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.