Friday, November 21, 2014

From the Land of Fear review

This week I decided to review From the Land of Fear, a collection of short stories by Harlan Ellison. The first story is "The One Word People" which is a very short examination of a man’s thoughts on the kinds of people whom he feels can be completely understood by naming them as a one-word term. The second is "Moth on a Moon," a story that is only slightly longer, about a pair of men who sight a creature, the result of an experiment with regenerating cells, on the moon, and their reaction to the encounter. Following this is "Snake in the Mind," a few short sections from stories that were, for reasons left unexplained, never finished. Next is "The Sky is Burning," a story about humanity’s first contact with an alien race that visits Earth every few thousand years, the explanation for why they come, and the reaction of some to the knowledge they bring.  After this is "My Brother Paulie," a tale of a man on what was supposed to be a solo mission to circumnavigate the moon, who discovers that his insane twin brother has stowed away on his ship and must now survive being hunted by the monster who has known him for all of his life. Following this is "The Time of the Eye," the story of a man who was sent to a psychiatric facility after returning from Korea and meets then falls in love with a blind woman named Piretta who is a fellow patient at the facility. Next is "Life Hutch," the story of a scout pilot named Terrance, a soldier in a war between humanity and the alien Kyben, whose ship has crash landed after a major battle. He must now wage a desperate battle for survival against a renegade service robot. After this is "Battle without Banners." It’s the tale of an attempted break out from a special prison for minority criminals and the desperate battle against the guards that ensues.  This is followed by "Back to the Drawing Boards." It’s the story of Leon Packett, the creator of the self-aware robot Walkaway. But when Walkaway returns after centuries in deep space he sets in motion his creator’s plan for revenge against the rest of humanity. After this is "A Friend to Man," which starts with a robot in the apparently dead city of Detroit. It then shifts to New York City where the robot’s master is part of a small force of civilians waging an all but hopeless battle against an unidentified enemy force which has invaded the city using a number of illegal robot soldiers as part of their front line forces before returning to Detroit for the final scene of the tale. Next comes "We Mourn For Anyone," the story of Gordon Vernon who murders his wife Lisa using a unique device that leaves no evidence. He then hires a professional mourner to mourn his wife’s death for him, apparently not an uncommon practice in the setting. But the mourner has his own secrets, and Gordon has enemies closing in on him. Following this is "The Voice in the Garden." It’s the tale of the first meeting of George, who is apparently the last living man on Earth after an apocalyptic war, and the apparent last living woman on Earth. . Next comes "Soldier." It’s a story about Qarlo, a soldier from the distant future accidently sent back in time. The struggles of modern society to deal with someone whose whole life has been dedicated to war, Qarlo’s struggles to adapt to the world he has found himself in and the effects of the knowledge of the future that Qarlo brings on the world. The final story is "SOLDIER." It is a variant of the tale of Qarlo but both the format of the story and some of the details are different. Also this time Qarlo did not return alone. Instead the enemy soldier Qarlo was fighting when he was warped to the present has been brought through time as well.
I give the collection a 7 out of 10. Harry Ellison was a good writer but many of these stories are so short that neither the characters nor the setting have enough time to develop properly. Also there are a few points which I felt could use more clarification. And while this did not impact the score anyone planning to read this should be aware that almost none of the stories have what I consider to be happy endings. 

Friday, November 14, 2014

Man-Kzin Wars Volume XIV review

This week I decided to review volume XIV in the Man-Kzin Wars short story anthology series set in the Known Space Universe created by Larry Niven. The first story in the anthology is "A Man Named Saul" by Hal Colebatch and Jessica Q. Fox. It begins with the story of a small village on Wunderland soon after the planet is liberated from Kzin rule, then expands to focus on the tale of Vaemar-Riit, a Kzin seeking to enter the world’s politics. This becomes tied to the fate of a ship shot down during the occupation by humans collaborating with the Kzin, and a former collaborator willing to do anything to hide his actions and role in the vessel’s destruction. The second tale is "Heritage" by Matthew Joseph Harrington.  It tells of the experimental carrier Yorktown whose mission goes wrong after running into a Kzin battleship on a scouting mission. The carrier lands on a distant world and discovers a long hidden human colony. But what seems like a simple request from the carrier’s crew, a request necessary for the carrier to return home, will actually require a great price to be paid by the colonists. Next is "The Marmalade Problem" by Hal Colebatch. This is the story of a sickly Kzin, only partially trained to serve as a telepath, who was named Marmalade by the Wunderland monastery that raised him. To say more would spoil the end, I’m afraid, as this story is very, very short. Fourth is "Leftovers" by Matthew Joseph Harrington. It’s the strangest tale of the set and involves a man who was part of an attempt to create generals to win the latest war with the Kzin by splicing the DNA of three people together. His partner discovers that an outside power, the Puppeteers, are behind all of the Man-Kzin Wars, using the conflicts to forge Humanity into a weapon to use against some unknown enemy. Fifth is "The White Column" by Hal Colebatch. It’s a very short tale about a man who can see the future and has been programmed to find that most advanced artifact that’s on Earth one century after the time he is in. Next is "Deadly Knowledge: A Story of the Man-Kzin Wars," again by Hal Colebatch. It is the story of a professor assigned to teach human politics courses to Kzin students during the Occupation of Wunderland. In his off time he investigates the murder of a professor assigned to teach Kzin about human literature by a professor assigned to teach them human history. Could one classic story being taught to the Kzin doom humanity to conquest? The final tale is "Lions on the Beach" by Alex Hernandez. It is the story of a fisherman on a remote colony and his adopted Kzin son as they discover a secret which might assure the world’s safety forever.
I give the collection a 7 out of 10. I like the variety of stories and feel there is something here for almost everyone, but in my opinion, many of the stories would be much better and have more impact if they had been longer. In Particular, it's hard for me to really care about the characters in "The Marmalade Problem" and "The White Column" simply because there wasn’t much of a chance to get to know them because the stories were so short.

Saturday, November 8, 2014

Movie Review -- Interstellar

This week we have the new Matthew McConaughey movie Interstellar. Directed by Christopher Nolan, does this ambitious film live up to its pedigree?

The story begins some time after an unspecified apocalypse has devastated civilization. A mysterious disease called the Blight is gradually destroying every plant life on Earth. Pilot-turned-farmer Cooper (McConaughey) is doing his best to maintain his farm and raise his two children, Murph (Mackenzie Foy) and Tom (Timothee Chalamet) along with their grandfather Donald (John Lithgow). This isn't easy, as the region they live in is subject to severe dust storms. One day, during a particularly nasty storm, dust settles on Murph's floor in a series of lines. She blames a ghost, but Cooper realizes it's Morse Code. He translates it and discovers it's a set of coordinates. He and Murph head out to investigate and find a top-secret facility, whereupon they are captured and interrogated by an outdated robot named Tars (Bill Irwin). A woman named Amelia Brand (Anne Hathaway) comes in and introduces herself. She takes Cooper to see her father, Dr. Brand (Michael Caine) whom he was once a pilot for. It's actually a NASA facility, and Dr. Brand explains they've got a plan to save mankind by colonizing a new planet using a wormhole that just happened to appear near Saturn, and he wants Cooper to be the pilot. Knowing it's the best chance to save his family, Cooper agrees, but Murph is devastated to be losing her father. Cooper promises to return, but it makes little difference, and he must leave without making peace with his daughter.

Murph, Amelia, Tars and the rest of the crew launch in a rocket and make their way for Saturn. The journey will take two years just to reach the wormhole, and even when they arrive, they still must choose between three possible planets to visit and report back to colonize. Meanwhile, time keeps going for those left back on Earth, and the Blight keeps tightening its stranglehold on the world. Even if the astronauts find a new home for humanity, will there be anyone left back home to save?

Christopher Nolan is known for delivering incredible movie experiences. From the Dark Knight trilogy to Inception, this man knows both style and substance. Thankfully, I'm here to report Interstellar is no different. It's an incredible film that moviegoers everywhere must experience. It's visually stunning and features yet another excellent soundtrack by the incomparable Hans Zimmer. But it may be the incredible acting that sets this film apart; McConaughey and Hathaway both deliver powerful performances that will be remembered for years to come. 

However, anyone who has seen the Dark Knight movies knows Nolan likes to take a while to tell his stories, and Interstellar continues that tradition. At some three hours, this film is guaranteed to test the patience of some viewers, as it takes forever to wrap up the plot.

Nevertheless, those who can commit to Interstellar will find an exceptional movie that deserves to take its place among the greats.

Friday, November 7, 2014

Star Wars: Razor’s Edge review

This week I decided to review Star Wars: Razor’s Edge by Martha Wells. The book opens with Leia Organa and Han Solo on board the rebel-modified transport Gamble. They are supposed to meet an old contact of Han’s and obtain some supplies desperately needed for the construction of Echo Base. Unfortunately, they are ambushed by an Imperial Light Corvette. The Gamble manages to escape but is crippled and, while closing in on a safe port, they encounter the Aegis, an Alderaanian gunship whose crew blames Alderaan’s affiliation with the Rebel Alliance for the planet’s destruction at the hands of the Galactic Empire. The Aegis has turned pirate and is attacking a freighter to help pay off its debt to the pirate queen Viest. Leia and Han board the Aegis hoping to convince the crew to join the rebellion, but then a second pirate ship, sent by Viest to pick up the target freighter, appears and escorts the Aegis back to Viest’s clearinghouse. Han and Leia travel with the Aegis hoping to help the ship free itself from the debt it owes Viest. Meanwhile Chewbacca, Luke Skywalker, R2-D2, and C-3P0 set out in the Millennium Falcon to aid the Gamble and its crew. The first meeting with Viest goes badly, leading to Leia and the captain of the Aegis having to participate in a deadly sporting event. Then Han discovers that the freighter Aegis had been attacking is the same ship which Gamble had been scheduled to meet with. So the Aegis and its crew and passengers must escape Viest’s base and rescue their allies. But pulling this off will leave an angry pirate fleet behind them, and an Imperial spy in their midst while an Imperial force closes in…

I give this book a 7 out of 10. I thought the author did a good job making you care about the new characters (especially important since you know that most of the established characters have to survive the book with no significant permanent harm), However, the space battles could have used more detail, as could the specifications for the weapons array of Aegis since this is the first time  an Alderaanian Gunship has appeared since being briefly mentioned as part of the Rebel fleet in the Return of the Jedi novelization. Also, Aegis is stated as being an Alderaanian navy ship patrolling space near Alderaan when the planet was destroyed. Anyone familiar with Star Wars lore, like the author of a Star Wars novel should be, would know that Alderaan had no navy. With the exception of one task force crewed by droids and containing no gunships, Alderaan’s entire navy was scrapped immediately following the Clone Wars. While a small secret fleet was being built up when the planet was destroyed, it wasn’t publicly acknowledged by the planet’s government and thus shouldn’t have been openly patrolling the system. The author clearly needed to research elements of the setting related to the story she wished to tell more before writing the book, and a decent editor should have caught the problem and found a way to avoid it, perhaps having Aegis' construction just finishing as the world was destroyed, or having the ship hiding somewhere nearby rather than on patrol. 

Saturday, November 1, 2014


Tonight I'll be at Izumicon in Oklahoma City, so there will be no Doctor Who Recap. Also, next week I'll be reviewing the new Christopher Nolan movie Interstellar. The current crop of Doctor Who episodes will be over next week, so the Recaps pretty much end for now.

Friday, October 31, 2014

The Vorkosigan Saga: Captain Vorpatril’s Alliance Review

This week I decided to review Captain Vorpatril’s Alliance by Lois McMaster Bujold. When the story begins, Captain Ivan Vorpatril is serving as aide-de-camp to Admiral Desplains on the world of Komarr, which has been controlled by the Barrayaran Imperium, which Ivan serves, for decades.  Byerly Vorrutyer, an informant for Barrayaran intelligence  has infiltrated a group targeting a woman named Tej, and the informant asks Ivan to protect Tej. Ivan goes to where Tej is working at a package shipping business and begins flirting with her, but is rejected. He then follows Tej home, but Tej’s genetically engineered blue-skinned companion Rish stuns him because they think Ivan is working for their enemies. They are still holding Ivan when the real attack force arrives, and Ivan manages to warn them the attack is coming. The group flees to Ivan’s apartment where they are eventually joined by Byerly. It is revealed that Tej is a daughter of the leaders of a powerful major house in the Jackson’s Whole system and on the run after her house fell to a hostile takeover from another major house while Rish is one of a set of genetically engineered performance artists created by Tej’s mother using much of her own DNA. Meanwhile the local cops are seeking Ivan as a person of interest in the disappearance of the two women, while local the local Immigration service wants to arrest Tej and Rish as illegal immigrants Seeing no other way for the group to avoid arrest, Tej and Ivan elope. They then travel to Ivan’s homeworld of Barrayar, planning to get a divorce after which Tej and Rish will travel to Escobar to meet with Tej’s brother, the one member of her family whom they know is safe. But the sham marriage begins to become more, this being aided by the fact that their petition for a divorce is rejected on the grounds that neither spouse has done anything to the other to justify a divorce. And then good news leads to even more complications when it is discovered that the bulk of Tej’s family managed to escape the attacks on their holdings and they arrive on Barrayar planning to take Tej and Rish with them. But they are also searching for an old and massive hidden storehouse leftover from the Cetagandan occupation of Barrayar, hoping to use its contents to equip themselves and refill their war chest in preparation for a counter attack against the house that seized their holdings. But they still don’t know who within their house betrayed them, and their journey to the storehouse may lead to disaster for them and those who inhabit the area near the storehouse, including Imperial Security Headquarters.
I give this book an 8 out of 10. The story was amusing and d it had a happy ending for pretty much everyone but the villains. The story focuses more on the life of the characters with some light combat and adventure, plus a nice amount of political maneuvering. No space combat at all but including it  really would not have made sense in the story. This is the first story I’ve read where Ivan was standing alone as the main character rather than being secondary to his cousin Miles Vorkosigan, whose family is the namesake of the series, and who stars in most of the setting’s stories. I hope it isn’t the last because Miles has always been one of my favorite science fiction heroes. 

Saturday, October 25, 2014

Doctor Who Recap -- 10/25

Tonight's episode "In the Forest of the Night" begins with the Tardis landing in the middle of a forest. A little girl named Maebh approaches and asks the Doctor for help. She explains she was with Danny Pink, but someone told her to come here. Confused and a little irritated, the Doctor takes her into the Tardis, where she seems unimpressed at its dimensions. He complains he can't get to the center of London, but Maebh tells him they are in the center of London (Trafalgar Square, to be exact). But how can this be? It's a forest, not London.

Meanwhile, Clara, Danny and their students are leaving from a sleepover at the London Zoological Museum. They step outside and find the entire city overtaken by a forest that grew overnight. Turns out, it's not just London; it's the entire world. Clara calls the Doctor to tell him, but he already knows. He tells her he has Maebh, but when Danny asks, Clara lies to him about who she was talking with.

The group heads to the Tardis and seeks shelter inside. The Doctor doesn't appreciate all the kids poking around, but forgets about that when Maebh once again goes missing. Clara explains the girl's sister also went missing, causing Maebh to become borderline autistic and hear voices. Seeing a clue there, the Doctor decides Maebh holds the key to solving this mystery. He soon finds her homework, on which she has predicted a coming solar flare. How did she know about it?

The Doctor and Clara go outside to search for her, and they run into men in hazmat suits who are attempting to burn down the trees. However, the trees turn out to be fireproof. The two continue on, but are soon chased by wolves that have escaped from the London Zoo. They eventually run into Maebh, but things get much worse when a tiger shows up. Fortunately, Danny arrives and scares it off with a flashlight.

Maebh reveals she is the one who summoned the trees. Thoughts just come to her, she says, and she thought it would be nice to have a forest. Suddenly, an imposing voice begins speaking through her. Calling itself the Here, it says it has been on Earth long before everyone else, and it will be on Earth long after everyone else has died. Furthermore, it says the sun has called it. The Doctor declares that because of the impending solar flare, the planet is doomed. Clara suggests he use the Tardis to save the children. But it's just a trick to get him to save himself.

The Doctor takes off, leaving everyone to their fate. Upon further examination of the situation, though, he has an epiphany, and quickly returns. He tells everyone the trees are actually a defense mechanism meant to save the world. Sure enough, the massive supply of oxygen they've built up protects Earth from the solar flare, and the trees disappear. Watching this unfold is Missy, who seems impressed.

Everyone rejoices at their salvation. The Doctor reveals this has happened numerous times throughout human history. Mankind remembers the fear (which is why we're afraid of the forest), but not the cause. Finally, Danny tells Clara to stop lying to him about her adventures with the Doctor.

Oh, and Maebh's sister comes back.

Tonight's episode, like most of the ones this season, was solid. I thought the sudden forestation of the planet was an original storyline, and Peter Capaldi continues to impress with his gruff, snarky interpretation of the Doctor. Also, I like how Clara is an imperfect character; she continually lies to her friends, and it keeps getting her in trouble. I sense they're building up to something with her, and I look forward to finding out what.

Next week is the first of the two-part finale.