Steel World by B.V. Larson— quick review and commentary

Steel World cover(Okay, y’all, I am going to be straight with you; even my quick review contains a spoiler or two.)

When I began the Kindle version of Steel World, I was all set to hate it. The main character and action seemed to be lifted right out of one of the first-person shooter war games that my son loves and I don’t. Then, the main character, who was actually playing such a game, is rousted into reality by his mother. His sweet little life of being a bored student has just been interrupted by some economic woes. Then I got interested.

In some ways, this story is a re-tread of many combo “coming of age” stories, melded with some “gung-ho” military action. But, I rather liked this take on the soldier who never dies. Larson’s imagination is really clever, and he writes in such a way to bring the reader into his vision. The cast of characters is a bit flat, but often military yarns suffer from that malady. It’s hard, practically and emotionally, to get attached to people who will either be transferred or killed off, so relationships are a bit more shallow. Very real, but shallow, none-the-less.

The basic premise of this novel is that future mercenaries will be Planet Earth’s contribution to the Galactic economy, as humans are very good at making war. The Galactic Empire’s contribution is the machine that makes clones of the soldiers’ bodies. So, the “undying” part is that when the soldier bites the dust, under the proper circumstances, he can be transferred into a new body and sent back into the fray. This saves lots of training, of course, as experienced personnel are not lost nearly as often as if they stayed dead.

Steel World is the first in a series of novels, and I will probably pick up part two, as I really did enjoy B.V. Larson’s take on future warfare.

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Beauty and the Beast— on DVD

Beauty
Perhaps you are like me—I was interested in the latest Disney cartoon classic to live action reboot, but not enough to plunk down the money to see it in the movie cinema. So, you waited, or might still be waiting. Worth seeing? Yes or no?

Maybe. Sorry, but that is my best answer, having rented Beauty and the Beast (2017)  recently. I remember watching the animated one (on VHS!) with family members, and I thought then that it was state of the art for that style of animation. It still is, I would think. But, Pixar type technologies have, for the most part, left traditional animation of feature films in the dust of entertainment history. So, to bring this film to a new generation, Disney decided to do a combination of live action and modern CGI for the beast.

This film is very, very true to the original. Fans of the music will have no gripes, and the sets are simply amazing. The live action part of the new movie is darned good, but it is so faithful to the previous effort that it seems just a bit too “cartoony” if that makes any sense. For instance, I enjoyed the CGI teapot much more than the live actress. The same is true for most of the characters. The CGI beast, however, was just a bit to phony looking, so I liked the prince better.

If any actors stand out in the new film, my picks are Luke Evans who plays Gaston to the hilt, even if he isn’t really “as big as a barge” as the lyrics state, and Kevin Kline as Maurice, who makes the father seem eccentric enough to need his daughter to take up for him. Emma Watson does a very good job as Belle, although I don’t think she looks the part. If the credits didn’t name Ewan McGregor as Lumière, then I don’t think I would have known him, although I’ve always admired his work. Those who have stated that Disney only made this film to make money are correct, but Disney is a corporation whose main mission is to make money for its share holders, so that is not exactly a valid criticism.

So, back to the original question. Should you see it? Sure, why not? But, I must say, if I wanted to share it with children, I’d go for the original, which is still available: Beauty and the Beast: 25th Anniversary Edition.

The Temporary Agent— review and commentary

Recently, I read the Kindle version of The Temporary Agent by Daniel Judson. While well-written, this novel didn’t grab me and keep my attention. One of the reasons that I (or most folks) read fiction is to get involved with some characters who are embroiled in conflict to see how those characters manage, thus entertaining me and providing some catharsis as well.

In The Temporary Agent, the opening scene has the reader immediately seeing that this is a novel of death and dire straits. “Cahill was no stranger to suffering…but the night he lost Erica was without a doubt the longest of his life.” This novel has really short chapters, and the first five comprise Part One where the exposition and action swiftly intertwine, and I was really getting interested. Then came Part Two, which changes the point of view character and the pace of the story. As the next fifty five chapters unfold (yes, that’s a lot of chapters) the pace does pick up, but the second POV character, who turns out to be the titular character, is not as interesting as the guy in part one. So…that is a huge flaw. Basically, the author grabbed me in part one, but let go of his grip in parts two, three, and four. Again, the novel is well-written with lots of interesting details and plenty of action, but I just didn’t care as much about the characters that came after those in the first part. And, for the reader to be really interested, the main characters have to be multi- dimensional and engaging, and it helps a lot of the secondary ones are fleshed out, too.

Fans of espionage novels, military action, or crime fiction will probably enjoy The Temporary Agent. While I did finish it, I kept thinking that it would have been a better story if the POV had stayed with Mr. Cahill and his lost love, Erica.

Dark Matter— review and commentary

Dark Matter from FBFor the most part, the SyFy channel has seemed more like the “Horror channel” to me. So many of their original works seemed to rely either on horror or even fantasy that I seldom watched it, back when we were cable subscribers. However, the series Dark Matter: Season 1 [Blu-ray] (which I’ve been binge watching lately) is certainly an exception to that. Here is a series which blends elements of hard and soft science fiction writing, plus some really good acting and nifty special effects, into an entertaining and occasionally thought provoking original science fiction series.

The initial premise is a fabulous launching point: Six people wake up from stasis pods on a ship, and none of them remembers their respective pasts. Action ensues almost immediately, as the ship’s android viciously attacks. Once the android is sorted out, then this motley crew sets about sorting out who they are and what the mission of this ship might be. All of the cast members do a good job with their parts, but Melissa O’Neil is particularly watchable as her “Two” character quickly becomes the center of this strong ensemble.

Each episode helps unravel the mysteries, while bringing in new characters and situations. As the series unfolds, most of the characters learn of unsavory bits in their past lives, which affects how they interact with each other and the characters they meet as they travel though space. Hard science fiction elements (the science part) include the technology of stasis, of artificial intelligence, faster than light space travel, and genetic engineering. Softer science fiction elements (the emotional and social aspects of technology) include how the characters react to their collective amnesia, how they interact with other cultures, the ethics of certain criminal activities, and how the politics of their time and space play out.

Among the players of this futuristic universe are large corporations, mostly depicted as being at war with each other. Government is largely a pawn of the corporations. Science fiction grand master Robert A. Heinlein played with similar themes in his novel, Friday, which also dealt with genetic engineering and the ethical dilemmas which accompany it. Science fiction requires good writing, as “fiction” is part of the term, and the writers of Dark Matter seldom disappoint. If there is a weakness, some of the space travel effects are a bit cheesy compared to modern movie making, but hey, it is a television show!

Science fiction is mythology for modern man. (I’d love to take credit for that, but I got the idea from reading about science fiction and mythology, including The Hero with a Thousand Faces (The Collected Works of Joseph Campbell)  There is much to like in the series Dark Matter, which is on currently on the SyFy channel, as well as via streaming services and on DVD. I highly recommend it.

The Winter Over— quick review

I just finished a Kindle book, The Winter Over, by Matthew Iden, and it is a very suspenseful yarn. The setting is a station at the South Pole, and the scenario is that a select group of scientists and support personnel are going to spend nine months, most of it in total darkness, at the station. Of course, with just a few people confined to a fairly small space, having genial personalities is a requirement. During the exposition of this novel, an astute reader might begin to question whether or not this diverse group was properly screened. Perhaps the greatest flaw in this story is trying to keep the cast of characters straight.

(spoilers ahead)

The main point of view character is an engineering tech named Cass, who seems to be able to repair darned near anything, as might be expected, but she also has some skeleton in her mental closet. An accident, which might not be an accident introduces a “who dun it” plot line, but the story is more complicated than that. Indeed, as the group goes through the winter over, and as the situation becomes more and more stressful, in part due to intentional sabotage, Cass comes to realize that this station has become some sort of psychological experiment. The author skillfully blends the man vs. man and man vs. nature conflicts inherent in this setting.

Despite the extreme cold, things get hotter and hotter in the station, and the suspense builds. The ending, while not especially satisfying, is certainly organic. Overall, this is a good book, and I intend to see what else this author has written.

Hidden Figures— review and commentary

I’m not much of a numbers person, but I know those who are, and I do admire “nerds.” The film (now on DVD) based on the book Hidden Figures: The American Dream and the Untold Story of the Black Women Mathematicians Who Helped Win the Space Race is about space exploration, history, race relations in America, and math. I’m glad the filmmakers concentrated on the first three, because I got lost pretty quickly with the equation solved in the exposition.

I’ve always been a fan of clever titles. (I wrote Once Upon a Dirtball, you know.) Hidden Figures is a perfect title, because it conveys that this is a film about math and mathematicians, some of whom were “colored” and therefore not to be taken seriously by society, but, the script makes it plain that these brilliant minds were critical to NASA’s success.

The cast is outstanding, if a bit too good looking for the fifties and early sixties. The script is even better. Some of the lines in the film are no doubt fictionalized, but the prickly encounters between Katherine Goble, Dorothy Vaughn, and Mary Jackson and their white co-workers probably did happen. One of my favorite parts in the film is when John Glenn refuses to fly until Katherine checks over the calculations necessary for bringing his capsule back safely. However, in reading about Katherine Goble Johnson’s contributions to NASA, she calls it all “team work.”

When doing a “based on real events” known to the audience, such as we all know John Glenn made it back to earth safely, maintaining suspense can be tricky. By telling the story behind the scenes, those problems are mostly eliminated. Even the climactic scenes are handled with skill as the nation pauses to watch what happens with the flight of Freedom 7.

Whether or not you are a fan of science, technology, engineering or math, I think you’ll find Hidden Figures a great way to spend an evening. As of this post, the film got 93% fresh rating from Rotten Tomatoes. And, I don’t always agree with that site, I certainly enjoyed this film. Rent it or buy it!

How to “Arrest Proof Yourself”— and why you should consider reading this, as a law-abiding citizen.

I have to explain that I am still reading this book, but I thought I’d gotten my money’s worth after I read the introduction. No kiddin’. Author Dale Carson, a former cop and FBI agent, explains that the concept of innocent until proven guilty is no longer valid. With the advent of computerized “background checks” a single arrest, even when the party is not prosecuted or convicted, can have permanent and costly consequences. To prove this, he relates the tale of a person who was arrested because of an identity theft situation, who was never able to get a job in the financial industry.

Also, due to the ever growing size of the United States Criminal Justice empire, your (and my) chances of being arrested for something have never been higher. More cops, who are all evaluated by how many “bad guys” they arrest, must feed the criminal justice machine, which in turn provides employment for lawyers, judges, and even the cooks at the jail. With every chapter, the author piles on the reasons to fear being arrested. Being convicted is worse, of course, but the damage is done when the ticket is written, or the paperwork forwarded to one of the clerks who is feeding off the system.

The book purports to help readers become “invisible” to cops. I hope it helps with that, but the author’s comments on how this morass came to be and why it isn’t going away are a tad depressing.

Despite all that, this book is something that should be required reading before getting a driver’s license, with a refresher read prior to college, marriage, the birth of a child, and other rites of passage. I can’t say it strongly enough—buy the book, read the book, pass the book on to anyone brave enough to leave the house.