February 20, 2019

First Impressions: Star Trek: Discovery, S2 Ep 5, "Saints of Imperfection"

This episode takes off directly from the end of the last one, "An Obol for Charon." There is advancement along several fronts in this episode: the overarching plot of the search for Spock (heh) and the Red Angels, Sylvia Tilly's clash with the mycelial network, the reintroduction of Ash Tyler, and the (always welcome) reappearance of Michelle Yeoh, the Mirror Emperor. There's a course correction from the first season, which I was happy about, even though it involved a great deal of technobabble and woo-woo. But this is also a honking big spoiler, so I'll hide it behind some cast photos. Proceed at your own risk.

Yeah, I still miss Gabriel Lorca, bastard though he was.

On the other hand, I can hardly wait for the show starring Michelle Yeoh, Section 31 shenanigans or not. If they write her correctly, the Mirror Emperor will have Starfleet eating out of her hand.

Last chance to turn back now. Spoilers Ahoy!

The big reveal in this episode, of course, was the resurrection of Hugh Culber, Discovery engineer Paul Stamets' husband, who was murdered last season by Ash Tyler, an unknowing Klingon plant. (Yeah, it's complicated.) The fact that a member of one of the first canon gay couples in Star Trek was summarily (and unnecessarily) killed off caused quite an uproar. But the groundwork had been laid for this for some time, and at the end of "Charon" when it was obvious that Stamets would be going into the mycelial network to rescue Tilly, I figured he would encounter Culber there. I thought it would be a ghost or some sort of magic mushroom hallucination, and Stamets would get a final chance to say goodbye. Wrongggg! Culber was really in there, transferred at the moment of death by Stamets' connection to the network, and Burnham, Tilly and Stamets (with some assistance from May, one of the beings living inside the network itself) were able to bring Culber back.

Needless to say, this is where the technobabble and woo-woo comes in, on a level seldom seen even in Star Trek history, and it stretched my suspension of belief to its absolute breaking point. But dammit, it works, and this was entirely due to Anthony Rapp's and Wilson Cruz's performances. Now, however, they had better deal with the aftermath to this plot twist, which should of necessity involve some trauma and stress on Stamets' and Culber's relationship, if not outright PTSD. Anything else would be a cheat.

That was the emotional highlight of the episode, but this was a fast-paced, action-jammed hour, and the special effects (Discovery's sinking half in-half out of the mycelial network to rescue Tilly) were excellent. Michelle Yeoh's Mirror Emperor Georgiou faces off with Michael Burnham in some delicious scenes that have me panting for the Section 31 show, and Sylvia Tilly (the delightful Mary Wiseman) explored her friendship with the alien May, who kidnapped her into the mycelial network. I also must single out Anson Mount, playing an earlier version of Christopher Pike from the original Star Trek. This character, and the actor's performance, is really growing on me.

(But c'mon, people. This continued teasing of Spock's appearance has passed beyond frustrating and is well into annoying territory. Bring him on and get on with it.)

So far, I think the best episode this season was last week's "An Obol for Charon," but "Saints of Imperfection" isn't far behind. It seems like the show is finally finding its own hybrid, and at times gloriously weird, voice.

February 17, 2019

Cartoons of the Week

The "national emergency" at work, folks.

It's not like we thought this through, now is it?

So was this "deal with the devil" really worth it?

Only MAGAts can answer that.

February 14, 2019

Review: Mirage

Mirage Mirage by Somaiya Daud
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I was dubious about this book at first--it's very much a first novel, with the associate telling instead of showing, at least in the beginning. The SFF element is pretty lightweight and a bit derivative. The author mentions "phasers" and "blasters," making me wonder if she was cribbing from Star Trek, Star Wars or both, and she treats space travel with all the seriousness of hopping in the car to drive down the block. But this was forgivable in the end, at least for me, because it wasn't the point. The weight of this story is in the lush setting, the fully-realized cultures, and the characterizations, with a tragic romance at its center.

Whether you like this story will depend a lot on how you feel about that central romance, but it is a good one (even if it is a bit insta-lovey, for those who don't like that trope). The author also delves into the evils of colonization, with the story being told from the point of view of the conquered. By necessity, there's a lot of court politics here, and rebellions and spies, including our protagonist, Amani. She has been kidnapped to serve as the body double of Princess Maram, the hated daughter of the conquerer, and because of this she is dragged into a frothing stew of scheming and manipulation as she struggles to survive.

The author does a fairly successful job of humanizing the spoiled, nasty Princess Maram, revealing her to be a sad, lonely girl caught between her Vathek father and Andalaan mother, reviled as a half-breed. This book is shot through with the grief of the conquered, and the determination not to let their culture and way of life fade away. The first-novel syndrome is the reason I'm not rating this higher, but I certainly hope the author works through those kinks. Once she is more in command of her craft, I think this will be an excellent story.

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February 10, 2019

Cartoons of the Week: Nancy Pelosi

Nancy Pelosi definitely won the week.

Now, hopefully the "Pelosi clap" has entered the lexicon.

Nicely done, Madame Speaker.

February 9, 2019

Review: Blackfish City

Blackfish City Blackfish City by Sam J. Miller
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

The first book of Sam J. Miller's I read, The Art of Starving, was definitely a mixed bag--good on one hand, flawed on the other (review here). In that instance, for me, the flaws won out: the book wasn't sufficiently SFF to satisfy me. Thankfully, that isn't the case here. This book is all in on its science-fictional concept: an Earth deep in the throes of climate change, with refugees and cities flooding and burning, dire enough to get a new name that says it all: the Sunken World. Governments are being overthrown and humanity is fleeing to floating cities, in particular an eight-armed city in the newly opened Arctic (because of complete polar ice melt, one assumes) called Qaanaaq.

This is an exploration of the horrors of climate change, but it's also an indictment of capitalism, the system that has led (and will lead, if humanity doesn't come to its senses and muzzle it) to this worldwide disaster. There is no police or law enforcement presence on Qaanaaq, and the "government," such as it is, consists of a very uneasy balance of shareholders and crime syndicates. The rich live on the upper arms of the city, One through Three, with plenty of food, room and warmth, and the poor live on the lower arms (Six through Eight), stacked worse than sardines, with dozens of people per living space and many with no homes at all, just renting sleeping bubbles for the night. Due to these conditions, there is a sexually transmitted disease called "the breaks" sweeping the city, a poorly understood disease that behaves like a virus but also seems to transmit memories from its previous hosts.

Naturally, this explosive, immoral status quo cannot stand, and the arrival of a woman on a skiff, accompanied by a nanobonded killer whale (a rather clever idea, using nanotechnology to explain what has traditionally been psychically bonded humans and animals, in SF's past) and a polar bear, is just the match to set this smoldering city alight. But we don't get the revolution right away. Instead, we get several viewpoint characters, each with their own storylines and a slow, careful braiding thereof. It's a measure of Miller's skill at characterization that all of these characters held my interest, even when I didn't have the slightest idea how or if they would eventually meet. But about halfway through the book, the death of one of the POV characters snaps everything into place and sets the rest of the plot in motion, and from there on we have a wild, fast-paced ride. The secrets from the past come to the fore, a newfound family is discovered, and those who have created this terrible set of affairs are going down.

I believe this is a standalone story, although a sequel could certainly be written. I do appreciate the tight focus on Qaanaaq--the author could have pulled back to show the wider drowned world, but the horrors of what humans have done to themselves are effectively communicated through implications and the wise use of fragments of backstory alone. This is definitely not a future anyone would wish, and I think books like these are essential in pointing out the hell we will unleash if we don't get serious about climate change.

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February 7, 2019

First Impressions: Star Trek: Discovery S2 Ep 4, "An Obol for Charon"

Well, that was a bit of a mess. An interesting, ambitious mess, mind you, with some noteworthy individual character moments, but still a mess.

This episode was definitely overstuffed, with three separate storylines that could have been episodes all on their own. (Actually four, with the overarching "let's catch up with Spock and find out what the hell is going on" theme. At this point, as far as I'm concerned, this is getting a little tiresome. Quit teasing the audience, stop talking about Spock endlessly and bring him on board, and let's go after the Red Angel and get on with this.) There's the "dying 100,000-year-old alien sphere who wants to pass on all its knowledge before it kicks, and nearly destroys the Discovery doing so" storyline, the related "dying alien sphere triggers Saru's Kelpian fear-and-suicide response and makes him think he is dying as well, only to discover he can ride it out and come out the other side, and realizes his people don't have to live their lives like they've been doing for centuries after all" storyline, and the "alien blob masquerading as Sylvia Tilly's dead friend latches on to her and reveals it's part of the spore network trying to stop human intrusion into its ecosystem" storyline. At times, all three stories felt rushed and ill-fitting, and I think the entire thing could have gone back for another editing pass. This episode could easily have been an hour and a half, maybe longer.

Having said that, each storyline had some very good moments, in particular Doug Jones' scenes. His final scene with Michael was sublime, with excellent performances from both Jones and Sonequa Martin-Green. We also saw the return of Tig Notaro as Denise "Jett" Reno, with Reno and Anthony Rapp's Stamets instantly clashing and playing off each other beautifully. And that moment before the impromptu brain surgery when Stamets asks Tilly to sing her favorite song, and she breaks into David Bowie's "Space Oddity"? That gave me shivers. The relationships between the crewmembers are getting stronger, and we're starting to see how these people care about each other now that Lorca's noxious influence (as much as I liked Jason Isaacs) is fading.

It seems to me that Discovery is still finding its way, and while it's definitely on the improve, it's still not there yet. If they pare down the storylines and concentrate more on the characters, and adopt a leaner narrative style, I think they'll have a winner. I'm not giving up on them yet.

February 1, 2019

Review: Astounding: John W. Campbell, Isaac Asimov, Robert A. Heinlein, L. Ron Hubbard, and the Golden Age of Science Fiction

Astounding: John W. Campbell, Isaac Asimov, Robert A. Heinlein, L. Ron Hubbard, and the Golden Age of Science Fiction Astounding: John W. Campbell, Isaac Asimov, Robert A. Heinlein, L. Ron Hubbard, and the Golden Age of Science Fiction by Alec Nevala-Lee
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

This is an exhaustive biography of John W. Campbell, the editor of the premier science fiction magazine for decades, Astounding. It also weaves in the lives of L. Ron Hubbard, Isaac Asimov, and Robert A. Heinlein, serving as mini-biographies of those writers as well as an in-depth examination of how all four men's lives and careers intersected.

It's pretty frank about their many faults. None of the four come off very well regarding their personal lives. Asimov was a persistent groper and harasser; Asimov, Heinlein and Campbell cheated on and abandoned their first wives; and Hubbard was the worst, an abusive, paranoid crackpot who founded the nonsense of Dianetics and the cult of Scientology. (With Campbell's help, I might add.) Campbell's racism is also frankly dealt with, and while one wishes such regressive views had been stomped into the dustbin of history, unfortunately they're chillingly familiar in the age of Trumpistan.

This book shows a valuable slice of American and science fiction history, and while I'm not as gaga over it as some, I recognize this is an important work. The prose is smooth and straightforward, and some of the scenes--in particular, Asimov's last, which closes the book--are quite touching. This particular synthesis of writers and ideas will never come again, and while in many ways it's for the best that the field has moved on, it's still valuable to look back and see how it all began.

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First Impressions: Star Trek: Discovery S2 Ep 3, "Points of Light"

After the sort-of soft reboot of "Brother" and the more or less bottle episode "New Eden," this episode carries over several themes and characters from the first season, reintroducing the Klingons, the Klingon-turned-human Voq/Ash Tyler, and the new Klingon chancellor, L'Rell. (And a most welcome appearance by Michelle Yeoh, whose former Mirror Emperor Georgiou is now fully ensconced in the black ops Section 31.)

This story has a general theme of consequences, both for Michael Burnham, Ash Tyler, L'Rell, Amanda, and Sylvia Tilly. I thought it had a nice balancing act between the Season 1 and Season 2 characters and storylines, while setting things up for further revelations. We still haven't seen the adult Spock, but we learn more about his and Michael's childhood, and the discovery that he saw the so-called Red Angel even as a child. (I still think it'll--or they'll, as there seems to be more than one-- turn out to be nasty mofos.) The Klingons seem to be a bit better imagined and portrayed here, with not quite the harsh edges of the first season.

And yay! Michelle Yeoh. I will always be down for seeing her. (And did she admit the Mirror Emperor had a child? That's what I thought she said while talking to L'Rell.) Obviously they're setting things up for her spin-off show, and I can't wait.

The effects and sets are as gorgeous as ever, and there were several long and interesting tracking shots in this episode. If they can more fully integrate the first and second season storylines and themes, I think the show will benefit. It definitely needs its own point of view within the overall Trek universe, and this ep seems to be taking steps in that direction.

January 26, 2019

Review: Strange Stars: David Bowie, Pop Music, and the Decade Sci-Fi Exploded

Strange Stars: David Bowie, Pop Music, and the Decade Sci-Fi Exploded Strange Stars: David Bowie, Pop Music, and the Decade Sci-Fi Exploded by Jason Heller
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Despite the title, this isn't a biography of David Bowie, though he does figure prominently in it. (It is rather bittersweet reading at times, as the author makes plain how keenly Bowie is still missed.) It is, however, the chronicle of a decade, the 70's, bookended by Bowie's Major Tom songs, 1969's "Space Oddity" and 1980's "Ashes To Ashes." The focus here is on the marriage of rock, funk, disco, New Wave, and punk music with science fiction and fantasy. David Bowie is one of this eclectic blend's foremost practitioners, but he is by no means the only one, as the author's exhaustive research demonstrates.

Indeed, the progression of forgotten artists and songs across these pages is amazing. (And amusing, such as the anecdotes of Jefferson Starship, apparently post-Grace Slick, acting as the holo band in the much-maligned Star Wars Holiday Special, and a pre-Doctor Who Peter Capaldi singing and playing on an SF song with his group, the Dreamboys.) The prog-rock band Hawkwind, with its SF connection being the novelist Michael Moorcock, is almost as prominent as Bowie and Paul Kantner, who, with Jefferson Airplane, released the first Hugo-nominated album, Blows Against the Empire, in 1970. There's also a very interesting discussion of the amount of music inspired by Star Wars in 1977, including the disco-fied Star Wars and Other Galactic Funk (which I remember owning once upon a time! It might've been worth something now, dammit!).

This book's twelve chapters cover the marriage of SF and music from the end of the 60's to the beginning of the 80's, from 2001: A Space Odyssey to the birth of MTV. What a long, strange trip it was, and I'm grateful to the author for chronicling it.

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January 24, 2019

First Impressions: Star Trek: Discovery S2 Ep 2, "New Eden"

Well. This was a rather nice balance. It seems (or at least I hope so) that that season of Discovery is becoming more of an ensemble story, instead of The Trials and Tribble-ations Tribulations of Michael Burnham. This was more or less a bottle show, even though it did advance the overall season arc (and Young Spock is still nowhere to be seen). The primary mystery is the seven signals (spread over 30,000 light-years, as Captain Pike helpfully reminded us), and the fiery-winged "angels" seen by Burnham in the season opener, and also apparently Spock in his nightmares. These "angels" also play an important role in the self-contained plot of this episode, rescuing a group of humans from World War III and transporting them to an Earth-like planet thousands of light-years away.

(Hmmmm....what makes me think these "angels" are going to turn out to be not-so-angelic after all?)

Sylvia Tilly remains an eccentric, flighty, resourceful delight, and she and Saru seem to be developing a nice relationship. They had a very good scene together. Stamets is still grieving for Hugh, Michael has admitted learning to follow orders the hard way, and Christopher Pike is developing some interesting layers. For me, the most positive development is the bridge crew being given more to do and starting to flesh out their personalities. Please, more of this.

If the show continues on in this same general vein, I will say the behind-the-scenes upheavals and the change in showrunners is definitely for the better. I liked a great deal of the first season (especially Jason Isaacs), but this is tentatively starting to feel like Star Trek.