29 February 2016

Review: 2001: A Space Odyssey by Peter Krämer

Mass market paperback, 116 pages
Published 2010
Borrowed from the library
Read January 2016
2001: A Space Odyssey
by Peter Krämer

The BFI Film Classics series is like 33⅓ for music (I don't know which came first), a series of short, accessible monographs on individual films, so after reading Flood, I decided to pick one of them up, too. Thankfully there are a lot more BFI Film Classics about films I have seen than 33⅓s about albums I have heard; Stanley Kubrick's 2001 was one of many options I had. (Now that I write this, though, I'm not sure why I picked it above, say The Wizard of Oz.)

Anyway, this was a nice, breezy, informative read. It's not a making-of, but rather an attempt to place 2001 in the context of its time and Kubrick's intellectual history. So after a brief (kind of out of place) synopsis of the novel for people who haven't read it, Peter Krämer covers the genesis of the film, drawing on archival work and making-of books, especially hitting up a few key factors: 1) Kubrick's correspondence and collaboration with Arthur C. Clarke, 2) the way the film builds on ideas Kubrick used in Dr. Strangelove, 3) the significance and impact of the Cinerama widescreen process (usually reserved for travelogues or films with a heavy emphasis on natural scenery), and 4) the way Kubrick moved from displaying the monolith's messages to leaving them obscure at the same time the film itself went from featuring heavy narration to deleting not just the narration, but much explanatory dialogue. He emphasizes Kubrick's message-making and essential optimism throughout. Though I've seen 2001 many times, all of this was new to me, and Krämer presents his theses compellingly and clearly.

After a brief discussion of the film qua a film, Krämer moves into its reception, again with some ideas to prove: 1) that 2001 was intended for a wide audience (not an arthouse one), 2) that it was critically well-received, and 3) that it was popularly well-received (not solely embraced by a countercultural movement; he particularly argues against the notion that drug use played a significant role in its positive reception). Again, he draws on archival research, including contemporary reviews and letters to Kubrick. The book ends with a concise discussion on how 2001 changed the blockbuster landscape, taking science fiction from a minor film genre to a major way, and paving the way for Star Wars and thus most modern blockbusters.

I read the whole thing in a day, and I enjoyed it a lot. My sister gave me Piers Bizony's The Making of 2001 for Christmas, so I look forward to reading that and then giving the film a rewatch; Krämer has given me a lot to think about here. I also look forward to picking up more of these BFI Film Classics!

26 February 2016

2Concert Reviews: Star Trek: The Ultimate Voyage and 2Cellos

Over the past couple weeks, I've had the pleasure of going to two different concerts. I always imagine my adult life would be filled with cultural events for my edification and entertainment; the realities of graduate school and living in the middle of nowhere have meant this hasn't happened as often as I'd've liked. However, I've recently been to two different concerts.

I've previously written about the dominance of soundtrack music in my listening, and Star Trek soundtracks are probably the most dominant of all-- certainly they're the ones I've been listening to the longest (right now the track "Target Practice" from the deluxe edition of the Star Trek V: The Final Frontier is playing in my iTunes, in fact) and when I was a kid, we often went to excellent concerts of Star Trek music put on by the Cincinnati Pops, conducted by the late Erick Kunzel. It's been a long time since I've seen one, though, and I was adamant that my wife and I go see Star Trek: The Ultimate Voyage, a 50th-anniversary concert tour.

It was good. It was a "CineConcert," which apparently means that there's narration between musical bits, and the music is all played over video montages. Both the music and the clips really favored the original series films and The Next Generation episodes. The best of these was probably setting the lovely Jay Chattaway "The Inner Light" suite to clips about family, both literal (Picard and his brother, Wesley and his father) and emotional (Kirk with Spock and McCoy, Picard sitting down to play poker in "All Good Things..."). Jerry Goldsmith's "Klingon Battle" was of course set to clips of Klingons in battle, and this was excellent, too. Some concert performance of "Klingon Battle" are limp due to the lack of the unusual percussion and electronic instrumentation Goldsmith used, but they made it work. My favorite montage was probably the one set to the full version of Alexander Courage's original theme (I think of it as the concert suite, but I don't know if that's true or not), a fun and uplifting set of behind-the-scenes and before-the-camera clips from all fifty years of Star Trek. It was an excellent way to end the concert.

The only thing I didn't like was the occasional mismatch between music and image. Though I think they got away with using Jerry Goldsmith's theme for the anti-technological Ba'ku with a montage of Spock and Data moments, it was jarring to have Goldsmith's original Enterprise theme from Star Trek: The Motion Picture used with a montage about humanity's journey of exploration, from sailing ships to the Phoenix to the NX-01. Weirdest of all was using the main themes of Deep Space Nine and Voyager for franchise-spanning montages: Dennis McCarthy's Deep Space Nine theme was used, for example, for a montage about the various captains, which just seemed weird.

I did really enjoy when they took scenes from the television programs and played them in full, except that the music was provided live. They did two scenes from each series, I think: of course the iconic Gerald Fried fight music from "Amok Time" for the original, as well as the "Risk is Our Business" speech from "Return to Tomorrow" (music by George Duning). The use of the final scene of "In the Pale Moonlight" (music by David Bell) for Deep Space Nine was great, but I did question the use of one of Jay Chattaway's incredibly generic action motifs (from "The Changing Face of Evil") for the second Deep Space Nine episode. I would much rather have had one of the beautiful scenes from McCarthy's score for "The Visitor"! And the music from Enterprise reinforced just how forgettable that series was, in the musical sense as well as every other; it was painful watching Scott Bakula and Anthony Montgomery in a scene from "Horizon" (music by Mark McKenzie).

But overall, it was a great time that left me humming Courage's original theme. I need to build a playlist of what we heard; it would be fun!

Just the other day we went to see a performance by 2Cellos, who mostly do cello covers of pop and rock; my wife is a pretty big cello aficionado, and their debut album gets pretty frequent play on my iPod. My dismal musical knowledge means I actually don't know most of the songs they're riffing on, but I enjoy their energetic playing nonetheless.

At one point, one of the two guys advised us that this was "not a classical music concert," and that was very much true: there were lots of flashing lights and lots of noise, and it was a lot of fun. The two of them are nowhere near as serious as their promotional photographs indicate; there was a lot of stage patter about how their music was beautiful and they were beautiful.

The only thing I have to complain about is that the video monitors often overlaid images of them with other graphics, which made it hard to actually see them-- and as we were literally in the very last row, I very much needed the power of those video monitors. And I don't know why one of the music video featured a clip of an old man playing what was apparently atomic chess again and again, but it was so absurd it became sublime.

I apparently don't have as much to say about 2Cellos as I do Star Trek (no surprise there), but I really enjoyed this concert, and even though I probably knew over 50% of what they played from their debut album, the live renditions of the songs were different and very dynamic, and occasionally the audience sang along which was nice.

25 February 2016

Early SF Tales from the Eaton Collection: The English Revolution of the Twentieth Century by Henry Lazarus

Hardcover, 463 pages
Published 1897 (originally 1894)
Borrowed from the Eaton Collection
Read January 2015
The English Revolution of the Twentieth Century: A Prospective History
by Henry Lazarus

Like a lot of these early sort-of-sci-fi stories about the future, this one is framed by it being a document that has fallen back in time: it's a history of "the period of revolution 19— and onwards" (xxiii), focusing on a working-class uprising led by the mysterious Carlyle Democritus, who is able to mobilize the anger of the people, but also curb their excesses, preventing any "Reign of Terror"-esque tragedies. It really is a history book, written in a textbook fashion, with occasional excerpts from primary source documents, and at 400+ pages, it goes on far longer than could possibly be interesting.

The early pages, about the revolution itself, are the most interesting: the beef of Democritus (and thus, one suspects, Henry Lazarus, about whom the Science Fiction Encyclopedia indicates nothing other than that he was not a clarinetist) is largely with the accumulation of unnecessary amounts of wealth by a small portion of the population; one imagines we would see him hanging out with Occupy protesters these days. The revolutionaries seize jewelry and sell it to buy homes for the homeless, enact universal suffrage, stuff that we can mostly understand from a social justice perspective. For me, the most baffling thing was when Democritus went to meet with the King (I assume Edward VII): Democritus says that Edward has to hand over most of his jewelry, too, but that the Royal Family can keep its allowance, and that they'll have to give up all but two palaces, and promise to stop marrying foreigners. The King is down with all this (he felt burdened by all his stuff), and then Democritus makes one last request of him: to get rid of
the fashion, unnecessary to a woman’s modesty, and hitherto insisted upon at Court, of baring her bosom to the vulgar multitude. [...] [O]ne must needs visit and know the women of Eastern nations, whom the innocent and ignorant in this country deem beneath them, to realise even faintly the loathing and contempt which that disgusting European ‘fashion’ practised by our women arouses in any purely modest woman’s mind. (75)
Apparently bare bosoms are an equal problem to homelessness and mass starvation! I guess there's no doubt that Lazarus was a Victorian.

After the first hundred pages, though, it gets dead boring. First, Lazarus hates on statisticians:
The present historian is not a lover of statistics, or rather of statisticians, i.e. those of the economical political sort, a class of people much in requisition by ‘Honourable gentlemen’ and ‘Right honourable gentlemen’ of the Jubilee period,* one of whom had said, ‘Give me figures, and I’ll prove anything.’ And indeed a political statistician would prove anything. (109)
This is followed by page upon page of statistics used to support his points. Many of the pages of the edition I read had never been cut open. I can't lay claim to have actually read every page, but I am at least the first person to set their eyes upon all of them. The tedium of the book can be demonstrated by the fact that I took five single-spaced pages of notes on the first 109 pages, and then four and a half on the remaining 340 pages. Still, mixed in among the social reforms of the kind a contemporary liberal might applaud, there's the occasional nugget of an idea that seems totally crazy to us.

For example, Lazarus has some of the typical racial attitudes of his time, which are all over the place in 1890s revolutionary science fiction: "Amongst nations the children of Britain are as the oak amongst forest trees. Idle to inquire why, as idle to ignore the Divine message or fact. It is so" (287). This of course results in a British-American alliance of Anglo-Saxon enlightened despotism over the whole world.

And then Lazarus's wacky ideas about women return:
the God who made them [women] willed them to be the weaker of human kind, the weaker in order to invoke the protection of the strong. Be not misled by the ravings of Jubilee rant-idiocy of the political radical or any other type. True, they invented a hybrid variety of non-male monstrosity, by pumping the bosom nutrient into the brain organs, and called it strong-minded-women class—tough of skin, voluble of tongue, but that was not a branch of womankind, only of abortive, radical-political-economy malekind, a type of infinite degradation. (339)
Whoa, dude! We get it, women should not do anything other than be on pedestals. Your utopia sounds bad, and you should feel bad.

* This is Lazarus's future history term for 1880-94; Queen Victoria's Jubilee was in 1887.

24 February 2016

Faster than a DC Bullet: Project Crisis!, Part XLIV: Final Crisis Companion

Comic trade paperback, n.pag.
Published 2009 (contents: 2008-09) 

Borrowed from the library
Read June 2015
Final Crisis Companion

Writers: Grant Morrison, Len Wein, Peter J. Tomasi, Greg Rucka, Eric Trautmann
Artists: J. G. Jones, Tony Shasteen, Doug Mahnke, Christian Alamy, Rodney Ramos, Ryan Sook, Marco Rudy
Colorists: Alex Bleyaert, Nei Ruffino, Jeromy Cox
Letterers: Rob Leigh, John J. Hill

Like the Infinite Crisis Companion before it, the Final Crisis Companion collects a number of stories taking place during its mother title. It also includes the Final Crisis #1 "Director's Cut," the uncolored and unlettered art of issue #1 of Final Crisis, along with some commentary from Grant Morrison and J. G. Jones. This is also collected in the back of Absolute Final Crisis, where it comes across as a nice extra: here it's more like padding, trying to get this thin volume up to a marketable length.

Other than that, this contains three stories set during Final Crisis. "Requiem" overlaps with issues #1 and 2, and is about the effects of the death of the Martian Manhunter, with five heroes telepathically hearing his death cries. I remembered absolutely nothing about it when I went to write this review, so I think we can safely assume the story did nothing of interest.

"Resist" is set in the month-long gap between issues #3 and 4, chronicling what Checkmate is doing to fight back against Darkseid. Snapper Carr is in it as a teleporting Checkmate agent, drawing on both Invasion! and The Four Horsemen; for some reason, he ends up having sex with the Wonder Woman villain Cheetah. This is the only thing I remember. Greg Rucka's work with Checkmate in the Infinite Crisis tie-ins was much more interesting.

And then there's "Balancing Act!," which explains how minor villain Libra became an agent of Darkseid and also what he has to do with Starman. Like a lot of these kinds of stories, it answers questions no one was asking, and it seems to exist solely to give writer Len Wein something to compensate him for creating Libra (used heavily by Morrison in the main Final Crisis book) in the first place.

I suggested that the Infinite Crisis Companion stories could have been included in their mother book to answer some outstanding questions left by the main narrative; I have almost the exact opposite recommendation for the Final Crisis Companion. Had these stories gone uncollected, I don't think anyone would have noticed at all.

Next Week: At the same time as this but in the future, it's time for the meeting of the Legion of 3 Worlds!

23 February 2016

Return of the New Jedi Order, Episode XXIII: Destiny's Way by Walter Jon Williams

Hardcover, 448 pages
Published 2002

Acquired December 2002
Reread May 2015
Star Wars: The New Jedi Order: Destiny's Way
by Walter Jon Williams

Year Four of the Invasion (Months 1-4)
The New Jedi Order really peaks in the middle: Edge of Victory I: Conquest, Star by Star, and Traitor are all top-notch, and much of the surrounding work is solid. But Destiny's Way is basically just perfunctory. It has its occasional fun bit, like Han and Leia talking to Pellaeon, or the return of Admiral Ackbar, or Lando playing politics (they should have made him president), and the final space battle is pretty good-- but I don't care for the genocide subplot, some of the politicking is dumb/boring, and Walter Jon Williams clearly did not read Traitor, as the Vergere here is a totally different character from the one in that book. More than any other NJO hardcover, this one feels like it's just there to take up space, to bridge the gap between the New Republic being on the verge of defeat in Star by Star with the requirement that it has to be able to win the war in five books' time. There are worse NJO books, but there are more ambitious ones as well.

In Two Weeks: Discover what happened in the middle of this novel, which was snipped out and made into its own release called Ylesia!

22 February 2016

Review: They Might Be Giants' Flood by S. Alexander Reed and Philip Sandifer

Mass market paperback, 130 pages
Published 2014
Borrowed from the library
Read January 2016
33⅓: They Might Be Giants' Flood
 by S. Alexander Reed and Philip Sandifer

I've been curious about Bloomsbury's 33⅓ series, a group of short monographs each about a single album, so I looked through the catalog to find one based on an album I'd actually heard. The only one was Flood by They Might Be Giants (I don't listen to a lot of music), so I pretty much had to read it, though as a nice bonus, it's cowritten by Phil Sandifer, whose work I'm familiar with from the infamous Doctor Who blog TARDIS Eruditorum.

It's decent. It's ostensibly about Flood, but the writers take the long way around, and it covers a lot of TMBG's pre-Flood biography, and a little bit of what came afterwards too, in addition to promulgating a general aesthetic theory for TMBG: that of "flooding," of finding joy in creative excess. Reed and Sandifer set up the book with a central question of, "Why do so many geeks love They Might Be Giants when it doesn't involve stereotypical geek signifiers, i.e, there aren't any songs about Star Wars?" and they pose "flooding" as the answer. But although it's a good question (I am a geek who really likes TMBG, even though I only got into them in 2009 with their children's album Here Comes Science) and a good answer, I'm not sure they convincingly link the two: I agree that they "flood," but why is that innately geeky, and why is it uniquely TMBG?

I learned a lot, though; there are bunches of cool tidbits, and Sandifer and Reed even interviewed TMBG (a.k.a. "the Johns") over dinner, though there are fewer insights from that than you might expect. I suspect I would get even more out of it once I've heard more of their work, especially their early stuff (right now my collection of their albums consists of Flood [1990], Here Comes Science [2009], Nanobots [2013], and the 52+ tracks they've released through Dial-A-Song [2015]). Between the biographical material and the (dull, alas) digressions about King's Quest, there's not quite as much about the actual music as you'd expect, but when it's there, it's good, insightful criticism; I like the way they trace the idea of flooding through lyrics, composition, arrangements, and topics. Sandifer is more restrained here than he often is on his blog; I don't know if it's because of having a co-author, an editor who's not himself, or a word limit, but it works to his advantage to be forced to pare down to what really matters.

33⅓ itself is a neat concept; I hope that, someday, another one is released about an album I actually know something about. (The list on Wikipedia indicates I'm not getting my wish this year or next, though.)

19 February 2016

The Limits of Institutional Structures of Diversity in the University

At my university, graduate assistants recently unionized, forcing the university to recognize us as state employees. This has had the positive effects of providing us with access to state employee benefits such as state healthcare, but has also meant we now have to do a lot of the things other employees do, like attend mandatory trainings. This past Tuesday, I attended a sexual harassment prevention training. Parts of it were helpful-- the details of reporting requirements for instructors had never been indicated to me in eight years here-- but parts of it were also pretty stark, often due to the limitations of providing meaningful training to a group of one hundred people at a time.

What really hit me was this slide:

Why do we have to report? Legal liability. Not because you might help stop someone from being the victim of harassment or assault, but because you'll save the faceless institution that is the University from being sued. They're who really needs to be protected here.

Now, I am being realistic: I know that the reason things like our Office of Diversity and Equity exist is because of legal requirements. But I don't see why being legally obligated to exist can't stop these structures from thinking of themselves as protecting the individual, not protecting the institution. I have worked in a large bureaucracy, and though I suspect I occasionally (or even often) failed in this regard, I always tried to keep in mind that our requirements didn't exist to serve themselves, or even us, but the people.

The problem with this protect-the-institution mindset is amply illustrated by a different training session I went to earlier this semester, about diversity. We watched an eight-minute clip from an ABC show called What Would You Do? about two deaf women trying to fill out an application to work at a coffee shop that needs help in the kitchen:

If you don't feel like watching the actual video, the manager tells the women they can fill out the application if they really want, but he will never hire them on account of their disability. But the deaf women and the manager are all actors, and the experiment is repeated a few time across the course of the same day. The focus of the video is on the bystanders and their reactions, a few of whom confront the manager, and one who declares he's never buying coffee there again. Many others just sit there and look disgusted. (Most likely this would be what I did.)

But three people come up to the manager after the women leave and tell the manager that if he's going to discriminate against these women, he just needs to be smarter about it. He should politely accept their applications, and then reject them for reasons of "fit." All three of these people work in Human Resources.

To me, this seemed a weird video to show at a mandatory employee diversity training because it's not damning of ordinary employees or even the manager (after all, he's a plant). It damns the very people putting on the training we were attending, highlighting that these structures are fundamentally not about protecting people from discrimination, but protecting the institution from being accused of being discriminatory.

Which, really, was the whole problem of the trainings. Lecturing hundreds of people for 2-3 hours is not an effective way to "teach" them diversity, as anyone who works in higher education should full well know. But these trainings aren't actually about teaching anyone about diversity or harassment. They're about protecting the institution from liability, and they were about as perfunctory as that implies.

Seriously, look at this slide:

No way was this slide made by anyone who was actually giving any thought to people being able to understand or use the information. It was probably on the projector screen for around 30 seconds. This slide is the invention of someone who wants to get through something as quickly as possible so that they can claim that they did their duty when they get in trouble for something. Actually helping people understand issues of diversity and equity doesn't enter into it.

18 February 2016

Review: The British Barbarians: A Hill-Top Novel by Grant Allen

Hardcover, 202 pages
Published 1975 (originally 1895)

Acquired and read January 2013
The British Barbarians: A Hill-Top Novel
by Grant Allen

According to Grant Allen's introduction, the "hill-top" of the subtitle means that "it has seldom happened that writers of exceptional aims have been able to proclaim to the world at large the things which they conceived to be best worth their telling it" (vii-viii). Commercial requirements mean that they-- including Allen himself-- have to dilute their meanings: "I have never said a thing I did not think: but I have sometimes had to abstain from saying many things I did think" (xi). So Allen devised "the Hill-Top novels," where he would say what he did think; in them, "the reader who cares for truth and righteousness may take it for granted that the book represents my own original thinking, whether good or bad, on some important point in human society or human evolution" (xii-xiii). This is all well and good, I suppose, but then Allen spends seven pages explaining his "hill-top" metaphor, and it all gets rather goofy: "the oxygen of the hill-tops is [...] rich in ozone. Now, ozone stands to common oxygen itself as the clean-cut metal to the dull and leaden exposed surface" (xix). All that said, Allen published no other "hill-top novels," though it looks like his earlier The Woman who Did had at least one reissue with that subtitle. I guess money spoke louder than his principles.

The novel itself is about a scientist from the future (the 25th century, if I remember right) named Bertram, who is writing a history of taboo. He's a member of a Nomological Society; apparently nomology is the study of laws. He's come back to the Victorian period to study their taboos: they claim, of course, to have no taboos, unlike those primitives elsewhere, and thus Allen uses Bertram to satirize a lot of contemporary British culture and conventions. It's a lot like those episodes of Star Trek where they go back to the 20th century and act completely baffled at everything they see. Bertram's morality is scientific: for example, because human beings are "of one blood" evolutionarily, it baffles him to see inter-human violence. He ends up getting involved with a married woman: female sexual agency being one of the greatest Victorian taboos of all (and one that still lingers today). It's a cute idea that's perhaps overly long even at 200 pages, but a decent enough read.

17 February 2016

Faster than a DC Bullet: Project Crisis!, Part XLIII: Absolute Final Crisis

Comic hardcover, n.pag.
Published 2012 (contents: 2008-09) 

Borrowed from the library
Read June 2015
Absolute Final Crisis

Script: Grant Morrison
Art: J. G. Jones, Doug Mahnke, Carlos Pacheco, Matthew Clark, Jesus Merino, Marco Rudy, Christian Alamy, Tom Nguyen, Drew Geraci, Norm Rapmund, Rodney Ramos, Walden Wong, Derek Fridolfs, Rob Hunter, Mark Irwin, Don Ho, Lee Garbett, Trevor Scott
Color: Alex Sinclair, Tony Avina, Pete Pantazis, David Baron, Richard & Tanya Horie, Guy Major
3-D effects: Ray Zone
Letters: Rob Leigh, Rob Clark Jr., Travis Lanham, Steve Wands, Ken Lopez, Jared K. Fletcher

Final Crisis turns out to be one of those books I don't really know what I thought of. Grant Morrison always packs a lot into his stories, but this one packs in even more than most: it's a murder mystery, it's a trip by Superman in a forgotten realm, it's the triumph of evil over the world, it's about resistance and redemption, it's the death of Batman, it's the threat to all the multiverse, it's the return of Barry Allen from the dead, it's the death of the Martian Manhunter. There are a crazy amount of strands here, and one's never quite sure what kind of story one is actually reading. There was stuff I liked, obscure trivia that delighted me (the Green Man from The Omega Men makes an appearance!), and the themes seemed to be of interest when I could grasp them.

But I couldn't always integrate what I was reading into a big picture, so ultimately my response is more tepid than I'd like: this is one of those stories one ought to love or hate, and yet here I am, being lukewarm. Now that I know the shape of the whole, I'd like to reread it and see what I think. Some day, I guess!

Next Week: There's no possible way to make an exciting-sounding blurb for something called Final Crisis Companion!

16 February 2016

Return of the New Jedi Order, Episode XXII: Traitor by Matthew Stover

Mass market paperback, 292 pages
Published 2002

Acquired 2002(?)
Reread February 2015
Star Wars: The New Jedi Order: Traitor
by Matthew Stover

Year Three, Month 2 through Year Four, Month 1 of the Invasion*
Discriminating fans know that every Star Wars novel should be by Matthew Stover and/or Troy Denning and/Greg Keyes: their work is the very definite highlights of The New Jedi Order. Traitor takes this war we've been reading and makes it about something, applies a philosophical underpinning, and then questions the very same underpinning. The cover makes this book look like it's of a pair with Dark Journey, and I guess technically it is, but Traitor outperforms Dark Journey on every possible level. Good characters, good story, good plotting, good jokes. The ending is epic. This isn't quite Star by Star or Conquest, but it's by far one of the best NJO books.

Next Week: Admiral Ackbar is back in Destiny's Way!

* Year Three of the Invasion is an odd one: four novels occur in its first four months, and then while Traitor stretches across most of the year, most of the main characters are absent from it; for them, there's a nine-month gap in appearances between Rebel Stand and Destiny's Way. Traitor gives us some glimpses of this time-- the Yuuzhan Vong have a plan to overwhelm the wider galaxy with refugees-- but it seems to be an unusual period of stasis during the Invasion, given that not much changes between Rebel Stand and Destiny's Way.

15 February 2016

Review: Star Wars: The Black Fleet Crisis: Tyrant's Test by Michael P. Kube-McDowell

Mass market paperback, 366 pages
Published 1997

Acquired August 2010
Reread January 2016
Star Wars: The Black Fleet Crisis, Book Three: Tyrant's Test
by Michael P. Kube-McDowell

It all sort of fizzles out in Tyrant's Test. The last book ended with the promise of action; in this one, Han Solo spends 250 pages in space jail while Leia wrings her hands a lot and weathers an impeachment crisis. Then war is declared. C'mon, this is Star Wars; if you write a Star Wars trilogy where war isn't declared until page 250 of Book Three, you have grossly misunderstood the genre you are meant to be working in. I couldn't even explain to you what the 250 pages were filled with; nothing happened.

And once we get the war, it's not terribly exciting, because the New Republic succeeds through Luke suddenly turning up because the mysterious Force adepts he's been seeking the whole time are completely coincidentally from the same region of space the Republic is invading. Like, really? The Force adepts do all the day-saving, undermining what could otherwise be cool scenes, and making Luke come across as a condescending windbag to boot.

Even the initially interesting Lando plot just sputters to a conclusion, with the day-saving all done by characters who aren't Lando.

There are some good moments in this trilogy, but there's not enough of them to fill one book, much less three. Next time the boffins at TheForce.Net suggest some book I know I didn't like in 1997 is actually quite good, I'll stick to my initial impression and not expend effort rereading it to confirm what I already thought!

12 February 2016

You Should Be Watching The Expanse

Finishing Deep Space Nine gave me a hankering to watch more space opera. I mean, it is probably my favorite genre of television, but rewatching DS9 is the first time in years I've watched one! My wife and I are talking about watching Farscape (which I've only seen bits of), but of course a big part of the problem here is that they don't make much space opera any more: Battlestar Galactica and Stargate are done and dusted.

But then it occurred to me that there's actually one on tv right now: The Expanse. This is based on a series of novels by James S.A. Corey (who is really two people), and seemingly part of Syfy's attempt to break into the "peak tv" market. You can actually watch the first episode legally for free on YouTube:

This was enough to intrigue me, and I've been downloading the subsequent ones for $1.99 off iTunes. So far it's a good mix of politics, intrigue, and character. The show is about a conflict between Earth and a colonized, independent Mars over the resources of the asteroid belt-- but the "Belters" are developing their own unique culture and starting to resent being interfered with. Also there are Space Mormons. (I'm not sure how they fit in yet.) It keeps the twists up without being overwhelming, and though the characters are perhaps a little generic at first, they're starting to pop. I particularly like Dominique Tipper as Naomi Nagata and Cas Anvar as Alex Kamal:

Recent busyness has kept me back at Episode 4, however, when the tenth and final episode of the show just aired ten days ago. That said, Episode 4, "CQB," is really what sold me on the show: the characters are solidifying, the bigger picture is starting to come into focus, and there was some really neat physics.

Neat physics? Yes, I mean that. The world of The Expanse doesn't have artificial gravity or faster-than-light travel or your other usual tv sf shortcuts, and the show really leverages that to increase the tension and the drama. Gravity is simulated through acceleration, rotation, or magnetic boots. In Episode 4, a group of our protagonists is on a Martian spaceship that comes under attack by another vessel, who boards it. The Martian ship is under acceleration, so there's gravity, and our heroes need to run out into the open to make it up a boarding ramp, so they turn off their magnetic boots to increase their speed.

Only the ship's engines cut off when one pair is halfway across, and they start floating up into the air while their enemies fire at them. But one of the pair clips himself to the other and then pushes off her, sending her floating even higher, but him back down to the ramp, which he grabs onto and then reels her back in. The whole sequence was incredibly tense, keeping me on the edge of my seat-- and all done with (what seems to be to this layman, at least) real physics! And this wasn't the only moment like that in the episode.

It was a shame to leave off there, but hopefully now that I'm done with my big writing spree, I can get back into The Expanse and finish it off.

11 February 2016

Review: Dinosaur Summer by Greg Bear

Hardcover, 325 pages
Published 1998

Acquired March 2008
Read September 2014
Dinosaur Summer by Greg Bear
illustrations by Tony DiTerlizzi

This is a weird book: a YA novel by a hard sci-fi author that's a sequel to Conan Doyle's The Lost World (it's set about thirty years later) featuring a number of mid-century special effects artists as characters. I mean, what? Basically after The Lost World (for some reason, The Poison Belt and The Land of Mist don't seem to be canonical here), dinosaur circuses became popular, but now they're not, and the main characters have got to return some of them to Challenger's South American plateau. Our protagonist is a boy whose father is a photojournalist documenting the trip.

Putting aside the weird premise (like, who was the target audience of this imagined to be? or was Bear big enough to just do whatever he wanted?), it's actually just a boring book. I felt like I waited its whole length for something interesting to happen. 300 pages is longer than he has ideas for. And how could anyone get tired of the dinosaur circus after just 35 years?

Tony DiTerlizzi's illustrations are really nice, though.

10 February 2016

Faster than a DC Bullet: Project Crisis!, Part XLII: Countdown Presents: Lord Havok and the Extremists

Comic trade paperback, n.pag.
Published 2008 (contents: 2007-08) 

Borrowed from the library
Read June 2015
Countdown Presents: Lord Havok and the Extremists

Writer: Frank Tieri
Pencillers: Liam Sharp, Mark Robinson
Inkers: Liam Sharp, Rob Hunter, Mark McKenna, Mark Irwin, Mark Pennington, Sandu Florea
Colorists: Dave Baron, Kanila Tripp
Letterers: Pat Brosseau, John J. Hill, Rob Leigh, Steve Wands, Travis Lanham

So, I am as big a fan of Justice League Europe as you'll find. Years before I really got into comics collecting, I had complete runs of three series: Alpha Flight, Star Trek: Early Voyages, and Justice League Europe. Yeah, I have weird tastes. I was drawn to its seeming absurdity of premise (the Justice League... in Europe!), but I stayed because I loved the characters, especially Elongated Man, who remains a favorite to this day.

All this to say, is that I think the Extemists are dumb and probably the worse part of JLE. I think they appeared twice (in the storylines The Extremist Vector and Breakdowns), and as pompously serious dark and gritty genocidal villains, they were a complete mismatch for the fun tone of JLE. JLE could get serious when it needed to, but this was not the way to do it. Maybe they were intended as a commentary on the excesses of 1990s gritty comics, but then the commentary did not land. If as a hardcore fan of JLE, I don't give a crap about the Extremists... then who does?

Despite that, DC brought them back for Countdown to Final Crisis and even devoted a six-issue miniseries to their backstory! I can't fathom why. Countdown to Final Crisis is inexplicable enough; why does it have two six-issue miniseries that tie into it? Why would you pay money for this? What artistic purpose does this book serve? I don't mean "artistic" in a high-faluting way, I mean, "Why would anyone enjoy reading this?"

Answer: no one would. This is another Final Crisis tie-in that isn't worth the paper it's printed on.

Next Week: The suffering is over-- or is it? Either way, we've reached the end of the Countdown and it's time for the Final Crisis!

09 February 2016

Return of the New Jedi Order, Episode XXI: Rebel Stand by Aaron Allston

Star Wars books two days in a row? What is this, some kind of fanboy blog? Anyway, it's been seven months, but now it's time to wrap up my reviews of The New Jedi Order.

Mass market paperback, 367 pages
Published 2002

Acquired 2002(?)
Reread February 2015
Star Wars: The New Jedi Order: Enemy Lines II: Rebel Stand
by Aaron Allston

Year Three of the Invasion (Months 3-4)
Perhaps the best and worst thing one can say about an Aaron Allston novel is that it contains competent space action. That is to say, this is a novel with little ambition that it accomplishes spectacularly well. There are space battles, interesting tactics, and quips, and there are definitely times I'll take successful nonambition over failed ambition. Allston knows what he wants this book to be, an he does it well, which is more than you can say for a lot of New Jedi Order novels.

One thing I will always remember about this book is thinking that Wedge Antilles could die. Chewbacca showed that main film characters weren't safe, and Anakin Solo showed that main novel characters weren't safe-- next to them, Wedge is small potatoes, so I was on the edge of my seat the first time I read it. The effect is somewhat muted thirteen years later, however.

Next Week: We finally find out what happened to Jacen Solo in Traitor!

08 February 2016

Review: Star Wars: The Black Fleet Crisis: Shield of Lies by Michael P. Kube-McDowell

Mass market paperback, 340 pages
Published 1996

Acquired 1996/97(?)
Reread January 2016
Star Wars: The Black Fleet Crisis, Book Two: Shield of Lies
by Michael P. Kube-McDowell

There are probably lots of Star Wars novels that follow three (or more) groups of characters having adventures in different parts of the galaxy. This is, as far as I know, the only one to admit that they are so unrelated that instead of bouncing from focal character to focal character, the book handles each character in one go. Of the book's 340 pages, the first 100 are in a section called "I. Lando," the next 100, "II. Luke," and the last 140 are "III. Leia." I can kind of imagine why you might want to do this-- even though the stories are happening simultaneously, they impact each other minimally at best-- but it has a negative effect. Jumping from plot to plot gives your story an (admittedly, artificial) energy, while sticking with each for a long stretch highlights just how little happens in it.

The Lando section was my favorite, but that maybe says more about how much I didn't like the other ones than how much I liked it. I mean, Lando continues to be the only interesting and active protagonist in this series, and reading about him at work is always enjoyable: I like how Kube-McDowell shows his slippery gambling mind in action. His repartee with Lobot is nice, Kube-McDowell has a good handle on the droids, and the mystery unfolds reasonably well: except that it's sooooo slooooow. I would be hard-pressed to explain how Kube-McDowell stretches wandering around a spaceship to 100 pages.

Luke's part was my least favorite. His search for his mother with Akanah has the potential to be interesting from a character perspective (even if we know that, as this book was released pre-Revenge of the Sith, he can never actually find her) but instead we are presented with the world's slowest search, accompanied by Akanah moralizing at Luke a lot. And many of the seeds for the Jedi pacifist morality that ruined the early New Jedi Order books were apparently sown here.

Finally, there's Leia's part, which continues the implausibly out-of-character depiction of her from Book One. Except that, while there she was making bad decisions, here she decides to make no decisions. Again, it's hard to account for how Leia constantly not making up her mind about things can somehow be made to last 140 pages. There's potentially something interesting here, about how you transition from being a group of terrorists to being a functioning state: as Rebels, Leia and company could attack whoever they needed to get the job done; as the New Republic, they don't have that luxury. But whatever is interesting here is buried, very deep. Though I did like the idea that the government of the New Republic has to be purposefully inefficient, because of the fear of the Emperor. (Kube-McDowell was right in 1996 about the fact that Palpatine would assume power by legitimate means.)

Kube-McDowell write good space battle scenes-- there are a couple here featuring the Fifth Fleet, as well as the one that opens Before the Storm-- with the choreography, logistics, and tactics well worked out, but his insistence on political realism undermines them, as none of our protagonists participate in them, all being back on Coruscant. Sure, that makes sense, but this is Star Wars, and these space battles would be ten times as good if someone I cared about was in them. Weirdly, the pivotal action scene that closes the book, the kidnapping of Han Solo, is over in about half a page, and none of it is seen from Han's perspective.

There is one saving grace to the whole Leia plot: Admiral Ackbar. Ackbar is a total badass here, the only character who knows what needs to be done and does it. The scenes where he befriends Plat Mallar, the only survivor of a genocidal Yevethan attack on the planet Polneye, as he recovers and then decides to enlist in the New Republic Navy, are a real highlight of the book, one of its few.

One final observation: "Leia was able to hold the meeting down to two hours" proves that Star Wars is fantasy if nothing else does.

05 February 2016


I still intend to blog about the end of Deep Space Nine, and now I have intentions of blogging about The Expanse, which you and everyone else who watches space opera should watch, but I'm spent. A complete draft of my dissertation is due in five days (four, once you read this), and I haven't got the wherewithal to write anything else tonight.

The obligatory PhD Comic.
So, based on something I wrote on facebook, here is a list of things I wish my dissertation committee would stop pointing out:
  1. Sentences that are really three or four sentences held together by overly generous use of em-dashes, colons, and semicolons.
  2. Words I just completely made up because I don't know what the right word is.
  3. Pronouns that don't have referents.
  4. Places where I assume the reader knows as much about Victorian philosophy of science as I do.
  5. That halfway through a chapter I forgot a key term and substituted a different, less precise word.
  6. The fact that my explanation of the fact that the gardening guidebook Dorothea Brooke reads in Middlemarch was written by James Loudon, husband to Jane Webb Loudon, author of the early science fiction novel The Mummy!: A Tale of the Twenty-Second Century probably belongs in a end note because it had literally nothing to do with my argument.
  7. Places where my meaning is completely unclear if you can't read my mind. Like, why don't you just know what I mean!? You're smart people, work it out for yourselves!
Things would just go a lot quicker if people would stop pointing out when I do a bad job!

04 February 2016

Review: When the World Screamed & Other Stories by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle

Trade paperback, 233 pages
Published 1990 (contents: 1926-29)
Acquired September 2014
Read October 2014
Professor Challenger Adventures, Volume II: When the World Screamed & Other Stories
by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle

There are a lot of editions of various combinations of the Professor Challenger stories, but this 1990 edition from Chronicle Books collects all the ones that weren't in the Penguin Classics version of The Lost World and Other Thrilling Tales, which is exactly what I needed. (As far as I can tell, there are no scholarly editions of the later Challenger stories.) I read them in publication order, not the random order they're printed in here, so that's the order I'll tackle them in.

The Land of Mist is the last Challenger novel. Amusingly, it begins with a disavowal of all previous Challenger stories (or maybe just The Poison Belt: "The great Professor Challenger has been-- very improperly and imperfectly-- used in fiction. A daring author placed him in impossible and romantic situations in order to see how he would react to them." Challenger brought a libel action against the perpetrator, but exactly who that perpetrator might be doesn't make a whole lot of sense, as both previous Challenger tales were supposedly written by the reporter Edward Malone (Land of Mist is in the third person), who here is on sufficiently good terms with Challenger as to be marrying his daughter!

But all that's sort of to the side, as The Land of Mist is just a terrible story. Written ten years after The Poison Belt-- an interregnum in which the Great War transpired-- the book is largely driven by Doyle's spiritualist beliefs, and it's less about Challenger than the most tediously dull and sanctimonious spiritualists you ever met. There might be some others who are fakes, but these ones, honest guv, they're the real deal. You can tell this because they're poor and virtuous. This goes on for almost 200 pages, and Doyle even includes an appendix citing his sources because it's all true. The only thing worse than plunging Challenger into this mess would be using Sherlock Holmes, so I guess we can be thankful that Doyle still had some sense and never went that far.

The other two tales are short stories, "When the World Screamed" and "The Disintegration Machine." (One of them mentions that Mrs. Challenger is alive, and she was dead in The Land of Mist, so I think Doyle retconned his retcon!) These are both pretty dull sf stories Isaac Asimov would call Stage Two, technology dominant; they'd fit right into an American sf magazine from the Golden Age, in that both focus on explicating some kind of technological idea (the Earth screams when you drill into it, you can disintegrate and reintegrate people) without actually telling a story around it or doing anything interesting at all.

Next Week: Fifty years after The Lost World, the world has changed and it's a Dinosaur Summer!

03 February 2016

Faster than a DC Bullet: Project Crisis!, Part XLI: Countdown to Final Crisis: 12...11...10...09...08...07...06...05...04...03...02...01...00...

Comic trade paperback, 271 pages
Published 2008 (contents: 2008) 

Borrowed from the library
Read May 2015
Countdown to Final Crisis: 12...11...10...09...08...07...06...05...04...03...02...01...00...

Writers: Paul Dini, Justin Gray, Jimmy Palmiotti, Adam Beechen, Sean McKeever
Story Consultant: Keith Giffen
Pencillers: Jesus Saiz, Tom Derenick, Mike Norton, Scott Kolins, Carlos Magno, Jim Starlin, Jamal Igle, Freddie Williams II
Inkers: Jimmy Palmiotti, Scott Kolins, Freddie Williams II, Mark McKenna, Wayne Faucher, Rod Ramos, Keith Champagne
Letterers: Ken Lopez, Travis Lanham, Steve Wands
Colorist: Pete Pantazis

Do you remember when Earth-51 was destroyed in volume three of Countdown to Final Crisis? Well, apparently none of the writers or characters in volume four do, because here it's destroyed all over again! I think because the account of its destruction in volume three was inconsistent with that of its destruction in Final Crisis, they rolled the events back and did it all over again to make it match up with the account that was given in Final Crisis. Sloppy plotting at its finest!

Other things that don't matter:
  • Harley Quinn and Holly Robinson are given superpowers by the Amazonian gods. No one cares!
  • Mary Marvel is arbitrarily given her powers back. Then she loses them. Then she turns evil again. Then she's fine. What is the point of all this? I have absolutely no idea. This character has essentially been brainwashed off-and-on for 52 issues. What on Earth could even be interesting about that? We haven't learned a thing about Mary as a character. No one cares!
  • Various members of the Legion of Super-Heroes are killed off. No one cares!
  • The cover of issue #4 is a close-up on Mary Marvel's giant boobs. No one cares!
  • Darkseid and Orion have a final showdown. Again. No one cares!
  • The Challengers from Beyond (that utterly dull group of characters including Jason Todd, Donna Troy, and some others I don't even remember) tell the Monitors that they'll be monitoring them. You can expect this to literally never be followed up on despite the fact that it really ought to impact Final Crisis because... No one cares!
Really, the only joy you can take in Countdown to Final Crisis at this point is mocking it. It's astounding that talented people like Paul Dini, Keith Giffen, and Jim Starlin got together and produced 1,159 pages of sheer worthlessness. But at least it was always fast-paced, I guess?

Next Week: More stuff no one could ever care about! Lord Havok and the Extremists!

02 February 2016

Doctor Who at Christmas: K9 and Company

Acquired and read December 2015
The Companions of Doctor Who: K9 and Company
by Terence Dudley

This past Christmas's Doctor Who book gets even less festive. K9 and Company novelizes the first and only episode of the television programme of the same name, "A Girl's Best Friend." It takes place in the week prior to Christmas, climaxing on the winter solstice; there are a couple of vaguely Christmassy events happening-- kids home from school, soirees to attend-- but otherwise few Christmas trappings. (K9 does sing a carol. In the show it's "We Wish You a Merry Christmas," but here it's "While Shepherds Watched Their Flocks," though we only get the first line. I wonder if John Leeson did more of the song when he recorded the audiobook?)

All that said, it's utterly dull for the most part. Sarah Jane is vaguely concerned something is going on, and looks into it, but doesn't discover much, again and again. There are also a lot of boring conversations between K9 and Sarah's aunt's ward, Brendan, a pretty misconceived 1980s geek character. The only good part is the lead-up to the climax, a nighttime chase scene across the countryside. Otherwise there's not much to recommend here, and we can all remain grateful it remained a one-off special (the titles are especially charmingly terrible), though at least the pairing of Sarah Jane and K9 was maintained into the new series.

Next Week: Time to finally finish up Star Wars: The New Jedi Order, beginning with Enemy Lines II: Rebel Stand!

01 February 2016

Reading Roundup Wrapup: January 2016

Pick of the month: 2001: A Space Odyssey by Peter Krämer. My full review should appear in a couple weeks, but this was a zippy, intelligent reading of an excellent film, and it left me eager to read more books in the BFI Film Classics series. That said, I'd also have to give nods to Batman: The Cult and book 2 of The Complete Calvin and Hobbes, both of which were also excellent reads.

All books read:
1. 33⅓: They Might Be Giants’ Flood by S. Alexander Reed and Philip Sandifer
2. Star Wars: The Black Fleet Crisis, Book Two: Shield of Lies by Michael P. Kube-McDowell
3. Nightwing: Year One by Scott Beatty & Chuck Dixon
4. Batman: The Killing Joke: The Deluxe Edition by Alan Moore with Brian Bolland
5. Batman: Ten Nights of the Beast by Jim Starlin
6. 2001: A Space Odyssey by Peter Krämer
7. Star Wars: The Black Fleet Crisis, Book Three: Tyrant’s Test by Michael P. Kube-McDowell
8. Unflattening by Nick Sousanis
9. Batman: The Cult by Jim Starlin
10. The Complete Calvin and Hobbes, Book Two: 1987-1989 by Bill Watterson
11. The Many Deaths of the Batman by John Byrne
12. DC Comics Classics Library: Batman: A Death in the Family by Jim Starlin and Marv Wolfman with George Pérez

All books acquired:
1. These Heroic, Happy Dead by Luke Mogelson
2. Helix by Eric Brown
3. Redshirts by John Scalzi
4. Solaris Rising: The New Solaris Book of Science Fiction edited by Ian Whates

Books remaining on "To be read" list: 628 (up 7)
Books remaining on "To review" list: 128 (down 6)