Memento Mori – Paul Darrow, Tanith Lee, and “Sarcophagus”

Actor Paul Darrow passed away this week after a brief illness, and the world is the lesser for it. You can check out any number of memorials, especially about his work on Blake’s 7, but for me, he had another honor. He is, as far as I know, one of two actors cast by my favorite author, Tanith Lee, in a novel. You can check this entry on Kill the Dead here but anyone who reads the book will easily hear Darrow’s voice in the main character.

And, sorry Tanith, I did hear Michael Keating in the other role, intentional or not.

This was, in some ways, Lee and Darrow’s third collaboration. The first was in the series 3 episode of Blake’s 7, “Sarcophagus.” You can find some lovely reviews of it out there (including its own TV Tropes page) but I adore it as a near perfect “bottle” episode.

If you’re unfamiliar with a term, a “bottle” episode comes from ‘ship in a bottle.’ It’s a budget saving episode, designed to take place in pre-constructed sets with minimal guest actors and other items which could bloat the budget. They show up on Science Fiction shows all the time because they save money and production time. At best, they’re used to give the actors a chance to interact, show their characters in a different light. At their worst, they’re an excuse to save money.

And then there is “Sarcophagus.” It starts with a shadow play which, frankly, gives you the whole episode. But from there, it extends to all of the characters, enveloping them in what could have been another ‘alien on the loose’ show. But, instead, it highlights every character and gives them a chance to shine. Michael Keating gets to show off his magic skills as well!

The dialog sparkles (even Tarrant gets in a good line or two!) but the show really belongs to Jan Chappel, playing two roles, and Paul Darrow as two people who are mourning losses in their own way. That undercurrent of loss, death, and mourning runs through the whole show, ending with a quiet moment showing both characters back in the saddle, ready to move forward.

I wish I could get my hands on the script. I wish I could ask Tanith Lee about the writing process, or talk to Paul Darrow about filming it. But, instead, I can look through the completed episode. I can see the way the characters take on the roles of the figures in the shadow play. I can watch how little character moments give our actors more meat to work with than two series worth of gadding about in a disused quarry.

We can look. We can mourn. And then we can move on, with memories of the events and all they’ve shown us, good or ill, in our hearts.


Introducing A.J. Harris

I was going to write a completely different post. I wanted to tell folks that my short story “Shelter From the Storm” has just been published in a new anthology: Stranded. The editor, Delilah Devlin, had a great post up about the anthology.

Well, then this kinda happened:

And then this:

Which brings me to A.J. Harris. Why did I choose to have another name for my romantic/erotic fiction? Well, two reasons. The first is really marketing – I wanted a distinction between the brands.

The second reason is my sister. She calls me A.J., all the time. She’s also one of the two big romance readers in my house when growing up. The other was my Baba Ivanna. We’d always find old-school Harlequin romances in her room. And then, there was the chest of drawers in the laundry room, filled with novels. I still remember the one about wearing Highland clans…

So, when my sister asked me if I was getting published under this name, I smiled.

Check it out. Everyone’s done an amazing job, and I’m chuffed to think one day, a copy may end up in the chest of drawers belonging to the grandma of a young writer…

Happy Frelling Anniversary

I discovered one of my favorite TV shows, Farscape, by accident.  And frell me dead, I’m so happy I found it. If TV science fiction was either contemplative neoclassical prog rock (Looking at you, Star Trek: TNG) or southern-fried Americana (Stargate SG:1), Farscape was Space Ritual era Hawkwind, complete with Lemmy stoned out of his mind and Stacia Blake dancing to “Sonic Attack” wearing silk and body paint.  And gods, I loved it so.

I came in at possibly the worst place – an episode near the end of the first season called “Nerve.” What struck me was our hero, John Crichton, in the aurora chair while Scorpius purred over him. Ben Browder refused to play stoic, unbreakable hero. His eyes were bloodshot. He spat half the time he spoke. When they let him loose, he twitched and shook with genuine pain.  I’d never seen anything like that on an SF show. Real emotion, real fear. And all this while surrounded by puppets.

There are a lot of articles on what made Farscape tick. The cast. The writing. The visuals. But for me, it was the willingness to be weird and experimental. You had a ‘hero’ who was the weakest among the crew in terms of strength or power, but he became the emotional heart of the show. People had sex, got into messy relationships, and remained friends. We lost people we loved and were devastated by it. And even when the show came back to Earth, it held a funhouse mirror to who we are.

Oh, and then there are the “Scratch ‘N Sniff.”

Honestly, watch this episode. It’s a light episode, a comedic one, but I one no other show on television would even conceive of pulling off.

Did Farscape succeed in every episode? No. Gods, no. There are some real clunkers, and the creative team made some really bad decisions along with some really good ones. But it was never timid. If there’s one lesson I can take from this show, and one I wish I could internalize, is to never be afraid to try and put everything out there: life, sex, love, emotion. Dare to dream.

Look at the wonders out there. Because this world, this unbound galaxy of the imagination, is your playground.


City Wolves On The Prowl

***WARNING! Werewolf: The Apocalypse Neepery Incoming!****

A while back, I saw a post where someone mentioned their first encounter with White Wolf RPGs, specifically Vampire: The Masquerade and it’s LARP adaptation. The person (and if it’s you and you read this, let me know!) saw a friend with a bandage over their neck and a bad bruise. When she asked, her friend said “We were playing Vampire and got a little too into it.”

Now, I’m a dead-center GenX kid. Born in the 70’s, raised in the 80’s, came of age in the 90’s. White Wolf books were my RPG jam. The whole idea that they emphasized the setting, the atmosphere, and the characters over accounting hit me in my writerly feels. I cut my teeth in the 80’s on Chaosium’s Call of Cthulhu RPG. But that just made me hungry for more like the WoD books.

My vampire clans? Honestly, Malkavian and Setites. Did I mention I was a huge Ancient Egypt fan as a kid? Also, Malkavian is the only Clan where “We will duel with chainsaws, as our ancient ancestors did” is not a joke.

And my response to the vampire player? Would have been, “Yeah, I understand. My friends and I got together and destroyed an oil pipeline under construction last weekend. Way overdid it in the game.” After the stares, I’d say, “We were playing Werewolf.”

Werewolf was my game. I loved that it believed in something. I loved it was cosmic – wolves against Cthulhu. I loved it was spiritual. And I loved that it let me howl to my heart’s content. My tribes? Silent Striders (again with the Ancient Egypt!) and GlassWalkers.

Yeah. GlassWalkers. No, I know. When most folks think about GlassWalkers, they think about this from first ed:

“You bring joy to this old Italian stereotype’s heart!” That or folks who wanted to be running downtown in Crinos carrying mini-guns. GlassWalkers was the ‘default easy mode’ for folks who couldn’t handle other clans. They wanted to play themselves but with powers and teeth.

Me, I thought of GlassWalkers like this:

Note: She is sensibly shedding her heels before tearing some “l33t” douchenozzel a new one. Those are expensive shoes and deserve better than unwashed creep blood. Also, it’s amazing Ron Spencer art. There’s an aesthetic in the old B&W that’s still hard to beat. But it’s a good summary of the Tribe to me. “We haven’t lost our Rage. We’ve adapted it. We’re trying to be precise and effective when we strike.”

Now, most folks didn’t play them that way. And I understand. But for me, best examples of GlassWalkers at work lived in two places. First, Burn Notice, which inspired my favorite GlassWalker Ragabash, Cyrus. He wasn’t a funny Ragabash. He was a spy. And an assassin. His Litany included the Moscow rules. With his pack, Section 9, he was dangerous. My favorite Cyrus memory involves his pack retrieving an Uktena artifact from a Toreador collector. Thanks to actual intelligence gathering, and a little spiritual hacking via Gifts, we learned where the object was held – and where the Toreador was staying.

High noon. My pack posed as gardeners, went up to the nice house, and knocked on the door. When the Ghoul was surprised the landscapers had shown up on the wrong day, Cyrus put two bullets into his skull with his favorite suppressed gun. He and his pack proceeded to horrify the GM by sweeping and clearing the house, killing everyone there, retrieving the artifact, then stealing everyone’s identity papers and credit cards before having our Theurge summon spiritual cleaners to remove the evidence.

GM: “Some of those people were just humans! They weren’t all Ghouls! The Toreador’s going to lose Humanity when she finds out.”

Cyrus: “They stopped being civilians when they started sleeping with vampires. Now, we’ve culled his heard, we can drain their bank accounts, use their ID’s for our operatives and get the artifact back. Don’t get in the war if you’re afraid of casualties.”

He was a professional. This was a war. He was willing to do whatever it takes to fight the real enemy, up to and including using other supernatural races as fodder. “We’re saving the world. Show some professionalism.”

But – for me – the definitive model for a modern GlassWalker was this show:

If there was ever a GlassWalker pack, it was this cast. Finch was a Waxing Crescent GW Theurge if there ever was one. Root – Waining Crescent. Reese was an Ahroun. Shaw was a Ragabash who wanted to be an Ahroun. Joss was a straight-up Philodox. And Fusco? Galliard. Seriously! He gave everyone nicknames and had stories for everything. Best liar of the bunch. I dare you to watch the show and not see a GlassWalker pack at work.

Do I miss Werewolf? Yes. I don’t miss the frustration of dealing with folks (at LARPs or otherwise) who took all the wrong lessons or believed the historical aspects (cringeworthy even today) were gospel. But that’s the way it is. Still, I have good memories. And I will always have the look of worry when the phrase “Section 9 will deal with it.”

Why Section 9? Hit the Google, cub. If you can’t research, you’re gonna have a rough time in the city.

News & More News

I can now make this official. My short story “Hard Times in the Vancouver Continuum” will be featured in the upcoming ZNB anthology PORTALS. This is the third ZNB anthology I’ve appeared in along with ALIEN ARTIFACTS and THE DEATH OF ALL THINGS.

You can click on the image above or the link here to pre-order, or pick up the other anthologies. You’ll be helping me out, and helping keep small press anthologies from a great company going. Oh, and that picture? Yeah, you can get an art print of it. You’re welcome.

This year, my short story “The Pumpkin Spice Revolt” is scheduled for inclusion in ChiZine’s The War on Christmas anthology. This means two Andrija Popovic publications coming up.

And there will be a first this year. I’ve submitted stories under another name – A.J. Harris – to a few anthologies of a steamier nature. Well, looks like I’m going to see print (virtually) in one. The A.J. Harris story of transhuman romance in a flooded world, “Shelter from the Storm,” will be in Stranded: A Boys Behaving Badly Anthology.

Why a romance anthology? Honestly, my first publication was in a (now out of print) collection of erotic ghost stories. And I’ve always written steamier items. Ask me about the book line proposal I’ve always had in my pocket. “Imagine Pathfinder Tales but with sexy bits.”

Why A.J. Harris? My sister calls me AJ. Figured it would be a good name for an alter ego. And I chose Harris because H seems to be a good spot in the alphabet.

Wait, you mean, why the pseudonym? Well, half of it is marketing. I want to establish a separate brand for that name (should it ever come to it). The other half is about, um, making sure that my family and friends know they can stay away from those short stories if they don’t like that sort of thing.

Here’s hoping I can get more news to post like this.

Collaboration Nation

I’m opening with this image for two reasons. First, the gentleman who designed one of my favorite iterations of the Cybermen passed away. He did an amazing job bringing the silver giants into the 80’s and was instrumental as a production and costume designer for many other classic British SF shows.

It also highlights the collaborative nature of many media – and I wanted to talk a bit about the unique joy in collaboration, and how even writers (supposedly a solitary bunch) still need and benefit from working with others.

My fondest memory of a college project was acting as cameraman for a classmate’s film. The script called for someone to be bonked with a frying pan and, being poor college kids, we only had the real thing – not a fake one. So, with the actors and the director/writer, we figured out how to cheat the depth of field on a shot just enough, so one actor could swing the pan just behind the other.

In the editing room, we quick cut between a wide shot of the swing and a closer one. Add on a nice sound effect of the pan being hit by a gourd (to get the appropriate GONGGGG noise) and it looked to everyone else that we’d brained our actor in the name of completing a class project. Everyone got a charge out of not only figuring out how to get the effect, but watching the class puzzle through the final result.

This weekend, I was working on edits to [REDACTED] which will be [REDACTED] [REDACTED] [REDACTED]. Now, I hate editing myself. Honestly, I am terrible at it. From finding my own typos to seeing through gaps in my story, or places where I can improve my craft, there are a host of blind spots in my work. There’s also the fact I don’t have many beta readers. The folks who do read my work often either focus on weird economic items or say “The corporate prosperity Christian folks are scary.” Which is lovely, but not really helpful in polishing the work and pushing it to a new level.

But with [REDACTED] I had some great notes from [REDACTED] and [REDACTED] which brought a new perspective to the story. I sat down to make edits Saturday morning and, by later that afternoon, I’d visibly improved the story thanks to the new perspective. I’d also lost several hours of time. And it was a wonderful way to lose those hours.

Yes, editing is a pain. And I have nothing but admiration for the folks who can and do make it their full time job. I can also see the wonder in the work. The joy in seeing a spark which can’t grow with just a little help… and you can provide that help. Just a few words here and there, to someone who appreciates them.

I appreciate them. Thank you. And I can’t wait to work with more editors in the future.

Sanctuary Between the Shelves

I made myself a small promise this year: I would write more blog entries. At least two a month. I’d also try and do some kind of quasi-podcast. There may be a test of this coming up.

But this means I must generate more content! So, I’ve decided to use some of my time at my favorite cafe to talk about a childhood sanctuary.

One of the truest moments in Stephen Gould’s novel Jumper is the first time our protagnist jumps. He leaps out of the grasp of his abusive father and into a safe place: the local library. When this book came out, I devoured it and kept it close to me. Gould captured something here that many kids from less-than-idea families would learn. Not teleportation – but the sanctuary of the Library.

For me, that library was the Little Falls branch of the Montgomery County library system. It was a fifteen minute walk from my home, straight down Massachusetts Avenue. My earliest memories were going through the books there with my family. There was a spinner rack with SF Paperbacks downstairs by the kids section. I would ignore most of the things there, and instead picked up my first real grown-up novel: Han Solo’s Revenge by Brian Dailey.

When my kindergarten class had a project to make books, I wrote one about a robot and his robot dog living on a desert planet. The robot’s dog was dragged under the sand by the evil creatures living there and he had to go on an adventure to save him. There were explosions at the end.

Half the book was filled with my scratchy drawings. The other with my little kid’s prose. When we took it to get copied before my Baba Jelka sewed it into a cheap cloth-covered binding, the librarian helped me with the copy machine. It was a huge, hulking thing. We talked about the Han Solo books and other science fiction works. She was impressed a five year old kid had finished the Han Solo book.

In later years, I’d discover there were gems in the kids section. This is where I developed my love for John Bellairs, which continues today. I still have the copy of The Mummy, The Will, and the Crypt I got from the Scholastic book sale with the Edward Gorey cover. It was my second read through. I devoured the hardback copy the library had earlier.

Upstairs, the other librarians helped me find Andre Norton’s space trader books. They had a very 80’s set of covers, with a big Discovery style space-ship on the front. This is where I also started my Michael Whelan reading list. I’d seen his art books in the Waldenbooks and B. Daltons. So, I started reading all the books he had illustrated. It’s how I read McCaffrey, Clarke, Clayton, Asimov, Heinlein, and Burroughs.

Back before the latest reconstruction, the SF Hardbacks were literally tucked away in a corner, by the water fountain. One alcove was completely enclosed, with a single overhead light, and a round wheeled stool you could sit upon. I lived there as often as I could. The alternate was going home to my family. I preferred this family.

To this day, I will hop back to Little Falls just to see how its doing. Coming back to Maryland, and Montgomery County in particular, let me reconnect with the libraries here. Now, I have access to the Rockville Memorial library, where one of my writing groups meet. The Germantown and Gaithersburg branches have hosted writing sessions.

The last writing session I had at Gaithersburg, I saw folks waiting out in the freezing air for the library to open up. Within ten minutes, it was packed with folks reading, studying, talking, using the computers, teaching others… Anyone who thinks they can be replaced by a mega website has never truly understood what a social hub and community center those big ole buildings of books represent.