31 May 2019

"drench your skin in lover's rosy stain": A View to a Kill

Every Bond film I've watched thus far has been at least loosely based on its namesake, but that streak has been broken with A View to a Kill. The short story "From a View to a Kill," collected in For Your Eyes Only, is about Bond investigating the death of a NATO motorcycle courier in West Germany, and uncovering a secret Soviet installation. The film is about Bond investigating why British microchips are being acquired by Soviet hands, and uncovering a dastardly plot to destroy Silicon Valley. I mean, neither Moonraker nor For Your Eyes Only owed a lot to its prose source, but A View to a Kill doesn't have a single scene inspired by its as far as I noticed. (Well, I guess both have scenes in Paris.)

The whole thing is essentially an adaptation of the film version of Goldfinger, though. Just like how in Goldfinger, Bond investigates a gold-smuggling pipeline and ends up discovering a plot by a deranged capitalist to blow up the largest supply of gold, here Bond investigates a microchip-smuggling pipeline and ends up discovering a plot by a deranged capitalist to blow up the largest supplier of microchips. There are lots of parallels: like Goldfinger, Christopher Walken's Zorin cheats at games, has Bond as a houseguest, builds scale models of things (in fact, two different ones), and convenes people to look at them. It was that latter scene that convinced me this was a total rip-off, as just as in Goldfinger, one of the guys Zorin brings in wants no part of it, and so Zorin has him melodramatically killed off. The microchip cabal is pretty irrelevant, though; Bond never even discovers Zorin's co-conspirators exist, so they presumably get off scot-free.

I would be down with more Bond villains cruising around in blimps.

This was Roger Moore's last film as James Bond, but even if you didn't know that (I checked after it was over), the whole thing seems very tired, a marked contrast to the energetic For Your Eyes Only. The love scenes are as nonsensical as ever, and the fights completely lack any kind of zip or energy. Like most Roger Moore films, this features multiple doofy car chases, but without the sublimity that made the opening one from For Your Eyes Only so good. I couldn't put my finger on it, but the comedy chase that opens this one (where Bond's car keeps getting bits cut off) is stupid whereas the junky car chase in For Your Eyes Only is genius. And then there's this weird car chase where Bond steals a firetruck and comedy American policemen-- a strange staple of the Moore films-- come after him in scenes that belong in The Blues Brothers, except that they're not funny.

Britain's finest.

The thing that really sinks Roger Moore's Bond in this film isn't that he's too old to do the action or love scenes, it's that he seems to have lost all his charm. When Bond infiltrates the enemy as a socialite, he should be suave and charming, and make his enemies like him. Instead he just comes across as a smug asshole, and you have to wonder why anyone puts up with him, or why he expects this plan to work.

Other Notes:
  • Patrick Macnee appears as a fellow MI6 agent of Bond's. Macnee starred in ITV spy programme The Avengers (1961-69) at the same time Roger Moore starred in ITV spy programme The Saint (1962-69). There's some funny interplay between Moore and Macnee, but Macnee is completely superfluous, so you know that he's there just to be killed off to prove the situation is serious. And indeed, he is.
  • As you might imagine for a film about microchips, there are a lot of scenes where computers do something supposedly amazing that looks hilarious in retrospect.
  • I didn't really discuss the "Bond girls" very much, but they have very little impact. One feels the villainous May Day could have been excellent in a better film, but here she has to say lines like "What a view..." to set up Christopher Walken saying "...to a kill." She has two minions of her own, who end up contributing so little to the movie I have no idea why they're there. Bond also meets up with a Soviet agent he apparently slept with in the past, and he sleeps with her again, but she seems to get more excited over Tchaikovsky than his prowess.
  • I think this is the first movie with Robert Brown as M that I've seen. I don't think he's steely enough for the character. Frederick Gray, Minster of Defense, is here yet again. I never really get why Bond's briefing scenes require three different fussy old men (Gray, M, and Q) during the Roger Moore era.
  • The visuals during the title song are hilariously awful, including in part what I think is supposed to be sexy skiing.
  • The best part of the movie is during the cold open, when Bond snowboards to "California Girls." Sublime.
  • James Bond is revealed to cook a mean quiche.

Film Rankings (So Far):
  1. Casino Royale
  2. Dr. No
  3. From Russia with Love
  4. For Your Eyes Only
  5. Goldfinger
  6. Moonraker
  7. A View to a Kill
  8. Live and Let Die 
  9. Diamonds Are Forever

30 May 2019

Review: Lilith's Brood by Octavia E. Butler

Trade paperback, 746 pages
Published 2007 (contents: 1987-89)

Previously read September 2005May 2007
Acquired June 2016
Reread May 2019
Lilith's Brood by Octavia E. Butler

Way back in summer 2016, when I taught my class on apocalyptic and postapocalyptic literature, one of the novels I elected to teach was Octavia Butler's Dawn. As a piece of postapocalyptic literature, it's even bleaker than most. So many postapocalyptic stories seem bleak, but in the long run cop out on that, probably because of what Claire Curtis says, that "[t]hey provide both the voyeuristic satisfaction of terrible violence and the Robinson Crusoe excitement of starting over again" (6). There's a weird sort of utopian optimism that underlies the postapocalyptic story, even, say The Walking Dead, where things go round and round and never get resolved... but everyone in the book seems to think they will.

This is true of African-American apocalypses as well. This is not my area of expertise, but there's a great article on the topic by Houston Baker called "Freedom and Apocalypse: A Thematic Approach to Black Expression." Baker says that denied access to their own ancestral mythology, African-Americans had to make use of Christianity's, but that wasn't exactly readily available either: "The black folk on small farms, on large plantations, and in the cities of America, having effectively been isolated from West African culture, were denied meaningful participation in white culture by proscriptive and dehumanizing laws. […] The isolated black folk looked to religion as a unifying myth that could provide social cohesion" (43-4). One thing that resonated, though, was the apocalypse, which is when that unification and cohesion would come to pass: "The end of the old earth and the descent of the final destroying fires […] was an event […] all black men could look to with Christian joy and with a firm confidence that freedom would follow" (49).

There's nothing like that in Dawn. Humanity has been destroyed by nuclear war, and the survivors are only alive by the grace of the Oankali, a race of aliens who need our genetic material to survive. But humanity has no desire to learn from its mistakes-- the people in this book are distrustful, carrying forward all the same hatreds and prejudices that doomed humanity the first time around. Lilith cannot convince anyone else of what she thinks because she is black and a woman. And freedom has not followed, because now the Oankali are here, ready to use our bodies as raw material for their own development. In some ways the Oankali are superior, because they don't murder or fight... but they also are completely self-interested as a species, and there are some obvious parallels between what they do to humanity and what America did to black folk. The "final destroying fires" haven't made anything better.

One aspect of the African-American apocalypse that Baker identifies is the trickster, who is able to manipulate the apocalypse: "in the earliest folk art of the black American, the etiological animal tale, we find the expression of revolutionary social and religious concerns. The psychical identification of the slave with the trickster made it possible for the folk to depict apocalyptic events that would punish their white oppressors" (49). I don't know if Butler knew she was doing this, but Lilith feels like a rebuttal to this trickster tradition. She comes up with these plans and ideas, and things always fall apart. The Oankali outmanuever her, or her fellow humans self-sabotage. In the end, she cannot do anything other than succumb. But maybe life as an Oankali slave is better than as a free human? It's a trite question, but Butler is good at utterly reserving judgement. One never feels that an action is supposed to be "good" or "bad" in her novels' moral universe, it simply is. Dawn is a sharply observed, astounding achievement, a discussion of what it means to be human that pulls no punches, and certainly one of the bleakest pieces of postapocalyptic literature ever written. None of the optimism seen by Curtis or Baker is present.

Dawn was the only Xenogenesis novel I taught that summer. Some of my students were intrigued by it; others baffled. That's a success in my book, but I'm not sure I did the book justice. It's complicated in a way that defies easy discussion. Anyway, I had ordered the collected edition (retitled Lilith's Brood in 2000) since a new copy of it is cheaper than a new copy of Dawn on its own, and I eventually got around to rereading the last two installments of the trilogy.

I found Adulthood Rites and Imago disappointing compared to the first book. Don't get me wrong, they're very good, but Dawn is on a whole other level. The complexity of character, the bleakness, the astute observations of human nature that drive Dawn just aren't in Adulthood Rites and Imago, thanks to their focus on Oankali constructs. I did enjoy Imago more, in taking us into the head of the first construct ooloi (it's the only book in the series written in the first person), and being pretty unsettling in doing so, as you're essentially rooting for its main character to change other character's desires for its own advantage. It's presenting very matter-of-factly, but if you think about it, it's pretty unsettling; you end up hoping that the last enclave of free humanity on Earth will give itself up to alien control! It is all to easy to empathize with the colonizer over the colonized, even when your own people are the colonized.

29 May 2019

Review: Hornblower and the Hotspur by C. S. Forester

Trade paperback, 394 pages
Published 1998 (originally 1962)

Acquired 2006(?)
Previously read May 2007
Reread March 2019
Hornblower and the Hotspur by C. S. Forester

This is the last completed Hornblower novel by publication order. Something I didn't realize before doing this readthrough is that Forester jumps around within his flashback stories; I thought that having gone backward, Forester works his way forward again. But he doesn't. Hornblower and the Atropos pretty much leads straight into Beat to Quarters, so to get another prequel adventure in, Forester jumps backward yet again, filling a not-quite-extant gap between Lieutenant and Atropos. He disregards his own continuity to do so, as having Bush as Hornblower's first lieutenant prior to Beat to Quarters really pushes the bounds of plausibility. It's also kind of odd to have Hornblower deal with an inconsequential act of insubordination immediately after a similar incident in Admiral Hornblower in the West Indies, and the solution he chooses here doesn't entirely mesh with the one there. Also also Hornblower knows French in this book, but in the original trilogy he knew Spanish but not French, which he only learned in Flying Colours.

But who cares when the result is as good as this? Unlike Atropos, this installment is highly focused, chronicling two years on the Channel blockade, two years where Hornblower distinguishes himself in action, but never manages to win any prize money. His financial and romantic and career fortunes are the threads that tie the novel together as we follow him from escapade to escapade. The incident with the treasure fleet is a particular highlight, and I will always remember where I was the first time I read the chapter where Hornblower is served a delectable feast by an admiral (on a transatlantic flight, eating much less delectable food), lavishly described by Forester. This isn't the best Hornblower book, but it's a solid outing of naval adventure, for the final time.

I've read the incomplete Hornblower during the Crisis before, and it's a curio, worth reading once but not worth rereading, so this will be my last Hornblower book. It's nice that Hornblower's last outing is a good one, and that it takes place in the middle of his career, and that it includes Bush. We don't end with and old man and/or a dead one, but two of the greatest sailors of fiction, in action. One can imagine Hornblower and Bush out there sailing, forever.

28 May 2019

Review: Thunderball by Ian Fleming

Mass market paperback, 336 pages
Published 2006 (originally 1961)
Acquired April 2018
Read July 2018
Thunderball by Ian Fleming

Like a lot of Bond novels, this one has a somewhat daffy pre-adventure. You know the films always start with him, like, skiing to recover tapes in Antarctica, or rappelling down dams? Thunderball begins with M sending Bond to do a cleanse at a health clinic. It's connected to the main plot of the book by the thinnest of threads, a thread so thin Bond even calls it out as being a ridiculous coincidence from a poorly written thriller! Still there are some good jokes; Bond suddenly has a comedy Scottish housekeeper I don't remember from previous books, but she's a delight. Bond, it turns out, despises tea ("that flat, soft, time-wasting opium of the masses") and desires spaghetti bolognese more than any other food.

The actual plot is one of Fleming's best, I reckon. It's interesting how different the kind of things book Bond does are to what film Bond does. Book Bond is an investigator, a man who works subtly and slowly. The world is being blackmailed by stolen nuclear warheads, and still Bond has to check out a potential suspect slowly and subtly, verifying his suspicions by posing as a would-be property buyer before calling in the big guns. But Fleming excels at this kind of detail work; it plays to his strength as a writer, which is to use minutiae to be utterly convincing. This is the reason SPECTRE (finally introduced in this book, though Bond doesn't meet Blofeld, or even know he exists) works; their operations are depicted with such thought and precision that they seem plausible even in their absurdity.

As always, Bond is kind of obnoxious. There's a bit where he and Felix complain about overpriced food and watered-down drinks and they're total snobs. There's another bit where Bond ruminates on what makes female drivers so bad. But that leads into the fact that this female driver drives like a man, and Fleming is so good at this kind of thing that you instantly understand how sexy that makes her. Just from the way she drives a car, and short but meticulous description of her outfit, and Fleming reels you in.

If you think about it, not a lot actually happens, but it happens carefully and suspensefully (as always the fight scenes are physical and engrossing; this one has a particularly good final showdown) and the gambling scenes put you on the edge of your seat, and that's the hallmark of an excellent James Bond novel.

Next Week: Vivienne Michel tells us about The Spy Who Loved Me!

27 May 2019

Review: Ancillary Mercy by Ann Leckie

Trade paperback, 359 pages
Published 2015

Acquired December 2016
Read December 2018
Ancillary Mercy by Ann Leckie

Ancillary Mercy is better than Ancillary Sword, but I'm wondering if Ann Leckie was a one-hit wonder-- neither the Ancillary books 2-3 nor Provenance were anywhere near as good as Ancillary Justice. I feel as if after Justice, she just had no idea where to go; that's how it reads, anyway. The stakes in Sword/Mercy (which basically forms one big story) are technically higher than those in Justice; in Justice, Breq was just out for her own satisfaction/vengeance, whereas in Mercy, she's fighting to save a solar system. But in Justice, the stakes felt higher because of Breq's personal need to do this; the climax of that book was one of the most intense reading experiences I can remember having in ages. The big problem of Sword/Mercy is that there's no strong personal involvement for Breq. She was sent to this solar system arbitrarily as far as we can; I don't really have a reason to care if it can be protected from Anaannder Mianaai.

Part of the problem in Mercy goes back to Sword. It didn't feel like Breq had to fight for anything in that book, so why should I care if it's taken away from her? In Justice, what she did was hard work. In Sword, she was easily right every time. It would have been nice to see Breq struggle to be a captain, because surely the service-based attitude one needs to be a good ship is different than the leadership-based attitude one needs to be a good captain. But Breq doesn't struggle; she's just a good captain from the word "go." Thankfully, Mercy reverses this somewhat, but it's still annoying. A morally right character who struggles to implement justice is sympathetic. A morally right character who always gets her way is smug and obnoxious.

The shame of it all is that Leckie does great, complex worldbuilding (along with Seth Dickinson, she's very much part of a movement more attentive to the details of colonialism and empire than I remember seeing in older sf) and crafts marvelous sentences. She writes great characters. I really like Seivarden, for example, and the Presger translator Zeiat was delightfully funny and alien; I laughed a lot at her antics.

I can imagine a better book 2-3 than we got-- and the very end of book 3 promises it, when [WATCH OUT, SPOILERS] Breq founds her own polity with citizenship for AI. Imagine if books 2-3 had been condensed down into one book ending where book 3 does right now. Then book 3 could have been about Breq trying to defend her own society from Anaander Mianaai and the Radch, trying to take from her the enclave of justice that she's built. That would have potentially had real emotional stakes in a way that this book does not. After reading Ancillary Justice, Leckie's work became must-buy for me... after reading the rest of it, it has lost that status. She's not a bad writer, but outside of Justice, she's not a great one, either.

24 May 2019

"The love I know you need in me, the fantasy you've freed in me": For Your Eyes Only

For Your Eyes Only was a short story collection, and arguably three of its stories were turned into films: "From a View to a Kill," "For Your Eyes Only," and "Quantum of Solace." I'll be watching them in release order, so here we are with For Your Eyes Only, the latest of the Roger Moore films we've seen in this weirdly ordered marathon thus far.

I found it kind of tonally jumpy but enjoyable all the same. It starts out with a real goofy scene where James Bond kills off Blofeld once and for all involving a remote-control helicopter and Blofeld being dumped down a factory smokestack. (Bond is visiting the grave of his dead wife, something that won't be explained for several more films in our marathon.) It's pretty ridiculous. But then we go to a pretty stark scene where the crew of an entire British spy ship is killed off, and then another scene where a woman's parents are brutally gunned down by a Cuban assassin right in front of her. It's like the pre-credits sequence and the following two scenes are from two totally different movies!

I couldn't find a picture of the black car in the tree on Google, but this is pretty good too.

Then we're back to goofiness. Bond goes to find the Cuban assassin, but the assassin is killed by his victims' daughter, Melina Havelock. Bond's car explodes when a goon tries to break in (it's hilariously over-the-top), so Bond and Melina have to use her car, which is introduced with an amazing comedy double-take, and then results in this ridiculous chase sequence through the Spanish countryside that involves inconvenient buses, multiple flips and spins, lots of near misses, and the goons' car getting stuck in the top of an olive tree. I remember thinking the chase sequences in Diamonds are Forever were ridiculous and dumb, but these were ridiculous and sublime. My wife and I were laughing all the way through. The movie continues in this mode for a while, next with a comedy ski-vs.-motorbike chase down an Alp that also involves bobsledding. Amazing! And then it gets even better, when Bond uses a zamboni to defeat three hockey-skating bad guys. (Though, to be honest, I wanted more zamboni action.)

Cool is driving a zamboni and acting like it's NBD.

Then the action moves to Greece and it suddenly becomes serious for the rest of the time. Bond and a Greek gangster (Milos Columbo, who is constantly chewing on pistachios) carry out a raid on the villain's warehouse, which is pretty tense, culminating in a brutal sequence where Bond kicks a henchman's car off a cliff. Then there are some tense underwater sequences where Bond and Melina recover a British encryption device from the sunken ship. Then there's a very tense sequence where Bond has to climb up to a mountain hideout. I mean, of course it's sprinkled through with bits of levity (Q turns up with a fake beard, disguised as a Greek Orthodox priest), but it's never again as overtly comic as the first half of the film, and it's much more serious than the other Roger Moore films we've watched thus far (Moonraker and Live and Let Die).

This might have been awkward, but actually I think it worked. The funny parts were genuinely funny, the tense parts were reasonably suspenseful. I don't know why the filmmakers decided to assemble the film in this weird way, but I guess they got away with it.

Surprisingly few "male gaze"-y photos when you Google Image Search her character.

My wife declared that Melina was the best "Bond girl" thus far, and I find it hard to disagree. Of course she has some damsel-in-distress moments, but overall she's a competent, driven professional who manages to kill some baddies on her own, contributes to multiple fights, and, when the villain tries to drown them, even saves the lives of herself and Bond by remembering that she left an extra air tank underwater, allowing the two of them to stay underwater long enough that the villain assumes they died. She contributed significantly to our enjoyment of the film. I would say it's not in the top tier of Bond films, but it's a solid example of the middle tier.

Other Notes:
  • I was surprised at how long the film goes before Bond sleeps with anyone. In fact, Bond turns down the first opportunity he gets, with figure skating star Bibi Dahl. I don't know why she throws herself at him: is 54-year-old Roger Moore really that attractive? He's certainly no Sean Connery or Daniel Craig. I also don't know why Bond turns her down, but him trying to fend her off is hilarious, so I'm okay with it.
  • M isn't in the movie; Chief of Staff Bill Tanner (his first real appearance in the films, both in production order and our order) and Minister of Defence Frederick Gray (who appeared in a number of the Roger Moore films) fill in for him. After finishing the movie, I discovered that M actor Bernard Lee had passed away between films (his final performance was Moonraker), and they waited a film to recast him out of respect.
  • Graham Crowden has a brief appearance. Thank God it's brief, because after Waiting for God and The Horns of Nimon, I can't take Graham Crowden seriously in anything.
  • After the first two scenes, I was wondering if this was one of those Bond adaptations that takes literally nothing from the source material, but then when Malina's parents were gunned down, I recognized some of the essentials from the "For Your Eyes Only" short story: only there, the married couple are killed by a Cuban assassin in Cuba so that a Cuban gangster can possess their country estate. Bond collides with their adult daughter while chasing down the same guy, and in both versions there's a death while swimming and significant use of bows and arrows. But the context for all of this is very different in the film. Weird how little details were maintained despite the big changes.
    • I was surprised when about halfway through, some details were combined in from "Risico," a completely unrelated short story also contained in For Your Eyes Only, with the two feuding Greek gangsters, complete with the fakeout that the bad one is pretending the good one is smuggling heroin when it's actually him who's doing it, as well as a scene where the good one records Bond and the bad one discussing him on a tape recorder hidden in a restaurant. Bond and the good one then team up to raid the bad one's heroin-smuggling ship. It's kind of random to include it, but the screenwriters fit it in so well it seems completely natural. Some of the details are swapped around, though; in the book, the good one uses a medal he received from the British government for fighting in the resistance during World War II as proof that he's the good one, while in the film, the bad one is the medal recipient, using the medal as cover.
    • Also I was surprised again when a scene from the novel of Live and Let Die (execution by being dragged from a boat in shark-infested waters) suddenly turned up in a totally new context.
  • Julian Glover is great as the villain, Kristatos. He was of course in The Empire Strikes Back, Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, and two serials of classic Doctor Who, but I kept thinking what an excellent Master he would have made.
  • What the heck is up with that Margaret and Denis Thatcher joke at the end!?

Film Rankings (So Far):
  1. Casino Royale
  2. Dr. No
  3. From Russia with Love
  4. For Your Eyes Only
  5. Goldfinger
  6. Moonraker
  7. Live and Let Die 
  8. Diamonds Are Forever

22 May 2019

Review: Admiral Hornblower in the West Indies by C. S. Forester

Trade paperback, 342 pages
Published 2000 (originally 1957-58)

Acquired June 2008
Read March 2019
Admiral Hornblower in the West Indies by C. S. Forester

This is the last Hornblower novel chronologically, the second last by publication order, and the last that was not a reread for me. I was a little apprehensive going in, because the post-Flying Colours novels had been disappointing to me, because things seemed too good for Hornblower, who works best as a character when he's on the back foot. (I'm convinced that if Forester knew he was going to write more than the original trilogy, he wouldn't have married Hornblower off at the end of Flying Colours.) Additionally, Forester occasionally struggles to bring cohesion to some Hornblower novels (e.g., Commodore Hornblower, Hornblower and the Atropos).

Well, I need not have worried, because Admiral Hornblower is one of the best Hornblower books, a great way for the series to end (or almost end). Hornblower feels much less overly accomplished in this one-- sure, he's an admiral, but when you're an admiral essentially on your own in the West Indies, that often constrains you more than it enables you. Much moreso than Commodore or Lord, Admiral captures how more responsibility makes things more difficult. So in some ways this is a return to the Hornblower of old, the captain we met in Beat to Quarters and Ship of the Line, and the wily young officer of Mr. Midshipman Hornblower and Lieutenant, but he's been successfully transposed to a new setting. One supposes it would have been possible to do the Star Trek thing, and have Hornblower technically be an admiral but still facing captain's problems, like in The Motion Picture or The Wrath of Khan, but Forester gives him admiral's problems that he deals with in his usual fashion: rogue French armies, diplomatic relations with Spain, sailors who need executing, and so on.

The book also benefits from being, like Mr. Midshipman, a series of short stories (or probably novellas, as there are just five of them) rather than a novel, though they don't have individual titles (in my edition at least; I see titles listed on Wikipedia). Forester doesn't struggle to unite disparate incidents, but can simply show the reader a series of problems across two years of being stationed overseas. There are a lot of great individual stories here, such as Hornblower having to violate his word for the first time in his career, or Hornblower's inventive solution to catching a slave ship when treaty forbids him to set sail immediately, or Hornblower facing a band of pirates, or accidentally supporting the wrong side in a revolution.

The very best one, though, is the last one, which covers Hornblower's need to enforce discipline by death (moreso than ever before, but for the most trivial of disobediences), his insecurities in his marriage, and a dramatic hurricane. It's great stuff, Hornblower at his most human as he doesn't quite believe in Barbara's love for him, and at his most superhuman as he tries to keep a tiny ship afloat in a gigantic storm, needing all his cleverness and charisma. The storm itself is some of Forester's very best writing, and I found the whole thing an emotional and fulfilling wrap-up to the Hornblower saga. Whether it's since Mr. Midshipman or Beat to Quarters, he's come a long way, no matter how you look at it.

21 May 2019

Review: For Your Eyes Only by Ian Fleming

Mass market paperback, 232 pages
Published 2006 (contents: 1959-60)
Acquired and read November 2017
For Your Eyes Only by Ian Fleming

This isn't the eighth James Bond novel, but rather the first James Bond short story collection. There are five in total, varying from typical Bond spycraft in short story form to more literary, domestic tales.

"From a View to a Kill" and "Risico" are the more typical Bond tales here; the first has Bond defeating a Soviet plot to intercept NATO intelligence despatches, while "Risico" sends Bond undercover to defeat a drug-smuggling operation. I enjoyed the former, imbued as it is with Fleming's usual attention to detail, and also a captivating female character that I wish we saw more of. On the other hand, "Risico" didn't seem to offer anything new.

"For Your Eyes Only" and "The Hildebrand Rarity" are a little more personal than normal. In the former, M sends Bond on a personal mission of vengeance, while in the latter, a vacationing Bond discovers an abusive marriage, a problem beyond the powers of Britain's top spy to do anything about. I liked both of these. "For Your Eyes" has another captivating woman for Bond to interact with, while "Hildebrand Rarity" is surprisingly interesting and complicated and violent.

The least Bondian story here is "Quantum of Solace," which is mostly a story a civil servant is telling Bond about a bad marriage. I really enjoyed it, and it's pretty clever what Fleming does with Bond here. The story would work on its own regardless as a horrific but all too plausible story of human cruelty, but having it framed with James Bond coming off an exciting adventure gives it a little extra oomph: "Suddenly the violent dramatics of his own life seemed very hollow." It leads to a nice moment of self-reflection for a man not terribly prone to it.

On the whole, I enjoyed the book. Fleming's spare style is suited to the short story, and some of his novels struggle to fill up a novel's worth of space, I think (e.g., Moonraker and Goldfinger), so giving him less space to work with fits his strengths as a writer.

Next Week: James Bond tries to prevent nuclear armageddon by hanging out in the Caribbean again... Thunderball!

20 May 2019

Review: Time Capsule by Lalla Ward

Oversized paperback, n.pag.
Published 2014

Acquired February 2017
Read December 2018
Time Capsule
by Lalla Ward with Paul W.T. Ballard

This is a slight little book of remembrances by Lalla Ward, the second and best Romana, of her time on Doctor Who. I'd wish I'd known how slight; I might not have sprung for it with that knowledge. There are some nice photographs from Ward's time on the programme-- the ones from her introductory photocall are particularly cute-- and these are probably the highlight of the book. The text is very light, just a couple sentences for every story she appeared in, and in the case of some (e.g., Meglos, Full Circle), all she writes is that she doesn't remember producing the story! Well, isn't that a great use of a two-page spread. When you do gain insight, it's sometimes a little frustrating; she didn't like Warriors' Gate, which I would say is one of the best stories she did. If you've read other behind-the-scenes Doctor Who books (e.g., In Their Own Words), you'll learn much more than you're likely to learn here.

The book is padded out by covers of Target novelisations, which is annoying, but also by costume design sketches by June Hudson, who was one of Doctor Who's foremost costume designers during seasons 17 and 18. These are amazing, and Hudson is one of Doctor Who's greatest unsung contributors. I'd take a book of these instead.

The profits from this book are for charity, so I guess that's nice. I love Lalla Ward enough for this all to be worthwhile (my copy is, delightfully, signed), but I doubt that will be the case for most folks.

17 May 2019

On the Road Again?: The Mollmanns and the National Parks

When you're a Mollmann, everything is hard work-- especially relaxation.

I was reminded of his recently by finding a departure "schedule" for a family trip from back when I was in high school. the purpose of the schedule is to make fun of my father's propensity for declaring "it's time to go" but then being the last one ready to go.

The real grueling schedule, however, was the trips themselves. Though we occasionally did relaxing beach vacations, the true Mollmann vacation was the national park road trip, where we would try to hit up as many parks as we could in a few weeks. Mom, I think, would do most of the plotting, working out a schedule and making reservations. the last one I ever went on was in 2006, which was during my LiveJournal Era, which means I am able to reconsruct a pretty detailed blow-by-blow account of it.

We landed in San Francisco, drove south to Sequoia National Park, then north to Yosemite National Park, Mount Lassen Volcanic National Park, hitting our northernmost at Crescent City, and then turned south to Fort Bragg, flying back out of San Francisco once more. Using Google Maps to estimate, that's a least 1,355 in 11 days, or 25 hours of driving. that's a little over two hours of driving per day, but of course there were days we did no driving, so there were days we did a lot of driving. (Of course, this trip doesn't hold a candle to the legendary 24-hour-with-no-overnight-stops drive from Cincinnati to Colorado.)

This could be pretty taxing on our family togetherness; I remember one trip where we arrived at a hotel and my father got out of the car and crossed the street and stood by himself over there just to get away from us all for a while. We were pretty annoying kids, even (especially?) a he ages of 15, 19, and 21.

The upshot of this, though, was that I got to go to a lot of national parks and see a lot of amazing things. We might have spent a lot of time in the car (Dad was forever telling us to put our books down and look out the window!), but we also spent a lot of time hiking in some of the most gorgeous places on Earth. I liked Rocky Mountain National Park so much that's where I insisted Hayley and I honeymoon, and I would definitely class it in my top five favorite places I've ever been. Being on top of Sentinel Dome during sunset in Yosemite is probably another.

Across all our trips we racked up a ton of parks; I didn't quite realize how many until I took a Geology of U.S. National Parks class my freshman year of college. A the beginning of each new park, the professor would ask everyone who'd ever been to that park to stand (it was a big lecture class, 100+ students). A couple years later I ran into a girl who said she recognized me from that class. "I sat behind you," she said, "and you stood up every time." I don't know if it was quite every time, but it was frequently. At a quick count, I've been to 21 of the 61 national parks.

Now that I make that count, it doesn't feel like enough. It's only one third! I made a map; there are so many big ones I still haven't been to, the most significant being Yellowstone. (I have been to eight of the top ten by annual visitors; the other one I'm missing from that list is Grand Teton.)

I haven't been to any of the three here in Florida; gotta get on that. It's a mere 876 miles (15 hours) round trip by car (plus a two-hour ferry ride). A good starter road trip for our son?

#496: Where in the world would you most like to vacation?

15 May 2019

Review: Hornblower and the Atropos by C. S. Forester

Trade paperback, 342 pages
Published 1999 (originally 1953)

Acquired January 2008
Previously read March 2008
Reread March 2019
Hornblower and the Atropos by C. S. Forester

On my original chronological readthrough of the series, where this is the fifth book, I found it the most disappointing so far:
I enjoyed this, but for the first time, I felt as though I was reading "just another" outing in the Hornblower saga. The high points are definitely the beginning, with the canal trip and Nelson's funeral, and the end, with the escape from the Turks, the capturing of Castilla, and the coming of pox to Hornblower's family. (The last line is a killer.) Not to say that the middle is bad, in fact it's frequently good, what with a German prince and his short-tempered doctor serving aboard Atropos, a diving expedition to recover lost treasure, and a man who gets shot in a duel but grits his teeth and carries on for several days anyway. It's good overall, but it just lacks a certain overall something that made it the weakest of the Hornblower novels I've read thus far.
On this publication order reread, where it's the eighth book, I would rank it as the weakest with the exception of Commodore Hornblower. There's no strong throughline; it comes across as a series of random incidents at a random point in Hornblower's career. But it's not so disconnected that one can read it as a series of interesting short stories, like Mr. Midshipman Hornblower or Admiral Hornblower in the West Indies. Probably what doesn't help is that Hornblower is a little too competent; like in Commodore, one doesn't feel his struggles, so it just seems like he gets in trouble, gets out of it, rinse, repeat. Great scenes here and there (though I was apparently less taken by Nelson's funeral this time), but not a great novel. Which is a shame, because Hornblower's first command* seems like an opportunity: how did he adjust to the increased responsibilities? But he doesn't adjust; he just is suddenly great. Shame the tv show never got this far, as I reckon they could have taken these raw materials and made something great out of them.

Back in Beat to Quarters, part of the reason for Hornblower's closed nature was that on his first command he had a first lieutenant he overshared with, undermining his captainly authority. We kind of get to see that here. Hornblower's first lieutenant is always trying to find things out, but Hornblower doesn't tell him much, and it doesn't seem to undermine his authority at all. Another missed opportunity.

* A later published novel would make it clear that this is not his first command, but if you read in publication order, it seems pretty clear that this book was meant to link up with the end of Lieutenant Hornblower.

14 May 2019

Star Trek: The Destiny Era: Plagues of Night

Mass market paperback, 388 pages
Published 2012

Acquired September 2012
Read January 2019
Star Trek: Typhon Pact: Plagues of Night
by David R. George III

April 2382–August 2383
The original run of four Typhon Pact novels wasn't one story, but four standalone ones with a common framework, like the Deep Space Nine relaunch's Worlds of... miniseries. One of the interesting things about Plagues of Night is that it takes most of the previous Typhon Pact novels inside itself. It begins just after Rough Beasts of Empire ends; its opening chapters overlap with the opening chapters of Zero Sum Game, showing the theft from Utopia Planitia from a different perspective; later, we see Bashir and Sarina debriefed following ZSG's events; we also get some context for the Tholian machinations in Paths of Disharmony. On the other hand, if Seize the Fire was mentioned, I missed it. (Oh, what a shame.) The first two-thirds of the novel span fourteen months.

These fourteen months make Plagues of Night very much a novel of set-up, especially for the traditional protagonist characters, who we just see snippets of until the final third or so. We get glimpses of Sisko captaining the Robinson, the Enterprise battling Tzenkethi privateers, and updates for a number of long-unseen characters on Deep Space 9 (plus introductions to new ones). These characters don't really drive any kind of plot, except on a personal level. The plot drivers are all at the galactic political level, with characters like Praetor Gell Kamemor and President Nan Bacco making the choices that shape the story. All of this is clearly to set up the final third of the novel, which where a plan concocted by Romulan dissidents and Tzenkethi comes to fruition in the Gamma Quadrant. It's a plan that affects the Enterprise, the Robinson, and Deep Space 9. This part of the novel is suspenseful, as the reader can feel something building, but is uncertain as to exactly what. The cliffhanger, even though I was long spoiled on it, was still impressive and epic.

This book also is more interesting than the previous Typhon Pact novels because it explores them as a pact; there's much more of the consequences of the alliance than in the four standalone novels, which honestly often didn't do much with the pact itself despite the subtitle.

You might think this would make Plagues of Night a novel of two halves, but I surprised myself by liking the set-up. I think it's down to David George's trademark focus on character, and because you can get a sense that something is happening, even if you're not entirely sure what. Some parts of the book I'm a little uncertain what they added (the Enterprise crew pretending to be a freighter), but it's got a lot of good scenes that carry you along: Martok's arrival at the summit of Khitomer Accord and Typhon Pact powers is delightful, for example, and I really liked the scenes between Captains Ro and Picard. It's not a fast novel, but it is one that keeps you reading. It feels much more well-shaped than Rough Beasts of Empire, with its meandering plots.

I objected to a lot of what happened in Rough Beasts on the basis of character implausibility. It's interesting how Plagues of Night kind of rectifies some of this. I still don't think Sisko running away from Kasidy without consulting her makes any sense, but Plagues wisely spends its time exploring the after-effects rather than the causes of these events. This material convinces me in a way that the events it follows from did not. I don't buy that Sisko would leave Kasidy, but if he did, this is how it would play out afterwards. The novel does still lean too much on unseen events; the attempted kidnap of Rebecca isn't very successful as an explanation for some of the Siskos' emotional issues when we haven't actually seen it. And I'm still totally unconvinced by everything that involves Kira as a vedek.

But as I alluded to above, this novel ends on a cliffhanger, and it feels like one of those duologies that's one story in two parts, rather than two linked stories. So my complete reaction to what happens here will have to wait until the story is complete. But The Struggle Within aside, this is the best Typhon Pact story so far, for its continued suspense, and for its fuller exploration of the politics, and for its more convincing character work.

Continuity Notes:
  • You might think a mission where the Enterprise spends a lot of time in close contact with an alien culture might require some kind of specialist, but all T'Ryssa Chen does as far as I can tell is fly the Argelian freighter that the Enterprise uses to capture the Tzenkethi privateers.
  • Considering all Andorians serving in sensitive positions were recalled from their posts, there sure are a lot of them serving on Deep Space 9. (I know Plagues of Night actually came out before Fallen Gods, so that's actually another point against Fallen Gods.)
  • The Internet claimed that Indistinguishable from Magic gets ignored, but each of the books to follow it thus far has referenced it; Plagues of Night even bothers to retcon how come Tomalak was proconsul in a passing comment in Indistinguishable when he was said to be stepping down and returning to the navy in Rough Beasts.
  • On the other hand, La Forge's rank reduction to commander seems completely unnecessary; I'm not sure what would have been lost by having him continue as "captain of engineering" as per Indistinguishable. La Forge is now second officer of the Enterprise, which raises the question for me of who had been in the position since Kadohata departed in Losing the Peace, around two years ago.
  • I don't know what is being referred to when Sisko thinks that Vaughn could have been the Emissary in the "so-called mirror universe." Also I think this was the first time "mirror universe" is used as a term in story, though Discovery now does that on the regular.
Other Notes:
  • The cover, logo, and spine design change for this installment of Typhon Pact. Ships instead of faces, new fonts, slightly different alignment of text. I wouldn't mind, except I can see just looking at my bookshelf that for some reason the old design comes back for Brinkmanship.
  • Prynn is reading the Iliad aloud to her comatose father, Elias Vaughn. Sisko thinks it's appropriate because it's about destiny and fate, but it's also appropriate because the Iliad is the inspiration for Tennyson's "Ulysses," itself one of the inspirations for the Mission: Gamma miniseries that starred Vaughn.
  • George does have a weird storytelling tic, of occasionally summarizing events instead of showing them. Worf finds signs the Romulans have already been to the Gamma Quadrant, and doesn't know what to do. We later find out what he did through a summary dropped in during a Picard scene; I don't get why we just didn't see this scene.
  • Am I wrong in feeling like there's no way a Jem'Hadar could wear a Breen helmet?

13 May 2019

Review: Paper Girls 4 and Paper Girls 5 by Brian K. Vaughan and Cliff Chiang

Comic trade paperback, 125 pages
Published 2018 (contents: 2017-18)
Acquired April 2018

Read December 2018
Paper Girls 4
Paper Girls 5

Writer: Brian K. Vaughan
Artist: Cliff Chiang
Colors: Matt Wilson
Letters: Jared K. Fletcher

I'm getting the hang of how Paper Girls works now; each volume takes the girls to a different time period, and brings a different one of the girls to the fore. In the case of volume 4, it's to New Year's Eve 1999, and the girl in question is Tiffany, who discovers that her 1999 self is not quite the person she'd imagined she'd be. There are some good jokes about Y2K; in this story the apocalypse some imagined kinda does come to pass. I admire the way this story slowly unspools its answers and questions, and the way it integrates action into story (as opposed to feeling like, as in many other comics, the story pauses for the action), but this volume felt a little less complex than volume 3 in terms of character and theme.

Comic trade paperback, 125 pages
Published 2018 (contents: 2018)
Acquired and read December 2018
Volume 5 was an uptick. This takes the paper girls into one of the futures they've been fighting, an oppressive dystopian Cleveland. Y2K Tiffany is still with them, but this volume focuses on Mac and to a lesser extent KJ; while Tiffany and Tiffany and Erin seek answers, Mac must contend with her own fatality and her homophobic feelings toward KJ. It's good stuff, though I do find it difficult to remember the characters and details outside of the paper girls themselves. (Probably I would benefit from reading this one in the big hardcover volumes, like I do Saga, but I started collecting in trade paperback, so it's too late now.) It's a little bit touching at times, and the cliffhanger shows that the formula I'd figured out will actually not apply in volume 6. Bring it on!

10 May 2019

The Books I Left Behind

I'm continuing to delve into the electronic detritus of my youth. There's some pretty good stuff in there (I found a hilarious schedule I made before a family road trip, making fun of how my dad was the worst at complying with my dad's planned departure times), but much of it is only funny or interesting if you are in my family. (Maybe some biographer will use it some day. I pity that person, then.)

What did I find particularly interesting was the snapshot of the reading habits of young Steve Mollmann. One file (created when I was 14, last updated when I was 16, modestly called "The Collected QUOTES AND WISDOM of S. C. Mollmann") mostly collects quotations I'd read, but includes at the front a list of "Stevil's Picks," where I list the best movies and books. Here are my favorite movies, in alphabetical order:
  • The Conquest of the Planet of the Apes
  • October Sky
  • The Planet of the Apes
  • Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country
  • Star Trek: Insurrection
  • Star Wars Episode V: The Empire Strikes Back
  • Star Wars Episode VI: Return of the Jedi
  • The Truman Show
Truly highbrow taste! I did not know that a younger me had loved Star Trek: Insurrection so much it was one of only two Star Trek movies to make my list of nine all-time movies. C'mon, young Steve, at least you could have gone for The Voyage Home, that's a movie whose jokes are actually funny!

My list of best books is just as perplexing. This is first in order of favorites and then alphabetical:
  • 1. Star Trek: Deep Space Nine – Far Beyond the Stars by Steve Barnes
  • 2 & 3. The Winds of War and War and Remembrance by Herman Wouk
  • 4. Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury
  • Animorphs #19: The Departure by K. A. Applegate
  • Animorphs #33: The Illusion by K. A. Applegate
  • The Cat Who Could Read Backwards by Lilian Jackson Braun
  • Foundation by Isaac Asimov
  • Isaac Asimov’s Utopia by Roger MacBride Allen
  • The Positronic Man by Isaac Asimov
  • Star Trek: New Frontier – Once Burned by Peter David
  • Star Wars: X-Wing #4 – The Bacta War by Michael A. Stackpole
  • Star Wars: Children of the Jedi by Barbara Hambly
Wow! Of my thirteen favorite books, two were middle-grade sci-fi, two were Star Wars, and three were Star Trek... and the very best book of all time was a novelization! Mind you, it is an above-average novelization, but, well, really. Many of these books I've not read since, so I don't even know if they hold up, but my guess is that almost none of them would land in my Top 13 now. (I posted this on facebook, and my aunt thought it was my best-of list now... which seemed kind of insulting, to be honest.) The Bacta War was a pretty good Star Wars book, though.

I also found my planned summer reading list from 2001, the summer I turned 16. It is grandly titled "OPERATION: OVERLORD," and apparently it was my plan to read every book I'd ever had any desire to read. I was ridiculously ambitious; it is 41 items long, and many of those items are actually multiple books, like C. S. Lewis's Space Trilogy, or the Dune series, or there's a single entry that just reads "Kurt Vonnegut" (I assume this means the eleven Vonnegut books handed down to me by my father). And many of the individual books are themselves hefty, like Paradise Lost.

I have a vague memory of checking some of these out of the library, but I think I got a whole two items through the list, because I've read the Space Trilogy and all three Ringworld books, but I have never read any of the later Flight Engineer installments (probably for the best; it was a cheesy sf series "co-written" by Scotty), Paradise Lost, The Great Divorce, Eon, The Green Mile, and several others on the list. Others I know I read, but only much later, like The Dark is Rising, The Aeneid, and the Horatio Hornblower books (not visible in my screenshot above, but further down the list).* I don't think it's too dissimilar from my current tastes in some ways, though, a weird mix of legitimate literature and illegitimate sf.

I also have a short-lived books I actually read from that summer. This shows that part of my problem was though I read a lot, I kept reading things not on my list (still a problem to this day). That summer I read The Bridge Over the River Kwai, two volumes of the Patlabor manga, many Star Trek books not on the above list (I used to be able to keep up with them as they were released!), my first-ever Doctor Who novels, and the first eight Left Behind novels, all one right after another. Yikes. (I think I treated them more as sf than anything else, which made it even more jarring when they contained basic scientific and technical errors. I still remember an explanation that the light of a shooting star had taken years to reach the Earth, showing an enormous lack of comprehension as to what a shooting star actually was.)

This early attempt at a reading log ran from May to August 2001; I recorded that I began Lord Jim (our summer reading junior year), but never recorded that I finished it. Across 89 days I read 44 books, a rate I no longer sustain. I suspect I wouldn't have racked up so many had I stuck with my original plan and read Gilgamesh, The Aeneid (I think I checked out Dryden's translation?), and Don Quixote. The great thing about Star Trek books is that you can read them like a rocket.

Also, Dad, The Way West was on the list. I'm sorry I never got to it.

* I doubt I even knew there was a tv show then, so I assume I just wanted to read them because of all the times I'd seen Star Trek described as "Horatio Hornblower in space."

08 May 2019

Review: Lieutenant Hornblower by C. S. Forester

Mass market paperback, 306 pages
Published 1977 (originally 1951)

Acquired 2006(?)
Previously read May 2007
Reread March 2019
Lieutenant Hornblower by C. S. Forester

Though I've read this before, my original read of it predates the point in my life where I started putting reviews on my blog, so I don't have a specific sense of what I actually thought. My suspicion is, though, that the book reads better in publication order than in chronological. In term of chronology, it's odd that the first Hornblower novel is not a novel, and then the second is not told from the perspective of Hornblower; the first proper Hornblower novel is actually the third! But reading in publication order, this is the seventh Hornblower book, and so telling the story from the point of view of Lieutenant Bush provides a nice change of pace and prevents the series (just as the jump backward did) from beginning stagnant.

Bush is great, a straightforward, unpretentious officer, not a witty thinker, but a great seaman and a great judge of character. It does create some continuity errors to have him serving with Hornblower so early in both men's careers (Bush was clearly not used to Hornblower when posted as his first lieutenant some five years after this in Beat to Quarters), but I liked Bush, and it's neat to see what Hornblower looks like from outside his own head. Hornblower in Mr. Midshipman was a pretty ordinary guy if somewhat tightly wound, but here we see the beginning of the kind-of-neurotic Captain Hornblower of the earlier novels. It's a good plot for an outside perspective, too, since there's a significant mutiny component, and Forester uses the shift in perspective to create some ambiguity about Hornblower's actions.

This is one of my favorite Hornblower novels. You might view the long bit at the end regarding Hornblower's card-playing as extraneous, but if you do, you've misjudged the plot. The plot isn't the adventures of HMS Renown; the plot is these two men becoming life-long friends in an entirely understated way. It's gloriously reserved but utterly true, one of the best friendships in literature. Even if before this book it didn't exist in books set later!

(Side note: David Warner is such good casting as Captain Sawyer in the tv adaptation that ten-plus years after I last saw that episode, I could still imagine him saying all of Sawyer's lines as I read the book! The literary Hornblower is not quite Ioan Gruffudd, and the literary Bush not quite Paul McGann, so I never imagine those actors reading the lines, but David Warner is the character as written.)

07 May 2019

Star Trek: The Destiny Era: Forgotten History

Mass market paperback, 352 pages
Published 2012

Acquired November 2012
Read January 2019
Star Trek: Department of Temporal Investigations: Forgotten History
by Christopher L. Bennett

2266-75 / 2383
My complaint about the first Department of Temporal Investigations novel was that despite a strong beginning and a strong ending, the middle of the book became bogged down in the format of "DTI turns up the aftereffects of a Next Generation episode; exposition is delivered to massage the details into the novel's Unified Theory of Star Trek Time Travel," without a strong story of its own. At first blush, you might think Forgotten History was going to do the same thing, just with episodes of the original series, and though it does swerve into this on occasion (I'm not convinced the retcon of "Whom Gods Destroy" added much to the book), on the whole it's much more focused and much more of a story.

The reason for this is Commodore Antonio Delgado, first mentioned in this readthrough in From History's Shadow. An flag officer in Starfleet's Science Ops, Delgado sees the possibilities of time travel when presented to him after the events of "Tomorrow Is Yesterday," and so he keeps tabs on the Enterprise's various temporal shenanigans as he attempts to make time travel a viable avenue for Starfleet, sometimes working against the fledgling Department of Temporal Investigations, sometimes with it. Delgado is a surprisingly interesting "villain," and I wish we'd seen more of him. It would be easy to make him a hypocrite or out for personal gain, but he's genuinely principled, believing that perfecting time travel is for the greater good of the Federation, and not willing to use it for personal reasons. He's sometimes quite reckless, but often thoughtful, such as when he realizes sending his Federation timeships into the futures of parallel timelines is the safest option, as it means the Federation can gain technological and even political knowledge from the future, without endangering its own future with paradoxes. Delgado's ongoing attempts to use the Enterprise's adventures to develop time travel give the otherwise unconnected incidents of the original series a throughline that the first book largely lacked; with each episode, you the reader wonder how this will contribute to his machinations. (Incorporated episodes include "Tomorrow Is Yesterday," "The City on the Edge of Forever," "Assignment: Earth," and "Yesteryear.")

The only thing I didn't like was his attitude toward women, which just seems to be in the novel to make us boo and hiss at him, like when a bad guy in a movie kicks a puppy, just so you know he's the bad guy.

The other thing that makes this novel work is that is allows the 24th-century Department of Temporal Investigations to come face-to-face with their long-standing boogeyman, James T. Kirk. While the first three-quarters of the novel has Dulmur and Lucsly in a frame story reading about the original Enterprise's temporal shenanigans, in the last quarter, the Enterprise crew and the DTI characters all end up in the same time and place, a temporal confluence between past and future. The result of this is that Dulmur and Lucsly-- especially Lucsly-- actually have to interact with Captain Kirk, and this part of the book is just delightful, Lucsly's indignation at what is unfolding oozing off the page in hilarious fashion. Like in the first DTI book, the temporal shenanigans got a tad convoluted for me to follow, but I enjoyed it anyway, mostly thanks to the role Lucsly and Dulmur end up playing in Kirk's history of temporal interference.

On the other hand, I don't think Meijan Gray was sufficiently built up as a paragon of temporal noninterference to make the revelations about her at the climax really stick like they ought to have.

The one part of the novel that didn't really fit for me was the long section where the refit Enterprise travels to an alternate timeline, one where Earth vanished in the 20th century (this is where the book posits the duplicate Earth of "Miri" originated), and so the Vulcans remained more militaristic (because no NX-01 means no Kir'Shara rediscovery), in a galaxy where they're opposed by a Klingon/Andorian alliance. A little bit of this would have been fine, and it does set up some elements of the story that become significant at the climax, but it goes on longer than is interesting, and its relevance isn't altogether clear for most of it. Part of the issue, I think, is that the one-particular-species-is-missing-from-22nd-century-politics concept was also done in two Myriad Universe stories, and this permutation doesn't feel a whole lot different from those.

But on the whole, this is an engaging, interesting novel-- I zipped through it in about two days-- and shows the promise of the Department of Temporal Investigations premise better than does its predecessor. I look forward to seeing the series further developed in the transition to e-novellas.

Continuity Notes:
  • This novel actually slots between parts 1 and 2 of Indistinguishable from Magic (one of the DTI characters leaves partway through to go debrief the Challenger crew on the events involving the Split Infinite, which happens at the climax of part 1). I guess I could have read the book then... but no. (I reserve insanity like that for rereads only.)
  • I liked the touch that when novel depicts the slingshot maneuver that preceded "Assignment: Earth," Kirk hears snatches of dialogue from the episode in reverse chronological order, as was he also did during the slingshot in The Voyage Home.
  • I also liked the incorporation of a number of elements of the 1970s cartoon. "Yesteryear" is expanded and rearticulated, and one of its minor characters turns out to be a DTI founder, but also the mysterious Vedala from "The Jihad" play a significant role in the novel's proceedings, and some of the cartoon's Enterprise crew reappear as well.
  • There are some very slight references to The Rings of Time here, which is the whole reason I read Rings of Time at the beginning of this. Blink and you'd miss them, though.
  • I don't think the details surrounding Kirk's promotion to admiral here quite line up with what we saw in Allegiance in Exile.
Other Notes:
  • I liked the joke about how "chronal" wasn't even a real word. I don't think Star Trek has ever used this on screen, but it has appeared in a few of the tie-ins.
  • Bennett writes a pretty good "Kirk speech" when Kirk speaks in defense of his supposed violations of the Prime Directive at the end of the five-year mission. Actually, the whole mission to Pelos is a pretty good pastiche of an original series episode.
  • Bennett might know more about real temporal science and Star Trek time travel than anyone else alive, but he still doesn't know the correct usage of the word "table" in parliamentary procedure (see p. 69). Meijan should have made a motion to postpone indefinitely.

06 May 2019

Review: Revenant Gun by Yoon Ha Lee

Trade paperback, 427 pages
Published 2018

Acquired November 2018
Read December 2018
Machineries of Empire, Book Three: Revenant Gun
by Yoon Ha Lee

I didn't like Ninefox Gambit, but ended up really enjoying Raven Stratagem when I dutifully read it for the Hugo Awards, so I willingly picked up the final volume of the Machineries of Empire trilogy. This isn't as good as Raven Stratagem, but it is decent. Like Raven, it starts strong but kind of fizzles out, in that the narrative drive seems to dissipate as the novel goes, instead of increasing in intensity. The beginning of the book is strong, but isn't delivered on. I like the idea of one Jedao being used to bring down another Jedao, but there's not much of a reckoning out of this. The beginning also promises much out of Kel Brezan, my favorite character. He's a crashhawk (a Kel without the "formation instinct" that forces them to obey orders) but despite that he's become the leader of a breakaway government of his own. We get a few chapters of him learning to navigate this new situation, but this subplot isn't as prominent as I'd hoped.

The action in this series is always kind of obscure, but what got me invested in Raven was the characters; Revenant's characters aren't as compelling, unfortunately. An okay conclusion to an okay trilogy, but I feel like it could have been a great series. Still, I'll pick up the fourth volume, a collection of short stories, when it comes out.