March 2003

Fly Away Home

A film by Carroll Ballard (The Black Stallion, Never Cry Wolf).
Starring Jeff Daniels, Anna Paquin, Dana Delany and Terry Kinney.
Written by Mark Isham. Rated PG

RUNTIME
1 hour, 47 minutes

RELEASE DATES
Video: Aug 7, 2001

This delightful family movie is (very) loosely based on a true story. Amy Alden, a 13-year-old girl, goes to live with her estranged father after her mother is tragically killed in the opening moments of the film. The change is tough for Amy, and made even tougher because her father is a rather eccentric artist she barely knows. When twelve orphaned goslings hatch, however, Amy becomes their surrogate mother, even to the point of teaching them how to fly! Fortunately Amy's dad is interested in gliders and ultra-light planes.

You can see where this is going, and you're right. Amy has to lead the geese South to their winter nesting ground. The movie is not as preposterous as it sounds. It really is a fun story, beautifully filmed by Caleb Deschanel, with a wonderful, haunting theme song by Mary Chapin Carpenter. All the acting is good, although Anna Paquin unleashes her shrill little scream once or twice too often during the course of the movie.

The film is based on the autobiography of Bill Lishman, who has no daughters. What he really did was to find some geese, build a plane, and teach them to follow him south in order to prove some of his theories about animal behavior. Nevertheless, the movie is heartfelt even though all the best parts are made up.

Despite this, Fly Away Home really is a fine movie and well worth your time, especially if you have kids and are sick of Disney fare. A good story, after all, is a good story. The DVD version contains three additional featurettes: "HBO Special: Leading the Flock," "Operation Migration: Birds of a Feather," and a 49-minute documentary titled "The Ultra Geese." This includes many interviews with Lishman as he discusses his reasoning behind the flight, as well as some great video footage of Lishman and the actual geese in-transit.


The Wild Blue and the Gray
William Sanders
Wildside Press, April 2002
$15.95 paperback, 196 pages

This is an alternate-world novel, taking place in Northern Europe during the summer of 1916. The South has won the Civil War and has come into WWI on the side of Britain and France, with the Union sitting the conflict out. Amos Ninekiller, a Cherokee Indian, is a pilot in the Fourth Virginia Pursuit Squadron of the Confederate States of America Expeditionary Forces. The Plains Indian Tribes survived the Civil War more or less intact as a "half-assed little rump state" by playing the Yanks and the Rebs off against each other, and are now under the protection of the CSA. Ninekiller has been sent to Europe as part of a desperate game of national survival being played by the Indian Nations, who have recently learned that there are considerable oil reserves under their land. Playing for time while they juggle priorities, the Nations need to understand what is happening in Europe and how the Post-war world will shape up. Aviators are needed, and Ninekiller happens to be the best one the Cherokees have....

Sanders gets a lot of The Wild Blue and the Gray right. His strong point here is undoubtedly his characterizations. No one in the book is quite what they seem at first blush. Too, the set-up is laid out firmly and with expert skill. He's a damn good writer, as those who have had acquaintance with his work will know. The battle scenes have the ring of truth about them, which is no surprise because Sanders has spent time in the military. He writes authoritatively about tactics, strategy, and aerial fighting. Being of Indian heritage himself, he can't be faulted when it comes to making his characters, men and women, feel real. He has genuine insights about white men, black men, and red men, and there's a lot of this on display in this novel. Sanders does well by all of his characters, even the minor ones.

There's also the Sanders sense of humor, which is at once sly and in-your-face. No writer of alternate history can resist bringing in historical personages, and Sanders is no exception. At various times he trots William Falkner and George Patton, et al, on stage, as well as a well-known WWI German corporal who receives his due in a particularly ironic and satisfying fashion.

In fact, the only thing I found lacking here was a compelling story arc. I wanted to see what was going to happen once Amos got back from Europe, but the book stops with him on the boat home after a hairbreadth escape from behind German lines and a shocking revenge scene that nevertheless fits right into Ninekiller's character. All the juicy set-up that Sanders put into place for us in the opening scenes of the novel goes by the board. The book wants to be twice as long as it is. At the very least, it cries out for a sequel. I would love to know what sort of mischief Ninekiller gets up to once he returns home and starts dealing with all that oil under the Indian land.

Amos Ninekiller is a compelling anti-hero who embodies the spirit of self-sufficiency and, in his most private moments, spirituality. He has his own code of honor that rounds him out most satisfyingly. Ninekiller is a remarkable creation and I hope we get to see more of him.

I ought to mention is that this is a revised and updated version of the book, which was originally published in 1991.

To sum it all up, at his best Sanders is a surprisingly effective writer whose work, particularly in short-story form, packs a wallop. I do not think that he has yet received his due from the sf community. He still needs that breakthrough book. This isn't it, but it's a step on the path.

William Sanders's web site



Recent Raves:

Aardman Animation - These people are responsible for Wallace and Gromit, Chicken Run, the Oscar-winning short Creature Comforts, and much much more. Check out the web-only feature, The Angry Kid. Very clever and really funny. I fell in love with another Aardman creation, Rex the Runt, about eight years ago in Rhinebeck, NY, where I was attending an animation festival with my wife. One of the Rex shorts contained a lengthy and inspired lampoon of David Lynch's Eraserhead that had me laughing out loud. I must have been the only audience member to get it, however, because I was the only person laughing. I felt like the little guy in that Charles Addams cartoon, sitting in the middle of a movie theatre, laughing while everyone around him weeps. Anyway, Aardman has lots of cool stuff to see and games to play. Plus you can get a sample of the latest Wallace and Gromit offering, Soccermatic. To sum up: Cracking web site, Gromit!

Infocom Adventures Online - "There is a nasty little dwarf in the room with you." I will never forget the thrill of getting the Babel Fish in my ear for the very first time while playing Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, my very favorite Infocom adventure game. These are text-only games with a low level of interactivity, but for the puzzle-minded they're absorbing. The Hitchhiker's game benefited from being written by Douglas Adams himself. His style works really well online. All the faves are here - Leather Goddess of Phobos, all flavors of Zork, and lots more. I often spent hours playing with these games back in the days of VGA monitors and dual floppy drives. They are a bit like crossword puzzles, although the difference is that you cannot progress in the world of the game unless you successfully answer the challenges presented to you. Listen to me, I'm sounding like one of the games! Anyway, for a good dose of nostalgia, visit the Infocom archive. A different archive site is here -- this one with reproductions of the actual game boxes and other things.

Cruel Site of the Day - The soft white underbelly of the web, exposed. If you ever had any doubts that the web is haunted by weirdos, whack-jobs, and extremists of all stripes, then Rogers Cadenhead's Cruel Site of the Day is here to disabuse you of your fondly held illusions and confirm all of your darkest suspicions. We've all stumbled on strange little web sites. Some are dedicated to revenge, others to a less focused state of - well, blind rage, I suppose. Cadenhead uses "Cruel" fairly broadly - some of the sites are obvious spoofs, like the recent embryo adoption site, and all the funnier for that. The real ones are sort of sad and creepy. It's a little like finding an entirely new bottle of Dr Bonner's Soap every day.

New Scientist.com - possibly the best science site on the web. It's the first place I turn to for some depth to the science news of the day. The web has been a real boon for those interested in following such news. Too much of a boon, almost, leading to infoglut. But New Scientist lays it out clearly, with the occasional gentle grin. The site is updated daily. There are usually five or six main stories, ranging (on a recent day) from James Watson's claim that stupidity may be genetic and can possibly be cured (which, given the popularity of the above-mentioned Cruel Site of the Day, would be the bane of comedians everywhere), to a fascinating new technique for entangling multiple electrons that may bring quantum computers one step closer to reality, to a strange study of how charcoal burning -- carbon monoxide build-up in cramped apartments -- has become the third most popular method of suicide in Hong Kong. One of my favorite places on the web, with plenty of links off to reference sites.