Thursday, 24 May 2012

The Problem with History Television

I myself am personally a great fan of both the History Channel and the Discovery Channel, but here's the issue. While the programming of the Discovery Channel has managed to adapt with the times and keep a great line up of diverse and interesting programs, the History Channel, to put it bluntly, has not.

The Facts:

The History Channel is a channel which by its very name should mean that it is devoted to programs that are either documentary style or information nuggets about general times in history. It used to be that the station was called the 'Hitler Channel' because of the truly disproportianate numbers of shows regarding World War II back in the late 90s and early 2000s. Since then however, the programming has gone steadily down hill.

As a young boy I would avidly watch the channel (even though much of the content would go straight over my head) and try to learn as much as I could. The shows on the History Channel as well as tutoring provided by my favorite uncle, is what originally got me so fascinated in history. So back then it had to many World War II documentaries? So what? Even those were far better sights than what the channel is playing now!

Today we are stuck with an array of boring, and worse, useless shows! We have a decent show like Pawn Stars, which starts a cascade of ridiculous and outrageous spin offs which have almost no great historical content, and would have been laughed out of the board room were it not for the success of Pawn Stars! Pawn Stars itself only is successful as it has people scrounging their attics for any 'historical artifacts' to attempt to sell to make a buck! And speaking of scrounging attics we have such wonderful shows like Canadian and American Pickers! Two guys in a van who go around pawing at eccentric people's collections trying to sell in a niche market! What's worse is that they could have made a sitcom out of this! Like Pawn Stars or its many spin offs it is low on facts and instead relies on interesting nuggets to reel the audience in. I could deal with this if it was one or two shows that functioned like this, instead we have at least seven!

Then we have the lackluster television show Ancient Aliens. This is of course a tinfoil hat on head conspiracy theory/ whackadoodle show posing the question of whether aliens came to earth in order to help ancient civilizations build themselves up and design their ancient wonders. I could take this show seriously if they attempted to debunk these crack pots, but instead we are treated to half an hour of crazy pseudo-historians claiming aliens built the pyramids. I personally have a hard time believing these people aren't being paid to say these things. Sadly it appears they have brought out the nutter parade and these people are serious. I think the near blatant racism of saying that the ancient Americans or Egyptians couldn't possibly have built their structures without aliens is something that should have died out in the 1930s yet continues blatantly to this day.

Then we have shows like Swamp People and Full Metal Jousting. Neither show is bad in and of itself and each is quite interesting, but, the problem is for a program on the History Channel other than brief mentions to historical context each show does not portray any historical background nor expand on the rich and interesting history of either jousting or the culture of Louisianna gator hunting. As reality shows or sports shows, they are acceptable. As historical shows, they lack severely! Do a segment on the history of jousting, explain the evolution of the armor or even why they chose to ressurrect the sport! And with Swamp People, give us a better history of the families and Louisianna in general! Don't get me wrong, each show is great, but they lack content and context to be on the History Channel!

This is my problem, there are so many shows that lack context and an even poorer program line up which drives me mad whenever I try to watch the channel! So here, my humble readers, is how I would like to frame my solution.

My Solution:

Taking a look at the History Channel's more successful cousin the Discovery Channel we can see how they could improve. For instance there was a wonderful show aired for two seasons (despite the general disaster of the second season) called the Colony which was premised around survival after a flu pandemic. A decent show despite suffering from trying to imitate Survivor to often at times, it was still a good look at how that sort of TV series could be approached. For the History Channel simply try something like that, but set in any (literally ANY) time period in history! The possibilities are endless! You could set it in a mediveal village or frontier America! Each with its own unique historical ideas and challenges to be presented to participants and for the viewers enjoyment!

Another thing is to shows about less publicized wars. Sure we've all heard about the World Wars, the Korean war, Vietnam, the Civil War ect. So instead how about a series on the Hundred Years War or the Crimean War or even the Mexican Revolution? You could take any war in history and have it presented in a dramatic and compelling way! Make a miniseries about it even, like the upcoming Hatfields and McCoys (which I will be reviewing on this blog!).

Then of course we can do more specific shows about things like the American Revolution, the original Native American cultures and societies. Things that could become so much more interesting which can be used in a myriad of different ways to tie into both modern events, or try and predict future events. Perhaps shows like After Armageddon and Life After People can become more mainstream and promote a prepardness mindset for those who don't think about even things like a bad storm?

All in all there are so many positive changes that can be made to the History Channel's line up, and I sincerely hope that people running the show will see that.

Wednesday, 23 May 2012

New Writing Project

Alas dear readers I have had to catch up with the times recently. Despite work on an old manuscript I have been working on recent events and old prejudices have made me realise that I'll have to face the facts and work my way into the writing industry by following some trends.

Despite two years of work and revision, my untitled young adults manuscript will have to be put on the shelf due to constraints, changing trends and a lack of creative juices. You see the market for young adult supernatural authors is rapidly diminishing. In the wake of the Harry Potter and Twilight mania and JK Rowling and Stephenie Meyer started, and multiple knock off authors like Cassandra Clare took to heart and helped keep the genre alive for over a decade.Though in recent years sales of such works have dropped and interests have waned.The near constant Twilight knock offs and hate that is being directed at this genre is also rather unsettling. Indeed with the release of the Hunger Games and some other young adult steam punk works I have been forced to reconsider my position. Though the genre has run strong and offered a gateway to emerging authors, sadly I have missed that boat and the time has come for me to shelve the project and await its resurgence.

It strikes me that I am going to have to pay great attention to the newer novels coming out and the 'hot' items that go on the market. Classic fantasy is timeless, and science fiction seems to be going strong depending on where you market it. I'll need to keep a look out.

In the meantime I have two other projects that are work in progress. One is the short novella, The Hands of Men and an as yet untitled science fiction series which is tenatively called Service to the State as a whole currently (name subject to revision) which I am currently putting alot of energy into.

The Hands of Men is currently not very long (only a few pages) but I do have the entire story penned out in rough. The story is a post apocalyptic novel set in a world locked in a great depression, similar to Howard Kunstler's World Made by Hand but focuses more on self-sufficient living, the cultural effects of a more rural and agricultural world, as well as the threats that might emerge. The setting will be on a small rural town in southern Ontario that is isolated and has only one major link to the outside world via the old highway. It will focus on a former suburban family moving in with an extremely rural family and followng their struggles, triumphs and journey in adapting to this new world. I intend for their to be hardship, but also some very heart warming moments.

The other science fiction work focuses on a more broad scope, and interplanetary scope in fact. The story will be following two main characters, Jessica Alberton and Laurent Gavon. One is a fugitive (which is where the working title of Fugitive to the State comes from) while the other is an elite military commando who will be taking on the enemies of his own nation. It will be set in the fictional star nation of the Commonwealth, a socialist state which is being opposed by a slightly larger nation, the Republic of Grant. Set fifty years after a war between the two tensions are once again high and Jessica is fleeing retribution from Grant's authorities. Laurent is a commando who is having a personal crisis about his own state while trying to prevent an oncoming war.

I've currently done three chapters and over 14,000 words for the science fiction story in just over the space of the week. Well The Hands of Men has been sadly neglected due to conflicts of interest. I'm going to be attempting to complete the science fiction story over the summer while getting The Hands of Men in order so I can hopefully get it published as either a novella or an ebook in the future. That will be my first choice for publishing, while the State books will probably be run by Baen.

I'm hopeful that the time and effort put into these works will be successful and pay off sometime in the future.

Tuesday, 15 May 2012

The Weapon, By Micheal Z Williamson

Now as readers here should know I have already reviewed Williamson's first novel Freehold in which I gave middling marks as it was a good debut story and one which I had liked and looked forward to reading. Knowing it was his first novel I had decided to give his other works a look over. While I highly reccomend him, especially to anyone with libertarian views on the world or anyone that likes military sci-fi, I am skeptical of reccomending this book at all. I will endeavor to adequetely explain why.

The story is set both before and during the events of Freehold and is a sort of sequel, but I really more like S.M. Stirling's Tears of the Sun in explaining events that happened simultaniously in Freehold but follows a once mentioned character.

The Weapon follows Freehold operative Kenneth Chinran who is a badass motherf**ker and wants the whole galaxy to know it. We begin following his gruelling training to enter the special forces of the Freehold. These montages (unlike the ones in Freehold) are well placed and flow fluidly and actually give depth to the plot as they describe the harsh and demanding process which it takes to become a special forces soldier. There are a few jabs at the squeamish UN observers, but in this case they also work quite well as it shows that anyone who disgaree's with this harsh training doesn't know how to make a special forces operative. Mind you I do know some of the training that goes into making a special ops soldier and the standard the Williamson sets is rather...harsh by comparison and might fly in the face of what a civilian government would be willing to allow. Then again that is the point he is trying to make.

But back on track the story follows his training, his years as an operative, and some engagements that his forces get themselves involved in coupling with their eventual great mission; to attack Earth.

The Good:

The story does follow a believable spec ops training cycle, missions and actions that special forces operatives would be sent to engage in. It shows them taking on terrorists, training with other governments and practicing with their own forces. All something that goes in real life.

Williamson also explores the galaxy at large, something I enjoyed, and does some creative world building in the effort. There are a few planets with distinct cultures that are shown wonderfully and also their militaries. One world we spend a great deal of time looking at is Caledonia, a planet settled by the British. I enjoyed the look into their culture and the examination of their military views and society. Brits in space basically but it read well and as a Brit lover myself I was happy with it.

Then he describes the conflict on Mtali, a major backstory component in the first book, and gives depth to the war and the people who fought there. This is something I was glad of, for it was only sketchily mentioned in the previous novel.

The Bad:

Unfortunately I have a lot to criticize with the book.

One thing of course which I will get out of the way now is that I don't agree with the books politics, but as an open minded reader and person in general I am willing to let that slide. What I cannot let slide is the outright hyporcrasy of the main character.

Also, Kenneth Chinran is not nor will his character in this book ever be a likable person who can be forgiven for his actions. The man is also a hypocrite through and through and should be tried for multiple counts of murder, and not to mention the various war crimes he commited. The man thinks he is a badass and acts as though he is superior to everyone else while treating himself as nearly God incarnate by being judge, jury, and executioner in all aspects of his mission. Emphasis on executioner.

One of his first missions is to hunt down a terrorist who killed a small child and the passengers of a space liner. He and his team proceed to do so and capture (quite amazingly on the first try) the head terrorist and his compatriots. Chinran then proceeds to torture and mutilate the man within an inch of his life and castrate him. This not only doesn't prompt any retaliation by the terrorists at all but in fact ensures no other Freehold civilians are attacked by these terrorists! Amazing!

My suspension of disbelief is still intact by this point, but I'm sad to say that doesn't last long.

We then move on to Caledonia, one of the most interesting venues in the book, where we have some low level spy activity and training with the allies of the Freehold. Unsurprisingly Chinran and his team proceed to thoroughly trounce the forces of an entire base only to end up in a messy hostage situation before being wiped out by an SAS (yes I said SAS) response team, but not before killing half the response team of course. So yes it proves the operatives are dangerous individuals and can go on dangerous rampages just because they have superior training, and come from a heavier gravity world. All reasonable but the fact that save for being massacred by the SAS at the end they manage to pull everything off without a hitch is ridiculous to me.

Then of course comes Mtali. The first chapter describing it goes into a long hateful and racist (incredibly so) rant about how Muslims (specifically Sunni and Shia) are evil raping, murdering, war mongering, and genocidal bastards. Also Baptists (sorry an off-shoot of them) are just as bad. There probably isn't a single religion (except paganism) which isn't listed or mocked in a certain way. I was personally disgusted by the rant and how narrow minded and stereotypical it was. I could forgive this as something of a character flaw or so, but it was astoundingly uncessesary and I couldn't help but feel the authors own personal prejudice seaping into it. It was shocking, offensive, and not well written which simply added salt to the wound. And of course by this point Chinran is still perfect.

But the long and short of it is this. Mtali is basically a stand in for war torn Africa or even some part of the Middle East, but mostly Africa. You see the Freehold Military Forces (FMF) are sent to partake in peace keeping (read making) operations. Yes he details his approach to this, but not before completely breaking my suspension of disbelief. You see when they land they are met by US Marines, that's right United States Marines from a world dominated by the UN. Chinran then proceeds to intimidate them. Ladies and gentlemen we are five hundred years in the future and the world is controlled by the UN but the US Marine Core is still standing strong! Hoo-rah! This I found as an unforgivable destruction of the suspension of disbelief, as you cannot convince me that US Marines are still in operation under the same name or colors on a UN dominated Earth! Give me a break!

Then of course we have Chinran's treatment of the locals. Here we are treated to an unflattering display of how Sunni Arabs are filthy and live in their own garbage and go out of their way to antagonize the FMF. Chinran, in what doubtless in his mind constitues a Napoleon-esque strategy, orders his soldiers to act like animals. They urninate and deficate in the streets, harrass Muslims, and dump loads of garbage whever they feel like it. They also preform admirably by encouraging the locals to attack them then kill them. This becomes their routine until (thanfully in reference to realism) Chinran is over confident and someone slips and gets killed.

Now in real life this would result in an inquiry about Chinrans operations and why after such a long period of success he managed to incur a casualty and why he screwed up. He would also be withdrawn from the field and replaced, as in all likelihood his unit would not be fit for combat.

But no Chinran proceeds to perpetrate a war crime while his commander looks the other way. He massacres the entire village down to the elderly, the women, and the children. His excuse? It will prevent further reprisals, and the kids would have just grown up to extremists anyways.

This incurs no repercussions whatsoever. On a planet where the modus operandi is vengeance for killing others no group carries out a revenge raid against the Freehold forces, no group turns to a less risky insurgency tactic and no one bothers to prosecute Chinran for war crimes. What is worse is that this is presented as not only the right thing, but a solution that works. Unfortunately history has shown us this is not the case, as massacring a single village has never reduced the overall determination of an insurgency. From Ghengis Khan, to Napoleon to Hitler, massacring villages has never worked. Oh it did work for Ghengis Khan, but that was because he would kill everyone who opposed him.

From this point on I could not sympathise, care or even root for Chinran. When you hate a books main character this will somewhat ruin the book for you.

To sum up, Chinran then participates in the war where he carries out the master stroke attack against Earth and resorts to the terrorist tactics he mocked and loathed earlier in the book. Instead of realising he's a hypocritical mass murderer who shouldn't be proud of what he's done, he has a daughter and tries to rationalise his actions. Instead of a good book about he who fights monsters and the consequences this entails or what one must do to survive, we end up with a broken aesop critique of terrorism, and then its outright glorification as a necessity, which the author makes worse by justifying it in a section at the end!

Chinran had the possibility of being an interesting, well developed and sympathetic character who goes from the moral high ground, to questioning why he fights and what lengths he is willing to go to in order to keep his nation safe. Instead we have an unlikable jerk who cheefully commits war crimes and genocide but justifies it because 'it is for a just cause'.

Bullshit Mr. Chiran, bullshit and you know it. In fact you said so yourself many times. His character had potential, but he didn't grow from that potential! Even though he seemed nervous, and somewhat repetent after helping kill six billion people I couldn't care less about him. All I remembered was the village of Sunni's he gleefully slaughtered back on Mtali and then every action regardless of his feelings seemed normal. His regret was pitiful and impossible to sympathize with. The man was a monster plain and simple.

The Verdict.

Great potential, but a massive disapointment. The point could have been made better, the actions (especially those in the earlier parts of the book) less glorified, and the main character less of a psychopath that the reader couldn't sympathise with.

It reads somewhat like a John Ringo novel, but fails to capture its essence and instead of a regular or good soldier we get a murderer.

In the end I could not like this book no matter how much I liked the authors previous book. I will still read some other works in the hopes that he has improved since then. But I cannot in good standing reccomend that anyone read this book. Despite some pleasurable moments I was left with raging stomach pains after digesting this monster.

0.5 stars out of 5.

Tuesday, 1 May 2012

Constructing a Villain: Part 2

In contiuance with my previous update "Constructing a Villain" I will now continue looking at the process of creating a proper villain.

In my first post I discussed how in order to make a satisfying character for a villain I went through a long process of creating a character and playing him out. I think that this is probably the best way to go about creating a villain. Not making one on an RPG and playing his character for a while, but rather creating a villain and putting yourself in his shoes.

When one is creating any character it is important that they always be thinking 'what would -character's name here- do?' and looking at the situation from that particular characters point of view.

So for now lets look at some good villains that have been cooked up in fiction. I think I'll start off with everyone's least favorite disciplinarian, Professor Umbridge from the Harry Potter series. This woman despite being a frumpy middle aged woman that wears pink and loves kittens has gone down as one of the most evil people in fiction. She has a non-threatening demenour and appears as a very mild mannered and sweet woman who is not what you would call physically imposing. Yet despite this she manages to emit an aura of fear and suspicion. Not to mention a bit of toadiness. We first meet her when Harry is put unjustly on trial and she begins asking some rather innocent sounding questions, but phrases them in ways that are mean to incriminate Harry or make his claims seem absurd. She seems like a bit of a shrew but otherwise just a minor annoyance at this point. Then of course she is sent to Hogwarts as the new Defence Against the Dark Arts teacher. She immediately begins spreading lies, deceit and the Ministry propoganda line. Still she seems like a rather harmless busy body or just an obstructive beuarucrat.

Then of course she makes Harry write 'I shall not tell lies' in his own blood.

Unfortunately this is just the tip of the ice burg. Umbridge goes on a dictoral spree of banning items and creating unusually cruel and inventive punishments and creating an Inquisitor Squad to rat out and punish other students, as well as almost restorting to using curses of both torture and killing on students! The woman is so scary even Stephen King says he wished he had cooked up this evil creature! She turns into a petty and vindictive, dictator. Her interests in power and control mold her perfectly into accepting Voldemort's dictatorship and giving show trials to half-blood wizards and either sentencing them to death or lengthy prison sentences.

As a villain she works wonderfully as she has both a comprehensive reason for her evil actions, and a consistent, petty and villainous personality to back it up. She is a tyrant who simply wants power plain and simple. Not just any tyrant, but one who feels no qualms about flouting her power over innocent children and helpless adults. Truly an evil woman.

Another example of a well done villain is the Dark One from the Wheel of Time series. He is the antithesis of all the is good and wholesome. The enemy of Light and a creature that thrives on corruption. Even the symbol of the master of evil is a fly! Rarely seen and mostly acting through his servants he is a terrifying unseen force. Though through a number of evil plans and overarching schemes (such as controlling the weather!) he is felt in the entire series, in fact just saying his name brings down misfortune. Thus he is felt in nearly every aspect of the series and has a definate and ever present effect on the plot.

Then there are his pawns, darkfriends and the Forsaken. The darkfriends are people who have begun serving the Shadow in exchange for power (at the cost of their life if they betray) and can be found in all levels of society from the lowliest peasant to the highest lord in the nation. It makes the heroes constantly look over their shoulders and be unsure of who to trust.

Then the Forsaken who are the most powerful magic users in the series. They are constantly challenging the heroes and engaging in various schemes. They plot against the heroes and each other whenever they get the chance. Thus they have a near fatal case of collective chronic backstabbing disorder which tends to hold the evil side back from making direct blows against the heroes. This is not always the case, for when a plan by one of these evil schemers succeeds, it has a near devastating blow on the heroes and their mission. It keeps the reader on their toes looking for villainous plots and reminds you that the villains are not enitrely incompetant.

As a whole the forces of the Shadow are interesting and always fun to read about. It's easy to cheer for the heroes when the bad guys are just so terrifyingly evil!

Then we have a more subdued but down to earth villain in the story World Made by Hand by James Howard Kunstler. In a world falling apart in the post-oil age we see how an unsrupulous and weedy little man can make an impact on an entire community just by sticking to his old ways and building up a town of likeminded criminal elements. The villain, Wayne Karp (leader of Karptown) is a former trucker who in the post-oil world makes a living by scavenging houses and and other materials important to the day to day running of any small town and sells them in his general store. But he is also a notorious crime boss who preys on the weak and unwary and takes advantage of the break down in law and order in order to excersise a loose sort of control over the region.  He runs a protection racket and beats people up who don't comply.

This leaves the hero trying to restore order in a qaundry. He must unite the community against the man by organising the local people and becoming sheriff. Karp is constantly causing trouble and harrassing the community presenting a sense of danger and disorder. As a simple gangster he works well for a villain who gets little screen time. He engages in torture and arson and makes the reader want to see him stopped. His arrogant and creepily personable demeanor make him sadly likable in some respects but still someone you want to see taken down a notch or two.

Finally I suppose I must go with a villain who has inspired me in creating my villains and evil characters, that honor goes to The Operative, from the film Serenity. He is truly a magnificent villain and I absolutely love/hate him for his intellect, combat skills and the ruthlessly pragmatic way he does his work. First introduced by researching the escape of research suject River Tam, he is a cold, yet intelligent villain who notes that love is more powerful than any madness. His actions revolve around his firm belief in what his government, the Alliance, is doing and how they will one day provide a utopia for mankind. Thus he commits acts that are truly heinous and evil, and he does them all with a wink and a smile in the same cold and calculating manner he would perhaps hunt an animal. His first act is killing a scientist who has failed the government.

The man is the epitomy of affably evil he apologizes for the evil deeds he commits, is perfectly willing to negotiate with the heroes. In fact his first action is to attempt to trap the heroes and peacefully negotiate with the intrepid Captain Malcom Reynolds. He is of course more than willing to beat the man to a pulp to get his way. Then of course he begins killing everyone who was ever associated with Mal and his crew, right down to a peaceful community of Christian miners. He fully admits he is a monster who has killed women and children in order to further the aims of his government, no matter how brutal, amoral, and disturbing they are. In fact he's such a calm rational and badass individual you end up both respecting him yet hating him at the same time. It only makes it oh so sweet though when he gets what was coming to him. An extended scene in the film plays this out better and I encourage readers to buy a copy of the film just for that! All in all he is probably my favorite villain, one who engages the viewer and at the same time establishes bimself as a top notch character. He may not have a back story, but the way he firmly establishes his reasons for why he does what he does and his driving motivators and beliefs make him interesting to watch and leave us wondering just what lengths he is willing to go to in order to complete his mission. He is truly a fantastic template for creating a villain.

So as one can see from the previous examples a good villain is one who is thought out, given a decisive role and one who represents a clear and present danger. I must stress that these three factors be followed exactly. For if even one of them is screwed up it can destroy the viewers belief that the villain is actually a threat. Otherwise they might just seem like a bad man who has lots of expendable henchman. And that isn't dramatic, it's just comedic and mildly sad. Like Norman Armiger from my previous post, a bad villain is one who can't hurt the cast in a meaningful way, is poorly characterized and presents no clear and present danger. Arminger never added tension to the story just served as a stereotypical evil character in a frankly cartoonish manner which ensured I could never take him seriously. Then how easily he ended up being defeated by the heroes made it seem as though he was only a background character whose only purpose was to keep the story chugging along. Unlike the Operative who actually drove the story and whose actions made the heroes desperate. His defeat was far from easy and required blood sweat and tears mixed with near genius ingenuity on the heroes part to actually defeat him.

Thus in conclusion I hope to show from these two articles, and accompanying examples how one can create a good, plot driving, and well thought out villain. I hope it helps some of my readers and inspires others in their writing.