Monday, April 14, 2014

Pebble In the Sky - Isaac Asimov

This was the one book out of all the ones I've read so far this year, I actually requested this one. I wanted to save it for last, but the books just kept coming. So here we are, 4 months after Christmas, and I finally got to it.

A middle-aged tailor from Chicago abruptly finds himself thousands of years in the future. He's still on Earth, but Earth is now just one planet among millions of the Galactic Empire, and what's more, it's an almost universally looked down upon and discriminated against backwater with radioactive soil. Which breeds a people hostile and resentful of the Empire, proud of how it's different from every other world, and determined to reclaim what it believes to be its proper place at the head of the Empire. Which leaves Mr. Schwartz in the middle of a determined Society of Ancients, a tired and frightened scientist, and an Imperial archeologist that actually wanted to prove Earth was the origin of humanity.

One of things I enjoyed about this was how Balkis (the Secretary and a major member of the Ancients) concocts this elaborate scenario of deception an intrigue among the scientist, the archeologist, and Schwartz, because it seems too fantastic to be a coincidence. But it actually was just a coincidence. Even so, the way he lays it out, his explanation makes sense, especially if one has his suspicious and scheming mind. And of course Schwartz' appearance looks suspicious. How could Balkis know, or even suspect Schwartz' lack of identification and apparent inability to speak the language are a result of being from the past? Much more likely he's a otherworld spy trying to pass himself off as feeble-minded.

One thing I find kind of interesting is how it often comes down to a clever individual. That's hardly unique to Asimov's stories, obviously, but when viewed in contrast to the idea of pyschohistory he uses in his Foundation series, it stands out. The idea that history is predictable because large masses of people are predictable suggests it's large groups that set the course of history. But time and again it's an individual in the right place at the right time, that sways things. I guess the key is that the individual is rarely some special chosen one. Frequently it's someone like Schwartz, an average person who finds himself mixed up in something by chance, and tries his best to make sense of it and do what thinks is right.

'Ennius smiled without conviction. "Don't you think you're being ridiculously overdramatic?"

"Oh yes. I'm a dead man and you're a corpse. But let's be devilishly cool and Imperial about it, don't y'know?"'

Sunday, April 13, 2014

The Invisible Man 1.3 - Ralph

Plot: A young girl runs through the woods to a rock formation to visit her imaginary friend. From there she has an unfortunately perfect view of a foreign political figure being killed by a sniper. Unfortunately, the sniper saw her, too, and she won't tell anyone anything, except her imaginary, invisible friend, Ralph. The Agency is only officially peripherally involved, because when the sniper took a shot at Jess, the bullet ricocheted and hit an endangered peregrine falcon, but it's pretty hard for the FBI, especially the twit they put in charge, to keep an invisible guy from nosing around. Which is how Darien ends up playing Ralph, despite his serious misgivings about the morality of nosing through a 2nd grader's stuff. Better him than Hobbes, who is already on edge since he knows the FBI agent, and they don't like each other.

Fawkes manages to befriend Jessica anyway, despite some difficulty controlling his emotions which leads to some gland malfunction. Which is good, because the sniper is also part of the FBI, and he's looking to tie up a loose end. Fawkes takes a bullet for her, then takes several more later, but the Keeper thought to sew Kevlar into his jacket after the first time. He does save Jessica's life, but maybe kills a little of her childhood in the process, since she sees him nearly kill the sniper while in the throes of Quicksilver Madness. But it looks as though Jessica is going to make real friends now, so that's good.

Quote of the Episode: The Official - 'A foreign dignitary was killed on our soil and that is FBI jurisdiction. But an endangered bird was killed in a national park, and that belongs to Fish and Game.'

The "oh crap" count: 2 (11 overall).

Who's getting quoted this week: Not a quote so much as a reference, but Arthur Conan Doyle.

Times Fawkes Goes Into Quicksilver Madness: 1 (3 overall).

What department is the Agency affiliated with? Fish and Game obviously. Read the quote.

Other: That was some incredibly manipulative sad piano music there in the final scene between Fawkes and Jessica. Just crushing.

One of the things I like about this show is the constant budget issues. Last week, we saw that the Official maintains the books (or checks them at least) himself. Because they can't afford someone to do it. They still use that crappy package van Darien and Kevin rode in to reach the lab in the pilot. And as Fawkes notes this week, the Agency shut down for a few days because the copier broke and they wouldn't pay to have it fixed. It has that same sort of forced improvisation I enjoyed about Burn Notice. Also explains why they don't have a lot of high-tech gizmos.

I'm curious to see if it comes up, but the Keeper told Darien something potentially troubling this week. It takes 48 hours to make one does of counteragent, and she doesn't keep and surplus on hand. Because it doesn't keep well, you see. Though it just occurred to me now, we can't necessarily take that for granted. One thing I'm struggling with here is to ignore the things I know will happen down the line, so as to not let them cloud my perspective now. At this point, I'm not sure at all how much we should trust anything the Keeper says. Certainly here sewing Kevlar into Fawkes' jacket is significant, but should we see that as an actual act of kindness and concern, or a manipulative act designed to look concerned? Anyway, the lack of any immediate reliable source of counteragent in the event of an emergency seems risky. Catching an abruptly out of control invisible can't be easy.

The other major thing this episode did was flesh out Bobby Hobbes a bit. We knew he feels put upon and unappreciated. We know he's a bit paranoid, though whether that's the cause or the effect of feeling unappreciated I don't know ( he tells Fawkes this week that he didn't have invisible friends, he had invisible enemies growing up). We also know he's intensely decorated. He's a guy who has bled, sweated, and killed for his country, even though he believes he'll never receive his due because others are actively trying to deny it to him. Now we know the Agency wasn't the first stop on his list - more like the last - and despite what people like FBI agent Jones might say, Hobbes is very good at what he does. He was able to figure out a sniper's position based off a child's painting and knowing where she was standing. Then he was able to figure out the sniper's position again later by listening to the shot and impact. He's still lacking in much sympathy or compassion for other people, which is one reason Fawkes won't let him anywhere near Jessica. But it's worth noting that when Darien tries to explain to Jones that another fed just tried killing him, Hobbes immediately jumps to his aid. Sure, someone of that is the desire to rub Jones' nose is his mistakes, but it's a bit of a shift.

Up to that point, Hobbes has treated Fawkes like a burden. A foolish, soft-hearted dope that Bobby Hobbes has to constantly look after and keep from tripping over his own bleeding heart. Darien, for his part, sees Hobbes as just one more person conspiring to keep him working for the Agency indefinitely, someone who has no compunctions about anything he might have to do if someone tells him it's his duty. But this episode, there's a bit of a change, where the two are starting to recognize each other's gifts and how to compliment them. It's harder for Darien, because Hobbes' gifts are kind of outside Fawkes' range of experience, but it's there.

One last thing. You'll be glad to know Vincent Ventresca shaved off that crappy, wispy mustache he had the first two episode. Really wasn't doing him any favors, since it made him look so young he couldn't grow a proper one.

Saturday, April 12, 2014

Dragons Deal - Robert Asprin and Jody Lynn Nye

All these books about dragons. This one, though, was a loaner from a friend who's reading a different series of books by the same author. This one's a bit different, as it's set in New Orleans, in a world where there are all sorts of supernatural creatures, many of which can and have interbred with humans over the history of the planet. This is not common knowledge among the public, but there are some people who know.

The book focuses primarily on the McCandles siblings, Griffen and Valerie. Both of them only recently learned they're dragons, both of them are apparently from a really strong bloodline. I'm not totally clear on whether they're entirely dragon, but can make themselves look human, or just mostly dragon. Anyway, they're kind of important whether they want to be or not. This book is somewhere in the middle of the series, so quite a bit has happened already. Val has a kid on the way, the unfortunate consequence of her falling under the glamour of some other dragon (so rape), and now the father's mother is trying to horn in, demanding rights to be near her grandchild. Considering the dad ran like a scalded dog to avoid death, I feel the proper response is "Walk into a chopper blade", and that is thankfully Val and Griffen's initial response. But Melinda's a cagey old bat, so she makes her moves well, though that whole issue remains unresolved by the end of the book.

Beyond that, Griffen runs a roving poker game thing, which is under attack by a group of eastern dragons he somehow muscled out in an earlier book. I'm not at all clear on how that works. Why can't they establish their own roving poker games. What's he going to do, call the cops on their illegal gambling operation because it horns in on his illegal gambling operation? I don't think he has the audacity, balls, or outright hypocrisy to try that, let alone the influence to pull it off.

On top of that, he nearly bankrupts himself when he agrees to be king of some parade krewe for Mardi Gras. The Mardi Gras stuff was the least interesting part of the book for me. I'm sure there's a lot of fascinating history behind the whole thing - and Asprin and Nye talk about it some - I just don't care. It's a huge loud party that people use as an excuse to behave like drunken buffoons, set in a humid coastal city, which is just about the least appealing thing I can imagine. Maybe if you threw roving poisonous snakes or math pop quizzes into the mix it would be worse, but I'm not sure I'd notice. Plus, all Griffen's woes in regards to his bank account, planning parties, renting tuxes, keeping his ladies happy, they're all self-inflicted. He agreed to be king, let people play on his ego (also his desire to do something good for the city), and now he's reaping the whirlwind.

The parts of the book about Valerie trying to keep herself safe from Melinda, the threats Griffen has all around him, his attempts to patch up his friendship with the cop, Harrison, that stuff was good. I just didn't have any interest in the party stuff, though, except as it could be turned to tie in with the other plotlines.

Friday, April 11, 2014

Full Circle - D.L. Moore

One thing I haven't mentioned as I've been reviewing these Night of the Dragon books (Full Circle being the third and final installment) is that D.L. Moore passed away a few years ago, and since I don't know the circumstances, I don't know how much that affected the books. Full Circle in particular read very much like someone trying to provide a conclusion, without having the chance to build it up properly.

For example, at the end of the previous book, Jakes Giles leaves the group of people who have spirit-dragons. He thinks Eric is too unfocused and lacks a clear plan and Jake should be in charge. The fact Jake put on a second ring, and has two dragons in his head, has something to do with this. Initially in Full Circle, we don't see him, but when we do check in, we see he's hidden himself off in some frozen wilderness and is sending both the dragons out conducting his own searches for rings. He seems pretty determined to do whatever he thinks he must to prove he should be the boss. His first spirit dragon, Jak Oma Sall, seems less and less sure of what they're doing, while the second one, Loye Na Jil intensely resents being ordered about by a human. What's more, Jake seems unconcerned with anyone else's suffering, showing complete indifference when Loye destroys a village in Africa because one of his ancestors died near there centuries ago. To that end, his dragons attack one of the dragons in Eric's group and badly injure her (injuries inflicted on the dragon transfer to the person's physical body). But shortly after that, we're told Jake had a change of heart and rejoined the group.

Reading those sequences as they happened, it felt like such a waste. There were so many directions to go with it. Jake setting both dragons against Eric's group, or even Jake getting more rings and wearing them, with the resulting instability making each dragon a greater and greater danger. Jak could have tried to work with Eric's group against Giles. Loye could have found a way to defy Giles and fight all of them. As it is though, there's a brief squabble and he has a change of heart. It falls flat, and that seems to be because Moore didn't have time to really play it out, build the tension, then provide some sort of resolution. So that was a little disappointing because the potential was there for something very cool, but it didn't carry through.

Also, I found the repeated focus on using the spirit-dragons to find terrorists kind of awkward and uncomfortable. It seemed like an attempt to shoehorn a real world concern into a story where it didn't entirely fit. Especially in the latter two books, where Eric should be busy trying to stave off the destruction of the universe, but there's still lip service to trying to seek out and destroy terrorists. Have to prioritize.

Thursday, April 10, 2014

Broken Dreams - D.L. Moore

The sequel to Night of the Dragon. One of the things described in the first book was that dragons don't perceive time like humans, if they perceive time at all. I don't entirely get it, but imagine if you walked to a chair, sat down, and gazed blankly into space for an hour, then rose again. For the dragon, it would be as if that interval of inactivity didn't exist. I think. Anyway, this property of dragons can have disorienting and strange effects on everything around them, and that's partially why there's a Valley outside of time. But when Eric put on the ring, he kind of broke that, and now the Valley is gradually falling to pieces. The rings contain the relevant knowledge of the different Hideclans, but to access them is going to require creating more human-dragon hybrids. Eric's attempt to put the band together doesn't go quite right, the fact they don't get enough people to figure out how to fix the problem in time to save the Valley chief among them. Also, the first guy he picked decided he should be in charge and put two rings on, so now he's got two haughty dragons jockeying for position in his brain.

The detachment I described yesterday was less of a concern here. It hasn't entirely vanished, but Moore's dialogue has loosened up a bit, and that helps. The way people spoke in the first book was so stiff and unnatural, it was hard to think of the characters as people. Fighting that, there's still a scattershot element to the writing where he doesn't follow any on plot line or scene for very long. The book is constantly jumping to what someone else is doing somewhere else every few pages. It works against the reader's getting into the book because we've hardly started seeing what one character is up to before we're off again. The book is about 60 pages shorter than the first one, and frankly it probably could have used those extra pages to make the search for the rings, or the search for suitable candidates to wear them seem a little more important. The former especially is almost perfunctory. The dragons fly around and maybe they recognize a hillside or cave entrance, then they search for a page or so, maybe they find a ring, maybe they don't. It makes things seem so easy, there's little urgency to it.

I don't know if Eric had the best idea for selecting people, though. He tried to find notable people who appear to have a conscience and desire to help people. Environmentalists, activists, people like that. Still, that means cold approaching people about something kind of crazy. Helps if you can fall asleep and send the spirit-dragon to visit them, I guess. I would have just asked my friends, personally. I wouldn't have trust issues that way.

Wednesday, April 09, 2014

Night of the Dragon - D.L. Moore

Night of the Dragon is the first book in the fantasy series I bought at Capecon this year. I'm not usually much into fantasy, but I figured why not. It tells the story of Eric who finds himself lost in a cave that happens to be the final resting place of Dragell, the last of the dragons, who fled Europe (I'm not using the, I guess dragon spellings) to find a place free of marauding humans to live. Eric doesn't know this when he puts on a ring he finds, which sort of binds his soul to that of the dragon's, providing him with a spirit-form that is a combination of the two which emerges when he sleeps.

It takes Eric some time to piece all this together, but once he realizes those dreams of his childhood bullies being murdered weren't only dreams, he has to make some decisions. Eventually he manages to gain some measure of control, and uses it to try and help people. Or kill evildoers. Lots of evildoer killing in this book. He also discovers some land out of time that can be reached by flying towards the moon, where Eric falls in love with a Native American girl Dragell met back before he died, and there are other rings, which other people are putting on.

There's a lot going on, but some of it makes so little sense at this stage it's hard for me to get into it. There are some good ideas between the different perspectives of humans and dragons, the idea of trying to control and direct a force that's part of you, but isn't. How even great changes won't automatically change a person's entire personality. But it's so all over the place it doesn't feel much like it meshes. Eric using the dragon's apparent considerable ability to recognize faces to hunt down and kill terrorists doesn't really seem to belong in the same story about him traveling to the Valley of the Lake of Laughing Eyes where he falls in love with a woman who lived centuries ago. Which might explain why he tries to get out of the former and stay in the latter.

The one major issue is the use of third-person omniscient narration produces a detachment from the story, so I never felt drawn in or invested in the characters' fates. I never felt how despairing Eric was of his life before the ring, and his concerns about his spirit-dragon's tendency to murder people are frequently mentioned, but you never see him deal with any despair. Part of that is the dragon side of the equation thinks these people all deserved to die, so what's the point of mourning them? Well yes, those childhood bullies or the recklessly driving lady in the Beamer might be assholes. But they might also be human beings who had their own shit going on that was messing them up. They may have tried to turn things around and be better people, or they may not have. But now they're dead.

Eric does try and move permanently to the Valley, and one of the reasons seems to be to distance himself from Earth, and the killing, but it doesn't really stop it, since Erigelle can still fly back to Earth each time Eric sleeps. And frankly, it's more about Eric thinking that's where he'll be happy than anything else. Which is fine, characters can behave for selfish reasons, but if that's going to be the case, don't waste time telling me how bothered they are by something when it doesn't seem that way.

Tuesday, April 08, 2014

What I Bought 3/14/2014 - Part 9

Let's talk some comics, since this blog is still ostensibly about those. It's the last of the books I got last month, 4 whole issues of Deadpool. Kind of nice to have a major chunk of a story, including the conclusion to review like this.

Deadpool #22-25.Now, by Brian Posehn and Gerry Duggan (writers), Mike Hawthorne (artist), Jordie Bellaire (colorist), Joe Sabino (letterer) - Holy crap, all 4 issues are by the exact same group of creators! Look, it's a lot more impressive when you remember Deadpool's coming out basically bi-weekly by this point. Also, there was absolutely no way I was posting the cover for issue #23. Because I love you, my dear audience, too much to inflict that on you.

It's the final 4 chapters of "Deadpool vs. SHIELD", though it'd be more accurate to say "Deadpool vs. that Cheap Back-Stabbing Weasel Agent Gorman", but that's really long and not as catchy. Not content to refuse to pay Deadpool for killing all those undead Presidents, Gorman has sent the Agent Preston LMD he was using for gun-running and leaf raking after Wade. When that doesn't pan out, here comes the Horde of 1,000 Second-Rate Killers. Sorry, Batroc, it's true.

The problem for Gorman is that after recent events, Wade is well an truly through with being jerked around, tricked, and betrayed. He lets Paladin live (what's he doing taking assassination gigs anyway?), Batroc (thank you), and Paste Pot Pete?! Oh come on, Deadpool! That guy is terrible! Just feed him his stupid paste gun and pull the trigger till he bloats up and explodes. With the help of Agent Coulson, our heroes chase Gorman to his new hideaway, a helicarrier run by ULTIMATUM. Coulson tells Wade to disable its cloak and weapons so he can go get SHIELD's helicarrier and blast it out of the sky. Deadpool, however, is in no mood to wait for others to do their part, and simply takes care of the helicarrier himself. By killing everyone of those poor saps in their white jackets and snazzy black berets. Gorman escapes, though he's wounded in the process.

While SHIELD tries to track him, it's time to get Agent Preston in her new LMD body. But Wade doesn't want her to go. Well, parts of him don't, and it turns into a real mess with Wade trying to defend Preston from different versions of himself so she can be uploaded into the LMD. Incidentally, I have to wonder if things wouldn't have gone better if that SHIELD doc hadn't put Wade to sleep so she could read a New Yorker during the procedure. Way to care about your job, doc. At least Dr. Strange and the Ghost of Ben Franklin were there to help, but Wade, happy as he is for Preston, can't stand to see another person leaving him, and he departs to find a bar and drink.

Just as he's finding out there's still a Preston in his head - which Wade takes to mean the procedure failed - Crossbones comes in looking for revenge after being dumped in a hot air balloon. It's a brutal, ugly, though comical at times, fight. Wade doesn't really want to fight, but Crossbones is seriously pissed, and Wade is tired of people thinking they can come after him with no consequences. So he nearly beats Crossbones to death. In fact, he beats him so badly Sabretooth comes around the corner, believing Wade to be an wounded, easy target at the moment, takes one look at what's happening, and immediately turns around and leaves. Which was hilarious, and effectively scary. What's perhaps more concerning is the Preston is Wade's head, instead of arguing against excessive violence, urges him on. Wade pulls back from killing Crossbones, but not that idiot Gorman, who thought it'd be a good idea to try and kill both guys at once. He wound up in the back of a garbage truck.

About this time, Preston, Michael, Adsit, and Ben Franklin show up. Wade is glad to see Preston back in physical form, and Adsit has his money, in a big pillowcase with a "$" on the side, which is the proper way to receive large sums of cash. And yet, Wade is still kind of sad, hurting, and tired. He takes some of the cash, asks Preston to hold onto the rest, and goes to France, I think, to be alone and try to get away from it all. I don't think it's going to work, because it looks like some vampire douchebag in England has plans for him. Gad, it's that terrible, Final Fantasy-esque version of Dracula isn't it? I know Wade needs a break from violence, but it sure would mean a lot to me if he kills that ass.

This was an outstanding arc, because it gets at a lot of what makes Deadpool the character he is. The previous arc did it a little more forcefully, but here again we see people thinking they can just use Deadpool for whatever dirty work they need and then toss him aside. For some reason, Wade's life is full of people who simply don't regard him as a person, only a tool. Is it because he's a mercenary, someone who does things for money, or did he become a merc because people treated him like that, so he might as well make some money off the assholes?

Also, the whole thing with Preston. Wade wants her to be reunited with her family, it's what he's been working towards since the end of the first arc. He likes Preston, knows she tried to do right by him, and he wants to do the same for her, which is a good impulse. But when the time comes for it to actually happen, he doesn't want her to go. Maybe because he knows she's a moderating influence on him. He killed a lot of people in this arc, and maimed the ones he didn't kill. Preston's a SHIELD agent, but even she found it excessive, and I think that helped Wade realize how skewed the way he views things is. He thinks of killing people who wrong him as relatively no big deal, but maybe that's no such a good idea. Question is, can wade rein himself in without her? And there's the simple fact Wade doesn't want to be alone again. One of the other recurring themes of his life is that nobody sticks around very long. Sometimes he drives them off with his self-destructive behavior, sometimes they leave. Very few of them seem happy to see him the next time. Wade doesn't want to lose someone who actually cares about him, even though letting her go is the right thing to do. So he ends up at war with himself, which is Deadpool perfectly encapsulated. A guy who knows what the right thing to do is, but a lot of times he can't make himself do it. He wants to do what's best for him instead. Not this time, though I can't help being concerned about that creepy hooded Deadpool in the black and grey outfit that brought mental projection Preston her arm. was that really whatever part of her the arm represented? Was he one of the worse version of Wade he warned 'Pool about, playing some long con?

Mike Hawthorne draws all 4 issues, and you can tell the crunch got to him a bit near the end. Mostly in #24. Some of the faces, Michael's and Dr. Strange's looked quite a bit rougher, as though Hawthorne leaned more heavily on the inks to compensate there. Some of that might be that they're meant to be older, more weary characters, but they just look less finished than in other places. But he plays the comedy bits well. Sabretooth turning around and trying to walk away nonchalantly.  Issue 23 is this weird thing where Deadpool is just slaughtering these hapless ULTIMATUM guys, but it's done in a way that repeatedly makes me laugh. The slap fight between biological weapons' makers, the one soldier stopping to think about ways they can tell who is who. My favorite part is Coulson commenting that Namor will be pissed about dumping a helicarrier in the ocean, and Wade dismissively replies, 'Ooh, I hope he doesn't ride a manatee out of that giant toilet below and flutter his ankle wings aggressively at us.' while lifting one leg into the air and waving his hands in a mock-terrified manner. Sure, Namor could tear Wade in half and jam the pieces back together in a horrifying fashion, but he's still eminently mockable.

One other bit Hawthorne drew I liked from #23: When Wade is advancing on Gorman, and all you can see are 'Pool's legs and the two swords he's holding, the tips dragging across the floor. There's something really badass about that, but also kind of scary. Maybe the fact it draws your attention to their sharpness, makes you think about what they'd do to a human body? Like in Jurassic Park, when the raptor's claw taps on the linoleum, a reminder of what awaits. Also, there's a sense when the swords are down that way that the wielder isn't thinking about defense. They aren't worried about blocking or protecting themselves, only killing their target.