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What I've Been Reading: Oct 2020

After being delighted with the Lovecraft Country series, (see my Oct watching post) which is based on a novel of the same name by Matt Ruff, I rushed online to look up the author. I considered grabbing the book, but I noticed Ruff had a new novel, recently released called 88 Names, and decided to try that instead.

88 Names is not horror, but instead part cyberpunk, part mystery, and part spy thriller. This seems like too much, but one would think the same of Lovecraft Country, but somehow it works, at least in the series. Now, I'm about 3/4 through 88 Names, and so far, I'm digging it. The lead character is likable and complex. I've not read much cyberpunk, but there's a lot to like, without being overbearing. And the mystery has me turning the pages eagerly. The fusion of genre elements is pulled off well.

I'll reserve my final proclamation for after I finish, but I'm impressed enough that I predict I'll be picking up another Ruff novel soon.

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What I've Been Watching: Sept 2020

I've followed the Westworld series with interest through its first two seasons. The themes of AI, how it might become sentient, how people might control it and potentially abuse and subjugate it, and how it might react or fight back, are all fascinating, along with some excellent storytelling.  I eagerly awaited season three, in which the AI were set up to leave their captive world and start bringing the fight into human society.

(Spoilers Ahead) One thing I liked right off the bat is the new focus on corporations collecting vast data on every citizen and, in turn, using that information to control, limit, and generally manipulate people. This is a very topical notion, albeit taken to an extreme in Westworld, it has a very 1984 "big brother" sort of vibe, and it works. Season three also ups the stakes exploring the practical possibilities, with the nature of the AI beings, of copying one personality, something humans can't do and putting one AI's core "AI brain" into another AI's body. Where the earlier seasons played with telling the story out of continuity to keep us guessing, season 3 uses this cup-and-ball game of identities to deceive viewers. This increases the challenge of keeping everything straight beautifully. Altogether, I liked this season.

One gripe I have is that while Westworld has always blended the abstract and intellectual with high action, Season 3 gets a bit out of balance in the very last episode. Basically, all the cerebral, thought-provoking elements are strung-out through the first seven episodes, along with some decent action. However, episode 8 becomes just an action-packed, violent, grueling slugfest, with every reference to anything intellectual a mere rehash of what we've already discovered, and thus almost nothing to mull over. I don't think any of the action doesn't make sense for the story, but the tone shift makes it seem like a different show entirely. I feel like some of the action climaxes could have been spread over the last two episodes in order to keep reserve some challenging ideas for the finale.

Overall, I give the season fair marks, but if you're going to drop the ball on one episode, it stinks for it to be the end. All that said, I'll still be tuning in for a season 4.

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What I've Been Reading: June 2020

To date, I had read all four novellas in Martha Wells' Murderbot Diaries series. I mostly enjoyed them. They definitely have a unique protagonist in the form of a rogue AI, but not just any bot, a security behemoth. As sci-fi classically has taught us, if we have anything to fear from AI turning sentient, it's the Terminator-like killbots that will be our undoing. Yet Wells asks us to empathize with this tortured soul who just wants to live its life and maybe watch some TV.  On the other hand, the character is very sarcastic and cynical. It's funny to see human behavior judged through the eyes of a being intimate with us. And while it's blessed with a more pragmatic mind, it's irritated continuously with our shortcomings.

Murderbot's cynicism often results in humor, but it can also become overwhelming to go through an entire story with this disparaging monologue. I've mentioned before that writing this character in novellas has been a plus, as a novel from Murderbot's POV would be a bit too much. 

Enter book five, the first novel-length installment in the Murderbot series, called Network Effect. I picked it up with mixed feelings. The world-building, secondary characters, and the protagonist have all been creative. The plots have been compelling. But, I was concerned about the length, given this particular character. To my relief, Wells handled this perfectly.

We still get to experience this story through the view of the sarcastic Murderbot, but in addition, we now have a character, his employer who has known Murderbot through the entire time period of the series, and who can cut through Murderbot's facade, to put the light of criticism back on it. We get a teenage character, who like most teenagers, manages to turn judgment back on Murderbot. And, we get other sentient AIs who, for all practical purposes, start to populate family rolls for Murderbot, and they don't take Murderbot's grief quietly. In short, they won't take his crap.

I think this story works well for a couple of reasons. First, we see more viewpoints in general. In turn, we get more breaks from Murderbot's attitude. Second, we get active tit for tat on Murderbot's judgmental voice. It makes this sort of character more palatable. Finally, we really see Murderbot forced to grow. The character has to reluctantly accept that its life is changing, and has to change itself to accommodate. In many ways, the character is becoming more human, more vulnerable, more relatable, and it's endearing.
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What I've Been Watching: May 2020

I started watching the Star Trek Picard series pretty much right when it came out and was keeping up week to week. I am a long time Star Trek fan. Sadly, I got sidetracked before watching the last couple of episodes, thanks to COVID and kids. But, I recently set out to remedy the situation.

I have mixed feelings about this series. There are lots of things I like, and some not so much. However, in the end, I think I'd rather have it than have nothing.

For me, the genius in Start Trek is that besides being cool sci-fi with good storytelling, it has tried to cast a critical eye on social problems. Some obvious and contemporary, such as racism. Other cases have been more abstract such as what rights an artificial intelligence might be entitled too.  Then, such real-world importance has been paired with exhibiting forefront scientific and engineering thinking. Sure, there is artistic license, and sure, some things are wrong in retrospect. But, it is easy to see how Star Trek has tried to come up with as realistic of scientific ground for the sci-fi fantasy as possible. From warp drive to replicators, and sometimes Trek has been remarkably prophetic, such as computer voice interaction and tablet computers. Heck, in my experience, few sci-fi properties have even tried to explain how they achieve faster than light speeds. And of the few that do, none have been more realistic than Trek's warp drive.

Now, much of that went out the window in the JJ Abrams Trek movies. They were first and foremost action movies. While much of the cast was great, I wasn't especially thrilled with rehashing old characters or throwing out the Trek fidelity to science. Still, after years without a new Star Trek, I could at least take some satisfaction in the property being revitalized. And to give credit where it is due, I don't imagine it would have been as easy, perhaps not even possible to have the Discover series or the new Picard series without the Abram's Trek movies. So at least there's that.

With that in mind, where does Picard fall? For me, the series is all about character. The Picard character is beloved, and now we get to bring him back and double down on his screen time. With that, we get to revisit a few other beloved characters along his journey and meet a few new ones. This is different from previous movies and series, which have been rather ensemble-driven, maybe more like many of the Star Trek books over the years. And I can buy into it. I, too, love Captain Picard.

It's the rest where I have some trouble. Rather than weight what remains aside from Picard's life in realistic science, we get a lot more action. In fact, what technology can do or cannot do seems entirely dependent on what is easiest for the story. (Spoiler Ahead) If the science and tech exist to recreate Data's consciousness form one positronic neuron and taking for granted all the miracle medical advancements we've seen in Trek, how the heck can Picard be so fragile to a brain abnormality? It's just total disregard for any realism and, in many places, a move backward in technology. Another example, now the ships are controlled through holographic interphase. Is there some reason to think this is an advancement? They've had holograms since TNG began. I guess it looks more futuristic, but that's not the Star Trek way to me.

Next, there's the social conscious. The entire season arc is based on the rights and treatment of synthetic life. Now, this on its own is a Trek worthy idea. So much so, that we've seen it explored more than once on TNG through Data-centric and Borg-centric episodes and even movies. Revisiting it alone doesn't bother me, but the notion that somehow Starfleet has taken huge steps backward in this area is hard to swallow, and the explanations seem more convenient then well thought out and intelligently explored.

I wanted to love this series, but instead, I just like it.

That's right, I still really like it. I am a fanboy in some regards here, so see Picard in any way is delightful. Getting throwbacks to Riker and Troy, 7 of 9, and Hugh, that's right the borg Hugh. These are all wonderful. And a season 2 promises more. I also very much liked most of the new characters.  I'd like to have seen better fidelity to the Trek of old in spirit, but Picard is superior to the recent movies, and I'll take it. See you for season 2.
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What I've Been Reading: February 2020

Over the last year or so, I've read the first three installments in Martha Wells's Murderbot Diaries series. I've mentioned how the main character is fascinating, but that his sarcasm can get a little grating as everything is seen through his POV. Still, I like the concept and enjoy the world. I just can't read them back to back. It would be too much murderbot. But, as it's been a few months, I picked up the fourth in the series, Exit Strategy (Wells 2018), and gave it a read.

Some positives form this installment: I liked the external character development for Ren (the murderbot). We've seen (slight series spoiler ahead) Ren transition from an autonomous tool to a feeling and reasoning lifeform, but most of that development has come inside his head. He has also been mostly cautious and distancing with the humans around him. He has developed a few relationships with other digital systems, such as another bot, and the controlling AI for a space ship. In exit strategies, we see Ren's relationship with some of the humans around him proliferate, mostly getting stronger. In a way, in turn, we see him becoming more human, or at least more emotionally like us. It's good. It helps us care for him.

What I didn't like: the plot doesn't advance the series storyline very much. Ren is mostly out of danger in this book, and his overarching goal of uncovering his own memory-wiped history has just fallen away. He gets himself into danger by endeavoring to help the humans he was first liberated with, his wards from the first book. The danger they're in is clear but not largely compelling. The plot is more of a simple frame on which to build the character growth. These books are short, so I understand there is a challenge in having a great plot and excellent character development in limited pages, but I still found myself drifting on the storyline and struggling to keep my focus on it.

The fifth Murderbot Diaries book, Network Effect, is due out in May. So, I can forgive that this book is a bit transitional. Book 1 introduces the Ren and some important supporting characters, plus some action. The next two books let Ren out on his own, to try to uncover his history, and in turn gaining himself a big political enemy, plus lots more action. Now with four, we develop his relationships while stocking the fire of how powerful and far-reaching his big enemy really is. Thus, I'm giving Exit Strategies some extra credit on good faith, securing a solid four stars in my mind.

Certainly, I'll be sticking around for the fifth installment. I've come this far...
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What I've Been Reading: Jan. 2020

Andy Weir's The Martian has been on my radar for a long time. Most people who weren't aware of it eight years ago had it brought to light when Matt Damon starred in the 2015 movie adaptation. Well, I finally got around to it, and I loved it. Two notes, first, I did see the movie back when it came out. Also, full disclosure I audiobooked this one, narrated by Wil Wheaton. I'll touch on both.

First of all, this is just a great story, particularly to fans of sci-fi grounded in practical science. It's a survival story, much like Cast Away or the Revenant. We follow a rollercoaster of one character devising solutions to survival problems, only to have gut-wrenching new troubles pile on top of one another. All along, we're pulled forward with the single question of "will he live?"

The book stood out, however, in the main character, Mark Watney's attitude. He was very sarcastic and seemingly cavalier about how bleak his situation was. We can presume many of his jokes were his way of dealing with his hopelessness. But it was still often funny, which one doesn't see in many survival stories.

Then, there's the science. Science themes are thoroughly embedded and run consistently throughout. I'd say, Weir kept as much fidelity to practical science as one could while still coming up with new (near-future) ideas. It was wonderful. I imagine it took tremendous research, and I applaud him.

Next, as my experience was with the movie adaptation first, let's compare. I found the movie to have many of the same merits as the book. It had lots of tension and edge-of-your-seat suspense as to whether Mark Watney will survive. It had a great deal of science fidelity. It also preserved Watney's sarcastic humor, though to a lesser extent. However, what it lacked, which was engaging in the book, was Watney's internal thoughts. When Watney encountered a problem in the book story, he'd walk through ten ideas of how he might try to solve it, but have to humorously point out how nine of those options would likely kill him. Then he'd opt for the least likely to result in death. This style gave readers a deep connection to his way of thinking, and what it would take to survive, it gave a number of opportunities to showcase Watney's humor, and helped build just how dire the situation was. We observed Watney die a hundred times in his mind. The movie didn't and probably couldn't do the same.

In a movie, we'd have to listen while the actor explained all the bad options, which would be a lot of non-action on screen. Otherwise, we'd have to see his thought played out as if real, ending in his death, only to be brought back and told it didn't really happen. That, over and over again, would have come off more silly than scientific. So it had to be reduced, and I don't fault the film, I just appreciate that the book had that extra layer to enjoy.

Finally, let me address the audiobook aspect. I'm a big fan, as they let me turn thinks like doing laundry into book time. This one had Wil Wheaton narrating. I have mixed feelings about Wheaton. I'm a Star Trek fan. I'm sure that fans of Trek and fans of the Martian are a Venn diagram barely worth drawing. I liked some TNG episodes with Westley. Other times, he rubbed me the wrong way, coming off as arrogant. Likewise, I sometimes like Wheaton in his more recent rolls and endeavors, but half the time, I think he comes off as too smarmy. To my surprise and my delight, he hits just the right balance with The Martian audiobook. Watney is sarcastic, and Wheaton does that wonderfully. Watney is positive in the face of nearly impossible odds, and Wheaton pulls that off just right.

I highly recommend this book. I think the movie is worth a look as well. And if you like audiobooks, give Wheaton's narration of The Martian a try.
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What I've Been Watching: Nov. 2019

I've recently started watching the sci-fi series, Another Life, on Netflix. I'm about halfway through the season. So far, I have mixed feelings on this one.

The show features Katee Sackhoff, who you may remember her from Battlestar Galactica, or even from Longmire, which I rather enjoyed. We'll now she's Niko Breckenridge, a captain in some space-exploring government agency. Presumably of the US, but not stated outright. The series begins with an alien ship or probe from an unknown corner of the galaxy arriving on Earth, landing, and erecting a crystal-like structure that starts sending a signal. It appears to be un-manned. Soon after, a ship is launched on a mission to travel to where they believe the probe originated. There Niko and her crew are to investigate and/or make contact with whoever sent it.

Some things I like:

· Sackhoff's character is complex. She's outwardly confident, but also carries a lot of guilt for leaving her family and because of troubles in a previous command. Thus, she grapples with a lot of self-doubts. On top of this, she is a bad-ass who can fight and doesn't back down when challenged. Early, she is tested by an egotistical man who thinks he should be the one in command, and without spoiling anything, let just say, it doesn't go well for that guy.

· The story alternates between events on the ship and events back on Earth, both involving the crystal probe, and the captain's husband and daughter. It adds layers of drama and tension.

· The ship has an A.I., which presents itself as a human via holographic projection. It has flirted with issues of ethics and sentient A.I. though it hasn't gotten into this deeply...yet.

· Dabbles in reflecting modern social issues with one crew member being transgender, though little focus is placed on this. It's treated more like a regular aspect of life in this near future, which is pretty cool.

· Everything is built around the underlying tension of humans having a first contact with an alien species. Will they be hostile? Benevolent? Will we be hostile and undermind any chances of a fruitful relationship?


Some things I question:

· Disiplin is extremely poor on the ship and creates a great deal of the problems. We're not led to believe that the space organization is a military one, but they assign a captain and a second in command, so one would think that the ship is not a free for all where every member of the crew does what they please. Most merchant vessels and science vessels alike still tend to have a captain-down hierarchy, which, if not followed, yields some negative consequence. Not so for this ship, and if they did, so far, it would have headed off most of their troubles. I'm not saying insubordination has no place in a story, but then the disobedience should be the conflict, not the routine genesis of other trouble. In a way, it feels like lazy writing. If anyone is familiar with Star Gate Universe (2009-2010), you'll get a similar feeling among the crew on Another Life. They're always at odds with a failing ship, and always at odds with one another in a power struggle. However, in SGU, they were a bunch of random people who ended up the crew of an ancient Alien ship by happenstance, so they didn't know how to operate the ship and weren't ever intended to be a crew. The same just doesn't seem to fit the narrative for Another Life.

· The technology doesn't seem to match society. The ship is traveling to another star in the span of months. For this to be practical, they must have faster than light capability. They even talk in one episode about making a detour, which is only four light-years, as if it is an inconvenient distance but not a debilitating one. Yet, as of halfway thought the season, there has been no talk of other ships currently out traveling space. The mission that haunts the captain happened near Saturn, so still in our solar system. There is no mention of space stations or other vessels that have been out anywhere near them. At the same time, they don't talk like this is some substantial new accomplishment, as if no other human has been out this far before. Likewise, the alien probe got to Earth's atmosphere apparently without detection. One would think that a society capable of traveling at the minimum to nearby stars would have means to detect an approaching ship, and with a space fleet, potential meet it prior to its landing on our home planet. It's all just a little odd and feels like it wasn't thought out. When you've got FTL, cryo-sleep, synthesized gravity, and the ability to stock a ship with food and water for a large crew and for months of travel, it just seems like certain little things that seem to come up as trouble, should be accounted for already.

· More trope than originality. As an author myself, I've read a lot of genre writing advice that suggests writers know their genre's tropes well. The general idea being, that while certain things might seem cliche, if you ignore them all, you're not likely to satisfy the audience. This could be good advice. If you made a sci-fi story set in a future where humans were able to travel deep into space, but you didn't have advanced computer systems, or alien contact, or ship malfunctions, which can all be sci-fi tropes, then you likely wouldn't have a very well-liked product. But at the same time, you can't have a story that is all trope. Even if you hit all the routine points viewers and readers tend to like; it can still fall flat without at least one new-ish underlying premise. For Another Life, I can't quite put my finger on what that extra something was intended to be.


Altogether I'd call Another Life and pretty middle of the road sci-fi series. It's got a Ripley from Alien sort of leading lady, a Star Gate Universe kind of hodge-podge crew, and an Arrival type of first contact puzzle. But it's a lot like listening to your favorite band's greatest hits album. It's all familiar, there's a lot you like, but you're not going to find anything you haven't heard before, and the elements don't all quite fit together the way they would on a regular album.


The characters have been compelling enough that I'll likely stay tuned to finish the rest of the season, but I won't be surprised if Another Life never gets a second.
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What I've Been Reading: Oct 2019

After Finishing Penny Dreadful (see my Watching for this month) and after years of being familiar with the Dorean Gray character but not having read it, I finally decided to get a copy of the Oscar Wilde novel. I'm not quite through it, so I'll share my thoughts on this classic next time. Until then...

It's not horror or connected to Halloween, but Martha Wells' Murderbot Diaries #3, Rogue Protocol, spilled over into the month. I like the series. They're all novella-length, science fiction books. The first, All Systems Red, introduced the murderbot protagonist, a snarky security/battle android. Book one showed what he could do, then book two got more into the character internally. While book two created depth, which readers should want for a multi-book protagonist, the character's demeanor began to grate on me.

One can only listen to cynism and pessimism for so long. I was glad the book was short. The outward story was enough to keep my attention, and still interested enough for me to pick up the third in the series after a few months to clear my head. I'm glad I did.

Rogue Protocol, of course, had Ren's (we're calling the Murder Bot Ren by this point) cynical criticism of humans, but it eased back on how much of that we get in favor of more action, as well as introducing another android which truly admired humans, and considered them friends. This was a great juxtaposition that makes Ren's pessimism more palatable, and maybe even teaches him a lesson or two. This installment picked up the pace for me, and I liked it. It also delved deeper into the circumstances of Ren's existence, the past he can't remember, answered a few questions, and posed more to pull readers into the 4th Novella, which I'll be picking up as well.
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What I've been Watching: September 2019

Two noteworthy picks for this month:

First, I went and saw the new It: Chapter Two, and really enjoyed it. The movie was creepy, of course, had plenty of scary scenes, and was psychological with many of them, which is a plus. It's natural to compare the movie to the 1990 adaptation. As an author and a screenwriter, I have a nuanced opinion on remakes and adaptations. One of my chief rules for remakes is that the film has to deliver something new, not just something different. It has to say, "I'm taking this idea you already know and putting a slant on it that might surprise you, or at least has something new to say." A few months ago, I wrote about how another King based remake, Pet Sematary, failed at that. I don't think the new It adaptation, both parts of it, fell into the same trouble.

One way this film differs is simply in how epic movies can go these days with effects. The CGI, makeup, and just the sets themselves were all bigger and better. That isn't always a plus. Certainly, Hollywood is guilty of putting too much into CGI and effects and letting us down in plot and character development. But for a horror that wants to show you something terrifying, the effects capabilities of today, are a plus. I also think this is why they chose to put It out in two movies. King's book was quite long and in turn full of plot and character development.  Had this movie been made into one, even if it were a three-hour installment, and still had all the new visuals, the plot and characters would have suffered. Instead, they drew it out to preserve some of the depth, even when making way for the new spiffy effects.

That said, I found the best part of the film was the stellar cast. Sure, we don't have the unrivaled Tim Curry in the role of Pennywise, but aside from that, the talent is Allstar, and well worth a look.

Second, Stranger Things, Season 3.
Let me start by saying I felt like this season had a lot more action, but in turn, less to dwell on psychologically. I enjoyed it, but I would say it is was not as good as Season 1, but as good or better than Season 2. Some of the drawbacks: we didn't see anything too knew about this mega creature from the upsidedown. We already knew it was scary, now the fight with it was less mental and more physical. We've got some silly Russian stereotypes. (Spoiler) There are Russians involved now. They work as an added layer of trouble, but they are not 80's Russians, they're 80's movies stereotypical Russians. Nostalgia has always been a part of the series, but when we see cool 80's toys, shows, music, and clothes referred to in the story, it is not the same as the characters being 80's tropes. 80's cliches are around the characters but distanced from the story. However, with the Russian's in this season the cliches are intermixed in the story and it was distracting.

Some pluses, the characters, and several of their relationships advance. This season sees adult and youth relationships challenged. It also explores a bit about kids growing apart as friends as their interests change, and how they overcome that to help each other when lives are threatened. There were also some good old fashioned chase scenes and monster battles, unlike what we've seen so far.

This season also felt more contained than the two previous. The story was limited mostly to our world, and mainly to the small town. However, I had a feeling this season was a bit of a transition year too, setting up a more epic season 4 and as I was writing my critique, I saw a trailer for season 4 implying that it will spend significant time, if not primarily be set in the upside-down. Thus, I reserve listing that minus.

Altogether, it was a pretty good season, and if it does, in fact, bridge us into a thrilling season 4, and dare I say even a climactic season five. (Where I personally think the show should end.) I don't believe I'll look back on it as a letdown. Give it a watch.
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What I've been Reading: Aug 2019

Someone recently compared my writing to that of David Mitchell. It's always flattering to be classified with a mainstream and successful author. However, I was only familiar with Mitchell to the extent of the movie adaptation of his novel, Cloud Atlas. Thus I decided to start there to acquaint myself better. It was a good choice.

Cloud Atlas interweaves six storylines, each from a different period spanning a few hundred years in the past to a few hundred years into the future. Each storyline bares intriguing characters and mounting conflict, but the intensity is only heightened by the books jumping from story to story. Just when you're getting to a climax, you jump away, only to get your appetite up for the next storyline, only to be pulled away again. Literary edging at it's finest.

On its face, the book's plot and characters are fantastic. No two storylines or characters are too similar, and they're all compelling. But what is perhaps the most exciting about the book is its consistent themes and overarching message. Criticism of slavery, or in more general terms human exploitation, run throughout the book. Michell also endeavors to remind us of our interconnectedness with others. This is never more prominent than in the connections tieing one storyline to the next, even across the expanse of time.

I loved this book, and if you love seeing people who abuse their power toppled by the oppressed, then you might like it as much as I did.
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What I've been Watching: Aug 2019

I saw the movie adaptation of Cloud Atlas back when it was in theaters. I found parts interesting but wasn't totally impressed. After reading the book recently, I decided to give the movie another look. It was worth it.

I'm not sure if I simply missed a few important details which undermined my first viewing. I consider myself an attentive viewer, but I actually watched Cloud Atlas the first time at the wonderful Bear Tooth Theaterpub in Anchorage, Alaska. At the Bear Tooth, you get to enjoy gourmet pizza, local brews, and other fare while watching your movie. I loved the food there, but I have some qualms with movie theaters that serve restraunt-like food. I find the food service is often a distraction. It's not bad for a high octane action movie, but for any sort of thinking piece, I find it a huge pitfall. Thus, perhaps my lackluster feelings for Cloud Atlas the first time were rooted in the venue.

Alternatively, it is also possible that the layers of Cloud Atlas, of which there are many, only become apparent upon repeat viewings. It's a complicated movie which jumps from storyline to storyline every few minutes.

Whichever the case, on my recent second viewing, I found the movie far better, more engaging, and profound. I recently read the novel, which I praised in my book review for its overall themes criticizing human exploitation, and praising human connections. The first time I watched the film, I definitely missed these elements. The film inevitably had to compact the stories of the book, but it retains the consequences and more importantly, the point of the story. Plus what the film loses in quantity, it makes up for in the power of cinema. Unlike the book, the film can overlap stories. Rather than just jump between them, we can hear a character speaking from one timeline, while we start to see the action of another, further cementing the connection across time.

The movie also cuts between the storyline more frequently and freely, thus bringing parallel crescendos to a climax simultaniously. The Wachowski siblings, directors on this film, are masters of their medium and they use what is unique to the cinema to accentuate rather than simply to bring a book to the screen. If one wants to make a case for movie adaptations or to see a good example of how to do it, look no further than Cloud Atlas.

If you've never seen it, I recommend giving a watch. If you have, I recommend giving it a watch again.
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What I've Been Reading: July 2019

I read Martha Wells' All Systems Red last summer. I've had the second novella in her Murderbot Diaries series, Artificial Condition, in my "to read" pile since them. I finally picked it up last weekend. In short, it was a fun read.

As with the first in the series, it was an entertaining story. This book gets a little more personal with the main character, an A.I. security unit, and delves deeper into its mysterious past. So far, the first two books in this series have all been shorter works. I think this was a very conscious decision for Wells. The books feature the internal thoughts of the main A.I. character, murderbot, who is sarcastic, sassy, and cynical. Murderbot has a distinct voice, which is humorous, particularly when you think about it coming from a constructed, computer lifeform, not a natural-born person. But the personality also gets on my nerves a bit after a while. This is completely a matter of taste. I guess I don't like to walk around looking at the world pessimistically all day, so hearing this character's thoughts eventually grows tiresome. Thankfully, the story is as mentions, short. And thus, the tale wraps up about the time the voice has worn thin.

As for the plot, it was interesting and gave the A.I. character a chance to exhibit its newly free personality, while also learning of its own dark past. I wasn't wowed, but it kept my attention. There was a little fighting, a lot of computer entities talking and bickering with each other (which is an admittedly novel idea), and sufficient tension. As with the first book, I'll be giving this one 4 stars, and maybe after a few months, I'll pick up the next int he series. They're undoubtedly easy, fun, and quick reads.
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What I've Been Reading: May 2019

So technically I'm listening to this one but let me tell you why.

While I was in Houston for a convention, I had the pleasure of speaking with several fellow authors one of which was Nebula award-winning William Ledbetter who had just recently released an exclusive audiobook story called Level Five. That's right, you can only get it as an audiobook, in fact, it's even exclusive to audible. However, Mr. Ledbetter caught my interest, and as I had some travel back home ahead of me, I picked up the audiobook. This has also meant I stopped on another book, which I'll finish up for a future post.

I'm also not quite to the end of the book, so I might add to this post in the coming week, but for now…

If you like to imagine a future where technology grows ever more prevalent, and ever more dangerous in our lives, Level Five is for you. In the story we see the first generation of AI seeming to grow into sentient beings, we see the nearly limitless possibility of nano-tech to spy on us, and we also get to see the same sort of tech help people tremendously – reminding us why we would create such a thing in the first place.

The examination this story offers on technology is quite nuanced, which I love. If you're in favor of more reliance on tech, you can find arguments in this story to support that view, but likewise, if you are cautious about tech, you can find your arguments as well. On top of this, Ledbetter has created multifaceted characters, each with their own personal pains, goals, and flaws, including the most prominent AI.

It's clear that Ledbetter is in touch with the current landscape of technology. The story seems very well rooted in what's possible today and then takes everything a few steps further. Thus, nothing presented seems far-fetched or purely sci-fi. Instead, much of it seems more of an inevitability. This makes the audiobook even more consuming. The future painted seems like one I might live to see.

I'm excited to finish the story, and I'm sure I'll have a few more thoughts.
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What I've Been Watching: March 2019

I'm a devout Star Trek fan, so in the last week or so I've been catching up on Star Trek Discovery, season 2. Though I have a few qualms, on the whole, I've enjoyed this newest entry into the Star Trek canon, and I was anxious to dig into the new season.

Broadly, I think the characters from the start of this series were interesting, the re-imagining of Klingons was compelling, and the anti-hero at the center of the show Michael Burnham was deep, conflicted, and engaging. Thorugh season 1, Discovery abandoned the episodic format of previous Trek series, in favor of a more 15-part-movie structure, which I think worked just fine. I can see where another voyage of discovery as past series have been built around, might be the most exciting reboot, so instead, Discovery cuts right to the action and drama with a war beginning in season one, episode one. It also seems to build more around a primary character, with several fascinating support characters around her, rather than the ensemble cast of Star Treks of old. This too, was alright with me, as we got to know many Burnham, her past, her troubles, and internal conflicts very quickly. The previous series might have taken five seasons to dole out what we learned of Burnham in one, though of course, they were showing us just as much about other characters as well, where Discovery cut back.

All that said, Discovery season 2 seems to be pulling back from both of these aspects, at least a little. The season still appears to be following one central story arch; however, it has been compartmentalized as the crew of discovery comes upon seven unprecedented signals and begins investigating each. As they travel to one signal's point of origin, they become involved in a subplot with its own conflict, climax, and resolution, and then move to the next. Thus the episodic format returns, at least in part. I'd call this format a hybrid.

Likewise, we pull back from Burnham and have episodes which strive to bring some of the supporting characters to the front and develop them further. We get one episode which goes deep on Saru, the only member of his race to leave his planet. Another focuses on Tilly and her battle with an alien entity which has infected her and thus shown itself to her in the form of a person from her memory. There are a few more examples.

One aspect I find new, or at least far more prevalent in season 2, is a tendency to throw back to other parts of the Star Trek franchize. We begin the season with Captain Pike taking command of Discovery. Trek fans, of course, know that Pike commanded the Enterprise before Captain Kirk. He wasn't a significant character, so bringing him back as a link between old and new, and getting more depth and personality from him works well. But we also have Spock return, a character who was prevalent in the original series, all its subsequent movies, all the recent JJ Abrams reboot movies, as well as bridging into TNG.

Don't get me wrong, I love the character, and as Vulcans live longer lives than humans the Star Trek Universe allows for the widespread reach of this character. However, I feel like it lessens the originality of the new series to fall back on such a primary pillar of the other series and movies by giving him such a pivotal part. So far it has been a new use of the character and a conflicted and interesting one at that. But I think I'd rather see more new ground broken. I might even say it pulls the series backward towards the likes of fan fiction, rather than a next step in the evolution of Star Trek.

My other complaint about Discovery is it pulls away from science. Something I felt was of utmost importance to earlier series, which it seems to take lightly. In season 2, Discovery only continues to stretch away from science grounding.

All that said, I've found the series entertaining and compelling. I find it far more true to the spirit of Star Trek then the JJ Abrams movies. I'll be watching for the rest of the season's episodes to see how it turns out, and I'll tune in for season 3 if there is one. Plus, for my money, any Star Trek is better than no Star Trek.
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What I've Been Reading: February 2019

I'm not always great at sticking exclusively to a book once I start it. I don't like to abandon a read, but I have other things come up sometimes because they relate to something I'm writing, like last month's Re-animator. Similarly, I'll pause on a book to read non-fiction for research applicable to a story I'm crafting. Sometimes, something pops up that friends and family are talking about and I want to read it before I forget, or they move on.

Anyway, I started Robert A. Heinlein's Stranger in a Strange Land a couple of months ago, and as described above, found a few distractions along the way; however, I finally finished it a few days ago. I don't want anyone to think this means I think the book was dull, far from it. If anything it is merely a reflection of it one, being a long book, the longer, the more likely I am to get distracted, and of two, not being a particularly topical book, at nearly 60 years old, it wasn't going anywhere if I delayed a week here or there.

One of the reasons I was interested in this book in the first place, besides it notoriety, was that I've been interested in classic sci-fi literature and predictions for a future time which we have now come to live in. Often sci-fi has been used as a lens to examine social problems and exaggerate them to expose their folly. (Think 1984) It interests me to look back at such works and consider if they hold any relatability to today. Stanger in a Strange Land fit this interest perfectly.

The story begins at a time when humans have already traveled to Mars and found life there, and consequently a human boy having been born there, orphaned, and raised by the Martians. Early in the story, the human from Mars returns to Earth as a stranger to our world, culture, and ways of thinking. The man from Mars finds our politics foreign; meanwhile, the politicians of the time heatedly try to control him in order to try to sway what human or human entity will have rights to Mars. As if they can lay claim to it even though it is a sovereign populated planet. It reminded me of European colonialism when countries competed for claims in the Americas even though indigenous civilizations already populated the continents.  Apparently, Heinlein felt we hadn't advanced very far since those times, we just ran out of new places to try to claim, and I have to admit I think he was and is correct.

In the story, new, fictionalized religions try to recruit masses by claiming new insights while using all the same old tactics religions and cults have used through history, and guess what it works. The first fictionalized religion the Man from Mars encounters "Fosterites" made me think of Scientology, a little of Mormonism, but was clearly critical of all religions.  Heinlein seems to feel that as we advance as a society, we think we throw away old superstitions and problematic beliefs, but we really just recycle them and use the new incarnations to go on mistreating one another. In this, I think he is mostly correct as well.

I could go on to a half dozen topics at least, but then I'd end up with a term paper, not a blogged book review, so let me cut to one area I think the book truly fails...women. I've been peppering my reading over the last year or so with some classic sci-fi like this, and I'm starting to see a consistent them. While these authors are very adept at seeing many of societies problems, and predicting how those will either turn into forgotten nonsense, or haunt us over and over again, all fairly accurately imagining the future, none seem to have predicted that Woman might one day step out of supportive roles to men and become accomplished, independent equals.

In Stranger in a Strange Land, there are a dozen noteworthy female characters. The most spoken of is a nurse who turns into a surrogate mother to the Man from Mars, then later into his lover. (Apparently, he was not a stranger to the Edipus complex.) A handful of others women are live-in maids and secretaries to the Man from Mars' surrogate father. A few others are priestesses in either the Fosterite church or later in the Church of all Worlds, but in both cases, they are described by their goddess-like physical appearances, and it is clear their sex appeal goes hand-in-hand with their positions. By the end of the story, most of the women we care about reach the end of their character arcs by finally getting pregnant. Of course, there is nothing wrong with a female character having that goal, but it is a problem when that is the only goal that the author could imagine for his women and so just used it again and again.

It gets even worse. The Man from Mars possesses powers to manipulate objects and people with his mind. Thus, he can change people's physical appearances. He uses this to make most the prominent female character look younger, and to alter their physiques to fit specific measures and standards of beauty: larger breasts, trimmer waists, and curvier hips, he even changes faces. At one point he helps one woman to see herself through his and other men's eyes, and she has a profound awakening of appreciating women's bodies as a man does, and in turn, grows a desire to be lusted after and has a sexual awakening, boosting her libido into overdrive.

Ready for the worst of it? She also at one point casually mentions that most women who get raped are partially responsible. I'd say Heinlein did not detect a problem of gender inequality in the society in which he lived and certainly did not foresee women's liberation or any subsequent social developments in that area. Forgive him. He was not alone. The book also touches briefly on homosexuality, in one place implying that only effeminate men lean that way, but in another place suggesting it was a good thing at least in the confines of communal orgies. The book offers nothing in terms of exploring racism.

As legitimate and even troubling as all of these complaints are, I still have to say I appreciate the book. It is perhaps so layered that one can see these problems, but also see all the apt issues it correctly diagnoses, and feel that the scale tips to the positive as a whole. I can't give it five stars because of the issues, but I can't sink it when it gets so much right.

One last thing to take away; I loved that the Man from Mars was always encouraging people to wait. When issues arose, he would never make snap decisions, instead always tell people to wait until they "Groc the fullness" in other words, understand all the intricacies. This is a fleeting notion in our society. We expect our politicians to have immediate answers and never to change their minds. We expect the same from teachers, clergy, celebrities, parents, reporters, and basically all people all the time. Seldom do we accept people who say, "that's an excellent question and a difficult problem. I need to understand it fully before I comment on it, so I'll get back to you." But you know what, we should. In fact, maybe I will need the rest of my life to truly groc the fullness of Stranger in a Strange Land. I guess I reserve the right to edit my review in 50 years or so.
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