May 25, 2022

Streamin' Meemies: Star Trek: Strange New Worlds Season 1 Ep 3, "Ghosts of Illyria"

 


So the pattern of this show seems to be set. Plot-wise, the episodes are one story and done. Character-wise, the arcs seem to be continuing through the season. And so far, the evidence shows that one character in particular is spotlighted per episode. In the first episode, it was Captain Pike; in the second, Cadet Uhura; and now in the third it is Number One, Commander Una Chin-Riley.

(Although that comes with a bit of a caveat in this episode, as Dr. M'Benga also has a character spotlight, even if it's not the primary one.)

The episode opens with the First Officer's log, Una explaining that Enterprise has been dispatched to Hetemet 9, the site of an abandoned Illyrian colony. Illyrians are a humanoid species forbidden to join the Federation because of their habit of genetic modification. Enterprise was sent here to find out what happened to the colony, but they can't stay on the surface long because of ion storms, "one of which is fast approaching." As the landing party gets ready to leave, Pike goes to grab Spock, along the way collecting an ensign who is shining his flashlight around a just opened cabinet (as ominous music plays). Una and the rest of the landing party try to transport out, but Kyle can't get a lock on them. He calls down to Chief Engineer Hemmer for help, and Hemmer (accompanied by his usual snotty remarks) reroutes auxiliary power to give the transporter a boost. (The camera lingers on the engineering set, which is gorgeous.) This works so quickly that Kyle gasps: "How did you do that?"

"I am a genius. Move quickly." 

(The actor is playing Hemmer's arrogance to perfection, but man, it's already getting tiresome. I hope something happens soon to take this jerk down a peg.) 

Pike and Spock are still on the surface; in fact, Spock is pulling what look like lighted canisters out of the wall in the "library," and the one he is looking at is "a journal of previously undiscovered relevance." They go to the beam-out point, but the storm is too strong and Kyle can't get a lock on them, so they run back to the building to take shelter. Una goes to the bridge and explains the situation to the crew. 

Down one of Enterprise's corridors, Lieutenant Ortegas finds the same hapless ensign standing before a porthole, pulling his pants off. "It's too dark in here. I need to feel the light on my skin." She tries to talk him down, but he bashes his head through the glass (it's a damned good thing this is apparently a decorative covering, rather than the outer hull itself) and she has to wrestle him away while summoning security. The ensign isn't the only one: in her quarters, Number One looks at the decorative lamp and asks the computer to increase the illumination 25%. She also starts tearing at her uniform to expose more of her skin to the light. But then something strange happens: her face and hands start to glow red, and after a few moments she snaps out of it. Realizing something very weird is going on, she calls Dr. M'Benga and asks him the status of the landing party. The doctor says he was about to call her, because "I have several of them in here as we speak, presenting with some very curious symptoms." Una goes to sickbay, to find the people there have burned and/or shocked themselves to get closer to illumination: "They're being attracted to light." 

M'Benga: "So much so they're willing to hurt themselves to get to it."

The crew members have no viral/bacterial contagion as far as Dr. M'Benga can determine, but are showing severe drops in vitamin D. He says the landing party must have come into contact with something the transporter biofilters missed. Number One goes down to engineering to ask Hemmer about this, and the chief dismisses the idea: "Nonsense." He nonetheless says he will run a level 5 diagnostic, "which, I might add, may well take all night." Una goes back to the bridge and is briefly able to communicated with Pike, telling him she has a "situation," before the signal is lost. 

Next, she goes to the ready room and asks for everything the computer has on Illyrian genetic modifications related to disease control. Before she can really get started on what's available, La'an enters in response to her summons. Una tells La'an what's going on and asks her to have her security team keep an eye out for "strange behavior." La'an sees what she's researching and asks if what's happening has anything to do with the Illyrians. "It seems to me things like this are exactly why the Federation is so wary of genetically modified species like the Illyrians. You start breaking down the genetic code, who knows what the unexpected consequences can be?"

Una: "If the problem originated with the Illyrians, maybe they could also provide us with a cure."

La'an: "Isn't using any Illyrian medical tech against Federation regs?"

Una: "Thanks to the Eugenics Wars. I imagine you know all about that period in history."

Then it comes out: La'an is a descendant of Khan Noonien Singh, and was tormented as a child because of it. But that conversation is cut short as La'an begins exhibiting symptoms, remarking how dark it is in the room before shining Una's desk lamp full on her face. She's taken to sickbay, where everyone realizes the contagion is spreading but they have no idea how it's happening. Dr. M'Benga urges a full lockdown, and Una orders it. 

During the lockdown, Uhura is in her quarters in bed. (It's rather convenient that her "bedroom" is a bunklike nook in the wall with a sliding door that puts her in total darkness.) She is awakened by her roommates experiencing symptoms. In sickbay, Dr. M'Benga notes there are more than 50 affected people. In the middle of all this, Hemmer comes to sickbay, snottier than ever and still running his diagnostic, wanting to check the emergency medical transporter. M'Benga objects (and we see him surreptitiously flicking a switch that will dim the lights and agitate the patients): "Please stop messing around in here!" and Hemmer leaves. 

Down on the planet, the ion storm is still raging, and Pike is pacing in the library where he and Spock have taken shelter. Spock observes that "a watched kettle never boils," and when Pike corrects him with "Pot," notes that "You are deliberately mixing my metaphor to indulge your anxiety." Well, of course Pike is, because people are sick on his ship and he can do nothing. Spock is still reading the journal-canister he pulled from the wall (which is kind of weird, actually; that should be a tablet or a printed book or something, rather than a canister that looks like it could be used to shoot deposits through a bank's drive-through pneumatic tube). At any rate, he discovers this group of Illyrians wanted to join the Federation, so much so "they were attempting to reverse their DNA modifications to gain entry." But this conversation is cut short as they hear shrieking outside, and look out the window to see what appear to be orange energy beings flying through the storm towards them. 

As the storm progresses, the "ghosts" are gone....or are they? Spock mentions that "the journals did mention unconfirmed rumors of creatures living inside the storms," as they start pounding on the door. (With what, since they don't have any flesh-and-blood hands to pound with, I'm not quite sure, but whatever.) Pike is standing and facing their hastily erected barricade with his phaser drawn, and Spock (bless him!) is still trying to read his cylinder. Pike asks: "Does that thing have a setting for stun?" (This line, like all of Anson Mount's lines, is delivered to perfection.) 

"I am arming us with knowledge," Spock insists, and says the creatures started to appear as the Illyrians were dying from a mysterious disease. 

The storm intensified, popping Pike's ears. As Spock announces that it is now "fatal to organic life," the beings break through the door and stream in. Pike and Spock hit the floor, and the creatures hover over them, sheltering them.

In sickbay, Una is trying to figure out why Uhura isn't sick. Uhura says she went to bed--"I closed the door. I need it pitch-black to fall asleep"--and Una realizes the contagion travels on light waves. She decides to turn off the lights aboard the entire ship and sedate everyone in sickbay. She then goes back to researching Illyrian genetic modifications, and is interrupted by a "blackout override in the transporter room." Hemmer is there, in the grips of the infection and attempting to beam aboard a chunk of the planet's mantle (!!!) to bathe in its 10,000 degrees of light and heat. Una phasers him and carries him down to sickbay (although it's rather obvious the actor is carrying a pair of pants stuffed with straw and/or feathers and not the person). She dumps Hemmer in sickbay, and Dr. M'Benga says he needs to be sedated next. At this point, Una 'fesses up: "I'm immune. I've already come down with this and my immune system did what it was engineered to do. I didn't tell you earlier because I'm an Illyrian." It's clear she expects the doctor and Chapel to be shocked and fearful, but they're not. In fact, M'Benga is discouraged by her admission, as her blood, drawn earlier, has "no novel antibodies"--Una's Illyrian immune system burns out new infections immediately, and there is nothing there to synthesize. (In the background, La'an sits up, hearing this.) Una puts Dr. M'Benga out, and another crisis arises: "Warp core containment field has been deactivated." It's La'an, who knocked Chapel out and ran.

Una runs down to engineering, and she and La'an get in quite a fight. La'an gives a good account of herself, even as she is lashing out at Una, calling her "an augment, a monster," which is what La'an was called as a child. Una knocks La'an out, but the radiation levels have risen high enough that her immune system kicks into overdrive again as she crouches over La'an's unconscious body. 

On the planet, the storm is finally over. Pike asks why the energy beings saved his and Spock's lives but didn't save the colonists, and Spock theorizes that the energy beings were the colonists (which was obvious). He says the journal cylinder he was reading reported that the infected Illyrians ran into the ion storms, and due to some improbable handwaving technobabble the storms created the energy beings after the colonists' bodily deaths. 

In sickbay, Una wakes up Dr. M'Benga and says she has a cure. Apparently La'an, being so close to her when the containment field went down, received a high dose of radiation but was able to create "chimeric antibodies" (how would that even work? this stretched my suspension of disbelief more than a little) that Chapel was able to synthesize. Una then goes to talk to La'an and clear the air. She explains why her people bioengineered themselves: "My people were never motivated by domination. Illyrians seek collaboration with nature. By bioengineering our bodies, we adapt to naturally existing habitats. Instead of terraforming planets, we modify ourselves. And there's nothing wrong with that."

La'an: "If that's what you believe, why do you hide it?"

Una: "I've been hiding it from a lot of people. All I ever wanted, since I first saw the stars, was to join Starfleet." 

La'an, relenting a bit: "And you gave me that dream."

Pike and Spock have beamed back aboard by then, and Una goes to turn herself in. She admits to lying to Starfleet and breaking regulations, and presents herself for a disciplinary tribunal. Pike refuses to accept her confession. Una points out "if you shelter me, they could come after you too."

"I welcome that discussion," Pike says, and calls her the "best first officer in the fleet." He tells Una to let him worry about Starfleet, and tasks her to fix the transporter's biofilter. Una investigates, and goes to confront Dr. M'Benga: "It was your medical transporter that inhibited the biofilters." He's storing something in it, something he risked the entire crew over, and she demands to know what it is.

"Not what," M'Benga says. "Who." It is his young, terminally ill daughter, who he's been storing in the pattern buffer, rematerializing her periodically. Her disease is brutal, but in the buffer it cannot progress, and he is hoping that in Enterprise's travels he will find a cure for her condition. He says he won't risk the crew again and asks to spend some time with his daughter before Una turns him in. But Una, paying forward what Pike has done for her, says she will provide him with a dedicated power source to keep the girl safely stored. 

The episode ends with Una making another log entry, recounting how she confessed to the captain and wondering if he only spared her because she saved the crew. She also wonders when, or if, the time will come when she will be free to be "just an Illyrian." Meanwhile, Dr. M'Benga is reading a story to his little girl in sickbay. 

Well. This was a taut little adventure story, shining light on Number One and M'Benga in particular (Una is shown to be decisive, level-headed and very competent, and Rebecca Romijn plays it beautifully) while strengthening Pike and Spock's relationship. But there are also decisions made in this episode which will presumably (at least I hope they will be followed up on) come back to bite Captain Pike in the ass. I don't think this was quite as good as the first two episodes, but it was still a solid hour of Star Trek



May 24, 2022

Review: The Family Trade

The Family Trade The Family Trade by Charles Stross
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

This book starts out as one thing and turns into another, and the two things it is trying to be really don't mesh that well. If I had to sum it up in one sentence, I would call it "Married to the Alternate World-Walking Mob." There are alternate Earths with different history and technology, and a drug-dealing family that walks between them and murders their rivals, like an epic fantasy Medici clan. Miriam Beckstein is unwittingly drawn into this bloody court intrigue that is very much swimming with the megalodon sharks.

Miriam starts out as a journalist and sort of morphs into Jane Bond over the course of the story, and while she is a level-headed, competent character, I am just not that fond of the world Stross sets up. It doesn't help that this book was written 20 years ago and is very dated in spots, referring to the dot-com collapse among other things. This is the first book in the series, and I am not that invested in either the characters or the world to continue.

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May 21, 2022

Review: Braking Day

Braking Day Braking Day by Adam Oyebanji
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This is a debut novel, and a very fine one. The author takes the trope of the generation ship and puts a unique spin on it, exploring the culture of a fleet of generation ships a hundred and thirty-two years into their voyage, when they're coming up on the titular Braking Day. This is a major maneuver wherein they will flip their ships and fire up their drive for the final approach to the Destination Star. But the fleet of three ships has explosive secrets that are about to come to the surface, and in the process the reasons why they left Earth will be exposed and the future of the fleet will be decided.

There's a lot going on here, from the culture of the fleet (water is used as currency instead of money, and the protagonist, engineer Ravi McLeod, spends a lot of his time crawling in the bowels of his ship, the Archimedes, without having sufficient water in his account to clean himself up) and the splintering factions therein, to the inevitable aging of a fleet of hundred-year-old ships and their closed recycling and ecosystems starting to break down. The story proper starts with a riveting first chapter, where Ravi goes one of the engine rooms at the rear of the Archie (the ship is about forty miles long, with habitat wheels rotating around a central spine, protected at the front by a kilometer-wide shield) and starts hearing tapping noises. He looks through a porthole and sees what he thinks must be a hallucination--a young blond woman floating in vacuum without a spacesuit.

But the woman is real, and unraveling her mystery sets Ravi and his cousin, master hacker Roberta "Boz" McLeod, against the hierarchy of the fleet and the secrets it protects. The people aboard the ships are the descendants of the First Crew, who left an Earth taken over and ruled by AIs (here called LOKIs, standing for "Loosely Organized Kinetic Intelligence," which admittedly gave my Asgard-loving heart a bit of a chuckle). The inhabitants firmly reject any kind of artificial intelligence, opting to use cybernetic implants to create a networked hivemind. But as Ravi and Boz discover, there is another ship out there--the Newton--hunting the fleet. The Newton was isolated from the rest decades ago, after an outbreak of plague onboard that the other ships refused to help them with, for fear of the contagion spreading. The Newton survivors have never forgotten. Their society is also structured as a polar opposite--the ship is run by a LOKI, and the inhabitants hate the rest of the fleet's "cyborgs."

This societal clash is one of the most interesting parts of the book. Ravi and Boz are trying to prevent a war--the Newton is a more heavily armored and advanced ship, and has a fleet of protective "dragons," warships constructed from some of the habitat wheels after the plague and its attendant population crash and crewed by fully autonomous LOKIs. (I admit when those were first mentioned I thought, really? We're getting some sort of space-dwelling mythological creatures here? but the dragons were actually pretty cool.) With Braking Day fast approaching, the fleet is locked into its mission--the aging ships cannot continue crossing deep space for much longer, despite another faction onboard, the Bon Voyagers, who insist that space is now their natural home and eschew any human presence on a planet.

All this makes for a fast-paced, fascinating stew. If I had one wish, it would be that the author had explored the ramifications of his societal and hierarchal clashes a bit more deeply. Especially at the climax, the antagonist's motivations, while plausible, are a bit out of left field. But these are minor quibbles. This is a satisfying story and an author to keep an eye on.

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May 18, 2022

Review: The Galaxy, and the Ground Within

The Galaxy, and the Ground Within The Galaxy, and the Ground Within by Becky Chambers
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

I've read several of Becky Chambers' books, and she has a unique style that I think qualifies as "cozy science fiction." She doesn't write stories with breakneck plots and high stakes. She writes quiet, thoughtful, character-based stories full of conversations and introspection. This book also has a lot of alien food porn as a part of what little plot there is, as the characters are temporarily stranded on a planet that is a "way station" between wormholes. The planet's satellite network has failed, and several members of different species (this one doesn't have any human protagonists) are stuck there until it is repaired and they can go their various ways.

We take a pretty deep dive into each of the main characters, as they all have personal issues to work out and their interactions allow them to do so. Decisions are made, understanding achieved and epiphanies received, and most of the characters end the book at a better place than they started. This could be classified as a fairly slow-paced book, but the depth of characterization is good enough that it overcame the pacing for the most part. Of course, it depends on if you like this style to begin with. I'm kind of "meh" on the whole thing, but it wasn't bad. Just know going in what it is, and you'll enjoy it if it's your kind of book.

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May 16, 2022

Streamin' Meemies: Star Trek: Strange New Worlds Season 1 Ep 2, "Children of the Comet"

 


It's early in the season, but I've identified a trend in this series that I fervently hope continues.  Plot-wise, the stories are "one and done"--a problem to be solved in this episode, which of course harkens back to Ye Olden Days before season-long plot arcs. But character-wise, there seem to be continuing character arcs: there were a couple of scenes in this episode dealing with Christopher Pike's ongoing dilemma, the horrific future bearing down on him less than a decade away, which he is still struggling to accept. (At the end, he's pulling up the pictures of the cadets he will save--who are young kids at this point--and memorizing their names. Which is noble and selfless and certainly in line with Pike's character, but as Number One points out: "What if you're wrong? What if you got that message so you could save those kids and that's it? What if you don't have to ruin your life, too? How do you know you can't make a different choice? One that saves all of you? What if your fate is what you make it?" Those are reasonable objections to make...only we already know it won't happen, that his fate is pre-ordained by fifty years of canon. Which is really too bad.) I fervently hope this trend continues, not only for Pike but for the other characters. 

I also hope this season will take turns spotlighting the main cast. This episode was Nyota Uhura's, and sold me on Celia Rose Gooding's portrayal of the young linguistic "prodigy." She starts out unsure if her place really is in Starfleet, and ends the episode still feeling that way to an extent. Of course, we know what will happen, but with this show it's the journey and how it explores the characters along the way. This is true of Pike and Spock and seems to be true of Uhura as well. The new characters introduced--such as the grumpy, smug, smart-ass Andorian engineer Hemmer--are a bit less constrained to already established canon, and thus have greater opportunities for expanded character arcs. If that's the direction this show is going to take, I for one will jump up and down and cheer.  

The plot of this one is classic Star Trek: a comet is going to crash into an inhabited planet--the native species is pre-warp and cannot help themselves--and Enterprise has to stop it. But this comet is not your typical Halley's. It has a structure built into it which contains what seems to be an alien navigation "egg," perhaps holding an artificial intelligence, and it also has a high-powered ship with a crew of fish-eyed beings called Shepherds following it. Said Shepherds worship the comet as a god, M'hanit, and demand that Enterprise leave it alone. But Pike can't do that, because just before the Shepherds showed up a landing party consisting of La'an, Sam Kirk, Spock and Uhura (on her first away mission) have beamed over to try to gain information to change the comet's course, and naturally are trapped there. So it becomes a game of cat and mouse between Pike and the Shepherds, who are all caught between rescuing the landing party, saving the planet, and following their "god" in whatever it chooses to do. 

Along the way we find out more about Nyota Uhura in this one episode than all the previous decades of Star Trek. She knows 37 (!!!) languages--as she explains: "In Kenya, we have 22 native languages. I found early that if I wanted to be understood it's best to communicate in someone's own tongue, so I learned them." She also talks to Spock in Vulcan, and tells off Hemmer in Andorian. A prodigy? That's a bit of an understatement. She also relates that a week before she was due to attend the University in Nairobi, her parents and older brother were killed in a shuttle accident. She went to live with her grandmother, who had been in Starfleet, which is how she came up with the idea of joining, or as Pike says, "You ran away to Starfleet?" 

This all comes out during a barbeque dinner Pike holds for members of the senior staff and others. Walking with Uhura down the corridor afterwards, Spock is none too pleased by her admission: "Starfleet has been a lifelong dream for many, myself included. If it is not your path, you might consider making way for someone who wants to walk it." 

(Spock still has a bit of the more-Vulcan-than-Vulcan rod up his ass in this episode. During the general conversation in Pike's quarters, as Pike tells a funny story of something that happened when he was an ensign and everyone laughs, Spock notes: "I've never understood the human inclination to laugh at others' misfortunes. It feels impolite." Pike replies with an observation that sort of becomes the running theme of the episode: "Sometimes, Mr. Spock, things go so badly that you just have to laugh." He also fails to read the room when the landing party is stranded on the comet and Uhura is trying to figure out the navigation egg, giving her a piss-poor "pep talk" she immediately calls out: "Was that actually your version of a pep talk?" to which he replies, "Yes. I've been working on them.")

The heart of the episode is the scenes on the comet where Uhura is trying to figure out how to talk to the navigation egg (after the landing party is stranded there by Sam Kirk's idiotic attempt to touch the egg--it seems that family has a genetic predisposition to touch things they shouldn't. Sam Kirk promptly gets knocked on his ass and spends most of the episode lying there unconscious) and she realizes it communicates via musical notes, which is a neat callback to the original series. She and Spock sing a series of notes which unlock the force field the comet had put up around itself, which enables the landing party to be beamed back aboard Enterprise. This gets them out of that pickle, but doesn't help things with the Shepherds--their ship attacks Enterprise, which is woefully outmatched. But Spock comes up with a way to keep the comet from crashing into the planet, and we are treated to an exciting sequence where Enterprise loops and dives among the chunks of rock and ice that make up the comet's tail, with the Shepherds' ship coming right along behind firing. Hotshot pilot Erica Ortegas (she could probably give Kayla Detmer aboard Discovery a run for her money) manages to avoid both those obstacles, and parks the ship at the front of the comet. Pike then shuts everything down except life support and pleads for help to the Shepherds, saying they will no longer touch M'hanit. It's a gamble--the alien ship could have easily blasted them out of the sky--but the Shepherds start to tow Enterprise away from the comet. This frees Spock to take a shuttle and skim the comet's surface, using the shuttle's heat shields to melt just enough ice from the comet to change its trajectory. (Although why the Shepherds didn't see this and object to that action as well, since it amounts to carving a chunk away from the face of their god, is left as an exercise for the viewer.) The comet loops by the planet and continues on its way, but the water vapor deposited in the atmosphere by the melting ice will permanently change the planet's climate, enabling, as Spock says, less aridity, more plant growth, and greater societal advancement. (And indeed, we see the natives holding up their hands in amazement as it begins to rain. I just hoped it didn't flash flood their settlements.) So M'hanit "brought life" after all, at least the Shepherds thought so: "You have seen the glory and mercy of M'hanit," the Shepherd leader tells Pike. Pike acknowledges that there's been a miracle (which was a fine bit of disassembling from the captain) and the Shepherd says, "And so we shall not part as enemies." 

After it's all over, Uhura makes a report to Pike, Number One and Spock where she reveals she decoded the musical notes emitted by the comet--or more precisely the controlling egg, I suppose--and discovered what it was trying to say: it meant no harm and also had foreknowledge of Spock's actions. "It knew its fate, you might say." Personally, I could have done without that, but it does tie into Pike's character arc. Also, we see another scene with Uhura and Spock walking down the corridor, and he has changed his mind about her: "I understand you did not come to Starfleet the way most of us have. That you are not sure you wish to stay. But, having observed your actions on the comet, I am certain, should you choose to, Starfleet would be fortunate to have an officer like  you." 

This episode was quite strong, and a lovely exploration of Uhura's character. It's also a story of optimism and the joy of exploration and learning about an alien artifact and culture. Whoever is running this show has a fine grasp of the Star Trek ethos (far better than the guy who all but ruined Season 2 of Picard) and I am very happy with it. 

May 10, 2022

Review: Winter's Orbit

Winter's Orbit Winter's Orbit by Everina Maxwell
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

This is a space opera that's not galaxy-spanning or full of pew-pew space battles: it's small and intimate, focusing on the two main characters and the romance between them. In a story like this the romance has to be done well, and this one is. It's a slow burn arising out of an unwanted political marriage that culminates in a genuine love--and both protagonists working together to save their respective planets and the treaty binding them to the greater Galactic community.

My main complaint is just that: with the greater emphasis on the romance, the worldbuilding is thin. Objects called "remnants" play a key role in the plot, but I was never sure exactly what those were. They seemed to be ancient alien tech dug up on the seven planets comprising the local Empire, but they were not explained in any great detail. I thought this would have made for a far more interesting story, but that's not where the author's focus was. Which is fine, because the other elements of the story were well done. In particular the characters--Kiem, the Prince forced into a political marriage, and Jainan, his new partner, bound to Kiem after the death of his previous partner and bearing the scars of that prior abusive marriage--are fleshed out and believable people. (I'm also wondering if Jainan has Asperger's or is otherwise on the autism spectrum. It's not plainly stated, but he has a few of what I understand to be the symptoms. Although those could also be part of his trauma and PTSD from his abuser.) Jainan's previous partner, Taam, is a malevolent presence throughout the book, as it is Taam's scheming and plots for a coup that drive the plot's engine.

This is the author's debut novel, and it's well written with good characterization and zippy pacing. She needs to give more thought to her worldbuilding, but she's a writer worth keeping an eye on.

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May 9, 2022

Streamin' Meemies: Star Trek: Strange New Worlds Season 1 Ep 1, "Strange New Worlds"

 

I will get to the finale of Picard Season 2. Really I will. Eventually. But since I've been so disappointed with the season so far, I thought I would try the premiere of Strange New Worlds first, to serve as a bit of a palate cleanser. 

I'm glad I did. If this show carries through with what's in this first episode, it's going to be fantastic. 

We first met Captain Christopher Pike, the younger Spock and Number One (who gets a name here, Una Chin-Riley) in the second season of Star Trek: Discovery,  and the three of them made such an indelible impression that this show was greenlit. We then saw the three of them, as well as the incredible set that makes up the Enterprise's engineering room, in a couple of the between-season Short Treks, and I thought, "They wouldn't have built that set just for a ten-minute mini episode and not do anything else with it." And sure enough, shortly afterwards this show was announced, along with the info that it would be more episodic instead of the usual modern season-long arc. 

The episode opens "three months, ten days, four hours and five minutes" after Discovery jumped into the future, and Pike is still dealing with what he learned (namely, his gruesome future less than a decade from now). Enterprise is still in spacedock, and he's retreated to Bear Creek, Montana, where he's grown out his hair and beard and is having a lady friend, a fellow captain, sleep over (who he then cooks breakfast for). She knows something is wrong, but Pike refuses to talk about it or answer his insistently beeping communicator. After she leaves, Pike goes for a horseback ride (in the snow?) and is interrupted by a shuttle swooping in, bearing Admiral Robert April, the previous captain of Enterprise. He informs Pike a first contact mission to Kiley 279, headed by Una, has gone bad, and Starfleet has lost contact. He's pulling Enterprise out of spacedock early and is ordering Pike back out there to figure out what's going on. 

Meanwhile, Spock has taken advantage of the three-month downtime to return to Vulcan and meet his bonded bride, T'Pring. Apparently an additional step has to be taken now that the two are adults (which would make sense) and T'Pring officially asks Spock to marry her (although she expresses reservations about him "gallivanting across the galaxy with Starfleet"--this and other snippets of dialogue does a good job of laying out the motivations for her subsequent actions). They're about to make love when Spock's communicator chirps. T'Pring asks him not to answer it; Spock says he took an oath, and T'Pring retorts that he has also taken an oath to her. Spock says, "Matrimony and duty can complement each other," to which T'Pring replies, "I remain skeptical." At any rate, Spock answers and Pike explains what is going on. (After an amusing bit where Pike asks, "Spock, are you naked?" and T'Pring acidly interjects over Spock's shoulder, "He was about to be.") Of course, Spock immediately says he will come and "T'Pring will understand," and T'Pring just as quickly calls him on it: "I won't chase you across the galaxy just to get married." She's clearly not going to take any guff from Spock, and I do hope we see more of her. 

With a shave and a haircut (and six bits), Pike returns to Enterprise. As the shuttle pilot notes, it's "all scrubbed up and good as new," to which Pike mutters, "Wish it were that easy." Spock meets him in the transporter room, and while they are on their way to the bridge we learn it's been the aforementioned three months since Discovery season 2. On the bridge, we meet some of the new cast members, including the acting Number One, La'an Noonien-Singh, the helmsman Erikah Ortegas, and the "prodigy," Cadet Uhura on communications rotation.

After briefing the crew (which provides the perfect excuse for a long tracking shot showing off the gorgeous new sets) Pike orders Enterprise taken out, and we see he's still having flashbacks to the horrific future vision of himself. He goes into the ready room, and Spock follows, saying he "doesn't want to overstep," but he has noted that since Pike went down to that Klingon moon, he "returned a changed man." Pike then tells Spock what he saw. Spock urges him to use the knowledge of his fate "to be the man you most essentially are--the captain." 

(This very well acted scene also answers a question about the Original Star Trek episode, "The Menagerie." We were never told just why the protocol-bound Spock--and he's even more so here, in his younger years: rigidly wedded to Starfleet policy [he spends quite a bit of time in this episode arguing with La'an and objecting to her suggestions], not having very much of a sense of humor, and in most things more-Vulcan-than-Vulcan--broke all sorts of rules to get Pike to Talos IV. Now we know: Spock knew what Pike faced, and knew the Talosians could provide a way out. Spock probably started drawing up his plans shortly after Pike told him what was going to happen.)

Enterprise pops out of warp to find Una's ship still in orbit but empty, and no subspace chatter. The Kileans have no signs of local space colonization, but they also possess a warp signature. La'an calls this a "red flag" and suggests activating the deflector shields. Spock objects, but Pike does it anyway. It's a good thing, as almost immediately afterwards "plasma torpedoes" are launched from the surface but are deflected with minimal damage. Spock analyzes the warp signal variance (with his usual refrain of "Fascinating," to which Pike remarks, "I'm all ears"--one of several dry humorous shots the captain gets off) and realizes it's not a warp drive but a "warp bomb," which sounds more than a little handwavey, but we'll let it slide. Una may not have realized this, as Enterprise's sensors were upgraded just before they left. La'an wants to retrieve their people and she and Spock argue again, with the latter objecting that such a move would clash with "General Order 1" (which gets renamed to the more familiar "Prime Directive" at the end of this episode). Coming up with a solution, Pike says, "Let's go to the doctor," who is of course Dr. M'Benga and his nurse Christine Chapel, "on civilian exchange from the Stanford Genome Project." Christine is going to temporarily alter their DNA so they can beam down to the planet and not be detected. This process is very painful, and La'an doesn't want the sedative. (Here and in a later scene we get quite a bit of her backstory, and she's an interesting character. I'm also glad to see that so far the other characters look like they're going to be featured on a bit more of an equal basis along with the three leads. This is my biggest complaint about Discovery, that the bridge crew is so underused.) After their transformation--which is the usual snake-patterned bumpy foreheads--Pike, Spock and La'an beam down to see what's going on. Native clothing, tricorders and universal translators are programmed into the transporter to materialize with them, which leads to a genuine laugh-out-loud moment: they appear in an alley, and Spock looks down to see the "native dress," at least for him, consists of long socks and short shorts. This leads him to exclaim in genuine clipped Vulcan outrage, "Captain, where are my pants?" (I would love to see the bloopers for this scene. I bet it took a while for them to get it right.)

They have arrived to find the society in the midst of a civil uprising (and the footage used here was apparently from a protest in Ukraine, which caused a bit of a stir). Seeing some scientists about to enter said building, La'an takes them down to get their clothing and badges, and suggests they be beamed up to Enterprise and kept sedated until the mission is over. This is done. Once the two natives are in Sickbay, Chapel realizes Spock's genetic changes are already deteriorating and she needs some Kilean DNA to stabilize him. Unfortunately, the Kileans wake up sooner than they should and one of them bolts out the door, leading Chapel on a merry chase through Enterprise's corridors. He runs into the turbolift where Uhura is on her way to the bridge, and there's a nice little scene where the "prodigy" uses her communications expertise to calm him down. When they reach the bridge, Chapel, who has used sickbay's emergency transporter to get there ahead of them, knocks the man out and gets her DNA sample. Transporter Chief Kyle has to use this on the fly to apply some sort of "eye salve" to Spock's alien eyes to enable him to pass a scan--I'm envisioning this as a thin film of DNA coating Spock's eyes--and the three are able to enter the building. 

They find the cell where Una and her crew are being held, and since it's at such a deep level that the building's shielding will not permit transporter beams to penetrate, they try to walk out. Spock's genetic alterations start wearing off, unfortunately just as they meet up with another group on the lower level. (He claps his hands over his ears and yells in pain as he changes back, which is another thing the older Spock assuredly did not do.) A fight breaks out, and they subdue the group and run for the elevator. 

Inside, Pike demands, "How did these people get warp!" since they're in no way ready for first contact, and the truth comes out. When Discovery opened up the wormhole in Season 2 and fled to the future, all the ships fighting to guard her passage lit up space. The Kileans saw all those warp signatures with their telescopes and was able to reverse-engineer them (in 3 months? no wonder the Federation is nervous) into a matter/anti-matter reactor. But instead of using it to explore space, one of the factions is going to use it to crush their enemy. Pike realizes that no matter what General Order 1 says, the civilization has already been influenced and corrupted, and the only choice remaining is to "influence it well." He orders everyone back to the ship and keeps Spock, the obvious alien, with him. When the elevator doors open on a group of gun-toting security people, he says, "Take me to your leader." 

Pike tries to talk to this leader, emphasizing "negotiation and debate" with their enemy, and gets nowhere. "Your rules are not my rules," she says, and since she has the bigger stick now, if "spilled blood is the price, so be it." As they are taken away, Pike snaps to the communicator resting on the table: "Emergency communication from Captain Pike. Enterprise to lower orbit. Full visibility. Show 'em what you got." Sirens immediately go off, and we look out the window to see Enterprise descending into view. This forces the factions into meeting to figure out what to do about the aliens, but naturally they start arguing instead. 

Back on the ship, Pike, Spock and La'an are watching this, and we get more of La'an's backstory--which, in a neat twist, ties into what is happening on the planet and also into Pike's personal dilemma. In the past, the Gorn captured her family's colony ship and took it to one of their "planetary nurseries," where her family members were slit open, fed on alive and used for breeding sacks for the Gorn to lay their eggs. La'an stated flatly, "Not believing you're going to die is what gets you killed," and asks, "Do you know the last thing they felt?"

Pike: "Surprise. Because up until the last moment, they couldn't imagine dying." 

This sparks an idea. He asks Uhura for access to the historical database, and tells her he needs to punch a signal down to the planet. He then beams into the middle of the negotiations, interrupting the arguing factions with a wry, unapologetic "Hi" (Anson Mount nails this, as he does every line he's given) and giving them a lesson in Earth history, from civil war (started with, ironically enough, "Stop the Steal" footage) to the Eugenics Wars to World War III. "What we gave you," he says, "is the means to exterminate yourselves. And from the looks of you, you're going to do it." He lays out their choice: "Go to war with one another, or join our Federation of Planets and reach for the stars."

Now I doubt a simple speech from an alien captain--not even Jean-Luc Picard, which Anson Mount doesn't try to be: he has a softer, more laid-back and nuanced delivery--would be sufficient to overcome decades and/or centuries of internal strife, but I'm willing to let this go too. Because we're shown some optimistic, uplifting scenes of the Kileans doing just that: putting aside their differences and indeed reaching for the stars. 

Back at Starbase 1, Admiral April informs Pike, Spock and Una that "getting the Federation High Court not to throw you all in jail almost took more pull than I have," but since the Federation cannot officially admit that Discovery is gone, they also cannot officially reveal how the Kileans got their warp technology. Una requests permission to return to Enterprise, and April asks Pike: "You planning on keeping the chair?" And Pike is. 

Back on the ship, Pike gets a chance to restate the Enterprise's mission once more (the same phrases used in the opening credits), and in a delightful bit of cadet enthusiasm, Uhura bursts out: "Cool!" Then, after a beat, an embarrassed, "Sir." We haven't seen much of what she can do yet, but this new actor sells the vision of a young, inexperienced Uhura. 

This is an excellent start to the new series. It's well-written, well-paced and adds some lovely touches to the more familiar characters. After the disappointing slog of Picard season 2, I needed this, and I'm eagerly looking forward to the rest of the season. 


May 5, 2022

Review: She Who Became the Sun

She Who Became the Sun She Who Became the Sun by Shelley Parker-Chan
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This book is a historical fantasy based on Chinese history and the story of Zhu Yuanzhang, founder of the Ming Dynasty. The author's version is gender-swapped, with a nameless second daughter taking the name and identity of her brother after his death, and following her brother's prophesied path to greatness. Zhu Chongba, as she is first known, rises from starving peasant to educated monk to warlord to Emperor.

That's the surface plot of this story, but once you get under the hood you find it's so much more. This is a story of power and sacrifice, and one person's determination to survive and her obsession with becoming something rather than "nothing," which was her prophesied fate as a useless daughter. It also tackles the theme of power in a society with rigid gender roles. Zhu at first tries to suppress all her "women's knowledge," attempting to live the life her brother would have lived, only to realize that it is this very knowledge that enables her to survive. After her fateful meeting with the general of the opposing army and the fight during which he nearly kills her and chops off her right hand, she realizes if she had been a man, she could not have coped with her mutilation.

The eunuch general hadn't known he was acting on the body of someone who had never borne any ancestral expectations of pride or honor. Zhu remembered that terrible internal momentum: the feeling that she was diverging irremediably from Zhu Chongba, the person she had to be. She'd been so afraid of what it meant--that she wasn't Zhu Chongba and never would be, and that the instant Heaven found out she would be returned to nothingness.

Now she reeled with a realization that upended everything she'd believed about the world.

I survived--because I'm
not Zhu Chongba.

...

It was funny, Zhu thought, to owe her survival to the same body that had been the source of so much terror. She remembered the relentless of its adolescent changes, and the sick, desperate feeling of being dragged towards a fate that would destroy her. She'd longed so intently for a perfect male body that she'd dreamed of it, and woken up crushed with disappointment. And yet--in the end, she'd survived destruction precisely because hers wasn't a perfect male body that its owner would think worthless the minute it was no longer perfect.


Zhu Chongba isn't really transgender as we now define it, even after this epiphany. She still has to pretend to be a man in this society and hide her true form (though she is married to a woman, who obviously knows the truth). But she discards the rigid ideas about gender her society has forced on her, and forges her future based on herself.

Her counterpart, the "eunuch general" Ouyang, is the secondary protagonist. In contrast to Zhu's journey of freeing herself from her society's shackles, Ouyang is burdened by them with a crushing weight that only intensifies as the story progresses. He is treated by the people around him as mutilated and lesser, despite his prowess on the battlefield, and views himself as such. His trauma and rage eventually leads him to slaughter the people who have taken him in, and kill Prince Esen who he is in love with. He is not a nice person (neither is Zhu, for that matter) but they are both complicated, fascinating characters.

The closest comparison of this book to books I have previously read is R.F. Kuang's The Poppy War, also based on Chinese history (albeit more recent). That book has more overt fantasy elements, and is far more brutal and bloody than this one. But this book has an examination of power as seen through the lens of gender, and the society's rigid stratification thereof, that Poppy doesn't tackle. I think Kuang's book has the slight edge in overall quality, but She Who Became the Sun is still damned good, and definitely worth your time.

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May 2, 2022

Streamin' Meemies: Star Trek: Picard Season 2 Ep 9, "Hide and Seek"

 


In this episode, we finally get to the root of Picard's trauma, a trauma that has been teased and hinted at all season long. It's mixed in with the crew's desperate flight from the Borgi-fied Agnes and her newly assimilated minions, with help from Brent Spiner's Dr. Adam Soong (who tips all the way into unhinged villainy in this episode, in search of his "legacy," and as a result becomes a lot less interesting). I will say this: the reveal does make some actual plot sense, as Jean-Luc's burgeoning memories does show the way to the tunnels hidden underneath Chateau Picard, the same tunnels he roamed with his mother on that fateful night. And the final scene that reveals exactly what happened to her doesn't take place until the very end of the episode, so at least Picard isn't having distracting personal flashbacks in the middle of a crisis (well, much). 

This does make the episode a little better than the past several senseless slogs, but I'm tempted to classify it as too little too late. Especially since it only deals with Agnes/the Borg Queen, and not the other problem of Dr. Soong stopping the Europa Mission (which will obviously happen in the finale). Also, at the end the newly unified Queen Agnes takes off in Rios' ship--Rios' Confederation ship--to where? the alternate timeline, or many alternate timelines across multiple universes? That question still remains to be answered, but it also leaves Picard's group seemingly stranded in the 20th century.

Acting-wise, Alison Pill again shines, with her dual (and dueling) identities as Agnes Jurati and the Borg Queen. But she's given a big climactic speech where she talks the Queen into cooperation instead of assimilation--a nicer, more wholesome assimilation, perhaps?--which sounds more like a plot coupon to me instead of a viable solution. (Oh, yeah, and Queen Agnes is totally going to be the Queen from the first episode, like I previously stated. Probably to set up this time loop so she can become the Queen who asks to join the Federation.) Patrick Stewart is also put through a bit of a wringer as Picard remembers what happens to his mother: Yvette Picard ended up committing suicide in Chateau Picard's solarium, hanging from the rafters in a very Gothic-looking and cliched white dress, a memory Picard apparently suppressed for decades. (This plot twist also sparked a somewhat heated discussion in the comments for this episode's review at Tor.com, with many people saying a) wouldn't the Federation have eliminated mental illness by the 24th century, or nearly so? and b) what was Picard's father doing locking Yvette in her room for the night in the first place? Had the chateau's transporter blown its gasket, so Maurice couldn't bring someone in to help Yvette, or take her somewhere to get treatment?)

The episode moved along fast enough where I didn't consider any of these issues as I was watching, but it fell apart as soon as I started thinking about it. Which, unfortunately, has been pretty much true for the entire season. 

April 30, 2022

Review: Nettle & Bone

Nettle & Bone Nettle & Bone by T. Kingfisher
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I am a great fan of T. Kingfisher (aka Ursula Vernon) and this is one of her best. She writes quiet stories with practical, sensible characters who take the cliches of a genre (in this case, the fairy tale) and turn them inside out.

The first chapter immediately hooks the reader: the protagonist, Marra, is building a "bone dog," wiring together bones of various dead canines in the "blistered land," and bringing the finished skeleton to life. Of course you want to know more: who is Marra, and why is she doing this? The second chapter goes back and begins the tale of Marra's life. She is the third daughter of a queen whose two older sisters were married to the prince of a neighboring kingdom for political reasons. But her beloved oldest sister, Damia, died a few months after the wedding under mysterious circumstances. The second sister, Kania, was then married to Prince Vorling to fulfill her country's obligations, and Marra is sent to a nunnery to be held in reserve. But Kania seems to be pregnant far too often, and when Marra visits her after the death of her firstborn daughter, she sees the bruises Kania's husband has left, and hears of her sister's hellish life. So Marra, by now a grown woman of thirty (the characters all being adults, including two older women, is one of the best things about this book; there's no teenage angst here, just grownups doing grownup things), vows to find a way to free her sister. As the back jacket copy aptly says: "This isn't the kind of fairy tale where the princess marries a prince. It's the one where she kills him."

To do this, Marra enlists the aid of two older women: the nameless "dust-wife," who brings a demon-possessed chicken along with them on the journey (said demon chicken has a pivotal scene at the climax) and a fairy godmother named Agnes, who takes the tropes of fairy godmothers and stands them on their heads. Marra also has her bone dog, and along the way she and the dust-wife visit a goblin market and free a warrior, Fenris, who will do the actual slaying of the prince (and who becomes Marra's romantic interest). This unlikely group learns to work together and all have important roles to play as the story progresses. Marra is not exactly what one would call a kickass protagonist--those roles, to my delight, fell to the older women, Agnes and the dust-wife--but it is her love of her sister and her stubborn, dogged determination (along with her ability to decipher a code of embroidery stitches) that carries her through to the end.

This story is dark in places, but it also has a great deal of sly whimsical humor. The scene where Agnes uses a just-hatched chick to find the group a place to stay in the capital city of the Northern Kingdom is a laugh-out-loud delight. I can't resist quoting a bit of another scene, at the very end where Marra, the dust-wife, Agnes and her chick Finder rescue Fenris:

"How is Finder?" asked Fenris, stemming the flow of words.

Agnes rummaged around in her scarf and produced Finder, who was half asleep and clearly indignant at being awoken.

"You need to train him to sit somewhere else," said the dust-wife disapprovingly. "Otherwise you'll have a rooster who thinks he should dive headfirst into your cleavage when he wants to roost."

"It's been a while since any man wanted to dive into my cleavage," said Agnes. "It might be a nice change."

"Not when the spurs grow in."

"Oh well, probably not."


This is not a story of wizards or superheroes doing over-the-top things, but rather flawed, realistic, relatable people in extraordinary circumstances, who fight and stumble and muddle through and get things done. It's utterly delightful, and I highly recommend you pick it up.



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