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Posts Tagged ‘books i’ve read’

Man Of Bronze, Man Of Science

June 1st, 2009 No comments

Recently I’ve been reading reprints of the old Doc Savage pulps. I believe that the last time I did so was in high school, so I’m more or less rediscovering them at this point. I may get into more detail about Doc and his exploits in a future post, but the three things you need to know to appreciate the following excerpt from “The Land of Terror” are as follows:

  1. The year is 1933.
  2. Doc Savage is the pinnacle of physical and mental development. His five assistants are all geniuses in their respective scientific fields, but Doc knows more than all of them combined. 
  3. The author, Lester Dent, constantly fawns over Doc and points out his perfection at every available opportunity.

I’ve long mocked ’50s and ’60s comics for their lousy grasp of science, but here’s a corker from an earlier decade, made all the more ironic because Doc is just so fucking confident about everything he says. 

“I am not sure what the Smoke of Eternity is,” Doc explained. “But I have an idea what it could be. When the substance dissolves anything, there is a weird electrical display. This leads me to believe it operates through the disintegration of atoms. In other words, the dissolving is simply a disruption of the atomic structure.”

“I thought it was generally believed there would be a great explosion once the atom was shattered!” Johnny murmured.

“That was largely disproved by recent accomplishments of scientists who have succeeded in cracking the atom,” Doc corrected. “I have experimented extensively along that line myself. “There is no explosion, for the very simple reason that it takes as much energy to shatter the atom as is released.”

Whew, that’s a relief. Doc Savage’s supreme knowledge of nuclear physics has just saved us from 60 years of Cold War and “smoking mushroom clouds.” Hiroshima applauds you, Doc.

Pride And Prejudice And Zombies And Tedium

May 16th, 2009 No comments

As I reached the halfway point of Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, it began to dawn on me that I’d been tricked. Oh sure, there were the promised undead and even some bonus ninjas, but I realized that perhaps 95% of the time, I was, in fact, actually reading Pride and Prejudice. The real one. 

It may surprise you that I–a 20+ year public TV veteran–have not only never read any Jane Austen, but never even watched a for-real TV or movie adaptation all the way through. I’m pretty sure that Clueless and Bride and Prejudice don’t count. 

I don’t have a problem with romances. Granted that I prefer a romantic comedy to a straight-up love story, but I’m enough of a lovestruck fool that I can appreciate a bit of sentimentality. Especially if the actress is hot.

What I don’t like are romances in which the obstacles standing in the way of true love are entirely self-imposed. I mean the sort of stories in which the lovers in question could easily find true happiness if only they could get over themselves/their honor/their social class. Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon is an excellent example. Lots of people were swept away by its tragic, doomed relationship. I, on the other hand, was just pissed off. I spent most of the movie mentally shouting, “For crying out loud, just shut up about your damned destiny and kiss her!”

Similarly, I couldn’t stand the ’80s TV show Beauty and the Beast. If you don’t recall that one, it was about a district attorney played by Linda Hamilton who fell in love with a broody, bestial, underground dweller played by Ron Perlman. The title sequence’s tag line went something like “We can never be together, but we’ll never be apart.” See, apparently it just wouldn’t do for a district attorney to be seen with someone who looked like Ron Perlman, only with fangs and a bit of a mane. And so began an endless “oh no, we mustn’t” faux-mance, never mind that Linda Hamilton was living in New York City, where there are plenty of real-life people scarier-looking than Ron Perlman. Really, all they had to do was give “Vincent” a haircut, a manicure, a bit of dental work and a decent tailor, and those two crazy kids could’ve been happily having litters of kittens.

In my view, true love doesn’t let shit like that stand in the way. If you’re really mutually head over heels, you make it work. And if you don’t, or won’t, you need to shut the hell up about it.

Which brings me back to Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, or, as I think of it, Pride and Prejudice (with zombies). There’s a point about 200 pages in at which it’s very clear that all of the interested parties have realized their mutual interest, and all that’s standing between them and the words “THE END” is an awful lot of yakking about social standing and what the neighbors will think. Hungry undead or no hungry undead, I found myself skimming ever more quickly through the last hundred pages.

I’m certainly glad that if I had to read Pride and Prejudice, it was the zombie variant. It’s just that even the zombies weren’t enough.

Me Of Little Faith: The Not-So-Great Escape

April 11th, 2009 No comments

On a recent trip to Borders, I was surprised to find Escape from Hell, Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle’s newly published sequel to their 1976 novel Inferno. I had greatly enjoyed the original when I read it back in ’86 during my tumultuous year in Hollywood. I was taken with the tale of a science-fiction writer who found himself in a Hell patterned after the one described in Dante’s Divine Comedy

The notion of Hell has always fascinated me. At first it was something I feared, due in no small part to watching too many Twilight Zone episodes. Later I was obsessed with the dissonance of a loving, fatherly God meting out eternal punishment. I came to believe that no earthly sin, no matter how heinous, justified torture for all time. Yes, that includes Hitler.

Niven and Pournelle’s Inferno came to a similar conclusion, as its narrator encountered souls suffering horrible and cruelly ironic fates for what, in some cases, were relatively minor “sins”: for example, an FDA attorney doomed to an eternity of immobile obesity because she banned a sugar substitute. It was she who spoke the line echoed in Escape from Hell, “We’re in the hands of infinite power and infinite sadism.” Ultimately, Inferno suggested that Hell must be only temporary, and that even the worst of humanity could be redeemed. Indeed, at the conclusion of that novel, the protagonist watched a reformed Benito Mussolini climb his way out of the pit.

Escape from Hell seemed to promise that it might address some of the remaining questions from Inferno regarding the purpose and nature of Hell*, but opts instead for posing those questions a second time. In fact, it struck me as less sequel and more remake, with its hero being blown all the way back to the beginning and having to make the perilous journey a second time. In a recent interview Pournelle says that the reason he and Niven revisited the setting after so many years was that they “had a story.” I’m not entirely convinced of that. While there are hints of changes in Hell wrought not only by Mussolini’s escape but by real-world events such as the Vatican II council, these never quite boil into a full-fledged expansion of the plot.

What it does allow is for Niven and Pournelle to toss a whole new batch of sinners into the pitch, including Ken Lay, the Virginia Tech shooter, and Carl Sagan. I was disappointed by the book’s handling of Sagan. In the above-linked interview, Pournelle claims a relationship with the astronomer, so I won’t dispute the authors’ reasons for consigning him to the Inferno. I just felt that, pragmatist or not, Sagan came off as too quickly accepting of a Biblical Hell, and too willing to cooperate with its masters.

It also gets a bit talky at times, with the characters frequently digressing into philosophical discussions. Natural enough, I suppose, but I didn’t feel like they were saying much that hadn’t been covered in the first book. Plus, the authors presume that I have as much interest as they do in the life and work of Sylvia Plath. (The poet is a major character in the sequel.) I can assure them that I don’t.

That said, there were some clever bits in Escape from Hell. One of the most striking images is of a post-9/11 Ground Zero in which an endless series of proposed replacements for the Twin Towers rise, each in turn proving insubstantial and collapsing due to a lack of commitment. In moments such as those, Escape from Hell demonstrates that while it’s far from a necessary sequel, it at least has something new to say.

*In our own world, Hell appears to serve several purposes. The threat of eternal damnation is an inducement for “good” behavior. It’s one method by which religious leaders exert control over their flocks and influence over the rest of us. But I suspect that its most important purpose is to allow us some measure of satisfaction over the rampant injustice we see. We know damned well that–despite aphorisms such as “crime never pays”–horrible people do prosper, and all too often they are never held accountable. Hell allows us to believe that even those who go to their death on a pile of money and whores will meet their just punishment in the afterlife.

Me Of Little Faith: Expert Witness

March 20th, 2009 No comments

Back in 2007, I made an abortive attempt at a mini-series of navel-gazing blog posts regarding religion. I managed to log only one entry before becoming terminally distracted by a Metroid invasion. It’s something I’d long intended to revisit, but I’d been looking for something to spark my interest in the topic.

This past week, I’ve been reading I’m Perfect, You’re Doomed: Tales from a Jehovah’s Witness Upbringing by Kyria Abrahams. Yes, I’m as amazed as you are; I’m reading a real book, not a TV tie-in or collection of ’60s comics. It may be far from my usual bathroom fare, but I was intrigued by the cover featuring a happy, little girl standing beneath an umbrella in an idyllic circle while the rest of civilization around her perishes in a rain of hellfire.

What’s it like to grow up knowing that the world will end within your lifetime, and that everyone who fails to share your one true faith is doomed, doomed, doomed? It turns out that you wind up boggled by normal social interactions and completely incurious about the world, because what’s the point of getting an education and making something of yourself if an earthly paradise is right around the corner? Granted that Kyria’s problems seem to spring as much from a panoply of mental disorders and a stunning self-centeredness as they do from her sheltered, cultish upbringing.

The book starts out hilarious, dealing with such earthly perils as Smurfs and demon-infested yard sale items, but becomes rather sad as Kyria grows up and flails about in a series of bad choices and loveless relationships. Judging by her blog, she seems to have turned herself around in the end, and I’m glad to know that. 

My interest in the Jehovah’s Witnesses goes back to my own childhood. My Great Aunt Vera was one, and while I don’t recall her attempting to send me home with a stack of Watchtower magazines, I do remember that even back then I could tell that something about her world view didn’t quite add up. Great Aunt Vera gave me my first exposure to apocalyptic end-time prophecy over a casual dinner at a local eatery on the west side of Hobart. It didn’t make much sense to me: something about having sixes tattooed on my head and the evils of a one-world government. I’m not sure quite when this conversation occurred, but as someone who grew up under the shadow of the Vietnam War, having a single government sounded like a pretty good idea at the time.

What really got me about the Jehovah’s Witness faith, as explained by Great Aunt Vera, was that it only allowed for 144,000 of its own followers to ascend to Heaven. Okay, sure, the rest got to live in an earthly paradise. Still, it seemed like a bum deal. According to my own vague, generic notions of Christianity, Heaven was for everyone, including pets. But here was an orthodoxy that preached that even if you did everything right there was still a much-better-than-even chance you wouldn’t get to hobnob with the Big G. (Er…Big J.) I mean, even then I realized that 144,000 was a pretty small number, especially if it was drawn not only from current-as-of-Armageddon Witnesses, but those who’d died prior to The End. What, was Heaven running out of room? Couldn’t an omnipotent God whip up a few more clouds for his chosen people to sit upon?

Right then, I thought, “Wow, that religion blows.” And that was before I found out about the not-celebrating-birthdays thing.

Two Down

March 21st, 2008 No comments

I’ve been feeling bad that I didn’t react more quickly to the passing of science fiction author Arthur C. Clarke. In my teens, he was one third of my literary holy trinity, what I thought of as “ABC”: Asimov, Bradbury and Clarke. I wrote a lengthy high-school essay on what was then my favorite book, Childhood’s End. While I’ve never been fond of the film 2001: A Space Odyssey, I loved the novel and its immediate sequel, 2010. And if there was ever a short-story collection I reread more times than his The Nine Billion Names of God, I can’t think of it.

I eventually fell out of touch with Clarke (as well as Asimov and Bradbury) thanks in part to a spate of disappointing follow-ups to Rendezvous with Rama and 2001. When I saw the TV news text crawl about his death, I had a “oh yeah, I’d forgotten he was still alive” moment.

That shameful admission out of the way, I want to give the man his due for his part in fueling my youthful interest in the future. And even though we missed traveling to other worlds by 2001 (and, at the rate we’re going, will be lucky to get there by 3001), there’d be a lot fewer people still considering such a voyage without his influence.

Viva La Resistance

February 25th, 2008 No comments

Almost 25 years ago, NBC premiered the miniseries V, an allegory about fascism in America with a sci-fi twist. A fleet of alien “Visitors” encircled the Earth, offering universal friendship as well as medical and scientific advances. However, their handsome, human exteriors masked a jaw-dropping secret…

In truth, the Visitors were reptilian space-Nazis out to steal our water and turn the human race into sushi-to-go. Masters of propaganda, they trumped up a phony conspiracy among our world’s scientists which served a twofold purpose: the imprisonment of those who might see through their deception and the institution of perpetual martial law.

Some humans eventually caught on and formed a resistance movement bent on driving the Visitors from Earth. The first miniseries ended with an interstellar SOS sent in hopes of contacting the aliens’ habitual enemies.

The following year brought a sequel miniseries, V: The Final Battle, which more or less wrapped up the storyline. Unfortunately, creator Kenneth Johnson left the project over creative differences, and while the new production team more or less followed his plot outline, they made some questionable decisions, not the least of which was granting a half-human, half-Visitor child the Power of the Glowing Deus Ex Machina to save the day.

The less said about the brief weekly series which followed, the better.

A few years back, Kenneth Johnson was engaged to write a new V miniseries for NBC. His script ignored the events of both The Final Battle and the series, instead picking up the story two decades later.

While that proposed production remains in limbo, Johnson has just published a novelized adaptation, V: The Second Generation. As promised, it provides an alternate account of life under the Visitors.

The “red dust” bacteriological weapon which defeated the lizards in The Final Battle has been swept under the carpet, and in this version of the story both the Resistance and the Earth itself appear to be in their final days. The rebels have suffered since the evil commandant Diana’s great purge of 1999. More and more people have disappeared, cocooned in storage aboard the hovering alien motherships. Much of the world’s oceans have been drained away, leaving behind massive deserts, and new technology from the Visitor homeworld threatens to finish the job in a matter of weeks instead of years.

Fortunately, hope arrives in the form of three mysterious infiltrators, advance scouts for the Visitors’ longtime foes, the Zedti. The good news is that they’ve got their own fleet of warships hidden behind Saturn. The bad news is that no one is sure that they themselves can be trusted.

In general, I found The Second Generation to be a solid wrap-up. The writing style is awkward at times, but the plot is riveting, especially as things ramp up in the final hundred pages. Be warned, though, that the darkness before the dawn is especially dark. Damn, some of the early chapters are depressing.

Initially, I was a little disappointed that more wasn’t made of recent real-world events; I was interested in the possibilities of Johnson’s take on the War on Terror. (Of course, in this alternate history, 9/11 never happened.) In the end, I realized that he’d already covered much of that ground the first time around. Still, I do wonder, given that both the original film and this book are dedicated to freedom fighters everywhere, what uncomfortable parallels he might have drawn between his heroic Resistance and certain real-life insurgents.

The science is as wonky as ever. Not only are there the usual improbabilities about people and reptiles breeding offspring (and there’s an awful lot of interspecies sex going on in these pages), but the book also presents in the form of the Zedti three different races of aliens which have evolved from insects yet which can pass as near-human.

I appreciated the opportunity to revisit some old friends. While many of the original miniseries’ characters are never heard from–presumably killed in the purge–half a dozen play integral roles in the storyline, including three who were killed off in the earlier sequels.

The book provides a good bit more closure than I expected. There’s a huge uprising, a countdown to destruction and a final reckoning with the Visitors and their heretofore-unseen Leader. There’s enough of an opening for another sequel which would presumably cast the entire world in the role of Bush-era Iraq, but if this is the end of the story, it’s a satisfactory final battle.

Categories: Sci-Fi Tags: , , ,

First-Level Spellbook

October 31st, 2007 No comments

Here’s something that may not be your own cup of polyjuice potion, but which tickled me: The Practical Guide to Monsters. Turns out that game publisher Wizards of the Coast has a kids’ book imprint called Mirrorstone which, among other things, publishes several series of youth-oriented novels aimed at the Harry Potter crowd. This particular volume is a sequel to their Practical Guide to Dragons, which detailed the spectrum of Dungeons & Dragons drakes.

What’s nifty about this book is that it draws on D & D‘s intellectual property without calling attention to the RPG tie-in. All of the critters within are straight out of the various Monster Manuals, but the book itself is written as if it’s something one might find in the Hogwart’s library, with an informal style and even scrawled margin notes.

I’m a big fan of “in-universe” sci-fi/fantasy reference books: volumes that appear to have been published within the fictional worlds they profile. I enjoy being pulled that little bit deeper into the fantasy.

Overall, I was very pleased with the book. Thanks to the wider variety of subject matter, it avoids being as repetitive as the Practical Guide to Dragons. While it does occasionally snitch previously-published Monster Manual artwork, most of the illustrations are new. I’m especially fond of the depictions of the creatures’ lairs; as a kid, I loved maps like that, with labyrinths of rooms to fuel my imagination.