Saturday, March 26, 2016

Movie Review -- Batman VS Superman: Dawn of Justice

Today we have Zack Snyder's follow-up to 2013's Man of Steel. This time, multiple superheroes join the party for an epic beat-down. Should you go see it? Let's find out.
The story picks up nearly two years after Man of Steel. Bruce Wayne (Ben Affleck) was in Metropolis when Superman (Henry Cavill) duked it out with General Zod (Michael Shannon), and witnessed the carnage firsthand. People Bruce cared about were killed in the battle, giving him a great mistrust of Superman.
Early on, Lois Lane (Amy Adams) gets into some hot water in the Middle East and has to be saved by Superman. However, a betrayal makes him look like a villain, and the public begins to turn against him. Charismatic (or demented) billionaire Lex Luthor (Jesse Eisenberg) takes advantage of this when he gets his hands on some Kryptonite and proposes weaponizing it (just in case).
But Bruce Wayne gets wind of this plan and decides to jack the Kryptonite for himself. He also views Superman as threat to mankind and becomes determined to get rid of him personally; this is a different Dark Knight than we're used to. Unfortunately for them, Lex has access to much more than Kryptonite, and proceeds to create a biological weapon to dispose of Superman in case Batman fails. And when mysterious Diana Prince (Gal Gadot) gets involved, you have a recipe for excitement. Let the battle commence!
Zack Snyder. Christopher Nolan. Hans Zimmer. David S. Goyer. When these four guys get together, awesomeness ensues, and Batman vs Superman is no exception. You have the fantastic directing of Snyder, Nolan's Batman experience, Zimmer's unparalleled musical score, and another solid script by Goyer which will make you question what it means to be a hero. Not to mention the stunning visuals. Simply put, this is everything you want in a superhero movie. It's at least as good as Snyder's previous effort if not better. Some people may be turned off by the suddenly homicidal Batman, but I appreciate this different aspect of his character. If you enjoyed Man of Steel, you're going to love Batman vs Superman: Dawn of Justice.
But if you didn't like that one, this may not change your mind. And at two and a half hours, you may find your patience tested. I myself prefer to watch movies of this length at home where I can pause it and come back to it later. Also, there is one very confusing sequence which had me questioning my sanity and one I hope gets explained in the forthcoming Justice League movie.
Nevertheless, this is a stellar effort and I look forward to future entries in these various franchises.

"You don't owe this world anything."

Friday, March 25, 2016

James Review -- Star Trek: The Original Series: The Latter Fire

This week I decided to review Star Trek: The Original Series: The Latter Fire by James Swallow.
The story begins with Chekov departing the Enterprise to attend Security training while the ship is preparing to depart for a diplomatic mission to the home world of the Syhaari. The Enterprise had assisted The Explorer Beyond, one of the first Syhaari warp exploration vessels, which had suffered a major drive and power system malfunction, and the Syhaari specifically requested that Enterprise be part of the diplomatic mission. The Federation Diplomatic Corps isn’t happy about that request due to some of Enterprise’s past adventures and when they encounter The Friendship Discovered, a new Syhaari ship that is much more advanced than The Explorer Beyond, the ambassador assigned to the mission begins to suspect that Enterprise’s crew had accidently allowed the Syhaari to gain access to information on Federation technology.
Kaleo, the captain of The Friendship Discovered, and former captain of the ship rescued by Enterprise, guides the Enterprise through the hazardous space surrounding the Syhaari homeworld. Early in the diplomatic mission, the Federation representatives meet Tormid, former captain of The Explorer Beyond’s sister ship. That ship had suffered an incident similar to that which had crippled The Explorer and after guiding his vessel home, Tormid had developed a number of new innovations that had revolutionized Syhaari warp technology.
But soon, a planet-sized space-faring creature enters the system and begins attacking the Syhaari, destroying many of the native’s ships and a planet they had established an outpost on. A vessel helping to guide the creature transmits a message declaring war on the Syhaari, but the wording of the message makes the Enterprise crew believe that the attackers feel the Syhaari have provoked them. Kirk and Kaleo lead a mission in an attempt to talk with the attackers, but are captured by the Breg’Hel. The Breg’Hel also hold Rumen, a Syhaari who had served on Tormid’s exploration vessel.
Rumen reveals that after the ship had been crippled, a Breg’Hel scout craft, crewed by some of youngest adults among the Breg’Hel, attempted to help them, but Tormid panicked and wiped out the rescue mission. His innovations are, in fact, technology stolen from the Breg’Hel craft and now the families of the deceased would-be rescuers have come for revenge, blaming the entire Syhaari species for Tormid’s actions, After Kaleo offers to sacrifice herself and her unborn child as payment for Tormid’s crimes, the Breg’Hel begin to realize that not all of the Syhaari are monsters. But then the Breg’Hel lose control of the creature they have leashed to become their ultimate weapon, a being with the power to destroy entire solar systems…
I give the book 8 out of 10. The story is very well-written and provides a great example of the dangers of revenge turning the victim of an attack into something just as bad as the attacker, with the Breg’Hel definitely being wronged horribly but also being willing to blame the entire Syhaari species for the action of one ship, though this is helped by the fact that Breg’Hel culture is based around massive families traveling together and they view the Syhaari as something like their own culture at first. But, in addition to this, they torture a creature to the brink of madness to turn it into a weapon which I feel takes them well past the boundary of any justified response. Still, I feel this story was a great example of the kind of tale that would have fit the original TV series perfectly.

Saturday, March 19, 2016

Revisiting the Classics -- Nine Tomorrows

Today we have the 1959 Isaac Asimov short story collection Nine Tomorrows. As the title suggests, it's nine short stories plucked from the famed author's imagination.
It starts off with some poetry before delving into the first story, "Profession." It concerns teenager George Platen who lives in the 21st-century where everyone gets their higher education by having their chosen field of study downloaded into their head. Unfortunately for George, he's told his brain is incompatible and he can't get the career he wants--or any job, for that matter--because in his time, the idea of actually studying is ridiculous. So he's sent to a special home for people who can't get a job and is told he'll live out the rest of his life in unremarkable peace. Unable to accept this, he heads off to the Olympics on some vague mission (even he doesn't really know what he's going to do there). But this isn't the Olympics we know; it's actually an academic competition rather than an athletic one. There George meets up with an old friend who's competing, and is introduced to a kind benefactor. But he has no idea what fate has in store for him.
In "The Feeling of Power," Technician Aub has a gift: He can compute numbers without a computer. The military wants to harness the power of the human brain to replace computers with people and achieve manned space flights and manned weapons. Aub seems like a hero, but he'll pay a heavy price for his gift.
In "The Dying Night," a class reunion turns deadly when one of its members claims to have invented teleportation and is found dead later that night. Who killed him and why?
In "I'm in Marsport Without Hilda," an agent for the Galactic Service has his vacation on Mars interrupted when he's called upon to identify one of three VIPs who's transporting illegal drugs. If he fingers the wrong man, his career is over. Can he find the culprit and score a date before everything falls apart?
In "The Gentle Vultures," an alien race called the Hurrians has been observing humanity for years, waiting for our inevitable nuclear war. But that war never came, and the Hurrians are getting impatient. Man needs a nuclear holocaust to humble him, the Hurrians reason, and make him mature enough to join the galactic community. So a controversial decision is made: The Hurrians will manipulate humanity into starting the war. But just what will it take to pull it off, and who will accept such responsibility?
In "All the Troubles of the World," a worldwide supercomputer called Multivac oversees all aspect of everyday life. It's so powerful it can even predict crime. But when it accuses a seemingly innocent man of the most heinous crime ever conceived, his son sets out to get Multivac's help to clear his name. However, the true mastermind behind the plot will shock everyone.
In "Spell My Name With an S," Marshall Zebatinsky goes to see a numerologist to get career advice. The numerologist advises him to change his last name to Sebatinsky. Marshall goes along with it and makes the change, but he soon comes under suspicion from the authorities who think he might be a communist agent. The attention seems bad, but it just might get him what he wants.
In "The Last Question," we see the evolution of Multivac throughout the ages as it grows from a planet-wide computer to an interdimensional one. And in each era, humanity poses the same question to it: How do we stop the entropy of the universe and prevent its inevitable end? And each time, the supercomputer cannot answer the question. But as each millennia passes, it comes closer and closer to the answer and an astonishing revelation.
In the final story "The Ugly Little Boy," nurse Edith Fellowes is tasked with caring for a Neanderthal child who has been removed from his time and brought to the future by Stasis, Inc. There he is a prisoner of the company and forbidden to leave the building. As time passes, Edith comes to care for him deeply, but when Stasis decides they don't need him anymore, she makes a fateful decision.
These stories prove the greatness of Isaac Asimov. He successfully predicted supercomputers, downloading, scanners and more. And even if you don't acknowledge his foresight, you can't deny these are excellent stories. In particular, the last two tales tug at your heart strings and blow your mind (not necessarily in that order). Asimov deserves his place in history as one of science fiction's great prophets and storytellers.

Friday, March 18, 2016

James Review -- Star Wars: Dark Disciple

This week I decided to review Star Wars: Dark Disciple by Christie Golden.
The story begins with a Republic refugee convoy fleeing the Separatist conquest of the world Mahranee late in the Clone Wars. The attack is personally led by Count Dooku who orders the destruction of the convoy, and knowing that the Jedi council is in contact with the republic forces trying to evacuate the civilians, he makes it clear such attacks will continue.
In response, the Jedi Council decides to send knight Quinlan Vos, an expert in undercover operations, to assassinate Dooku, thus collapsing the Separatist alliance.To aid him they decide to have him attempt to gain the assistance of Asajj Ventress, Dooku’s former apprentice who tried and failed to assassinate him twice after he betrayed her, losing her home and people to his counterattack, without letting her know that he’s a Jedi. Ventress is now working as a bounty hunter and Vos attempts to impress her enough to form a partnership with him.
At first, things go well other than the pair struggling with their attraction to each other, but after a mission to rescue the family of a crime boss from the rival Black Sun organization ends in tragedy, Vos reveals the truth and Ventress reveals that she already knew that he was a Jedi. After she explains part of her past to him, including the origins of her hatred of the Jedi, the two become lovers. She takes him to her homeworld of Dathomir to train him in the Nightsisters’ arts of walking in the shallow portions of the Darkside without being pulled into the depths and losing control. She also tells him that Dooku killed his mentor to motivate him and increase his anger towards the count.
In time, the two launch an attack on Dooku at a party where he is receiving a humanitarian award. But the attack fails and Ventress is forced to flee while Vos is captured. Desperate to rescue him, she recruits Boba Fett, who has a grudge against her, and his crew to aid in a rescue by paying them a massive sum of credits in advance. But the rescue goes wrong when Vos attacks the rescue party after discovering that it was in fact Ventress who killed his master.
Forced to flee again, Ventress goes to the Jedi for aid. While this attempt succeeds and Vos appears to have pulled back from the reaches of the Dark Side, Ventress doesn’t trust his return to the light. However, in time she changes her mind and the two resume their romance in secret. But when Vos is again sent to eliminate Dooku they and their relationship will face an ultimate test… 
The story also contains "Kindred Spirits," a short story by the same author which covers how Ventress forged a friendship with a pirate queen linked to one of the bounties in the main book. The events are also linked to the undercover mission Vos was pulled from before being sent after Dooku, though he doesn’t appear himself.
I give the book 8 out of 10. The details of Ventress’s past are handled well and the period where her and Voss were bounty hunting partners was a lot more fun than I expected, but there are some events in the period after Vos is rescued that just seem too convenient for leading characters to reach the conclusions needed for what they do next. Also, I can’t help but feel that the section focusing on the end of the mission Vos was on before being sent after Dooku is pointless. All it does, in my opinion, is take up space and provide an unnecessary tie between Vos and the events of "Kindred Spirits." However, even though anyone remotely familiar with the franchise knows the results of the mission against Dooku, the story does a good job of keeping the reader wondering what will cause that result and what its consequences will be. "Kindred Spirits" is a nice little story but I wish it was a little longer; specifically, I think the events of the job that led Ventress to where she was when the story began should have been shown rather than just given a brief description after the fact.

Saturday, March 12, 2016

Book Review -- The Isolator

Today we have a Japanese light novel by Reki Kawahara entitled The Isolator: Volume II: The Igniter. For the uninitiated, a light novel is longer than a novella, but shorter than a full-length novel. This particular book is 186 pages not including the afterword.
For those (like me) who skipped the first volume, the story is fairly easy to follow. It centers around Minoru Utsugi, a student living in Tokyo who gets infected by a mysterious alien parasite called a Third Eye. He's not the only one, though, and others gets infected as well, each gaining a unique ability. Minoru gains the power to create an impenetrable shell around himself.
Minoru meets fellow Third Eye user Yumiko Azu who has the power to accelerate her body. She recruits him to join the Ministry of Health, Labor, and Welfare's Industrial Safety and Health Department's Specialized Forces Division, or the SFD. There he meets other Third Eye users and their abilities. Their job is to protect mankind from the Ruby Eyes, Third Eye users with evil intent. Minoru agrees to join, but he isn't interested in saving lives. His real objective is to have all memories of him in everyone around him erased so no one will remember him.

In this volume, the SFD is up against Ayato Suka, a man who has the power to control fire. Suka is obsessed with oxygen and wants to cremate all of Tokyo, and unless he's stopped soon, he just might gain the power to do it. Minoru agrees to aid in the search, but he may not have the resolve to succeed. After all, he's in it for his own selfish reasons. However, as he grows closer to his fellow Third Eye users, he could actually find his conscious and the will to fight. Together, the SFD sets out to stop Suka, but what deadly tricks does he have up his sleeve?
A translated story is tricky to review because any problems you find might be due to the translation and not the author's skill. Nevertheless, I'm willing to share my thoughts here. The writing itself is somewhat basic and seems to be written for teenagers rather than adults. The narrative also switches between past and present tense in the middle of a scene, which bugs me. Again, I don't know if that's how the author wrote it or if it's a faulty translation, but this is the finished American product.
Regardless of translation, though, The Isolator is an entertaining story with compelling protagonists. Minoru isn't your typical hero since he's trying to make everyone forget he exists, and I find that very interesting. Yumiko is also a heroine who has her own problems but is easy to root for. And Suka, while not entirely devoid of clich├ęs, still has his own angle.
Furthermore, the story has a cool comic book-inspired, superhero vibe which is really easy for a guy like me to get into. You can never go wrong with superpowers.
The book also includes some nice artwork to accompany the story. It certainly made it easy to visualize the characters.
However, I wouldn't get this book from Barnes & Noble. At $20, you're much better off buying a used copy off Amazon for less (hence the link below).
With plenty of questions that still need answering, I look forward to reading future entries in this series.

Friday, March 11, 2016

James Review -- Into the Maelstrom: The Citizen Trilogy

This week I decided to review The Citizen Trilogy: Into the Maelstrom by David Drake and John Lambshead.

The story opens with the Brasilian research ship Reggie Kray discovering a substance, unbihexium, while exploring the Cutter Stream region of space. The substance had been theorized by the long fallen Third Human Civilization, also known as the current civilization of Earth, but had never been proven to exist until now. While an experiment nearly leads to disaster, it also reveals revolutionary traits of the new substance.

Meanwhile, the discontent is rapidly growing in Brasilia’s Cutter Stream colonies, and soon after seeing off his brother-in-law who is moving back to Brasilia, Allen Allenson, a veteran of the recent war between Brasilia and its rival Terra, travels to Paxton where representatives of the colonies are gathering to discuss a response to the Brasilian government’s recent actions, and while there, Allenson runs into Hawthorn, an old friend who vanished soon after the last war.

But while the debate over whether or not to declare independence rages, events elsewhere bring matters to a head. In the colonial Heilbron Worlds, clashes between radicals and Brasilian troops have led to the local militias besieging the Brasilian-held city of Oxford. Allenson is appointed Captain General of the Cutter Stream army and sent to command the siege, along with his nephew Todd as an aide, and Hawthorn as head of special projects such as intelligence-gathering and the general’s security, with his efforts to protect the general soon joined by Allenon’s wife Trinia.

Allenson swiftly reorganizes the disaster of a camp he finds on arrival and works to instill discipline in the army, With siege engines improvised by a rebel engineer, the colonial army manages to disrupt Oxford’s supply lines and the Brasilian army withdraws. But Allenson’s hopes that this victory will end the war are soon dashed as news of unbihexium and its abilities reaches him. The substance will revolutionize space travel, starship design, engineering and warfare, and with the only confirmed source in the Cutter Stream, Brasilia is more determined to hold the colonies than ever. Allenson prepares to defend Port Trent, the primary link between the Homeworlds and the Cutter Stream colonies but when the battle begins a series of unexpected moves by Brasilia’s forces turns the defense into a siege and then a desperate retreat by the Colonial army. And while Allenson is reporting to the colonial Assembly on Paxton, disaster strikes again as the Brasilian forces strike the base the colonial army fell back to, decimating the main rebel force. While struggling with the side-effects of the drugs he had been using to keep himself going while in the field, Allenson must build a new army, forge friendships with old enemies, and launch a desperate offensive with time running out for the colonial cause.

I give this book 7.5 out of 10. The setting is interesting and some of the technologies used in the setting are unique enough to make things different from most space stories. The story itself is, at its heart, the early phases of the American Revolution in space with Allenson as the counterpart of George Washington but there are enough changes to keep things from becoming too predictable. However, this also hurts the story as I feel that some of the changes are not for the better. There is no mention of any major engagements not involving Allenson. This means no equivalents to Lexington and Concord or Bunker Hill mentioned which makes me question the feasibility of the rebellion maintaining the morale to keep fighting through the disasters of Port Trent and its aftermath without early victories and proof they could hold their own in the field to bolster its spirit. And on a much less significant note I wish more effort had been put into naming the protagonist. Still despite the flaws the book was a lot of fun and I hope the third book is even better.

Friday, March 4, 2016

James Review -- The First Salik War: V’Dan

This week I decided to review The First Salik War: V’Dan by Jean Johnson.
The book begins not long after the first book ends, opening with the arrival of the United Terran Planets diplomatic fleet at the home system of the V’Dan Empire. The Terrans have come to aid the V’Dan and their allies in the fight against the Salik, but, despite the best efforts of Grand High Ambassador MacKenzie and Prince Li’eth, relations between the Terrans and the allies of the V’Dan run into a number of issues. Many V’Dan refuse, or at least struggle, to see the Terrans as adults because Terrans lack the markings most V’Dan gain in puberty. One of the worst of the bigots acts to sabotage the first meeting between the K’Katta and the Terrans by exposing the two species to each other before the humans--most of who are instinctively terrified by the appearance of K’Katta if not trained to deal with them--are prepared.
And some of the leaders of the non-V’Dan worlds adopt the belief that Terrans aren’t true adults due to their lack of spots. With the aid of the V’Dan Empress, efforts to halt the anti-Terran bias move forward, but the ambassador and the prince must deal with both their growing feelings for each other and their strengthening psychic bond which both aids and endangers them.
They find themselves aided by the legendary Immortal who transported the ancient V’Dan from Earth to escape disaster and founded the V’Dan Empire but they are soon under siege from both within and without as a team of Terrans and V’Dan, angry at them, plots a fatal strike against them even as a Salik war fleet moves to launch a direct assault on the V’Dan capital.
I give this book 4 out of 10. What’s really bad is that I feel the book is mostly decent, if short on action. While there is a little more combat in this book than in the first one, it is still mostly political and societal issues being dealt with against the backdrop of a war. However, I consider this a textbook example of a lousy ending dragging a good book down. This is one of the worst endings to a book that I’ve ever read. I don’t want to go into detail but it involves a character who is usually reasonable going utterly and (hopefully) temporarily insane for no apparent cause. I just hope the next book digs itself out of the pit the ending left it in.