Archive for May, 2013

Demo Day: Zed Fights A Girl!

Posted in Exoskeletons, one-shot with tags , on May 29, 2013 by David N. Brown

Over the last week, there has been a truly shocking development in my writing career: In the interests of testing my abilities on something new and different, I wrote a romance film fan fic. To make up for it and at the same time try out what I came up with in something more my speed, I decided to write a “demo” for an odd notion of a project that came from reader feedback: In essence, it has been suggested to me (I think maybe by more than one person!) that I try doing more with females in the “Exotroopers” franchise. I never saw this as especially workable, as the only female character ever to recur is Martinez (who was supposed to have been one of a pair of witches who appear way back in Walking Dead), and the prevailing themes and atmosphere has always fallen solidly in “superjock” territory. I don’t care for introducing new characters, either, particularly since one of the things I find most appealing about writing for the Exotroopers is that they are supposed to stay the same story to story. Still, I gave it enough thought to envision a way to make it work, and at long last I felt ready to try at least a preliminary vignette for this project, working title “XX EXOTROOPERS!”
***

Lt. Princip, chief instructor of the exotrooper corps, stood in full battle armor to meet the candidates, complete with the barbed-wire crown of thorns that adorned the pyramidal peak of his helmet. Beside him were Lt. Albert Zaratustra Schwartz, aka Zed, Acting Sergeant Zotgjakt, and a woman named Juanita Martinez. All of them were also in armor: Zed wore a crown of rebar rods on his helmet, Zotgjakt was in the heavier exoskeleton of a tank destroyer, and Martinez wore the light exoskeleton of a squire support trooper, minus helmet. She served in the corps in a squire’s capacity, but her real station was as a high-ranking official of Serbia’s bioweapons program, and semi-official handler to Zed.

“A thousand candidates were screened from the military forces of Serbia and Montenegro, as well as others from abroud,” Martinez said. “These candidates were deemed worthy of consideration.” Princip examined them, all three of them, and all of them women.
After a moment’s examination, he pointed at one. “Can we even fit her in the base chassis?” The woman was 1.5 meters tall in combat boots, and did not look to be a day over twenty or one gram over 45 kilos.
“It would take modification,” Zotgjakt said, “but we have done more for less.”

“That is Senka,” Martinez said. “She is credited with 35 combat kills, 13 of which were made without use of a firearm. She was also recently cleared of wrongdoing in the stabbing of three Montenegrin soldiers.” Senka, whose name meant “shadow”, smiled and blew Zed a kiss. Then she pulled down her jacket sleeve to expose not less than half a dozen perfectly straight scars on her arm. Zed raised a steel prosthesis that stuck out from his four-fingered right fist in unspoken reply.

Princip shook his head, but looked to the others. “She could be promising,” he said, eying a heavy-set woman on the end.
“That is Nana Papos,” Martinez said. “She is a skilled mechanic and rated to drive IFV’s.”
“My people have a saying, that a woman is made for bearing,” Zotgjakt said. “She looks like she was made for bearing Zastavas.”
A third candidate was of more ordinary proportions, about 1.7 meters tall and on the subtly muscular side. “She is Sgt. Dragoslava Lazarevic, nicknamed the Dragon,” Martinez said. “She is a decorated sniper with 75 confirmed combat kills. I am given to understand that she is a person of interest in a number of others. ”
Princip shrugged. “No need to discuss that for the moment,” he said. “Our concern is and remains, is there any way to fit these- personnel into a combat unit?”

“It was proposed that I take command,” Martinez said. “I have made it clear that I have no wish for such a station. I have too many other duties to handle the responsibilities of command, and, as high command itself is finally recognizing, the responsibilities and skill sets of a squire and a finback are not interchangeable. If and when I am to serve the corps, I can do it best as the former.” She did not add that the position of a squire was the best one in which to monitor Zaratustra.

“Integration can be achieved quite simply,” Zaratustra said. “We have a prospective squad with no officer. I am an officer currently without a squad. I will evaluate them, and if I am satisfied of their worth, I will take them as my command.”
The woman called Dragon stepped forward. “We are all Serb officers, and you are a psychotic foreigner they pulled from the prisons,” she said. “What should we have to do to prove our worth to you?”

The finback known as the Flea tore into the main training room of the exotrooper base. “Guys! Hey guys!” he shouted. His partner the Tick halted practice with a sour grunt, and the tank destroyer Sunflower looked up from sharpening a sword made from a helicopter rotor. “Zed’s about to fight some chick! Without armor!”

The space had been a large jail cell, with concrete walls at the rear and on the right side. The Flea and the Tick chatted as they watched, while Sunflower stood silently beside Martinez, occasionally giving her a brief but soulful glance. Princip stood with his arms sternly crossed, and Zotgjakt looked in through a window at the rear. The woman mechanic and the Dragon were on either side of Princip. It was the little “shadow” who faced Zed inside the cell, and she was smiling.

“Well, I say, a woman can pummel a man as well as a man,” the Flea said.
“No, a woman can pummel you as well as a man,” the Tick countered. “And as far as I’m concerned, the jury is out on what Zed is.”
Even out of armor, Zed was huge, easily 1.8 meters high yet with a distinctly stout figure. He wore a tight black jumpsuit, and his head was shaved and pale as any exotrooper’s would be. For him, however, bald and white seemed to fit naturally. He still had the prosthesis that replaced the third finger of his right hand, but it was heavily sheathed in duct tape and rubber. “Listen to me, very carefully,” he said in his deep but rasping voice. “My men are under express orders to do nothing to intervene. It will be us, and us alone. These shall be the terms: We shall test our strength and skill against each other with hands, feet and skill. No attempt shall be made to appropriate any other weapon. At a time of my choosing, I shall try to kill you. It will not be a test or a feint. If you can stop me or escape me, you shall win. If you fail, you shall fail. Do you accept these terms?”
“Hey!” the Flea shouted, “hey, he totally, seriously means it!”

Senka nodded, and grinned. “Then I swear,” Zed said, “by all the gods that are or never were, that it shall be as I have said.”
He extended a hand, and Senka shook. She was still shaking when she kicked him in the crotch with a steel-toed boot. It was clear from the sound that contact was direct, forceful and prolonged. The Flea groaned and covered his visor, and the Tick muttered, “Beginner’s mistake…”

There was no hint of pain on Zed’s face. He let her hand go free as if clutching for himself, but it awe only to catch hold of his adversary’s calf, even as her foot continued to dig in. She screamed, not for mercy but only in sheer, wordless terror as he lifted her up. He did not throw her, but hoisted her up to swing her straight down at the floor with velocity that was assuredly terminal. At the last split second, Zed jerked her back and dropper her on a bed. “Try again,” he said. “I can wait.”

Shadow grinned like a shark. Her gaze sized up every angle. She knew he had allowed her to land the kick, just to prove a point. She still did not believe his speed and reflexes were equal to hers, but she would not have bet on it for a fact, which was a rare thing indeed, and he certainly had the advantage in every physical respect. She was especially concerned with the long reach of his almost ape-like arms. Even his fingers were surprisingly long, and clearly no less powerful for it. In a handful of seconds, she drew the only conclusion that mattered: The odds of besting him fairly, even in a single pass, were virtually non-existent.

So, she sprang into the air. Zed’s right fist shot back, ready to meet her as she came hurtling at him. Instead, she flipped backward, and her boot heel smashed a fluorescent light fixture. There was a bright flash at the level of his eyes, and he lurched back with a cry. Still, he raised his arms in a perfect attack stance, but Shadow came low, slashing for his hip with a blade that had sprouted from the toe of her left boot. The Flea pointed and shouted, heedless of a smack from the Tick. Zed was already moving back, and it looked like he might be fast enough. Princip lunged forward. But before he could shout the order for Zed to stop the fight as he wrenched the cell door off its hinges, Zotgjakt put his fist straight through the wall and jerked Shadow back.

The finbacks were still shouting as they burst into the training room. “Of course I knew of the concealed blade,” Zed said. He went straight to a chassis no one else would have dreamed of touching. “It was obvious from her insteps that one boot was different from the other, and I easily spotted signs of the modification.” He began to put on the torso armature, with help from Zotgjakt.
“Nevertheless, you were caught unprepared,” Princip said. “We know better than anyone, leg wounds are serious business. You could have been crippled, even killed.”

“Precisely!” Zed said, jabbing his prosthesis at the ceiling. He pulled an armored gauntlet over the lattice-like armature of the fingers, while Zotgjakt made the last tweaks to the primary shoulder servo. “I would want nothing less from my new command!” With that, he turned and delivered a backhanded slap that sent Zotgjakt unresisting to the floor.

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RVs of the Apocalypse Part 6: Spartan motorhomes

Posted in Cars with tags , on May 16, 2013 by David N. Brown

Spartan

The history of the commercial motorhome is unanimously agreed to begin in 1961, when Chrysler acquired Frank Motorhomes, a manufacturer of custom motorhomes based on Dodge trucks.  The new division became Dodge Travco, and within a few years its products were transformed from “one-off” truck conversions to purpose-built, mass-produced designs. As the backstory of Frank/ Travco makes clear, however, even this clear-cut breakthrough was proceeded by a more complex prehistory, in which any number of ambitious individuals and organizations were trying to make the self-propelled mobile home a reality.  Unfortunately, there is no way to know after the fact which homebuilder or start-up shop first produced what we would call a motorhome.  But one product can certainly be considered characteristic of the period, a range of motorhomes based on Spartan trailers.

As recounted at the website Spartan Aircraft Trailercoaches (source for the image above), Spartan trailers were introduced immediately after World War 2 by the Spartan Aircraft Company. Spartan’s product was most recognizable for its forward-sloping front (which I have been told would actually have increased air resistance) and wrap-around windshield. Though remembered as a competitor of Airstream, Spartan trailers can be justifiably said to have reached the market first:  While Walter “Wally” Byam founded the original Airstream company and built its characteristic aluminum “streamlined” trailers in the mid- to late 1930s, his company and all manufacture of aluminum trailers was shut down as the materials and manufacturing facilities were directed exclusively to wartime aircraft manufacturing.  (Ironically, this meant that the military and factories had to house their own personnel in notoriously poor plywood and Masonite trailers!) The Spartan company presumably foresaw that the end of the war would put the shoe on the other foot, and turned to trailer manufacturing by 1946, about a year before Byam revived Airstream.  In the emerging marketplace, the two manufacturers were not so much rivals as diverging lines of development and marketing:  Where Airstream made inexpensive travel trailers, Spartan not only focused on higher-quality and more expensive trailers, but increasingly on larger units that better fit the “house trailer” description.  Models produced in Spartan’s final years exceeded 50 feet in length.

At some point in Spartan’s history, someone thought of using Spartan trailers as the basis for what would now be considered motorhomes.  Just when this occurred, and how, has intriguing implications for the history of RVs.  In my opinion, it is at least conceivable that this was first done in the early 1950s or even in the late 1940s.  There are certainly extant examples where trailer and chassis date from before 1950, such as the pictured example, identified as a 1946 Spartan on an International Harvester Metro chassis, which has ovoid headlights appears consistent with a “teardrop” shape reportedly used only until 1940.  In many ways more interesting is the impressive number of Spartan conversions made on Dodge trucks, as notably compiled at dodgetravcos.com.  The use of Dodge trucks clearly parallels the evolution of the Frank/ Travco design, and some mutual influence is conceivable.  Even more intriguingly, the labor presumably involved and the self-evident quality of the final product is clearly well above the skills and resources of a typical homebuilder, and raises the possibility that some who made such conversions took the further step of offering them to order on a commercial basis.  The various Spartan motorhomes certainly represent an intriguing chapter in the evolution of the RV, and an especially worthwhile area of further study for collectors and scholars.

RIP Ray Harryhausen

Posted in Disabilities, films, prehistoric with tags on May 9, 2013 by David N. Brown

EV9

I hadn’t really planned on this, even after hearing about it, but today’s post will commemorate the life of stop-motion animator Ray Harryhausen, whose passing was reported earlier this week.  I won’t be saying much about his work, as I don’t think I have much to say that hasn’t been said.  I will talk a bit about Harryhausen’s impact on me.  Looking back, it feels like Harryhausen’s films “should” have been a formative influence on me, but I really can’t say that was the case.  I was well aware of Harryhausen’s films, but the only one I saw before I was in college was Clash of the Titans and the Kali sequence of Golden Voyage of Sinbad, which was shown in my junior-high English class for ostensibly educational purposes.   I suspect that part of the problem was limited availability and interest in stop-motion films in the 1990s: I went looking for King Kong at the time, and could never find anything on the shelves but the infamous 1976 remake, which I was already forewarned about from Michael Medved’s “Golden Turkey” books.  (Incidentally, I have always preferred reading about “bad” movies to viewing them myself, so I have never watched this or many of the notorious B-movies.)  I distinctly recall discussing it with a video store clerk, and was told that people were only interested in buying the “new” version.

Fast-forward to around 2002, and I was on my own at NAU, with plenty of free time and a Barnes & Noble, Hasting’s and Bookman’s directly adjacent to campus.  I had finally found a copy of King Kong around 2000, and it was joined by VHS copies of Valley of Gwangi, Beast From 20,000 Fathoms, Earth Vs. the Flying Saucers, the Sinbad films, and DVDs of Jason And The Argonauts and Kong animator Willis O’Brien’s The Black Scorpion.   My graduation present to myself was a $50 box set of Harryhausen’s science fiction films, which added Mysterious Island, It Came From Beneath the Sea, From the Earth to the Moon and 20 Million Miles to Earth to the collection. I was never greatly impressed by the films, and often frustrated (I still can’t watch Black Scorpion without wishing I could smack the editing genius who decided to mix incessant shots of a drooling puppet with O’Brien’s animation upside the head), but I always loved the stop-motion creatures.  My favorites were Gwangi and Sinbad and the Eye of the Tiger. In many ways, I was most impressed with Eye of the Tiger, despite its egregious flaws, because of its unusually (comparatively!) focused storyline and the presence of two sympathetic and well-developed stop-motion characters, the prince-turned-baboon and a friendly giant caveman.  I was also intrigued by the occasional fragments of incomplete films, such as Harryhausen’s early Evolution footage, which the image at the head of this post is taken from.

It’s hard for me to say in hindsight how much Harryhausen’s films influenced my own writing.  By the time I saw them, I was already well into writing the “Naughtenny Moore” adventures, and indeed mature enough as a writer to be acutely aware of the films’ flaws.  At the same time, I believe I was especially able to recognize the best qualities of the films, especially the subtle nuances of motion and expression that make the difference between special effects and a fully-realized living creature.  That led to my most poignant memory at all related to stop-motion films.  Right about the time my interest in stop-motion films was in full stride, I was also finding out about my Asperger’s diagnosis, and recognizing the long-standing problems that were associated with it.  These included the quite typical problem of following “body language”, which I recognized as pretty much interchangeable with my equally typical tendency not to look at people when talking to them.  At some point in all my struggling and pondering, I had a true epiphany: “I can follow King Kong’s body language, so why not real people?”  So I decided to try, and I like to think I’m catching on.

RVs of the Apocalypse, Part 5: Daystar

Posted in Cars with tags , on May 9, 2013 by David N. Brown

1975_Daystar_3

As documented in previous posts, the 1970’s were clearly a high point of motorhome production, including a fair number of start-up manufacturers.  The subject of this post is among the more notorious products of the 1970’s boom, and while its merits and overall weirdness are debatable, it certainly has one of the strangest backstories of the period.  The basics of the saga, as recorded in the book Mobile Mansions and various websites, are as follows:  In 1975, a startup company in Texas offered luxury RVs under the name of Daystar.  The name was inspired by Christian legends about the Star of Bethlehem, which claimed that it could be seen even in broad daylight, and is thought to reflect a religious orientation by the manufacturer and/or the target customers.  Manufacturing was a joint venture with Taiwanese businessmen, and reportedly included the manufacture of pre-fabricated teak interiors  in Asia (at a time when commercial motorhome manufacturers had long since shifted to particleboard for any wood furnishings!) which were imported to the States and inserted into the mobile home bodies, which were designed on a Dodge chassis.  Unsurprisingly, the finished products were expensive, with $70,000 being the reported “standard” price, and it is not improbable that actual sale prices went even higher for customers who customized their units. All accounts report that only 16 units were built before the company shut down, evidently under allegations of involvement in money-laundering.  Online photos appear to represent about six different units.  The one pictured above is subject of a page at the Atlas Mobile Directory, which includes shots of the interior.  I believe the same specimen was photographed for Mobile Mansions, which shows only a close-up of the Daystar mark and the even more recognizable ovoid grill and ornamental star.

Mysteries  abound regarding the Daystar. Details of its production are the subject of much hearsay and conjecture, such as accounts of luxury features such as gold and marble bathroom fittings and a custom unit furnished in “buckskin” leather. Unfortunately, no photos are available to substantiate these reports, or even to establish the basic layout of the interior (assuming there was one!) In my view, even the total production run can be approached as a minor mystery:  Given the  circumstances, it’s at least conceivable that some “lost” units were completed without documentation, or conversely that some units reportedly manufactured were in fact left incomplete or never built at all. Then there are a few anomalies I have noticed in photos, without encountering explanations or even comment. Some photos show a different shape and position of the front door than the one above, but since these are consistently taken from the left where others are taken from the right, it is unclear if this represents asymmetry in the design or a production variant.  Photos from the left also show a set of vents on one side of the windowless midsection.  My best guess is that these are for air conditioning; the other obvious possibility is that the motorhome had a rear engine.

Overall, I like the Daystar.  I find the styling of the front to be quite appealing, especially in comparison to the increasingly angular shapes of the period.  It can, in fact, be considered a “throwback” to the “streamlined” designs of the 1930’s and 1940’s.  The one disappointing aspect of the design is the tail, which always struck me as giving it a sawed-off look.  In incorporating a Daystar into the Re-Deanimator alternate universe, I was happy to rectify that shortcoming by assuming an alternate design where the styling is more consistent.  I was very interested to make the subsequent discovery that the Daystar was designed by  W.E. Miller, a prominent automotive designer of the 1930’s whose work included quite advanced examples of the “streamlined” style.  In a truly ironic twist, these included a tank truck that not only bears a striking resemblance to the Daystar but has about the same profile I assumed in refashioning the design.  Could it be that this was the way Miller wanted his motorhome to look?  Is there a chance that something like it was built, and slipped through the cracks?  One can always dream…

RVs of the Apocalypse, Part 4: Dodge A100’s

Posted in Cars with tags , on May 1, 2013 by David N. Brown

In the course of researching “Re-Deanimator”, I took special interest in a fairly unique line of vehicles, the Dodge A100 van and related vehicles.  The A100 can be considered one of the more versatile vehicles to be produced, or at any rate one which was put through more variations than most.  What put it on my radar was that it was put through a number of camper conversions, including some by the Travco division of Dodge, best known for producing the first commercial RVs.  Known as the “Family Wagon”, these vans came in two versions, one with a retractable top and another with a solid roof extension.  An even more interesting conversion, the Xplorer 21, lacked a roof extension but had a module built into the original rear of the van.   The website “Old Dodges” features brochures for both lines.

Unsurprisingly, there were additional variations whose origins are subject to some uncertainty, clearly different from known “factory” versions but with enough similarity and overall quality that it seems conceivable they were produced as variants by the same manufacturers.  One such example, featured courtesy of California Streets, is clearly in the style of a Travco “camp wagon”, but based on the A108 variant of the A100.  In my opinion, it is consistent with a Travco variant, but could be the work of another manufacturer or especially skilled homebuilder:

An especially radical variation of the A100 design is an Xplorer with 6 wheels, featured at Vannin and also on Flickr.  The view of the rear wheels leaves no serious doubt that this was a professional job, but without further documentation there is no way to know whether it was produced as an Xplorer variant or (further!) modified at a later date.  It is also not entirely clear whether the available photos, which show two paint jobs but the same caption in the rear window, represent one or two vehicles.

Then, for a truly post-apocalyptic twist, there is the L-series “medium tonnage” trucks that Dodge managed to build from the base A100 design.  The result was the L600 and L700 trucks, which proved versatile enough for many confirmed variants, and are represented in further variations from custom model builders.  These creations have varying degrees of plausibility as genuine variants.  A water tank truck, for example, is reasonably convincing given the known frequency with which L700s were converted to fire engines;  I had no qualms using the model as the basis for Gunga Dodge in Re-Deanimator.  On the other hand, there is the “Hunting Lodge”, a clearly fanciful creation but equally clearly an irresistible example of a post-apocalyptic RV.

Image00083_detail

I say, if this doesn’t bear any resemblance to any actual vehicle that was ever built, it just mean someone missed out on a good idea!

Revenant Review Part 2: Shock Waves

Posted in films, zombies with tags , on May 1, 2013 by David N. Brown

SW

It was my hope this April to commemorate the anniversary of the fall of the Third Reich with a few posts related to the Third Reich, including backstory material for the exotroopers “Space Nazis” adventure.  Unfortunately, the spare time I hoped to have for it ended up being occupied mainly with the last round of revisions necessary to make my master’s project report satisfy the arcane and arbitrary whims of Turabian formatting.  I decided the best thing to do would be to carve out some time to do the long-overdue second installment of this feature on a fairly infamous film titled Shock Waves, noted (if at all) as the first occurrence of the “Nazi zombies” meme.  It has been a direct influence on me as the immediate inspiration for the above-mentioned “Space Nazis” episode, otherwise notable as the only occasion where i) the decisive consideration in writing out a story was that I could use it as setup for an unused gag idea and ii) where I “invented” a phrase that turned out not only to be in use but to have its own wikipedia page.  Even before I thought of the outer space angle, I was attracted to the idea of an adventure based on Shock Waves, and before I developed and settled on my own concept, I very seriously considered flat-out copying the undead stormtroopers of this very weird film.

The film opens in media res with a lone woman being rescued at sea.  Then we go back to find her at sea with a party of dumb tourists on a cruise captained by John Carradine, who is the first to go after they pass a mysterious ship wreck.  When the rest of the party goes ashore, they find the hideout of a Nazi, played by Peter Cushing.  Their host reveals that he was the commandant of a force of undead commandos the Reich retired by sinking the ship.  Naturally, his old troops soon pay the house a visit.  After rising from the water in perfect formation, they systematically hunt down and eliminate the tourists who don’t bump themselves off first.

I first watched this movie on a used VHS tape in 2004 or so, soon after first hearing of it from Peter Dendle’s Zombie Movie Encyclopedia.  I was unimpressed enough that I promptly traded back the tape.  After giving it another shot through n*tfl*x, I have some regrets about that, but my feelings about this film are still very, very mixed.  Of the billed “talent”, B-movie legends John Carradine and Peter Cushing, Carradine (whom I only recall seeing in this film) is utterly wasted even before being, well, wasted, while Cushing supplies the best scene or so in the film only to be promptly and anticlimactically taken out.  (His all-too-brief appearances also make this a striking case where the backstory is far more interesting than the proceedings at hand.) That leaves the viewers with the better part of an hour to watch the no-names who make up the  rest of the cast get themselves killed.  In fairness, even the no-name performances can probably be considered at least fair, for the film’s caliber and period; on the other hand, the likability and intelligence of their characters is far below par even for the horror genre.  The story at least plays this into a vividly harsh streak:  The survivors repeatedly end up in as much danger from themselves and each other as the stormtroopers, and one manages to  get himself killed in an accident involving a sea urchin while one of the Nazis appears to do nothing but watch in contempt.

That brings us to the film’s most redeeming feature, the underwater Nazi zombies.  The stormtroopers prove to be a little worse for wear (looking a little rotten, or perhaps chewed) but well-preserved and still in uniform, with goggles whose function is never explained despite being a significant story point. They are played with no more distinction than any of the characters, though there are enough differences in their appearance to give some sense of individuality.  But what they do provide is an impressive sense of cold menace and especially of calculated and coordinated action.  The scenes in which they rise from the water, particularly en masse, make the film truly unforgettable, though one might well wish otherwise.  Of course, what one would wish for most is that these hypnotically menacing revenants had been used in a better movie, or at least one with more of Peter Cushing.  Still, what there is is more than enough to make the film worth watching.

SW2