Category Archives: speculative fiction

Vietnam War Fantastic

I got the idea to write this post from watching Ken Burn’s latest documentary The Vietnam War. In the past, for reasons unknown, I never had any interest in the Vietnam War even though I have some vague memories of its aftereffects (the war ended in 1975, I was born in 1984) thanks to the pop culture of the ’80s and early ’90s. I also remember as a child seeing legless Vietnamese/Cambodian men in wheelchairs due to left over land mines from that war.

But until Burns’ series, I never had any interest in the Vietnam War. Maybe because it was too long (it lasted from 1955-1975, 20 years total), too bloody and too divisive, so divisive in the US (and Vietnam of course) that you could say the ’60s was the second Civil War. To this very day, the war still is still a sensitive subject – just ask any baby boomer.

And maybe its controversial nature is why authors tend to shy away from the Vietnam War as a setting for works of SF, fantasy and horror. But there are exceptions. Eleven of them to be exact, and they range from short stories to an award-winning classic novel. So pop in your favorite ’60s/’70s rock album (I suggest The Best of the Guess Who because of course I do) and peruse this list of fantastical works set during a war that changed America (and Vietnam) forever.

Short Stories

“Fellow Americans” by Eileen Gunn (From the anthology Alternate Presidents)

Lyndon B. Johnson – commonly known as LBJ – loses the 1964 election to Barry Goldwater, who, as president, drops nuclear weapons on Vietnam, thus winning the war. Goldwater wins a second term in 1968 and serves as POTUS until 1973. Oh and Richard Nixon quit politics and became a talk show host.

“Suppose They Gave a Peace” by Susan Shwartz (also from Alternate Presidents and The Way It Wasn’t)

George McGovern is elected in 1972 and attempts an immediate withdrawal from the war, but that doesn’t stop the North Vietnamese from advancing towards Saigon.

“Murdering Uncle Ho” by Chris Bunch (from the anthology Alternate Generals III)

JFK survived his assassination, and draws the US deeper into the Vietnam conflict after the Gulf of Tonkin Incident which leads to a North Vietnamese invasion in 1965.

Comics

Watchmen – Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons (1986-87)

This graphic novel needs no introduction. Ask any comic book nerd about it and they’ll speak in reverential tones about how this series changed the comic book industry for better and for worse. Thanks to the intervention of superheroes – the living weapon Dr. Manhattan in particular (and the Comedian – though he was more of a combatant) – the US won the Vietnam War. But for every action, there’s a reaction…

Spider-‘Nam

This is more of a case of What Could Have Been. James Stokoe wrote and drew a couple of (unpublished) pages imagining Spider-Man as a combatant in the Vietnam War. He learns that the catch-phrase “with great power, comes great responsibility” takes on a whole new meaning during wartime. It appears that this comic wont be published any time soon but if it is, it’ll be the first Spider-Man comic I’d be interested in reading. You can look at the pages here.

Video Games

Shellshock 2: Blood Trails

A 2009 first-person shooter that tells the story of G.I. Private Nate Walker, who is sent to Vietnam in 1969 and learns, to his horror, that a scientist has unleashed a contagion that turns humans into zombie creatures (because zombies and war go together like peanut butter and jelly) which includes his older brother Cal. Your mission is to find Cal in the jungles of Southeast Asia, fight zombies and the Viet Cong, who’d like to get their hands on that virus.

(you will not love the smell of naplam in the morning)

Role-Playing Games

Weird Wars: Tour of Darkness

I’m not good at describing RPGs because I’ve never played them, but I think TV Tropes does a better job summarizing the Weird Wars franchise:

Pinnacle Games published a Weird Wars line of d20 games taking place in Real Life past and future wars with supernatural additions. For example, Weird War II had the PCs playing Allied soldiers during World War II, but the Nazis had mutant soldiers, characters could use haunted vehicles and cast spells, and there were monsters. Lots of monsters. The updated re-release of the game line for Savage Worlds so far includes World War I (“Weird War I”), World War II (“Weird War II”), The Vietnam War (“Tour Of Darkness”), and the Roman Empire and its campaigns of conquest (“Weird Wars Rome”).

And Amazon provides more details:

Our first follow-up to our smash hit Weird Wars in the new Savage Worlds system takes us to the jungles of Vietnam. Your grunt has 365 days and a wake-up to learn what really lurks in the jungle. Surviving is tough enough, but if your GI is really on the ball, he just might get drafted into the super-secret Phoenix Program and discover far more than he ever wanted about the Plain of Jars and the secret cults of the high mountains. Tour of Darkness features new Sanity rules and how to deal with mind-numbing horror, a ton of Edges & Hindrances, new horrors, and an awesome Adventure Generator and Plot Points to tell the most savage of tales!

Novels

The Forever War Joe Haldeman (1975)

Joe Haldeman served in Vietnam as a combat engineer. He expressed his experiences (the terror of combat, the indifference of government bureaucracy, the futility of the war and the sense of coming back to an unrecognizable world) in the military sci-fi award-winning novel The Forever War which tells the story of William Mandella, a UNEF soldier who is drafted into the war between Earth and the Taurans. Fighting an endless war is tough enough but for Mandella and his fellow soldiers, the tougher part is going home…

Television

“In Praise of Pip” – The Twilight Zone, Season 5, Episode 1 (Broadcast date: 9/27/63)

This episode is noted for addressing the Vietnam War long before the anti-war movement came to prominence. A corrupt bookie (Jack Klugman) is shot by one of his clients. He learns before hand that his son was wounded in South Vietnam and prays that God would take his life in exchange for his son’s. But before he dies, he gets one last chance to be a good father…

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A later season 5 episode makes an eerie side reference to Vietnam. “I Am the Night – Color Me Black” tells the story of an innocent man who will be hanged for murder at sunrise. But the sun never rises and the sky stays dark. After the execution, a reverend tells the public that the sky will get blacker and blacker as long as hate persists. But the little town isn’t the only place covered in darkness. Just see for yourself:

Manga

Apocalypse Meow by Motofumi Kobayashi

In Japan this manga goes by a very different title that can’t be repeated here. So in the US its retitled Apocalypse Meow as a play on the famous film Apocalypse Now.

All soldiers are represented as animals – Americans are rabbits, Vietnamese are cats, etc. Three American soldiers – Bota, Perky and Rats – go about their daily activities as members of a reconnaissance group in Vietnam. Click here for more details.

So what do you think, readers? Did I miss something? Should there be more works set during the Vietnam War or should we let sleeping dogs lie? Say your thing, man.

 

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4 Stories Worth Reading From “Elseworlds: Justice League Vol 1”

In Elseworlds, heroes are taken from their usual settings and put into strange times and places – some that have existed, or might have existed, and others that can’t, couldn’t or shouldn’t exist. The result: stories that make characters who are as familiar as yesterday seem as fresh as tomorrow.

DC’s official description for their Elseworlds imprint.

What if Batman lived in the Victorian age? What if baby Kal-El’s rocket landed in the U.S.S.R.? What if Scheherazade (you know, the author of the 1001 Nights) was secretly a Green Lantern? These were some of the many stories published under DC’s Elseworlds banner.

What is “Elseworlds” you ask? It was a 1989-2003 imprint published by DC Comics that took their licensed characters and put them in stories that took place outside their canonical timeline. An alternate history for superheroes you might say. Oftentimes they were published as mini-series, one shots and annuals and they were published with a logo that looked like this so as not to confuse readers. Other comic companies like Marvel and Dynamite also got in on the act. The story possibilities were endless. I own a few titles: Superman: Red Son, Green Lantern: 1001 Emerald Nights and Superman: War of the Worlds. But there are other titles that I was coveting but couldn’t find any copies because most of them are out of print. Sure, I could buy some titles but they aren’t always cheap and some are incomplete – meaning you can only find issue #1 of JLA: Shogun of Steel and that’s about it.

Until now.

From the kindness of their hearts, DC is reprinting these long lost stories as trade paperback anthologies. Elseworlds: Batman Vol. 1 was released in April of 2016. Batman Vol. 2 was released in October of 2016 and Elseworlds: Justice League Vol. 1 saw the light of day on July 19, 2016 (Elseworlds: Batman Vol. 3, Justice League Vol. 2 and Superman Vol. 1 & 2 will be released this year).

It was on one rainy day, I was perusing through my second favorite comic book shop that I happened upon a copy of Elseworlds: Justice League Vol. 1. It had the stories I had been dying to read for years and then some. I will recommend four stories from this anthology along with their authors and main artist.

Elseworld’s Finest Parts 1 & 2 (John Francis Moore & Kieron Dwyer)

1928 versions of Clark Kent, Jimmy Olsen, Bruce Wayne, Lana Lang, Ra’s al Ghul and Lex Luthor in a story that pays homage to pulp adventure stories, Jules Verne, archaeology and hidden cities. Oh yeah, and Jimmy reads Captain Marvel.

Justice Riders (Chuck Dixon & J.H. Williams III)

It’s 1873 and US Marshal Diana Prince is horrified to discover that Paradise, the town she has sworn to protect, has been blown to smithereens (literally) while she was away. She enlists the help of Kid Flash, a quick draw gunslinger and Katar Johnson, a Cheyenne warrior who flies with help of artificial hawk wings. As they are attacked by Maxwell Lord’s mechanical henchmen, they’re saved by Booster Gold and inventor Ted “Beetle” Kord. It turns out that Maxwell Lord and Felix Faust were behind the annihilation of Paradise all along and together, with the extra help of Pinkerton agent Guy Gardner and man hunter John Jones, the Justice Riders (a name coined by Kord) take down the robber baron and the sorcerer.

Wonder Woman: Amazonia (William Messner-Loebs & Phil Winslade)

Originally published in an oversized 8″ by 11″ format to show off the “engraved” (and occasional art nouveau) artwork.

Queen Victoria is dead! Long live King Jack Planters! Yep, the Victorian era has given way to the Plantagenet era and the misogyny and the imperialism of the era is taken up to 11 thanks to the toxic masculinity King Jack preaches. But in these dark times, one amazing woman stands out: Diana Trevor, the Wonder Woman, who by day performs feats of strength for audiences and by night, protects the lives of threatened women. It’s her courage and kindness that eventually brings down Jack’s cruel regime. This story is a must-read for all fans of steampunk and the Amazon princess.

Elseworld’s Finest: Supergirl & Batgirl (Barbara Kesel & Matt Haley)

Bruce Wayne isn’t Batman. Bruce Wayne mentors Barbara Gordon. Barbara Gordon is Batgirl. Batgirl rules Gotham City with an iron fist. Batgirl mistrusts metahumans. Lex Luthor shows up in Gotham with Supergirl. Supergirl loves Lex. Lex gets abducted by the Joker, who loves Batgirl. Supergirl wants to rescue Lex. Batgirl won’t let her. The two team up reluctantly. They discover Lex and the Joker are working together and Lex has been hiding a very dark secret…

Well that’s it. Agree? Disagree? Have you read Elseworlds: Justice League Vol. 1? What were your favorite stories? Have you read any other Elseworld titles/anthologies? Let me know in the comments. I can’t wait for vol. 2!

 

 

 

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5 Thoughts:”The Man In The High Castle”

 

hcEven though I’ve made some complaints about the book in the past, after buying a copy at the library – for 50¢! – and rereading it the second time, I gotta admit this is a really good book.  Tied with Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep, it’s one of Dick’s best novels and it’s arguably the best alternate history novel of all time (eat your heart out Harry Turtledove).

Watch out – spoilers about!

You know the story: because America did not get involved in the war effort, the Allied powers lost World War 2. To add insult to injury, the Nazis and Imperial Japanese took over the US and split it in two. The story shows us what American life is like under German/Japanese rule in 1962.

That being said, 5 things went through my mind as I read The Man In the High Castle. 

1. The Parallel World May Not Be So Different From Our World After All

Since most of the story takes place in the Japanese-owned Pacific States of America, it shouldn’t surprise us that there is a racial pecking order: the Japanese are the ruling class, white Americans are second class citizens, other people of color are described as faceless entities – the only time we see any Chinese Americans in the book, they’re pedecab drivers. Another time we see one black person, he’s a slave who has to abide by a curfew because slavery is legal again. One of the characters, Robert Childan, a man who sells old American artifacts to rich Japanese customers, tells us that illicit relationships between Japanese men and white women are commonplace, but it’s never the other way around. Another character, Nobosuke Tagomi, a trade official, walks into a diner, sees a group of white men at a counter and expects them to move from their stools when he tells them to. Sound familiar?

Whether this was Dick’s intention or not, the racism of the alternate timeline is not so different from the racism of our timeline. Just a reversal of skin colors. Even the Nazis’ “ethnic cleansing” of Africa in the book reminds me of Rwanda and Darfur.

2. Juliana Frink is Dick’s Most Interesting Heroine

Well she’s not exactly a “heroine” considering some of the choices she makes in the book. But many of Dick’s later books depict female characters as nothing more than sexual partners – or objects of desire – for the male protagonists. Juliana has affairs with many men but it’s by her choice and from her perspective. She is the only character who sets off on a journey to find the titular character and it’s her alone who finds out the “truth” about Germany and Japan’s “victory” during World War 2. Plus she’s a judo instructor who can take care of herself and who saves the life of Hawthorne Abendsen, the author of The Grasshopper Lies Heavy.

3. It’s Not “Trippy”

Or as The Verge‘s Adi Robertson puts it, “one of Dick’s less mind-bending books”. Many a complaint has been made from filmmakers that his novels are hard to film – don’t expect a film adaptation of Ubik anytime soon – while those that have been successful, had to take a few liberties with the source material. But The Man In the High Castle is an easy read. It’s so clear and concise in its writing and worldbuilding, it’s hard to believe that it came from the same mind as A Scanner Darkly. However, the only “mind-bending” parts are Mr. Tagomi’s “vision” of a victorious US and the confusing ending… yet the story still fascinates and intrigues.

4. Why The Grasshopper Lies Heavy?

The Grasshopper Lies Heavy is the title of a best-selling (but banned) book-within-a book that describes in detail what the world would be like if the Allied Powers won World War 2. Except the outcome is very different from our timeline. In the world of The Grasshopper Lies Heavy, there’s Cold War tensions between Britain and the US, not Russia. Another book that’s popular among characters in TMITHC is the I-Ching, which is used for advice on everyday decisions. But what made The Grasshopper Lies Heavy stand out to me is that the title is taken from a passage in the Bible – Ecclesiastes 12: 5 which reads: “the grasshopper shall be a burden”. We have no other evidence if the Bible is still read or even tolerated in the victorious Axis Powers timeline. What’s more peculiar is that the I-Ching “wrote” The Grasshopper Lies Heavy. Does this mean that the Bible is the go-to book for advice in that other timeline?

But back to the choice of title. When one reads all of Ecclesiastes chapter 12, the author is talking about, in poetic terms, the physical burdens of old age. Some other Bible translations say “the grasshopper drags itself along”, “a white-haired, withered old man, dragging himself along” and “the grasshopper is heavy with food”. So why did Dick choose this scripture as a title for a book about a Cold War between Britain and the US? Do the superpowers “drag themselves” to destruction? Which brings me to my last thought.

5. What Could’ve Been

Philip K. Dick died in 1982. He expressed a desire to write a sequel to The Man In The High Castle but never got around to it because he couldn’t face doing anymore research on the Holocaust. But he didn’t have to. The sequel hook is right there in the novel. Juliana tells Hawthorne that his book showed “a way out”. What if the sequel was about her finding a way out of her timeline and into the timeline described in The Grasshopper Lies Heavy? Dick could show us an America where, because of cold war tensions, there was never a “British Invasion” in music and rock n roll is very different. Or maybe the US never got involved in the Vietnam War, therefore no anti-war movement or counterculture. The possibilities are endless.

And as for the title of this sequel? It’s staring us right in the face.

Those are my 5 thoughts on The Man In The High Castle. What’re yours?

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World War 1 Fantastic – Film

Unless you’ve been hiding out on some island hidden in the Bermuda Triangle, you may have heard the news that DC/Warner Brothers hotly anticipated Wonder Woman movie starring Gal Gadot will take place during World War 1 instead of the era where she was first introduced. DC must’ve read my mind because I’ve always imagined what Diana’s story would be like in the 1910s instead of the 1940s. This shows creativity on DC’s part because if they stuck with tradition, the film would be compared to Marvel’s Captain America: The First Avenger endlessly. It’ll also introduce a new generation of girls and women not just to a feminist icon but to a bygone era that changed the world a hundred years ago.

But I’m not here to speculate on a movie that won’t be out until next year (FACT: 2017 will be the centennial of America’s entry into the first world war). Today I’m here write another post about The War to End All Wars as seen through the lens of speculative fiction. My first post in the series looked at novels. My second one was about television. My last post listed video games. If you’ve guessed by now that today’s article is about film – you’re right!

Impossible! You say. There aren’t any fantastical films about World War 1! Ah, but that’s where you’re wrong! They do exist, you just have to find them.

Biggles: Adventures In Time: (1986. Released in the UK as simply Biggles). A film with arguably one of the most laughable taglines in movie history:

Meet Jim Ferguson. He lived a daring double-life with one foot in the 20th century and the other in World War 1.

Think for awhile why that that sounds so absurd. No, it’s not “double-life” part.

James “Biggles” Bigglesworth was a character from a series of book by W.E. Johns about an ace pilot and his adventures during and after the Great War. The first story, “The White Fokker” was published in 1932. The series grew in popularity to the point where they continued after Johns’ death. So it was only appropriate to make a full-length feature film about the character right.

Yes, except the original script was going to be closer in tone to the books and Raiders of the Lost Ark. Then Back to the Future was released…The success of that film made executives want to cash in on its popularity and the script was altered to include a modern day character named Jim Ferguson who “stumbles” into 1917 and befriends the titular hero. Jim later learns (from Peter Cushing, in his final film role) that he and Biggles are “time twins” two men who travel through time when one or the other is in mortal danger. OK if Jim just learned he had this ability in 1917 why didn’t he travel to the first three years of the war when Biggles’ life was threatened repeatedly? You know what, never mind. It’s too confusing. In case your wondering, yes, the film was a flop. Enjoy the trailer:

Deathwatch: (2002) A horror movie directed by Michael J. Bassett about a group of British soldiers who are suddenly surrounded by a mysterious “mist” and find themselves on the enemy side of the trenches where terrified German soldiers cower in fear about “something else further down the trenches”. Ignoring their warnings, the soldiers investigate and find rotting bodies, bloodied mud and an inhuman growl in the distance. Needless to say it all goes downhill from there and the British soldiers learn the true meaning of “No Man’s Land”. The question is, is the horror the result of supernatural forces or is it all in the soldiers’ heads? The cast includes a non-CGI Andy Serkis.

Here’s the trailer:

Sucker Punch: (2011) This film is not about World War 1. It’s about a girl living in 1959 who wants to escape from a mental asylum with her friends before she gets lobotomized. Or something like that. This film is very divisive among femgeeks: some call it a sexist masturbatory fantasy, others say it’s a critique about the sexualization of women in popular culture. One scene everyone remembers best, though, is Baby Doll’s (Emily Browning) fantasy sequence where she and Blondie (Vanessa Hudgens), Amber (Jamie Chung), Sweet Pea (Abbie Cornish) and Rocket (Jena Malone) navigate through the trenches of World War 1 to retrieve a map. But they must fight off steam powered zombie enemy soldiers because all the allied soldiers are too shell-shocked to fight. The only available clip on YouTube is shown in three parts and is erroneously titled “Nazi Zombies”:

War of the Worlds: Goliath: (2012) This Malaysian animated film is a loose sequel to H.G. Wells’ seminal classic. It’s 1914, 15 years after the first Martian invasion. The world, as you know, is mobilizing itself for the Great War. Except this time the weapons used are engineered from Martian technology that was scrapped after the invaders died from disease. Just as war begins – how convenient! – the Martians return. With bigger, badder weapons! And stronger immune systems! As a wise man once said: “there’s always a bigger fish”.

Here’s the trailer:

So what do you think? Have you seen these films? Do you know of any other sf/fantasy/horror films that take place during The War to End All Wars? Let me know in the comments.

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3 Short Stories Worth Reading From “Warm Worlds And Otherwise”

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“Who is Tiptree, What Is He?” asked the introduction to the 1975 anthology, Warm Worlds And Otherwise. It’s one of the most infamous introductions in the history of literature, because the author that wrote it made this now-awkward statement:

It has been suggested that Tiptree is female, a theory that I find absurd, for there is to me something ineluctably masculine about Tiptree’s writing.

I wonder if Robert Silverberg’s still eating his words.

James Tiptree Jr. was the pen name of Alice B. Sheldon, who published her first sci-fi story in 1968. She took the surname, “Tiptree” from a brand of marmalade and her husband suggested the title, “Jr.”. She chose a male name because:

A male name seemed like good camouflage. I had the feeling that a man would slip by less observed. I’ve had too many experiences in my life of being the first woman in some damned occupation.

She kept up this ruse until 1976, when fans discovered that “he” was in reality a “she” and that’s when, according to Pamela Sargent: ” a lot of people had to reexamine their assumptions about the differences men and women writers.”

Four years after her death in 1987, fellow SF writers Pat Murphy and Karen Joy Fowler, initiated the James Tiptree Jr. Award, an annual literary prize for works of science fiction and fantasy that explore the concept of gender.

But I’m not going to talk about that. Today, I’m going to talk about three stories from the aforementioned anthology that stood out to me. They are:

“The Girl Who Was Plugged In”: In this 1974 Hugo Award winning novella, a sickly girl named P. Burke is used by a corporation for product placement. Through electronic implants she “controls” an artificially grown beautiful girl named Delphi and becomes an international celebrity. But then everything unravels when she falls in love…

“The Night-Blooming Saurian”: A scientist promises a big game hunter that his team can go back and time and bring him back a dinosaur to hunt…

“Love Is The Plan, The Plan Is Death”: Poor Moggadeet! Because of instinct, his species go through a bug-eat-bug cycle (literally) every winter’s eve. He so desperately wants to break that cycle but nature is stronger than love… A 1973 Nebula Award winning short story.

If you want to learn more about Alice Sheldon, see the book, James Tiptree Jr.: The Double Life of Alice B. Sheldon by Julie Phillips

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