Karavansara

East of Constantinople, West of Shanghai


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The burgers always taste the same

I was talking with my friend Lucy, a few moments ago. We were discussing the first pages of a book we’ve both picked up and, alas, dropped real fast. The first pages are critical, and here, in two pages, we got such a distillation of elements done to death in the last thirty years, that we were both unable to go on. And we talked about this, comparing our reactions.

Now, I am not a big fan of gore-drenched slasher-fests, and so my distaste for the self-congratulatory tone with which the violence was portrayed in the text was somewhat natural. Lucy is more into this sort of books, and what she objected to was the cliché feel of the whole thing.

“We’ve seen it done better, a thousand times, since the ’90s”

she said.
And she is perfectly right.
And yet the book is selling like hotcakes, and it’s got a brace of rave reviews.
What the hell happened?

My take on the thing is, the book caters for the lowest common denominator, and that’s what the majority of the target audience is expecting. What they actually demand.

So a good strategy is to feed the audience a checklist of expected cliches, in the expected order, and with a language as commonplace and plain as possible.
Anything new, different and original might scare the target audience away.

And this, really, is the only thing that might convince me to go on reading this book – to see if the author is smart enough to hook his target audience in the first stilted throwaway pages, and then, once the readers have been hooked, reel them in and hit them with a few original twists.
It would be great.
But I doubt this is how it goes.

Talking with Lucy, we remembered the song Styx used to sing…

I like fast food
The burgers always
taste the same

Entertainment should be entertaining and, in this instance at least, it is not entertaining to me, or to Lucy.
We have been there already, now we want something more, something better.
I’d go as far as to say we’d be happy with a less-than-perfect story, as long as it goes someplace we’ve never been before, or throws a different light on ideas we are familiar with.
But we have to accept that to the majority of the readers, the lowest common denominator, the burger-like story that always tastes the same, is perfectly fine.

It’s a very unpleasant situation – both from a writer’s and a reader’s point of view.


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Space Patrol, in German

I was always pretty wary of nostalgia, and I’ve become even more so in the last few years, after seeing nostalgia weaponized and used to sell cartloads of rubbish to people that, basically, were reacting to a manufactured nostalgia for something they had not, in fact, experienced first hand.
And yet.

Yesterday I read in Variety a Bavarian production company is set to launch a new series of Raumpatrouille – that’s Space Patrol in German – a 1966 series that was probably the first proper SF show I ever saw on television, in the early ’70s, when I was in primary school.
Boy, we loved that show – all seven episodes of it.
The complete title was quite a mothful, in original: Raumpatrouille – Die phantastischen Abenteuer des Raumschiffes Orion.

The plot: in a future in which humanity has become a single people as is exploring space, major Clif Allister McLane and the crew of the starship Orion face menaces both natural and not, including the expansionist plans of an alien race known as the Frogs.

The series was shot in black and white, and REALLY on the cheap – and yet it turned out to be too expensive for the production company, that had to pull the plug after barely seven 1-hour episodes because they had run out of money.

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School of hard knocks: Monster Hunter (2020)

I did not have great expectations when I started watching Monster Hunter, the 2020 movie based on a popular videogame property by Capcom. I never played the videogames, and I had a very sketchy idea of the setup. All I knew was there is Milla Jovovich in it – and I quite like her – and that it was written and directed by Paul W.S. Anderson, a man that should be hanged and quartered for what he did to the Three Musketeers.
So, you get an idea of what I was expecting.

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Love, politics and fire: Aliette De Bodard’s Fireheart Tiger

This is sort of an instant review, jotted down real fast after finishing Aliette de Bodard’s latest novella for Tor.com, Fireheart Tiger. The new book dropped a few days ago, and I had been smart enough to pre-order itr, so I got it in ebook the moment it was launched.
And I read it straight away.

This will be a spoiler-free review, of this highly recommended, unusual fantasy story.

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Nostalgia

My late mother used to say that if you never saw something before, then it was new. That was her main response when someone commented that a certain movie she had just discovered, or a book she had read recently, was “old”.

This idea came back to me today, when I suddenly realized I had my fill – and then some – of the incessant nostalgia that’s been pushed on us.

Today, while browsing my social media during lunchtime, I was rapidly exposed to…

  • the good old days when we played Mortal Combat
  • the Old School revival and how great was the original D&D game
  • how science fiction died after Tarkowski shot Solaris
  • He-man and the Masters of the Universe was the best animation show ever
  • the best fantasy book ever written was published in 1934
  • and music’s not been the same ever since Led Zeppelin disbanded

And don’t get me wrong – if it’s the first time you catch those, you might as well find them great. And really, maybe you should check them out, if you’re a fan of similar stuff.
But if you know them already, then going back to them obsessively instead of looking forward is not healthy.

There were some great stories, and shows, great music and games in the past? Sure.
But there are some great stories, and shows, great music and games right now.
That’s the fun of it – evolution never stops.

And I realize it is weird this coming from someone that writes pulp-ish stories set in the ’30s, and genre fiction, and is currently re-watching the old Kolchak TV series.
But I am doing my best to avoid building chains to keep me trapped in the past.
If it’0s the first time you catch it, it’s new. And there’s good in a lot of places – past, present and future.

This market-driven nostalgia, pushed to milk the memories of the currently forty-something crowd, makes me sick.


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Thirty-five years after: Subway (1985)

For the next episode of Paura & Delirio, the podcast I co-host with my friend Lucy, we’re going to discuss Nosferatu, both the Murnau original and the Werner Herzog remake. As we usually do for our podcast, we are re-watching the movies to freshen up out impressions.

And as I was watching the Herzog movie, I remembered I saw it first in late 1985 or early 1986, and I checked the movie out for one reason alone – it features Isabelle Adjani, that I had first seen a few weeks before in a completely different movie: Luc Besson’s stylish thriller, Subway.

And so I stopped Nosferatu, and dug out Subway – because while I’ve seen the Herzog movie quitre a few times since 1985, it’s been thirty-five years since I last went town in the underground with Isabelle Adjani.

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Sword & Sorcery movies

I happen to be on a Sword & Sorcery roll. Big deal, you say, as if it was the first time. But really, in part this is because for Christmas I got the last volume in Glen Cook’s Dread Empire series, and so I’m finally setting out to read the whole bunch of novels in chronological order, starting with A Fortress in Shadow. In part it’s because another gift I got in my sock for the Befana festival is P.J. Thorndyke’s Barbarians at the Gates of Hollywood, this being a fun and opinionated survey of the golden age of sword & sorcery movies, to wit, the 1980s.

And as I was reading Thorndyke’s book, it happened – as it usually does – that I started feeling like re-watching these old flicks. because no one will be surprised to learn I saw each one of them at least once, and many of them (yes, I’m looking at you, Beastmaster) repeatedly, in many long summer nights, when sleep would not come, and a silly movie and a cup of ice cream was all that stood between my sanity and heat-induced madness.

And of course I’ve been watching a lot of movies since I started co-hosting the Paura & Delirio podcast with my friend Lucy – at least one movie per week, often watching it twice; more when we do our specials, like the one we did on New Year’s Eve about the Hammer Karnstein Trilogy, and what we’ll soon do with the two Nosferatu movies – Murnau’s and Herzog’s.

So the question is – do I have the time, between Cook’s book, my writing projects, my planning and building a vegetable garden and the idea of acquiring a new skill in February… do I have the time for these old sword & sorcery films? Say one per week, following P.J. Thorndyke’s excellent guide?

And, should I do it … what next?
I could blog about them, of course.
And maybe do something more – a film or two will maybe find a place in Paura & Delirio – because of the contiguity between sword & sorcery and horror/weird fiction.
But what of the rest?

I’ll have to find an idea.
But right now, I’ll have to go dig in the box of old DVDs for the titles in my viewing list that are not on VHS.
This is going to be fun…