Saturday, February 25, 2017

James Review -- Star Trek: The Next Generation: Headlong Flight

This week I decided to review Star Trek: The Next Generation: Headlong Flight by Dayton Ward. 

The story takes place across three universes at three different points in time. One is the primary Star Trek novel setting where the Enterprise 1701-E is exploring the Odyssean Pass near Romulan space in 2386. Another is a universe where Captain Picard was killed during the events of the episode Best of Both Worlds and the region is being explored by Enterprise 1701-D commanded by William Riker in 2367. And the final universe is one where the Enterprise 1701 was apparently destroyed during the events of The Original Series episode The Balance of Terror and the area is being explored by the Romulan warship Bloodied Talon and its escorts in 2266. 

Each vessel discovers a planet that mysteriously appears then vanishes while sending a warning message to stay away. The Enterprise-E sends a shuttle that is on the planet Ushalon when it disappears and the away team makes contact with the Sidrac who are on the planet. They explain that in their universe, Ushalon was the base for a project to launch probes into other universes using a quantum-field generator. At first the project went well, but then an accident caused the planet to shift between the various universes probes had reached, stranding the project's scientists with no way home. 

While the planet is in the Bloodied Talon's native universe the Romulans send a team in an attempt to seize the Sidrac technology, then launch an orbital bombardment in an attempt to prevent the generator from shifting the planet away. This results in all of the Romulan ships and the alternate Enterprise-D being shifted to the Enterprise-E's home dimension along with Ushalon. This leaves Picard struggling to forge an alliance to launch a risky plan to return the Sidrac to their homes while the Romulan Commander Sarith plots to use the disruptions recent events have inflicted on the various ships to seize one or both Federation vessels and the quantum-field generator.

I give this book 8.5 out of 10. The overall story is well-written and has some interesting characters and interactions between them. I also liked the combat sequences. The single major issue I have with this book is the number of unanswered questions I had when it was over. Usually I am more forgiving of this because I see them as possible hooks for later stories but in this case almost all of these questions are tied to the alternate universes encountered by the Enterprise-E and the characters native to those universes. This means I find it highly unlikely that they will be answered in later books.

Saturday, February 18, 2017

Book Review -- Seconds

Today we have Bryan Lee O'Malley's graphic novel follow-up to the insanely awesome Scott Pilgrim series: Seconds. Is it as good? Let's find out.

The story follows aspiring restaurateur Katie Clay who already has one successful restaurant called Seconds under her belt. She isn't stopping there, though; she's planning on going solo for her next venture (Seconds basically belongs to the investors who funded it and she wants a place to call her own). But, of course, things don't go quite the way she wants. Her ex-boyfriend Max drops back into her life and she doesn't know how to deal with it. Also, one of her employees named Hazel gets injured on the job, causing Katie quite a bit of stress. And, finally, she finds her decision to hook up with the head chef to be a mistake because they were making out while Hazel got hot oil on her arms.

But just as things seem somewhat bleak, a mysterious girl named Lis appears in her bedroom and hints at a way to change things. Katie then finds a mysterious kit in her dresser with the following instructions:

  1. "Write your mistake"
  2. "Ingest one mushroom"
  3. "Go to sleep"
  4. "Wake anew"
So she writes her mistake ("I shouldn't of fooled around with Andrew! Workplace canoodling is NO GOOD!") on the included notepad and eats the included mushroom. She then wakes up the next morning to find her make-out sessions with Andrew never happened, therefore Hazel never got injured. Everything's good, right? But, Katie thinks to herself, what if she were to keep performing the ritual and making things better and better? With that philosophy in mind, any time something bad happens, she changes history to fix it.

But this pisses off Lis who insists you only get one chance at changing the past. Katie says to hell with that, though; she wants to get her life perfect. So again and again she eats the mushrooms, fixing every mistake she makes. However, for each mistake she fixes, a new one pops up, kinda like a whack-a-mole game. Not only that, she finds reality is getting increasingly distorted the more she does this. And all the while, a growing in the basement of Seconds, becoming stronger with each change to history. Katie will ultimately discover the shocking truth about what she's actually been doing.

Seconds continues O'Malley's cute cartooney art style we saw in Scott Pilgrim and Lost at Sea. I would say the tone of the story is somewhere between those two. We get the fantastical elements of Scott Pilgrim and the adult language of Lost at Sea, so it's a nice median. Seconds is a stand-alone story like Lost at Sea, so we don't have the multiple volumes like Scott Pilgrim. Still, at 323 pages, it certainly doesn't feel short. You get a full-length story that's well worth the hardcover price. 

In terms of the narrative itself, O'Malley continues the theme of his previous works of struggling to make your way in the world as a young adult, so, mostly, it doesn't break new ground, and this time-travel story is one we've seen before in other series'. However, the final revelation really nails it. You'll end up feeling sympathy for something that didn't seem pitiable at first.

Bottom line: Seconds is another home run by Bryan Lee O'Malley.

Friday, February 17, 2017

James Review -- Weird Space: Satan's Reach

This week I decided to review Weird Space: Satan's Reach by Eric Brown. 

The story starts with free trader Dan Harper a former telepathic agent of the Expansion, the authoritarian regime that rules most of humanity, before he stole a ship and fled to the uncontrolled Satan's Reach region, arriving on the world Ajanta to deliver cargo. Ajanta is ruled by the native Ajantans who use addiction to a drug native to the world to enslave the planet's human population. Harper meets Zeela, a young woman certain to die horribly at Ajantan hands. Harper agrees to help her flee the planet but soon finds himself held in an Ajantan lair with her after being betrayed by his customer and sold to the Ajantans. The two manage to escape and are rescued by the Judi Hearne, Harper's AI equipped ship.

Meanwhile bounty hunter Sharl Janaker and a Vetch (another spacefaring species the Expansion recently fought a war with) named Helsh Kreller are recruited to retrieve Harper and his ship. The Weird, an organic technology-equipped hive mind from another dimension, has begun an invasion of human and Vetch space seeking to absorb both species via portals linking the two dimensions that are incredibly resistant to damage. And the Weird have infected a number of humans and Vetch with parasites, allowing the Weird to seize control of the hosts at will. The only way to identify these hosts is via telepathic scan making Harper very valuable.

In Satan's Reach, Harper takes Zeela to Tarrasay, a world where he often conducts business, after apparently evading the pursuing Ajantans, with plans to let her build a new life there. But she convinces him to take her to her homeworld of Kallasta and the stopover on Tarrasay is interrupted by a run-in with Janaker and Kreller. So now with bounty hunters and Ajantans chasing them, Harper and Zeela set out for Kallasta, making various stops and destroying an Ajantan warship en route. But when they reach their destination they discover that Zeela's parents had left because they were fleeing the early stages of an invasion of their world by the Weird. They meet and team up with Janaker and Kreller after the latter rescue them from another team of Ajantans but an agent of the Weird is far closer then they believe...

I give this book 7 out of 10. The characters are interesting, even if some of their stories are pretty predictable. However, I feel the setting needed much more detail included and the combat sequences are far too brief for my tastes and included very little in the way of details concerning what is going on in most cases. Still, the story has potential and I hope later books reinforce the areas where this one was lacking.

Sunday, February 12, 2017

Revisiting the Classics -- Things to Come

Today we have the 1936 film Things to Come. Written by H.G. Wells, it delivered a shocking prediction of our future.

The story begins at Christmas in 1940 in the quite obviously real town of Everytown which seems to exist somewhere in England. The spirit of the season is upon the townspeople, but so is a dark cloud of war, because an unnamed enemy is threatening Europe. We are never told who these aggressors are, but come on; it's clearly the Nazis. Ultimately, it doesn't matter, though, because the next world war soon consumes all of civilized society. Level-headed good guy and family man John Cabal (Raymond Massey) is called upon to serve his country, and off to battle he goes.

We then jump in time to 1946. War is in full swing, and even the Brits are letting loose with poison gas. Things are bleak all over, and Everytown is not spared from devastation.

Flash forward again, this time to 1970. Everytown has been reduced to a pre-Industrial Revolution society. Their leader, the Chief (Sir Ralph Richardson) wants his fleet of biplanes to take to the air once more so he can dominate his enemies, but oil is in hopelessly short supply. But while he's complaining of this, an advanced aeroplane lands in the town. And who should emerge from it but a much older John Cabal. He's come to deliver tidings of a new world order that will establish peace and rebuild civilization. The Chief doesn't care, however; he just wants his oil, and promptly has Cabal arrested. Cabal is not without friends, though. One of them still lives in Everytown. Soon they get word to Cabal's organization, Wings over the World, who waste little time coming to his rescue.

We then flash forward one final time, now to 2036. A utopia has been established, with Cabal's great-great-grandson Oswald (also played by Raymond Massey) in charge. But it seems you can't escape discontent in any age, and now a troublemaker with a stick up his ass wants to derail scientific progress and experimentation, and his primary target is the space gun, a cannon which soon will launch humans to the moon. He makes an impassioned speech, rallying the people to destroy the space gun. Will he succeed? Will the Cabals' efforts to lead mankind into the future be in vain?

Things to Come had one hell of a budget at the time, and you can clearly see it in the production values. Nothing was spared to bring Wells' grand vision of the future to life. But the movie is more important for what it accomplished. It successfully predicted World War II, the oil crisis of the 70s, holograms, new diseases, and (arguably, mind you) the Apple Watch. It really is an underappreciated masterwork of science fiction, and demands to be experienced by the masses. Thankfully you can get it today courtesy of the Criterion Collection.

Friday, February 10, 2017

James Review -- 1635: A Parcel of Rogues

This week I decided to review 1635: A Parcel of Rogues by Eric Flint and Andrew Dennis. 

In the 163X series the town of Grantville, West Virginia was displaced from the year 2000 to Germany in the 1630s. The townspeople allied with Swedish King Gustavus Adolphus. This leads to the creation of the United States of Europe and advances in science and technology based on the knowledge from Grantville's libraries. 

King Charles I of England learns of the rebellion loyal to Parliament that overthrew him in the timeline Grantville came from and, in response, he dissolves Parliament and retaliates against a number of the rebellion's leaders, arresting some of them such as Oliver Cromwell for actions they haven't committed yet. King Charles also orders the arrest of the diplomatic mission sent to England by the USE. 

The book begins shortly after USE agents attack the Tower of London liberating Cromwell and the diplomats. A small party including Cromwell, American sniper Julie Simms, her Scottish husband Alex Mackay and American Danial McCarthy set out to find Cromwell's surviving children, his wife and one son having been killed during the raid that arrested him. They are pursued by a band of Irish agents of the Earl of Cork led by a man named Finnegan who hopes to use the remaining Cromwell children as hostages. Finnegan gets ahead of Cromwell's party but when the many of the locals from the area Cromwell called home attack Finnegan's party with slings, Finnegan retaliates against the family occupying what had been Cromwell's farm. Cromwell' party manages to locate the Cromwell children before moving to Scotland, where the Mackay family has a great deal of influence, with plans for Cromwell to rest there before returning to England to raise a rebellion against an increasingly tyrannical king. 

Finnegan recognizes Alex Mackay during a skirmish launched to divert attention away from the escape of the kids and has him arrested soon after he returns home. Knowing he doesn't have enough evidence for a conviction,  Finnegan stalls the trial, hoping to force Alex's allies to act rashly. Finnegan eventually believes he has discovered a pattern indicating when Cromwell is visiting the Mackay manor and plans an assault with every weapon he can bring to bare. But other factions know of his plans and plot to use his attack to further their own agendas, while in the background, plans for a Scotland independent of England, backed by control of offshore oil reserves now valuable and located well before their original time are being laid.

I give the book 9 out of 10. It is a great adventure story with an variety of combat and political scenes along with some personal struggles among characters, many stemming from Americans of Irish descent being unsure of how to react to the Cromwell family due to Oliver Cromwell's actions in their native history. It also does a good job of providing enough details on what has happened leading up to this point to allow someone who has never read any of the previous books, like myself, to understand what is happening. I wish some of the political side scenes were longer and more detailed, though. And on a side note, I find it odd that the book is called 1635: A Parcel of Rogues when the entire story except for the epilogue takes place in 1634.

Friday, February 3, 2017

James Review -- Star Trek: The Original Series: The Face of the Unknown

This week I decided to review Star Trek: The Original Series: The Face of the Unknown by Christopher L. Bennett.

The story starts in the middle of a battle between the Enterprise and a frigate belonging to the Betelgeusians, a predatory species that travels in packs of ships. When the frigate is disabled, its commander contacts Kirk and congratulates him on being both more sporting and more clever then the commander of the Federation ships that recently attacked his pack. After asking for and receiving information concerning the attack, the Enterprise crew discovers that the attacking vessels don't belong to the United Federation of Planets but appear to be much like the ships used by the First Federation, an alliance of species which the Enterprise had made contact with but about which little is known despite an Enterprise crew member being left as an acting ambassador. 

Also, the corpses of the attackers appear identical to the puppet used by Balok, the commander of the First Federation vessel that Enterprise contacted, in his early communications to hide his true form. The Enterprise soon receives orders to travel to the First Federation in an attempt to discover the cause of the attack on the Betelgeusians and similar attacks, as well as learning more about the First Federation. The Enterprise sets out to rendezvous with Balok's ship, the Fesarius, but find it locked in battle with the Dassik, the force behind the recent attacks. 

Enterprise assists the Fesarius but discovers that Balok had fled, leaving behind a set of encoded coordinates. After decoding the message the Enterprise sets out for the destination in the message and finds a solar system containing a once habitable world which had been bombed until it was uninhabitable thousands of years ago. Soon after arrival, a Dassik fleet enters the system and a battle begins. Seeking cover to make repairs, the Enterprise enters the atmosphere of a gas giant and picks up odd readings that lead the ship to the Web of Worlds, a network of massive modules that serves as the capital of the First Federation as well as home to the vast majority of its population. 

After making contact with the First Federation's government, they learn its origins. However, soon after the Enterprise arrives, one of the world modules is severely damaged by the storm and the Enterprise's attempt to stave off the module's pending destruction fails, leading to Kirk being arrested for his ship's role in the disaster. With elements in the First Federation's government fanning the flames against them, and many believing that Enterprise led the Dassik to their home, the Enterprise crew struggles to find a way to convince the First Federation's leadership that dissident First Federation members' belief that the storms damaging the Web of Worlds are stirred by the systems used to conceal the Web is correct, while Kirk finds himself imprisoned with a Dassik prisoner of war, and guarded by a warden who wishes to manipulate the two into killing themselves. The Enterprise also discovers the secret behind the ancient defeat of the Dassik, and the true cause behind the Dassiks' hunt for their old enemies.

I give this book 9 out of 10. It does a great job of providing a followup to the Corbomite Maneuver episode of the TV series and created an interesting culture from what little was shown of the First Federation. I also liked the little tie-in elements to Star Trek: The Animated series. However, I felt some of the plot twists were a little too predictable and there were a few parts that were inconsistent with what was stated elsewhere in the story especially during battle sequences.