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Tesseracts 17 Interview: Dwain Campbell

Dwain Campbell, Tesseracts 17, child protagonist, aliens, Roswell, Hermione

Dwain Campbell writes a home invasion story with a mix of madcap adventure and genius.

I have only a few more interviews to do with the authors of Tesseracts 17: Speculating Canada from Coast to Coast to Coast, available through EDGE. Today, I bring you Dwain Campbell, from St. John’s, Newfoundland, whose wild tale gallops through the pages of the anthology.

CA: “Hermione and Me” is a madcap adventure.  Wherever did you come up with this idea?

Having been a school teacher and guidance counselor for thirty years, I have worked with many a child who struggled with his or her uniqueness. Not surprisingly then, coming of age stories have a certain appeal for me.  Of course, in this story the protagonist Meredith is more unique than people can possibility imagine, and her adjustment, her growth as a result of one evening’s adventure, is central. Madcap? It sure is, but anything less than “out of this world” would not challenge two powerhouses like Meredith and Hermione Granger. And as for the home invaders, what can I say, I’m a Roswell conspiracy nut.

CA: In your tale you link genius, imagination and creations of magic.  Do you feel that science and magic may be closer together than we imagine?

Definitely. In quantum physics alone theorists are generating pretty scary stuff. Computer chips three atoms wide, where two bits of information can be housed on one sub-atomic thingamajig because it can exist in two states at once, are being actively explored.  That will look like magic to all intents and purposes. The psycho-physics interface between brain and mind is getting serious attention too. Perhaps one day the mind can materialize imagined people (as Meredith does) even as computers now do with 3D printing.

But to answer the question more directly, I do believe certain minds can negotiate corners oftime and space that is beyond 99% of us. Magic, or a so far unknown psychological phenomenon that transcends space-time, who is to say?

anthology, speculative fiction, SF, fantasy, Canadian authors

Tesseracts 17 is now out with tales from Canadian writers that span all times and places.

CA: Some paintings are for beauty, others for messages. It’s the same for fiction. Which would you say you story is?

Hermione and Me is likely more satisfying on the message level.  Growing up is hard to do; it’s no walk in the park. Fears and insecurities abound.  Meredith has them in spades, but she is capable of moving beyond them. It all gets sorted out in the end. That is a message of hope most young people would welcome.

CA: If you could, would you rather meet an alien, or conjure up your own special and real companion?

Alien. In my mind they do exist, and I suspect they are a lot more fascinating, in physical form and sentience, than your basic Klingon or Romulan. The nature of alien cognition and culture is to me an endless source of speculation. I like the David Brin Uplift novels which handle these questions with imagination and intelligence.

CA: What other works do you have on the go or what ideas are you exploring?

I’m writing a series of stories called The Crazy Eights ( nickname of the Princess Louise’s 8th New Brunswick Hussars regiment) following the supernatural adventures of Sergeant Cecil (Plug) Danfield and Captain Tallingate during World War Two. The stories should appeal to Canadian military buffs and those fond of fantasy-realism. I have a few stories of Meredith from “Hermione and Me” as a high school teenager. And, I submit stand alone fantasy stories here and there.

Dwain Campbell is originally from Sussex, New Brunswick. After his university years in Halifax, he journeyed further east to begin a teaching career in Newfoundland. Twenty-nine years later, he is a retired teacher in St. John’s. He hopes to devote more time to his first love, storytelling. Contemporary fantasy is his genre of choice, and Atlantic Canada is a rich source of inspiration. Neil Gaiman is his hero of the moment, though he will reluctantly admit to a lifelong fascination with Stephen King.

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Movie Review: Avatar and a Comparison I

Well, I’m late out of the gate in seeing Avatar but I’m going to review it anyway. Some of this will have already been said and some not yet. I’ll look at elements of plot and Avatar sadly lacks originality there, and I’ll compare it to some stories and novels, specifically David Moles’ “Finisterra.” And yes there will be spoilers in this review.

First, what worked. It’s been a while since Final Fantasy came out and comparing these two movies is like comparing a hand beater to electric beaters. Where Final Fantasy’s textures and characters were definitely still on the animated cartoon side, Avatar has gone leaps and bounds, combining human actor shots with those of the Na’vi, and the completely CGI world. Textures such as skin and hair are realistic and seamless. Although hugely expensive, this paves the way for any story to be told. Where Lord of the Rings took us with made up but real sets, Avatar expands upon, and there is not tale, no matter how fantastical, that now cannot be told.

The world of Pandora, the human name for it, is on a large scale. Trees are of insurmountable heights. Phosphorescence gives the forest a natural night time luminescence. Creatures are sleek and deadly or light and airy. The flora is beautiful and ethereal and the Na’vi live within it and are part of it. They connect and feel their world in a very real way for they have within their hair fibril strands that can connect to, in a physical way, a few other species and the mother tree/goddess itself. There are mountains that float; that physical anomaly with gravity isn’t explained but I”m willing to let it pass. After all, the Na’vi are very tall, which could be the result of a lower gravity planet, but if that’s the case the humans on the ground should be bounding along like they’re on the moon. Hmmm.

But worldbuilding is extremely difficult. One must create everything from geography and atmosphere, to flora, fauna and cultures. It’s a lot of work, even for a god.

The animals are, well, they’re kinda Earth derivative. When the Na’vi riders appear on animals they are very horselike, down to stylized crests or manes. Why these beasts couldn’t be hippolike or serpentine or some sort of other looking beast, I’m not sure. And then there are the wolflike creatures that attack in the night, because wolves are part of the wanderer in the woods psyche; and the rhino hammerheads, all just a little bit too like Earth animals. But there are the toruk and banshees that the Na’vi tame and ride. These are like dragons and pterodactyls mixed together.

The horse creatures and the banshees can be telepathically controlled by the fibrils in the Na’vi’s hair and in long antenna/hornlike extensions on these animals. Why the Na’vi’s fibrils aren’t in their tails (which seem somewhat prehensile though they never use them this way) is weird and though I suppose these fibrils are closer to the neural network of the brain by being in the hair, it seems an unlikely spot. Even a navel seems more likely. This telepathic bonding (which one person in my writers group has likened more to psychological rape) is very similar to Anne McCaffery’s dragonriders of Pern, a SF series where  riders telepathically bond for life with a dragon. However, this is not an equal bonding but more like breaking in a horse, because when they bond with the banshees, these creatures seem to lose all ability to fly naturally without being directed by the Na’vi. Where’s the sense in taking away a creature’s natural instincts? It’s now like driving a car.

There are a few incongruous physiological aspects to some of the animals of Pandora, which seem to be mostly to make them look different but without thought being given as to why they would have this physiological difference.  The large animals seem to be six legged and yet the Na’vi only have four limbs, as do the monkey creatures. All larger species and mammals on Earth have four limbs (even whales with the tail being vestigial feet) and it seems evolutionarily sound that if the Na’vi developed with four limbs that the animals would too. I can’t quite see the benefit of an extra set of limbs for these creatures. As well, they are so powerful, the rhino hammerheads and the panther beasts, that they can tear apart or smash through giant trees in pursuit of their quarry. If this was the case the forest would look much more like a war zone than it does.

The toruk has four eyes, a smaller set behind the first two. What is the purpose of a second set of eyes set in almost the same place? They don’t see differently, or on a different spectrum and I can’t see why evolution would burden them with this extra set. No wonder they’re so cranky. The banshees and the horse creatures also have blowholes in their chests as opposed to nostrils on their heads. Why? What purpose would this serve? Fish have gills but they’re still near the head. Whales have blowholes on the top of their heads because they submerge themselves, and hippos have giant, high placed nostrils for the same reason. But blowholes in your chest when you’re a land animal? Nah. Weirdness for weirdness sake. Cameron was probably quite busy designing this but more thought could have gone into the evolutionary detail of this planet without just making it look odd to us.

So, onto the Na’vi. They are beautiful, long-limbed, probably about 9 feet tall and in touch with the world around them. They live in an idyllic culture, at one with themselves and their land. Too idyllic. The only threat are the outsiders and no society is ever that perfect. They are the quintessential noble savage, a trope often overused in stories. A blend of North American Indians and African tribal peoples, they even dress and hunt the same way. And even though they are blue with light black striping, they certainly resemble plains Indians. But they have mobile ears and tails, as well as large eyes and a catlike (tiger maybe) grace. So yes, they also resemble Tolkien’s elves of Lothlorien. Elves in space. They have a spiritual tree that holds Eywa, their goddess. This is similar to the Yggdrasil or the World Tree of Norse myth. World trees are common in many stories and are a natural extension of seeing the Earth as alive and aware on some level.

Continued tomorrow.

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Movie Review: District 9

District 9, movies, film, movie review, aliens, Africa, racism

In a nice twist, the aliens haven’t invaded and just want to go home.

And this is your spoiler alert. I’m going to dissect the movie so move on if you don’t want to know what happens in some of it.

There’s been a lot of hype about District 9. It was discussed some on my writers group list and people have seen all the bus ads and trailers. My neighbor said, “Oh that’s supposed to be one of the best movies of the year.” It’s produced by Peter Jackson of  LOTR fame and director Neill Blomkamp. And while I found the movie good, it wasn’t great.

What works for it are quite a few things. This movie would not have worked with name brand actors like Pitt or Depp. It supposed to take on a realistic feel of our world today, with a mockumentary beginning, film clips of news reels, interviews with various academics and psychologists. These people are warty and blemished, tired and unkempt, everything that says it’s not all smoothed over Hollywood makeup.

If we saw Will Smith pop onto the screen, we’d know it’s another action packed movie where the US saves the day again and again and again. This movie begins with film clips (which I actually thought there were too many of and somewhat boring but does set the time and place) where we find that the alien ship came to rest somewhere over Johannesburg. The narrator quips that it wasn’t New York or Chicago or London. And when they looked inside the ship there were malnourished and starving aliens.

Aliens that are buggy or insectoid in appearance. At least they’re not Star Trek aliens, which tend to be humanoid with odd noses.

District 9, apartheid, segregation, movies, film, aliens

District 9 is a thinly veiled commentary about segregation and xenophobia.

But how do you make an insectile creature sympathetic? With the alien in Alien, the antagonist, it was black and large, with no eyes and a very scary double set of very sharp teeth (interestingly enough this is the type of maw that eels have). The prawns, as they’re called in District 9, have antenna and instead of teeth, mouths that have tendrils like a carp’s. They can eat cans and tires and have a penchant for cat food. And the best way to get the audience to relate to the prawns is to give them big humanoid eyes.

That and to give them cute children, little miniatures. The main alien has a son, really the only child we see in the alien ghetto. Now it’s interesting that there is this attachment to offspring when it’s shown that they’re raised as eggs in a central feeding incubator. But then the aliens are intelligent so perhaps they know which egg is theirs. The only other alien creature shown is some creature used in illegal (equivalent of) cockfighting rings. The creatures are like giant shrimp, maybe a couple of feet long, with very sharp stingers, like long needles. They’re pitted against each other to death. So are they some sort of alien vermin, or prepubescent aliens (that have no faces) though stingers are not evident on the adults?

Eventually we get to some amateur filming of middle management and somewhat dweeby Wikus (pronounced Vikus) van der Merwe who is in charge of relocating 1.8 million aliens. The aliens are segregated in a slum, for 20 years, but protests have grown against them. Here we’re introduced to a host of smaller characters and your basic fodder for the carnage to come, as well as the guy in charge of the military end of the relocation, Kobus Venter. He’s brusque, aggressive and physically pushes Wikus in the beginning, setting up for further confrontation. So here we have the antagonist, the army.

This is in no way new to many films. What’s nice about this movie is that the aliens aren’t invading and really are downtrodden to begin with. But it’s cliche to have the bad army dudes who are shoot-first-ask-questions-later kind of mentalities. The main guy is of course crafty and wily and vicious. And then there’s Wikus’s father-in-law who puts Wikus in charge and is all too happy to sacrifice his son-in-law without so much as a moment’s remorse when it turns out they can harvest him for alien biotech once he was infected by an alien device.

And here is the biggest cliche of all. The scientists/doctors who want to harvest him will of course want the heart first but don’t even anesthitize him. (Well, Jame Bond, let me tell you about my evil plan to take over the world while you dangle over a pit of sharks/fire/blades.) He can’t get away, you see, if he’s knocked out which any scientist would do, even to a lab experiment. Even if you don’t have a humane bone in your body, you don’t want your specimen jerking about and ruining the harvest (and they want DNA so why the hell do they need the heart?)

That alien device that caused Wikus’s predicament is the pivotal part of the movie. The aliens need it to get off of the Earth and it’s taken 20 years to gather enough fluid to make it work. Why is there enough alien junk on the ground for them explore is a mystery. Why no one really seems to be able to communicate with the prawns or try to understand them (where are the xenobiologists and xenobotanists, etc. in all of this?) is never explained. Only Wikus as he’s metamorphosing, from a squirt of the device’s fluids, understands the prawn and the prawns of course understand the humans easily. Earth doesn’t want them but won’t let them go. I didn’t quite understand this.

Nor did I understand that all of the aliens except for three (the dad, the son and the faithful friend who sacrifices him/herself) seem to be brawling and base, little better than animals, and no one remembers how the ship worked it seems. But then they were probably all just passengers and the crew was small. I guess I could accept that there is only one commander who knows how to run the ship. Doesn’t seem like a great failsafe though to have no other crew.

Except for their carapaces these aliens are pretty human in their emotions and lives. It’s a hard thing to do, to make an alien and make it sympathetic to humans, hence the big eyes, the kid and the emotions. They eat differently but they fight back, or they make bargains with the Nigerians who are known for their scams (yes, this is a little tongue in cheek joke). Why it’s Nigerians in South Africa is not clear and the major crimelord is in a wheelchair, therefore wants to eat parts of the aliens to give him power. A little convoluted since these aliens are living in the slums and have no power.

What really doesn’t make sense is that the aliens  do have power but don’t seem to ever use it. They are stronger than humans and can rip them apart with their bare claws. They also have loads of weapons that they sell to the Nigerians for cat food. How they got these items off of the mothership is unclear since all of the prawns were ferried 20 years ago by humans and they have no transport of their own to the ship. Yet these weapons are mondo in all sense of the word. They’re bigger (because it’s better) than our weapons and their power is decimating, yet the aliens never use them but live as subjugated second citizens.

So are there flaws in this movie? Yes, plenty. Are there cliches? Unfortunately enough to keep it from being a great movie. It’s obviously a movie about segregation and subjugation, about insensitivity to otherness and racism. Wikus is the reluctant hero who is almost brought down by the nearly invincible Venter. The actor Sharlto Copley does a good job and the effects are well done. But the problems with the plot and the cliches worked against the story and the great effects. Overall, I’d give it 3.5 stars out of five. Maybe four for the effects but there’s room to grow.

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Bits & Pieces: Aliens, Writing & PST

It’s nice to know that in all those beliefs we have about aliens from other planets and how they must be highly advanced technologically (otherwise they couldn’t fly all those light years), that they also seem to have some driving mishaps from time to time. I just wonder if it was drunk driving and what an alien might find as hooch, methane perhaps? Imagine, the crop circles are aliens setting down in a farmer’s field and sucking the methane from the cow patties, having a UFO tailgate party and putting something on the barbee. Or maybe they drink corn syrup. Who knows?

Some people might argue that if they have technology to fly light years, that they would not run into a wind turbine. But let’s say that aliens might look at us and say, they have techology to drive so they’d never run into a telephone pole. There is one factor in both of these: human (or alien error). People make mistakes so maybe there was just a bad driver at the ship’s controls. But then maybe this accident in Lincolnshire had to do with low visibility (the video shows an awful lot of haze) or maybe they were sightseeing and got distracted. “Hey, Mabel, lookit that weird critter with black and white spots and the giant udder!” The witness in the first article looks an awaful lot like an alien to me and really, there is nothing more alien than humans. I also like that tentacles are mentioned by one witness in the second article. A UFO with tentacles! A giant squid! Could be ball lightning. Nah, it was the flying spaghetti monster whose spaghetti like tentacles wrapped around the blade and stole it. Yes, that’s it. All hail the spaghetti monster.

http://www.thesun.co.uk/sol/homepage/news/ufos/article2108149.ece

http://www.bloomberg.com/apps/news?pid=20601102&sid=a6W14d7tFWdI&refer=uk

Proof of the flying spaghetti monster:  http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vL7FcvEydqg

In writing news, I have just sold “A Taste for Treasure” to Alison’s Wonderland, an erotic fairy tale anthology by Harlequin, edited by Alison Tyler. Good money, even if they do ask for all rights until they’re finished with it. I also received my copies of The Mammoth Book of Best New Erotica by Running Press, edited by Maxim Jakubowski. I do love getting those checks in British pounds. It’s almost double the money and more for the reprint than I was paid for the original story.

I’ve also sold a poem “Collecting” to Sotto Voce but I asked them a question on the contract and haven’t heard back from them so hopefully they’ll respond. I really really hope to get back to writing my novel next week. I’ve farted around long enough now.

And in BC we are charged a provincial tax besides the federal GST. PST is not charged on food, but I’ve discovered the Pharmasave on Columbia St. in New Westminister has been. When I asked them, I was told that chips and chocolates aren’t food. I said, yes it is, you ingest it and the gov’t website says it’s exempt. “But it’s a confection. It’s not like a granola bar.” Errr, yes, but that is still food. Sure, it may not be nutritional (and many granola bars are suspect because of their high sugar content and the chocolate chips in them too) but it’s still food.

Yeesh. Well, since I had already written to the Pharmasave head office in November and received no reply, and they were still charging PST, I filed a complaint with the Ministry of Business and Revenue, and then I emailed the CEO. That has got results but still, Pharmasave has been raking in money, whether they’re turning it over to the government or not, but taking it illegally. I hate paying taxes and hate it more when it’s taken for items it shouldn’t be.

Should you want to check that your Pharmasave (supposedly they’re independently owned) is charging you correctly, here is the brochure from the provincial government that focuses on drug and grocery stores specifically. http://www.rev.gov.bc.ca/documents_library/bulletins/SST_026.pdf

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