28 June 2015

Books: Boo By Neil Smith (2015)

I heard about Boo by Neil Smith on Facebook. I "liked" a page dedicated to the old businesses that used to be around my home town of Hoffman Estates, Illinois during the 60s, the 70s, and 80s. Someone commented on they were reading this book, which has the main character going to Helen Keller Junior High School, the same one I went to. Intrigued, I got the book from my library here and took on reading the story of Oliver "Boo" Dalrymple, a pale eighth grader who aspires to be a scientist and whom, not surprisingly, a pariah within his social structure.
It is the first week of the new school year, September 7, 1979. Boo and his classmates are marching through their school, going to classes, hunting through their lockers (Boo's is number 106) when something…happens. The next thing Boo realizes is he's not in school, but in some other place called Town. And soon after, he understands that he's dead and Town is the afterlife exclusively for 13 year-old Americans. As Boo narrates his story to his parents, he tells them that in Town there are no trees or animals, just endless rows of redbrick dormitories surrounded by unscalable walls. No one grows or ages, but everyone arrives just slightly altered from who he or she was before. To Boo’s great surprise, the qualities that made him an outcast at home win him friends; and he finds himself capable of a joy he has never experienced. Soon after another boy from his school, Johnny Henzel arrives and brings him a surprising news about the circumstances of the boys' deaths. But there is a darker side to life after death—and as Boo and Johnny attempt to learn what happened that fateful day, they discover a disturbing truth that will have profound repercussions for both of them.
This is no gimmicky fairy tale though, as Smith takes on serious issues that effect teenagers today like  metal illness, bullying, suicide and school shootings. Yes, it maybe set in 1979 and those issues were hardly news today, but that's not the point here. Neil Smith, although born in Canada and now resides there, went to school at Helen Keller Junior High (and maybe Lakeview Elementary which he also mentions) and is using his school years as template to explore modern issues that teenagers face. Boo can be anyone, really, a thirteen year-old whom is a science nerd. And always, through time immortal, those boys have always been tortured. Then there's Johnny, a boy whom had psychiatric problems before coming to Town. He too seems destined to have a horrible label. 
The book become a bit more darker and at times shocking towards the end, and Boo's Cliff Clavin style of knowing everything about everything gets a bit weary, but it's a fantastic book for adults and teens. It opens a door to understanding that the past and the present are pretty much connected. Our problems mirror our children's when navigating the teen years. Plus, it was just weird to here the names of two schools my siblings and I went to in a major novel. 

25 June 2015

Books: The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August By Claire North (2014)

The authors name on The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August is Claire North, but on the back flyleaf, we're told Claire North is a pseudonym. But since this novel was released well over a year ago, it's become public that Claire North is actually Catherine Webb, a Carnegie Medal-nominated author whose first book, Mirror Dreams, was written when she was just 14 years old. She went on to write seven more successful young-adult novels, and also wrote a series of successful fantasy novels for adults under the pseudonym Kate Griffin, the Matthew Swift and Magicals Anonymous novels. Of course that does not take away anything for me, as I've never read books under her real name or fake ones. And it does not take away anything about this book, which is by far one of the most cleverest takes on time travel I've read. 
We learn early that Harry August is an "ouroborans", a "kalachakra", a person who lives and dies and then is reborn, again and again. And each ouroborans remember their pervious life as well (at about four or five they begin to realize they have lived before), but Harry is an extra special kalachakra, for he is also a mnemonic, which means he retain nearly everything he's been exposed to through in his previous lives. So these people live sort of like a Groundhog's Day loop that starts at birth and continues through death -whenever that happens. They're like the Time Lords in Doctor Who, but without the actual time travel - because only information (and personal memories) can travel back through time.
We also meet other kalachakra's and discover a whole secret society, called the Cronus Club, of folks who've lived for thousands of years. And as Harry meets the same people (some who have minor changes in their lives, some with other major changes as they relive their lives), experiencing the same events, you realize this condition gives Harry and others almost godlike powers. And it doesn't take long for Harry to realize that -via a six year-old girl who visits Harry when he is dying in 1996 and tells him the future, her future and the worlds, is ending sooner than it should and that one their own, another ourborans, has decided that he does want to become a god and decides to change the past to alter the future. 
This sets Harry on an adventure of many lives to figure out whom is advancing science that will eventually erase all the kalachakra's from time and eventually the world. 
This is a well plotted, well thought out thriller and North does some wonderful worldbuilding here. It's a rare science fiction book of the 21st Century that comes out fully formed, with an igneous plot  that is familiar, yet not. Harry August is a likable hero, smart, funny, and tale works nearly to end. The plotting is addictive (she takes the short chapter approach made popular by James Patterson), yet it's done in such a way that I never felt exploited. I continued reading because North had created such a brilliant take on time travel, on the idea of the "what if everyone had a second chance to relive their lives (and remember it with great detail) and what they would do to change it on the second, third, or fourth time around?"
In many ways, as I read the book, I could not help but think of Doctor Who during it's early 1970s incarnation with the Doctor battling his archenemies (and fellow Time Lord) the Master, who was always trying to alter the present to effect the future. I'm not sure if North (or Webb) is actually a Who fan (and she was born in London during the shows wilderness years), but she is clearly inspired by it. 
It's a masterful book, and clever in so many ways. I'm shocked that it took me well over a year to discover it, and also shocked this book has not been a bigger hit. 

16 June 2015

Books: These Are The Voyages: Star Trek: TOS: Season One By Marc Cushman (2013)

Over the years, I've read many books on the making of Star Trek (TOS). I've leaned a great deal about it from it's first pilot to its second pilot, to its three season run on NBC and then its afterlife in syndication -where I first discovered it (thanks to my older brother). I've read stories in magazines like Starlog, I've heard stories told at conventions and I've heard the truths, the lies and everything else in between. 
Sometime in the 1980s, TOS creator Gene Roddenberry and Producer Robert Justman gave author Marc Cushman everything that had been saved during that classic series run and told him tell the "real story"of Star Trek. What is presented here in These Are The Voyages is perhaps the most detailed look at the creation of this legendary franchise. Through the kept -and prolific- memos between the production team and Roddenberry, along with production schedules, budget breakdowns, memories from actors (both the main cast and guest cast, along with the background performers), from the producers, writers and directors, you get an astonishing level of detail about the trials of bring Star Trek to TV in the mid 1960s when most, if not all television series, were massed produced. 
Star Trek was ahead of its time and there is no doubt what Roddenberry and Company were attempting to do in an era where TV shows were made on assembly line format which left little room for growth or being different because shows were running 30 to 35 episodes a season. It was, in some ways, very revolutionary. I mean, never had a TV series before TOS attempted such a bold move as to not to insult its audience (those shows did exist before TOS, but they were always regulated to anthology shows that populated the Big Three during the 1940s, 50s and early 60s). They assumed (both Roddenberry and NBC somewhat) that there was an audience for adult science fiction, a show for those whom had grown weary of cowboy shows and pointless sitcoms, and who wanted a drama that offered something to touch the intellect as well as the heart. So Roddenberry sold NBC on the idea that could give the viewers of Star Trek a grand rip-roaring adventure each week that could also carry a message, the same way Roddenberry's literary hero Jonathan Swift had done in the 19th Century.
But as we see (and know) much of what Roddenberry wanted never came easily. Part of the problem was Roddenberry himself. In this first volume, at least in my opinion, he comes off somewhat as a dick. I mean, yes, he wanted the best show on TV and hired some the most well know writers of science fiction of the day like A. E. van Vogt, Jerry Sohl, Robert Bloch, Richard Matheson, Theodore Sturgeon, Robert Sheckley, and the Great Curmudgeon of the Universe, Harlan Ellison only to rewrite their initial scripts (so much so, at times, Roddenberry got credit and thus residuals). You cannot help but think he did this because he didn't really know anything about science fiction and needed some help by hiring real, well known science fiction writers. But you don't invite these prestigious writers (don't tell Ellison I said that) to help plan a party only to take some of their ideas, rearrange them, repackage them, slice and dice them and then call them your own (Roddenberry never passed up an opportunity to score money from writers, let alone money from merchandising). 
Plus as the series evolved over its first season (it's a rarity a show comes out fully formed, and Star Trek was no exception), it does seem apparent that Roddenberry never communicated to these writers how the show had changed over the months since NBC okayed the series in March of 1966. Well, that may be a little bit of a lie, but from what I read here, either the words fell on deaf ears of the writers, or the production staff was not very clear on what was wanted. Part of the problem, as well, for those bushel of writers was they were creating scripts without ever seeing an episode. So as far as they knew, the sky was the limit when telling their stories. Of course, for writers of books and short stories, they have unlimited budgets. But on TV, in the 1960s, budgets for shows were significantly small -which was why science fiction was hardly done on TV in those days, and still today they're very, very expensive (and Robert Justman became my hero here as he sent copious memos on why 95% of what the writes wrote could not be done on TV. Despite his complaints, he seemed to always keep a sense of humor).

So the show changed from its initial origins and changed again half way through its first season when Gene Roddenberry had to step away due to extreme exhaustion (and his never ending battle to piss off network executive Stan Robertson and NBC's Broadcast Standards -which allowed almost nothing that the viewer might see as unpleasant- and even Desilu Studios) and Gene Coon came in as showrunner for the second half. While the scripts from these prominent writers continued to be re-written by Coon, by D.C. Fontana (Roddenberry's secretary whom eventually wrote several episodes and served as script editor), John D. F. Black, and George Clayton Johnson, Coon was instrumental in bringing humor to the show that it was lacking in the first half and creating some the most signature aspects of Star Trek: the Federation, The Untied Federation of Planets, Photon Torpedoes, and the Klingons. He is also credited for seeing the Kirk-Spock-McCoy triumvirate and exploiting it. Sadly, much of it, if not all of it, is credited to Roddenberry himself.
In the end, I did learn some new things and the book is an easy read (though while some might see this book more as a reference guide than sitting down and reading it from cover to cover), so I was still enthralled with it. I look forward to reading the other two books in the near future. 

06 June 2015

Books: Hogsfather -Terry Pratchett (1997)

I was starting Thief of Time when I realized that the next book in Terry Pratchett's Discworld series that featured Death was Hogswatch. So I put down that book and picked up…well…Hogswatch, the 20th Discworld novel and the fourth to feature, as noted a few lines ago, Death. Like most of Pratchett's books, there's always bitd of social commentary about our own lives running through his allegories, so why not take on the grandaddy of all holidays but Christmas. Of course, here it's called Hogsfather, with a jolly old fat man who rides around in a sleigh pulled by four large boars named Gouger, Rooter, Tusker, and Snouter. And like good old Santa Claus, the Hogfather flies around Discworld dispensing gifts, via the chimney (all while soaking up the sherry). But the Auditors, who have no particular like for Death (whom seems to be getting more "human" everyday) throw a wrench into the universe wheel works and hire an assassin to "kill" Hogsfather -well as much as you can kill a God. But Death will not have any of this and decides to step in and take over the duties of being Hogsfather.
Meanwhile, Susan Sto-Helit, the granddaughter of Death, has landed a governess job to two lovable children. Trying, it seems, to be normal Susan still finds herself embroiled in her grandfather's odd choices. When she learns what Death is up to, she confronts him. She wants to know why the Hogfather is dead and why he is taking over for him. Of course he refuses to answer her and tells her it's none of her business. But Susan being Susan decides to find out oh her own and she is joined by the Death of Rats, a smart talking raven and the God of Hangovers that will lead her to the Tooth Fairy and the answer to what happens with all the teeth that are collected. Also on the case (though they don't know it), are the intellectual elite of Unseen University. The wizards, led by Archchancellor Ridcully, are working on the problem of mysteriously appearing gods. Gods are popping out of thin air -the God of Indigestion, the Eater of Socks, the Cheerful Fairy and the Wisdom Tooth Goblin, to name just a few.
Belief and superstition is at the heart of this book. And because humans need these two traits, or as Death points out "HUMANS NEED FANTASY TO BE HUMAN" (he always speaks in capital letters). But The Auditors, who like an orderly universe, just think that anyone who would accept such a strange being as the Hogfather being real is clogging up their view of an orderly universe, so they go to extraordinary means at which to change this (without, of course, becoming totally "involved"). As always, the best part of these books is Death's inability and innate naivete on how human beings work -our many contradictions and other social absurdities confuse him. But Death has grown a bit since Mort, and as he interacts more with Susan (and his servant Albert) he is beginning to see the humans that live on Discworld are more interesting than he first thought. 

01 June 2015

There Are Reasons Why Disney is Not Doing TRON 3

The cold facts on Disney not moving forward (at this time) on a third TRON film are these:

TRON: Legacy
$180 Million budget
$150 Million in advertising 
$400 Million gross.
But beyond the math, the other issues was lack of interest. TRON: Legacy, the 2010 follow-up to the 1982 classic, was a visually pleasing film from Joseph Kosinski (helming his first film after a career in doing CGI commercials) with a better than average techno-score from Daft Punk. But unlike it's predecessor, the new TRON film scored badly with critics and film audiences. And in the five years since its release, interest in a third film waned. In the end, it did not become the cult classic the original did. And in many ways, that's what kills a franchise more than anything, no one really caring.
Sure Disney never officially announced a third film, but it seemed the (contactually obligated) actors where ready to assemble (with director Kosinski) in Vancouver where rumors were piling up that this is were Disney was hoping to make a much cheaper sequel. But while the hardcore fans held out hope, it's a good guess the decision to not move forward after all was made by the lukewarm performance of another expensive film, Brad Bird's $190 million (well, $280 with advertisement) Tomorrowland, which opened May 22, 2015 with $33 million weekend (and took in $42 million during the three-day holiday weekend that followed). While that was fairly on par, it only scored a bit better than Pitch Perfect 2, which cost only $29 million and has taken in $228 million to Tomorrowland's $133 million so far in the same number of weeks out. In Tomorrowland's defense, of course, its an original film and not a sequel or a reboot, which does make it's success an uphill climb. And like TRON: Legacy, Tomorrowland has its fans (mostly, it seems, Disney followers), but like the former, the film has generated a mixed bag of reviews. So we come back to the same problem that plagued the TRON sequel: visually pleasing, but empty of characterization. 
This is Hollywood cynicism of tent-pole film making in a nutshell: The philosophy that these types of films only need to pleasing to the eye with a electronica soundtrack done by a popular group while ignoring all aspects of internal logic, storytelling, creating interesting and believable three dimensional characters. 
Plus you don't hand over what was once a very influential and original film to someone who's whole career is based on making CGI beer commercials. Yes, Kosinski was cheaper than hiring a director with a track record, but historically giving a large budgeted film to someone who has little understanding of how to use that budget is like expecting congress to live on minimum wage. 
I don't think, however, Disney is done with TRON. It has spent a boat load of money on it and will eventually figure out a way to recoup their costs -they're very good at that. But maybe they should wait a bit, figure out a good idea (reboot or move forward from the second film) before committing to doing another film. Plus, it doesn't have to be that expensive of a prospect either. But in the end, like all films should, the script is the most important thing. If you have a weak story, no amount of visual flair, CGI, Daft Punk music or nearly naked Garrett Hedlund can make a TRON film successful. 

30 May 2015

Books: The Rebirths of Tao By Wesley Chu (2015)

When Wesley Chu's first book in this series, The Lives of Tao, proved to be a huge success in early 2013, publisher Angry Robot released the second book, The Deaths of Tao, in the fall of that year instead of early 2014, meaning that it would take book three, The Rebirths of Tao, a whole year and half before seeing publication. I noted that in my review back then that a delay may mean moving on. Not because I did not like Chu or this series, but because I would probably forget all that happened in book two. 
Which proved to be true. But since I was not going to go back and re-read the previous two books (listen, l want to read a lot of books and re-reading anything means it has to be special) I just plodded along until the author got me somewhat caught up in the timeline. 
"Many years have passed since the events in The Deaths of Tao: the world is split into pro-Prophus and pro-Genjix factions, and is poised on the edge of a devastating new World War; the Prophus are hiding; and Roen has a family to take care of. A Genjix scientist who defects to the other side holds the key to preventing bloodshed on an almost unimaginable scale. With the might of the Genjix in active pursuit, Roen is the only person who can help him save the world, and the Quasing race, too. And you thought you were having a stressful day."

The concluding arc to this series is well handled and Chu -very good at pacing and creating a believable world- also has a way with character interaction and dialogue. Tan Roen was always a great character, but with added bonus of a time-jump (right about a decade) we get a Roen and Jill's 16 year-old son Cameron and Marco, a British fighter who seems to have had too many adventures with Roen over the years, and they are always bickering. This, of course, leads to some great conversations. We also get a sweet potential relationship with Cameron and the daughter of the Genjix scientist whom is defecting. There is some great interaction here between her, Cam and Tao (who was once in Roen's body, but now resides in Cameron. Long story. Read the other two books).

Another good aspect of the time-jump is to add the geo-political aspects that come into play now that the world knows of the aliens. It's a fun James Bondian style adventure with megalomaniacs trying to end the world (and while that aspect is not very original, all can be forgiven due to other positive things about the this book and the series as a whole). I'm unsure if this series could be called "urban fantasy", which seems to me a new sub-genre that includes the works of Jim Butcher's (Dresdin Files) and Tad Williams (Bobby Dollar). Part of me hates this, because it clearly means that to find new readers of science fiction and fantasy, authors can no longer write the traditional ways of fantasy -no magical worlds- that it has to be set in our own reality so to speak. That this is the only way today's readers can accept a fantasy world is that it has to be set in the present. Then again, there is some truth to the notion fantasy and science fiction became to formulaic in the late 80s and 90s that lead to this current trend (though I think TimPowers has been doing this for years). 

In the end, The Rebirths of Tao brings it all to a satisfying end and yet I know Chu is setting up for another round -which I read begins next year, a stand-alone trilogy that begins with The Rise of Io. In the meantime, Chu returns to the bookstores this July with Time Salvager

And as I've mentioned before, I love time travel stories. 

21 May 2015

Books: The Grace of Kings By Ken Liu (2015)

When I started reading the fantasy genre back around the 1979 or 80, a lot of the writers that went through where influenced by J.R.R. Tolkien. The late 1970s, all of the 80s and part of the 90's where dominated by authors who grew up loving The Lord of the Rings. Just as much as Isaac Asimov, John C. Campbell and Robert Heinlein influenced some to become scientists and create their own books, Tolkien's reach was extraordinary. Sadly, s I grew older, I aged out of some authors that I read, in particular Piers Anthony. I adored his Xanth series for a hot minute, before I suddenly realized he was creating a formula that meant the later books were, essentially, predictable. The puns helped, but you knew that each Xanth book would follow the same layout as the previous and Anthony seemed no longer able to deviate from it. His early work, especially in the science fiction tales, were filled with wonderful ideas, but now he has devoted his final years on issuing one Xanth book after another. 
So I left the genre behind for a while, something I think I've written about before. Since then, I've read only a handful of fantasy books, mostly Tad Williams whose prose style I like. But I never got into the "urban fantasy" subset of this genre. Those are tales set in the real world, our world, but features many signature fantasy elements like magic, wizards and dragons. TV shows like Once Upon a Time appeal to non-fantasy folks because they're set in place that a viewer can identify. On some psychological level, I think these urban fantasy shows, books, and comics makes folks more comfortable viewing and reading them because it's more tangible, more "real". It's like fans of reality TV shows; they enjoy it because while they know there is some creative editing going on that propagates the fake drama, they see everyday things like cars, Starbucks and smart phones. They can "identify" with these reality stars.
But then George R.R. Martin came along and upset the applecart. His Song of Ice and Fire series owes much to The Sapranos than to the world Tolkien created, though. Martin created an elaborate world, filled with castles, horses, and dragons. But he populated it with characters that come straight from 1970s crime dramas and the European idea that heroes and the villains all live within a gray world where wrong and right blur continuously. Martin did something else most fantasy authors never did during its coming of age in the 70s, you never knew who was going to live and who was going to die. When reading the first book in that series, A Game of Thrones, I'm assuming no one saw the death of Ned Stark coming. In doing so, in killing what many thought could've been the main character of a multi-volume fantasy series, Martin changed the rules and in doing so, changed the fate of fantasy books to come. 
So this brings me to Ken Liu's The Grace of Kings, the first book in his Dandelion Dynasty trilogy. Part of the reason I took on this book was mainly because of three writers I follow on Twitter, Wesley Chu, Saladin Ahmed and Kate Elliot. And though Liu had won the Nebula and the Hugo Awards, I was not aware of him (I generally don't read short-stories). Yes, being out the book business since Borders folded in 2011 means I missing out of a lot. Still, I have enjoyed the works of those previous authors, so I thought I would try this book out.
Much like Martin, Liu upsets the applecart, creating an epic fantasy that spans decades and features a lot of action, a lot of death (and the gallons of blood that comes with it) and three dimensional characters (especially the women).
The plot starts with the land of "Dara that has been united under a single banner, that of Emperor Mapidéré. The archipelago had once been a divided set of kingdoms, all of which felt some pain living under one ruler. We meet the young, troublesome boy named Kuni Garu, who's described in the book as "a boy who prefers play to study", one who's mischievous and brilliant, hailing from the Cocru city of Zudi. Across the world, Mata Zyndu is a massive child: tall, with double pupil eyes, and the last child of the Zyndu family, most of whom had been killed in the war that unified Dara. Each man finds his way under the harsh regime of Mapidéré: Kuni assembles a gang of bandits (amongst other exploits too numerous to list), and eventually rises as the self-styled Duke Garu, a bold move for someone born of common blood. Meanwhile, Mata assembles his own army, and determined to reclaim his family's honor and place in the world, sets off to war. Each begins their own rebellion against the Imperial Army, and eventually, their paths cross. Each regards the other as a brother, and together, they drastically change the balance of power in Dara. However, once their war is won, the real struggle for power begins, and the ensuing conflict is far more devastating than the battles that came before."
While most of the fantasy genre has its roots in medieval Europe, Liu takes on the Han Dynasty of China in his tale of revolution, rebellion, and what leadership really means (though he uses this, I think, more as a stepping stone than a full parallel). In doing this, he opens the genre that seems stagnated and that allows him to play with form and style, something I admit took me a while to grasp. And Liu writes both Kuni and Mata as complex people, even if Kuni is less heavy handed in his approach to war and conquest than Mata -who is the epitome of what Star Trek's Klingons may have become if allowed. 
There are many characters that come and go like dead leaves in a whirling wind, but the book is close to a character study between two men who have two different points of view when it comes to destroying a bad empire and rebuilding it into something better. The fact the Liu does not shy away and make one too liberal and one too conservative is great example of his writing style.
In the end, though, the book's prose, while dense like Martin's series, is far easier to digest. Perhaps because Liu chose a more modern narrative? I don't know. I liked the book, I liked the fully drawn characters and I liked the idea of reading something that was the same, yet different. 
Yet, yet, once again, I have to say I'm not always onboard for the casual way in which life is treated here. Death, I know, is what happens in wars, revolutions or what not. People die both young and old, but it's the mass acceptance of death that sometimes turns my stomach and what appears to be the appeal for these 21st Century take on fantasy. I realize that this is a fiction book, that the people are not real, but it still does not appease my idea that wars are horrible on the common folk. Yes Kuni seems to want to avoid killing soldiers unnecessarily, but it does not absolve him that sometimes him (and Mata) are just as horrible as Emperor Mapidéré. 
Maybe that was the point?