Monday, December 14, 2009

The Lost Fleet: Dauntless by Jack Campbell

One of the things about military-SF is that sometimes the books are more concerned about the toys than trying to create a setting that undeniably feels military in nature. That's why it is so gratifying when my friend handed me Jack Campbell's book, and it turned out to have that "feel" in spades.

Campbell (a pseudonym for SF writer John G Hemry) creates a universe that is "light" on the toys (he gives very basic descriptions of the ship's weapon systems), but heavy on the military aspect, dialogue and especially on the SF of what ship-to-ship combat might look like in a Newtonian/Einsteinian universe.

The story is clever -- although not necessarily original -- in its exploration of themes. And there are a few. The main character, John Geary, is the survivor of a battle nearly a hundred years ago that launched the war between the human populated Syndicate and Alliance worlds. Recovered from his escape pod -- in which he had been in hibernation -- Geary is suddenly thrown into a setting that is both familiar and very alien to him. But, in true Arthurian form, the fleet that recovers him are going into (what they hope) is a decisive battle against the Syndics, only to face defeat and Geary assuming responsibility as the most senior captain (after the commanding admiral is gunned down in cold blood). Through Geary we learn the pressures of military command, and the need for military discipline, no matter how silly it might look to a civilian.

On the other hand, we are introduced to Co-President Rione, whose role is not only to act as a foil against Geary, but also to explore the disconnect between military and civilian spheres that often happens. This is particularly notable when Geary decides to fight a battle against an inferior Syndic force, highlighting the necessity of discipline, but also the divide between rational decisions as they are seen by the military and civilian apparatus.

Along the way we are treated to a lot of battle descriptions, and the uniqueness of fighting a battle based on Newtonian physics, touched on by Einsteinian relativity effects.

One of the really gratifying elements is, as I mentioned, the military "feel" of the setting. For people that might never have served in the military, this aspect might not be as apparent, but for those that have, I thought it was an excellent detail. Of course, this is no mistake, since Hemry is retired US Navy. But the way he crafts dialogue is the most convincing aspect; he crafts it in such a way that it is soldiers talking to soldiers, rather than what a civilian might think it would be. Although this is a small detail, for me it goes a long way in reinforcing the immersiveness of the setting.

Overall this was a very good book, and rather enjoyable. I'm very much looking forward to reading the rest of the series.

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

Star Trek: New Frontier by Peter David

This will be a brief one today.

I picked up Star Trek: New Frontier a little while ago, and read through it the last couple of nights. It's short -- very short! Coming in at only 168pgs for the main story (and a sample chapter at the back from Vulcan's Forge), it is as brief as can be.

Also, in a way, it encapsulates what I think was going wrong with Star Trek in the latter years.

The point of the story, however, is to setup characters for the launch of the "New Frontier" line, the concept of which holds a lot of promise for me. One of the biggest excuses for the reboot and reimagining (because that is what it really is) of Star Trek is that the canon became unwieldy and a hindrance to the franchise. I disagree with this assessment, mainly because there are two types of canon within a long-running franchise that sprawls across multiple series: global canon and local canon.

Global Canon is canon of the entire franchise. It encompasses the major dates, events, setting assumptions and the like any entry into the franchise should conform to. It is much less interested in what Commander Riker was doing on a specific date, or the career details of Dr McKoy. It is much more concerned with when warp drive was developed, or when the Earth-Romulan war occured, and so on.

Local canon, on the other hand, is canon as it pertains to the specific series. This sort of canon would be concerned with the personal details and chronology of the individual characters, and events within that particular series.

I think part of the problem with Trek, and the reason why it collapsed under its own weight (and thus creating the illusion that the setting needed to be wiped clean and "re-imagined" in order to go forward) was a problem of writing, and a lack of concern about the different types of canon.

This book suffers for some of the same reasons.

The story introduces us to M'k'n'zy of Calhoun, a rebel leader at a very young age, and his struggle to survive. It continues to introduce a handful of other characters, establishing their backgrounds, but really not doing anything with them. In that sense this feels like "episode 1" to a two parter. I think that was the intention of the writer and line developers, but in a book format I don't think it worked well. This book could have easily been 400pgs and have something actually happen in it.

As the book progresses we learn that M'k'n'zy has joined starfleet and was a protege of Jean-luc Picard's, linking it very closely to the Next Generation series. We discover that the main character now goes by Mackenzie Calhoun (wee!) who has been tapped to command a starship sent into the middle of a political crisis.

Despite the almost fanfic development of Mackenzie (this concept really needed some more editorial oversite, in my mind), the fact that the main driver of the story (at this point) is the collapse of yet another Star Empire, and a political mission (rather than "Boldly going where no man has gone before!" an element Star Trek lost over the years and the reboot showing absolutely no danger of recovering) falls into the old trope of the franchise's latter years. The book was published in 1997, two years after the launch of Star Trek: Voyager. At the time, this is what Star Trek had become, so perhaps we can forgive the idea of the book. But nonetheless, it doesn't inspire either.

I am nonetheless still interested in a series that has its own internal canon, but does not find it neccessary to completely reimagine the setting completely. On its own merits, David's book was fairly uninteresting, but then when considering it is (at best) and introduction to the series, I may go on to the next book to see how it develops.

Sunday, December 6, 2009

Lord of Night by Simon Spurrier

Every once in a while you get just a bit of validation for plowing through the genre section at the local bookstore. While reading genre fiction to me is a lot like watching TV, every once in a while you find a diamond in the rough.

Simon Spurrier's book is that for me.

In the 40K universe, where everything is grim and dark, Zso Sahaal of the Night Lords Traitor Space Marine legion crashlands and has something very important and very dear stolen from him. And thus he goes on his quest to recover the object.

Equally, Mita Ashyn is a psyker in the employ of the ruthless Inquisition, there on the same planet to root out possible alien influences. Despite her competency, she is belittled for her skills by her inqusitor and marginalized by the group.

What follows is a story in which, by the end you won't be sure who the real bad guys are. And that's the best thing about it.

Along the way we learn revelations about the character and motives of the Night Haunter, Konrad Curze, why he selected Zso as his successor, and the fate of the Night Lords Legion in the 10,000 year interim between the assassination of the Night Haunter and the release of Zso from his imprisonment.

One brief comment about the story: I think there's a bit of an anti-religion philosophy in the background of the book. Mita for example, had dedicated her life to the Emperor, trusting in his love for her salvation, and thanking him for the psychic gifts she has. By the end of the book she rejects the Emperor and realizes her psychic powers were hers and hers alone all along. If this isn't a nice stab for humanism, I'm not sure what is...

Overall this ranks as one of the best 40K books I've read yet, and for anyone that is "40K curious" I strongly reccommend it.

Friday, November 20, 2009

Klingon Propoganda

One of the fun things about the internet is the viral nature it can sometimes take. Like a virus, news or information is passed person to person in the same sort of way a virus propagates, but this time virtually.

Sometimes, this phenomenon is used by producers to market. Sometimes it's done by fans for fun. One such incident is a Klingon propoganda video. Looking like an old style Soviet propoganda movie, it is completely in Klingon (there are a few translations on the web; I won't post them because I think it's fun to see the clip in its original Klingon!). What is the purpose? Is there some sort of new Trek coming out? Only time will tell:


And there is even a website!

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Clash of the Titans Trailer

I found this trailer for Clash of the Titans on-line. Enjoy!

Star Trek

Long time readers may recall my series "Tyranny of a Construct." Of course the event that triggered these ruminations was the new Star Trek movie. Well, I finally watched it last night after my father purchased it (on Blu-ray!), so here's my reaction.

The first thing that jumped out at me was the ship sets for the Kelvin. I'm not sure if maybe they just ran out of budget or something, but the ship scenes look like they were taken in an old industrial complex. Not only did it lack interest, but at no point did it really feel like I was in the "future" on a starship. Instead I felt like I was in an old industrial complex, complete with cement walls.

The second thing that jumped out at me was indeed Nero (Eric Bana). I'm not sure if he was just miscast in this role or what (looking at his page on the IMDB, the only similar movies he's played in appear to be the first Hulk movie and Troy) but he was probably the worst actor in the entire movie. Not only did he lack any sort of gravitas for the role, I was never convinced he was a Romulan, let alone an alien from a distant star system. It almost was like he was either embarrased to be in the movie, and felt like he had something better to do.

It really goes for most of the cast on general terms. While the actors playing Kirk (Chris Pine) and Spock (Zachary Quinto) did from an adequate (Pine) to very good (Quinto) job with their role, most of the other cast members fell flat, with McKoy (Karl Urban) needing about half the movie before he could "get" the character. The real stand-out in the entire movie was the actor playing Christopher Pike (Bruce Greenwood). Not only did his portrayal have the neccessary gravitas for the character, Greenwood ably portrayed a character than knew he was in charge and how to act like he was in charge. In the end I wish the movie was really about Pike than Kirk.

On more general terms, the movie looked very pretty, and in general the special effects were very good, everything about this movie screamed Summer Blockbuster. From the product placement (the very first scene with a young Kirk in the movie we have both a classic corvette, as well as young Kirk manipulating his Nokia carphone, complete with corporate logo and Nokia ringtone...all to the Beastie Boys Sabotage, which despite the fact that it's one of my favorite Beastie Boys songs, falls into the SF trope assuming popular music of today will still be listened to centuries from now), to the slapstick sort of humor (specifically the scene where Kirk is smuggled aboard the Enterprise by McKoy, and has several unusual and presumably funny reactions to his medicines), and finally closing with the "kick ass" scene climaxing the movie.

While the Summer Blockbuster movie meme is not neccessarily a bad thing, I really am not sure the formula fits with the Star Trek style of movie. I think Abrams missed the elements that made the Original Series great, and especially the movies (Trek I through VI, excepting V). The chief among these is dialogue. What made the original actors work so well together was not just their familiarity and delivery, but the dialogue that was written for them. I'm not sure if it was simply that they were better actors (saving Shatner's sometimes over-the-top method acting, though I think this fault is over-emphasized by critics), or just simply good writing (Spock: "One damn minute Admiral."), but it's lack was very, very apparent in the movie, with the best dialogue coming from McKoy after the second half of the movie.

That being said, there were quite a few issues I had with the script, which I think detracted from the movie.

There were three scenes in the movie that I felt added nothing to the script. The first was the scene of Kirk as a kid, racing along a dirt road in a stolen classic 'vette. What was the purpose of this scene? To show that Kirk is a juvenile delinquent (we already get to see he's a jerk later on, when he is an adult)? Overall I think the scene just didn't work, and I felt it was a bit of pandering to the classic fans (Kirk must have a momentous introduction in the movie) but in a way that decisively says "this ain't your papa's Kirk." This scene should have been an extra on the DVD, or remained on the cutting room floor.

The second was the scene where Kirk and Scotty beam aboard the Enterprise while at Warp. Kirk of course beams in fine, but Scotty gets beamed into a water tank, and subsequently goes on a joyride through a series of water tubes. Again, I'm not sure if they were trying to be funny with this scene, and while it was a necessary bit of exposition to alert Spock to Kirk's presence, I felt it was just an unnecessary scene that could have been handled better, with less goofiness.

The last was of course when Kirk is marooned on an ice world, and just so happens to find Spock (Leonard Nimoy variant) in a cave he takes shelter in while fleeing a big creepy (to be eaten by an even bigger creepy in another SF trope). Smacks quite a bit of deus ex machina, and overall while I don't have an answer of how this could have been improved, it was distracting.

This last part leads me to my biggest criticism of the character Spock as portrayed in the movie. Spock an Uhura (Zoe Saldana) apparently have a relationship, and has had one for at least some time (as suggested in the movie). While this isn't necessarily a bad thing per se, and I think it was added to further emphasise "this ain't your papa's Spock," this is a serious character flaw. Spock was both instructor to Uhura at Star Fleet Academy, as well as her superior officer. And there are no problems or ramifications from this relationship (a McGuffin if you will for Kirk to find out Uhura's first name, closing a long running gag in the movie). It also makes you wonder what else is going on? Uhura is a cadet at Star Fleet...just how old is she? How long have they had their relationship for? Was Spock also engaging in statutory rape on top of violating the ethical conduct of a teacher-student relationship? To say nothing of basic military fraternization regulations? If nothing is done with this plot point in the next movie, then I would have some serious reservations about the abilities of the scriptwriters. Overall, it makes Spock more into a creep and doesn't add anything significant to the movie. Not in the way the Original Series did (Spock's conflict between his human half and his Vulcan principles of Logic). A real opportunity was missed here, and we can only hope it is developed to some sort of logical conclusion in the next movie.

Finally, the purpose of this blog is mainly concerned with the idea of Speculative Fiction, which of course Science Fiction is its biggest (or at least most visible, if not most accessable) component. Was Star Trek Science Fictional? There were three major plot points in the movie that directly tie into the concepts of Science Fiction (most of the other stuff -- aliens, the starships, etc -- were window dressing and background).

The first is the concept of time travel itself. Although traditional time travel (as portrayed in STIV) is improbably, M theory suggests there can be up to eleven dimensions beyond our normal three (four if you count time). The 5th dimension then can be described as everything within our current universe, plus all other branching timelines. Assuming the Multiverse conclusion of M theory is correct, whenever within a timeline there comes a branching event, in which there can be one result or another (or many different results for that matter), both (or all) possible results actually occur, each creating it's own universe. Thus, Nero travelling back in time and "altering" the timeline creates a new universe in which the conditions of the original timeline have been changed. For more information on this, see the thought experiment on Quantum Suicide.

The second is the actual mechanical effect of Time Travel. In the movie, Spock (or rather "Spock Prime," as he is named within the movie, though if the Multiverse theory of M theory is correct, such an appellation is meaningless) use a McGuffin called "Red Matter" to "absorb" the impact of a Supernova which threatened the galaxy. * "Red Matter" has a property that, when it apparently interacts with normal matter, it causes it to collapse upon itself and form a gravitational singularity (aka a Black Hole). The idea was that this black hole would absorb the supernova and thus mitigate the explosive impact of the supernova.** However, the black hole created actually sent Nero and Spock's ship back in time. While a black hole per se would not have this property, a Schwartzchild Wormhole in fact would theoretically. Not only that, but a wormhole could potentially create a transversable window into alternate universes.

The third element is the nature of Red Matter. Although it might be better left in the McGuffin status, especially since I have no possible solutions for the ability (perhaps Exotic Matter?) If any readers have any ideas, let me know and I'll update my review.

That being said, there are a few problems with the "science" aspect of the movie.

While supernovas can be very destructive, they tend to be very destructive to anything within a 100ly radius from the event. According to a Star Trek map I found on-line, it would only be a threat to the Romulans.

The creation of a Black Hole to absorb a supernova has a few problems with it. First: if a stellar mass large enough to cause a supernova collapses, there is a very good chance it is in the process of creating a black hole anyway. Most large stellar masses (several sol masses for example) will eventually collapse into either a Black Hole or a Neutron star. Second: a supernova is spherical in its effect; the best result of creating a second black hole in its path is to create a small window of no effect. Considering stellar distances, at a point several ly away, this window would likely be infinitesimally small. Nonetheless, black holes (and their influence) is easy to understand: they're simply gravity wells in space, just like planets, stars, and other stellar objects. At a distance, a cluster of stars at say 10 solar masses is no different that a black hole of the same size. It is only when you get close enough to be influenced by frame dragging and of course the Event Horizon that problems start to occur.

On the subject of Red Matter, in the movie we are presented with an elaborate enegery drill that must be lowered to bore out a hole to the planet's core. Through this hole a probe is dropped with a bit of red matter to create the singularity. This seems to be an overly complex method for planetary destruction (in a classic villain trope). If you can create singularities that will collapse a planet like Vulcan within "minutes" (according to Chekov), one would hardly need to place it at the planet's core; it would simply be sufficient to impact somewhere nearby or on the planet. A singularity of that size would rapidly destroy the planet through tidal forces. However, I suspect such a solution would be less "dramatic" (Nero's ship would merely need to pop into the system, launch a torpedo, then egress).

One last bit that I am unsure of: at the very end, after Spock crashes Spock Prime's ship into Nero's ship, the red matter escapes and creates a singularity. The Enterprise goes to warp, but is unable to escape the gravitational forces of the black hole, forcing Scotty to detonate some of the warp containment coils (or somesuch) to create an explosion of sufficient force to propel the Enterprise out of the gravitational influence. The issue here is that the Enterprise is clearly outside of the Event Horizon, and thus for a ship that can not only go instantaneously to lightspeed (or even better, selveral multiples of lightspeed), escaping such a predicament should be trivial. That being said, Star Trek warp technology infact creates a "bubble" of normal space, and the ship rides a "wavefront" of spacetime that can exceed the speed of light. My instinct is that this scene was a dramatic interpretation, but otherwise would be a trivial issue for the technology of the setting.

In the end, despite the plot holes, wonky science and the like, the movie was ok. Just ok. Sure, the visuals were stunning, the special effects fantastic; but these elements do not make for a good movie alone. A good movie must be built on solid scriptwrting, and all the special effects you can throw at a budget will never save a stinker from itself.

But more importantly, is it a worthy successor to the Star Trek franchise? Going into the movie, my gut reaction was no. And while I watched the movie with an open mind, I don't think the script or the actors were able to capture the genie back into the bottle the original movies had.

But it was better than Nemesis. Or just about all the Next Generation era movies (even First Contact, and it's raping of Star Trek continuity and poor plot point that normal human beings are incapable of achieving FTL travel).

Sunday, November 8, 2009

Dark Disciple by Anthony Reynolds

A sequel to Reynolds' previous book, Dark Apostle, this book continues to follow the career of Marduk, former disciple of the Dark Apostle Jarulek. Marduk continues his quest for power, with this book centering around unlocking the secrets of a Xenos artifact recovered in the previous book.

In my opinion, the previous book was middling, and really suffered when its only sympathetic character becomes a thrall to Chaos. This book turned out to be somewhat better, but still suffered from a lack of a really identifiable sympathetic character.

Marduk (a member of the Word Bearers traitor Space Marine legion, and a disciple of the dark powers of Chaos) has arrived at the world of Perdus Skyalla, to recover an Adeptus Mechanicum acolyte, with the assistance of a traitor acolyte Darioq. The world is currently under threat by a Tyrranid hive fleet, and the Imperial forces are busy trying to evacuate as many as they can before they declare Exterminatus (that is, killing every life-form on the planet with WMDs). Into the mix of chaos and confusion the Dark Eldar have arrived with the intent of capturing their quota of slaves from a populace that probably won't resist them.

On the note of a sympathetic character, we are introduced to Solon, a miner that adopts Dios, a boy who was the sole survivor of a Dark Eldar raid. We are lead through their struggles across an arctic wasteland as they try to reach the spaceport before the Tyrranids invade. While at the end they are successful, and the boy Dios survives (Solon sacrifices himself, so to speak, to ensure Dios survives), we learn with the very last scene that Dios is himself infected with the Genestealer taint, and that his survival essentially means that the infection will spread throughout the refugees, creating a beacon for the Hive Fleets to follow.

While the theme of the Warhammer 40,000 setting has always been hopelessness infront of insurmountable struggles and terror, there does come a point when this begins to fall flat. In some ways it is the opposite of the "Hollywood" character syndrome: in a Hollywood movie, you always know the main character will probably survive (and when he/she doesn't, its a big surprise), Warhammer 40,000 is the opposite. While reading about the stuggles of Solon/Dios, I could almost predict they would have a bad ending. And it did. Particularly when the primary character is a Chaos Space Marine, the book needs a sympathetic character that survives and has something of a happy ending. It is already difficult to identify with Marduk, so why couldn't we identify with the boy? The genestealer taint cheapens the sacrifices of Solon, with the only victory being that he can die with a clear conscious. While I understand this is the theme of the setting, constantly beating upon it makes the writing hollow and to an extent pointless.

That being said, it was a better book than the previous volume, and was more entertaining. It also sets up the next book (should there be one), with some crazy Necron action!

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Tyrrany of a Construct, Pt.6

First, Morena Baccarin is hawt.

Now that we've gotten that out of the way, I just finished watching the new "re-imagined" V. Like a lot of what is going on in Hollywood, it takes an older property and remakes it. Of course this creates a conundrum when the remake ends up being better than the original.

The original V miniseries graced the airwaves in the early '80s, and featured a story about intergalactic alien lizards (disguised as humans) who come claiming they need water, but are really here to eat us for lunch.

So far we're into the first episode, which does a good job setting up the initial conflicts and establishes the characters. Baccarin plays Anna, leader of the Visitors, who have come to earth with a message of peace and friendship. Of course all is not well as we learn there have been Visitors here all along, and indeed a few have gone AWOL and are involved helping humanity (this time with genuine concern).

But is it Science Fiction? One of the interesting ideas the first episode has already touched upon (ironically -- and deliberately, I think) using a Catholic priest as a foil, is the idea of what happens when a technologically advanced and sophisticated culture encounters ours? From history, we know that often this results in annihilation, and there are plenty of examples from both the Americas, as well as Africa, the Pacific islands, etc. While this annihilation may not neccessarily be genocidal in nature, what often happens is the uniqueness of the native culture is subsumed by the superior culture, and often requires a concious rebirth or revival in order to survive. I definitely hope the writers and producers of V continue to develop this element, and take it to a logical conclusion.

While my reaction to any sort of "reboot" is typically negative, looking back at the original miniseries of V, I can recognize how dated it is by current standards, how unsophisticated the story was, and in this context perhaps a re-imagining isn't so bad. I liked the first episode, and will definitely tune in next week. Hopefully the series can stay strong, in an environment that is typically unfriendly to SF programming.

Sunday, October 25, 2009

Master of Dragons by Margaret Weis

The last book in the Dragonvarld trilogy, Master of Dragons is, like the others, a fairly fast read that probably could have been better if it were incorporated into a single book like its predecessors. Again, we had the fairly large font, the wider than expected margins, and again the feeling that the story was released in 3 books in order to increase the profit margin from the publishers (perhaps capitalizing on Weis' name amongst fantasy readers?).

I think the biggest word I can use to sum up this book is predictable. The major surprise at the end of the second book (The Dragon's Son) was undone in this book; Draconis survives the attack and continues to interact with the protagonists. While I have to say I genuinely like Draconis as a character (probably the best fleshed out of any of the characters), I think it would have been better had he stayed dead, with his cause perhaps being picked up by another dragon.

There were also elements in this book that really didn't go anywhere, and characters that were developed and not capitalized on. For example, we learn that another dragon (a female called Lysira) has a thing for Draconis. But nothing comes of this, besides some pithy words and descriptions of throbbing hearts. The end result is that Draconis comes off as being manipulative to his own kind, despite being characterized as being empathetic to the humans. Another character is Evelina, introduced in the previous book, who is built up as being a teen-age manipulator (she attempts to get pregnant by Marcus, one of the protagonists and the bastard son of royalty, with the idea it will "force" him to love her, and give her an easy life of plenty), in such a way I briefly thought I was back in high school, but the only real purpose she serves is to poison a dragon disguised as a human (over jealousy).

Despite the epicness of the concept (a world ruled by dragons, some of whom broke their own laws to manipulate humans into servitude), the ending was a bit less than epic. One of the core concepts of the books was that the development of human technology could herald a day when they are powerful enough to hunt down the dragons and kill them off. A major point was made that the development by King Edward of turntable mounted artillery could bring parity and possibly allow humans to slay dragons. Despite this, at the climatic conclusion, the cannons are never fired, humans never get a chance to slay dragons, and in fact it took the intervention of other dragons sympathetic to the human cause to intervene and chase off the antagonists.

One last gripe. The epilogue is about Evelina and her fate. Despite poisoning a disguised dragon, she is brought up on charges of murder (which is, in my opinion, correct, since intent is just as important as actions). She manages to avoid the death penalty (she did reveal the impostor dragon!) and is exiled to a remote nunnery. The final thoughts we have from the book is how she will manipulate herself into a position of power and influence within the nunnery.

My question is why end the book talking about the fate of what is really a minor and unimportant character that does little of value in the book? Why not instead discuss Draconis' relationship with his fellow dragons? Perhaps the reforging of the Dragon Parliament? Or even Marcus' burgeoning relationship with the Mistress of Dragons from Seth (which, having no real development didn't seem to be an important addition).

It almost feels like the ending of the book was rushed, and that Weis had intended more material in the series, but got edited.

Don't get me wrong now, the series was OK. But in the end, I think it started well but ended a bit flat.

Thursday, October 15, 2009

The Dragon's Son by Margaret Weis

The second book in the Dragonvarld trilogy (first being Mistress of Dragons, which I had previously blogged about) picks up where the previous book left off. The twin boys, one part dragon, one the bastard of royalty, have grown up and now must deal with the powers their heritage has given them. Ven (short for "Vengeance") grows up unloved by Bellona, his life focused on the eventual revenge she intends upon his father. Meanwhile, Marcus grows up in the King's household, trapped in his own thoughts as he experiences a Dragon's mind. Again, Draconas is there to guide them through, though not always successful. He does manage to guide Marcus back to sanity, but for Ven he is unable to do anything for him.

Being the middle book of the trilogy often makes for a less exciting or interesting book. Where the first book sets up the universe, characters, and the conflict, the middle book often is tasked with developing the story, without the benefit of the final book's climax (which for fantasy is also often the most action packed). This book is no different, and I didn't find it quite as exciting as the first.

One interesting development in this series is that Weis is not afraid to pull punches. The bodycount continues to pile up. Whereas in the previous book we had only Melisande die, in this book we have both Belonna well as Draconas! The latter is probably the biggest surprise in the book, since I was positive that he would develop as the primary character of the trilogy. I also found it point of view important in telling both sides of the story.

I started reading volume 3 (Master of Dragons, to be blogged about in the future), and there hasn't been any great revelations or surprises. Hopefully the payoff of the story meets up with my expectations...

Sunday, October 11, 2009

Star Wars: Abyss by Troy Denning

The thing about genre fiction is that for the most part, when you buy a book there is the expectation of more of the same, and not great literature. In a sense it's like catching another episode of your favorite TV show. Watching Star Trek, for example, is not like watching Citizen Kane or or similarly reading 1984; that doesn't mean its not worthwhile or entertaining on its own.

Occasionally, your expectations are surprised, and the bar is raised. A little.

Troy Denning's latest addition to the Fate of the Jedi series starts out like most Star Wars books. However, the pacing is good, the mystery suitable, and the payoff in the end well rewarding. For a change, Troy describes a lightsaber battle that is vivid, interesting, and surprising.

The plot unfolds as the still-exiled Luke and Ben travel to The Maw (a cluster of black holes) to continue to research why Jacen -- Darth Caedus -- fell of the deep end and turned to the dark side. There they discover a space station -- a smaller twin of Centerpoint Station -- where force sensitives and users float in a Force trance in an effort to dissassociate themselves from the physical world and transcend into the Force. Of course not all is as it seems...

Oh yeah, and the Sith are active in the galaxy again. This time, they are exiles stranded on a planet for 5000 years. Old school Sith.

And, the Jedi are still dealing with some of their order going crazy.

While Luke and Ben are investigating the "Mind Walkers" the Sith find out where they are and attempt to capture and/or kill the Jedi.

I think Denning did a good job describing the final showdown between the Jedi and the Sith exiles, being very vivid and well described. Unlike other Star Wars novels, where the action can be a little turgid, Denning's pacing is very good and gives an excellent sense of the action.

Although not specifically evident here, one issue I have with the Star Wars Expanded Universe is the recycled plots an use of "one-upsmanship." For example, in the Original trilogy, the Death Star could destroy whole planets. In the EU, that wasn't enough, so now we get star destroyers that can do the same, or even worse, a small fighter-type craft that is both indestructable and can destroy whole stars! Not to mention the Yuushan Vong, a threat to destroy the entire Galaxy! But just as worse, the plot of the Original Trilogy (and to an extend the prequels) is recycled both in the Legacy of the Force series, as well as Dark Horse's Legacy series. I'm hoping this series avoids both traps and defines itself as something original within the setting. Apropriate drama and gravitas can be created without recycling themes or devistating threats to the Galaxy...

Friday, October 9, 2009

Mistress of Dragons by Margaret Weis

I picked up this book by Margaret Weis a little less than a year ago at a discount store, in hardback. I can hardly pass up a discounted hardback in a genre I enjoy, so compulsively bought this book as well as the other two in the series.

One would wonder what more Weis has to say on dragons, given that she is the other half of the classic Dragonlance trilogies. However, in the end Weis delivers, and this book turned out to be an enjoyable read.

The gist of the book is thus: there is a small kingdom called Seth, that has the unfortunate luck of being attacked by dragons with alarming frequency. Defending this kingdom is an order of female monks, some trained in defensive magic, with the rest trained as warriors, and through both efforts they manage to keep the peace.

Of course, not everything is as it seems. Dragons are not the savage beasts humanity believes them to be; rather they are intelligent, with their own form of government and very strict hands off laws regarding humans. One of these dragons has broken that law, conquered a human kingdom, and rules it as her own.

The Kingdom of Seth.

Reading this book, the first few chapters were pretty rough; it almost seemed to me to be on the level of someone's fanfic. However, after the first few chapters, the story really rolled along and became intriguing. Unfortunately the book is rather short: although nominally coming in at 381 pages, I was easily reading more than 100pgs every night. The font size is rather large with lots of white space along the margins, suggesting to me that this book should have been more like 200pgs, but had been padded out to make it a thicker (and perhaps more appealing?) hardback. With that in mind (physical characteristics appear the same in the next 2 volumes) it seems to me that the publisher wanted to milk 3 volumes out of the series, when it probably should have been one book instead. While I'm not especially upset about this, as I got all volumes either at a discounter or via Ebay, I think if I paid full price for these books, I'd be a bit disappointed.

One note: at the end of the book two babies are born from one of the protagonists. While one baby is the result of a natural union, the second resulted from a rape by a dragon (if you thought dragons can't rape a human woman...), possessing a dragon's body from waist down. From my limited (Intro to Biology college class) knowledge on the subject of genetics, I don't think such a physical characteristic could happen, but given that this is fantasy (and there is a tradition of such things) one can easily give it the pass.

Finally, in compliance with our benevolent overlords, the FCC, I'd like to thank my wallet for supplying this review copy.

Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Neo Ranga and Anime Theme Music

I just got done watching the anime Neo Ranga. Have to say it is indeed very intruging, from the aesthetic of Neo Ranga himself, to the pace the story unfolds at. With only 2 hours into the series so far, it's starting to throw philosophcal questions at you, and making you think. This is indeed a good thing, and one of the reasons I continue to explore and watch anime and forget about domestic TV. Although for every Neo Ranga there is a Dragonball Z, the gems are well worth plucking.

The purpose of this blog, however, is to discuss the use of music within anime. Over the years there's been a few theme songs originating from anime that I've considered top-notch, and indeed has encouraged me to watch the particular show not just because the show itself is good, but because the accompanying music is fantastic. The first anime that in my opinion had stand-out music was Record of the Lodoss War (opening theme "Sea of Miracles" can be seen here). Structurally interesting, it evokes an epic sense without being bombastic at the same time.

Another example is the short anime series Serial Experiment Lain. A bit of a reverse, it uses as its theme song a piece by the band Boa called Duvet. While this style of music is a huge departure for me (given that I am traditionally a hard-core metal fan), Boa has loads of talent, and really know how to both play their instruments, as well as compose musically interesting themes and songs. Such as it was, just by watching this anime prompted me to buy the album.

What has me excited now is the music from Neo Ranga (theme can be heard here). I think the thing I like most about it is that it is very different, in a way you do not often hear in the domestic music industry (or, at least, not that I've ever encountered). Digging up a bit of information, I found out that this style of music is based off of traditional Balinese styles of Kecak and Gong Kebyar. While reading the information on these styles, I've realized it has been incorporated into other forms of music, but the great thing about the Neo Ranga theme is that, again, it incorporates a sense of epic without at the same time being bombastic.

The fact that anime is a niche form of entertainment (even in Japan, where it is far, far larger than here in the US) allows for more interesting experimentation, not just in the themes and plots of the shows themselves, but in the music. I wish that domestically we could have a bit of this, but then that might mean anime loses its uniqueness...

Monday, September 28, 2009

Warhammer 40K movie

I recently found out that a Warhammer 40K movie might be in the offing!

See here for more information.

This bit is from the movie producers' website, Codex Movies:

Ultramarines is a 70-minute sci-fi thriller that will use CGI and state-of-the-art animation production techniques. Games Workshop is delighted to be working with UK-based production company Codex Pictures, who have the momentous task of bringing the Warhammer 40,000 universe to the screen.

Commenting on the news, Erik Mogensen, Licensing and Acquired Rights Manager for Games Workshop, said, “Over the years, we have been approached again and again by all sorts of producers and film companies wanting to take our intellectual property to the screen. We have always believed that, in the right hands, the stories, themes and characters from the Warhammer 40,000 universe would lend themselves perfectly to the movie genre. We’re working closely with the talented team at Codex Pictures, who have an excellent understanding of the Warhammer 40,000 intellectual property and an inspired vision for the movie. We can’t wait to see our universe come to life on-screen.”

“We’re hugely honoured to be making Ultramarines,” said a spokesman for Codex Pictures. “It’s taken a lot of research and development to get to this stage – and it’s such an exciting challenge to be able to bring the depth and power of the Warhammer 40,000 universe to a brand new medium.”

News of the production of a movie was unveiled at UK Games Day, the biggest event in the Games Workshop calendar, on Sunday, September 27 2009."

I have to say this is pretty exciting. Even though it is about the Ultramarines (for those not familiar, the Ultramarines are a Space Marine Chapter, which in my opinion is grossly overused, even if they're supposed to be representative).

Friday, September 25, 2009

Tyrrany of a Construct, Pt. 5

A short one for now. According to this site, the cult classic movie Highlander is not only going to be "rebooted" but completely re-imagined.

I can't say it enough: it really seems like there are few original ideas out there anymore. The number of "reboots" or "re-imaginings" that have been either announced or have been released is legion. Furthermore, the intent of this reboot seems to be for establishing a franchise.

I'll stick with books.

Tuesday, September 22, 2009


One of the latest books in the Warhammer 40,000 franchise, I had been looking forward to this book from Nick Kyme (also see his blog) for some time. Ostensibly about the Salamanders chapter of Space Marines, I have always been a fan of the Salamanders since I read about them first in the late '90s. So much so that when I decided to start a Space Marine army under Warhammer 40K 3e, they were without a doubt Salamanders.

This is the first novel featuring this chapter exclusively. Nick does a good job of describing the customs and beliefs of this chapter, based on self-sacrifice and the belief that people need to be protected, not just the enemies of the Emperor prosecuted. This differentiates the the Salamanders from other chapters, in which other chapters often willingly sacrifice civilians in order to destroy the enemy.

While Nick tries to integrate the beliefs of the Salamanders, I think he could have gone further to develop the Promethean cult, and actually define the beliefs more clearly. A novel centered around this would have really brought to the forefront the character of this chapter.

The book starts out with a bit of politics within the chapter, and more specifically within the 3rd Company. The two main characters, Da'kir and Tsu'gan, are at loggerheads. Both revered their previous company captain Kadai, and both feel guilt about his death. More, Tsu'gan dislikes Da'kir because of his rustic origins. When the new captain N'keln is appointed by Chapter Master Tu'shan, Da'kir supports the new captain while Tsu'gan feels he is inadequate.

Events come to a head when the Salamanders 3rd Company, in search of their nemesis the Dragon Warriors Renegade Space marines. There they discover an abandoned Mechanicum ship filled with Space Marine armor and equipment. Also exploring the ship is a group of Marines Malevolent. There to plunder the ship of equipment, the Salamanders immediately oppose this action and prevent the Marines Malevolent from plundering.

Meanwhile a box is discovered that may hold clues to the Salamanders' primarch Vulkan's disappearance, and the 3rd Company (reinforced with elite elements from the Firedrakes 1st Company) is sent to the world Scoria to track it down.

They discover the world is in fact inhabited, by a lost ship of belonging to the Expeditionary Fleet supported by Salamanders from the pre-heresy era. In addition, there is an outpost of Iron Warriors, and soon an invasion of Orks.

At this point the book descends into typical 40K novel format: lots of blood, guts, fighting, and not much else.

One of the big problems with military oriented SF literature is that it can very easily descend into "war porn" with little purpose. Equally dangerous in an escapist fantasy novel series is a lack of action. I think the fact that the book is light in the combat until perhaps the last 3rd of the book is a testament to Kyme's attempts to avoid the dreaded "war porn" syndrome. Still, if you have read any number of Warhammer 40K books, the combat scenes tend to get old in my opinion: there are only so many ways you can describe the "whirring of chainblades" or the explosive force a bolter can do to various parts of the anatomy.

One thing missing from these books that would be welcome would be a more "tactical" description of the battles, rather than a personal one. With the current format (reminiscent of the "swordplay" action of fantasy novels) tend to make battles last too long; a more tactical description of battles, with short, sharp and extremely violent action I think would go a long way to making these sorts of novels more interesting.

The cover of this book threatens to be the first in a trilogy. While there is certainly room for improvement in Kyme's effort, he certainly gets the job done as well. I'm looking forward to the rest of the series.

You can read more about the novel and see an extract here.

Wednesday, September 9, 2009

I, Jedi

I never followed the Star Wars franchise very closely in terms of the novels. Like a lot, I read the Thrawn trilogy when the novel series was officially "launched" as a full-scale media tie-in (before this, although there were a few novels, as well as the movie novelizations, the franchise was far less organized, deliberate, or directed). Disappointed, I really didn't continue the series.

That is until Episode 3 came out. Disappointed in the "prequels," I went and picked up the Ep. 3 novelization, and liked that much more. This followed with some of the Old Republic/Clone Wars novels, and sort of spiraled from there.

Thus, I'll sometimes go back and "fill in" the collection. Just as I did with this book.

I, Jedi primarily focuses on the development of Corran Horn into a Jedi. Brought to us by Michael Stackpole (a writer I definitely enjoyed for his long years writing Battletech -- specifically the Warrior Trilogy, and the Return of Kerensky trilogy), the book sets off with the abduction of Corran's wife Mirax, and the Jedi training Corran receives in order to give him the tools to recover his wife.

I think the biggest problem with this book is one of pacing. Reading it, I also get the feeling the book was written from the periphery of larger events, and that I should have read those books instead first. Nonetheless, the first half of the book is about Corran and the new Jedi academy (established on Yavin 4, which we know as the Rebel base in "A New Hope") and their attempts to overcome the Force-ghost of Exar Kun.

This half of the book turned out to be a bit of a letdown. I'm not sure if it's because I didn't read the other books in this time period, but the defeat of Exar Kun seemed to be a bit anti-climatic. One would think more attention would be focused on Exar and his defeat, but as far as Darkside ghosts are concerned, Exar only really killed one person, seduced one other, and possessed one last. The Exar threat in other words seemed to be less prevalent than I think such a character should have.

The second half of the book deals then with Corran's attempt to recover his wife, primarily through infiltrating the pirate bands that have been threatening the New Republic's stability. Along the way, Corran discovers his Jedi heritage and of course rescues his wife.

Again, part 2 was a bit of a letdown, with lots of development of the infiltration, but with a little Deus Ex thrown in to get the plot to move, where it just so happens that Corran runs into the people he needs to reveal the location of Mirax, and just so happens that Luke shows up at the nick of time to save him, and assist on the rescue. Oh, and the random alien Corran runs into? Happens to be the nephew of the Jedi Knight that ran with Corran's actual grandfather. The actual rescue itself, as well as the confrontation with the Jenisaarai was anti-climatic as well.

It really feels like this book should have been 2 novels with two different focuses. Instead we get one novel that was a tad too long (only 450 or so pages, but too long in terms of pacing) and not as well developed as it should have been. Throw in a lot of Deus Ex Machina and I have to say this was not one of Stackpole's better efforts.

But I was entertained.

One comment sometimes see with regard to Stackpole and his character Corran Horn is that Corran is a bit of a Mary Sue. I think after reading this book, I can see the point of this. Throughout this book Corran doesn't really make any mistakes: he successfully determines the Force ghost plaguing the Academy is Exar Kun, successfully entraps him, and even after getting a bit of a throttling at the hands of Kun (and gets rescued at the last minute by a little Deus Ex), also infiltrates a pirate gang and successfully locates the Star Destroyer the pirates have been using, defeats the Jennisaaarai and rescues his wife. Along the way he learns the true meaning of being a Jedi.

Maybe I should go back and read Grave Covenant.

Friday, August 14, 2009

Tyrrany of a Construct, Pt. 4

So Hollywood moves ever on with movie ideas. The latest one I heard is a theatrical version of Battlestar Galactica. Cool, you say? I would too, until I heard it's going to be another re-imagining of the franchise.


Read it here.

As I had said in previous entries on this blog, the BSG series presents a conundrum, because it was good. OK, sure the payoff in the end was not the one I would have done, but it was a solid series anyway. Much, much better than the original.

But now we're getting another re-imagining of the franchise, with the corpse of the "old" re-imagining not even a year cold!

The re-imagining meme of Hollywood is a tyrranical construct that plays upon the nostalgic memories of loved shows (or at least remembered) and other franchises. I'm not sure what the point or purpose of this latest development. Hubris? More money? In the end I'm again left with a sour taste in my mouth and declare that Hollywood creativity is dead.

Monday, July 6, 2009

Star Wars, Fate of the Jedi: Omen

Acting as a bridge, the new Fate of the Jedi series (along with its predecessor, Legacy of the Force) closes the gap between the epic Yuuzhan Vong War and the later Legacy graphic novels from Dark Horse.

The second volume in the series, and penned by the prolific (in the genre fiction range at least) Christie Golden, Luke who is banished from the Jedi order by the edict of Chief of State Daala, must search for clues behind Jacen Solo's descent to the Dark Side.

The first volume saw Luke and his (slightly older now, at 16) son Ben travel to remote Dorin to find out the techniques Jacen Solo learned from the Baran Do sages (made up exclusively of Kel Dor). They get their clues and manage to poke holes in the unusual practices of the sages,

Here, in the second book, Luke and Ben travel to the isolated and little understood Aing-tii, a race of mysterious Force users. Chief of the abilities they try to discern is the way of flow-walking. Conlict develops between Ben and Luke due to Ben's insistence to learn the technique. Meanwhile, we learn about an isolated tradition of the Sith, cut off from the galaxy for some 5000 years, and more Jedi succumb to madness.

Golden's narrative is readable enough, and there were no glaring issues I could find for the characters. That being said, I think Golden's dialogue for Amelia (Allana, daghter of Tenel Ka and Jacen Solo) succumbs to the downfall of many writers when handling children: the dialouge is unconvincing. I think the problem is one of word choice: children have specific ways and word choices when talking, and I don't think Golden nails it. In the book when Amelia has any meaningful dialogue, she sounds like a naive adult, rather than a child.

One really jarring element to the book is the character Bazel Warv. In the previous book's preview excerpt, Bazel was described as a Gammorean. At the time I felt this was a very unusual choice, but went with it with the assumption that there would be a lot of meat to character, such as would be expected when the character is so unconventional as being a Gammorean. When Omen finally hit the shelves, the race had been changed to a Ramoan. While the Wiki suggests that Ramoans are distantly related to Gammoreans, this change did not sit well with my expectations of Golden's handle on the universe. Luckily the character was mosty disposable, and quickly shuffled to the sidelines.

In the end, I didn't dislike the book, but in my opinion it was not quite as good as the previous installment. That might just be that I'm a Kel Dor fanboy (ever since playing a Kel Dor Jedi in our KotOR Star Wars RPG campaign), but nonetheless...

Saturday, June 20, 2009

Tyrrany of a Construct, Pt. 3

So in my last posts I discussed the entire remake meme in Hollywood, and the creeping lack of originality in the industry. Add in another bit of speculative fiction that was in many ways an icon of my generation (that is, the X'ers): there will apparently be a remake of the old classic Red Dawn.


So my question here is why? Why does this movie need to be remade? What sort of relevance does it have today? When Red Dawn came out in the heady days of 1984, it was still the heady days of Reagan, Star Wars Defense, the "Evil Empire," and Yakov Smirnoff ("In communist Russia, movies remake you!"). In this zeitgeist Red Dawn was the perfect movie: freedom, resistance, and dogged courage against tyrrany. So what if they were Cubans? There were Russkis in it too! It was the sort of movie you watch as a young teen-ager to stoke the fires of anti-Communism.

So what are they going to do now? Communism is dead, chapter in history that has been closed and forgotten. Should it be about that, it would totally lack the relevance that the original movie marinated in. Perhaps the US will be invaded by Al Qaeda? Iran? North Korea? Maybe space aliens...

Monday, June 1, 2009

Tyrrany of a Construct: Hollywood Remakes Pt. 2

On a different discussion group I saw the following item posted. The key items I'd like to draw attention to are the "reboots/remakes" of "Buffy the Vampire Slayer" and "Alien." Yes, that's right: Alien.

The corpse is hardly cold on Buffy before this one came out. I admit I'm not a Buffy fan, but Buffy fandom is in many ways like Trek or Star Wars fandom: very dedicated to the franchise. I think the real kick in the pants with this is that Josh Whedon will apparently not be on board for this.

The apparent "Aliens" remake is more of a head scratcher. This one is going to be produced by Ridley Scott, who was of course involved with the original. So there is a link to the original, but is this to be some sort of Lucas-ian "director's cut?"

The real problem here is not that Hollywood can't make a good movie, but the meme that Hollywood is bereft of original ideas anymore. The success of franchises such as Star Trek and Battlestar Galactica merely has created an environment where Hollywood will capitalize on this success, and possibly churn out remake after remake.

Here's the thing: a remake is usually just not neccessary. Lots of people will argue that Star Trek needed a reboot. I totally disagree. All the reboot does is recycle old characters and concepts into a new digitally exciting movie. With a franchise as rich as Star Trek, there was plenty of room to do something different and yet original, but still maintaining the familiarity of the Trek Universe.

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Attack of the Clones: Retro-gaming.

A recent phenomenon that has arisen in the late-to-post 3e D&D era has been the growth of retro-gaming. This is a pehnomenon in which gamers try to recapture the feel of the early days of RPGs by playing either retro-clones of D&D or outright D&D in and of itself. Now, I'm not talking about any current version of D&D, but rather the old version of D&D, as it appeared in the mid-70's (or its relaunch in the early '80s with the Red Box Basic D&D set).

This recently came to the fore-front of my mind by a game I found called Mutant Future. This game essentially tries to capture the mood and feel of the early days of Metamorphosis Alpha and Gamma World. Of course this is not the only one. On the fantasy side there is Swords & Wizardry, OSRIC, Labyrinth Lord, Castles & Crusades, and finally Basic Fantasy RPG.

The trend with these games is to make a very basic, rules light RPG, eliminating many of the game mechanics and details that have been added over the years, primarily to the D&D ruleset. A few are modifications of 3e (such as Castles and Crusades) and others very inspirational of 1e AD&D (OSRIC). Looking at the character sheets for games like Mutant Future or Labyrinth Lord, I can almost be looking at Basic D&D character sheets, lifted from a product produced more than 25 years ago. Eliminated are elements like skills, feats, and other factors that differentiate characters, so that what your character is, is essentially based on the character class.

Another important element of retro-gaming is that it appears to be almost a grass roots movement, not being pushed (much) by the big publishers. Although games like Castles and Crusades has "official" support, contrast that with games like Labyrinth Lord which is available as a free PDF (with a print option available via Lulu). In a way, it almost seems like this movement is also moving away from the big corporate model WotC/Hasbro uses, and more to a small publisher/cottage industry model. And I can't really complain about this, since I think most hobbies are served best by a cottage industry, where competition between products is stronger, and the market more responsive to the tastes of gamers. Furthermore, on a more personal level, I think the cottage industry model is also more passionate about the games, since the developers not only have a vested interest in the success of the game (since they are often a sole proprietor, or an alliance of several individuals) but because the passion of a game made not for money but for the love of the game. This is not to say a corporate model can't succeed in putting out good product (I think 3e is still the best version of D&D ever developed), and I don't think the two are neccessarily (or always) mutually exclusive.

Far be it for me to discourage anyone from playing more RPGs, but my question with regards to this movement is: why? What is the appeal of playing a retro game (as opposed to more modern rules light games)? Is it a nostalgia thing, trying to re-capture the feel and mood of early gaming? I'm not a nostalgic person myself (nostalgia often evokes the idea of a "golden age," a meme I oppose since golden ages are often -- not) so the idea of trying to recapture the genie is not only impossible to do, but that genie is wheezing and gray now. Is it a reaction against rules-heavy D&D (such as 3e and -- yes -- 4e)?

More information about available rulesets can be found at Retro-clones.

This is definitely something that bears watching. In the meantime, though, there are a few free games I listed here, so check them out!

Saturday, May 9, 2009

Popcorn Entertainment

Over on youtube I happened over this review of the ST: Voyager episode "Threshold." Ignoring the ranting about how bad the episode is in the second half, the first part really needs to be payed attention to. It is essentially this: if your enjoyment of a piece of film/fiction/entertainment requires you to turn off your brain to enjoy, then it really was not good to begin with. Sure, it might be entertaining but so was the nerd fight I witnessed in High School (now that was funny!), but that doesn't make it good either.

New Movie: District 9

Over on another forum I heard about a new movie produced by Peter Jackson called District 9. Here are a few reasons why I think this movie should be checked out, and why I am excited to see it:

  • Aliens that LOOk like aliens. No funny rubber suits
  • Produced by PJ. After LotR can he do no wrong? Even King Kong was at least entertaining (if not top-tier work for him).
  • It looks like it will be speculative.
In a movie industry of gasoline-fuelled explosions and the "pew, pew!*" factor, something that is both SFinal [i]and[/i] speculative is an excitement for me. I know I am looking forward to this...

*Pew, pew!: the sound a laser blaster makes when firing.

Thursday, May 7, 2009

Re-imagining a Reboot: Tyrrany of a Construct

This movie summer we are faced with the imminent release of several movies that are essentially a re-imagining of a previous franchise. Coming soon is GI Joe: The Movie. This is of course a re-imagining and a reboot of the previous GI Joe toy line and cartoon/comics franchise. Of greater trepidation is of course the new Star Trek movie coming out in a few short days.

Both of these movies are an attempt to reboot a franchise that has either had a different focus (GI Joe, mainly kid oriented) or languished due to running out of steam (the case of Star Trek). The thing about reboots is that how good it can be is entirely dependent on how much you liked the old series. The vast majority of people don't care about either Trek or Joe, and more than likely will find anything escapist to be of value. It's the fans I am talking to here.

One of the chief conceits of a reboot is to take a good idea and for a creator to put their own "spin" on it. Battlestar Galactica is a classic example of this. The original series, which came out in the late '70s had the issue of being very much a product of its time. In other words, watching it today some 30 years after it first aired, one cannot escape the kitch and corny-ness of it's '70s outlook. It has not aged well. With the "re-imagining" of the series much more recently (2000's, assuming this blog is read by people decades from now!) took the core concept (caravan to the stars, refugees looking for "paradise") and changed it to fit their vision. This is a conciet, and the new BSG series owes nothing (no legacy, no continuity, etc) to the original. There might be a few nods here and there, but that's about it.

The thing of it is though: old BSG was corny; new BSG was so much better.

We've seen it before: the old Batman movie series descended into its own camp death-spiral (unavoidable in my opinion, since the first Keaton Batman movie was campy in its own way). With the franchise reboot recently (Batman Begins and The Dark Knight) the first movie tenatively shrugged off the campiness te franchise had been afflicted with, and the second movie is, in my opinion, probably the greatest, most intense, and otherwise best depiction of Batman on the big screen.

But then this does not always work. Lost in Space ended with one movie, which was mediocre despite the awfulness of the original TV series.

With GI Joe, it doesn't matter so much, and the reboot might breath new life into the series. I fully expect it to be nothing more than another Transfomers style movie -- popcorn for the brain. The original cartoon was pretty campy and aimed at kids, just like Transformers. So perhaps it might get better.

Star Trek, however, has a much greater legacy to live up to. I will go on record by saying Star Trek: The Motion Picture is the best Trek movie to date, and probably one of the best SF movies ever made. Looking past the terrible costumes, it has the elements to classic speculative fiction: the Mystery, the Exploration, the Conflict, and of course the Resoution. For those bored with the V'ger fly-bys, get the Director's cut. Similarly, movies like Wrath of Kahn rank up there in the minds of a lot fans (and not just Trek fans) as one of the greats.

Abram's Trek has to live up to this.

One of the most common arguments I've seen with regards to the critcisms of the new Trek movie (uses time travel to an alternate universe, so that the director can "reboot" the series and do whatever he wants with it) is that its just a movie, watch it and judge it on its own merits. Here's the thing, and why this is such a worrisome time for a Trek fan: any sort of fandom requires a large investment in time and money into the franchise. Star Trek had 10 movies, 5 TV series, one cartoon series, hundreds of novels and other supporting media. For someone to really be a fan, this is a huge investment into the franchise. While there is nothing wrong with a new "entry level" movie to get fans into the series, by effectively ignoring all that past material, it essentially says that the fan's efforts were wasted and all that material doesn't matter anymore. Sure, you can go back an re-watch TMP, or the original series, but that's it: if the new Trek movie is a success (and everything indicates it will be), that previous continuity, legacy, and materials is effectively "dead." There will be no more. Perhaps it gets revisited in novels or comics, but no more movies, TV series, and the like.

I'm intending to see the movie with as open a mind as possible. But the film already has 2 knocks against it (time travel, one of the most overused plot devices in Star Trek, and here we get it again, and the fact that there will be a cameo at least of every single original crew that it feels like its going to be Trek Babies; this sucked in the Star Wars prequels (C-3PO just happened to have been built by Anakin-future-Vader?). That being said, it better be good...not just for the general public, but for the fans as well.

Change of Focus

One of the points of this blog was to chronicle the books I read. This would include both historical works (I just finished Henri Pirenne's Economic and Social History of Medieval Europe), but it occurs to me that reviewing historical works by a non-professional (or to be charitable, non-practicing professional historian) is sort of pointless since a layperson is probably not going to read much the heavyweight historical research I've been reading, and people who are already either historians, or history buffs probably already have access to professional grade book reviews.

With that said, I am going to change the focus of the blog (narrow it down, so to speak) to speculative fiction. And perhaps not just books. I'm also going to include gaming articles when I feel the need (I have already done this), and other content. I'm going to also continue with historical fiction too, since well I like that and I consider it a branch of speculative (that is, speculation on how people lived in the past).

Sunday, April 19, 2009

Clone Wars by Karen Traviss

Star Wars already has a long history of movie-to-book adaptions, starting with the very first trilogy. You can read more about them in an earlier blog post.

This trend continued with the Prequel trilogy, and now with a book adaption of The Clone Wars.

This is of course something that I call genre fiction. Although the definition more accurately describes a specific genre (see here for an explanation), however it can be more specifically applied, within a specific genre (like here, science fiction) of a shared setting or in this case a movie spin-off novel line. Genre fiction is rarely high fiction, but tends to be escapist and (for me) entertaining. And there is nothing wrong with this, since sometimes being entertained is more important than some new insight in the human condition.

Karen Travess is fast becoming my favorite Star Wars writer. Her books tend to be lucid and eventful, without wallowing in the action ("war porn" for lack of a better term). Furthermore, the detail she gives to the characters really allows one, in my opinion, to empathize or at least better understand the motivations.

I heard a few bad things about the Clone Wars movie, so I chose not to watch it. I have been enjoying, on the other hand, the Clone Wars TV series. The novel then is a happy medium. And it was pretty decent.

It's not terribly long (around 250pgs) which felt just about right to encapsule the events of the movie (which in the end read more like an extended Clone Wars episode...and perhaps that was the point). Furthermore, the characterization of Ahsoka (no, not the Indian Emperor Ahsoka the Great...) made her less of my fears of a teen-age girl and more along the lines of what a Padawan should be. Furthermore, some of the little details helping to define her based on her Togrutan ancestry were nice details.

If you haven't seen the movie, and like Star Wars, pick it up. If you saw the movie and disliked it, pick it up since you might like this more...

Saturday, April 11, 2009

4e Paragon Playtest

We playtested 4e last night with paragon level characters (i.e. 16th level) using paragon paths, or otherwise paragon multiclassing.

The biggest impression I got from the game is that it was a real grind. Combats lasted too long and besides never really having the feeling of being in danger, for the most part the game has too many hit points and not nearly enough damage. I also felt very straight-jacketed by the "roles" (I played a wizard/blood mage so therefore I was a "controller"), and IMHO really detracted from my enjoyment of the game (in previous editions, wizards/mages could in fact be either "controllers" or "strikers," a flexibility 4e lacks IMHO). While there were a few interesting abilities for the Blood Mage paragon path, it felt very watered down with not a whole lot to really make the paragon path stand out and be unique. Furthermore, all the abilities really started feeling the same, since it was more often than not a variation on a theme. There were a few really good ones (prismatic beams), but many were very decidedly "meh."

Also, while 4e really streamlined the core rules, it tossed any sort of idea of combat streamlining by piling on the special effects, ongoing effects, instant interrupt effects, etc. The amount of added in stuff was IMHO astounding, and I really can't see how combats in this game could be faster than 3e combat. Perhaps part of it was our character builds, but I couldn't really see any builds that made things simpler. I think the most telling aspect here was from the DM, who pushed for and organized this playtest. After the game he outright declared he is "done" DMing 4e.

And I think I'm done playing 4e too.

Wednesday, January 28, 2009

My Response to Star Wars: Saga Edition

One of the big problems with modern franchise based RPGs is a lack of stability. This wasn't an issue in earlier eras; West End Games held the license for Star Wars for some 11 years, while FASA held the license for the popular rival franchise Star Trek for some 7 years.

While the Star Trek RPG license has been doomed over the years to languish without proper support (or in some cases no support, going from FASA from 1982 to 1989, then Last Unicorn from approx. 1998 to 2002, and then Decipher from around 2002 to 2005, with a few "non-cannon" versions from Amarillo), the gaming universe has been more generous to Star Wars, with the D6 version from approximately 1989 to 1998, and with Wizards taking over (in fits and starts) from 2000 to today (with a few periods of no releases and minimal support).

While the D20 was well regarded (particularly by me, since I like he D20 system), the newest incarnation (the "Saga Edition") attempts to streamline the rules and present them in a new, cohesive whole. The philosophy behind releases very strongly follows the "sourcebook" model, with new supplements covering a variety of subjects, rather than just one topic (with some notable exceptions, though even Starships of the Galaxy, and Threats of the Galaxy tend to have a bit more information than just what the title suggests). The result is a series of "era" books that do nicely in fleshing out the time period in Star Wars fictional history, but also provide enough of a mechanics draw to make them worthwhile if you do not play in that specific period.

In reading the books, especially with the launch of D&D 4e a year or so later, it becomes immediately obvious that Saga was a "testbed" for some of the concepts of D&D 4e. For example, when attacking, you no longer neccessarily roll to hit the AC (armor class) of the target, but rather the reflex defense of the character. This does create some "wonky" rules, such as armor adding a bonus to Reflex defense, but unless you are a pedant, in my opinion, this isn't such a big deal (at least for me).

Overal I am around 90% happy with the Saga rules. Force powers, though limited (you can use them only once per an encounter, unless you spend a Force Point to recover it, or roll a 20 on a force use check) feel like the setting, and despite the fact that Saga is very similar to D&D 4e, it doesn't hit you over the head with the Grail of "COMBAT BALANCE!!!!" that D&D 4e attempts to enforce. While both games have a sort of "talent tree" mechanic, Sagas is far, far more open ended, and isn't a forced combat mechanic (believe it or not, there are talents that are useful in GASP! role playing opportunities), and there is a lot more freedom in what you can choose just in the core rules!

Furthermore, the streamlining of the rules are sensible and add to the game; nor do the rules overtly punish players for their choices. For example, D&D 4e punishes players for mounted combat, and the rules for that are, at best, cursory (with the recommendation "don't do it!"). On the other side, since vehicles have always been a big part of the Star Wars universe, vehicle rules are supported in the core, and expanded in other books (such as Starships of the Galaxy).

In the end, though, are the rules perfect? Not in my book. While I'm mostly satisfied, and enjoy playing the rules, there are a few areas that make it less "chrome-plated" and more of a highly buffed, burnished steel.

One gripe I have is the skill system. The Saga skill system is very similar to D&D 4e's, and one I'm not thrilled about. In essense, characters get a skill bonus of half their level to all skills. Thus a 20th level character will usually have around a +10 bonus to ALL skills (assuming a build that doesn't have any ability penalties). While I can see the appeal to this (they're HEROES!), since I am a huge fan of skill based systems, this doesn't give me the satisfaction of enough "crunch" and optimization I enjoy. While the new skill mechanic is still an open ended roll (in that there is no "skill" ceiling, which is good in my opinion), in this aspect I think the previous D20 editions were superior.

Another area I dislike is the idea of armor providing a bonus to reflex saves, and not the Damage Reduction in the previous edition. The Rules As Written in Saga state that when wearing armor, you add the armor bonus to your Reflex save. Not so bad, if a little weird. However, when not wearing armor, you add half your level (just like skills), meaning armor quickly becomes irrelevant as you gain levels (unless you have special feats). Sure, you might wear armor to get the equipment bonuses or enhancements to abilities (if appliciable), but other than that Obi-wan wore clone armor just as a fashion statement I suppose...or Darth Vader so he could look evil. This doesn't sit well with me.

But then what do I like, and what do I see as improvements? One obvious improvement is the level of support. When the first D20 edition of Star Wars came out, support virtually died after a few years. With the Revised edition, it came back, but then died off to nothing again. With this edition support has been steady, with a release every 2 months or so. Even better, the releases are written by a core development team, so there is a lot of consistency across the releases. There has yet to be a release I have been completely dissatisfied with from a quality standpoint.

Another mechanic I really enjoy is the Condition track. Unlike the Vitality/Hit Point mechanic used in previous editions (where you occasionally got a spectacular result, but most of the time was still an HP hack), if you take enough damage from a specific hit that goes above your Damage Threshold, you take cumulative penalties, from -1 to -10, simulating the accumulation of serious wounds. In addition, there are certain abilities and/or weapons that might affect the Condition Track as well, and certain abilities (like the "Second Wind") to get you going again. While not exactly an original mechanic, its a good one and well executed.

Furthermore, this mechanic is repeated on ships and vehicles as well, giving the game a unified mechanic and prevents page flipping.

In the end, I'm really enjoying the Star Wars campaign we are playing in lieu of D&D (which came to a staggering halt after over 10 years of continuous play thanks in part to 4e, and a little bit of fantasy burn-out), and will happily play it as the "main" campaign for years. While the specter of yet another edition change hangs over the franchise (it will happen, you know it to be true), at least we might know how D&D 5e will play.

Saga is everything D&D 4e should have been.