Friday, September 27, 2013

Revisiting the Classics -- From the Earth to the Moon & Around the Moon

Today we have a double-header: Jules Verne's novel From the Earth to the Moon and the sequel, Around the Moon. Both are available in one handy compilation.

The story takes place in the years following the Civil War. The Baltimore, Maryland-based Gun Club is composed of men who developed artillery during said war, but now that it's over, they find themselves without purpose. They need some sort of project to devote their energy towards. Fortunately, the Club's president, Barbicane, has just the solution this all-American organization needs. One day he calls a meeting to announce the construction of an enormous canon to fire a projectile at the moon. Why? To establish contact with any possible inhabitants (called Selenites) of our satellite, of course. The whole world goes crazy over this idea, and every nation pledges money to help fund the project. Working with astronomy experts, the Gun Club settles on Tampa Town, Florida as the site to build the canon (which will be 900 feet long, dug into the earth). 

You may be thinking that this idea is insane. But just wait; it gets even nuttier. Soon a French scientist (though in reality more of a poet) named Michel Ardan writes the Gun Club, telling them of his intention to ride inside the projectile all the way to the moon. Even the generally open-minded Barbicane is taken aback at this ludicrous idea. After all, Ardan admits he knows nothing about science! Nevertheless, despite stiff opposition from Barbicane's rival, Captain Nicholl (who designs armor so he hates people who design things to smash armor), the eccentric Frenchman's idea is soon adopted, and the projectile is re-designed as a sort of capsule. Despite some doubts as to whether this endeavor can work or is even safe, the projectile is launched on December 1 at 10:48 p.m. Does anyone survive the flight?

Around the Moon picks up where the first book left off. Barbicane, Ardan, Nicholl and a host of animals (some of which Ardan smuggled aboard) are still alive following the launch of the projectile. They've basically made their home inside this giant bullet, filling it with gas (yes, they burn gas in space), food, water and oxygen. They are happy at first, but soon a rogue piece of space rock affects their trajectory, sending them off course. Seemingly unable to reach the moon, they are stuck staring at it and speculating on its possible atmosphere and inhabitants. Are they doomed to die a cold, lonely death in space?

These books are astonishing because of the ridiculous amount of science Verne brought to the table. He's constantly introducing new facts, ideas and mathematical equations. In fact, the second book gets so bogged down in science if becomes difficult to get through. I'm amazed at all the research he did for these two novels. Of course, not everything he wrote was correct (the moon does not have an atmosphere or vegetables, and burning gas aboard a space ship is a bad idea), but the things he was able to predict is astonishing. Using rockets for maneuvering a space vehicle; recycling air; bathyspheres; space capsules; the founding of the NASA space center in Florida. Verne predicted so many things it's scary.

I also appreciate Verne's sense of humor. Character such as Michel Ardan and J.T. Maston are delightful oddballs, and it's funny how he portrays Americans. To him, we evidently were a brash people who didn't let things like safety and common sense get in the way of doing something awesome for our country. The members of the Gun Club, in particular, echo today's stereotypical Republicans. They love guns and America to a degree that cannot possibly be considered healthy.

Therefore, if you're a sci-fi fan who appreciates the classics and has a sense of humor, you owe it to yourself to read From the Earth to the Moon & Around the Moon.

Friday, September 20, 2013

Revisiting the Classics -- The Running Man

Today we have the 1987 Arnold Schwarzenegger movie The Running Man. Directed by Paul Michael Glaser and based on the novel by Stephen King, it continues to serve as a commentary on America's lust for violence.

The story takes place in 2019. America has become a police state which is ruled with an iron fist. Ben Richards (Schwarzenegger) is a cop for said police state. One night he and his squad are called out to the scene of a food riot. Despite confirming that the mob is unarmed and filled with women and children, Richards is ordered to fire on them. Being the good guy, he refuses. Unfortunately, his partners are not so compassionate. They subdue him and fire on the crowd. He subsequently takes the blame for the attack and is sent to prison. While there, he meets up with resistance members Laughlin (Yaphet Kotto) and Weiss (Marvin J. McIntyre) who want to expose the government's evil deeds. They soon stage a prison break and go their separate ways. Richards heads to his brother's apartment but once there he instead finds Amber Mendez (Maria Conchita Alonso). He forces her to help him get past security at the airport. Too bad he didn't ask nicely; she quickly reports him to the authorities. He's captured once again and, along with equally captured Laughlin and Weiss, is put on The Running Man, a television show where condemned prisoners are hunted by "stalkers," i.e., colorful sadists with weapons. Now the four of them (Amber also has to participate) must survive the game, bring down the system, and get revenge on The Running Man's sleazy host Killian (game show legend Richard Dawson).

You'd be hard-pressed to find a more distinctly 80's movie than this. It's got Schwarzenegger, WWF mainstay Jesse Ventura, bad fashion, synth music, and cheesy one-liners aplenty. It's definitely not Arnie's best movie (that would be Terminator 2), but really--you're not going into this expecting The Godfather. It delivers what it promises: a fun sci-fi romp. I like the retro/primitive CG effects, and the stalkers are certainly interesting. From a psycho Japanese hockey player to a lightning-shooting opera star wannabe, they are simultaneously menacing and nutty as hell. I had fun watching Arnie and CO. tear them apart. Richard Dawson is also a fun attraction, starring as a twisted caricature of himself. 

Bottom line: if you're a Schwarzenegger fan, you can do worse than The Running Man (*cough*Commando*cough*).

Thursday, September 19, 2013

James Review -- The Road of Danger

This week I decided to review The Road of Danger by David Drake. When the book opens, Danial Leary, a Republic of Cinnabar naval officer, and Adele Mundy, A Republic of Cinnabar Intelligence officer whom is usually attached to Leary’s crew, are rushing to the headquarters of a naval base to deliver information to the base’s commander. The information will allow the fleet stationed at the base to prevent an invasion which would reignite the conflict between the Republic and the Alliance of Free Worlds leading to the collapse of both nations. The admiral, who dislikes Leary, gives him a new mission. There’s a rebellion in progress on an Alliance world whose leader claims to be a Republic citizen. The Alliance wants the Republic to deal with the problem. This leads to Leary infiltrating the crew of a blockade runner carrying weapons to the rebels while hoping to secure the leader before the Princess Cecile, the corvette which is usually Leary’s command in the series, arrives. This leads to the discovery that while the planet’s governor is nasty, the cure is worse than the disease as the rebellion has become little more than a gang war between various factions. Leary’s escape plan eventually leads to a running battle with an Alliance cruiser which is the book’s climax

I would personally rate this book 6.5 or 7 out of 10.  While every sci-fi setting has differences in how ship-to-ship combat works, this setting is among the most unique in my opinion. Unfortunately, the resolution to one of the battles in this book involves either an unbelievably lucky stroke or calculations that are absurdly accurate given the variables involved and the time available to make the calculations. This makes the battle in question a little too hard to believe. Also, I personally feel that the series was at its best when there was an interstellar war raging and hope that either the truce between the Republic and Alliance collapses soon or a new enemy power appears.

Friday, September 13, 2013

Update -- Wild Marjoram

It has come to my attention that the version of Wild Marjoram I reviewed is most likely an early draft that was mistakenly put on and quickly removed (though not before I downloaded it). Therefore, I cannot vouch for the validity of my review.

Wednesday, September 11, 2013

The Lost Fleet Beyond the Frontier Invincible review.

When the book begins the First fleet of the Alliance is reforming from the battle which concluded the previous book. As repairs go on the fleet discovers that the new hostile species, the second they have encountered, are herbivores which look like Teddy Bears and are apparently convinced that humanity wants to eat them. The fleets commanding admiral now faces the task of returning safely to human space having completed its mission of probing the empire of the Enigma species which had attempted to trick humanity into wiping itself out. He also has to deal with a distant relative who has apparently gone from being reasonable to trying to live up to his legend, a legend which led to a number of defeats in the century he spent in stasis when commanders tried to follow his example, ignoring the fact that his actions were far from a good plan, they were just his only course allowing him to protect a convoy. On top of all this his government doesn’t trust him, and a faction of officers under his command want him to launch a coup against the government. As the journey home continues they eventually make contact with a friendly alien species and begin to escort them back to Alliance territory.
I love this author’s fleet battles, in fact I would consider him one of the top 5 writers of space fleet actions whose works I have read. I wish that the series would give more technical detail about the ships though, it does a good job of explaining weapon systems but not nearly as good a job at explaining what the differences between different models of the same type of warship are. I also enjoyed the studies of the alien civilizations that the fleet encounters in the story as each one is unique and far from the cliche alien society modeled after sections of humanity.

Monday, September 9, 2013

Revisiting the Classics -- Dark Star

Today we have the 1974 cult classic Dark Star. As far as I can tell, this was John Carpenter's first full-length movie. He directed it; he wrote it; hell, he even did the music.

The story takes place aboard the titular starship out in the reaches of deep space. The crew consists mainly of five guys. Doolittle is the defacto leader/surfer, having taken over for the now-frozen Commander Powell; Talby spends most of his time in the observation dome on top of the ship; Pinback is the resident goofball; and Boiler is fairly unremarkable. Together with the ship's female AI, they travel the galaxy looking for unstable planets to drop sentient bombs (each named Bomb) on to blow up in order to pave the way for eventual human colonization. Unfortunately, said planets take a while to find and destroy, leaving a lot of down time in between jobs. Talby just stares out into space usually, while Pinback works on his tan or takes care of the alien they found (basically a large red beach ball with lizard feet). Boiler amuses himself with unauthorized target practice using the laser rifle, and Doolittle actually does his job.

One day, things get particularly bad. Pinback is nearly killed chasing the alien into an elevator shaft, and the computer keeps accidentally sending the bomb drop signal to the next Bomb. After the third false alarm, Bomb refuses to obey the order to go back into the ship, and insists on detonating. This wouldn't be such a big deal, except the clamps won't disengage, and so the explosive has nowhere to detonate except the ship itself. Acting on the advice of the barely coherent Powell-sicle, Doolittle attempts to talk Bomb out of detonating using philosophy. How, he argues, can you be sure you received the signal? How do you know that which you perceive is real? The entire universe could simply be an illusion.

Well, the strategy works. Perhaps too well, actually. Bomb now has delusions of godhood, and decides to bring light to the universe the only way it knows how--with a big bang! Is the crew of the Dark Star doomed? You'll have to watch the movie to find out.

I wanted to like this movie. Unfortunately, I only enjoyed it about half the time. Like Logan's Run, it has primitive special effects and questionable acting. Unlike Logan's Run, however, it's frequently boring. The banter between the crew members failed to hook my interest, and they for the most part look the same (white guys with beards). Also, the film cannot decide if it wants to be a comedy or a serious space story. Tense music plays during the scene in which Pinback struggles to escape being crushed by the elevator, yet with the ridiculous beach ball alien hovering around, I could not take it seriously. Pinback's eventual solution to his predicament is also treated humorously.

I did, however, like the ending. It comes out of left field and is a pleasant surprise. Still, the rest of the movie is hit or miss. Some people really like Dark Star, but for me it lies squarely in the middle of the road.

Interesting factoid: Nick Castle, who worked as a camera/electrical crew member on this film, went on to direct the vastly superior The Last Starfighter (also featured on this blog)

Friday, September 6, 2013

Kindle Spotlight -- Wild Marjoram

Today we have a novella by N.R. Grabe. It is (deep breath) Wild Marjoram: The Vote (Stop 1 on the Uproar in The Broken Apple Road Trip)

The story takes place in an America where World War I is still going on. Germany has taken the eastern seaboard and built a wall around New York City (now called the Broken Apple). Not only that, but they've deployed robot sentries to guard the perimeter. Majoram and her friend Jerry The Stealth have just run away from their madame/rebel benefactor Victoria with her money. They're trying to get into the Broken Apple to end the German occupation, but they really have no idea how. So in the mean time, they decide to stay with some old friends of Marjoram's on a farm. Unfortunately, these farmers aren't quite as benevolent as they seem, and trouble quickly ensues for the duo.

I honestly don't know what happened with this book. The story has lots of potential, but it's wasted by serious problems. For one thing, the dialogue is awkward and typos crop of frequently, as if it were haphazardly translated from another language. Here is an example, exactly as it is written in the text:

     "You live on a farm around her?" Marjoram says to Fremont as she sorts out papers into piles for stapling.
     "I do." He replies as he writes some notes down on the child's desk close to her, using the old inkwell attached to it. "You can make a ink out of berries, have I showed you this?"
     "No. I would love to try my hand at that. Do you print your own books with that ink?"
     "Yes, we do. We are the warehouse for such things."

There is plenty more where that came from. I could swear English isn't Grabe's native language, if not for the commentary she provides before and after the main story in which she clearly demonstrates a decent grasp of it.

Also, the writing is very murky. The characters often only hint at what is happening without actually showing us. They make frequent references to their past adventures despite the fact this is the first book in the series. And these adventures sound a lot more interesting than the events we actually see. Finally, the events we see are poorly communicated to us. I could never be completely certain what was happening.

Therefore, I cannot recommend Wild Marjoram. It's a poorly written story in a market already crowded with poorly written stories. But if you still want to read it, I'm including the link as usual.

Thursday, September 5, 2013

The First Casualty Review

This week I decided to review The First Casualty by Mike Moscoe. I’ve been reading the Kris Longknife series which is set long after it for years so when I realized there were earlier books in the same setting I grabbed the first one as soon as I could find it. The story starts with an interstellar war raging between Earth and the inner colonies, and humanity’s outer colonies who feel they are being mistreated and exploited by the inner worlds. It also shows action on the home front of one of the most vital of the rebel colonies, and follows an Earth allied cruiser through a navigational error that will change humanity’s understanding of the jump points they use to travel between star systems forever. Along the way soldiers on both sides stumble across a conspiracy manipulating the war and try to fight against its aims.
The base causes of the war are very cliche, and while I personally don’t mind them, that could be a turn off for some. The space battles are among the best the author has written but the ground battles weren’t of the same quality I’m afraid. Still I consider this to be my third favorite book by this author and plan to get the upcoming sequel, and the next book of the longer Kris Longknife series as soon as I can.