Tuesday, November 29, 2022

The Legion of Silly Dinosaurs: Arcade prize dinos!


As I write this, I'm 2 days past the deadline for my weekend post, and I still don't have a dino blog for this month. To get in one more thing, I literally dug through storage for something I could use, which brought me to a trio of dinos I had considered on and off for a while. Behold the glory of the megalosaur when I got it, ca 2017!

Now, as always, there's backstory, in this case involving some people I've been out of touch with. The upshot is that for a while, I was going to an old-fashioned-ish arcade/ restaurant/ general purpose rec center on the far end of the metro area where I live. Of course, they had impressive collection of junk prizes, of which these were in fact the most conceivably valuable. So, of course, I collected quite a lot of other stuff before I gave a thought to saving up points for these. Here's the pair of dinos I got on The Couch Mark 2.

"Grr. Raarr... Come on, this only works if you get into it."

As it happens, in years since, I've seen the predator of this pair listed as the "worst" dino, presumably by people who have had the good fortune never to encounter the Hideous Abomination in the wild. I have to say I like it. Obviously, it's bad, but it has a charming kind of obsolescence. In many ways, it feels like something out of the Crystal Palace, if anything a little more accurate than many of that time. It falls into the description of a megalosaur, especially for the time frame when that was a semi-generic designation for a therepod. The prey is harder to classify. It also would look at home in the Victorian era, even somewhat forward-thinking for the time. It isn't an iguanodon or a hadrosaur. In most respects, it looks like a hypsylophodont, which was presumably what the crew was going for whether they knew it or not. What's startling is how meek and seemingly terrified it is in both form and posture. It's the perfect prey. But then there was something else in the bin that took a little more digging to find for this post. Here's a pic.

It might look like a missing link between a pig and a walrus, but it took only a little inspection to be sure that this was indeed a dicynodont, one of the many creatures that is not only not a dinosaur but more closely related to us than the dinosaurs (see my zombie synapsid post, and for that matter the adventures of Chelsea the (bad) social worker). It's not great, but it's a rare enough thing to find a synapsid other than Dimetrodon in a prize bin, so I snapped it up. Here's a couple more pics.

So beautiful, and so hideous...

And that's just enough to fill out a dino blog for the month. What I like about doing this feature is that I always have flexibility whether to go long or short. While I'm at it, here's one more completely ridiculous thing I fished out... Yes, that is a friction toy.

Oh, and that would be a velociraptor skull in the background; that is quite good.

That's all for now, more to come!

Sunday, November 27, 2022

Fiction: The Space Guys adventure, Part 9!

 I'm getting over a really bad cold/ flu, so my weekend posts will be going into next week. Of course, I happened to have another installment of the Space Guys and obsessive world-building. As usual, a table of contents is at the end.


The crew remained crammed into the Mission Fuselage for a week and a day. The quarters were too close for any secrets. Alek continued to share Jason’s bunk quite happily. They were not the only couple to do so, in or out of marriage. Anastasia kept company with both Jackie and Vasily, sometimes on the same night. Even so, Donald continued to press his own suit for her attention, without ever quite provoking her to drive him away. The greatest shock, however, came when Jason pushed back a partition and beheld Dr. Cahill bunked down with Jax. She had merely said, “Sorry, I was just leaving.”

Meanwhile, the crew were pushed to step up a regimen of exercise to counter the effects of low gravity. It required 90 minutes a day in a set of centrifuges that filled their own module. It took a heavy toll on all of them, yet the Martians proved better able to endure it. When Alek pressed him long enough, Jason offered a semblance of an explanation. “It’s like… being a whale that was living on land,” he said. “It’s hard getting in the water. But you finally know… what your tail is for.”

Alek had pondered only a moment. “That makes no sense at all,” she said in her uninflected voice. “I can tell, you are not even-“ He had kissed her then, and that quieted her for a while.

Where Jason thrived, Alek quickly wilted. At one point, he found her simply collapsed a few meters from the centrifuge. Jason had carried her to the adjoining infirmary. She had mumbled, “No, no… I want to go home…”

“I know,” Jason had said. “`There is no place like home.’ But we won’t be home for a while.”

That had brought her back to lucidity. “But my home is Dalmatia,” she said. “Yours is Mars. If we both go home, you will be gone.”

“I know,” Jason answered between kisses. “We can work that out later.”


Inevitably, there were long periods when even the Martians were completely exhausted. Then they would lounge about, reading, listening to music, or watching movies and videos. Jason quickly got through his own set, of which the Kong set became consensus favorites. They also watched the adventures of Sparky the Space Squirrel. He visited the planets and moons of the Solar system, narrated by an authoritative voice that explained the science. He was frequently accompanied by Spunky, a girl chipmunk who was hinted as a romantic interest, and Tweel, a Martian ostrich creature. Jason vaguely hoped would that playing the adventures keep Moxon at bay. To his discomfort, Moxon insisted that he loved the character. He would not only watch the cartoons but laugh, a braying sound Jason had never heard at any other time, quite unlike the sharp barks that came when he made his own jokes. Once, he insisted they watch a very early black-and-white cartoon that was the first to feature the character. It turned out that it was a training film for power plants, in which the squirrel was just Sparky. Invariably, he did whatever the viewer was told not to do, resulting in electric sparks between his long, tufted ears.  That got long and loud laughter from Moxon.

Another set that got approval were number of movies based on the Oz books in the ship’s library. They were on silvery discs that initially interested Jason more than the movies themselves. When he asked Alek about their circulation on Earth, she shrugged. “They never quite caught on,” she said. “Well, not yet. Mostly, they get used by businesses for data storage. For movies and music, people prefer microtapes. They do not scratch, plus you can play things you record yourself.”

The movies were mostly animated, many of them from the outlying satellites of the Federation. Jason shuddered at one that was made with stop-motion models, many clearly made from the fur and bones of real animals. The one he liked best was a retelling of the third book, prominently featuring Tik Tok and the evil Nome King. The film he knew best was different than the others. It was live-action, with bits of stop-motion. It was made as a musical, starring a blonde girl as Dorothy. She met the Scarecrow, the Tin Man and the cowardly Lion. As per the story, they went on a quest to overthrow the Wicked Witch, who was guarded by the likes of giant bees, tiger-headed giants, and a flying ape. In their first viewing, Alek pressed against him as Dorothy told the Scarecrow, “No matter how dreary and plain it may be, there is no place like home.”

They also got a steady stream of broadcasts from Earth about the expedition, carefully cataloged by old Yuri. Seemingly every member of the expedition was being celebrated in some quarter of the Earth. The Martians were getting the highest proportion of coverage. It bemused Jason to see reporters from Earth venturing to the furthest reaches of the New Dakotas to interview his family and friends. He gave a meaningful glance at Jax when they saw an interview with his wife and Preacher Mosey. Jax glared back when another broadcast on Alek showed her in the lap of another man, who was interviewed as her fiancĂ©e. He shrugged and continued stroking Alek’s legs. “He never did this good as you,” she murmured to him.

Jason was more interested in the toy advertisements, which Yuri sometimes played back to back. Innumerable toys were based on the Janus and its crew. There were many representations of the ship itself, from crude, cheap playthings to realistic scale models. Then there were sets clearly modeled on toy soldiers, always groups of interchangeable space explorers with one or two women mixed in. He was most intrigued by the larger figures, evidently between 10 and 15 centimeters. Some were merely scaled-up toy soldiers, frozen in bold poses. Others were jointed toys referred to by the Earthside crew as kinetic toys. They could be moved in a range of poses, and their features tended to differentiate them. Some of them were soldiers in all but name, with out-of-scale versions of the plasma pistols that in reality were reserved for the 12 officers and the most senior members of the military contingent. Others appeared to be intended as dolls for girls, though rarely sold as such. These were sold along with stylized vehicles and sets representing ships, surface rovers and Martian-style living domes. On one of the few occasions Tanya wandered in, he heard her hiss, “Decadent exceptionalist kaka…”

At one point, Jason talked to Raeder about the toys. “A significant part of our funding is from product licensing,” he had said. “One of the conditions they all agreed to was that they would not use the names or likenesses of any of the crew.” Even as they spoke, an ad came on for a line called Major Maxon of the Strato Corps, centered on a character definitely resembling Moxon.

That got a shrug from Moxon. “It’s an old line,” he said. “The Corps looked into it. As far as we could figure, a copy writer talked to an old-timer in a bar in Jakarta. It wasn’t one of ours, but it might have been a local auxiliary. It didn’t matter.” Jason nodded, then scowled as another ad came on. It was for a doll named Alexis Astra, a beautiful young lady with outfits for a dozen different careers. She definitely resembled Alek, while her gentleman friend  was definitely not him, but could have been Jackie.

Then there was a stretch when Alek got to talking with Anastasia. That brought Anastasia to offer peace. “Look, we may be divided between the Union and Federation, but we have more in common with each other than anybody back on Earth,” she said. She had looked to Alek then. “You aren’t too bad. You’re crazy, but you’re friendly. And you aren’t nosey."

Jason looked between them. He ventured to ask, “What happened between you to, anyway?”

“We met at a conference once,” Alek said. No other comment was forthcoming from either of them.

“Well, if you’re friends now, what do you want to talk about?”

“Boys,” Anastasia said with a smile

“Boys,” Alek agreed.

“Then maybe I should go,” Jason said.

“You don’t have to,” Alek said. “So, what is really going on with Jackie and Vasily?”

Ana smiled at that. “Sometimes, I need different things,” she said. “I can’t always get it from one man. Vasily and I came up together, so I owe him for that. Jackie mostly just likes to talk.” She looked to Jason. “Frankly, he says it’s easier to talk to me than it is to talk to you or especially to Jax. He tells me stories from his parents, and stories from their grandparents… Damn, your people really treated his like kaka. But they aren’t all the same, either. Down in Hellas, you got the ones who wanted Mars to be a great experiment in reconciliation. His folks were the ones who just wanted a place to live by themselves.”

“What about Yuri?” Alek asked. Ana said nothing

“What about Donald?” Jason put in.

“Ai, bog,” Ana said. “What did he tell you?”

“Nothing, actually,” Jason put in. “Is there something to tell?”

“Never mind,” Ana said. “You know, I could give him a chance, but you’ve both seen what he’s like when he thinks you’re encouraging him. Anyway, what about you two? Are you getting married? Are you going to get married? What are you doing, anyway?”

“What, are you asking if she’s a virgin?” Jason said. The women looked at him, then each other, and promptly burst out laughing.

“We are taking our time,” Alek said. “I am an enlightened woman. He is an enlightened man. We do not need to rush.”

As they spoke, Moxon wandered in, as he often did. “Don’t mind me,” he said. “A few people said you three were together. I told them I’d check on you. I’ll clear out if it’s private.”

“Is not private,” Alek said. She held out one of the microprint sheets to Anastasia. “Can you read this?”

Ana made no move to take it. Instead, she looked at Jason. “You showed her your trick, didn’t you?”

“Only because Jax told her about it,” he said defensively.

“`Your trick’,” Alek repeated. “So can you all do it, or only him?”

By then, Moxon was sorting the disc boxes. Jason was past being surprised when he chimed in. “They can all do something,” he said.

“Yeah, we’ve got time to practice,” Jason said.

“What you show me is not practice,” Alek countered. “I looked into it. No human can read microprint without magnification. There is something more, so why don’t you not tell me?”

Moxon sat down then. “That’s the thing,” he said with his barking laugh. “Your Martian farm boy isn’t exactly human. None of them are. Are you?”

Jason met Alek’s gaze, very uncomfortably. “It’s not like that,” he said. “Humans just aren’t built for Mars. For all of us who were born there, it doesn’t just affect our bodies, it affects how we grow. We have to receive injections, hormones and things, starting before we’re even born. It mostly stimulates the growth of muscle tissue and bone calcium. You could call it enhancement. We’d be like superheroes out of the comic books if you put us in an Earth-like environment, assuming something else didn’t go wrong like it probably would. But with what Mars does to us, it really just evens things out. It’s like trying to fight a fire that’s burning your house down by building more house.”

“You too?” Alek looked to Anastasia.

The other woman met her gaze. “If anything, the Federation’s treatments are stronger,” she said. “He’s right about the rest. We call it the Tin Man problem, after Nick Chopper. It’s one of our only stories that’s not from the Greek myths."

“It is from a Greek story, the ship of Theseus,” Moxon said. “But it works.”

Alek looked at Anastasia. “Show me,” she said. She added boldly, “Hit me.”

Jason moved to intervene. Moxon just leaned forward. “You first,” Anastasia said. Alek swung with an open hand. She had barely raised her hand before the Martian caught her by the wrist. “It works on our reflexes, too,” Ana said. Then she countered with a back-handed blow that knocked Alek back in her seat. Jason rose to help her then, but Alek pushed him back. He held his ground, lifting her up.

“Now you know our secret,” Jason said. “Except… it’s not really a secret. We don’t talk about it, and the Administration makes sure it stays out of the press. But it’s all there if you know where to look. We all know you’re all about reading papers, no matter how far they are outside your specialties. So why would all this be a surprise to you?”

Alek relaxed. “I knew a little,” she said in her neutral tone. “It was back when we were just writing. Some of the stories were bad. I chose not to read anymore. I did not want to know no more, unless you told me.”

Jason untensed and drew her into an embrace. “There is one thing I do not understand,” she said. “Moxon could do the trick, too. So what happened to him?” They looked up. Moxon was gone.

Table of contents

Part 1. The demo!

Part 2. The villain!

Part 3. The world-building!

Part 4. The romance!

Part 5. The killer robot!

Part 6: The shuttle ride!

Part 7: Alternate universe pop culture!

Part 8: The launch!

Thursday, November 24, 2022

Featured Creature: The one that sank James Cameron



Title: The Abyss

What Year?: 1989

Classification: Improbable Experiment/ Anachronistic Outlier

Rating: That’s Good! (4/4)


When I started doing movie reviews, one thing that I considered very early is that I have seen the status and perception of a number of movies change, sometimes faster than I can account for what happened. This has had some strange effects. Films that were once “underrated” have risen to greater heights. On the more depressing side, movies I first encountered as unquestioned “classics” have sunk into borderline obscurity. This has played a non-trivial role in what movies I choose to review based on my further skewed priorities. Some movies I might once have considered have gone above my radar, while others have come back onto it. With this review, I’m covering the biggest and most personal example, an old favorite that helped get me into 1980s genre films. I present The Abyss, the ultimate underwater science fiction movie (see Leviathan), and the fact that it has retained that title for over 30 years should tell you how that went over.

Our story begins with a nuclear submarine that sinks itself chasing a mysterious underwater object. In the aftermath, we meet Bud, an engineer/ oil man in charge of a deep-sea habitat, and his estranged spouse Lindsay, a liberal-minded career woman who helped build it. They’re called on to ferry a military team to search for survivors of the wreck in waters near Cuba, which will be more or less important depending on which version of the film you’re watching. It soon becomes apparent that the team and its tough-as-nails commander are more concerned with securing nukes than search and rescue. Then the crew begin seeing strange lights underwater, while literal and political storms brew on the surface. When a hurricane cuts them off from the surface, they find themselves alone with an undersea alien colony- and a commander with the bends and a live atomic bomb!

The Abyss was a 1989 film by James Cameron (see… Galaxy of Terror?), produced by 20th Century Fox. The film starred Ed Harris as Bud and Elizabeth Mastrantonio as Lindsay, with Michael Biehn as Lt. Coffey. Extensive effects were provided by ILM, including a CGI water tentacle. The soundtrack was composed by Alan Silvestri (see the Predator soundtracks review). The production was reportedly affected by on-set safety issues, budget overruns and tensions between the director and the cast. The film was released without a partially filmed sequence in which the extraterrestrials produce a global tsunami. A novelization was written by Orson Scott Card after the author was approached by Cameron, with the original ending and further narration from the aliens’ perspective. The film won an Oscar for special effects. Fox backed a campaign to nominate Biehn for Best Supporting Actor, but no evidence has emerged whether this received further consideration from the Academy. The Special Edition, with the original ending and new CGI effects, was given a limited theatrical release in 1993. Later home video releases sometimes favored the Special Edition over the theatrical cut. As of late 2022, the film has not been released on Blu Ray and is not available on digital platforms in the US.

For my experiences, this is one where it’s easiest to lay down my cards up front: This is by far James Cameron’s best film, and in many ways, it is the best genre film of the 1980s and even the ‘80s-‘90s, especially outside the “franchise” category. What has been increasingly strange to me is that in the timeframe between when it was released and when I dug into the Cameron library, there was no immediate or foreseeable need to argue the point. Sure, there would have been people who disagreed with me, but in any serious discussion, it could be expected to receive at least a respectful mention alongside the likes of Aliens (see my post on the novel while you're at it) and the first two Terminator films. If anything, it had an edge as Cameron’s “prestige” entry, the one that put him on a mainstream footing. Yet, in the intervening years, it is the film that has slipped through the cracks. For the present review, I watched both versions with an eye to accounting for why, and I am still left at a loss.

Moving forward, what stands out starkly in hindsight is that this is neither an ‘80s or a ‘90s movie, but a 1950s movie that happens to have modern effects and production values. (See also, unavoidably, E.T.) All the major plot points in either version harken back to the B-movie era, albeit very successful and sophisticated examples like The Day The Earth Stood Still and The Outer Limits TV series. (I must once again put in a marginally good word for Plan 9…) The finale of the Special Edition in particular is pretty much the “Architects of Fear” scenario, with all its obvious and arguable flaws. What keeps the present film relevant and interesting is that most of these issues are acknowledged on its own terms. Finding an advanced alien species already living on Earth would certainly divert the human nation-states from their own quarrels for a while, with or without a demonstration of force sufficient to wipe out industrial civilization. However, we have already seen vividly how a truly paranoid military mind reacts to the unknown, so we are not required to share the optimism of the characters or the filmmaker. If it comes to that, much the same can be said of the central romance. It’s all well and good that they have reconciled enough to work together in a crisis, but whether they would or should stay together is another matter.

The real pros and possible cons come with the effects and Biehn’s performance. The visual effects are top notch, to put it mildly. Together with Cameron’s direction, they do add a good deal of polish that would be missing in a recounting in cold blood, especially the bumper-boat duel of ludicrously non-threatening subs. If there is a downside, it is that the advanced CGI didn’t age nearly as well as the practical/ miniature effects, an issue that shows all the more with the Special Edition tsunami. All of this easily takes a back seat to Biehn’s incredibly, perhaps absurdly, intense performance. He’s not “better” than he was in his earlier Cameron roles. The real difference is that he finally has a character complex and conflicted enough to make full use of both his charismatic screen presence and the “dark” implications that go with it. What’s easily missed is that he is the one character whose reactions are truly proportionate to the situation. A high point and easy “one scene” contender is his terrified response to the severed water pseudopod, which continues to improve rather embarrassingly on both the scene and the effect. It all crystallizes in his utterly terrifying demise. In my “head canon”, I see it as a return to sanity and perhaps a moment of remorse, far too late.

That brings me to the “one scene”, and I’m going with one that continues to fascinate me far beyond its importance within the film. As the deep-sea habitat goes cross-country, the wackiest of the crew is caught in the sub bay with his pet rat. When a jolt sends a sub swinging, he has to make a dive to safety. Then he looks back and sees the rat, still in a plastic bag. It’s the shot of the rodent that has stayed with me all this time. Of course, it’s a typical, obvious Hollywood bid to make us sympathize with the animal while actual humans are buying it without further comment. But it’s also a perfect metaphor for everyone’s predicament, dependent on the thinnest of protection against an environment where they were never meant be anything but dead. What follows is, more than usual, predictable enough that no recounting is needed. The strength of the film and the filmmaker is that we aren’t required to agree with the character’s (dumb) decisions to stay engaged and invested in what happens.

In closing, I come back to why the film hasn’t fared much better. I have in no way changed my opinions on this film, and I absolutely blame its current state at least in part on quite typical mismanagement of intellectual properties that should be literally illegal. (How to fix that is a whole other trail of rants…) With maturity, however, I will admit it as a cautionary tale of what happens when genre films meet the mainstream, especially in light of Cameron’s subsequent career. It was and is very, very good, enough to blow away his fans and impress many more. At the same time, it marked the start of more critical appraisals of his strengths and limitations that were increasingly proven valid. Terminator 2 was good, perhaps as good as The Abyss, but it was not breaking new ground. True Lies was simply dumb fun. Then there was Titanic, which I trashed Gone With The Wind as a proxy for, and for the intelligent genre viewer, it has been all downhill from there. If there’s a moral, it’s that being the best isn’t everything. With that, I can end this as a fond memory. To better things ahead…

Image credit Goodreads.

Wednesday, November 23, 2022

Futures Past: Off-brand brick set retro junk spaceship!


As I'm writing this, I've realized I'm at a milestone: There's more of a backlog of toys and collectibles I've been meaning to write about than there is for movie reviews or fiction. So, I decided to try to get something out of the way that's been backlogged a while. Over the last few months, I've made several ill-advised purchases of building sets and toys, both old and new (see the Bristle Blocks). Here's the one that's ended up using up the most time, a set I purchased with the promise that it could assemble into a space station thingy. Here's a few more pics of the glorious packaging... which actually is pretty good.

For the backstory, I ordered this at the end of last month after another, entirely disappointing purchase as a 1980s-retro spaceship/ space station/ thingy. It was a consideration that certain elements resembled my still-mutating designs for the Neptune-ship Janus conceived for the Space Guys adventure. I ordered it for a ludicrously low price that actually went down a little more after my order was in. It was advertised as a set that could be assembled as smaller ships then assembled mecha-combiner style into something vaguely resembling either a space station or a long-haul starship. What I didn't expect was that they came in a carton with eight individual boxes, as if this was planned to go to stores as cases of sets for kids to collect. What interested me was that it was pretty easy to arrange these end to end, which really came closer to a "realistic" design. Here are a few of my initial experiments, on a set of shelves I just recently assembled. Yes, those are the Truckstop Queen and the Evil Space Guys.

I took long enough assembling these that I had already tried several variations of the ship before I had assembled the last of them. Initially, I tried to modify some of these, particularly a module with a radar/ satellite dish attached, which is "supposed" to orient with the dish sideways. There were a couple that just don't fit in. One of them is the space shuttle, which simply doesn't look on scale, especially in comparison to the "gravity ring" segment, which would be at least 20-30 meters wide if it is what it looks like. The other is a particularly awkward satellite/ probe thingy, which doesn't look much different from the rest. When assembled, however, its individual sections are prone to rotating in different directions. It's also almost impossible to keep on a stand. Here are closeups of the offending ships.

After a few days of experimentation, the ideal configuration that emerged was 5 or 6 "modules", with what I think of as the wing ship up front, the ring towards the back, and the fattest segment around the middle. I settled on removing the nose of one ship to make the connections easier. I also had to deal with the fact that the front of the fat one wasn't properly moored to anything else. Here's the "ideal" ship, which is something like 2-2 1/2 feet long. (Oh, and there's the packaged Spiff ship...)

And here's the winged ship and the one I modified in original configuration. The latter has an ingenious sort of hangar bay and a raising satellite dish, which naturally jam or come loose with any amount of handling.

And here's the ring. It's worth further note that the instructions usually show this perpendicular to the central axis, exactly where it would make the least sense.

Now for the fun part, in the course of this post, I finally broke up the  wonkiest ship for extra parts. It was enough for an extra mini-module and several stabilized connections. Here is my upgraded ship, viewed from the other side.

All in all, this is a very good set for basically nothing. It has just the right combination of "retro" and realistic. The crowning irony is that ships that look like collections of junk were always the closest to real life. I am choosing not to link to where to buy it, mainly because there are a few different sources out there. Do comparison shop a little, because I've seen at least one listing for twice the price I paid, which is not worth it. To rap this up, here's one more shot of the shelves. Hello, giant Predator! And the City Predator! And Connie...

That's all for now, more to come!

Monday, November 21, 2022

Mystery Monday: Reissue off-brand vintage building set/ carpet fuzz collection system!


It's a Monday that wasn't slated for a movie review, and I decided it was time for a different kind of mystery. In the course of retro future/ pop culture, I decided to look into the history of construction toys, a field long since dominated by Lego. That was enough to dredge up many memories of a large category of toys I have owned, played with or sighted in the wild, the knockoff/ "off-brand" building sets. Even by my standards, these things are ephemeral and usually untraceable without the clearest of recollections. The flip side is that here and there, I discovered that a notorious example was never a knockoff at all. This post will be on  just one example, something a significant randomized sample of correspondents remembered seeing without any idea what they were, the Bristle Block! And here's what a highly questionable purchase got me...

But first, the backstory. By consensus, construction toys started in the late 1800s. By the 1910s, recognizable brands began to pop up such as Erector, Tinker Toys and Lincoln Logs, all made from either metal or wood. In the 1930s, plastic sets began to appear such as Bayko, Minibrix and Kiddicraft, the latter two of which suspiciously resembled designs Lego first sold in 1939. Another runnerup called Krazy Ikes, made initially of wood and later plastic, assembled into both vehicles and jointed humans and animals that approximated the action figure niche; needless to say, I have acquisitions I will be getting to. In any event, the ecosystem remained crowded but competitive through the 1960s and 1970s. It was only at the late date of 1978 that Lego inaugurated their "modern" era with the introduction of the minifigure, along with a profusion of theme sets.

Meanwhile, an unassuming inventor named Denys Fisher patented a toy called Stickle Bricks in 1969. The name appears to have passed through the hands of several manufacturers in the 1970s, before being bought up by Hasbro. The basic design was ripped off by a number of additional companies, especially Playskool, which sold them as Bristle Blocks. I have no doubt that this well-funded knockoff line accounted for the vast majority of what was circulating from the '70s into the '80s, and most of the sightings that I and others remember. It was this name that came up when I went looking, sold as "official" Bristle Blocks by a company called Battat, needless to say a familiar name to me. All of which means I bought a reissue from a manufacturer claiming to have bought out the name of what was technically the ripoff version of the toy. Hey, I'm the last one to judge. Here's a few pics of what I got with Connie.

I'm sure there's a joke I could make about bristles, but it's late...

Plus, a comparison shot I forgot until I was finishing this. These are big; Construx are still champion.

For the details, I bought all you behold for just a little over $10, billed as a 112 set for about half the price of others I saw listed. It was obvious there was going to be a catch. In fact, the big one was simply that it came in a bag instead of a box or one of the carrying cases shown with the more expensive sets. The package came with a card I saved but haven't photographed that listed the parts. It became clear from this that they had fudged the numbers by counting each of the wonky wheels as 3 pieces. That still came out at 96 pieces, which is nothing to scoff at, especially with components this big. That left the question, are these remotely functional as a construction toy? Well, here's a pic that will start to answer that...
I know, the lighting is worse than The Couch Mark 1...

As you can probably see if you take a good look, these aren't exactly as versatile as they appear. Where they might appear to be able to adhere to each other from any direction, which would be novel indeed, they do in fact have differentiated surfaces. You can still make your own choices about orientation, and if it came down to it, you could probably make most of the surfaces and edges interlock. However, results will definitely vary. It's definitely more problem-solving than you would count on from a kid at the low end of the 2+ age range given on the packaging. (Yes, I bought and am reviewing a toy literally for toddlers; have you NEVER read this blog before?...) Here's a more pics of what little Eighties kids were up against.

Now that's actually cool.

With these parameters, I gave myself about an hour to try and build something out of these. If there's any virtue to them, it is that it's not too hard to make a construction that does indeed look like a structure with a definite function. I quickly observed in the process that these are very bendy, probably to a much greater degree than vintage specimens would be. There were few if any points where this was a problem. Here are pics of my first few efforts.

Okay, so maybe "rolling temple thingy" isn't so much a function...

The most interesting thing about the set are the "topper" pieces, which were definitely not part of the vintage lines. They're nicely done, and the dome thingies would have been futuristic enough for kid me to use as parts for spaceships, superweapons and the like. Alas, it's a bit tricky to fit them on anything. Here's a quick experiment.
The Couch Mark 2 hasn't been the greatest, either.

How about something bigger? Trust me, these needed my help...

And it's still less stable than my first attempt at making my own walker...

And why not a little retro futurism???

So, it should go without saying that these things are horrid. They function only within the narrowest parameters, with perhaps slightly better than a 50% chance of sticking together in any given configuration. They barely form recognizable structures, and anything but buildings is a waste of time. As a bonus, it's impossible to look at them without immediately picturing them deeply embedded with carpet fibers, pet hair, dust, broken bits of each other and other toys, and less classifiable junk and gunk. The best thing to be said in their defense is that they always were what they clearly are, an intermediate phase between simple blocks and an actual construction set. The verdict of history is that they did their job well enough for people to remember, without inspiring anyone to do anything but leave them behind. And for the extra pic, how about a Krazy Ikes guy?
Hey, she's dated Alien, Predator, and King Kong; she's got an open mind...

That's all for now; more to come!

Sunday, November 20, 2022

Fiction: The Space Guys Adventure, part 8!


It's the last day to do a third off-week post, so of course, it's more Space Guys! This will already contradict both numbers and specs I posted before, but I'm not bothering to change anything here. This is actually going through about all I have except notes and vignettes. As usual, a table of contents is at the end.

A day later, the time arrived for the launch of the Janus. Alek was called back to the Pegasus cockpit to assist, which earned Jason an invitation to accompany her. By apparent happenstance, the other two seats were occupied by women, Dr. Cahill and Tanya Plotnikov. Also present were Captain Raeder and a journalist named Lin, both seated in an observation lounge at the rear of the cockpit. Jason was vaguely unsettled to hear the women making small talk. It was Tanya who spoke first. “How is Harry?” she asked.

“He is doing fine,” Cahill answered. “He’s still teaching. We’ve been talking about early retirement.”

“And Jonathan? I heard he graduated.” The tone of their voices was already giving Jason a picture of two villains from Jax’s comic books discussing their mutually exclusive plans for world domination.

“Yes, he’s going to Stanford now,” Cahill answered. That jarred Jason. “How is Pyotor?”

“We are separated,” Tanya said. “It’s been a little while now. We haven’t told many people. We stay in touch. He has a post in Astana...”

As the chilly banter continued, the captain spoke to the reporter, a woman from Edo. “Our mission projections call for us to exit Mars orbit at 36,000 kilometers per hour, twice our holding orbital velocity,” he said. A flatpanel screen showed a widening spiral outward from Mars, through the treacherous orbits of its moons. “That will be assisted by drop tanks and several boosters that will be left for orbital retrieval. Once we pass Phobos, we will activate our secondary hydrogen thrusters. That will push the ship past Deimos at 42,000 kph, a little under 10% of our intended mission velocity. Of course, we will need to miss Phobos.”

“Of course,” Alek said. “Hitting a moon would be bad. Even little one like Phobos.”

“Yeah, Phobos always makes me nervous,” Jason said. Turning his head, he could see the moon emerging from behind Mars. In mere hours, it would circle back around the planet. He looked back to a news feed in progress. It mostly consisted of views of the ship from outside. It was by now almost covered in fuel tanks. On top of that, a number of boosters had been attached, each 45 meters long, to the ends of the pylons where the shuttles docked, to the tail, to the outside of the now-stationary life support ring, and even to the wings of the Pegasus.

The journalist turned to him. “Jason Freeman,” she said. “You’re one of the boys from Mars, aren’t you?”

“Yes,” he said. He added defensively, “I’m 23.”

She turned her camera toward Alek. “And this is Aleksandra Kapek. Is it true the two of you were just married?”

“No,” Alek said. “We knew each other before, then we got back together. I tell him, I’m waiting for him to put a ring on it.”

Jason’s face flushed, and he turned his head away. Before the journalist could ask another question, the first of many reports came from engineering. “The fusion reactor is online,” the chief engineer Potts reported. “All turbines are at 80%, 95, 100.”

Moxon arrived in person to give his report. “The life support ring is fully evacuated,” he said. “I did a last check for any unsecured possessions. If any of you left something I missed, you’re cleaning it up.”

They heard next from old Yuri, stationed in an even tinier control room beneath the 10 meter dish at the front of the fuselage. “The directional array is locked with Olympus Mons,” he said. “We have a full telemetry feed. We’re also getting something extra, a feed of a news cast in progress.” Sure enough, one of the screens showed another pretty reporter in zero gravity, narrating alternating shots of the Janus from various manned and unmanned observation craft. The view shifted to the rear of the ship.

Finally, Alek spoke up. “The plasma thrusters are fully charged,” she said. She took Jason’s hand. “Bringing the hydrogen thrusters online. Starting launch sequence… let’s say, oh, 2 out of 4 primary thrusters per nacelle, AX factor at 25/75, plus 1st-stage particulate boosters…”

The cameras showed the engine nacelles flaring to life. They looked like the dots of a set of dice all turned on one edge, shining a vibrant blue-white. The boosters in the tail also flared to life, a brighter orange color like open flame. From outside, it was dramatic. From inside, it felt like little more than a mild jolt, albeit accompanied by the returning gravity. “AX, is that argon/ xenon?” the reporter asked, clearly a question for viewers rather than herself.

Alek shook her head. “Nobody have no xenon,” she said with uncharacteristically blunt inflection. “There was no enough, anywhere. 100 cubic meters would cost more than a kilogram of gold, if demand were the same. The X is really for, who knows what is it?”

“Yes,” said the captain. “Unfortunately, we could not obtain the projected supply of xenon. Dr. Capek is right, it is quite rare for a gas. It was necessary to augment the supply with other inert gases, mainly krypton. We hope to obtain more when we refuel at Jupiter…”

“Then how does argon compare?” the reporter asked.

“Everything is better than argon,” Alek said. “Argon is kaka. But it is cheap kaka, plus Mars has maybe even more of it than Gaia. Activating 2nd-sequence boosters. Going to 4 out of 4 thrusters per nacelle, adjusting AX to 35/65…”

“It’s her pre-programmed sequence, you know,” Tanya said to Jason. “She’s just talking.”

“Yes, of course he knows that,” Alek said. “But it’s fun, no?

The boosters on the life-support ring ignited. Simultaneously, two more dots flared to life on each nacelle. The force became a steady push. Spent boosters began to fall away. The news feed showed that the flotilla of observation craft were either being left behind or overshooting the ship. Jason looked at the sensors and frowned. “We have to get the observation craft back, or one of them is going to go up our tail pipe,” he said. Even as he spoke, a feed from one observation satellite was cut off as it was wiped out by a collision with a booster. The others pulled back of their own accord. 

“Are we slower than the satellites?” the reporter asked, evidently confused.

“You are thinking wrong,” Alek said. “Speed does not matter in space. In space, you have to go faster than any person on Gaia ever has or ever will just to keep from falling down nearest gravity well. Space travel is about acceleration. When it come to that, Janus is, how you say, clonker. Americans talk about cars that go 0 to 60 in 6 seconds. If we started standing still with primary thrusters only, we would go 0 to 60 in 600 seconds. But a car does not mass 20 thousand tons, and it does not carry 5 times its weight in fuel. Give us a few hours, we would be coming up behind them again by the time they saw us go.”

“It’s Hercules and the Hind,” Jason said. The others looked at him in confusion. “It’s an old myth. See, Hercules was sent to capture a magic deer called the Golden Hind. But it turned out that every time he was about to catch it, it went just half the distance there was between them in the first place. So he got closer and closer, until it was just a hand’s breadth away, but he still couldn’t catch it… What, don’t they still tell stories about Hercules on Gaia?”

Moxon frowned. “That’s not how the story of the Golden Hind goes,” he said. “It’s Achilles and the Tortoise. It’s from Zeno. It wasn’t really a myth, it’s a puzzle.”

Alek patted Jason’s hand. “Don’t worry,” she said. “I like the way Martians tell stories. Here comes Phobos…

Up ahead, Phobos drifted ominously toward the center of the canopy. The low-orbiting moon seemed directly ahead, but Alek’s screen showed that they would miss it by over 100 kilometers. Its orbit was fast enough that it was sliding off-center. As they passed, there was a sensation of banking. In fact, the close approach was just enough to turn them a few crucial degrees. “Bringing secondary thrusters online, AX holding at 40/60…” One more dot appeared in the center of each nacelle. A single light flared at the rear of each of the living modules. The moon passed and then receded. The news feed showed a distance shot from a ground-based camera as the ship went by. Alek pulled Jason in for a kiss. “Now for the fun part… firing 3rd-stage boosters and hydrogen thrusters.”

The feed from Phobos showed the flash as the thrusters in the tail ignited. The boosters on either side of the Pegasus ignited with a thrumming that shook the fuselage. For Jason, it felt like having a barbell resting on his chest. The burn went on for 5 minutes, 10, then 15. By then, the force was lessening. “Levelling off to AX 60/40,” Alek said. Beside her, Tanya was drumming her fingers in boredom.

“That was about half our liquid hydrogen reserves, by the way,” the Federation officer said. “Also 25% of our xenon, or whatever they filled the X tanks with. And we’re still only going about 10% of our optimum velocity, including what we already had parked in orbit.”

“What happens now?” the reporter asked.

“We continue at flank acceleration for 8 days,” Raeder said. “When we reach 40% of optimum mission velocity, we will hold until we reach Jupiter, about 6 months into the trip. It’s really the fastest we can go and still receive logistical support from other ships. Once we pass the Jovian system, however, that will be moot. We will not pass within range of Titan Base until our return trip. Beyond the Saturnian system, there will be no other ships nor any base they could operate from. After we refuel, we will accelerate to optimum velocity for the remainder of the mission, which will be 14 months including deceleration time.”

“We’re in for the long haul,” Alek said. She squeezed Jason’s hand. “But we’ll be together, no?”

“You bet,” he said.


In the aftermath, the crew and complement moved into the spindly forward fuselage, referred to as the Mission Fuselage. The main quarters was a cluster of hexagonal modules that had been the domain of the pilots. Here, the central spindle joined with two on either side, joined by disorienting junctions that went to modules above and below before proceeding to the main shuttle bays. On the lower port section, the pilots held a riotous celebration. Raeder was there, leading the Malays and Tanaka the Edonian in a folk song. He was clearly turning a blind eye to Anastasia, who perched with Jackie and Vasily on either arm. Two American officers, Yates and Smith, sang mutually hostile arrangements of Dixie and the Battle Hymn of the Republic. Cahill was doing pirouettes in the near-freefall, while Donald demonstrated a pinball cabinet he had modified with magnets to simulate gravity.

In the midst of it, Jason stretched out on a bunk/ couch with Alek in his lap, his back held against a bulkhead by the ship’s miniscule G-forces. As often happened in private and public, her request to “make love” amounted to caressing her while she scribbled away in her notebook. When Vasily tried to make a joke of it, she said without looking up, “Oh, he is very good. I do math much better when he is making love to me.”

It was Jax who ventured to ask, “What do you do with the pencil?”

She paused at that. “Once, I stab him,” she said. “He was very, very good that time. He even finish before we went to Dr. Cahill. Since then, I keep between my teeth.” She proudly and happily held up the pencil, showing a number of teeth marks.

The others looked to Cahill, by then seated with Jax. “It would be confidential,” she said, “but yes, it happened.”

Suddenly, Alek called out excitedly, “Oh, here is Mehmet! Come, over here!” She waved to a new arrival, a usually reserved officer from Iran who had entered with Tanya. While she talked with or leastways at him, Jason made his way to Harrison. “Listen,” he said after a few pleasantries, “what do you know about them?” He pointed to Dr. Cahill and then to Tanya.

Harrison smiled and nodded. “Well, there’s not a lot to say about Lana,” he said. “Leastways, not much anyone really knows that she wouldn’t tell you herself. She has a husband back on Gaia, and a son, not much younger than you. There was talk whether her man was the marrying kind, or the kind who would give her a son the regular way. Nobody really knows anything.”

He looked to Tanya, who was already scowling at Cahill. It was not Harrison but Moxon who spoke, seemingly materialized already smiling. “Now, that is a good story,” he said. “Tell him, Harry, you always do it well.” Harrison just smiled as the officer took a seat. Jason had seen the same reaction from Alek, and moderated his feelings about the man accordingly. It made him think of a film he had seen of a lion walking through a herd of elephants. It was as if whatever darkness he sensed in Moxon could not touch what was good and bright in them, so he was content to dwell among them.

Harrison nodded. “So, by age 25, she had done a tour with the Navy,” he said. “She still had time to get doctorates in mathematics and linguistics… the perfect credentials for a codebreaker. She was a crack shot, too. She was headed straight for the top. I’ve met people who knew her then. Two of them said it was her idea to meet her opposite number.”

“Oh,” Jason said. “I think I’ve heard this… That was her?”

“Well, you’re ahead of me, but I’d guess yes,” Harrison said. “She went to a lecture by the Federation’s youngest analyst. He had credentials, he had experience, and he was handsome. Of course, she looked pretty good herself.” Jason looked back at Tanya. As he watched, she ran one hand through her hair and rested the other on her hip. She still looked good. “They met after. He asked her out to dinner. They started going steady. Nobody really cared, yet.”

Moxon nodded. “I met them back then,” he said. “The higher-ups thought she could turn him.”

“So, they got set to get married,” Harrison continued. “Maybe it was love, maybe he just knew how to push her buttons. Nobody was worried, yet. What they didn’t count on was, she had flipped for real. She started giving speeches in support of materialist socialism. She criticized Union leaders. She sent out letters with the names of scientists and academics who were working for military intelligence. Then she went to the Federation’s State network with a laundry list of the Union’s dirtiest secrets. That was when she defected, all the way. She brought them everything. Everything she had given us, everything she had learned about them, and everything else she had learned along the way. If we had been at war, she could have won it for the Federation single-handed.”

“Okay,” Jason said. “Then how did she end up here? Sure, it’s prestigious, but it’s not a job that top brass would jockey for.”

Harrison shrugged. “They gave her one promotion after another, for a while,” he said. “She preferred to stay close to her man. Ah, she also had five kids. That would have slowed her down. After a while, the promotions turned into desk jobs.”

Moxon smiled. “I’ll tell you what really happened,” he said. “She never thought long-term. She gave her new bosses everything up front. The thing was, we already knew what she knew. More than that, we knew a lot more than she thought about her methods, not to mention her weaknesses. She got herself to the top… but she had nowhere to go.”

“Yeah,” Harrison said. “It was really worse than that. She burned all her bridges on the way out. Not just with the Union, but with her colleagues, her friends and her family…”

“What it comes down to is, the Federation is all she has left,” Moxon said. “She’s the one person they know will stay loyal if push ever came to shove. It’s not that she wouldn’t betray them; she can’t.” Even as he spoke, he departed with a chuckle.

“Hey farmboy!” Anastasia called out. By then, she was playing on Donald’s machine. “I just set the high score!” Abruptly, she kissed Don on the lips.

Jason’s gaze was back on Alek. “What about her?” he said. “All the times we’ve talked, she’s never said anything about politics.”

Harrison smiled, his expression as innocent as Moxon’s was knowing. “I met her a while back,” he said. “I suppose you could say we’re old friends. What I can tell you is, people think she doesn’t talk politics because she doesn’t know what’s going on, or care. They’re wrong. She could tell you more than you would ever want to know… but she would rather have her math. Be glad for that. It’s why she’s as happy as she is. Be glad for it.”

He pointed back to Tanya. “People like her are the ones who care about politics,” he said. “Territory, wealth, armies, control. It always comes down to control. That’s where it got her. Do you think she’s happy with where it got her? But I’d wager she would still give up everything for her man. So if you have a good thing, hold on.”

That night, as much as it could be called night, Alek openly slept in Jason’s bed for the first time, though they were clothed in their outer garments and in full view of eight others including Anastasia and the Malays. He continued to touch her long after she was asleep, drawing the occasional half-intelligible murmur. When he finally followed her into slumber, he dreamed of hiking the Hellas Rim, of course with her. In the dream, they walked hand in bare, warm hand, which even his dreaming self told him was preposterously impossible. When they reached the top, they looked across the land. In the far, far distance, they saw a strange obelisk, surely at least half a kilometer high, as tiny and slender as a needle with distance. Alek pointed and started to say something. That was when he awoke again, in dark near-weightlessness. He sighed and kissed the base of her skull. Soon enough, he was asleep again.


In the darkness, Moxon smiled.

Table of contents

Part 1. The demo!

Part 2. The villain!

Part 3. The world-building!

Part 4. The romance!

Part 5. The killer robot!

Part 6: The shuttle ride!

Part 7: Alternate universe pop culture!