Wednesday, July 31, 2013

Book Review Star Trek: The Original Series: The Devil's Bargain



This time I decided to review the Star Trek novel Devil’s Bargain. When the story begins a non-Federation human colony is facing impending doom due to a asteroid which is about to slam into it. While the colony is not part of the Federation it does have trade relations with the Federation so the Enterprise is sent to aid in any evacuation efforts. When they arrive however they discover that rather then preparing to evacuate the colony’s leadership is preparing shelters to move the population into until after the planet recovers. The problems are that will take far too long, the shelters aren’t likely to survive the asteroid’s impact, and a dissident movement among the colonists begins a campaign of sabotage. Eventually it is revealed that the colonists have undergone genetic engineering, illegal under Federation law, to aid in living on their world. Unfortunately a side effect of this is that they can only live off of their world for a few weeks before becoming ill, and eventually dying.
The Enterprise can’t blast the Asteroid apart because the fragments would still devastate the planet. The crew eventually comes up with a way to destroy the asteroid safely, or at least leave the planet inhabitable. Doing so requires a network of tunnels be dug within the asteroid fast so the crew heads to pick up some Hortas to handle the digging. The devil’s bargain mentioned in the title comes from both the agreement made to get the Hortas to accept the mining duty and the agreement offered by the Horta mother to Kirk in exchange for the cancellation of original demands of the Horta species.
I enjoyed this book greatly far more then I’ve enjoyed any of the recent Next Generation era novels. It was refreshing to  read a Trek novel that wasn’t flooded with tragedy at every turn. This is what Trek was always meant to be IMO a story about a bright future rather than one with the darkness and despair that has become the norm in later era Trek novels recently. There are some amusing little comic bits as well which don’t ruin the seriousness of the story in the process and you learn more about Horta society then I know of being explained anywhere else in Trek lore.



Saturday, July 27, 2013

Movie Review -- The Wolverine

Today I saw the latest comic book movie: The Wolverine, starring Hugh Jackman. I love these films, so I decided to review it.

Taking place some time after X-Men: The Last Stand, the story opens with Logan living on his own in the Yukon. He is plagued by dreams (nightmares?) of Jean Grey whom he killed in The Last Stand in order to stop her godlike alter ego Phoenix. He feels guilty but doesn't know what to do about it.

He is soon approached by a katana-wielding Japanese girl namd Yukio (Rila Fukushima) who tells him her employer, Mr. Yashida (Haruhiko Yamanouchi) is dying and wishes to thank him for saving his life by shielding him from an atomic blast during World War II. Logan reluctantly agrees to accompany her to Tokyo. When they arrive, he discovers Yashida is a stupidly wealthy electronics giant. After a bath and shave (hygiene has not been a priority as of late), he is taken to meet the ailing billionaire. Yashida reveals he wants to repay Logan by taking his healing factor and giving it to himself. Logan thinks this is not only crazy but impossible as well, so he refuses and the old man is soon pronounced dead.

Our hero thinks his business in Japan is pretty much concluded. However, Yakuza thugs attack Yashida's funeral, wounding Logan. He soon realizes his injuries aren't healing and Yashida's cronies have stolen his healing factor without his knowledge. Despite this, he fights to protect Yashida's granddaughter Mariko (Tao Okamoto) from the gangsters who are trying to kidnap her. But with each battle he continues to take damage, and he faces the very real possibility he might die. Can he save Mariko, figure out what the bad guys are up to, and keep himself alive in the process?

I wanted to like this movie a lot more than I actually did. It starts off strong, with none of the silliness of Jackman's previous outing as the badass Canadian, X-Men Origins: Wolverine. Our main man is as intense as he's ever been, even going to far as to battle the Yakuza aboard a speeding bullet train. Unfortunately, towards the end he loses steam and starts getting his ass handed to him by every bad guy around. In one tragic scene, he pulls a very un-Wolverine-like move and runs from ninjas. Yes, that's right; Wolverine, the man who never backs down from a challenge, runs away from a fight in this film. Yeah, he does it to save Mariko, but it's still disappointing. The commercials for The Wolverine tout, "Heroes don't die; they evolve!" suggesting that Logan gains some kind of new power or otherwise adapts to the loss of his healing factor. He doesn't. He limps through the climax, and that's about it.

Also, the villains in this movie can't get much more generic. Their motivations rarely rise above "I want so-and-so's power". The most interesting baddie is the mutant scientist Viper, but alas, her character stays two-dimensional throughout. And if you think the eventual appearance of Silver Samurai will save the movie, think again. Yeah, he looks cool, but doesn't do a whole lot. You'll see his plot twist coming a mile away.

However, lest you think it's all bad, I will say the movie is entertaining most of the time. It's just the last section that kills the momentum. The scene after the credits is also exciting, though I won't give anything away.




Friday, July 26, 2013

Revisiting the Classics -- Red Dwarf

Today I'm here to tell you about the 1988 BBC series Red Dwarf. It ran periodically for many years, topping out at 61 episodes and 9 seasons (or Series).

Series One begins with frenemies Dave Lister and Arnold Rimmer serving as crew members aboard the titular city-sized starship. One day it is discovered slovenly Lister has been keeping a pregnant cat aboard against regulations. Rather than destroy the felines, he elects to go into suspended animation as punishment. However, when he finally emerges, he is told by the ship's dry-witted AI Holly (who, despite the name, is a disembodied bald man) that three million years have passed. A radiation leak killed off everyone else. Not to worry, though; Holly has brought back Rimmer as a hologram (he wears a silver H on his forehead so we don't forget). Why Rimmer? Simple: he was the person Lister spent the most time with, even if they spent most of that time hurling insults at one another.

Lister and Rimmer soon discover they're not the only ones left after the radiation leak. They encounter a bizarre man who somewhat resembles an Anne Rice version of pop icon Prince. Turns out the cats evolved into people over the millions of years Lister was in stasis, and this colorful character with a massive wardrobe is one of them. Lister, Rimmer, Holly and Cat set a course for Earth--assuming there is still an Earth--and suffer through one hilarious misadventure after another. And though Series One is pretty much confined to the ship, later episodes feature more diverse sets, and the characters even get to go outside thanks to a VR program and time travel.

This show has a lot going for it. The stories, written by Rob Grant and Doug Naylor, are delightfully insane and frequently make you question your sanity. One particularly memorable episode involves different parts of Lister's psyche taking on human form and then ultimately committing suicide. I also like Howard Goodall's diverse score which accompanies each episode. The opening theme is serious sci-fi fare, while the ending features a catchy pop tune reminiscent of 70's kid shows.

But it's really the characters that keep you watching. From lovable loser Lister to hopelessly downtrodden Rimmer to gonzo Cat to either-super-intelligent-or-super-incompetent Holly to wacky android Kryten, Red Dwarf is full of strong personalities that play well off each other. And while there are only the handful of crew members mentioned above, many episodes have guest characters in the form of holograms, cat people, AIs, MST3K-esque robots and hallucinations. Let's just say a ship the size of the Red Dwarf holds many surprises.

Yes, Red Dwarf is that nutty. Go watch it. Now.

Wednesday, July 24, 2013

Star Wars: X-Wing: Mercy Kill Review




Star Wars: X-Wing: Mercy Kill review

I decided to start my review series with the latest novel from my favorite Star Wars sub-series  and favorite author. Mercy Kill is set over 30 years after the last X-Wing novel, and closer to 40 after the last novel focusing on the characters from  earlier in the series who do appear. While the few major characters from the old days also appeared in a duology set around 15 years before Mercy Kill there is still a lot of uncovered ground. This book also tends to focus on a single character far more then previous books in the series. In this case that character is Piggy, a genetically enhanced Gamorrean (AKA the green piglike species from Jabba’s palace) super genius. The novel starts with a mission set 29 years before the main plot to rescue a mineral analyst held by the Empire.
When the story picks up after the time jump Piggy has retired from the military and become a college mathematics professor. He is approached by Garik Loran, also known as Face from being a famous child actor in the early Galactic Empire, his former commanding officer. Face was forced to retire following the civil war that was the focus of the earlier Legacy of The Force series but has been contacted by the new head of Galactic Alliance Ecurity. There was a failed conspiracy to overthrow the Alliance and Imperial Remnant and restore them to something like the Empire in the old days during the Fate of the Jedi series set shortly before Mercy Kill.  New Evidence has been discovered implicating Stavin Thaal, the commanding general of the Alliance Starfighter Command in the plot and Face has been asked to put together a new team of Wraiths to investigate. Piggy eventually agrees to join and soon the team begin their efforts. These vary from planting tracers in blasters slated to be sent to a base manned by General Thaal’s handpicked forces when needed. They then assume the role of militant pacifists and steal weapons from the base’s patrols forcing the weapons they had bugged to be called into service. Later they arrange to board a passenger liner heading to Imperial space then sabotage it, and after their escape pod is picked up by an Imperial patrol vessel they hijack the patrol ship. They plan to give Staal a message that the vessel will serve him in exchange for it’s commander being granted more power. In response to this Staal arranges an ambush leading to the patrol vessel’s destruction but all hands making it safely off.
In time the main team discovers then joins forces with  a second team of Wraiths, and receive support from some former members of the original team as they discover Staal’s full plan and eventually have him arrested for impersonating an officer. In the end a secret ally of both Staal and the earlier conspiracy he had been part of is arrested while the Wraiths are officially recommissioned. The book also included two major flashbacks, one to a mission just before the end of the first Galactic Civil War and the second covering the mission which led to Piggy deciding to resign from the military.
My feelings on the book are mixed. While it wasn’t a bad book by any means I don’t think it should have been included in the X-Wing series. In the previous Wraith squadron focused X-Wing books even when the Wraiths were undercover they were taking their starfighters into battle regularly. In Mercy Kill there are only a couple of starfighter skirmishes. It feels like they just put the X-Wing name on to draw fans of the old books not caring if it didn’t fit with the rest of the series. Still it was fun just don’t go in expecting the epic space battles of the previous books. 



Sunday, July 21, 2013

New Reviewer Incoming

Starting this week, my friend James will be joining this blog, writing up reviews of new release sci-fi novels every Wednesday. He reads more space epics than can possibly be considered healthy, so believe me when I say he knows these books inside and out.

Friday, July 19, 2013

Kindle Spotlight -- Dead Iron: The Age of Steam

Today we have the 2011 steampunk novel Dead Iron, the first book in the Age of Steam series by Devon Monk. Note: as with my recent review of Camera Obscura, this book is available on Kindle but I read the paperback version, which is cheaper.

The story takes place in Hallelujah, Oregon in the late 19th century. The town is enjoying prosperity due to the arrival of the railroad that will soon be connecting them to the rest of the country. However, not everyone is in good spirits. Protagonist Cedar Hunt has been cursed by a Native American god to become a werewolf during the full moon. During his first change he killed his brother (or so be believes) who had been cursed along with him. Out of guilt he ventured into self-imposed exile and eventually settled in Hallelujah where he now hires himself out as a tracker.

One day he hears the son of the local blacksmith has gone missing, and he sets off to see if he can find the boy. He soon realizes the disappearance was caused by the Strange, malevolent otherworldly bogeymen who sometimes cause trouble for humans. In order to track the Strange responsible, Cedar seeks out the help of the enigmatic Madder brothers who are both miners and tinkerers. They agree to provide him with a silver tuning fork which acts as a Strange dowsing rod. In return, though, they demand his help in finding the Holder, a mysterious device in the possession of nefarious railroad baron/dandy Shard LeFel. Cedar is also approached by local witch Mae Lindson who wants his help finding the man responsible for her husband's murder. She claims she can help cure his lycanthropy in return. Although intrigued by her offer, he cannot abandon the missing boy, so he declines. Mae decides to hunt for the murderer on her own, unaware her husband's death was only the beginning of a sinister plot against both her and the missing boy.

I really enjoyed Dead Iron. It's a serious page-turner with a strong story and a diverse cast. Werewolves, automatons, witches, Strange, and other mysterious supernatural characters will keep you hooked until the explosive and thoroughly satisfying finale. LeFel and his Strange henchmen are particularly intriguing.
I honestly could have kept reading this book all day. Although one scene towards the end tested my suspension of disbelief, on the whole the book is solid and leaves plenty of room for a sequel which Monk has since delivered on.

Monday, July 15, 2013

Revisiting the Classics -- The Last Starfighter

Today we have the 1984 film The Last Starfighter. It was released the same year as The Terminator, and although not as popular, it has garnered a strong following over the years.

The story begins at a trailer park in the American southwest. Alex Rogan (Lace Guest) longs to escape his mundane existence, and he sees a college scholarship as his ticket out. Unfortunately, his hopes are dashed when he receives a rejection letter from the university he had them pinned on. All is not lost, however! Earlier in the evening he beat the high score on Starfighter, the arcade game at the trailer park, getting the residents weirdly excited (I seriously think that was the best thing to happen to them all year up to that point). Alex soon gets a visit from a mysterious yet charismatic man in an even stranger car. The man identifies himself as Centauri (Robert Preston), the creator of Starfighter. He invites Alex to go for a ride with him. Alex accepts and gets into the car with a total stranger, evidently deciding that after the rejection letter, he was screwed anyway. To his utter shock, the car picks up seemingly impossible speed and blasts off into space. Centauri explains that Starfighter is a test to find the best pilots in the galaxy, and Alex Rogan is the best candidate he's ever seen. Meanwhile, the hopelessly awkward Beta Unit (also Lance Guest) is left behind in Alex's place back at the trailer park, where he wastes little time getting himself into trouble with Alex's love interest Maggie (Catherine Mary Sewart) due to his ignorance of human culture.

Anyway, Centauri takes Alex to the Starfighter base where the latter is told he's been accepted as a pilot to defeat Xur (Norman Snow) and the Kodan Armada, just like in the game. Realizing he's being asked to risk his life for a cause he doesn't believe in, he refuses. Unfortunately, he discovers Xur has sent assassins after him to the trailer park. Furthermore, if the Kodan Armada is not stopped, they will surely attack Earth. Seeing no other option, Alex agrees to become a fighter pilot to protect those he cares about. With the lizard Grig (Dan O'Herilhy) as his co-pilot, Alex mans the guns of their starfighter and heads off to face the enemy.

The Last Starfighter had impressive visuals when it debuted in 1984, and in my opinion it has stood the test of time; it looks and sounds particularly good on Blu-ray . The story of love and finding your place in the world (or galaxy) is one we can all relate to. The movie also has compelling characters (although Xur is a disappointing villain). From Centauri's commanding personality to Grig's deadpan humor to Maggie's girl-next-door appeal, the characters keep you engaged throughout. I think this film can be effectively summed up as down-to-earth version of Star Wars, although I honestly prefer this over George Lucas's epic series--especially the prequels.

You can pick up The Last Starfighter dirt cheap on Amazon, and I strongly recommend doing so.



Friday, July 12, 2013

Movie Review -- Pacific Rim

If you've ever wanted a more realistic version of Power Rangers, Pacific Rim is for you! Guillermo del Toro's love letter to kaiju stars like Godzilla and Ultra-Man has all the insane robots-versus-monsters action you could ever want.

In the near future, an inter-dimensional rift opens at the bottom of the Pacific. A giant rampaging beast emerges and levels a good portion of California before the military manages to stop it. Unfortunately, that's only the beginning. One Kaiju after another pops out of the rift and humanity now has a full-scale epidemic of massive invaders on its hands. In response, the governments of the world come together and pool their resources to create the Jaeger[sic?] units, giant bipedal humanoid wrecking machines. These mechs are piloted by teams of two or three people who sync minds via the Drift System. Brothers duo Raleigh (Charlie Hunnam) and Yancy (Diego Klattenhoff) enjoy great success piloting their unit Gipsy, and it looks like the army of robo-brawlers has the crisis well in hand. However, they soon grow complacent and are defeated by a stronger breed of Kaiju. Raleigh loses his brother and the project dwindles down to just four machines. The project's commander, Stacker Pentecost (the always intense Idris Elba) has all remaining units retreat to Hong Kong for mankind's last stand. Raleigh finds a replacement partner in Mako Mori (Rinko Kikuchi), but she may have too much emotional baggage to effectively sync with him. Can this internationally diverse band of pilots work to together to cancel the apocalypse?

This movie is pure awesome. It has a strong cast, powerful visuals, a wicked sense of humor and a rocking soundtrack to go with all the action. del Toro and co. borrow strongly from Japanese TV, movies and anime to create a film that puts the Transformers movies to shame. Honestly, I haven't seen anything even remotely like this in live-action movie form since Robot Jox back in 1989. For crying out loud, how many movies show a giant robot using a fishing vessel as a baseball bat? Pacific Rim does. Oh, and Ron Perlman being Ron Perlman certainly doesn't hurt.

If there  is any criticism I can level against this movie, it's the fact that the Jaeger units don't have a whole lot of variety aside from the three-armed one. In anime there's always at least a super plane or super tank to back up the mechs. Hell, even Power Rangers mixed it up with different animal types.

Still, that's a very minor complaint and one that doesn't diminish my enjoyment of this film. Shut down your computer and go see Pacific Rim!

"We can stay here and die, or we can grab these flares and do something stupid."


Monday, July 8, 2013

Kindle Spotlight -- Camera Obscura

Have you ever said to yourself, "Gee, steampunk is awesome, but I wish it had more chicks with Gatling gun arms and lizard guys like in the Super Mario Brothers movie"? Then Lavie Tidhar's novel, Camera Obscura, is for you! Note: although this book is available on Kindle, I read the paperback version.

The story takes place in 1893 Paris. A murder has been committed in the Rue Morgue. Arriving on the scene is Milady de Winter (who is black in this story), agent extraordinaire for the mysterious Quiet Council. After kicking the local police out, she proceeds to conduct her own investigation with the help of her robotic insect/pet Grimm. She discovers the corpse has been infected with a strange silvery substance. She has Grimm destroy the body--presumably as part of a cover-up on behest of the Council--and leaves. Unfortunately for her, this is just the beginning. More victims soon turn up, and the killings seem to be related to a set of jade statues with otherworldly properties. Everyone, from the Council to the English lizard men (did I mention the lizards conquered England?), to competing Chinese factions, wants to get their hands on the statues for their own agendas. Milady just wants to stop the murders, but that's not easy with her own allies betraying her at every step. Just what are these seemingly intelligent statues, and can Milady stay alive long enough to find out?

I have a few problems with an otherwise strong story. First--de Winter is not a very likable character. She callously bullies her way through murder investigations she may or may not even have jurisdiction over. She threatens people, she destroys evidence, and is so intent on getting answers she has the body of one of the murder victims mutilated and forces the dead woman's daughter to look at it to shock her into coughing up what she knows. She never shows any remorse for these actions. Therefore, when Milady is brutally tortured later in the story, I did not feel bad for her.
Also, the exact nature of the Council she works for is never explained. They clearly wield power of some kind but Tidhar doesn't let us in on it. From start to finish they are mostly a group of amoral Illuminati types barking orders. The story is told from the point of view of their best agent, so I don't see why she couldn't take a paragraph to sum it up for us.
Another problem, albeit one that is not directly tied in with the plot, is Tidhar's habit of having the next character speak while still on the same paragraph. Milady will finish speaking, and another person will immediately say something on the very same line. Since you can still tell when another character begins speaking, it's not confusing so much as jarring. Still, it comes off as unprofessional (at least, to me).

If you can get past all that, you'll find an engaging narrative filled with colorful characters. Throughout her journey, Milady encounters, in one form or another, a spattering of historical and literary figures, such as Victor von Frankenstein, Nikola Tesla, the Marquis de Sade, Dr. Moreau and Buffalo Bill Cody. The locales in the story are even more compelling. From 19th century Paris, to an underwater city, to the Chicago World's Fair, I'd say these places are the real star of the book.



Monday, July 1, 2013

Revisiting the Classics -- Woman in the Moon

A while back I took a fresh look at Fritz Lang's 1927 sci-fi masterpiece Metropolis. Today I'm telling you about his 1929 followup, Woman in the Moon. As the title suggests, Lang and wife/writer Thea von Harbou (who also wrote Metropolis) turned their attention to outer space for this one.

In 1896, Professor Manfeldt proposed that the moon contains vast deposits of gold. The idea sounded ridiculous to his colleagues and he was laughed out of all scientific circles. Three decades later his protege Helius declares he has built a rocket and will fly to the moon. However, he isn't the only one interested in Manfeldt's research. A sinister cabal of businessmen steals their combined research and informs Manfeldt and Helius they have built their own rocket in order to take the moon gold for themselves. Their agent, Mr. Turner, presents Helius with an ultimatum: "Come with us to the moon aboard our rocket...or not at all!" To make good on their threat, they bomb the hanger containing Helius' rocket. Determined to go to the moon, and left with no other options for doing so, he agrees to join Turner aboard the cabal's rocket. Accompanying them are Manfeldt, best friend Hans Wendigger, his fiance Friede (the titular woman), and stowaway boy Gustav. What will they discover when they land on the moon? You'll just have to watch to find out.

Woman in the Moon is less ambitious in scope than Metropolis. It has a much smaller cast and smaller sets, and the score consists largely of beautiful piano melodies as opposed to the full orchestra of Lang's previous science fiction film. Fortunately, the story is strong, and less campy than Metropolis (no android belly-dancers here). I like the characters, particularly Helius and his steely resolve during the climax (too bad Wendigger ends up being a spiteful, cowardly tool). Also, the film quality, while a bit grainy, is consistent throughout.

Also worth mentioning is the attention to detail the film makers committed to when they shot this. Lang and von Harbou managed to pull off a relatively feasible flight to the moon involving a two-stage rocket forty years before it actually happened. The story uses details such as the G-forces during lift off, the necessary conservation of oxygen, and the use of thrusters to counter gravitational forces. Yes, there are many scientific inaccuracies in the film, but it's impressive how many things they got right.

At the end of the day, I think I still prefer Metropolis because of its grandeur. However, I really like Woman in the Moon as well. It is another cinema classic from a stellar husband and wife duo.


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