Posted: May 17, 2016 in Uncategorized

Leonard gasped in horror as he stepped from the time machine into the verdant Cretaceous swamp, where his phone had four bars of service.

Ravenloft Inspiration

Posted: December 29, 2015 in Uncategorized
Tags: , , , , ,

As a follow-up to my last post about my Ravenloft game, I wanted to put up a quick list of inspirational films and TV shows that captures the flavor I’m going for:

And the official soundtrack is Unchosen Paths by Goat, the electric guitar version of the Castlevania III soundtrack.

Ravenloft is, hands-down, my favorite D&D “world.” I spent my formative teen years with it, growing into being a DM with a setting steeped in Gothic horror. It inspired me to read Stoker, Shelley, and Lovecraft, and set me down a path that included Anne Rice and James O’Barr and black clothes, eyeliner, and false vampire fangs. I own every single 2nd edition Ravenloft product. I’d take a picture but most of them are in storage at the moment. So when I wanted to run a new campaign, I decided, hey, let’s do Ravenloft….

But let’s make it more awesome.

Last year for Halloween I ran Castle Ravenloft for my Thursday D&D group as a special one-off using 5th edition rules. It was a mashup of the 3.5 module and the original, and I statted out most of the monsters myself. I printed out enormous color maps (one of the benefits of working at an ad agency). And the guys loved it. There was quite a bit of wacky combat action that offset the horror nicely, so I decided to run with that sense and take the Domain of Dread in a slightly different—and dare I say it, better—direction. It’s Gothic Action Horror.

The roots of action horror are sprinkled throughout the original Ravenloft modules. It’s D&D after all, so combat always plays a big role. But I wanted to focus more on that than the internal, existential horror side that games like Call of Cthulhu and Delta Green do so well. In other words, the heroes should feel like they have a chance of winning—at least until they realize they might be in over their heads. Still, even if they retreat, they have the opportunities to be badasses in the process.

In other words, it’s less Interview with the Vampire and more The Mummy.

On the eve of the next phase of the campaign, which finds the level 4 party venturing into the frozen wastes of Vorostokov, I wanted to share a few of the other ways I reinvented Ravenloft for 5th edition, as an action-horror game:

  • There is no “demiplane of dread.” Ravenloft is a continent on an existing world, and the “core” domains make up that continent. The various islands are either attached to the core in logical places, or are now physical islands off the coast.
  • Some of the place names need explanations. The Sea of Sorrows, for example, is so named because of the sudden storms that cause shipwrecks.
  • The dark powers are even more subtle. The lords themselves do not recognize they are being manipulated.
  • The lords of each domain remain immortal, but there are “reasonable” explanations for why those who rule openly have done so for several hundred years. (Sure, he’s gotta be Strahd VIII, right? There’s no way he’s still Strahd I.)
  • The land is older than in canon Ravenloft. The political boundaries were formed nearly 500 years ago (and this will be a pivotal point of the campaign).
  • The mists play a much reduced role; they exist more or less for mood, not as a means of Deus Ex Machina transport on the part of the DM.
  • The conflict between good and evil is just as important as the conflict between law and chaos. Two of the main questions of the campaign are “what’s worse, lawful evil or chaotic evil? What’s better, lawful good or chaotic good?”
  • Several prominent Ravenloft personalities make appearances, but completely outside their canon stories. I needed Dr. Van Richten for other purposes, and the Weathermay twins are too cool not to use.
  • The overall tech level of Ravenloft is more consistent. Gunpowder is just starting to come into use, matching the Renaissance-era tech levels of every domain, not just a few. Although some domains are so poor and backwards they don’t have much in the way of firearms, if at all.
  • I made the cities larger, because I wanted some urban settings that felt like real cities. Kantora, for example, is 50,000 instead of 5,000.

So far, with two adventures under their belts, I seem to be succeeding with the flavor of Ravenloft I’m going for. I’m running a winter special in a few days, so I’ll write up how that goes and do an update after that. There’s a special boss monster—using the Chekov’s Mini rule (if the DM has a mini, the PCs must face it). Muwahahaha!

“Let me tell you all what it’s like being male, middle-class, and white.”
– Ben Folds

The Puppies saga, Sad and Rabid, finally came to a close this weekend with the two groups’ utter defeat at the Hugo Awards in Spokane. I’ve been following the story since it started making the rounds back in April. The Hugo awards are (to me) one of the highest honors a speculative fiction writer can achieve. If I could put a value of life goals as a writer, winning a Hugo would be somewhere around “Ridley Scott optioned your book” and “HBO wants to do a seven-year show based on your series.”

Because the Hugo awards recognize excellence and the use of speculative fiction in the best of all ways: as a means to speculate (see what I did there?) about the “what if’s” and the “what abouts.” Some of the past winners are among my favorite books, SF and otherwise: The Dispossessed, two-thirds of the Mars trilogy, and Dune.

There have been millions of words written about the Puppies movement, so I don’t feel a great need to do more of that here. I highly recommend Amy Wallace’s piece about the 2015 Hugo Awards and the defeat of the Puppies for an overview of the personalities behind the movement and the community’s response to them.

Puppies are Sad
The Puppy argument is fundamentally flawed. They want a return to the good ol’ raygun-shooting space adventure era of science fiction, which in and of itself isn’t terrible. On a personal level I struggled long and hard with the need to write something that would be considered a viable candidate for entry into the academic canon until a therapist (no, really) told me: write what you like to write, and stop worrying about that. Do you think Paul McCartney writes every song to be a great artist? Of course not. He writes what he likes.

Thus my Paul McCartney principle for writing.

So sure, if what you want to write is old fashioned raygun-toting, alien-blasting space adventures, awesome, go for it. There’s plenty of people out there who want that kind of thing. Wallace’s article notes the inherent class distinctions in what the Sad Puppies nominated: it’s more “blue collar” sci-fi in that it’s all about characters doing rather than characters feeling: the Puppies want characters that just get out and Do Stuff. Particularly fun, action-y, shoot-first-ask-questions-later stuff. If there’s Dinkum Thinkum stuff in there, fine, but only if characters are out there kicking ass.

The flaw is that these two things can’t mutually co-exist—or shouldn’t. SF is a big damn tent and there’s room for both, and no reason why a book where dudes are blasting aliens with rayguns can’t coexist with emotive, feeling characters, in stories that ask and answer the Dinkum Thinkum questions too. I operate under the assumption that the vast majority of us writers are simply writing what we want to write—whether it’s the raygun-blasting space engineer or the gender-fluid queer identity stories. We give it value because it’s important or fun to us, and important, valuable, and fun to our readers. In fact, the Eclipse Phase universe, which I’ve had the pleasure to write for, is all about both of these things coexisting.

Fiction 101
Writers are often instructed to “write what you know.” There’s a limitation to this in SF because there’s a certain amount we don’t know about things like killing dragons, living on generation ships, or traveling through time. Likewise, for those of us who identify as straight, white, cis males, there’s only so much we know about being queer, trans, female, or nonwhite (to say nothing of my middle-class upbringing). It doesn’t stop us from speculating in our fiction, but—for me, personally—there’s a fine line between speculation and appropriation.

I’m currently working on a short story with a closeted, gay main character set in the late 1940s. My knowledge of that person’s experience is largely based on reading about how gay males of that era were actively recruited by intelligence services because they were so good at hiding their tracks, and trying to imagine how a gay person living in that time period might react and respond to an incredibly homophobic (and anti-Communist) America.

I’m also working on an RPG scenario that has heavy Native American elements—not “movie” Native Americans, but modern-day Kiowa people living in a small town in Oklahoma. I have the tiniest bit of experience by proxy, but certainly not the firsthand experience a Native American writer could bring to the table.

In my weird western novel Trouble in Hangman Flats (working title), the two main characters are both straight, white males. Boring from an inclusivity perspective, but it was what I wanted to write, and the main secondary character is a woman who ends up adopting a teenaged girl (something which I have more than passing knowledge of).

Representation Without Appropriation
The point is, when you write what you want, not every character is going to end up being a minority, and I’d like to think that SWCM (straight white cisgendered male) writers (me) who are good allies will at least consider whether their minority characters are appropriating experiences. Not to say that we can’t write those characters—far from it. But we should be sensitive and aware of the nuances of doing so. And for fuck’s sake, we should do our research and let those who have lives those experiences be our primary readers.

The flip side of this is that it’s also important to increase minority representation of characters in our works, because we SWCMs are still the majority in this business. My explanations above are not an excuse for my discomfort in writing characters and situations outside of my SWCM experiences; hopefully, I’m communicating the respect I have for those people who have dealt with those experiences firsthand and my desire to allow those experiences to be their own, without trying to make them “mine.”

Stop Feeling Threatened, Morons
My final thought: I in no way feel threatened by the rise of minority representation in speculative fiction. I welcome it, specifically because reading works about minorities helps me better understand their experiences. I will never be able to change the color of my skin, my sexual orientation, or the gender with which I identify. I can read about those who are different from me and learn from them. And isn’t that the entire point of the speculative fiction genre—to read a mind-opening “what if” story that helps you see something you never saw before?


When taken in the context of those in power (straight white men) feeling threatened by new people at the party, the Puppies’ hue and cry does make some sense. Wallace referred to the phenomenon as “people feeling threatened when someone else plays with their toys. It may be an extinction burst, or simply the perceived threat of loss of power. Either way, there’s no legitimate reason for them to feel upset in the first place. I’m not often in the habit of invalidating feelings, but with speculative fiction being, by nature, a pluralistic and open environment to explore ideas, the introduction of new ideas into that fracas should never be met with hostility.

We can learn from the Puppies—if only to observe how useless the whole movement is, because the tent is already large, people are writing what they like, and the more representation within our community, the better. We can have our rayguns, we can have our queer-trans-POC fiction, and we can have both (at the same time!)

That’s what makes the SF community great.

This is a historic day. Something happened this morning that will not happen again for a long, long time.

The last few weeks, my colleagues at work have been subjected to an almost nonstop barrage of images and facts from the New Horizons probe, courtesy of yours truly. Someone asked why I was so excited about this. It’s just a space probe, right? And Pluto’s not even a planet anymore, just a dwarf planet, right?

Because this is history being made. What’s happening today, July 14, 2015, will (very likely) not happen again while anyone alive right now is still around.

Pluto, yo.

Pluto, yo.

This is the very last time (for a long time) the human race is exploring a large, unexplored body in our solar system.

Some of us are old enough to remember how amazing the days, weeks, and months were following the Voyagers 1 and 2 flybys of the four giant planets and their moons. So many new worlds! So much to learn! Most of us had to wait for our issues of Space or National Geographic to roll in months later to get the full story and see all the pictures for the first time.

Now, anything from New Horizons will be shared within seconds across the entire world. We’ll see pictures on Internet-enabled devices that didn’t exist when New Horizons launched, and post them on social networks that didn’t exist when New Horizons chugged by Jupiter.

But that’s not what’s truly historic about today’s flyby. With DAWN’s earlier orbit and exploration of Ceres, all of the large, explorable objects (that we know about) in our solar system have been explored. There are a handful more: Makemake, Eris, Haumea, and Sedna. The likelihood that any of these dwarf planets will be explored with a close flyby like the inner planets, their moons, or Pluto is almost nil—at least in our lifetimes.

For those of us raised on a diet of new information from Voyagers, Galileo, and Cassini, this is the capstone on forty years of exploration and learning about our solar system. For my daughter, who was born scant months after the Sojourner lander first started exploring the Martian surface, this will be the only time she’ll experience a burst of new information like this in person.

But her generation will be treated to a different kind of exploration. I sincerely hope that she’ll be alive when human beings first set foot on Mars. Maybe she’ll even follow in their bootsteps one day.

In the next twenty-four hours, we’re going to learn about a whole new world. What is its atmosphere like? What does the surface look like? Are there large mountains? Active volcanoes that reshape the terrain? Giant canyons? Liquids that carve riverbeds or lakes? If so, what are they made of? What conclusions can we draw about the Kuiper belt and the formation of the solar system from studying Pluto and Charon? How abundant is water ice that far out? Or materials we can someday use to build or fuel a generation ship that can take our species to a new home in a new star system altogether?

That, my friends, is why I’m excited about today.

Note: the thesis, that today is historic because it’s the last time we get to experience a flyby like this, is not mine but I cannot find a source to cite. I expanded upon it as it encapsulates my feelings perfectly.

My buddies at Green Ronin launched a Kickstarter for the update of Blue Rose, a “romantic fantasy” RPG. It’s already smashed through its goals and is working on stretch goals. Blue Rose is great because it was one of the first RPGs to explore beyond the boundaries of straight white male power fantasies, and the new update promises even more inclusivity.

The Ronins have unfortunately taken (more than) their (fair) share of flack from, shall we say, some of the more regressive voices within our hobby for attempting to acknowledge that more than straight white males might want to play RPGs. I won’t link to any of that bullshit here, because it’s really nothing more than the extinction burst of people who don’t realize their outdated worldviews have already been pushed to the dustbins of history.

I was pleasantly surprised when, in the Something Awful Kickstarter thread, I came across the following posts. SA has a reputation for being one of the original “bad” sites on the Internet (before they pushed most of those shitty elements out into 4chan).

Because most of SA, including this forum, is behind a paywall, I’m copying and pasting the posts here.

Sometimes it turns out you can find hope in the most unlikely of places.

Keep up the great work, Ronins.

These posts are copied and pasted directly – I have not edited them whatsoever.

First post:

A kickstarter for a new edition of Blue Rose just launched. It’s using the AGE system from Dragon Age and Titansgrave, which admitted I don’t know anything about.


The original has been on my list of things to check out for a while. I put it off because I am just so fucking done with d20. So I’m likely to back this.

I like their words about diversity and representation. Is there anybody familiar with the original version who can confirm that it really was as progressive as they suggest? (And from looking at the art, I have to wonder if it extends to racial diversity…)


The original was pretty fantastic for the time, but the folks working on the remake have already admitted that it could and should be better, given that it’s almost ten years old now. Like one of the first pieces of in-game fiction in the first game was a mother praying for her son’s happiness with his new husband, which was got a whole lot of people mad because it was ‘shoving it in their face’ so they were doing something right.


It’s hilarious and depressing that there are people who think that simply acknowledging there are non-straight non-white people in existence is “shoving a political agenda in their faces”.


Blue Rose was a great start, since it made a point of including non-straight, non-white, non-cis people from the very beginning, including in the fiction snippets and in the example characters. There’s room to be better, but it’s a pretty good foundation of inclusiveness. That’s what drew the players of my current game to the system, moreso than the actual mechanics. This new system sounds awesome because d20 is giving me far too many headaches.

I’m hoping they give more clarity about rhydan, and maybe take a second look at adding some nuance to Jarzon.


How do you teach someone to play a game? Or a sport? Or anything? Teaching is a wonderful moment when you have the opportunity to impart more than just knowledge: you can pass along passion, spark something creative, and help someone start to see something new about the world.

Yesterday I experienced two very different kinds of teaching. Over my lunch hour, I taught my team, maybe half of whom are “gamers,” how to play a new board game. And in the evening, I helped teach my daughter how to bowl. Our lunch game was crashed by a very well-meaning, enthusiastic person who loved the game we played—but made it miserable for the new players. At bowling, I had a great time, and my daughter asked right away if we could do it again she had so much fun.

A half-hour of fun, lies, and backstabbing.

A half-hour of fun, lies, and backstabbing.

My work team plays board games from time to time. They’re amazing teambuilding exercises (I wrote about the power of RPGs in teambuilding before), and it’s a fun way to stimulate some creativity in the middle of the day. Yesterday we sat down to try The Resistance, a game I’ve played once and no one else had ever played. The Resistance is a rules-light game to begin with, focused mostly on social interactions. It’s a little bit like Mafia or Werewolf (OK, a lot like those games), with the hook that once you discover who the “spies” are, you keep playing—so no one is ever eliminated from the game and the whole group plays the whole time. I had a blast the first time I played it, even though I didn’t fully grasp the mechanical nuances of the game.

As we were setting up, someone from another team looked in, realized what we were playing, and asked to join. We’re an inclusive bunch so we said “why not.” He’d clearly played before. We’d just explained the basic rules, and he quickly started in telling the newcomers exactly how they should play—how to logically deduce who the spies were, how to do things, and so forth. I’ve heard this called “armchair quarterbacking” in relation to cooperative games where someone can hijack the action (ahem Pandemic ahem). In this case, it was a case of enthusiasm over reading your audience.

The experience quickly became unfun for the newbies, especially the nongamers. We were all there to have a good time. Winning wasn’t important. And no one, the first time they play a game, wants anyone telling them what to do every step of the way.

I know why he did what he did: he loved the game and wanted others to see it like he did. But it reminded me less of teaching someone a game, and more like the way my grandfather once tried to teach me how to golf: telling me every little thing I did wrong until I finally tossed the club away, Happy Gilmore-style, because goddamn it, it just wasn’t fun, and wasn’t that the point?

A typical bowling excursion.

A typical bowling excursion.

I kept that in mind last night when my daughter and I hit the bowling alley for our hang-out night. She’d been bowling once; it’s been a decade for me. I helped her choose a ball, explaining how to grip it and what to look for, and showed her the basic three-step approach to the toss. After that we just played. When she looked to me for guidance I offered it, but for the most part, I let her do her thing. It turns out she’s pretty good at realizing “hey, I need to correct this,” and we talked about overcorrecting (bowlers know what I mean), and generally had a blast.

And whether you’re the enthusiastic gamer, my grandfather, or just someone trying to teach something you like to someone else, the act of instruction is, I would guess, about 90% empathy. How would you want someone to teach you this thing? If I was not a gamer, already intimidated by playing with people I knew who were gamers, and on my back foot because the game seemed kind of complicated, would I want someone telling me every little thing to do? If I’d never bowled before and was a little anxious about the whole thing but willing to throw myself in, would I want someone pointing out everything I did wrong—or someone to show me the basics and help nudge me along the way?

I’ve been around gamers long enough to know this isn’t an isolated case. I ran more game demos than I can count at WizKids conventions a decade ago. Our one rule, no matter what, was that the other person had to have fun. It didn’t matter if that person played “right” or didn’t fully understand the underlying nuance of the game. If they had fun, that’s what matters.

Isn’t that why we play games in the first place?

Games are no fun if everyone at the table isn’t having a good time. Teaching is useless if you’re pushing your audience away rather than bringing them in. Seems obvious, and yet, so many people still don’t get it.

So the next time you’re teaching someone a game, or a sport, or anything, use this one simple rule: is everyone having a good time?

If not, you’re doing it wrong.

There’s a new Terminator film coming out and I’m really excited. From all the previews it looks like it’s going to be fantastic.

Sarah ConnorBut then again I think the entire franchise is fantastic, because the Terminator series is one of the best examples of great, shared-world science fiction. It’s got a great built-in tension premise (war in the future with killer infiltrator robots), it’s time travel provides a broad canvas for storytelling possibilities, and the combination of the two provides a vast array of sci-fi hooks—exploring social and ethical constructs.

Sure, there’s some schlocky parts, and Terminator 3 wasn’t a great film. But taken as a whole, especially the later parts of the franchise, Terminator is well above many other sci-fi worlds and deserves to be far more than to be dismissed as dumb, mindless action.

Here’s why.

The Terminator (1984)
The first film introduces Sarah Connor, the series’ protagonist. She’s a waitress and party girl who suddenly finds herself the target of a terminator—a human-looking robot sent from the future to kill her. In the future, Sarah’s son John is the leader of a band of human resistance fighters warring against the machines, lead by a murderous artificial intelligence called Skynet. If Skynet kills Sarah before she has John, the AI wins the war. The resistance sends Kyle Reese, a young soldier, back in time to protect Sarah. He ends up becoming John’s father.

Why it’s awesome.

  • The Terminator begins Sarah’s journey from meek victim to active hero. In a way, the entire franchise mirrors the empowerment of feminist politics on average women like Sarah: the shift from passive victims to full agents (Sarah was always her own agent, she’d just been gaslighted to think she wasn’t.) Reese protects her, but it’s the beginning of Sarah’s Campbellian development: she leaves home, she finds the elixir, and she realizes the strength is in her the whole time. And Reese is, ultimately, a supporting character for Sarah.
  • The sense of relentless horror as a nigh-unstoppable machine wants to kill you for reasons you cannot fathom, but must take on faith.

Terminator 2: Judgment Day (1991)
The second film features a young John Connor and a far more world-weary Sarah teaming up with a reprogrammed T-800 (the original terminator) against a far more advanced shapeshifting infiltrator.

Why it’s awesome.

  • Sarah’s story goes into its middle third: she has sacrificed much to prepare John to be a future leader, and it has cost her everything: her son, her freedom, and (we find out) her sanity. The investments she’s made in John become circular, as he begins to take the reigns of leadership and develop his own agency.
  • It introduces the themes of motherhood and nurturing developed in the last third of Sarah’s story—and while they are a part of her, they do not fully define her. In fact, Terminator 2 is probably the most feminist action movie apart from Aliens, in no small part because of how Sarah’s story is treated.
  • There was never only going to be one machine sent back or one fight for the future. The only way to stop Skynet is to destroy it before it can be built (in a reverse of the plot from the first film.) And, it seems, the heroes manage to take it out.
  • But—and here’s where things get interesting—the chip and hand from the original Terminator are exactly what inspired Skynet’s development in the first place. Does that mean time is circular—that Skynet could not have developed without first being developed and sending the T-800 back in the first place?
  • “The future is not set. There’s no fate but what we make for ourselves.” This theme is repeated over and over, and summarized in the closing scene with a ribbon of two-lane highway in the dark, a road that leads into the unknown. This secondary theme comes back time and time again in future installments (pun intended).

Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines (2003)
Ten years after the last film, John Connor is living off the grid and Sarah has died from cancer. A new terminator is sent back to kill him, and yet another T-800 will protect him. This is the franchise’s weak point since it seemingly eschews the “future is not set” rule from the last two films, but what it sets up is the lynchpin of what comes later.

Why it doesn’t totally suck.

  • The T-800 doesn’t need to save John and destroy Skynet again—all it needs to do is get him to safety. That’s because in some future, in a future, Skynet still exists. OK, that’s basically a big retcon of the end of T2. Work with me here.

Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles (2007)
Not long after Terminator 2, another terminator arrives and attempts to kill John—this one very different from any seen before. Another protector arrives, a reprogrammed female terminator named Cameron that doesn’t match any other terminator’s specifications. The Connor family, plus Cameron, time travel forward to 2007, where they try once more to cut Skynet off at the source.

Why it’s awesome.

  • This is the third act of Sarah’s story, and byfar the best. Before Lena Headey was Cersei Lannister, she was kicking ass as Sarah Connor, and she plays it wonderfully. Sarah continues to wrestle with her demons and maintain her ability to be an active agent, which she not only reclaims, she takes to its logical conclusion. If you haven’t watched the show, do it—it’s some of the best-written, feminist television I’ve ever watched.
  • This is where the whole time travel / causality thing blows wide open. The Resistance has sent back many time travelers—a huge surprise to the Connors—and it appears Skynet has too. All this futzing in time has created an infinite number of alternate futures. In some, Skynet may not exist. In others, the Resistance has some unusual allies (no spoilers). But there’s one “present time” from which all these futures branch, so sending people and machines back turns 2007 into a massive battleground.
    • This can’t be overstated: this setup (and a very ‘scientific’ take on time travel) is what makes this show and future installments great, and creates the franchise’s storytelling canvas. There’s a great scene where the writers lay this out: future resistance time travellers comparing the dates of Judgment Day (“when is it in your future?”)
  • The battles aren’t just physical, although there are some impressive bits of that. The main conflict centers around what you can teach an artificial intelligence—from Cameron’s development to the training of the nascent John Henry AI, which, it’s strongly implied, is either the future Skynet (or a future Skynet). This introduces an awesome idea: that the only way to “win” the war is not to play—to fundamentally change Skynet so it never goes rogue in the first place, but can coexist peacefully with humans as some of the machines apparently do.

Terminator: Salvation (2008)
The only movie set fully in the future, this one follows a seemingly-human named Marcus who turns out to be half-machine—but still has his human memories and seems to lack any terminator programming.

Why it’s awesome.

  • This is a direct follow-up on the “multiple futures” idea, and introduces the notion that Skynet somehow understands it’s playing a four-dimensional game of chess with John Connor. The young Kyle Reese is identified by the machines as important despite him not traveling back through time.
  • Salvation also follows up on an implied plotline from TSCC: that future John Connor has made a deal with the machines in some way, or at least an element or faction of machines. Marcus, himself a machine, seems to be the introduction to breaking down John’s notions of “us vs. them.”
  • And in so doing, it runs with the notion begun in TSCC that “the only way to win is not to play.” Which sets us up for…

Terminator: Genisys (2015)

I haven’t seen this yet—no one has, because it hasn’t been released. But the previews show that the future John Connor himself appears to have come back through time—and that he is also part machine, like Marcus from Salvation. And may not have the best of intentions.

Why it should be awesome.

  • It looks like the writers have continued to paint on the canvas prepped for them by TSCC and Salvation. Yay multiple futures! Yay multiple pasts!
  • It also looks like they’ve accelerated Sarah’s development, and inverted her and Reese’s roles from the first film. If anything, this is an update for third wave feminism, moving beyond a needed development of Sarah from victim to agent. She begins as an agent and (hopefully) develops from there.
  • Also, Emilia Clarke is Sarah. So that’s two Game of Thrones women who have played Sarah Connor. Now to get Linda Hamilton a guest spot on GoT.

Seriously, if you’re not into the Terminator franchise, you’re missing out.


Warning: Spoilers abound. If you haven’t already seen this movie go see it already.

There’s a transition moment in Mad Max: Fury Road between the second and third acts where the main character, Imperator Furiosa, drops to her lowest levels of despair. She’s fled the Citadel with five women kept only to breed “healthy babies” for its despot, the sinister Immorten Joe, promising to lead them to the “green place.“ Needless to say, it doesn’t work out exactly as planned. As Furiosa collapses in anguish and frustration, Max, in one of the rare times he speaks more than a grunt or one word, tells her (I’m paraphrasing slightly) that it’s not enough to run from the thing evil thing (Joe’s exploitive patriarchy). Hope and redemption relies on the ability to change that thing.

bridesPost-apocalyptic (PA) stories are a wonderful tapestry upon which we can explore a variety of social problems in the most extreme conditions. One of the lessons I took away from a college class on the Holocaust is that belief systems and social structures break down in extremities: how can you believe in God, for example, when evil men are murdering His chosen people in the millions? PA tales give us the chance to explore such questions in a variety of different tapestries, skipping to the logical and most extreme end. Fury Road tackles a very relevant question: what does patriarchy look like stripped of its trappings, and how do you fight against it?

Much has already been said about the film’s feminist message. Furiosa, perfectly played by Charlize Theron, is the true hero here: the eponymous Max is simply along for the ride. In fact, as you may have gathered from the above example, Max serves the purpose most women play in many action stories: he helps and guides the hero in her despair—one of the many ways Fury Road subverts action film gender tropes. Joe’s brides are each their own character, none a true damsel in distress: they’re psychologically damaged by their captivity in varying degrees but are not played simply as helpless MacGufffins. The tribe of women is presented as no better or worse than the other wasteland tribes: they’ve done what they need to do to survive, and you get the feeling that if Furiosa and the band had taken the bait when they first meet, the women would have killed them without a second thought.furiosa

Fury Road is likely the greatest feminist action/sci-fi film since Aliens. In fact, it probably surpasses Cameron’s masterpiece.

Riding back home (and trying to drive the speed limit) after seeing the film, my wife remarked to me that it’s no wonder the Men’s Rights Activists hate the movie. It isn’t necessarily because of the feminist characters—it’s because Immorten Joe and his Citadel represents their world view. Women are fine if they fight and act like the boys, but otherwise they’re simply objects to be negged into sleeping with men, or used to (literally) nurture the War Boys who do the real fighting for the tribe. Wealth (water) is the greatest thing because it represents success and the ability to control the masses. Just give them a taste, but never too much. And Furiosa—and Max—are a colossal “fuck you” to the MRAs and those who cannot see the patriarchy for the tribe.

joeDirector/writer George Miller manages to create an enormous amount of story and background by painting with a minimalist but gut-wrenching brush. A few lines of dialogue and a lot of showing rather than telling fill out the story and characterization—no mean feat for any director.

He also achieves something remarkable that, as a writer, I cannot help but respect: he goes into issues of violence, rape, and exploitation and manages to keep the story about the women and their allies rather than making it about the man in that situation. I’ve often asked “how does a male writer include something about exploitation in a story without it turning into self-serving bullshit?” The answer is Fury Road.

With GamerGate and Sad Puppies still visible in our rear view mirrors, and the next spiky car of patriarchal reinforcement gunning its engine somewhere in this wasteland, Fury Road achieves a truly monumental feat. The film is a literal example of its core message: it’s not enough to run away. You have to actively work to change the problem if you want hope.

I love the film as a gonzo action flick that’s half grindhouse, half arthouse. I love it even more as a brilliant piece of feminist work and a powerful piece of PA science fiction. I love it the most because it is poised to live out its core message: to change the action, sci-fi, and PA genres from the inside. Not by running away, but by disrupting them from within. Men and women alike will watch Fury Road and say “this is how it should be.” Other summer fare like Avengers 2 or Jurassic World or the deadful-looking San Andreas will, I suspect, pale in comparison.

Fury Road is a stake in the ground saying “hey! You out there in the wastes! It’s time to stand up and demand better from our sci-fi action!”

And now that we’ve had a taste of this water, it’s going to be very hard to live without it.

One Saturday morning early in my junior year of high school, I walked into a Tulsa Barnes & Noble and met a group of people who would change my life: the “Café Writers.” One would help me land my first job; another wrote the recommendation letter that earned me a full scholarship to college. Collectively, they listened to, encouraged, and critiqued some of my earliest writing, giving me some much-needed confidence and setting me on my path.

The group’s de facto leader was Tawna Wheeler, a woman in her mid-40s with an easy smile, a great sense of humor, and who wrote stunning little tales of love, murder, and life in Oklahoma. She was working on a project featuring the Blue Whale, a well-known landmark near Catoosa. Her stories always delighted me, and Tawna is in many ways my Platonic form of what a strong Oklahoma woman is: feisty, good-natured, with a wicked sense of humor.

After a period of unemployment, Tawna, whose day job was in HR, walked me through how I was interviewing and gave me pointers I still use today. I still hear her voice in my head when I prep and during the interview itself. I credit her advice with helping me nail several jobs in my career.

When I moved away from Oklahoma in 2003, I gradually lost contact with most of the Café Writers except for an occasional Christmas card or email. I found out last year that Tawna’s health had declined. She was relatively young (my parents age), and the specifics of her illness were frightening and tragic in equal turns.

Earlier this week, the Café Writers received an email that Tawna had passed away.

Whatever her illness did to her in the last years, in my memory Tawna will always be that perpetually spunky Oklahoma woman, unapologetically writing her brilliant stories and lighting up everyone’s life. She gave me one of the best things you give another person: inspiration and confidence.

Thank you, lady. Godspeed.