19 August 2019

Rethinking a Decision at Sundown

I thought I’d watched all seven movies in the “Ranown Cycle” of westerns directed by Budd Boetticher and starring Randolph Scott, most produced by Scott and Harry Joe Brown and written by Burt Kennedy. But I’d missed Decision at Sundown—until last week.

As in most of the cycle, Scott (almost sixty years old in 1957) plays an experienced westerner on a mission of revenge. In this case, he comes to the town of Sundown to call out a man he holds responsible for his wife’s suicide.

A hallmark of these westerns is that their villains can be as charismatic and more rounded than Scott’s protagonists. Indeed, sometimes the villain in one movie even echoes the lines of the hero in another. They’re all men who refuse to change, heading for a collision.

Decision at Sundown takes that mirroring to its furthest point. Scott’s character first appears stopping a stagecoach at pistol point. Meanwhile, his antagonist, played by John Carroll, is treating the whole town to drinks to celebrate his wedding.

Of course, that antagonist is a crooked town boss. He’s throwing over his long-time lover for this advantageous marriage. Yet he’s also in love with his new bride. Most striking, he doesn’t hide his past or his methods—he’s one of the movie’s truth-tellers.

Scott’s character interrupts the wedding and winds up besieged in a livery stable. The boss sends his hand-picked sheriff and deputized gunmen after the interloper as the cowed townspeople wait out the conflict in the saloon.

As the action rises, however, the main characters decline. Of course, in this sort of story we expect the villain to be cut down. But the action reveals Scott’s character as more petty than principled, and he gets his only friend killed to preserve a delusion. In the end, both main characters ride out of Sundown diminished.

Boetticher considered Decision at Sundown to be a failure. Certainly other films he made with Scott and Brown, such as Seven Men from Now and Ride Lonesome, are more stirring. But this one is an effective, character-driven story, not to be missed in the bunch.

17 August 2019

Only Two Plots?

The two prose stories about Jex and Ticca exemplify the adage that “there are only two plots: A stranger rides into town, and A man goes on a journey.”

In “Relief,” the young narrator flies to other planets in Jex’s spaceship. In “Just,” the narrator finds Jex has arrived on her moon and gotten caught in a murder investigation.

Quote Investigator looked into the origin of that adage, which has been attributed to many authors in recent years. It found that:
  • Credit most commonly goes to John Gardner, author of The Art of Fiction.
  • He never wrote that, though he wrote an exercise in starting a novel in omniscient voice that could be stretched and misconstrued into that statement.
  • Gardner was being credited with making that pronouncement as early as 1986, four years after his death.
Therefore, if you find wisdom in the adage, give Gardner the credit. If you think it’s far too reductive and at best it’s a rubric for starting a story, be pleased there’s no proof he said it.

15 August 2019

“Just” Another Adventure with Jex and Ticca

Last fall I shared news of my story “Relief: A Tale of the Jitney” being published in volume 5 of the Young Explorer’s Adventure Guide anthologies.

Now I’m happy to report that another prose story about Jex and Ticca is now slated for volume 6 of that series. “Just: A Tale of the Jitney” begins like this:


Mama doesn’t usually bring prisoners home.

As magistrate here on Chamulna, Mama keeps prisoners in jail until trial season. Even with all the zirnium miners making trouble on this moon, the jail wing of the Magistracy isn’t full. But I guess she figured this prisoner was too small to stay with the rest.

“I think he’s young,” she told me.

“But he’s a different species,” I said. “We don’t know how his people age.”

Most of Mama’s prisoners are normal Polatians, but this one had smooth, doughy, mahogany skin. His little fern-green eyes were sunk into his face, and his cornsilk hair covered the whole round top of his head. “If he were a Polatian girl like you,” Mama told me, “his crest would be turning light twell—”

“Mama!” I’m sure she could see my cheeks shine.

She wiggled one eye to signal she was joking. “That’ll remind you, Yari, not to assume your mother’s forgotten how alien species work.”

Mama steered the boy into a spare room on the second floor of the Magistracy with a hand on the back of his neck. Half that space was filled with old, mismatched furniture from the squad room downstairs. I moved a broken screen off a crimson sofa, and Jex sat down, his little eyes moving in tandem to take in the mess. On his left wrist, just past his ragged navy shirtsleeve, I spotted a saffron-orange detainment bracelet.

Mama turned to me. “You know how you’re always asking to help with the Magistracy cases?”

“Only a thousand times!” I wanted so much to be an investigator, the way Mama had started out. But she never let me.

“You can help me right now. This boy’s a witness to a crime. I need to question him, and he doesn’t speak Polatian—only Stelpidge.”

Stelpidge was one of the courses I’d chosen from teleschool, but I didn’t think it would come in handy this fast. “Of course I’ll help investigate!” I said.

“Translate,” Mama said.

I let that go and asked, “What are your questions?”

“Let’s start by finding out his basics.”

I’d watched enough investigatory dramas to know what that meant. I pushed a chrome chair in front of the boy and sat down. “Greetings,” I said in Stelpidge. “My name is Yarilotta. This is my mother, Magistrate Squoryvotta. What is your name?”

He said, “Jex.”

“Just Jex?”

He nodded his head. I repeated the name to Mama.

She tapped the name into her handscreen. “We’ll ask Interstel if he has a record. Keep going.”

I asked the boy, “Where do you live?”

“On that space flyer your mother made me park outside.”

“How old are you?”

His narrow eyes peered warily through his fringe of tawny hair. “How young do I have to be to go free?”



Dreaming Robot Press is gathering preorders for this volume through Kickstarter. The higher funding levels bring not only this book in digital and/or print form, but also the previous volumes, so you can own both prose stories of Jex and his jitney and dozens more besides. The press also likes to seed the fondness for science fiction by making its books available to schools and libraries.

11 August 2019

Robin and Gender Shifts in American Naming

Last year the Life of Words blog discussed how over time many American names have flipped from being predominantly male to predominantly female—and, in a few cases such as Stacey and Lacey, flipped back.

Here’s the prevalence graph for the name Robin, based on US Census and Social Security data.

As you can see, until 1850 basically all Americans named Robin were male. Gradually more women named Robin appeared and then around 1930 there was a sudden shift and Robin became a predominantly, though not exclusively, female name.

The character Robin made his debut in 1940 shortly after that shift to a female name. However, the men who created him—Jerry Robinson with Bill Finger and Bob Kane—came from a generation that knew Robin even more predominantly as a male name.

In 1970 the trend of Robin being a female name in America peaked. As of 2000, we were heading back to the range in which the shift happened back around 1930. Was there another sudden change?

03 August 2019

Catching Bob le flambeur at Last

In my mid-teens I saw a bunch of movies at the now-closed Nickelodeon cinema, the type of theater that flourished in college towns before the art films they showed became available on VHS.

In front of every damn one of those movies, the cinema showed a preview of Bob le flambeur, a 1956 film by Jean-Pierre Melville that’s often pegged as the start of the French new wave. I saw that preview so many times that I could recite its voiceover: “…the story of a man who moves like a prince through the dark streets of Paris, gambling in back rooms until dawn. Then one day, down on his luck, he masterminds the biggest gamble of his life: the robbery of the Deauville casino…”

Almost forty years later, through my local library’s Kanopy subscription, I finally watched Bob le flambeur. I was expecting a heist film, but it’s really a character portrait with a heist attached. Bob doesn’t even come up with the robbery scheme until halfway through the movie, after we explore his relationships with a protégé, a young demimondaine, and a police inspector.

There are scenes of Bob walking his confederates through his robbery plan on a floor outline painted on a field, and of a safecracker at work. But to anyone who knows the rules of good storytelling, those scenes are a tip-off that we’ll never see the plan come off that way, and we don’t.

Instead, the movie is an homage to American gangster movies and what Melville’s colleagues dubbed film noir. Roger Duchesne has a ducal George Raft vibe at the center. Women, and the men who love them too much, prove to be the weak spots in the conspiracy. But in the end, it’s Bob’s character that matters.

30 July 2019

Sea Fairies and Sea Sirens

Sea Sirens is a new middle-grade graphic novel by Amy Chu and Janet K. Lee. It’s subtitled A Trot & Cap’n Bill Adventure, and the back cover says it was “inspired by L. Frank Baum’s classic adventure The Sea Fairies, the ‘underwater Wizard of Oz.’” The story’s last page promises more Trot & Cap’n Bill Adventures.

However, this is not a story about Trot and Cap’n Bill from The Sea Fairies and Sky Island, whom Baum settled in the Emerald City in The Scarecrow of Oz. It’s a remix of elements from The Sea Fairies including the names of major characters, the setting in and off the coast of southern California, and the general idea of being able to breathe underwater to visit mermaids.

Baum’s Sea Fairies is one of his weaker fantasies, though it introduces some of his most winning characters and one of his scariest villains. As in Jules Verne’s Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea, a lot of pages are taken up by underwater tourism with little plot (but, in Baum’s case, plenty of puns). Though Trot is a winning personality already distinct from Dorothy Gale, she functions mostly as an observer; she becomes more of a plot driver in Sky Island.

Lee, who created the striking Return of the Dapper Men, had the idea to pull from The Sea Fairies to create a modern adventure. Like Trot, the Trot* in Sea Sirens lives along the southern California coast with her mother and a disabled older man—not a one-legged sailor but her grandfather, who suffers from intermittent dementia. The new Cap’n Bill* is one-eyed cat.

Trot* is a Vietnamese-American surfer. About twenty years ago I wrote an Oz novel featuring a Vietnamese-American surfer as the child who travels to the Emerald City. I’m therefore particularly intrigued by Trot*. Both stories hinge on the powerful allure of surfing, particularly as a respite from domestic tensions.

In The Sea Fairies, Trot and Cap’n Bill are boating off the coast when the mermaids of the title appear and invite them to visit. They want to disabuse Cap’n Bill of his superstitious ideas about mermaids luring sailors to their deaths. Once underwater, Trot and Cap’n Bill meet many creatures, culminating in a gigantic, ancient sea serpent named King Anko, who presides over the Pacific. Then they get captured by the villainous Zog.

Sea Sirens strives for more conflict from the start. (Perforce this paragraph and the following contain SPOILERS.) Trot* is at odds with her mother over whether it’s safe to leave her wandering grandfather to go surfing. Trot* and Cap’n Bill* almost drown before a mermaid princess with her own mother issues rescues them and empowers them to breathe underwater. The mermaid queen Aquareine* is imperious instead of just friendly. The mermaids are close to war with a nation of underwater serpents, and Trot*’s grandfather wanders into their possession.

However, in the end that conflict washes away in a few pages. The King Anko* in Sea Sirens is a former cabin boy with more than a little resemblance to Maurice Sendak’s Max, Mikey, Jack, and Guy, who in turn harken back to Winsor McCay’s Nemo. Anko* is delighted to find other humans underwater at last. Trot* asks him and Aquareine* to pull back their armies, and they do. Problem solved.

Even Trot*’s fear of her mother worrying that she and her grandfather have drowned evaporates quickly. It turns out the entire underwater adventure takes only an hour in surface time. (In The Sea Fairies, Baum had the mermaids cast a spell on Trot’s mother so that she slept peacefully through her daughter’s absence.) There’s a final fear that Cap’n Bill* has drowned, but he hasn’t.

In sum, Sea Sirens ends up being even slighter than The Sea Fairies. The pictures are lovely, and the graphic storytelling successful on a page-by-page, moment-by-moment basis. The character-based jokes land, especially when Trot* learns there’s more to Cap’n Bill* than she thought. Jimmy Gownley, creator of the Amelia Rules! series, provides fine lettering. Now that the characters are established, we can hope the next graphic Trot & Cap’n Bill Adventure is more of an adventure.