Thursday, March 31, 2011

Follow Friday - Bravos, Franko, Gilpin, Jefferson, Jiminez, Lever, Maggott, Pinkley, Posey, Sawyer, Vladek, and Wladislaw*

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 - Books Ahoy.
  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!
And now for the Follow Friday Question: What is the book that you really don't want to admit to loving??

Hmm. That's a tough one for me. Not because I have great taste in books, or because I don't like dorky things. But rather because I'm not really ashamed to admit to loving any of the books I love. I guess the closest thing would be admitting that I love Lynn Johnston's For Better or For Worse compilations  - the doings of a pretty ordinary suburban family are just so very bland that it just seems somehow off that I enjoy reading them so much.

*Anyone who gets the reference in the title of this blog post gets a prize. The prize is my being impressed by their ability to answer obscure questions.

Go to previous Follow Friday: This One Goes to Eleven. Well Five Actually
Go to subsequent Follow Friday: A Baker's Dozen

Follow Friday     Home

Monday, March 28, 2011

Review - Search for the Flaming Chalice by Robert Shaw Kesler

Short review: Three martens find a shiny purple stone and go searching for a place they know how to find in a slapstick adventure.

Find a purple gem
Go to Toveria, find a
Place you knew before

Disclosure: I received this book as part of the LibraryThing Member Giveaway 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: In Search for the Flaming Chalice, three anthropomorphic martens named Carmen, Alger, and Gilbert uncover a mysterious purple stone, set off on a journey to a mysterious land, to search for a mysterious flaming chalice, in order to defeat a mysterious bad guy. Oddly, one of the three was born in the mysterious land, and they know exactly where to find the flaming chalice, and who the bad guy is. The only thing they don't know is what the purple stone is for, which turns out to be the one thing that was supposed to be a specific message to them. Needless to say, the story has some serious consistency problems.

The first question I wondered was, why martens? Those who ask this question will be disappointed as so far as I can tell, there is no real reason why the author chose to make the protagonists of his story a bunch of relatives of weasels and polecats. Unlike other stories like The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, Wind in the Willows, or Watership Down where all of the animals are anthropomorphized, or even Alice in Wonderland where the talking animals are more or less unique, the society of this book seems to be basically the same as if you took human society and simply replaced all the people with martens. There's no real problem engendered by this choice, it just seems pointless.

As noted before, there are some weird continuity problems in the story. Once the three friends uncover the mysterious purple gem, Carmen decides they must go to Toveria, which the other two immediately identify as a fictional fairy land. Carmen, however, is from Toveria, which struck me as strange given that no one in this small community she was supposedly living in ever seems to have inquired as to her background. If a land is so foreign as to be a considered a fairy tale, having someone from that land living among you seems to me to be something that would have come up once or twice. Also, strangely, though the story is titled Search for the Flaming Chalice, Carmen knows where the Flaming Chalice can be found from the get-go, which makes the title somewhat misleading.

The villain of the story is Attila, an evil sorcerer. He is aided by two somewhat incompetent goon sorcerers, who he quickly disposes of, demonstrating that Attila is a short tempered and somewhat stupid villain. The goons are not disposed of before they are able to engage in a little bit of slapstick Keystone Cops-like scenes with the three protagonists. These sort of "hot potato" scenes (with the purple gem filling in for the potato) crop up a couple times in the story, which turns out to be a problem. In a filmed version of this sort of scene, it is zany, quick, and funny. In a written version, the time it takes to read all of the passing the potato, running about, chasing each other and so on takes up a page or two of space, which really makes the scene drag. In the end, Attila's lack of support staff (save for a badly damaged mindless monster) serves to defeat him. Despite being the heavy of the novel, Attila is mostly unconvincing as a real threat because despite his ill intent and bluster, he is basically too stupid to take seriously. The mindless monster he assumes control of is too easily evaded in silly ways to make him seem dangerous either.

The story strangely seems to be both overly long and severely truncated. In story, the journey takes the better part of a year, but much of the traveling time the companions undergo is glossed over. This makes the events seem to come at the reader quick and furious, but then a reference will be made to the passing months, which created an oddly confusing tone to the story. The book also includes some references to other literary works, but they are so oblique that a list has to be included at the end to let the reader know they are there. Granted, this is a book aimed at younger readers and this seems to be intended as a teaching tool, but I've read every work referenced, and I would have missed about half of them entirely had they not been footnoted.

Overall, this book has the kernel of a decent story for younger readers, but there are so many oddities that just jump out at the reader that one is constantly pulled out of the narrative to wonder why the author made that particular choice. This, coupled with a rather poorly defined villain results in a book that is simply not good enough to really recommend to the readers it is aimed at. It seems clear that the author really wants the book to be a modern day Wind in the Willows with a dash of silly humor and literary education thrown in, but it simply falls well short of the mark.

Robert Shaw Kesler     Book Reviews A-Z     Home

Thursday, March 24, 2011

Follow Friday - This One Goes to Eleven. Well, Five Actually

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 - Rebecca of Confessions of a Page Turner.
  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!
And now for the Follow Friday Question: Inspired by the inane twitter trend of #100factsaboutme, give us five BOOK RELATED silly facts about you.
  1. My list of books in the "to be read" pile that I own is more than 5,992 books long. And yet I still keep buying more.
  2. I often read books that I pretty much know I'm going to loathe. I don't know why.
  3. People often ask me when I find time to read, given that I have a full time job, am a part-time student, study Tae Kwon Do, and have a wife and two kids. I have an hour and a half commute by bus and subway each way to and from work every day. I use that time to read (or sleep).
  4. I always have at least two books with me, just in case I finish the first one. Sometimes I carry three.
  5. I sit at a computer all day, but I simply cannot read a book on an e-reader. I don't know why. I can't follow a book in audio format either. My attention wanders too much when I try to read a book that way.
Go to previous Follow Friday: Decimeters

Follow Friday     Home

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Review - The Secret of NIMH

Short review: Mrs. Brisby faces a crisis of a sick child and must turn to the secretive rats of NIMH who have been subjected to scientific experiments that made them intelligent and gave their leader Nicodemus inexplicable magic powers.

The rats are back, but
Nicodemus has magic
Jenner is evil

Full review: In 1979, Don Bluth and ten other animators, dissatisfied with the direction they thought Walt Disney Studios was moving in, left the company and formed their own animation production company. After a few small projects, the acquired the rights to Richard C. O'Brien's 1972 book Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH (read review) and set about turning it into an animated feature. The result was a beautiful film that is broadly similar to the source material but with some critical changes that make it, in my opinion, a lesser work.

The movie is visually quite beautiful. The main reason that Bluth and the other animators left Disney was apparently dissatisfaction with the declining quality of animation being produced. With this background, it should come as no surprise that the animation in The Secret of NIMH was given detailed attention. As a result the movements of the characters are extraordinarily fluid, the coloring of the cells is evocative and appealing, and the entire movie is full of richly detailed scenery. The only mild criticism I would have of the presentation of the film is that a fair number of the scenes are quite dark and shadowy, which can be hard on one's eyes. This is probably fairly inevitable, as many of the critical scenes in the movie take place at night or underground, but even the daytime scenes often have a heavy feel, with orange skies and dark shadowing.

I'm in the book.
I'm also in a really shadowy daytime scene in the movie.
The basic plot of the movie is the same as the book: Mrs. Brisby (Elizabeth Hartwell) is a widowed field mouse living in a cinder block with her children. Her son Timmy falls ill, spurring her to visit the reclusive Mr. Ages (Arthur Malet) for assistance. When he tells her that Timmy cannot be moved for three weeks, she panics because the annual "moving day" is due shortly. Enlisting the help of a clumsy crow named Jeremy (Dom DeLuise) that she had saved from the cat "Dragon", she consults the Owl (John Carradine) who sends her to the rats of NIMH, led by Nicodemus (Derek Jacobi). The rats turn out to have been experimental subjects at NIMH (the National Institute for Mental Health) who have had their intelligence augmented as a result of their time there. Because she is the widow of the revered Jonathan Brisby, who was also an experimental subject at NIMH, they agree to help move her house to safety. The rats have troubles of their own, as they are debating whether to move away from the rose bush outside the Fitzgibbon home and give up their parasitic ways. From there, the plot of the movie diverges a fair amount from the plot of the book, primarily because of the thematic changes that were made both to the characters and the imagined world in which they live.

An aside on casting: it is always fun to go back and look at an old movie and see what famous actors crop up in small roles. In The Secret of NIMH, Shannon Doherty and Wil Wheaton serve as voice actors for two Mrs. Brisby's children. So if you are ever playing the Kevin Bacon game, and a Derek Jacobi to Wil Wheaton connection will help you with a link in the chain, you now know you can do that courtesy of Don Bluth Productions.

Hello, I'm Jenner. I'm evil now.
However, in many elements the movie diverges from the book, from the trivial to the substantial. The most trivial is that in the book, the heroine's name is "Mrs. Frisby", whereas in the movie it was changed to "Mrs. Brisby". Apparently this was because the Frisbee company objected to the use of the similar sounding "Frisby" name for the heroine. This is very trivial, although one wonders exactly what the Frisbee company found objectionable in having a likable heroine have a similar sounding name to the name of their product. Other changes seem fairly inevitable in the transition from book to movie: Jeremy goes from being a mildly comic character in the book, to Dom DeLuise, becoming a source of numerous slapstick sequences. To make the plot a little more exciting Jenner (Peter Strauss), the primary antagonist in the story, becomes considerably more malevolent, going from being merely misguided (and somewhat foolish) in the book, to being a murderous villain.

Science experiments gave me magical powers.
Wait, that doesn't make sense.
But the most substantial change in the movie is the completely unexplained addition of magic to the story. In the book, the rats and mice of NIMH were highly intelligent, a situation explained by the scientific experiments conducted upon them during their captivity at NIMH. The rats then established a society under the Fitzgibbon's rose bush and began to use the fruits of technology to better their lives, establishing a kind of civilization for themselves. And the primary plot of the book is the struggle between those who seek to preserve the status quo of that civilization, and continue to live in the shadow of humankind, and those who wish to strike out on their own and establish themselves as an independent species. But in the movie, Nicodemus is presented as having magical powers, although they seem to be somewhat mixed up with technology to a certain extent. He uses a spinning contraption to observe events far away, using it like a crystal ball. He levitates objects with a wave of his hand. And he hands over a magical amulet to Mrs. Brisby saying that it is powered by a "courageous heart". But why Nicodemus has these magical powers, or where the amulet came from is completely unexplained. While the movie goes into a little bit of background concerning the source of the rats' enhanced intelligence, it is completely silent on the subject of Nicodemus' wizardry. The obvious reason for explaining the intelligence but not the magic is that the intelligence is discussed by O'Brien in the book, and the magic is a new curve ball thrown into the movie. This unexplained new element moves the entire story from "science fiction" to "fantasy" and introduces a number of plot problems. Introducing the magical element without explanation was both unnecessary and sloppy storytelling.

The introduction of Nicodemus' magic serves to sap a fair amount of mystery from the story in the movie. The movie opens by having Nicodemus talk about Jonathan Brisby, establishing a close friendship between him and the rats. But in the book the relationship between Johnathan Frisby and the rats of NIMH is not revealed until well into the book, making Mrs. Frisby's plight seem more desperate. Further, as far as the reader is concerned, whether the rats will in fact assist Mrs. Frisby when she does seek them out is entirely unclear in the book. In the movie, on the other hand, Nicodemus uses his magic to keep tabs on Mrs. Brisby, watching as she seeks out first Mr. Ages and then the Owl for advice, magically prodding her to move towards coming to see the rats for help. But the viewer has to wonder, if Nicodemus knew that Mrs. Brisby was looking for help and that her quest would lead her to seek the assistance of the rats, why he didn't just cut short the circuitous path she takes to their doorstep and send someone to offer assistance? In the book, without the addition of magic, Mrs. Frisby's path to the rats' door makes sense. In the movie, it just makes Nicodemus look like a needlessly cryptic jerk.

The problem is, it seems, that when the writers of the screenplay elected to add magic to Nicodemus' repertoire, they didn't stop to think through the story implications this would have. Later in the story, for example, the rats need to drug the Fitzgibbon's cat Dragon, which requires entering the farm house through a hold only big enough to accomodate a mouse. After the rats reveal that this was how Jonathan was killed, Mrs. Brisby volunteers to undertake this dangerous msision. But since Nicodemus can levitate and move objects by magic in the movie, one wonders why he doesn't just use his magical abilities to deliver the drug packet into Dragon's food rather than sending Mrs. Brisby on a dangerous mission that has proven fatal in the past (and gets her captured)? I think the answer is the same as the answer as to why he let Mrs. Brisby go see the horribly dangerous owl rather than having someone like Justin go and offer the help of the rats: that's the way it happens in the book. But once the scriptwriter added magical elements to the movie, the setting is different from the book, and the story should take those new elements into account. And it simply does not. This is why speculative fiction is hard to write - often much harder than many people who look down their noses at it think. When one changes the setting details by adding magic or new technology, you have to then think through the implications of those additions. And many writers who try their hand at speculative fiction stumble on this element, adding something that seems interesting, and then destroying the verisimilitude of their story by failing to consider the implications of the new paradigm.

But this sort of sloppiness bleeds into other elements of the story too. Jenner endorses the plan to move Mrs. Brisby's house because he decides this will be the perfect opportunity to try to kill Nicodemus and take over the mantle of leadership from him. But Jenner's plan requires Nicodemus to stand directly underneath the cinder block while it is being moved. There doesn't appear to be any reason why Nicodemus would need to do this, but Jenner assumes he will, and Nicodemus does. Other than "because the story needs it" there doesn't seem to be any reason for this, and it makes Jenner's plan seem really quite stupid as it relies entirely upon this serendipitous event. Jenner doesn't seize upon the situation opportunistically and take action when he sees Nicodemus place himself in a foolish position. No, Jenner's plan requires predicting that Nicodemus will needlessly and foolishly place himself in harm's way. In other words, Jenner's plan hinges upon foreseeing an event that he could not possibly have reasonably anticipated.

One might quibble that I'm being overly picky concerning plot issues in what is a film intended for children. But just because a work of fiction is intended for a younger audience doesn't mean it is okay for the plot to devolve into nonsense. When O'Brien wrote Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH he provided a coherent and sensible plot which is why it is so disappointing that when they converted it to a movie they mangled the plot by adding supernatural material without considering its impact. Even the introduction of the magical amulet changes the meaning of the story. In the book the rats move Mrs. Frisby's house via engineering, a triumph of their enhanced intelligence. In the movie, Jenner sabotages the engineering efforts (leading to a dramatic sword fight with Justin*, the captain of the guard) and Mrs. Brisby uses the magical amulet and the "power of a courageous heart" to save her family from sinking into the mud as a result, which provides a beautifully animated scene, but one that tosses aside the idea that intelligence applied to a problem can solve it, and replaces it with a "magical powers save the day" ending.

Translating a book to film always changes it - absolute fidelity when changing mediums is an impossible goal. The only real questions are whether the resulting film is mostly reflective of the source material, and whether it is a good film or not. In the case of The Secret of NIMH the answer to the first question is sadly, not really. Adding magic to the story alters what was a fairly interesting science fiction story about a nascent civilization and humanity's responsibility towards its creations into a fairly run-of-the-mill tale of talking animals and magic. And because the addition of magic was done with little regard for its impact on the story, the translation from book to film results in a story that doesn't make much sense any more. Consequently, the end result is a film that is beautiful, but has a seriously flawed and somewhat bland story.

*One thing that seems kind of odd is the number of "J" names in the story: Jeremy, Jenner, Justin. Okay, it's only three, but there are only about ten real characters in the movie, and having three of them share the letter "J" to start their names is fairly noticeable.

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Monday, March 21, 2011

Musical Monday - Crusader: Dystopian Cyberpunk Gaming

In 1995 Origin Systems released Crusader: No Remorse, a third person three-quarter-angle view game set in a cyberpunkish dystopian future. In 1996 they followed that up with Crusader: No Regret in which the action from the first game moves to the moon. The game was written for DOS, and although some people have said they can get it to run on more modern PCs using a DOSBox emulator, I have never been able to make it work that way. But this game remains one of my favorite computer games, even fifteen years after it was released, and more than a decade after I was able to actually play it. And one of the reasons was the music for the game, which seems to perfectly reflect the hyper violent game play with the sadness and fear that runs through the underlying story (this music is actually from No Regret, the second game, although No Remorse had very similar music). The game was somewhat innovative for its use of music - instead of the standard of the day with one or two musical themes that played in the background for the entire game, every mission in the Crusader games had its own accompanying background music, which always seemed to fit perfectly with what was going on during the game.

The game itself was fairly straightforward: you play a renegade Silencer, one of the elite soldiers of the tyrannical World Economic Consortium (or WEC). You join forces with the Resistance and go on a series of missions infiltrating WEC industrial facilities, office buildings, and eventually, a space station. The game was also incredibly destructive: almost everything on the screen could be shot or blown up or both. For most objects in the game, if you point a gun at them, they suffer if you pull the trigger. You could destroy industrial machinery, containers of fuel, crates containing supplies, cameras, walls, and in some cases, even the flooring. Of course there were enemies to kill, but since the fighting usually took place in some sort of factory or office, there were plenty of innocent bystanders, and you could kill them too. Since they had money you could loot off their dead bodies, and some of them would, if left alone, trip alarms drawing more guards, there was usually an upside to killing them, so if I ran across a bystander in the game, they were pretty much dead on the spot. For the truly demented, the game creators included a number of death animations for the combatants, ranging from merely keeling over in a puddle of blood (as a result of being shot), to having all your flesh vaporized (for one of the more technologically advanced weapons), to the always amusing one in which a character catches on fire and runs screaming until they collapse into a pile of ash. Well, it's amusing for me at least.

The game includes several cut scenes (with pretty hilariously bad acting and awful costumes), but they are relatively rare and fairly short, moving the story along without interfering with the game itself. An interesting element of the game is that your character never speaks at any point in the game, from the opening cinematic to the post-victory epilogue, making the name "Silencer" pretty much apropos (although in the opening cinematic two other Silencers carry on a conversation that essentially explains why you switch allegiances and join the Resistance). But even with the terrible acting and the mute protagonist, the story draws you in. The WEC is somewhat cartoonish as a villainous government, but the setting has the dark, gritty, and almost hopeless feeling that cyberpunk has to have. The reports you see over the news relating to your exploits provide some comic relief, but also illustrate the oppressive nature of the world in which your character lives. With fairly simple elements the creators of the game manage to do what many more recent games, with piles of expositional back story, extended cut scenes, and flashy production values can not: they make the player care about the events in the game. So when my character encountered the cloning tanks, I destroyed every one of them, even though it had no effect on game play. While I went out of my way to kill bystanders in the first game, which was set on Earth. But when the action moved to the Moon, which the WEC is described as using as a penal colony, I became much more circumspect about killing civilians. And any game that can get you to care about what is happening on the screen for reasons beyond immediate in-game advantage is a game that has a story that is well-done.

But when one looks at our world, with the U.S. government $14 trillion in debt, seemingly perpetual war in the Middle-East, government-backed megacorporations running Russia, and, of course, a heavily wired populace tied to dominant corporations like Facebook, one has to wonder if we are already living in a cyberpunk future. I don't think it is an accident that cyberpunk grew out of the disillusionment of the late 1970s and early 1980s - it is an inherently cynical and dark vision of the future after all. I just hope that if we can't find our own way to a better version of the future we don't have to wait until the 22nd century for a Silencer to show up and blow everything up for us. Because I am pretty sure I won't be around to be doing it. And blowing things up is a lot of fun.

The truly sad thing about our current cyberpunk future is that it seems that game makers are simply not able to make as effective use of their resources as the Crusader games were able to do back in 1995-1996 to provide a good story meshed with good game play. In many cases, game companies have taken far superior technology and produced games that are decidedly inferior to the Crusader titles. And maybe that is the evidence that we are in a cyberpunk world: Technology advances, but the quality of life (or in this case, computer games) goes down.

Previous Musical Monday: She Don't Like Firefly by Mikey Mason
Subsequent Musical Monday: The Future Soon by Jonathan Coulton

Game, Movie, and Television Music     Musical Monday     Home

Saturday, March 19, 2011

Follow Friday - Decimeters

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 - Jess of Gone With the Words.
  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!
And now for the Follow Friday Question: How did you come up with your blog name?

My preferred genres of fiction are science fiction and fantasy, and that's mostly what I read, watch, and review for the blog. And when I am reading a book like Ringworld, The Lord of the Rings, or Dhalgren (read review), or watching a show like Farscape (read reviews), or Firefly, I can visit another world that has never existed outside of the imagination of the writer, who has shared it with me. I dream of going to the future imagined by Larry Niven in which a man can journey to the center of the galaxy and back, or the past imagined by Naomi Novik where dragons fly alongside men in the Napoleonic Wars, or the vast universe imagined by Andre Norton full of far ranging free traders plying the space lanes, and so many more. This blog is about the worlds that I imagine visiting, and so it is named Dreaming About Other Worlds.

Go to previous Follow Friday: Number Nine
Go to subsequent Follow Friday: This One Goes to Eleven. Well, Five Actually

Follow Friday     Home

Thursday, March 17, 2011

Review - Dancing With Gravity by Anene Tressler

Short review: Life is difficult when you are a self-absorbed slightly paranoid narcissistic jerk. Even if you are a Catholic priest.

If you are a priest
And a self-absorbed narcissist
People won't like you

Disclosure: I received this book as an Advance Review Copy. 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: Father Whiting is a Catholic priest who works in a Catholic run hospital counselling patients and their families. Unfortunately, he's also a juvenile, self-absorbed, narcissistic, paranoid jerk. Throughout the book, he drifts through life, self-absorbed enough to be certain that everything everyone else is doing must be directed at him, paranoid enough that he agonizes over what they must be thinking or planning, juvenile enough that he lashes out when the woman he has a crush on chooses to have a relationship with someone who is actually available, and misogynistic enough that almost every interaction he has in the book with a woman is strained and uncomfortable. In short, Father Whiting is a petty, vain, and generally objectionable person.

Having a dislikable main character in a book is always a risk, even if you intend to rehabilitate him by the end of the book (and that seems to be the intention of the book, although I didn't find Father Whiting's turnaround to be particularly convincing). This is especially true if you are going to tell the story using that character as the sole viewpoint character, as all of their selfish, cruel, and vindictive thoughts are conveyed to the reader in undiluted form. And because the only lens that the reader sees the other character through is the mind of the protagonist, it is impossible to separate the other characters from the protagonist's perception of them. The result is that most of the other characters end up seeming almost as unlikable as the main character. One is left wondering if Jerry really is a sanctimonious prick, if Lillian really is a needy and clingy woman, if Sarah really is vapid, and, finally if Nikolai really is a thoughtless cad and ass. Even though one suspects that they are not, whether or not the characters actually are a collection of disagreeable people, because we see them through Father Whiting's eyes, they appear to be so. As a result, the reader is left wading through a morass of petty, almost meaningless relationships between characters that no one would ever want to actually interact with.

But it is a mark of the skill of a writer that they can take this volatile mix and still produce a book that keeps the reader engaged and turning the pages. However, Tressler is able to pull this off, even if at times one keeps reading for the same reason that one slows down to see a train wreck, as you wonder exactly what new boorish action Father Whiting is going to take next. Though Whiting himself suggests that he is sleepwalking through his life, it seems more like he is actually obsessing over the trivial and magnifying mundane events into crisis after crisis. This pattern is established from the very opening pages of the book when Father Whiting, just returned from an extended conference in Italy, overhears a dispute between the hospital president and the head of the hospital's board of directors. Whiting then obsesses over whether anyone saw him eavesdropping, and spends much of the next chunk of the book worried that he will be fired for this pecadillio, inflating in his mind a cryptic meeting arranged between himself and the head of the Sisters of the Little Flower, the order of nuns that manage the hospital, into a call to the carpet so he can be fired for his indiscretion. The meeting is nothing of the sort, and instead Father Whiting is asked to take over additional responsibilities relating to a circus that the sisters have improbably inherited. While Whiting is busy obsessing over what people think about him, the rest of the world seems to move along without caring about him very much.

This pattern repeats itself several times in the book, with Whiting agonizing over the minutia of interpersonal relationships, always narcissistically assuming that everyone he comes into contact with, or who happens to just walk by, is as focused on Whiting as he is on himself. It does not take long for the reader to conclude that Whiting was sent to Italy, not so that he could learn anything in particular, but because everyone else at the hospital needed a break from dealing with him. In the one scene we see in which Whiting is performing his putative job, pastoral care, he is unable to offer any kind of help to a grieving parent dealing with a sick child, able to only come up with empty platitudes, while another parent actually takes steps to comfort the woman he is supposed to be ministering to. Even when he is ostensibly helping Jerry, a fellow priest and an old friend who is getting treatment for cancer, Whiting uses this as an opportunity to preen. And in his most obnoxious performance, Whiting develops a crush on Sarah, one of his coworkers, and when she doesn't return his affection (probably because she realizes that he's supposed to be a celibate priest), he immediately begins to resent and denigrate her.

Which leads one to realize that Whiting's relationships with almost all of the women in the book are strained. To a certain extent, even though he is described as being fifty-eight years old, Whiting behaves like a maladjusted teenager and this is at its most apparent when dealing with women. The most obvious is his relation ship with Sarah, where he behaves like a jilted lover with his feelings for her turned on a dime. He switches from caring for her to finding her vain, petty, and foolish in the space of a single moment. His interactions with his secretary are strained, as she dominates and bullies him, even though she supposedly works for him, and he is never able to work out any kind of reasonable working relationship with her. Finally, near the end of the book he generates some backbone and explodes before ordering her to transfer out of his office in a scene that seems to be intended to show how he has begun to assert himself. Instead, he comes off as pathetic, unable to resolve a work related problem in an adult manner.

But it is Whiting's relationship with his mother that proves to be revelatory concerning how he developed into such a jerk to begin with, and in a roundabout way, it seems to be tied in to why the son of an irreligious woman would choose to become a Catholic priest. Whiting's mother Lillian was a minor actress who refused to accept that age ended her career and then turned to training performing dogs to stay on stage, drifting from town to town to ply her trade. She also split from Whiting's father when he was young. The resulting nomadic lifestyle seems to have left the younger Whiting feeling rootless and resentful of his neglectful mother. To a certain extent, Whiting's leap into the arms of the Church seems to have been the result of a desperate desire to find a stable home to live in and a stable authority figure to follow that had been denied to him throughout his childhood. But the pernicious effect seems to have been to trap Whiting in a kind of extended adolescence, so that thirty years after most men would have begun to progress into behaving like an adult, Whiting still behaves like a spoiled teenager.

The central element of the story is Whiting being asked to bless the Little Flower Circus, which brings him into contact with the vivacious and energetic troupe of performers that make up its cast. This group includes Nikolai, a trapeze artist, and Sarah's lover. The life-loving performers are clearly intended to serve as a contrast to the washed out colorless existence of Whiting's everyday life, and after some resistance he gravitates towards them and the apparently fascinating Nikolai. Whiting finds himself among people who actually do things - they perform, they work the concession stands, they teach children their craft, and otherwise actually help people - and the inactive and ineffectual Whiting is at a loss. Whereas he is self-absorbed, the performers appear to be almost selfless. This is further highlighted by the revelation that the circus was created in large part as a cover to spirit people in danger out of oppressive countries and to safety in the United States, and though some of the performers are refugees, others are not, but took the risk to help others out anyway.

Eventually Whiting strikes up a kind of friendship with Nikolai, eventually developing an infatuation the trapeze artist (including clumsily copying a love poem onto a card to the performer, an act that Whiting, as usual, obsesses over like a love-struck preteen). This part of the novel was, to me, the least convincing element of the book because other than being told over and over again that Nikolai is a muscular man that everyone likes, there is no real reason given for the attraction, and no real reason why Nikolai would return Whiting's fumbling schoolboy crush. To a large degree, Whiting's motive seems to be little more than petty revenge at being spurned by Sarah - since she turned him down, Whiting seems bent on proving to her that he is desirable by stealing the object of her affections. I suppose one is to focus on the fact that Nikolai is a man of action, which Whiting craves, but as much of the embryonic relationship takes place out of the sight of the reader, it seems undeveloped and not a sufficient reason to result in the level of impact upon Whiting's life that Nikolai's presence is supposed to have. This may, however, be intentional, as much of the relationship between Whiting and Nikolai, like the relationship between Sarah and Whiting, may be nothing more than a figment of Whiting's imagination.

So the book rambles on with Whiting becoming more and more wrapped up in his work with the circus, at which point Jerry decides to reinforce that he is, in fact, a complete sanctimonious prick by warning Whiting not to "go down the path he's on" and should instead focus on the useless pastoral care. Whiting, since he is also a sanctimonious jerk, passes on the favor telling Sarah that her thought to leave the hospital and join the circus to do public relations work for them is ridiculous. Eventually, after he ignores his dealings with his mother for weeks several events take place that push Whiting towards his transformational moment. Whiting is told by the head of the Sisters of the Little Flower that he is being relieved of his duties for the Little Flower Circus, which, being completely self-absorbed, he interprets as an indication that they have discovered and disapprove of his infatuation with Nikolai. But when he rushes to find Nikolai, he finds him with a tear-stained Sarah. In a fit of pique, Whiting gets himself lost in a rainstorm, and stalls his car on a flooded road. After spending the night trapped, he is rescued by a good Samaritan who refuses payment, an action of unselfishness that stands in stark contrast to Whiting's own selfish passivity. Finally, and probably most predictably, Whiting's mother dies just before he is scheduled to go visit her for the first time in weeks. In effect, Whiting repays his mother's years of neglect of him as a child with months of neglect for her as a dying adult.

But even the successive hammerblows of these events don't shake Whiting's self-absorbtion. In fact, at his own mother's funeral he is obsessed with the thought that Nikolai might show up. When Nikolai doesn't show up, Whiting feels slighted. But the curtain on Whiting's self-absorbtion comes crashing down - Nikolai doesn't show up because the circus is being moved to New Mexico and he had left to go to another circus in Spain. And this is why Whiting is being relieved of his duties with respect to the circus. In short, everything that Whiting was convinced was directed entirely at him turns out to have nothing to do with him. On the other hand, Nikolai proves himself to be a thoughtless ass by discarding Sarah without a second thought, and Whiting is self-centered enough to feel some happiness that her life is essentially ruined, but then croaks out some sympathetic words and starts thinking about forgiveness. After a couple hundred pages of acting like a misogynistic selfish teenager, Whiting begins to ask the people around him to forgive him, which is supposed to mark the beginning of his change. Maybe I'm not a forgiving person, but at this point everyone around him should have simply told him to jump in a lake and drown himself for the good of humanity.

Dancing with Gravity is a strong case study of a really quite (one might say irretrievably) flawed and selfish human being. Through most of the book one rides along looking over his shoulder as Whiting justifies his petty vindictiveness and self-centered behavior. For most of the book you keep hoping someone will punch him in the nose. By the end, you are hoping that someone will strangle him to death. And it is the end that just didn't work for me. After Nikolai's departure, Whiting is handed a poem from the trapeze artist that is supposed to change Whiting's perspective on life. But since his relationship with Nikolai comes off as being little more than the crush of an emotionally stunted misanthrope, one doesn't feel that the poem would have any real impact on Whiting. There is a brief epilogue where Whiting has gone to South America to help one of the performers who had been hiding from a corrupt banana republic government with the circus*, but this element was just not convincing as it came so abruptly after Whiting's "big change" that the reader doesn't have time to accept a changed Whiting before one shifts to him hiding under a bridge. But even though Whiting's transformation just doesn't seem convincing, it only takes up a handful of pages at the end of the book, which means that the bulk of the book is quite strong, although it is dominated by a very unappetizing character. Despite the unconvincing ending, Dancing with Gravity is a strong book that lets one see the inside of a horribly flawed human, and while one probably won't sympathize with him, one can at least try to understand how a person who is supposed to have devoted themselves to others could be so completely devoted only to himself.

*This character bothered me. Exactly how does someone expect to hide by performing in front of hundreds of people on a daily basis? And then when he thinks he has been discovered, he flees by returning to the oppressive state the circus helped him escape from. This character, Anjo, just seems to be too stupid to believe.

Anene Tressler     Book Reviews A-Z     Home

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Review - The Long Man by Steve Englehart

Short review: A story told with comic book sensibilities featuring a hero who is more or less a mixture of Captain America and Dr. Strange. Unfortunately, the author digresses to try to give a pseudoscientific explanation of the pretentiously spelled "magick" and ruins a good adventure story.

Immortal August
Fights with the evil Necklace
Now some zombi rape!

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: Steve Englehart is most well-known as a comic book writer, most notable for having penned runs of Captain America, Dr. Strange, and Batman. It is appropriate, then, that Max August, the protagonist of The Long Man, is more or less an amalgamation of these characters. In many ways, August seems to be a throwback to the hyper competent lantern jawed pulp action heroes with special powers like Doc Savage or E.E. "Doc" Smith's Lensmen. The title of the book "The Long Man" is a reference to August's magically enhanced longevity - despite being old enough to be a Vietnam veteran in 2007, when the novel is set, Max is physically a thirty-five year old man. The book is ostensibly the sequel to The Point Man, which was out of print for a couple decades but it now being republished.

The plot of the book is fairly straightforward, despite the shadowy nature of Max August's foe, "The Necklace". An old friend asks Max to look into the illness of her doctor, and Max more or less stumbles on to a plot to take over the world, which leads him across the U.S., the Caribbean, and into South America, with magical escapades along the way. Max battles his foes, has numerous scrapes with death, and wins the pretty girl. The only real problem with the action sequences is that there is rarely any real tension in them - Max simply doesn't seem to actually be in serious danger, even when confronting the final "more powerful" villain. To a certain extent, however, the book is a disappointment. The Long Man reveals that having a writing background in another style of media is not a guarantee that one will be able to translate their success into something like a novel. So long as the book sticks to over the top action, the story works. Unfortunately, Englehart seems to feel compelled to provide lots of added explanation for the magical world in which August lives, and that description simply falls flat.

First, I have to digress about spelling. I know it is a somewhat common affectation to use the word "magick" to differentiate between stage magic and "real" magic. And in the book August explains that is why he uses the "magick" with a "k" version. I find this affectation to be really silly and pretentious. At no point in the book does anyone mistake anything that August does for stage magic, nor is there any reason to expect that anyone would. Most books that involve people with real magical powers seem to have no trouble convincing the readers that the protagonist is not Doug Henning. From my perspective, resorting to the use of nonstandard words like "magick" when perfectly acceptable English words with the same meaning are available is a mark of an author unsure of his ability to convey his meaning through the context of the story. Although no one comments on it at length as they do with the "magick" spelling, the "zombis" that show up in the book, also unconventionally spelled, seem to omit the final "e" of the word for much the same reason - to prevent the reader from confusing the "real" zombis of the book with "fake" zombies from movies like Night of the Living Dead. This affectation is also pretentious and unnecessary.

These spelling foibles are fairly small, so one might wonder why I harp on them. I do so because they are indicative of a larger problem with the book. Whenever the action pauses, the author feels the need to have Max try to explain how "magick" works, and the explanations are long, dull, and don't make any sense at all. First, Max insist that he is not a sorcerer, he describes himself as an "alchemist", although in practical terms this appears to be a meaningless distinction. He also posits that he is not using magic, just highly advanced science, comparing his skills to taking a television back to the Sixteenth century. However, Max's skills don't seem to work even like he describes. Max asserts that magic only "influences" things, it doesn't "control" them, supposedly making magic not reliable like science. Then Max goes on to assert all kinds of reliable things about magic: How it can be studied and evaluated, how the Mayan calendar somehow matches up with the first two hundred and sixty asteroids, and how their gravity affects our daily lives and so on. In short, despite Max's constant assurances that magic is inherently unreliable (and thus different from "normal" science) the magic in the book is nothing but reliable.

And the ways used to describe how magic is different from science are just gobbledegook. In reality gravity "only" influences the position of objects, but this does not mean it is not subject to evaluation and scientific inquiry. Gravity does this in a predictable and regular manner. As an aside, I'll point out that astrology, which supposedly "really works" according to August, because of the "influence" of gravity, is, even on that basis, complete hokum. The person standing next to you exerts more gravitational influence on you than Mars, or any of the "two hundred and sixty" asteroids that supposedly link up with the Mayan calendar. I'll also say how very tired I am of the Mayan calendar and how "magical" it is. If August's magic works like gravity, it should be studiable, and more importantly reliable, despite all of his protests that it isn't. And apparently, you study magic by reading all the mythologies of the world and somehow "evaluating" them, despite this supposed unreliability. Because, of course, people working 500, 1,000, or 4,000 years ago were better able to understand how the universe works than we are now. In fact, if magic is inherently unreliable, then it would be inherently unstudiable, as one could not figure out how it works without some regularity. In effect, Englehart is trying to have things all ways: make magic a usable tool, and make it a mysterious and unpredictable force, and connect it with apparently every magical tradition in the world. And in trying to make these irreconcilable ideas work together, Max spends large chunks of the book pontificating nonsense, which makes for tedious reading.

Of course, magic use is also apparently pretty common in the Caribbean and Suriname (because, presumably, they haven't been contaminated with silly ideas like "science"), with magical casters popping out of the woodwork left and right, which makes one wonder why those regions are so desperately poor. This is one of the random inconsistencies that make the book so frustrating, like the author came up with some cool ideas, but didn't bother to think them through for even five minutes.

But the mixture of fun action plus tedious nonsense explanations adds up to merely a mediocre book. What drives the book into the "less than mediocre" category is the utter idiocy of the villains and their plan, and more importantly, a nasty undercurrent of misogyny that runs through the story. The evil villainous organization, called variously "the Necklace" and the "Free Range Coalition" is a sort of comic book archetype - the shadowy underworld operators who are secretly controlling everything. They apparently control large chunks of the U.S. government, several corporations, as well as most of the criminal enterprises in the country. They appear to be well-connected across the world as well. So what is their master plan? To use zombis to release sarin gas in Suriname allowing them to take over the country and get their U.N. vote. Yep, you read that right. An organization that is powerful and well-connected enough to get someone assigned to (and tortured at) Camp X-Ray on a whim has, as its master plan, the takeover of a tiny South American nation so as to control its U.N. vote. The real oddity here is that the necklace appears to pretty much control Suriname already, since when Max is flying his way there, they manage to get the Suriname air force to mobilize to shoot him down. And of course, this is even sillier when one considers the complicated nature of the plan, requiring them to train mindless zombis to first make sarin, and then engage in a complicated series of maneuvers so they can kill off much of the population of the nation they wish to control, that they pretty much already control. As Frederick Forsyth demonstrated in The Dogs of War, there are much easier ways to topple the government of a tiny third world country making the whole exercise seem so ludicrously stupid that I think Stan Lee would have told Englehart to go back to the drawing board if he had proposed this plot for any of Marvel's titles.

Making this even sillier is the repeated mantra of the book that "the Necklace never fails", when all they do in the book is fail time and again. Max foils every one of their plots, and disposes of every enemy they send against him. The ultimate villain, the evil Aleksandra, is little more than a wooden villain: She hates Max August because she's evil, and she's evil because she hates Max August. It is possible that her character was fleshed out more fully in The Point Man, but leaving her with as little character development as she has in this book is simply an unforgivable omission.

The ugliest thing about the book is the misogyny that runs through it. Most is more or less subtle and would have been just a foible. The ingénue of the piece, Dr. Pam Blackwell, is little more than sex candy for Max to resist for much of the book as he mourns his long dead wife (killed by Aleksandra years before). The whole story is kicked off by a magical attack on Pam, from which Max has to save her. Later, another female character becomes the only person on the "hero" side killed in the conflict that rages through the story. Aleksandra, the mastermind villainess, seems to be little more than a prop to serve as a foil for Max. A lesser villainess is portrayed as nothing more than a drug addled sex fiend (despite supposedly being one of the most successful drug traffickers in Miami). But all of these fade into the misogynistic background when the subplot (and I use that term loosely here) involving Nancy Reinking crops up.

Nancy is a minor villain working for the Necklace in the story. She sets Pam up to be killed early in the book, and was quickly found out by Max, who puts her into a magically induced sleep. She is later discovered by some other Necklace operatives and freed. They then fly her to Camp X-Ray and imprison and torture her to make sure she didn't tell Max anything about the Necklace or the FRC. There is almost no point to this storyline, as whether she told him something or not is of no consequence to the rest of the story. However, Englehart returns over and over to scenes of torturing Nancy in what can only be described as sexually sadistic ways: she is stripped naked to be water-boarded, she is left to lie in her own waste, she is raped by a zombie, and so on. All told in loving detail. And all completely pointless. It is as if Englehart felt like he had to pad the page count and couldn't come up with anything better than to include a bunch of scenes in which a woman is tortured for no real plot related reason. There is also the implication that late in the book, after Pam has been captured, she is subjected to (or merely threatened with) similar treatment. This is all completely gratuitous and pointless (Englehart attempts to make some political commentary here, but it is clumsy and forced, and completely extraneous to the actual story). Every page wasted on the Nancy Reinking subplot is basically garbage that should have been excised by a decent editor as a worthless digression that adds nothing to the book, and actually, makes it substantially worse.

The main problem appears to be that in the transition from comic book writing to novel writing, Englehart didn't shift emphasis. A lot of things that are necessary in the comic book genre - like broad stereotypes such as the drug addled sex fiend cocaine trafficker - simply don't work well in a novel, where one has more time and text to flesh out less clichéd characters. In a comic book, there likely would have been less effort to "explain" magic as well, which would have improved the story significantly. The transition seems to have also brought with it some problems with viewpoint, as the viewpoint seems to shift from third person limited to third person omniscient at the drop of a hat. The Long Man is 376 pages long. It would have been a much better book if it had been half that. Then the extended tedious explanations of magic and the pointless torture scenes could have been excised. If one could read only the pulpy adventure portions of this book, it would get a modest recommendation. As this is not possible, and despite the potential the book shows, it gets a frustrated thumbs down.

Previous book in the series: The Point Man

Steve Englehart     Book Reviews A-Z     Home

Monday, March 14, 2011

Review - Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH by Robert C. O'Brien

Short review: Mrs. Frisby discovers that the rats who share the garden with her are more than they seem. What is humanity's responsibility if we make animals sentient?

Mrs. Frisby calls
Nicodemus answers her
Jenner is a fool

Full review: I read and enjoyed Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH and watched the movie The Secret of NIMH which is based upon it when I was about the same age my animal-loving daughter is now. So, naturally when she was looking for a book to read I handed this to her. She read about a third of it and decided it was boring and stopped reading. This prompted me to pick up the book and read through it to see if I was merely remembering it with the rose colored glasses of youth. It turns out, that not only is Mrs. Frisby as good as I remember it being, it is actually much better than that.

Mrs. Frisby is the central character in the action, a widowed field mouse living with her children on the Fitzgibbon farm. The family lives in the farmer's fields during the winter, and moves to another location for the summer to avoid being killed during the spring plowing. Unfortunately for Mrs. Frisby, her youngest son Timothy falls ill, after consulting the wise old mouse Mr. Ages, she learns that he cannot be moved. Mrs. Frisby rescues a crow, who takes her to see a wise owl to get advice. Upon learning that she is the widow of Johnathan Frisby, she is sent to see the rats of NIMH, a secretive bunch that live under a rose bush in the Fitzgibbons' garden. Once she meets up with the rats and their leader Nicodemus, the real story of the book unfolds.

It turns out that the rats are the result of genetic experiments in a lab that goes by the acronym NIMH. They have human intelligence, can read and write, use machines, and electricity. It turns out that Jonathan Frisby (and Mr. Ages) were also part of the experiment. The mice agree to move Mrs. Frisby's house if she will drug the farmer's cat. She is captured and learns that people from NIMH have discovered where the rats are and intend to come and exterminate them prompting the rats to put into motion their plan to evacuate and try to set up their own society where they can live without acting as parasites on human labor. Mrs. Frisby is front and center throughout the action, which makes her a rare and well written example of a female protagonist in a young adult book that is not specifically aimed at girls.

The story, originally written in 1971, seems remarkably ahead of its time. The rats are modified using genetic engineering (how this is done other than through a series of injections isn't explained, although since the story is told from the rats' perspective, and they don't fully understand it, this is understandable). Having created rodents with human (or close to human) intelligence, the response of the people who uncover them is immediately to try to exterminate them. This raises a lot of serious questions for a book aimed at children - having made the rats sentient, do the humans owe them respect? The book, told from the perspective of the various animals, clearly advocates for their side. And the sad thing is, when confronted by a non-human intelligence (even if it is one we created ourselves), the "destroy it" response of the human actors in the story seems altogether too plausible. With genetic engineering becoming part of the ordinary landscape of science now, the serious questions about what responsibility humans will have for their creations are being pushed to the forefront. Although it is unlikely that a situation will develop like that of the rats in the book, the broader questions concerning the technology remain.

The only real weakness of the book is that, given the behavior of the unmodified animals in the story - mostly Mrs. Frisby, the crow Jeremy, and the wise old owl - there seems to have been little need to modify the rats to give them intelligence. Mrs. Frisby is able to read, having been taught by her husband. She, Jeremy, and the owl are capable of holding extended and somewhat abstract conversation, and so on. Granted, to make a story involving talking animals work, some concessions in this area have to be made, but it lessens the impact of the increased intelligence that the rats have been given to have other animals seemingly not more than a tiny step behind them. Really, the only difference between the rats and the other animals appears to be that the rats can use machines, but it appears that Mrs. Frisby, given a little instruction, would have no trouble using the machines too. In the end though, this is merely a quibble and doesn't seriously detract from the story.

As a final note, I must point out that the book diverges from the movie in significant ways. The most important of which is that there is no mystical element in the book - the rats are enhanced by genetic engineering, and there is no magical amulet. Secondly, though Jenner is equally misguided in the book as he is in the movie, he is not as villainous in the book. His actions cause trouble for the rat colony, but the harm is unintentional and he doesn't actually appear "on camera". It is clear to me that these elements were added to the story to "punch up" the action and give the story an antagonist that was not human. Apparently the idea of a story in which the "villains" were humans opposing a colony of rats sounded like a box office loser to someone somewhere in the production chain, and thus Jenner was made into a classic animated animal villain. These changes make the story definitely different, and in my opinion, detract from it. However, the book itself is, of course, unaffected leaving us the superior story for our reading pleasure.

Robert C. O'Brien     Book Reviews A-Z     Home

Friday, March 11, 2011

Review - Farscape: Back and Back and Back to the Future (Season 1, Episode 5)

It is always a bad day when your ship disintegrates into glowing green stuff
"He says he is experiencing the future." - Zhaan
"The future? He can barely function in the present." - Aeryn

Short review: Moya's crew rescue a pair of Illanics from a dying ship who turn out to be a lot more than they seem to be.

Illanic rescue
Crichton nearly goes insane
As he hops through time

Full review: It usually takes a little while for a television show to really find its feet and reveal what the show is going to be like in its maturity. It just takes a little bit of time for the characters to be defined and for their relationships with one another and the wider fictional world they inhabit to take shape. Some shows take six or seven episodes, some take a full season, a precious few hit the ground running. For Farscape, this moment came in Back and Back and Back to the Future. To be sure the characters are still not yet fully formed, and one long-time crew member hasn't even joined the cast yet, but by the time this episode comes up, enough expositional groundwork had been laid in the previous episodes that elements like character development could take a back seat to story telling.

Digressing a bit, this is yet another reason why the decision to air the early episodes of Farscape out of order is simply inexplicable. Without the foundational character development from I, E.T. (read review) and Throne for a Loss (read review), this episode just doesn't work as well. Moving Back and Back and Back to the Future forward to third in the viewing order serves to accelerate the developing relations between the characters so quickly that they make no sense. For example, without the interaction between Zhaan (Virginia Hey) and Crichton (Ben Browder) in I, E.T. and Throne for a Loss, there seems little reason for him to turn to her when he finds himself embroiled in a crisis, or for her to trust him enough to accept his very odd story. Without the character development established in Throne for a Loss, D'Argo's (Anthony Simcoe) rigid and authoritarian streak that dominates much of this episode comes out of left field. Without establishing the poverty of the crew in previous episodes, Rygel's (Jonathan Hardy) demands for payment from their unwilling passengers seems cruel and harsh, rather than desperate. And D'Argo's rebuff of Rygel's attempts to extract compensation serves not to establish him as an ally of the newcomers, but merely makes him out to be a courteous host.

The episode starts in media res, with Rygel, Zhaan, and D'Argo watching an unknown ship seemingly disintegrate before their eyes. We get a little character development as Rygel advocates abandoning the unknown crew to their fates, and Zhaan suggests that they should try to render aid. Interestingly, D'Argo sides with Rygel until an escaping shuttle signals Moya, showing a pair of Illanics, whereupon D'Argo does an immediate about face and insists that the castaways be taken on board. D'Argo explains that the Illanics are genetic cousins and close allies for "over a thousand cycles" of the Luxans and places Moya at their disposal. The interesting (and uncommented upon by the other characters) piece of character development here is that D'Argo immediately asserts authority over Moya, and the other inhabitants of the ship simply accept this. At several points in the episode, D'Argo essentially orders another one of Moya's inhabitants to do something, and they somewhat reluctantly let him get away with it.

D'Argo loves these two. Esepcially her.
The two Illanics, a scientist named Verell (John Clayton) and Matala (Lisa Hensley) his, well, it isn't really ever defined what her position is, state that they were the only people on board the now destroyed ship, and that they had been conducting experiments in deep space for a year and they were on their way to rendezvous with another ship and deliver their data. While John is inside the Illanic escape shuttle checking to make sure that there were no others on board, he receives a shock while touching an instrument panel, and then has a surreal experience as D'Argo tells him the same thing repeatedly. Although Rygel raises the possibility of seeking compensation from the Illanics, D'Argo brushes this aside (despite Verell's apparent willingness to pay) and states that Moya will do this for his "friends". As Matala and D'Argo head off, Crichton has a vision of himself in flagrante delecto (or close to it) with Matala.

One thing that is kind of odd throughout the episode is that Hensley, as Matala, speaks in a very affected voice. In addition, when D'Argo offers them food, she refuses more than once to eat, but suggests that Verell should eat. Matala also repeats a couple of times that someone speaking to her should "rest and revitalize", almost using it like a mantra. I suspect that at some point there was a draft of the script in which all of these elements were going to contribute to unraveling the mystery of her true identity, but that was apparently excised from the final version. The result is that Matala has a host of off-putting personality traits that make her seem almost drugged and make D'Argo's apparent fascination with her somewhat perplexing. And D'Argo's fascination with Matala, combined with his intense sense of race loyalty, is necessary for making the plot function.

My name is D'Argo. I'm a criminal.
My crime is worse than you think.
At this point Verell finds out that D'Argo and the rest of the crew are escaped prisoners, but assures D'Argo that unless his crime was treason, he does not care. Verrell also reveals to D'Argo that the Illanics have been at war with their hated enemy the Scorvians for an extended period of time, and have been aided by the Luxans in their fight, and issue that is clearly of great concern to D'Argo. Verell tells a clearly choked up D'Argo that getting him to the rendezvous point will aid the war effort. In a brief scene, Aeryn is confronted by Matala when she is searching through the Illanic shuttle, ostensibly attempting to repair its damage. Matala expresses concern that Aeryn might damage the data she and Verell had collected, and almost comes to blows with Aeryn before D'Argo intervenes, siding with Matala. Once again, D'Argo's authoritarian streak surfaces and he essentially orders Aeryn off the Illanic shuttle, and once again, Aeryn accedes to his wishes.

Aeryn's suspicions aren't allayed though, and she raises them to Zhaan and Crichton, but during the conversation John is distracted by increasingly violently erotic visions of himself with Matala. This leads to the first example we have of mentally unbalanced Crichton, a sight that will become more and more familiar as the show progresses. To this point in the series, Crichton has been dealing with strange experiences, but nothing that has gotten inside of his head, and we start to see the beginnings of the cracking of the cocky, wise-cracking smart aleck that we've seen before. After a couple visions, Crichton excuses himself to "get some air", prompting Aeryn to complain "We have air in here. What is the matter with him?". To which Zhaan replies simply, "He is Crichton", as it seems she is beginning to accept what is, for her, his strangeness. Interestingly, later in the episode, when Matala begins asking questions about Crichton, Zhaan tells her he is too complex for Matala to understand in the short period she will be on Moya. It seems that Zhaan has developed an understanding of, and appreciation for, the wayward astronaut.

Sex? Maybe. Assault? Probably.
Disturbed by the increasingly violent visions he has been having of Matala, Crichton consults with D'Argo to find out if Illanic women have some sort of special affect on males. This encounter goes badly, as D'Argo denies any such abilities, and comes to the conclusion that Crichton is lusting after her. Once again, D'Argo jumps straight to ordering others about, this time commanding Crichton to remove Matala from his thoughts. Following this, the mystery of the episode begins to be solved, as Crichton is approached by Aeryn who asks him if D'Argo is still behaving like Matala's personal servant. Twice. Crichton, it seems, is seeing the future, and the future isn't looking very good because when he sees the future, Crichton sees Verell dead and Matala killing both him and D'Argo.

Crichton consults with his closest friend on Moya, Zhaan, who also has the most sympathetic ear. And then things really get underway as Crichton experiences repeated replays of the critical events surrounding Verell's impending death and Matala's apparent betrayal of Moya's crew. The sequences become increasingly disturbing, as Cricthton gets killed a couple times, and Moya is completely destroyed once. While the earlier sequences gave us a glimpse of slightly insane Crichton, as he becomes increasingly distraught we get full bore mentally screwed up Crichton, who says that it is about time he started losing his mind. And this is one more reason why shifting the order the episodes were aired in was stupid. If this episode is viewed third in the series (as it originally was aired), then Crichton's statement makes less sense, as he's only been away from home for a short period of time. But airing it a few episodes later, we can feel Crichton's growing loneliness and isolation creeping up on him as he deals with being away from everyone and everything he has ever known.

Crichton is having a glowing green bad day.
Again and again and again.
But the silver lining of the time shifting is that each time, Crichton ricochets back in time to his discussion with Zhaan he returns with a bit more information, and also drops and breaks a blue mask that she has in her quarters. Eventually, after several failed attempts, Crichton returns with the information that lets him transform D'Argo's loyalties from being aligned with Matala back to the crew. Each time he returns, they try another plan, and Crichton gets increasingly agitated as the plans just end up making the situation end more and more badly. Finally, Crichton takes the initiative for himself, deliberately crushes Zhaan's mask in a symbolic statment that he is taking control of the future, and sets about changing what he thinks is the key element: D'Argo's loyalties. It seems that D'Argo is hiding a secret - the true nature of the crime for which he was imprisoned - and Crichton uses this knowledge to convince D'Argo that he is telling the truth, and earns D'Argo's trust by revealing that he knows about D'Argo's deception in private. This moment, when he waves off both Zhaan and Aeryn, and confronts D'Argo head on, is the beginning of Crichton's emergence as at the very least a coequal among the crew (as opposed to a humored pet). This is also interesting because D'Argo has told the other members of Moya's crew that he was actually imprisoned for killing his commanding officer. And D'Argo has not told them his true crime because he considers it to be worse than that. One has to wonder at this point just how heinous D'Argo's true crime will turn out to be.

I will fight you with my stiff armed ballet steps!
I have to note that one particularly silly scene in the episode is a somewhat ludicrous sequence as two women, Claudia Black and Lisa Hensley, with limited martial arts training try to make a sparring session look real. For story reasons, both women are supposed to be trained combat veterans, but neither of the actresses really appear to know what they are doing, making for an unintentionally hilarious scene. At one point while "fighting" with Aeryn, Matala begins doing ballet dance steps. The director tries to minimize the silliness by using some tight camera angles, but the whole scene just looks goofy. In the end, Matala uses her special (and important to the plot) "nerve strike" to knock Aeryn out, revealing to Aeryn that she is not an Illanic, but one of the hated Scorvians. This seems like a fairly stupid thing to do on Matala's part, because if this particular combat technique is, as Aeryn later asserts, so uniquely Scorvian that anyone who sees it will become immediately aware of Matala's deception, that means that even without the time shifting, which she could not have been expected to predict would happen, Matala gave herself away just to win a petty and meaningless bit of exercise, making her a terrible undercover agent.

The time shifting is explained when, in one of his jumps forward, Crichton confronts Verell who admits that he was not merely taking deep space measurements, that he had captured a piece of a quantum singularity, or as it is more commonly called, a black hole, which Verell describes as "the ultimate weapon". I don't think the actual physics of a black hole work quite like the writers think they do since a "tiny piece" of a black hole would have only a "tiny amount" of gravity. If its mass was large enough to cause time dilation and crush and entire ship, then it would be too heavy for a shuttle to move it (or for Moya to move it for that matter). But Farscape is space opera, so some suspension of the expected laws of physics is probably in order. This does presage, just a little bit, the developments in the plot arc that comes to dominate the series in later seasons as Crichton actually does figure in the pursuit of technology that everyone acknowledges truly is "the ultimate weapon".

But the core of the episode is not the time shifting, as much fun as that makes the story. It is about loyalty and trust. D'Argo immediately places his trust in Matala, assuming that because he identifies her as an Illanic, that she has a claim on his loyalty that supersedes that he might have to the other crew members of Moya. In one of the future sequences he even sides with Matala and kills Crichton himself. Though he mostly does not appear in the episode, Rygel's primary contribution to the story is to demonstrate how little he trusts D'Argo by greedily eating his share of the food to prevent the possibility of D'Argo offering any of it to the Illanic passengers. In the end, Crichton begins to win over D'Argo by revealing that he knows D'Argo's secret, but keeping it from the rest of the crew. And D'Argo begins to come around to understanding Crichton, after Crichton reassures him that he isn't mocking D'Argo, but rather mocking everyone on Moya. Then he begins to build a rapport with Crichton, sharing with him the fact that he isn't usually so easily affected by a woman, but it has been so very long for him, a point that Crichton agrees with. This is a touching "guy camaraderie: moment, but it does have a little oddness. First, while D'Argo has been "away" for eight cycles (which in Farscape terms seems to translate to eight years), Crichton has only been on Moya for a couple of months at most. Second, one might notice that there are two women on Moya - namely Aeryn and Zhaan. Even if D'Argo regards Aeryn merely as a soldier, she is still female, and theoretically should affect him the same way Matala did (a point that will be especially salient once more of D'Argo's background comes to light). Zhaan, being the overtly sexual priestess that she is definitely should. Even if Crichton is unaware of the rampant interspecies sex that goes on in the Farscape universe, D'Argo should be.

This is not an Illanic ship.
Digressing a bit - in another odd consistency error, when the false Illanic ship is approaching, D'Argo informs Aeryn that Scorvians look nothing like Illanics, and that if they do not establish visual contact, then they will know the ship is Scorvian. But Aeryn established earlier that she can identify a Scorvian in disguise just by the way she fights. Wouldn't she know that a Scorvian looks nothing like an Illanic, making D'Argo's fact dumping somewhat redundant? Yes, I know, it is an info-dump for the viewer's benefit, but it is fairly clumsy nonetheless. During the ensuing pursuit, we also see Moya starburst for only the second time in the series.

As is typical for a Farscape episode, the best the crew can hope for turns out to be mere survival, and for the Illanics, if Verell's claim that the very future of his race rides on the successful completion of his mission, maybe not even that. Even the best outcome Moya's crew are able to come up with still results in Verell dead and the weapon lost to the Illanics (although not in the hands of the Scorvians either). I have to wonder though, if the very future of his race did actually ride on the successful completion of his mission, why was Verell out in the middle of nowhere with a single companion along for the ride? One interesting unresolved question is the outcome of the Illanic-Scorvian war and the impact on the Luxans, which as far as I know is never followed up on. It would have been nice if this had been referenced back to as part of the larger Scarran-Peacekeeper conflict, but that may be asking for too much consistency. In the end, the crew survives, slightly worse off then they were before, but we begin to see the first signs that they may begin to be coalescing as a crew not merely because they are forced to work together, but because they might be beginning to trust one another.

Previous episode reviewed: Throne for a Loss
Subsequent episode reviewed: Thank God It's Friday, Again

Previous episode reviewed (airdate order): Exodus from Genesis
Subsequent episode reviewed (airdate order): Throne for a Loss

Farscape, Season 1     Farscape     Television Reviews     Home

Follow Friday - Number Nine

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 - Ashley of Bookaholic Does Blogging.
  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!
And now for the Follow Friday question of the week: Just like Ashley said (love it) "Ashley the girl . . ."; who are You the Boy/Girl, instead of You the Blogger?

I am Aaron the boy (which seems wrong for a 40+ year old to say). I have two children (a boy and a girl). I had one dog and two cats, but they stayed with my ex-wife when we split up. I am a lawyer and work for the Federal government, the General Services Administration specifically. I specialize in two fields of law most people haven't heard about - Federal fiscal and appropriations law (basically, the law concerning how the federal government spends money), and transportation audits law (which is so obscure I am one of only two lawyers in the entire Federal government who deals with it). I  am a 9th Gup in Chang Moo Kwan Tae Kwon Do working towards getting my 1st Dan, and also a part time student working towards getting a graduate degree in Economics, which means that between studying, reading books to blog about, watching stuff to blog about, and actually blogging, I don't have much free time.

Go to previous Follow Friday: Aces Over Eights
Go to subsequent Follow Friday: Decimeters

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