The Witcher

January 2, 2020

Okay, binged the whole thing (only 8 episodes makes bingeing so much easier), and I decided this show deserves its own post because it really, really sucked me in.  I didn’t think it would, then it did, and I’m now picking it apart to figure out why. I will probably binge it all again soon.

It starts rough. It feels so much a part of this low-budget fantasy mode that always wears me out, like the World of Warcraft movie and that terrible Dungeons and Dragons movie. First off, The Witcher is a much better Dungeons and Dragons version than the actual Dungeons and Dragons movie. But that still means there’s a pretty high self-important cheese factor. When discussing the early episodes with a friend, I referred to “Stupid Wizard School” and “The War of Bad Tactics.”

My friend had to tell me that these storylines are all taking place at different times and I need to hang in there until they converge. I was already willing to do that because A) only 8 episodes, B) broody fantasy Henry Cavill, and C) the raging feminist subtext.

There’s a conversation that happens a couple of times, in a couple of different versions, in the early episodes. It goes like this:

Dude: We need you to kill a monster.

Geralt: Hang on a sec, didn’t that monster used to be, like, a girl?

Dude: Well yes, but it’s a monster now, very dangerous. So you’ll kill it, right?

Geralt:  But she’s a monster now because you cursed her/neglected her/etc. It’s because of shit you did. This isn’t fair.

Dude: And yet, here we are.

And then Geralt will do his very, very best to try to save her. He doesn’t always succeed. He kind of hates people in general after a few rounds of this. This story is filled with women forced into terrible situations and then using whatever agency and power they have to get out of them, or get some kind of power for themselves. Also women and girls who are cursed, abused by destiny, in situations made worse by the selfishness and arrogance of the people around them. Geralt seems hyper aware of this, and it makes him very endearing.

So this looks like a typical fantasy centered on a badass sword-wielding dude. But the story is just about entirely driven by the choices and actions of women. I think that’s interesting.

The episode where things start coming together include a splendid live-action version of the “Hans My Hedgehog” fairy tale, which just about won me over. Then came the dragon episode. This was so neatly done, and so like an old-school D&D scenario, I just loved it.

Then suddenly, somehow, I felt like I was in the middle of The Malazan Book of the Fallen. (This is Steven Erikson’s massive epic fantasy series, the only recent epic fantasy series I’ve read all the way through.) The multiple timelines, the jumping around between misfit characters who aren’t part of the power structure. The huge, very confusing backdrop that doesn’t really matter because what’s pulling us through are these characters and their very focused, very personal stories. And then that mage battle, which felt like something Erikson would write. Magic here is common, but the implications aren’t.

The last minute of the last episode was perfect, and I almost went back to watch the whole thing right then. So. Yes. Every now and then I take a chance on a series and am rewarded with the reminder of why I love stories in the first place. Can’t wait for the next season.

Also, I’ve had that stupid song stuck in my head for three days now which basically makes it the perfect bard song. Long live the bards!


media consumption update

January 23, 2020

I’ve just finished reading The Secret Agent by Joseph Conrad. I love Conrad’s writing and there are still a number of books of his I haven’t read. I’m working through them. This one is slow, but great, if that makes sense. So one of the things I love about Conrad — he’s been elevated to the canon, he’s considered a classic, literary author. But that wasn’t how he published. He was a contemporary of folks like H. Rider Haggard, Arthur Conan Doyle, and he was writing the same kinds of things they were — adventure stories, mysteries, and so on. I mean, he’s such a good writer and his work is complicated and deep. . . but read him back-to-back with Haggard and you suddenly realize that Heart of Darkness and Lord Jim are adventure thrillers. I love that.

The Secret Agent is a crime novel. It’s also a whole collection of character studies. But the chapter where it all comes together, the murder that marks the climactic moment. . .it’s masterful. Whew. I’m taking notes.

Moving on to my current obsession, The Witcher, which I have now watched through twice. How long do we have to wait for more? Hrm.

Wanting not just a fantasy fix, but the very specific fantasy fix I feel like The Witcher offers, I rewatched Dragonslayer.  I know I’ve sung the praises of this 1981 movie before. But it’s still great!  And it really does push the same buttons as The Witcher, which made me happy. I’m trying to figure out what makes this kind of fantasy tick. I think Willow and Ladyhawke fall into the same category.

What I’ve got so far:

Likeable, competent characters who are basically good people trying to do good. Even if they are wearing black leather.

Magic that is commonplace but also wondrous. That is, this is a world where there’s a kind of standard magic technology — but that only makes it all the more surprising and inspiring when someone pulls out some real genuine badass wild magic. It’s about pushing past what the characters think is possible.

The world may be grimdark, but the characters aren’t. The protagonists coming together to look out for each other in a grimdark world is one of the great appeals of this kind of story.

Doesn’t take itself too seriously. Jokes are allowed. Poking fun at itself is allowed. Silliness is allowed.  Something Connie Willis says about romantic comedies — for a romantic comedy to work, the story can make fun of everything except the feelings of the main characters for each other. Mock and satirize whatever you want — but that relationship has to be real and genuine and honest.  I feel like there’s something similar going on with this kind of fantasy.  It can be funny, it can be cheesy. But there’s a core to the story — the goodness of the main characters, the power of magic when it’s used unselfishly — that has to be in earnest.

And that’s what I’ve got so far.


new year, week one

January 10, 2020

It feels like it’s been a busy productive week so far, and it’s fun to see other folks having this same experience. Like there really is a communal energy out there? All of publishing shuts down over the holidays — this year, what that meant was I got two sets of page proofs sent to me right before the holidays, due back right after the holidays. Ha! But those are done. Next, I’m spinning up book promotion and travel plans for this year. This feels very different than this time last year, when I didn’t really having anything new coming out. This business is so strange sometimes.

Speaking of strange… another window into freelance life:  30% of my income for last year landed in my bank account in the last two weeks of the year. This was mostly happenstance — finishing up a couple of big projects right at the end of the year, which means I got paid right at the end of the year. But this is one of the reasons freelancing can be so fraught — you just never know when the money is coming in. Don’t worry, I’m fine — but this is exactly why having savings that can cover 6 months to a year’s worth of expenses is such a big deal when you work for yourself.

I’m just about ready to pull the trigger on a trip to New Zealand for Worldcon this summer/winter. I’ve started looking into tours, and there’s just so much to see and it’s just so exciting! I’m also looking at pictures of birds. Ahh….

I’m definitely attending this year’s International Conference on the Fantastic in the Arts, March 18-21. This will be my first time at this conference, and I have to say, I’m really looking forward hanging out in Florida right at the moment I start getting brutally sick of winter.

I re-watched the first episode of The Witcher, and all the clues about the timeline are right there. The trouble is, if you have no context for anything and the names haven’t registered, it means nothing. It just sounds like vague fantasy jargon. Once you have context…then all becomes clear.


TV watching update

December 27, 2019

I feel like it’s been awhile since I’ve done one of these, because it seems like it’s been awhile since I watched any new TV. Like, I’ve spent the last two years watching all of Midsomer Murders and rewatching Babylon 5 and nothing else. Well, a smattering of things like The Good Place and Good Omens and catching up on Legion and Mr. Robot. But all the amazing TV people have been raving about? I’ve been running and hiding. Watching an episode and then just not committing.

Which makes it super weird that I’ve watched like 4 entire new seasons of TV in the last three or so weeks. It’s like something in my brain has switched and I’m ready for new things. Ready for non-comfort viewing. We’ll see if it holds.

Crisis on Infinite Earths.  I’ve given up on the CW shows because I just lost patience, which makes it weird to dive in on the big crossover. Like, Superman has a kid? Where’d Winn go? Where’s Felicity? So confused. But the crossover is nice because it’s like drinking from the firehose, and the cameos and easter eggs are fantastic. Brandon Routh as Christopher Reeves’ Superman, and all the tribute that entails, makes the whole trip worthwhile. Still two episodes to go on this, and yeah, I think this is enough Superfriends for me these days.

The Expanse season 4. Still one of the greatest space-based SF shows ever. This season includes the scenes I got to be on set for last year, so I loved finally getting to see them in context. This is a show where reading the books first and knowing what’s coming makes things even more stressful. More on that in a bit.

The Terror. This is based on the horror novel by Dan Simmons about the doomed Franklin Expedition to find the Northwest Passage, which vanished utterly in 1846 (except the wrecks of the two ships, The Terror and Erebus, were finally discovered just a few years ago). I’ve read it, and I wanted to see how they adapted it. The novel has one of my favorite scenes of horror of all time. . .and that scene was not in the show, alas. I think it should have been. Overall, this was uneven. It has some utterly brilliant atmospheric moments. Beautiful arctic hellscapes, the threat of cold personified. There’s a battle with the Creature in ep. 4 that is off the rails. And…then the show goes sideways. The last couple of episodes are kind of a mess, threads not carried through, characters who were looking fine just an episode previous suddenly turning cadaverous and dying, that kind of thing. And it diverges wildly from the novel. Wildly. Frustratingly. Like, in the course of simplifying the story the show just kind of lost the thread.

Anyway, The Expanse and The Terror are both shows where I have read the source material. Knowing what’s coming in The Expanse — knowing that the last scene of this season is actually the first chapters of Book 5, which is arguably the most harrowing, epic, tragic story of the entire series, is really super upsetting.  Nail biting. Like, when the settlers on Ilus start rubbing their eyes and I’m on the sofa screaming “OH NO ARGGGGHHHH!!!!” because I know what that means.

Versus The Terror where I know what the Creature is and I know what’s coming and I know more details than the show is giving us, and I’m liking the characters I’m supposed to be liking (crossover moment:  Jared Harris plays protagonist Francis Crozier here, and he also plays Anderson Dawes in The Expanse.  Isn’t this neat?). But I’m not upset? I kind of stopped worrying about them? Part of this is the difficulty of telling a story where I know from the outset that nearly every single person is going to die horribly. Anyway, I think it needed a couple more episodes to draw out the tension — and I really wish it had followed the book, which is a more interesting, fraught outcome than what the show gave us.

Next up:  The Witcher. I really know nothing about this at all, but the publicity stills of scruffy leather-bound Henry Cavill are so smoking hot I can’t not watch this.


birding victories

October 8, 2018

Saturday the Cornell Lab of Ornithology held a Big Day, and I managed to get out and get a few checklists to send them. Only about 30 species, but it is firmly, drearily autumn in my part of the world and many birds have migrated away.

But it’s been kind of exciting down at Walden Ponds east of Boulder. I’ve never seen as many birders there as I did on Saturday, with lots of spotting scopes and lots of copies of Sibley’s on hand. So, I’m really only a moderate birder. I don’t follow any forums, I’m not signed up for any alerts when rare birds show up in the area. But I can always, always tell when an alert has gone out because I’ll get to Walden Ponds and there’ll be a dozen birders with scopes all clustered together looking at a Thing.

This time, it was a Vermilion Flycatcher. We’re way north of its usual range so it’s a really cool sighting.

But that also meant I was around a lot of other birders, which always makes me self conscious because I’m pretty sure I’m not a very good birder. I’m either the Best Worst Birder or the Worst Best Birder. I haven’t decided which.  I’m usually the one in the clump of birders asking, “What’s that? What about that?” and being annoying.

So imagine the thrill when I got to school one of these hard-core birders on an ID.

“Oh look, Dowitchers!” he said confidently, gazing over his scope rather than through it.

Me:  “Are you sure those aren’t the flock of Snipes that have been hanging around the last few weeks?”

(Looks through scope.)  “You’re right! Those are Snipes!”

(Confession: I made this exact mistake the last time I was at the ponds a couple of weeks ago. So I was ready for it. I am a learning monkey.)

I tried to do some digiscoping with my scope and iPhone. I’m not sure I’ll ever take really good pictures this way — it’s a wonky set up, with an old scope, an adapter that throws off the scope’s balance, and a breeze that rattles the whole thing and gives the images a kind of hazy filter.  I could also probably learn some photo editing to fix some of these issues.

But for helping me with ID’s? It’s really cool. The scope gives me such a good look at them.

Here’s the Wilson’s Snipe:

And here’s the Long-billed Dowitcher:

It’s really easy to see the ultra-long bill from a distance and think one or the other. But the second look makes it all clear.

They’re all so cute!


My Big Day #2

May 17, 2017

As I mentioned, last Saturday was eBird’s Global Big Day of birding, where birders all over the world head out to see how many species they can log in one day. This year’s stats: over 6500 species. That’s a lot of birds. My goal was to get over 50. Didn’t quite get there. I got just at 50, the same I did last year. Would have gotten more if I were better at IDing hawks in flight, but I’m not. Well, now I know what I need to practice at. But it is fun being part of a big project like this. I logged all my sightings.

Oddly enough, the rainy weather might have helped me last year. The best time for birding is the hour or so after dawn. Trouble is, I’m not a morning person. Last year, the gloomy weather fooled the birds into thinking dawn was later, so I got some really good sightings even with the late start. This year was bright, sunny, and beautiful, and I missed ’em. I’m going to have to figure out how to get started earlier.

Also, there were a ton more birders out, which led to situations like this:

Other, better birders: “Oh yeah, we’re seeing lots! Like *lists of ten species, half of which I’ve never seen before*.”

Me: “I saw a robin. It’s right there.”

So yeah. A little bit of a failure of confidence there. And then there were NO DUCKS on Barr Lake. Like, none. If I’d seen half the ducks I normally see at Barr and Walden, I’d have made 60 species, easy. Where the hell were the ducks?

Ah, birding.

So at Walden I thought about walking the upper ponds to try to find ducks, but I was so tired and lazy I just got out the spotting scope and parked it and stayed put for half an hour.

And that was when I got my one lifer for the day. A Wilson’s pharalope, which I would not have seen without the scope. (Also spotted with scope: American avocets and long-billed dowitcher.) Even better: if you’re good and steady, you can take pictures through a spotting scope. So I got out my little point-and-shoot digital, and I did. Not a great picture. But I did it. My last 3 birds of the day:

three waders

So, a nice end to a really long day. Next year, I’m considering only hitting one location, Walden Ponds, and really for real getting up at the crack of dawn this time, and just seeing how many birds I can spot in one place. No goal, just a good day. Yeah, that sounds good.