Ranking Black Mirror Episodes, Seasons 1-3

Do you have a love/hate relationship with technology? Do you love TV shows like The Twilight Zone or The Outer Limits? Then you should check out Black Mirror, currently available on Netflix. At first I wasn’t too intrigued by the idea of this series. I kinda expected each plot to devolve into the ending of Superman 3.

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The most terrifying/ridiculous Superman moment ever

Sure, the plots are creepy and pessimistic on the whole, but there’s more to them than that. There are explorations of how mobile/social media and our surveillance culture speak to the seamy or sentimental sides of our human nature. In Black Mirror (I always pronounce it the way Arcade Fire sings it), technology is presented as 30% awesome, 70% revolting/dehumanizing. And we can’t turn away from that awesome 30%.

With that said, here is my ranking (in order of bestitude) of the episodes in Seasons 1, 2, and 3:     

#1
San Junipero
The premise:
I don’t want to give anything away. One of the great things about this very great episode is the mystery of it. This isn’t the first bit of science-fiction to explore this concept (It turns up to mind-blowing effect in Iain M. Banks’ Surface Detail). I will say if you’re still yearning for 80s nostalgia after Stranger Things, this will help scratch that itch.
My take: A rare optimistic episode. Some people will find it uplifting—some will find it uplifting and vaguely disturbing. But I don’t think you can deny that the story is bittersweet and beautiful. Maybe the story was particularly resonant for me because I feel like (pardon the self-promotion) my two Idyll trilogy books deal with this idea, a little (but in a more pessimistic way). Book 3, Exile, which I’m polishing now, will explore the concept further.

#2
The Entire History of You
The premise: Almost everyone has implants in their skull that record the video and audio inputs of every moment of your life. You can replay those memories at will, or project them onto a screen for others to see.
My take: I had a similar idea for a short story; I’m sure probably a lot of people have. But here, the writers take the idea and just kill it (in a good way). My story was going to involve a guy who become addicted to reliving his best days, so that he never makes any new memories. This story goes in a much better direction. Also, Robert Downey Jr. has bought the rights to turn this episode into a film.

#3
Fifteen Million Merits
The premise: More dystopian than the SNL’s The Group Hopper. Everyone wears gray sweatsuits. They pedal spin-bikes to create energy. They are inundated with screentime at every waking moment.
My take: Of all the episodes in the series, this one builds a world that is most different from our own. In fact, parts of it are a bit cartoonish. Then the episode reveals how this world deals with instant—and disposable—celebrity, and the story really takes off. Everyone is one step from becoming a reality show buffoon, one step from an American Idol superstar, one step from a porn star.

#4
Nosedive:
The premise: The world is so plugged into social media that every social interaction is logged in and rated. Social status is now absolutely quantified, and posted on Heads-Up feeds, so everyone can see where you fall on the popularity scale. If your score is high enough, it will help you qualify for loans and housing—low enough and certain places will bar you from entering.
My take: I had to stop this one midway through because it was stressing me out. Anything involving an airport snafu is like an immediate trigger warning for me. So the first half of this episode is lightly disturbing. Then the second half almost becomes a comedy, ala Road Trip or Wedding Crashers. Overall, the feel of ‘Nosedive’ is more like a parody than a cautionary tale. Ultimately, I don’t think people would buy into this concept of Facebookifying their entire lives. But 10% of the population would probably love it!

#5
Be Right Back
The premise: A tech startup can resuscitate the dead—virtually—by creating an artificial intelligence based their mobile and social media presence.
My take: Wow. The writers flesh out the characters, lay down the dynamite, and set up the viewer for a wallop. The story has some similar themes to Her and A.I.—except this ghost in the machine was an actual person at one point.

#6
Hated in the Nation
The premise:
This one is another mystery, so I won’t give anything away. A woman is murdered. And internet hatin’ is involved. At 90 minutes long, ‘Hated in the Nation’ is a movie-length capper to Season 3.
My take:
This was good. It reminded me of those buzzy, ‘viral’-type suspense movies (Nerve, Purge, Gossip) where characters get caught up in social phenomena. Also, there’s a bit of Seven in there. Now that I think about it… it might have been better if the main sci-fi element had been removed, and the story was more of a straight-forward serial killer mystery.

#7
Playtest:
The premise: A man volunteers to spend a night in a creepy house while hooked up to an augmented-reality gaming device that taps into your greatest fear. For the love of God… Why?!?!
My take: Good, straight-forward popcorn/horror fun. You can kind of see the big pay-off coming, but the path it takes has just the right amounts of twists in it.

#8
White Christmas
The premise: A bonus-length, Christmas episode that works in two sci-fi ideas: 1) digitally copying your mind to create your own digital house-slave, and 2) turning social media ‘blocking’ into a real-world thing.
My take: This is another very dark episode, and the concepts and core characters are pretty mean. If you know someone who’s freaked out by artificial intelligence, don’t let them watch this episode.

#9
Shut Up and Dance
The premise: Verrrrry dark. This episode feels close to modern times. A teenager has his laptop hacked, and he ends up being FaceTimed during his ‘personal’ time. The troubles only get worse from there.
My take: The characters’ decision-making seemed over-the-top for a lot of this episode. And did I mention this one is verrrrrrrrry dark? Then there’s a sort of hurried, garbled phone conversation that ends the proceedings with one final, icky cherry on top. Did I hear what I thought I heard? Is it true? Seemed a little confusing to me. Good use of a soundtrack, though.

#10
National Anthem
The premise:
Someone has kidnapped England’s most beloved princess, and they want to extort the Prime Minister to do something very embarrassing.
My take: A short episode, and not a whole lot to say about technology in general. Except that the web completely cuts through the reins that the British government’s try to put on their traditional news outlets.

#11
Men Against Fire:
The premise: High-tech soldiers fighting a mysterious hostile species called Roaches. I won’t give away anything else, because this one is also set up as a mystery.
My take: I feel like I figured out the mystery way too soon, then the story seemed to drag while I waited for everything to play out. An interesting idea though; and Doug Stamper’s in it.

#12
The Waldo Moment
The premise: A comedian who voices a vulgar cartoon bear finds himself mixed up in a national election.
My take: Again, Black Mirror takes on politics. This episode reminds me a bit of House of Cards, real people caught up in diabolical political schemes. Shadowy  strategists decide that an irreverent, populist cartoon bear is the perfect candidate, and their argument actually kind of makes sense

#13
White Bear
The premise: 90% of the population have mysteriously turned into gawkers. All they ever do is wander the earth mutely and record stuff on their phones. Society has broken down, and the remaining 10% of the population react to this new status quo in one of two ways. They go on Purge-style murder sprees, or they run and hide from the Purge people.
My take: A good start, but in my opinion, this is one case where the episode’s twist actually makes the story lamer.

Jekyll Island, Before the storm

I went to Jekyll Island early in October, before Hurricane Matthew rolled through. Like most of the barrier islands on Georgia’s coast, Jekyll is owned by the state park system. There are houses and businesses on the island, but I believe they all lease their property from the state. So the island usually has a very isolated, uncrowded vibe, especially on the southern end. Here’s a few pictures and movies:

Sunrise on the island:

 

Rickety walkway to the island’s southern beach:

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I ran into lots of dead horseshoe crabs:

img_1309A windy afternoon, and the buried mast of a shipwreck (a shrimp boat from the 1990s)

 

Listen to those bugs!

 

Live Oaks at the South Dunes Park:

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I just read: Packing for Mars

pfmcoverI’ve never read a Mary Roach book, although I’ve always heard good things. I knew she was the lady who wrote funny non-fiction books with pithy, mostly one-word titles: Stiff (curious about corpses?), Grunt (curious about troops), Bonk (curious about sex?), Gulp (curious about digestion?), etc.

I for one and curious about the lives of astronauts, so ‘Packing for Mars’ was the book for me. Although I’m disappointed that Roach didn’t stay on-brand and pick a title that seemed vaguely poop- or sex-related. What about ‘Thrust?’ Or ‘Moon?’ Or ‘Void?’ How about ‘Deez ‘Nauts?’

I was impressed with myself that I skimmed through some of the cruder sections. Roach dwells on tales (genuine and exaggerated) of masturbating space-chimps. Then she spends a long time searching for an authentic zero-g sex-tape. Also I thought she was way too exhaustive in her accounts of how astronauts defecate in orbit. Maybe I’m maturing, but these chapters didn’t hold my interest. Or maybe I came to the book looking for something else.

There were quite a few factoids that I did find cool. For example:

– Hot air doesn’t rise in zero-g. Which means that extra steps must be taken to ensure that machines and astronauts don’t overheat.

– Because of surface conditions (less gravity and no wind or moisture) moon dust is more abrasive than earth dirt, and moon dust has annoying static-clingy qualities.

– Motion sickness is a common ailment in space, and vomiting in a gravity-free, helmeted spacesuit can be theoretically quite deadly.

I also liked Roach’s appeal at the end that Earthlings should venture forth to the red planet. Especially considering President Obama’s recent proposals on the subject. Although if you want a book that will amp you up about a new space-race (and that viscerally explains the challenges on living in space) let me be the hundredth person to recommend that you read Andy Weir’s ‘The Martian.’ My review to that book is here.

I’m averse to my adverse reaction

fearful_109227560Grr! Sometimes I want to punch the English language right in its stupid face! Why does it create so much confusion by giving us words with similar definitions, separated by just one or two letters?

Only this week did I realize that there are two words for adverse. One for ‘I’m having an adverse reaction,’ and another for ‘I’m not averse to a little hard work.’ Hard work! It’s hard work keep up with all these doofy definitions.

How about these old chestnuts?
complimentary / complementary
stationary / stationery
principal / principle

Luckily, the differences between these definitions were drilled into my head in junior high.

Here are a few others that annoy me:

alternate / alternative (I wrote a post about these two)
turgid / turbid (and a post about these)
immoral / amoral

And don’t even get me started on words that can mean the opposite of themselves! Dubious, fearful, etc.

The Incredible Judith Tarr

Blair MacGregor

It is my honor—and I mean that truly—to host author Judith Tarr today.

I first read Tarr’s work in the 1990’s, and continue to be swept up in her stories the moment I read the first page. Her novels encompass the fantastical and historical traditions fantasy readers yearn for, and entwines them with characters who are vibrant, real, flawed, and ever striving. Among my favorites of her works are the White Mare’s Daughter and Arrows of the Sun. Both open trilogies filled with marvelous things. The Washington Post said of her work, “Judith Tarr is as confident in describing the battlefields of war as she is in exploring the conflicts of love,” and I must say I agree completely!

So when it looked possible to include Tarr’s newest novel in the Weird Western bundle—and as a debut!—I was biting my fingernails until she said yes. This woman of sharp…

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Guest Post: Weird Western Authenticity

From Kenneth Mark Hoover, author of Haxan:

J Patrick Allen

hoover-7 Today’s guest post comes to us courtesy of Kenneth Mark Hoover. Kenneth has appeared in the pages of Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine, Beneath Ceaseless Skies, Strange Horizons, and many other publications and anthologies. His latest novel, Haxan, is a violent dark western published by CZP/HarperCollins in 2014. You can find out more about Mr. Hoover and his work from his blog kennethmarkhoover.me or his website kennethmarkhoover.com.

You can find Mark’s book Haxan, as well as many other great stories in the Weird West Bundle by Storybundle.com.

I started my professional writing career in the SF/F genres. I’ve been working in the western genre for over 7 years, and I must say I often prefer the latter.

There are a lot of historical areas I get to explore in the weird west genre. It gives me the flexibility to write stories that might not find a voice in other…

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Author Interview: Joseph J. Bailey

2081552 Today I’m hosting Joseph J. Bailey, who is one my fellow authors in the new Weird Western Storybundle, currently available for a bargain here!
Joseph’s Weird Western novel is Spellslinger. Here is the blurb:
No one should ever come between a man’s family and his guns.
Not if they want to live.
Not even a dragon.
Especially when those guns belong to a spellslinger.
The dragon who had killed his brother had a death wish.
Koren D’uene is a ja’lel, a gun knight, and his is the job of granting wishes.
His guns spoke and the world listened.
“A magical gunslinger hunting a dragon in a world with similarities to the Old West, with elements of both science fiction and fantasy. What King’s “The Gunslinger” should have been.”
– Kyra Halland
Let’s dive right into the interview!
10030821. Hi, Joseph. Tell us a little about yourself.
When not at play with my family, I enjoy reading, writing, and relaxation. When I can, I also practice various martial traditions in which I have attained the Victim level of proficiency.
2. When did you start writing, and why?
I started writing my first novel, which eventually became the Chronicles of the Fists trilogy, in 2004. I love exploring the possible, trying to make the imagined real. I enjoy diving into new places and times, where other rules and potentials exist, and bringing those visions to life. Honestly, I cannot imagine doing anything else.
3. What drew you to writing weird westerns? What do you enjoy about it?
Most of my story ideas start with a “what if”. What if wizards used guns instead of wands? What if the Wild West had magic? What would a world that contained gunslinging wizards be like?
I was drawn to the genre by these and other questions and then finding the answers to them. Exploring the answers to these questions, living in this world while I write, exploring its characters and nuances, is its own reward.
4. What particular flavor of weird western is your book that’s in the Weird Western bundle? Science fiction, fantasy, horror, other, none of the above, all of the above?
Spellslinger is, like many Westerns, a tale of revenge. Except, instead of the protagonist seeking vengeance against outlaws, bandits, or a crooked lawman, his quarrel is with a dragon.
Where there are dragons, there is magic.
Where there is magic, there is mischief.
And where there is magical mischief involving dragons, there is fantasy.
5. Tell us a little about the world of your book.
Ilaeria, Koren’s home, is a diverse, magical world where knights often wield arcane guns instead of swords, where cowboy hats not only protect the eyes and skin from the sun but the mind from demonic attack.
In Ilaeria, there are very good reasons to wear a hat.
6. Introduce us to some of your characters. What do you like about them?
Koren D’uene, Spellslinger’s protagonist, is a ja’lel, a gun knight, who wields his pistols with true wizardry. I like Koren’s singularity of purpose, his focus, and the purity of his vision. He is a man of few words but much action.
Smoky, Koren’s mount, is a mystral, a flying, fire-breathing demon steed. I like that Smoky can say more with his body language than Koren can with any words. I also enjoyed the challenge of creating interest and depth in a character that cannot speak.
7. A fun fact you would like your readers to know about you or your book.
Although only touched upon cursorily in Spellslinger, Ilaeria is part of the greater macroverse of the Chronicles of the Fists trilogy. There is some intersection between those story arcs through paratechnological trade.
Koren is witness to this offworld trade when he visits Sky’s End Ranch in search of his brother’s killer.
8. Where can we find out more about you and your books?
The easiest place to visit would be my blog (www.josephjbailey.com). From there, you can explore my worlds, read about some things I find interesting, and visit me pretty much anywhere else (Facebook, LinkedIn, and assorted retail outlets).
Happy reading!

Idyll Chatter: Opportunity Knocks

Seven years ago, I thought an ‘opportunity’ was a positive thing. But as I’ve become more and more immersed in the marketing and entrepreneurial mindset (as a part of my day job), I can’t help but see ‘opportunity’ as a buzz word—a diplomatic euphemism for ‘deficit’ or ‘problem’ or ‘blindspot.’ Beware of marketing or business consultants who say you have an opportunity. They’re basically saying you suck at something—just a little bit—and now you have an ‘opportunity’ for improvement. Lucky you!

When it comes to my independent publishing work, I know I have opportunities galore. An opportunity to be better at selling books. An opportunity to ‘build my marketing platform.’ An opportunity to be a more informed and insightful publisher—someone who knows what’s happening in the industry and takes advantage of new trends.

The Dark Tower (2017) Idris Elba

The Dark Tower (2017) Idris Elba

But sometimes, good ol’ fashioned positive opportunities can drop into your lap too. Imagine my surprise when I received last week’s Entertainment Weekly issue and saw a cover story about the film adaptation of Stephen King’s The Dark Tower. Hey! Great book, great cast, potentially great movie. Could this mean that new fans will come to the Weird/Sci-Fi Western genre in 2017? Could that mean more fans searching for the genre on Amazon? Could that mean more readers discovering Idyll?

I had to kick myself for not knowing this project had been green-lit. Apparently the movie is set to premiere in February, which means I still have a pretty good head start in which to finish Book 3 of the Idyll trilogy, and to have the whole series available by the time the movie is out. Time to buckle down and really focus on writing. Of course, I’m probably far too small of a fish to catch a ride on ‘The Dark Tower’s’ potential wave of popularity. It’s not like I could attach a book trailer to the film in theaters. And there’s also a good chance the Dark Tower will not be a success. In the last 40 years or so, the Western genre has mixed bag of positive and negative opportunities for the film industry—Westerns with a speculative bent have had especially tough luck (i.e. Cowboys & Aliens, Jonah Hex, and Will Smith’s Wild, Wild, West).

But it’s worth a try to launch the book during a buzz-worthy time. Plus, if I push to have Book 3 done by February, then I can start on my next series. Anybody heard of any ‘opportunities’ in Ancient Civilizations Fantasy?

P.S.: HBO’s new series ‘Westworld’ could be even more earthshaking for the Speculative Western genre. I remember getting excited about potential synergy (speaking of business buzz-words!) a couple of years ago when this was announced. Looks like it’s finally on track to premiere in Oct 2016. No way I’ll have Book 3 ready to launch by then. But still, it’s good news, and the Westworld trailer looks pretty kick-ass. Here’s hoping it will be the next Game of Thrones!

Series Condition: The Spire

Screen Shot 2016-07-24 at 11.39.24 AMI’ve been trying more fantasy genre comics lately, including this 8 issue limited series, The Spire, and Monstress by Marjorie Liu, which I plan to review later. The two series have some similarities with topical parables to issues of today, including cultural melding and intolerance.

In ‘The Spire,’ the world is separated into two basic races, humans and the ‘sculpted’ (sometimes called ‘skewed’ or just ‘freaks’).  There are several types of sculpted, each mutated with extreme appearances and abilities. All of the sculpted are able to live in the outside world, which is a toxic desert wilderness. Because of the harsh environment, a good deal of the human population are squeezed in a towering city of stacked ghettos that gives new definition to the term ‘vertical growth.’

The Spire
Writer: Simon Spurrier
Artist: Jeff Stokely
Colorist: Andre May
Publisher: Boom!
2015-2016
8 issues (A completed limited series)

Screen Shot 2016-07-24 at 11.44.43 AMIn this city, the titular Spire, humans and sculpted live almost literally on top of each other. The mix of weird ‘ethnicities’ will seem familiar to anyone who’s read  China Mieville’s New Crobuzon novels (and if you’re haven’t, you should check them out!), but Spurrier makes his world unique, with medieval/feudal politics and parables to today’s political climate–all knitted together in a nifty detective story.

The series’ protagonist is a sculpted woman named Sha who is the city’s chief of police. Sha is trying to stop a masked killer. Of course, the killer’s victims are far from random, and Sha eventually realizes that the killings are connected somehow to incident that befell the Queen-mother thirty years ago, while she was pregnant. Coincidentally, (or is it?!) Sha has a gap in her memory that has erased everything in her memory that is older than thirty years. Also, (coincidentally?!) Sha is in a clandestine relationship with one of the Queen-mother’s daughters.

IScreen Shot 2016-07-24 at 11.39.57 AMt’s a compelling and intricate mystery. I was able to figure out some parts, and I was pleasantly surprised by others.

The other distinctive aspect of this series is the art. The art here is very cartoony in places, it reminds me of loose, doodle style you might see in a comic strip in a local alternative newspaper. The art adds some levity to the story, here and there, and it is definitely not a conventional match for a fantasy series. But it might not be everyone’s cup of tea.

The coloring is undeniably beautiful, though. Andre May uses a palette from the back row of the crayon box. Ultramarine, salmon, orchid, turquoise, pea green, and ‘off key’ pastels that add an otherworldly feel.

As I said, it you like comics and Mieville novels–or the Gentlemen Bastards books–then I think this series could be worth a try.Screen Shot 2016-07-24 at 11.40.49 AM