Steve Bein, writer & philosopher

Find all of the Fated Blades novels at Powell's, Barnes & Noble, Amazon, and Audible, or from your favorite neighborhood bookstore.

The newest addition to the saga of the Fated Blades is the novella Streaming Dawn, an e-book exclusive available for any platform.


Review: Star Wars Episode VIII: The Last Jumanji

In a daring move, Disney released its contribution to the series of Jumanji films just one week before the release of Columbia’s newest adaptation of the beloved children’s book. One might think two Jumanji films in a single month would be overkill, but this film sets itself apart from the others with a surprising twist: the appearance of Luke Skywalker.

It’s the Jedi Knight’s first appearance since J.J. Abrams’ The Force Awakens, and Mark Hamill gives a command performance. Die-hard fans were thrilled to see him appear in The Force Awakens, and Hamill himself said he was disappointed not to have a speaking role in that film. His appearance there was the Teaser to End All Teasers, and his surprise appearance in The Last Jumanji does not disappoint. He steals every scene he’s in, and we are left wishing the entire film were about him.

A horsebunny, saddened upon learning Luke Skywalker would not be in any of its scenes.

A horsebunny, saddened upon learning Luke Skywalker would not be in any of its scenes.

Otherwise the movie delivers everything one would expect from a Jumanji movie: silly romps with giant CGI animals, a saccharine romance to keep pre-teens entertained, and cute children who step in as dei ex machina to save the day for our heroes. The children are endearing scamps in the style of Newsies, though instead of contributing to the plot they distract from it. Then again, anyone who wants to see yet another installment of a movie based on a nonexistent board game probably isn’t all that interested in plot.

What they come for is digitally rendered wildlife, and on that count The Last Jumanji does not disappoint. The lovable porg are the crossbreed of penguin and guinea pig that every youngster would love to keep as a pet. The vulpix are an exotic vision of what might happen if foxes evolved from rock candy. And the massive faithers, a cross between racehorse and pet bunny, are—disappointingly—the film’s action highlight.

The Last Jumanji needs their Disneyfied stampede because every other action sequence is a letdown. The agonizingly slow space-chase feels like Mad Max minus the action sequences and cool cars, and ultimately it distracts from the CGI critters that children come to see. It’s too hard for kids to follow the obscure storyline of Finn and Rose, which ultimately has no bearing on the film. Now and then they ram a spacecraft full speed into something-or-other—hoping it will save lives, strangely enough—but apart from these gratuitous thrills, the two add nothing to the film. In fact, if their scenes were cut out entirely, literally nothing about the plot would change.


In the end, most adults will find Rian Johnson’s contribution to the Jumanji film universe scattered and disappointing. But children will delight in the furry fun-fest and die-hard Star Wars fans will get thrill after thrill from Luke Skywalker, who hasn’t spoken a word since 1983’s Return of the Jedi. He is arguably the most eagerly anticipated character in film history, and Hamill delivers what may well be the single greatest performance of his career. The Jedi Master truly is masterful.

For that reason the film is aptly—if boldly—titled. This may well the last Jumanji, despite the fact that the fourth installment in the series opens just six days after this film’s release. It is unlikely that Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson can outshine Hamill’s command performance with nothing more than his trademark eyebrow-raise. Rian Johnson and his fantasy hybrids clear the (admittedly low) bar set by the Jumanji franchise, but it is Luke Skywalker who sets the standard by which all future Jumanjis must be measured.


It's out in the world!

Passed a important milestone this week: people I've never met before are reading the new book. They are in the publishing business. This isn't what you'd call a big deal, but it's the sort of thing that has to happen before anything like a big deal can happen.

So that's cool. Milestone reached, and passed, and now it's back down into the cave to write.


Thumbs up!

The first 300 pages of the new project went to my wonderful agent, Cameron McClure, who is also the best beta reader I know. Last week I heard back: she thinks it's great. 

I can't tell you how glad I am to hear that. Cameron and I signed on together after she read Daughter of the Sword. Because she liked that book, the probability of her liking Year of the Demon and Disciple of the Wind was pretty high. They do form a trilogy, after all. Whether she'd like the new project was, at least in my mind, very much in doubt.

I'm one of those writers who never has any idea how good a piece is while I'm working on it. Call it self-doubt, or a need for validation, or exactly the right amount of humility a writer ought to have in order to write the best book possible. I don't know what it is. All I know is that when Cameron thinks something needs work, it needs work, and when she thinks something is good, it's pretty damn good. (Take a look at some of the authors she represents. They're pretty damn good.)

So the new book needs work -- all drafts do -- but on the whole it's looking good. This, of course, means I won't be on the blog for a while, as it's back to full steam ahead on this project. I'm on Twitter more, if you want to keep in touch.

What do Wyldstyle, Rodin, and Lao Tzu have in common?

I got the kind of email this morning that every writer likes to see: an acceptance for publication. That makes today a good day. 

This new piece will appear in LEGO and Philosophy, due out next year, the latest in a series of pop culture and philosophy books I’ve been following with interest from the beginning. Another volume I’m looking forward to in 2016 is The Ultimate Star Trek and Philosophy, in celebration of Star Trek’s 50th anniversary. I have an essay in that one on Kant, Confucius, and the Prime Directive, written with my friend and co-author, Alejandro Bárcenas. Alejandro also contributed a chapter to The Daily Show and Philosophy, which goes to show that this series has the versatility to address almost anything, from major cultural landmarks (Star Wars) to passing fads (Twilight) to passing fads that have become cultural icons (The Daily Show).

What sets the LEGO book apart from all the rest is that the source material isn’t a text. We do have texts to go with it now, most famously the blockbuster movie, but that’s only a recent development. The call for papers solicited “works focusing on the many aspects of the multimedia LEGO phenomenon,” so, yeah, there’s text there. We’re talking cartoons, video games, advertising strategies, even theme parks, but first and foremost this philosophy book is about the toy. Not a text. A bunch of plastic.

So when I got the call for papers, two thoughts struck me almost at once. First, “Hey! Awesome! I love Legos. I should write something.” Then, about a millisecond later, “Wait, what’s there to write about?” I couldn’t see anything to agree or disagree with. How could I? LEGO would have say something. 

Okay, as a commercial product it says, “Buy more of me!” But in a free market economy everything says that. As a toy LEGO speaks to the gender norms being pushed on children, but so does virtually everything in the toy store. What does this toy say that only it says, in a way that only it can say it?

The more I thought about it, the more unsuitable LEGO seemed for a philosophy book. After sidewalk chalk it’s about as close to a blank slate as a toy can get. 

And that was it. That was the realization I needed. At its best LEGO says nothing. It says nothing, and it says it better than just about anything else you can find in the toy aisle. That’s why there’s so little need for improvement. It’s the ultimate expression of possibility. It’s inexhaustible. No matter what you take from it, it can always give more.

There’s one other philosophical concept that’s described this way, as an inexhaustible source of infinite potential: the dao. So that’s the subject of my chapter. It’s called “The Brick, the Plate, and the Uncarved Block: LEGO as an Expression of the Dao. 

Now then, what do Wyldstyle, Rodin, and the legendary sage Lao Tzu** have in common? An appreciation for infinite possibility. I’ll close this post with the Rodin quote I’ll use to open the book chapter. Rodin was asked for the secret to sculpting his many masterpieces. His answer: “I choose a block of marble and chop off whatever I don’t need.”

Has he said nothing about sculpture, or has he said everything?

* In the philosophical sense, not the extreme BASE jumper’s sense. Or maybe you figured that out on your own.

** If you want to write me an email telling me to correct this spelling to Laozi, since I spelled dao with a D and not a T, give yourself a pat on the back.

My Fourth of July Tribute

Okay, so Captain America’s shield is made of vibranium, right? That’s why the mighty Thor can smite it with his hammer and have none of the energy transfer through. Because otherwise Cap would be liquefied, since his only super power is being 1/10,000th as tough as Thor. Got it.

 But then why should the bad guys mind getting hit with the shield? It absorbs all the impact energy, right? That’s the only reason it’s useful. Which means Cap should be able to punch me in the face with it all day and it wouldn’t hurt.

 Solution #1, from a comic über-geek I know: it’s not vibranium, it’s a vibranium alloy. How exactly does this allow energy to transfer into a bad guy’s face but not into Cap’s arm? My über-geek doesn’t know. He’s just nitpicking.

 Solution #2, from an honest-to-god physicist who asks, “if you take the energy of Thor’s hammer striking Captain America’s shield, there’s a large amount of kinetic energy in the hammer that is transferred to vibrational energy in the shield. If the vibranium absorbs it, that energy has to go some place, and where does it go?” His answer? It becomes light:

In the first Avengers film …when Thor strikes Cap’s shield… you see this enormous blast of light in the visible and ultraviolet part of the spectrum. So the vibrational energy is being transformed into light energy, which then radiates out from the shield.

 Okay, so this solves the conservation of energy problem, but it hardly explains why getting hit by the shield hurts. When it hits me it should light me up, not knock me out.

 Solution #3, from a physicist and comic geek: vibranium is part battery, part capacitor, part indestructible shield stuff. When all that impact energy hits the shield,  

the atomic bonds in the shield… must be able to store that energy in some form. […] If the energy is being stored in the bonds between the shield’s atoms, that could explain the variability in the shield’s physical characteristics…

 …you know, so that sometimes it hits something and sticks into it like a blade, but other times it caroms around like a pool ball.

 I kinda like this explanation. The only problem is that nobody ever mentions it. Like, not even once. If Howard Stark created the shield, surely he ought to have figured this out.

 So, for this Fourth of July, I give you Solution #4: vibranium is a perfect reflector. We have to take some liberties with Newton’s third law, but basically it’s like this: in the case of an ordinary shield (or any other physical object) every time something hits the shield, the shield hits back. That’s the third law at work: for every action there is an equal and opposite reaction. Some things, like billiard balls, are good at reflecting the energy back without absorbing a whole lot of it into themselves. Other things, like eggs, aren’t. Thus eggs are fragile and billiard balls are both hard and bouncy. So here’s my pet theory:

billiard ball : egg :: vibranium : everything else

Vibranium must be the billiard ball multiplied to the power of billiard ball. It’s so good at reflecting energy that every time an object transfers equal and opposite reaction energy into it, the vibranium transfers that energy back too. It must do this so efficiently that all impact energy is reflected back out, smashing the bejeezus out of whatever’s on the receiving end.

 Like I said, I’m taking liberties here, but Solution #4 explains why the mighty Mjolnir doesn’t shatter Cap’s arm and explains why it still hurts to get clocked by the shield. In fact, it even explains why Captain America hits so much harder than you’d think he could (given his relative power level on the team): the action his shield puts into your face is actually made worse by the equal and opposite reaction your face puts into the shield.

Comicpalooza debrief

Probably the best thing that’s going to happen to me this year: I shook hands with Peter Mayhew. That’s right, Chewbacca himself.

There was serious star power in Houston this weekend. I saw Stan Lee, George Takei, Rowdy Roddy Piper, and Larry “the Soup Nazi” Thomas. I talked to Barry Bostwick and Nell Campbell, whose names you’ll know well if you were a Rocky Horror Picture Show kid like me. I was in the same room with Rosario Dawson, which is enough to make me swoon.

I met fans too, of course, and signed a few books, and spoke on a couple of panels, and met some great authors that way. I’d known the name Rachael Acks already, mostly because I absolutely love her "Suffering for Charity" movie reviews. It was great to talk geology and feminism with her on two different panels.

It was during an autographing session that I had one of those chance meetings that make a con like this a truly special event. There I am, sitting next to Jonathan Maberry, a Seriously Big Deal in the world of comics, science fiction, and horror. He sees I’m in a cast and asks me how I hurt myself.

“Jujutsu,” I say.

“Oh, what style?” he asks.


“Oh, cool. I did Shinowara-ryu jujutsu for fifty-one years.”


Look, I’ve been in martial arts for twenty-two years. Every now and then I meet someone who’s been training longer than I have, but I almost never meet someone who’s been in it more than twice as long as I have. Much less someone who also nerds out on comics and sci fi stuff. Much less someone who’s kicking more ass with his pen than he is with his sword.

The two martial artists take their fighting stances.

The two martial artists take their fighting stances.

So Jonathan Maberry and I spent an hour on Saturday afternoon talking about martial arts and the writing biz. It was the best hour I’ve spent at one of these things. I ran into him again on Sunday, and he told me Daughter of the Sword would be his in-flight reading on the way home. How cool is that?

Jonathan, please don’t be offended if I say it’s almost as cool as shaking hands with Peter Mayhew. The only reason he outranks you is that Chewbacca outranks everyone in everything.

No, I didn't drown

The question I've been answering most since my return from Comicpalooza is, are you okay?

The weather was absolutely nuts on Monday, including tornado warnings in my own city of Austin. Flash floods between here and Houston resulted in several fatalities, and some people are still missing. But the worst damage we saw at my house was one unhappy black Lab, who had to wear his Thundershirt because he’s terrified of storms. He looks happy in this picture, but only because his people came back home to rescue him.

The first "well, duh" law?

New Zealand just passed a law that's making headlines. It’s the first to declare that animals are "sentient"—that is, that they "can experience both positive and negative emotions, including pain and distress."

 Presumably this will be met with cries of "Finally!" from animal rights activists around the world, and cries of "Well, duh!" from everyone else who hasn’t been staying abreast of animal rights legislation but has ever met an animal before.

 Because for most of us this isn’t a big shock. To say a puppy is sentient is to say it’s capable of being happy and unhappy. That’s it. That’s the big reveal.

 "Well, duh," the modern philosopher says proudly. "We’ve been taking the whole sentience thing pretty seriously for a good two hundred years now." Jeremy Bentham, one of my philosophical role models*, said morality was grounded not in rationality but in sentience—that is, not in the ability to reason but rather the ability to suffer. Shocking stuff circa 1800, but these days his view is pretty intuitive. If I kick your puppy, which is worse: that I’ve injured and terrified the puppy, or that I’ve committed a property violation against you? Most people side with the puppy.

 So here’s what the big headline should have been: “New Zealand passes first law to catch up with where mainstream Western moral philosophy was two hundred years ago.”

 To which the Buddhists can smack their foreheads and say, "Yes, but two hundred years ago the big headline should have read, 'First mainstream Western moral philosopher catches up with where Buddhism was 2,300 years ago.'"

 To which the average caveman of 40,000 years ago can say—and maybe you want to say too—"Well, duh. Have you ever met a puppy? Did it have a very good poker face? Why do you people need all of these philosophers and lawyers just to tell you a puppy is capable of being happy and unhappy?"

 Well, duh.



*Bentham doesn’t make my list because of his philosophy. He’s my role model because he had himself taxidermized after death. In fact he’s still mounted, stuffed, and on display at the university where he taught. Honest. Every semester I tell my students this is what I want my family to do with me when I die: take me to the taxidermist, then to whoever does the animatronic stuff for Chuck E. Cheese. Stick me in the philosophy section of the library wherever I was teaching, and rig it up so that I can smile and wave when people come down to hang out with me and my favorite books.

Mystery solved: are we alone in the universe?

Okay, so here's the story that caught my attention: a renowned Japanese sword smith has forged a katana made enitrely from the iron of a meteorite. It's called the Tentetsutou, meaning Sword of Heavenly Metal.

Pretty badass, right? But you have to wonder why he made it. There's the obvious answer, of course: badassery is its own reward. But consider the following:  

Fact: Japan has been exploring space since 1969.

Fact: Japan stepped up its game in space exploration in 2003, and since then has landed spacecraft on an asteroid and on the moon. 

Fact: "Giant space monster invades Earth" has been a trope in Japanese movies and anime for as long as there has been Japanese space exploration.

Coincidence? You might think so. But when a renowned blacksmith forges the Sword of Heavenly Metal, there is only one reasonable conclusion to draw: there are giant space monsters, they are coming to invade Earth, Japanese astronomers discovered them years ago, and and also discovered their weakness: they can be killed, but only by a blade forged from the cosmically irradiated metal of deep space. 

We can only assume that there's a super secret training facility in some underground bunker deep beneath the streets of Tokyo. In it, hundreds of martial artists are training for the ultimate honor: to be given the Tentetsutou, and then to fight the aliens singlehandedly in a heroic last ditch effort to save humanity.

Obviously. It's the only reasonable conclusion.



Year in Review

2014 was a doozie.

I moved from upstate New York back home to Minnesota—a prescient choice, given the eight feet of snow New York got hammered with this winter. Minnesota is plenty cold, but at least we weren’t at risk of the roof caving in.

Then my partner and I uprooted our home and moved down to Texas. Right from the minute we got here, this seemed like a terrible choice. That was in August, when it was over 100° every damn day. Like, for a month. But now that it’s winter and I’m still riding my motorcycle, I can say I’m pretty happy with the decision. Longer, sunnier days make for a happier, sunnier Steve.

2014 was a good year for publishing too. In September YEAR OF THE DEMON came out in mass-market paperback. (Feel free to order it if you haven’t got it already!) DAUGHTER OF THE SWORD came out in Bulgarian and Italian, and the Italian edition of YEAR OF THE DEMON also came out. THE TIME TRAVELER’S ALMANAC is selling like hot cakes, which means plenty of people out there are reading my story, “The Most Important Thing in the World.”

On the philosophical side of philosofiction, October saw the arrival of PHILOSOPHY AND THE MARTIAL ARTS, with a chapter from Yours Truly. (In it I address the question of whether we martial artists are immoral or merely irrational for voluntarily inflicting so much unnecessary suffering on each other.) I also learned that my co-authored article on Kant, Confucius, and Captain Kirk will be included in the forthcoming STAR TREK AND PHILOSOPHY. Needless to say, I’m very excited about this book.

The biggest news on the writing front is all about the third installation of the Fated Blades, DISCIPLE OF THE WIND. 2014 saw it completed, then recognized as the biggest book yet, then trimmed down to fighting weight, then revised and edited, then copyedited and proofed, and now it’s ready to go. (Preorder now and you can be among the first to get it on April 7!)

There’s also a little surprise coming, courtesy of Kaida. I’ll keep you posted.

What else? I saw the Episode VII trailer and I’m hopeful that JJ Abrams can save the franchise. I saw The Hobbit: Battle of the Three Disappointments and I’m glad that franchise is dead and buried. The best thing I can say about that movie is that as fan fiction goes, it has really expensive special effects. Oh, and Martin Freeman is simply stellar in every scene he’s in, but at this point that almost goes without saying.

Actually, 2014 was a great year for movies all around. My favorites (in no kind of order): The Imitation Game, Birdman, The Grand Budapest Hotel, American Hustle, X-Men: Days of Future Past, 20 Feet from Stardom, Godzilla, and Interstellar, plus the tons-o’-fun Guardians of the Galaxy and The LEGO Movie.

So yeah, big year! Hope yours was a good one too.