29 November 2014

Books: Under the Eye of God (Trackers #1) By David Gerrold (1993)

They were once humanity's last hope; a race of genetically engineered killing machines known as the Phaestor and their army of deadly Moktar Dragons. Now, the enemy long vanquished, the Phaestor themselves have become the enemy, seizing control of the galaxy and subjugating all lesser species—including humans—to feed their appetite for terror and blood. On a small, insignificant planet called Thoska-Roole, a ragtag alliance of humans, androids, and bioforms make a last desperate stand against Phaestor domination. Among their number are two bounty hunters, a mercenary starship captain, and a disgraced reptilian warrior. As the Phaestor begin a new reign of unprecedented terror, these rebels prepare to strike back against their vampire overlords and bring revolution to the stars.

Gerrold does a great job of World Building here, and while times I felt he spent too much setting up the story (as I read I began to wonder if his original intention was to write one book, but as he continued setting up the premise, he realized the story was going to take two books. But I could be wrong) he uses an engaging tongue-in-cheek approach by adding a pair of quick-talking human rogues as anti-heroes. Once again, though, the villains sometimes come off as cartoonish and unredemptive in any possible way, even though I kind of like Lady Zillabar, who chews the scenery with great gusto. 

 This is pure adventure storytelling here, and not a lot of Gerrold's patented look at humans and their destructive ways.

24 November 2014

Books: Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? By Philip K. Dick (1968)

Back in 1982, when Blade Runner was released, I was a 19 year-old nerd who was into space operas and fantasy books. I was aware of hard science fiction, the works of artists such as Robert Heinlein, Isaac Asimov, Ray Bradbury (though his genre was more “dark fantasy”), Arthur C. Clarke and Philip K. Dick, but I never seemed entranced with them. As noted before, I found them difficult to read, and since I cared less about the mechanics of real science (how space travel was really difficult and that the “warp speed” the Enterprise traveled at was more made up magic than real science), I found the lectures that these writers tended to do about real space travel boring. I wanted action; I wanted adventure without all the explanations on how much fuel was need to get in and out of orbit of a planet, or how much water and air was really needed to sustain humans traveling between the stars. Then there was the fact that –in real life- traveling out of solar system and to the closest star system (Andromeda) would take generations upon generations to accomplish. Movies like Star Wars and TV series like Star Trek just ignored that aspect of space travel and I was fine with it.

As best as I can remember (because I really have very little memory of my first 10 to 12 years of life), reading was not huge in my family. While it never was encouraged or discouraged, I don’t remember any of my family members entranced by reading. And a lot of science fiction fans of my age and older started reading pulp magazines like Astounding Science Fiction, The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction, Asimov's Science Fiction, and Weird Tales along with many others. Those contained many stories written by authors, during what’s called The Golden Age of Science Fiction, like E.E. Smith, Theodore Sturgeon, Harlan Ellison, Asimov, Heinlein, A. E. van Vogt, Lester del Rey, HP Lovecraft and many others. While I think I was aware of them, I never read any of them. I later realized that I just started reading full length novels, and skipped over the whole short-story era of all genres, not just science fiction.

So since I jumped over the short-stories –and even today, I don’t read that sub-group of fiction- I seemed to miss out on all those classic authors I list above. And now, as I try to find things to read, I’ve discovered that maybe my future reading lies in the past.

This brings me back to Blade Runner and the novel it was based upon.

As noted, by 1982 I was in full fantasy and space opera mode. While I saw Blade Runner when it was released theatrically back then, I think I more or less saw it because it starred Harrison Ford, who had two Star Wars films and Raiders of the Lost Ark under his belt. He was, at the time, a certified action star. I also had seen Alien and was intrigued by director Ridley Scott, so I think I went into the film with the idea that while it was hard science fiction, it was still going to be an action film. 

I think, maybe, I liked the film, even if I did not fully understand it. Yes, you would think a 19 year-old would have ability to fully comprehend the film, but because of mind set –fantasy books and space operas- perhaps I chose not to fully grasp the themes of the film.

Then there was Philip K. Dick, who died just months before the film’s release of heart failure after suffering a massive stroke. I was aware of him, and Starlog Magazine (which had become a part of my life in 1979) had done many stories on him and the making of the film. I knew at the time that Dick was an important writer, one of the first post “Golden Age” writers who sort of took science fiction into the dark corners of our Id. He wrote about “sociological, political and metaphysical themes in novels dominated by monopolistic corporations, authoritarian governments, and altered states.” 

He also wrote tales that “reflected his personal interest in metaphysics and theology, drawing upon his own life experiences in addressing the nature of drug abuse, paranoia, schizophrenia, and transcendental experiences. He also wrote extensively on philosophy, theology, the nature of reality and science.”

But at that time, I felt little interest in reading that stuff. Again, perhaps, I felt not smart enough and incapable of fully understanding the themes, the analogies and metaphors that were spring up from the pages like a dark bean stalk. And so, over the last three decades, I’ve not read much of what I call hard core science fiction.

But again, I feel maybe I’ve lost something by not reading this genre. As I struggle to find books that engage my mind and make me ponder what little time I have left in this mad, mad, mad world, I’ve found that –maybe- this genre will help me understand why I am the way I am, why I’m a social invert and why I cannot seem to understand my place in the living world. Though, I think also, I might be asking too much of this genre.

What really made me want to read Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep was re-seeing the movie for the first time in, perhaps, twenty years. I knew that since the film adaptation was released Ridley Scott and the studio have tinkered with the film. According to Wikipedia, there have been several different versions of it: “The releases seen by most cinema audiences were: the U.S. theatrical version (1982, 116 minutes), known as the original version or Domestic Cut; the International Cut (1982, 117 minutes), also known as the "Criterion Edition" or "uncut version", which included more violent action scenes than the U.S. version. Although initially unavailable in the U.S., it was later re-released in 1992 as a "10th Anniversary Edition". Scott's Director's Cut (1991, 116 minutes) was made available in 1993. Significant changes from the theatrical version include: the removal of Deckard's voice-over; re-insertion of a unicorn sequence; and removal of the studio-imposed happy ending. Scott's The Final Cut (2007, 117 minutes) was released by Warner Bros. theatrically on October 5, 2007, and subsequently released on DVD, HD DVD, and Blu-ray Disc in December 2007. This is the only version over which Scott had complete editorial control.”

I saw the film under the stars at the Hollywood Forever Cemetery in West Hollywood about three-weeks ago. This was, apparently, the first time the film had been authorized to be played this way, and it was, also, the 2007 edition. What struck me was how good the film really is, and how many films of this genre have emulated it in the thirty-two years since its release.  I actually thought about the 2012 release of John Carter, the long-waited adaptation of the Edgar Rice Burroughs series of novels. While we can argue about how good the film is or was not until we’re blue in the face, one the many things that made it not work was it took too long for Hollywood to adapt it. In the end, writers stole whole heartily from the book, released in 1918. All those themes Burroughs helped create where woven into other books, other films and by the time John Carter was finally made, everyone sort of said, “have we not seen this before?”

Which, of course, you had; John Carter of Mars was so original in 1918, but by 2012 it seemed that film version was stealing from other films, when, in a sense, it help create the genre we love today. Today’s franchises, the superhero films, the Star Wars, the Star Treks, even (somewhat) the Golden Age of Science Fiction was created by picking the bones of authors like Burroughs and Jules Verne. 

Anyways, after watching the film (and seeing a special appearance by Sean Young, who in a brief and scattered speech, proved to the audience that all the rumors she was a few tacos short of a combination platter are pretty much true) and thinking on how good it was, how important this film was to the science fiction genre, I needed to read the book it was based upon. 

So while waiting for the book to be transferred in from some outer place within the Los Angeles County Library system (the Philistines that live in the suburbs do not seem to take kindly to novels that offer stories set outside popular fiction), I started reading stuff on the internet about Dick’s and Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep and Blade Runner. One thing I learned was the book would be somewhat different from the movie (so much so, that the studio wanted Dick to write an adaptation of the script into new novel instead of re-releasing his novel. He, of course, refused and eventually the novel was released, but under its new title of Blade Runner). 

The main plot follows Rick Deckard, a bounty hunter who is faced with "retiring" six escaped Nexus-6 brain model androids, the latest and most advanced model, while a secondary plot follows John Isidore, a man of sub-par IQ who aids the fugitive androids. In connection with Deckard's mission, the novel explores the issue of what it is to be human. Unlike humans, the androids possess no sense of empathy. In essence, Deckard probes the existence of defining qualities that separate humans from androids. It is set in 2021, sometime after something called World War Terminus where Earth is suffering from radioactive fallout. A lot of humans have left the planet (The U.N., it seems, is encouraging this emigration to off-world colonies, in hope of preserving the human race from the terminal effects of the fallout. One emigration incentive is giving each emigrant an "andy"—a servant android) and have colonized the stars (though how far they’ve gotten is never fully explored; only Mars gets any real attention) and the remainders –those with little wealth- live in cluttered, decaying cities in which radiation poisoning sickens them and damages their genes. Animals are rare and keeping and owning live animals is an important societal norm and status symbol. But many people turn towards the much cheaper synthetic, or electric, animals to keep up the pretense. Prior to the story's beginning Rick Deckard owned a real sheep, but it died of tetanus, and he replaced it with an electric one.

The story is set in and around the San Francisco Bay Area, one of the last places affected by the radioactive dust, especially on the peninsula to the south. It is monitored daily by meteorologists using the Mongoose weather satellite in Earth orbit. While still relatively habitable, the sandy deserts of Oregon to the north are highly contaminated by radiation. Rick Deckard stays in a building on the east side of the bay with his wife, Iran, who is depressed. J.R. Isidore lives on the peninsula south of San Francisco.

The main Earth religion is Mercerism, in which Empathy Boxes link simultaneous users into a collective consciousness based on the suffering of Wilbur Mercer, a man who takes an endless walk up a mountain while stones are thrown at him, the pain of which the users share. The television appearances of Buster Friendly and his Friendly Friends, broadcast twenty-three hours a day, represent a second religion, designed to undermine Mercerism and allow androids to partake in a kind of consumerist spirituality.

The main theme that runs through this novel (an apparently his other works) is the question, "What constitutes the authentic human being?" The androids appear to be human is every respect, but lack compassion or a soul. But as Deckard continues his job of eliminating the androids (they’re illegal on Earth) he begins to wonder if these andys –despite doing horrible things in pursuant of their goals- are more human than he is. 

In the end, the book is a wonderful read, filled with darkness, a wit and puzzling metaphors that make the reader ponder our own reality. His themes of blurring reality makes us wonder if we are truly the masters of our fate or just playthings to a grander master who has convinced us that we do have control over our fates. 

See the film, for it offers some of its own great metaphors (director Scott always thought that Deckard was a replicant, while star Harrison Ford wanted him to be human) that do not often appear in films, but the book is another thing altogether. 


16 November 2014

Books: Revival By Stephen King (2014)

I’ve been reading King for 34 years and I’ve (generally) enjoyed all his books (Tommyknockers remains one book I’ve never been able to read) and while many just think of him as horror novelist, I think that does a disservice to all his books, but especially the novels he’s released in the last decade and half. King’s greatest gift is that he can convey deep emotion in all his characters (including ones who make only the briefest of appearances) while attempting to scare the wits out of you. It gives the readers a chance to really connect with them –even when they’re put in positions no one ever wants to put in.

The tale is narrated by the easy going, yet damaged Jamie Morton. And King, who is always and forever obsessed with the decades he grew up in (the 1950s and 60s), begins in 1962 when Jamie is 6, and with the arrival of Charles Daniel Jacobs, the town of Harlow, Maine’s new Methodist minister. Jacob’s is happily married to a beautiful woman and has an adorable 2 year-old son. And like many men, he has a hobby, but one that seems unusual (yet not) –electricity. But when a car accident claims the life of his wife and son, Jacob’s loses his faith. But in that hollow part of his heart that was torn asunder by his loss, Jacob’s fixation with his hobby grows. Over the next 50 years, Jamie -who was once devoted acolyte of Jacobs’ but has become a wary skeptical adult- seems to encounter his friend constantly. He sees Jacobs’ go from preacher to carnival huckster, to faith healer to –in the end- a man who is convinced that his secret electricity will give him a chance to see what lays beyond this mortal coil. 

In King’s dedication page, the author lists a number of authors who’ve “built his house.” Those include the obvious ones that have influenced his writing, Shirley Jackson, Mary Shelley, Bram Stoker, H.P. Lovecraft, Robert Bloch, long-time friend Peter Straub and Arthur Machen, who’s The Great God Pan “has haunted me all my life.” It is clear that Revival borrows themes from many of these authors, especially H.P. Lovecraft and Arthur Machen. The ending of this wonderful book is perhaps King’s best and his prose, always precise, grows stronger and more meaningful as the story progresses. 

As much as I like Mr. Mercedes from earlier this year, Revival is a stronger book, filled with dead-on details of growing up in the 1960s and images of pain and suffering all of us go through on this journey from the cradle to the grave. And while I for one hope there is something beyond this life, I will hope it is nothing like the nightmare described in the final chapters of this novel.

12 November 2014

Books: You Might Remember Me: The Life and Times of Phil Hartman By Mike Thomas (2014)

Beloved TV comedic actor Phil Hartman is best known for his eight brilliant seasons on Saturday Night Live, where his versatility and comedic timing resulted in some of the funniest and most famous sketches in the television show’s history. Besides his hilarious impersonations of Phil Donahue, Frank Sinatra and Bill Clinton, Hartman’s other indelible characters included Cirroc the Unfrozen Caveman Lawyer, Eugene the Anal Retentive Chef and, of course, Frankenstein. He also starred as pompous radio broadcaster Bill McNeal in the NBC sitcom NewsRadio and voiced numerous classic roles — most memorably washed-up actor and commercial pitchman Troy McClure — on Fox’s long-running animated hit The Simpsons. But Hartman’s seemingly charmed life was cut tragically short when he was fatally shot by his troubled third wife, Brynn, who turned a gun on herself several hours later. 

This is not the definite biography of Phil Hartman. 

The problem with the story is that Hartman was a bit of that clichéd comedian we’ve heard about from time to time, a truly gifted comedic actor (and not a comedian, which seemed to create a problem for him) who seemed only to be himself when he was being someone else. Was Hartman a cipher? Sure, but you gleam nothing new here that could not be found in the pages of People Magazine. And that's the problem here.

And Thomas does a not do a good job in representing Brynn Hartman. He seems more concerned in giving second-hand stories (from notes Hartman himself made) and with friends in describing the women who ended his and her life so shockingly. Many of Hartman’s friends seemed to know little of Brynn, with the exception of SNL alumni Julia Sweeney, who brings the only interesting thing to the story. Sweeney’s perspective (unsettling in many ways) seems to indicate that she was one of few who seemed to interact with the Hartman’s on more than one level. And makes it clear she is on Brynn's side.

So this is not a complete story and it does not solve the mystery of Phil Hartman and what drove his sort placidity as he moved through life, but it also does not solve who Brynn Hartman really was either (I mean, why wait until the end –after she killed Hartman and then herself- to bring in her friends and family?). Author Thomas does not pass judgment here, which is a nice surprise, but he cannot create a narrative that offers the readers nothing new about the conundrum that was Phil and Brynn Hartman. 

And much like the last Lord of the Rings film, the book has too many endings and gives us no update on the lives of Hartman’s two children, Sean and Birgen –who should be in their twenties now. Perhaps that may come off as exploitative, but they’re apart of this story as much as their parents. Maybe, someday, we’ll get their perspective. Until then, this biography feels incomplete.  

Books: Recent History By Anthony Giardina (2002)

In 1961, when Luca Carcera is 11, his father takes him to see the site of their future home on “the Hill,” a new upscale suburb of Boston. For Luca’s social-climbing Uncle John, the Hill represents paradise, the family’s successful escape from the working class. But for Luca, the move will mark the shattering of his innocence. Luca’s father, Lou, is not terribly interested in outward appearances, which becomes clear when he leaves his wife and son for another man, Bob Painter, who works with the grounds crew at the plant where Lou is an accountant. Confused about the change in his family status, Luca is lost. But like many families of a few generations ago, no one knows how to deal with this (and other) earth-shattering events so it’s ignored. But as the years progress and Luca turns from a child into a man, history has a tendency to repeat itself, especially with his mother, who suddenly refuses her suitor’s marriage proposal that could better her life, or Uncle John’s son, and Luca’s cousin, George who returns from Vietnam a damaged man. As Luca ages and sort of sleepwalks through life, the past hangs over him like a anchor and must confront the reality that as his 12-year marriage seems to be falling apart because he’s still confused about who he is and what he should do about it.

In many ways, Recent History feels like an old fashion novel with its simple themes of ones families struggle with social and economic success while dealing with sexuality –both straight and (the more modern) gay. I found the book well written, if not a bit unrealistic (gays seemed everywhere, but since I grew up in the ‘burbs and not a large city like Boston, maybe my views are skewed here). While this a frank discussion of desire and the effects of dishonesty on a family, sometimes author Giardina seemed to want to create dramatic effect for no good reason other than to sway the reader into believing some revelation was about to happen. Otherwise, it’s a well written, deeply moving novel about one families inability to deal with reality.