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Wednesday, April 26, 2017

A Return to Buck Rogers: Eating & Drinking in the 25th Century

In the movie "Buck Rogers in the 25th Century," Colonel Wilma Deering escorts Buck throughout New Chicago. Surrounded by the fabulous architecture of the future, she tells him a little about the apocalypse that nearly destroyed the Earth. Eventually, they end up in a restaurant, or at least a seating area where people might gather and enjoy drinks. But we don't see them eating or drinking in the movie.

In fact, eating and drinking seem to be activities largely confined to the past. People in New Chicago, also called the Inner City, seem to largely get by on food disks. These food disks are produced by food grown off-planet. Recently, pirates have attacked food shipments. Thus, Earth hopes to forge a treaty with the Draconian Empire to police space shipping lanes.

In the novelization written by Richard Lupoff (writing as Addison E Steele), Wilma leads him to a table in the mall. When a waiter appears, she orders two glasses of Vinol, a synthetic wine. "Okay," Buck replies. "Then let's make it two or three. I'd like to get nice and drunk." 

"We're a culture of moderation," Wilma responds. "Everything is carefully balanced. If somebody ruins a serving of food, or greedily consumes two when he's only entitled to one, then somebody else goes without a meal that day. What you would call immoderation, just a petty foible in your world--is a crime in mine. And criminals are invited to leave the Inner City." 

So in the original conception of the story, New Chicago appears far less a utopia than in the film. Life there is hand-to-mouth, and drunkenness and overeating is a crime. Sin against society too much, and you get exiled into the radiation-ruined wasteland. 

In the subsequent TV series, Buck continually tries to breathe a little life into a largely sterile society. One way he does this is by attempting to grow and making his own food and wine. Doctor Huer and Wilma view this as an eccentric quirk to be accommodated and politely overlooked. Had the characters and stories stuck more closely to the original screenplay (upon which Lupoff based his novelization), perhaps these leaders of New Chicago would have applauded his efforts, or even hailed them as a hope for making Earth truly self-sustaining.

But then, who wants to watch "Buck Rogers: Hydroponics and Wine-Making in the 25th Century?"

Dragon Dave

Tuesday, April 25, 2017

A Return to Buck Rogers: The Importance of Chicago

At first, Commander Kane believes that Buck Rogers has been preserved for 500 years. Then another idea occurs to his suspicious mind: what if Buck is part of an elaborate ruse to investigate Princess Ardala and himself, before they reach Earth and negotiate a treaty with the Draconian Empire? Nonetheless, Kane and Ardala allow him to return to Earth, and wait to see what happens.

Once Buck arrives on Earth, he waits in a room for hours, while investigators study his ship. Then Doctor Huer comes in, accompanied by the drone Twikki. Hanging from Twikki's neck is Doctor Theopolis, one member of a super race of computers that exists apart from Humanity. They have evolved into a separate life form, and program their descendants without the aid or interference of Humans. These computers run the Inner City, and even as important a man as Dr. Huer must still bow to their dictates.

Dr. Huer is a kindly man who attempts to ease Buck's arrival in the 25th Century by telling him that he has arrived at the coordinates originally programmed into his space shuttle. The Inner City is also called New Chicago, and is built upon the ruins of the old city. Whatever dangers the U.S. President in the 1980s foresaw (remember, Buck Rogers was developed and filmed in the late seventies, during the Carter presidency, before Reagan took the reins, and long before he proposed his Star Wars defense plan), wars devastated the globe after Buck left Earth. These wars left civilization in ruins, and nearly drove Humans to extinction. But at least Buck has returned to the land of his youth, even if it is drastically changed from when he lived there.

Through the process of reading the novel, and then watching the movie again, these questions struck me powerfully. Why should the space shuttle have been programmed to land in Chicago? Chicago seems a bizarre choice for a 20th Century space shuttle landing site. In the real world, in the 1980s and beyond, the shuttle returned to Earth in Florida, with the occasional landing in New Mexico or California. So I have to wonder what made the writers think that 20th Century Chicago could host a space shuttle landing. (And why it should land there, when it would then need to be transported back to Florida anyway?) Further, what makes 20th Century Chicago so unique in people's minds that it should serve as Buck Rogers' home, as well as the seed from which New Chicago, the home of civilization on 25th Century Earth, should sprout.

I guess one day I'll have to visit Chicago. Perhaps that will help me understand why the space shuttles should have landed there, and the unique importance of the city that inspired the writers of "Buck Rogers in the 25th Century." Then, along with Buck, I can sing, "Chicago, Chicago, you're my kind of town."

Dragon Dave

Monday, April 24, 2017

A Return to Buck Rogers: Ardala's First Impression

In the opening prologue of the movie "Buck Rogers in the 25th Century,' we learn that Buck blasts off from Cape Canaveral in Florida, and experiences freak conditions in space that preserve his body, while his ship floats aimlessly through space for 500 years. Richard Lupoff, writing the novelization as Addison Steele, elaborates on this prologue sequence beautifully. He describes a passing swarm of meteors that surround the spaceship, and how the impact of these small pieces of space debris release a mix of gases inside the hull. 

I suppose I should take a moment to discuss the role of cryogenics here, as I mentioned it in a post last month. But I already discussed the topic at length in a post last month, so I'll just reiterate that the movie prologue, and Lupoff's writing, do their job. We're sold on the idea that Buck Rogers could awaken after five hundred years without any negative aftereffects. (I was sold far more effectively, in both instances, than H. G. Wells manages in The Sleeper Awakes, a 1910 rewrite of his earlier novel, When The Sleeper Wakes). We don't really even think about it, because we're anxious to get on with the story. So I'll shut up on cryogenics, and get on with the next topic.

Five hundred years later, Princess Ardala and Commander Kane bring the space shuttle aboard their flagship, and wake him up. This is our first impression of Buck: he's out-of-it, physically and mentally. He's in no fit state to fathom his presence on a spaceship from another planet. Nor is he aware of how much time has passed. So he asks for an aspirin to clear his head. Instead, the Draconian doctors inject him with a tranquilizer that leaves him punch drunk, and even less able to perceive his present reality from his centuries of dreams.

For some reason, this scene has always been especially memorable to me. Buck is clearly dopey, and is incapable of answering Kane's questions. Nor does he seem to notice the strange appearance of Ardala's bodyguard, the mutant Tigerman. All he can focus on is Princess Ardala's beauty. It's an interesting beginning in Buck and Ardala's relationship, one that made Ardala think less of him initially, as women tend to despise men who get overwhelmed and tongue-tied by their beauty.

Of course, Ardala changes her opinion of him later, after he has demonstrated his bravery, tenacity, and he singles her out at the Ball...

Dragon Dave

Friday, April 21, 2017

A Return to Buck Rogers: Terror in the Skies

It's been decades since I read the novelization of "Buck Rogers in the 25th Century". For all that time it has taken up space in my bookshelves. When a friend helped me move to my current house, he continually marveled at all the boxes labeled "Books" he carried to and from the moving truck. So was it the book worth keeping (and carrying) around? Was it worth reading again? Did it offer a uniquely different experience from the movie? 

I decided it was about time to find out.

In the prologue of the novelization of the Glen Larson and Leslie Stevens' script, credited to Addison E. Steele (a pen name for Science Fiction writer Richard A. Lupoff), we learn there is some need perceived, at the highest levels of the United States government, for a deep space mission. The President gathers senators in the Pentagon, and tells them that this must happen. Then instead of chipping away at the budget, or going on TV to state why they will (or will not) support this program, they return to the Senate and vote to fully fund a five month mission to chart the planets of our solar system.

Perhaps on the President's mind is the network of satellites that circle Earth. These satellites eavesdrop on all Earth communications, and occasionally destroy satellites from rival countries with powerful laser beams. Perhaps the "bald truth" the President tells the Senators is a swarm of meteorites heading toward Earth. Perhaps it is both the threat of the constant state of "musical chairs" played by armed satellites and the threat of annihilation similar to that which drove the dinosaurs to extinction. Let's face it: in 1979, when the script and book were written, those fears were as valid as they still are today. 

When the space ship is finished, it blasts off from Cape Canaveral in Florida. In so doing, it brings the dreams of H. G. Wells, Jules Verne, and other Science Fiction writers Lupoff admired, such as Edmund Hamilton, Jack Williamson, Hugo Gernsback, John W. Campbell, and Hamilton's wife Leigh Brackett. Surprisingly, Lupoff doesn't mention Edgar Rice Burroughs in this list. In Science Fiction circles, Lupoff is acknowledged as an expert on the creator of Tarzan and John Carter of Mars. But then, Burroughs did not send John Carter to Mars aboard a rocketship, let alone a space shuttle.

What will happen to Earth after Buck Rogers leaves is not apparent, or even hinted at, in the movie. But in the book, we perceive a worried world leader who mobilizes Congress in a way that has not happened since Kennedy's Moon missions. This, along with the constant tussle of the satellites orbiting the Earth, gives us some indication of what will occur after Buck leaves Earth, which adds a different dimension to my understanding of "Buck Rogers in the 25th Century."

Dragon Dave

Thursday, March 30, 2017

Getting Reborn With Mark Millar

What happens when you die? Where does your spirit go? Is death the end of one journey, and the beginning of another? Or is this life all that there is? These are questions that everyone wonders about, and even the most scientific of authors, such as Arthur Conan Doyle, have wrestled with.

In his current series Reborn, comic writer Mark Millar addresses these issues. Through his eyes, we follow Bonnie, an old woman eking out her final moments of life in a hospital. When she dies, she reawakens in a fantasy land brimming with fairies, mythic monsters, and yes, even the occasional dragon. Bonnie discovers that she is no longer feeble and suffering from cancer. Instead she is young and energetic. Her youthful body is far stronger than in her former life, she clad in armor, and she wields a sword. Amid a battle, she reunites with her father, her dog, and begins a search for her husband, who journeyed to this fantastic land before her.

Not all who populate this realm live as soldiers. Some settle down and have families, while others enslave the weak and perpetuate their evil schemes. Still, the fact that monsters and evildoers inhabit this realm means that those who seek to live by the sweat of their brow, and in harmony with others, must occasionally band together to protect themselves, their families, and their villages. It may be the afterlife, but that doesn't mean that Bonnie has reached Heaven. This is a world like our own, in which evil exists alongside good, and often fights for supremacy.

Bonnie isn't just another new resident of this fantastic land. People see her as a great hero who has long been prophesied to rescue them once and for all from the forces of evil. While Bonnie never refuses to help others, she isn't interested in building an army and launching an all-out assault on evildoers. Her first priority is more personal: she wishes to find other members of her family on Earth. So she travels this new world with her father and a pet from her childhood, the latter a dog that, like she and her father, is far larger and stronger than he was on Earth. 

Issue 5 of Reborn was my favorite thus far, featuring some major revelations about her husband, and leading to the final confrontation in Issue 6. But it was also bittersweet, as only one issue remains in the current series. From all accounts, the series is selling well, so depending on what occurs in the final issue, it's possible that Millar will write a sequel series sometime in the future. He's done that before, with series like Kick-Ass and Jupiter's Legacy

Interestingly enough, a hardcover novelization by Sarah Lotz is due to hit bookstores later this year, so those who missed the comics will have a choice of purchasing all six issues in one volume, or purchasing a prose adaptation. Many of his stories also get adapted for the big screen, so there's always a potential movie version to hope for. Still, that's far and away, while Reborn is pulsing with vitality, and available to read now. 

In many ways, Reborn seems like an interesting series for Mark Millar to write, as he's a devout Catholic. Reading Reborn seems a little surreal when Millar posts on Facebook and Twitter about attending Mass more often during Lent, and giving up things during this holy season of the Christian calendar. But Reborn is all in good fun. At its core, the story reminds us that Life, in whatever form, is always a battle between good and evil. Just like Bonnie's, our lives should be quests in which we fight for what is right, aid those in need, and strive for the people and things that matter to us. 

Even if that means we too must battle the occasional dragon.

Dragon Dave

Monday, March 27, 2017

Scarlet And Hyssop Vs Downton Abbey

The formal splendor of an earlier era
in the Victoria And Albert Museum in London, England

While I don't know as much about his life as I would like, Scarlet And Hyssop seems like a rather brave novel for E. F. Benson to write, given how well connected he was with anyone-who-was-anyone in English society back then. His father's high standing in the Church of England granted him entry to the rich and powerful, but if he incurred someone's wrath, that could have made his writing career more difficult. The fact that it is a challenging novel to read, with largely unlikable characters, makes it all the more surprising he would write it. Stories that require understanding a key, or the contemplation of an underlying symbol to really enjoy a story, do not always sell well. Stories that require a second reading to gain a fuller understanding of the author's intent do not always age well. While writers such as G. K. Chesterton, George McDonald, and Charles Williams have not been forgotten, they can hardly claim a place in our hearts like Agatha Christie, Charles Dickens, or J. R. R. Tolkien. 

Perhaps it was a mistake for E. F. Benson to write this novel. His long bibliography, and the sheer range of his writing, suggest that he really loved every type of literary genre. When a writer does not concentrate on one or two genres, but spreads his net wide, it is inevitable that he will not always succeed at everything he attempts. While some reviewers loved it, critical assessment of Scarlet And Hyssop largely tends to be negative. As I mentioned, I found it a challenging novel to read. Still, as my post-reading realization demonstrates, there was more going on in the story than could be initially grasped on the surface level. This left me with a desire to read the novel again. With my better knowledge of the characters, and the goal Benson was striving toward, I'm sure it would be a richer experience. 

It goes without saying that, if I felt the novel was an utter failure, I would not even contemplate a second attempt.

When the TV series Downton Abbey premiered on TV, I took an immediate dislike to it. Although the characters inhabited a world similar to those described by writers such as E. F. Benson, I found little to interest me in their petty schemes and jealousies. Similarly, when I first watched the movie Gosford Park, I had just as much difficulty in appreciating it. Here was a story about a murder among the rich in a country house of the nobility. But instead of allowing me to follow a police investigation that led to the capture of the murderer, screenwriter Julian Fellows forced me to wade through portraits of largely unlikable characters. The murderer even gets away with the crime at the end of the movie!

Recently I watched the movie again, and found it intriguing enough to view a second time with commentary with screenwriter Julian Fellows. This actor, writer and producer, the creator of Downton Abbey, is a modern English Baron, and a peer in the House of Lords. As such, he divides his time between telling stories to the populace and contributing to the government of Britain. He has made his name by writing about the types of people he grew up with, both among the rich and titled, as well as the lowly servants. What might seem to us an incomprehensible social structure is something he understands. On the commentary for Gosford Park he said something that stuck with me. He said that the sense he got, from the relatives and people he knew, was that the high and mighty eventually decided to abolish their complicated systems of etiquette, and relax their highly formalized way of life, simply because they found it too tiresome to perpetuate it. In other words, the system grew over time, until it became to unwieldy that those at the top, the ones who theoretically benefitted most from it, finally gave up on it and opted for a simpler way of life.

Don't get me wrong. I still dislike Downton Abbey. Even after watching it again, I'm still not wild about Gosford Park. But the similarities between those stories and Scarlet And Hyssop suggest that E. F. Benson was writing a story along similar lines to those historical stories being told today by writers such as Julian Fellows. The major difference is Benson was pointing out the dangers of perpetuating certain aspects of English society while they were occurring, while Fellows is looking backward to teach us lessons from the past. Given the interest in--and apparent hunger for--TV series such as Downton AbbeyScarlet And Hyssop represents an opportunity to immerse oneself in the glamorous and stratified society of an earlier era. If the ritualistic nature of that bygone era intrigues you, and the type of characters who lived and worked within it fascinate you, then perhaps you might find Scarlet And Hyssop an interesting and entertaining novel.

Dragon Dave

Thursday, March 23, 2017

Scarlet And Hyssop by E. F. Benson

This year got off to a slow start reading-wise, but included some highly interesting novels. Along with other places, the books I read in January transported me to England, Scotland, and Africa. While it is impossible for me to share with you all the fascinating discoveries I made on those journeys, I thought I would give you a little taste of them. The first novel I completed, and the focus of this post, was Scarlet And Hyssop by E. F. Benson.

Scarlet And Hyssop hails from Benson's early literary career. Published in 1902, it comes just nine years after his first novel brought him instant literary success, and is his twelfth published book of long-form fiction. By this time he had also published a collection of short stories, a nonfiction book, and would in the same year coauthor a book on physical fitness. So this represents Benson well into his early literary career, still eighteen years away from the publication of the first of the Mapp & Lucia novels, for which he is best remembered.

Police ride through Hyde Park
in London, England

Scarlet And Hyssop is a melodrama about life among the rich and powerful. Centered largely in London, most of the scenes take place in the houses of the characters. You'll meet interesting people of that time: a government worker being groomed for a Cabinet post, a wife who came from obscurity to steer her husband into the Admiralty, and a woman who throws extravagant parties for dozens of people. You'll attend these balls and gatherings. You will ride along on horseback, or sit beside them in their carriages, as they take their regular exercise and outings in Hyde Park. Most of all you'll get an insider view to the morality of the period, in which people marry for position, and look for love in other places. 

At first I thought Scarlet And Hyssop must refer to some of the characters in the novel. After meeting none so named, I researched the terms after finishing the novel. Scarlet and Hyssop are items used by the ancient Jews in their purification rituals. This put into focus scattered references by the characters to pollution in society. It also underlined the actions of one character who, when faced with the truth of her existence, decided to follow a higher line, no matter the personal cost in financial and societal terms. 

There are lots of reasons to underestimate, and even dislike this novel. I found it difficult to get to know the characters, as many of them have similar-sounding names. Also, the story relies more on dialogue than on action. This is not a simple story, such as Benson's first novel Dodo, A Detail of the Day, which focuses on a young woman who marries for money and position, and the young man who refuses to give her up. It does not focus upon the details of a financial scam, such as in Mammon and Co. It is not a coming-of-age story like The Babe, B.A., or the portrait of an aspiring artist wrestling with following his passion versus appeasing public taste, as in Limitations. Instead, Scarlet And Hyssop is more nuanced, and demands greater attention that such easy-reading novels.

Scarlet And Hyssop focuses on a society that has lost its way. Most of the characters are bland, and their lives uninteresting, because E. F. Benson is pointing out how form and etiquette have blinded the aristocracy to what life should really be about. Most of the characters don't really think through why they are pursuing such (largely) pointless schemes. They simply perform the roles expected of them, or fall into patterns of life because they are easy. Thank goodness none of us could be excused of such excesses, or blindly falling into traps, or being taught not to care about what really matters, in today's more enlightened society.

I'll discuss Scarlet And Hyssop more, and compare it to the popular TV and film creations of screenwriter and English Lord Julian Fellows, in my next post.

Dragon Dave

Thursday, March 9, 2017

A Cache of Doctor Who Treasure

Recently, my wife returned from travel with a few special gifts. I say a few, but count them: there's eighteen Doctor Who novelizations, one of which contains two stories. Of the novels, there were five books retelling six first Doctor stories, and three novelizations from the second Doctor era. This is notable, as during this time period, the BBC had a policy of erasing expensive video tape after the show's initial airing (and perhaps one repeat), so they could reuse it to record other programs. Five of the six first Doctor stories exist only as reconstructions, combining photographic images with audio tracks that fans recorded off their TV sets at home. Two of the three second Doctor stories are also missing, and only exist as reconstructions. So reading the books will help me visualize those stories better.

I've already started reading Galaxy Four, the first book following the order in which the stories were filmed. It's an odd story, in which the Doctor and his companions land on a planet inhabited by two visiting races. These are visitors from other planets, and both crash landed on this planet. One race is represented by a woman and her cloned companions. Despite her beauty, she feels only distain for others. Her companions seem to feel little emotion excepting fear of their mistress. The stratified society she represents reminds the Doctor of that old fool Plato, who he met on a trip to ancient Greece. Apparently, he tried to tell Plato that he could not found a perfect society, or Republic, based on slavery. Like many the Doctor meets, Plato decided to reject the Doctor's advice.

The other book pictured is a novelization of "The Tenth Planet." It's notable for the final story featuring the first Doctor, and the first appearance of the Cybermen. These Cybermen were crude by comparison with the Cybermen the Doctor encountered on successive occasions, as the race improves the design of their mechanical bodies. Interestingly, recent news reports have hinted that the latest Doctor, played by Peter Capaldi, will encounter Cybermen of this original design later this season. That should prove interesting to watch.

The first Doctor Who story I ever saw was "The Genesis of the Daleks." As an early teen in America, I found it difficult to relate to the TV series. The fourth Doctor seemed an utterly incomprehensible figure, and the cliffhanger endings were just plain weird. After seeing "Star Wars" in the cinema, I was looking for more Sci-Fi in that vein. Shows like Star Trek and Battlestar Galactica I could relate to better. Still, I watched the stories from the first season of the fourth Doctor, and read novelizations of other Doctor Who stories, and respected the long tradition of Doctor Who. Years later, after my wife and I married, I became a fan of the show via the third Doctor, a character I could admire and relate to. I love those fourth Doctor stories now, and especially "The Genesis of the Daleks." It'll be interesting to read the novelization, and compare it with the original recording. 

Two other novelizations I'm especially looking forward to reading are Logopolis and Frontios, both by Christopher H. Bidmead. Logopolis takes place on a planet populated by mathematicians who can change the structure of the universe by manipulating mathematical calculations. The TV version of "Frontios," a fifth Doctor story, features actress Lesley Dunlop, who would go on to play Zoe Callendar in a favorite British comedy May To December. "Frontios" transports us to a ravaged world, in which the Doctor attempts to make piece between the Human colonists and a race of giant, intelligent insects. I always felt that this story could have benefitted from a big screen treatment. It would have been great to have seen the devastated landscape on a vast scale, and the war being waged with the best special effects wizards in Hollywood. It will be interesting to see how the book compares with my vision for everything I imagine that story could have been.

Additionally, Christopher H. Bidmead read and commented on a blog entry I wrote about the Doctor Who story "State Of Decay." He wanted to give me his recollection of the dispute between himself, as Script Editor, and the writer of the story, Terrance Dicks. The fact that he would respond to something I wrote is another reason I want to read these two stories.

In closing, I must add that there's a part of me that asks "Why do you need all these novelizations? After all, you've got the TV versions to watch, or at least the reconstructions." But reading is a different experience from watching, and often novelists add scenes deleted from the TV programs, relate the scenes differently, or add additional detail to give you a fuller understanding of the characters and the world(s) on which they live. I look forward to immersing myself in the written versions of these Doctor Who stories, and coming away with an enhanced appreciation for the TV series I love.

Dragon Dave

Saturday, March 4, 2017

Gregory Benford, Allen Steele, and Lois McMaster Bujold on Cryonics

Here's my latest entry from 2011 Reading Recollections:

Lois McMaster Bujold's novel Cryoburn, in an odd way, reminds me of Gregory Benford and Allen Steele. Gregory Benford, as a scientist and science fiction writer, is a real believer in Cryonics. When he dies, he has apparently planned to have his body cryogenically frozen, in the hopes that in the decades (or more likely, the centuries) to come, medical expertise will allow him to be brought back to life. 

In Allen Steele's novel A King of Infinite Space, the protagonist awakes in the future. His aging body has been replaced with a young one, but all his carefully laid financial plans have gone wrong. He is now a slave, the property of the person who bought him as a commodity. 

In Bujold's novel, her popular character Miles Vorkosigan investigates a cryonics corporation. He discovers that bodies have been preserved using cut-rate fluids, materials, and other processes. In the process, many of the bodies have degraded so that the people can never be resurrected. 

Cryogenics offers us hope of another life, or potentially everlasting life in our mortal bodies. Cryoburn reminds us that while the emerging field of Cryogenics holds great potential, the potential of something going wrong during the physical process of preservation, storage, and reincarnation is highly probable, given the long span of time involved, and the all-too-Human natures of those charged with caring for our delicate bodies. 

Still, like the ancient Egyptians with their mummification techniques and their pyramids, we live, and die, in hope.

Dragon Dave

Friday, February 24, 2017

Allen Steele & Passengers

In the movie "Passengers," a mechanic awakens from hibernation to discover that his spaceship is ninety-years away from the new world he had hoped to colonize. Without being able to reactivate his sleep pod, he spends a year alone on the ship before giving into desperation and awakening another passenger. Together, the couple work through her anger at losing her planned future, and help save the five thousand sleeping passengers when the malfunction that awakened him threatens to destroy the ship.

A few years ago, I met Allen Steele. One of his most famous novels is Coyote, which tells about a group of people who make a similar voyage to another habitable planet. In one long section, a man awakens from sleep to discover that his hibernation pod has malfunctioned. Without a way to reactivate it, he will die of old age before the ship reaches Coyote, the world he had intended to colonize. Unlike the mechanic in "Passengers," he does not give into his loneliness and attempt to awaken another passenger. Like the mechanic in "Passengers," he constantly tries new things, learns new skills, and lives a fulfilling life aboard the spaceship. 

A couple years ago, I had the pleasure of hearing Allen Steele speak at a local convention. Later, when he signed my copy of Coyote, I told him I had particularly enjoyed that section of the novel. He said that section was close to his heart also: one of his biggest fears about embarking on such a long journey would be that his hibernation pod would malfunction. It was nice to connect with him in that way, and meet someone who had taken me on a wondrous interstellar journey through his novel.

I don't know if Coyote inspired the brain trust behind "Passengers," or Allen Steele was consulted, in any way, on the movie, but it was nice to see a movie that didn't rely on the normal Crash Boom Bang of Big Tentpole Sci-Fi Hollywood movies. It was intelligently written and visually stunning. It's the kind of film I'd like to see more often, and one I highly recommend.

Oh, and if you're interested in reading a great science fiction novel about colonizing another world, I've got a novel I can recommend too.

Dragon Dave 

Thursday, February 9, 2017

Visiting Rye And Cambridge with E. F. Benson & Gregory Benford

As promised, I've occasionally checked in, and worked on my 2011 Books page. Here's two of the entries I did yesterday.

E. F. Benson's 500-year-old house in Rye, England

E F Benson: Trouble For Lucia In some ways, this sixth and final Mapp & Lucia book is my favorite of all. One of the most colorful characters in Tilling is a young spinster named Quaint Irene. Instead of limiting herself to realistic depictions of houses and landscapes, she peoples her paintings with nudes and other elements that rock local society. So while most look down on her as hopelessly out-of-touch, with no likely prospects of the future, she gains national recognition when one of her paintings becomes celebrated in London. She also spearheads a campaign to help Lucia get elected as mayor of Tilling. 

Another interesting aspect of this novel is a social one. Up until now, people in Tilling are limited to inviting their friends over to their house if they want to socialize. While this doesn't tax someone of Lucia's financial standing, others like Mapp, who calculate the cost of everything, prefer having friends over for tea because dinner is more expensive. Everything changes when Diva Plaistow opens a tea shop in her home. Her friends, including Mapp and Lucia, find it so much easier, and expensive, to gather there. Each person can order what he or she wants, and even if they pay for the party, it still costs less, and is more convenient, than hosting a party at their house. Thus we see the introduction of a social change which sweeps through England, that of the local tea shop where friends gather for tea, refreshments, and conversation.

Gregory Benford: Timescape Earth's ecosystem is collapsing as a result of pollution, the long-term effects of using chemicals in agriculture, and mankind's continual destruction of native landscapes to enlarge cities. So scientists from the present attempt to use knowledge of their mistakes to send knowledge back into the past. Nothing can save the ruin they have brought on themselves, but by alerting their earlier counterparts to the consequences of their actions, they hope to build a habitable future for themselves, even if their own future is doomed. The novel becomes a race against time, as present-day scientists at Cambridge University in England try to send these messages before their power and food supply runs out, and their air becomes unbreathable. Meanwhile, the young scientist at past-day University of California in San Diego (UCSD) in La Jolla races against time to translate the messages he's getting, and convince his more established colleagues before they pull his funding and he loses the respect of the scientific community.

This is an interesting and award-winning novel. It gained such prestige that Pocket Books used the title as an imprint for noteworthy Science Fiction novels they published. I enjoyed reading it in 2011, and then reread it a few years later for a book group. While the story still resonated with me on a number of levels, I found it difficult to convey my positive feelings to others in the group. Nearly everyone in the group found reason to criticize it in nearly every way they could. They claimed Benford didn't know his San Diego geography, as a character couldn't see a landmark from where he stood in a given scene. They criticized his characters, and claimed he must be a woman-hater. They criticized his science and math, despite the fact that he made his living as a scientist and educator at UC Irvine. For whatever reason, they didn't connect with the book, and they blamed Gregory Benford for that. Given their disdain for the novel, I had to wonder why they chose to read it in the first place. Ultimately, I left that group after a few discussions, because I didn't connect with them. They're the kinds of folks I have no desire to associate with, regardless of whether or not a meteor storm is heading toward the Earth.

It's not surprising I read all the Mapp And Lucia books in 2011, as we visited Rye (which Benson fictionalizes as Tilling) during that year's trip to England. We'll be visiting Cambridge during this year's trip, so maybe I'll end up reading Timescape again. I'll probably also reread The Babe, B.A. by E. F. Benson, in which the author takes a loving look back at his alma mater. And then, I suppose I'll have to watch "Shada" again, the Doctor Who serial written by Douglas Adams in which the Fourth Doctor and his companions Romana and K-9 visit Cambridge. While all three options appeal, the latter seems essential, somehow.

Dragon Dave

Monday, February 6, 2017

To England, the North Pole, Africa and Beyond

I've been busy with travel, writing, and just plain coping with life in January. But here's a rundown of the highlights of what I read in December.

1. Thirteen At Dinner by Agatha Christie. (Original title: Lord Edgware Dies). Hercule Poirot's friend Arthur Hastings returns to England in the novel The Big Four, and he returns to his new home in Argentina at the end of this novel. He narrates Poirot's investigation into Lord Edgware's death. The prime suspect seems to be his estranged wife, but not only does she have an alibi, she also seems to have no motive. Any time you can hang out with Arthur Hastings is a fun time.

2. Freddy Goes to the North Pole by Walter R Brooks. Freddy, a self-educated pig, is just one of many interesting characters who live together on a farm. As Freddy longs to travel, he sets up an agency, and he and the other animals conduct tours of nearby sites. Animals travel from nearby farms to enjoy these tours, and pay for them with food or work. Eventually he and his friends garner enough promises of work that they travel off to the North Pole. Along the way, they are rescued from an ice floe by a ship of whalers, who prove reluctant to let such an entertaining (and healthy) pig escape. So more animals on the farm must come to Freddy's rescue. They head off to the North Pole, have exciting adventures, and eventually catch up with Freddy. They also meet a very special person who has his own workshop at the North Pole. Can you guess who it is?

3. Captain's Glory by William Shatner. This novel was cowritten by Judith and Garfield Reeves-Stevens. William Shatner, of course, played Captain Kirk on the original series of Star Trek. The latter have cowritten other novels with Shatner, and produced and wrote stories for the series Star Trek: Enterprise. It's one of the most recent Star Trek novels I've read, and appears to be the last in a trilogy. After his death in the movie Star Trek Generations, Captain Kirk has somehow been returned to life. (You know, like Spock in the movie Star Trek III: The Search For Spock). He's married a woman of mixed ancestry, and has a young child who, due to accelerated growth, appears to be an adult. He captains a smaller ship, and his travels take him to Vulcan, where he is searching for Spock, whom everyone else seems to believe is dead. (Yes, again). Among his crew are an ancient-but-kicking Dr. McCoy, and engineer Scotty, who is little aged, due to having been trapped in a transporter for decades. There's a huge threat to the Federation, and Admiral Janeway, who served as captain of the Voyager in the series Star Trek Voyager, pulls together all her best people to investigate it. These include Captain Jean-Luc Picard of the Enterprise (from the TV series Star Trek: The Next Generation), and his former First Officer Will Riker, who now captains another ship. 

It's kind of amazing how the writers combined so many characters from different TV series. There's obviously a huge number of novels that I have not read which relate a lot of the history of all these people, and how they came to their present positions. At times I had difficulty believing in all these people from different series interacting together. But it was nice to think that the writers, and fans, loved these characters so much, that they wanted them to continue living, long after they should have passed on.

4. Ocean Of Storms by Christopher Mari and Jeremy K Brown. This story begins with a bang. Or, to be accurate, a massive Electro-Magnetic Pulse (EMP) that blacks-out cities, and drops planes out of the sky. When scientists discover the EMP came from the moon, NASA kickstarts an Apollo-style mission. Yet, as in the movie The Martian, involvement with China proves essential to the program. So American and Chinese astronauts head off to the moon, where they discover a spaceship, and a mystery that will lead to a worldwide government coverup, and the subsequent investigation in Africa. 

Although the novel has the feel of a Science Fiction novel, it seemed better-suited to the Thriller genre. It was fast paced, and aspects of it were enjoyable. But I felt as if, had it been submitted to one of the established Science Fiction publishers, they would have rejected it for scientific and story reasons. Still, it was a free ebook-of-the-month from Amazon, and I felt like seeing what Amazon felt was noteworthy and worth reading. Having read so many older books recently, it was nice to read something that was published in the last few years.

5. A Rumpole Christmas by John Mortimer. Having watched the first two seasons of "Rumpole of the Bailey," I enjoyed returning to the character with this short collection. The stories mostly take place in and around the Temple area of London, where Rumpole works as a barrister representing the people who everyone believes guilty until proven innocent. But the story occasionally takes him farther afield, such as when his wife Hilda (or, as he refers to her, She Who Must Be Obeyed) takes him to a health spa to lose weight over the holidays, or spend Christmas with an old school friend. Rumpole's extraordinary character really makes these stories come to life. So, so much fun.

6. A Monster Calls by Patrick Ness. A young boy, whose father has remarried, lives with his sick mother in an English village so small it doesn't even have a McDonalds. (Note: There's more than a few of these in England). The teachers at school are tremendously kind to him, but some of the boys in his class bully him. While his mother's cancer treatments have always worked in the past, his mother never seems to get better. So his grandmother, who he doesn't know well and doesn't get along with, moves in. In his anger and isolation, he begins to notice a tree outside. His dreams of a tree-like creature meld into real-life, and bouts of mindless violence follow. But how much is real, and how much imagined? This novel won the prestigious Carnagie and Greenaway awards for the writing and illustration, and was recently made into a movie.

Reading-wise, December seems to have been a good month. I've had months in which I read more novels, and ones (such as last month) in which I've read less. Of course, this list doesn't refer to reference books, comics and graphic novels, and books-in-process. Nonetheless, the list is a substantive and varied, and a month of reading I can look back on fondly.

What books did you read in December? Any stories that stuck in your mind? Any reading experiences that you'd like to share with others?

Dragon Dave

Monday, January 16, 2017

Updating My Book Lists

The holidays are usually tough. This year proved especially so, hitting me far harder than usual. As you can imagine, this sapped my focus, as well as my will to do things like blogging. 

My wife suggested I edit my Book listing recently, so that suggested a project. Something I have a passion for: discussing the novels I've read. Typically, I'll read anywhere from sixty to a hundred books in a year. Recently, that's included graphic novels. Last year, I read around eighty. That's a fair amount of reading, when you consider that I also read comic books, magazines, and occasionally even reread a novel to enhance my understanding of it. I don't list graphic novels on the sidebar, so those are just novels and nonfiction you'll find there. 

Last year, I removed "Books I Enjoyed in 2011, 2012, and 2013" from the sidebar. This month I took off the 2014 books. In case any of you are interested in reviewing my reading tastes, or just looking for a recommendation, I've decided to set up a page for the previous years of reading that have dropped off the sidebar. 

Right now, I'm working on the books I read in 2011. I'm trying to include a few words of what I remember enjoying about each book as I can. It will take awhile, so if you're interested in my thoughts and recollections of 2011 Books, check back occasionally. Maybe I'll even include a few photos of the books. 

Hopefully, unlike my Conan Chronology page, I'll complete the 2011 Books page relatively quickly, and move on to later years. Maybe I'll even take another crack at Conan. Time, focus, and will allowing, I'll post this month about the books I read last month. As to the rest, (by Crom!), who knows what the future holds?

Dragon Dave