To Honor You Call Us— review and commentary

Space operas are one of my favorite reads. Throw in a nifty hero or heroine and some bad guys to whip and my interest goes up a level. H. Paul Honsinger does a really good job with this debut novel, which is the first installment in his Man of War series. Based on the rather awkward title and the not so original name of the series, I wasn’t expecting too much, but this novel has most of what I want in a novel in this genre.

Our hero, Max Robichaux, has the “right stuff” to be successful. While Honsinger is no David Weber, nor is Robichaux a match for Honor Harrington, this novel reminds me of the best of Weber, and is vastly better than Weber when he is at his verbose worst. The trivia of this universe is explained in such a manner than most science fiction readers will understand, and those who don’t have some grasp of sci-fi probably won’t be interested anyway.

The best space operas have nasty villains, and the rodent evolved Krags are really nasty. Robichaux is killing them as the story opens, and there are no Star Trek Roddenberryesque moments wherein the audience sees the villains as worthy of sympathy. Nope. These rats stay rats.

Supporting and minor characters enjoy far more development than in some space operas, and I especially liked the doctor, who begins as a bit of comic relief, but grows into his role as a major player on board the star destroyer Cumberland. The episodic story works well, as Honsinger gives his cast of characters plenty to do as they journey through space, and there is sufficient suspense to keep the reader swiping the pages. Fans of military fiction and space yarns should really enjoy this novel.

I didn’t actually pay for this novel, as it is part of the “free” reading available to Amazon Prime, but it is fairly priced at $4.99 as of this post.

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The 13th— a documentary on Netflix

13thRecently, hubby and I watched the biopic Lincoln on Netflix, which is about the civil war president’s efforts to get the 13th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution passed. That’s a fine film, indeed, but it isn’t nearly as good nor as timely as this documentary on the social problems associated with a phrase within the amendment which prohibits slavery: “except as a punishment for crime.” This documentary makes a well documented case for how America has used that phrase against various populations.

The film isn’t as hard to watch as it might be, but for anyone who loves America, it is sobering. Many nations have struggled to put the past behind them: Modern Germans certainly tend to not view the Holocaust as part of their heritage, but it is. Slavery is America’s historical black eye. However, from the Jim Crow era to the civil rights movement to modern times, The 13th shows how prison has become the new plantation.

Older Americans will remember the black and white images of protest marches in the 60s meeting with hostile police, but younger ones may be shocked. However, Americans of every age may be shocked by the private prison contracts that require that prisons remain filled to capacity. Can this actually be true in the “land of the free and the home of the brave”? Yes, it can, and it is true.

Years and years ago, I had a friend whose son committed a crime. He was certainly guilty and did deserve some punishment. For whatever reasons, the judge “threw the book” at this young man, and he spent many years in prison. His mother told me about the various ways that the state punishes the family. A simple phone call from prison must be made “collect” and the charges are exorbitant. She also told me how glad her son was when he was allowed to perform work details. Prisoners gladly work for pennies, just to alleviate boredom, and that’s where the phrase “except as punishment for a crime” comes in. Across this nation, prisoners work and their products are sold for a profit. I used to believe the phrase “made in U.S.A.” but I don’t anymore, because that nifty pair of jeans may have been sewn in a prison.

If you haven’t seen The 13th, you should. Yes, it is troubling, but it should be.

Lost in Space— good at last?

LostPerhaps I am one of the few of my generation who have actually read that classic novel, The Swiss Family Robinson. For its time, it was a good book, with lots of details about how the intrepid family managed to survive on a deserted island after their ship broke apart. That story was a straight up man vs. nature conflict, and man won, big-time. Not only did they survive, but they thrived in their new home.

During the 1960s, with the United States government locked in a “space race” against their rivals, The Soviet Union, mankind began to look toward the rest of the universe as a new frontier. Network television carried each space launch, and before long, their entertainment divisions looked to capitalize on the trend. In 1966, NBC had a space based science fiction drama, Star Trek, which was not especially successful at the time, but during syndication and through successful spin off series and movies, it became a cultural icon. CBS chose Lost in Space, very loosely based on the classic novel. This set of Robinsons were also in a battle to survive, and this story which might have had a better premise than Trek, (as well as legitimate television star power in June Lockhart and Angela Cartwright) but its execution left a lot to be desired. For whatever reasons, Star Trek‘s writers and producers took their journey through space seriously, while Lost in Space became more and more comic.

During the 1990s, there was a big budget film version of Lost in Space, which, again, had the right story to be successful, but was, for the most part, not. When I heard that Netflix had decided to give the story a third outing, I was skeptical. The first version of this series was almost a joke, while the second just never held my interest.

My family is currently halfway through the first season of the Netflix version, and by and large, we are impressed. The special effects rival mid-level movie efforts. The cast is good, featuring Molly Parker (who has had recent work in House of Cards and Deadwood) as a much more empowered version of Maureen Robinson. Each iteration of Lost in Space has used a dual conflict, where the family must struggle to survive (man vs. nature) and deal with a deceptive fellow traveler  (Dr. Smith) thus adding man vs. man conflicts. Wow, Parker Posey’s female Dr. Smith is perhaps the most villainous villain yet.

For anyone who remembers the tacky Robby the Robot screeching, “Danger, Will Robinson,” and being totally unimpressed, I think the third try might be a charm. The robot is certainly not a joke, and the rest of the cast and writers are putting forth a rip roaring series. Give it a try.

Daughters of the Night Sky— review

Historical fiction is a favorite genre, in part because it often gives new insight into a known era, but when it brings new knowledge, even better. As I like military fiction (sci fi or otherwise) and being a student of history, Daughters of the Night Sky appealed to me on several levels.

Author Aime K. Runyan does a fabulous job of bringing the exploits of the 588th Night Bomber Regiment to life. These women: pilots, navigators, mechanics, and armorers were collectively known as the “Night Witches” because they harried German troops under the cover of darkness. Their exploits would be remarkable due to the sexism rampant at the time, but that they were relegated to flying Polikarpov Po-2 planes, with wood and canvas bodies and open cockpits, made their jobs even more difficult. One of the characters refers to the planes as crop dusters, and indeed, these small aircraft seem a lot closer to than than true “bombers.” Their method of succeeding is astonishing, as they would cut the engine in their already low and slow aircraft, so there was little warning of their impending attacks. Once they had deployed their meagre payload (a maximum of six bombs) they re-ignited the engine and flew back to base to reload and attack once more. Some of the two women crews made as many as eighteen runs (sorties) in a single night.

Although highly fictionalized, with characters who might or might not be based on historical figures, the author makes every effort to get the details right, from the male uniforms, the hacked off military haircuts, and even the various stations where the regiment was based during its 1942-1945 deployment.

Daughters of the Night Sky is informative, suspenseful, and emotionally engaging. I read it in a single day, which is rare these days. Anyone who enjoys historical, military, or women’s fiction should really enjoy this novel.

For those who want to know more about the real 588th, here’s a good article published in Vanity Fair.

Hacksaw Ridge— great film for Veteran’s Day

HacksawposterAmericans are prone to labeling lots of events as “horrible” or “tragic” or as a “crisis.” But most of those same events pale in comparison with the battles of the last really big war, World War II. Perhaps no aspect of that war was more horrible, tragic, or terrifying than what happened in the Pacific theatre. While most of the folks who survived those days are no longer alive, so their stories might soon disappear, it is important to know what happened there. However, many are reluctant to talk about it. One of my uncles, now deceased, fought at Okinawa. He never spoke of it. Never.

Hacksaw Ridge is a film that depicts the horror of that engagement, one of many battles that are far beyond anything that current Americans can imagine. This movie is based on the real life heroics of Desmond Doss, a man who would not touch a gun. His motives for joining the army, and for not wanting to touch a weapon, form the exposition of the film.

(spoilers)

There is quite a bit of suspense in this film, even before Doss goes to war, because his unconventional beliefs baffled the officers who had to deal with those during basic training. However, Doss is victorious in his struggle to serve as a combat medic. Then the film skips his service in the Philippines and Guam (where he earned the Bronze Star) but the movie makers do depict his service on the Island of Okinawa. Doss was awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor for saving the lives of 75 soldiers during the battle on Hacksaw Ridge.

The story is important for a variety of reasons, but in a nation that is in danger of losing its cultural identity, remembering the bravery and sacrifices of the veterans who fought for American ideals in past wars is perhaps the most important reason to view this movie. It is also, however, a story of personal conviction. The sub plot of Doss’s courtship of his wife provides some romance, too. This movie, although very violent, is a worthy one to watch.

Other great movies for Veteran’s Day might include Patton, which stars George C. Scott as the legendary WWII general, or Saving Private Ryan, which does a great job of showing the carnage of D-Day.

Regardless, Americans need to immerse themselves in the history of our nation so that the service of veterans can be fully appreciated. Only then can we put our current “horror” and “tragedy” and “crisis” moments into proper perspective.

The Orville— first impressions

Orville 2When it debuted, there was a good bit of publicity about the science fiction comedy, The Orville, starring (and produced by) Seth McFarlane. And there are not a lot of shows to compare it to, so I understand why writers had some problems describing it.

Visually, this television show looks much like a feature film, such as the rebooted Star Trek, although it relies on CGI a bit more than an upscale effort like The Force Awakens, and the special effects don’t take center stage in as many scenesThe score, in particular, reminds Trek savvy viewers of the first Star Trek feature film, and certain scenes in the pilot also pay homage to that film. Other Trek elements include the use of shuttle craft to get back and forth from ship to ship (no transporters, however) and FTL travel is accomplished via a “quantum” drive rather than Trek’s warp drive. The uniforms are almost cartoon versions of military uniforms, but the color codes for different divisions again looks a bit like Trek.

The first half of the pilot strives very hard to set the comedic tone of the series, and that almost kept me from finishing it. Such lines as “Can I have a soda on the bridge?” or “Can I wear shorts to work?” from bridge officers are supposed to be funny, but these arbitrary requests seem out of place. Once the crew encounters some baddies and come together to accomplice some goals, the drama and the comedy mesh a bit better. My favorite space faring comedy is still Galaxy Quest, but it never took itself seriously, which The Orville seems to want to do, at least occasionally.

I’ve not seen all of the available episodes, but I will probably take another look, as hubby and I have only one episode left of Dark Matter, which is the best television space opera we’ve seen in quite a while. As for quality, my initial impression is that The Orville has a bigger budget, but the recently cancelled Dark Matter has a far better premise and better acting. A quick check over at Rotten Tomatoes gives DM a 79% fresh rating, but TO only gets 19%. Ouch! There are more episodes of The Orville to come, so we’ll have to wait and see if it gets any better.