31 May 2011

Books: The Eyre Affair by Jasper Fforde (2001)

In an alternate verison of 1985 England, we meet Thursday Next, a LiteraTec ("literary detective") and the hero of Jasper Fforde’s entertaining, often funny The Eyre Affair.

In this alternate universe, literature and art are everything. There are gang wars between followers of surrealism and impressionism, and where Baconians fight an endless war to prove Shakespeare never wrote a letter, let alone some of the greatest plays the world of literature has ever seen.

Also, speaking of wars, the Crimean War continues into its 131st year -even though over that time, maybe only 8 or 9 was any actual battle going. Thursday’s brother Anton died during one of those years, which colors her relationship with an old boyfriend who was with her brother when he died, and who sort of sold him out during an inquiry.

And time-travelers routinely play havoc with history, one who includes Thursday's father.

Anyways, a former tutor of Thursday, one Acheron Hades, has become a monstrous super-villain, who would not be out of place with James Bond’s notorious Ernst Blofeld or Doctor Who’s The Master. So Hades has stolen the original manuscript of Charles Dickens’ Martin Chuzzlewit, and in this universe, they can alter books by adding new story elements or taking characters out of the book.

But when Hades learns that Thursday’s uncle has created a Prose Portal, a device similar (I guess) to Star Trek: The Next Generation's holodeck, the larger-than-life villain sets his sights on the heroine of Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Erye.

While marketed as mainstream literature, Fforde’s novel is more sci fi/fantasy along the lines of Douglas Adams, with a lot of Monty Python added to keep the comedy from getting too sophisticated. The Eyre Affair is chock-full of literary references and in-jokes, though I assume even though reading Jane Eyre is not required, it might be useful to have read it.

In the end, though, its an entertaining romp, even if its not original. Fforde’s prose is sparse, and this does, at times, cause a confusion when trying to keep the large cast of characters in order, but its smart comedy for people who love literature, but not too deep that fans of popular fiction would turned off by it.

Pennywise Lives

25 May 2011

Books: A Dark Matter by Peter Straub (2010)

While Stephen King and Peter Straub write completely different styles of horror, they are obsessed with growing up in the 50s and the 1960s. Both me have written many books set in that period, or have stories set in the present, but have many roots in those halcyon years. Straub admitted the idea for A Dark Matter came out of the turbulent 1960s, set in the college town of Madison, Wisconsin (Straub was raised in Milwaukee).

The tale is about a charismatic and cunning man named Spenser Mallon who is a campus guru in 1966, where he’s attracted the devotion - and sometimes sexual favors- of his young acolytes. After he invites his most fervent followers to attend a secret ritual in a local meadow, the only thing that remains is a gruesomely dismembered body—and the shattered souls of all who were present.

Straub told the FLAMES RISING web site that the book “evolved out of a desire I had to think about the various sages and gurus I had seen pass through Madison. I think there were three altogether; at least, I witnessed the actions and behaviors of three of these gents. They were all articulate, interesting, and predatory. Almost all of what they said was nonsense, but they did get a bunch of kids to look into the Tibetan Book of the Dead. I started to wonder: what might happen if one of these sleazy wisdom-merchants did actually reveal a portion of the Other World, the World Unseen, in the course of a home-made ritual.”

Anyways, years later, one man attempts to understand what happened to his wife and to his friends by writing a book about this horrible night, and it’s through this process that they begin to examine the unspeakable events that have bound them in ways they cannot fathom, but that have haunted every one of them through their lives. As each of the old friends tries to come to grips with the darkness of the past, they find themselves face-to-face with the evil triggered so many years earlier.

More psychological thriller than horror of his early (a trend Straub started back in the 80s) works, the novel is also very literate –very unusual in this genre. Still, despite many things that work – a shifting character perspectives, nested flashbacks, a story that spans four decades, and an attractive, if not somewhat charming cast – the novel takes way too long to kick in. Why spend 500 pages talking, investigating and going on and on about a single event and then, somehow, make that event not really matter?

Straub is a rare writer, able to write some great fiction with heart, believable people and layer it with great words that can inspire a reader. So while A Dark Matter is a good read, it falters when it comes to actually being what I had hoped it would be.

14 May 2011

Doctor Who: 6.4: The Doctor's Wife

Writer Neil Gaiman’s long delayed The Doctor’s Wife put the series back on track after last week’s mixed bag of history, pirates and killing off Rory, again.

While not connected to the season arc –though we get some references to it – this episode, none the less, is a shining example of when you put a high caliber writer at the helm. The episode is imaginative, engaging and heart breaking.

The Doctor receives a distress cube from a Time Lord (this is a throwback to the last story Patrick Troughton’s second Doctor had, The War Games), and sets the coordinates to a “bubble” universe where the TARDIS lands on a mysterious planet, a junk pile if you will. Almost immediately, the TARDIS shuts down, its matrix ripped out. Trapped, the Doctor Rory and Amy encounter two humans named Auntie and Uncle and an Ood named Nephew. They also encounter a woman named Idris , who fawns all over the Doctor. While Auntie and Uncle lock Idris up, the Doctor discovers where the Time Lord distress signals are coming from when he encounters a cabinet full of hypercubes; House, the supercomputer that they landed on, has been luring Time Lords into the “bubble” universe for eons.

The Doctor realizes that House ripped out the TARDIS matrix so he could take it over and bring himself into the real universe.

To go on would spoil what has to be one the best episodes in last two seasons of the show, a hugely satisfying “fairy tale,” wrapped in a science fiction plot with all the cast –including a brilliant performance from Suranne Jones – at their height. It's also a valentine to long time fans of the show, and will give new viewers a chance to understand the long mythology that sometimes hinder any long running show.

There is also a prophecy at the end: "The only water in the forest is the river."

09 May 2011

Books: Star Trek: Department of Temporal Investigation: Watching the Clock by Christopher L. Bennett (2011)

The Department of Temporal Investigations (DTI) exists to keep the timeline secure. Agents Lucsly and Dulmur (characters first introduced in the Star Trek: Deep Space Nine episode Trials and Tribble-ations) have investigated many incidents of time travel and alternate realities within the Federation. But when a series of events threatens their current timeline and someone starts erasing people from history, the DTI agents find themselves up against a future adversary with an unknown agenda.

The novel, which also sometimes reads like a bunch of short stories, details Lucsly and Dulmur’s first meeting and subsequent partnership with in DTI. It also weaves a vast number of known time travel adventures from all of the Star Trek series. I recognized all of these instance, and was rather impressed with the level of detail that went into integrating them into the story.

There’s a lot of temporal physics in this story, and it sometimes can be overwhelming, however, there is still plenty of action, drama and comedy to keep any fan of Star Trek and time travel stories (which I love) turning the page.

It’s fun read, and fun way to see author Christopher Bennett sew 40 plus years of Star Trek TV shows (including the animated series) into a huge (sometimes complex) tapestry. It's also fun to see him close the book, as it were, on the Temporal Cold War that figured in Star Trek: Enterprise's first 2 seasons.

01 May 2011

William Campbell, Star Trek actor dies

It’s an old cliché, really. Actors like to remember for their work, of course, but what they want to be remembered for is usually different than what their fans want. And when they choose to appear in cult TV shows or movies, that is what they usually get remembered for.

Of course, I’m sure no actor who ever guested on “Star Trek” between 1966-69 would ever thought that when they passed from this Earth, that those roles on that cult TV series would be the general lead in their obituaries. William Campbell, who was in Elvis Presley's first film and in the 1950s was married to President Kennedy’s paramour Judith Campbell Exner, has died at the age of 87.

His other film roles included "The High and the Mighty", "Cell 2455 Death Row", "The Naked and the Dead", "Dementia 13" with director Francis Ford Coppola and "Hush … Hush, Sweet Charlotte."

But in the end, for many actors who worked on certain genre shows, William Campbell will be remembered for his two roles on the original “Star Trek” series. In the first season, he portrayed the mischievous Trelane in “The Squire of Gothos.” Over the decades, many “Trek” fans have speculated this was the first introduction of the Q, a race of omnipotent beings that became part of “The Next Generation”, “Deep Space Nine” and “Voyager.” A season later, he played the Klingon Koloth in the highly popular episode “The Trouble with Tribbles.” Some twenty-seven years later, Campbell returned to play the aging Koloth in the “Star Trek: Deep Space Nine” episode “Blood Oath,” one of only a few actors to play roles on the original series and then its spin-offs decades later.

Campbell did various guest shots on TV during the 1970s, but did little work during the 80s, doing a two-part “Quincy M.E.” episode in 1983, a guest shot on a 1985 episode of “Hotel” and “Return of The Six Million Dollar Man and The Bionic Woman” in 1987. He only returned to TV twice in the 90s, the after mentioned “DS9” episode and a shot on a 1996 episode of the syndicated series, ” Kung Fu: The Legend Continues.”

A private man by nature, he rarely made public appearances, but was at the 40th anniversary of “Star Trek” held in Las Vegas in 2006. He died on April 28th after a long battle with cancer.