My First Science Fiction Series: Flinx and Pip

The Flinx and Pip series by Alan Dean Foster appeared on my radar screen in the late seventies.  I was ushered into this series via Foster’s Splinter of the Mind’s Eye and Alien movie adaptation.  Before that my experience with science fiction had been movies and comic books.  Although my mom read War of the Worlds to me as a kid.  I only understood parts of it.  Yes, my mom read a turn-of-the-century H.G. Wells novel to me as a young nipper.  My mom is awesome.

Alan Dean Foster got a bad rep in the seventies and eighties because of all of his movie adaptations.  He did a lot of them.  I don’t criticize him, because I’m happy for any writer making good money.  Good for him.

Anyway, I saw his name on a book: The Tar-Aiym Krang.  That title just rolls off the tongue, doesn’t it?  Still, I rather enjoyed it.  So I got the rest in the series: Orphan Star and The End of the Matter and Bloodhype.  Mind you, Bloodhype is an oddball entry in the series.  It was written second, but comes in . . . I’m not exactly sure where it fits in the chronology.  More on that later.

Basic premise of the series is nothing radically new.  Far future space civilization (The Commonwealth) with multiple worlds and alien civilizations.  The fun part is the dual civilizations of human and Thranx (which are mantis-like alien insects).  Foster sets up the framework for all his Commonwealth books in this series.  It’s a setting every bit as rich and interesting as anything created by Isaac Asimov, Poul Anderson or Larry Niven.  (None of which I had read as a young teenager.)  It has lost alien civilizations, cosmic threats and alien artifacts.  Meat and drink to the science fiction or space opera genre.

The main character in this series is Flinx.  He’s a psionic orphan who grows up poor and becomes a thief and (sometime) con artist on the planet Moth (named because of wing-like rings).  His “sidekick” is a flying alien snake with deadly and acidic venom.  It’s also empathic and “links” with Flinx.

The unlikely duo runs into various adventures, usually because of Flinx’s precognitive flashes that lead him into strange situations.  He also later discovers that he was genetically engineered by a secretive group to give him his abilities.

The series continued after that, but the strongest ones were the first ones.  Bloodhype is the oddball one because Flinx and Pip are background characters, rather than the main ones.  It’s still a very good book, but go into it understanding that it’s only marginally a Flinx and Pip book.

This series was my introduction into reading science fiction and I don’t feel cheated.  Still good stuff and I still like Alan Dean Foster a lot.  Although his fantasy is a mixed bag at best.  His Spellsinger series is awful.  I did like Into the Out Of, but I’d call that horror.  I would strongly advise checking out his The Damned series.  It’s great.

Honestly, the Flinx and Pip series would make a great movie or television series.  It’s straightforward, but with plenty of room to expand a universe.

Go check out the series.

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Obscure Indie Film: The Deadly Spawn

The Deadly Spawn is an oddball sci-fi/horror movie from 1983.  I hadn’t seen it myself until just recently.  I’d seen the poster and a few stills, but that’s all.  Fortunately, we live in the age of the internet and YouTube, hence my ability to watch it.

First, I’d like to make sure you realize this is a ‘B’ movie.  The entire budget of this film was a grand total of $25,000.  Yes, you read that right.  Of course, this was in 1983 dollars, but . . . that’s a shoestring budget.  To give you an idea, note that Night of the Living Dead’s budget was $114,000 in 1968 dollars, and that was a tight budget.  And Night didn’t have much in the way of special effects aside from some makeup effects.

Ignore my phallic shape and kiss me.

Second, the late, great Tim Hildebrandt is one of the film’s producers.  Yes, that Tim Hildebrandt.  Lord of the friggin’ Rings Tim Hildebrandt of the Brothers Hildebrandt.of The brothers responsible for most of the LOTR artwork for a couple of decades, not to mention the original poster art for Star Wars.  (Also note that the youngest protagonist and science fiction fanboy in the movie is Charles George Hildebrandt–Tim’s son.)

The Brothers Hildebrandt also did the artwork for the Deadly Spawn movie poster.  Which is pretty damn cool.

Last time I go to that dermatologist.

The plot is straightforward and familiar to any science fiction or horror movie nerd.  A meteor falls in the woods and is discovered by a couple of campers. The toothy spawn from inside the meteor make a quick meal of said campers.  The spawn takes up residence in a rural house’s basement and proceeds to start eating the inhabitants and visitors.  It also releases multiple tiny spawn with oversized teeth and jaws.  The spawn do what evil alien spawn are supposed to do–they try to eat everything they find.

This little piggy went to the SLAUGHTER!

The gore is both graphic and solidly done, especially considering the minuscule budget available.  Interspersing the graphic effects are several cutaway scenes involving what I kind only assume was a squirt gun with stage blood.  The main creature has some nicely overdone dental appendages of sinister design.  It’s no man in a rubber suit.  It’s accomplished with puppetry effects and judicious use of dark lighting, cutaways and close-ups.

The acting?  All I can say is that for a college production, the acting is decent.  Not exactly Shakespearean, but this isn’t exactly Othello, either.  I will say the acting is better than most of the SyFy Channel’s cheese movies.  Which admittedly, isn’t hard.

Feed me, Seymour!

I could go into more plot details, but honestly, you know everything you need to know.  Alien spawn picking off victims.  Deadly game of cat and mouse.  Plucky young protagonist figures out the spawn’s weakness.  Deadly vegetarian food party.  Don’t go in the basement.

Party on.  Go check it out.  It’s available on YouTube for free.  Enjoy.

*- Please note, there is a quasi “sequel” called Deadly Spawn II or Metamorphosis: The Alien Factor.  Apparently it has little to do with the first movie.  I have never seen it.

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The Great Darkness Saga (A Forgotten DC Gem)

Unless you’re a comic book geek, you’re probably unfamiliar with the Legion of Super-Heroes and the Great Darkness Saga.  The LSH has been around for decades, but never got the exposure of the Justice League or Teen Titans.  Plus, with its roots deep in Silver Age lore, it has definitely had some goofy elements.  The team first appeared in Adventure Comics with Superboy, and was, well . . . corny.  Fun, but corny.  The LSH were a superhero group in the 30th century of the DC Universe, with members from every corner of the galaxy, and power levels varying wildly from Duo Damsel (who could turn into two women) to Mon-El (who could punch holes through planets.)

Not exactly Watchmen.

Anyway, years went by and comic buyers got a bit more sophisticated.  The Legion got its own title in the early seventies with a rotating roster of writers, including Paul Levitz, Gerry Conway and Roy ThomasDave Cockrum and Mike Grell did much of the penciling work and it typically looked pretty sharp.  Overall, it looked solid, but the stories tended to be the same, bland fare.  Not bad, but not outstanding, either.

Then in the early 1980s, Paul Levitz returned to the writing chores.  He brought with him the art team of Keith Giffen and Larry Mahlstedt.  I loved this art team from the very beginning, and the story line took a sudden spike in sophistication and maturity.  It really kicked into high gear when Paul started The Great Darkness Saga.  It involved the appearance of the Jack Kirby uber-villain, Darkseid, in the far future.  He returns without and New Gods to stop him and does a respectable try at conquering the galaxy.

A couple of notes here.

First, for you younger folks, most comic companies weren’t in the habit of having big, apocalyptic, multi-part story lines at the time.  There were occasional long plot lines, but they were few and far between.  And rarely did anything of true substance happen, especially with DC Comics. Moreover, the general tone and plot lines tended to be fairly straightforward. 

Then along comes The Great Darkness.  For those of you who read it after it had been collected in a trade paperback, you’re actually missing a pretty big element of the series: mystery.  Levitz didn’t just come out and say: “Hey, here comes Darkseid!”  Nope.  Through most of it, you have no idea who this Big Bad is.  Sure, Levitz threw in lots of hints, but they weren’t super-obvious, especially if you didn’t know your New Gods lore.  You just knew that things were gettin’ real when the flunkies beat the crap out of the toughest Legionnaires with ease!

As the story progressed, you found out that the mysterious, inhuman bad guys were “unliving clones” (yes, I’m also not sure what the means–but it’s cool) of some of the most powerful members of the DC Universe, including Superman and a Guardian of OA.  They were badass.

Mordru had beaten the whole Legion before. This is a ‘spit take’ moment.

Then when the mysterious master showed up, he proceeded to stomp the Legion’s most powerful enemies with ease and steal their powers.  The stakes just kept going up and the Legion got beaten time and time again before they’d even seen the “master”.  I remember geeking out when I found out (although I had suspected) that the master was Darkseid.  The Big Reveal was sweet.  And Darkseid’s master plan was . . . well, one of the better ones I’ve seen a Evil Mastermind come up with.  When I saw it in action, my response was: “How in the hell are they going to win this?!”  Seriously.  Good plan.

I don’t want to spoil too many of the surprises.  I wish everyone could read this without knowing it was Darkseid.  So good.  I will say the virtually every hero who had every had an appearance in the LSH shows up–and the LSH is still outpowered a thousand-to-one.

Anyway, let me also rain down praise on the art team of Keith Giffen and Larry Mahstedt.  I had encountered Giffen before in the pages of Marvel’s Defenders, but he really comes into his own in this.  When he first started, he looked very much like a Jack Kirby clone (which, if you have to be a clone, isn’t too shabby) but he defines his own style in LSH.  I also must wonder how much of the plotting he helped with, as he’s a pretty good writer on his own.  I must confess I like this period in his artwork the best.  Later he did a much looser style that I liked, but it didn’t feel as good.  I do adore all of his Ambush Bug work, though. (For those who don’t know, Ambush Bug was Deadpool before there was a Deadpool.)

If DC wanted a property to do another animated adaptation of, they could do much worse than The Great Darkness Saga.

Go pick up a copy of the trade paperback and revel in the goodness.

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Movies That Need More Love: Real Steel

I love Real Steel, directed by Shawn Levy.  I simply adore this movie.  It earned my love the first time I watched it and it has never diminished.  Just to let you know my bias.

Is it formulaic?  Oh yes.  Real Steel owes a great deal to the Rocky movies in its formula.  It’s a (very) loose adaptation of the Richard Matheson short story “Steel” which appeared on The Twilight Zone in 1963.  Elements of that story are still there, but mostly serves as the kernel of a new story entirely.  The TZ story was more serious and depressing.

Anyway, you’ve got Charlie Kenton (Hugh Jackman) as a former boxer turned robot boxer promoter.  Backstory reveals that human boxing languished as robot boxing started, as mere humans couldn’t give the type of spectacle the fans wanted.  Charlie reconnects with his son Max (Dakota Goyo) after Max’s mother dies.  Charlie cynically sells away his rights to Max for enough money to continue robot boxing, only to lose again and again.  Part of the deal is that Max stays with Charlie over the summer.

Charlie gets more than he bargained for with Max, as he’s a robot boxing fan and knows more about robots than Charlie.  More than that, Charlie begins to care about his son as more than a moneymaking scheme.  He’s alternately encouraged and chastened by Bailey Tallet (Evangeline Lilly) who is the daughter of his deceased former boxing coach.

After all of Charlie’s expensive robots are destroyed, Max literally falls over an older robot called “Atom” in a junkyard.  They fix Atom up and discover he punches well above his weight class.

Kid, let me tell you about this time my plane crashed on an island . . .

Every actor in this movie punches above his or her weight class.  Hugh Jackman gives a typically great performance.  He manages to portray a burned out loser who isn’t an idiot, but constantly does stupid things by impulse.  I normally loathe child actors, but Dakota Goyo is a joy to watch.  He’s precocious, but not annoyingly precocious, like too many child actors.  He still shows expected, childish gaps in his knowledge.  Evangeline Lilly is also wonderful.  She doesn’t have a lot of screen time, but she packs a lot of heart in the few minutes she slips in and out.  (On a personal note, I find her to be absolutely gorgeous, in a ‘girl next door’ kind of way.)  Kevin Durand is hilariously great as the over-the-top heavy with an exaggerated redneck accent and sneering smile.  (Compare it with his Brooklyn/Ukranian accent on The Strain.  The guy’s got some range.)

(Side note: Sugar Ray Leonard advised the fight choreography.)

I would be amiss in not mentioning the Academy Award nominated robot effects in this movie.  The effects people outdid themselves.  The CGI interacts with the human actors

If you were a vampire, I’d so kill you.

and practical effects in a well-choreographed and very believable fashion.  Contrast it with the awful interactions in pretty much any Transformers movie and you’ll see that people who complain about too much CGI don’t understand.  It’s not the effects–it’s how they’re used.  Real Steel uses them like a maestro.  You can easily fool yourself into thinking these robots are real.

The filmmakers show the science fiction elements of this near-future setting, but don’t cram them down your throat.  Multiple, logical progressions of existing technology linger in the background.  The obvious ones with the robots are still handled in a mundane enough manner to suspend disbelief.

I love all of the above, but the part that really ties it up into a bow is that this is a guy’s movie.  No, not a guy’s movie–a father’s movie.  This entire movie is love letter to fatherhood.  So often these days fathers are mocked and/or shown to be shitheads or simply unnecessary.  (“A woman needs a man like a fish needs a bicycle”.)  This movie does everything but put a banner in praise of fatherhood over the top of the screen.  Fatherhood really matters in this movie and isn’t the least bit shy about showing it.

I’d make a joke about the scene, but I love it too much.

Are there predictable, cliched elements?  Absolutely.  But cliches become cliches because they work. If you have good writing, dialogue and heart, I don’t care if something has been done before.  Real Steel has enough heart for two movies.  I defy any man to not get a little misty-eyed during the Zeus shadow boxing.  Go on, I dare you.

If you’ve never seen this movie–what are you waiting for?!  Go find a copy and watch it!  Immediately!

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