Saturday, February 26, 2011

Review - Asimov's Science Fiction: Vol. 34, No. 6 (June 2010) by Sheila Williams (editor)


Stories included:
Earth III by Stephen Baxter
The Emperor of Mars by Allen M. Steele
Petopia by Benjamin Crowell
Monkey Do by Kit Reed
The Peacock Cloak by Chris Beckett
Voyage to the Moon by Peter Friend
Dreadnought Neptune by Anna Tambour

Poems included:
Human Potential by Geoffrey A. Landis
Crushed by Susan Abel Sullivan
Of Lycanthropy and Lilacs by Sandra Lindow

Full review: The June 2010 issue of Asimov's Science Fiction is a bland and uninteresting affair, with mostly adequate stories that bob up and down between "just a little better than average" to "just a little worse than average" and nothing particularly noteworthy in either direction.

The longest story in the issue is the novella Earth III by Stephen Baxter, which returns to the same fictional reality that Baxter's novel Ark and his short story Earth II are set in. The story is set on a tidally locked world that has one pole perpetually facing its sun (so that one side of the planet is forever in daylight, while the other is perpetually in darkness). The inhabitants of the world share a common religion that asserts that the entire world and everything on it is merely a virtual reality simulation enforced by a somewhat ruthless theocratic elite surrounded by fractious and hungry mercantile states kept uneasily under its heel. This volatile situation is sparked into open war by the actions of a headstrong young woman and the more or less foolish man who falls in love with her. Events push the characters into exploring the lost knowledge of their ancestors and threatens to shake the very foundations of the religious establishment. The only true weakness of the story is the about face done by one of the major characters at the last minute which seems completely unexpected, against his own interests, and completely out of character. Like most Baxter stories, the characters are almost all entirely too reasonable, but even still the setting and plot are interesting enough to make for a decent read.

The Emperor of Mars by Allen M. Steele seemed to me to be somewhat of a Heinlein-influenced story, discussing events from the early years of the colonization of Mars. The plot explores the mental healing process of one of the colony workers following extreme personal tragedy, resulting in his retreat into written science fiction (by then a mostly forgotten genre). The story is replete with references to the vast collection of science fiction stories contained on the disk sent with the Phoenix lander which landed on Mars in 2008. Like many science fiction stories today it is filled with nostalgia laden references to earlier works, which I find to be a mixed blessing. It is nice to see an author paying homage to the stories he (and probably most of his readers) grew up on. It is, however, distressing in the sense that it seems to be a potential sign that the genre has become moribund and inward looking. I'll go (in this case) with the theory that it is a fitting tribute to the genre, as the story itself is pretty good. But I'll still worry.

Both Petopia by Benjamin Crowell and Monkey Do by Kit Reed deal with precocious pets. However, that is more or less where the similarities end. While Petopia has some comic elements, it is a mostly straight story about the struggles a young woman faces living in a third world country while saddled with an alcoholic father and a shiftless younger brother. In her routine and dreary life she comes across a toy robot, the Petopian of the title, which had somehow been mistakenly shipped from California to be found by her. This tiny bit of technology falling into her lap allows her to change her life, and the lives of her family, although certainly not in a manner that the creators of the toy would have approved. Monkey Do on the other hand, is a purely comic tale regarding the travails of a bad writer and his pet monkey (which he acquired when writing the commercially unsuccessful book Rhesus Planet). He purchases some writing software to keep his monkey occupied, and the results are not exactly what he planned. Although the two stories are markedly different in tone, they are both pretty good.

Both the The Peacock Cloak by Chris Beckett and Voyage to the Moon by Peter Friend are also thematically similar, being stories about artificially created worlds. They are, however, quite distinct, as one is told from the perspective of the creators of the world and the other from the perspective of those living within it. Of the two, I found Peacock Cloak to be the less effective story. Told from the perspective of Tawus, a deific figure and the last of his numerous siblings who had fought for control over the world they made, the central element of the story is Tawus' confrontation with his own creator. The story is very symbolic and wants to be full of deep meaning, but never quite hits the mark. Voyage to the Moon, on the other hand, is told from the perspective of scientists living on an alien world. The protagonist proposes using an animal that resembles a natural gas balloon to reach the moon, a notion that is scoffed at by his "scientific" colleagues. The expedition sets out, and things don't turn out like any of the participants expected. It is quite a good story, set in a world that is fairly different than what the reader would have expected at the outset.

The only story that was fairly weak in this volume was Dreadnought Neptune by Anna Tambour. The story takes place amidst the rush of people to journey to Neptune on a ship that pops up randomly on the street. In the mad rush, everyone crowds aboard until they are packed shoulder to shoulder inside. The story tries to make a psychological statement about humanity and the relationship between a father and son, but it never explains why random people on the street would rush in to a randomly appearing spaceship until they were packed in like sardines. Because of the flawed premise of the story, the remaining material just isn't very convincing. The writing isn't bad, but the story just doesn't make sense.

Overall, this issue is not particularly good or bad. With mostly average stories and none that are particularly noteworthy, it serves as merely a placeholder issue until a better one comes along. There's nothing really wrong with the issue overall, there's just nothing to recommend reading anything in it more than once.

Previous issue reviewed: April/May 2010
Subsequent issue reviewed: July 2010

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Friday, February 25, 2011

Follow Friday - Sevens


It's Friday again, which means it's time for Follow Friday. To join the fun and make now book blogger friends, just follow these simple rules:
  1. Follow the Follow My Book Blog Friday Host (Parajunkee) and any one else you want to follow on the list.
  2. Follow the Featured Blogger of the weeks - Nakesha of Totally Obsessed.
  3. Put your Blog name and URL in the Linky thing.
  4. Grab the button up there and place it in a post, this post is for people to find a place to say hi in your comments.
  5. Follow, follow, follow as many as you can, as many as you want, or just follow a few. The whole point is to make new friends and find new blogs. Also, don't just follow, comment and say hi. Another blogger might not know you are a new follower if you don't say "Hi".
  6. If someone comments and says they are following you, be a dear and follow back. Spread the love . . . and the followers.
  7. If you want to show the link list, just follow the link below the entries and copy and paste it within your post!
  8. If you're new to the Follow Friday Hop, comment and let me know, so I can stop by and check out your blog!
Which brings us to the Follow Friday question of the week: Share your current fav television show! Tell us a bit about it . . .

I don't watch a whole lot of television. This is not some sort of snobby "I'm too good for television" line, because anyone who spends even a minute or two looking at my blog will figure out that I am definitely a television watcher - so long as there's a show I enjoy on like, say, Babylon 5 (read reviews), Firefly, or Farscape (read reviews), or more recently, The Shield, or Rescue Me. I could cheat a bit and say that my "current fav" television show is still Babylon 5, because that is still my favorite show ever, but since that show hasn't actually been on the air in a decade, I don't think that's what the question is asking for. They are airing new episodes of Cathouse (read reviews) on HBO right now, so I'll go with that as my favorite current television show.

Go to previous Follow Friday: Sixth Time Is the Charm
Go to subsequent Follow Friday: Aces Over Eights

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Biased Opinion - Senator Reid Chases a Red Herring, Ignores His Actual Responsibilities

As some people might have noted, I like the HBO documentary Cathouse (go to Cathouse reviews page), and have written a number of posts about shows from that series (with more to come, as I eventually plan on reviewing every episode). As I have noted before, in the course of researching the Moonlite Bunny Ranch, I have made contact via media platforms such as Twitter and Facebook with a number of working girls (or, as they are called at the Bunny Ranch - "bunnies"), including the lovely and ferociously persuasive Brooke Taylor. As I have said previously, I have found all of the working girls that I have interacted with online to be sweet, kind, and friendly. I have also noticed that they put up with a lot of crap from people who seem to have little better to do than harass them because of the job they do.

But wait, I hear you say, I thought this post was about Senator Harry Reid (D-Nevada). Why in the world are you talking about Cathouse and the bunnies who work there? Well, because yesterday Harry Reid voluntarily stepped into a hornet's nest and announced, during a speech about how crappy Nevada has been doing, that what was really needed to fix the state was to outlaw the legal form of prostitution that the state currently allows. Needless to say, the women who make their (apparently pretty lucrative) livings working at these places erupted in response. Brooke Taylor, who is in my opinion the most effective and persuasive advocate for the legal prostitution industry wrote a detailed response to Senator Reid's speech (which I highly recommend everyone go read, as she does a much better job than I could to expose the hypocrisy and lies in Reid's speech).1 An online petition was quickly put together opposing Reid's proposal. As Brooke noted in her post, Reid's focus on the legal prostitution industry is basically a distraction from the real problems facing Nevada, which boil down to the fact that the state spends less on education than any other and has a crumbling infrastructure. In short, rather than blaming the dozen or so businesses tucked away in the hinterlands of Nevada, Reid should blame the fact that Nevada has lousy roads and an under educated workforce.

Reid's singling out brothels as the problem has generated a lot of publicity, including, for example a Washington Post article. But his suggestion has been ridiculed, with some public officials flat out contradicting Reid's assertion that legal prostitution is hurting the economy, and others pointing out that their local municipalities rely upon the tax revenues generated by the brothels to stay afloat. In a state that is facing massive budget cuts to critical areas (including deep and draconian cuts to its funding for public universities), one wonders why Reid thinks it is a good idea to eliminate businesses that not only provide high volumes of tax revenue to cash-starved rural counties, but provide high-paying jobs to its working girls, and a much larger number of jobs to the people who work as cashiers, caterers, drivers, and other support personnel for the brothels. In a state with the highest unemployment rate in the nation, eliminating jobs seems like a poor decision.

But the stupidity of a Federal legislator poking his nose into a matter under the jurisdiction of the State government (which raises some Federalism concerns to begin with), is only compounded by the fact that Senator Reid isn't even doing the job he was elected to do. Right now, the Federal government is in danger of running out of funding on March 4th, which would force a government shut down. As the Senate Majority Leader, Harry Reid is one of the prime players in getting a budget deal done. But what are he (and the rest of Congress) doing this week rather than trying to hammer out a budget deal? They are on vacation for the week of February 21st through February 25th. That's right, with the entire fucking Federal government at stake, our legislators have decided to stop working for a bit. Harry, of course, took this opportunity to suggest that Nevada should outlaw thriving businesses because he thinks they are preventing hypothetical businesses from moving into his bankrupt state. But the question one has to ask is what the HELL he was doing there to begin with?

For anyone not clear on what is at stake here, the Federal government represents about 20% of the economic activity of the United States. With a struggling economy, the last thing we need is for a fifth of it to suddenly go dark, even for a couple of days. And a government shut down means that all of those things that the public wants done, won't. Passports won't be processed. Income tax returns won't be reviewed. Income tax refunds won't be mailed. If you were planning on visiting Yellowstone, or Gettysburg, or Mount Rushmore, don't bother - national parks will all be closed. Government contracts will all be put on hold, so if you work for one, or work for a company that supplies one, you're not getting any money during the shut down. Literally hundreds of thousands of government workers will be sent home, and furloughed without pay for the duration of the shut down, threatening the personal finances of many of them. In short, think of something the Federal government does, and when it shuts down, it probably won't be doing that for the duration. And the really sad part about this is that even though shutting the government down will cause disruptions on a massive scale, it won't actually save the government any money (and will actually cost the government more money), because all those things that aren't being done during the shut down are things that need to be done, and will have to be taken care of when the government starts itself back up again. And because the government will have had to delay paying for or terminate contracts due to its inability to pay, the government will end up paying penalties to contractors. And in all previous shut downs, Congress ended up voting to give furloughed government workers back pay (and if they don't, combine that with the two year pay freeze already in effect for Federal employees and see how quickly you can bleed the government of its best people). In short, a shut down will be a disaster in all ways - causing disruptions to the national economy, and costing the government more money than continuing operations.

And what is Harry Reid doing? Trying to distract everyone from his culpability in this mess by pointing at brothels. And even worse, even if Congress somehow gets its act together in the next eight days and pass a funding bill before the government has to shut down, this is probably just a preview of the fight looming on March 31st, when the debt ceiling has to be raised. If Congress can't agree to a rise in the debt ceiling, then the United States government will default on its debts, something that has never happened in U.S. history. We may be living in historic times. This may not be a good thing.

As a final note, it seems that capping off Reid's silliness, the company he mentioned in his speech that was supposedly scared away from relocating to Nevada because there were legal brothels? It looks like they are moving to Nevada after all.

1 For anyone who doesn't know, in the picture on her blog post, Brooke Taylor is the brunette in the middle of the picture. Dennis Hof is the bald man in the middle, Bunny Love is the blond facing the camera, and Harmony Gabriel is the blond facing away from the camera. I believe the man in the tan suit behind Dennis is the lobbyist who represents the Brothel Owners Association, but I'm not sure.

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Thursday, February 24, 2011

Review - The Martian Way and Other Stories by Isaac Asimov


Stories included:
The Martian Way
Youth
The Deep
Sucker Bait

Haiku
In four short stories
Humans meet with aliens
Martians find water

Full review: The Martian Way and Other Stories consists of four short works by Isaac Asimov. There is no overarching theme to this book, although one could draw connections and describe this book as really consisting of two pairs of thematically similar stories. The first pair, consisting of The Martian Way and Sucker Bait are basically engineering science fiction in which intrepid explorers must think outside the box to ensure their survival and the survival of those around them. The other two stories - Youth and The Deep - are alien contact stories, both of which have a Twilight Zone style twist ending.

The Martian Way is the first story in the volume, and it is also the best. A substantial chunk of the high rating for this book is based solely on this story. I must confess that long ago this was the first science fiction story that I really thought presented a plausible future, which was a real eye-opener for me. Despite being nearly sixty years old now, the story still seems quite plausible, and I suspect if we had put our minds to it we could be living in a reality very similar to the fictional setting presented by Asimov. In fact, despite the clumsy and heavy handed addition of a McCarthyesque villain and some minor scientific flaws involving the make up of the rings of Saturn, the story seems to me to point out why sending humans out to Mars and beyond would be incredibly lucrative and open up the true wealth that is out there to humanity. Sadly, sixty years on, and despite the fact that there isn't any technology in the story that could not have been plausibly made in the 1950s, we are no closer to realizing the world depicted now than we were then.

Sucker Bait, the other "explorers think outside the box to save their skins" story, is competent and readable, but far less compelling. The story mostly amounts to a rant about how experts have walled themselves into their own limited fields of knowledge and how this is limiting and potentially dangerous. The theme of this story, positing the benefits of having generalists in a world of experts, is touched on elsewhere in Asimov's fiction in stories like Profession and in the works of other authors, making up one of the themes in John Brunner's Stand on Zanzibar. This story is an adequate example of a story built on that theme, but not much more.

Of the two alien contact stories, Youth is the weaker. The story follows a farm boy and his city friend who stumble across an unknown organism and try to keep it as a pet with the intention of using it as a way to gain employment with the circus. Over the course of the story it is revealed that the organism is actually an alien and that the "city friend" is visiting the country with his father specifically so his father can make contact with these aliens. The story rambles along as the boys try to hide their discovery from their parents, certain that they will disapprove of any pet, and the adults try to figure out why the aliens they expected to meet have apparently not shown up. The story ends with a "twist" ending that is pretty much telegraphed to the reader and should surprise nobody, although it seems obvious that Asimov thought that it was terribly clever. The twist ending alone downgrades the story to being marginal at best, but up to that point it is decent.

The second alien contact story is The Deep and is told from the perspective of a race of insect like telepathic subterranean dwelling aliens living on a dying planet. Despite the fact that Asimov rarely wrote about aliens in his fiction, this work makes clear that he had no trouble creating truly alien beings. The story itself is something of a subversion of the typical alien invasion story, because despite the fact that the aliens want to move from their dying planet to Earth, they are shown to be so truly alien that it is possible that humanity would never know they had arrived. Although this story does not get much attention, it is one of Asimov's better works, and along with The Martian Way it makes this collection well worth reading.

With one stellar story, one above average story, and two mediocre ones, this collection is certainly worth reading. Despite the fact that all of the stories in this volume are now well over fifty years old, they have all aged reasonably well. Reasonably well in all but one aspect, and that relates to women: Asimov's lack of skill in handling female characters is compounded by conventional 1950s social mores resulting in very few female characters, and the ones who are presented are almost ridiculous caricatures. Despite this failing the stories remain quite forward-looking in all other respects, making this is a very good collection that most science fiction fans will still enjoy despite its age.

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Review - Farscape: Throne for a Loss (Season 1, Episode 4)

Doesn't Rygel look regal on his trash can throne?
"That's your plan? Wiley E. Coyote could come up with a better plan!" - Crichton

Short review: Aliens hopped up on steroids kidnap Rygel. Worse, they have a piece of Moya. Worse still, Aeryn, D'Argo, and Crichton have to work together to get him back.

Haiku
Rygel is humble
But only to save his ass
Look! It's Zhaan's ass too

Full review: The fourth episode of season one aired during Farscape's initial run, Throne for a Loss was actually intended to be shown as the fourth episode (unlike most of the other early episodes, which were originally aired in what appears to be almost random order). In the actual intended order, Throne for a Loss was supposed to follow Exodus from Genesis (read review) and precede Back and Back and Back to the Future. When it aired, however, Throne for a Loss was shown immediately after Back and Back and Back to the Future and immediately before PK Tech Girl. This is just another example of network executives cluelessly mangling a science fiction show because they don't seem to understand that disordering shows in a program that has well thought-out interrelationships between characters completely destroys any attempts at having characters believably change and grow and form evolving relationships with one another. I am convinced that, to a certain extent, the undeserved perception that televised science fiction has weak character development is at least partially the fault of idiot network executives who do things like cavalierly rearrange the order in which the episodes of science fiction shows air for no apparent reason.

One element that is clear at the outset of this episode is that the crew of Moya are poor, to the point that they struggle to feed themselves, and they are willing to try almost anything to earn some cash to keep their heads above water. Obviously, they are able to live on Moya, but it is in this episode that one starts to notice how sparse and bare it is inside, and how little other than their clothing Moya's inhabitants actually have. And this poverty drives the plot here - desperate to garner some income they agree to meet with a group of Tavleks who claim they want Moya to carry some cargo for them, but without knowing what that cargo might be, or apparently much of anything about the Tavleks. In anticipation of these negotiations, Rygel (Jonathan Hardy), D'Argo (Anthony Simcoe), Aeryn (Claudia Black), Zhaan (Virginia Hey), and Crichton (Ben Browder) all gather in the docking bay. As a side note, this is also the first episode of the series in which the Peacekeepers, other than Aeryn, do not figure at all.

Rygel, neck deep in, that's mud isn't it? For his sake I hope its mud.
This sets up the second element that drives the plot of the episode: Rygel's continual preening and puffery as the Tavleks take the opportunity to kidnap him and hold him for ransom, mistakenly believing that Rygel is, in fact, the ruler of 600 billion Hynerians and not, as he is in reality, a penniless fugitive traveling with a rag tag bunch of other escaped prisoners who don't actually like him. And once they have captured him, they place him in a cell buried up to his waist in mud - which is yet another reason that showing the episodes out of order reduces their effectiveness, because someone watching the shows in the correct order would know that Rygel hates and fears mud from his reaction to it in I, E.T. (read review), but since that episode was originally aired as the seventh episode, after this one, viewers wouldn't know that. Once again, we see character development wasted by the inane decision to run the episodes out of intended order.

The main plot of the episode is fairly simple: the Tavleks have Rygel, and consequently unknowingly have a critical piece of Moya's infrastructure, and the rest of the crew have to figure out how to get him back. But the real meat of the story is, once again, in the character development and the blossoming interrelationships between the members of Moya's crew. And much of the character development in this episode revolves around Rygel, who is forced to confront the fact that he isn't Rygel XVI, Dominar of Hyneria, but was deposed by his cousin and is living in exile. Much of the episode seems to be more or less "take Rygel down a peg or two" (and by switching up the order so that PK Tech Girl aired immediately after it, the network put two episodes sharing this theme back to back). In Rygel's interaction with his prison mate, Jotheb of the Consortium of Trao, Rygel goes from arrogant and self-promoting as he trades boasts about the size of his domains, to self-pitying as he confronts his captors' indifference to his presumed status (including their serving him his meal in a dish made from a skull), to finally acceptance that he is not important, but is just a political exile. But the interesting thing about Rygel is that he doesn't decide to expose his worthlessness to save himself from captivity, but rather only when Jotheb attempts to claim sovereignty over him. In effect, Rygel's admission of his own worthlessness is an act of self-aggrandizement in response to being told he would be subject to another. In his admission, however, he does admit that the other inhabitants of Moya probably hate him. No matter the motivation, this is a level of self-reflection that we rarely see from Rygel, and the decision to assign a fair amount of emotional heavy lifting to a character played by a puppet (who mostly interacts with another character played by a puppet in the episode) is a bold move on the part of the creators of the show. Fortunately, the special effects work is up to the job, and the episode pulls off this difficult feat quite well.

But Rygel dealing with the fallout from his shameless self-promotion is accompanied by the rest of the crew having to deal with it as well, because it turns out that in order to make an impression upon the Tavleks, Rygel fashioned himself a scepter using a critical piece of Moya's control mechanisms. And as a result, Moya cannot leave orbit, and is actually in danger of crashing to the planet. (If one was given to thinking about such things, one might wonder at the foolishness of flying about in a spacecraft which can be debilitated by the absence or failure of a fist sized piece of crystal that the ship apparently carries no spares for). Compounding this problem, during the firefight in which Rygel was taken by the Tavleks, the crew took one of the Tavleks captive and obtained his "gauntlet" weapon - which drives the two other plot lines that flow through the episode. This is because the "gauntlet" injects what appear to be various stimulants into the user in order to make him a more effective fighter, but which seem be highly addictive and bring out some pretty negative personality traits in those who use them.

Are you ready for some football?
As an aside, I have to wonder if the Tavleks aren't this Australian-based show's way of poking fun at American professional football players. Ultra-aggressive, hopped up on performance enhancing drugs, and wearing armor that looks like a football helmet and shoulder pads, and their need to take frequent breaks to rest, they seem like a caricature of a linebacker in the National Football League. In this case, it may be no mistake that John Crichton, played by the only American in the cast, continually refers to the Tavleks using the steroid-sounding misnomer Tavloids.

But the episode is really about the characters and how they interact, and the Tavleks and their drug injecting gauntlet are more or less ajust a vehicle for this. Crichton opens up the episode making pop culture references about John Wayne movies while jousting with Aeryn a little bit over her desire to bring a weapon to the negotiations with the Tavleks (a level of paranoia that, as events demonstrate, proves to be justified). Though Crichton has been making pop references since the beginning of the show, this is the episode where this character quirk starts to really come to the fore - even if Crichton messes up by referring to Wayne's Mongol epic as Genghis Khan rather than its actual title The Conqueror. After Crichton saves D'Argo (Anthony Simcoe) from almost certain death at the hands of a Tavlek permitting the capture of the Tavlek in the process (an interesting and completely unremarked upon development in the series), D'Argo seizes the gauntlet and attempts to use it to prevent the flight of the remaining Tavleks. This sets in motion a round robin as first D'Argo, then Aeryn, and finally Crichton strap on the gauntlet to try and use its powers to solve their problems. The only trouble is that the gauntlet appears to inject a cocktail of stimulants into the user that, well, seems to enhance the user's personality in mostly unpleasant ways: D'Argo immediately becomes authoritarian and violent, Aeryn becomes agrressive and violent, and Crichton becomes, um, more task oriented? And well, violent.

(Also, given that they all use the same gauntlet, and it injects them with some sort of drug, doesn't that mean they've been sharing needles? The only thing I can think when a new person straps the thing on is "Eew".)

Just part of Crichton's cunning plan
The real development in this episode is Crichton's growing confidence and competence. Sure, he's still a fish out of water much of the time - as evidenced by his call for Pilot to use a "tractor beam" to reel the Tavleks back in after they kidnap Rygel - but in addition to saving D'Argo's life and enabling the capture of a prisoner, he also manages to subdue D'Argo when he goes on his tyrannical rampage, and actually effects the return of Rygel. Aeryn still makes fun of how useless and clumsy he is, but when he grabs the sleep mist balloon to throw at D'Argo she lets him, and after that fails he tells her he has a plan to deal with the raging, murderous D'Argo, she goes along with it. After the fact she thinks his plan was a bad plan, but she did go along with it. (And this is another reason why airing I, E.T. out of order makes no sense, because in that episode she has no confidence in him at all, whereas by the time the events in this episode take place, she'll at least listen to him, and if this is shown in the correct order it makes sense, but if the episodes are shown out of order the characters seem schizophrenic). And her plan to recover Rygel prompts one of Crichton's pop culture references, this time to Wiley E. Coyote. During his rampage, D'Argo, among other things, threatens to rip off Pilot's arms, which is an interesting development because as of yet in the series we have not seen Pilot "in the flesh" so to speak, as he has always appeared via holographic projection. This is the first indication we have that Pilot is accessible somewhere inside of Moya, and D'Argo's threat also proves to be sadly prescient.

Eventually Aeryn, Crichton and D'Argo all end up on the planet hunting for Rygel (Crichton unwillingly, as Aeryn knocks him out and drags him onto her Prowler) which leads to Crichton accidentally destroying Aeryn's pulse rifle and the revelation that D'Argo's Quolta Blade is not just a sword, but also a pulse gun as well. The only oddity about this sequence is that D'Argo hands over his blade (which happens to be the group's only weapon other than the gauntlet) to Aeryn, who is presumably untrained in its use (since she had no idea that it could be used as a pulse gun) rather than using it himself. The weapon proves to be quite powerful when she uses it to cover Crichton and D'Argo's flight from the Tavlek camp, blasting stone formations quite handily. This sets up D'Argo getting injured, which results in another physiological quirk for Luxans (to go along with their deadly tongue lash and high tolerance for heat), that is, that if they are injured one has to whack the wound until their blood stops flowing a dark red color and instead runs clear (which, when she pulls her hand off of D'Argo's wound near the end of the eipsode, ends up looking like someone poured Karo syrup on Aeryn's hand). It seems strange, however, that Aeryn would know this medical quirk about Luxans and yet not know the hidden use of D'Argo's Quolta Blade. Peacekeeper military training, it would seem, includes lessons on the anatomy of alien races, but not their weaponry. Or maybe Aeryn just missed class the day they went over weapon identification. But D'Argo's quirky blood flow requirements just highlights that the aliens in Farscape are all pretty damn alien, even when they look more of less humanoid, and even more so when they look like Jotheb (resulting in Crichton, in a fit of typical cluelessness, referring to Jotheb as a "critter" when he sees the four-throated, many-tentacled prisoner).

So, using the addictive gauntlet is bad and . . . Oh!
Is that Virginia Hey's very sexy blue ass? Why yes, yes it is.
Meanwhile, Zhaan (Virginia Hey) is left up on the ship with the Tavlek prisoner caught in the opening scene, who is now bereft of his gauntlet and the drugs it provides. He's initially all bravado and machismo when dealing with Zhaan, assuming he can overwhelm the seemingly demure healer with his macho posturing. But, as we learn quickly, there's much more to Zhaan that one might have thought - especially when in response to a fairly juvenile ploy on the Tavlek's part, Zhaan casually disrobes in front of him exposing Virginia Hey's very shapely hindquarters to the viewer (in a scene that was originally only aired outside of the United States and is only available to U.S. viewers via the DVD collection). This begins to set up Zhaan as not merely a gentle ship's doctor, but also a highly sexual character - a point further reinforced by her means of calming and healing the Tavlek when he becomes agitated during withdrawl, which is to take a bit of her whitish blood, place it on her lips, and kiss him.

But the bulk of Zhaan's storyline in this episode is taken up helping her Tavlek charge through his forced withdrawal following the crew's appropriation of his gauntlet. She is caring, concerned, and nurturing. Her prisoner mistakes this for weakness, and he and the viewers soon learn that Zhaan is more dangerous than the previous episodes may have led one to believe. As she says "Soft, yes. Weak, no." And since this takes place out of sight of the other crewmembers, we know Zhaan is tougher than she looks, but presumably they do not. As the episode progresses, Zhaan's charge is weaned off of the drugs he had apparently been on his whole life (although I'll note that the time this takes is strangely telescoped as a result of having to run parallel in time with the rescue efforts on the surface).

Finally, all the plot lines converge as Crichton catches up with the Tavlek leader just as the stolen gauntlet runs out of juice. Crichton is then forced to try to negotiate Rygel's release. After trying out some fairly weak lies, Crichton hits upon the idea of simply telling the truth: Rygel is worthless, and the crew of Moya don't have anything to trade for him anyway - a point backed up by the Tavlek prisoner's testimony. Prisoners are exchanged, Rygel manages to crap out the missing ship part (having swalloed it for safekeeping when he was captured), and the Tavlek gets his gauntlet back, disappointing Zhaan, but pointing out that using it is "his choice" this time. And Zhaan, saddened, simply says "no sermons", and closes the episode.

In a real sense, despite a pretty bland storyline, Throne for a Loss marks the true beginning of the show. Though the characters have been more or less distinct up until this point, in this episode their very distinct personalities begin to come to the forefront. Crichton's pop culture wisecracks, which had been present since the outset, shift into overdrive, giving the viewer a familiar anchor to cling to in a sea of strangeness. One can also see Crichton's growing familiarity with his new environment as, despite some missteps, he shows more confidence and initiative than he had in previous installments of the show, a development that, in my opinion, is what necessitated the addition of Chiana some episodes down the line, as it was no longer plausible to have Crichton need to be protected from harm. One also sees Aeryn and D'Argo begin to accept Crichton as part of the "fighting crew", although they do so quite grudgingly. Most important in the episode, we see both Rygel and Zhaan get some serious and quite interesting character development, fleshing them both out as more than merely "the pain in the ass" and "the doctor", but giving each of their personalities a more multifaceted aspect, and giving hints as to the complexities of their respective backgrounds.

Previous episode reviewed: Exodus from Genesis
Subsequent episode reviewed: Back and Back and Back to the Future

Previous episode reviewed (airdate order): Back and Back and Back to the Future
Subsequent episode reviewed (airdate order): PK Tech Girl

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Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Review - Virtual Death by Shale Aaron


Short review: In a cyberpunk work in which technology has collapsed, a girl used to die for the entertainment of others and may have to again.

Haiku
Computerless world
Shooting to bring gun control
Death's not virtual

Full review: The first, and most important thing that one can say about Virtual Death is that the deaths that Lydia Melmoth is famous for are not virtual at all. The apparent contradiction in the title is important because it seems to be a theme that runs through the entire novel. In short, Virtual Death, a cyberpunk novel in which computers have all but vanished from society, depicts a world in which everything seems to have been turned upside down.

While most cyberpunk novels depict a gritty, harsh world in which the haves are separated from the have-nots, and the 'net serves as the battleground between massive corporations that control every one's lives and the heroic plucky hackers who try to subvert the system, Virtual Death turns many of these conventions on their head. As noted before, computers have all but vanished from the future world, driven to extinction by widespread viruses that effectively annihilated all the information technology in the world - the damage was so extensive that public pay phones have seen a resurgence since no one owns a cell phone any more. Though the government, which controls all the remaining computers that are carefully segregated from outside connections, is ostensibly the villain in much of the book, it is mostly ineffective, people drop out of society and live in dumpsters and are ignored, shooting someone in a nonfatal way has become an acceptable form of political protest, and so on.

Into this hyper violent world steps Lydia Melmoth, who is famous as the girl who dies. Basically, a death artist takes a drug and temporarily dies as a form of entertainment. They are then revived before their death becomes permanent, although most death artists suffer brain degeneration known as "gray rot". Lydia is famous for making her name as a death artist in a time when it was officially illegal, and for dying more times than anyone else - seven times - although at the time the story takes place she is officially retired. Her drift into post-artist obscurity is interrupted by two events: a young celebrity death artist named Quigley is set to break her death record, and Lydia's mother's political activities as a banjoist catch Lydia, her brother and her only friend in their wake.

The banjoists are another contradiction: anti-gun activists who seek to reduce the number of gun related deaths by shooting and killing gun store owners, gun friendly politicians, and anyone else they consider to be in any way related to providing guns. Lydia is tagged by the government for prosecution and possible execution because of her connection to her mother, a prominent banjoist. She flees with her brother Stamen and her roommate, the diminutive Frankly. In another set of contrasts, Lydia's brother is freakishly tall and Frankly is a midget. Frankly is a depressionist, effectively the opposite of a stand-up comedian who entertains people by depressing them with stories about his awful life. However, Frankly is constantly pursuing fame and fortune, and for much of the novel has very little to be depressed about, while Stamen seems to be depressed all the time. Frankly is also a "nowist" who insists on speaking only in the present tense, which gets very annoying in short order.

Eventually Lydia runs across a fan and talent agent named Fenester who arranges for her to seek refuge with the only group strong enough to stand up to the government: the television studios who want her to promote Quigley's upcoming record breaking death. Her mother, with secrets of her own, also wants Lydia to do this, for reasons that are entirely related to her mother's political goals. (Lydia's mother is another contradiction: a mother who views her daughter as nothing more than a political tool, and an anti-government terrorist whose favored child is a government worker). Fenester turns out to have contradictions of his own, relating to both his sexual proclivities and gender. The story sort of careens about as Lydia bounces from place to place, hoping to find refuge and in interludes, describing each of her death experiences and the strange and unique hallucinations she had during each of them. Or perhaps they were not hallucinations and Lydia has been granted a view of the "other side". The book is carefully ambiguous on this score, reflecting Lydia's own confusion and providing an explanation for why she chose to "go under" so many times.

In the end, the story gets incredibly complicated as numerous competing interest groups crop up and double cross and triple cross one another. Then it sort of sputters to a stop, which is one of the reasons why, despite having some extraordinarily interesting ideas concerning the nature of the imagined world in which the story takes place, the book is only slightly above average. The other reasons are the entirely annoying nature of Frankly's character and his "nowist" diction (although he was clearly written to be annoying), and the use of an invented pseudo-hacker style of spelling (replacing, for example, the word "no one" with no1 and "to", "too", and "two" with 2 in the text; this gets tiresome quickly). Lydia finally does virtually die at the end of the novel, which finally has something occur that is not a contradiction, and gets answers of a sort to the questions posed by her death-state hallucinations. Despite a somewhat less than convincing ending, the novel is still pretty good, and an interesting take on the cyberpunk genre.

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Sunday, February 20, 2011

Video - Babylon 5: No Surrender, No Retreat DVD Extra


Anyone who knows me knows that I am a huge Babylon 5 fan. I don't just consider it the best science fiction show ever made, I consider it the best television show of any kind ever made. It was the first show that was constructed with single overarching plot that ran from beginning to end. As far as I know, it remains the only out and out television series that was designed as a complete whole from the beginning - even though more recent shows such as Lost and the revamped Battlestar Galactica, which had ongoing story lines, those story lines were stitched together as the shows progressed. (And their ongoing story lines suffered as a result of their improved nature, resulting in half-assed executions of the concept).

This video is a montage of scenes from season four that was included with the season four DVD set No Surrender, No Retreat. Even though it is visually quite enjoyable, much of what makes this particular video particularly amazing will likely be lost on anyone who is unfamiliar with the show, but I simply cannot watch this without every scene bringing back memories of just how thrilling, touching, poignant, or momentous each one of them is. Plus it has a stellar backing track composed by Christopher Franke. The fourth season of Babylon 5 is quite possibly the best twenty-two episodes of television ever strung together, and the other four seasons are almost as good. Seeing the show through to the end of its planned five year run was an epic achievement in itself, and the fact that J. Michael Straczynski was able to turn out such an incredible moving show at the same time is simply amazing.

In addition to putting up a video of amazing eye candy (and before anyone says anything snide about the special effects, I'll point out that they were done on a freakin' Amiga computer), I'm also using this post to let everyone know that starting this week I'll be working my way through the Babylon 5 series, starting with The Gathering (read review) and continuing on through the entire series, every movie, and eventually the sadly short-lived spin-off Crusade and The Lost Tales. I've also got all of the Babylon 5 script books, a pile of licensed fiction, and well, anything else that I can get my hands on related to the series. And I'm going to go through it all and put up posts about it all on the blog. If you've seen the series before, I invite you to join me in a rewatching the show. If you haven't, I invite you to follow along and discover one of the most brilliant and  monumental achievements in televised science fiction.

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Review - Earth Abides by George R. Stewart


Short review: Humankind virtually vanishes from the face of the Earth. The Earth doesn't care. Sexism survives. The Earth doesn't care about that either.

Haiku:
After humans die
Ish is a passive loser
But still Earth abides

Full review: In 1951, four members of the British Science Fiction Convention got together and decided that there should be an award for science fiction and fantasy related books. That year they handed out the first genre related fiction award to George R. Stewart's post-apocalyptic novel Earth Abides, a somewhat desolate and despairing book about the world after almost all of humanity disappears as a result of a world-wide plague. The story is told from the perspective of Isherwood Williams, referred to as "Ish" for much of the book, an anthropology graduate student who is one of the few to survive the ravages of the plague. To a certain extent, it is a little bit like The Stand without all of the supernatural elements (which makes sense, as it was supposedly one of the inspirations King drew upon when he wrote that book). The story is told in three parts each more distant in time from our world, with shorter connecting chapters bridging them.

The first section of the story, titled "World Without End", is the strongest part of the book. In the opening pages of the book Ish is bitten by a snake and falls ill. After he recovers, he discovers that during his delirium, humanity appears to have vanished from the face of the Earth. After establishing the basic outlines of the disaster that wiped out all of his fellow humans, Ish takes a car, a dog, and his hammer with a cracked handle and decides to explore the world looking for anyone else, although he is awfully selective about who he will spend time with given that there seem to be no more than a couple dozen people left alive in all of San Francisco. Because Ish is an anthropology graduate student, he spends a lot of time intellectualizing about humanity, and how the survivors will react to the death of so many millions, repeating the phrase "secondary kill" over and over again to describe people who can't face a world in which all of their family and friends have died and commit suicide, or take foolish risks and get killed, or simply set about drinking themselves to death. Ish, of course, suffers from none of these mental infirmities, and comments several times on how much nicer the world is without people.

Even this early in the book some improbabilities start piling up. One is expected to accept, for example, that even after the electrical grid fails, gas station pumps will continue to work. Ish also behaves fairly profligately, at one point killing a calf and its mother solely so he could cut out the calf's liver for dinner. (I was also left wondering, given that he had two entire dead cows to pick from, why he chose to eat the liver, and only the liver, as opposed to cutting himself a thick juicy steak). Over the course of his trip, which eventually leads him to a desolate New York City, Ish encounters a couple of people, including a black couple living in the rural South who seem to me like the people most likely to prosper in the post-human world, since they seem to actually know how to raise food for themselves. They make for a thematic contrast with the delusional couple Ish meets in New York who spend their time drinking martinis and playing cards, and who are certain to die as soon as the first snows arrive. Eventually Ish turns back, and returns to San Francisco, where as soon as Ish finds himself thinking that he needs some female companionship, an appropriate woman serendipitously shows up. Eventually Ish settles down with his new found partner, a woman named Em, setting the stage for the years to pass.

The second section, which leaps ahead twenty-two years after the death of the bulk of the human race is titled, naturally enough "The Year 22". It is in this middle section that the book starts to seriously fray at the seams. In an interstitial chapter between "World Without End" and this section, it is established that two other men and three other women come to live on the same suburban street where Ish and Em have taken up residence. The little band of people living on the outskirts of San Francisco take to calling themselves the "Tribe" and produce a fairly large band of children. Among the more implausible elements of this section is the idea that these survivors would continue to derive much of their sustenance from leftover canned goods. It is in this section that Ish's annoying passivity comes to the fore. Ish frets that the Tribe has not taken up agriculture or animal husbandry, but consoles himself with the thought that none of them know what they are doing in that regard to begin with, so they wouldn't have enough expertise to do it. But Ish makes a big deal in the book about finding the city public library and the Berkeley university library, and what a great source of knowledge they would be. One is left to wonder why he doesn't bother to educate himself on these sorts of topics given that they seem to be of fairly critical importance (especially given the implausibility of things like canned tomatoes still being edible twenty-two years after they were first canned - even canned food has an expiration date, let alone the fact that the cans would likely rust through in that time frame).

This passive refusal to actually do much of anything seems to be a pattern, since Ish says he thinks it is important that the offspring of the initial seven survivors be educated, but makes only the most halfhearted attempts to do so. Time and again Ish thinks of some element of civilization or technology that he considers fairly important to pass along, makes a halfhearted attempt to do so, and the first time any kind of obstacle to doing so crops up, just gives up. This even shows up when the story reveals that the younger generation had begun to invest Ish's hammer (and the entire older generation as mythically powerful "Americans") with supernatural significance, and Ish makes only the most perfunctory effort to dissuade this fetishization before giving in and allowing this sort of nonsense to take root despite his opposition to it. It seems that Stewart wanted to show how difficult it would be to continue civilization with such a diminished population, especially given the focus placed upon Ish considering which of the younger generation would follow in his footsteps as the intellectual leader (using that term loosely, given the fact that Ish does precious little actual effective leading), and the sad end result of that plot line. However, the way the difficulty in preserving civilization and learning is presented in the book doesn't really make it seem like this is inherently difficult, but is instead only difficult because Ish and the other survivors basically let it happen through their own foolishness, despite having all the resources necessary to prevent this outcome. In short, this element of the story doesn't ring true, but rather seems to be artificial, because Stewart had in mind a particular outcome, and wanted to force the story into that direction no matter how silly it made his characters appear to be.

It is also in this section that the fact that the book was written in 1949 really shows through, and really dates the book in a bad way. There is a level of casual sexism and class snobbery that, while not really shocking, is certainly noticeable. There is a little bit of racism too, but it is somewhat muted, showing up on when Em, Isherwood's post-apocalyptic wife, reveals in a fairly oblique reference that she is of mixed race descent, and Ish's response, though accepting that such things are of no consequence in the post-human world, reveals a level of fairly casual racism in itself. One thing that I suppose is heartening is that while the language of Em's revelation was probably clear when the book was made, the reference is pretty opaque now, and one could easily miss it, or simply not understand it today. Unfortunately, the casual sexism is not nearly as well masked by time. In fact, it is made much more apparent. For example, when Ish is trying to decide who will be the "intellectual" to follow in his footsteps and be the driving force that attempts to preserve culture and civilization, while he considers each of the other male members of the Tribe, he casually dismisses all of the women as a group by saying that they are all consumed by the concerns of motherhood and making homes for their men. This is an area where the class snobbery raises its head too, Ish dismisses George, the one blue collar member of the group, as simply being obviously too dimwitted to have anything important to contribute in the mental arena.

This section of the book also highlights the very 1940s morality that pervades the book. Despite pretensions of being very forward thinking (Ezra has two wives, and of course, Ish is married to a woman who is of mixed race ancestry), the arrival of the stranger Charlie and the plot that follows demonstrates that Stewart, and thus his characters, seems to have stepped right out of a bad high school health film. Charlie shows some fairly inappropriate sexual interest in the mentally childlike Evie, which Ish and the others regard as troubling, but what turns out to be Charlie's "serious" offense is that he admits that he has "Cupid's disease", or in other words, some form of venereal disease. This is such an crime that the Tribe immediately sentences Charlie to death. Apparently, in the post-apocalyptic world, having the clap is a hanging offense. This sequence, more troublingly, illustrates the Tribe's casual dismissal of another element of society - the idea of laws. At one point, when deliberating Charlie's fate, George suggests that punishing Charlie before he has actually committed a crime would be against the law. To which Em derisively responds "What law?", after which everyone concludes they can pretty much do anything they want to to Charlie. But no one stops and says "Hey, maybe we should think about having some rules to follow for our growing community". And the concept of having laws that people know about and are applied fairly is left to die because Em basically thinks the idea is silly.

The third section of the book "The Last American" is also the shortest. It is supposed to serve as more or less the pay off of the entire book, showing the changes that take place as Ish becomes old and the other "first generation" members of the Tribe die out until he is the last living link to the world before the great plague. At this point, Ish's passivity takes over as he sits and watches the world move on around him. The fetishization of Ish, as one of the mythic "Americans" and his hammer continues to take on larger significance, but even when invested with supernatural significance, Ish fails to seize the opportunity this status should provide and basically sits on his ass because it is easier than trying to direct events to keep some vestige of civilization alive. One thing that I find bizarre is that when he is asked questions in his capacity as a supernatural entity, and refuses to answer, the young men of the Tribe "pinch" him until he answers. Pinch? What grown man pinches someone to get their way? In this last section one can only come to the conclusion that the libraries that Ish so carefully made sure to locate and keep sacrosanct in the earlier sections will be useless in the new world, since no one will be able to read their contents. In the end, Ish hands over his supernatural power, beginning what one assumes is a new religion for a new world, leaving as his only legacy the introduction of the bow and arrow, and a fetishized hammer.

I think that a lot of the problems I have with the book stem from Stewart's apparent thematic decision to have a book that shows the disintegration of civilization, and have a single viewpoint character, meaning that this disintegration had to take place in the course of a single lifetime. And consequently, this means that the characters can't really be very proactive or accomplish much of anything other than root around in the ruins of the pre-collapse world and scavenge off of its carcass. As a result, this is a very frustrating book, as most of the troubles the characters end up having are more the result of their own stupidity than the depopulated world that they find themselves living in. Even still, this book remains a classic of science fiction - even if you've never read the book, if you've read or viewed any post-apocalyptic fiction written since its publication, you probably read a book that was influenced by it. The opening section, describing the empty world devoid of humanity is brilliant, and even though the later sections are made less effective by the passive indifference of the characters, they illustrate quite effectively how the world might adjust to the loss of human influence, and how little the world really needs us. Despite being a flawed work, it is a flawed work that is definitely worth reading.

1952 International Fantasy Winner: Fancies and Goodnights by John Collier

What are the International Fantasy Awards?

International Fantasy Best Fiction Book Winners

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Saturday, February 19, 2011

Random Thought - Follow Friday Follow-Up, Blog Organization, and Haiku

This has been a cyclone of a day. I am reminded of the saying "reap the whirlwind", but that implies something bad, and this day has been anything but. First off, I want to profusely and repeatedly thank Parajunkee for making me the spotlighted blogger on her Follow Friday for this week.

Second, I want to thank all of the wonderful people who have come over and started following my blog. I am so glad that you came by, and so very appreciative of the many compliments that were thrown my way today. If you left a comment, I jumped over and followed you back (except for flashlight reader, for some reason the link you included to your page doesn't work - send me a new one and I'll be sure to follow you back). If I missed anyone, drop me a note and I'll be sure to rectify the situation.

Third, since the blog is still a work in progress, I figured I ought to outline where I am going. The largest ongoing "structure" project is that I have been trying to make it easier to get to my reviews. As most of you probably know, Blogger has some weird limitations, so creating what is more or less a nonlinear database has required a little bit of oddness. For the record, do NOT go back to the posts listed from January 1, 2008. For one thing, none of them were actually posted on that date. For another, they are basically how I have gotten around Blogger's "no more than ten static pages" oddity, so they are decidedly nonlinear, and make no sense if read that way. On the plus side, you should now be able to find my reviews alphabetically by the title of the book reviewed.

I have also created a page for each author who wrote at least one book that I have reviewed, or who wrote a story contained within a magazine or books that I have reviewed. Right now most of these author pages just have links to reviews of all of their books that I have opined upon, but I am planning on fleshing all of them out more - even if it is just to provide some basic biographical information about them. I hope to add pictures to as many of the author pages as I can and more in-depth information where I can. This is, however, a work in progress.

I am going to add a couple new things, some small, and some a bit less small. One thing I am going to start using here are "short reviews". Elsewhere I have used a placeholder "short review" while writing up my long review. I used to remove those, but some people said they liked them. I didn't carry that over to the blog when I started getting serious about it, but I think I'm going to go back to using them. Generally they are short one or two sentence reactions to the book. I'm also going to start reviewing some movies - mostly science fiction and fantasy movies, in keeping with the main thrust of the blog. I'm also going to do some reorganization to make it easier to locate and enjoy the videos that I have linked to at various points on the blog.

Finally, I'll reveal that I suck at poetry. I mean, I really cannot write it at all. This is, in fact, one of the things that convinced me that I was probably not a skilled fiction writer, since it seems to me like just about everyone who can write a good book can also reel off a bunch of poems and songs to spice up their pages. This doesn't mean that I don't enjoy poetry - I loved reading Paradise Lost when I was a high school student, and read Beowulf on my own for fun. Heck, I'm the sort of guy who learned how to pronounce Middle English properly so that we could read Chaucer's Canterbury Tales out loud. But writing poetry? Just not in my skill set. With one exception - I can write haiku. I write them more or less off the cuff about things that happen around me modestly frequently. The other day, I wrote one about the book Dune, which the intended audience (of one) quite liked. This led to a suggestion that maybe I should do this for all the books I write about. The upshot of all this is that from this point on (and retroactively as soon as I can work my way through them), all of my reviews will be accompanied by an original haiku about them. I hope that everyone enjoys them.

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Thursday, February 17, 2011

Follow Friday: Sixth Time Is the Charm


It's Friday again, which means it's time for Follow Friday. And this week, that's me! So to anyone who hops on by and follows my blog, welcome! I'd like to extend a great big thank you to the Follow Friday host Parajunkee, and if you haven't joined up, go on over to her blog and do so! It is a great way to find new and interesting blogs to follow.

And to answer the question of the week: If you are a fan of Science Fiction what is your favorite book? If you haven't read Science Fiction before . . . any inkling to? Anything catch your eye?

Do you have an hour or two? As one might guess, listing all of my favorite science-fiction books would take a while. Particular favorites (in no particular order) include Dune, The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress, Nova (read review), Dhalgren (read review), Lucifer's Hammer, Stranger in a Strange Land, The Mote in God's Eye, Ringworld, Startide Rising, The Uplift War, the Foundation trilogy (read reviews), Caves of Steel (read review), The Naked Sun (read review), The Dispossessed, The Left Hand of Darkness, The Lathe of Heaven, Beggars in Spain, Dragon's Egg, The Ophiuchi Hotline, Stand on Zanzibar, and on and on and on. If you asked me too, I could come up with a pretty substantial list of nothing but books written by just one author, say Andre Norton: Judgment on Janus, Moon of 3 Rings, Victory on Janus, The Zero Stone, Uncharted Stars, Exiles of the Stars, and well, you get the idea. Obviously, I have a lot to write about.

If you are hopping over and you didn't read about my blog on Parajunkee's site, you can call me Aaron or you can call me Book Addict. Either one works just as well. Book Addict is probably the best description for me though. The primary thing that someone should know about me is that I love books in general, but I really love science fiction and fantasy. I have been inhaling massive amounts of both for decades now. I remember reading The Hobbit during an overnight reading binge when I was ten. I read The Lord of the Rings over the next three days. I cut my reading teeth on Heinlein, and Asimov, and Cherryh, and Norton, and, well pretty much any other author whose books appeared in the science fiction or fantasy section of the library. My family moved around a lot when I was young (my father was in the foreign service), and the first thing I would do when I got to a new school was check out the library and see if they had any Andre Norton books I hadn't read yet. I am constantly grabbing science fiction books that look interesting only to figure out once I begin them that I already read them when I was fourteen. My blog is heavily slanted towards science fiction and fantasy, but basically I write about just about anything I read as well as some of the things I watch.

I started my blog in 2008. Well, not really. I actually did start it then, but for the first two years I didn't do much of anything with it, and posts were few and far between. If you have no direction for your blog, it is easy to just let it slide. It wasn't until September 2010 that I decided to get serious about it. I mostly blog about science fiction and fantasy, and often times I focus on older science fiction and fantasy. The impetus behind seriously getting into book blogging was an article I read in which a journalist was going to read and review all the Hugo Award winning novels starting with The Demolished Man (read review). But there was never any follow up to the initial review. It seems that his enthusiasm waned upon getting to the second Hugo Award winning novel (which is They'd Rather Be Right (read review), and since that book just isn't very good, I can see why). So I looked around and didn't find anyone had really done that, at least so far as I was able to tell. And that idea gave birth to what I call my Hugo project to actually read and review all of the Hugo award winning novels, and that my blog direction and purpose. And now I'm addicted to reviewing projects: the Hugo winners, the International Fantasy winners, Farscape (read reviews), and I keep coming up with more ideas. I'm getting ready to start going through Babylon 5 (read reviews), reflecting my love of the show and allowing me to opine upon the vast store of books and printed material that has been released that are related to it, and draw connections between the show and the older science fiction books that clearly seem to have inspired it. In short, I blog about the books that I love, and I hope anyone who stops by is able to get some enjoyment out of it too.



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Review - Asimov's Science Fiction: Vol. 34, Nos. 4 & 5 (April/May 2010) by Sheila Williams (editor)


Stories included:
The Union of Soil and Sky by Gregory Norman Bossert
Mindband by Pamela Sargent
Jackie's-Boy by Steven Popkes
Alten Kameraden by Barry B. Longyear
Unforeseen by Molly Gloss
Adrift by Eugene Fischer
They Laughed at Me in Vienna and Again in Prague, and then in Belfast, and Don't Forget Hanoi! But I'll Show Them! I'll Show Them All, I Tell You! by Tim McDaniel
Malick Pan by Sara Genge
Pretty to Think So by Robert Reed

Poems included:
Kitchen Deities by Ruth Berman
Martian Opal by Ruth Berman

Full review: In general, the double issues of Asimov's Science Fiction and Analog Science Fiction and Fact are often disappointing. It seems that the requirement of filling a double length issue with high quality science fiction stories strains the editorial staff to the limit, resulting in issues filled with mediocre stories leavened with a few good ones. Happily, the April/May 2010 issue of Asimov's Science Fiction bucks this trend, with only a handful of lacklustre stories surrounded by a collection of very good ones.

The cover story in the issue is The Union of Soil and Sky by Gregory Norman Bossert, a fairly standard xenoarchaeology story featuring hardworking xenoarchaeologists in a race to unearth traces of a lost civilization on a faraway planet (and thus save the heritage of the seemingly primitive inhabitants). They are, predictably, pitted against the commercial interests of a mining company that wants to exploit the mineral wealth of the planet. As one would expect in this type of story, the inhabitants are not as primitive as they seem, and the xenoarchaeologists uncover some interesting things in their digging. The story is okay, but doesn't have anything that I would consider to be particularly noteworthy, treading well-worn ground again.

Unforeseen by Molly Gloss is one of the few fairly original stories in the volume, despite dealing with the pretty frequently covered topic of resurrection. In this case, the ability to return dead people to life merely serves as the backdrop to the story, which revolves around the question of what is exactly is a foreseeable risk and what is not. Told from the perspective of an insurance claims adjuster tasked with determining if a woman's freak death was or was not foreseeable (and thus whether she would or would not be covered by her resurrection insurance plan) the story is dark, depressing, and quite good. Mindband by Pamela Sargent is another dark story, this time dealing with the unintended consequences of a telepathy experiment. While secret research causing trouble and cautionary tales concerning telepathy are not new subjects in the genre, this story is well-written, and comes at the topic from a modestly unusual angle that keeps the reader guessing throughout. I thought it was good.

Adrift by Eugene Fischer is a refugee story dressed up in science fiction drag. Other than the modestly unusual nature of the method by which the refugees in the story set out to travel to their intended asylum, the story doesn't really have much to do with science fiction at all. The story itself could have been recast with wooden boats filling the central transportation role without changing anything of substance. The story itself is adequate, but seems to be the obligatory "not really science fiction" story in the issue.

They Laughed at Me in Vienna and Again in Prague, and then in Belfast, and Don't Forget Hanoi! But I'll Show Them! I'll Show Them All, I Tell You! by Tim McDaniel officially wins the prize for having the longest title of any short story that I have read. It is, as one might guess, a fairly humorous tale about a mad scientist who, despite the repeated failures of demonstrations of his discoveries keeps trying and, in the end, gets a modestly unexpected supporter. It is funny and sad at the same time and despite the silly premise it is my favorite story in the issue and amidst the dark stories that surround it, it is a breath of fresh air in an issue that could have been dragged down by the heavy subject matter of many of the stories.

Alten Kameraden by Barry B. Longyear is yet another dark story, this time science fiction is left behind for a story set in the Fuhrer bunker in 1945 during the final days of the Third Reich. The story follows Kurt Wolff, a German Jew serving in the Wehrmacht and in a strange twist, an old army buddy of Hitler's. He is summoned to the dictator's personal service and events unfold leading to a not altogether unpredictable albeit satisfying ending. It is hard to classify this story without being too spoilerish, but it is definitely worth a read.

Malick Pan by Sara Genge is a post-apocalyptic science fiction take on the Peter Pan story. Like Unforeseen and Mindband the story is dark and sad, which seems to be a theme of this issue. Set in a wasteland at the fringes of a city, the characters subsist by hunting rats, and only children are small enough to hunt the rats. The central character is kept small by his "nanners", who also give him an edge when hunting. The story is about fear, child abuse, and sexual violence, but unlike the other dark stories in this issue it has a more upbeat (although not entirely happy) ending. Jackie's-Boy by Steven Popkes is also a post-apocalyptic story, set in the central United States after society has collapsed. The central character is taken off the streets in by an automated zoo and given a job and later strikes up a fairly unusual friendship. It is more or less a classic road buddy story, but the road buddies are not the usual, and the troubles they face are fairly unique. Overall, this is probably one of the two best stories in the issue.

Pretty to Think So by Robert Reed deals with what is one of the hot issues in current science fiction: dark matter. The story deals with a crisis engendered by experiments dealing with the unseen bulk of the Universe, and is mostly told from the perspective of a small boy who thinks that his family's desperate flight to avoid the danger is a trip to Disneyland. In terms of writing quality and originality, this is a superior story and shares the top spot in the issue with Jackie's Boy. (While I liked They Laughed at Me in Vienna, . . . the most, it is silly and not particularly noteworthy, hence Pretty to Think So and Jackie's Boy share the designation of "best story").

Though many of the stories in this issue are dark, most of them (with the exception, oddly, of the cover story The Union of Soil and Sky and the "not a science fiction story" Adrift) are quite good despite their often depressing subject matter. I had begun to worry that the double issue format was becoming a problem for the magazine, which I think would be serious trouble as I consider it reasonably likely that Asimov's and Analog will be forced to follow Fantasy & Science Fiction into a bimonthly publishing schedule. However, this very strong double issue gives me hope that this potential shift in format will not damage the quality of the magazine.

Previous issue reviewed: March 2010
Subsequent issue reviewed: June 2010

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Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Review - Cathouse: She's Got Game (Episode 5)


Short review: A disjointed episode that covers a pile of random topics.

Haiku
To play the sex game
Some Bunnies get breast implants
Others use e-mail

Full review: Every television show seems condemned to have episodes in which all of the elements of a good show are there, but somehow, the sum of all the parts adds up to a fairly forgettable experience. For Cathouse, the fifth episode titled She's Got Game appears to be that episode. Everything seems to be in place to deliver a solid episode, but there is just no unifying thread that ties this particular episode together. To a certain extent, She's Got Game seems to have been the result of HBO finding a bunch of extra footage that wouldn't fit into other episodes, and throwing it together to fill out a half an hour. Ostensibly the episode is about "game", that combination of sex appeal, personality, and negotiating skills that Bunnies use to persuade men to choose them and then spend lots of money. But as pretty much everything the Bunnies do at the Bunny Ranch is directed to this end, this isn't really a separate topic so much as it is all topics, which results in an unfocused and sloppy episode. The episode also suffers from having what one could term "off-brand" Bunnies front and center - ladies are featured in this episode who primarily appear in the background in most other episodes. And what this makes clear is that there is more to being an interesting reality television character than simply getting in front of the camera. Whether one likes Isabella Soprano, Danielle, or Air Force Amy, or not, they make for good television. On the other hand, Deanna, Felicia, and Jaime Sweet simply do not. I'm sure the latter three are all very likable women and probably good at their actual jobs, but they just aren't good at television. I'll also note that this is the second consecutive episode that has a criminal lack of appearances by Karla.

The episode opens up promisingly, showing Isabella Soprano returning to the Bunny Ranch after an absence (although the exact length of the absence is not specified). This leads to Suzette pointing out that women come and go at the Bunny Ranch on a regular basis. In a brief interview montage, Daisy makes this point more explicitly "I come and go all the time, this is not a lock down house". Felicia says that she is herself at home, and a sexy and beautiful fantasy woman at the Bunny Ranch. Isabella likens being at the Bunny Ranch to being like a princess - since when she is there she gets dressed up, gets her hair done, takes care of her make-up and so on. In effect, for the working girls, it seems that every day at the Bunny Ranch is "date night", because every night they are there they are pretty much hoping for a date. Or three. Amy Andersinn caps off the discussion by trotting out the somewhat overused "sorority house" metaphor - to which I can only say that all the sorority houses I was even passingly familiar with banned men in any of the non-public areas of the house, which probably wouldn't work very well for the Bunnies.

I'll digress for a bit here and expand upon Daisy's comment before climbing on a soap box for a bit. While the Moonlite Bunny Ranch is, at this point, the most famous legal brothel in Nevada, it is not the only one (it isn't even the only one owned by Dennis Hof). Apparently, at many other brothels, when women come to work at them, they are required to spend their entire working shift ranging from days to weeks living at the brothel and never leaving the premises, with some fairly weak rationales extended justifying this practice. I'll note that this level of control exerted over the working conditions of the women seems quite inconsistent with the claim that they are "independent contractors" rather than employees. Put simply, a business simply cannot maintain that their workforce is made up of independent contractors while simultaneously imposing stringent work conditions upon them. As Daisy points out, the Moonlite Bunny Ranch is not a "lockdown house", and apparently has not been one for many years. Given that the Moonlite Bunny Ranch is, at this point, presumably the most successful legal brothel in Nevada (and likely, the most desirable to work at), it seems difficult to understand how the owners of the various other bordellos are able to continue to impose lock down conditions until one realizes that they have a government enforced oligopoly that keeps out competition. Each county in Nevada that licenses brothels only permits a very limited number, effectively giving the owners who hold licenses freedom from any real competition. In short, when the government shields you from competition, you can get away with treating people poorly via your business practices and it simply won't hurt you financially. In a less regulated market, Dennis' "no lockdown" model would have likely been adopted by a dozen startup houses as a means to entice the best money making women to come work for them, and the older houses would have been forced to adapt or die. In the regulated market, lockdown house brothel owners can get away with acting like dicks without any real fear of it damaging their bottom line.

To show the girls dressing like princesses, the show moves to a montage of Bunnies trying on various outfits, and since this is Cathouse and on late night HBO we have to have some nudity early in the show, the scene shows them in the dressing room with dozens of outfits on racks, but has the Bunnies mostly only half-dressed for much of the scene. Dennis Hof comments on the Bunnies' proclivity for clothes, pointing out that many girls will go through six or seven outfit changes a day, trying to hit upon something that will attract a man's attention - when one is standing in a line with a dozen other girls trying to catch the eye of the single customer who walked through the door, it is a struggle to stand out. While she is changing into a bunch of cute outfits, Isabella talks about one reason she likes her time at the Bunny Ranch - she can play the role of the glamorous woman and fulfill people's fantasies, which makes her feel good. As has been hinted at before, the Bunny Ranch does not so much sell sex as sell fantasy, and Isabella's statement serves to confirm this explicitly.

This episode could also be called "the episode we recycled some patrons" and the first example is the couple who appeared in episode three Girlfriends in a lesbian encounter with Sunset Thomas who show up in the background of a scene at the Bunny Ranch bar while Sunset preens for Dennis in a very small blue dress. This is part of a montage of scenes showing a variety of Bunnies in a myriad of outfits, with some commentary from Danielle in which she says some of the working girls don't dress up at all, just wearing a t-shirt and socks and that works for them because they have cultivated the girl next door look. Unsurprisingly, the camera focuses on Isabella Soprano at this point, whose more relaxed and natural look makes Danielle's amazon glamour look forced and artificial. Danielle then says that for her, bikinis are her preference for attire, and I'll editorialize and say that Danielle probably thinks they make her look better than they actually do. As with most other things relating the Danielle, I find her bikinis to be not particularly attractive, but that is probably mostly because she is the one wearing them. One secret about men that most of the women at the Bunny Ranch don't seem to know (or if they do, they ignore it) is that we mostly don't care what they are wearing. Ladies: you could be wearing a burlap sack dress and it probably wouldn't have any effect one way or the other whether we would pick you out of the lineup.

The clothes montage ends with Air Force Amy wearing her favorite kind of outfit: covered in shiny baubles, loaded with piled on fake hair, and slathered with thick layers of makeup. This is the lead to the next segment, titled "Master of the Game", which Amy is supposed to be a prime example of. Dennis explains that "game" can be boiled down to confidence, and Amy certainly has boatloads of that. As Dennis says, Amy knows the psychology of the prostitution business better than anyone. Madam Suzette points out that no one has ever made as much money as she has, and this dovetails into a brief sex scene featuring Air Force Amy as she and Danielle do voice overs about what is clearly Amy's favorite topic: what a great party Amy provides. Danielle says that no one can party like Amy - when she has been in a two girl party with Amy the guy will be sweating, Amy will be sweating, and Amy seems to get energy "from the Gods" (or, given how haggard she looks in some episodes, maybe amphetamines, though that's just speculation on my part). Amy herself praises her own skills, and says that she sets high standards. Maybe I am just naive, but it seems to me that one you get the fundamentals of sex down, there is a limit on how good your party can be, and given that most of the Bunnies who work at the Ranch are professionals who do this for a living, they would all be pretty good at it. Which of course leaves me wondering what Amy does that makes her the "best". Everyone seems to agree that she brings in tons of money, which in a brothel seems like it would be the objective standard by which everything is measured, but based upon what one sees on the show, there really isn't any indication as to exactly why that would be so. The scene ends with Amy and her client giggling together as the intercom announces that it is "time to reparty", which is the euphemism the Bunny Ranch uses for "time's up". Amy apparently doesn't want to end the party, leading to an interview segment with Madame Suzette who says they will usually give an extra ten or fifteen minutes before they demand that a girl "hands over the man or gets him to give us more money". The lesson is this: no matter how much fun you may be having, at the Bunny Ranch you are on the clock.

This segues to Madame Suzette on the phone fielding a question that she probably gets about a thousand times a day: "who is the largest natural chested woman at the Bunny Ranch", to which she answers "me". Which leads to a discussion under the header "ABC of Triple D's" of some of the most obvious assets Bunnies use to entice clients: their breasts. First up are the natural chested girls: Danielle is "still natural", as is Vandalia. Sunshine Lane states that natural breasts are better because they shake and move. Deanna, in the most unsurprising revelation in history also reveals that her breasts are natural. Note for Deanna: If you are an A or B cup, most guys will assume you haven't had implants. Deanna then makes another completely unsurprising revelation: lots of girls enhance their assets, and we jump back to Air Force Amy, who says she was an A cup, but loves her larger chest. This, of course, shocks no one, as Amy seems pretty focused on the idea that all guys are drawn to large things like moths to a flame. Jaime Sweet makes one of her very few appearances on the show to declare that she had implants that she is very happy with. This being HBO, we have to get our recommended daily allowance of nudity, so this whole discussion of breasts serves as a set up for a montage of shots of topless and naked Bunnies.

And then the show takes a sharp left turn to focus on Vandalia - a dark-haired, large-assed, and heavily-tattooed Bunny (heavily tattooed for the time in which the show was filmed - several current Bunnies could probably match her for ink coverage) who is given as an example of a woman with confidence. Vandalia asserts that she "can make you feel good", which seems like a pretty basic requirement for taking up this line of work. She says "I'm a chameleon, I can be intimate, but also wild, tied up, blindfolded. It's all about feeling good". We get a brief talking head interview with Dennis in which he says he didn't know if he liked Vandalia with all her ink (he's apparently not a fan of tattoos) but that her personality and the fact that she has "no inhibitions" won him over. Apparently, for Dennis, one of the primary qualifications a woman can have that impresses him is a complete lack of inhibitions. Given that he owns a brothel, this seems unsurprising.

As Vandalia says "you come to a brothel for a reason" we see the return of yet another previously seen customer in the form of the mustachioed man who appeared back in What Men Don't Know (he was the guy who orally pleasured Shelly Duvell while keeping his blue jeans and work boots on), who, given that this segment is about Vandalia, picks her out of the lineup. During negotiations, both Vandalia and her client claim to be Native American, which I suspect is about as valid as my claiming to be French or Welsh. If they discuss price, HBO doesn't show it, but we are let in on what services the client negotiates for - oral both ways and sex. Which seems pretty bland after all the build up about how wild Vandalia is supposed to be. Which leads to a pretty routine sex scene after which Vandalia muses she would have dated this particular client on her own time if she had met him away from the Bunny Ranch, which is the kind of statement that I am sure helps to fuel the fantasies of guys like Mark from the Girlfriends episode.

This being an episode that seems to be constructed out of leftover footage, the show jumps tracks yet again to feature Isabella Soprano and another topic that seems to fascinate HBO - women who come to the Bunny Ranch to have same sex encounters. Isabella says her job involves meeting lots of different people all looking for something different (which falls into the category of yet another completely unsurprising revelation), and that she loves women, especially the many women she has been with who are trying lesbian sex for the first time.

We then get a quick funny scene of Isabella signing her "card" and noting she's running out of space on it (meaning she's gotten lots of customers) and giving a little "woo hoo".

Isabella then continues on the lesbian theme, saying the older she gets the more she loves women, although she didn't start with women until she came to the Bunny Ranch. Recycling a point made in Girlfriends, Dennis says there have always been women coming to the Ranch, but it was hush hush. A couple would come in and arrange for a party with the girl, and then he would head out to the bar. In short, he was not actually her partner, but merely her cover so she could try sex with another woman. Now, he says, they are open about wanting a sapphic sexual encounter. (I have to digress here and say Dennis: get some better glasses. The ones you wear during this interview segment look really dorky). We get a brief segment with Isabella and a female client talking to the camera, although there is no actual sex scene included. The client was apparently there for her first experience with another woman, and says Isabella treated her well.

The story moves on to show how cutting edge Isabella is in her use of technology. And since this is 2005, this means she's using e-mail to set up appointments. She says men can now schedule their trips around the availability of their favorite girl. This seems to be a large shift in the way legal brothels operate. If one looks at the geography of their distribution, one will note that they are mostly located along major highways. A little research reveals that most of them were established to cater to long-haul truckers and other travelers passing through Nevada, making these locations ideal. But that also meant that most business was basically spur of the moment - a client would walk in, select a woman from those available in the lineup, and get to business. But with the advent of e-mail and the ability of the Bunny Ranch to promote which Bunnies would be available on particular dates, the Bunny Ranch could shift to being a destination as opposed to a stopover. And clients could come knowing who they wanted to see ahead of time, and know that she would be there and available for them. Even so, this particular segment seems fairly quaint now, as a lot of hoopla is made over Isabella heavily working her e-mail connections.

But Isabella does lead into the next segment by saying she got an e-mail from a married man, and she doesn't know what to say to him in return, since she's worried his wife might see it. Note for Isabella: Not your problem. If he's dumb enough to send you e-mail that his wife might see if you e-mail him back, he's going to screw things up regardless of what you do. Just send him an e-mail saying you'd be happy to have sex with him for money and don't worry about it. But this little e-mail dilemma leads to Dennis going over another topic that seems to fascinate HBO - married men who come to the Bunny Ranch, noting that "Some girls say that the married men they are with who come in have wives who know they are there. They don't. Unless his wife is actually there with him, she doesn't know. Marriages don't work that way." Although I'm sure that there are probably exceptions to this rule, I am also pretty confident that this is mostly true. Guys who come to the Bunny Ranch without their wives are probably mostly sneaking around.

And this leads us to Danielle talking about her married clients. After repeating Dennis' line that most married men's wives have no idea they are at the Bunny Ranch, she talks about one of her regular clients who is married and who spends a lot of money to have her give him the royal treatment. Apparently he feels under appreciated at home, so he comes in and says he will spend an hour with Danielle. And then he adds more time, and then more time, and eventually ends up spending $10,000 for six or seven hours with her. That's about $1,400-$1,650 an hour for anyone who is interested. Danielle would get half of that, so her pay rate for six or seven hours of sex and pampering is between $700 and $825 an hour. In 2005 dollars. Does anyone really need to wonder why the Bunnies work at the Bunny Ranch? Proving that men are predictable creatures of habit, she says he does the same dance every time.

Dennis comes on to say that Danielle is brilliant, guys will come in looking for a big chested blond (which seems to be Dennis' preferred choice of woman - at least the blond part) and end up with her because of her personality before imitating some of the personality traits of hers that I find most grating - her voice and her constant stream of "don't you want some chocolate?" STOP WITH THE FUCKING CHOCOLATE METAPHOR!! Jesus H. Christ on a cracker but that was tiresome even before Danielle started using it, and now it is just annoying. Someone needs to tell Danielle that this metaphor was worn out before Darryl Dawkins was done with it and just retire it. Better yet, kill it dead and bury it under a slab of concrete so it will never be used again . . .

Oh, wait, back to the show. So Danielle negotiates with a client, and we get one of the handful of concrete references to money as Danielle tells him she charges $2,500 per hour. Once again, despite showing a client interaction, there is no actual sex scene. In a cut away interview Danielle says she tells clients that she's a very sensual lady and therefore they need at least an hour with her, and they usually go for it. Displaying what seems to be the typical attitude towards money, she says that they can afford to spend the money, and even if they can't they spend it anyway. As always in the Bunny Ranch, it comes down to money, which leads us to Danielle at the "hooker booker" window (yes, that's what they call their cashier) asking if she's the top booker for the month (i.e. did she make the most money that month). But she isn't. She's second. As she says, she is frequently the top booker for most of a month and then someone will pass her at the last minute, which seems to suggest to me that she has an odd pattern of doing lousy business at the tail end of a month.

Which is a set up for a segment titled "A Treat from the Middle East" where we see who passed Danielle for this particular month - a never before and never again seen hooker dressed up in a belly dancer's costume named Leila. Dennis says that Leila is often gone for months at a time, but then comes back and jumps right to the top of the earners list. Despite having an entire segment devoted to her, there is no sex scene involving Leila in the episode, continuing the established trend of the episode. One kind of suspects that these segments were relegated to what seems to be the "lefotver footage" episode at least partially because they have client interactions, but no accompanying sex scene. There is some suggestion that her thick accent (which some mistakenly assume is a Persian accent, but Leila is in reality half-Egyptian and half-French), her exotic look, and her somewhat aggressive style account for her success. But after watching the segment in which she clumps about "dancing" I have to wonder why the hell anyone would ever pick her over, well, almost any other working girl at the Bunny Ranch. Life is full of mysteries, and this seems to be one of them.

As if to wipe out the memory of Leila's horse-like clomping about, the show changes to a segment titled "Tools of the Trade" with Sunset, Isabella, Danielle, Daisy, and Felicia (and later, Air Force Amy and Deanna) in which a woman who looks like your grandmother and her red-headed assistant show a variety of large sex toys to the Bunnies. First up is a sex sling, which Felicia hops into to get a demonstration of how it works as she opines that sex machines are a real added bonus to a party. Isabella comments that she should be taking notes (although one would think that these sorts of devices aren't really that new to any but the most inexperienced Bunnies). Next up is a dome-like chair, and because HBO needs some more nudity, Sunset immediately strips down and jumps into it, while in the background Deanna gives her creepy smile (seriously, when Deanna smiles, she looks like she's channeling Spencer Pratt). The final toy demonstrated is the "g-ring", a big double ring with a seat belt that Daisy demonstrates. Though you rarely see on-camera nudity from Daisy, for this segment she goes all in giving a direct view of her vagina before Air Force Amy shows up with a dildo and some lube to work her over. Almost immediately everyone joins in for a massive lesbian orgy with naked bodies everywhere and all the toys getting use, including a set of dildos mounted on power tools. At the end, our grandmotherly saleswoman asks how many of the girls "got off", and in response every Bunny on camera raises her hand. And having given us as much sex and nudity to close the show as they can get away with while remaining in "soft-core porn" territory, the show closes.

It is difficult to assess She's Got Game as a whole, since the episode is so disjointed and to a certain extent incoherent. Though several of the individuals segments are modestly interesting, more than a few cover territory that has already been covered in other episodes - leading one to think that perhaps life at the Bunny Ranch is more routine than one might imagine. After all, if HBO is already rehashing the same topics just five episodes into the series, exactly how much variety there really is to the business conducted by the Bunnies. Either that, or the HBO producers just have limited imaginations concerning what makes for good television. In the end, despite the feeling that it is composed of segments that just didn't fit into other, better episodes, this is a decent enough episode that serves as sort of a "grab-bag" of Bunny Ranch topics and a chance to see some of the more rarely featured Bunnies (and a chance to see, in many cases, why they are not featured more often).

Previous episode reviewed: Getting It Up.

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