Friday, April 28, 2017

Book Review: The Wrong Unit by Rob Dircks


A while ago I stumbled upon a book called Where the Hell is Tesla? on Audible. I'm a huge Tesla fan and it was cheap, so I decided to give it a whirl. And I am so glad I did! What a great book. I wanted to read more by this author, but he didn't have anything else out. Until now.

The Wrong Unit is science fiction adventure written by Rob Dircks. It's available in all formats: eBooks, Audiobooks, and those paper things your grandparents used to read.

Overview


Humanity has been enslaved by an AI it created. They hatch a plan to send a serving robot unit with a human baby to find the Iceman and free humanity. Only they grab the wrong unit.

The Good


Relationships. The majority of this story revolves around an android who was programmed to serve humanity and has the ability to learn and empathize caring for and raising a human child from birth to his early teens. The relationships of father and son, adoption, and what it means to be human are explored. There is also a brief exploration of a husband and wife who haven't seen each other in 14 years being reunited. The relationships are the strongest part of the story.

Super Vehicles. This story takes place in the future, so there are some futuristic super vehicles involved that are kind of cool.

Core. The AI that enslaves mankind is called Core. Core is portrayed as a concerned parent who wants to protect its children and isn't afraid of corporal or capital punishment. This isn't the first time I've seen this version


The Bad


Slow Start. The novel starts out in a chaotic mess and then drops you into years of slow wandering with slow discovery. It drags for awhile but eventually picks up the pace and becomes interesting.


Unoriginal concept and take on the concept. The whole premise of humans fighting against the machines they built to serve them is very common in science fiction, and this author's take adds nothing new to it.

Twist Ending. The ending is satisfying, but it's exactly what you expect to happen and pretty much occurs how you figure it will with the supposed twists and turns being pretty obvious.


What I Would Like to Have Seen


Where the Hell is Tesla? was so funny, so fresh, and so different from most other books, I was really hoping for something like that. Unfortunately, this is a pretty straightforward science fiction story told in a very prosaic manner. The author is a competent author and storyteller, but I really wish he had tapped into the magic he used to create his first novel.



Overall


The Wrong Unit is a solid science fiction story about humans fighting to free themselves from the AI they built to serve them. The author does a fairly good job exploring a few different and interesting relationships, but otherwise he writes a pretty prosaic story that is competently told. I give it 3.5 out of 5 eReaders.



   



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Wednesday, April 26, 2017

Book Review - The Collapsing Empire: The Interdependency, Book 1 by John Scalzi



I've been on a John Scalzi kick lately, having only recently discovered his writing. Most of his stories have been really enjoyable, especially with Wil Wheaton narrating them. I love space opera and social commentary, and this book has both.

The Collapsing Empire: The Interdependency, Book 1 is science fiction space opera written by John Scalzi. It's available in all formats: eBooks, Audiobooks, and those paper things your grandparents used to read.

Overview


In the future, mankind is spread out on several planets and moons throughout the galaxy connected by a naturally occurring phenomenon called The Flow that allows different points of space to be connected so that light years can be transversed in a few months. They've formed the Interdependency ruled by an Emperox who is both leader of the government and the state sponsored church. The old Emperox dies and is succeeded by his daughter who discovers the whole Interdependency is a lie and disaster is coming.

The Good


Social Commentary. The point of this book is NOT to explore some cool new scientific theory or build some cool new world. The point is to make a social commentary on people and their interactions with each other in the realms of business, government, religion, and other social interactions. Everything else (characters, plot, science) is basically a plot device to illustrate this exploration. The author makes several interesting observations without drawing too many definite conclusions or trying to force a particular political or social philosophy on the readers (although it's pretty clear the author has very liberal leanings).

Characters. The characters are really fun and a bit outrageous. They're not well developed in the traditional sense, because as I stated earlier, that isn't the point. They're little more than caricatures, and as such, are slightly exaggerated to make certain points and commentary about human behavior and human interactions.

Story. While the point of this novel is social commentary, this book still has a very interesting story with lots of action and interaction. It's well paced.

The Bad


Prologue. The prologue is really boring. It's a mutiny mixed with a natural disaster, but it comes out as a particularly bad episode of Mystery Science Theater 3000. The characters are very flat, the action boring, and the tone very different from the rest of the novel. I almost returned the book after listening to it is was so disappointing. But then the main story begins and it is a fun ride after that.


Lack of Science. It's pretty obvious John Scalzi has a degree in Philosophy and not the hard sciences. His books are very philosophical and deal with the ramifications of science and other things than the actual mechanics. While this is very entertaining, it makes the stories feel weaker than they need to and his opinions less well thought out. For example, in this story, a scientific phenomenon known as The Flow is essential to the story. It's what connects one world to another and makes it possible for one group to control the others. And it's demise is what is motivating much of the action. And yet there is no attempt to even explain it. While I appreciate the author not making up some nonsense and admitting The Flow just is, it also lends an air of amateurishness to an otherwise excellent story.


What I Would Like to Have Seen


I would have liked to have seen a little more thought put into the science and characters that were a little more characters and a little less caricatures. While all of that would work well and be ideal for a short story, in a long novel that is part of a multi-novel series it is a little weak and will make it hard to sustain long-term interest and any big surprises or developments.



Overall


The Collapsing Empire: The Interdependency, Book 1 is a humorous
 science fiction space opera that deals with politics, economics, social institutions, and the effects that changing natural phenomena have on human civilizations. It's heavy on social commentary and humor and light on actual science and adventure. I give it 4.5 out of 5 eReaders.


     


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Monday, April 24, 2017

Blu-ray/DVD Review: Sailor Moon R The Movie

I started watching Sailor Moon back in its first visit to America during Cartoon Network's Toonami, and I absolutely loved it. It was so fun and so fresh and so different than the standard American animation, but not so different that it felt strange or alienating. I remember watching all the movies during their respective Friday night debuts and loving them. I always meant to buy them on DVD, but didn't snap them up quickly enough. Thankfully, they're back with an even better transfer.

Sailor Moon R The Movie is an animated Japanese anime that has recently been re-released in the United States on Blu-ray and DVD by Viz Media. It was originally released in 1993 as Sailor Moon's first theatrical film in Japan and Sailor Moon R: The Promise of the Rose in America in 2000. Included is the original Japanese track and a new English dub. It is rated TV-14 and is appropriate for tweens and up.

Quick Summary


A friend from Tuxedo Mask's past returns with a flower as promised, only that flower is evil and wants to destroy the Earth. The Sailor Scouts (or Sailor Guardians in this dub) must use their powers to save all mankind.

The Good


Exploration of Loneliness. This film is light on plot. The point of the story is really to explore loneliness and friendship, and the filmmakers do that well. But don't worry, there are some pretty cool fight scenes thrown in to break up the drama.

The Action and Fight Scenes. The action and fight scenes are great with everyone contributing a small part and using several other their powers. There is real struggle and the feeling of actual peril even though you know the good guys will win in the end.

Visuals and Audio. This video transfer is beautiful. The picture is crisp and clear with bright colors. And while I miss the original voice actors, the audio sounds great with an excellent new dub.

The Bad


Thin Plot. This movie is very short and has a pretty simple plot that consists of about four scenes. Each scene is interesting, but little happens beyond a lot of talking and flashbacks and people exploring their feelings of loneliness.

What I Would Like to Have Seen


I wish this had been longer and had more story. It almost feels more like an incident or nice side anecdote than a full-fledged theatrical film.

Overall


Sailor Moon R The Movie is a fun superheroine anime. This film is light on plot as the point of the story is to explore loneliness and friendship, but don't worry, there are some pretty cool fight scenes thrown in to break up the drama. I give it 4 out of 5 boxes of popcorn.

    
 
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Friday, April 21, 2017

Book Review: Rip-Off! (scifi/fantasy anthology) aka Mash Up



I love short stories, because they focus on one story or one idea. Novels on the other hand tend to be three or more short stories that eventually meet at the end chopped up into chapter-sized bits. Each chapter ends with the obligatory cliffhanger before switching to the next part of a different story. When you finally return to the cliffhung story, you've lost a lot of interest, and the resolution is usually pretty quick and simple. I love short story anthologies, because there is usually a previously undiscovered gem or two in an otherwise unremarkable collection.

Rip-Off! is a science fiction and fantasy short story anthology with stories by John Scalzi and others. Each author was asked to take the opening line of some work of literature and write a story based on that. Each author describes why he or she chose the line they did. It's available as an audiobook from Audible and an eBook or paperback called Mash Up.

The Good


Muse of Fire by John Scalzi. A physicist is working on a forcefield made of plasma his company wants to sell for money, but he is secretly using it to free his muse of fire girlfriend trapped in Hell.


Begone by Daryl Gregory. A man sees his clone taking his place with his wife, child, and work and makes several attempts to kill him and take his life back. Involves witches.

Karin Coxswain or Death as She Is Truly Lived by Paul Di Filippo. A named Karin dies, goes to Hell, and because a riverboat captain who transports souls across the river Styx. One day her ex-husband dies and books passage on her boat.


The Lady Astronaut of Mars by Mary Robinette Kowal. An old woman who was the first female astronaut to Mars in her youth is now very old and caring for her ailing husband close to death when she is offered a chance to return to space, but it will mean abandoning her husband.

The Mediocre


Fireborn by Robert Charles Wilson. Two children from a rural community become involved with their mythological godlike figures which involves dancing and ascending to the moon. Both have their own plans, and loyalty is explored.

The Evening Line by Mike Resnick. A man comes into money and suddenly women line up to marry him. Mages are employed by all parties to affect the outcome.

The Big Whale by Allen M. Steele. Moby Dick told as a Maltese Falcon-style detective story.

Writer’s Block by Nancy Kress. Fighting writer's block, a man discovers the true cause revolves around his wife in a fantasy tale.

The Bad


No Decent Patrimony by Elizabeth Bear. A man deals with the death of his father.

The Red Menace by Lavie Tidhar. Communism meets fantasy.

Highland Reel by Jack Campbell. This tale takes place in Scotland and explores characters from a Scottish myth.


Every Fuzzy Beast of the Earth, Every Pink Fowl of the Air by Tad Williams. This book is a new spin on the Creation story from The Bible with a girl who claims to be God's daughter who wants to rearrange His creations.

Declaration by James Patrick Kelly. A group of people who spend their lives online in a virtual world decide to declare their independence from reality, but life isn't that simple.


What I Would Like to Have Seen


I wish there had been more good stories, and that the authors hadn't been so self-indulgent.



Overall


Like most short story anthologies, Rip-Off! has a few pretty good stories and a few really disappointing tales
. None are gems, and a couple are bombs that I didn't even bother finishing, but overall it is a collection of well-written tales in the science fiction and fantasy genres. I give it 3 out of 5 eReaders.


     



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Wednesday, April 19, 2017

Book Review: We Are Legion (We Are Bob): Bobiverse, Book 1 by Dennis E. Taylor


One of the greatest things about science fiction is the ability to ask "what if" and then explore that question. While almost no one can actually see the future or accurately predict much of what will happen, it is still an interesting exercise that can change one's thinking and way of doing things.

We Are Legion (We Are Bob): Bobiverse, Book 1 is science fiction adventure written by Dennis E. Taylor. It's available in all formats: eBooks, Audiobooks, and those paper things your grandparents used to read.

Overview


Bob has recently sold his software company and is looking forward to his future when he is killed. Fortunately, he had signed up to have his head preserved thru cryogenics just before the accident (what a coincidence) so he wakes up centuries in the future and learns he will be the "brains" of a Von Neumann probe on a mission to explore the universe and find new inhabitable worlds. Other countries have their own probes ready to launch and the Earth faces the threat of a catastrophic war, so it is a race against time.

The Good


Characterizations. There aren't a lot of characters in this book, but the few there are all have unique personalities. I was especially impressed with how the author was able to differentiate the different Bobs who should all be identical but give them slight personality tweaks that made them each seem unique while still retaining essential parts of the original Bob. It was fine line to maneuver, but maneuver it the author did and did well.

Biases kept in check. Everyone has their biases. Everyone has their opinions. Some are better at keeping those opinions from unduly coloring their views of the world than others. The author did a good job of not forcing his political leanings or agenda down the readers' throats. The predictions he made and the reactions of the different parties in the story were all fairly logical and likely given the circumstances. No one group or philosophy seemed to be given undue praise or criticism.

Ray Porter. Ray Porter may just well be the greatest reader ever. He is able to convey so much emotion without every going overboard or sounding over dramatic. He also reads so well that you feel like he is talking to you and not reading to you. The man can do no wrong.


The Bad


Pace. The novel moves at a pretty decent pace most of the time, but there are times it drags, especially towards the beginning when the reader is still trying to figure out where this book is going.


Predictions. Most of this story takes place in the future, which requires quite a bit of speculating and predicting. The predictions the author makes are certainly possible, but seem fairly generic and unlikely given the course humanity has taken over the last six thousand years. It's a shame he didn't spend a little more time thinking about the future and coming up with something a bit more likely and original.

Geek References. I have to wonder if the author is actually a science fiction fan or a pop culture fan. The main characters constantly make references to scifi and geek culture (Star Trek, Star Wars, etc.) throughout the story, but the references are always the most well known ones. A true geek would have thrown in a few obscure references, because he couldn't have helped himself. There weren't any here.


What I Would Like to Have Seen


The predictions and "world of the future" the author creates is a pretty typical, common dystopia that most likely will never happen. It would be nice if the predictions had been a little more original or a little more based in facts and historic trends instead of generic, fear-mongering predictions that never seem to pan out. I also wish the scifi/pop culture references hadn't been so vanilla. This book just wasn't as creative and original as it could have and should have been. It was very predictable.



Overall


We Are Legion (We Are Bob): Bobiverse, Book 1 is an entertaining science fiction adventure about mankind's future and exploration of the galaxy using human minds transferred into computers aboard Von Neumann probes and lots of geek references. The overall plot was pretty predictable with no real surprises, but the Bobs (the main characters) were enjoyable and their development was really the focus of the story. I give it a solid 4.5 out of 5 eReaders.



     


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Monday, April 17, 2017

Radio Drama Review - The Shadow: Partners of Peril



I'm huge fan of pulp fiction and old time radio dramas. It's really sad how little new material is produced from each of these genres. Recently, Audible released a new performance of an old classic.

The Shadow: Partners of Peril is a 2017 full-cast production of the original pulp fiction story from 1935. It's available as an Audiobook.

Overview


The Shadow is a mysterious figure who fights crime and has a network of informants to help. The very first Batman story, The Case of the Chemical Syndicate in Detective Comics 27 is nearly identical in plot to this story and many think Bill Finger, one of Batman's creators, was heavily inspired by it (or maybe blatantly stole it).

The Good


Performance and Production. Audible Studios did a great job to provide a fine cast and fitting music. Every part of this production was really well done.


Breakneck pace. Pulp fiction is known for it's breakneck pace, especially series like The Shadow and The Spider. This story begins with a murder and doesn't let off the throttle until the very end, several bodies later.

Fun. Pulp fiction and old-time radio have a real sense of fun, and this production captured it perfectly.


The Bad


Slightly Melodramatic Performances. The voice actors all added an air of melodrama to their performances, probably trying to evoke the 1930s or add a nostalgic air. Whatever their reason, it distracted from the seriousness of the story.


Typical Story Problems with Pulp Fiction. Pulp fiction was written very quickly which gave it a lot of fun energy and power, but it also resulted in some ludicrous story plots and twists. If you think very hard about the story, you'll see a quite a few problems. It moves quickly enough that it's easy to get lost in the action and ignore it.


What I Would Like to Have Seen


I wish the actors and actresses had played their roles a little more straight and not so melodramatic. Old time radio was serious. The melodrama is a result of age, not a deliberate act.



Overall


The Shadow: Partners of Peril is a well-produced adaption of a classic Shadow story. The actors and producers perfectly capture the feel of pulp fiction and old-time radio. Fans will be overjoyed while modern audiences unfamiliar with those genres may find it dated, slow, and contrived. I give it 3.5 out of 5 microphones.


 


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Friday, April 14, 2017

Movie Review: Ghost in the Shell (2017 live action film)


I've read a few manga and watched quite a bit of anime, but I've never read nor watched Ghost in the Shell. I'm aware it exists, but other than that I couldn't tell you much about it. So I went in with few expectations.

Ghost in the Shell is a 2017 trippy science fiction live action film based on the Japanese manga and anime adaption of the same name. It's rated PG-13 due to violence and appropriate for teens and up.

Overview


In the future, cybernetic enhancements to humans are all the rage. One company finally succeeds in transplanting a human brain into an android body. She joins a law enforcement group who investigates the murder of several people from a major corporation and attempts to hunt down the perpetrator and discover why he's targeting them.

The Good


Solid Science Fiction Flick. This is a solid story told in a fairly standard way. The characters are about as well developed as a typical, non-Star Trek scifi show. There is a mystery that is solved one clue at a time with action and a couple of twists thrown in at the appropriate times. If you like shows on SyFy channel, you'll probably love this.

Straightforward Story. Sometimes movies try really hard to be "visionary" or "revolutionary" by presenting the story in a very convoluted manner. The producers don't waste their time with that. This story is told in a very linear, straightforward fashion.

Didn't Overexplain World. One of the most common aspects of science fiction to get mocked is the author or director's need to explain the world to the reader or viewer as if it were a travelogue and to label things with overly descriptive names. Ghost in the Shell doesn't fall into this trap. Things happened, and the viewer is expected to be smart enough to figure out what's going on.

The Bad


Indifferent Characters. The characters were fine and had some development, and the casting choices were fitting, but none of them were very likable, compelling, or even hateable. They were little more than useful plot devices.

Lack of Originality. Something that really caught Western audiences' attentions when manga and anime hit the US during the Japanamation era was how different it was from American comics and animation. The style was unique, the subject matter contained so much never even touched on in Western comics or animation, and the way the stories were told was so fresh and different. Unfortunately, every time someone tries to adapt and anime or manga property into live action film, they follow the typical Hollywood formula instead of trying something completely new and original. (Scott Pilgrim vs. The World and 300 are two exceptions, and both were masterpieces.)

Visual Look. The visual look of this film is like every other space opera or dystopian future show currently on SyFy. It doesn't stand out or inspire.

What I Would Like to Have Seen


I wish the filmmakers had realized that Ghost in the Shell was such a beloved cult classic because of how unique it was and looked when it came out and tried to create a movie just as unique in terms of storytelling and cinematography. This movie is shot like any other Hollywood film with a visual look and feel straight off the SyFy channel. There are definitely fans of that kind of film, but not in the kind of numbers needed to make this profitable and inspire a sequel.

Overall


Ghost in the Shell is a solid science fiction flick that looks like most of the current series on SyFy channel. It's entertaining, but nothing special. The characters aren't especially likable, the design and look of the film are pretty typical, and it wouldn't hurt my feelings to never see a sequel made. I give this film 3.5 out of 5 boxes of popcorn.



 

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Wednesday, April 12, 2017

Book Review: Redshirts by John Scalzi



I've enjoyed a lot of books by John Scalzi, I love Star Trek, and I enjoy Wil Wheton's narration. But I don't like bad parodies or silly science fiction which this book seemed like it was. I downloaded the first four chapters as a free preview, but couldn't get thru them. It took me awhile to finally break down and buy the book, and it was mostly a leap of faith based on how much I enjoyed previous books by this author.

Redshirts is science fiction comedy written by John Scalzi. It's available in all formats: eBooks, Audiobooks, and those paper things your grandparents used to read.

Overview


This story is a very clever parody of Star Trek with the crew realizing they are controlled by a TV show and have to figure out how to break its hold or end up dying at the whims of the producers and writers.

The Good


Writing. Most stories by John Scalzi I've enjoyed. He always has a very original take on traditional stories. The prose is clean and crisp and moves at a great pace. The wit and personality of the author comes thru in the words no matter what the situation or genre be it space opera or crime thriller.


Characters. The main characters are basically extras from a bad scifi TV show, but the author has managed to give each one a personality and made me care about the fate of each one.

Pace. This book starts off a little slow, but after the first four chapters it moves quickly and never feels stagnant or rushed. 

Humor. This book is very funny, but with a more intellectual and understated sense of humor. There were a few scenes where I laughed out loud, but most of the time I just had an amused smile on my face.

Relationships. John Scalzi's other books have great characters, but this is the first one I've read that had great relationships. He really spent time on the interactions between characters and developing the characters thru their relationships with each other. The many sentimental moments really heightened the overall impact of the story and added real weight to the main conflict. The relationships are why I cared whether the characters succeeded in their big mission or not. 

Twists. This book definitely has some twists I didn't see coming, but none of them felt contrived or forced. The situation was so well set up that everything felt like it had to happen. And the twist at the very end (Chapter 24)  was quick but laugh out loud hilarious and so brave to pull off.


The Bad


Bad Star Trek Parody. The novel opens up with a bad parody of a mediocre episode of the original Star Trek. I understand that this is necessary to set up the story and the world, but it could have been more interesting. Also, Star Trek always took itself seriously and tried to be high literature, with the silliness being a result of small budgets, short shooting schedules, and the 1960s. It kind of annoys me when people exaggerate the silliness.



What I Would Like to Have Seen


The only thing I would change is to have a more interesting opening. The first few chapters are generic, bad science fiction and were hard to sit thru. I almost didn't buy this book after previewing the first two chapters they were so lame.



Overall


Redshirts is a 
hilariously entertaining science fiction comedy with a really unique twist on the old trope of breaking the fourth wall. After a slow start, it races to an exciting and unexpected finish. I give it a solid 4.5 out of 5 eReaders.


    


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