Archive for March 2012

Wilderness in the City   8 comments

On Sunday, March 25, 2012 I decided to go for a morning hike.  My destination was South Mounain, but as I headed in that direction (south, of course, I have to go south to reach South Mountain) on 7th Avenue, I noticed a small city park located in the riverbed of the Salt River.  Phoenix, like many large cities is built on a river, but this river has been dammed some 40 miles northeast of town, not once, but several times, creating a series of lakes in the Superstition Mountains, and leaving the river itself dry and empty by the time it reaches Phoenix.  I have been wishing for some time that I could walk in the dry riverbed, but it is fenced off at most crossings.  Well, I had unexpectedly discovered a place where the riverbed was accessible, and I abandoned the trip to South Mountain to take a hike here.  I had brought my camera along to record the trip, and so, on Sunday morning I walked about 5 miles in a difficult, but beautiful, hidden part of the city that most people never see.  Here are some of the pictures to show what I found.  I took 43–yikes!–but that’s too much to foist upon you, dear reader, in this blog.  Your journey will not be quite as long as mine was.

My starting point--looking back at the 7th Avenure bridge over the Salt River. Whenever you see a line of green plants like this, continuous, in the desert, it means there is water there.

A 1-lane road leads down into the riverbed. It doesn't stay paved for very long. I found a city park ranger and a work crew at the bottom and found I had permission to explore this part of the river as much as I wanted.

I headed west. The road quickly ended and left me with this kind of terrain to walk on. Note the incredible variety of rocks present. They have washed and tumbled down to their current locations over millions of years and represent rock from every part of east central Arizona. The line of trees is the actual edge of the flowing river.

I wondered if I could actually get down and walk by the water. All the interesting stuff would be down there. By this time I could hear a lot of strange bird calls. There were occasional quacking noises, and various hoots and tweets, but something sounded like a cow in labor. For all I know there might have been A cow in labor down there, but my guess was for swans or geese. I headed that way. I thought that once I broke through the barrier of dead cattails, I'd be at the riverside.

I reached the edge of the reeds and started to break through them. They were all dry and dead, and broke very easily. Luckily, I looked down, chooosing my footing carefully, before stepping into them. This photo is looking straight down, and the dark stuff you see is river water. One more step and I would have fallen right into the swamp, and that wouldn't have been any fun at all. Oh, yeah, cattails and other reeds actually grow right in the water. You don't break through them to reach the river, not unless you have hip waders and a machete.

I found a place where I could climb out of the riverbed. Off to the side was a huge open pit gravel mine. This pit isn't natural. Men dug it. I guess they dug all the way down to the water level, because the deepest part of the pit is a large pond. Those are the South Mountains in the background.

This isn't river. It's a big open pit full of water.

I reached the greenest part of the river. The trees were largest and thickest here. Bird calls were most numerous. This is whete I actually saw some wildlife. Two large white birds, not ducks or geese, lifted out of the vegetation and flew around, circled, and then headed off upriver. I could not photograph them--they moved too quickly for my little camera. I'm not sure what they were, but they had a kink in their necks and wingspans of six to eight feet--I'm guessing herons or egrets--not birds one expects to see in Arizona. I also saw a large black hawk, skimming near the ground, gliding in the way that raptors do. It passed within 20 feet of me, bigger than a crow, with very dark feathers, and definitely a hooked beak.

My path was blocked by fences. To continue, I would either have to retrace my steps and climb back down into the river bottom, or take this narrow cliff trail. I have fantasized about narrow cliff trails all my life, and here I finally found one in the heart of Phoenix.

I took the cliff trail, of course. Explorer Ken isn't going to let a little thing like a narrow trail keep him from completing his journey. It got narrower as I went along. The cliff is about a 60 to 70 degree slope, all caliche. Falling down it would be painful or fatal. But why would anyone fall?

Secret tunnels leading into the river. Halfway along the cliff trail, I found a road leading back into the riverbed, and a jog in the fence. City of Phoenix owns the fenced-in land. I got back down into the rough terrain. It would have been nice if there were a real road down there, but it was all rocks--only a high-bottomed 4-wheel drive vehicle would want to drive on such terrain.

I set that distant bridge, the one that carries 19th Avenue over the river, as my goal.

Along the way I found this stunted palm tree growing wild in the riverbed.

Walking very carefully over treacherous footing, I reached my goal. Did you ever wonder what the bottom of a bridge looks like? Having gotten this far, I wondered if I could actually cross the river and go back on the other side. I headed across.

On the other side, in a shady grassy area, I found a sleeping bag, and a good deal of trash. Is some homeless person living down here? Could be. I did not take his sleeping bag.

Where does the water in the riverbed come from? There hasn't been enough rain to account for it. It doesn't flow down continuously from upstream. The answer is that the City of Phoenix or the Salt River Project is dumping water into the river. Here is a huge drainage tunnel with lots of water pouring out of it every second.

Then came the hard part--getting back to my car 12 blocks to the east. I thought perhaps I could climb out of the river and walk back on the banks 30 feet above. I tried it here, but about 30 feet up the slope crumbled beneath me so badly that I couldn't go on, slipping and sliding back down to the base.

I found another possible spot to climb out a block or so to the east. It was a hard scramble, but the slope was rockier there, and with difficulty I made it to the top. Here you see me dangling my feet over the edge and looking down at the cliff I had just climbed. Not bad for a 64 year old man.

The cliff trail going this way was even narrower than it had been in the other direction. There were spots where I had to actually hang onto the fence in order to keep from falling off the trail, which crumbled underfoot in places.

Once the cliff trail was behind me, it was an easy walk back the rest of the way. I stayed on top. I was tired of twisting my ankles on the stones below.

It is Spring in Arizona. Desert wildflowers, mostly yellow, are in bloom.

Going out where I first came in. Goodbye to Rio Salado. I look forward to hiking a different part of the river some time in the future.

I showed you 17 of the 43 pictures I took on Sunday.  This is a part of the city that not one person in a thousand ever sees, or even thinks about.  If you’ve ever found the wilderness still lurking in the heart of  your own city or town, or if you’d go hike the river with me some day, why not leave a comment?


Autographs, Part 3   3 comments

I should be writing T & T, but I’m taking the easy way out (again) and bragging on my book collection.  I really feel like writing, but I don’t feel like creating–heh, so here come some more book covers and lame anecdotes.  I need to get this done so I can get these books off the floor and back on the shelf.  These are in no particular order–just the order they happened to stack in.  My brain is in much the same condition.

Jennifer is a (distant) friend of mine. We know each other to say hi. I admire her very much, but have never really had any opportunity to get to know her very well. I wish I could get her into a Tunnels and Trolls game. Her autograph says: For Ken Thanks for the invite to the library! Jennifer Roberson. I asked her to come help put on a program at the Cholla Branch Library back in the day. She very graciously accepted and was a big hit with the attendees.

Michael Andre-Driussi was a T & T fan who got in touch with me long before I started Trollhalla. He was also something of a genius and a literary critic. HIs favorite author was Gene Wolfe. He turned his hand to creating a glossary/dictionary of everything important in the Severian books by Gene Wolfe and produced this very handsome book, becoming a sort of Boswell to Wolfe's Johnson. I haven't heard from him in a long time. He has a badly outdated web page, and has probably become a college professor of literature. His very modest autograph is tucked away behind the title page and says simply: Michael Andre-Driussi.

Kate's hardback autograph is about the same as her paperback autograph: For Ken Best wishes! Kate Elliott.

During the 90s Vernor Vinge was one of the most popular SF writers around, and we had him as a Guest of Honor at Coppercon. I took advantage of the chance to meet him and talk to him, and get him to sign this book. It says: To Ken St. Andre with best wishes. Vernor Vinge (really an indecipherable glyph of considerable complexity--I think I see an N and a G in it) Coppercon '94.

Zelazny had a wonderfull feel for demigods as heroes. I really liked his Shadowjack in this book, and I lifted the character type to become one of the monsters you might meet in my Monsters! Monsters! roleplaying game. Liz Danforth liked it too and drew a marvelous portrait--half real, half invisible. The autograph is a simple: Roger Zelazny, and I suppose that's all I deserve for a book club edition.

D.R. Evans and I were struggling to make a name for ourselves in SFWA at about the same time back in the early 90s. He wrote this YA book and got it published by a minor publisher, but fell on hard times and I never found out what became of him. The signature is just: D R Evans.

I met Steve Allen and his wife Jane Meadows on that trip to Washington D.C. His autograph is small elegant. Hers is big and bold. It reads: To Ken--Steve Allen JAYNE MEADOWS.

Steve Allen was a genius.  Author, comedian, television personality, songwriter–the man could do it all.  A brief biography of him is available here:  It seemed to me he had a practically perfect American life.  I’m envious.

Steve and Jane shared the writing of the mysteries and also the autographs. I bet that Jane was the real mystery fan in the duo, and Steve just went along with her.

And here’s the last book in the current series:  Dragon by Clive Cussler.  I have a Clive Cussler story.  I was in Washington D.C. for the American Booksellers convention.  Back in the day the country was flush.  Libraries had enough money to send librarians to conventions around the country.  I took advantage and went to Washington.  On the first day of the convention, in a huge hall stuffed with hundreds of publishers, ten times as many authors, and tens of thousands of fans/people/attendees I heard an announcement that Clive Cussler was giving away and signing his new book.  I decided to go to it, even though it was completely on the other side of the convention.  By the time I arrived there was a line 100 yards long stretching halfway across the hall, and I was near the end of it.  I didn’t give  up.  I stayed in the line and hoped I would get through.  The autograph sessions were only an hour long.  Clive signed and signed.  The line moved slowly along.  After about 45 minutes some assistants came and told people that they weren’t going to finish in time, and that Mr. Cussler wouldn’t be able to sign for those of us at the end of the line, but that we could still have the free book.  Many people took the book and left.  I stayed in line.  Clive signed furiously, but he ran out of time and had to vacate the table for the next author while there were still about ten of us left.  We were ready to walk away when Cussler walked over to us, told us to follow him, and led us off to the side so we wouldn’t be in the way of the next line.  The assistants had already given us a book, so Clive stood there for an extra 10 minutes and talked to us and signed our copies.  I have never read the book, but I still have it, and treasure the incident, because it seemed to me that was the way an author really ought to treat his fans.

The autograph is in a jaunty up-slanting series of lines and says:
To Ken Cheers! Clive Cussler. The year was 1990.

And that concludes my current series on autographed books.  I’m bound to return and talk about my collection again some time, but I’ll try to come up with as new topic.

If  you ever met any of these authors, or have some fine autographs  you’d like to brag about, please leave a comment.


Dice   10 comments

This is an old set. The 2011 dice are gray.

Every year when I go to GenCon or Origins, I try to get some interesting new dice.   In 2011 I bought the GenCon polyhedral dice set for the first time ever.  In truth, I have no use for polyhedrad dice, except that I use D20s for life counters when playing Magic the Gathering ™.  But I must admit that they are intrinsically cool, and so I have some, and if I found a D7 lying in the street, I wold stop and pick it up.

Over the last several years I have watched as the dice available have gotten cooler and cooler.  My Tunnels and Trolls game uses D6es.  The Death Dice from Flying Buffalo are excellent for playing T & T.  Their gimmick is that the ones have been replaces by skulls on the dice.  Thusly:

These dice come in many colors. I prefer the black ones, but I like them all. Note the nicely beveled corners for better rolling.

Flying Buffalo has several other distinctive dice.  Many of them are gimmicks, good for a laugh, and not much else.  Examples include the Pizza Dice and Decision Dice.

Can't decide what to put on your pizza? Let the dice decide for you--one roll per person involved.

Need an impartial decision? Let the dice decide for you. Choices include oldest, youngest, alphabetical, owner, left, right.

Game Science, a company founded by Lou Zocchi, is famous for their many strange dice.  I saw some real beauties at their booth during Gencon.  The one I just had to buy was this everything die.  Each face has a value for all the regular solid dice.  See if you can figure it out!

To use this die, you have to be enough of a dice geek to recognize the different faces. Do you see a D6, a D4, a D20 and a D12 here. D30 is in the center.

Perhaps Zoccchi’s most famous die is the D100.  The first time I saw one, I knew I had to have one.  It is practically a ball, and you want to roll it in a box or something so that it won’t simply roll away from you and disappear into the far corners of the room.

I have a white one. Don't think it was available yet in black when I bought mine from Lou Zocchi in person.

While I’m talking about Mr. Zocchi, let me put in my belief that this man is the single greatest expert on dice and the creation of dice in the 20th century, and maybe the 21st.  It is an education just to hear him talk about what it takes to create a D100 or D30 or everything die.  Being an extremely lucky person, I have had these experiences.

Lou Zocchi, wizard, hard at work selling dice and games at a convention.

A big hit at GenCon were the so-called Iron Dice.  These were metallic dice in various colors–gold, silver, bronze, iron, coldsteel, etc.  They were gorgeous to look at, heavy as hell, and cost a fortune.  It was a minimum of $12 for a single die.  I didn’t buy any.  Don’t know what I would have done with them if I had, but they sure looked fine.

Nobbly and heavy. Talk about dice weapons. If you got hit with one of these, it would really hurt.

Dice aren’t just about numbers.  Sometimes they are all about pictures or symbols.  Steve Jackson Games is especially good at producing such monsterpieces.

Madness! It's madness I tell you, and the tentacles don't help.

Losing your sanity has never been quite this much fun before.  And if gibbering mindlessly to the Elder Gods doesn’t turn you on, how about the neverending quest for brains.  As food.  Yes, it’s zombie dice from the same lunatics that brought your Cthulhu dice and Flux.

The first zombie to collect 13 brains wins, but watch out for the shotgun blasts.

Well, I could go on, but by now you either see the fascination of dice collecting or you don’t.  I like them.  I have a lot of them.  I’ve invented several little games that are really nothing but dice rolling.  Tunnels and Trolls uses lots of dice, mostly because I like dice.

(I began this blog in August of 2011 shortly after GenCon was over.  I finished it on March 19, 2012.  Just goes to show that when one of my projects gets interrupted I have a very hard time coming back to it.  Sigh.  But, at least this one is done now.)

If you like any of these dice, or have some pretty cool ones of your own, why not leave a comment about them?


Autographs, Part 2   1 comment

While I have time and enthusiasm, let me launch into part 2 of my autographed books collection.

In my opinion, there is a hierarchy of book quality.  Hardback books from quality publishers like Donald M. Gramt are near the top of the list, while cheap paperbacks you can buy at the supermarket are near the bottom.  Really old books from previous eras of publishing rank even higher, but I don’t really own any of those, and certainly not autographed copies.

I just pulled 18 autographed books off the shelf.  3 of them don’t have cover images on the internet.  Even if I leave those off, 15 books is a lot to hit you with, so I’ll do half of them this time, and half next time.

In no particular order:

This one has a great autograph, and I suspect it was his trademark. Written in red magic marker on the faux title page (the page with the title on it that comes just before the true title page): Wolfishly, Gene!

Editors deserve some appreciation too. I got this as a free handout at an American Booksellers Association convention in Washington D.C.--the only time I've ever been to our nation's capitol. It was a giveaway, and I went through a long line to get Gardner Dozois's signature. And that's all I got: Gardner R. Dozois.

I was very fortunate. Because I wrote to him once when I created the Amber diceless pbm roleplaying game, which obsessed our Phoenix group of friends and some others from around the country for about a year to get a map of Amber--he created that first map at my request--some of us Phoenicians became his friends. When that happened I got several Zelazny signatures. He was surprisingly modest and simply wrote: Roger Zelazny.

I don't remember where, but it must have been 1989 because it was brand new at the time--probably that same trip to Washington D.C. I got a lot of free books, and got them signed on that trip. The signature says: Punch. Dave "Iron Man" Barry.

Adam Niswandir is a friend of mine. I first met him when he opened a used and rare books bookstore half a mile from my home in east Phoenix. He had wonderful stuff in that bookstore, and too expensive for me to buy. Later he closed the bookstore and started writing his own fantasy books. I see him once or twice a year at Phoenix SF conventions. The signature says: Of 750 special WHC copies, this is #8. Adam Niswandir. The year was 1994.

Donald M. Grant is a publisher of high quality small press books. He got his start publishing special editions of Robert E. Howard stories, and branched out into Steven King and other authors of "pulp" entertainment. This novel by Gilmour is in the H. Rider Haggard tradition. The signature on the flyleaf simply says William Gilmour.

This is a small press book from Carcosa Press. At the very end of Wellman's life, some of us in Phoenix got to correspond with him a bit. I had read him and liked his stuff in some pulp sf mags that I got when I was a teenager, and I told my younger friends, Mike Stackpole and Liz Danforth about him. We had a mini Wellman fanclub in Phoenix back around 1980. This book has a bookplate on the flyleaf signed: Manly Wade Wellman George Evans. Evans is the illustrator. Wellman was born in 1903 and died in 1986.

That’s all I have time for right now, but I’m enjoying telling these stories about the books I own, and the people, all more famous than I will ever be, that I met or knew back in the day.  I will continue this series tomorrow.  🙂

If you ever got an autograph from, or knew any of these people, why not leave a comment?


Autographs, Part 1   2 comments

I did something useful today.  I put together a prefab bookcase, found a place for it in my overcrowded apartment, and filled it up with books and magazines that came from my old place.  Perhaps you have some idea of what 50 years of collecting or accumulating Good Stuff can do.

My book collection divides into several parts.  There’s Stuff, Good Stuff, Really Good Stuff that I want to read, Stuff I helped create, Stuff my friends created, Classic Stuff from small presses or other amazing printers, and High Quality Collectible Stuff.  Most of it is books, but a lot is magazines, art portfolios, games, and just a couple videos.  You know what my problem is:  TOO MUCH GOOD STUFF!

And I don’t have room for it all any more.  And I don’t have time to appreciate it properly.  And my very creative friends and associates continue producing even better stuff.  Aaaaaaaaagggggggggggghhhhhh!

Autographed Stuff

I appreciate it very much when people ask me to sign things for them.  I think all authors do.  Signing something somehow makes it special.  For a moment author and reader really connected with each other.    When I was younger, I often went to great lengths to get authors to sign their books for me.  It was partly because I wanted to experience that special moment of connection, and partly because I wanted to give them that rush of satisfaction and pleasure that I felt whenever someone asked me to sign a book or game.  And partly because I used to imagine that having those signatures would make the books themselves that much more valuable to some other collector some day in the future.

Well, I’m older now, and I have all these autographed books that nobody seems to want.  So much for dreams!  But I still want to share them–the wonder of them, and therefore, this blog.

I could scan the autographs, but that would involve smashing the book open.  I will try digital photography and grabbing covers from Amazon.  Let’s see.  I’ll let the old librarian out of me, and display them in alphabetical order by author.

For a couple of years, Bill and I were pretty good friends. We shared a love for the works of Edgar Rice Burroughs.

I photographed the autographs, but it isn’t working.  I have the pix in Iphoto, but can’t find them to actually upload them to this blog, so I will just tell you what they say.  This one says: William Barton 02-18-95.

Kathryn is an author I admire, but never really knew at all. Her autograph just says: Maya Kaathryn Bohnhoff.

Kate Elliott is a pseudonym for Alys Rassmussen. Kit Kerr took me to visit her at her home one afternoon--only time I ever met her. The autograph says: For Ken, Best wishes! Kate Elliott

Phantoms is one of the many successful anthologies that Martin Greenberg packaged over the years. For this book I got the actual editors signatures. They say: To Ken Marty Greenberg Rosalind M. Greenberg 6/4/89.

This is going to be a poorly constructed blog, inconsistent at best, because WordPress is fighting with me.  Sometimes I don’t like this site at all. I’ve tried to enter a caption twice now, and lost it both times.  However, I’m getting the information in one way or another.

I actually visited Katherine Kerr in California a couple of times, and we corresponded for a while.  She is best known for her heroic fantasy series about the land of Deverry–a series I admired very much at the time.  In fact, I put the whole series, mostly in trade paperbacks in a position of honor on the bookcase I filled up today.  Resurrection is more standard sci-fi.  Her autograph says: For Ken–All my best–Kit.  Ms. Kerr is known at Kit by her friends.

Here’s another picture of Corencio’s hands and t-shirt.  This cover of Dragon Doom is not available at Amazon.  This book is my absolute favorite of all the fantasies that Dennis McKiernan wrote.  We know each other, although I haven’t seen him for several years now.  His autograph says: Ken: This one is my favorite at this time. But Eye of the Hunter may displace it.  Dennis L. McKiernan  W F C (9).

Amazon did not have the paperback cover of this, but they did have the same picture on their audio version, so I grabbed that to show you what the paperback looks like. Robert Sawyer is very much a hard sf writer--it's kinda surprising that he and I became friends for a while. His autograph says: For Ken with all best wishes. Robt. J. Sawyer.

Michael Stackpole and I go way back together. It shouldn't surprise you that I own most of his books with his signature inside. This one says: To Ken, This is my "deja vu" novel! Best, Mike

And another one from Mike–Talion Revenant was actually the first heroic fantasy he wrote, although it was not the first to be published.  In some ways I like it best of all his early books–it has more of a Tunnels and Trolls feel to it than his other stuff.

The signature says: To Ken, reads better in book than ms!  Best, Mike.  This is a reference to the fact that I was one of the few people to read the book first as a manuscript.  In fact, I think I only saw the first half in manuscript.  The second half of the book was new to me when it was finally published.

I have many more autographed paperbacks, but these are all that popped up today while I was sorting and filing things.  And that’s enough, really.  You’ve had a mini-tour of my personal book collection, and you’ve seen how some authors sign their books.  I also have a lot of signed hardbacks and trade paperbacks in a much larger format.  I’m thinking I might do a blog about them also some time in the future.

If you have any autographed books, and would care to share those signatures with the world, go ahead and leave a comment.


VulCon Report   Leave a comment

A fun time on Saturday night--taking pictures with these fighting femmes from World Wari II.

I just had a terrific weekend.  I was a Guest of Honor at VulCon 1, the newest gaming convention to hit the Phoenix scene.   The theme was Roman and there was both a hippodrome and a coliseum, not to mention a huge statue of Vulcan, the blacksmith of the Gods, dominating the hall.  (However, most of the games were American. )  I brainfaded and did not bring my digital camera on the first day of the Con.  I thought of it on the second, and took a few pix, but the best stuff here all came from Tatiana, the Con photographer.  I’ll just borrow a few of her pix to show you what fun you missed.

Opening ceremonies, I think. I missed this. The man with the microphone is Jay Nash, Con Organizer and a good friend of mine.

These were the main staff for the Convention. They did a hell of a lot with very few people.

The Con had a Roman theme to it. Here you can see both the Coliseum and the Hippodrome--the two most famous places where real Romans went to the Games.

Like most Cons, VulCon had some great cosplay. I would love to own one of these centurion costumes.

Although I only played in two games, they were both long and hard-fought, and that’s 2 more than I usually get to play in.  Alas, there was not much interest in playing Tunnels and Trolls.  So I played Nuclear War and Giant Risk instead.

This early in the tournament I hadn't won a thing. People from left to right are Daniel Hernandez, James St. Andre, Ken St. Andre, Trevor X. Not Shown are Chris and Jason taking the photo. The gold anvil belongs to me now.

Before the Nuclear War tournament ended, it was time for the surprise VulCon Hall of Fame Induction Ceremony.  Of course I attended, and it  was a good thing I did because:

Rick Loomis was number 1 in the Hall of Fame.

Guess Who was Number 2. This is the plaque they gave me, taking up a corner of my dresser in my apartment.

Alan Emrich, who is a war-gaming buff of epic proportions came in third.  After the ceremony we all got to meet Vulcan Himself.

Alan, Vulcan, Ken, and Rick, showing off our trophies at the Forge of VulCon.

Sunday wasn’t quite as busy.  I had hoped to be in a Settlers of Catan tournament Sunday afternoon, but the guy running it was late, so I wound up playing Giant Risk instead.  I haven’t played Risk for at least 10 years, so it was a kind of Blast from the Past, and the competition wasn’t really first class, but being good at things means winning the games you ought to win.  I won.

You really become a world traveler in this version of Risk.

Here I am, on the right, busy conquering the world. The guy opposite me was the best other player--I had to take him out first.

A lot of other fun things happened, but I need to wrap this blog up, and get it posted. All in all, it was a very good convention for me.  I had a great time, and carried off a lot of trophies.  My thanks to the convention staff for having me as a Guest, and for putting on such a fun convention.  Everyone there seemed to enjoy it a lot.  If it comes back again next year, I will definitely go again.

If you’ve gone to any good gaming Cons lately, or if you were at Vul Con, please leave a comment.


Virginia of Mars   5 comments

On the evening of Thursday March 1, 2012, I went with perhaps a couple hundred other lucky Phoenix fen to see a sneak preview of John Carter of Mars.  JCM is a film that I and a lot of other science fiction fans have been excited and hopeful about for years.  I practically had to go to Mars to see the movie, as the sneak was at Harkins Arrowhead theaters, hidden in a jungle of giant shopping mall stores out at 83rd Avenue and Bell in Peoria.  It took me well over an hour to find the place since I started with a wrong impression of where I was going, and then zigged when I should have zagged, but I didn’t give up, and I’m glad I didn’t.  The movie turned out to be not only spectacular in terms of special effects, but much better than I thought it would be in terms of story.  If you were hesitating, don’t.  You must see this film.

(You don’t have to see it in 3D, however.  The 3D effects were nowhere near as awesome as they were in Avatar.)

I scored a copy of this poster at VulCon 1, and it now dominates my living room.

I’m not going to issue any spoilers, or tell you anything you haven’t seen in the movie trailers, but I do want to make some comments about the film in general.   By now anyone who cares knows that John Carter is the story of an earthman magically transported to Mars (Barsoom) where he meets strange creatures and wins the love of a Martian princess.  People get sidetracked by the scenery.  Way back in 1912 when Edgar Rice Burroughs first wrote “Under the Moons of Mars” for All Story Magazine, he was writing a romance.  Yes, the setting was the exotic world of Mars, but the heart of the tale is the love story of John Carter and Dejah Thoris.  This is what Disney and Pixar should have focussed their marketing on–not special effects with armies and giant white apes.  A woman I talked to said there was “too much fighting”.  She liked the humor, and the love story, and Woola made her laugh, but the movie had “too much fighting.”
One of the humorous bits in the movie comes near the beginning.  During the first meeting of Tars Tarkas, jeddak of the Tharks, and John Carter, lost newbie on an alien planet, the green man thumps his chest and says “Tars Tarkas”.  Carter correctly deduces that Tars Tarkas is his name.  The earthman indicates himself, not nearly as strongly as he could have, and says “John Carter of Virginia.”  From this, Tars Tarkas deduces that his name is Virginia, and he calls him Virginia for the rest of the movie.  Even Dejah Thoris thinks his name is Virginia at the beginning of the film.  The theater roared with laughter.  It is a good joke on John.  Hence our blog title, Virginia of Mars.
John Carter is a long film–over two hours.  I loved it all, but it may be too much for some people.  The special effects were out-fucking-standing.  I especially liked the Barsoomian flyers, but I had a hard time finding a good picture of one on the web that I could use.  This will have to do.

John Carter sees Martian flyers for the first time.

It’s a fantasy.  We all have to suspend our disbelief, but Hollywood movie producers continually go too far.  John Carter’s earthly muscles give him tremendous jumping powers on Mars.  it is believable that he could jump perhaps 20 or 30 feet–which is about what Burroughs had him do in the books.  The gravity of Mars is about 1/4 the gravity of Earth.  The movie shows him jumping hundreds of feet at a time, practically flying.  The plot depends upon it.  Okay, he’s Superman on Mars.  It makes for great action, but it’s going to hurt the crediblity of the movie with critics and anyone who knows even the slightest bit about Mars and astronomy.  Hollywood should not bank on the stupidity of the audience.  We’re not that dumb.

Look! Up in the sky! It's a . . .

John Carter gains a pet and a protector on Mars, a calot named Woola.  He’s the Martian equivalent of a dog–a big powerful friendly dog.  I think the film makers did the right thing by having Woola bark like a dog–just to help with the identification in the minds of the audience.  However, Burroughs never said that calots had super speed.  It’s funny when Carter tries to escape his guardian by leaping only to find the THING waiting for him whenever he landed.  However, to show this critter moving at eye-blurring speeds during the rest of the movie, strains our sense of reality even further.  Just another example of Hollywood going too far.

"Stay, Woola, stay!" Dog training on Mars.

There is a lot in this movie.  Maybe I’ll do a second blog about it in a week or two just about the characters.  The acting was very fine, I thought, and the characters all deserve description and analysis.  But I don’t have time.  I want to come back to my point that Pixar/Disney is  blowing the marketing by focussing on monsters and battles.  To be successful a movie has to appeal to American women, and for the most part, they like romance.  They don’t like monsters and battles.  Star Wars uses the romantic triangle of Luke, Han, and Leia to bring the audience into the film.  The great Star Wars movie posters always show Leia.  Dejah Thoris is incredible–as beautiful women go she’s a 20 on a scale of 10.  She fights like an Amazon.  She’s a briliant scientist, a patriot, and a princess.  She’s perfection.  They should be emphasizing her role in the movie.  They aren’t.  In my opinion, this is the trailer they should be showing the most, and the emphasis should be on interplanetary romance in times of peril.

Don’t let anyone tell you this film is bad!  It’s amazingly great–with a few minor quibbles because Hollywood always goes overboard on things.  I will be going to see it again, maybe more than once. 

If you like John Carter, sword and planet stories, or just alien monsters, please leave a comment.