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.

03 December 2018

Finding “Relief” with Jex and Ticca

In October I shared the first page of a comics story featuring Jex and Ticca, an orphan kid with his own spaceship and the young stinkbug-like alien who helps keep it running.

While that was in production, I wrote a prose story with the same characters. “Relief: A Tale of the Jitney” is being published this month in volume 5 of The Young Explorer’s Adventure Guide from Dreaming Robot Press.

Thanks to alphabetical order, I’m one of the listed authors of that book on the big bookselling websites, but the the collection contains two dozen science-fiction tales for young readers.

Here’s the start of “Relief: A Tale of the Jitney.”


My father said he’d fly home a month ago. “I’ll be back before the moons switch places, Eeshal,” he told me. “I’ll miss working here with my best girl, but right now people need my help.”

“I understand, Daddy,” I told him. Flyers had been landing at our resupply base with reports of how the planet Wengu had suddenly flown through an asteroid cloud. “Dozens of meteor- ites!” “Two cities just devastated.” “I heard there were tsunamis!” A Confederation patrol ship had come with a call for volunteers to repair Wengu’s infrastructure.

“You have to go help those people,” I told Daddy. We were standing out beside the landing field, looking up at Wengu’s star. “You’re the best mechanic in this solar system. And I’m old enough to run Gadder’s Landing while you’re gone.”

“I guess you are now, Eeshal,” my father said. He gave me a bristly mustache kiss on the forehead and went inside to pack his tools.

So I’d been running the base for two months. Whenever a ship landed from outside our system, I asked if there was news from Wengu.

“At least the meteorites have stopped,” said one four-armed lady. “Top off my radon tanks, would you, dearie?”

“Confederation’s still advertising for relief ships,” growled a furry yellow hauler. “Sure you can’t tune my ion jets?”

I can repair computers, but my father hasn’t let me work on engines yet. So pilots who needed that sort of tune-up flew off to other bases. I watched our landing field empty out and our creds account drop. One fuel tank ran low, and the delivery droids stopped letting me sign for new shipments.

I still thought I was doing fine, but then I had a dream about missing my momma. I was only a baby when she died, and here I was waking up crying. Really I was missing Daddy, I knew. I had to do something to bring him back.

Then this little jitney flew in—half the size of most cargo ships, none of the comforts of passenger liners. The registration code on the tail was too scratched to read, but I recognized the ship right away. No other flyer had those refurbed engines and mismatched landing legs. “Held together by wire and epoxy,” Daddy had muttered when he first saw it. “But at least it’s thick wire.”

“So you inspected it?” I said.

“Not officially,” Daddy said. “Jex never asked.”

Jex was the little jitney’s pilot. I don’t know how his species ages, but Jex looks about as old as I am. Sometimes he acts younger.

“Is his ship safe to ride in?” I asked.

Daddy hadn’t answered. But now I was desperate.


The link above leads to Powell’s. The Young Explorer’s Adventure Guide, volume 5, is also available in digital form through Amazon. That’s how I read this series.

25 November 2018

“I think he should have a kid buddy”

The Library of Congress has a new exhibit featuring a recent donation, Steve Geppi’s vast collection of American comics and pop culture.

George Gene Gustines reported on the display for the New York Times. Many of the items reflect the interplay of comics and other media. For example, there’s the sheet music of a song inspired by the Yellow Kid. There’s the first mockup of the G.I. Joe action figure alongside one of the G.I. Joe comic books. There’s the storyboard for a Mickey Mouse cartoon.

But for the theme of the weekly Robin, the most important item is Joe Simon’s first drawing of Captain America, even before the hero started using a circular shield ( reportedly under pressure from the publisher of an earlier patriotic crime- and Nazi-fighter, the Shield). Created for Timely Comics publisher Martin Goodman, it labels some traits of his costume and logo.

At the bottom of the paper is this note:
Simon created this art in 1940. It shows how the popularity and practicality of the “kid buddy” was already evident to the superhero comics industry, only months after the debut of Robin the Boy Wonder.  And Simon recognized the principal benefit of a sidekick: giving the hero someone to talk to.

03 October 2018

Launching Jitney with Jex and Ticca

This is the first page of “Mine: A Tale of the Jitney,” a short comics story I wrote and saw come to life through the artistic talents of penciler Tim Teague, inker Kendra Hale, colorist Reggie Themistocle, and letterer Alex Giles.

In this story, Jex is an orphan kid piloting his own spaceship. Ticca is the stickbug who keeps the ship in barely working order. Since no sane, upright person would hire their rickety rocket, they end up hauling unwanted freight and disreputable passengers. That offers a lot of opportunity for Jex and Ticca to get into and out of trouble, as in these five pages.

I created this tale for Wonderfunders, a comics-making collective organized on Facebook by publisher James Lynch. That group invited writers to script five-page stories with proposals for longer stories. Then teams assembled to complete the short stories.

“Mine: A Tale of the Jitney” is one of four short stories in this issue of the Wonderfunders Anthology series, available in digital and paper forms through IndyPlanet.

18 September 2018

More on Woodman and Woodsman

My examination of the shifting prevalence of “woodman” and “woodsman” and what that implies for how people speak of L. Frank Baum’s character the Tin Woodman brought this comment:

You don't seem to address the difference in the two professions, Woodman vs. Woodsman, though I'm not sure how well you could specify that in the search. But the word usage rates are clearly dependent on such, IMHO.

A woodman chopped and/or delivered firewood (like the Iceman or Milkman or Postman. A "Woodsman" is a forest ranger, naturalist, etc., that specializes in knowing about "the woods" and the failure to realize this difference in professions is what galls some of us - not the slight change to the spelling. Nick Chopper is a lumberjack not a forest ranger.
When did such a distinction arise, and how established is it?

Dr. Samuel Johnson’s 1755 dictionary didn’t include the word “woodsman” at all. And his definition for “woodman,” with citations from his beloved Shakespeare, said nothing about chopping or delivering wood.
Instead, for Johnson a “woodman” was someone who hunted for sport in the woods.

Let’s jump ahead to Noah Webster’s dictionary in 1828. Once again, there was no entry for “woodsman.” And according to Webster, a “woodman” was:
1. A forest officer, appointed to take care of the kings wood.
2. A sportsman; a hunter.
It would be good to check an American dictionary from the 1860s when Baum was a boy, because that would be the best reflection of usage when he was learning the language. But I couldn’t find one on the web.

So let’s jump again to the 1903 edition of Chambers’s Twentieth Century Dictionary of the English Language, published close to the time of The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, albeit in Britain. It included a subentry for the word “woodsman”—but defined that word simply as a synonym for “woodman.” As for “woodman,” for the first time we see the word defined as Baum used it—but alongside the older definitions: “a man who cuts down trees : a forest officer : a huntsman.”

Finally, the 1913 edition of Webster’s had separate but overlapping entries for the two words. A “woodsman” was “A woodman; especially, one who lives in the forest.” A “woodman” had a more detailed definition, including all of the earlier meanings plus a new one:
1. A forest officer appointed to take care of the king's woods; a forester. [Eng.]
2. A sportsman; a hunter.
3. One who cuts down trees; a woodcutter.
4. One who dwells in the woods or forest; a bushman.
Today’s Merriam-Webster website shows how the popularity of the two terms has flipped: the entry for “woodman” points to “woodsman.” As for the definition of the latter term, the site says: “a person who frequents or works in the woods / especially one skilled in woodcraft.”

The Oxford Dictionaries site likewise has overlapping definitions. Woodman: “A person working in woodland, especially a forester or woodcutter.” Woodsman: “A person living or working in woodland, especially a forester, hunter, or woodcutter.”

The Collins Dictionary site offers the added complication of different entries for American and British usage, but the definitions still overlap. Woodman:
1. a person who looks after and fells trees used for timber
2. another word for woodsman
3. obsolete: a hunter who is knowledgeable about woods and the animals living in them
Woodsman:
1. a person who lives or works in the woods, as a hunter, woodcutter, etc.
2. a person at home in the woods or skilled in woodcraft
Thus, there never appears to have been a widespread understanding that the two words have distinct and different meanings, with “woodman” meaning a woodchopper and “woodsman” meaning a forester. What’s more, the way Baum used the word—to mean someone who made his living chopping down trees—came late to the standard dictionaries of English.