Thursday, December 30, 2010

Challenge - 100 Book Challenge for 2011

Since I'm probably going to read 100 books in 2011 anyway, so I'm signing up for this challenge. It looks like it is going to be great fun, and I'm looking forward to seeing all the books everyone else is reading too!

Review - Cathouse: Girlfriends (Episode 3)

Short review: Some men mistakenly believe the Bunnies are their girlfriends. Dennis actually has a Bunny for a girlfriend.

They are not girlfriends
Even if you want to wrestle
But you can rent them

Full review: I'd like everyone to meet Mark. Mark is a musician. Mark is a regular client of Bunny Caressa Kisses, a cute woman with long blonde hair and an impressively attractive figure. Mark thinks of Caressa as his girlfriend. He e-mails her once a day and imagines himself making a fortune in the music industry, riding into Caressa's life like a white knight to rescue her from the Bunny Ranch, and heading off into the sunset with her. Mark is deluded.

In a separate interview, Caressa seems to like Mark well enough, but it is clear that to her, he is one client among many. As she puts it, she doesn't want to break it to Mark, but she has many suitors for her attention (and now that she's said that on a nationally televised cable television show, it seems likely that the cat is out of the bag). But this is a turning point for the show, where is grows from the mere mechanical discussion of sex featured in episode one, and beyond the "stare at the freak" oddities of episode two, to deal with the real emotions that underlie sex. For Mark's sake, I'm guessing that as a rule of thumb, you probably cannot credibly call one of the Bunny Ranch Bunnies your "girlfriend" unless she is willing to date you outside the supervision of the Bunny Ranch. Unless this is the case, you are not her "boyfriend", you are her "client". Probably a valued and well-liked client, but a client nonetheless.

But, as the title of the third episode of Cathouse: The Series suggests, this doesn't mean you cannot live the fantasy. Dennis Hof pops up to explain that many customers want the Girlfriend Experience, or "GFE" in Bunny vernacular. Several Bunnies go on to try to define the "GFE" - Felicia says that it is a more erotic and sensual party, Danielle states that these are the clients that want to kiss, cuddle, and otherwise become more intimate (although one wonders what "more intimate" means when the standard party includes various kinds of sex). Isabella notes that a lot of clients pick her out of the lineup because she looks like she could actually be their girlfriend, a clear indication that the "girl next door" look that she cultivated has some definite advantages.

As if to provide some immediate contrast to Isabella, the show then leaps to Air Force Amy in conversation with Madam Suzette. Amy, whose over the top presentation reminds one of how Dolly Parton might look if she threw all semblance of taste to the wind, asserts that guys like "shiny, big, and bright" to explain her sequined dress, piled high hair and enormous breast implants and collection of jewelry. But given Isabella's substantial popularity, it seems that the qualifier "some" should be added to "guys" in her statement. To be perfectly honest, though I can sort of see the appeal of the hyper-glamorized stripper look that she presents, Air Force Amy does almost nothing for me. Both her over the top appearance and her extremely aggressive personality simply leave me uninterested. (I'll also note that Amy consistently does this strange thing with her mouth, leaving it hanging open all the time, which I think she does intentionally in the mistaken belief that this makes her more attractive in some way. Note to Amy: It doesn't. Stop doing that).

Introducing Amy into the story at this point is pretty much to set up the rivalry between her and the other "big dog" (to use Dennis' words) at the Ranch, Caressa Kisses. Amy quickly asserts her dominance, pointing to the fact that she had, at that time, been the "top booker" in the history of the Bunny Ranch for two consecutive years ("top booker", although never explicitly explained, appears to mean "top money earner"), even though Amy "loves Caressa because she's in the same boat". Caressa defiantly fires back that working at the Bunny Ranch is not her life, but merely her job, and that Amy has a need to be on top, while Caressa doesn't care. But later we see Dennis presenting a gift to Caressa for being the "top booker for March" while Amy stalks back to her room. The gift turns out to be a Louis Vutton handbag, which causes Caressa to exclaim that Dennis is "the best Daddy I've ever had". This is the first time in the series that Dennis' nickname of "Daddy" is used, a nickname that seems both endearing and slightly creepy, especially when used by women that Dennis is sleeping with.

HBO then throws in some purely gratuitous, but very nice nudity, as Caressa bounces on a Bunny Ranch trampoline in her birthday suit. Cut into this sequence are interview scenes with Caressa in which she described Caressa Kisses as a "fictional but fuckable character" that she created, letting the viewer in on the fact that what is being sold at the Bunny Ranch is often fantasy, and not reality. Caressa later talks about how she is naughty, but nice, and "not raunchy". A scene with Dennis eating lunch illustrates this when he says she won't talk dirty, a charge she denies.

The show shifts gears with a new segment - "The Naked Wrestler", in which Caressa's implication that the Bunnies don't sell sex so much as they sell fantasy is given a concrete example. Though the clients says he is embarrassed to talk about his fantasy (which leads one to wonder why he is allowing it to be filmed for a television show), he wants to wrestle a woman naked. Caressa calls in reinforcements in the form of Bunny Felicia, and the three get to business. But both Bunnies are somewhat mystified that their client simply does not want to take the next step to sex, although the wrestling does degenerate into a pillow fight.

But this is a program about a business, and the show shifts to highlighting Air Force Amy's somewhat contentious relationship with her fellow Bunnies - first with a clip of her griping that when you are on top everyone wants to outdo you, and then the follow up observation that Amy always has friction with anyone who challenges her position as top money maker. Deanna, Amy, and Sunset then give a brief lesson in hooker ethics with some rhyming slogans "If you ain't got the money, you can't get the honey" and then "No romance without the finance". In the end, this is a business, the girls are working a job, and they want to get paid for their services.

But emotions get mixed up on the job, and when it is revealed for the first time that Sunset Thomas is (at the time the show was filmed) also Dennis Hof's girlfriend, it becomes apparent that for Dennis, mixing business and pleasure is de rigeur. Sunset explains that if Dennis has sex with someone else while she is away, that's okay with her, later pointing out that even if this sort of relationship is hard on her, it is also similarly hard on Dennis, as she has sex with her clients and costars for her living. This attitude seems to be necessary because when Dennis explains that he is a "serial monogamist" he seems to be using a definition of monogamy that boils down to "the exact opposite of monogamy", later explaining that "if it moves and its warm we want to have sex with it". I'd suggest that Dennis' remarks in this regard don't speak for everyone - there are definitely women I would have no interest in having sex with, some whom appear in the series. We get a window into Dennis' world after he points out that "he owns the candy store and he's eating all the candy" (although he insists that sleeping with him is not required for his employees), and then the camera runs through several members of the "candy" category confirming this, from Danielle who admits that Dennis has "had some chocolate", to Sunshine who bluntly avers "I've had sex with Dennis, and it's fun!", to Isabella, who denies ever having had sex with Dennis. At this point Dennis reveals that he only dates working girls and would "never date a square girl", probably because it would be difficult to find a non-working girl who would be willing to deal with his chosen lifestyle.

Having delved into Dennis' love life for a bit, the show shifts gears to "The Married Couple", a husband and wife who have come to the Bunny Ranch to fulfill her fantasy of being (a) with a woman for the first time, and (b) with Sunset Thomas specifically. I'll note that, like several other people who appear as clients in these early shows, this couple crops up in the background of numerous episodes. But back to the impending sex scene - the husband in this case is so incredibly nervous that he comes off as a complete dork, in his words "stuttering and stupid like he's back in 10th grade", but since he is clearly wanting this to be a great experience for his wife, he comes off as a sweet dork. Once the scene gets started, they quickly make up for the fact that the previous "couples" scene had no sex in it by having some fairly vigorous girl-on-girl sex. As usual, with my minor obsession with clothes, I'll note that both women keep their heels on through the entire scene, and the wife keeps her hose on as well. In an intercut interview, Sunset extols her oral sex skills, asserting that she knows exactly how to please a woman, and loves doing so. At the end, the wife asks if they can take Sunset home with them, leading eventually to an interview clip with Dennis where he says "they can't take Sunset home with them, because she's with me, but they can rent her". Which is how romance works at the Bunny Ranch.

The episode closes with Sunset, Dennis, and the rest of the Bunnies singing a karaoke version of Tammy Wynette's Stand by Your Man, over which Dennis states that by dating Sunset he gets "all the fun of a relationship, but none of the grief". This is yet another indication that Dennis' ideas concerning the nature of what most people would consider a conventional relationship don't match up with my experiences, and probably don't match up with the experiences of most people I know. I might even hazard they don't match up with the experiences of most people, but that would be an assumption on my part. But the episode delves directly into many of the raw emotions of the people who inhabit the Bunny Ranch, from clients in love with their working girl, to Bunnies jealous of each other's success, to the strains of having a relationship in the supercharged hypersexual atmosphere of a brothel. It is this unflinching look at how a business built on sex and fantasy is actually built on very real human emotions that makes Cathouse such compelling viewing, and this episode drills this home.

Previous episode reviewed: Anything Goes.
Subsequent episode reviewed: Getting It Up.

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Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Review - Cathouse: Anything Goes (Episode 2)

Short review: Come to the Bunny Ranch and indulge your fetishes. Or just have sex with the new girl from Nebraska.

Show up in diapers
The Bunnies will baby you
If you have the cash

Full review: How does episode two of Cathouse start? Just in case anyone was unclear on exactly what happens at the Moonlite Bunny Ranch, the opening sequence of "Anything Goes" joins Air Force Amy on the road, heading to work, where she will (she hopes) be paid for sex. We are then treated to a swift transition as Dennis Hof argues that the Bunny Ranch is a historic place, citing its statues as a stop on the Pony Express, and then drawing a connection between mining companies bringing prostitutes to Virginia City to service the miners and the Bunny Ranch of the present day. Given that the economy of Virginia City collapsed in 1898 when the Comstock Lode was exhausted, and the Bunny Ranch wasn't established until 1955, drawing a connection between the two seems like a stretch to me. Dennis then caps off his discussion about the supposed historical significance of the Bunny Ranch by explaining that he bought the business because Subway declined to sell him a franchise with a delivery so convincing that one is almost certain that the next option for most rejected Subway supplicants is to find a Nevada brothel in need to a new owner.

The show then shifts to the first of the two themes that run through this episode, with a brief scene involving a rather large man dressed rather unconvincingly as a woman to illustrate that, as the title of this installment of the series suggests, anything goes at the Bunny Ranch. As Dennis says, if a man shows up wearing a dress and pumps, the only thing anyone will say to him is "nice shoes". Reinforcing this are brief clips of various Bunnies, including Amy Andersinn, Danielle, Sunset Thomas, Isabella Soprano, and my favorite Bunny in the episode Karla, all asserting that literally anything goes, but they bring things back to reality by adding "so long as the money is right".

While the Bunny Ranch is a place where people go to fulfill their outlandish fantasies, everything comes at a price. To demonstrate the reality of this, the show presents the viewer with a cross-dresser (not the same one from the first segment) sitting with Danielle and Sunshine Lane intercut with some couch interview scenes where Danielle talks about this particular encounter in which she discusses the mental confusion this particular client caused her - first saying that she would think of the client as a woman, which she says excited her (and seems to contradict some things Danielle says about women later), but then she recognized he was a man, and she couldn't decide which she liked better. After following Danielle, Sunshine, and their cross-dressing client to their bedroom door (and no further), the show then turns to a very brief scene in which Air Force Amy tosses a pile of whips and leather straps onto her bed and then parades a naked and collared client about her room while she cracks a whip. The point of this scene seems to be to allow Amy to talk about just how tough the sex business really is, and how the girls have to be willing to cater to every need.

At this point the show shifts gears in a segment titled "From the Plains of Nebraska" to the other theme of the episode - the arrival of a new working girl in the person of Bianca, formerly a dancer (given the context in which this information is presented, one assumes she has worked as a stripper, but this is never explicitly stated). As Madam Suzette says at one point, the customers like girls who are new to the Bunny Ranch, and HBO seems to have decided that their viewers would too, because the story line revolving around Bianca's arrival at the Bunny Ranch is only the first of a couple times that the arrival of a new girl is a highlighted feature of the show. Dennis informs the camera that the Bunny Ranch gets calls from ten to twenty women a day asking about jobs and brings in five or so new girls every week to work. If anyone was wondering just if the Bunny Ranch was ever going to run short of women, the answer seems to be "no". But lest anyone think that working at the Bunny ranch is a cakewalk, we get revelations from Daisy and Vandalia about how scared and nervous they were when they started on the job - Daisy going so far as to say she cried herself to sleep every night for the first week. Sunset Thomas chips in about how nervous she was when she started working, but her complaint is slightly different (probably because when she came to the Bunny Ranch she was already a popular porn actress): she is nervous about handling the money related end of the business.

The story of Bianca's introduction to the world of working in a legal brothel is woven throughout the rest of the episode. During a segment in which she is tutored by a veteran Bunny (Deanna I think, who shows up in several episodes, but is rarely credited onscreen, so I'm not sure if that's the correct name) we learn a little bit about the internal operations of the Ranch, such as the fact that the women work twelve hour shifts and in the jargon of the Ranch, the selection of things a woman is willing to do is euphemistically called a "tour". Deanna also cautions Bianca to never tell a customer with an unusual request that it is impossible for their desires to be fulfilled, because even if she is unwilling to do it, another one of the women at the Ranch probably will.

Bianca then gets dressed for business and is handed a pile of supplied by Madam Suzette: videos, condoms ("snug fit", regular, and large), lubricant, and antibacterial soap. All of these are charged to Bianca because the Bunny Ranch (and apparently all of the other legal brothels in Nevada) assert that the women who work in them are "independent contractors" and thus personally responsible for picking up many of the costs of doing business. This is an arrangement that clearly suits brothel management, as they don't have to absorb those costs, but whether the working conditions actually allow them enough freedom to be credibly called independent contractors seems to be a contentious issue. Given that there is so much competition to come and work at the Bunny Ranch, this doesn't seem to be an issue that anyone wants to jeopardize their job by challenging.

Bianca is quite attractive in her working outfit, but one thing that stood out for me is that she is wearing so much make-up in this scene that her face is a decidedly different shade than the rest of her body. Bianca then learns one of the hitherto unremarked upon realities of working at the Bunny Ranch: there is lots of waiting. She waits, gets in lineups, sees other girls get picked, waits some more, chats up men at the bar, watches Deanna dirty hustle a potential client away from her, waits some more, and finally gets a client. Her client is a guy killing time either after or before picking up a friend from the airport (it isn't clear which). Bianca lowballs him for $400 for an hour long party involving lots of nudity and kissing, but no actual sex (the second "party" featured within two episodes in which there is no actual sex). Bianca then goes to get paid, and learns a hard truth about working in a brothel: even if the client doesn't screw you, the finances might, especially if you lowball yourself. After the Bunny Ranch takes its cut and the cost of her supplies are deducted, Bianca gets $132 of the $400 party, a figure that she seems decidedly nonplussed about (I'll also note that she is responsible for paying income taxes on the $132 as well, as the Bunny Ranch does not do deductions). Before the end of the episode we are told that Bianca left the Ranch - according to Madam Suzette she just didn't have the "spirit of fun" you need to work there. The episode makes it seem much more likely that she left because she wasn't making money.

As a brief interjection, during Bianca's sojourn at the bar, if one looks in the background one will see the dark haired mustached client who was seen in the first episode in the class with Isabella and Shelly, and who had the "clothes on" party with Shelly. I note this because HBO seems to have reused several of the clients who show up in these episodes. If you watch the background, you will often see people who appeared in a scene with a working girl popping up in the background of multiple episodes. The mustached guy is in several episodes, leading me to believe that he either spends a lot of time at the Bunny Ranch, or HBO shot the bulk of the season in a day or two of filming.

But back to the part of the episode that is about freaky people coming to the Bunny Ranch to act out their weird desires. Actually, it turns out, for some people, acting out their weird desires doesn't even require a trip to the Bunny Ranch, as we are introduced to "diaper boy", a shoe salesman who appears to have a baby fetish, when he calls the Ranch and speaks to one of the bartenders (one of the few times a member of the bartending staff gets some serious camera time) and then has a phone call with Madam Suzette and Air Force Amy in which he is told to change his diaper and go to bed. In an aside, we are told that diaper boy is a "nice" caller, as he is not generally vulgar. This makes one wonder just how many crank calls from sex-obsessed jerks the Bunny Ranch must get on a daily basis. Then some home videos diaper boy sent to the Ranch are shown, which to me is the most surreal element of this sequence. Generally one cannot show someone on television without their consent, which means that someone from HBO had to contact this man and ask if they could show the videos of him in a diaper and bra pouring baby powder over himself and dancing in a pink spandex bunny outfit, and he agreed. This requires either enormous amounts of self-confidence, bravery, or merely insanity.

Diaper boy is merely the tip of the iceberg of strangeness, and the show then turns to a series of Bunnies discussing strange parties they have had. Danielle recounts a customer who merely wanted to watch her flex her muscles in various poses. Deanna recollects a customer who wore panties and shaved his chest hair in the shape of a bra. Vandalia remembers giving a customer a hand job while he shook her butt (which is quite ample and on full display in the final shots of the episode). But Karla, my favorite Bunny in the episode, has the best story involving a client who was obsessed with clippers, cutting hair, and watching videos of people getting their heads shaved. Her (unrealized) fear was that he would take his clippers and try to shave her head - a situation so outlandish that she doesn't even have a way to figure out how much to charge for it. Once again, Karla's deadpan delivery sells the story and makes some that was surreal to begin with hilarious. But as interesting as these stories are, the thing that struck me about them was their mundane nature. If a client wanting to watch a woman strike muscular poses is as strange as things get for some Bunnies, then things seem like they would have to be pretty bland most of the time.

Keeping on with the fetish theme, the show moves to "How to Do Feet", an instructional segment in which Alexis Fire, in her first appearance as the resident Bunny Ranch guru on sex topics, gives a class to Sunset, Daisy, Isabella, and Felicia about how to deal with a client with a foot fetish. Now, while I think that many women have pretty feet, in the same way they have pretty hands, or cute noses, when it comes to the raw sexual energy that a foot fetishist focuses into a woman's feet, I'm with Isabella Soprano: I don't get it. But the class is fascinating nonetheless for the glimpse it gives into the sexual fixations of others: we learn the "flex" position for feet, Sunset Thomas (who likens a fetish party to a bit of spice that keeps the job at the Bunny Ranch from becoming boring like flipping burgers at McDonalds) likes to have her toes sucked, foot fetish guys are (as one might expect) also fixated on women's shoes, and if a woman puts her feet together she can make a "foot pussy". Alexis concludes the class by demonstrating how to give a foot job. This may be more about feet sex than I really wanted to know, but like a car wreck, you can't help looking.

Danielle then gets to talk about her favorite topic: herself - expounding upon how she believes that every man desires a black woman. After an odd lineup in which the customer engages in a strange handshake with every girl, he picks Danielle who exclaims "you want the chocolate experience"! This is the first time that Danielle refers to herself as "chocolate" on camera, but don't worry, you'll get tired of it soon enough, since over the course of the series she seems to use this expression about ten thousand times. She then raises another possible exotic experience, trying to interest a man in a party with her and Isabella Soprano, asserting that they would be like "salt and pepper" or "vanilla and chocolate". Danielle then makes the first reference to "game" in the series. "Game" is, apparently, the term used by the Bunnies to describe how they present themselves to customers and convince them to, in Danielle's words "spend what I want them to spend".

But in a segment called "Pussycats" Danielle starts what seems to be a sustained effort (continued in later episodes) to erode her client base. After a scene showing Danielle negotiating with a woman who wants to experiment with being a woman, Danielle reveals that she is "gay for pay", only engaging in same sex activity for money. This seems to call into question Danielle's assertion early in the show that being with a cross-dresser who made her think he was a woman at times excited her. One begins to wonder exactly how much of Danielle's on camera personality is real, and how much is, in fact, just an extension of her "game". Clips of Isabella, Daisy, and Karla are then shown in which all, perhaps understanding that they are in fact on television and everyone will see them, claim they enjoy being with women (Karla noting that a woman knows what another woman likes). Sunset and Karla both go on to describe their first lesbian experiences, Sunset's being a fairly straightforward seduction story involving a shower and candlelight, and Karla's seeming more like an step by step progression of increasing experimentation that has led her to, in her words "like it a lot". The viewer is treated to the show's first girl-on-girl sex scene between Danielle and her client (once again, with the actual sexual activity either cunningly hidden by camera angles or blurred out), and it seems like Danielle does a professional job at satisfying the woman. Even so, one is left with the lingering feeling that this client was mildly cheated out of the experience she wanted that she could have gotten with one of the numerous Bunnies that asserted their love for women.

While this is the second episode in the series, it seems more like the beginning of the show. From Air Force Amy's intro, which lays out in clear terms exactly what the Bunny Ranch is about, to Bianca's introduction to the life of a Bunny, the episode does a good job at introducing the viewer to the fantasy factory that is the Moonlite Bunny Ranch. Showing Bianca as she learns the ropes allows the show to introduce the viewer to the inner workings of the business without resorting to extended (and tedious) exposition. The long running meme of Alexis Fire as a sex tutor is introduced in this episode, and the viewer also gets introduced to Danielle as a (mostly annoying) personality. The interviews with the various Bunnies are better done than in the first episode, allowing more of their individual personalities to show through, and since the personalities of the Bunnies are what separate Cathouse from most of the other sex related (and generally far inferior) shows on HBO, this is critical. Focusing on just how strange things can get at the Bunny Ranch, highlighting their more unusual clients, also serves to elevate this series above merely being soft core porn that HBO shows like Pornucopia seem to aspire to be. Though the series had not yet reached its full potential, this episode goes a long way towards establishing Cathouse as something special.

Previous episode reviewed: What Men Don't Know.
Subsequent episode reviewed: Girlfriends.

Cathouse     Television Reviews     Home

Monday, December 27, 2010

Biased Opinion - Margaret Atwood Makes a Fool Out of Herself, Again.

Margaret Atwood may be the most inane literary personality in the world right now. I've already discussed Atwood's ridiculous denial of the fact that some of the books she has written are, in fact, science fiction. Now, not content with merely being a literary snob who doesn't know what she is talking about when it comes to genre fiction, Atwood has decided to jump headfirst into insanity with the speculation that the moon landings may have been a hoax. But rather than taking the word of a scientifically illiterate woman who happens to be able to string some words together in a pleasing way, let's see what Dr. Brian Cox, an actual physicist has to say about whether the moon landings happened:

As Dr. Cox says, you have to be a complete moron to even consider the question. An argument from authority isn't always persuasive, but the thrust of Dr. Cox's argument is that the mountains of demonstrable evidence that confirm that the Apollo program did, indeed, result in six manned landings on the moon (not merely one, as Atwood seems to think in her dimwitted speculation) are so substantial that anyone who doubts them is simply a certifiable idiot. And Atwood's reservations - harping on "deadly radiation belts", "rippling flags", and "strange shadows" - have all been conclusively and repeatedly debunked time and again. She also seems obsessed with the state of computer technology at the time, neglecting to note that before the existence of computers, actual humans proved to be pretty good at performing engineering calculations with little more than pencils, paper, and sometimes a slide rule. And of course, NASA actually did have computers that, while primitive, were perfectly adequate to the job that they were asked to do. Literally five minutes worth of investigation would have prevented her from making a complete fool out of herself. But that would have required some research into the topic before opining upon it, which seems to be something that is not Atwood's forte.

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Review - Cathouse: What Men Don't Know (Episode 1)

Short review: The Bunnies know what they are doing. The men mostly don't.

At the Bunny Ranch
Are many skilled working girls
But men are clueless

Full review: Nevada has an unusual legal regime that permits legalized prostitution in regulated, licensed brothels. In 2005, HBO followed up its two successful single shot documentaries Cathouse (2002) and Cathouse 2: Back in the Saddle (2003) with a full blown documentary series focused on the Moonlite Bunny Ranch, located just outside of Carson City, Nevada, and thus Cathouse: The Series was born. Through some sort of arcane counting, Dennis Hof, the owner of the establishment, asserts that the most recent series airing is the ninth season. HBO seems to think that it is the third season. If you count the six specials that were aired in 2008, it seems to me like the current season is the fourth season. However, I'm not going to try to sort this out, for purposes of these reviews, I'll just number the episodes sequentially. Hence, this episode is simply episode one using my completely arbitrary counting methodology.

As a preface, I'll point out that though this is a television show, the Moonlite Bunny Ranch is a real, working establishment, and the women featured on the show are actual people working a legal, albeit very unusual job. Since the early episodes were shot in 2005, most of the women featured in them have long since moved on. Isabella Soprano, Shelly Dushell, Danielle, Air Force Amy, and Monica Morris, among others, are, as far as I know, no longer working at the Moonlite Bunny Ranch. I am not suggesting that anyone reading this might decide to go to sample the Ranch's offerings, but if anyone does, they should be aware that precious few of the women who are featured in the older episodes will still be around. I would suggest that anyone who does actually decide to make a journey to the Bunny Ranch should check their official (but eye wateringly cluttered) Moonlite Bunny Ranch website first (needless to say, the website is not safe for work).

While the main focus of the series is a sort of "behind the scenes" look at life inside a legal brothel, most of the episodes of the series try to have some sort of unique theme. The theme of the first episode "What Men Don't Know" appears to be "men are clueless when it comes to sex with women". The show, and the series, opens up like an actual brothel visit would probably be - with a sequence showing several scenes of men awkwardly and self-consciously entering the front door to be confronted with a lineup of scantily clad women and asked to pick one for a "party". Most of the men are, well, pretty nerdy, even the one who says he was "getting his John Wayne on" before he walked in the gate, and especially the poor guy who immediately asks if he can just go to the bar to drink up a little self-confidence.

The show then shifts to the thread that ties the episode together: Shelly Dushell and Isabella Soprano giving a class on how to please a woman to pretty much the same collection of guys who we saw in the intro. The first section is titled "Orgasms 101", and serves to pretty quickly show just how clueless some men are when dealing with the female anatomy. Isabella and Shelly try to set the men straight, pointing out that most men either do "too much or too little" and that most men need to slow down when they are with a woman, while interspersed with the classroom scenes are Bunnies talking about the shortcomings of some of their clients. In a deadpan interview that serves to quickly establish her as my favorite Bunny in the early shows, Karla explains that in her experience most men are lacking in oral skills, and then delivers one of the funniest lines in the series, almost apologetically saying she feels bad for whoever some of her clients are normally with, while Monica Morris follows this up by remembering a customer who used her nipples like he was playing a video game, demonstrating just how clueless some men really are when it comes to sex.

The episode moves on to the element of the show that probably drives the ratings: naked Bunnies having sex with customers. Since this is HBO, the scenes are merely R rated, and any actual sex is blurred. There is, however, plenty of nudity. After briefly introducing a married couple who had come to patronize the Ranch together, the action moves on to them having a non-threesome with Isabella Soprano. Oddly, for the first sex scene of the series, there is no sex. This begins a long-running theme of the show of "Bunnies as sex and relationship therapists", as the newly married couple asserts that they are considering having a threesome, but she isn't ready to take that plunge yet. Having Isabella Soprano give her husband a naked massage seems to be okay with her though. I don't recall this couple ever showing up again, leaving me to wonder if they ever did actually take the threesome plunge.

The action jumps back to the classroom, and Isabella and Shelly now explain to their still clueless students where the g-spot is, and how to stimulate it. This segues into a very strange sex scene in which Shelly and one of the class students have a small party where he demonstrates how much he learned about locating a woman's g-spot. The strangeness stems from the fact that both of them are almost entirely clothed through the whole scene, with the male participant dressed like he had just stepped off a construction site. Throughout this scene, I kept wondering how uncomfortable work boots must be in the bedroom. The show ;moves on to discussing sex toys, first showing Dennis and Madame Suzette placing an order to stock the Bunny Ranch toy store, then Danielle showing a potential client the wide selection available, and eventually moving to Air Force Amy pulling out her enormous arsenal of toys. Finally, we move back to the classroom with Isabella and Shelly to get a brief workshop about toys for women.

The episode caps off with the students heading off to try out their newly learned skills with the women of the house, and another sex scene featuring Isabella, this time with one of the students from her class intercut with commentary about how impressed the various working girls were with how well the men absorbed their lessons. Continuing with my minor obsession with clothes, I note that Isabella keeps a pair of half-gloves on during the sex scene (but nothing else), which I would think would have gotten in the way for certain activities. Most of the men state at one point or another in the episode that they are either married (one of them states that he had been married eight times, which seems to me to indicate a triumph of hope over experience) or have a "significant other". All those that do assert that they were sent to the Bunny Ranch by their spouses or girlfriends to get some tips on how to perform better.

Overall, this is a strange episode to launch the series with. Though the information provided is fairly interesting, the series had yet to really introduce the women and establish their personalities for the viewer. As a result, when someone like Karla, Monica Morris, Shelly Dushell, or even Air Force Amy shows up on camera, the new viewer doesn't really have any point of reference other than "random female talking head". There is very little information provided about the Bunny Ranch, or how it operates. Establishing the Bunnies as individuals first would have made this a much stronger start to the series. The episode also features very little in the way of off-the-cuff interactions. There are a couple scenes with Dennis talking to people in the parlor, but these mostly consist of Dennis delivering something akin to a lecture. In short, other than "these girls know a lot about sex" (which one would think would be pretty obvious), there isn't really much to this episode. The end result is an informative, but fairly bland episode that merely hints at the potential of a series that still needed to find its feet.

Subsequent episode reviewed: Anything Goes.

Cathouse     Television Reviews     Home

Sunday, December 26, 2010

Review - The Vanishing Sculptor by Donita K. Paul

Short review: A new story about Wulder! In a new country! Except the story is exactly the same, and so is the country.

Chiril's a new place
It's different, but the same
New tale, same as first!

Full review: In The Vanishing Sculptor author Donita K. Paul returns to the world of The DragonKeeper Chronicles to whack the reader over the head with more didactic preaching about the pseudo-Christian religion of Wulder wrapped in poorly thought out fantasy fiction. Except the story is not set in Amara, it is set in the distant faraway land of Chiril, which is very different. Well, okay, it isn't very different, it is pretty much exactly the same as Amara, but everyone calls Wulder by the name Boscamon and thinks he's a joke and dragons are rare. And they have giant talking parrots.

The first thing that should be pointed out about The Vanishing Sculptor is that it is the first book in a prequel series to The DragonKeeper Chronicles. Because Mrs. Paul seems to assume that anyone who is reading this series would have already read her other series, the book would be nigh incomprehensible to anyone who has not done so. In fact, I originally tried to read this book first, and after a couple dozen pages gave up and went back to trudge through the interminably lousy DragonKeeper Chronicles first, just so I could come back and slog through this one. The book throws out terms like tumanhofer and emmerlindian from the start, not pausing to try to explain what they mean, which serves to confuse the reader from the get-go. Granted, the book has an extensive glossary, but having to flip back to the glossary every paragraph or two is a serious distraction from the story. Further, the extensive glossary is loaded with piles of definitions that are almost completely pointless and artificial pieces of jargon added to the book. When an author feels the need to define "flatrats", "banana bugs", and "mumfers", none of which affect the plot in any way, one gets the idea that they are just adding clutter to their fantasy reality because they think that is what you do in a fantasy novel, rather than adding fantasy elements because they actually bring something new and interesting to the reality being depicted. One wonders what fantasy creatures named "flatrats", "banana bugs", and "mumfers" bring to the story that "mice", "caterpillars", and "mums" would not, other than a distracting glossary entry that must be consulted when they show up in the story.

Which might not be such a problem is the story was compelling enough to hold a reader's interest despite such distractions. But the story starts off slow, and mostly stays that way. The main character is a young emmerlindian girl named Tipper whose father disappeared years before, leaving her with a mentally unstable mother and in the care of the giant talking parrot Beccaroon. In order to make ends meet, Tipper sells off pieces of her father's artwork and tries to keep the household afloat. After reading through The DragonKeeper Chronicles, with its collection of parentless children, and now with a story that begins with Tipper effectively left to fend for herself, it seems that Mrs. Paul has some sort of fetish for abandoned children. I suspect that Mrs. Paul's affinity for parentless children, along with the inclusion of talking animals, may stem from The Chronicles of Narnia. But in C.S. Lewis' works, the Pevensie children were separated from their parents by the exigencies of war, not because their parents went gallivanting about the countryside heedless of their responsibilities to their progeny. Mrs. Paul seems to be saying that so long as you are on a mission for God, er, Wulder, that abandoning your children is okay.

Of course, the "grand parrot" Beccaroon raises the same questions in this story that the meech dragons and minnekins raised in The DragonKeeper Chronicles. Having made a big deal out of the existence of seven "high" races and seven "low" races in DragonSpell (read review), and how the wizard Risto's plan to create a new "low" race from a meech egg would be disastrous. But meech dragons, minnekins, and now grand parrots are outside this constructs of "high" and "low" races. One wonders exactly how they fit in, or how dragons (which seem to be highly intelligent creatures themselves) fit in. The answer seems to be that they don't. The balance of the seven high and low races seems to have been merely a plot device for the first book, a thematic MacGuffin that was discarded as soon as sufficient didactic lessons could be milked out of it. It is this sort of sloppy world-building - setting up a thematic element than then casually ignoring it - that is one of the elements that serves to drag Mrs. Paul's stories down.

Another element that serves to drag Mrs. Paul's stories down is the extreme didacticism of the "moral lessons" that litter her books, and The Vanishing Sculptor is no exception. Though the beginning of the book is slow, because the beginning of the book is set in Chiril, not Amara, and the characters have not been exposed to the tedious reality of Wulder, it is not weighed down by long-winded explanatory passages in which everyone quotes the precepts of Wulder. This changes fairly quickly, as the wizard Fenworth and his librarian sidekick Librettowit pop up with Tipper's long-missing father Verrin Schope to try to fix the malfunctioning gate that causes Verrin to periodically vanish and reform, and also is apparently in danger of destroying the world. And along the way they will spread the good word about Wulder, who the natives of Chiril call Boscamon. This, plus the fact that in Chiril there are no wizards and dragons are are rare and unusual creatures, appears to be pretty much the only real difference between Chiril and Amara. Despite the fact that the two regions are supposed to be separated by vasts distances and culturally isolated from one another, even the naming conventions used by various races are the same - tumanhofers, for example, have ridiculously long names in Chiril, just like they do in Amara. But since, like everything else in the book, the evangelizing is clumsily handled, one wonders exactly how anyone is converted to believing that Wulder is worth spending more than a moment thinking about. Verrin seems to have the zeal of the recently converted, but this doesn't translate into any kind of convincing arguments. Apparently, people are simply supposed to accept Wulder's authority because they are supposed to accept Wulder's authority. In short, the main problem with the evangelizing seems to be that Mrs. Paul simply does not understand why anyone would reject Christ, em, um, Wulder, and thus cannot come up with any cogent arguments in favor of her chosen creed that don't rely upon simple assertions in favor of its rightness. Needless to say, this is rather unconvincing to anyone who isn't already a believer.

So, the plot meanders along - having been alerted by the newcomers that the gate has to be repaired, Tipper realizes that the stone that made the gate was made into sculptures by her father, which she had sold to a tumanhofer artist that she then offended. So Fenworth, Librettowit, Verrin, Tipper, Beccaroon and the house dragons set out to track down the artist Bealomondore (note the long and tedious tumanhofer name) and find out who he sold the statues to. So, despite having no useful skills, Tipper sets out on a quest, which turns out to be mostly riding in a carriage from place to place until Fenworth decides to take a side trip to find some riding dragons to speed things up. Along the way the questers encounter, well, not much really, unless one counts a herd of rampaging sheep as a threat. The unnecessary side-trip to pick up some riding dragons turns out to have been completely necessary when the group finds Prince Jayrus, the dragon keeper, and coincidentally, the Paladin of Chiril. How does Fenworth figure out that Jayrus is the Paladin of Chiril? Like so many other elements of the book, this revelation is simply presented as a fait accompli and the reader is expected to accept it as a given. Once Jayrus the Paladin shows up, the platitudes start flowing thick and fast, interspersed with the extraordinarily thinly plotted quest to retrieve the missing statues which basically involves the questers going to the homes of the people Bealomondore sold the statues to and asking for them back.

Of course, one of the people who owns a statue is a villain who wants all three of Verrin's statues for himself, so that he can use the power of the gate to remove the current king and queen of Chiril and replace them with Tipper's mother who would serve as a figurehead for his own rule of the country. Given the obnoxiousness with which the King and Queen of Chiril are portrayed in their brief appearance in the book, one wonders why this would be a bad thing. But all the characters immediately decide that this is a bad thing, and act accordingly. Tipper, who has no useful skills, and Verrin, who is an invalid for much of the journey, seem to primarily contribute to the success of the quest by getting seized and held hostage by clumsy villains a couple times, leading their companions to rescue them and thereby uncover the evildoer's plans. (As a side note, the kidnappers are always nice enough to serve their hostages tasty meals while they hold them captive, continuing the odd theme that runs through all the books of ensuring that everyone stops for tea and cakes while in the middle of supposedly critical world-saving quests). So the questers more or less fail their way forward through the plot. Highlighting just how extraneous to the point of the book the author considers the quest to be, when confronted with the refusal of this villain to turn over the statue, Fenworth, Verrin, Librettowit, and Jayrus engage in an extended discussion about why simply stealing the statue would be wrong (after also discounting handing the statue over to the bad guy based upon a vague suspicion that he is evil). To put the ludicrousness of this stance in context, consider that the consequences of not reassembling the statues include not only Verrin Schope's death, but the end of the world. But in the eyes of the characters, the most important thing is not to prevent either of these occurrences, but to make sure that they do not lie or steal.

The heroes are incompetent enough that the villain gets the three statues anyway, which kind of makes all the effort spent to try to avoid him getting them more or less moot. Of course, once he gets the statues, he makes sure to bring the heroes along as he invades the King's castle and puts his ill-thought out plan into action. This ensures that Fenworth, Jayrus, and the other questers are conveniently on-hand to foil his plan, which kind of highlights just how stupid the villainous plan was. Fenworth unravels the evil wizard's magic, although there is no indication given as to how he does it, because it isn't explained to Tipper and consequently it isn't explained to the reader either. This makes for a rather flashy but uninteresting scene in which Fenworth does a bunch of magic stuff, but since the reader doesn't understand what he is doing, there is no way to build up dramatic tension with the possibility of failure. Jayrus, for his part, demonstrates his qualifications for the position of Paladin by being better at killing people than anyone else, and then telling a maudlin and weepy story after which Princess Peg is reconciled with Queen Venmarie, which all the characters seem to think is the most important event that happens in the story - apparently much more so than saving the world or averting a threat to the royal family - attributing the reconciliation to Wulder. (Need I point out that according to the theology that permeates the book, Wulder was responsible for the animosity that developed between the women to begin with, making it kind of hard to give him credit for healing the rift). And so the book closes, with everyone safe, the world rescued from impending destruction, the integrity of the crown preserved, and, most importantly, mothers and daughters once again speaking to one another.

The fact that the plot is mildly original, revolving as it does around a search for lost artwork, makes this slapdash and heavily didactic effort all the more disappointing. Although the book starts off slow, the early going is at least more or less focused on something resembling a story and wonderfully free of the heavy-handed "lessons" of highly dubious morality that laced The DragonKeeper Chronicles. Unfortunately, this portion of the book is all too short, and Mrs. Paul quickly returns to her usual pattern, and the book is soon weighed down by a ton of didactic moralizing. Like The DragonKeeper Chronicles, The Vanishing Sculptor is little more than a badly written Christian apologetic dressed up as poorly thought out fantasy fiction.

Subsequent book in the series: Dragons of the Valley.

Donita K. Paul     Book Reviews A-Z     Home

Saturday, December 25, 2010

Review - Stealing Fire by Jo Graham

Short review: Alexander is dead, and in the following chaos Lydias chooses to throw in his lot with Ptolemy and Egypt.

Alexander killed
War to claim his dead body
Ptolemy's Egypt

Disclosure: I received this book as part of the LibraryThing Early Reviewers program. Some people think this may bias a reviewer so I am making sure to put this information up front. I don't think it biases my reviews, but I'll let others be the judge of that.

Full review: Stealing Fire is billed as a historical fantasy - that is, a book that is set in something akin to our own history but upon which magical elements have been overlaid. The novel is set in the chaotic time immediately after Alexander the Great's untimely death and is told from the viewpoint of Lydias, a Companion cavalryman of mixed heritage who must navigate through the political infighting that takes place when Alexander's ambitious generals try to stake their claim to his throne. The novel is loosely connected to Graham's other two historical fantasy novels Black Ships and Hand of Isis, although loosely enough that despite the fact that I have read neither, I did not feel like I was missing anything from this story.

The novel opens immediately after Alexander has died, and the fighting breaks out seemingly before his body has even grown cold. Lydias, as a commander of an Ile of Companion cavalry, is important enough to be in danger, but not important enough to do anything on his own. Based upon almost nothing but some sense that he is the only figure of political importance worth following, Lydias throws his lot in with Ptolemy the Satrap of Egypt. He is entrusted with the sensitive task of spiriting Ptolemy's concubine and children away from the dangers of Babylon to Egypt. Once in Egypt, Lydias learns that all is not well following the Great King's death, and there is much to be done to set things right.

The main story of the book is told in mostly linear fashion, but it is intercut with flashbacks that give the reader background information about Lydias, how he became a soldier and eventually a Companion, and the interrelationships between the various characters in the story. Although this sort of background detail interwoven into an ongoing story could serve to bog things down, Graham is able to inset them into gaps in the action in such a way that they feel natural and, in most cases, provide critical details without interrupting the main narrative. This sort of background detail is needed as it helps to define the various relationships between the characters, and explain why the various actors have chosen particular sides. Given the somewhat intricate nature of the politics of the day, adding this sort of information in small chunks interwoven throughout the book rather than overwhelming the reader with long expository material at the beginning is an effective and probably necessary method.

Much of the story revolves around the intrigues surrounding the disposal of Alexander's body, which takes several years to accomplish. The fantasy element of the story enters in through this portion of the story, as the supernatural denizens of Egypt have become unsettled as a result of the death of the Pharaoh, in the form of Alexander, with no replacement to keep the unsavory spirits in check. Through various signs and visions, the Gods of Egypt offer Ptolemy the throne of Egypt, but only under certain conditions. This fantasy overlay upon the events of history is done with a fairly light touch, as almost all of them could be easily explained as hallucinations or coincidences. They are, however, regarded as real by the characters in the novel, so whether they are in truth real or not is a somewhat unimportant question. The reality the characters face is that they accept the truth of the mythology of Egypt, and hence they are real for the reader as well. This effectively adds an interesting element to a piece of historical fiction without changing the world so much that history would be affected.

The meat of the story is the path taken by Lydias. During the main plot line of the book, he has already progressed from being a half-Greek sold into slavery by his indifferent father to stableboy to soldier. In the book he, by necessity, has to learn how to lead men in battle and rule men in peace. Lydias must also learn to let go of the tragedies of his past and embrace the future, both his own personal future (which sees him coming full circle, effectively accepting the same burden that he accepted at the beginning of the story) and the one envisaged for Egypt by Ptolemy. Ptolemy, as portrayed in the book, represents the element of Alexander's philosophy of rule that modern readers in the Western world would most identify with: tolerant, even encouraging of a polyglot society with fundamentally fair laws that apply equally to all. And it is to this ideal that many of the men who rally to his cause are drawn, including the half-Greek half-Anatolian Lydias. Lest one imagine that Ptolemy is wholly altruistic, this society is necessary to protect his own half-Macedonian half-Greek children and the children of his soldiers, most of whom married or merely fathered children with women from across Asia during Alexander's years of conquest.

The only caution I would have concerning the book is that it does deal with the sexual activities of the various actors in a fairly straightforward manner. Given that male bisexuality is taken as an accepted norm of the period, many of the male characters are involved in sexual relationships with one another. The book also deals frankly with societal norms such as the common presence of eunuchs, and the often unequal sexual relationships between men and women. Ptolemy, for example, has a long term relationship with an Athenian hetaira, with whom he had fathered three children, but both he and she accept a politically advantageous marriage to a Macedonian princess. A reader who is likely to be offended by male homosexuality or the open acknowledgement of the sexual politics of the era should probably avoid the book. Graham's treatment of these issues, however, is presented as a well-integrated part of the story, and serves to enhance the reader's understanding of the characters. Unlike many books that seem to include sex as something that seems almost tacked on as an obligatory part of a story checklist, this element in the story is a necessary and integral part of the novel.

The novel starts at a fast pace, and is punctuated with action throughout. But the best part of the story is not the battle scenes, as well written and realistic as they are. The best part is watching Ptolemy, Lydias, and the rest of the characters attempt the seemingly impossible tasks of navigating the political quagmire of Alexander's disintegrating empire while at the same time transforming themselves from soldiers into architects, diplomats, and rulers. Set in the backdrop of these events is a mythology that successfully walks the fine line between history and fantasy. In short, this is a book well worth reading for anyone who is interested in historical fiction or fantasy.

Jo Graham     Book Reviews A-Z     Home

Friday, December 24, 2010

Review - Variable Star by Robert A. Heinlein and Spider Robinson

Short review: A Heinlein juvenile written years after his death by someone else with plenty of inside references for science fiction afficionados.

Heinlein juvenile
With sex and drugs thrown in too
The Earth is destroyed

Full review: Several years after Robert A. Heinlein died, and a couple years after Ginny Heinlein had also passed away, a detailed but unfinished outline that he had written during his years producing juvenile novels was uncovered. Spider Robinson was asked to create a novel based upon this partial outline. The novel Variable Star, an odd amalgamation of some of the sensibilities of a Heinlein juvenile, the sex and drugs in later Heinlein works, and Spider's own style, was the result. Happily, this combination turns out to be a pretty good story.

The story itself is pretty straightforward. Our intrepid protagonist is madly in love with a red-headed woman who turns out to be the stupendously wealthy heiress to a vast mercantile empire. After being more or less connived into proposing marriage, he learns that he is expected to fulfill a collection of obligations to take his place in the family business. He balks, and ends up on a ship bound for the stars, whereupon he has a collection of adventures typical of the hero in a Heinlein novel. He eventually finds his place in the world, his true love, and more or less lives happily ever after. Along the way, there's some drugs, some sex, and a lot of inside references to other Heinlein works.

The first thing any person who has read any amount of Heinlein will notice is that the book is something of an homage. The opening scene is reminiscent of the opening scene of The Number of the Beast, although things progress quite differently in this story. The central character of the book, Joel Johnston, is something of a hick from the farming colony of Ganymede, a clear reference to the book Farmer in the Sky. His love interest is a strong-willed redhead named Jinny, a reference to Heinlein's red-headed wife Virginia. References are made to Neimiah Scudder, the telepathic twins of Time for the Stars, loonies and group marriages from The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress and Friday, and so on and so forth. To certain extent, the novel, published so long after Heinlein's death, is a walk through memory lane for his fans. In addition, Robinson sprinkled several more contemporary references to other science fiction authors (the most obvious being the name of the starship central to the story, the Charles Sheffield), and even a reference to Smethers from The Simpsons.

This is not to say that the book is merely a giant pile of references to please those with insider knowledge. In his afterword, Spider notes that he was instructed not to write a novel in a style imitating Heinlein's, but to use the outline to write the best novel he could. Despite this, in the early pages of the novel, Robinson does a pretty good job at making a Heinlein juvenile, although it diverges from this sensibility more and more as one progresses through the book. With the entire library of Heinlein works to draw upon, Robinson adds in many elements that would have never shown up in a Heinlein juvenile, exploring how Joel deals with losing the woman he thought would be the love of his life as he descends into experimentation with excessive drug and alcohol use, leading to an interesting exchange that calls into question Joel's reliability as a narrator before he sets about transforming himself into a more productive member of the ship's crew. The book also deals with Joel's sexual experiences in a straightforward manner that would have been entirely out of place in a juvenile, but thankfully avoids elements such as incest that crop up in some of the later Heinlein titles.

As he notes in his afterword, the outline he was handed was incomplete, and contained no indication at all as to what the ending should have been and thus he was forced to come up with one that would be suitable. Left on his own, Robinson demonstrates that he is more than up to the task (and more than willing to discard elements of Heinlein's Future History to suit his story) as he takes Heinlein's beginning, and crafts a suitably satisfying conclusion. In many ways, Variable Star is a novel written with the quality of a Heinlein juvenile aimed at a more adult audience without delving into Heinlein's personal sexual preferences. A fan of Heinlein who is looking for something that will remind them of works like Citizen of the Galaxy or The Door into Summer or any number of other Heinlein titles will enjoy this book. Any fan of Spider Robinson will also probably find this book to their liking. In short, anyone who is looking for some space adventure coupled with a little nostalgia and a bunch of contemporary references will probably be happy if they pick up Variable Star.

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Thursday, December 23, 2010

Review - Lucky Starr and the Rings of Saturn by Isaac Asimov

Short Review: The Sirians try to claim Saturn, and it is up to Lucky Starr to stop them without causing an interstellar war.

While Earth dithers
The Sirians seize Titan
Lucky saves the day

Full review: In the 1950s Isaac Asimov was approached to create a character that could form the basis of a science fiction television series. Writing under the pseudonym Paul French, he produced David Starr, Space Ranger, modeling his hero as a sort of interplanetary Lone Ranger, complete with a Martian-born sidekick to fill in for Tonto in the form of the diminutive and pugnacious Bigman. Although the television series never materialized, Asimov wrote six books featuring his dashing hero (known through the rest of the books in the series by his nickname "Lucky", since Asimov thought David didn't seem like the name of a space faring hero). The Rings of Saturn is the sixth, and final, book in the series.

Although he had originally envisioned Starr as a semi-sanctioned crime fighter in outer space, the story more or less morphed into a spy series, with Lucky taking the side of the Earth against her Cold War rival from the star system of Sirius. The Sirians are not aliens, but are instead men originally from Earth who had moved to the stars. Although the struggle between Earth and Sirius has some overtones similar to the Cold War conflict between the United States and the Soviet Union, the attitudes of the Spacers seem much more like those of members of the Nazi Party. Although the Earth government is ostensibly democratic in nature (in contrast to the autocratic Sirian government), the unelected "Council of Science" wields substantial power and seems to add an elitist faction to the structure of the government.

Several elements that crop up in Asimov's adult novels show up in this book. Reflecting his novels such as The Caves of Steel or The Naked Sun, the Spacers are heavily reliant upon robot labor, disdainful of the "rabble" of Earth, and believe that those who ventured to the stars are simply superior men. The Three Laws of Robotics feature fairly prominently in the story, as does the idea that one could attempt to get around the First Law (which bars robots from harming humans) by redefining humanity in a manner that would include "superior" Sirians, and exclude "inferior" Earthmen.

The story itself is a fairly straightforward Cold War conflict. The Sirians establish a base upon Saturn's moon Titan, claiming that as it was uninhabited, it is fair game. The Earth espouses the position that star system integrity cannot be compromised, and threatens war, which plays into the Sirian's hands as they wish to cast Earth as the aggressor, and thus rally the other outer systems to their cause. Lucky is called upon to dislodge the Sirian base and avert a war while doing so. As this is a novel aimed at younger readers, the trap Lucky sets for his Sirian adversaries is not particularly hard to spot, but it is fairly clever, and the story is decently executed.

A secondary goal of the series is to impart scientific information to the intended audience of juvenile readers, and despite the fact that this books was originally written in 1958, the science relating to Saturn mostly holds up. Although some of the details are wrong in small ways (for example, Titan is identified as the third largest moon in the Solar System, when it is in fact, the second largest), most of the data inserted into the story is reasonably accurate. I do question one major plot point, that being Lucky Starr using the Cassini Division to pass from above Saturn's rings to below them. In the 1950s, the Cassini Division was believed to be mostly empty, but data from the Voyager probes showed that there is much more material in this part of the rings than had previously been thought. As a result, Lucky's maneuver would have been, at a minimum, much more hazardous, and might be impossible.

As the last of the Lucky Starr novels, The Rings of Saturn is a decent finale to the series. It is also the most like an adult Asimov novel, which might serve to help younger readers interested in more science fiction of similar nature transition to reading something like I, Robot or Foundation. With equal parts science and well-plotted intrigue plus a dash of impetuous hot-headed comic relief courtesy of the always amusing Bigman, this final adventure of Lucky Starr is a decent book that any young science fiction fan will probably enjoy.

Note: Although the cover of this edition states that this book is "Number 5 in the Series", this book is, in fact, the sixth book in the Lucky Starr series. This might be explained by the fact that this edition was issued in England, and thus may not have counted David Starr, Space Ranger as part of the series, since the practice there was to omit the "Lucky Starr and the" portion of the titles found in the American editions. Other than that possibility, I have no idea why this edition is misnumbered.

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Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Challenge - Speculative Fiction Challenge 2011

I saw the Speculative Fiction Challenge for 2011 over on Floor to Ceiling Books, and if ever there was a reading challenge tailor made for me, this is it. So I'm in. I have to read and review twelve speculative fiction books in 2011. I'm pretty sure I will be able to do that, especially since this will dovetail quite nicely with my Hugo winner and International Fantasy Award winner reading project.

On a related note, I'm also going to do the 2011 Graphic Novels Challenge, at the "Expert" level, which requires reading and reviewing 10 or more graphic novels in 2011. I've got a bunch that I've been meaning to get to, including several volumes of the Sandman series, so this should push me to get that done.

Review - The Double Planet by Isaac Asimov

Short review: A pre-Apollo landing book about the science and history of the Earth and the Moon.

The Earth and the Moon
Are a system of two worlds
Apollo unites

Full review: The Double Planet is a short science fact book that deals with the Earth-Moon system. Originally written in 1960 and revised in 1966 and 1968, the material contained in this book obviously does not include anything that was discovered as a result of the Apollo landings. To a certain extent, the book was intended to build up interest in exploring the moon, and the cover blurb even makes the somewhat misleading statement that the book contains "fascinating secrets of Man's first step across space - to the moon", even though the book itself does not contain more than a passing reference to the projected human exploration of our closest neighbor.

What the book does contain is a fairly decent introduction to the basic facts of the Earth and the Moon. Starting with the Earth, Asimov discusses how large it is, what it is made of, its orbit, its rotation, and several other physical details concerning our planet. To leaven the dry recitation of facts, Asimov also includes background information concerning how and why we know these things about the Earth, recounting the various creative experiments and painstaking observations made by scientists throughout history that led to the conclusions that are presented in the text. Asimov then moves on to discuss what we know about the Moon (or more accurately, what we knew about it as of 1968), once again interlacing the dry data with background concerning those who discovered the various facts about the Moon and how they went about doing so.

The book is written in Asimov's typically straightforward writing style. As I've noted before, this style can lead to some relatively dry fiction, but works quite well for a science fact piece. The book includes several photos taken by unmanned probes sent to the Moon by NASA, which was probably a decent selling point in the late 1960s, but are fairly mundane now, especially when contrasted with the photos taken by the various Apollo missions that followed. The most interesting element of the book is the timing: written originally just before Gagarin became the first man in space, and revised just one year before the Apollo landings began, the book gives a very readable historical perspective on what we knew about both the Earth and the Moon at the outset of the Space Age. In the decades since we have come to take for granted the vast amount of knowledge that we have gained concerning our universe that has been provided to us by our space endeavors. For that historical perspective alone this book is a decent addition to one's library and despite being more than forty years out of date, it is worth reading.

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Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Review - Zanna's Gift: A Life in Christmases by Orson Scott Card

Short review: A cloying tale of a little girl's Christmas gift to her deceased older brother and how the whole family faces life with a tear-stained smile.

When Ernest dies young
Zanna lives on in Christmases
With sugar sweetness

Full review: Zanna's Gift written by Orson Scott Card, was originally marketed under the name Scott Richards, a pseudonym used (as far as I can tell) for this one work, and then dropped "because the marketing strategy didn't work". I suspect that it was actually dropped because without Card's name attached to it, the book wouldn't sell. This is idle speculation on my part, because I don't have the actual sales figures, but on its own Zanna's Gift simply doesn't seem be able to stand up under the weight of its own cloying piles of sentimentality.

The book tells a heartwarming tale of a family's struggles through adversity. Ernest, the oldest son, is a paragon of a boy, responsible, handsome, smart, industrious, and most importantly (for the story) kind to his four year old sister Suzanna (or 'Zanna for short) and the only person who can decipher her intricate doodles. Just before Christmas one year he simply dies, leaving his parents, two brothers, and most of all his sister devastated by the loss. The gift identified in the title is a picture drawn by Zanna to be a Christmas present for Ernie that she started before his untimely death. She decides to give him the gift anyway, explaining that she will keep the picture and memorize it so when she joins him in the future, she can describe it to him.

From beyond the grave Ernie miraculously reveals that Zanna had a twin sister who died at Zanna's birth, Ernie's younger brother takes up where Ernie left off, working the same job, saving money to go to college and so on. Every year at Christmas the family pulls out Ernie's picture and sets it on the mantle. The children grow up, get married, have their own children, face adversity, overcome it with unyielding faith in God and tear-stained smiles, and the saccharine goodness heaps the reader with every turn of the page.

Zanna, of course, remains the focal character. She grows up, gets married and has her own children. The one "bad" character in the book, her mischievous nephew gets her children in trouble, which results in a life lesson for her and her children. She studies art, and eventually paints a picture of her defiant niece throwing a rock while standing on a fence post, even though she has been hobbled by her disease. After hiding the painting for years for fear of making her niece feel bad, she finally gives it to her only to find that she is overjoyed, as even though her body has been ravaged by disease, her plucky spirit has not been broken. Once again, the family triumphs over adversity, blinking back the tears to reaffirm their faith in God and one another.

Zanna's career as a painter also gives Card a soapbox to make some of his usual statements about what he considers to be the deplorable nature of modern art, which I suppose he considers a bonus, but I found a bit out of place (not to mention tiresome). Oddly, despite the fact that her art as a child was so unusual that it helped create a special bond between herself and her older brother because, even though it was supposed to be representational, it was so imaginative and almost abstract in a way that required Ernie to decipher it, Card makes sure the reader knows that Zanna as a grown up artist simply doesn't do that sort of silly abstract art. She's a painter who paints real looking pictures of things, which is how it ought to be and don't you forget it.

It is the constant piling on of awful happenings: Young death, nasty personalities, polio, and so on that make the book feel like it is simply trying too hard. Even the nastier personalities are pretty muted in this book (the mischievous nephew is about as bad as any character gets). Most of the family members are idealized versions of actual humans, always able to find the good side to their sadness. And since the characters aren't really actual characters, but rather props to allow the author to pass on life lessons to the reader, once they are no longer needed, they drop right out of the story, many never to be mentioned again.

It is the spunky way that the various family members fight through their disappointment and come through almost never uttering an unkind word to one another or despairing of their situation that makes the story so sweet that it leaves a bad taste in one's mouth. If the sentiment had been dialed back to about 90% of the level in the story, I think the book would have been much improved. As it is, the giant lump of sugar just proved too much to swallow comfortably.

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Video - The Backbone of Night

So here is another video in CallumCGLP's (Callum Sutherland) series of tribute videos to Carl Sagan. In this one, mostly drawn from Sagan's Cosmos series, Sagan talks about the meaning of the night sky, which seems to have been a source of fascination for humans for uncounted thousands of years. Sagan traces humanity's relationship with the stars and the mysterious band of light that spans the sky from our earliest speculation based superstitions to our present evidence based understanding of what they truly are. In parallel, Sagan draws the comparison to an individual's journey from ignorance to knowledge. In short, we all travel the path laid down by humanity as a whole, able to traverse intellectual territory that took our species as a whole centuries to cover in a single lifetime.

Unspoken in his discussion of the matter is the sad fact that so many desire to take us back to the days of superstition and darkness, rejecting reality in favor of the comfortable illusions falsehood provides. Sagan references the !Kung people of Botswana, saying they believe that the Milky Way is the "Backbone of Night", a modern day example of a superstition based guess at what the phenomena we see in the sky actually is. But the !Kung can be excused for their superstitions - there is generally no way for them to learn the actual answer, and thus they are left to muddle through as best they can. The same could be said for the ancient Greeks, left to try to come up with an explanation for what they saw in the heavens, they invented a fanciful story about Hera and breast milk. Lacking the modern technology that allows us to peer into the vast void between the stars, they had no capability to come up with anything better.

But for the modern purveyors of superstitious ignorance, such as Kent Hovind, Ray Comfort, or Ken Ham, there is no similar excuse. Their hawking of flim-flammery dressed up in a religious costume is simply inexcusable. Though Sagan addresses the fact that the body of superstition that served to promote the stars to gods resulted in a vast network of priests leeching parasitically off the rest of humanity, dedicated to propitiating the imaginary manifestations of our fears, but not so much to advancing our knowledge (and in some cases actively working to hinder our pursuit of knowledge), an issue that Sagan addressed in his book The Demon Haunted World. And now we have dishonest purveyors of anti-science like "Young Earth Creationism" and the misnamed "Intelligent Design" building "creation museums" that expose their laughable ignorance, and which would be laughable if so many people weren't sucked in by their complete bullshit claims. Not only that, these purveyors of nonsense seek to not merely halt or retard the progress of science, but to reverse it. Despite being destroyed every time they bring their anti-scientific religion-based hokum before a judge, they keep trying to dress up their religion in new clothes and hope that they can sneak it into science class.

And it is up to everyone who believes that our children should be given true knowledge to make sure that the worthless garbage that the Hovinds, Hams, and Comforts of the world try to wedge into our schools is kept out. Because the future of our children depends powerfully upon them having true and accurate knowledge, and not the half-baked Bronze Age superstitions of wandering desert tribesmen given a patina of respectability solely because of their age. And the creationist wingnuts keep trying to repackage their junk, even going so far as to engage in the hilariously poorly executed cut and replace job that resulted in a draft of the amateurishly bad creationist/intelligent design book Of Pandas and People that spoke about "cdesign proponentsists". There is no excuse for the scientific ignorance of the Discovery Institute and their satellite creationist allies, and Sagan clearly and succinctly explains why.

Somehow it is fitting that the anniversary of Carl Sagan's death is also the date that the Kitzmiller v. Dover decision, eviscerating the intelligent design movement and forcing it to go back and try to come up with new clothes for their naked Emperor, was handed down. I think he would be pleased.

Previous video in the series: The Gift of Apollo.

Monday, December 20, 2010

Video - The Gift of Apollo

The fourth video in CallumCGLP's (Callum Sutherland) tribute series to Carl Sagan is about what I consider to be one of mankind's greatest accomplishments - the Apollo Program. Unfortunately, I also consider it to currently be one of mankind's greatest disappointments, and much of Sagan's monologue explains why. Nearly fifty years ago President Kennedy called upon the United States to accomplish something great. He called upon the nation to undertake a task that required technology and materials that did not yet exist, and make a journey that a mere fifty years earlier would have been considered entirely impossible. And he called upon them to do it within a decade.

Of course, the United States rose to the task, no doubt pushed at least in part by a desire to fulfill the dream of an assassinated President, which gave the endeavor something of the sheen of a holy crusade for a deceased martyr. Just over forty years ago, the United States sent men to the moon. And then a few short years and a handful of missions later, we stopped. Having accomplished the narcissistic goal of beating the U.S.S.R. to the moon and wave our metaphoric penis over the accomplishment, we decided not to return. And we still have not. Imagine if we had not been fixated solely upon our Cold War goals and had actually considered the Moon a place to go, and to explore. Where might we be now? The Apollo Program required the development of dozens of technologies that we now use unconscious of their origin - Velcro, flame resistant textiles, modern water filtration techniques, modern dialysis machines, modern athletic shoes and conditioning equipment, and on and on. Suppose we had not abandoned the Moon? Leaving aside the discovery possibilities inherent in continuing to send missions to our closest neighbor, what technology might we have developed that would have made out lives on Earth better?

Humans are short-sighted and foolish. In my lifetime, there has been no better illustration I can think of than our careless abandonment of the Moon. When the Apollo Program was in effect, there was an upsurge in interest in science education, and a proliferation of students who worked to obtain training in engineering, physics, chemistry, and the other sciences. And a nation's wealth is, in large part, tied directly to how well-educated its populace is in those fields. The Apollo Program fueled their dreams. And then, on the advice of morons like Senator Proxmire we abandoned those dreams so Congress could hand out entirely unneeded pork barrel farm subsidies. There are few things that make me sadder than thinking about the unrealized potential of our exploration of the Moon, and I wonder if we will ever gain enough wisdom to decide to go back.

Previous video in the series: Wanderers.
Subsequent video in the series: The Backbone of Night.

Video - Wanderers

In the third Carl Sagan tribute video from callumCGLP (Callum Sutherland), Sagan begins by recounting our evolutionary heritage as wanderers. For much of humanity's existence, we lived in the open, hunting and gathering our food, scratching out our existence in a harsh and unforgiving world. And because of this, our environment encouraged and favored those of us who were filled with wanderlust, and culled those who were not, leaving our species with an evolutionary heritage in favor of exploring. But our own world has been largely explored. No matter where you go, it is likely that people have already been there, even if they are not living there right now. Sagan ties this wanderlust to our efforts to explore the universe in general, and the nearby planets specifically. He (correctly I think) draws a direct parallel between the ancient desire to see what is over a hill, and our determination to send a robot probe to the outer reaches of our solar system to see what Neptune or Pluto is like.

But he also notes that this is vaguely dissatisfying for us, because we cannot go ourselves. And because even if we could go ourselves, there is no place really hospitable that we could go. Any human settlement off our home planet will have to be built almost from scratch by ourselves. As Sagan notes, those we send into outer space as explorers seem to hold a position that our ancestors would regard as godlike, and one might suggest that if we go to other planets and reshape them to suit our needs, then we may very well be considered akin to the ancient gods. But I also think that the desire to wander and explore new and unknown places is partially what fuels our fascination with fiction in general, and science fiction specifically. It seems to me that we love books like  Gulliver's Travels, A Princess of MarsThe Ophiuchi Hotline, and Dragon's Egg in part because we can go to places we've never been before and see things we've never seen. Our fondness for myth, fairy tales, and more recently fantasy and science fiction is, I would suggest, the manifestation of our unrealized dreams of exploration and resettlement. Perhaps this is why so many scientists, people who are generally dedicated to the idea of exploring the boundaries of human knowledge are so often drawn to science fiction.

Previous video in the series: Consider Again That Pale Blue Dot.
Subsequent video in the series: The Gift of Apollo.