was Louis Jordan's Kamal Khan. The agency and mystique with which she begins the film is repeatedly undercut until she shares that closing love scene with our title hero. A few things changed between 1983 and 1999.

King has no such scruples, or constraints. She manipulates her captors when rescue seems impossible, hops in to bed with Bond at the earliest opportunity, and masterminds a scheme to control the distribution of oil to Eastern Europe. She also, of course, uses sex as a weapon. (See above.) The franchise can't help being a bit retrograde even when it is being progressive.

Although, it's not as though Bond himself is above using sex to get what he wants (though, typically, that's, well, sex). He handily seduces this film's Act One Girl, the preposterously-named Dr Molly Warmflash, in order to secure his position (ahem) on the active duty roster once again. He's positively reluctant to sleep with King at first (as reluctant as someone, particularly someone as Tex Avery-ish as the Brosnan Bond can be about hopping in to bed with Sophie Marceau), and the romantic tension (such as it is) between Bond and Jones is an artifact of how these action-adventure films are constructed. There's always a guy, there's always a girl, they usually kiss by the end. Indeed, the idea of the "Bond Girl" partly exists simply because he's been at this such a long time that what to other films would simply be trappings of the genre become this accretion disc of lipstick and high heels, whirling about through the franchise's fifty-year gravity.

The World Is Not Enough gets well-deserved flak for the bland casting of and sub-par acting by Denise Richards, which is a shame because that eclipses a great performance by someone who manages to be one of the best Bond Girls of the series as well as its only true female mastermind.

fig. 5: Plus she swans about the place in all these amazing caftans

Wednesday, December 23, 2015

io9 Concept Art Writing Prompt: Dec 23, 2015

Rupert stared out across the marshes at the blackhead. "This just isn't fair," he complained. "How did the commission even let him in with an entry like that?" The whole thing had to be too high-concept to even be considered. Didn't it?

His wife, Liao, merely nodded. Humoring him. Of course she always had a thing for Aamir and those high-concept shenanigans. This, though, seeding an Earth-type planet with nanites, growing these geometric shapes, blackheads, blemishes on an otherwise pristine planet, it didn't land. Like when he took a century to painstakingly laser a city's worth of buildings out of the surface of a moon, then turned off the shields and let the meteorites take their course.  Or that time he electrified a Venus-type's atmosphere to resemble Van Gogh's Starry Night.

Where Rupert designed intricate clockwork architecture out of moons and gas clouds and dead stars, testaments to humanity's place at the zenith of nature, Aamir was content to fiddle around at the edges, playing his art as some kind of long con. Rupert despised it.

They were standing in the marsh, the planet's native microbial life sloshing around their boots, invading their lungs. Their very being here was against any number of cultural taboos. From a distance, Aamir waved at them. Not smugly, Rupert thought, which infuriated him more. He would have preferred the man be smug about it all, lording it over him. As it was, Rupert felt as inconsequential as the bacteria playing about his feet.

"Do you suppose it's a perfect sphere?" Liao asked, trying to change the subject.

"Who gives a shit?" Rupert snapped, and trudged toward where Aamir was standing with the rest of the Arts Committee, admiring his handiwork. He wondered how long the blackheads were meant to last. Would future generations of these microbes, when they quickened into intelligent life a billion years from now, look on them in awe and wonder? How would Aamir's little art project deform and shape the mythology of an entire world?

More likely they'd just turn into slush in a few hundred thousand years, after he'd made his point.

Sunday, December 20, 2015

Mad Scientist Journal

Hello, America, and points beyond;

I have a short story out this month published by the great folks at Mad Scientist Journal. Feel free to check it out over at Amazon, Goodreads, and Smashwords. It's pre-release now, the actual thing will be available New Year's Eve.

Friday, December 18, 2015

The World's Going Up in Flames and They're Still Playing at Toy Soldiers! (Die Another Day)

fig. 1: "I don't want to spoil it, but I'm straight-up the best thing about this movie."
You know when the film starts with your main character being tortured over months and months in a North Korean prison and you're totally in to it, you have a complicated relationship with that character.

I have fond memories of Die Another Day even though I know it is a piece of shit. I moved to Ann Arbor, Michigan in the summer of 2002, and didn't really know anybody. I had a room mate, a friend from High School who knew a whole scrum of interesting people. Her friends gradually became my friends, down entirely to their generosity of spirit. Die Another Day was one of the first outings I went to with them, and the first I think where my room mate didn't make it. I think she has the same issue with James Bond films as my wife does. But that's later.

Die Another Day opens with what's become de rigueur for the franchise, a cold open in which the perpetually smarmy Bond quips and explodes his way through some major international incident, all without breaking a sweat. Then he's caught. Then he's captured, and tortured, and poisoned. I  vividly remember watching this sequence in the theater thinking "Oh yeah. This is so James Bond didn't stop 9/11," which, as the tenuous relationship these films have with realpolitik, isn't totally out of the question. When Bond gets out, M tells him that while he was gone the world changed. Unfortunately for the Brosnan era, James Bond didn't.

There's a glimmer of the movie that could have been in that first half hour. The hovercraft chase is surely overblown, and a little silly, but Will Yun Lee is a charming, charismatic presence, and the North Korean setting allows James Bond to go after real-world bad guys for a change. Then Bond is caught, and tortured, and effectively disavowed before going on the lam to try and crack this thing on his own.

Shortly after this, the film loses its way. Nothing in the Brosnan era was ever going to approach the flavor of verisimilitude the Craig films would later attempt, but there's a tug-of-war between realism and outright camp in Die Another Day that realism soundly loses, and if it's not when Bond shows up at a swanky Hong Kong hotel looking like Aquaman than it must be right about when Bond and Jinx stumble on the DNA machine.

fig. 2: Jinx

Jinx. It wasn't until researching this film for the rewatch that I learned the reason Halle Berry was cast was to spin her off in to her own film series. It makes sense. Coming fresh off her Oscar win for Monster's Ball, she's just a bit too A-list to be another of Bond's flings, and it helps explain the jarring presence of Michael Madsen in this film, who acts as if he's already starring in this other franchise. Some time I'll get around to checking off all the Americans in these films and what that might say about a British film franchise whose primary demographic seems to be American men. Maybe when we get to Joe Don Baker.

Had this whole gambit payed off, who knows? Maybe we'd be seeing Alexandra Shipp playing the new Jinx. Maybe it would have deformed the franchise's later attempt at changing course. Maybe it would have sailed away into stranger waters. None of this happened, of course, because Die Another Day was largely terrible, and Jinx wasn't any help.

Indeed, the film is crammed with so many elements, the idea that it could somehow serve as a back-door pilot for a Jinx film franchise (effectively launching a "James Bond Cinematic Universe" a full decade before every movie studio in Hollywood went gaga for the idea) is completely ludicrous. At a glance, we have: (A) A North Korean Colonel turned English Aristocrat through (B) Some kind of Star Trek-level DNA re-sequencing machine, who (C) is laundering conflict diamonds through a front in Iceland, leading to (D) an entire set-piece involving a collapsing ice palace, whose collapse is caused by (E) an orbital space laser composed of and funded by those diamonds, and leading to (F) a supercar fight, where (G) one of the belligerents has a straight-up cloaking device, the whole Orbital Doom Laser possibly? made possible by (H) a mole in MI6 who seduces and betrays James Bond--as one does--the same mole that gave up Bond (I) way back in North Korea, before the (J) torture and disavowment.

None of it hangs together. Any two or three of these elements, given time to breathe, might have made a more compelling film. Even the racebending, by far the most questionable element in this film, could have worked if given some semblance of thematic heft. Colonel Moon is one of the few bad guys to pose a threat not to Bond's life, but in the beginning of the film at least to Bond's position as the point of the spear of Western Paternalism. Turning up all rebuilt, giving smug whiteness better than the guy who's made it his brand for forty years.

To be clear, I am not of the opinion that any of these movies have to be weighty, brooding tomes, or even that Bond himself needs to question his place in the world. But the Brosnan era suffers from a dearth of things to say, and in light of the eye-opening tragedy a little over a year previous, this silly ramble through face-changing and diamond lasers seems almost crass. Maybe I'm wrong. Maybe this film is in less bad taste than it seems looking back with a decade plus of hindsight. Maybe, a year after a bunch of assholes thought the best way to talk to God was to use a bunch of airplanes to commit mass murder, we needed a light and fluffy spy adventure about DNA machines, laser satellites, diamond-encrusted bad guys, and Halle Berry. Maybe this was how the Western World heals.

In any event, if not caught up by real-world events, James Bond is definitely caught up by those in cinema. Not only the aforementioned Mr Bourne, but also by the shift in movies and particularly on television toward more complex, less straightforwardly-heroic characters. Though everything about James Bond speaks to that nuance--he is even here, for what I believe is the first time, explicitly referred to as an assassin--he is never played or written as anything other than straightforwardly heroic. You get the sense, particularly with non-James Bond films in which Brosnan appears that he is keen to subvert that image. Here, in his fourth outing as the character, Brosnan seems largely checked out. His Bond films always veer between the winking entendres of the Roger Moore era and a simmering anger that hearkens back to Dalton and Connery. Brosnan is very, very good at playing that seething rage, but can't overcome the kind of crap writing that delivers such lame quips as "I missed your sparkling personality" to the guy with the diamond shrapnel in his face and the MRA entitlement that substitutes for seduction when he tries to neg a fellow MI6 agent into bed by telling her she must prefer this palace of ice since she doesn't immediately want to fuck him after knowing him all of five minutes. Not quite the "men want to be him, women want to be with him" dynamic. Next thing you know, he'll be peacocking.

Though Die Another Day would go on to be financially successful, it couldn't dodge both the shifting landscape of popular culture and the general feeling that it came off a damp squib of a movie. Pierce Brosnan would continue to play subversions and iterations of the title character (as he did in 1999's sublime The Thomas Crown Affair remake), particularly in The Matador where he is just a delight. His entire era, which in hindsight feels like an era in transition, would give way to something else. Something new.

fig. 3: Off into the sunset

Saturday, December 12, 2015

io9 Concept Art Writing Prompt, 11/30/15

Though he generally preferred the term "interlocutor," D'Augustine knew he was lying to himself. Three years of law school, four of post-graduate studies in the history and language of Atlantis, and he was a goddamn shark lawyer. Not just that, he was a lawyer for the most hated shark on Earth. Where did he go wrong?

He watched Whunruuuyuu pace ceaselessly back and forth. He knew the fish hated it here. And why wouldn't he? It was the perfect prison, nowhere to go. But beyond that: they'd stuck his cage in a low and rolling plain, a place absolutely lousy with horizon, that sharp boundary between land and air an almost perfect breeding ground for constant existential crisis in any fish.

D'Augustine had come to discuss Whunruuuyuu's appeal to the International Tribunal. With time served he could get off for good behavior. Back under the waves again, maybe this time in the Pacific, away from his victims. There was a dead fish head on D'Augustine's porch this morning. Again. At least it wasn't thrown through his window this time, strung to a brick.

They had a long conversation in Old High Sharkese that Whunruuuyuu tried not to broadcast to the other prisoners crammed in the little zoo with him. The focus of D'Augustine's appeal was the general condition of the prison, so full of other inmates. Afterward, he went to the booth to make the necessary calls.

He would do his job, to the best of his ability, and if that meant more fish heads, well, it meant more fish heads.

io9 Concept Art Writing Prompt, 12/11/15

You sort of imagine the monoliths being these massive, imposing things, like in the movies. Something the primitive apes would look up at in awe. Origin and purpose still a mystery, all that. At least, that's what you think for the first few seconds it takes for someone to tell you about the monoliths, because the next thing they tell you is that these black constructs are microscopic. Atomic. That they have been infiltrating the Earth for billions of years, but nobody saw them.

Then that someone tells you that they bleed.

Then someone else tells you that it's not blood, at least that's not what Dr Contreras says it is. Contreras has collected over a hundred billion of the things in a tiny sea of liquid xenon under the Black Hills in South Dakota. He says it's a byproduct of the gravitational lensing they produce. He calls it the Red Milk.

There are people down there in that cloistered lake who drink the Red Milk and speak to God. Jamal has been collecting their reminiscences into poetry as the Milk decays in their brains and forms electron bonds on its way out, normalizing. He wishes he had the guts to take the stuff, but the Red Milk terrifies him.

There are the typical calls Upstairs. They say Contreras is a cult leader, a fifth columnist. Congress threatens to cut off their funding every day. There are protestors lining out the gates of the lab, because God has been speaking and the things It is saying are not what the world is ready to hear.

Friday, December 11, 2015

You've Regenerated (Casino Royale)

fig. 1: Not Hannibal Lecter
When Die Another Day premiered in November of 2002, it was already dated. An overblown fantasy of a film, its conceits were undermined not only by the real-world events that overtook it, but also the arrival a few months prior of an identically-monogrammed action hero: Jason Bourne.

Plenty of ink both real and digital has been spilled in the thirteen years since The Bourne Identity premiered about the effect it had on the James Bond franchise--as well as action movies in general--and it would be boring for me to rehash it all here. Suffice it to say it was seismic. James Bond had to adapt. He did this by using one of the franchise's longest-used tricks: the appropriation of whatever was popular at the year of the film's release. 2006 was a big year for parkour, Texas Hold 'Em poker, and, of particular note to this film: reboots, and prequels.

fig 2: I can't tell you how many rounds of Texas Hold 'Em I played during 2006.
Just the year before, Batman rode the proverbial reboot train (in his instance surely heavily self-branded) to the rejuvenation of his entire franchise. Battlestar Galactica returned after twenty-five years away all grim and politically aware. Even King Arthur got a gritty reboot, in 2004. While on some level the Bond franchise reboots every time a new actor is cast, they are nominally playing a character on the same trajectory. Sean Connery is tracking Blofeld at the opening of Diamonds Are Forever to avenge the death of Tracy Bond, who married George Lazenby the film previous before getting unceremoniously fridged. Eighteen years later, Timothy Dalton would visit Tracy Bond's grave.

The rules were different for Casino Royale, thanks in part to a fortuitous freeing-up of the rights to adapt the book, the first in Fleming's series of novels about the character. (British copyright law is weird. I'm looking in to it. Definitely for Never Say Never Again.) With the original novel to play with, the producers could claim "back to basics" in a way no other outing could claim to.

Indeed, gone are most of the bells and whistles which so defined the franchise and its numerous descendants. The film's main villain, Le Chiffre, though recognizable as a Bond antagonist through his single moniker and his creepy bleeding eye, is not some would-be world conqueror. He's an embezzler. His stakes are decidedly and in that harrowing torture scene he injects a bit of realpolitik back in to the proceedings. "Even after I slaughtered you and your little girlfriend, your people would still welcome me with open arms," he tells Bond. "Because they need. What I know."

And then Le Chiffre is killed, in a bit of franchise-building to set up the next sequel. In that moment before, however, all this low-fi storytelling pays off. It's hard to imagine James Bond failing when it's a megalomaniac threatening to blow up South Korea, but when it's him alone in a room with a bad guy and a chair and a lenght of rope, where the stakes are only a couple hundred million dollars and whether or not one terrorist goes free, you get the sense that he might actually lose.

This is, to me, the essence of Craig's appeal. Though most of the rough edges of that original interpretation of the character remain, he's fallible and vulnerable in a way that none of his predecessors managed. This is, again, the franchise playing catch-up, this time with a modern storytelling that emphasizes the kind of interiority that James Bond, in his cinematic incarnations at least, never possessed.

When I was growing up, I was sort of aware that James Bond was around and that he'd been played by these different actors. The Roger Moore films were a staple of basic-cable outlets like TBS and the like. Same with Connery. I've seen snippets of both Moonraker, For Your Eyes Only and Never Say Never Again several times out of context. Somehow, Moonraker shook out as the film most likely to be seen randomly about three-quarters of the way through its run, at any given time of day. The first James Bond film I saw in the theater was a Brosnan entry, but not his first. It was Tomorrow Never Dies, which I saw with my brother. So Brosnan was already the incumbent when I saw him on the big screen, and his transformation into a new actor was something that, to date, I had not witnessed.

What a brutal, assured transformation that was. The black-and-white noirish opening, the quick-cut editing, the subversion of the classic gun barrel sequence. For these essays I rewatch a Bond film a week, but for Casino Royale I felt compelled to rewatch the debuts of each of the other actors to play the part. In GoldenEye, you see Brosnan in glimpses: from afar: hair, then eyes, then full-face and a lame quip. In The Living Daylights, a group of mountain climbers, of false leads, a pair of guys who are meant to look more like Bond than Timothy Dalton, red herrings if Dalton's face wasn't all over Daylights' promotional material. Live and Let Die eschews Bond for the entirety of the cold open before cutting to the title song, then a soft-focus shot of a sleeping lady and a pull back to Roger Moore. On Her Majesty's Secret Service delivers that famous fourth-wall-breaking quip. This never happened to the other fella. That said, even with those films, their in-film debut comes after a full-on shot in the opening gun barrel sequence. What's the point in building up your lead in fits and starts if everyone's already seen him take that shot in his tux? The gun barrel subversion, coming at the end of a brutal, violent sequence, is one of the first of Casino Royale's great statements of purpose.

fig. 3: Funny that Campbell would go on to direct this piece of shit.
That physicality permeates the film. Craig smashes through a wall, he gets beaten and bloodied. The camera follows the havoc he wreaks, the consequences of it. He emerges from the water in a scene that deserves to be as iconic as Ursula Andress' first appearance in Doctor No. Combine this with a villain not interested in something as fanciful as taking over the world but rather in staying one step ahead of MI6 and his own terrorist empolyers and the message is clear: James Bond has come down to Earth.

As a series of spy films set at least nominally in the real world, the James Bond franchise has to constantly negotiate that balance between the concerns of the real world and the franchise's own drive to break left and do something completely strange. Bond himself is a fictional character bound by fictional rules and conceits. He works for a real-world organization and a real-world country, based out of a real-world building that, in Spectre, will be demolished because of the actions of a fictional terrorist. More than any other era, the Craig films are about that negotiation between the world of realpolitik and the world of monologuing supervillians and esoteric death traps. These four films represent a long negotiation between James Bond and the world. But to see where they might go next, it is perhaps necessary to keep looking back.

Friday, December 4, 2015

Some Utterly Comfortless Place Where You and I Can Suffer Together (Quantum of Solace)

fig. 1: The first Google image hit for the word "quantum."

Let's start with that title, shall we? Everyone else did. "Quantum of Solace," as a title, makes no damn sense. Which, as director Marc Forster and star Daniel Craig took pains to point out on the press circuit preceding the film, isn't exactly a deal breaker with James Bond films. A View to a Kill? Antiquated and strange. Thunderball? What the hell is a "thunderball?" Octopussy? Bizarre and only just coherent based on an in-film mention, which, to me, is what sinks Forster and Craig's rationalizations.

"Quantum of Solace," as really any trivia page concerning the film will tell you, is the title of a James Bond short story as well as a phrase within that story, concerning the bare minimum of good feeling that must be present between two people for love to exist. Except, unlike Octopussy or GoldenEye or Thunderball, this phrase is not only not mentioned, it is undermined by the name of the latest ersatz SPECTRE, an international crime syndicate composed of government-toppling fixers. You can argue that the aforementioned "quantum of solace" is what James Bond achieves by the climax of this film, coming to terms with the death of Vesper Lynd in Casino Royale, though, again, the vibe Fleming was going for was meant to exist between couples. To say nothing of the fact that the term is beyond obscure. "Solace" is a word most people probably know, sure, but "quantum," at least as Fleming used it in 1960, to refer to "a tiny little bit of something" is far from in common use today. Mostly when used these days, "quantum" refers to "sci-fi hokum." Moviegoers were more confused than intrigued.

What they got upon arriving in theaters in 2008 was a direct sequel to 2006's Casino Royale, something that had until now (and, so far, since) not been done in a James Bond film. Already we're out of sorts, disoriented by a frenetic car chase that reveals the hero only in glimpses, and dropped square into the memory of a film from two years ago. It's been said, by the guys at the excellent James Bonding Podcast, that Quantum of Solace improves considerably as the second-half of a four-hour epic, but that's not how they were released, or how the films were planned. Q of S was hobbled by the 2007's Writer's Strike and much of the direct-sequel elements were added hastily to a barely-finished script. As a result, James Bond accidented into modernity.

The popular conceit is that this present Golden Age of Television and its focus on serialization and character complexity began with The Sopranos in 1999. (Nerds will tell you heavy serialization actually started with Babylon 5 in 1994, but, come on, it's not like anyone was actually watching Babylon 5.)  By the time Quantum of Solace premiered nearly ten years later, television was awash with intricately woven tales of complicated anti-heroes. This moral complexity bled into the rebooted 007, and the focus on serialization followed. Even though the subsequent films are less direct sequels, Spectre takes pains to connect all the disparate dots in the Craig era, from Le Chiffre to Mr. White to Skyfall's Silva. After decades of being handed files by M and going out to wreak havoc and screw, James Bond is caught up in a different type of story than the one to which he's become accustomed.

In fact, remove Bond from the equation altogether and what you're left with is a political thriller tied to Bolivia's recent water crisis, complete with a nebulous geology report, coup-happy general, and a sleazily corrupt CIA bureaucrat with his morally compromised partner. Drop James Bond in the mix and watch the situation warp. All of a sudden lowly MI6 filing clerks are showing up to the airport in nothing but a trench coat, before being theatrically murdered. Slickly ultramodern hotels run on hydrogen and sit out in the middle of the desert, and eventually explode.

There is a tension, then, to this film, as there is to all the films of the Craig era, between the franchise doing what it's used to doing and the demands of a new century. Quantum of Solace occupies an interesting position in the Daniel Craig films in that it is the least interested in responding to other James Bond films. Where Spectre and Skyfall are at least in part about reestablishing classic elements of the mythology, and Casino Royale is about showing this character we've followed for decades before he was as we knew him, Quantum of Solace is about James Bond the character, and how he might survive in the media landscape of the twenty-first century. Results were, at the time, to say the least, mixed.

Quantum of Solace represents a limit case, of sorts. Its political gamesmanship, its dour take on the series' main character, its frenetic action editing, they all seemed to add to the general bad vibe about this film, and would largely go unrepeated. Stack this against any film of, say, the Roger Moore era, and feel the whiplash ensue. This movie, then, represents a sort of limit case, the furthest out point the Craig era will reach from the consensus reality of James Bond pictures.

It is worth wondering, as a thought experiment if nothing else, what lies beyond those limits. James Bond is never going to fight Batman, for instance, or Cthulu, though I'd pay good money to see either. While he might be fallible, and human--especially in this age's focus on conflicted antiheroes, he's never going to be wrong. Not in a deep, intrinsic sense. He's never going to be something other than an escapist figure. To the extent that it gets anything wrong about James Bond, Quantum of Solace gets this wrong. James Bond is meant to be a figure of escape, for a man penning these stories to put off thinking about his impending marriage, for an empire crumbling into irrelevance, for people looking to visit exotic places, for "men wanting to be him and women wanting to be with him," James Bond is meant as a way out. If nothing else, that's why he's kept it up all this time.

Saturday, November 28, 2015

Wearing a Bit Thin (Skyfall)

fig. 1 Not a Bond villain

Spectre, and the James Bond film that immediately precedes it, Skyfall, are of a kind. They share the same cast, the same director, the same anxieties. Part of Spectre's unease has to do with the emerging surveillance state. Though, of course, not because the surveillance itself might be a violation of our basic liberties, but rather that such a thing could be perverted by some transparently evil bureaucrat secretly on the take from a shadowy international crime syndicate.

Similarly, at the heart of Skyfall is Silva, a man who announces his intentions by broadcasting on the Internet the names and cover identities of five deep-cover MI6 operatives. He is the terror of the digital age for a department run on secrets. WikiLeaks was founded in 2006, the year Daniel Craig arrived in the Bond role. In 2010 and 2011, they released thousands of documents pertaining to the US and UK's game of empire in Afghanistan and Iraq, including footage of a US helicopter gunship indiscriminately gunning down Iraqi civilians in 2007.  "We can't keep working in the shadows," Mallory tells M. "There are no shadows anymore." What could be more frightening to an army of spies?

Except, in the end, Silva is not Julian Assange. He is, as the logic of these movies dictate, a product of MI6's own ecosystem, an ersatz double-0 given up by his handler and left for dead. He does all this out of a personal vendetta against M. The little people that get in his way are just collateral damage. He is a stateless despot, a glowering madman in the tradition of the genre. There's no question raised here about the ethics of gathering secrets, or of upending the systems that run on them. For the twenty-third time in twenty-three movies, James Bond fights a cipher.

Silva runs his operation out of an island he took over by manufacturing a fake crisis. He destabilizes multinationals from his computer. He rigs elections. He hacks spy satellites, gas mains, and MI6 itself. Earlier in the film, Q tells Bond "I'll hazard I could do more damage on my laptop in my pajamas before my first cup of Earl Grey than you can do in a year in the field." Thank God Q's on our side.

fig. 2: Still from 'Wes Anderson's James Bond'

Spectre will later rehash the counterargument Bond makes here. When asked what he needs Bond for in this brave new world, Q responds that "Now and then a trigger has to be pulled."

"Or not pulled," Bond replies. "Difficult to know which in your pajamas." It is this tension that animates Skyfall.  While the two computer geniuses, Q and Silva, play tug-of-war with their technological jiggery pokery, Bond absconds with M to his ancestral home, explicitly stating that he's going back in time. Faced with a monster from M's past, Bond retreats into his own, to a looming old house with no wi-fi, no phone, and only the deliberately low-tech defenses they can rig up themselves to aid in their defense. Indeed, Bond escapes through a priest hole, an old escape route dating back to the Sixteenth Century. Sometimes, as we're reminded by different characters throughout the course of Skyfall, the old ways are best.

At fifty years in, this feels like the franchise trying to justify itself, and it would feel even more so if Skyfall weren't such a beautiful, confident film. Bond is positioned again as a throwback, even though this version of him has barely been a double-0 for six years. He's distrustful of Q's youth, drives a car made before he was born, and shaves with an old-fashioned straight razor. The Bond films can't help but be self-conscious about their own age. Indeed, the film puts Bond on his back foot for much of its running time. He's haggard, worn out, the toll of the human dimension of intelligence weighing him down. He's nearly broken by starring in a spy movie in the post-Bourne Identity era.

In fact, he only seems to recover as his status quo grows closer and closer to the one we're familiar with. Moneypenny, in the field at the start of the film, takes a desk job. MI6 moves out of its slickly modern fortress into a cavernous bunker, and M, played by Judi Dench since 1995, is replaced by a stiff upper-lipped middle-aged white man. The final scene of the film is part of the Jungian memory of these movies: Bond in M's office, receiving a file, being sent out into the field. Even now, the landscape is shifting back.

Sunday, November 22, 2015

Thought You Were Going to Say He Was Your Secret Brother or Something (Spectre)

fig. 1: Not James Bond

Spoilers for the film Spectre, if you haven't seen it yet.

Spectre is an uneasy film. It is an anxious film. At the heart of its anxiety is the place of James Bond in the world, both as a person in his universe and as a cultural artifact in ours, and for much the same reasons. Having just set up shop in Skyfall in a set of subterranean Churchill-era bunkers, a move which, along with most of the rest of Skyfall was meant to telegraph both "back to basics" and "this is a prequel, you guys," MI6 is upended and meant to blend in to MI5, which is presently run by the scheming, oily Max Denbigh. Someone makes the observation early in that Denbigh went to school with the Home Secretary. The actor who plays him, Andrew Scott, is thirty-nine, which would make him about twenty years younger than Great Britain's actual Home Secretary.

This is, of course, deliberate. Compared to Daniel Craig (47) and Ralph Fiennes (52 and looking older) he seems to have more in common with the youthful Moneypenny and Q. He, and the ultramodern, transparent glass building that houses this new era of British Intelligence are THE FUTURE, and it's something everybody at MI6, at least everybody with any lines, is concerned about. M gives a not-exactly-impassioned (he is British) speech about the license to kill being a license not to kill, in a sense arguing in favor of assassination so long as the assassin is a person and not a predator drone. Denbigh is unmoved. He represents progress. Progress, and the anxiety of a fifty-three-year-old film franchise starring a forty-seven-year-old man has about its place in the world.

He is also, of course, evil, and his scheme is so transparently a bad idea that it's a wonder it took this coterie of seasoned intelligence professionals so long to figure it out. He wants to share intelligence information with a dozen other countries, with vastly different aims and goals. All in the name of thwarting terrorism, the obvious byline for this sort of thing, and the tenuous connection this film makes to real-world events.

It is worth pointing out that this film was released the same year as Kingsman: The Secret Service, a movie that is chock-a-block with Bond pastiche. In fact, 2015 was a banner year for spy films. Mission: Impossible flew in another outing, and there was Spy and The Man from U.N.C.L.E., which both also deal heavily with the classic iconography of 1960's James Bond films, and that's before films like Bridge of Spies and Sicario, offered more grounded, realistic takes.

It's that iconography that gets at the heart of Spectre's unease. If the Craig films represent a limit case for how far the franchise can stray from its roots, then throughout Spectre you can faintly hear the sound of the elastic snapping back, and much of this comes specifically in the form of Franz Oberhauser, or, as he will become known as later in the film, Ernst Stavro Blofeld.

Blofeld here represents two tropes I personally detest at work. The first being Surprise! This evil organization of which you've never heard is secretly behind all the seemingly-unrelated hokum with which you've been dealing! The second? Surprise! The bad guy is secretly connected to the good guy and hates him for something to do with their shared past. That's right, kids. Bond and Blofeld went to ski-camp together.

After James Bond's parents died, he spent a couple years with a nice man who taught him skiing and all sorts of outdoorsy stuff. The man's egomaniac biological son grew up to found--or at least run--a secret organization of evildoers that he probably would have anyway, because he was crazy enough to murder his father for being nice to an orphan boy. What it leads to is an interesting dramatic irony common in these types of mythology-heavy franchise films. We in the audience of course know who Blofeld is--the die-hard fans, anyway--but the characters obviously don't. To them he's just another lunatic

On the one hand, we haven't actually seen Blofeld in forty-four years, not since he met his end in Diamonds are Forever. On the other hand, his baggage is all over the place. The boxes of his iconography are conspicuously checked. The Nehru jacket, the cat, the scar, the position at the head of a (literally) shadowy table full of (figuratively) shadowy individuals. After fifty years of appearances, pastiches, parodies, and cultural pollination, we already know who this guy is. What his deal is. And to have the head of this worldwide terrorist cabal be Bond's old ski buddy seems...petty. SPECTRE is meant to be a larger-than-life organization. To ground it in such a low human concern seems disappointing. To me, Bond and Blofeld are meant to represent these grinding engines of empire for whom the fight eventually gets personal. To have it start this way feels like starting the song in the loudest possible register.

You can see the reasoning behind why they thought this was a good decision. SPECTRE and Blofeld are the last pieces of the franchise mythology to be fit in to place in this long prequel series, and the Craig era has been defined by giving James Bond a sense of interiority that he has conspicuously lacked through most of his film appearances. So why not marry the two? Why not have this guy you vaguely remember and vaguely understand is important be tied up completely in the main character's past? Isn't that just the most elegant way to integrate character-focused drama and action-movie mythologizing?

But then, I never found Blofeld to be all that interesting, and he's further undermined here by trying to color in a character between the thick lines of quirks and signifiers. And Bond has been fighting Blofeld, in one form or another, for all those forty-four years the latter man was missing. The franchise is littered with ersatz Blofelds, particularly in Craig's second outing, Quantum of Solace, which goes to all the trouble of creating an all new, even more preposterously named International Criminal Syndicate, only to pretty much entirely discard the thing by Skyfall and have it exist only in passing mentions in this film.

There's a reason for this, and a reason we haven't seen Bond's perennial arch nemesis since 1971, and that's entirely down to the vagaries of British copyright law. But that's another story, yet.

For now the question the Bond films grapple with is where to go from here. The movie theaters are crowded with knowing homages and sly winks to the classic series, as well as the kind of brutal, frenetic, grounded, personal action pieces Casino Royale was reacting to nine years ago. The franchise must negotiate between these two poles, while at the same time trying to keep the character relevant in a shifting political and technological landscape. M once called Bond "a dinosaur, a relic from the Cold War," and that was in GoldenEye, twenty years and a whole other James Bond ago.

I've seen all of the James Bond films. I wouldn't consider myself a big fan, but big enough that I've seen twenty-four motion pictures starring the guy, and I'm thinking seriously about going back through his back catalogue and figuring out why what works for me works, and why what doesn't doesn't, and trying to imagine how this old dinosaur might amble its way onward into a new and perilous century.

Sunday, November 1, 2015


When the elevator doors open, I'm seized by the urge to run. They haven't seen me yet. No one will notice if I don't make it in. Just go back to the airport, wait for the red eye back to Tucson, pretend none of this happened write off the seven hundred dollar planet ticket as lesson learned

It's hard when everyone you know is a superhero.

There is a secret elevator in the Empire State Building that fewer than a thousand living people know about. It takes you to the Eighty-Sixth Floor--the real Eighty-Sixth Floor--where once a year the costumed adventurer set gathers to take off their masks and pretend for a little while to be whomever it was they were before radioactive moon rock or mystical snake venom or divine alien heritage hit their lives over the head with strangeness. It's all art deco and modern furniture. Everyone else probably came in rocket cars or invisible helicopters. I took a cab from La Guardia.

Done up in cocktail dresses and dinner jackets, everyone looks different. There's an anonymity here for most of us, at least the ones who still wear masks, who weren't outed by the media or long ago gave up on having a private life. They're all here: Samson, the Hourglass, Immaterial Girl, the Yeoman. If the Tarantulist or Collapsar knew where this annual soiree was..but, then, I suppose Halloween is a big deal for them, too.

I'm late in arriving, which was of course the plan. I blend in to a sea of blandly attractive faces. This is, in fact, the first Halloween I've attended in five years. Where did the time go? Everyone looks so good. Everyone else looks good and I'm offering a silent prayer of thanks to whichever god of fashion deemed the button on my jacket should clasp at just the spot to obscure the nascent pot belly I've been carrying the past eight months.

With what I personally gauge to be a heroic effort not unlike that time I fought Azazel the Undying atop a speeding Amtrak train, I sally forth and try to mingle, first heading to the bar. Whose idea was it to add alcohol to social gatherings? I should ask Samson, he'd know. He was probably at the first one. (As if he knows I'm thinking about him, I hear that booming enfilade of the Antediluvian strongman's laughter. You wouldn't' now it from news footage or blurry cell phone videos, but up close, Samson's hair is all split ends.) Whose idea was it to get a whole scrum of people together and give them each a potion that would render the sullen ones more sullen, the belligerent ones more belligerent, and the happy ones completely insufferable?

Half the attendees don't process alcohol in the normal way. There are cocktails at the bar specially marked, full of more exotic stuff. "What'll it be, kid?" the man at the bar asks me I recognize him at once. It's hard not to with the blue-white hair (a little faded and thinned) and the cybernetic arm peeking out from the rolled-up sleeve of his pressed white shirt. He's put on weight in his middle age and I'm imagining what he looks like under that shirt, now that the rest of him doesn't measure up to the metallic muscular perfection of his robot arm. Back in the Nineties, when I was first starting out, this was Captain Extreme.

"Whiskey and soda," I tell him, and he obliges. Back in the summer of 1994, Captain Extreme was the biggest thing going. Refugee survivor of a destroyed and abandoned future. Teleported to our time to beat the stuffing out of the likes of Deathcount and the Shrieking Violet. Now, here he was, pushing fifty, tending bar. My first Halloween was a couple years after Extreme peaked, when I turned sixteen. Jane and I and the rest of the Freedom Five, on special invitation to the Eighty-Sixth Floor. There were old timers tending bar then, too. The Silver Sentinel, maybe, or Mister Marathon. I didn't know. I swore that'd never be me. Something unsavory and depressing about it.

The Hourglass steps up to the bar. She never wears a mask in public, but nobody, here or there, knows who she is. The great misfortune of The Hourglass' life is that despite the fact that she has complete mastery over all of time, the only thing anyone in the media ever wants to talk about is how amazing she looks in skin-tight Kevlar. the time her suit got ripped on live TV during a fight with The Sideways Man is probably more deeply etched in the collective psyche of the United States than the September 11th attacks. She orders a club soda and Captain Extreme dutifully sets about.

"Know something I don't?" I ask, given she isn't drinking.

"Hello, Danny," she beams. Keep your eyes on her eyes, Danny. Keep your eyes on her eyes. Keep your eyes on her eyes.  "You're looking well. How's Tucson?"

"How did--?" I still haven't told anyone. After I got sidelined, I relocated. Best orthopedic surgeon in the Southwest. I could start my career back up once the physical therapy took off.

"You accidentally let it slip and it comes up again in conversation in sixth months."

I'm taken aback but it's hardly anything new for her. She doesn't experience time like the rest of us. I try and recover my footing, telling her that I suppose I should be glad they're stil talking about me in six months. "Wait, I'm not dead, am I?" the thought stumbles out as it occurs to me. "Is that why it comes up? In six months? Am I dead?"

"You know I can't tell you that," she says, dry as the air back home.

"But you can tell everyone I'm holed up in Tucson."

"Tucson?" It's--crap. I don't know who this is. i don't recognize him out of costume. "You meet the Horsefly yet? He runs out of there, I think."

Fucking time travel. The Hourglass just shrugs at me. I tell whomever-this-is I don't know who the Horsefly is but of course I know who the Horsefly is. Tucson, Arizona is a one-cape town. Smallest of the small time. I didn't expect some other mask to show up while I was convalescing. Imagine my surprise when I turn on the eleven o'clock news to find some guy wailing on drug runners out of a home-made ornithopter. I wonder if he's here. If this is him right now, running some sly self-promotional networking. I try my rusty detective skills. looking for traces of conspicuous Arizona sunlight. Probably a long shot. Some of us don't even make the trek. Street-level guys, especially. Guys like me. Like I used to be. Besides, I was never as good at looking for clues as I was at cracking heads

Whoever this is, he's turned his attention (naturally) to the Hourglass asking her if she wants to go out on patrol. I talk over him, chivalrous guy that I am, and ask her how often she gets asked for winning lottery numbers.

"How do you think I afforded this dress?" she asks, and smirks faintly.

"Are you serious?" I-still-have-no-idea interjects. "That's unethical!"

"Whoa, we got ourselves an Ethics in Time-Travel expert!" I interject, probably a touch louder than I need to be, but at that moment it feels cemented: me and her against the world. The Hourglass and The Lariat. All-American Team-Up. It's conceptual.

"I was there," she explains to me and to him and to the Nineties superhero from the 99th Century who's refilling her club soda. "I've been to the future. I already know I did it."

"You're saying there's no such thing as free will?" Seriously, who is this guy? It's maddening.

"Why did you want to be a superhero? she asks him, and before he can stammer out a reply she turns to me. "And, Danny, why did you fall in love with Jane? Out of everyone in your life, what was it about her?" I look for Jane instinctively, hoping she's nowhere close to where her name was dropped. "You were always going to be who you are. That's the way the world spins. There isn't any great mystery to it."

When I was a boy growing up in Oklahoma, my parents were killed. Not long after that, I met a man. The last true cowboy in the West. The Long Arm of the Law. He taught me how to fight, how to look for clues how to pick up the pieces of my life and shape it into something with a purpose. He was the best man I ever met. I was terrified of him.

It wasn't long before I met others like me. Young recruits, the next generation in a story that had been going on for decades, that had deformed and reshaped the history of the world. Our mentors all thought it would be a good idea to corral us together to learn some valuable life lessons while cutting our teeth on third-rate evildoers. It was me, Kid Achilles, Unicorn Boy, Heat Sink, and Jane, aka Skygirl. You never think when you're in it that this is the best time of your life, that this is you peaking. You never see the top of the roller coaster until you're already pointing down.

We grew up. Poor Unicorn Boy died. Kid Achilles became the Hoplite, Jane became the new Laughing Owl when the old one retired, and Heat Sink retired at twenty-one to start a refrigeration company. I still get postcards when he travels.

I went out on my own because that's what you do. Fought crime out of Phoenix until I tore my ACL in a fight with all four members of the Obliterati. All these fucking immortals. The Hourglass has been the same age since 1958. Samson can bench-press a city. What am I supposed to do with that? I look around this room at the demigods in tuxedos and sequins and I see why people hate them. I still limp on damp days, which, thankfully: Arizona. I put the suit on once I got out of the hospital, and I felt stupid. Nothing seemed to sit in the right place anymore. I wanted to wear it under my clothes (some of us indeed do that), but, again, Arizona.

Then six months happened. Then a year. The suit still felt binding and uncomfortable. I drove around the city taking notes. Bought a camera. Field work. Gathering intel. All studiousness and diligence, signifying nothing. I haven't seen Jane in five years, except on the news. I meant to write, scribbled out dozens of torn-up post cards and typed out a hundred deleted emails The pebble of my procrastination became an avalanche of neglect. Once or twice or a hundred times she tired to call and I let it go to voice mail, until one day I saw footage of her with some new guy clobbering a horde of invaders from beneath the sea. The Aquamarine. I'm sure he's here, tonight. I'm sure he's here with her. At any rate, I wish him all the best, the s.o.b.

Why did I come here? In theory I'm invited to these things every year. An envelope appears in my mail box, regardless of my change of address, every year on the first of October. Orange and black. You are cordially invited. I haven't been in all this time.

The Hourglass and Whoever-this-is-seriously-I-have-no-idea are getting into the weeds of free will and determinism and I am, quite without realizing it, on my fourth whiskey-and-soda. God bless you, Captain Extreme. I venture back out to mingle. I rub elbows with refugee alien gods, with cybernetic posthuman adventurers, with mystical strongmen and half-human mutates. Maybe it's the whiskey-and-sodas, but I feel suddenly buoyed by the bonhomie of all all these heroic types. Everyone here belongs here Even me, I tell myself, a good feeling that lasts precisely long enough for me to run into Jane. She slinks up to me in a black, floor-length dress, her arms like sculpted marble, and hands me a glass of champagne, and I, who fought a triumvirate of forgotten Aztec gods alongside the Scariest Old Man in the World, I feel the floor drop out from under me.

"Fancy meeting you here," she says. Her voice is all angles and edges; I can't make sense of it. Or maybe I can but I don't want to. Maybe I want to read a whole story into what was once a high-school crush, but has moved on, left behind like all the other mile markers of youth.

"Anything for free booze," I reply, and drain my glass more swiftly than I suppose is typically called for.

"We missed you at these things, you know. Couple hours in, it's always the same. 'Where's the Lariat?' Then there's the crying and rending of garments."

"This crowd? Sounds like a party."

Jane laughs and for a moment its old times, unrehearsed, and I'm back in time, sipping from a flask of something bitter and smoky we took off one of the Galloping Ghoul's henchmen. The pair of us at nineteen, my red-white-and-blue cowboy outfit and her feathered metal wings. Watch out, bad guys. Everywhere.

"So where have you been keeping yourself? I watch the news out of Arizona and I never see you."

I want to tell her a lie, that I'm still out there, pulling my weight, to tell her the truth, to own up to the truth myself, that I'm giving up,, that its a glacial process but one that is by now inevitable. I want to tell her what those times meant to me, what they still mean to me, but a man in a rented tuxedo who may or may not be the Horsefly interrupts everyone to say there's been an 8.5 magnitude earthquake in Pakistan. All hands on deck. In a few moments, the room clears out Then it's just me and a few of the old-timers.

A while after that, its just me.

Tuesday, July 7, 2015

The Memory Palace

Clack clack of her heels on the tile steps, she's a stair above you, looking back. Dress swaying against her hips. Key in the lock, the darkened apartment back lit by the streetlamps outside. She steps inward a little and looks back to you.

Another one today. Breathless from turning down too many wrong streets. I'm sorry, he'll start and Armand will nod. Is this...? trailing off, and Armand will nod fishing out his keys. Fifty Euros.

"Fifty Euros?"

Sometimes the lad--and it is almost always a lad, will pay up gladly, Others, with others, Armand has push-back

"The cost is fifty Euros." Armand leaned in to his accent. This helped, particularly with Americans, who would rather pay the money than try and make themselves understood. Reluctantly, the lad handed over the money. Armand stood, body weight protesting against his aching, aging bones. Then they climbed the stairs together. How many times had Armand taken these stairs? How many in the company of some love-struck kid on holy pilgrimage?

The technology was about a decade old at this point. Synaptic encoding. Memory grafts. Great for learning, for training, fantastic for embedding journalists--for eliminating the need of journalists some said, for a black market in pilfered and repurposed memories.

Armand replayed the memory, a few times to make sure he got the details of her old apartment right. When she left the place it was in complete disarray. Clothes strewn about as she decided what was worth it to take. Bookshelves ransacked. The haste of a person on the run, and Armand had been minding this building long enough to know what that looked like. It wasn't long, two or three more lads showing up after she vacated, that he came up with the plan. They came from all over, sometimes three a week, enough that he didn't have to rent the place out again: he could set it up instead as a shrine in her honor. At first, Armand told the men she had died, but some of them would become inconsolable at this and difficult to move. Eventually he settled on vagueness. Try never to tell them what drove her away Young men never want ot hear they're part of the problem. It took him ages to replace the dress.

Too hot in the apartment, the two of you languishing in bed, the fan blowing wind from outside. Some joke you can't remember has her laughing. You wrack your brains but it's still gone. She is turning to you and it's the first time you know it. The first time you're certain.

"Do you know her?" the young man asked. Armand had little doubt the recording found its way to the brains of many an older man, but they were too jaded. They weren't as likely to board an--international, judging by this one's broken French--flight to Paris and storm the stairs of this inherited dream.

"Yes, I knew her." (Which was the truth.) "Quite well." (Which was a lie.) "She lived at this address five years." If the lad noticed Armand's use of the past tense, he gave no sign. Armand fumbled with the keys and opened the door and the lad stepped into his hand-me-down past.

Armand fumbled with the keys and creaked the apartment door open. "Just as she left it," he said, which was also a lie. The cramped studio had been subtly curated. The windows to the fire escape were open, and the noise from Paris below drifted in with the sunlight. She's all sunlight and water colors of birds, most of which, thankfully, she left behind in the haste of the move.

"Where'd she go?" The young man asked in almost a whisper. He moved through the tiny studio, brushing his fingertips against the furniture. Armand confessed that he didn't know. He left out the "why," as the young men who climbed the stairs (a few times it had been a woman, he wondered how the program shaped itself around that) didn't like to hear about every other young man who'd been there, fingering through territory he imagined was his alone to claim. It was best to let them down easy when it came to these things.

"What was she like?"

Don't you remember?" was Armand's standard reply. The lad sighed, frustrated. He remembered the week, of course. He remembered the apartment, but there were corners of it into which he never intruded. Seeing the place now, fully realized, made the memory flat and unreal, like visiting a childhood haunt after so many years away. Perhaps this, Armand suspected, was why he never saw the old men. It was a feeling by then they knew all too well.

Armand led no life of great adventure or acclaim. Indeed, to his lasting regret he hardly ever left Paris, though he supposed he should be grateful in this era of memory proliferation for that. Grateful that he never tarried too long with some girl through the lazy long afternoons of the last days of summer. His memories were worthless.

No. Not worthless. Unglamorous. For he had known love in his life, though perhaps not the desperate, longing, impossible kind of the type to be bought second-hand by eager and self-involved lads looking to define themselves.

She moved to Australia. After the first besotted young men armed with a life that was not theirs leaned in to her door bell and insisted that they had this connection, that they understood her, she packed her bags, and disappeared. It was only through the girl's parents, who rented the flat in the first place, that Armand knew any of this. Not that he would tell the lad. Not that he told any of them. And not that it would help. She may as well have moved to Mars.

"I'm not the first, am I?"

"Where did you get it?" Armand asked, by way of tacitly answering the man (Henry, he said his name was Henry)'s question. Henry explained that near his building in New York, a man set up a table with all sorts of strange and questionable wares. Knockoff handbags, bootleg movies on memory dot, and a thoughtstick full of memories. Henry knew what they were. He'd seen news specials. He walked by the stand every day, casually glanced out of the corner of his eye every day, found his pace slowing just a bit every day, until one day there was nothing. No stand, no sign of the man.

Months went by before the stall keeper appeared again. "I thought they got you!" Henry said in a jovial camaraderie that would later embarrass him. He was more relieved than he thought he'd be.

"They did," the stall-keeper said. "But this is a great land of opportunity for an enterprising man, and I am an enterprising man."

In the Parisian walk-up, Henry did his best impression of the stall-keeper, which Armand imagined did the man no justice. Henry didn't buy anything then, but struck up a rapport that would last until temptation finally overtook him. "I've never been in love," he confessed to Armand as he must have confessed to the stall-keeper. "It just never happened for me. I went to school, I got a job, there were dates, I guess, but..." he trailed off in the quiet stillness of the apartment. "Esau said he had just the thing."

"Would you like to be alone?" Armand offered. It was not an offer he made regularly. Sometimes the visitors could be violent. Other times they would masturbate into the curtains.

Henry's gaze moved about the room. "I just want something...something to remember her by."

She smokes pot on the fire escape that overlooks the city. You know what you are going to say. You are dreading it. Your mind now furious at your mind then. She's wearing the dress again, the dress from that night, bare legs dangling shoeless over the edge toward the noisy street below. You feel strange being out here after so much of the last few days in there. As though the apartment has been your world and sitting out here, watching the sunset, you may as well be astronauts.

A not-uncommon request. "Oh, well, Monsieur..."

"Henry. Just Henry."

"Monsieur Henry, by now you have surely deduced your friend Esau was hardly the first to pass along this lost week. I cannot very well pawn off the Mademoiselle's things to every young who climbs these stairs."

"Bad for business," Henry mused, another all-too-familiar aspect of Armand's dealings, the contempt of the customer, creeping in.

"As you say." Armand admitted. It took practice to make the next part sound unpracticed. "Although...New York City, you say?" Henry nodded at this, still sullen, still scanning the room for some magical trace of her. "Were you born there?"

"No, I grew up in Minnesota." His tone was absent-minded, though still vaguely contemptuous. Armand did not mind. He was a simple man. He chose not to dwell too long on the inherent unethics of charging admission to a departed woman's memory. He was paying nothing in upkeep for the place! And where was this fellow Henry to be so sneerful? What did he expect with such stolen goods?

"Monsieur Henry, I think we can come to an arrangement."

In the end, Henry took the dress. They always take the dress. And after the two of them visited a local memory transfer center, Armand brought out a new dress, incensed it with her perfume, and sat back in his office and remembered seeing New York for the first time.

Thursday, June 25, 2015

io9 Concept Art Writing Prompt, Jun 25, 2015



"Have you seen my hand?" It was an obvious question, the one Frank should have been prepared for.

"Which one?" He punted. Sophie had, like, four hands, not counting the two she was born with.

"The scrying hand. The one I traded that cyclops three wishes for? At the farmer's market?"

"Haven't seen it, babe."

"If I come in there, am I going to find a glowing severed hand in with all your studying?"

"Did you check under the stairs? Sometimes body parts wander to the crawl space."

"That's only the replacement feet. The hands we keep on hooks, remember? So I can find them."

"Right." Just a few more passages to memorize. Then he could slip the hand into the couch cushions, with the remote, wait a few hours, then pretend to find it. He knew he shouldn't mess with Sophie's things, but the light...the light just made things easier. He turned back to the page, and hoped Sophie didn't come in. He was sure she suspected him, but pretended not to, while he pretended to be ignorant. It seemed to him a nice compromise.

Sunday, June 21, 2015

io9 Concept Art Writing Prompt, Jun 18, 2015

Here is the church, here is the steeple...

Halprin and Swift scrambled across the dusty surface of the barren moon, well aware the Temple was rising behind them. The thing skittered--if skittered could be applied as a term to something clocking in at a hundred and forty tons--after them, as enthusiastically playful as a large--oh, so very large--puppy.

Nobody knew whose bright idea it was to enter one of the Temples first. The indigenous life of Veruca was first meddled with by Eurocorp astronauts two hundred and fifty years ago. They all got religion, and none of them returned. It was assumed one of the usual space disasters befell that first ship, until a salvage team found it intact and in high orbit.

The salvage team, too, found religion, but at least they put out a distress call.

Something about them. The Temple is hollow, something like a lung or closer to a fish's air bladder takes up much of its interior space, trapping in Veruca's thin atmosphere. How what happened next happened is a mystery akin to "who first decided drinking fermented milk was a good idea?" or "who invented pasta?," and these sorts of mysteries always bugged Halprin. Someone on the first colony ship stepped in to one of the Temples--probably, but then who knew?--unaware it was a living organism. That someone was immediately flooded with a deep sense of relief, bordering on euphoria, and the sense of a presence, divine and otherworldly, watching over them. That first settler, he or she, proceeded to take his or her helmet off, kneel down, and pray. Then came other settlers, who settled in alongside. Due to the negligible bacterial makeup on Veruca, they didn't properly decay when they died. They were more...mummified, their faces still rapt in worship, staring forward into the eyes of God.

None of this seemed to bother the Temples. They seemed hardly to notice unless they were awakened, but didn't make an effort to eat anybody (that was a different orifice altogether from the lung) they just wanted to play. They just wanted to understand.

Swift breathlessly radioed the shuttle, and Halprin cast a look back through the periphery of his helmet at the skittering Temple. He could swear it was doing some kind of cat-like butt wiggle.

Amanda was in there. She'd found religion, and she probably wasn't coming out.

Friday, June 12, 2015

Movie Trailers: Jurassic World

The Island was home. He was always meant to go back. From the moment they found him, a scared, skinny boy, barely thirteen, marooned on an island full of ancient, reptilian things, he was being pulled back. From the moment he stepped off the airplane back in America, greeted by a throng of reporters--more faces, he thought, than he'd ever seen in his life--eager to know everything about the Boy Raised by Dinosaurs.

He did his best to live up to what was expected of him, or what he thought was expected. He adopted a persona, careful, deliberate, made up of half-remembered movies starring brave and daring men. He was gracious to interviewers. He did not mention that cooked meat made him sick, now. He did not mention what raw struthiomimus tasted of.

He was thankful when the fame dried up, but he was expected then to have a job, to buy a car, to rent an apartment, to have opinions on sports teams appointment television and cars and the Rolling Stones vs the Beatles and taxes and the weather and how would you like your coffee and who should be President and is retirement right for you and global warming and God. The beasts who raised him, whose cold reptilian eyes filled his uneasy sleep, had a clarity of purpose, uncluttered.

He worked an ill-fitting job with ill-fitting people in ill-fitting clothes. He ate bland food and watched Reality TV. He dreamt every night of that other family, deep, unsettling, saurian dreams.

io9 Concept Art Writing Prompt, Jun 11, 2015

The downed skytrain's aura bled rainbow fumes into the noontime air. How long had it rested there, with the engines still pumping out magnetic poison into the winds surrounding the old city? Skytrains ran on an old fusion magnetar, the thing could run a hundred years.

Josephine had the wi-fi helmet which meant she was in charge. Imelda and Carlotta flanked her, making checks along the bent and blasted hull of the thing. Josephine radioed in that they found it. The Wreck of the HMS Zachary Taylor. Shot down, presumably by Creationist Scavengers, in the Texas desert twenty-one years ago. The nightmares the aura bleed must have given their children.

"Except that's wrong," Imelda noted, looking back at the blast point. "This explosion, the metal, it's bent--"

"Outward, yes," Josephine finished the thought for her. Their recon mission had just become a cold case.

Thursday, June 4, 2015

io9 Concept Art Writing Prompt, Jun 4, 2015

"You cheated," the dragon said, not un-fondly.

"Whazzat? You'll have to speak up!"

How long had they been playing? Since the old man's hair was ginger and his back unbent. Sometimes the dragon won. Sometimes the old man won. Most of the time the old man cheated.

It was the last day of summer. The dragon was savoring the light, the quality of it, filtering through the trees as the sun went down. Soon enough the world would grow colder and the dragon would burrow back to his cavern and the old man would hole up in his hut and wait out the cold and the dark. It occured to the dragon that the old man might not see the end of this winter. It was the way of humans. They came and went, mayfly-like. Until he befriended the then-boy, all those years ago, the dragon never paid them any mind. Now he was dreading coming to miss one of them.

The stake in the game was the skull of the poet Rathanar, greatest of his age. The old man had a different tale each time as to how he acquired it. They each wound through manuvers made familiar by decades of accumulated time. Ticks, tricks, inside and out. The dragon did not expect he would find another partner after the old man passed on. Not even one of his own kind.

The old man's Reanimated Spurling leapt, but too late, as the dragon countered with Song of Falling Leaves, and it clattered into an off-square. Forfeit.

"Drat!" The old man spat. And then, after a moment, "Another game?"

"Certainly," the dragon said. There were still a few hours of daylight left.

Wednesday, June 3, 2015

Home Shopping

47:265:18:21:23                       19:54                       44:119:6:45:45

"Welcome back to the program. Next up we have this one-of-a-kind item, only 999 more in stock. This is an authentic Alabrascan Cloak of Invisibility. Notice the seamless stitching, the craftsmanship. now, you just slip it over your head and--voila! I'm invisible! There are a hundred practical appli--let me just slip this off here--a hundred applications for a cloak of invisibility. Need to get out of work early, or perhaps you wanna know whose always stealing the last cookie from the cookie jar? My wife knows what I'm talking about. Right? I love you, Sabrina."

47:265:18:34:58                       20:07                       44:119:6:32:10

"Let's say you really want to know where all those cookies are going, but maybe the cloak of invisibility wasn't for you. Well, we have the perfect thing up next. This little guy is the Ring of Truth, and we have just under 1200 available right now. Quite simple, you put this on someone--I'll use my own hand here so you can get a look at how this fits--that's nice, isn't it? Watch the eye open, that's how you know it's working. Anyone wearing this ring, and that includes me right at this moment, is compelled to tell the truth. It's that simple. I cannot tell a lie! And I can't lie that we have some wonderful bargains coming up in the next hour for you, from the Dwarf Mines of Ilzarach to the Elvish treesmiths of Farandanare. So stay right..ha...stay right with us. That's...that's a little tight. That's a little tight, I'm not gonna lie. I can't lie! Always check your ring sizes, people? If you're buying this or any magical artifact for a loved one, be sure to always...yeah, that's on there good. Ok! I'm getting the wave from my producer Cornelius. You're a gentleman and a scholar, Cornelius. And I must mean that! Moving right along to

47:265:18:35:28                       20:09                       44:119:6:30:40

"item 4523, this is a collection of potions from the Gnomish Guild of Apothecaries. It's a potion kit! All you need to start your beginner's course in the pharmacological arts. There's a strength potion here, one for speed, here's one to help you see in the dark. Sorry, fellas, no love potions! Hah! Hah. Just, you know, your standard virility. In case, well, in case you've been getting complaints. And it's a good job too if you are! That is, you know, communication is key, and it's a good job if you're talking these things out rather, than, hey, it's like I always say, talk it out, don't step out! We could put that on a bumper sticker. How 'bout that? Anyway, so this, look at this high quality bag these gems come in. Zero in on that. An individualized pouch for each of your tinctures and herbs. Mind you, I say 'high quality' but when it comes to Gnomes...Right, I'm getting the wave again! Sorry about that, folks! Cornelius likes to keep me on task, not sidetracking into things, let's be honest, everyone knows to be true--But hey, that's not what we're here for. If you check out the link on your screen, you can find a full inventory of potions available with this fine purchase. I  highly recommend the virility potion. Ladies, you know what I'm talking about."

47:265:18:37:18                       20:11                       44:119:6:28:50

"But why worry about all that when you can play with your wand! I'm kidding, of course, which is a thing you can still do under a truth ring, it's just...sometimes uncomfortable. We have an excellent wand to show you here, this is authentic oak from the Twilight Forest of Oldhamshire. Perfectly shattered here out of the aged oak and programmed with more than 15 different custom spells. Folks, that's right, if you call within the next fifteen minutes, our Elvish spellsingers will impart 15 spells that you can select from more than 100 different options, from your basics like Illuminate! or Detect Magic, to your more complicated like Summon Fire (remember you must have a Class F or above Summoner's License) and Flight. Oh, Flight. Remember those winged boots we saw earlier in the program, ladies and gentlemen? How about flying, that sense of rising above it all. just free. free of your job, of your wife, your bills. Free of all those suspicions that nag you on your day to day. Just close your eyes and try to imagine it with me. Close your eyes. Then open, then call us, over Phone or Internet or Astralling, to summon your very own Twilight Oak Wand." 

47:265:19:02:57                       20:36                       44:119:6:05:01

"Up next we have a rare treat, built by the ravensmiths of Volcano Vale. You've seen these on TV. You probably know someone who has one, even. I have one, and let me tell changes your life. The ravensmiths are expert clock makers, and the Destiny Clock is their most...formidable creation. There are three faces, as you can see. In the middle, ordinary, right? That's your time of day. The left face, that's how long, right down to the second, that you've been on this Earth. And the right face, now that's the one that gets people's attention. You can see this clock's a little worn around the edges, a little banged up. This is not a show piece, so don't worry, folks. Yours will arrive in perfect shape. That finish, that's real cherry wood. This is actually my own clock, from home. That's right, ladies and gentlemen! I own one of these beauties. It was a gift. The smiths tell me a new clock, it tunes right to the first owner, so nobody who isn't a giant, immortal raven from the dawn of time is handling your clock before you do. What you're all taking a gander at on the right face, is my own countdown clock. If it'll read on your screens there, that's the exact number of years and days and hours left in my life. Long time, huh? Kind of wonder what you do, with all that time. One thing--one thing they tell you is these clocks are great for instilling a sense of urgency to your ambitions. They like to remind you that nothing spurs on someone so much as a deadline and nothing works quite as well for a deadline than a line that tells you when you're dead. I gotta tell you--and Cornelius is giving me that look again. I gotta tell you that's not been my experience. My experience is, you tget this thing home--and it's a breeze to set up, folks--and you see that number and high or low, that number takes over your mind.

"Maybe you already have more time on the left than you have, well, left. So you start to panic. Maybe you still have ages. See mine, it's just about even. I'm 47. That means I'll still be around at 90, 91. Something like that. All those years. You just watch them move from one clock to the other. You go to work, you come home and the clock has changed. You sleep and its faces change. What are you supposed to do? I stare at it every day. sometimes for yours. I know how useless, how futile that sounds. I know, and I still do it. Getting the signal from Cornelius again, don't know if the clock counts in angry hand signals, but I guess we've wracked up a lot tonight, folks! Folks, I've got this Ring of Truth still, so you know we've been on the level here at the program. Get something else. ge something else with your hard-earned gold. Dwarven fire-glass, we have some excellent pieces still in stock, you don' don't want to be watching the clock while your life falls apart. Y ou dn't want to be watching the clock while you wonder where your wife could be at these ungodly hours. You don't want to compare the minutes in your grisly abacus to some other person's, to your father's. You really don't want to get one of these as a gift.

"But, hey! What do I know! Folks, maybe this is the thing for you. Cornelius sure seems to think it is, and we have 500 of them, and let me tell you, it's a bargain, the price on your screen right now. Anyway, I'd better change my tune here. Cornelius is giving me that special wave, the one that means I've been fired, but they don't have anyone to replace me, do they? Because where is Simon, Cornelius? Where is he?"

47:265:19:05:29                       20:38                       44:119:6:02:31

"Next we have a very rare, exclusive, limited-edition piece, really a lovely find. This is one of our rarer and more...interesting pieces. Great for home defense. this is an enchanted dagger from the Blackburn Mountains. Very beautiful, as you can see. Note the rubies there, genuine aetheric rubies, part of the enchantment bundle. See, the great thing about this dagger, this dagger right here, is you can actually STAB! someone--multiple times, in the heart, say, or in the back, my w--well, so you draw out the knife and vwoop! Wound closes. No damage, nothing on the surface except the memory you've been hurt. Now, I know it sounds too good to be true, but look at me! I've got a Ring of Truth! So maybe you're thinking, Oh, he put that on for a stunt, it doesn't really work, well, I'm surprised at you! After all we've been through! (Hah. Hah.) Now how's about I show you? How's about that, Sabrina? Want to know how it feels to be stabbed through the heart? Just watch!"