Read This: On a Pale Horse

June 22, 2009

palehorse01FROM JASON’S TRIP TO HALF PRICE BOOKS — Just ignore for a moment that On a Pale Horse is written by one Piers Anthony Dillingham Jacob, author of those hideous Xanth novels.

Up front: It has flaws. It’s simplistic to a Da Vinci Code fault, clearly pointed at the young adult audience. You get the impression that it was written in one long incense-fueled sitting, and the whole mass simply congealed on the pages. On a Pale Horse isn’t style over substance; it’s concept over substance.

I’m not doing a hot job of selling it, am I?

Still, it has its novelties, and that’s why I was willing to spend $3.56 to own it (can I plug Half Price Books any more ardently?).

Anthony does something quite rare; he writes into a unique niche I’ll call science fantasy, or sci-fa. The most interesting conceit of his Incarnations of Immortality series (of which this is book one) is the world in which it is set — a modern mirror Earth where dark magic is employed alongside nuclear energy. Where soldiers fired spells as well as bullets during World War II. Where car manufacturers compete for customers with flying carpet makers. Where Satan’s marketing department wages a massive billboard PR campaign for Hell. Where succubi can be had (for a price) and computer programs can summon demons.

Anthony does such an excellent job of fusing arcane arts, monsters, skyscrapers, and technology (early 1980s tech, anyway) that it many times overshadows the adolescent dialogue and clunky plot dynamics. Not all the time, mind you, but enough of a Band-Aid to pull it out of the proverbial hellfire.

The premise: Young Zane (an 80s name if ever I heard one) manages to shoot and kill the personification of Death and, just like in The Santa Clause, must take his place. Zane travels the world on his titular steed, harvesting the souls that are in perfect balance between good and evil and deciding whether those souls should go to Heaven, Hell, or Purgatory. Thanks to the meddling of other Incarnations — War, Fate, Nature, and Time — he becomes ensnared in a plot by Satan to kick-start World War III.

Think Death Takes a Holiday on a Harry Potter level, but without the depth.

Again, I know I’m not being very persuasive on behalf of On a Pale Horse, and I do apologize. But my feelings on this one are complicated. While Anthony’s style is oversimplified and sometimes even vacant, I am completely taken with the idea of an anthropomorphic Death who exercises choice, and has personality, compassion, and rules.

Here’s a Death who struggles with the ethics of mercy killings (incredibly progressive for 1982), rails against the rules God’s instituted for original sin, goes on strike, and isn’t afraid to rescue a select few “clients” who he believes are getting shafted by Fate.

And hey — Zane even loosely inspired Bryan Fuller’s Emmy-nominated Dead Like Me on Showtime, which featured similar Grim Reapers working the Seattle area. That’s got to count for something.

So this review was less than glowing. Not everything on my bookshelf is literary gold. If you’re interested, then do what I did — read it in an airport.

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The flashy new Star Trek was worth exactly $32.75

May 9, 2009

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***HEREIN BE SPOILERS***

FROM JASON’S COMMUNICATOR — The leaks all said there would be time travel in J.J. Abrams’ new Star Trek film. I should have been smart enough to bring a pad of paper to diagram for my wife the black hole-induced plot.

“How can there be two Spocks?” she whispered a good two thirds into the film. I arched a single eyebrow and tried to get her to remember the basic mechanics of Back to the Future II.

That was a mistake. Her eyes went glassy. She is not a science fiction buff. She hates all things Trek, but was classy enough to tag along with me this time and indulge my spaceships and green aliens fetish.

Oh well. At least the pretty cast, a brief sex scene featuring the aforementioned Orion sexpot, and a certain hunky captain were enough to keep my lady’s eyes on the screen. “Who is that guy? The main guy?” the wife asked at one point. “Chris Pine? I’ll bet he’s got a big pine… in his pants,” she snickered. But I  noticed she was watching more than just James T. Kirk. Try as she might to hide it, and this is important, she was actually watching the film.

That’s all I could ask for — enough gloss to keep a noob interested while my inner geek whooped and jumped up and down like a first-grader at recess. And Abrams delivered, making the most accessible Trek flick of the franchise (rivaled only, in my opinion, by First Contact).

That’s great, because I certainly paid for it. We shelled out $19 to get the digital version, which looked and sounded magnificent, and then another $13.75 for two boxes of candy and a single frozen Coke.

In exchange for that huge hunk o’ cash, I got a Red Shirt death, the return of Leonard Nimoy, and an introduction to characters that didn’t devolve into Starfleet High School: 90210 Edition.

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There was also a surprising amount of Star Wars tossed into the mix — and I mean the good ol’ A New Hope, not the George Lucas-needs-a-new-yacht variety. My spidey sense went off when an impressionable Kirk zoomed across the Iowa farmscape on his motorcycle looking an awful lot like Luke Skywalker putt-putting past Tatooine moisture farms in his landspeeder. But there were other subtle references packed in as well, such as brief glimpses of exotic aliens in background shots that evoked the Mos Eisley cantina scene.

Chris Pine wasn’t nearly as wet-behind-the-ears as Mark Hamill, though. He managed to put just the right amount of immaturity into Kirk’s typical smarm and meritocratic leadership. There was a smidgen of reckless self-assurance and just the right amount of sex hound (he uttered, “Hey ladies,” just about every time a warm body walked by).

He also managed to throw in a couple of sentences in William Shatner’s trademark stutter-stopping bravado during the Kobayashi Maru sequence toward the film’s start. The timing was so underplayed that it almost slipped my radar. Or sensors. Or whatever.

Pine wasn’t even the best actor of the new brood, though. Zachary Quinto oozed Spock, managing to put a surprising degree of emotion into the logical Vulcan. For that matter, 14-year-old Jacob Kogan gets huge props for playing Spock as a child without the slightest hint of Jake Lloyd blandness.

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Of the entire crew, however, I was most impressed with Karl Urban as Bones. He felt the most relaxed, and his cranky color did the most to put me in mind of the cheesy old space opera. But while his performance was flawless, there was none of the McCoy-Spock interplay, the bickering, the affection-padded insults that made their relationship so much fun in the 1960s series. I missed that, and hopefully the two planned sequels will explore that side of their friendship.

In its place, Abrams and company wrote in a surprise romance, and I very much approve of the Uhura-Spock coupling. You heard that right. Spock and Uhura making out.

The predictable model for the film would have been to allow Kirk to woo and win the at-first unwilling Nyota. But not so here. Spock gets the girl. He gets her good. And the writers chose to skip over the beginning of their fling and jump straight into the midst of a mature, nurturing relationship.

Meanwhile, Chekov and Sulu got exactly the right amount of screen time due them, which screams to me that someone who loves the old series knows how those two fit into the picture. They are the R2-D2 and C3-P0 of the franchise. But tragically ignored was Simon Pegg as Scotty, who got just about zero exposure and seemed to be needed only to get Kirk from point A to point B through some clever teleporter tricks.

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Where Trek gets really skimpy is in the villain department. Nero (Eric Bana) isn’t a particularly compelling, sympathetic, or even really substantive antagonist. He’s not a Khan. He’s no genius, or a clever tactician, or a conqueror. He’s just a mining ship captain with a broken heart, veins filled with hate, and a 129-year technological head start.

Nero”s really just there to be a Prime Mover. I guess that’s okay, because it’s not his story. I guess you could say he’s just the tattoo-faced foe who fires up the platonic Kirk-Spock love story.

Next to that, everything else is incidental. I mean, other than extinguishing Nero as a threat, nothing is truly fixed in the end.The tragedy that destroyed Romulus is not reversed through some miracle of temporal engineering, and neither is the destruction of Vulcan. Two of the holy grails of the franchise are simply obliterated, their handfuls of survivors scattered to the stars.

I actually really liked that. Billions of people died and Kirk didn’t slingshot around the sun in a Klingon Bird of Prey to gallop across time and set it right. It’s permanent collateral damage, and it set Abram’s work apart by diverging hugely from traditional Trek cannon.

I guess what I’m driving at here is that if you don’t think you like Star Trek, you should still watch this movie. It’s not The Love Boat in space anymore; neither is it barrel-chested Shatner fighting a man in a gorilla suit with the zipper showing and a fake unicorn horn planted on the forehead.

Really, I promise you, there’s very little nerd stink on this one.

If nothing else, just watch it for Zoe Saldana, who is incredibly hot:

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Wallpaper of the Week: AT-AT walkers

April 10, 2009

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FROM JASON’S DESKTOP — The Empire Strikes Back is easily the best of the original (good) Star Wars trilogy, due in large part to the ginormous quadruped attack dogs called AT-ATs.

They only appear for a few brief scenes during the Battle of Hoth, and they’re not strictly dogs, really, but the slow-marching mecha are so animistic that it’s easy to assign them some canine properties. I mean, they’re stomping around with the “head” looking back and forth — you can almost imagine an All Terain Armored Transport wagging its tail (if it had one) as it zeros in on the rebel shield generators.

The wallpaper at the top of the page is typically-brilliant concept art by Ralph McQuarry, who I think is just as responsible for the design success of Star Wars as is George Lucas.

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This one, though, comes from a Flickr set about ATilla the dog in various poses: Getting a bath, wearing a hat, taking long walks on the beach…. Every guy loves dogs. Geeks are no exception; we’re also born with the Old Yeller gene. And a lot of sci-fi (or should I say SyFy?) finds a way to work in man’s best friend, whether it’s Boxey’s daggit in the old Battlestar Galactica, Megaman’s dog Rush, K9 from Doctor Who, the mechanical hound from Farenheit 451, or Chewbacca.

Everybody loves a dog. And any boy born in the early 1980s is going to be infatuated with the idea of mecha — I mean, how many hours did I spend watching RoboTech and Voltron? So mix the two and you get AT-ATs (or the Gobots Command Center).

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But as canine-pomorphic as we’ve made them, the cinematic AT-ATs are still terrifying in an almost zombie-like way, slowly encroaching on the rebels’ hidden base and deploying waves of snow troopers to harry the retreating Alliance soldiers. There’s no escape from their heavy, plodding assault once they land on the horizon.

I first saw the Battle of Hoth when I was four years old, and it remains one of the most captivating sequences I’ve ever seen. If you haven’t ever seen it, take a gander and be amazed:


BSG finale: Religious buffoonery and other shortcomings

March 23, 2009

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FROM JASON’S SPOILERS — Did you see the Galactica ram the base star? The crash was amazing! And the old-school centurions during the assault? Awesome! Cavil eating his own bullet? Sweet!

Not to mention how hot Caprica Six was in that flack jacket. Then Baltar finally got some redemption, and Andrew and I were all cheering for him as he took that assault rifle from Apollo. How cathartic was that?

And then there were angels. God-damned angels. Sigh.

It was Andrew, that dirty whelp, who convinced me in early February to consume a couple of hours every night for the past month and a half shotgunning all four seasons of Battlestar Galactica. I rather enjoyed it, mainly for the whodunnit intrigue.

I’m proud to report — and Andrew can attest to this — that by the middle point of season two I had successfully prognosticated the identities of the Final Five (though I was really only half-joking when I suggested early on that Tory was a nanny Cylon sent to watch over Hera).

I guess all those hours in college studying narrative devices and literary mechanics were worth something after all.

Sure, there were highlights: I had been rooting for Roslin’s death since season one, for instance. “WHY WON’T SHE DIE?!” became a rallying cry in nearly every episode. (Sorry, Lydia.) And who could deny that seeing the Final Five standing together on the CIC bridge was really stinkin’ cool and a pay-off well worth the wait?

But while I tremendously enjoyed the series, the finale rang a bit empty for several reasons, mostly thematic.

The biggest problem I had was the religious aspect. Of course the Mormon undertones are there; they have been since the 1978 iteration. There was the Christ symbolism with Baltar and the constant reference to the zodiac. There was the whole Last Supper promo pic ordeal. But that’s all just mythology, and I could stomach it. What upset me was the intervention — for no apparent purpose — of the supernatural on a scientific universe.

Those damned angels.

Baltar’s “mental” Six and Caprica’s “mental” Baltar turned out to be messengers, nay meddlers, from God instead of projections, Cylon programming, the products of the subconscious, or some other clever mechanism. Angels to me have always been the same as amnesia: the very worst kind of plot device.

Also, I had been hoping all along that the writers would choose the humanist high ground and force the characters to learn that higher powers — whether monotheistic or polytheistic or the Force — were all fake. I wanted the show to be about how people live or die by their decisions, not the whim of some invisible bearded man.

Even if they hint that god is Bob Dylan.

The larger problem with the idea that god’s master plan was behind the events of the series is that it makes god a horrible murderer. Think about it: He didn’t use his agents to stop the genocide of the 12 colonies, or the ensuing war that killed thousands more humans and (ostensibly) millions of Cylons. You’d think that an all-powerful being would answer a higher moral calling to prevent that kind of death, but no.

It brings to mind the old Epicurean addage:

“Is God willing to prevent evil, but not able?
Then he is not omnipotent.
Is he able, but not willing?
Then he is malevolent.
Is he both able and willing?
Then whence cometh evil?
Is he neither able nor willing?
Then why call him God?

Or to crib from Denis Leary: “If there is a god, he’s got a whole shitload of explaining to do.” Or if you prefer Mark Twain: “If there is a God, he is a malign thug.”

Then there’s the Starbuck quandary. She’s apparently an angel too, which ruins the big emotional investment we had in her character. She just vanishes while talking to Lee. There’s not so much any pay-off there, and no real answers as to why she’s been “special” since she was a child or why she’s been painting the concentric circles so long. Another great character chalked up to mysticism.

Neither was I such a fan of the colonial and Cylon settlement of “our” Earth. I mean, Douglas Adams called: He wants his plot back. If you looked carefully, Arthur Dent and Ford Prefect were in the background checking out the same group of 148,000 AD primitives.

And who but Arthur Dent would have slept with those primitives? Surely not the advanced humans; they wouldn’t cross the huge intelligence and developmental gaps to mate with Neanderthols. So when did the Cylons, humans, and proto-humans merge into our singular modern race? The whole “they are us” idea is just candy, but it doesn’t really work.

The anti-technology message, though it’s a typical mantra in science fiction, was a bit too strong as well. Our buddy Thaed said it right: The show’s lesson is that technology is bad. Hell, it’s practically a recruiting tool for the Amish. “I have never seen a bigger middle finger given to an audience of a show before in my life,” Thaed said.

And I agree. Why would such a brilliant show overall advocate that kind of arbitrary Ludditism?

That’s all I’ve got to say. Everything else I’m going to choke back to avoid fanboy gushing or overt nerdiness (I mean, more overt than outright blogging about a sci-fi show to my Internet friends. It’s possible to get more nerdy, I suppose, if I were to try). I’m going to clench my teeth and make sure this isn’t a revisiting of the ol’ Firefly trauma. The show is over.

Now I’m off to watch the 1978 version, which has people in capes and that one guy from The A-Team.


That stupid jerk, Andrew, is making me watch ‘Battlestar Galactica’

February 11, 2009

FROM JASON’S SIGHS OF RESIGNATION –– Well, Andrew has finally convinced me to join him in his nerdery and watch stinkin’ Battlestar Galactica. I might as well start spouting pimples and debating whether Plastic Man or Reed Richards would win in a fight.

I’m only five years late; I wanted to get in on the ground floor with this one, but missed the miniseries in 2004. And if I miss the establishing episodes of a serialized drama, I can never get into it.

So here we are in 2009, with the series finale coming up, and I’m about two hours and 20 minutes into the opening act. I’ve ignored all the geek buzz and speculation about the plot that’s been so prevalent on sites like our favorite forum, so I’m still pretty much a virgin where the twists are concerned.

That said, I grasp so far that there are 12 “wetware” cylons built to blend in with humans, so I figure the show’s going to play out like an Agatha Christie who-dunnit, with the chance to spot 12 culprits instead of one. That’s turned Battlestar already into a spot-the-literary-tell-tales game, and I have some guesses.

1) One of the Adamas is definitely a cylon. It’s apparent that this show’s going to be about religious iconography, and it doesn’t get more blatant than a corrupted form of “Adam,” the supposed first man. Both characters have made decisions that sacrifice lives callously in the name of “the greater good,” and the elder made that ambiguous speech at the start of the first ep about how morally the cylons and humans really aren’t that different.

2) Tigh is probably a cylon. In an early scene, he’s seen lighting a pic of a woman on fire; Andrew says with a wink that it’s just his wife (or ex-wife, I can’t remember), but again in religious terms there’s nothing quite like purging by fire to show hatred and a desire to seek purity.

3) Baltar could well be a cylon. He’s seeing visions of Six, which she chalks up to “maybe while you were sleeping I put a chip in your head that projects images of me right into your conscious thoughts,” but I think she could just as easily be transmitting right into his CPU. She’s all about writing backdoors into software, right? And there’s nothing so far that says that all the cylons know they’re cylons — maybe they’re programmed to think they’re human until they need to complete some specific task, just like with post-hypnotic suggestion.

4) The Asian pilot (I don’t know her name) is probably a cylon. I can’t remember her name, but she’s an orphan. Now, this is completely based on a gut feeling, and also on my English degree — writers don’t typically make characters orphans unless it’s going to contribute to the story by casting doubt on their origins. If they wanted to sympathetically round out her past, they would have given her a family to lose in the Caprica invasion.

5) The following people are probably not cylons: The “president” (cancer is not an identifying characteristic of a machine), The Chief (he’s too emotional and relatable), Gaeta (he’s made mistakes that have inadvertently helped the Galactica safe), Billy (the guy who assists the lady president) is too vanilla, and the really, really cute black girl in the Galactica control room, whatever her name is. I’d get with her. Oh yeah. I would. You know it.

Whether Starbuck is a cylon remains up in the air; I wouldn’t put it past the writers to write that in there as a big 180 punch on the audience. So far, she seems to have very little to do with the plot except as a foil for Lee Adama, anyway.

Now, those of you who are five seasons ahead of me and know the answers, KEEP YOUR GOD-DAMNED MOUTHS SHUT AND HELP ME STAY SPOILER-FREE. If you ruin this for me, I will cut you.

Oh, and Reed Richards would totally kick Plastic Man’s ass. So many reasons.


Wallpapers of the Week: Ralph McQuarrie ‘Star Wars’ concept art

January 30, 2009

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FROM JASON’S DESKTOP — My father took me when I was four to see Return of the Jedi at the drive-in. It was the first film I ever saw on the big screen; from that moment on, I was a Star Wars acolyte.

No joke. I would line up my stuffed animals on my bed and they would help me pilot the Millenium Falcon through the Death Star’s infrastructure. In my mind, epic battles were waged against storm trooper legions. A long, cardboard giftwrap tupe became my lightsaber.

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Those imaginary campaigns stopped long ago, but my fascination with Star Wars backstory and its greater universe never faded. When I was about 11, I discovered a large picture book filled with artistic renderings that looked almost — but not quite — like Star Wars. There were hairy monsters that looked almost like Wookies, and a hulking figure in black that looked more like a robot ninja than Darth Vader.

These were the drawings of Ralph McQuarrie, commissioned to envision the worlds and characters and atmosphere from Geoge Lucas’ mind before they could be transported to film.

There’s something incredibly attractive about that process, watching idealized pulp imaginings change as prop, costume, and set designers wrestle to make them solid and practicable.

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So I was very excited the other day when I came on a cache of these McQuarrie pieces in a larger format. I quickly resized them, tinkered with the contrast and brightness ratios to offset some fading and dullness, and ran them through a quick crosshatch filter to make the lines a little bolder and modern.

The results make, I think, for some great desktop wallpapers for Star Wars geeks like me. Enjoy. Click any of the images for a 1024×768 version.

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‘Futureland’ and a co-worker’s racism harsh my Obama high

January 21, 2009

futurelandFROM JASON’S GRITTED TEETH — My outlook swings day-to-day from gloriously optimism to blood-boiling pessimism.

Yesterday, watching Obama take control of the mess into which the executive branch had fallen, was a good day. In the evening, I told Andrew I believe we’ve done much more than we realize to eliminate racism in this country, or at least make it so socially odious that it might as well not exist.

Today, however, was a pessimistic day as my idealism was smashed. In the cubicle next door, I heard a co-worker raving about an encounter with a client he labeled “a damned Arab.”

“They’re all terrorists. Even the children… You can’t trust any of them. I don’t know why they have to call me, talking all Arab. We should blow them all up,” he said.

I am sheltered. I normally associate with people of extreme education, raised in a strict environment of social correctness. This co-worker’s words were alien and loathsome. There was nothing in them to which I could connect on any level.

They were not the starry-eyed hope I felt during Tuesday’s inauguration. This co-worker clearly does not agree with Obama’s words: “There is not a liberal America and a conservative America — there is the United States of America. There is not a black America and a white America and latino America and asian America — there’s the United States of America.”

The fever of the inauguration had given me a temporary peace. But my co-worker’s words jogged me into a blacker vision for our nation’s future, one that’s been reinforced in the last week while reading an excellent science fiction work by Walter Mosley, titled Futureland: Nine Stories of an Imminent World.

This dystopia is no Idiocracy; it’s a world of corrupt geniuses and the helpless victims pulled into their sphere of influence. Futureland is a place of designer brain-viruses, corporate city-states and megalomaniacal dictators, genetically-engineered slaves, and politically oppressed masses.

It’s a place where children are drafted into government cabals; where the race and gender divides have exploded; where the Supreme Court allows citizenry to be revoked from anyone the authorities deem socially dangerous; where property rights have been all but abolished; where pre-teens live in underground concentration camp castes while the rich cavorte in the streets above; and where science and religion have been merged into one InfoChurch to keep the desperate under thumb.

Some days Mosley’s futurescape seems laughable. Others — when a co-worker reveals such ill-masked, torturous hate — his grim vision seems as imminent as the vignets he ties together in this book. And then I wonder whether we’ve really progressed at all as a nation, or whether we’ve simply deluded ourselves into thinking our attitudes are evolving at all.