6.12.2019

Movie Review: The Hunger Games (2012)


Title: The Hunger Games
Director: Gary Ross
Distributor: Lionsgate
Starring: Jennifer Lawrence, Josh Hutcherson, Woody Harrelson
Excellence: 2 stars (out of 5)
Summary in a Sentence: A mediocre "dystopian future"-themed film that features the disturbing spectacle of children killing each other in gladiatorial-style games, which neverthless touched something in the young-adult crowd, becoming a box-office smash with several sequels

I went to see this film in the theatre solely as social research and to see what all the fuss was about. A film that grosses $150 million in its opening weekend must have some special appeal. I went in with low expectations -- living under a rock as I do, I was largely ignorant of the whole Hunger Games phenomenon. I knew nothing of the plot save the vaguest idea of the concept. It wasn't terrible, but I'm glad I went on "Cheap Tuesday".

So the basic plot is, per Internet Movie Database:

In a dystopian future, the totalitarian nation of Panem is divided between 12 districts and the Capitol. Each year two young representatives from each district are selected by lottery to participate in The Hunger Games. Part entertainment, part brutal retribution for a past rebellion, the televised games are broadcast throughout Panem. The 24 participants are forced to eliminate their competitors while the citizens of Panem are required to watch. When 16-year-old Katniss's young sister, Prim, is selected as District 12's female representative, Katniss volunteers to take her place. 

There really isn't much more to it than that. After the intial heroic act of volunteering to take her sister's place, the rest of the film is just a bunch of action sequences as Katniss tries to stay alive (with the mandatory shaky hand-held camera preventing the viewer from seeing much of it). Rather ho-hum I thought on the whole, although there were some things that were quite good.

I thought the Running Man-esque critique of modern media and the voyeurism of reality shows was quite well done. Stanley Tucci as Caesar Flickerman, the host of The Hunger Games was perfect. The "look" of the film, the art direction, etc., something that I pay close attention to was very well done also. The violence was treated decently insofar as it conveyed some of the horror inherent in children killing each other, without being too graphic.

But those good things do not add up to a good film. I thought that many aspects were highly problematic, and the biggest is that this is a truly post-Christian film in that the main protagonist has not a shred of Christian virtue -- and nor does anyone else. As I said, after the first self-sacrificing move for her sister, it's all self preservation and this really perverts what could have been a dark, yet powerful indictment of modern society. This unChristian ethical void leads of other things like the pagan glorification of suicide at the end of the film. I am NOT a fan of the "Xena Warrior Princess" politically correct gender-bending pugilism -- and therefore did not enjoy the concept of Katniss, a 16-year-old girl, who is capable of defeating all comers in hand-to-hand combat. It's not only horribly cliché and overused in sci fi especially, it's also just plain wrong. Wrong in that women in general aren't just as good at fighting as men, and from a Christian perspective the idea of women fighting is repulsive.  Even the Romans found the spectacle of gladiatrices intolerable and reformed them out of existence after Nero. The whole "adults = evil, children = good" trope (as exemplified by the fact that all the adult characters were either evil or useless, save, interestingly, Katniss' fashion consultant) so common in modern-day literature is really tiring and insidious.

Which leads me to why I think this film franchise is/was so popular. There is a strong theme of abandonment by parents/adults/society in the film that I think really resonates with today's youth.  So I can see why they have consumed this film in large numbers. But for my money, I do not recommend anyone rush out to see it except maybe as a way of gaining some insight into today's young adults?

6.07.2019

CALL TO ARMS



By Godfrey Blackwell

It was on his wedding day that Serveus Kunar finally became a complete man, but not at the nuptials themselves. It was afterwards, as he stepped from the cool darkness of the temple into the embracing warmth of the sun-bathed narthex and wedding guests cheered the new couple's debut that he took the fateful step.

He was a young nobleman of perfect proportions, strong of face, fit of body. His skin, however, tanned a light brown, was not the product of toil but of vacations in the family villa on the southern continent. On his right arm came his bride, Zia, radiant in a golden dress that flashed in the sunlight; the pride of Vitria and now his. Behind the crowd, a line of soldiers approached down the main road, black-clad magisterial acolytes at the fore bearing dark, flapping banners.

The soft pink pedals of the Lycinia trees, falling in the cool spring breeze, were ripped away as a low-flying shuttle tore through the air. In the unsettling quiet that followed in its wake, Serveus was keenly aware of his brideís tiny, cold fingers gripping his arm. 

"Young sir," a voice called. Serveus looked down to see that an armoured man, about his fatherís age, had pushed through the wedding reception and was mounting the stairs. He wore an antique blaster inlaid with gold at his side, and a grey moustache twisted to stilletto points protruded outside his helmet. "Will you help us? The Anaketh landed a war host in Gallennon last night and will not rest there long."

The icy hand of fear grabbed Serveus' spine, but he fought it off with anger; how dare they conscript him on today, of all days? He considered a biting riposte to the demand, but Zia's tongue was quicker. 
"Would you take my husband away from me, on my very wedding night?"
"I would not take him, madame," the old soldier said. "But I would ask his aid -- and yours in giving him up -- in the defence of our home and Empire."
"He has duties to his wife, now," Serveus' father barked, pushing the young groom aside.

Serveus clapped his free hand on his fatherís shoulder and addressed the soldier. "Centurion -- as I guess that's what you are -- your men make a pretty parade to help me celebrate my matrimony, but I don't see the Imperial standard. Your force is not sanctioned by the proprætor." 

The scarred veteran lowered his eyes to the white flagstones. "With all the respect due our honourable proprætor, I must say his belief that the Anaketh are not enemies was proved wrong by the skies last night."
Serveus had seen that proof as he had paced throughout the night, unable to sleep, agonising over the wedding day. He glanced about quickly; he would never admit to anyone that he had been nervous, even fearful of his betrothed; an alluring and demanding woman. No, they couldnít know ... yet he had seen the twinkling amidst the night stars as ships had given up the ghost in bursts of light and lasers had scorched the upper atmosphere.

"What is that to me?"

"That's right, this is not your fight, son," his father nodded.

"A good question, young sir," the captain said. "It is a decision about who you are. Are you a man to give up without a fight, or one to struggle manfully when victory's not assured? A man of recreation or duty?"

To march a long, tiring path, then fight the vicious chelonian Anaketh, or recline at the well-adorned table his father had set for him and then to a well-deserved life practicing law in peace?

"I am no coward ..."
"You fanatics and your warmongering!" his father shouted, striking the marble parapet. "You will sacrifice these men in a hopeless cause! We cannot stand against the Anaketh; we should surrender and join them. They will be merciful. The Emperor will understand; God will understand. We don't have enough soldiers; there's hardly a quæstor these days to lead!"
"Can't stand, or won't?" Zia suddenly burst forth. Her eyes glistened like diamonds in the hot, bluish sun and her cheeks seemed cut of marble.

"Zia, I thought you ..." Serveus hesitated.

"The choice is yours, husband. I cannot make it for you." She bit her lip and said no more, but those hard, tear-encased eyes told him that she would die before signing a protection pact with an Anaketh master.
He looked over at his father. Unlike the centurion, a comfortable belly hung over his belt, beside which hung the sword that Serveus knew had never been drawn. He himself had tried once, years ago. Its hilt and scabbard were glistening and spotless, but the blade would not budge, rusted in place.
Could he not stand? Would he not? He looked out at the crowd, seeing in it the expectant faces of many young men. Serveusí family was prominent; many of them would follow his lead. He pulled his wife to him and kissed her gently on the forehead. Her dark eyelids fluttered down, brushing her cheeks like damp raven feathers as she acknowledged his choice.
"I will help you, Centurion." Shifting his gaze to the wedding guests, he added, "Which of you heroes is with me?"

The answering cheer drowned out Serveusí fatherís last protestation. He embraced Zia one last time, then followed the centurion down the steps.

Fin.

6.05.2019

Léon Degrelle, the Inspiration for Tintin?


The Adventures of Tintin comics are a staple around the Blackwell household, universally loved by all clan members. Some years ago, Catholic World News ran an article quoting the newspaper L'Osservatore Romano on the topic of the forthcoming Steven Spielberg movie "The Adventures Tintin", describing the title character as “a knight without a stain”. Although the young journalist-hero is not overtly religious (in either the comics or said film), L’Osservatore quoted at length from a French critic who sees Tintin as an examplar of Catholic virtues. 

This "French critic" may be onto something since the inspiration for Tintin was the Catholic politician Léon Degrelle. Although Tintin is not a politician or soldier, I believe he is based on Degrelle during his years as a journalist-adventurer most notably covering the Cristero War in Mexico. Hergé, the creator of the comic-book character met and befriended Degrelle in Belgium in the 1930s during the latter's political crusading days.

Degrelle himself
supported my theory in his memoirs (which can be downloaded here: http://www.jailingopinions.com/tintin.pdf (in French)).

Hergé subsequently denied that he based Tintin on Degrelle, maybe due to the fact that Degrelle was villainised as a "collaborator" after WWII. Degrelle had, after all, volunteered to fight against the Bolsheviks in first the Wehrmacht then the SS on the Eastern Front. That's a whole can of worms that I'm not going to get into right now. But in further support of my belief that Tintin really was based on Léon Degrelle the similarities in appearance are rather striking ...






The similarities to the CGI version of Tintin in Spielberg's rendition seems even more striking to the photos of Degrelle:




6.03.2019

Blast from the Past: Primus' First Sci Fi Work

Way back in 2012, young Albert Blackwell submitted a piece of Star Wars themed art work into the all-grades art show at his school. Naturally, being the good son that he is, he chose to draw one of the all-time classic opening scenes in film. We thought it would be fun to look back at that early work from he who now gives you the Time Lizard and Prowess and Loyalty series.





5.31.2019

5.29.2019

Godfrey's Thoughts on Extra-Terrestrial Intelligence

A Hross from C.S. Lewis' Out of the Silent Planet

As a Catholic who enjoys reading and writing science fiction, one dilemma I've had to consider is theologically, is the existence of non-human sentient beings possible? At first blush, it may seem problematic because there is no mention of life outside of Earth in the Bible or traditional theology. There is the fact that Jesus Christ (not only God, but a human being) is the saviour for the entire universe -- so where would that leave non-human sentient creatures? It is interesting to consider how they might fit into God's Plan and how we might explain same to nonbelievers or fellow Catholics who might be shaken (some could think the existence of "aliens" means that evolution is true, or that Adam and Eve did not exist, &c.).

I've discussed this topic a number of times with fellow Catholics and there seem to be a few lines of thought. The first question is whether they are ensoulled creatures or not?

One line of thought is that if sentient creatures had souls, then God would have to have a different salvation plan for them than for humans, since they would not be descendents of Adam. They could be more like angels (not fallen) or I suppose they could be fallen and in need of redemption but this raises further issues as Christ is the redeemer of all yet how can he redeem non-human creatures who are not descendents of Adam? That said I'm not aware of any explicit teaching that excluded the possibility of races with immortal souls who are not descended from Adam with an alternate path of redemption.

There is also the option of creatures with immortal souls who never sinned and therefore, like angels, are not in need of redemption. This appears to be what C.S. Lewis portrayed in his Space Trilogy.

I tend to prefer two "simpler" solutions:


  1. That non-human sentient life could not be ensouled life. I personally find it "risky" to posit creatures with immortal souls who are not redeemed by Christ. But what constitutes ensouled life? The soul is rational but this could be a necessary but not a sufficient condition for ensoulment. My view is that, to be ensouled, one must be infused with the faculty to know and love God (even if that faculty, like the rational one, is never actuated by the development of some individuals). It is clear to me that rationality itself does not equal ensoulement because some apes, parrots, mynah birds, and porpoises are supposedly self-aware but not ensouled and not able to comprehend the concept of God. I think it could therefore be possible to have highly intelligent, sentient, even civilized and technologically advanced beings than nevertheless have no souls. I think an excellent speculative example of this are the "Moties" in the novel, The Mote in God's Eye.  While the question is never answered in the novel, it is my opinion that the aliens encountered by humans in the book (the "Moties") are indeed soul-less creatures  because they really have no ability to choose between right and wrong -- everything they do in the novel is dictated by their biological imperatives.
  2. That apparently non-human sentient life is actually human. There are a myriad of ways that this can be worked around. Perhaps Ante-Deluvian humans had developed space travel before the Great Flood, and some escaped the Great Deluge? In which case they would be Star Trek style "aliens" who look completely human. For stranger looking creatures, genetic engineering could create creatures who look alien but have human souls -- like the eponymous character in my short story "Chimera" (who could easily be considered an E.T. if encountered on another planet).

5.24.2019

TRAILS, STORY 1

By Anna and Barbara Blackwell (April 2019)


When a group of mice were captured by the ruthless badger named Spoon Paw tried to free themselves from the their slavery, they were unfortunate in their attempt. But it came to pass that a weasel named Fork decided to free them but he wanted to use them for his own purpose.

When he "rescued" the mice from Spoon Paw, the mice were furious that Fork wanted to keep them enslaved and they fought back. Spoon Paw managed to find them again and recapture them and threw them along with Fork into a cauldron of water. The mice struggled to save their lives from drowning; a mice named Joseph climbed out onto a flat form and came face-to-face with Fork.

Fork was furious and engaged Joseph in mortal combat. Unfortunately Joseph was terribly injured but as he bled to death he threw a dagger at Fork, stunning him he fell into the water. But Joseph was too injured and weak himself and both he and Fork drowned.

Later some mice found the cauldron of drowned mice, Joseph and Fork among them. Spoon Paw, who had slipped away into the shadows claimed to himself the victory. Some still say he lives in his burrow. To this date the tale is told around bonfires in Season Folk villages; some still believe that Spoon Paw still lives and seeks to enslave more mice.

5.22.2019

Book Review: The Mote in God's Eye



Title: The Mote in God's Eye 
Author: Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle  
Publisher: Pocket  
My Rating: 4.5 stars (out of 5)  
Summary in a Sentence: The "Second Empire of Man" encounters aliens for the first time and they struggle towards the truth about this very alien race, in an excellent and gripping suspense novel that meticulously examines every aspect of First Contact and is devoid of the smut that characterises the vast majority of contemporary science fiction.

Good science fiction is often difficult to come by, especially if one looks at works written in the last decade. The genre has, sadly, in all to many instances, degenerated into little more than immorality in a futuristic setting. But one can still look back to the 70s and earlier and find many quality works, among them is The Mote in God's Eye, a masterpiece of science fiction writing in my opinion.

It tells the story of first contact between man and an extra-terrestrial alien race. This contact begins when a small probe propelled by a solar sail, arrives in the New Caledonia star system after a centuries-long trip from "the Mote", a small star that looks like a speck against the red eye of a red giant. The Imperial Navy Star Ship MacArthur under the command of Lord Roderick Blaine, heading to New Scotland for repairs after helping put down a rebellion, is the nearest ship and is sent to intercept. The lone crewmember of the alien ship dies of an apparent life-support system failure when Captain Blaine brings the ship aboard. The local viceroy decides to put together an expedition to the Mote to make contact with the race that sent this ship (although the Empire encompasses thousands of worlds, no sentient alien life had yet been discovered). Against the objections of pacifist scientists, the expedition consists of the MacArthur and an even bigger battleship under the command of a particularly ruthless Admiral Kutuzov who has orders to destroy MacArthur if there is any risk of the aliens capturing any Imperial technology (such as the Alderson Drive which allows for instantaneous travel between stars, and the Langston Field, a kind of forcefield). With MacArthur packed with a scientific team on top of her regular compliment, a Mohammedan businessman under house arrest on suspicion of treason, and Lady Fowler, a noble rescued from the revolt Captain Blaine helped quell (and who refuses to get off the ship), they embark for the Mote.

Unlike many novels of this genre, the authors consider every angle of first contact from economical, to political, to religious. They also consider all of these without the novel ever dragging and, interestingly, from the perpective of a Catholic empire that somewhat resembles the British Empire at it's height. I'm not sure why authors (who from their other works are clearly no friends of the Church) chose to do this, but it makes the story all that much more intriguing to the Catholic reader (and apparently to non-Catholics as well, as this is one of the more successful science fiction novels of all time and much preferred to its sequel, which I shall review later, which gives the reader a far less Catholic version of the Empire of Man).

The aliens are incredibly well done. They are totally alien without being so strange that the book is confusing or meaningless. They are so well developed that when a priestly character considers whether they might be ensoulled being or not, the Catholic reader can consider along with him. The mutual mistrust between the aliens (called "Moties" -- the novel makes the reasons for this nomenclature and the title of the novel clear) adds great suspence, for just as the human hold some things back, it's clear the Moties are holding something back (indeed, a terrible and potentially deadly -- to humanity -- secret).

The characters are for the most part well done. Although a few of them felt cliche, I still enjoyed them and didn't find this detracted from the novel (in fact, it was refreshing to read a book where every character didn't have to be "unique"). The book overall is excellently written and keeps the reader glued to the pages throughout.

Catholicism in the Novel

I want to return to the Empire of Man from this novel and its Catholic aspect because not only does it warm the cockles of my heart to see old-school Catholicism in a novel, it also tells us a lot about how non-Catholics percieved the changes wrought by Vatican II (especially when we compare the empire to its incarnation in the sequal). The Mote in God's Eye was first published in 1972 (Wikipedia is wrong on this point; I have a first edition copy which is copyrighted 1972), which means that it was most likely written during the late 1960s. The Novus Ordo Missae had not yet been released, Archbishop Lefebvre hadn't felt the necessity to form the S.S.P.X yet, the Pope had recently come out in favour of traditional teachings on contraception, and to outsiders the Church must have seemed to be pretty much the same as ever.

Although the word Catholic is never used in the novel, Catholicism is clearly the official religion of the Empire of Man. The MacArthur (the ship sent to the Moties' home world) is blessed by a Cardinal wielding an asperger before they leave on their trip, the ship carries a chaplain who is a celibate, Latin-speaking priest, and there is frequent mention of bishops and of "the Church" (upper case "c" is significant).

This Catholic Empire has some of the following peculiarities that also make the novel (inadvertently, no doubt) a source of some good moral examples:
  • Contraceptives are banned in the Empire. Lady Fowler explains to the Moties at one point how humans are always fertile (unlike the Moties) and that they can choose not to have sex if they don't want to get pregnant, but that contraceptives (which exist) are forbidden.
  • Slacks are not worn by women of the Empire -- Lady Fowler experiences the difficulties of wearing a skirt in zero gravity and is unhappy to be forced to wear some sort of "space bloomers" to maintain modesty aboardship.
  • Only men serve in the Imperial Navy; Lady Fowler is in fact the only woman on board MacArthur and even then the captain is not happy (even though he loves her and eventually marries her).
  • Chaperones: Lady Fowler is never alone with any man aboard the MacArthur and her quarters are kept strictly seperate and jealously guarded (if memory serves, she is given the cabin of a high-ranking officer to ensure privacy). The word chaperone is explicitly used, even.
  • "Prudery": The Officer of the Watch switches off the viewscreens when the Moties start mating so that no one will see the impure sight. The Moties are told about monogamy and that this is the only acceptable sexual relationship in the Empire. There are strong allusions to fornication being verboten, although I don't believe it is explicitly mentioned.
  • The Empire is a strict Monarchy, not a democracy with a figurehead. While the Emperor is not an absolute monarch, he is clearly the uncontested ruler of the Empire. It is also patriarchical; there are no female governors, senators, or the like mentioned.
  • There is no religious liberty. The Moslem Horace Bury often laments in the novel how his false religion does not enjoy the same rights as "the Church" and we see the "Church of Him" referred to as heretical and its followers shunned.
  • One of the most interesting scenes of the novel is when Father Hardy tries to determine whether the Moties are humans, animals, angels, or demons. Unfortunately, the authors leave him undecided and never give us a scene from Father's POV again in the novel, but his thought process reveals a very traditional one.


The Mote in God's Eye is not fluff reading, as a number of important topics are dealt with, although the religion aspects are certainly given much shorter shrift that I'd have liked (on the other hand, non-Catholics trying to deal with Catholic theology in any depth would have been a disaster, so the surface treatment given to religion may be a blessing). In sum, I highly recommend this novel to anyone who has even a passing interest in science fiction.

5.17.2019

MARS RESCUE

By Anna Blackwell (January 2019, age 11)

Captain Wellhelm watched as his ship slowly reached the surface of the rocky planet Mars. The captain had been sent by the Council of Space Exploration to find the missing ship African Panda. So far the Council had the theory that the ship had crashed on Mars.

"We are now opening the boarding ramp, sir."

Captain Wellhelm spun his chair to the side. "Mister Lars, you have the bridge. I'll take Science Officer Sara and Mister Pat and Mister Steves."

The captain felt a wave of nervousness sweep over him as he descended down the ramp. Time flew by. There was still no sign of any life forms, until ...

"Sir, I am picking up something," said Mister Pat.

"Life forms?" said the captain, relieved.

"Hmmm ... no it ... let's see ... a sand storm."

"How far?"

"Range one point two kilometres."

"Buzzards!" said the captain.

They turned back but things got bad. Wind began to pick up speed.

"Sir!" said Mister Pat. "We'll never make it to the ship in time."

"Rats, that's the last thing we need," said the Captain.

"Sir, I see wreckage over there, maybe we can shelter in it," said Science Officer Sara.

"Good eye," the Captain said. Miss Sara always had backup plans for everything.

The door to the wreckage was stuck half open, but that did not stop Mister Steves. They got inside in the nick of time. They got the door closed just as the storm hit.

"Saved," said Mister Pat.

"That was too close," said Miss Sara.

"Sir ..."

"Yes, Mister Steves?"

"We aren't alone."

Suddenly they heard the sound of something moving.

"Quick, draw your blasters," said the Captain.

The noise came again.

"I'll check it out," said Mister Steves.

Miss Sara began to shiver as Mister Steves disappeared into the shadows. All was quiet until suddenly, like a clap of thunder, Mister Steves leapt out shouting,

"I got him, I got him!"

Muffled screams came from his victim. Captain Wellhelm and Mister Pat rushed over. To their surprise, instead of a Martian, it was a young Chinese boy.

"Let go of him, Mister Steves."

The Security Officer, Steves, let the boy go. Miss Sara ran over.

"Don't worry, you're safe. Now calm down and tell us what happened here."

Soon the boy explained that his name was Chang and he had been kidnapped from his family to work in the secret mines on Mars. One day when a major sand storm was coming he managed to run away and hide in the ruins of the dead space ship. By a miracle it was not blown away. Since that day he had remained trapped on Mars.

"Well, we get it all now," said Steves. "But kidnapping, that is illegal, those who did so will be hanged!"

"There'll be no need for that, Mister Steves," said the Captain. "The criminals must have died in the storm otherwise we would have found them by now.

When the storm ended they all headed back for the ship, but before they reached it ...

"Sir, some creatures are coming this way!" said Mister Pat, alarmed.

"Cartendons," said Chang.

Captain Wellhelm didn't bother to ask what they were for they sounded bad enough. Soon everyone was running as fast as they could but soon the sound of the creatures was quite near. The Captain could feel their hot breath on his neck. No matter how hard they ran the beasts seemed to be getting closer and closer. As they were overcome by the beasts, a ship out of the distance firing red-hot lasers. It was Captain Wellhelm's ship the Destrier coming to their aid.

"We're saved," cheered Miss Sara.

Once again the Captain's ship saved his life. Chang was soon delivered back to his family. But the criminal gang's bosses were still out there for Captain Wellhelm and his crew to catch. But that is another story.

5.15.2019

Role Playing Games


I remember when I was growing up that role playing games, especially "Dungeons & Dragons" had a bad reputation, especially among religiously-minded people. This was no doubt due at least in part to the much publicized murder of Lieth von Stein by his drug addict step-son and friends -- and the TV docudramas that focused on the fact these punks played Dungeons & Dragons. Also, Protestant polemicists like Jack Chick spread tracts claiming that the game encouraged sorcery and the veneration of demons. Of course, Jack Chick also calls the Catholic Eucharist "The Death Cookie", says that the Catholic Church not only founded Communism but also Nazism, and claims the Vatican has a computer databank of every single Protestant in the world for use in future prosecutions.

I have always been of the view, however, that D&D or any other role playing game is only as good (or bad) as the Game Master (the person who runs the game) and, to an extent, the players. Since it is a game with few set parameters and the game master makes up the story and charactrers for the game, he does have the power to insert bad or depraved scenarios but also good ones and to teach good lessons.

I've described RPGs to my children as something like a "choose your own adventure" book, but with almost unlimited options instead of just one or two per page, since you have a live narrator in the GM reacting to your choices in real time. So again, like any author, the GM has the ability to make a good or bad story.

With all that in mind, I've been looking for a game that the family could play together, since the girls are not interested in the war games that are the tabletop miniature games like Flames of War and Star Wars: Legion. We decided to give Role Playing Games a try since there is so much you can do with them that is not combat related. You can easily do games with no combat at all (but there will be some in ours to placate the boys). I decided to pick up the gaming system by Fantasy Flight Games called "GENESYS" because it is a "generic" role playing game suited to stories in any setting from fantasy to modern/realistic to hard science fiction to space fantasy. I'll talk more about the setting we are going to start with and the roles that each will be playing in the coming weeks. Albert has offered to write some game session summaries too.

5.08.2019

Boardgame Review: The Kids of Carcasonne


Name: The Kids of Carcassonne
Game Designer: Marco Teubner
Publisher: Hans im Glück
Rating: 4 stars (out of 5)
Summary: Based on the adult board game "Carcasonne", this excellent simplified version is easy enough for young children to grasp, yet interesting enough to keep the attention of parents or older siblings; an excellent introduction to board games for young ones.

I believe it is good to get children involved in such games at an early age and "The Kids of Carcasonne" is a wonderful game to that end. The box says that the game is for ages 4+. The Blackwell children at three years old were able to play, but at four clearly grasped the concepts better and played with some strategy versus just matching up the tiles.

The game is based on the highly popular adult board game "Carcasonne". It consists of several "landscape tiles" with images of roads, buildings, and rivers on them, and children wearing the player colours running on the roads. Each player has a collection of coloured playing pieces that look like small people carved in wood. The players in turn draw a landscape tile and place it; in normal/adult Carcasonne, these the roads will not always or easily match with another piece but in this simplified version each tile has a road exiting each of the four sides meaning that they always match.



Amongst other features, the tiles show children in the player colors on the roads. Whenever a road is "finished", every player places one of his pieces on each appropriate picture. Roads are finished when they are closed at each end by a building or dead-end. The first player who manages to place all of his pieces wins the game.



There are four colours (red, blue, green, and yellow) so you can only play with four people, which is not ideal for large Catholic families in one sense, but on the other hand, keeps it simple which is important for young children. Also, playing time is only about 15-20 minutes so children can easily rotate who plays and do several games in an hour. As mentioned in the summary, unlike some other childrens' board games I've tried, this one is actually interesting for adults to play which is important when teaching the children how to play and also to give you another reason to spend time with your children.

"The Kids of Carcasonne" is fairly fast-paced, making it a good fit for young minds that haven't developed a long attention span yet. It is entertaining and an excellent way to spent 20 minutes to an hour with your children. It is somewhat competitive and one of them will win the game, but it is not too competitive since all the tiles match up eliminating the intensity of the adult version. It also has a pleasant mediæval theme and children like looking at the castles and the little children in mediæval garb chasing sheep and chickens about. I highly recommend it to any parent with young children around 4-5 years of age. Older children will probably enjoy it as well, but desire more complexity ere long.

This board game is not available at the "big" stores like Wal-Mart or Toys 'R' Us, but is readily available on the internet or at local specialty games stores.

5.03.2019

IN THE MATTER OF HIS MAJESTY THE KING AND THE PEOPLE

By Godfrey Blackwell

The Empty Casque Tavern was renowned as one of the great locations in Theudis wherein debates on all manner of topic, unhindered by controversy or taboo, were to be had. The king, overly tolerant according to some of his advisors, benignly overlooked the seditious rantings found there. It was thus that two old friends, Santere and Hermand, found themselves catching up, then reminiscing, then arguing across from one another at one of the Casque’s round oaken tables. It had been years since they studied together at the University of Theudis and there was a lot of all three to be had.

Santere had before him a fashionable cup of tea imported by trade caravans from the east, and one of his pretty but over made-up female admirers sitting on his lap. Of the two, he was the most intelligent, considered a prodigy when they studied at the University, although he was also lazy and thus made his living making outrageous speeches in places like the Casque (for in those days in the capital, there were those who could use such eloquent liberals to their political gain).

Hermand, on the other hand, was enjoying the pleasures of a snifter of brandy and an enormous and disreputable wooden pipe that he could nearly rest on his round belly. He was not as smart as Santere, but had worked hard to build a modest legal practice with which he supported his wife and five children. Had Santere been more honest with himself, he would have admitted that he envied Hermand, and moreover that he enjoyed the buttered-rum scent of the latter’s tobacco, but his unswerving devotion to enlightened ideology would allow for neither.

“Hermand, I can’t concentrate on my arguments with that vile smudge pot between us!”

“And I can scarce ponder the depths of two plus two with that strumpet blocking you from view!”

“Really, Hermand, you’ve become such a puritanical, intolerant bigot since university!” said Santere, although he kissed the girl and shooed her away. Heat rose in his cheeks when Hermand continued to puff on his pipe. “What would your wife think of such boorish language?”

“Well, I should think,” said Hermand, blowing a smoke ring up towards the beclouded rafters to needle Santere the more. “She’s wont to call an eggplant an eggplant.”

“What a horrid turn of phrase! What if there were eastlanders here?”

Hermand shrugged and raised his glass as if making a toast. “I’d bid them join me for a drink, purple skin and all, and offer a toast to His Majesty the King.”

“The King!” Did you learn nothing at the university? The monarchy is obsolete --”

“Watch your tongue now, Santere --”

“Aha! Typical of a close-minded reactionary, you won’t brook any contradiction, will you? Dom Berenfroy --”

“Should be defrocked and burned, but for the King’s overindulgence of renegade scholastics!” Hermand knocked back the last of his brandy and his meaty cheeks turned a darker shade of red.

“You arrogant jackanapes!” Santere felt like throwing his tea in Hermand’s face, but settled on banging a bony hand on the table, given the price of the former. “The people won’t tolerate the sort of tyranny you stand for. The oppression will end ere long and we’ll soon have a republic, you’ll see.”

“Please, spare me, Santere. Oppressed? This from an unemployed layabout who’s still well fed in Couronne, the wealthiest nation --”

“And most enlightened! But I suppose you’re too busy churning out more brats to read anything, judging by your proud ignorance.”

“If anyone’s ignorant, it’s people like you who can cling to utopian hallucinations when just over the border there’s republicans all right, and piles of bodies as tall as the cathedral in Waldassen.”

“Bah. In the end, all this doesn’t matter. The future is here, the King is as good as dead.”

“Now you’ve gone too far, Santere.” Hermand stood and clenched his meaty fists. “Now take that back!”

Santere had not mentally prepared himself for the possibility of a physical confrontation. He suddenly found he had no retort and fell backwards off his seat as he tried to rise. But being the favourite demagogue of those of a progressive persuasion at the Casque (which happened to be nearly the whole clientele), there were several drunken brawlers to come to his aid. As Hermand moved to help his friend up and apologise for his angry outburst, he was struck over the head by a bottle, and tumbled to the floor where a quartet of sloshed university students showed him the soles of their shoes.

Santere, having recovered his courage, and quite caught up with the moment, urged his disciples on until Hermand moved no more.

“The people have spoken!”


* * *


Alas, the idealistic brutes were as good at fighting as at dreaming about republics, and Hermand died early the next morning. The King’s Chausseurs did what investigation as they could, given the other unrest in the city, and a warrant was issued for Santere’s arrest. He was able to evade capture for a long time as the king’s power waned and the city convulsed with revolution. However, after seven years, the king did return and the Chausseurs had not lost their store of documents.

Thus, one crisp, sunny morning in late fall, Santere found himself again near the Empty Casque, only this time he was being dragged up to the gibbet that had been erected across from the tavern. The executioner summed everything up as he pulled the trapdoor lever.

“The king has spoken!”

Fin.

5.01.2019

Godfrey's Thoughts on "Shrek"


A reader asked me for my opinion on the "Shrek" films. I only ever saw the first two, and can't say I'm a fan of the franchise. To be sure, they are a source of some cheap laughs and I enjoy Mike Meyers.

But I don't like the underlying themes, the primary and most blatant being that evil is portrayed as good, good as evil, ugliness as beauty, and beauty as ugliness. Now, I suppose one could argue that the whole princess's true self being a troll is good for young girls in an age when girls as young as 6 are objectifying themselves as objects of lust, but I still don't like it. I think Shrek takes it too far in its quest to ridicule everything that is good and decent from basic hygiene to chivalry.

It also is a film that attempts to thoroughly demolish the sense of wonder and the marvelous in children with its cynical attacks on even basic manners and, casting the hideous evil creatures such as ogres and dragons in the role of heroes and casting normal humans and especially knights in the role of villains. It's also pretty cliché since this has been the standard for a while now. It's to the point that it might be downright "edgy" to write a story these days that features a knight or even (horrors!) a prince in the protagonist role (and not as an anti-hero). Or having a princess who DOESN'T pummel everyone, for that matter (Shrek's princess is, of course, is a hand-to-hand combat master).

The first Shrek film especially, also has a lot of "adult" humour inserted into it. I suppose the logic is that children will be too young to understand the double entendres and innuendos, but I do not like exposing them to that sort of crass humour. For example, the evil "prince" is a Lord Farquuad, which is a very thinl disguise for the vile f---wad insult heard in gutter speak today. Or when "Robin Hood" is singing a song he is interrupted by his Merry Men at a strategic point so that it sounds like he's referencing an impure act. There's a lot better stuff out there for children. I personally quite liked the Narnia adaptations and I am one of those rarities who likes both the Lord of the Rings novels AND Peter Jackson's film adaptations .

Further reading: Nourishing an Appetite for the Marvelous by Dr. Marian T. Horvath

4.26.2019

GARFIELD'S WAR, Part 2

By Anna Blackwell (December 2018 to February 2019, age 11)

NOTE: IF YOU MISSED PART 1, YOU CAN READ IT HERE.

I woke up to find myself kneeling on the ground with my hands tied behind me.

"Uhhhh ... what happened? Where am I?" I said.

"In prison, that's what," said someone.

I spun around. "Clovis, it's you!"

"And its you, Rose," he said back.

"What are you doing here?" I asked.

"Same thing you are," he said.

I was puzzled. We talked and I discovered what had happened. After I had been knocked out by a rat, Clovis' army had started to fall back. Then the enemy started coming from the sky and in the chaos neither army knew who was friend or foe. In the confusion, Clovis sounded a full retreat, but was captured in the process and carried away along with me.

After Clovis and I had talked over what happened, someone came to the door. "Get up you plumb pies!" the newcomer said, opening the door.

Five armed small men came in. "Get up! Lord Garfield wants you in his presence," another of them said.

One of them grabbed me by an elbow.

"The Lord Garfield, the Lord Garfield!" I said. "I'll have something to say to 'His Highness'!"

Clovis and I were taken away. We were brought before Garfield in a very very strange room: instead of a ritually decorated hall, he was in the middle of a large space about  fifty (Season Folk) feet wide and seventy long; everywhere were strange plants.

"Welcome, what a present surprise," Garfield said in a sly voice. "Clovis, I had no idea you would be here, and this must be ..."

He stepped closer to me until I could smell his awful breath. "Rose, we meet again!"

"Yes indeed we do, Garfield-ey!" I said giving him my angriest look.

Garfield flung his tail in the air. "Follow me!"

As we walked I observed out the most hideous thing I'd ever seen: all of the plants were carnivorous plants and on every one hung a Season Folk body or two killed by each plant.

"You know,  really don't like it when people annoy me," said Garfield. "When they do they are given severe punishment. So, Clovis, I want you to call back all your troops and give me those two towns I want then I will let you go along with your 'friend' ... or you both with suffer horribly!"

I looked at Clovis. I could tell he was worried, but I knew he would not give up like this. No, not Clovis.

Finally, he answered, "say all you like cat, until your mouth falls off, but you'll have to do better than that to get the best of me!"

I saw a burst of anger explode in Garfield as he shouted, "take them to the Trumpet Pitchers!"

We were taken up a ramp that led to the top of the plant. I looked in horror at the abyss below. I had learned a little about Trumpet Pitcher plants in my school -- they kill their prey (bugs) by drowning it in a pond of water then digests the remaining soup. Garfield's henchmen pushed me and Clovis out on a plank. Garfield licked at the sweet nectar dripping off the Pitcher Plant.

"Prepare to become dinner," he said.

"What did he --" before I could finish, the plank disappeared and I fell. "AAAAAAAHHHHHH!"

SPLASH!

I was so glad I had practiced hard at my swimming lessons that summer as I hit the water.

"Wait 'till I get my hands on you, Garfield!" I heard Clovis shout.

Garfield let out a loud laugh and left the room, along with his rats and small men. Now I knew Clovis and I were both stuck.

"We have to find a way out of here, fast!" Clovis said. "I know what Garfield's planning. Since I'm no longer at the head of my army, he will attack one of our great cities. If we don't hurry he'll kill everyone!"

I felt a jolt inside me, I wasn't going to let Garfield get away with this! Just then I felt something -- my medallion. I had forgotten all about it since arriving. I pulled it out. My first thought was that I could use it to climb out by using the carven sunbeams like spikes on it as a grappling hook, but then noticed that we had no rope and the walls were too slippery. Then, for the first time, I noticed a tiny button on the side of the medallion.

"Hey, what does this do?" I said, pressing it.

Suddenly a small dagger shot out of the medallion. In no time we had cut through the Trumpet Pitcher -- it must have been a very sharp blade to make such short work of that thick tissue.

"Hurry, we don't have much time," Clovis said.

"Okay, okay, give me a minute," I replied, trying to wring out my soaked skirt.

We grabbed our belongings and hastened to get out of that awful place. But we ran into a really bad problem ... we got out of the room with some effort, but found that the weather had turned much worse.

"Snow," Clovis mumbled. "Hurry, we have to see if my army still exists."

"Stop, we'll never make it there in time, and in this weather," I said.

"Listen, Rose, I'm a leader it's my duty to protect my people."

"I quite understand," I said. "But I have a better way to stop Garfield."

I let out a high-pitched whistle. Before I knew it, a score of Blackbirds filled the sky.

"Where did you learn to do that?" asked Clovis.

"He taught me," I said, pointing to a keen, tall Blackbird who had just landed. In fact, it was Raven, who I had met on my first adventure. "Come on!"

I mounted Raven and we were soon high up in the air, going in the direction of Garfield's army. I caught something out of the corner of my eye.

"Clovis, where are you going?"

"I'm going to find my army; I can't let others fight my battles," Clovis said, turning his bird back the other way. "With luck, they are still together and able to fight."

"Luck, you're going to need a miracle," I said.

Raven and I led the Blackbirds to Garfield's army. Unfortunately the snow grew heavier. I was lucky not to get frostbite because it felt like twenty below zero. Raven seemed to endure it better than I did. Soon I could see our destination. I knocked an arrow to by bow; it wasn't much further now. As soon as we were within range of the enemy I let fly. The birds swept down into the heart of the enemy. Three of Garfield's Season Folk fell to the birds' claws. I fired more arrows as Raven circled the enemy.

Shouts and cries rang in the air. The sounds of clashing of claws against shields and weapons seemed endless. Soon it seemed that Garfield was getting the upper hand.

Where is that Clovis? I thought desperately.

Several birds fell to Garfield's thugs. There were fewer than a dozen of us left. Suddenly Raven jerked, sending me flying to the ground. I quickly got up and grabbed my bow and arrows, then took to a rock. As I did so, I saw that Raven was still alive and on his feet. I let my arrows fly through the air and as I did so, I saw movement from the other side of the battlefield. Looking closely, I felt my heart leap up. It was Clovis and behind him were hundreds of Season Folk.

Soon his army had slashed into Garfield's army and the battle lingered on. The sun sunk into the west and the moonlight lit the ground. As I watched, Clovis, riding a white ermine, drew near Garfield. Sword and claw smashed against each other and blood splattered the ground. Just then Garfield jumped up knocking Clovis to the ground and choked his ermine to death.

Clovis, getting to his feet, stabbed at Garfield's flank. The evil cat let out a loud shriek at the blow of the sword. Clovis prepared to strike again but Garfield leapt out of the way. Garfield crouched low then leapt on top of Clovis with a cry.

"No!" I screamed as Clovis went down beneath Garfield's claws.

A second later I loosed an arrow and it flew through the air, striking Garfield right in the side. Then I collapsed to the ground and hot tears boiled out of my eyes.

When I got up, I ran through the battlefield to see if Clovis was still alive. When I reached his side I said, "Clovis, why did you --"

"I knew at the beginning this would end in death," he whispered.

"But you didn't have to be the one to die!" I said.

Clovis gave me a faint smile and grabbed my hand. With his last breath he said, "I have been, and always shall be, your friend."

After that, I never saw my dear friend again.

The battle was over and the army headed back to the village bearing the corpse of their leader. As for Garfield, he survived my arrow but was banished forever. When we got to the town I was so exhausted and famished I think I fainted. The town mourned for their leader the whole day. But since we had won a great victory, the next day there was much to celebrate.  Almost everyone I knew turned out for the party, including Henry'O, the squirrels, Raven, and many more.  There were steaming-hot soups, Season Folk-sized turkey, and the most fabulous desserts you've ever seen.

But I knew I had to return to my normal size, so after all the celebrating, on one snowy morning the Season Folk told me if I go to the middle of the yard and rub my medallion I would return to my normal size in no time flat.

Once back to normal size, I had to have a long conversation with my family who had no idea where I went. Soon everything returned to normal, but there are still some times when I sit by the window with my dog Snoozer on my lap and think about how both Clovis and I ended Garfield's War.

fin.

4.24.2019

Movie Review: Alien (1979)


Review by: Godfrey Blackwell
Title: Alien
Director: Ridley Scott
Producer: 20th Century Fox
Starring: Sigourney Weaver, Tom Skerritt, John Hurt
Excellence: 4 stars (out of 5)
Summary in a Sentence: A terrifying and subtly themed classic of sci fi/horror; a masterpiece of filmmaking that is certainly not for the young or the faint of heart.

WARNING: I know that some younger people read this blog, so up-front I need to warn that this film is rated R and should only be viewed by adults.

May the 26th of this year will mark the 40th anniversary of the release of Alien, the all-time classic sci-fi/horror film, and this will be marked on April 26th by the release of a new 4K Blu Ray on "Alien Day". I therefore thought it fitting to (for the first time ever) write a review of this film that has fascinated me for decades. The film has apparently fascinated many, as it is said to be the film most studied by academia.

The film was not originally intended to be so deep and thought-provoking; 20th Century Fox was just looking for a way to cash-in on the success of Star Wars and happened upon a script that had been around some time. The film is quite simply summarized as the tale of a group of "space truckers" hauling goods back to earth who are re-routed to investigate a suspected distress signal. Investigation of this signal leads to an alien being brought aboard which sets about killing-off the crew one-by-one while they in turn try to destroy it.

On its face this is a rather simple story-line and I have often thought that it could have easily been trash, but instead it is one of the great classic science fiction films thanks to comprehensive world-building, exceptional camera-work and atmosphere, memorable characters, a deeply resonant musical score, impeccable set design, and a patient "slow burn" pace that draws the viewer right into the film.

I mention that patient plot ... some viewers might, with some justice, say that "nothing happens" for the first 40 minutes of the film and, admittedly, not a lot happens aside from setting the stage for the action and terror that is to come. The first time I saw the film I actually thought it a bit boring. But after many viewings I now consider those first 40 minutes among the finest in film. It really sets the atmosphere and tone, makes the viewer care about the characters, and perfectly builds tension and "sets the table" for all the action which is made 100x more potent by that "preamble".

The atmosphere/set design/world-building is one of the parts of Alien I have loved most over the years. Better than any other film I can think of, the Commercial Star Ship Nostromo feels like a real place and the characters feel real ... mostly because the ship is very well-worn (in fact it seems a bit junky) with lots of evidence of being "lived in". There is also a tremendous attention to detail, down to crew and national patches on the crew's flight uniforms, and a custom set of "standard semiotic" pictograms as labels of places and things throughout the ship -- all of which contribute to the feeling of "immersion" in a real world.

It is worth noting that another thing that makes the film so masterful is that despite having a reputation for being gruesome and violent -- with the exception of one very memorable scene -- there is actually almost no violence whatsoever on-screen. The eponymous alien itself is only partially glimpsed for split seconds and the viewer doesn't get a decent look at it until late in the film. You never actually see what it does to the characters and this actually makes the film more terrifying, in the tradition of Alfred Hitchcock who also showed almost nothing -- and let the viewer's mind create more horrifying images than anything shown on-screen. This is MUCH better than the "cheap thrills" of many movies that use gore and surprises that make you jump instead.

Apparently one of the reasons the film was rated R in the UK was because censors saw it as presenting a "perverse view" of reproduction. I had always taken the alien creature to be in the nature of a parasite "infecting" its host rather than as "impregnating"/reproducing per se. That said, as an adult studying the film further, I understand that there is certainly intended to be such an undercurrent and this would explain the reason the film has always been "disturbing in a non-specific way" (to quote the aforementioned censors). That said, given the destruction wrought by the alien creature, I am satisfied that if the film has any message beyond making the viewer terrified on this score, it is that unnatural or perverse reproductive practices/attempts result in destruction which I believe to be true.

Finally, the film is considered "feminist" by many because of the role Sigourney Weaver's character takes on towards the end of the movie. However, I think that if the film were made today it would be condemned as "misogynistic" because Warrant Officer Ripley is not the super-powered better-than-all-the-men-at-everything female lead that is de rigeur (or even mandatory) today. I actually find the film to be rather anti-feminist since it is Ripley's female vulnerability that is used to ramp up the terror of the film since she can (and does) cry, sob, scream, and flee in terror the way a male protagonist cannot. That said, it's true that as a "reactionary" I'm not a fan of sending women into deep space, but I recognize this film does not take place in a Catholic or "conservative" setting.

4.22.2019

SANGUINARY GUARD

By Godfrey Blackwell


For the "uninitiated", you may wonder what are "Sanguinary Guard"? Games Workshop, in its typical over-the-top style describes them as "the uttermost elite of the Blood Angels. They fight with wrist-mounted Angelus boltguns that leave both hands free for the wielding of crackling power glaives. The Sanguinary Guard are a brotherhood of mortals-become-gods and their deeds the stuff of legends." Their elite status is the reason for all the "bling" and why I love their look so much. The utter impracticality but aesthetic grandeur makes them the epitome of a lot of what I love about Warhammer 40,000.




The glowing blue weapons, "crackling power glaives" are weapons that can ignore all but the strongest armour making these guys a dedicated close-combat unit. Their fancy armour is also strong in its own rite, tough enough to withstand their own weapons (except the big fist directly above which makes mush of everything). The checkerboard shoulder pads are part of my army's unique heraldry since they're not actual Blood Angels but a successor chapter.

4.19.2019

GOOD FRIDAY

No fiction today in honour of the anniversary of the Passion and Crucifixion of Our Lord Jesus Christ.

4.17.2019

Music to Write By



In an email exchange Dad recently had with a fellow writer, the use of "background noise" came up. This friend said he always writes with either a movie or music playing in the background. Others have said they would find it too distracting.

Dad/Godfrey certainly falls into the group of writers who almost "need" some background music while writing. Mood-appropriate music can really help get into the right frame of mind. As such, he listened to a LOT of Star Wars soundtrack while working on his space fantasy novel (which is in final re-writes so consider this your first "teaser").

Lacking time for any more substantive posts, I thought I'd share with you some of my favourite writing music -- maybe if you're a writer you can make use of it too:

Fantasy

General - Snow White and the HunstmanGladiatorGame of Thrones, Lord of the Rings soundtracks, Saints and Sinners: the Ultimate Medieval Music Collection
More upbeat/heroic - Rodrigo's Concierto de Aranjuez; Fantasía para un Gentilhombre
Epic - anything Wagner, but especially the selections found in Excalibur's soundtrack

Science Fiction

General - Inception, Interstellar, Star Trek Soundtracks,
Space Opera - Star Wars soundtracks, Holst's Planets
Darker/"Cyberpunk" - Blade Runner, Alien Trilogy soundtracks

Dad listens to music more since he owns his own devices, but Anna listens a lot while writing. Her favourites are "Saints and Sinners" and the "Snow White and the Huntsman".
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