2009 Reading List

 

So, this year, I read a total of 21 books, far below the total number that I was shooting for – around 40 or so. There are some large gaps – February, March, May, and much of the fall, which coincides nicely with the numerous writing projects that I had going on throughout the year. With this coming year, I’m hoping to read quite a lot more as my schedule allows, and I’ve got quite an extensive list, as I’ve been steadily expanding my own personal library – I’m up to 748 books now. That number is sure to grow in the next 12 months.

1 – Luke Skywalker and the Shadows of Mindor, Matthew Stover (1-2)
This was probably the last Star Wars book that’s come out that I’ve really liked. Stover is always an interesting writer, and here, he takes cues from some of the earliest Star Wars books and plays up the pulp factor. This one is fast, engaging and entertaining. In a nutshell, it harkened back to the Bantam Spectra days of Star Wars literature, and that’s a good thing. I’ve got a huge backlog of books from the series that I just haven’t gotten around to reading, simply because I’m not all that interested anymore.

2 - Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell, Suzanna Clarke (1-11)
Jonathan Strange is by far one of my favorite books of the decade, and one of the greatest fantasy books since J.R.R. Tolkien. Elegantly written, plotted and conceptualized, Clarke has put together a masterpiece. It took me several years to get through the first half of this book, but when I finally sat down to read it, I absolutely couldn’t put it down. I can’t wait to read it again.

3 – The Dreams Our Stuff is Made Of, Thomas Disch (1-25)
I completely forgot about this book, and had to look it up – it’s a history of Science Fiction. It was interesting, but I took some issue with some of the things that he brought up at times. I can’t for the life of me remember what, but I preferred Adam Robert’s history of SF. I picked up the book because I was thinking that I was going to be reading and writing more about the origins of Science Fiction, but that never really panned out. Still, it wasn’t a total loss of a read, and it did make some good points about the genre.

4 – Firearms: A Global History to 1700, Kenneth Chase (1-25)
This was the only school book that I’ve actually gone back to, to read over again (although there’s one other one that I’m planning on reading again), and that’s the history of firearms. This book does a bit more than go through the motions of firearms – it examines the impact on tactics and the makeup of armies (it was revolutionary) and how the technology travelled from Asia to Europe. I used for a couple of my classes and it’s highly engaging, interesting and informative.

5 – Wired for War, PW Singer (3-19)
PW Singer’s book on Robots in Warfare was a fantastic book, easily one of my favorites and something that I’ll read in the future. Exceptionally thought out and researched, it not only looks at robotics, but the military command structure and environment, which to me, is far more interesting, and gives the book a significant party piece when it comes to talking about the future of the military. I got to see Mr. Singer talk, and he signed my book, and had a blast doing it.

6 – It’s Been A Good Life, Isaac Asimov (4-1)
Asimov’s shorter biography, this was a quick reread that I’d wanted to do for a while. His life is pretty interesting, from his experience with the military to his start as a writer. Asimov is one of my absolute favorite Science Fiction writers, and it’s interesting to see some of the behind the scenes elements to his works. It’s a little self-indulgent, I think, but worth reading all the same.

7 – The Catch, Archer Mayor (4-7)
Archer Mayor’s book from last year, this was another fun book from him. This one introduced a couple new characters and themes, but I liked this year’s better – this one was ultimately forgettable, until this year’s Price of Malice, and the plot fell pretty flat for me. I think that the two of them could have been combined to become one novel, and it would have worked much better. It’s a good reminder that I really need to read some of the older ones again.

8 – It Happened In Vermont, Mark Bushnell (4-16)
This is a book of historical thumbnails on Vermont. Lots of fun information on a variety of topics throughout the state’s history, but it misses some crucial ones that will be historically relevant in the coming years. The earlier elements provide quite a bit of detail, and some good stories about this state, but honestly, how does one not include something like Civil Unions?

9 – The Soloist, Steve Lopez (4-27)
There was a movie based off of this, which looked good, and the book was only a couple of dollars in the bargain pile. It is the story of a reporter for the LA Times and a Schizophrenic man who was a musical prodigy and provides an interesting look at the homeless and LA.

10 – The Book of Lost Things, John Connolley (5-28)
I really enjoyed this fantasy book by John Connolley – It’s quite a dark book, but I like that. It takes a number of fantasy fairy tales, such as the knight in shining armor, the seven dwarves and a couple others, and puts a new, modern twist on them in a way that reminded me of Pan’s Labyrinth.

11 – Rocket Men, Craig Nelson (6-13)
This book was instrumental in my capstone and my thinking about space. This is the story of the Apollo 11 mission, and talks a lot about the mission beforehand. I gather that there are some inaccuracies, but I’m willing to let that slide because of some of the concepts that he brings up – the economics of a space program, for example.

12 – The Graveyard Book, Neil Gaiman (6-15)
Neil Gaiman’s latest book was a delight to read – a wonderfully dark young adult novel that’s been nominated for a number of awards, about a boy who grows up in a graveyard. I wonder when a movie will be made of this one.

13 – Explorer’s House: National Geographic and the World It Made, Robert Poole (7-29)
This is the type of history that I really like – looking at the world through a much smaller thing, and what is more influential than the National Geographic? This book traces the magazine and society’s history from the beginning to the present day, and gives a very interesting insight to both.

14 – The Magicians, Lev Grossman (8-19)
I loved this book, a modern, dark, brooding and realistic fantasy tale that takes points from the best of Harry Potter and Chronicles of Narnia. Grossman has put forth an interesting entry into the Fantasy genre, and it’s become one of my favorites.

15 – Old Man’s War, John Scalzi (9-8)
I’ve rapidly become a fan of John Scalzi because of this book, and his blog, Whatever. This is a pretty ordinary take on the super soldier/ military SF theme, but it’s a fun one, and I’ve already picked up the sequels for some time that I’m in the mood for military Sci Fi.

16 – Consider Phlebas, Iain M. Banks (9-17)
Banks came highly recommended to me, and this book was a fun one to read. Exceptional world building – the pacing was a bit off – and interesting characters. It’s an epic space opera and adventure, and I’m looking forward to the next couple books in the series.

17 – The Windup Girl, Paolo Bachaglupi (10-6)
If this book doesn’t win a Hugo Award, I’m going to be very, very annoyed. This has to be the best SF book in years, with a brilliant future imagined for the planet, with multiple storylines, politics and motives from the characters. It’s an exceptional book.

18 – The Price of Malice, Archer Mayor (10-11)
Archer Mayor’s latest, and one that I really enjoyed, more so than The Catch, and it took on a bit from his earlier books, in my mind. I can’t wait for next year’s book.

19 – The Next 100 Years: A Forecast for the 21st Century, George Friedman (10-19)
Ugh. I didn’t like this book that much, but it had some interesting points. I found Friedman’s book to be an infuriating read, simply because of the assumptions and things that he missed over. Not highly recommended, but there are some good points that he makes – how to think about history and historical events, for example.

20 – Clone Wars: No Prisoners, Karen Traviss (10-20)
One of Karen Traviss’s last Star Wars books, it’s an okay entry, nowhere as good as her Commando books. It’s a fun, throwaway reading for an afternoon. I read it in a day.

21 – Traffic: Why We Drive The Way We Do (And What It Says About Us), Tom Vanderbilt (11-1)
The last book that I read last year was back in November, although I have a bunch started that I’m working on getting through. This book is a fantastic one to read – reminded me a lot of Wired for War, in that it’s well researched and interesting, and in my mind, essential for anybody who wants to get behind the steering wheel. Already, it’s helped me to understand why we drive the way we do, and it’s affected how I percieve traffic problems, and how I drive.

That’s what I read last year. I’ve already got quite a list for the coming year, and I’m excited to see how many I get through.

Top Geek Things of 2009

Now that it’s close to the end of the year, it’s time to look back, like everyone else and their mother on the internet, on the past year. 2009 has been a fantastic one for all things geek. There have been a number of fantastic movies, books, television shows and so forth, as well as a bunch of things that really didn’t come off as well. Here’s what I’ve been geeking out (or complaining about) this year:

The Best:

Moon
Moon is easily one of the best Science Fiction films that I’ve ever seen. Ever. It’s been added to a very small list of films (The Fountain, Children of Men, Pan’s Labyrinth, etc) of exceptionally conceptualized, produced and thoughtful SF/F films out there. Moon is one of two really good films this year that I really enjoyed and for a number of reasons. The story is fantastic, playing off of common themes with new eyes, it’s visually stunning and it’s a largely original story, one that’s not based directly off of prior works. And, it has a fantastic soundtrack by Clint Mansell.

Star Trek
This appears three times on this list, because I’m still largely split over how I feel about it. The best parts of this is that it’s a fantastic, visually stunning film, and really does what Enterprise and Nemesis failed to do: reboot the franchise in grand style, with over the top action, adventure, everything that really comes to mind when you think Big Budget Space Movie. The cast, pacing and visuals made this one of the most successful films of the year, and the best of the big budget films that came out this year.

District 9
When it comes to fantastic Science Fiction films, Moon and Star Trek didn’t have a monopoly on this at all – District 9, coming out of San Diego Comic Con with an incredible amount of buzz and a good viral marketing campaign showed that there was still a place for an innovative filmmaker armed with a good story. The end result is a compelling take on first contact. Instead of an us against them, or invaders from outer space flick, we see refugees from outer space, with an acute political message that makes this movie even more interesting.

The Curious Tale of Benjamin Button
This was an interesting film, one that got a bit of press, but wasn’t a blockbuster by any means. The story of a man who ages backwards from birth, one that proved to be a powerful and somewhat heartbreaking love story leaves much room for discussion, but at points, was slow and ponderous. Brad Pitt did a fantastic job, as did the special effects artists who provided the CGI throughout.

The Magicians, Lev Grossman
The Magicians was a book that came out of nowhere for me, until a Borders email let me know about it. Picking it up, with few expectations, I was enthralled with Lev Grossman‘s take on the fantasy world. Drawing much from C.S. Lewis‘s Chronicles of Narnia and elements of Harry Potter, this book looks at a boy in a magical academy in a far more realistic sense, injecting a good dose of post-college reality into a field that is often ripe with monsters and epic quests. A quest of sorts is in here, but the buildup is fantastic.

Wired For War, P.W. Singer
Wired For War is a book from earlier this year that looked at the developments of robotics in warfare. P.W. Singer takes a long and comprehensive look at not only the state of robots and their use in combat operations, but also looks to how the use of robotics is integrated into wartime planning, and how this impacts command and control structures already in place. From this point, he looks to the future of warfare, where robotics will go through the next decades and what the face of futuristic warfare might look like. It’s also peppered with numerous Science Fiction references. I had a chance to speak with and interview Mr. Singer, who was extremely pleasant and eager to talk about his book, and write up several major articles for io9, which was a thrill as always.

The Windup Girl, Paolo Bacigalupi
Recently selected as one of Time Magazine’s top books of the year, Paolo Bacigalupi‘s first novel, The Windup Girl is a stunning one. Taking place in the near future, in a world without oil, alternative energy has become paramount, while agricultural firms have put profit before common sense and as a result, plagues ravage the world, except for Thailand, whose isolationist policies hold back the outside world and its problems. The book covers a lot of ground, from governmental policy to corporate greed to bioethics, with a wide range of characters who all fall within a gray area. This book is fantastic, and if it doesn’t win a Hugo, there’s seriously something wrong with the world.

The Moon Reigns Supreme – 40th Anniversary of Apollo 11 & Water on the Moon
This year marked 40 years since 1969, when man first landed on the moon with Apollo 11, and with a successful follow-up mission with Apollo 12. Easily one of humanity’s greatest accomplishments and it has been followed up with a number of projects. NASA found and restored footage of the landing and EVA activities, cleaning it up a little. NASA also took pictures from orbit of the Apollo landing sites, down to footprint trails with some stunning work from LCROSS.
In addition to NASA’s efforts to celebrate the anniversary, there were a number of other things out there. The Kennedy Library launched the website ‘We Chose the Moon‘, which documented, in real time, the Apollo 11 mission. I listened at the edge of my seat, following along with the mission transcript and listened as Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin touched down on the lunar surface. Finally, Craig T. Nelson‘s book, Rocket Men: The Epic Story of the First Men On The Moon, was released earlier this year to also commemorate the mission, which proved to be a detailed and fantastic read, one that helped to influence my thinking on the lunar mission.
The Lunar landing wasn’t the only press that the moon got this year – the LCROSS mission launched a component that slammed into the surface and let up a plume of debris – analysis revealed that there is water on the moon – a lot of it. And for all of those people who complained about this, keep in mind the number of craters that are already there.

Last servicing mission to Hubble.
NASA wasn’t just in the news for Apollo 11; this year marked the last servicing mission for the Hubble Space Telescope, which has been in orbit since 1990. Despite its troubled history, the satellite has returned some of the most fantastic, beautiful and stunning images of the universe around us, and will continue to do so for a couple more years. Space Shuttle mission STS-125 was launched in May, where a new camera was placed onboard and several other minor repairs. The satellite is slated to continue operation through 2014, so don’t fret yet.

James May’s Toy Stories
James May, one of the three presenters on Top Gear, has been doing a limited TV show on classic toys, including Mecano, Plasticine, and eventually, Lego, looking a little at their history and then building something supersized out of them. It’s quite a treat to watch.

Fringe
I called Fringe one of the worst things last year, but it’s turned around for me. Picking up the boxed set, I was hooked. It’s a bit cheesy, gory, but a whole lot of fun. Walter, weird science, teleportation and alternate universes make this show a huge joy to watch. Season 2 is proving to be just as good, now that they’ve locked down a story, and I’m eager to see where it goes.

Dollhouse
Dollhouse debuted earlier this year with a short, 13 episode season that started off slowly, but picked up an incredible amount of steam. While it’s more uneven than Joss Whedon‘s earlier show, Firefly, Dollhouse‘s better episodes help make up for the slack by introducing some of the most challenging moments in Science Fiction, and deal with issues such as the soul, personality and consent, while also offering cautionary tales on the uses of technology. Unfortunately, with the show’s cancellation right as it gets good, there’s a limit to what can be told, but with plenty of time for this show to wrap up all the remaining storylines, I think that this will become a cult classic.

Battlestar Galactica
Where to begin with Battlestar Galactica? It’s been a rush over the past six or so years, with a miniseries and four seasons of television and two movies, and like all good things, it had to end sometime. Fortunately, it ended when it was good, and while the finale garnered quite a lot of talk and dismay from some people (io9 listed it as one of the bigger disappointments), I think that it was carried off well, with a rich blend of religious allegory, action and a satisfying ending that few science fiction shows seem to get.

Kings
Sadly, Kings was another short lived show that was cancelled before its time. Taking the story of David and Goliath from the Bible and updating it in a modern, alternate world with inter-kingdom politics, faith and destiny. The stories were superb, well told, with a fantastic cast. This is precisely the type of show that should have been on SyFy, especially with their upcoming show Caprica.

Stargate: Universe
SyFy’s latest show from the Stargate Franchise, Stargate: Universe is possibly the most interesting and compelling installment in the series. Taking the very basics of Stargate SG-1/Stargate Atlantis, this show takes more cues from Battlestar Galactica than it does Stargate. The result is a far more realistic show, with more personal stories and situations that are much darker, and more grown up from the first show.

Landing At Point Rain
The Clone Wars thunders on, with mixed results, but easily the best episode that’s aired thus far is Landing At Point Rain. Taking influences from Black Hawk Down, Saving Private Ryan and other war movies, the show finally lives up to its title: The Clone Wars. There’s plenty of action, less of the stupid lines and fantastic animation that really made this episode one of the most exciting moments in the entire franchise.

The Hazards of Love, by the Decemberists
The Decemberists have long dabbled in interesting and wordy music, as well as fantasy, with their last album, The Crane Wife, and The Tain, but The Hazards of Love is their most ambitious attempt at a concept album to date, one with an overarching story of Margaret and William, a town girl and a cursed man, their love for one another and the Forest Queen who conspires to keep them apart. The album is filled with supernatural elements, and seems to draw from Lord of the Rings and traditional mythic stories to put together one of their best works to date. The band in concert was also a treat to see.

Do You Want To Date My Avatar?
I’m not all that familiar with The Guild, but Felica Day‘s clever music video is hands down fantastic.

Dr. Horrible Wins an Emmy
Dr. Horrible’s Singalong Blog was one of the coolest things to come out last year, and this year, it received an Emmy, which helps to solidify the web as a growing platform for serious and professionally produced entertainment. Hopefully, its success will mean that we’ll see smaller, independent productions going online and succeeding.

Symphony of Science
Symphony of Science is a project that puts noted scientists (notably Carl Sagan) to music by using an auto tuner. The result is a series of music videos and songs that help to convey some of the beauty and wonder of physics though some fairly clever songs. I’ve been listening to them constantly, and as a sort of electronica style music, they’re quite fun, and very geeky to listen to. Best of all, there is plans to make further songs.

Star Wars In Concert
One of the most iconic elements of Star Wars isn’t just the action and epic story; it’s the music that it’s set to. For much of this fall, a travelling show, entitled Star Wars In Concert has been travelling around the nation. Unfortunately, it’s winding down, but it will likely continue into next year. The 501st was called out at most of the events, and through that, I was able to watch the show. Combining a live orchestra, clips from the movies and narration from Anthony Daniels (C-3PO), the entire evening was a fantastic experience that gave me chills throughout.

Tauntaun Sleeping Bag
The Tauntaun Sleeping bag started out as an April Fool’s Joke, but the demand and interest was so prevalent that ThinkGeek actually went out and made it. What a fantastic idea – I kind of want one.

Slingers
The final thing on this list is Slingers, a short conceptual teaser for a show that’s heading towards production. The 3 minute teaser is easily one of the best moments in SF that I’ve seen in a while and I’ve been bouncing around, positively giddy at the prospect that this might be made. It’s got humor, some interesting characters and a very cool look to the future. Plus, it’s a space show, and there aren’t many of those around now. It left me seeing more, and I’m sure that we’ll see more in the next year or so.

Meh:

Fanboys
For all the hype, Fanboys was a bit of a letdown. The cancer story was kept in, but so were some of the immature and cheap laughs that brought the entire film down. It’s good for a laugh, and there’s a lot that went right with it, but still, I was left wishing that there was more to it, without the frat boy humor in it.

Watchmen
Don’t get me wrong, Watchmen was stunning. It looked, felt and acted like the comic book that it was inspired by, and the transition to the screen worked fairly well. At the same time, for all the hype that there was here, I’m not that enthused to see it more than once or twice. It’s still on my to get list, but it’s not necessarily a priority. I think my biggest issue with this is that it’s too much like the comic book, and that the drive to make everything exact harmed the overall production. It’s less of a movie than it is an homage from the director. Sin City was the perfect comic book movie, this wasn’t, and it really should have been. Still, it’s worth watching.

Star Trek
Star Trek, one of the best, one of the eh, moments of the year. It looks and feels spectacular, but when you get down to it, there’s the shoddy science, and an incredibly weak story that pulls the movie along. The story’s really not what the film was about, this was a character start for more Star Trek, but for me, story is central to Science Fiction, and this just didn’t have it.

9
The trailers for 9 looked great, and there was quite a bit of interest in this. I went into the theater with high expectations, and those were largely met – the film looked spectacular, and it was a fun ride, but the story and characters were pretty lacking. It needed quite a bit of story and character development that was needed, and that harmed the film. Plus, it didn’t seem to know if it was a kid’s movie or one for an older audience. This is probably something to rent, not to buy.

V
The new V should have been great – the cast, producers and network put together a good premise, but with the first couple of episodes sped through just about everything that made the show interesting. The themes of first contact, of a ship arriving over earth with a message for peace contain so much when it comes to religion, science and society, all rich territory that could be exploited, but instead, it’s gone past too quickly, with crappy teenage romance storylines. I’ll probably not pick up watching again, but I’ll see what’s going on in the show, in case, by some miracle, it’s picked up for a second season.

The Prisoner
AMC’s The Prisoner was another show that should have been great. The trailers presented a fantastic looking story of psychological stress with a weird desert backdrop, but honestly? I can’t tell you what it was about. It was convoluted, unconnected and dull, and while it looked very pretty, and had some decent episodes, it was a pretty big letdown.

Spirit gets stuck in the mud
The Spirit Rover on Mars got mired down in a patch of sand earlier this year. Put into operation in 2004, and only intended for a 90 day mission, the rover was still going strong until it got stuck. Hopefully, the boffins over at the JPL will be able to get it out and about once again, although if I remember correctly, the last thing that they were intending to try was to back it out the way it came in. I would have thought that would have been the first thing to have tried.

Google Wave – lights are on, but there’s nobody there.
Late this year, Google Wave got turned on, and like any major Google product with exclusive access, it was, well, popular. But nobody really seems to know what it’s for, and unlike Gmail, which could be used as an e-mail client from day one, its limited access restricts a lot of what you can do with this. People aren’t using it like e-mail if it was designed today; it’s essentially a glorified Gmail chat window, or a really good business collaborative tool. Still, it’s pretty nifty, and I really hope that they can integrate it into Gmail someday.

Worst:

G.I. Joe, Star Trek, Transformers, Terminator & Big Budget Crap
I know I’ve singled out Star Trek a couple times here, but more than ever, especially with far superior, low budget films competing with them this year, we see once again that tons of special effects doesn’t necessarily equate to a good film. G.I. Joe landed with horrendous reviews, Star Trek had a smaller plot than a television episode and Terminator: Salvation was a huge disappointment, critically. (I thought it was decent, but nowhere near as good as the trailers led me to believe). My biggest gripe is extravagant use of CGI and an over-reliance on special effects for a dumbed down audience. Among other things, Moon and District 9 demonstrated that a good looking, intelligent film could be done for a fairly low cost, and I know that I’ll be going back to those far more than the others. Still, big budget summer movies aren’t going anywhere – a lot of these films made quite a bit, and the jury is still out on Avatar, which drops in a couple weeks.

Karen Traviss Quits Star Wars – Twice
Karen Traviss was really a shining star within the Star Wars Universe. Her first entry, Republic Commando : Hard Contact, was followed up by several very good novels, with some different and intelligent views on the Clone Wars. Then, there was a bit of a row over Mandalorians, causing her books to come into conflict with the Clone Wars TV series. Since then, there’s been a bit of a row about this, and Traviss has left the universe for others, such as Gears of War and Halo, and hopefully, her other works. Karen explains everything here, and makes some good points. She will be missed, however.

Black Matrix Publishing Row
With harder times coming around, some publishers found a new revenue stream: aspiring writers who have little common sense. One notable SF ones was Black Matrix Publishing, called out by author John Scalzi recently on his blog, Whatever. While Scalzi had quite a lot of very good advice in his usual up front fashion, there were a number of people who went on the offensive and critizised him as an elitist writer, issuing some of the most ridiculous arguments for why Black Matrix had been wronged. I’m not necessarily involved in either side, but Scalzi presented a reasonable argument. Why is that so hard?

The ending to Life On Mars
I really got into Life on Mars. It wasn’t as good as the UK version, but it was unique, interesting and divergent from it. While the show basically adapted the original show to a large extent at first, they had an interesting pace and storyline starting up, and far better than the first pilot that was shot, which was just terrible. The creators had a delicate balancing act to follow, and did a very good job with giving their characters their own personalities and stories that diverged from the UK version. Then, the show was cancelled and they ended it, and the last ten minutes of the show just dropped like a rock. Clunky, very, very poor production values that made me wonder if this was all slapped together at the last minute, and quite honestly, it dimmed the entire series for me, especially compared to the brilliance of the UK version. I’ll watch the show again, but I’ll be doing my best to forget about the conclusion.

SciFi becomes SyFy, nobody cares
One of the biggest furies of the year was when SciFi became SyFy, and the internet erupted into such indignation that I thought the world was going to end. Quite simply, the channel changed names to create a stronger brand, not change content, and so far, they seem to be doing pretty well, with Warehouse 13, Stargate Universe, Alice and presumably, Caprica doing really well in the ratings. All of which is good, for the network to expand further and really show that geek is really in right now. While the name looks silly, it’s really a superficial change. Now, if they would just get rid of wrestling. Or pick up Slingers for five seasons.

Orbiting Carbon Observatory crashes – Mission Failure
This was a satellite that I tracked earlier this year while really watching the space stuff. The Orbiting Carbon Observatory was an expensive one, designed to monitor global carbon levels to get a better idea just how climate change is progressing and providing us with a very good look at just how the environment is changing around us. Ultimately though, part of the nose failed to separate from the capsule, and with the extra weight, the rocket crashed into the south Atlantic.

Heroes continues. Meh.
I’ve given up on Heroes, after the dismal decline in quality, storytelling and characters. They should have stuck with the original plan, and killed off the first season’s cast when they had the chance, instead of bringing people back time and time again. The fact that ratings are declining is just stunning to me, especially now that the show is into it’s fourth season, and I have doubts that it will return. Hopefully not.

FlashForward
Look, if I want to watch LOST, I’ll watch LOST. I’m not going to watch a show that’s a poor copy of it.

Deaths:
Every year, there are a number of deaths in the geek genre/fan community. A couple notable ones were Ricardo Montalbán, who played Kahn in Star Trek: The Wrath of Kahn, Michael Jackson, who’s song Thriller places him on the Geek spotlight, Kim Manners (X-Files/Supernatural Producer), Philip José Farmer, author of Riverworld and numerous other SF books, Dave Arneson, one of the D&D co-founders, and Norman Borlaug, who saved the world through science. There are others I’m sure, but it’s still hard to see people in the genre leave us forever.

Unknowns

A couple of unknowns for me include The Lovely Bones, Sherlock Holmes, Avatar and Zombieland, which I haven’t seen, Deathtroopers, which I haven’t read, and Halo ODST, which I haven’t played. (Okay, haven’t played much. I’ve liked what I’ve played. And the soundtrack. And the fact that the entire Firefly cast is somewhere in there)

What’s coming up for next year? The new Tron movie is coming out, which I’m horribly excited for, especially after watching the trailer and then the old movie. Slingers is likely going to get some more buzz. Iron Man 2 will be big, as well as Clash of the Titans, Inception (Really want to see that one), Chronicles of Narnia 3, The Book of Eli, and Toy Story 3. Hopefully, Scott Lynch will have his third book out, and Caprica will be beginning (High hopes for that one), as well as the second half  and second Season of Stargate: Universe. Who knows what else?

Veteran's Day

Today is a day to remember the sacrifices of those who had died for one’s country. In the United States, November 11th has been designated as a day to reflect and celebrate the sacrifices of American Servicemen, while in the Commonwealth, Remembrance Day likewise commemorates the those who made the ultimate sacrifice. November 11th was selected because of a worthy anniversary: the end of the First World War, on November 11th, 1918, the conflict that had shocked the world so much, that many hoped that it would be the last.

Sadly, this never came to fruition, as humanity has continued their destructive streak across the century, and will likely to far into the future. In many ways, the trials of soldiers in the far future have provided some of the more interesting science fiction tales.

When thinking to military science fiction, the first book that often comes to my mind is Starship Troopers. Robert Heinlein‘s masterpiece has the right tone and the right messages throughout about not only the plight of the soldier, but the responsibility and honor that veterans upheld because of their service. In one particularly early scene in the book, when Johnnie and Carl go to join the service, they are bluntly told that military service isn’t the romantic adventure that seemed to have been the perception. This doesn’t come too much as a surprise, as Heinlein himself was a Veteran, having graduated from the United States Naval Academy in Annapolis in 1929, and served as an officer until 1934, when he was discharged. As the Second World War roared into the lives of Americans, Heinlein worked once again for the military as an aeronautical engineer, alongside two other notable science fiction authors, Isaac Asimov and L. Sprague de Camp. Starship Troopers realistically and in a relatable fashion, sums up the soldier’s experience in wartime, and demonstrates that Science Fiction can be used as allegory in a number of instances.

Another remarkable example of military science fiction is Orson Scott Card‘s Ender’s Game and related books that take place during and after. Card’s character, Andrew ‘Ender’ Wiggen, a tactical prodigy and statistician, is a prime example of a soldier who has a varied experience with warfare – and a mixed legacy in the years following his and humanity’s successes over the Buggers at the end of the book – a nearly complete and utter destruction of the alien homeworld. Ender’s Game is brilliant in its use of characters – Ender proves himself in Battle School, where he uses unconventional tactics to ultimately succeed and demonstrate that he has a superior mind for this style of warfare. A second series of supposed tests are designed to prepare Ender for the invasion of the Bugger’s homeworld, only to find that there was no tests – his battles were real, and he was ultimately responsible for the destruction of an entire race. Ender’s story is an interesting one, compared to other soldiers, in that he never hit the front lines – rather, he was orchestrating the war from light-years away. Despite this, the war had a profound impact on Ender for his actions – a similarity that is shared with American soldiers who pilot UVAs, according to P.W. Singer in his book Wired for War.

The franchise that embodies warfare in space is Star Wars. Love it or hate various elements of it, I’ve been greatly impressed with the stories that have been told about the Grand Army of the Republic, through a couple of different sources. The first is the Clone Wars television series, for really emphasizing on the troopers who fought on the part of the Republic. However, the real person who deserves attention for the portrayal of the troopers is Karen Traviss, with her fantastic Republic Commando series. Traviss had quite a lot of experience with the military to draw upon. As a result, Traviss goes far more into the mentality and motives of the soldiers, bringing them far more into view as people, not merely clones. Even better, the events of Order 66 seem very relevant throughout, and Traviss works hard to not only ensure that their motives for following those orders are explained in a logical fashion, but as to the intentions of the soldiers entire existence. The Clones are in a unique position here – bred only for the purpose of war fighting. For them, they’re not volunteers, and they aren’t expected to live beyond the war – something that the TV series touches on a little bit as well.

While thinking of Traviss’s Star Wars books, another good look at war comes with her book City of Pearl and the follow-up novels in the Wess’Har Wars, which examines interstellar conflict over several systems and many thousands of years. Two of her races, the Wess’Har and the Isenj, have been at war over conflicting lifestyles – the Isenj are rapid colonizers, due to a high birthrate, and did so at the cost of their environment, while the Wess’Har believe heavily in the natural world and literally applied a scorched earth policy to planets that they felt were out of line – there’s a heavy environmental message here, but it does help to reinforce a point that theorist Carl von Clausewitz made, that Warfare is an extension of policy, and thus, fought on the terms of one’s society. The soldiers here are deeply affected by the conflict, as several are essentially immortal, because of a parasite that they had picked up, one that ensures their survival. The long term toll of warfare on these soldiers is an interesting one, and several are noted to have killed themselves (prior to the events in the books) because of the stresses associated with their condition.

When it comes to interstellar warfare, as well as the potential for long term and dedicated purpose, John Scalzi‘s Old Man’s War is another prime example of this sort of Science Fiction. This book, the first in a series (I have the follow up book, but haven’t gotten around to reading it yet), sees a world where old men and women are taken, because of their life’s experiences thus far, and had their minds transferred to a new, enhanced body. There are many similarities to Starship Troopers and The Forever War (another one that I have, but have yet to read), and Scalzi has an interesting take on the enhanced soldiers and their purpose. One argument in the novel is that these soldiers have been given an artificial lease on life – the best that they can do is to continue to fight. However, in this instance, they aren’t necessarily fighting for any particular cause, just the broad, overarching idea of ‘humanity’, as their citizenship on earth has been terminated by joining the fight in space. This somewhat bothered me, and a couple of the main characters, but highlights another, important aspect in warfare – soldiers, foot soldiers, are trained to fight for one another, to preserve their squad and fellow soldiers, and that message rings heavily through Old Man’s War.

Timothy Zahn has also addressed the idea of enhanced soldiers, through his books Cobra and Cobra Two, where a group of soldiers have been enhanced with a number of internal improvements – better skeletons, weapons, a sort of commando unit that are nearly unstoppable in urban combat on alien worlds. However, what really struck me with these books is that the focus is not necessarily on the fighting, but the lives of the soldiers afterwards – these soldiers, with permanent enhancements, had to adapt to civilian life where they were mistrusted and abused because of their abilities, enough to cause conflict in their homes and enough to force the entire Cobra population off world to better offerings.

Military Science Fiction has its share of veterans, and examines, as a whole, not just the cool elements of science fiction, such as powered armor, lasers, epic ship to ship combat and the like, but also the impact, and continued impact that warfare will have on those that are asked to do the fighting, for whatever reason. The concept is such a large one that it is interesting to find a number of different themes – all of which might be found with any given soldier in a real military – have essentially been separated out amongst a number of novels, and examined in depth. The overall message that can be taken from this is that the hopes following World War I were unrealistic, and that humanity will continue to fight – wars large and small will continue, and no doubt, that will continue when we reach the starts. However, it is important to remember the human cost of warfare, not just on society, but upon those who ask to serve their countries, or even worlds.

The Limitations of Tie-In Fiction

A year ago, I wrote up something about the perceptions of tie-In fiction and how it compared to other, more original stories. Author Karen Traviss came up at one point, because she has remained a staunch supporter of tie-in fiction as a sort of professional writing, on the same level as other, more original stories. I’ve never really come down on either side as to whether tie-in fiction is better or worse than other ones, but Traviss’s recent announcement that she was pulling out of the Star Wars universe came with a bit of interest from me.

Karen’s approach to tie-in fiction is one that I think needs to be emulated by other writers. There is a reason why this sort of genre is looked down upon, I suspect, because authors essentially work from a script, and do little beyond transcribe the script and a couple more details. In contrast, Karen seems to get the stories, and really makes them into a worthwhile book while she’s doing it – Matthew Stover has done much the same thing with his own books, as well as a couple other authors who have dabbled in the Star Wars universe for their various tie-in books. The Star Wars editors and LFL have a pretty good grasp of their universe, which ultimately helps things.

Because of this, and because of Karen’s article, Sprinting the Marathon, I’m honestly a little surprised that she decided to pull out. Though out this essay, she stresses the importance for authors working in the tie-in field to be creative, and just how this field quite literally forces one to be far more creative than other avenues of the literary world – working within a tie-in universe has many constraints, and especially something with Star Wars, the challenges in putting together a book are far more frequent.

In a recent blog entry on her website, Traviss announced that she was going to be moving on from the Star Wars universe. The reasons that she listed are mainly that the established story lines that she’s put into place over the past couple of books, and with the new Clone Wars series, there will be conflicts with the higher up canon within the universe. While I’m happy that she isn’t going to be changing over a couple of the story lines and screwing things up more for the literature people to argue about, I’m a little annoyed that she’s throwing in the towel, because she’s one of the better writers to have come to the Star Wars universe in a while.

I have to wonder if there’s more at play here. Traviss is clearly aware of the limitations that are placed upon her as a writer, and that the story lines that she comes up with – original within the universe it might be – but essentially, they’re hers to come up with, not to totally own. Therein lies the big difference, I think, between tie-in fiction and an author’s original story: ownership. There are limitations to what you can do with a story that you don’t own, even if you’re given relatively free rein, because the higher ups at LFL can do pretty much whatever they want in the universe, no matter how it tramples on other stories. This was a big issue that a lot of the books and authors had to dance around prior to the prequel trilogy. Authors who got it wrong, got it wrong, and these are bits of the books that fans will endlessly argue over.

When it comes to tie-in fiction, and the ownership distinction, I’m a little baffled at this sort of distinction – if it is just ownership that separates the two (I think that it is), at least on an academic level, why is it that people take such notice and relegate the significance? I think the answer there lies in precisely why I think that Karen’s books are a step above, say someone like Max Allen Collins or Keith R.A. DeCandido – the writing style, attention to the story and the focus on the story over a mere paycheck is the deciding factor (Not to say that these guys only write for the money). Traviss’s books are different because there is the attempt to make these books a real reading experience, while other times, I get the impression that other authors don’t care nearly as much, and essentially are just trying to pay the bills. Whether this is intentional or not, I don’t know, but as a reader, I appreciate being able to read a story that is more than the screenplay. If I wanted that, I would just go see the film.

Really, the ownership issue is a really minor one – it all comes down to the one thing that I continue to gripe about, and that’s the story, story, story. The reason why tie-in fiction is disliked and looked down upon is the long bibliography of less than stellar, and if Karen’s example is anything to go by, the number of restrictions and lack of ownership tend to put off other authors who might otherwise write for a franchise. I find that second part a little more sobering than the first, because with more authors willing to write tie-in fiction, the genre as a whole would improve quite a bit.

Substance vs. Style in Science Fiction

Producer Jesse Alexander just wrote up an interesting guest column on website io9 recently, (which you can read here), where he talks about a couple of subjects that I’ve been thinking about lately: the vast difference between substance and visual appeal of the science fiction genre, particularly in movies.

In his piece, he notes that CGI-laden blockbusters have really taken over the movie theaters over the summer season, almost completely. This past summer, we’ve had Terminator 4, Transformers 2, GI Joe, Star Trek, and Harry Potter all costing in the hundreds of millions of dollars to produce from beginning to end, none of which were really all that great, while the two standout movies in the SF genre were Moon and District 9, both of which cost $5 million and $30 million to create, respectively. This begs the question, as Alexander does, where did these two films succeed where the others failed.

The above films all did really well at the box office, grossing back quite a bit of money (although Terminator: Salvation did pretty poorly, but it will warrant a sequel, if the rumors are to be believed) but of everything that was released this summer, only Moon and District 9 really captured the essence of science fiction on all levels. They were wholly original, influences aside, and are the ones that have come out of this summer that will be remembered for a long time as solid entries in the genre’s film side of things.

One of the things that charges are laid against is the use of CGI in films, which has become far more sophisticated and prevalent in films, especially science fiction films. I’m not totally sure that CGI is really the thing to blame here, but the effect that it has on filmmaking and the entire process. CGI is a fantastic tool for filmmakers, especially in the science fiction field. The problem comes when the glamor and expanded visual field overtakes the story in terms of importance.

For me, story is everything with a film or television show, and the Science Fiction genre is a fantastic place for any number of possible stories. There have been a number of fantastic films out there that I can put forward as an example for good storytelling: Minority Report, The Prestige, Serenity, The Fountain, Pan’s Labyrinth, and of course, Moon and District 9. These movies utilized special effects throughout, but did so in a way that didn’t jeopardize the story to the extent that other films might have. A couple of television shows, such as Battlestar Galactica and Firefly have followed much the same philosophy with their approaches to CGI: the visuals are placed in the film/show to support the events in the story.

My favorite example is 2005’s release of Star Wars: Revenge of the Sith and Serenity. Both films with significant fanbases, but with very different approaches to the stories. Serenity was a much smaller film, with a killer story to finish up the Firefly TV series, while Revenge of the Sith was a far more bloated and cumbersome film that cost a significant amount of money to produce. Given the financial troubles and uncertainty of the next couple of years, I would bet that that type of filmmaking will continue, but there will be a rise in films such as Moon, Serenity and District 9. Each of these films received a large amount of critical favor, and while none approached the same amount of money that these larger films pulled in, they didn’t cost as much as the much larger films.

One thing about these huge CGI films that I noticed is that the ones this summer were already part of a larger storyline or franchise – there were a lot of numbers after the titles, and I have to wonder if that is part of this empty storytelling trend that Science Fiction seems to have picked up over the past couple decades. I don’t mind sequels – There’s a number of stories out there that I love seeing more of. But, when does a good franchise become a cash cow, with more of the same to it? Transformers was reportedly like that, even up to the director’s level, where more of the same, but just more intense was better. Harry Potter has largely been like this from day one, and Star Trek wasn’t all that impressive after you started thinking about it. This, to me, is a sad thing for the genre, one that I’ve always seen as being far more creative than most of the other genres out there, if only for the exotic subject matter.

There are a couple of things that bother me about this sort of thing, mainly that people are more than happy to take any sort of mind-numbing entertainment and expect nothing more. While this is a bit of a leap, it seems like this is a problem that extends far beyond the entertainment realm, from education to politics. Moon and District 9 worked brilliantly together this summer because they were two films that had intelligent plots, good characterization and an unconventional way of presenting the stories. Despite that, I read a number of reviews that noted that the plots didn’t make sense, that there weren’t enough explosions and the like. These sorts of reviews usually bother me, as they did with reviews about Lev Grossman’s The Magicians, where people just didn’t, or couldn’t understand what the stories were about, and because they didn’t like them, refused to think any more about the subject.

What I am hoping will come out of this is that smaller, cheaper, genre films will become more popular, with producers who are willing to take a little more of a gamble. The films this summer proved that filmmakers could get around expensive effects, by using models, preexisting locations and actors who might not necessarily be as well known. If there are any lessons to be learned from this summer, it is that when a good story is in place, the film can succeed toe to toe with any of the big blockbusters. For me, I’m happy that there’s something out there that’s a little different, a bit challenging and above all, something that makes me think about what I’m watching.

I Think I'm A Clone Now

So, it’s finally come to pass. My clone trooper is now, officially done. Earlier today, I found that the suit is 501st approved, almost a full year in the making.

This has been a far more troublesome, difficult and rewarding project over the past 12 months. A year ago next week, I decided to purchase an armor kit, with the intent to finish up a workable Clone Trooper by the time that the movie came out. Obviously, the project has been far more time consuming than I thought, and over the build period, I’ve gained a far different appreciation for armor and the 501st.

Armor making is hard stuff. I didn’t even make the armor, I just got a rough kit. But even there, there was a lot of things that went into this. The armor needed to be trimmed. A helmet was built, then rejected and replaced. There was much gluing, then painting. Deadlines were pushed back, and I’ve shaved years off of my life, no doubt, because of the paint, glue and bondo fumes. Then the approval process, where numerous tweaks were needed, and the regular maintainence and improvements will undoubtably continue for some time.

Still, it was a worthwhile project. It kept my mind off of things when I had a rough year, and I’m ultimately very proud of the thing that I’ve put together, and I’m grateful at the praise that I’ve recieved for it at troops from other troopers, but also from the people who see me in the street with it on. The next step will most likely be converting the entire guy over to Commander Bly, but I don’t know when that will happen.

See the entire progress here.

Just What Does Star Wars Have To Do With St. Patrick's Day?

 

 

Yesterday was one of the New England Garrison‘s biggest events of the year, the South Boston St. Patrick’s Day Parade, held on the Sunday before the holiday every year. It’s been an annual event every year for our group, and this year was probably one of the best ones that we’ve ever done – there was a lot of happy, but tired troopers at the end of the route, which was great.

This was my second year trooping this event. Prior years, I had been busy, and not as into the 501st as I am now. This time around was markedly different from years past – it was warm. 2008’s parade was around 30 or so degrees throughout, which wasn’t too bad while we were walking around, but when we had to stop and wait for things to start, it was frigid. This time around, temperatures were in the upper forties to low fifties, and sunny. It allowed for some fantastic pictures, and time spend waiting not huddled together for warmth.

This year also marked the first year that the Canadian Garrison (at least the members from Montreal), came down to troop with us. I met up with them in Montpelier, and we drove down in a small 501st convoy to Boston. We spent part of the afternoon in Boston walking along the Freedom Trail to sightsee for a bit, which was fantastic, because I haven’t done that sort of thing in a long time.

Saturday night was the Garrison meetup at a Cambridge bar, where everyone socialized, got to talk, play pool and have fun. Things wrapped up around 1 am, where everyone went off to bed to prepare for the long walk. This is the part that I really like about our group – I count many of the New England Garrison as some of my closest friends, and given the distances, I don’t get to see many of them very often. I don’t get out as much as I’d like to, so this was one of the times when I’ve been able to really socialize.

Sunday was game day. I spent the night at a fellow garrison member’s apartment, and we were up pretty early, where we got our things together, picked up another couple members and arrived at our assembly point, where most of the garrison had already arrived. We had to get there early, to avoid the crowds and closed roads, and we waited around before suiting up and getting in formation around noon. There were pictures aplenty. I uploaded all of mine, taken before we all suited up, and you can see them here.

The parade was one of the best troops that I’ve done in a long time. It was long, four miles, and up and down hills, something I’m paying for today, but it was worth it. I used my Clone Trooper for the first time, and was up in front with several other clones and got to see the reactions of people as we appeared. This is one of the fun parts, to watch as people’s faces awake with recognition at who were were. There were a ton of kids who were extremely excited to see us, shake and slap our hands, and to take pictures with us, but also the older college students and adults in the crowd. They called out for Vader and ran out to take pictures of us – at times, a little annoying, because we had to keep a steady pace in the parade. I felt bad at having to motion that I had to keep moving – I’d love to take pictures with whomever wanted them. It’s quite something to bring a character to life for people.

After the parade was over, we rode back on buses, desuited and departed. Unlike last year, we didn’t all go out to dinner, although I was driving back up with the Canadians, and we stopped for dinner on the way up, before we departed our own ways along the route as we stopped for gas or breaks.

This is why I troop – it is events like this that make it worthwhile, to see the faces of the crowds upon us. That sort of excitement is addicting, and I’m more than happy to bring it to life for people.

But This Life's Work And Choice Took Far Too Long

Fanboys ends with two of the main characters, Linus and Eric, sit and talk looking on their friends as they finally make up, with the song Fair by Remy Zero playing. It’s a touching end to the film, one that has seen considerable drama over the past two or so years since principle filming ended. Studio intrusions, fan boycotts, lack of advertising and other problems, and it is a relief to finally see it on the big screen.

Fanboys is the story of four Star Wars fans from high school, who, several years after they drifted apart, got back together to do a road trip cross country to Skywalker Ranch to steal a copy of The Phantom Menace. Why not just wait? Because one of the four, Linus, is suffering from cancer, and won’t live to see the premiere of the film. Linus and Eric also haven’t been speaking for years because they had drifted apart, and the film serves as a story of friendship and a mutual love for Star Wars. The film for most people would probably be middle of the pack – above the Adventure Movie! or whatever crap is being released by those writers, but below some of the more pinnacle comedies of similar genre, such as Superbad or something along those lines.

However, to anyone who has ever been a fan of the Star Wars movies, this will be one to see. Actually, really anyone who is a geek, nerd, dork or other so-called social outcast should find this amusing, provided you have a good sense of humor and self-deprecating attitude. Geek references are everywhere, ranging from Star Wars (duh) to things like Thunder Cats, X-Men, Star Trek, GI-Joe, Wonder Twins, any number of things that a geek in the late 90s would get. The movie is essentially a tribute to the genre and its fans, and doesn’t shy away from that in the slightest. Sharp-eyed fans will have a fun time picking out a number of the cameos of celebrities (especially from the SW movies) who range from Carrie Fisher to Billy Dee Williams to Kevin Smith and William Shatner.

But this film is more than just a series of throwaway laughs as the group travels across country to get beaten up by Harry Knowles (of Ain’t It Cool News – who should have been in a wheel chair), to wandering into a gay bar, smashing a statue of James Kirk (and ironically, there was a Star Trek trailer before this. Huh?) to wandering into a Star Trek convention to have William Shatner give them the plans for Skywalker Ranch. The story, once you look beyond the gags, is one that has some good themes to it – the bonds of friendship, a shared love for the Star Wars movies, but also about identity, which is something that I haven’t seen a whole lot of when it comes to films like this, and it really does bring the film up a bit.

There is a perception of the geeks/nerds/fanboys out there that this film plays into, and we see them represented amongst the main characters – you have the overweight guy in need of a shower, the tall, spindly one who has trouble interacting with people, especially the opposite sex and the undersized guy who knows everything about it. To boot, you have the geek-girl who is feisty and geeky, and the geeky guy who’s made efforts to distance himself from the perceptions, and is somewhat normal. The identity crisis really comes with Eric, who had gone to get a real job, and left his friends behind at their comic book store, and is blamed by Linus for this abandonment. I found this to be the most interesting part of the film in a way, because it felt the most honest. Eric has a dream where he sees his father as an Imperial, and essentially realizes that he really can’t turn his back on who he really is, as he sketches comics after hours in his dad’s car dealership, and while still being able to passionately argue about Luke and Leia’s complicated relationship. I particularly identify with elements of all the characters, and together, they show that they are a team, a group of friends who depend upon each other, and fully embrace who they are – fanboys.

At points, I’m a little bothered by the general perception of geeks/nerds/fanboys et al, because it’s an inherently unfair one, perpetrated by people who really don’t understand the passion that we feel towards the genre and the specific works within it. This film, while it reinforces some of these views, goes beyond that, and tells a good story about it, one that made me laugh almost from the beginning to the end, but also brought about a number of sobering moments, such as at the end with Remy Zero’s song, when the film closes without Linus. It is a bittersweet ending, and I can understand why the Weinstein company wanted to alter the cancer storyline to have something upbeat, but by keeping that aspect of the film intact, it made the film memorable, something beyond the gag film. Plus, it has Kristin Bell in a Slave Leia costume.And, the 501st Legion got a mention.

Luke Skywalker and the Shadows of Mindor

To be very honest, I’ve largely given up hope that there’ll be a truly unique Star Wars novel, something that would surprise and be truly delightful. Over the past twenty-odd years, hundreds of the books have been published, and since high school, I’ve devoured them, and have really enjoyed the entire franchise as a whole. That being said, the books from the last couple of years have really lost their spark.

I’ve never been sure what it was that they were missing, but whatever it was, Shadows of Mindor has it. From the beginning of the project, I’ve heard author Matthew Stover talk about how he wanted to make this book a bit of a homage to some of the earlier novels, such as The Adventures of Han Solo and The Adventures of Lando Calrissian. I’ve read both sets of trilogies, but never really got into them to the same extent that I got into the Del Rey books.

Allusions to these books are fairly clear – there is quite a bit of fairly over the top action, tongue in cheek humor and a lot of similes throughout the text, not to mention a number of references to the two trilogies, but also to a number of other Star Wars books, including Shatterpoint, which Stover also penned.

This book isn’t a copy of the older, somewhat cheesy novels. What Stover does do, however, is shed the overall seriousness and determination that a lot of recent books have clung to, and had some fun while writing this. For the first time in a very long time, I read a book that had the characters speaking in their own voices that really pulled me back to those earlier days when I would be sneaking books during class. In short, this book brought back the nostalgia factor for me.

In the universe, this is likewise a fun read because we haven’t seen a whole lot of books that take place in the post-ROTJ period, at least the first year or so, and it was nice to see some of the aftermath.

Unfortunately, this is one of the inherent weaknesses of the book, at least up until the last pages, because this is the type of book upon which the entire franchise could have taken a number of cues from – there is an enormous amount of characterization here that could have easily brought the entire series up a notch (the Bantam Spectra era, while fun, was all over the place as far as storylines/characters goes). Unfortunately, this book is slid into the existing storyline, and it’ll basically just sit there.

To some extent, Star Wars books have gotten away from some of the roots. The original trilogy of films was a homage to the old action movies and sci-fi serials, and this is evident in the text. In the years since its release, it’s gotten old, and goes to bed early, and doesn’t have any fun partying. Stover has kicked the franchise out of bed (or at least the lit part, for a couple hours anyway) and dragged it off to a bar for a round of drinks and at least one fight. It’s a rejuvenation that I think is very needed. This book is Fun, with a capital F, and knows it.

This is not to say that the Star Wars franchise is getting too old for it’s own good – a majority of the books that have come out recently are quite good, but at points, daunting. There are big, epic series that have little connection to the original films and themes, and at times take themselves far too seriously. Stover has sidestepped that and gone for a vastly different direction (the reveal at the end is something that I won’t reveal) that really sets this book in a class of its own.

It’s far too early at this stage to say whether this will become a favorite of mine, but it has resolidified Stover as one of my favorite authors that has worked with the franchise. There are only a couple of authors here that have really exemplified their storytelling with the Star Wars universe, and like each of his other books, Stover has outdone himself once again. I can only hope that he’ll be around to shake up things once again.

Top Geek Things of 2008

It’s coming up to the end of the year, and looking back, 2008 has been a very fun year for geeks everywhere – in books, television programs and films, among other things. Over the past couple of days, I’ve been thinking back over the year to see what was the best and worst of 2008.

The Best:

Starbuck returned from the Grave; The Fleet reaches Earth. (Battlestar Galactica Season 4)

The third season of Battlestar Galactica was a little rocky in the middle, but the last episodes set up a real bang. Starbuck was presumably killed, only to turn up during a major confrontation of the Human and Cylon fleets. Season 4 opens even bigger, with one of the best space battles that I’ve ever seen. Our four new cylons are freaking out, Starbuck’s back and everything culminates in the discovery of Earth in episode 10.Galactica has long been one of my favorite shows, and with a certain end point in mind, Season four was where Galactica got somewhat back onto the tracks, with a fairly tight story arc, only to get to another long wait for the final ten episodes. It’s been well worth it though.

Pushing Daisies… back from the Grave, and back to it

After a long hiatus due to the writer’s strike (more about that in a bit) my favorite show of 2007-2008 came back with a new set of episodes. There are not enough good things that I can say about this show. We left off last year with Chuck learning that it was Ned that killed her father, only to end up at the end of this season with him being awoken. It was another season of fantastic storytelling, character development and extremely fantastic dialog. Unfortunately, the show has been axed due to low ratings. Fortunately, Bryan Fuller will be going to Heroes for the latter half of Season 3.

Lost Gets Better – Again.

Here’s the situation. LOST season 1 blew everyone away. Season 2 drove them away. Season 3 brought some people back, and Season 4, everything got interesting again. This season was the best since Season 1, in my opinion. We had several new characters (my favorite was Daniel Faraday, the physicist), and a couple people killed off. We started seeing flash-forwards, where Jack has a beard and addicted to pain pills, Hurley’s in a mental institution and Sayid is channeling Abram’s Alias. Oh, and they get off the island. Then the island vanishes.

I have Leonard Nemoy’s DNA? (The Big Bang Theory)

This show started in 2007, where I was annoyed by its laugh track and annoying characters. But this year, I started watching it and enjoying it. While it’s certainly a very stereotypical portrayal of nerds and geeks, it’s fun, because the creators have put in place a series of fun characters, and the writers make some jokes that are actually funny. This week’s episode was absolutely priceless, when Sheldon gets a napkin signed by Leonard Nimoy. Now, if they’ll just ditch the laugh track. This show’s likely to be around for a while longer – it’s been getting better and better ratings as the year goes on.

Back in a Nick of Time (Life on Mars)

One of my absolute favorite shows of all time was Life on Mars. Up until this year, it was only a BBC drama, until ABC picked it up and made a pilot. That pilot sucked, horribly, so the cast was ditched, except for Jason O’Mara, and the show was redone, set in New York City, given a good cast and started up. The result? A solid TV series that’s mirrored the original (but it’s starting to diverge a bit now), a wonderful soundtrack of classic rock and a story that’s actually interesting. I can’t wait for its return in 2009.

The Joker raises worldwide GDP. (The Dark Knight)

First, there was excitement when it was announced that the Joker was going to be the villain. Then Heath Ledger signed up for the role. Then he died earlier this year after filming was completed, leaving some people to wonder if the film would be released on schedule. Then Warner Brothers covered every surface they could find with Dark Knight ads. When the film was released, it went on to gross $996,680,514 in theaters. The film was a huge success, and a fantastic film at that. It was a comic book movie with true darkness, some real symbolism and good storytelling throughout. It’s a pity that we won’t see Heath Ledger reprise his role of The Joker, because he’s done the best portrayal of a villain in recent film memory.

I am Iron Man (Iron Man)

Before The Dark Knight blew the doors off the box office, there was Iron Man. Iron Man has long been a favorite marvel superhero of mine, and everything fell into place for this film. Good story, well directed, fantastic casting (Robert Downey Jr. as Tony Stark was brilliant) and of course, the Mark II set of armor. Marvel proved that they could make a good superhero movie, one that was relevant and not stuck in the low-humor that characterized other comic book adaptations. Already, I can’t wait for Iron Man 2. And Iron Man 3. And The Avengers.

Eeeeevvvvvaaaaaa (Wall-E)

Pixar has released what is possibly their best film to date. (Except maybe Toy Story and The Incredibles). Following a robot far from home, Andrew Stanton has presented a film with a cute, romantic science fiction story with some social commentary (said to be unintentional) woven into the CGI. Wall-E is easily the most appealing robot since R2-D2 hit the big screen in 1977, and his antics as he’s pulled along for the ride (literally) are cute, heartbreaking and funny.And with very little real dialog.

Roar. Crunch. Repeat. (Cloverfield)

Monster movies meets social networking video and America gets its own monster. This film was brilliantly shot with an extremely fun concept. A monster comes and plays t-ball with the statue of liberty, and it’s caught on camera by a bunch of twenty-somethings as they escape. The project was conceived of by LOST creator J.J. Abrams, and his fingerprints are all over it. From the lack of explanation of everything to the weird stuff, this is a very fun film to watch. Rumors are that there’s a Cloverfield 2 being talked about.

With My Freeze Ray I Will Stop… The World (Dr. Horrible’s Sing Along Blog)

This project was a huge success for Joss Whedon & Co. Conceived of during the Writer’s strike, Whedon presents an aspiring supervillian, Dr. Horrible (Neil Patrick Harris), his buddies and his quest to finish his freeze ray, avoid Captain Hammer (Nathan Fillion) and win over Penny (Felicia Day). We’re treated to musical numbers, crazy plots and a fantastic venture to prove that the internet is a viable place to release content.Take a look here.

Up, up and away! (When We Left Earth/NASA)

This year was NASA’s 50th year in operation, and the Discovery channel released a fantastic documentary entitled When We Left Earth that touted its major achievements and failures throughout the years, bringing viewers some of the most incredible footage of space that I’ve ever seen, and telling a fantastic story of how NASA has come to be, with interviews with astronauts and support personnel. I get chills when I watch it, and wonder when we’ll return to the moon and beyond.

Hobbit’s Labyrinth (The Hobbit)

After long rumors, production problems and drama with Peter Jackson (who directed Lord of the Rings), Guillermo del Toro signed on to direct the upcoming Hobbit film and prequel. (Or two Hobbit films?) This is extremely good news, because the people who can adequately fill Jackson’s shoes after LOTR are few and far between. del Toro is the perfect director for this project, and has already proven that he can do fantasy brilliantly, with his masterpiece Pan’s Labyrinth. Plus, he can play in other people’s universes, as per his work with the Hellboy films. (Which weren’t as good, but fun)

Watchman Trailer (Watchman)

What’s called the greatest graphic novel ever is coming to the big screen, much to the annoyance of its creator, and to FOX, apparently. A trailer for Watchman aired with The Dark Knight, and it made fanboys everywhere sit up and take notice. There’s still complaints about how it’s unfilmable and that it’ll be too short or too long, but from my eyes? This looks like it’ll be THE comic book film to see next year. It looks like it captured the feel of the comic book pretty well, and it’s embellished a bit to look badass. Plus, Rorschach looks dead on. Just like I thought he’d be like.

Large Hadron Collider (Science)

The Large Hadron Collider was turned on on September 10th, to many worries about the world ending. Contrary to popular opinion, the earth didn’t vanish in a tiny black hole. It was set to uncover the mysteries of the universe, but then it broke down again nine days later and won’t be up online until 2009. But, it’s still cool!

Geeks in Politics (Obama [spiderman, conan, superman] Patrick Leahy [Batman Cameo])

There’s been a lot of geekiness in politics this year. No lightsaber waving from McCain this time around, but President Elect Obama has claimed to be a big Spiderman and Conan fan, and did a superman pose in Metropolis, IL. In addition to him, VT senator Patrick Leahy, a huge batman fan, had a cameo in The Dark Knight. He’s also the head of the Senate Judiciary Committee. Ironic.

Superheroes: Fashion and Fantasy (Costumes)

The New York Metropolitan Museum of Art hosted an exhibit earlier this year (it’s since closed) called Superheroes: Fashion and Fantasy. It featured a number of costumes from a number of classic films, such as the original Superman and Wonder Woman films, but also things as recently released as The Dark Knight and Iron Man. The fashion section was a bit of a miss for me, but the exhibit as a whole was just outstanding. Plus, they had several original copies of Superman and Batman, Spiderman and Iron Man on display. Covered in a plastic shield of course…

Star Wars Encyclopedia (Star Wars)

Del Rey released a new and expanded Star Wars Encyclopedia this year, one that is not only complete, but still remarkably up to date. That’s not likely to last as long, given how fast LFL churns out canon material, but it’s a beautiful repository of information in the universe. I can spend hours just paging through reading things.

Anathem” By Neal Stephenson

I actually have yet to read this book, but it’s caught my eye, and it’s made a splash when it comes to the sci-fi literary world. All I really know about it is that it takes place on an earth-like world, and doubles as a philosophical text for knowledge and religion. I’ll have to pick it up, and only expand my to-read list further.

A Game of Thrones picked up by HBO (Song of Fire & Ice)

Another book that I have yet to read, but I actually own this one. HBO has picked up the book for a series. If there’s one thing that HBO does well, it’s TV shows, because they can pour money into them and get a good result. And, they have a good track record with adaptations, with things such as Band of Brothers and John Adams. I’ll watch this when it’s released.

We’ss Har Wars End (Karen Traviss)

Several years in the making, Karen Traviss has finally finished her Wess’Har Wars series with book 6, Judge. Starting back in 2003, she introduced readers to a fantastic story of first contacts filled with alien races, political commentary and expert storytelling. Judge didn’t deliver quite as well as I’d have liked (It certainly wasn’t the strongest of the series), it carried the momentum well, and proved to be a good read, one that finished up one of my favorite series satisfactorily. Hopefully, Karen will be back to writing hard scifi again, because she’s incredible at it.

Trooping (501st)

This year I got back into trooping with the 501st Legion. All in all, I did a total of 30 or so events, ranging from small affairs here in VT to much larger ones. The most memorable ones were the Boston St. Patrick’s Day Parade, Burlington Kid’s Day, the Weird Al ConcertSt-Jean-sur-Richelieu Balloon Festival, Walk for Autisms, and the 2008 Woburn Halloween Parade. All my events are listed here.

With all the good things that have happened this year, there’s the other side of the coin, and some letdowns, disappointments and pure flops.

Worst:

Writer’s Strike

Okay, this started in 2007, but it messed up television for the foreseeable future, by ending some shows and putting others on a long hiatus that has really hurt ratings. Pushing Daisies was one casualty, Terminator was almost one, LOST was put off for a year, as was 24, and already, we’re on the eve of another major strike over pretty much the same issues – internet distribution. Hopefully, some lessons will be learned.

Surviving a Nuclear Detonation (Indiana Jones)

Indiana Jones came back, and he came back bland. Indiana Jones and the Crystal Skull was an impossible undertaking to fill the hopes of fans for the past twenty years. While it’s not a horrible film, it’s nowhere near as high quality as Raiders or Crusade (although I did like it better than Doom). There was no passion, a crazy storyline and some annoying characters. It does have its moments, but they are few and far between.

Skyguy/Snips/Roger Roger (The Clone Wars)

Star Wars was another big LFL franchise that came back this year, and while The Clone Wars certainly had its moments, even high points, this film just extends the image of money grubbing that LFL is involved with, which is a shame. There’s too much bad dialog, characters and situations to make this a good part of the Star Wars universe, but the TV show has been making some improvements. The animation is stunningly good, some of the stories are actually good, but every time the battle droids start talking, I want to throw something at my TV.

Michael Crichton Eaten by Cyborg T-Rex and Flesh eating Space Bacteria from the Past.

While my interest in Michael Crichton has waned over the years as he began to write crappy books (Such as Prey and State of Fear), there’s no doubt that he’s shaped my reading. I’m still a huge fan of Jurassic Park, The Andromeda Strain, Terminal Man and a number of his older novels. He’s one of the most popular scifi authors (although he’s resisted the genre title) out there with his works, most of which were made into films. It’s a shame that he’s passed – I was always hoping for another good story from him.

Gary Gygax failed his saving throw

Geek-God Gary Gygax likewise passed away this year, leaving behind a legacy that has shaped nerd-culture in the US forever. His creation, Dungeons and Dragons, along with co-creator Dave Arneson, was one of the defining features of geeks everywhere, something that I got into back in 2001. Along with giving geeks something to do in groups, it helped define a generation’s activities, reading materials and conceptions of fantasy through to this day.

Arthur C Clarke becomes the Space Child

Arguably one of the greatest science fiction authors ever, Clarke’s death hit the world hard. He helped to define the literary genre, and the actual science behind it, and was responsible for such classics as 2001: A Space Odyssey, Rama, Childhood’s End, and numerous others, as well as the telecommunications satellite. He will be sorely missed, and is one of the last of the golden age of science fiction to be with us.(Today would have been his 91st birthday)

CNN Hologram technology

On election nigh, CNN touted their new thing in news casting, a hologram of Will.I.Am. Looked cool, and it looked like a hologram, but it was nothing more than a lot of cameras and empty space plus some CGI. Blah. Let’s see some real technology in action please.

Close the Iris! (Stargate Atlantis)

I was a huge fan of Stargate SG-1, and same with Atlantis for the first couple of seasons. This season has just plain sucked. It’s a shame, because there’s a good concept there, amidst the horrible characters, stories and situations. Not long now, because Atlantis has been canceled, and will be replaced with Stargate Universe next year.

Even more Confusing and Confounding! (Heroes Season 3)

Heroes Season 1 was brilliant. It introduced a new spin on superheroes, only to fall to its own success and have a fairly slow and boring second season. (To be sure, the writer’s strike had something to do with it, because it got better). Season 3 was promised to be bigger and better. And it was certainly bigger, with heroes coming back from the grave, more time travel and action, but none of it really made the same impression that season 1 did. I’m still behind episodes, but apparently it’s been getting better. Now that Bryan Fuller’s returning to the show, can we PLEASE start off really good and get better? Please?

Weird Science (Fringe)

I was really excited for Fringe, the latest show by JJ Abrams. It was a fun concept, and had a good couple episodes at first, but just became so dull that I stopped following it. I might pick it up again at some point, but only when I can marathon the entire thing at once.

Forrest J. Ackerman Dies

Forrest J. Ackerman, one of the first science fiction fans out there recently passed away. He was a key element of the spread of science fiction fandom, and he helped to found the LA Science Fantasy Society, among other numerous achivements, as well as influencing numerous authors over his long life.

Borders Downsizes SciFi Sections

I ranted about this earlier, as did a number of authors. Borders has been downsizing their sci-fi sections. While it’s understandable that they have to sell items, and that they can’t put everything on the shelf, you can’t predict what the next big hit will be, and you can’t know that until you actually start selling things.

That’s it for this year. Next year, there’s already quite a bit coming up. Should be a fun year.