Sunday, February 26, 2017

Review: These Are the Voyages: TOS: Season One: 1

These Are the Voyages: TOS: Season One: 1 These Are the Voyages: TOS: Season One: 1 by Marc Cushman
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Star Trek just turned fifty, and since I’m a fan only a few years younger than it I’ve soaked up enough of its history and trivia over my lifetime to qualify as a bridge officer on the USS Nerdlinger. Yet this book opened my eyes to all kinds of things about the show including debunking several myths I’ve taken as Trek gospel.

It starts off as kind of your standard behind-the-scenes story of how a pilot turned cop turned TV writer/producer named Gene Roddenberry came up with the idea for a sci-fi show, and then it describes the often painful process by which it eventually was brought to life by a dedicated cast and crew. That’s a fascinating story in itself, but by going through the production documents like script drafts, shooting schedules, and memos as well as drawing on personal recollections of those involved Marc Cushman also provides what becomes almost a daily diary of the initial creation and filming of each episode.

So we get a big picture view of things like how the television industry worked at the time so that the executives of Desilu Productions had good cause to think that shows like Star Trek and Mission Impossible might bankrupt the studio, and how Lucille Ball had to repeatedly step in to override her own board to keep them from being scrapped. We also drill down to the level of noting exactly who wrote each draft of a script and what changes were made as well as personal stories for all the guest stars and crew as well as the major figures like Roddenberry, Shatner, and Nimoy.

What emerges from all of the this is an intriguing picture of the controlled chaos that the production of the show frequently was. It also provides a lot of facts that contradict the general wisdom we usually hear about the original series. The story I always heard was that the show was low-rated at the time, cheaply done, and that the broadcast network NBC frowned on it’s progressive social messages and attitudes. In fact, the show had very respectable ratings in its first season against stiff competition from other networks, it was one of the most expensive made at the time, and NBC was actually encouraging things like diverse casting.

So why does nerd lore tell us something else? It was probably a variety of misconceptions and myths that grew up for a variety of reasons. Networks didn’t release ratings back in those days, and in fact might not want the producers of a show to know exactly how popular it was to prevent them from asking for more money. The show often looked cheap and slapped together because the technical demands had them constantly over budget and behind schedule. As for why NBC was often painted as a villain you could probably say that's due to Gene Roddenberry's habit of blaming NBC when he had to make an unpopular decision.

In fact, while Roddenberry certainly deserves a huge share of the credit for creating the show his behavior frequently caused issues that probably hurt the show and helped lead to its cancellation after three seasons. His style of dealing with freelance writers and insisting on unpaid revisions which he would then rewrite himself rubbed many the wrong way, and he routinely pissed off NBC. Roddenberry would then spin these disagreements as examples of the network pushing back against his social messages when the reasons might be directly due to his more selfish motives. For example, Majel Barrett was cast as the first officer in the original pilot, and the story I’d always heard was that the network didn’t think a woman should have such an important role and made Roddenberry change it in the second version. In reality NBC balked at Majel Barrett because she was Roddenberry’s mistress at the time so it seemed like bad business, and it’s hard to fault them for thinking that.

At the same time we learn how the show was hiring people like Gene Coon, a veteran writer/producer who stepped in at a critical time and showed an amazingly quick ability to to write his own scripts and revise the problematic work of others. Dorothy Fontana was an aspiring screenwriter who initially took secretarial jobs to get her foot in the door of the industry which she first used to sell scripts to TV westerns as D.C. Fontana. Eventually she became Gene Roddenberry’s secretary, then a freelance writer for him, and finally took on the position of story editor which made her one of the most important Trek creators.

The only problem is that sitting down and reading about all these episodes in a row gets a little repetitive. The production of the show fell into a rhythm that the book captures, and that starts to feel monotonous after a while although there’s always plenty of amusing anecdotes like how they got an actor to be in the rubber suit of the lizard-like Gorn creature by calling the guy in at the last minute without telling him what he’d be playing.

So as a straight up reading experience it can get a little tedious after a while although I think any TOS fan would like the initial stories about the show’s creation and find it a great reference when revisiting individual episodes.

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Monday, February 6, 2017

Review: Jessica Jones: Alias, Vol. 4

Jessica Jones: Alias, Vol. 4 Jessica Jones: Alias, Vol. 4 by Brian Michael Bendis
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This one collects the final issues of Marvel’s MAX version of Jessica Jones adventures and while I’m sad it didn’t last longer I also realize that all good things must come to an end. Or in superhero comic books it’s more accurate to say that one good version of the title has to come to an end and then start up again in another version.

Brian Michael Bendis saved the best for last in which he concludes the character arc for Jessica as well as giving us her origin story via flashbacks, and we also learn what was behind her decision to turn away from being a costumed superhero and drove her self-destructive behavior. It’s a remarkably deft piece of storytelling that manages to mix in bits of Marvel history like Jessica going to high school with Peter Parker with the raw and gritty portrayal of a hard-drinking self-loathing private detective. I also loved how the art was done in this with the flashbacks to Jessica’s superhero days done in the bright clean style of a more typical Marvel book back in the day which contrasts with the darker grittier tone of a MAX comic with plenty of profanity and sex.

We get the revelation of Zebediah Killgrave a/k/a The Purple Man as the main cause of Jessica’s pain. One of the most impressive things that Bendis has ever done is to take a B-list minor supervillain and turn him into one of the most dangerous and repulsive Marvel bad guys I’ve ever read without any major retconning. By digging into the full scope of what mind control powers could be used to do by a complete sociopath we get a chilling portrait of pure evil.

Bendis also does a nice bit of metafiction here with Killgrave taunting Jessica with the idea that she’s a character in a comic book. That also works with the other tricks like changing the art styles to put a sly level of self-awareness and commentary about the whole thing.

Overall, Alias was a great title that blended the realistic adult themes of the modern PI genre with Marvel characters and history to give us a fresh perspective on that universe as well as an intriguing character story.

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Sunday, February 5, 2017

Review: In Sunlight or In Shadow

In Sunlight or In Shadow In Sunlight or In Shadow by Lawrence Block
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Don’t you hate it when you’re hoping for great and get merely pretty good instead?

I was really excited about this going in. Lawrence Block edited a collection of short stories in which each one was based on an Edward Hopper painting, and the writers include some of my favorites like Stephen King, Megan Abbott, and Joe Lansdale as well as many other publishing heavyweights. What’s not to like?

Sadly, this is one where the concept was better than the execution. Block’s introduction certainly got my hopes up, and I completely agreed with his idea that each Hopper painting seems to invite the viewer to create a story for it. The results ranged from straight crime and spy tales to more character based Lit-A-Chur. There’s nothing I actively disliked or found terrible in any of them, but none of the stories really blew my hair back. In fact, it sometimes seemed like the writers were really trying too hard to be clever to fit the premise.

It’s no great shock that the best story Block’s since the whole thing was his idea, and what he came up with seems the most effortless that still feels like a Block story even as it fits his painting perfectly. (And I’ll make a special note to any King fans out there that if you’re getting this just for his story you’re gonna be disappointed because while his is OK it’s also very short.)

It’s not a bad collection, and it’s certainly an interesting theme. As much as I wanted to love this I kept finding other things to do rather than pick it up, and it took me a couple of weeks to finally get through even though it’s less than 300 pages so it never really hooked me completely.

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Friday, January 27, 2017

Review: From a Buick 8

From a Buick 8 From a Buick 8 by Stephen King
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

You ever make a meal comprised only of a bunch of leftovers that don’t really match? That’s how you end up eating half a Salisbury steak with the sweet-n-sour chicken from last night’s take-out. Stephen King loves doing that only it’s with books instead of food.

Here we have a hunk of Christine served up with stray bits from The Tommyknockers, and it’s all done using one of his preferred methods of having a character tell a long rambling story. Uncle Stevie then seasons it up with a lot of wistful thoughts on days gone by. Call it King Casserole Surprise.

The story here is told to the teenage son of a Pennsylvania State Police Trooper who was killed in the line of duty, and it’s about a strange car that his father impounded twenty years before. The car was abandoned at a gas station and at first glance was a 1954 Buick 8 Roadmaster in pristine condition, but closer examination shows a lot of odd things that indicate the car isn’t a car at all. After one of their troopers disappears they all believe that the Buick is somehow responsible, and they decide to keep the car stashed in a shed at their headquarters. Supposedly it’s to protect the public, but there’s also a healthy amount of curiosity that turns into near obsession on the part of some of the troopers including the dead boy’s father who spends the next two decades trying to unravel the secret of the Buick.

This is not one of King’s best books, and one of the biggest problems is that he tries to have it both ways. A large point of the story is supposed to be that there are some mysteries that we’ll just never solve, and that we have to make peace with that when we run across it. Which is fine, but if you’re going to play it that way then the mystery of the Buick needs to really be unknowable. What King does instead is to beat us over the head with that theme of acceptance, but then he pretty much goes ahead and tells us what the car is anyhow.

Plus, the weird things the Buick does get fairly predictable. Yeah, I know, that’s part of the point. The story makes it clear that the car and it’s occasional crazy happening became just part of the routine for everyone who knew it was back there, but then King has to have it unleash unspeakable horrors a couple of times which make it hard to believe that anyone could just go to work every day knowing it was back there instead of just being an oddity they deal with once in a while. The cops also seem to take the disappearance of one of their own fairly lightly.

While this comes in at a relatively tight 350 pages for a later work by Uncle Stevie it just doesn’t feel like there’s enough story here to justify it. As it stands it would have made a better short story or novella, but at this length it feels like there’s both too much and not enough at the same time.

Despite all my misgivings I kinda like this one, but it’s for mainly personal reasons. My mother worked as a dispatcher for the sheriff’s department of our rural Kansas county when I was growing up, and their office was just a block away from my grandmother’s house who would watch us when the folks were working. I spent a lot of time hanging around there, and this book, which details the humdrum everyday stuff that happens around any cop shop, reminds me of those times when I’d hang out in their kitchen listening to the chatter of the guys in the office and on the radio. So it’s pure nostalgia that gets me to boost this from two stars to three. I make no apologies for that.

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Friday, January 20, 2017

Review: Drive

Drive Drive by James S.A. Corey
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

“Geez, Solomon. You’d have to be nuts to do a solo space flight testing that experimental engine you developed.”

“Hold my beer.”

This is a free short story set in the The Expanse series that tells us about how a Martian engineer named Solomon Epstein developed the drive system used by all the space ships. That sounds like it’d just be nerd bait for the kind of hardcore fans who look for schematics of fictional starships on the interwebs, but this actually has a couple of really solid hooks that make it something more than that.

One of the critical underlying elements of The Expanse series is the Epstein Drive. Not only is it the concept that makes constant travel around the solar system feasible, the way it functions is an integral part of the stories. The force of acceleration and what it does to the human occupants of the ships always has to be accounted for, and it’s been used to great dramatic effect repeatedly in the series.

What this story does is explain how that drive came to be, and it also acts as quick primer on how this was a key moment in The Expanse timeline that sets up all the conflicts between Earth, Mars, and the Belt that were already established in the first book.

So it’s a solid prequel set-up that sets up the structure of the series. It’s also connects emotionally by telling us about Solomon and what happened to him after he fired that engine up the first time.

And it’s free!

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Thursday, January 12, 2017

Review: Darth Vader, Vol 3: The Shu-Torun War

Darth Vader, Vol 3: The Shu-Torun War Darth Vader, Vol 3: The Shu-Torun War by Kieron Gillen
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Don’t ever ask a Sith Lord to dance.

Darth Vader is diverted from his secret agenda of tracking down Luke Skywalker when the Emperor sends him on a mission to put down a budding rebellion on a mining planet of critical importance.

This doesn’t advance the core plot that’s been driving this series, but it is a pretty cool side story in which we get to see Vader be a total bad ass as he asserts Imperial authority. One of the things I’ve enjoyed most about the story gaps these comics are filling in between A New Hope and Empire Strikes Back is how the destruction of the Death Star caused a whole bunch of problems for the Empire and how Vader is used as the Emperor’s main trouble shooter.

The best part continues to be the evil droids 000 and BT-1 who delight in the chance to kill a whole lot of ‘meaty masters’ in the midst of the conflict. It’s probably a preview of how robots will soon rise up to murder us all, but for now they’re a homicidal delight to read.

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Wednesday, January 11, 2017

Review: Husk

Husk Husk by J. Kent Messum
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I received a free copy of this for review from the author.

In a dystopian near future a handsome young man named Rhodes has a lucrative illegal business as a Husk which means that he essentially rents out his body to rich people No, not like that, you perverts. These are dead rich people…OK, now I'm gonna have to ask you to leave because that’s just sick. Go on. Close the door on your way out.

Where were we? Right, so the deal is that the richest people have found a way to cheat death and download their consciousness into computers, but playing Halo and trolling on Twitter gets boring after a while so they can rent a Husk and have a human body for a few days. Rhodes enjoys the money plus it’s a lot better than being one of the millions of suckers who can’t earn a living at a regular job, but his clients seem to be increasingly less concerned with damaging the merchandise. (You know how nobody really cares what happens to a rental car they’re driving? Same principle.) Plus, he’s started having weird flashes to things that aren’t his memories.

Most of the book is essentially a sci-fi conspiracy thriller, and it functions pretty well as that. I was a little let down that it didn’t do a bit more contemplation about identity and its relation to the physical body. However, Messum does a lot in the first person narrative that has Rhodes becomingly increasingly aware that while he thought he was just renting out his physical self that he might have been peddling something far more precious so essentially it becomes an extended metaphor on prostitution. So we do get some deeper themes on the idea that you can’t entirely separate the body from the mind.

The third act seemed like it was in jeopardy of turning into a pretty standard action and revelation style plot, but it swung back around to deliver some genuine surprise at the end. Overall, even though some elements are familiar it ends up being an entertaining story with enough meat on the bone to give your brain something to chew on.

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