Archive for the ‘Science Fiction’ Category

The (Book) Review: Sidekicked

September 4, 2013

As I bone up on what I hope to be “the competition” – a.k.a. Super Hero novels targeting the tween/young adult demographic – I thought I’d share my impressions of what I’ve read.  I’ve actually been simul-reading several novels, but here are my thoughts on the first one I finished.

Sidekicked-198x300The Book
Sidekicked, by John David Anderson, Walden Pond Press, published June 2013

Genre
“Realistic” Fantasy—Super Hero

Age Appropriate
7 and up.  Think Harry Potter for the Super Hero set.  Funny with mild, cartoonish violence and a focus more on how a real-life middle schooler would deal with the trials and tribulations of being something more (or perhaps less) than normal.  Romance plays its role, but in entirely the innocent sense of the word.  A little sprinkling of crude (though not foul) language and potty humor, but one couldn’t imagine anything else from a red-blooded American 12-year-old boy.  That said book reads a bit younger than the Harry Potter stories, so I am not sure it would have as much appeal to teen readers unless they are specifically Super Hero fans.

Good for Grown-Ups?
Yes.  While Anderson strives to capture the sensibilities and voice of a middle schooler, he doesn’t avoid some wonderfully descriptive language and puts together a very solid plot.  In many ways, he brings a sense of realism to the genre, moral conundrums and all, without falling victim to the “Dark Knight Disease” I mentioned in my previous post.

Book Availability
Widely available in hardback (it was just released this summer) and e-book in any number of forms.

Quickie Plot Synopsis (minor spoilers)
Andrew Bean is an excellent middle school student, but as a Super Hero, he kind of sucks. His alter-ego, The Sensationalist, doesn’t have the incredible strength and speed of his friend Jenna, a.k.a. the Silver Fox, and he can’t turn his body into a lump of impenetrable rock like the new kid in class, who incidentally seems to be making a play for Jenna.

How does a super nerd compete with Super Cedric?

How does a super nerd compete with Super Cedric?

Instead, he’s stuck with the power to feel, see, smell and taste absolutely everything.  So while his fellow sidekicks in training are leaping all over the secret sidekick training center in the basement of their school, he gets to sit at a desk and sniff into test tubes to hone his “skills.”  And did I mention the rock guy with the chiseled abs is making a play for the one girl who actually seems to like him?

And if being the least super Super wasn’t bad enough, Drew managed to get paired with about the worst Hero you could imagine.  The Titan, his personal idol and once the city of Justica’s greatest champion, now had more battles with barstools than bad guys.  But Drew signed off on the sidekick’s code, and was determined to figure out how to prove his worth to worth to the world…and to Jenna. And when the most notorious band of baddies return, the very same gang that sent Titan into his unexplained tailspin, everything Drew thought he knew about his friends, his family, and even about being a hero itself, is called into question.

My Review (minor spoilers)

I’m a sucker for a good sidekick story.  It’s one of the reasons one of my all-time favorite Super Hero incarnations is The Tick.  In all its incarnations, while the big blue idiot may be the title character, the story is really about Arthur, the average guy trying to keep up in a super-powered world.  It’s his story that grounds the ridiculous world of Supers that makes the whole thing work so well. Anderson seems to be of that same school, and comes up with a wonderful way to bring that same sensibility and sense of humor to the middle grade market.

Hard to decide, but I think I loved the live action version most.

Hard to decide, but I think I loved the live action version most.

Drew is our Arthur, seeming the worst of the best; possessed of powers that are seemingly not very super at all.  Indeed, Drew’s abilities provide fertile ground for great description and very funny moments (who knew you could fart in a test tube?). Drew’s story is told first person, and I think Anderson does a very nice job capturing the voice of a brainy, nerdy, extremely self-conscious 12-year-old.  If I were to nit-pick, I think some of the descriptive language he uses feels like it goes beyond his narrator, which I think is the issue from time-to-time in choosing first person with a child’s voice.  That said, it never feels so overboard that I lost the feeling that I was hearing things from Drew himself.

For the first three quarters of the book, I thought Anderson did a brilliant job making all of the “super” problems Drew encountered into essentially the same problems just about any middle school kid has, only pumped up on steroids.  The handsome other boy with an eye on the girl he is into isn’t just handsome, he’s handsome and he can turn himself into living rock.  The feeling of anxiety about keeping secrets from parents, in this case super powers and being a sidekick to the greatest Super Hero in history (or, some semblance of him) is a powerful metaphor for that increased feeling of alienation that so many pre-teens start to feel as they change.  Now throw in the fact that his Super Hero idol is a shell of his former self, and Drew gives readers a surprisingly deep-dive into the way kids begin to emerge from the cocoon of childhood into the oft harsh realities of life.

A similar conundrum to Man of Steel, but far more deftly handled.

A similar conundrum to Man of Steel, but far more deftly handled.

Anderson also does an excellent job playing with some of the core messages behind the Super Hero convention.  What makes a bad guy bad?  What are the ethics of being a hero?  Is “Thou shalt not kill” an essential part of a hero’s code?  How do the non-supers feel in a world filled with “freaks?”  All those are covered in a way that in no way feels preachy, as the middle school prism helps make these questions feel fresh and resonant.

As taken as I was by the setup, I have to say that the finish was not quite what I had hoped for.  It was still good, but it felt fairly conventional.  I felt like I was going from reading something entirely original to a solid copy of many stories I had read before.  The villain’s final reveal didn’t come as much of a surprise to me, but I was okay with that.  The rationale for the villain’s behavior, however, felt a bit staid.  But, as a discussion point, the blurred line between good and evil is an excellent one.  Better yet because it is NOT told in the “shades of gray” way that so many Super Hero stories today are told.  It is a real moral dilemma, not simply another ode to nihilism like we see in so many of today’s Super Hero stories.

In all, Sidekicked is a welcome addition to the genre and antidote to the growingly grim path Super Heroes have been taking.

Overall Read Score: 4 out of 5 stars.

Opportunities for Discussion
I’ve already noted a number of questions that the book takes in my review.  On top of that, Anderson himself has done parents and teachers alike a favor with a nice little discussion guide you can find on his website (.pdf).  As I noted, the book does a nice job of keeping the humor going through the book so that the very interesting and serious points being made about power never feel like an after school special.

Overall Family Discussion Score: 4.5 out of 5 stars.

Why So Serious, Superman?

August 7, 2013
Speaking of Wonder Woman, I HIGHLY recommend this fascinating documentary on Super Heroes and what they have meant to girls and women through the decades.  Click the pic for the link.

Speaking of Wonder Woman, I HIGHLY recommend this fascinating documentary on Super Heroes and what they have meant to girls and women through the decades. Click the pic for the link.

As some of your know, I’m currently working to get my own take on the Super Hero story, The Adventures of MightyDove, out into the public eye.  Of course over the past decade, the likes of Batman, Iron Man, Captain America, and company (though it still frustrates me that Wonder Woman can’t get off the ground) have hit the big screen running, and have fought their way into the mainstream.  Being a guy who remembers comic conventions being nothing but white boxes in the back room of a cheap hotel, it amazes me to see nerd culture firmly established a primary driver of pop culture.

My big fella, now twelve, has discovered the series Smallville, a show full of intrigue and teen angst wrapped up in a Superman package—perfect for an imaginative pre-teen.  While Smallville became something of a wildly uneven show after about the 3rd season, especially after losing Michael Rosenbaum, who was to my mind still by far the best Lex Luthor ever depicted either animated or live action, it did a nice job jugging the very delicate balancing act needed of the genre.  You don’t go 10 seasons without doing something right…

Show never quite got its full mojo back once Lex left.

Show never quite got its full mojo back once Lex left.

With their “No Flights, No Tights” axiom, they endeavored to seat characters who felt real into the unreal world of Superman.  While sometimes redundant with the “freak of the week,” they always managed to capture the sense of almost comic bewilderment when the wild and wacky happened.  It always gave you that small edge of the tongue-in-cheek that allowed you to feel amused at the situation even as the world—or at least Clark and Lana’s relationship—were put ever in peril.

Yet as much as Gus is currently obsessed with Smallville, he didn’t really love the latest Superman iteration, Man of Steel.  Indeed, he and I both came to a similar conclusion after we took in the movie.  Great effects, thin plot, and absolutely no joy.  We both came out feeling that the failed reboot that was Bryan Singer’s Superman Returns (interesting to note that it gets a 75% on Rotten Tomatoes, far higher than the 56% for MoS) was actually more entertaining because, despite its many flaws, it felt more like, well…Superman.

Superman II was hokey, no doubt, but Man of Steel could have used a little more hokey

Superman II was hokey, no doubt, but Man of Steel could have used a little more hokey

Of course, Mr. Hippie Nerd here had a very difficult time with the climax to Man of Steel.  [SPOILERS] Indeed, I was actually a bit heartened to learn that producer and Dark Knight Trilogy director Christopher Nolan actually vehemently disagreed with Zack Snyder’s decision to have Kal-El snap Zod’s neck.  Not only has Superman always been about finding ways not to kill the enemy (see the animated movie Superman vs. The Elite now streaming on Netflix for a great example), but the film actually set up a perfect device (the terraforming of Earth to make it Krypton-like) to defeat Zod without resorting to death.  Snyder seemed to go out of his way to make sure that the man who stands as an example of what humanity should aspire to would be pulled down into the abyss of, “Sometimes you’ve just got to kill the bad guy.” Nolan wasn’t the only one to express dismay over Snyder’s decision.  Grant Morrison, a well-known comic book writer whose titles include the All Star Superman series, had this to say:

“It’s a credible Superman for now. But I’m not sure about the killing thing. I don’t want to sound like some fuddy-duddy Silver Age apologist but I’ve noticed a lot recently of people saying Batman should kill the Joker and, yeah, Superman should kill, he should make the tough moral decisions we all have to make every day. I don’t know about you, but the last moral decision I made didn’t have anything to do with killing people. And I don’t think many of us ever have to make the decision whether or not to kill. In fact, the more you think about it, unless you’re in one of the Armed Forces, killing is illegal and immoral. Why would we want our super­heroes to do that?”

[END SPOILERS] Indeed, this trend to pull Super Heroes down to “our level” is in no way limited to our favorite Kryptonian orphan.  Iron Man 3 took our wise-cracking Tony Stark down a dark hole of addiction and PTSD.  Captain America: The Winter Solider, is already being billed as “darker” – more of a 70’s noir feel.  And even the most comedy-laced mainstream hero there is, Spider-Man, was so angst-ridden, so humor-free in his latest incaration that even star Andrew Garfield admitted that it was a problem with the first film.

Now THIS is a Pixar sequel I want to see

Now THIS is a Pixar sequel I want to see!

Increasingly, the whole genre seems to be suffering from Dark Knight Disease.  Not that the TDK trilogy wasn’t excellent.  It was.  But so was Thor, the Avengers, and Sam Rami’s first two Spider-Man films.  Not to mention The Incredibles and Megamind, both of which were successful even venturing into the realm of pure comedy. And did I mention all those films made a load of green?  So no excuses to be found there for always taking our heroes down the dark path.

My greatest fear of this “hyper-realistic” trend is, by removing the joy from Super Heroes, they are extracting the most essential element of the genre: imagination.  Not that you can’t create a serious yet imaginative Super Hero film.  But for the audience, the genre is removed from that dreamlike, aspirational quality.  Super Heroes may have powers, but they cease to become super.

In the urge to make these heroes more like us, we lose the wonder that makes us want to be better, to be more like them.  And I think that is a genuine loss to our kids, who despite the mainstream audience and grown-ups engaging in cosplay, should still be who we make these stories for.

With the announcement that The Dark Knight Returns author Frank Miller is consulting on the new Batman vs. Superman film, my skepticism deepens that much more.  TDKR was a seminal comic book series, turning Batman into a gothic, noir struggle where each and every hero—even the sainted Superman—had feet of clay.  But it was the opposite of inspirational: a desperate slog through a dystopian future with only the faintest glimmer of hope at the conclusion.

Okay, I don't NEED the Batusi, but...

Okay, I don’t NEED the Batusi, but…

While I don’t need Batman dancing the Batusi to be satisfied, I urge the stewards of Super Heroes to remember that the entire genre is predicated on the fantastic notion of what could be.  That is what sparks the imagination of children of all ages to strive to be more than we are, to want to do something to make the world a better place, just like this amazing Mother told her young son after he discovered that Superman wasn’t real.

So when it comes to saving Super Heroes, I think the best advice is to relax and don’t take it so seriously.   Just imagine all of them in their underwear.  That always seems to do the trick.

The Review: Star Trek Into Darkness

May 17, 2013

Despite some reservations based on the Countdown to Darkness comics, resistance was futile.  My Trek-loving big fella and I lounged at the luxury theater this afternoon, flipped on the 3D glasses, and beheld the new Trek.

Star Trek Into Darkness poster 4The Movie
Star Trek Into Darkness, Paramount

Based on a  Book?
Nope.

Genre
Science Fiction

Age Appropriate
Eight years old and up.  While Iron Man 3 (sorry, haven’t had time to write it up) is also PG-13, I wouldn’t take my young guy to see that one.  I would this.  I would say the violence is actually more Star Wars-like than the 2009 Trek, with only one real scene worthy of note (see spoilers below).

Good for Grown Ups?
Yes.  Grab the popcorn.

Spoilers for Younger Kids
When Benedict Cumberbatch’s bad guy gets to the bridge of the other ship, he pulls the old squeeze the skull ‘till it cracks trick on one of the crew.  The crack is offscreen, but it might be considered too intense for younger viewers.  The Enterprise gets pummeled and, just like in the first, we see people sucked into space.  Screams, but bloodless and not all that traumatic in the greater scheme of things (unless you’re that crewman, of course).

Quickie Plot Synopsis (Light Spoilers)
On a survey mission of a primitive planet, Kirk and Spock both knowingly break the Prime Directive to save an indigenous people—and Spock himself—from a planet killing volcano.  They are greeted back at Starfleet with scorn.  Kirk is demoted, Spock is transferred, and team Enterprise seem destined to be broken apart.

Behold JesuSpock!

Behold JesuSpock!

But a mysterious figure engineers series of terrorist events, starting in London and then tearing at the heart of Starfleet Command itself that leaves no choice but to put Kirk back in command as they hunt down the mysterious John Harrison.

The manhunt takes them to Qo’noS (Pronounced “Kronos”), the Klingon homeworld, where Harrison inexplicably and single-handedly saves the landing party from attack, and then surrenders himself.  We find out that Harrison is not his real name, and that he may well not end up being the true, or at least only, villain in this affair.  Indeed, the greatest threat may lie within…

My Review (Heavier Spoilers, but I’ll let you know when)
I’ve been pretty clear I had reservations about this movie, but I felt I went into it at the end pretty open.  I saw the high fresh rating on Rotten Tomatoes, saw a number of good reviews, and remembered that a lot of people really missed the “Star Trek” within the 2009 film.  JJ and company gave me a good ride a few years back.  I was ready to strap in again.

There were a number of things to like about this film.  Most notably and centrally, this was a story about the coming together of Kirk and Spock.  As a Trek Nerd, I was disappointed that McCoy was once again relegated to a supporting role as they have obviously decided that it is Kirk and Spock that is most important.  Zachary Quinto does a wonderful job as Spock, and while Pine’s Kirk is very different from Shatner’s, I found myself not minding the change.

It was going to be hard to top the Narada, and they didn't

It was going to be hard to top the Narada, and they didn’t

That’s big and carries this film.  But, frankly, most of the rest of this movie doesn’t work very well.  In 2009, JJ and company had the challenge of trying to reboot Trek while staying true to Trek cannon.  I think that actually challenged them to write a cohesive story that, while not perfect (uh, the 2nd lightning storm in space never should have happened) did have a resonant and understandable beginning, middle, and end.  The whiz-bang special effects seemed to be in service of the story.

On the other hand, this film absolutely felt like the plot was servicing the action.  Motivations were glossed over to hurry to the next fight.  The intrigue felt rushed because they wanted to make sure things were moving along.  And other than Kirk and Spock with a bit of a mix of Uhura, the interrelations among the characters, both friends and enemies, felt cold.  The jokes of this film felt like a thin retread of what they did in the first.

The plot itself also lacked punch, and was a huge mistake.  Last time ‘round, we had a massive, nasty looking ship from the future tearing through entire fleets, planets, and almost destroying Earth itself.  From the bad guy’s ship to the aims of the bad guys, everything here felt smaller. Indeed, it really worked against itself because having bigger effects for a smaller story really took away from making their larger scale more impressive.

[HERE COME THE SPOILERS] But, if I’m to say where this movie truly went wrong, it was in trying to borrow from the best of all the original films, Wrath of Khan.  As most of you might know by now, John Harrison is actually Khan, and the eventual showdown between Khan’s ship and the Enterprise forces Kirk to sacrifice himself in almost the exact way Spock does in Trek II (don’t worry, they bring him back, completing the parallel).

Sorry Bennie, no dice.

Sorry Bennie, no dice.

Well, if you’re going to decide to tell in some ways a parallel tale to the best of all the Trek movies, you damned well better deliver.  And in this, Into Darkness failed on pretty much all counts.  I will grant you that Benedict Cumberbatch is a superior overall actor to Ricardo Montalbán, but give me the latter’s Khan any day.  Indeed, given this is supposed to be one-in-the-same, I had a very hard time buying that even with the changes to the timeline, this could be the same person.  And Montalbán’s delicious, charismatic evil was incredibly engaging, while this Khan was nothing but a distant, calculating killing machine.  You never really felt his motivation or his pain.  He was cool, but left me cold.  To me, it was an absolute waste of a brilliant actor.  It would have been much smarter had his character been someone else, as there really wasn’t a need for the Khan connection.  As with everything else in this plot, it felt as forced as the 2009 felt organic.

The Trek II connection also brought out the gaping holes in Into Darkness’ story.  While Wrath of Khan beautifully integrated the Genesis device, a moral challenge of galactic consequences into a more simple story of revenge, all of the “Trekisms” of this film feel tacked on.  Just because you have a terrorist attack, for example, that doesn’t really make it a commentary on terrorism unless you make it connect to something resonant in our lives.  Into Darkness really doesn’t even really try to do that.  Instead it gives you a few throw-away lines and a convoluted connection to attacking the Klingons that seems utterly divorced from modern events.  At the end of the day, this is Wrath of Khan with a lobotomy. [END SPOILERS]

There’s enough to like here to be worth the Trek, but there could have been so much more.  I’m delighted this film will be successful, and even more so because JJ is headed over to Star Wars.  For they now have Trek set up to boldly go where this film should have gone in the first place.

Overall Score: A soft 3 out of 5 stars

Read It Then See It: Star Trek: Countdown to Darkness #3-4

April 12, 2013

So, here’s my take on the conclusion of the lead-up series to the summer blockbuster.  Here are my reviews of the first and second issues.

Star Trek Into Darkness 4The (Comic) Book
Star Trek: Countdown to Darkness #3-4.  Story by Roberto Orci and Mike Johnson, art by David Messina

The Movie
Star Trek: Into Darkness, Paramount. Release Date, May 17, 2013.

Genre
Science Fiction

Age Appropriate
9 and up.  I’ll keep it here because of the first two, but the final two issues are actually far more violence-free than the first two and would probably be okay for even younger kids, more in the 8 and up range.

Good for Grown-Ups?
Not for anyone, actually.  I guess I’m giving away my review a bit, but from plot to artwork, I found these final two issues a waste of time and money.  Actually, more than that, but I’ll get to that below.

Book Availability
I downloaded these from iTunes for $3.99 each.  But if you really want to read them, the whole compilation is now available for $3.99.  That’s far more reasonable for this product.

Quickie Plot Synopsis (spoilers, but no spoilers regarding the film)
We pick up issue 3 with Sulu and his doomed colleague in the red shirt held hostage in the camp of the Shadows.  Sulu, always with the penchant for having a blade, pulls a hidden knife out of his shoe and unties them, just as Spock is running headlong to their rescue.

The Bajoran nose ridges on Mudd were admittedly a nice little Trek nerd touch

The Bajoran nose ridges on Mudd were admittedly a nice little Trek nerd touch

Meanwhile, Kirk and April continue their debate over whether the Prime Directive should be broken to save the Phadians, and what to do about Spock going all renegade.  Uhura comes down with a woman named Mudd (seems the daughter of TOS’s Harry Mudd) who is running guns for April.  Together, they all fly the shuttlecraft at the Shadows and manage to save all the humanoids and take them back to the Enterprise.

Back aboard the ship, April reveals that he knows it was the Klingons who are arming the Shadows, using them as a proxy rather than conquering the planet and draining the empire’s resources.  Kirk and Spock have it out regarding Spock’s near suicidal tendencies to rush into dangerous situations these days with a disregard for chain of command.  Spock says he’s sorry.

But while Kirk and Spock are having their moment, April and Mudd are hatching their scheme.  It seems that April’s Enterprise had a hidden program that only he could activate to keep all command and control under his authorization.  And somehow that program made it aboard this Enterprise.  He clears the bridge and locks out all other commands.  The Enterprise is his to do what he will, including starting a war with the Klingons.

In issue 4 we begin on the Klingon homeworld.  April is bargaining with them to turn over the Enterprise in return for being made governor of Phadeus under Klingon control.  He sees this as the only way to save his people from the shadows.

Kirk and Spock attempt unsuccessfully to get back to the bridge through the ducts, but just as a Klingon ship shows up to take April up on his offer, Scotty does the ole’ CTRL-ALT-DEL on the warp core and reboots everything.  Spock and Kirk break into the bridge and stun Mudd and April, and high-tail it out of there, leaving the Klingons in control of Phadeus.

Kirk expresses frustration with the Prime Directive and sympathy for Aprils ends, if not his means.  He then has a testy conversation with Admiral Pike about wanting to get to the bottom of why that computer program was still on the Enterprise.  Pike tells him that it’s for Starfleet Intelligence to work out, and he’s got to remember who his real enemies are.  Just at that moment, in London, a man named John Harrison is granted access to the Starfleet Data Archive.

To be continued May 17…

Quickie Review (more minor spoilers)
After being SO impressed with the second issue, I cannot tell you how much in pained me to read the sloppy, incomprehensible drivel that the final two issues brought forth.  Unlike Star Trek: Countdown, the preview series to the 2009 movie, where I felt excited and enriched, at the end of this series I felt like I had just been ripped off. Spock’s very interesting motivation for violating Kirk’s wishes and running off at the Shadows was whitewashed into a very thin “I have to save people” rather than have him being a more forceful advocate against genocide.  His logic seems not only confused, but almost entirely absent.

Kirk and Spock’s relationship is tense and uninteresting, hardy seeming to have grown at all since the events of the first film.  The method for April to take control of the Enterprise is ridiculous, as is the use of their being absolutely no discernible chain of command on the Enterprise to offer comic relief. McCoy’s small role painted him some kind of power-thirsty goofball that also seemed entirely out of character.  Only Uhura and Scotty’s roles seemed on point here.

If they were going to rip off TOS, they could at least have given us some classic Mugato action.

If they were going to rip off TOS, they could at least have given us some classic Mugato action.

The plot itself devolved into a poor man’s version of the TOS episode A Private Little War, where Kirk is forced to match technologies with what the Klingons are offering to create a stalemate on a contested planet.  It was far more expertly put together than this was, as April’s offer to turn the Enterprise over to the Klingons—the very people who armed the Shadows—seemed so far afield that it made a very interesting premise laughable.  Given his disgust over what had happened, and his control of a Starship that could have obliterated the Shadows from orbit, this concept was asinine beyond words.

And the end, essentially ceding the genocide and the planet to the Klingons to avoid a wider war was just the kind of “morally neutral” concepts that I was most afraid of.  Star Trek is about finding that right path, about finding solutions to problems.  The crews were not always successful, but their heart was in the right place.  This book was all about the “there is no right” and the infinite shades of gray in the spectrum of wrong.  If well told, stories like that can be interesting.  But it isn’t Star Trek, even if you call the pirate Mudd and the Klingon Kor.  This was both poorly told, and not Star Trek.

I hope the one in the movie looks better, that's for sure.

I hope the one in the movie looks better, that’s for sure.

On top of the poor plot and writing, I was similarly unimpressed with the artwork in these two issues. It almost felt like they were in a hurry to get these done and so the overall quality of everything slipped.  Gus and I joked that in one scene, Kirk looks like a six-year-old throwing a temper tantrum.  And the look of the new Klingon cruiser, looks like something Gunnar might have made out of a loose set of Legos.

Overall Read Score: 0.5 out of 5 stars

Opportunities for Discussion
“Wow, how bad was that?”

Overall Family Discussion Score: 0 out of 5 stars.

What to Expect from the Movie

Great, Star Trek is borrowing from thoughtful classics like GI Joe: Retaliation now

Great, Star Trek is borrowing from thoughtful classics like GI Joe: Retaliation now

I wish I could slingshot myself around the sun and go back in time to keep myself from pushing “buy” on my iPad.  Because I am now more convinced than ever that if this teases the tone of the upcoming film, my Star Trek is dead.  In its place is nothing but the familiar uniforms and names to cover a story that will unravel what Gene Roddenberry set to create half-a-century ago.  The vision of a better earth, a better us will be nothing more than a platform for telling a shoot-‘em-up thriller resplendent with moral relativism.

I am now genuinely worried that Star Trek: Into Darkness will be boldly going nowhere.  Instead of being a beacon we need of a brighter future and using the challenges and complexities of dealing with strange new worlds as allegory for our own struggles, it will instead smash that beacon and pull us down into the blackness of the human soul, telling us that no matter how advanced our technology gets, deep down we’re the same old flawed and bloodthirsty humans that we always were.

I’m not sure if that’s a trek worth taking.

The Book Review: The Dangerous Days of Daniel X

April 10, 2013

I’ve mentioned that I have written a manuscript for a novel about a Super Hero who finds out that he can’t use his powers violently, The Adventures of…MightyDove! (If you know of any good agents out there, let me know!).  As part of my process, I have been reading other books in the Super Hero novel genre.  I’ve been focusing on the “non-comic book” variety, so no Superman, Spider-Man, etc.  Given I’m reading ‘em anyway, I thought I might as well double my pleasure and blog about them too.  So here it goes…

Daniel X CoverThe Book
The Dangerous Days of Daniel X, James Patterson & Michael Ledwidge.  First in the Daniel X series (of which there are currently five books).

Genre
Science Fiction/Super Hero

Age Appropriate
9 and up.  Daniel himself is a teenager, but the story feels much more middle-grade to me.  The bad guys are super-nasty irredeemably evil, and we get a fairly intense scene in the beginning detailing his parents’ demise at the hands of one of the baddies.  Language and intensity probably a bit much for the younger elementary school set, but I would say by 3rd or 4th grade, this will work just fine.

Good for Grown-Ups?
Not Really.  I’ll get to this more in my review, but I felt that this story was very “by the numbers.”  Very little about it felt fresh or original other than the core concept of Daniel’s power.  It moves along just fine and I can see how younger readers who haven’t experienced stories like this before might enjoy it.  But for adults, I can’t say I’d recommend this one on its own.

Book Availability
I got mine on iTunes for $6.99.  But because this is the ubiquitous James Patterson, you can find these books pretty much everywhere.  I’ve seen them at Target and Costco, among other places.  There is also graphic novel and manga versions of the story, for those who like pictures to go along with their Super Heroes.  Oh, and there’s a Nintendo DS game in case you just wanted to dispense with words altogether.

Quickie Plot Synopsis (minor spoilers)
15-year-old Daniel doesn’t have a last name.  His parents were killed when he was just three.  And did I mention he is a super-genius with super powers?  And he’s not from this planet?

Yes, Daniel’s parents were sent to Earth to protect the planet from other aliens who might seek to enslave humanity.  But their demise left their young son alone, and in charge of the list of evil otherworlders whom he must somehow defeat.

His solitude is somewhat ameliorated by his greatest ability: the power to create.  With only his mind, he can bring into existence anything he can imagine, from his parents and sister to a group of friends.  As long as he’s focused, they are as alive and independent as you and me.  But, while they are more than figments of his imagination, they are fated to eventually leave him alone once again.

Baddies have a kind of MIB feel, but without the tongue-in-cheek fun.

Baddies have a kind of MIB feel, but without the tongue-in-cheek fun.

His projected parents are not happy when he decides to jump to the No. 6 rated villain on the list, telling him he’s not ready for such a battle.  But Daniel’s heard that this Ergent Seth has an imminent plan for worldwide domination.  He has no choice to leap into the fray.

But Daniel doesn’t realize that loneliness is his Kryptonite, and Seth uses it to entrap and enslave our hero.  There he learns that he is just the latest victim of the villain’s campaign to exterminate his entire race.  Daniel must now find a way out of his seemingly hopeless predicament, or see both of his worlds exterminated.

Quickie Review (minor spoilers)
I think that if you have a child who loves video games, but isn’t as into reading, this may very well , as that’s really what it reads like.  From the two-dimensional banter between Daniel and the various baddies, to their boss-monster battles complete with discussion of “power levels”—it all feels pretty much like a video game in words.

Frankly, that doesn’t do too much for me.

Had my teenage self created a girlfriend, I believe she would have looked like this.

Had my teenage self created a girlfriend, I believe she would have looked like this. How ’bout you?

The central facet of the book is an interesting one.  The main power that Daniel has is this power of creation.  And the fact that he creates his friends, and even a love interest, is a clever device.  Unfortunately, the internal battle he faces with this power are dealt with in a very cursory manner, while Patterson and Ledwidge instead decide to focus more on the cool ways he can use his power to get out of particular situations.  Perhaps a deeper exploration into what it means to have the power (and the danger) of being able to create anything out one’s mind will come in later books.  But here it is kept at a very surface level.  I would say “juvenile” but frankly I think most juveniles are ready for a richer experience than what Daniel X has to offer.

One of the biggest issues I had with the book had to do with Daniel himself.  I understand that a major part of YA books is the search for understanding who you are through the difficulties of adolescence.  But the super-genius, four star chef, alien hunter seemed divorced from that struggle.  When we is forced into a high school environment, the relationship he developed seemed unreal, and when that relationship goes terribly awry, it does so in a way not only contrived, but further separating Daniel from a struggle we can in any way relate to.   Once Daniel goes off-planet, the plot drowns in a derivative cascade of Sci-Fi archetypes from The Matrix to Star Wars.  The adorable scamp, the wise sage, the people on the edge of destruction, the final battle—you name it, it’s there without a single toy surprise in the pack.  The only word that comes to mind to describe the story is lazy.

Overall Read Score: 2 out of 5 stars

Opportunities for Discussion
Frankly, I didn’t find this book worthy of a lot of discussion.  I think there are a number of other books that deal with the basic themes here of being an outsider, the hero’s journey, and overcoming evil that would be far more worth your time.

As I noted, however, the one somewhat original concept that emerges in this book is Daniel’s power of creation.  But rather than spend the time and money on this book to have that discussion, I’d instead recommend you recommend that you fire up the Netflix streaming and…

(Don’t) Read It (and Instead) See It

While I cannot find any evidence online, it seems to me that the “X” in Daniel X might be an homage to another teen with the power of creation seen back in the 1960s.  That “X” would be Charlie X, of Star Trek the original series.

When the crew of the Enterprise receive the teenage Charlie after he was orphaned on a desolate planet, they take him back and reintroduce him to human civilization.  What they don’t realize is that he has developed incredible telekinetic powers that, in the hands of a petulant teenager, endangers the Enterprise, and perhaps the Federation itself.

She won't be smiling much longer.

She won’t be smiling much longer.

60’s kitschy effects aside, I think this is a great episode of TOS to watch with your child, especially if you have a boy.  Charlie is an antagonist, but not an evil enemy.  He is to be pitied and feared, not hated.  And it is highly likely that your boy, especially if he is on the cusp of adolescence himself, may well relate to Charlie’s feelings and impulsive decisions.  It also has funny moments, like Charlie slapping Janice Rand (Kirk’s on-ship squeeze) in the keester, thinking it’s just the way grown-ups say “See ya.”

So while Charlie X rarely makes it to the top of many people’s A-list of TOS episodes, it is actually a fantastic show for this particular demographic, and, to me, an infinitely superior way of addressing the only intriguing idea that comes from The Dangerous Days of Daniel X.  If you want to go more modern the movie Chronicle goes in a similar direction with a darker, more angsty feel (and it sounds like there’s a sequel on the way).

So as any good parent would say, put the book down, turn on that TV, and go learn something!

Of Boy Scouts and Superman

March 18, 2013
The wife?  Gorgeous.  The rest?  Meh.

The wife? Gorgeous. The rest? Meh.

I hate nature.

Not that I want to destroy it or anything; I spent the better part of two decades as a lobbyist and organizer trying to save it.  But in terms of enjoying it, let me just say this.  You see a picturesque ocean, I see an endless stretch of something that I can neither stand on nor breathe in.  Hell, I can’t even drink the stuff.  I’m still not sure what’s so beautiful about that.  With our annual trip to the Keys coming up soon, trust me, I’m going for the pie.

I was noting this particular out of my myriad peculiarities this past Friday, which happed to be “Scout Day” at our synagogue.  A number of boys, girls, men, and women including several of Gus’s classmates got up on the bimah and spoke of the connection between scouting and Judaism, most notably the emphasis on doing good deeds (mitzvot).

Whenever I see those Boy Scout uniforms, they burn like a scarlet letter on my parenting soul.

Ahoy!  I be Homerrrr!

Ahoy! I be Homerrrr!

You see, my big boy has in the past expressed some interest in joining the Boy Scouts.  And it probably would have been good for him, too, given my wife is not a huge fan of “roughing it” and my idea of communing with the land is a lovely stretch of well-manicured savannah abruptly enclosed by a semicircular fence bracketed by two garish yellow foul poles.  The pangs of guilt in not adequately preparing him to survive the zombie apocalypse are amplified by the social deprivation he’s expressed at not being part.  It’s the classic “all the cool kids are doing it” argument he expressed to me once again as we drove home.

But even with the young men proudly speaking of all the mitzvot they have done as Boy Scouts, perhaps in honor of the upcoming Passover holiday, this Pharaoh’s heart hardened and once again said, “No, no, no.  To Boy Scouts you cannot go.”

And take that cursed walking stick with you, camper!

And take that cursed walking stick with you, camper!

Indeed, I saw more than a certain sad irony in a mention of Scouting Day at a synagogue.  Jews have historically been a people on the outside looking in.  On Passover, we are instructed to remember our time as slaves thousands of years ago as if it were happening to us right now.  “For you were slaves in the land of Egypt.”  We are commanded not to ignore injustice both by deity and by tradition—something I find bonds me to Judaism despite my rather militant agnosticism (I don’t know, and neither do you).

But, of course, as we sat there hearing these young men speaking of the environmental and social ethics of Scouting, we heard nothing of the great white elephant—the national BSA’s continued singling out and exclusion of any gay or lesbian children or parents from being a part of the organization.  I understand why this was excluded from the program—I’m not quite that obtuse.  There was no reason to cast a pall on these kids who got so much out of this experience with this inconvenient truth.  But I don’t think I’m the only one in the sanctuary who could feel it ghosting the proceedings.

I tend to prefer the "warts and all" philosophy

I tend to prefer the “warts and all” philosophy, however

What surprised me a bit as Gus and I discussed this issue once again was the discovery that when he talked with his friends who were in the Boy Scouts, each and every one of them vehemently denied that the BSA had this policy.  Now, I don’t think that their parents have been lying to them.  Indeed, I just had a discussion with a couple of our good friends who have their son in the Boy Scouts.  When they decided to do it, the issue of the national policy was absolutely part of their discussion.  But knowing that in this liberal haven of Arlington that the issue would have little-to-no impact on their particular troop made them feel the on-the-ground positives outweighed the rhetorical negatives.

That seems quite reasonable to me.  And I’m sure that the fact that Gus’s friends have no idea about the BSA’s anti-LGBT policy is not a concerted effort on their parents part.  They joined the Scouts at a very early age, when this issue would have frankly been too complex to explain to them.  Given in a liberal place like Arlington this issue just simply isn’t an issue for their troops, it’s simply never come up.  And because in so many other ways the Boy Scouts is about respecting and helping others, it just seems antithetical to any child participating that it would also have such an exclusionary and discriminatory policy.

Can't hate this guy

Can’t hate this guy

As I continue to mull this decision, I always remind myself that my own moral compass is certainly far from true north.  For instance, I always loved the (should be in the) Hall of Fame catcher Mike Piazza, and even though I was taken aback when he called Rush Limbaugh “American Royalty” back in 2005, I decided that I would divorce the catcher from the man, and continue to be a fan of the player.  Why shouldn’t that same principle apply to the Boy Scouts?

It is actually a somewhat similar issue happening right now in the nerd world that gave me a bit more clarity. As you might remember, I rather enjoyed Orson Scott Card’s Ender’s Game, which will be coming out as a motion picture in November.  Indeed, I was quite intrigued to hear that DC comics is giving him his own Superman series to play with.  But then, I was hit with the news that Card is anti-gay marriage and has made some statements over the years that could be considered quite homophobic.  Here’s a very thorough article from Hollywood.com that traces the saga, and the publicity problem that both DC and Summit Entertainment have on their hands.

May be the closest I come to seeing the movie, unfortunately

May be the closest I come to seeing the movie, unfortunately

I’m far more iffy now as to whether I’m going to complete my Read It Then See It on Ender’s Game, as not only does Card personally believe in something I find terribly discriminatory, not only does he belong to what I believe to be a discriminatory organization (the National Organization for Marriage), but he is a member of their board of directors.  He is therefore actively using his celebrity to empower an organization that’s entire purpose—unlike the Boy Scouts—is to discriminate against the LGBT community.

There seems to be a difference in my mind between personal differences and institutionalized discrimination.  And while BSA is a private institution, it is still an institution.  So this is why I will still put Piazza’s #31 on my back, but Card’s Superman comics will remain on the shelves and I will continue to deprive my children of the unquestionable benefits of the Boy Scouts on this principle.

I admit fully that the line from disagreement over objectionable personal belief to institutionalized discrimination can sometimes be a murky one.  But it is that institutionalization of bias that, as a former slave in the land of Egypt, I simply cannot abide.

ew.

So this is the slightly wavering, yet deeply-etched line that I draw in the sand, and what I am committed to teaching my children.  If the BSA lifts its policy (something that doesn’t seem likely in the near future), however, I would be happy to allow my sons to take part.  Heck, I’ll even go on a camping trip with them.

Just don’t expect me to like it.

Read It Then See It: Star Trek: Countdown to Darkness #2

March 1, 2013

Well, Gus is having his first day back in school (crossed-fingers).  So of course, I spend my first hours alone doing what?  Reading a comic book, of course!  Oh, and for continuity, here is my review on the first issue of this series.

Star-Trek_Countdown-to-Darkness_2The (Comic) Book
Star Trek: Countdown to Darkness #2.  Story by Roberto Orci and Mike Johnson, art by David Messina

The Movie
Star Trek: Into Darkness, Paramount. Release Date, May 17, 2013.

Genre
Science Fiction

Age Appropriate
9 and up.  I added a year on here as there is a particular scene where (SPOILER) one of the Phadians are pretty savagely beheaded (END SPOILER).  Frankly, I didn’t feel that particular image was needed to make the point, but it’s there and so it may not be appropriate for younger children.

Good for Grown-Ups?
Yes.  Far more interesting and tight storytelling than the first issue.  Good action, but far more importantly, a very interesting dilemma put to Captain Kirk.

Book Availability
Once again, I downloaded this from iTunes for $3.99.  Again no sign of the comics at my local bookstores, though I’d guess the compilation will be there once it comes out.  BUT, I did note that once the NEXT issue of the comic comes out, the price of the previous issue DROPS to $1.99.  So if you’re willing to wait a bit, you’ll get yourself a bargain (relatively speaking).  Issue 3 is supposed to come out on March 13.

Quickie Plot Synopsis (minor spoilers—more than minor if you haven’t read issue #1)
And so we pick up with Kirk and Spock surrounded by light blue Phadians (I’m assuming that’s what they’d be called, as they’re actually not aliens.  In this case, the humans are the aliens) and a former Captain of a starship Enterprise, Robert April.

Kirk seems skeptical, but probably because the aliens aren't green, scantily clad women.

Kirk seems skeptical, but probably because the aliens aren’t green, scantily clad women.

We find out that some two decades ago, April, in command of the previous Enterprise, discovered that the blue Phadians were being exterminated by an aggressive subsect of their kind called the Shadows.  It was a classic and brutal case of genocide.  April decided that, in this case, he could not let the Prime Directive stand in the way of saving an entire race.  So he “went native” and his First Officer and friend covered his tracks.

Before Kirk and Spock can get back to their shuttle and crew, the Shadows attack and drive them and April deep into the catacombs where the last of the blue Phadians reside.  It seems that once April introduced advanced technology to this war, someone else jumped in quickly to assist the Shadows.  Their forces were now poised for a final offensive to complete the genocide that they started.

As April, Kirk, and Spock debate the morality of the Prime Directive, one of them slip off, and head, fully armed, toward the Shadow army.  Who it is, however, might come as a bit of a surprise.

Quickie Review (same spoiler level as above)
I liked the first one just fine, but I felt at 22 pages it was a bit thin.  It’s funny, because even though this one is also 22 pages, it felt like SO much more.

The plot itself was very rich, as it really tackled the moral ambiguity that goes along with the Prime Directive.  This issue speaks volumes to current issues, as the technologically sophisticated United States has the ability, as we did in Libya, to play a decisive role in deciding a civil war.  Yet, in cases such a Rwanda in the 1990s, we did nothing and allowed a genocide to happen.  When is it right to interfere in the affairs of other nations?  That, on a planetary scale, is what’s being debated here.

Spock's messed up, but does that mean that the Spock we knew is entirely gone?

Spock’s messed up, but does that mean that the Spock we knew is entirely gone?

A couple more fun things happen here, as we continue to get a different feel for this Spock.  I’m not sure I like it, as the more I see, the more different he becomes from the Spock I grew up with an idolized.  In some ways, it definitely makes for an interesting juxtaposition, but I’m afraid that the scars of Vulcan’s destruction might actually serve to limit the character’s growth as everything seems to revolve around that now.

It was also fun to see Uhura in command of the Enterprise, as this new generation of our intrepid crew break from the shackles of the glass ceilings of the ‘60s.  However, I really did not like the way McCoy was written, as his interaction with Uhura made him seem power-hungry and scheming, which is completely against type.

I also found it unfortunate that the art of the old Enterprise wasn’t more “old school.”  My understanding is that their original idea for opening the movie in 2009 was to have the Enterprise under April’s command, looking just like it did in the original series, come into contact with the Narada.  I think that would have been amazing, and they could have nodded to that here by drawing his Enterprise more like the one from TOS.

That said, there was a nice drawing of an old-school looking tricorder, and both a race and a name from Star Trek of old that was fun to see.  In all, a very strong issue both for the Trek novice and nerds like me.

Overall Read Score: 4.5 out of 5 stars

Opportunities for Discussion
As you might expect, this issue really expands upon the last one.  So what I noted in issue #1 definitely still applies here.  But there is one very large new issue that’s a doozy of a discussion point:

An amazing and haunting book on Rwanda–well worth a read

Genocide: Perhaps one of the most difficult issues for humanity, as we have yet to overcome as a species the drive to exterminate entire peoples simply for what they are.  In this issue of the comic, we have the Shadows painted as nothing but bad guys.  I’ll be curious if they stick there in that “comfortable dilemma” of whether good guys should go in and get the bad guys even if it doesn’t seem to be their business, or whether they’ll open up the Shadows a bit more.  As, of course, the “We were just following orders” is also one of the great debates over what to do in the face of, and the aftermath of, genocide.

As difficult as this issue can be, however, it can also be used as more of a personal allegory to cases of racism, bigotry, and bullying.  Is it always the right thing to do to get yourself involved when you see someone else doing something wrong?  If you see injustice, is it better to involve yourself as an advocate for the one being abused, or an arbiter to help diffuse the situation?  April leaped in as a defender, not doing anything to even try to see if he could change the situation without taking sides.  Was that the right thing for him to do?  Maybe.  Maybe not.  But it sure is interesting to talk about.

Overall Family Discussion Score: 5 out of 5 stars.

What to Expect from the Movie

Eh, go play with your Death Star

Oh, go play with your Death Star already

I wish I could say that issue #2 made me feel a little less nervous about what to expect from the movie, but it didn’t.  I think the issue itself is great Trek, but I remember in the Star Trek: Countdown series before the 2009 film, there were wonderful, Trek-like allusions and discussions, but because the film was intended for an audience that had no familiarity with Star Trek, little-to-none of that was included in the picture itself.

I have to say that perhaps a little bit of more worry comes from feeling 2nd best now that JJ Abrams has taken on Star Wars.  It’s not that he’s doing the new movies—that’s fine by me.  It’s that when he agreed to take it on, he said, “I can just say what I want to do: I want to do the fans proud.”  Given his quote while making Trek 2009 was “I’m not making this for the fans,” I still continue to be concerned that while he enjoys the Star Trek characters, he does not seem to really enjoy the core of Roddenberry’s vision.

Yes, yes.  I’ll try to remove the Tauntaun-sized chip from my shoulder before I see the movie in May…

Read It Then See It: Star Trek: Countdown to Darkness #1

February 11, 2013

Okay, I know I said I was doing magic next, but I just realized that the comic book series that leads up to the new Star Trek movie just started.  I was very impressed with the Star Trek: Countdown series that predicated the 2009 film, as it really helped to ground this new iteration within Star Trek lore and give the whole plot and villain a little more depth.  So now that we’re firmly planted in this new JJ Abramsverse (at least until he leaves for a galaxy far, far away) I thought it would be interesting to see how they’re teeing up this summer sci-fi tent pole.

star-trek-countdown-to-darkness-1(Comic) Book
Star Trek: Countdown to Darkness #1.  Story by Roberto Orci and Mike Johnson, art by David Messina

The Movie
Star Trek: Into Darkness, Paramount. Release Date, May 17, 2013.

Genre
Science Fiction

Age Appropriate
8 and up.  While things go boom, even what might be considered scary is bloodless and tame.  It is not a dialogue-heavy comic, but Mr. Spock does like to use those big ole’ science-y words.  If bug-like aliens will freak your little guy or gal out, this may also not be your best bet, though we’re talking more ant-like than giant killer spider, here.

Good for Grown-Ups?
Yes.  A light read, but some good warm-up action for the movie and a solid first issue.

Book Availability
I just downloaded it from iBooks for $3.99.  Frankly, it felt a little pricey to me for a 22 page comic book that was a little light on dialogue.  Oh, for the large turning racks of 25 cent comic books at the local drug store of yesteryear…  The physical comic book was not available at my local Barnes and Noble, though I’d guess the full compilation will be available wherever you can get graphic novels when the series is completed.

Quickie Plot Synopsis (minor spoilers)
Several months after the events of Star Trek (2009), Captain Kirk and the Enterprise have been on numerous missions exploring strange new worlds, but this isn’t your father’s Trek.

Better than the dream where you have to repeat high school geometry, though.

Better than the dream where you have to repeat high school geometry, though.

The trauma of Nero’s genocide on Vulcan haunts Spock, and the brash young Captain Kirk chafes from the solitude and unexpected restraints of command.  Their internal battles seem to have an impact on their relationship, as the strain between Spock’s caution and Kirk’s impulsiveness are clearly evident as they arrive at the planet Phadeus.

Kirk is desperate to “stretch his legs” and take a peek at this pre-industrial civilization, but Spock is absolutely adamant that the Prime Directive—that the Federation make no contact with a civilization until it has achieved faster-than-light space travel—be strictly adhered to.

Just when Kirk is about to defer to Spock, an energy pulse from the planet disrupts the Enterprise’s communications and transporter capabilities.  Kirk notes that the Prime Directive no longer applies, as an energy pulse of that sort could not come from a pre-industrial civilization.  Someone has been tampering on Phadeus.

Kirk, Spock, and Sulu take a shuttlecraft down to the planet, and quickly learn how right Kirk was…the hard way.  And when they discover who has been at work down on the planet, they find it comes in the form of a very familiar face (at least to Star Trek nerds like me).

Quickie Review (minor spoilers)
As I noted, I wouldn’t put this comic in the “Best Value” bin, but it’s a fun little read.  I have not been following the ongoing comic book series created by publisher IDW that has continued the new voyages of the starship Enterprise, but this one does a nice job helping to keep from falling into the “well, they’re together now, so they’re just like they were in the original series.”

The key dynamic that’s different here is Kirk and Spock.  While there is an undercurrent of respect between the two of them, the implicit trust and friendship we are used to with these characters is not there.  Where in TOS, Kirk spent time balancing Spock’s logic and McCoy’s humanity, here Kirk seems more comfortable making decisions based on his own instinct and Spock is attempting to reel him in.

When old school Kirk broke the Prime Directive, he did it with style.

When old school Kirk broke the Prime Directive, he did it with style.

The other fun part of this issue is its focus on the Prime Directive.  This is a Star Trek cornerstone: Thou Shalt Not Muck With Developing Civilizations.  This is territory that has been very well covered in pretty much every iteration of Trek, but not so much with the prism of a post-9/11 society.  A core question raised here is how much in the wake of the Trek equivalent of 9/11—the Narada attack on the Federation—has the Federation itself changed.  Are the ideals of a society that has conquered its own biases, that seeks out new civilizations peacefully and in a spirit of cooperation, still what rule the day?  Or have the scars from Nero changed this Federation into something different—something darker.  The appearance of an old character at the very end of the issue—one with a personal connection to the Enterprise—begs this very question.

But, while I understand this is a comic book, and only the first of the four issue set, I felt like it was fairly thin.  I would have enjoyed seeing more of the dynamic between Kirk and Spock work its way out, or perhaps some dialogue between some of the secondary characters giving insight into how the ship is running in this new reality.  Given we have so many assumptions coming in based on the crew we knew from the 1960s, I felt that I wanted another 4-5 pages of “catch-up” to feel comfortable when they jump into the meat of the story.

The artwork was solid, though at times I found the characters alternatively looking very much like their live-action counterparts in one panel then virtually nothing like them in the next.

Overall Read Score: 3.5 out of 5 stars

Opportunities for Discussion
Some nerdy and actually not-so-nerdy opportunities crop up in this issue.  Let me turn to my strength and go nerd first.

The Prime Directive: In the 1960s, The Prime Directive was an analogy to colonization or developed nations muscling developing countries into their particular political/economic/development track.  It was a great Cold War device to use to discuss perceptions of power relationships and what “civilized” society would do.  In the age of global terrorism and uneven, but nearly ubiquitous technological dissemination, the Prime Directive may mean something very different now.  Is the Prime Directive a vestige of a time when developed nations felt “paternal” to less developed ones?  And when those lesser developed nations can become a harbor for those that would mean to do us harm, should it still apply?

Losing a planet sucks, but losing a friend...

Losing a planet sucks, but losing a friend…

The Power of Personal Tragedy: Spock’s ongoing difficulty in handling what happened in the first Star Trek film hits front-and-center here.  And while, yes, the destruction of his planet that was most obviously traumatic, it was his failure to save his mother that he simply can’t seem to get over.  Why in a world that has so much loss does some get raised over others?  The immensity of the tragedy in Syria puts what happened in Newtown to shame, yet America seems changed forever by that tragedy and is seemingly unfazed by the civil war in that far-off nation.  What kind of tragedy overwhelms us in grief?  What kind motivates us to action?  What makes us push the tragedy away from us?  What does that say about us as individuals?  As humans?

Overall Family Discussion Score: 4 out of 5 stars.

What to Expect from the Movie
Star Trek Into Darkness Poster 2Well, golly, I’m just not sure.  I must admit that I’m a little more concerned about this one than I was the last.  Both the “Into Darkness” title and the fact that the secret bad guy being played by Sherlock’s Benedict Cumberbatch is reported to be a terrorist is making me feel a bit worried that Abrams is going all Battlestar Galactica with this film.

What made me enjoy the first film so much was that under the big action was a message that felt very Trek to me.  The old Spock’s failure to stop Romulus from being destroyed represented the failure of the 60’s generation to create the better world of Star Trek that Gene Roddenberry envisioned.  But that core of hope, that we can better ourselves and get past our own hate and weakness, the core that is Star Trek, is still very valid.  And so a new generation is handed that sacred trust to attempt to boldly go where no one has gone before.

If they instead make this into more of a straight “Old Star Trek was the 1960s, this is 2013” then we’ll get yet another gritty space drama where the line between good and evil are hopelessly muddled.  While there’s nothing wrong with that kind of complexity, that to me robs Star Trek of what makes it special.  Star Trek, even at its most dark, has been about our never-ending struggle, and ultimate triumph, to be better than we are today.  While from the Borg to the Dominion, different writers have found clever ways to implant doubt and challenge whether a better humanity is truly suited for the stars, the underlying promise of a hopeful future was never in question.  As I watch and hear what they have in store, I worry if that central premise might be lost in the effort to tell a more “contemporary” tale.

I hope I’m wrong, because, frankly, there’s already more than enough darkness to go around these days.

Read It and See It: Ender’s Game

February 8, 2013

As I have intimated in past posts, I’ve never been a huge supernatural fantasy fan.  I like the genre, but the Sci-Fi nerd in me always chafed when somehow magic and science get lumped into one category as if because you dig one, you must naturally love the other.  So I’m always delighted to see when a true science fiction story comes along to meet my RI&SI format.

Enders GameThe Book
Ender’s Game by Orson Scott Card. Originally published in 1985 with revisions in 1991.

The Movie
Ender’s Game, Lionsgate. Release Date, November 1, 2013.

Genre
Science Fiction

Age Appropriate
10 and up.  While this book begins with the main character at six-years-old, it is by no mean a story for children.  Indeed, it is very much a story about what happens when children have their childhood taken from them.  While not as brutal, there is a lot of Lord of the Flies in this book. So think about that as you consider whether it’s appropriate for your child.  On the other hand, there are a LOT of themes of feeling alone, bullied, different, and the struggles of a young mind to adapt to a grown-up world that are very prescient for kids.  So by no means is it just a book for grown-ups.  I am encouraging my 11-year-old to read it.

Good for Grown-Ups?
Yes.  This is a Hugo and Nebula award-winning book.  Serious nerd cred right there.

Book Availability
I read mine on my iPhone and I know it’s available on Google Books as well.  If you’re picking it up in hard copy, I’d suggest making sure it’s the new 20th anniversary version, as Card’s new introduction has some interesting insights on both his creation and reaction to the book that’s worth reading (though frankly, better read after reading the book).

Quickie Plot Synopsis (minor spoilers)
Andrew “Ender” Wiggin isn’t supposed to exist.  On an overcrowded planet where population is strictly controlled, even second children are almost unheard of.  But as the commanders of the International Fleet (IF) search for the genius who can help them save the Earth from an insectoid alien race known pejoratively as “buggers” the Wiggin family are given permission to have a “third.”

Their first child, Peter, was absolutely brilliant, but certifiably sociopathic.  The second, Valentine, was perhaps even smarter, but she was too sensitive in the mind of the IF to be a capable leader.  And so Ender was tracked since his government-sanctioned birth (literally, as they implanted a camera in his neck) with the hopes of his being the right cocktail of the first two.  After beating back a group of bullies in his school, Commander Hyrum Graff decides that, at the ripe old age of six, this child is the one he’s been looking for.  Ender is commanded to leave his family, and the Earth itself, and train to become part of the International Fleet.

Definitely some Starship Troopers vibe going on.

Definitely some Starship Troopers vibe going on.

Once separated from his family, Graff has only one mission: shape this boy into a leader brilliant enough to defeat a bugger onslaught that may well be even worse than what legendary commander Mazer Rackham was barely able to defend against decades ago.  In addition to learning how to deal with the zero gravity battle room like all other students, Ender is forced to face isolation, depravation, and peer menacing all carefully orchestrated against him.  His only escape is into an immersive computer fantasy game, which, of course, is yet another test.

Ender succeeds, but at a tremendous cost to his soul.  And when he is promoted to command school even before his twelfth birthday, the doubts about what he has done begin to overwhelm him.  That is when Mazer Rackham himself comes to begin a new game, one where the stakes may well be more than Ender could ever have imagined.

Quickie Review (minor spoilers)
There is a LOT to chew on in this book, despite its straight-forward narrative style.  At its heart, however, this story is about the benefits and burdens of being gifted.  It is about the curse of high expectations, and the cognitive disconnect that adults have, or will even force themselves to have, between intelligence and emotional maturity.

As I noted, the prose is written functionally, which Card says was intentional as he wanted this to be a book that wasn’t artistic or impenetrable, but a morality play that children can also access.  In that, he doesn’t present as gripping or fantastic a story of the formation of brilliance as a somewhat similar tale, Neal Stephenson’s The Diamond Age.  For while both the stories heavily involve the relationship between a child and a fantasy computer game for learning and development, Stephenson’s plot is far more delicately pieced together, while Card is pretty much using a sledgehammer to make his points.  That’s not necessarily a bad thing, especially for a YA book, but I can understand why it might frustrate older readers.

Without doubt, Ender’s experiences in battle school are the highlight of the book.  Card sets things up well so you pull for the kid from very early in the story, and slyly allows you to condone the violence he does, only to make both you and Ender reconsider that position.  I also very much liked the very vague understanding of “the buggers” that everyone had.  The fact that no one really knew what they were really like, even after two wars, so they were preparing to fight an enemy they really didn’t understand, was an outstanding and thought-provoking concept.

The sections where Card decides to take a break from Ender and focus on his siblings back on Earth felt odd and unnecessary to me.  I understand that they are supposed to be deeper explorations into the minds of brilliant children, but I didn’t see a lot of additional insight or, alternatively, a solid device to drive the plot forward.  Indeed I found myself very much desiring to return to Ender during those chapters.

And when we do return, and Ender goes to command school, the book returns to its strength, and reveals its most major and interesting point about the morality of war.  Questions about whether preemptive war is right, whether genocide is ever justified, and what it truly takes to lead are all explored in a very engaging and challenging way.

Don't do it, Steven!  Just fade to back!

Don’t do it, Steven! Just fade to back!

My only major issue with this book, actually, is with what I call the “Spielberg Effect.”  For from AI to Schindler’s List to Saving Private Ryan, Spielberg just can’t seem to help but tack on an ending to make sure that you absolutely knew what the point of the movie was, leaving the viewer no room to be a participant in his creation.  This is actually something that I’ve thought about a lot as I’ve written my own book; trying to ensure the dénouement doesn’t strangle the reader’s own interpretation of what transpired.

I feel that, most unfortunately, Card does exactly that.  He decides that we absolutely MUST know the true feelings and emotions behind the buggers and give Ender some emotional closure.  If that had been the central point of the book, that would have been fine.  But it was not, and by forcing each loose end into a square knot, Card took away a number of the lingering questions and doubts about what Ender had done that turned it from a thoughtful morality play into something that felt more sadly apologist.  This really squelched my ability to intellectually interact with the story; something, ironically, the author stresses he wants from the reader at the end of his new introduction.

So in all, a worthwhile read, though the ending almost made me revisit that conclusion.

Overall Read Score: 3.5 out of 5 stars

Opportunities for Discussion
As I’ve already noted, this book is filled-to-the-gills with interesting discussion opportunities for parents and kids.  Here’s a smattering of ones that I’ve come up with, but I’m sure you’ll come up with more:

The Curse of the Special Child:  Once a child has been designated as gifted, are there responsibilities that come along with that?  What is the balance between maximizing a child’s gift and ensuring that child has the right to a childhood?  How can and should adults push children to ensure that their talents come to the fore?

The Needs of the Many…  Ender is forced into his situation because of the perceived imminent threat of another bugger invasion (which is not exactly what it seems).  At what point are we allowed to use or endanger others, especially innocents, when a “greater good” is on the line.  This is a debate we are certainly having right now as regards issues such as drone strikes that have civilian casualties.

And do the Ends Justify the Means?  This particular question is asked in two different ways in the book.  The first is in the use of Ender—to do whatever it takes to form him into the kind of leader humanity needs at its darkest hour.  But then, the question is raised as to whether this is truly humanity’s darkest hour, which lends real complexity to the story, and the potential discussion.  It provides geopolitical, parenting, and playground jungle possibilities for talking about whether fighting to prevent a fight is ever justified.

Can't go wrong with a Horta!

Can’t go wrong with a Horta!

Ender Hears a Horta: There is very much an underlying theme here about assuming an adversary is an enemy.  It is very similar to one of my all-time favorite episodes of Star Trek, Devil in the Dark.  While in many ways I actually feel like this part of the plot actually took away from the quality of the overall book, it is very present and well worth discussing.

Is Humanity a Weakness? As Ender is “toughened up” his trainers chip away at his aversion and guilt toward violence.  Is building this kind of thick skin something that everyone should do?  What secondary ramifications of building up scar tissue toward the inhumanity of violence? What can that do to your perception of such positive human traits as love and compassion?

Violence in Video Games: This is the low-hanging fruit of the book, but is an interesting discussion to have with kids, especially if they dig Call of Duty or some of the other hyper-violent games.  Should video games be used to acculturate kids to adult realities?  Does it desensitize?  How can video games be used to help or to hurt kids?

Overall Family Discussion Score: 5 out of 5 stars

What to Expect from the Movie

Looks like they're aging up Ender to get one actor into the whole role.

Looks like they’re aging up Ender to get one actor into the whole role.

My understanding is that Card has been heavily involved with the film project, including writing the screenplay.  Star Trek (2009) scribes Roberto Orci and Alex Kurtzman are producing, and Rendition and X Men Origins: Wolverine director Gavin Hood is at the helm.

The book in many was feels made for the screen, as it’s “kid against the world for the fate of civilization” is simple enough to be translated without many tough editing choices to the screen, I’d think.  And with Harrison Ford and Ben Kinglsey in the two adult male lead roles, one can see that there is some Hollywood gravitas behind the project.

I have to say, however, that the studio synopsis doesn’t make me overly excited:

In the near future, a hostile alien race (called the Formics) have attacked Earth. If not for the legendary heroics of International Fleet Commander Mazer Rackham (Ben Kingsley), all would have been lost. In preparation for the next attack, the highly esteemed Colonel Graff (Harrison Ford) and the International Military are training only the best young children to find the future Mazer. Ender Wiggin (Asa Butterfield), a shy but strategically brilliant boy, is pulled out of his school to join the elite.

Arriving at Battle School, Ender quickly and easily masters increasingly difficult war games, distinguishing himself and winning respect amongst his peers. Ender is soon ordained by Graff as the military’s next great hope, resulting in his promotion to Command School. Once there, he’s trained by Mazer Rackham himself to lead his fellow soldiers into an epic battle that will determine the future of Earth and save the human race.

The description makes it feel more like “Young Starship Troopers” rather than “Searching for Bobby Fisher…in Space” which is the spirit of the book at its best (though I admit, Lionsgate marketing probably doesn’t see the latter as particularly effective).  I’d guess given Card’s involvement, however, is that the underlying themes will remain intact.  Of course, I would love to see them fiddle with the ending, but Card’s involvement would likely mitigate against that as much as it would to help save what made the book effective.

Next in this series: Back to the “Spook”-y magic stuff.

The Review: The Amazing Spider-Man

July 6, 2012

Friday without summer camp = movie time!  So the G-men and I ambled off to see this new iteration of my all-time favorite Super Hero.

The Movie
The Amazing Spider-Man, Columbia Pictures

Genre
Science Fiction (uh, radioactive spider, anyone?)

Age Appropriate
I let my 7-year-old see it and while there were a couple of scenes that I might have liked to see first (which I will note below in my spoiler section), in all I didn’t feel like a bad Dad having taken him to it.  So I’ll say 7 and Up.

Good for Grown-Ups?
Yes.  Not very thoughtful, but a good overall ride that was well-acted by mostly the entire cast.  Solid piece of chewing gum.

Spoilers for Younger Kids
It mostly comes down to two deaths of two major father figures: Uncle Ben and Captain Stacy.  The Uncle Ben death is pretty classic for the Spider-Man lore and is sad and contains a fair amount of blood.  Stacy gets it from The Lizard with impaling claw action near the end of the film.  It is quick, but surprisingly graphic given the overall bloodless nature of the film.  Some kids may be taken aback when both Connors, and subsequently come police officers get Lizard-ified.  When the Lizard starts to break open the gas canisters, that’s a good time to have the little ones close their eyes. Finally, there is one “jump” scene right after the Lizardification where Gwen is hiding from the Lizard, and he rips the door open and she screams.  Short, and nothing bad happens, but could give little ones a start.

Quickie Plot Synopsis (light spoilers ahead)
Brooding teen genius Peter Parker, being raised by his aunt and uncle after his parents mysteriously die in a plane crash, attempts to run the gauntlet of bullies and hormones of his New York high school.  After finding out that his crush, gorgeous genius Gwen Stacy heads up an internship program run by an old colleague of his father’s, Peter stumbles into a science experiment with spiders, and, chomp, here comes a Spider-Man!

That colleague, Dr. Curt Connors, with some help from Peter, is able to successfully create a cross-species gene therapy, but when Connors tests it on himself, something goes horribly wrong.  This leads to Spidey, Gwen, and her father Captain Stacy working together, sometimes reluctantly, to rescue the Big Apple from an insane Connors’ plan to mutate the entire human race.

Are your Spider-Senses tingling at the prospect?

My Review
As a life-long fan of the Web-Head, I tend to go into Spider-Man with some very specific expectations.  In this new incarnate, some were met, but many were not.

Take a look, over-head!

The good of this move starts with the visual.  Even since Sam Rami’s relatively recent Spider-Man 3, special effects have come a long way.  Can he swing from a web?  You bet your keester!  The sense of barely controlled mayhem from the speed and torque of swinging from skyscrapers was caught here like never before.  And Spider-Man’s speed and agility, not to mention the Lizard’s raw power, were captured brilliantly.  I saw the film in 2D as neither I nor the boys really find 3D particularly engaging, but even without the added layer of depth, it was an impressive spectacle.

The real people were actually quite good, too.  No one gave a head-scratching performance, and the chemistry between Andrew Garfield’s Parker and Emma Stone’s Stacy felt natural and all the right kinds of awkward and overly dramatic for a teen romance.  Rhys Ifans did a very competent job as the heavy both in voice when reptilian and as the angst-ridden Dr. Connors.  No complaints here.

The plot was simple, but moved along well, not adding anything particularly offensive to Spider-Man purists and paying short homage to pieces of Spider-Man lore (wrestling, photography) that they decided not to travel down.  Many of the pieces of the plot (genetic manipulation, self-testing of serum with resulting strength and insanity) felt derivative of Rami’s Spider-Man, but not so much so to feel like a rip off.  No real surprises on either the good or the bad.

No, thanks.

Where The Amazing Spider-Man and Spider-Man really parted ways was with tone.  Garfield’s Parker is very mod.  The brooding outsider—the Twilightification of Spider-Man, if you will.  Indeed, the whole tone of the film took on that brooding, angst-y feel to it.  Indeed, the scenes where Spider-Man even attempts some trademark witty banter really feel out of place.  Instead, the scene where Parker gives his mask to a boy to wear to give him courage while he saves him from a burning car felt far more point-on for this iteration.

And, to be honest, I really didn’t like that.

There was simply no release valve for the melodrama in this movie.  No goofy goober science nerd Peter Parker.  No hilarious wrestling barker.  No sardonic bosses making Peter’s life a living hell.  All the things that really ground the Spider-Man character and help him feel like the quintessential everyman put in impossible circumstances really feels missing from this movie.  In short, it really seems to be missing the fun.  To use an Avengers reference—it really needed more shawarma.

Both Gus and I felt we’d rather go back and see what Tobey McGuire’s Parker is up to rather than following where Garfield will take us next, though Gunnar felt that this one was a flat-footed tie with the earlier take.

Really, please, for the love of Pete, no.

Now that they’ve announced that this new version will be a trilogy, I’m hoping that Amazing Spider-Man 2 might take itself a little less seriously and bring the soul that Stan Lee, Steve Ditko, and Sam Rami gave to this timeless character rather than shoving the artifice of the sullen, brooding teens down our throats like we’re fed in the modern teen hand-wringer like The Hunger Games.  Because if we end up with Team Gwen vs. Team Mary Jane, I’ll be squarely on Team Please for the Love of God Stop, You’re Destroying My Favorite Super Hero.

Overall Score: 3 out of 5 stars