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Thursday
Dec192013

Nora's Song by Cecelia Holland (Dangerous Women Anthology)

Some people say that it is easier to write reviews of things you don’t care for. Perhaps that is true if it’s something that is clearly bad, but when I read a story that falls flat I tend to assume it was mostly my fault as a reader. I was distracted or missed some key point. Perhaps the symbolism went over my head. In the case of Nora’s Song by Cecelia Holland I am almost certain that I missed a lot of what was happening . Part of this I because I’m not all that versed on this part of European history. That said I didn’t really care for this story.

The biggest problem is that I shouldn’t need to know who these character are or what happened in order to enjoy this story.  This is a fault I have found in other historical fiction I have read, but it’s not entirely unreasonable to assume that people who are reading historical fiction are in general interested in history and looking up a few things about the character in the story was interesting and if you were in a history class or reading books about this time it could certainly give you a better feeling of what it might actually be like to be there rather than just dates and battles.

The other questionable point for me was the choice of viewpoint character.  I see the value in having it be a girl who cares for both her father and mother, but she doesn’t really seem central to the story that is going on. She is more interested in the friend she just made than any of the bigger context. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but in a short story I am generally interested in getting to the point which this story didn’t really seem to do.

I kept waiting for this story to get to the point and in the end it seemed to be implied what was happening rather than actually telling me because the character didn’t really know. More importantly it never really made me care what was happening to any of the characters. 

Tuesday
Dec172013

A Few Scene Notes on The Desolation of Smaug

I watched The Desolation of Smaug today and overall I really enjoyed it, but rather than a review I decided to give a few quite notes on how to improve a one of the scenes, just in case there is still room in the extended version.

For the first improvement I’ll try to pain a picture. Imagine the barrel scene, a massive CG carnival ride, and about halfway through it moves from a marginally absurd action scene to completely absurd.  At this point Bomber’s barrel bounces out of the water and begins to Ping-Pong between orcs like a pinball machine. So far we’re still in the way the movie actually went. At the end he sticks his arms and legs out of the barrel, and we cut away to the shire.

At this point you see elderly Bilbo telling the story to Frodo, who say’s something like, “There’s no way that happened. It makes no sense,” and Bilbo answers that he couldn’t see very well because he was in the water so he’s filling in the details from his imagination.

This may seem a bit jarring, but really no more so than having the movie turn into a cartoon in the middle for no real reason and this gives him a lot more room to have the comic relief and largely absurd moments. After all whether we’re to believe this really happened or not the book was meant to be written by Bilbo so we can assume he may exaggerate a bit to make things more interesting.

Other than that the only thing I might suggest if I were to be given the chance would be to trim a few minutes here and there. As someone who actually really enjoyed the beginning of An unexpected Journey and was never bored there were a few moments in this movie where things which should have been far more exciting simply went on too long. Most notably to me the scenes with Smaug. He looked great and most of the scenes were good, but there were a few too many scenes of feet hitting the ground and fire just barely missing them to the point where it started to lose its impact.

Mostly though it just needs to address the lack of physics in large parts of the movie so that I can stop asking how all the dwarfs didn’t die in situations that should have killed anyone except a cartoon character.

Monday
Dec162013

My Heart is Either Broken, by Megan Abbott (From Dangerous Women)

There are only a handful of stories I have ever read which I dislike because of how well written they are. But “My Heart is Either Broken” by Megan Abbott is one of them. I will reiterate before going on that this was a very well written story which did exactly what it set out to do and I read it in a single sitting. Even beyond that if I see anything written by Megan Abbott which doesn’t appear to be written to depress me I’ll gladly give her writing another chance because I was very drawn in. But I read to relax and recharge and this did the opposite.

The story is actually a reasonably simple one. Told from the point of view of a man who’s child disappeared while his wife was watching him. The story begins several weeks after the girl has gone missing and the suspicions have began to fall on his wife who isn’t acting how people want her to be acting.

Her husband sees the truth, that she is miserable and hiding those emotions but the press simply sees a woman who is acting as if she isn’t all that upset.  From there the natural heartbreaks occur. After the police and other people continue to try to poke holes in his wife’s story he begins to question it himself.

The specifics are important more to the tone of the story than the story itself and the tone is nearly perfect if you want to get inside the head of someone who has lost a child and is beginning to lose his wife as well. The problem is that I have very little desire to spend any time inside that person’s head.

All that said, I wouldn’t actually recommend people not read this story. In fact if you’re one of the people who is interested in every detail of the lives of people who have lost a child or any loved one and tried to decide if they are guilty from news footage you should read this because it points out better than I possibly could that everyone reacts to things differently and just because it’s strange to you doesn’t mean they are wrong or not hurting. On the other hand if you already spend too much time worrying about your kids or simply don’t want to be depressed then you can probably safely avoid “My Heart is Either Broken” because it is harder to read than most horror stories. 

Tuesday
Dec102013

Review: Some Desperado from Joe Abercrombie (From Dangerous Women)

I don’t read westerns. I have nothing against them, but I’ve never really cared, and beyond that I’ve never read anything by Joe Abercrombie, so when I picked up Some Desperado it was at a considerable disadvantage. One which was increased because it was in the anthology Dangerous Women which includes several fantasy stories making me look for the fantasy twist and in the end it simply wasn’t able to overcome those disadvantages to really engage me.

The first major issue I had with the story was the language. From the first page it uses a western style language and while it uses it well it tended to distract me. In a novel, or if I read this type of story, that would likely disappear, but in Some Desperado it distracted me and kept the story from really flowing.

Beyond that I never felt a real connection to any of the characters. I have a strong suspicion this is a prequel to a story I haven’t read and those who have will almost certainly get more out of it. But I never really understood the motivation which got Sky to commit the crime or steal from those she had committed it with. So all we have is someone trying to survive who isn’t even all that likable and seems guilty of the crime she is being hunted for. So while she is a realistic woman and well written she didn’t make me want her to win.

On an objective level I simply did not like this story and cannot recommend it. By itself it doesn’t really tell a particularly compelling or complete story and while there are a few interesting moments they never really grabbed me. This may be different if you’re a fan of Joe Abercrombie or know more of the story this is based on, but by itself it fell flat and didn’t convince me that I should seek out more of his work.

Tuesday
Oct222013

Is Castle Now a Science Fiction Series?

Castle is one of my favorite shows currently on the air, but it rarely fits onto a science fiction blog as it is a reasonably traditional detective show, albeit with a well known science fiction actor as the titular character. This week in, Time will Tell, it goes into great science fiction territory with two guest stars from science fiction shows that I have enjoyed and a plot that can easily be watched as science fiction.

The show begins as it normally does with Castle and Becket being called to a crime scene. The scene itself is a bit odd, but nothing beyond what you would expect to see on the show. The woman who was killed has been tortured and her throat slit. What is a bit odd is that there seems to be very little connection between the murderer and the woman.

Even stranger is that when the bring the main suspect in he claims to be a time traveler from the future. He is also Morgan Grimes (Joshua Gomez) from Chuck. They quickly discover that he could not have killed the woman because he was on a psychiatric hold while the crime was being committed. Then a few minutes later he disappears from the cells.

Continuing the case they discover that the man was actually looking for the victims brother, a theoretical physicist played by Tuvoc (Tim Russ). Who is also killed shortly after but the murderer seems to be looking for someone else.

Eventually they discover who he was looking for and Morgan claims that he is the inventor of an energy shield that helps with the energy wars. Of course everyone still believes that he is insane, but it’s clearly becoming a bit harder to ignore him. And they agree that they have to save the man’s life either way.

In the end the show leaves the question of whether Morgan the time traveler is insane or actually telling the truth largely open, but it drops a couple of fun clues at the end suggesting that it really could have happened.

The real point of this show isn’t the time travel of course. It’s them catching a murderer, but unlike so many shows this one knows how to have fun as well as tell a good story. It lets Nathan Fillion have fun throwing out absurd possibilities simply because they entertain him and suggests the absurd might even be true. This is also a great stand alone episode that any science fiction fan, who doesn’t hate a bit of detective work too much, could sit down and enjoy by itself.

This type of episode, along with the many Firefly nods is a large part of the reason that I watch Castle every week and while I fully understand there are plenty of people who simply don’t care for its genre of TV if you’ve ever considered watching Castle Time will Tell, which is the 5th episode of the 6th season is a fun epsode to try out.

Saturday
Jul062013

Superman: Man of Steel and Superman Vs. The Elite

I generally liked Man of Steel, though I saw some of its flaws and question a few decisions that may or may not have been flaws. That said, there has been a lot of discussion about a point at the end. That is Superman’s decision to (SPOILERS) kill Zod. And while it was interesting in the movie itself I found it even more so after watching the DC animated movie Superman vs. The Elite yesterday. This is a  movie which in many ways attacks the most basic parts of Man of Steel, and so I wanted to look at how the two different movies handle Superman. After all the subtitle of Superman vs. the Elite was world saved, humanity lost, which could have been the title for Man of Steel as well.

This will have spoilers for both Man of Steel and Superman vs the Elite and both are certainly worth watching. If you’re interested in Superman vs the Elite you can watch it instantly on Netflix. For those of you who can’t do it the basic premise of this is that there is a new team of heroes who appear. They are trying to help people, but part of the way that they are doing that is killing people. Superman’s response to this is that because they have power it is even more important that they do not stand above the law. They can’t be judge, jury and executioner simply because it would be easier because that undermines what they are trying to do.

To underscore this point Superman is fighting the atomic skull. A character I haven’t seen before, but who among other things turns people into dust. He does this almost immediately at the beginning of the movie and Superman comes in, stops him, catches him and turns him over to the police. And late in the movie, as so often happens in the comics, he escapes and kills more people. Leading to the obvious question of whether Superman should have killed him the first time and saved those lives.

And that is the basic conflict of the entire movie. The Elite are willing to kill people and even overthrow governments based on what they think is right and they ignore the rule of law in doing so. Yet the people love them because they are killing and breaking the law to protect them. They are the heroes that are so often seen in modern comics, dark, flawed, brooding with dark back stories, strange powers and all the other things that are inserted to add internal conflict. But in the end they aren’t really heroes. They just happen to be fighting on the right side.

Of course eventually the Elite decided to attack Superman because you need a major battle in a comic book movie, and the fight is reasonably good. But to me in many ways this is a fight between the Superman that has existed and the Superman of the Man of Steel. Neither is necessarily wrong and they are both heroes, but the question remains whether Superman can really be the symbol of hope and a driving force to improve humanity after he has killed someone, even if he did it for the right reasons.  After all there are things that change a person, over even a superhuman, even if they had good reasons to do it. Just ask anyone who has ever fought in a war. That is because it should hurt to kill, it should hurt to watch people suffer and it’s going to hurt a lot more for a person like Superman who has a lot of empathy and is a good person than it would for the average criminal or psychopath who don’t care about other people, and he was certainly more connected to Zod than the average soldier is to the enemy soldiers they have to kill.

So, if you’re newly interested in Superman thanks to Man of Steel, or simply want to continue to explore the concept of the morality of being a hero then you should watch Superman vs. the Elite.

Thursday
May162013

Star Trek: Deep Space 9: Avatar Part 1 and 2 (books)

Deep Space 9 is my favorite Star Trek series, and yet while I do occasionally read a Star Trek book I had never read any of the Deep Space 9 books. This is because the series actually had an ending which ended things, but while it might be a bit hard to imagine there are books written about Deep Space 9 after the series ended. They do this by keeping the characters who were on the station and adding a few more in then moving on. And that it works is a remarkable example of how much depth the show had because most of the main characters left.

The books that start the new era of Deep Space 9 are Avatar part 1 and 2. And since they take place after the Deep Space 9 series finale there are spoilers just in explaining the basics of what is happening. That said, the returning character you would know from the show are Kira, Dr. Bashir, Dax (not the good one), Nog, Quark and Kasidy Yates, Jake Sisko and Morn(because when Morn goes home it’s all over).  You may also recognize the name Ro Laren who has taken over as security chief. On top of this they add a new first officer and a Jem’Hadar who was sent by Odo to learn about other cultures.

Even though many of your favorite characters aren’t here everyone does begin to take on new roles (except Bashir who is still a doctor). Kira is in command, Nog is chief engineer, Ezri is considering going in to command, Kasidy is giving birth to a religious icon, Jake is following bajorin prophecies and Quark is, well Quark is the same, but he has some new things to do which at the least are interesting.

Avatar as a book had a lot to accomplish before it got to the story at all and it suffered a bit for that. The difficulty was that the characters who were left didn’t have a lot to do. The major threats had been dealt with and half of them weren’t really main characters. It also had to explain why Ro was on the station, who the new first officer and other crew members were.  It also includes the Enterprise crew and while they didn’t have a lot to do you couldn’t really ignore Ro’s connection and betrayal of Picard.  Overall though it felt as if it dealt with this reasonably well.

On the other hand the story felt a bit like one you might find in a pilot. Not bad, but also not great. There was one good surprise that showed a lot of thought on the part of someone in which they let you assume something about a new character and subverted that.  But beyond that most everything was setting up characters and trying to understand them a bit better without as much focus as one might like.

I have often said that I’d rather watch bad Star Trek than most stuff on TV and this isn’t bad. It’s just not great either. Still, it does capture the feeling of Deep Space 9 and lets you check in on what has happened after the war.  So, if you loved Deep Space 9 and aren’t quite ready to let it go this is a reasonable substitute with plenty of Quark humor and hints at bigger stories that are coming. Still, it feels more like a pilot for a spin off show than actually being Deep Space 9.

Friday
May102013

Iron Man 3: On The Mandarin

There are more than enough reviews of Iron Man 3 out there already so I won’t be  giving one beyond saying that I enjoyed the movie, but certainly didn’t see it as flawless. What I do want to comment on is an issue that this movie spotlights well. That is the question of how faithful an adaption of a comic book should be. Specifically, do you owe it to comic book fans to keep the characters and stories they like faithful to the comic books or is it acceptable to change things.

For those who have watched the movie you already know what I’m going to discuss, for those of you who haven’t there will be spoilers and you should continue at your own risk.

I am of course talking about the Mandarin. A character who had his name in the show, but that was about it. Now I fully admit that I don’t have all of that strong a connection to Iron Man or his enemies. I’ve read some of the classics and a few random books, but mostly I’ve seen him in other people’s books, so perhaps if it was a character that I loved I would feel a bit differently, but I enjoyed what they did with the Mandarin.

Primarily I like it because it surprised me. I recognized early on that there was something more going on as they went out of their way to say that Mandarin meant advisor to the king, which implied that there was a king, and I even suspected who that was likely to be. There simply weren’t all that many options.  My suspicions aren’t the point though. The point is that the Mandarin wasn’t really all that much of a villain. He certainly didn’t have ten magic rings. He was simply an actor on some type of drugs being used by someone else. This was reasonably funny, but I can understand why people who were looking forward to the Mandarin might be upset by this, but beyond that the question is whether there is anything wrong with it.

To begin with it’s worth considering how many people even knew who the Mandarin was enough to really care. Assuming that ten percent of the audience are comic book fans (which is a stretch) and that a quarter of them are fans of the Iron Man books. That would mean that 2.5% of the audience really cares at all about the character, and some of them aren’t going to really care that it was changed.  Of course this is the 2% who were most excited about the movie and drug their friends to it, but they are still a small number and financially upsetting them simply isn’t going to matter all that much.

There is another reason that I think people tend to overlook though. There is a reason that the Mandarin is a popular villain. Something about the character worked.  By changing it you’re saying that the writer of this movie knew better than the dozens of writers who have refined that character over the years, but you’re also admitting that this is a movie, and not a comic book, and just like some costumes simply won’t work on screen some characters are going to need to be adjusted as well and honestly the Mandarin was probably one of them.  And while he certainly didn’t need to be moved as far away from the character as he was I can understand the worry they may have had, especially if they wanted to get the movie released in China.

I didn’t love the way they did this, and I can understand the frustration, but in many ways having the Mandarin be nothing was better than at least one possible alternative. They could have had him actually be the Mandarin but gut most of what he was. The reason this would be worse is because as it is they can still use the Mandarin character in another movie. The name might have to be changed but they didn’t destroy their options.Not in Iron Man 3

Compare this to the villains in the later batman movies. The Penguin character couldn’t have been used afterwards, but you also never really got the comic book character and the same is largely true for Mr. Freeze, The Riddler and most of the others. But they aren’t the only ones to do it. Far better comic book movies have taken interesting villains and gutted them. The xmen movies are filled with interesting villains turned into sidekicks or extremely poor jokes. (Not that the toad is actually all that interesting, but the joke is certainly bad, and The Juggernaut could have been far better).

Beyond all of this all that really matters is whether a story is well told. People have gotten so interested in plot holes and comparing different types of storytelling that they seem to have forgotten that the real point of the story is to have fun.  It really doesn’t matter how people are talking to each other during Avenger’s movie because it was fun to watch and while the nods to comics are fun I actually want stories I haven’t already read already.

In conclusion, if you hated the Mandarin in this story try to think of it this way. There really is a character out there called the Mandarin, but no one has seen him, so it was easy to hire an actor to pretend to be him.  So this was really just a setup for having the real character in the next movie. Moreover try to relax a bit and remind yourself that the comic book character is still safe and sound in his books and you can read about him anytime you want. At least until the comic book writers decide to adapt that part of the movie into the comics.

Wednesday
May012013

TV Show Review: Revolution

I wasn’t completely convinced when Revolution came on the air. I’m not a huge fan of the post apocalyptic vision of the future. But I want more science fiction on TV so I gave revolution a chance and it has grown on me over the season and after the last episode I felt the urge to write down why I enjoy it.

The first and most basic is that Revolution has done a good job with making the characters more interesting as you learn more about them. It does this in part by assuming that people have more than one part to their personality. Few of these characters have a single defining moment, though of course everyone on the world does have at least one defining moment in common.

That is the second part I have grown to like more. Like many people when I first heard the premise of the show I was a bit skeptical. All the electricity in the world just stops working sounds a bit more like magic than science fiction. And while I didn’t go to the, but our bodies run on electricity, that many did, understanding there are significant differences between the electrical impulses in my body and that of a computer, it still seemed implausible. But as they have revealed what actually happened it has become more reasonable. I have no idea how much of that was planned from the start, but it’s good to see some interesting ideas in my science fiction.

And that leads to the third part of what I have been enjoying about Revolution. In the last weeks it has began to expand the world building. You have learned more of what is going on which helps, but you also get to meet some of the other political players which very different governments. The Monroe Republic isn’t the most powerful or important people around. Georgia is, for example, considerably wealthier and more advanced since they were, it seems, more suited to the way things work now. A warmer climate with better farming makes you far wealthier in a world that has returned to the preindustrial age.

Overall I’m not ready to say that Revolution is a great show, but there is decent action, interesting characters and a plot that seems to actually be moving. I just hope that they don’t decide they need to keep the show in the exact same situation for 7 seasons. I’d find it far more interesting if they solved the electricity problem, because that would lead to plenty of interesting situations as people rebuilt society and dealt with the cause of the fifteen year long blackout.

 

Monday
Apr292013

Video Game: The Binding of  Isaac

Independent video games can be a bit hit or miss, but in large part this happens because they can take risks it theme and game play in a way that a game that takes years and costs millions to make cant. The Binding of Isaac mixes some of the things that I love about independent games with some of the things that I like less about them, but all in all it is an interesting game that is worth your time.

I typically start with what I like, but because the things I like are mostly unimportant I will start with that. The tone of this game is something that I had to get over. It is a mixture of gross out humor and ideas that feel as if they were designed to upset people in order to get attention.  I mention this in part to say that it is worth getting past, because after a couple of games the way the enemies look and the general aesthetic of the game become less important. Still, if you can’t get past jokes about child abuse and enemies like cysts and guts then this game is probably not for you no matter how good anything else is.

And that’s get to heart of the game which is the game play and why I recommend the game. It uses a fighting mechanic and level design similar to the first Zelda game in which every room can have up to four doors and a dungeon is filled with secret rooms, enemies, bosses and items.  But unlike Zelda the maps in this game are random so that every time you start a new game it is a different experience than the last.

It is also a difficult game, especially at the beginning. If you don’t know the secrets of this game you’re going to lose and, most of the time, lose badly. On the other hand with the right combination of items you can become almost invincible.  The simplest of these are the items that you can use to heal yourself along with items that recharge items every time you take damage. Other items can change the way you attack, give you more health or create useful items such as bombs or keys. 

Perhaps the most interesting part of the game are the enemies. They cover the range from very easy to very difficult, but often those that seem easy can become far more difficult in difficult rooms. For example enemies that shoot in a straight line are generally easy to kill in large open rooms, but get into a room with narrow paths and they can be almost impossible to kill without taking damage. And past the simple room enemies are bosses.

There is a boss enemy at the end of each floor. Most of these are random and include things like giant spiders, giant worms and the horsemen of the apocalypse.  As you fight these enemies you learn how to fight them and each time get a bit further into the game until finally you confront your mother. And each time you play you can unlock more items and characters making this an almost infinitely repayable game.

If you like roguelike game or classic video games then there is a lot to like about The Binding of Isaac game play and I am sure a lot of people like the design and humor of the game. Either way, it is inexpensive and a different experience than you are going to get from any mainstream game making it worthwhile for anyone who wants to try out more independent video games.

Not convinced, Check out Northernlion's Lets play. There is a bit of cursing in this video, but not too much.