Monday, 24 June 2013

Star Trek: Planet of Judgement

This Star Trek novel was written by Joe Haldeman, an award winning science fiction author, famous for his novel The Forever War. I've never read any of his work before but I've read some nice things about this book online. Planet of Judgement is the first of two Star Trek books written by Haldeman and it’s supposed to be the best of the two and, in some circles, one of the best Star Trek novels. Apparently the second book he wrote is not nearly as good as this one since Haldeman didn’t really feel like writing it but he still did due to his contractual obligations.

In Planet of Judgement the Enterprise is tasked to bring Dr. James Atheling to the Starfleet Academy. The voyage will take four weeks to complete. Some of Captain Kirk's senior officers have suggested he give his crew some time for recreation but he refuses because he suspects that he and his crew will face an inspection once they reach the Academy. On their way to Earth, they encounter a cosmological anomaly, a rogue planet circulating a black hole. This being the crew of the Enterprise, they decide to investigate.

The book's plot is pretty simple and I quite liked it. It doesn't need to be complicated to be interesting. Several members of the Enterprise are stranded on the abnormal planet they nicknamed Anomaly. The planet's laws of physics are different then what is normally found throughout the rest of the explored universe. In the goal of exploring the source of what appears to be an artificial sun, Kirk prepares a landing party. Shorty, after losing all contact with Kirk on Anomaly's surface, a second boarding party is sent closely followed by Spock and three shuttles attempting a rescue mission.

Haldeman gives us a pretty dangerous planet, filled with large alien versions of Mesozoic animals. Most of these animals are large and ferocious enough to threaten the crew. The flora also threatens the survival of the stranded few. The planet is also inhabited by humanoid creatures that have attained a certain level of civilization and technology as proved by their attacked armed with bows and arrows. The presence of the humanoids gives the crew one more thing to worry about: General Order One. Unfortunately, this is mostly set dressing and the rest story is about the crew’s encounter with the humanoids who really aren’t that technologically advanced. Instead, they’re minds have evolved far beyond that of Man or Vulcan. That’s what makes them dangerous to the crew.

The story of the crew’s survival on Anomaly is actually quite horrific. Haldeman manages to make the reader worry about the safety of the crew in part because there are actual casualties and also because most of their technology doesn’t work or, at best, works sporadically with varying degrees of efficiency. Haldeman doesn’t limit himself to telling a short science fiction story. He adds layers of complexity by introducing moral and philosophical debates into the story, particularly through the humanoids’ integration with the stranded crew. It’s dark for a Star Trek story but it’s smart and creepy and it’s interesting to see Kirk, Spock, McCoy and all the others in this difficult situation.

I found it somewhat unfortunate that the story turned into something we've seen several times in Star Trek. It turns out Anomaly is inhabited by an incredibly advanced species that are looking to use the Enterprise's officers to presumptively stop an attack on the federation that is only set to occur in one thousand years. You have to keep in mind that by the original publication of Planet of Judgement, the stories where the crew was tested by highly advanced beings hadn't been explore as frequently as it later was post-TOS. Even if it has been, it doesn’t really matter because Haldeman writes it so very well. He has an unapologetic approach to his writing and that’s something I find refreshing in the Star Trek universe. It also helps that he writes McCoy extremely well. McCoy is one of my favourite Star Trek characters and it’s really nice to see him so well written.

My main criticism of Planet of Judgement is that Haldeman seems to have decided to write a different book half way through. There is a distinct shift in story and in tone. I really wanted to finish the story that the book begins with. The story of the crew stranded on a prehistoric planet where survival is your only concern. I wanted to read about how the Spock and McCoy were going to react to the harsh conditions of Anomaly, particularly how they will survive with so little technology at their disposition? Haldeman did such a great job setting up the horrific situation the crew ended up in because of their scientific curiosity but the author never follows through with the idea.

This is the second Star Trek novel I read and there is a pattern emerging regarding sexual or emotional attraction to Spock. In Spock Must Die! Kirk was contemplating why female crew members were attracted to Spock. He concluded that it’s because it gives them a “safe” outlet for expressing their racial rebellion. In Planet of Judgement, Spock asks McCoy to explain a comment he made regarding nurse Chapel's attraction to Spock. McCoy comes to a different conclusion than Kirk. It's his opinion that Chapel likes Spock because he’s powerful (second in command on the Enterprise), intelligent and for his "behavioural predictability". Bones also adds that women like that he is different, unusual. That last comment is rather similar to what Kirk thought of in the other book. I find a discussion of this topic to be rather odd. Was Spock the teen heartthrob of The Original Series?

Coming in at 150 pages, Planet of Judgement is a pretty good Star Trek novel (says the guy who’s only read two). I liked it more than Spock Must Die! but for entirely different reasons. It’s a shame that Haldeman seems to have charted a new course for the book about halfway through but once the change is made, he quickly makes the new story just as interesting. The length of the book contributes to it being good. I have a difficult time imagining Planet of Judgement at 300 pages, a pretty average length for a modern novel. I’ll end with a positive note by saying that I absolutely love the cover and the back cover. Unfortunately, I couldn’t find a picture of the back cover so I’ll simply describe it. The jungle continues to the left of Spock and Sharon and there is a shuttle flying below the trees surrounded by a very large red snake that is attacking the shuttle. It looks great and really helped to put me in the mood for reading this little book.

Thursday, 20 June 2013

The Comic Book History of Comics review

In approximately 220 pages, Fred Van Lente and Ryan Dunlavey somehow manage to write and draw the history of comic books. This was a huge undertaking and anybody even slightly familiar with the history contained in this comic will know that. For those who didn’t know just how audacious a project this one, looking at the sources index organized by chapters will surely go a long way in helping you understand. The history of comics is long and rich enough that there have been books published that focused narrowly on even just one of the many subjects Van Lente and Dunlavey present in The Comic Book History of Comics. Still, the creative team did have to concentrate their efforts a bit and they do put the focus mostly on the development of American comics. Nevertheless, they take the time to highlight the importance and the contributions of outside markets and sometimes even concentrate on the importance of specific creators such as Osamu Tezuka.

Two things really stuck out to me while reading. The first is that it was a regular practice for most publishers since the early days of comics to print and sell as many issues and titles of whatever appeared to be popular at the present time. Because of this you got large booms in particular genres for a relatively short period of time only to see them vanish just as quickly. The rise and fall of romance comics is but one example of this. After learning that it’s discomforting to notice that the trend still seems to be going on today.

The second thing that stuck out was that creators regularly mistreated one another, sometimes in public and often in public locals, most notably courts of law. It saddens me as someone who regularly reads and enjoys comics and believes the creator rights that there has been, and unfortunately continues to be, numerous battles (often legal in nature) between creators. I'm aware that not all of them fought so much but it's upsetting to know that Stan Lee has his little cameo in all the Marvel studio movies and that his name is widely known. His name is often dropped in episodes of The Big Bang Theory and he's appeared on the show at least once. But how many of the show’s non-comics-reading fans even know who Jack Kirby is and how many of those are aware of the constant mistreatment he faced during the entire length of his prolific and influential career in comics?  

It can be far too easy to enjoy reading comics in a vacuum within considering what goes on behind the scenes but I appreciate being given a reminder of the hardships some of the comic creators faced. It makes you appreciate their body of work more and it also makes you think a little about who you’re giving your money to when you buy your comics. I’d much rather purchase a comic such The Comic Book History of Comics than the 9 batman titles they sell each month. Both of those frustrations seem to primarily affect the American comics industry. It's quite nice that Van Lente and Dunlavey showed why there didn’t seem to be the same issues in the European market.

Fred Van Lente and Ryan Dunlavey are unapologetic in their approach to the history of the medium they clearly love. They provide a balanced view of comic book history, sometimes including things like the Walt Disney and Max Fleischer animation war, which I wouldn’t automatically related to comics works well in the context. Van Lenteand Dunlavey are clear in their explanation as to why the animation war played an important role in the development of comics and creator rights legal battles.

The Comic Book History of Comics makes me feel bad for having ignored or neglected to read some important comics work. I mean, I’ve never even read Maus. Pretty shameful, I know. Still, I’m grateful for the creative team’s push to explore more classic comic works.

The ending is spot on. Despite the fact that the comics industry has faced numerous issues and setbacks in its history, the book ends on a positive note. I’m sure if we looked at the history of film we would find as much in-fighting and lawsuits and idea stealing as we did here. It’s part of the entertainment industry and it’s easy to understand why creators defend their ideas so vehemently. One of the strengths of this important work is that the creative team accepts the good along with the bad and presents all of these to the reader. As a bonus to us, they do so with wit, humour and sharp criticism. It’s an absolute delight to read and, perhaps surprisingly, incredibly informative.

Tuesday, 18 June 2013

Judge Dredd: The Garth Ennis Collection review

I keep forgetting Dredd is American.

I like these Judge Dredd collections that focus on a particular writer. I have one of the Mark Millar and Grant Morrison collections. I quite liked it. Have they done the same for artists? I know IDW published a big hardcover collection of Brian Bolland’s Judge Dredd work but do any others exist? It would be interesting to find out. I think it’s a good idea to collect Judge Dredd comics in this way since, to my knowledge, there isn’t a very large amount of longer storylines but I could be very wrong. Judge Dredd’s been published weekly since 1977! No matter, there is a Garth Ennis collection and I’m very pleased to own it.  

Fans of Ennis are sure to like some stories in here but not all. “Emerald Isle” and “When Irish Pies Are Smiling” most resemble the style of writing Ennis has become known for. There are severed body parts, dark humour, death by blunt trauma to the head, plenty of Irish flavour, interesting commentary on a variety of subjects and, even so early in his career, a pretty good grasp for dialogue.

This collect does offer a nice variety of stories. The stories here differ in tone, in artistic styles and, somewhat unfortunately, in quality. Like all anthology, and don’t be fooled, this is essentially what this is, there will be good stories and there will be bad stories. Some of these I didn’t like because of the art, one in particular I thought was borderline terrible, “Almighty Dredd” in which a some lunatics create the Church of Dredd and go about sacrificing people Dredd so that he can transform Mega City One into a crime free paradise. The story itself isn’t great but it does have a few humorous panels. It’s the art that really brings this down to level of throwaway story.

There are a few handfuls of well executed stories that don’t have much weigh to them once you’ve turned the last page. “Snow Storm” is a good standalone story that is well executed but I’m certain I’ll forget all about it once I’m done writing this review. Another standalone, “First of Many” leaves a more lasting impression because of the story being told. Other stories, like “Emerald Isle”, are fun and representative of Ennis as a writer. This collection opens with “Emerald Isle” and it has many of the Ennis staples, including long-time collaborator Steve Dillon who I must say has been a pro from the very start. I remember the first time I saw his art I didn’t have any strong feelings for it, whether good or bad. Over time I’ve come to absolutely love it. I have to look long and hard to find art by Dillon I don’t enjoy. As much as I enjoy the showcase of artists in most 2000 AD/Rebellion collections I’ve purchased, I wish this book had more stories drawn by Dillon.

Death by potato!
I got a little off track there. “Emerald Isle”, its good and fans of Ennis will enjoy it. Judge Dredd travels to the Emerald Isle which is, you’ve guessed it, the Ireland of the future. Ireland has become a theme park filled with Irish stereotypes and the locals hate it. Ennis introduces an Irish Judge and he has some nice back and forth happen between him and Dredd. This is probably one of the funnier stories in this collection and I’ll resist the temptation to share some of the better jokes with you here. It was a great way to start the collection and it’s also one of Ennis’s earlier Dredd stories from what I read online. Pretty great start for a writer who was still very green at the time this story was published.

Ennis’s usual dark and gross sense of humour is present nearly throughout. Only two stories in this collection try for a more serious tone.  The first one doesn’t work, “A Magic Place”. Its and unsuccessful mix of Ennis’s strange humour (there is character called the Blender who, uh, blends people to death) and a romantic story that is more serious in tone. I find serious stories can be difficult to pull off as a Judge Dredd, particularly so when the focus isn’t really on Dredd or even the romantic couple and the Blender’s presence just seems to confuse the whole thing. I guess what this story really lacks is focus.  Another reason why this story doesn’t work well is the artistic shift. The first chapter is expertly drawn by Steve Dillon but the remaining two are by Simon Coleby who’s art is blocky but still retains a cartoonish that wasn’t suited the story Ennis was telling. Still, I did appreciate the effort.
A young Dredd making his first arrest.
The other more serious story is “Raider”. It’s a science fiction noir tale set in Mega City One and staring a former Judge. Raider actually went to the academy at the same time as Dredd! Ennis gives us a story of what a man does after he voluntarily leaves the force. The art and the writing are very moody. I didn’t expect this from Ennis and I’m very pleased to have discovered this little story. It packs a swift, but long lasting, emotional punch and it’s the gem of this collection despite being the least representative of Ennis’s body of work.  

If you’re a fan of Ellis you’re sure to find something to like in this collection. You might be a bit put off by some of the growing pains. This is, after all, a collection of some of his earlier work not only on Judge Dredd, but also in comics. Fans of Judge Dredd may have already read some of these stories in other 2000 AD/Rebellion collections but there are some undeniable classic Dredd stories here. Make sure you don’t own these stories in another trade before you go out and buy this comic. If your Judge Dredd collection is just starting off, like mine, this would make a nice addition, particularly if you like Garth Ennis’s style. It’s on full display here, growing pains and all.

Thursday, 13 June 2013

The Outfit by Richard Stark review

It’s a credit to Richard Stark’s skill as a writer that I can so thoroughly enjoy a novel for which I’ve already read the comic adaptation (more than once!). His no nonsense prose, his ability to grab the reader’s attention and not let go until the last page is turned, along with this superbly well thought out plots, I can’t help but be transformed into an evangelist of Stark. Unsurprisingly to me and to those who have read some of my previous Parker reviews, The Outfit was excellent.

As I mentioned in my review of The Man with the Getaway Face, the first three Parker novels form a neat trilogy and you could easily consider the fourth book, The Mourner, an epilogue of sorts. The Outfit is the third part and what a finish to this first multi-novel Parker story. In this third Act, Parker puts in motion the threat he gave the Outfit in The Hunter after the said a hired gun after him. He writes letter to all his past associates asking them to knock off an Outfit job if they have one. He doesn’t want a cut of the take, he doesn’t want to pull the job with them (he’s got his own job in mind). All he wants is for the Outfit to lose a lot of money to show them they never should have fucked with him. As if that wasn’t enough, Parker also personally sets out to find Bronson, the head of the Outfit, and put an end to his career.

I've read a large enough number of Parker books to start to see little in-jokes. For those who've read the comic adaptation of The Outfit, remember the little VW from the Club Cockatoo job? Well that's a modified getaway car designed to be much faster than what a VW should be able to go. The work was done by a man named Chemy who makes a living procuring and modifying stolen cars to be used for a variety of illicit means. It was a neat little world building element I really enjoyed. I'd love to see Chemy appear again in one of the later books.

In my review of The Hunter I mentioned the formula of the Parker novels. The formula is limited to the plot but there is also a formula for the structure of the novel itself. The novels are always divided into four parts, each one roughly the same length though not always. In The Outfit, Stark plays with another structure formula. In one part each novel, usually if not always part three, Stark writes from a point of view of another character other than Parker. In the first novel it was Mal Resnick, in the second novel it was Stubbs, the plastic surgeon’s punch drunk handyman. For The Outfit, Stark gives us a glimpse into the mind of Bronson but he also gives it a spin by writing from the point of view of several other characters, all of them acquaintances of Parker's, and the various Outfit jobs they knocked off. It’s like a Parker heist anthology in the middle of a Parker novel. Absolutely fascinating and every job is a sheer delight to read about. Part of me wanted to slow down and really savour each job. One of the things that make Richard Stark such a great writer is that despite sticking to the formulas he establishes for himself, he regularly tweaks them in satisfying and meaningful ways.

Darwyn Cooke did and particularly superb job adapting the third part of the novel. He really flexed his storytelling muscles in an extended sequence of heist after heist. He uses a variety of style and techniques that contribute to each job feeling unique and it also grabbed the reader’s attention because Cooke’s clearly showing off a little but I loved every page of it. The Club Cockatoo job was an excerpt of Stark’s novel accompanied by Cooke’s drawing. It makes me wish some of the Parker novels had illustrations every fifty pages or so.

Stark provides a satisfying conclusion to the story that began in The Hunter. The series continues in The Mourner, which I reviewed here, which has Parker trying up some loose ends from the opening of The Outfit and pulling a job against his will. There is a sense of "what happens next?" after finishing the third and fourth books. Parker's world has undergone some serious transformations. How does Stark continue to write a series that doesn't feel like a letdown after the tremendously good three part introduction and the epilogue book? Well, he gives us The Score, a book about Parker doing what he does best, planning and knocking off a job, a really big, complicated and risky job.

Wednesday, 12 June 2013

Star Wars: X-wing: Rogue Squadron review

I had some reservations before starting the first book is Michael A. Stackpole's X-wing series. There is no way he could write space combat scenes reminiscent of World War II dogfights comparable to what Lucas gave us in the movies. . . Can he? No, of course not and, having read the book, I can confirm this.  This series has been around since the early days of the Expanded Universe novels and you can usually find it on “best of” Star Wars novels lists. There's got to be something good going on between those covers. Another reason I was convinced to give this book a look, it puts the focus of new characters and characters from the movies that had small talking parts. The book isn’t about Wedge Antilles and General Ackbar, they’re secondary characters but they help the reader feel at ease while reading a book that mostly focuses on new characters. It’s those new characters that actually make the book a satisfying read.

I need to point mention that the real reason I decided to give this book a chance was the art of Paul Youll. I mean seriously, have you seen that cover? How do you look at that and not immediately head for the checkout line? That cover makes me feel like an x-wing pilot. According to Wookieepedia, George Lucas owns the original painting of all nine X-wing covers Youll did. It’s not surprise. If I had as much money as Lucas has, I’d have a room in my mansion just for those sweet, sweet paintings.  

The story is pretty straight forward. The former rebel Alliance is now in the midst of becoming the New Republic a few months after the battle of Endor. Unfortunately, the Empire did not crumble when the second Death Star blew up and there are still many military conflicts taking place between the remains of the Empire and the New Republic. This reinforces what many of the early EU novels were doing. They were concerned with letting Star Wars fans that the Galaxy did not become all ponies and rainbow with the death of the Emperor, Vader and their biggest war toys being blown up. The rebels now have to legitimize their New Republic and make it viable as a governing force for the Galaxy. Similarly, the rebel military force needs to continue to pursue the remnants of the Empire’s forces and put an end to them if necessary. This first novel in the series sets a course for the series and for rogue squadron. The mission is to work their way towards the Imperial centre of Coruscant and put an end, once and for all, to the Empire. The approach of earlier EU novels and their goal to insert thought and depth to the Star Wars universe while maintaining the feel good swashbuckling action and the space dogfights was a good mix for the series and one that I quite like.

I was disappointed with the first hundred pages of X-wing: Rogue Squadron because I wasn’t reading the book I was expecting to read. I was expecting what the cover depicts. I wanted crazy space opera dogfights with whirling vomit inducing acrobatics and lots and lots of explosions. For the most part, that's not what I got. But that's ok because what Stackpole wrote is, ultimately, a better book. He gave me a sense of what it is to be a member of rogue squadron. The risks, the constant training, the relatively short but intense missions, the near constant frustration with bureaucracy getting in the way of you doing your job and the obsession with your performance as a pilot. Stackpole humanized the rogue squadron pilots. They're not just stand-in figures sitting in an x-wing like they are in the movie. Even for those who've seen the space battles in the original trilogy dozens of times, we only really know Luke, maybe Wedge, and everybody else is rather unimportant. Even pilots who aren't alive anymore by the time X-wing: Rogue Squadron begins are fleshed out to be actual characters (I'm thinking of you Biggs).

Stackpole does a good job with the time when they're not in flight. He takes the time to show the reader that being an X-wing pilot consists of far more than just strapping into a cockpit and doing fanciful aerial manoeuvres while blasting down silly TIE fighters. As it turns out the rebel Alliance is rather well organized and very militaristic in its approach. There is a clear chain of command and there is a structure to the whole thing. In an early chapter we witness Wedge Antilles, rogue squadron hero, discussing the roster for the new rogue squadron with his superiors and its great scene. There is a lot of thought put into who makes it onto this particular squadron of elite x-wing pilots. The Alliance bureaucracy is a constant source of frustration for Wedge and his squadron and it’s also one of the reasons the survival rate in rogue squadron is so low. 

There are smaller touches in X-wing: Rogue Squadron that I really enjoyed. Stackpole has a good eye for these little touches. Small things like knowing the x-wing pilots keep a visual tally of their kills on their fighters are great (Wedge has two Death Stars on his x-wing).  It’s not very original, pilots have been doing this since the creation of fighter planes, but it’s cool to see transposed in the Star Wars universe. Sometimes the little bits are the development of aliens and their cultures. For example, the insect species known as the Verpine. Verpine are well regarded mechanics and technicians since they're often fascinated with technology and have microscopic vision which allows them to see in great detail. However, they're also notorious tinkerers and because they think differently than other species, the modifications they make can be improvements for them by not for others. They think in base six which also affects their thinking and the modifications they make. Details such explaining the reader why Verpine simultaneous make great and not so great mechanics are rather insignificant when you consider their impact on the larger story being told. But it’s those details that enrich the fictional universe and contribute to our appreciation of the Star Wars franchise.

Unfortunately, for every great little detail there are more important to the story stick out as awkward, out of sync with the rest of the book or even Star Wars as a whole. Silly things like how Stackpole wrote rogue squadron’s M-3PO droid’s nickname. He calls it “Emtrey” which seems wrong to me. Shouldn’t it be called “Emthree”? Many writers have called C-3PO “Threepio” in the books, so shouldn’t M-3PO be “Emthree”? Am I completely wrong on this because “Emtrey”, which I pronounced “Em-Tray” seems really, really wrong.  
Stare at the marvel that is the cover of X-wing: Rogue Squadron. Thanks
Paul Youll. If I knew you personally I would ask for mini Star Wars
paintings as my Christmas cards each year. 
Other more important things were also disappointments. I’m thinking specifically of the X-wing battles which were boring to me. Stackpole used an excessive amount of explanation and descriptions to inform the reader of, ultimately, very little. The fight scenes also can’t take place as the same pace as they did a visual medium like the movies. They simply can’t and Stackpole unfortunately didn’t find a way to make them equally exhilarating to the reader by using a technique unique to the books. This is the key element I was most preoccupied with before reading the book and I’m not surprised it didn’t live up to the potential displayed in its cinematic predecessor.

In the end, Stackpole didn't give me what I was expecting and what I thought wanted. He gave me something very different and for a time I didn't really enjoy X-wing. It's only once it clicked, once I understand what Stackpole was doing that I was able to sit back, get a bit comfier in my chair, and star to enjoy the X-wing: Rogue Squadron. The main character, Corran, was really annoying to me in the first half of the book, he still is actually, but I understand him better now and I care for him. Similarly, I’ve developed and emotional attachment to quite a few characters (Ooryl Qrygg is kind of the best and I got a bit upset when his name was misspelt twice in one book. I bet proofreading novels that have several alien names in them is a pain in the butt). After reading the first book of this ten book series, I’m convinced that ­X-wing: Rogue Squadron is the book you want to start with. Still, it’s important to keep in mind that your light speed may vary.

Side Note: I had questions regarding how X-wings work in atmosphere and in space. I'm sure Stackpole did some studying on planes and aerial combat but some of the things he describes in X-wing just don't make sense to me. For example, the use of rudders on X-wings while flying in space. There isn't any drag in space so wouldn't that make rudders ineffective and therefore useless in space combat? I think it's good that X-wings have rudders since they also fly in atmosphere. But switching from space to atmosphere in the same battle or in a short time period would mean the pilot is forced to adjust his piloting since the laws of physics work different on or off planet. When such an event occurs the sense of belief in the story is completely shattered. All of this gets me thinking about how X-wings and other spacecrafts, especially smaller ones, fly. Particularly how they fly so quickly and with such agility. Do they have a number of thrusters that help them maneuverer left, right, up and down? I can see how these thrusters would be useful at low speed, but what would it take for them to be effective at high speeds? Unlike flying in atmosphere, where the use if a rudder is an effective way to direct the flight of a craft since it acts on the forces affecting the aircraft which in turn affect the direction and movement of the craft. I don’t think you can do that in that space and I don't see how thrusters would be of much use unless they were rather large. Or maybe not. Perhaps because of the weightlessness in space combine with the absence of drag and friction allows for the X-wing to move around rather easily. Still, the concept of rudders in space seems ridiculous. I'm no expert on plane nor am I am expert on space flight, but it's difficult to imagine that flying an x-wing is anything like how Stackpole describes it in this book. 

A side note on my side note: I was speaking to one of my friend who is a pretty big Star Wars fan and has read many more Star Wars novels than I have and he dismissively answered my above questions. The rudder pedals control thrusters that give the same effect of physical rudders in atmosphere. The physics of space allow for thrusters to act on X-wings in rather effective ways. Ok. Thanks for  schooling me, Keith.

Sunday, 9 June 2013

The Man with the Getaway Face by Richard Stark review

"He was a big man, flat and squared-off, with boxy shoulders and a narrow waist. He had big hands, corrugated with veins, and long hard arms. He looked like a man who'd made money, but who'd made it without sitting behind a desk."

The Man with the Getaway Face is the second book in author Richard Stark’s Parker series. Perhaps unsurprisingly to reader of The Hunter, this is an excellent book. The events flow directly from the first book in the series. Parker gets a new face by going under the knife of a disgraced plastic surgeon that still has a licence to practice but no longer has any reputable patients. Parker got a new face in order to avoid being caught by the Outfit after they put a price on his head. He’s got a new problem now; he’s low of funds and needs to find a job to do in order to make some money. The job he finds seems good at first but the pot is too small and it needs to be split a few times too many. He’ll have to rework the job in order to make it profitable but his troubles don’t end there.

The job seems simple; rob an armoured truck while the drivers and guards make a pit stop at a diner somewhere on the highway. The more Parker looks into the job though, the worse it starts to look. The finger, Alma one of the waitresses at the diner, is trouble. Parker goes along with it though because he’s working with long-time collaborator and the closest thing Parker has to a friend, Handy McKay and he really needs the money. He also thinks he has a good handle on her and the cross she’s planning.

Stark must of have a stroke of genius when he thought of Alma. She's not your crime fiction femme fatale type. Physically she’s has a hard figure, round but uninviting. She’s not a stoat woman but she kind of looks it despite her height. Stark describes her as having somewhat of a German built. She's a hard woman, controlling, opinionated and angry at the world because she hasn't gotten what she thinks she's due. She's a good match for Parker, not because she's good at what she does, but because she's hard headed enough to not listen to reason and take reckless actions that really  only seem to benefit her but she’s got no chance to really pull them off. She's not so much stupid as she is reckless. She doesn't want to admit that Parker and Handy are professionals. She doesn't want to be told she's going about this all wrong and that's what makes her a threat to Parker. She also has another work acquaintance of Parker’s, Skimm, under her thumb. Alma is a threat to Parker because she’s a serious liability against the success of the armoured car job.
Unlucky for Parker, Alma and a job that’s quickly going aren’t his only problems. The plastic surgeon who gave him a new face was murdered and his punch drunk handyman is out to find his murderer and since Parker was the surgeon’s last patient he’s been deemed one of the prime suspects. Parker doesn't have time for this. He needs to do the job because he needs the money but he also needs to keep his new face a secret so that the Outfit doesn't track him down and that’s exactly what Stubb’s, the doctor’s handyman, is threatening to reveal.  Parker’s got too much on his plate and he's having a hard time keeping it straight, even with his trusted friend Handy helping out. But soon it’s apparent they also have to keep an eye on Skimm who appears to have lost his edge.

Stark does two things in The Man with the Getaway Face: 1) gives Parker so that he can hide from the Outfit and 2) has his plan and execute a job. It’s smart because Stark shows us just how big a deal it was for Parker to go after the Outfit in The Hunter. There are going to be some serious and lasting repercussions for messing with the men at the top of the Outfit. The armoured car job accomplishes something different. By the second book I think Stark wanted to show readers that Parker isn’t just a hard man, he’s also a very skilled man when it comes to thieving. It was a smart move to include such an event because it’s very informative as to what a Parker book is and will continue to be. The Parker novel heist formula is more clearly established here than the shuffled up version that exists in the first book. The more important part of the book though, is the complications that arise from the plastic surgeon’s death. The threat isn’t Stubbs, the handyman. The threat is the knowledge of his new face being leaked to the Outfit. That's something that continues to play a larger role the third book, The Outfit. It's pretty clear to me now that the first three Parker books form a neat trilogy that's pretty focused on Parker butting head with the Outfit, Stark's version of organized crime in the 60s era United States.

When I picked up The Man with the Getaway Face, I was expecting to read a new Parker story, a story for which I hadn't read the comic adaptation for because I didn't think there was one. I was partially wrong on this. Nearly half of this book was included in Darwyn Cooke's adaptation of The Outfit. It's really interesting to compare both stories and to see how Cooke uses his art to tell the story in comic book shorthand. I say this because the armoured car job is told in less pages in the comic than it takes in the novel. It's one of the segments that can provide considerable insight into Cooke's method for adapting Stark's Parker novels. 

The Man with the Getaway gives us a look at a side of Parker we haven’t seen yet. He’s vulnerable and so in need of money that he willingly puts his life and the job at risk because he doesn’t feel he has any other choice. Stark also shows us just how much Parker put at risk while going head to head with the Outfit in the first book. Although not as intense as The Hunter, The Man with the Getaway Face was a fantastic read because it gave us insight into another side of Parker. He’s less violent and more calculating which were required of him in order to survive the events of the book.

Wednesday, 5 June 2013

Spock Must Die! Review

I found this book at my local used
bookstore. I got it for $2.45. That's
just one more reason to like this book.

Regular readers of Shared Universe Reviews will know that I’ve read and reviewed a few Star Wars books and I’ve also started an ongoing project to read more fantasy novels. That’s a lot to have on one’s plate but I don’t seem to care since I’ve started to read Star Trek novels. Why am I doing this all of a sudden? There are a few answers and one of them is simply, why not? I haven’t read any before. I like Star Trek. I don’t love it simply because I haven’t watched a whole lot of it but I do really like it. When I was a little kid my dad used to watch Star Trek: The Next Generation episodes in the evenings. I don’t remember any specifics but I do remember a Klingon (and that he was a Klingon, not just some generic mean looking alien), I remember Picard and Le Forge and the overall look of the bridge has been imprinted into my mind. When I think of the Star Trek bridge I think of the one that appears in TNG. There are a very large number of things I don’t remember at all about TNG (Data who?) but every time I’ve sampled Star Trek, be it a movie or an episode of one of the series, I always make a mental note to check out more. I just never get around to it.

Growing up Star Trek in some form or another was almost always present but for reasons unknown even to myself, I never took the plunge to immerse myself completely Star Trek. As I grow older, the urge to seek out Star Trek episodes I’ve never seen before is growing. Unlike other science fiction franchises like Star Wars, Star Trek actually has some science to it. Not only that, but Star Trek at least tries to be intelligent and it’s the particular aspect that I seem to crave more of. Don’t get me wrong, I still love my Star Wars but sometimes I’m just not in the mood for it. In short, it seems that Star Trek is able to provide me with the intelligence I can’t seem to find anywhere else in my entertainment regime.

As far as I can tell, this is the
original cover for Spock Must Die!
I also like the spirit of Star Trek. The crew of the Enterprise encounters of trouble but that’s because they go looking for it. Not in the way a mischievous child goes looking for trouble, but they have a scientific curiosity or in the case of some characters, a sense of adventure that compels them to go sign up for a 5 year or a 7 years exploratory mission through the farthest reaches of space. That’s a pretty powerful theme and unlike the exploration of say, a single planet, space allows for an infinite number of discoveries to be made. There is an endless potential to Star Trek that few series that I know of can match up. Whether that potential use in each episode, movie or book is another thing all together.

That’s essentially, what pushed me to make some discoveries of my own by exploring old Star Trek media tie-in novels. I’m starting with TOS novels because that’s the series I’m most familiar with. I’ve also been rewatching TOS episodes and watching some of them for the first time. Eventually I will shift the focus to Star Trek TNG both the tv series and the novels.

There are other questions that need answering though, which Star Trek novel should I start with and why? Thankfully, that was a simply question to answer: the first one because it’s written by a veteran Star Trek author. Spock Must Die! is the first Star Trek novel intended for adult audiences (there was a previous novel published targeting younger readers). James Blish wrote short story adaptations of every (!) Star Trek: The Original Series episodes. That’s a pretty surprising feat unto itself. According to the internet, Blish decided to write an original Star Trek novel because of popular demand. Who better to write a new Star Trek story than the person who adapted the original episodes? As natural as it was for him to write the book, it’s natural for me to choose Spock Must Die! as my first Star Trek novel. To top it all off, Spock Must Die! appears on a few best Star Trek novels lists.

One final reason why I chose to read this book. There are two Spocks. Aweomse! It’s also somewhat of a sequel to one of the episodes I had rewatched recently “The Enemy Within” where Kirk is split up into two separate beings, one of them good and weak and the other evil and strong. That’s not what happens to Spock in this novel, it’s something altogether more complicated and far more problematic for the crew. It’s also a sequel to “Errand of Mercy”.

The book begins with McCoy and Scotty having a discussion over the effects of teleporters on human physiology, the mind and the soul. McCoy argues that the person is physically killed and a copied is made at the selected destination. He wonders if he’s the real McCoy or just one of the many copies that have been made throughout the years. Does he have the real McCoy’s thoughts and memories in his head? Poor Bones is so worries about what teleporters have been doing to him. He’s worried about his soul and the soul of others. Scotty on the other hand thinks the teleporter is simply a machine that transfers matter from one place to another. A person’s body is converted into a form of matter than can be teleporter and it is then reconstituted at the destination. Captain Kirk was sitting in on the conversation when Spock summons him to the bridge.

Once on the bridge, Kirk learns that the planet Organia (from “Errand of Mercy”) has been destroyed by the Klingons thus putting the Federation at war with the Klingons. The Enterprise is currently on the opposite side of the Klingon Empire and the crew must travel to the other side and reach the neutral zone. They also decide to investigate what happened to Organia. Being in Klingon territory makes travel and communications rather difficult for the crew but Scotty has an idea. He’s developed a way to make modifications to the teleporter that would allow them to send a tachyon copy of a crew member to Organia to investigate. By sending a tachyon copy of someone, Scotty enables the crew member to stay on the Enterprise while his tachyon copy investigates. The result of this experiment, of course, is the creation of two Spocks. Life or death shenanigans ensue.

The other does writes a few shenanigans of his own into his work. Scotty’s accent, for example, is way over the top. It's also probably difficult to write but I guess Blish is used to it. Still, because it’s probably annoying to write, Scotty temporarily gains the ability to speak without his accent for the duration of his longest technical monologue in the book. Blish prepares for this accent-free monologue by writing: “The engineering officer’s accent faded and vanished; "his voice gets calm, his suddenly, his English was as high, white and cold as his terminology. He went on, precisely.” It’s such a strange little moment in a book filled with equally strange moments. Some of the oddities are actually quite enjoyable and endearing in their execution. Other things demonstrate just to what extent Star Trek TOS was a product of its time.

This cover tells us what the others
don't: there be Klingons in this
I really liked it though. The ending is far too abrupt for my tastes but I found many TOS episodes to end equally abruptly. Unlike the first few Star Wars books I've read, this one begs me to go and read more Star Trek. I think the visual element is very important here. While visuals play an obviously important role in the Star Trek franchise, it doesn’t depend on it as much as the Star Wars franchise does. It’s not a crutch. A lot of Star Trek stories have a pretty clear focus on science or the use of the scientific method. Even the action isn’t as visual. If there is action to be found in a Star Trek Original Series episode, it’s going to be a fist fight, a quick phaser shot or a submarine battle with space ships. Even the aliens are less visual, they tend to closely resemble other humanoids. Now this might be unappealing to people who only appreciate science fiction stories in visual mediums (television, film and comics) but that’s what allows Star Trek, particularly TOS, to translate so well to novels. Not a whole lot happens in Spock Must Die! that require strong visuals other than the events of one chapter on Organia. A lot of this book is composed of the Enterprise crew members talking and debating and that’s what I enjoyed the most. I love how they think their way out of situations.

It was a fascinating and relatively quick read. The book is 118 pages long but the writing is pretty small. Still, those 118 pages pack a lot of story and strange little moments.  It's short but it's a novel sized story which is why the quick ending annoyed me.

The beauty of Star Trek novels is that there is a pretty good balance between series of books and standalone books compared to other science fiction and, specifically, Star Wars book. It's probably due to the franchise being primarily a television serial. The format already allowed and encouraged shorter stories with a tighter focus on one or two stories as opposed to long, season-long stories like many shows seem fond of today. While Spock Must Die! is unarguably a strange book, it’s a very enjoyable read. Blish’s dialogue reads like a transcript for a lost episode of TOS and it’s great. I could hear the actors speaking in my head while reading. Sure, I heard more of Scotty than I ever wanted, but any fan of TOS can find something to enjoy in this little book. 

Sunday, 2 June 2013

7 Billion Needles volumes 3 & 4 review

Volume 3:
The third volume of Nabuaki Tadano’s science fiction manga based on “Needle” by Hal Clement mixes elements Tadano previously established in the previous volume with some strange new things and dials it up to eleven. Hikaru continues to make friends and spending time with them is beginning to really affect them in special ways. The introduction of an evolutionary sub-species and a new alien contribute to keeping the chaos that erupts in this volume. If you were concerned about the lack of action in the series thus far, no worries, Tadano brings his A game.

Evolution becomes increasingly important as the series goes on. Earth is ready for a macro evolution and the arrival of Horizon and Maelstrom seems to have triggered that. There are more aliens present other than Horizon and Maelstrom. All these events are starting to converge and 7 Billion Needles volume three is an erratic and sporadic read. Tadano’s storytelling abilities ensure that it never feels chaotic. I'm frankly surprised at how much story is contained between both covers of volume three. It's not so much that the comic is dense, the pace of this volume is quicker than the first two, but so many events happen. There are a lot of storytelling beats, and Tadano pummels the reader with them with increasing speed. Volume three is a barrage of science fiction ideas, art and action. It’s a sheer delight after the relatively slow burn of the first two volumes. 

Despite the advancements and new complexities of the story, it feels quite natural. It's a progression of what came before. The biggest surprise in volume three is the shift of tone. It resembles something more akin to shonen or your adult action manga but there is an adult sensibility that adds a lot of depth. The story feels unique though. The tone is closer to shonen by the story is uniquely its own. And this new tone would not be as engaging and quite simply so good if it wasn't for the building blocks Tadano put in the first two volumes. That's also what prevents the reader from being lost in the multitude of events that transpire in this penultimate volume.

Volume 4:
I wasn’t as surprised as I was pleased that Tadano sticks the landing in this final volume. He’s clearly demonstrated that he’s an excellent storyteller. Still, it’s very nice to have that confirm with an ending that feels like it belongs with the rest of the story. There is no copout here. It’s emotionally satisfying and that’s what we really needed for this to work. It would not have been enough for Tadano to give us 150 pages of non-stop action in a battle to save the planet if there wasn’t also some emotional depth. Such a big part, and I believe the essential part, of the manga so far has been Hikaru’s personal growth and the growth of a few other characters. Even Horizon and Maelstrom mature and change throughout the story.
In short, all of 7 Billion Needles's themes crystallize in volume four. Tadano wraps everything up. There weren't a lot of questions being answered in the series so far but volume four answers most of the questions. I don't want to go into any further detail because this manga volume should be experienced firsthand. 

To Tadano’s credit, he’s made me want to go and find a copy of Hal Clement’s book Needle. I want to see how many of the themes found in 7 Billion Needles were also in Clement’s story. I have a feeling that the psyche of individuals who lived during the Cold War has been transported and redefined in modern terms. Characters in 7 Billion Needles make a big deal out of being alone or not alone. To Chika, it’s so important not to be alone that she makes an attempt of absorbing every living thing into one huge entity. In the first volume it was incredibly important for Hikaru to be alone. Her isolation was so important to her it made everything else look unimportant and unworthy of her attention. There’s a fight for individuality in opposition to a fight for a society that conforms to strict standards and practices. The last two volumes bring forward themes that weren’t present in the first two that remind me of Rick Veitch’s masterful The One comic.

I’m not sure I entirely understand this feeling of wanting to be isolated but that’s ok because a story that acts as a precursor to 7 Billion Needles is included in the final volume. “Hikikomori Headphone Girl” is a short story about an experimental treatment to Hikikomori. For those who have never heard of Hikikomori (this was my first time) it’s a phenomenon that, in short, can be described as an acute form of social withdrawal that affects a surprisingly large number of Japanese teens and young adults. It’s thought by some that this isn’t the cause of other psychological problems, but can nonetheless result from one. It’s pretty complicated and something that’s widely discussed in Japan. If anything else, the inclusion of “Hikikomori Headphone Girl” helps me to understand and sympathize with the Hikaru we encounter in volume 1. It also makes the four volumes of 7 Billion Needles a complete collection that begs, and deserves, to have a place on your shelf next to you favourite science fiction stories.