Tuesday, November 27, 2007

Review: Cell

More and more often, I'm finding what is solid genre fiction in the stacks of department stores sitting besides the "regular" fiction. Stephen King's novel Cell (ISBN:0743292332) is one of those books. It clocked in at 350 pages (not bad, considering I bought it on the discount stacks for less than a paperback costs these days), and qualifies here because Cell is basically Mr. King's take on the zombie motif. While zombies may be considered a staple of horror movies these days, their start is securely in speculative fiction (i.e. old fantastical tales of the walking dead).

Anyways, let's look at the blurb that managed to make me shell out the cash for this novel:


On October 1, God is in His heave, the stock market stands at 10,140, most of the planes are on time, and Clayton Riddell, an artist from Maine, is almost bouncing up Boylston Street in Boston. He's just landed a comic book deal that might finally enable him to support his family by making art instead of teaching it. He's already picked up a small (but expensive!) give for his long-suffering wife, and he knows just what he'll get for his boy Johnny. Why not a little treat for himself? Clay's feeling good about the future.

That changes in a hurry. The cause of the devastation is a phenomenon that will come to be known as The Pulse, and the delivery method is a cell phone. Everyone's cell phone. Clay and the few desperate survivors who join him suddenly find themselves in the pitch-black night of civilization's darkest age, surrounded by chaos, carnage, and a human horde that has been reduced to its basest nature...and then begins to evolve.

There's really no escaping this nightmare. But for Clay, an arrow points home to Maine, and as he and his fellow refugees make their harrowing journey north they begin to see crude signs confirming their direction: KASHWAK=NO-FO. A promise, perhaps. Or a threat...

There are one hundred and ninety-three million cell phones in the United States alone. Who doesn't have one? Stephen King's utterly gripping, gory, and fascinating novel doesn't just ask the question "Can you hear me now?" It answers it with a vengeance.
It's a very good blurb. It tells us in no uncertain terms that Clayton is a survivor for this huge event, and then dredges up questions for the reader to ponder over. Questions that can only be answered by the reader actually reading the whole book. Or going on-line and reading one of those sites that gives away the plot details. One has to wonder if Mr. King has to generate his own blurbs, or if his publisher has someone in marketing who writes them--and if so, why don't all authors get these folks? But I digress...

The plot is a SF/fantasy staple: the end of the world as we know it. Along with that, comes all the usual tropes: wandering bands of idiots, young teen girl, zombies. It's a fun plot, and would work well as a straight end-of-the-world story without the horror aspects which Stephen King has added in. And it's stories like this one (and his Gunslinger and the 2 Peter Straub collaborations) which make me think that inside of Mr. King is a genre writer screaming to get out. Unfortunately, he's been stuck into this little subset of fiction, and allowed to kind of fester there. Sure, he's producing great materials, but come on, let the man write one good, SF story! You know you want to read it.

Anyways, my digressions aside, as far as characters go, there are a handful that matter the most. The first of course is our protagonist Clayton Riddell. After him, we have his compatriots: Tom, Alice and Jordan. On the other side of things are the Flocks and of course the Raggedy Man. What is interesting the most is the fact that none of these characters are really heroic material in the classical, Hero's Journey sense. They don't really overcome the trails arrayed against them rather they just struggle to survive. Of course, that could be considered overcoming, but in traditional SF, the hero would have rid the world of all evils, and saved the world, and blah, blah... Those types of things, just don't seem to happen in a King novel though. A traditional, happy King ending is where everyone but 1 or 2 bit players are all dead.

Of course it is interesting watching the psychological hoops which Clayton, and the rest of his little gang, must jump through in order to survive. Clinging to small tokens, or not wanting to say good-bye to a beloved pet; there are any number of things which characters do in order to try and preserve their sanity. Of course, one must truly question whether or not it succeeded, but that's a whole other story.

The Flocks (i.e. the human horde from the blurb) are another story. They are fundamentally a force of nature. There doesn't seem to be any type of character arc for them, rather they are foils on which to force the protagonists to suffer their psychological traumas.

Settings are various. Sometimes we're given really well thought out descriptions which allow us to easily see what's happening, while at other times; well, it's not quite as good. For about 75% of the book, the settings are great, it's just that other quarter where I was left scratching my head, and struggling to figure out what he was trying to describe.

The theme seems to be hiding so deep that it's impenetrable. Or, there could just not be a theme, as the story is designed to be merely a good, fun read. Despite the fact that it's a post-apocalyptic story, there's nothing about the human spirit overcoming adversity. There's nothing about generosity winning over evil. Mr. King does take the time to take a swipe at evangelical Christians, by having one verbally attack the teen-aged sidekick to the protagonist. Out of all that though, if I had to pick a theme, it's the fact that nothing changes if you don't act. There are two or three times, when a character thinks, or says, something along the lines of "well at least we did something," and the story actually ends on a similar note.

All that aside, this is a well-written story. It's a fast-paced, King novel with all that that title entails. What's odd about King's writings is that his books either gravitate towards the nearly perfectly done side of things, or at the "what was that?" side of things. This novel falls more into the former category than the latter, and is one of the better novels of his that I've read recently (I just have no love for the Gunslinger series). Likewise, there's a lot going on for this novel. It's a grand concept, and it shows that King is enjoying his playing with zombies, yet for all that I enjoyed the story, the final two chapters or so leave a lot to be desired.

In the end, I've got to give it a 2.8 out of 4.

Monday, November 26, 2007

Monday Morning Rambling...

Well, it's another Monday morning. Thanksgiving is over, Black Friday has come and gone, and now we're just happily barreling down the calendar until Christmas. Amusingly enough, my son picked up a 'wish list' ad flyer from Wal-Mart somewhere, and has proceeded to cut out the pictures of toys from it in order to send a wishlist to his much loved grandparents.

Now, one would imagine a child doing this. It's what children do. It's why those flyers are produced in the first place.

The thing is, most kids pick and choose which pictures to cut out.

Not my son though, he's proceeded to cut out every toy for boys in the flyer.

Oh well.

And thinking of Christmas, I'm actually excited for my son this year. It's a little known fact, but I do actually plan ahead. In truthfulness, I've been planning for this Christmas for nigh upon two years now. After all, it was nearly two years ago when I picked up the first Transformer which my son will be opening on that morning a month or so from now. Basically, for the past 2 years, I've been slowly picking up transformers when they go on clearance, all on the slim (but perfectly justifiable, and ultimately justified, hope) that he'd like transformers for this particular Christmas. Yet, all these Transformers were older models, we had nothing from the new movie for him.

At least until this Saturday, when we stopped at a place called Hudson's. We managed to get the brand-new Optimus Prime for like $25, which anyone who goes to the toy department knows, is about a $15 savings.

Speaking of Saturday, we also stopped at the Book Shelf, which is the used bookstore closest to our house. While there, I finally managed to find myself a copy of Ringworld. As I was doing a happy dance over that, I walked up to the juvenile section where my son was digging through a bin of books, deciding on which one he wanted. When I looked up, I noticed three hardcover Harry Potter novels, two of which I didn't own. So, I also picked up Goblet of Fire and Order of the Phoenix for $10 each.

By the way, the book my son picked up was The Bernstein Bears go to the Moon. Solid SF for the pre-school set!

Oh well, enough of my commercial musings from this weekend, and onto more solid SF stuff. Which, since this is Christmas time, I am seriously lacking in. We're mid-season for the anime series, and there's not any SF/F movies out at the moment. Well, I guess Beowulf could be considered a fantasy movie, but I just don't have the energy to go see it, and Hitman is based on a video game, but that's even harder to work up the energy for. After all, they turned Doom into a movie.

At least I have my reading.

Anyways, a few final things, one of the blogs I read on a consistent basis (The Anime Blog) is running a few contests.

Both of these have the same deadline:
Deadline is numerical: 60 unique comments (minimum). The winner will be randomly drawn when 60 comments have been posted.

Friday, November 23, 2007

Black Friday '07

Well, it's the annual assault against poor store workers--many of whom are having to work obscenely long shifts this very day; all in the name of capitalism. Now don't get me wrong, I'm a big fan of capitalism, but I'd rather have slept in myself.

All that's neither here nor there at the moment though, because Amazon's recent high-profile release of the Kindle has my mind on other things. Namely the concepts of an e-book reader.

Personally, I like the concept of e-books. I like the thought that I could carry my library around with me, without lugging around a few hundred pounds of paper (and yes, that's a highly conservative estimate). At the same time, I love the feel of traditional books in hand. That said, if there was a decent e-book reader I don't think I wouldn't mind purchasing at least some of the many, many books I read as e-books.

Now, Princess, when you read this, note that I said some. I would still want to buy the occasional real, physical novel, as there's something to be said about holding a book, that I doubt an e-book reader will ever catch up on.

But the Kindle has problems. First, it's tightly tied into the Amazon's Kindle purchasing system. Sure, they open up a few extra formats (HTML, Text) that you can shove a file onto the machine and be able to read, but that's just not good enough. Second, is the main reason why I've not looked harder at e-book readers in the past: my collection is in hard copy.

Consider all those folks out there with iPods; actually, let's just consider my wife. I got her an iPod for Christmas last year. It's what she wanted, and today she has hundreds of songs on the thing. Yet, how many did she purchase off of iTunes? 5? Maybe 10? Rather, she spent weeks sitting at the PC ripping all those CDs that we had. She took her physical copy of the music she had already purchased and digitized it for use on her music player. In effect, it replaced her old Discman, and saved her the hassle of actually carrying discs.

I want that capability for my book collection.

In my opinion, there's a few things that are needed for a e-book reader to truly work:

  • It's a pretty book, but how much is it? The Kindle Store's $10 price point for an electronic novel is too expensive. Sure, I understand that you've got to pay the cover artist, the editors and the author, but that $7.99 paperback pays all those people, and I get a real, physical object as well. Try something more along the lines of a per-word basis: 3 cents per 1000 words would put a 150K word novel at about $4.50 while a 50K word novel (something the size of Catcher in the Rye) would be $1.50.
  • My collection; my precious collection. This one is near and dear to my heart. There needs to be some way that all of us with physical copies of our novels can get an electronic version of those novels. I don't want to have to purchase a copy of a book, just to use it on this device. I know my wife doesn't want me to.
  • Hardcopy v. E-Copy! The fight of the season!. Which is better? Why make us choose? Give us an electronic copy of the book when you buy a hardcopy. Do note, that I didn't say to go the other way though.
  • DRM is the 3v1l!!1! I think just about everyone but the RIAA & MPAA have realized by now that DRM is pretty much useless. It will always be cracked, broken and ignored by those who want to do that thing, and in the end just creates hassles for those users who legitimately use whatever is hiding under DRM. It's always a bad business model to attack your customers; which is what DRM effectively is. In the end, I want my library to be mobile. I don't want to have to re-purchase my entire library if I switch between the Sony reader and Amazon's reader. If there's DRM involved, I'll probably just keep with my hard copys thank you.
  • I need my Wi-Fi. I want wireless syncing, over the internet between my PC and multiple e-book readers. I leave novels laying about the house. They're in the living room, beside the bed, under the couch cushions, in my desk drawer, in my truck, and in the bathroom. It's how I read. I go from book to book, based upon my current location. Why would that change because I now have electronic books? I could see me having a reader in various rooms and want to be able to access my library from pretty much anywhere. After all, the device's memory is finite, and I don't want to be caught in the bathroom without reading material.
  • Easy, breezy, nice-n-easy. Ease of use is a requirement. The device needs to be easy to set up, easy to read, easy to scroll through pages, easy to add books to the device, easy to purchase new content. Everything about it needs to be aimed at being easy for the user. If it takes me more than 5 steps to do a task, then I'm already bored and will have picked up a hard copy of my book.
  • Stop, drop and roll! I have two boys. One's just about 5 and the other is 1. They're rough on consumer electronics. Yet, they both have also inherited my love of books. In fact just the other day, we sat on my eldest son's bed, I was reading Cell, my eldest was reading Dick and Jane and the youngest was flipping through Goodnight Moon. Any e-book reader I get will HAVE to stand up to being picked up and tossed about by a child. They will see me staring at the device a lot, therefore they will want to look at it too.
  • Children are the future. Speaking of children, they are the future. To get true, wide-spread acceptance, children need to be raised using the things. That means, Fisher Price needs to be out there, and put out a toddler's e-book device that can be truly abused (above and beyond the occasional throwing described in the bullet above). Additionally, the reader will need to be able to display colored picture books for them as well. After all, what's the point of reading Where the Wild Things Are if it doesn't have the pretty color pictures?
  • Textbooks are boring. Finally, one needs to get wholesale acceptance of the university presses. College textbooks are heavy, arcane tomes, that cost way too much. Turning them into e-books alleviates so much of that. Additionally, that filters down throughout the entire schooling process. How much money could schools save, by requiring every student to have one of these things (which could be used over multiple years) and then just hand out e-books? Think about it. A textbook is on average $100. Every year, a student gets 5-7 textbooks to read through. For 1st through 12th grade that's around 70 school books. If an e-copy of a textbook is $20, that's $1400 for books for that student. Compared to say $3000 for textbooks associated to a student (on the theory that textbooks are replaced every 4 years, meaning a student has 30 "new" books associated to him and "40" used books depreciating). Sure it may not be as cut-and-dry as all that, but I have no doubt there would be a costs savings.
Now, I just have to wonder if I'm just trading in a bit of speculative fiction here myself. Are these things just pipe dreams? Probably. But there was a time when cell phones and color television were considered pipe dreams. Besides, SF authors are taking a proactive approach to determining what type of business model will exist in the future for novels, and have opened up a wiki in order to facilitate discussion on that.

Gotta love SF authors, they're always thinking.

Monday, November 19, 2007

Review: Death Star

Ah, well, after an excess amount of travails, I've finally finished reading the most recent Star Wars hard cover: Death Star (ISBN: 9780345477422). This is a collaboration produced by Michael Reeves and Steve Perry. Both of whom are veteran Star Wars authors. Mr. Perry wrote Shadows of the Empire while Mr. Reeves gave us Darth Maul: Shadow Hunter. Additionally, together they have given us the MedStar duology under the Clone Wars imprint. Anyways, this was an average sized novel at 363 pages, with an average price tag of about $25. Not the cheapest hard cover I've bought recently, but definitely not the most expensive. There was one thing that was unique about this book though, but I'll touch on that later.

Anyways, on with the blurb!

The Death Star's name says it all, with bone-chilling accuracy. It is a virtual world unto itself--equipped with uncanny power for a singularly brutal purpose: to obliterate entire planets in the blink of an eye. Its annihilation of the planet Alderaan, at the merciless command of Grand Moff Tarkin, lives in infamy. And its own ultimate destruction, at the hands of Luke Skywalker, is the stuff of legend. But what is the whole story, and who are the players, behind the creation of this world-killing satellite of doom?

The near extermination of the Jedi Order cleared the way for Palpatine--power-hungry Senator and Sith Lord--to seize control of the Republic, declare himself Emperor, and usher in a fearsome, totalitarian regime. But even with the dreaded Darth Vader enforcing Palpatine's sinister will, the threat of rebellion still looms. And the Emperor knows that only abject fear--and the ability to punished dissent with devastating consequences--can ensure his unchallenged control of the galaxy. Enter ambitious and ruthless government official Wilhuff Tarkin, architect of the Emperor's terrifying dream come true.

From inception to completion, construction of the unprecedented Death Star is awash in the intrigues, hidden agendas, unexpected revelations, and daring gambits of those involved on every level.The brightest minds and boldest egos, the most ambitious and corrupt, the desperate and the devious, all have a stake in the Death Star--and its potential to control the fate of the galaxy.

Soldiers and salves, loyalists and Rebels, spies and avengers, the innocent and the evil--all their paths and fates will cross and intertwine as the Death Star moves from its maiden voyage to its final showdown. And a shadowy chapter of Star Wars history is stunningly illuminated in a thrilling, unforgettable adventure.
Did you get all that? While its not the longest blurb that's graced these pages, it's still a whopping 290 words. I shudder to think how they're going to fit a blurb like that on the back cover of the paperback. All that aside though, there's an even more important thing going on here in this. The blurb is supposed to sell the book. It's supposed to draw folks in and make them want to place their 25 dollars onto the counter, and get this chunk of wood pulp, glue and ink handed to them. Yet, I don't see that here. This blurb did nothing for me. It reads like an infomercial directed at Star Wars EU fans (i.e. those folks who are going to buy this book anyways). In the end, I have to say that this blurb is a dismal failure.

Now, onto more meat-filled things: the plot. Well, at least that's what one assumes when one picks up a hardcover novel. Even after reading this thing, I'm struggling to decipher enough of what happened in it so that I'm able to define a plot. There are a number of interwoven story threads for the various primary characters, but that's not a plot for the novel. There's things that could almost be considered a plot; things dealing with the choices folks make, and how they support evil when they don't deny it. Yet, that never gets off the ground, plus it's more of a theme than a plot. The feeling that I ended up with, after reading it, was that it was a fictionalized account of an historical event. Basically, it's the Star Wars version of Command the Morning (ISBN: n/a) or Los Alamos (ISBN: 9780440224075).

On the character front of things, we have a lot of characters here, but only 13 of whom are important enough to warrant inclusion in the Dramatis Personae. These thirteen are: Atour Riten, Celot Ratua Dil, Conan Antonio Motti, Daala, Darth Vader, Kornell 'Uli' Divini, Memah Roothes, Nova Stihl, Rodo, Teela Kaarz, Tenn Graneet, Villian Dance, and Wilhuff Tarkin. If anything, it is these 13 characters that are the protagonists for this novel. Unfortunately that doesn't leave us with any antagonists. Of course, if you read the paragraph before this where I discuss the plot, you'd have caught on that there's not really any conflict needing an antagonist. All that aside, for those of us who care about these characters, the stuff we learn about Daala, Motti, Vader and Tarkin is good stuff, and provides interesting insight into their characters and actions in the films and other EU sources. Additionally, watching the character arcs for a couple of the new characters was interesting, and probably saved my ability to actually read this novel.

Theme-wise, I'm left with nothing. There's some vague things about standing up against evil or weapons of mass destruction breeds other WMDs. Yet it's all vague and ill-defined. Sure, the characters learned something, but that something is something that every 9 year old who has seen the original Star Wars already knows: the Death Star (and by extension, the Empire) is bad mojo. Of course, in a somewhat macabre form of amusement, we learn that there were contractors even on the first DS when Luke makes it go boom--and that yes, some of them are innocent. As an aside, if you don't know why that was amusing I highly suggest you stand up, get dressed, go to the nearest video store, and beg them to allow you to rent a copy of the movie Clerks; and be happy that you're not hunted down and beaten with phone books.

That digression aside, let's stumble over to continuity. Ah, continuity; how I like to point out your blessed flaws in the new novels. Truthfully, there wasn't a lot of flaws here. The first one that stuck out in my mind was a mention of Hoth. Hoth's discovery is a bit of contention in the canon of things, but beyond that, one has to wonder why it is a world that Vader would think of while comparing Tatooine to Mustafar years before the Battle of Hoth. If memory serves, there was no record of Vader having visited that world before that battle, so why wouldn't they have used one like Rhen Var where Vader had actually visited. Of course, this, like all the continuity issues I stumbled over, were minor things. Yet, I'm even now, wondering why they didn't take this time to give Daala a first name.

This book was billed as providing the definitive answers to the Death Star. I remember some claims (though I can't find them any longer) that it would answer all the questions we had about the Death Star. I'm still wondering if I agree with that. Sure, it answered a lot of them (including the big one from Clerks) and it did do a good job of tying various continuity flubs together into something resembling a coherent whole. Little things like the Maw installation and the prototype Death Star there are addressed and dealt with. That said, I'm left wondering if the authors weren't given a list of things to address and then wrote a story around that list. What's sadder is that the last quarter or so of the book deals almost exclusively with things from the original movie. We get a lot of repeat scenes, just from a different point of view.

Yet, for all that, I was bored.

And that's that uniqueness I alluded to at the start of this review. This is the first Star Wars novel that has bored me. There have been novels that I disliked. There have been novels that I thought did not read like Star Wars. Yet, this is the first Star Wars novel to actually bore me. The new characters were a mixed bag of interesting and useless, and one of them only served to introduce issues into Luke's hunting for Jedi adepts in later novels. The existing characters did have some growth. We actually got to see behind the mask so to speak for Tarkin and Motti, and we got a bit of useful info for Daala. Yet for all that, I couldn't bring myself to truly care about what happened in the novel. I only held the slightest interest in whether or not the characters would get flash-fried when Luke does his little shooting gallery thing. Is it a well-written novel? Sure. There's nothing mechanically wrong with the thing. It's just lacking that essential something that makes books fun to read for me.

In the end, I have to give this novel a .4 out of 4.

Monday Morning Rambling for November 19th

Why do I get the urge to sing Bob Dylan every time I type that title? Oh well. The usual mixed bag of odds an ends for this week. I've finished Death Star and have written and posted a review of it over at TheForce.Net/Books. For those to lazy to follow the link, I'll be posting it here either this afternoon or tomorrow morning. I'm still writing up my review for Noami Novik's His Majesty's Dragon, so expect that sometime in the (hopefully) near future. Final bit of book news is that I'm currently reading Stephen King's take on the zombie story. It's a fun book, and a delicious change of pace after reading Death Star.

Anime news is that we're smacked dab in mid season. I don't like doing episode-by-episode reviews, because well, I'm lazy and there are other, better blogs about that. Instead, I'm waiting for the series to finish before I begin my reviews for them. That said, expect a review for Mamoru-kun ni Megami no Shukufuku wo! sometime soon.

All that aside, I am happy to report that Venus vs. Virus has made it onto the Anime Network On Demand channel, with episode 1 sitting in their action stacks. Amazingly enough, the voice acting wasn't utter drivel this time around.

Now that that part is over, I need to tell you a story about my eldest offspring. He determined that he had to dress himself yesterday; which included picking out his own clothes. So, a short bit of time after he entered his room, he emerged wearing a pair of jeans, spider-man sneakers, a long-sleeved white dress shirt which was part of his Christmas outfit last year, plus the black vest and tie to go along with the dress shirt. So having emerged, he wore a bright smile on his face, as he proclaimed, "Look Dad! I'm Han Solo!"

Ah, it's good to be the dad of a geek-in-training.

Thursday, November 15, 2007

Who you gonna call? Ghostbusters!

I grew up with the Ghostbusters. From the original two movies to the horrid cartoons that appeared after the fact. It's one of those fun comedies that I can watch nigh upon anytime (the only one I'd watch more would probably be Office Space).

So, imagine my joy when SCI FI Wire reports that there is now a Ghostbusters video game in the works. What's better is that this game is getting voice and likeness rights to all the original cast, so we don't get this guy as Peter:

But all that aside, I especially hope that this thing comes out on the Wii. Imagine, being able to use the proton gun via the Wii-mote!

Wednesday, November 14, 2007

Hahurism for the win!

Well, as reported earlier, I purchased volume 2 of The Melancholy of Suzimiya Hahuri. I've watched most of episodes 4, 5, & 6 before turning it off to do a bit of work on the PC. So either tonight or tomorrow night I'll go back re-watch episode 6 and watch 7 as well as start to plan when I'll acquire volume 3.

I'm enthralled by this series. It's amusing and just fun in general. I don't have to think the way one does for things like Noein or Dennou Coil: A Circle of Children, but at the same time it's not the mindless entertainment found in the Dragonball or Pokemon series.

Additionally, once I have all the volumes (there are 4 of them) and viewed them, then I'll write up a review of the entire series.

Tuesday, November 13, 2007

The New Spock

This website has some pretty pictures of the Spock from the upcoming Star Trek movie.

Interesting set of pics, and I find myself oddly interested in seeing another Star Trek movie. After all, it can't be as bad as Nemesis.

Monday, November 12, 2007

Rambling Robots from Rivendale

Yes. I too can make up random titles for posts.

Anyways, it's another Monday morning, and I'm once more well on my way to happy land of being a productive member of the SF-blog arena. I've purchased a number of books recently, and am consuming the things as quickly as possible. In the next few days I should have my review of His Majesty's Dragon up, which is Naomi Novik's debut novel, as well as the first in the Tremaire series. Beyond that, I have now purchased the new Star Wars: Death Star novel, and the Stephen King novel, Cell; which if the dust-jacket blurb can be believed is basically a zombie novel. And I love my zombies.

Other news invovled my youngest boy's birthday party on Saturday. Amusingly enough, my elder son gave my younger one a lightsaber. Believe it or not, I had nothing to do with it either. He was out shopping with my Mother-in-law and picked the saber as a gift out himself.

Anyways, AniMonday tonight is going to feature a couple of episodes of Tactics and an hour of the movie Dead Leaves. Dead Leaves is from the same folks that brought us FLCL, so it promises to be surreal beyond belief. But that's all right.

In new series news, Sky Girls has stumbled into episode 18 recently. I had originally thought that this was a 13 episode series, and have thus been proven unalterably wrong on that account. But that's okay, because this is a fun series. After that, Dragonauts: The Resonance, ef-A Tale of Memories, Clannad and Bamboo Blade are all the series that I'm following this season.

And I've also purchased volume 2 of Melancholy.

Finally, if anyone has missed it, my review of Hal Spacejock is up and happily getting referenced across the web. It's an interesting and eclectic bunch that have linked. Mr. Haynes (the author) has linked, but there there were things such as a poker blog and a get-out-of-debt blog as well. I know, that appears to be shameless plugging, but hey, I love it when I have such direct results to a blog entry; it allows me to know that folks are actually reading. Gives me warm fuzzies and all.

Well, that's it for this episode of Monday Morning Rambling, tune in next week, as we discuss... well, at the moment, I have no idea. But I'm sure it'll be interesting to me at least.

Thursday, November 8, 2007

Review: Hal Spacejock

I finished this book about a week and a half ago, but since that was in the midst of my move from Pensacola, FL to the Jackson, MS area, I lacked the time to get this review written and posted. Then, there were all the fun issues I had with Comcast and just the joys of living in general that have tried their best to keep me from writing this. In the end, I have overcome all my troubles... or at least enough of them that I can sneak a good hour or six needed for fleshing out my notes into an actual review.

Anyways, we're here today to discuss Simon Hayne's debut novel, Hal Spacejock (ISBN: 192073189X). It was published back in 2005, but that was in Australia, as Mr. Haynes has yet to acquire a U.S. distributor for his work, much to my annoyance, because for some odd reason, books are extremely expensive on the online bookshop for Australia that I found. In fact, it lists this novel (in paperback form) at $16.45 (sale price, down from $19.95). Now that's Australian dollars, and I'm not quite certain of the going exchange rate, but a quick search on the 'Net found me the CoinMill.com site, which has a nice conversion tool, that tells us that A$16.45 is US$15.03 (on Nov, 2 2007). $15.03 is a bit over twice what I'd normally pay for a paperback. Yet don't think that this is something specific to this novel, as all the novels on that site are priced in a similar range. In fact Star Wars: Agent of Chaos I: Hero's Trial is on sale there for the same price, and has the same regular price as well. That is a novel that has a US$6.99 price tag on its back cover.

Well, all that money stuff aside, let's start looking at the book. This is the back-cover blurb for the novel:

An incompetent, accident-prone pilot is given one last chance to save his ship. An ageing [sic] robot is trusted with a midnight landing in a deserted field. And a desperate businessman is prepared to sacrifice both of them to get what he wants...

Combining relentless action with non-stop laughs, Hal Spacejock explodes onto the science fiction scene with the subtlety of a meteor strike and the hushed reverence of a used car salesman.
I'm not sure if this blurb would have been strong enough to get me to buy this book. Of course, that could be a failing on my part as I tend to not read comedy books. I mean, I was 30 before I ever bothered to pick up The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy. Personal preferences aside, there's nothing inherently wrong with this blurb. It gives a quick, concise look at the plot, and in no uncertain terms tells us that this is a comedic book, which are the two most important bits of information one needs when buying such a novel. So, in the end, I have to say that this blurb works.

Amusingly enough, between the time I started writing this review and the time I posted it, Mr. Haynes wrote a blog entry dealing with blurbs. I know that I am unusually harsh in dealing with blurbs and what I define as a good one or bad one, and in fact am one of the few reviewers out there that takes the time to even bother with the things. Yet to me they are an intrinsic part of the book experience, as they are the first taste of the novel, and quite often a deciding factor on whether or not I'll pick up a book. All that said, I'm ecstatic at seeing a bit of the author's POV in this regard.

Meanwhile, the Australian Online Bookshop has this as a plot synopsis:
Described as one of the most memorable figures in sci-fi, Hal Spacejock explodes onto the science fiction scene with the subtlety of a meteor strike and the hushed reverence of a used car salesman.

A perennial loser, Hal borrowed heavily to fund his intergalactic cargo business. His loyal customers evaporated after several highly publicised [sic] mishaps, and mounting bills have confined him to planet Lamira, a mining colony with the vibrant, up-and-coming economy of a rubbish tip.

As the book opens, the finance company is despatching [sic] heavies to all points of the compass, desperate to track Hal down and extract money and/or vital organs. Meanwhile, on a nearby planet, a wealthy businessman needs a freelance cargo pilot for a suicidal cargo mission. Ideally, he wants a desperate, debt-ridden loser…
Looking it over, that's a good take on the various plots that are found within this novel. Their are a couple plot lines running through things, held together by the overarching thread of Hal trying to make a shipment. There's not a whole lot to say on the plot, because it's really there merely as a construct in order to hold up the character's character arcs and as a foil in which to hide the theme. Is it bad? No! Quite the contrary, the action and execution of the plot-lines are well done and quite concise; everything from the debt collector to the gambling addict back to Hal and his relationship with his ship, Clunk and his various clients.

Hal Spacejock is a hapless space pilot who has stumbled into something of a run of bad luck mixed with bad decisions. Yet despite all that, you can't help but like the guy. Sadly, I don't think he actually learns anything through the course of the novel. Yet for all the incompetence inherent in his character, he has a nobility which shines through, at least when he's not destroying things.

Clunk is the aging robot described on the blurb, and is a much more sympathetic (not to mention competent) character than Hal. Additionally, the majority of robots featured in this novel seem to be what we want humans to be. Most are kind and loyal and honest. It's a startlingly concise tool to use to shine on just how often humans fail to live up to that particular goal. Anyways, Clunk here is the straight man for Hal, basically Clunk = Abbott while Hal = Costello (or since this is a SF based blog should I use "Pinky and the Brain" or "Piro and Largo" to describe them?).

The third character in our triumvirate of heroes is the Black Gull itself. Or more accurately, its self-aware navcom system. When necessary, the navcom plays the part of the straight man to both Clunk and Hal. I was amused by the ship's antics, as it openly mocked Hal at every chance.

There are what could be considered two villains here. The first is Vurdi Makalukar, while the second is Farrell Hinchfig. Vurdi is a debt collector, of the loan-shark variety, while Hinchfig is younger brother to the person that runs a large conglomerate. While neither is very openly evil, both are willing to do just whatever they wish to fulfill their goals. Even if that means someone has to be hurt, or die, along the way.

There are a few secondary characters that push along the plotlines but don't really get to do a whole lot in the story. People such as Hinchfig's older brother or Jerling, the businessman who hires Hal.

Interesting enough, out of all the characters in this book, I seemed to like the Black Gull's navcom the most. I think that might be because out of the three hero-type characters, it is the smartest, and most smart-mouthed of them. What can I say, I'm a sucker for sarcasm.

Settings in this novel are wonderfully described. Mr. Haynes details the spaceships, the planets and even the characters in stellar terms. That said, he didn't go overboard in the descriptions. A gun was a gun. A car was a car, not a XY55-a HoverCar with a 885 HSI Induction Engine made by BigTelCo. Basically, he provided enough clues that my imagination could flesh out the rest. Which is, in my opinion at least, the perfect balance in settings and descriptions.

Themes are interesting things. Sometimes when I read a novel, they jump out at me, and I'll see a theme sitting there ready and willing to be consumed. Other times no matter how hard I search, I can't find it. Happily, this particular book sits midway between those two extremes. The theme that I ultimately found is a satirist's look at how our culture will extend out in the future. Everything from verbal "pop-up" ads to get into your house to arcane EULA on hardware/software products that you don't get to see until it is to late to return the product. Of course the amusement from the satire is solely because one can see the future going this way. It shows a grim understanding of both current culture in regards to software and how we interact with in on our PCs and the Internet, as well as an even grimmer understanding that companies will try to utilize such things whenever possible.

When I received this novel, I wasn't aware of the costs that it would have as price points on various websites. I had a vague idea about the increased cost of books in Australia, but I wasn't aware just how much more the things were down there. That said, I was intrigued with the manufacturing. The price increase means that it was made with a slightly higher quality paper, but the cover was just plain odd. First the cardstock used in it, was just barely heavier than the paper, and there was a fold about a quarter inch from the book's edge. This wasn't noticeable while reading the book, but plainly obvious on the title page, where the title ran right against the fold. then the binding was not quite what I was used to. American mass-market paperbacks are usually built in signatures, which are glued to the binding. This one almost appeared to be single leaves instead. Finally, in this section I usually discuss spelling and grammar errors, but they're going to be skip over this time because of the differences between American English and Australian English.

Overall I liked this novel. Hal amused me as a protagonist, and the situations he stumbled through amused me even more. Then when he was coupled with Clunk, it had the makings of a classic comedic duo. In fact, I can remember quite a few times I laughed aloud at something that had happened. Much to my own embarrassment because I was reading in the bathroom at the time, which meant my wife could then ask, "What's so funny in there?"

My own embarrassment aside, this is a fun book that I enjoyed reading, and I have to highly recommend it. Additionally, I can't wait for one of the U.S. publishing houses to pick it up for distribution here in the States, mainly because I want to read the next book in the series.

In the end, I have to give it a 3.7 out of 4.

It was going to get a 3.5, but while looking for a name, I stumbled over this snippet of text, and as a programmer, just had to laugh once again and up the score...
Carina nodded. "He's got a brilliant programmer and a room full of computers. We should have the same."

"Forget it. They're temperamental, highly strung and they keep breaking down." Jerling blew out a cloud of smoke. "I'm not wasting money on computers either."

Monday, November 5, 2007

Monday Morning Rambling....

Well after the hassles of the time change have been conquered... well they've not been entirely conquered as my youngest hasn't adjusted, but that just means we are being woken up way too early (4:30 rather than 5:30). Sadly, every time I think I've gotten a handle on a new routine, it's shattered and interrupted. Consider this weekend, I needed to do some raking and what not, but got distracted by various things. What that means, is I didn't start raking until 3:30-ish Sunday afternoon. I worked until dark, but didn't get any bags filled. Though I did nearly uproot a tree trying to level out the mulch.

So, what does this have to do with SF? Absolutely nothing. But it's what I've been spending huge amounts of my time on lately. Though, I have taken time out to watch the first two episodes of Samurai Champloo on the AdultSwim On Demand channel, and I've set up my DVR to record Death Note. Also, I do have the Anime Network On Demand, but I'm waiting for a series to pop up starting at episode 1 before I start watching things there.

Beyond that, I've almost gotten my reviews for Hal Spacejock and His Majesty's Dragon written, and will take some time out of my schedule to go and get the Death Star novel sometime this week.

Speaking of Anime, tonight on Ani-Monday there's a movie: Karas: The Revolution. I'm not sure if I'm going to watch it, as I've got things I need to do (i.e. finishing those reviews), and I've got a lot of fansubs sitting on my hard drive waiting to be viewed.

In personal news, I'm probably going to be getting an iPOD or something similar in the near future. After 4.5 years working in an office, switching to a cubicle with the background noise that's just loud enough to be distracting is just that.

Oh well... now to go find something to eat...

Friday, November 2, 2007

All Hallow's Eve - SF Style...

Well, being the geek that I am, one must be aware of the concept of COSPLAYING. COSPLAYING is really big in Japan, and rather prominent at SF and other genre conventions. Basically, it's fans dressing up as characters from books, movies or TV series.

Well, the biggest holiday in October dovetails nicely with that concept, and it's the one time of the year when cosplayers can go out in public without getting stared at like they're freaks by those not in the know.

Of course that's neither here nor there. I have two young kids, and for better or worse, Halloween is the night that they get free candy. Anyways, here are my two little geeks in costume.

Thursday, November 1, 2007

Where Whedon Goes, Fox Shuts Down a Show...

In what to me, is a flabbergasting move, Joss Whedon has signed on to create/write/produce a show for the Fox Television network. This show will represent his return to the small screen, and goes hand in hand with Eliza Dushku signing a talent deal with Fox over the summer.

I'm of two minds of this. One, I love the thought of more Whedon fare on television. It'll be a great show, as all of his are. Yet the other part of my mind is wondering what on earth Whedon is doing with Fox. Think about it, this is the network, singularly responsible for the destruction of Firefly, Space: Above and Beyond, and Dark Angel.

It is with startling routine that they decimate and destroy any show with a SF edge to it, which from the description provided in the article this one has. An odd stance since the network was built on the back of Star Trek: The Next Generation.

Interestingly enough, the general outline of the series as described, is also very similar to Australian writer Simon Haynes' novel Hal Spacejock: Just Desserts. Which means that he has a bit of a worry that American audiences of the novel would believe he stole the plot from Whedon. Frankly, I have to wonder when one of the publishing houses over here are going to pick up his novels for distribution. It's far past time, in my opinion.

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