Wednesday, July 25, 2018

Review: Star Trek: The New Adventures: Volume 2

Star Trek: The New Adventures: Volume 2 Star Trek: The New Adventures: Volume 2 by Stephen Molnar
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

The new/old adventures of the starship Enterprise continue…

The focus in this volume is mainly on filling in the backstory of many of the supporting characters although there’s still some re-telling of classic TOS stories in the Abrams timeline along with it. Most of it’s OK, but nothing that’d breach anyone’s warp core. The one I enjoyed most was about Keenser, the little alien that is Scotty’s pal in engineering.

The odd thing here is that even though this is a thick volume with a dozen issues of the main comic that several of the stories are based on other spin-off projects that aren’t included, and there’s little explanation provided as to the background. So even though I’ve read both volumes so far I was clueless on some things about Kirk dealing with some crooked Starfleet guy who was in some Into Darkness side story they did. And I apparently missed them meeting the Gorn race for the first time. Which is just wrong. If I’m reading a rebooted Star Trek line of comics you gotta give me that Gorn intro!

View all my reviews

Thursday, July 19, 2018

Review: Star Trek: The New Adventures: Volume 1

Star Trek: The New Adventures: Volume 1 Star Trek: The New Adventures: Volume 1 by Mike Johnson
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

These are the voyages of the starship Enterprise.

But which one? ‘Cause you’ve got the original Enterprise from TOS, then came the renovated one in the first couple of movies. But that one got blowed up real good so then we had the Enterprise-A. Of course there’s Next Generations which had the Enterprise-D and E versions. Oh, and we got to see the Enterprise-B and C, too. Then there’s the Enterprise from the prequel series of the same name. So exactly which Enterprise are we talking about here? Kirk’s original Enterprise? Cool! Wait, it’s the one from the rebooted Abrams timeline though….

This is why nerds eventually lose their minds.

So yeah, this is a comic that takes place after the events of the 2009 Star Trek reboot featuring a young Captain Kirk and his original crew, and a lot of the stories are retellings of TOS like Where No Man Has Gone Before, The Galileo Seven, and The Return of the Archons. The twist is that since we’re in an alt-timeline things play out differently than the original versions.

This is a tricky proposition. If you don’t change things enough then you’re just doing a boring pointless remake. If you change to much then you risk messing with something that fans might feel very strongly about. (Into Darkness ran into this when they tried to do another version of the Khan storyline.)

Overall, these are pretty fun that come up with interesting changes based on the way things have already been shifted because of the events of the first movie. For example, McCoy isn’t in the episode Where No Man Has Gone Before but here he’s already on the ship so his presence changes how it all goes even if much of it is still familiar. The Return of the Archons takes this even further because it seems like even the backstory of the events there are altered which would have taken place long before the timeline was changed. So that’s the writer essentially rebooting a piece of Trek history which is then used to set up a whole new plot thread going forward. Their version of The Trouble With the Tribbles also happens very differently, and there’s another story that’s entirely new and based off the events of the first movie so they aren’t just doing updates of old stuff.

The artwork is very good and really helps sell all this. They’ve got the look and feel of the new cast and Enterprise down exactly, and then they introduce other cool sci-fi action. A comic book adaptation is never going to be as satisfying as the move or TV show its based on, but this one does provide some fun supplemental action if you liked the Abrams version of the characters. (And if you don’t, I really don't want to hear about it.)

View all my reviews

Monday, July 16, 2018

Review: Murder on the Orient Express

Murder on the Orient Express Murder on the Orient Express by Agatha Christie
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

All aboard the murder train!

A long time ago when I was in high school and dinosaurs still roamed the earth I read a whole bunch of Agatha Christie novels. The weird thing is that I was never that big of a fan of hers. I was getting into mystery novels, she’s one of the best known writer in the genre, and the local library had a whole bunch of her stuff. At some point I realized that I prefer my murders to be a bit less civilized, and I moved onto other styles of the genre without giving much thought to ole Agatha after that. However, I recently watched the latest film adaptation done by Kenneth Branagh and even though it’s just OK that gave me the urge to check this out again. And it reminded me that classics are very often classics for a reason.

Belgian detective Hercule Poirot is on-board the Orient Express along with an assortment of travelers and their servants. An American named Ratchett is stabbed to death in his compartment just as the train is stopped by snow. Circumstances make it seem that whoever killed Ratchett is probably still among the people in the first class car that night. As Poirot sorts through the evidence and questions suspects he finds contradictions that make solving the murder a very complex task.

One of my reasons I stopped reading Christie was the impression that she didn’t play fair in her whodunits. (And since I’m going off very old memories I could certainly be wrong about that.) By that I mean that it seemed like the solution depended on some kind of in-story background information that a reader couldn’t possible know. There’s a touch of that here with a big piece of the plot involving a link to a famous fictional crime. (Although it’s obviously inspired by a famous real one.)

Yet, that’s set up as background info that’s pretty much given to us as soon as it’s revealed so it doesn’t feel like Christie was just cheating by springing the unknown on a reader as a way to hide the killer. In fact, since the murder took place in a confined space where people were coming and going that everything you need to know is given to us as Poirot builds a timeline and uses a diagram to place the location of people in the train car at various times. One of the great things about this book is the way that Christie uses the logistics of this to actually give you all the clues while also obscuring the solution in the details.

I’d also had the idea that her writing was very dry and boring. There’s actually a lot of touches of humor that I missed as a young idiot. Even though there’s a lot of dated things in terms of race, sex, and class it also felt like she was often making some sly commentary on attitudes of her time. For example, the guy working for the railroad is positive that an Italian passenger must have killed Ratchett since it was done with a knife, and while Poirot often seems to agree with him that circumstances make him a good suspect you also note that he begins outright mocking the guy for sticking with this theory as things evolve.

I also very much liked the ending which again goes against my idea that these were very proper books that believe in strict law and order when the resolution here is a lot more interesting and complex.

I may have to try some more of these books to see exactly what else I was wrong about.

View all my reviews

Review: The Stars My Destination

The Stars My Destination The Stars My Destination by Alfred Bester
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

You ever have a novel that you know is considered a classic of its genre yet you know absolutely nothing about it other than the title? This is one of those for me. I knew nothing about it other than the vague notion that it was an important sci-fi novel, but when it popped up as a deal on Audible I took a chance on it and went in cold.

How’d it work out? Pretty well.

A couple of centuries from now humanity has developed the ability to teleport themselves using only their minds in a practice called jaunting. While it has revolutionized society in many ways it’s limited to just a few hundred miles at most so spacecraft are still needed to ferry people and goods around the solar system. Because people are always gonna be assholes there’s a war raging among the Inner Planets and Outer Satellites.

Gully Foyle is just a working class grunt with little education and even less ambition who had the bad luck to be on a ship that got blowed up real good as part of that war. For six months he survives by staying in a small storage lock and scavenging supplies in the wreckage using a damaged space suit. Deliverance seems at hand when he sees another ship named Vorga passing close by, but even though Gully sends out plenty of distress signals that couldn’t be missed the other ship simply passes him by. Enraged at being abandoned, Gully begins to show more gumption than he ever has as he first manages to save his own life and then embarks a campaign to find and kill the people who left him to die. When he finds himself caught in much larger schemes of powerful people his obsessive need for revenge puts him beyond any attempts to bribe or bully him.

There’s a lot of interesting stuff here that gets into some really big trippy sci-fi concepts that seem way ahead of their time in many ways plus there’s a kind of Count of Monte Cristo style story embedded in it too. It’s easy to see why this is so highly regarded and is considered a forerunner to cyberpunk.

Gully Foyle is also an interesting bastard of a character. He starts out as this crude and violent man fully capable of crimes like murder and rape, and his journey eventually turns him into something much more than that. Yet because it’s his unswerving desire for simple revenge driving him he’s always got that primitive core just below the surface.

Despite being published over 60 years ago it doesn’t come across as that dated either. Alfred Bester did a lot of well thought out world building as to what this space faring society that has also mental powers like telepathy and the ability to teleport would be like. Some of the stuff he did here like a conflict between factions fighting for the resources of our solar system are still used today in sci-fi like The Expanse series, and the idea of powerful corporations being as much a force as government has been used countless times as well. The ending also seems like a leap forward to a kind of sci-fi that something like 2001 would do a decade later.

It’s a bold and ambitious story that seems ahead of its time in many ways, and I’m glad that I took the opportunity to fill in a gap in my sci-fi reading.

View all my reviews

Monday, July 9, 2018

Review: Yoda's Secret War

Yoda's Secret War Yoda's Secret War by Jason Aaron
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

Good this is not.

The idea of giving us a story about Yoda back in the day sounds OK, but there’s two problems with the execution of it here. First, the story seems more like one of those stinker episodes from the third season of the original Star Trek then Star Wars. Yoda goes to a planet destroyed by war with two primitive tribes still battling, and he uncovers a secret involving weird alien lifeforms. That really seems like something Jim Kirk should be doing, not Yoda.

The second problem is the inherent limit of doing prequel stories that this series keeps bumping its head against. Getting a solo Yoda adventure could be OK if it was a better story. But by using the framing device of Luke just after the events of A New Hope reading this in Obi-Wan’s journal means thinks have to get wonky because Luke doesn’t meet Yoda until Empire Strikes Back. So the text only describes Yoda as a ‘Jedi Master’ to explain how Luke could read a story about him but still not know his name.

And it’s just silly because why would Kenobi, who refers to Yoda as just ‘Master Yoda’ in the prequel movies, be so cryptic in this journal? It’s the things like this or having Luke fight Boba Fett but be blinded so he doesn’t recognize him later that highlight the limitations of trying to do a prequel that frequently relies on fan service rather than trying to actually do interesting things we haven’t seen before.

Which is why the second story here which is about Princess Leia being injured on a mission, and she has to be hidden by a woman who has suffered because of the war between the Empire and the Rebellion. Some good points get made about how Leia is responsible for a whole bunch of people dying, and she could be seen as a zealot who only cares about the cause, not the consequences.

The main Yoda story would be 1 star, but a solid character piece about Leia and great art work get it up to 2.

View all my reviews

Tuesday, July 3, 2018

Review: Help I Am Being Held Prisoner

Help I Am Being Held Prisoner Help I Am Being Held Prisoner by Donald E. Westlake
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Should someone be put in prison for a practical joke?

Yes. All practical jokers belong in jail. Or hell.

Harry has been an unrepentant prankster his entire life, but now he has been locked up after one of his jokes went wrong which resulted in several injuries. Once inside he quickly bumbles onto the secret of several other inmates. There was an opportunity during construction of a prison expansion to build a tunnel which they use to regularly leave. This isn’t for escape because none of these guys have long enough sentences to want to live on the run, but rather they just use the tunnel to go out and do the things they can’t while in jail only to return each night. Harry gets cut in on the scheme, and he enjoys the quasi-freedom it allows him. However, there’s a big catch. The inmates have realized that they have the ultimate alibi of being in prison so they've got an ambitious plan to rob two banks at once, and they demand that Harry take part in it. This puts Harry in a real bind since he may be in jail, but he’s no crook.

The late Donald Westlake was capable of doing both drama and comedy well, and as a lighthearted story written for yucks it works surprisingly well. I was worried in the early going because I really dislike practical jokers, and I thought that he’d be asking a reader to find Harry’s pranks hilarious. Instead Westlake makes it clear that this behavior is beyond annoying, but that Harry has a sick compulsion even when he knows the warden is watching him like a hawk and that his fellow inmates will murder him if they find out he's the one responsible. The humor comes from just how incapable Harry is of stopping, and the casual way we learn about the reign of terror he’s inflicting on hardened criminals. There’s a lesson for Harry in this story so that kept the book from asking me to be on the side of a guy who thinks tying someone’s shoe laces together is funny.

There’s also a running gag about Harry’s last name sounding like a vulgar term which I’m not gonna try to replicate here because I don’t have the patience to figure out how to do an umlaut. As with the practical joke angle I worried that Westlake was going for the most obvious and juvenile thing when it actually turns out to have some deeper meaning explaining Harry’s behavior.

So what we end up with is an enjoyable caper that makes for an entertaining couple of hours of fun reading.

However, I do find myself wishing that Westlake might have used this idea in one of his serious crime books he wrote as Richard Stark. If the humorless thief Parker would have run across a practical joker who screwed up his plans to rob a bank, and then got his big meaty paws around that guy’s neck and squeezed until he turned purple…. Yeah, that’d make for a pretty satisfying book, too.

View all my reviews