Thursday, April 4, 2019

Audiobook Review: The Stainless Steel Rat by Harry Harrison

Book Rating: 5 out of 5 Stars (Highest Rating)

Audiobook Rating: 5 out of 5 Stars (Highest Rating)

Bottom Line: A first-rate sci fi book that pokes fun at the genre while also introducing iconic characters and delving into some interesting moral dilemmas.

The Stainless Steel Rat is Harry Harrison’s classic book that introduces us to the intergalactic criminal mastermind with a good heart James Bolivar diGriz who also goes by the book’s titular name.  He lives in the distant future when humans have spread out across the galaxy and initially makes a good living for himself as a con-man, thief, and swindler.  But he is captured and enlisted by the “Special Corps” and goes undercover as an operative for that mysterious organization.  In his first mission, he is sent after the female criminal named Angelina, but starts to develop a mutual respect for her and amorous feelings as well.

The character was first introduced in the short story “The Stainless Steel Rat” which appeared in Astounding magazine in 1957.  Harrison later fleshed that out to a novel and eleven sequels would follow over Harrison’s lifetime.  In many ways, this book is a sci fi parody with tongue firmly planted in cheek, but it does not go quite into Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy territory as it presents more of a sly and witty take on the genre.

The Stainless Steel Rat also presents some interesting philosophical meanderings, though some of that requires digging into the subtext.  The main character is happy to expound on his philosophy of life (it is written in the first person), and he definitely places great value on the individual and personal freedom.  But diGriz ultimately finds himself manipulated by the Special Corps and by Angelina, so the freedom he believes he possess is definitely questionable.  Plus his justifications for his criminal activity and the decisions he wrestles with while working for the Corps present some interesting moral quandaries.  All of this makes for a fun and enticing read and elevates the book to more than just a simple parody of the sci fi genre.

Enhancing the experience of this delightful book is the audio version that is narrated by Phil Gigante.  The highly enthusiastic, heroic, Buzz Lightyear voice he employs for the main narration and for diGriz works perfectly with the material and takes it to the next level for an audio production.  His voices for the other characters also add to the overall experience and make this a first-rate audiobook.  I have only one complaint about the audio version and that is that it is DRM Protected.  I purchased this through AudiobooksNow.com and I can listen as long as I have an account with that service.  But I can’t download it in MP3 format for archival purposes like I can with most of their other books.  But that is only a nitpick and don’t let that stop you from enjoying this must-read sci fi entry that is perfectly brought to life with its audio production.


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Friday, January 11, 2019

Audiobook Review: Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde by Robert Louis Stevenson

Book Rating: 4 ½ out of 5 Stars

Audiobook Rating: 5 out of 5 Stars (Highest Rating)

Bottom Line: This book delivers a quintessential piece of 19th Century horror / sci fi that presents some challenging moral quandaries.

In this classic 19th Century tale,  a lawyer--Gabriel John Utterson--finds himself entangled in the affairs of his friend, the upstanding Dr. Henry Jekyll, along with a rather surly dwarf of a man known as Mr. Hyde. The latter, a person of loathsome appearance and demeanor, has been seen around town and was guilty of assaulting a girl, for which Dr. Jekyll later paid retribution. Hyde has an unspecified connection with the doctor and Utterson is particularly dismayed when Jekyll revises his will to include Hyde as a beneficiary. This all comes to a head when a man is violently murdered and Mr. Hyde is linked to the crime, becoming a fugitive from justice.

This infamous novella written by Robert Louis Stevenson was first published in 1886 and has since become an iconic piece of genre fiction and has been retold countless times in film, on television, in comics, on the stage and more. The reason the story has lived on is that Stevenson managed to deliver a powerful tale that resonates with his readers and definitely touches a primal nerve. The first nine chapters of the book, written from the point of view of Utterson, give us a mystery tale as the lawyer tries to find out the truth about Mr. Hyde and his connection to Dr. Jekyll. But it is the final chapter that propels this book into the realm of literary masterpiece. This chapter unveils the final journal of Dr. Jekyll as he details his experiment and descent into the depths of his own dark side. But instead of simply looking at this from the simplistic point of view of good vs. evil, Stevenson adds another dimension to his tale by acknowledging the fact that both sides co-exist within us all and that we must learn to cope with our own dark sides in order to not be controlled by it. Jekyll tried to control his own licentiousness by devising a means to eradicate his dark side, but instead that created the Mr. Hyde alter ego. And this evil side of him gradually overtook the good side and ultimately destroyed both. Stevenson gets into some pretty heady (and cutting edge for the time) psychological territory in this chapter, and the moral issues he raises still provide subject for debate today.

I have to admit, though, that I found the ending a bit unsatisfying. After the revelations of the final chapter, all written in the words of Jekyll, I wanted to see the reaction of Utterson as well as some additional resolution of earlier plot threads left hanging. But that did not come as the novella ends on Jekyll’s final, ominous words. On the plus side, this tale is not overly wordy like other important genre works from the 19th century such as Dracula and Frankenstein. The relatively brief length of this book makes it a quick read, unlike the two mentioned above (or the thousand-plus page bloatfests we currently see hitting the shelves these days), but a short chapter wrapping up the loose ends would have been nice.  But then that’s just a quibble and who am I to try and perfect a literary masterpiece?

Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde is often looked at as a horror story, but the fact is that it is also a proto-science fiction tale as well. Jekyll’s experiments that lead to the creation of Mr. Hyde come about through scientific endeavors and have no supernatural links. In this sense, the book is similar to Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein which based the creation of that book’s monster on scientific knowledge of the time. Stevenson also works in some of the early discoveries of psychology, a field that had established itself as a new scientific discipline at about that same time (separating itself from philosophy where it had previously been relegated). But whether you consider it horror, science fiction or both, it is a must-read for all genre fans.

Since Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde is in the public domain, there are many audio adaptations and dramatizations available for this work, but I decided to check out the Librivox version and was pleasantly surprised. For those not familiar with Librivox, that site is the Project Gutenberg of audiobooks, offering free audio adaptations of works in the public domain available for download. This is one of several audiobooks from Librivox I have listened to and the others were of varying quality as far as narration goes. But the adaptation that Stevenson’s book gets the first-rate treatment, with narrator David Barnes giving us a professional quality reading. Whereas some of the readers for Librivox (all volunteers) provide barely passable narrations, Barnes delivers an excellent vocal performance and makes the story a pleasure to listen to. Why pay good money for a professional adaptation when you can get one just a good for free from Librivox? You can download it as MP3 files at this link and I highly recommend this version whether you are a regular audiobook listener (used to a professional level of quality) or just trying them out for the first time.


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Friday, November 9, 2018

Sci Fi Short Theater: Apocalypse Now Now, Anthem, The Cycle, and More

Apocalypse Now Now

Description: Baxter Zevcenko might be a serial killer. His girlfriend, Esme, is missing, and he’s the prime suspect. To clear his name, he’ll turn to Cape Town’s grizzliest, drunkest bounty hunter, Jackson ‘Jackie’ Ronin. Little does he know that Ronin is a supernatural bounty-hunter, and that he’s about to be dragged headlong into a deep, dark Cape Town underbelly full of monsters and myth, shadowy government forces, bloodthirsty crow-men and a conspiracy across time and space. (More about the film at this link: www.bephatmotel.com/projects#/apocalypse-now-now/

Credits: Michael Matthews (Director), Sean Drummond (Writer)

Starring: Garion Dowds, Louw Venter, Faniswa Yisa

Comments: This is a proof of concept short based on the Charlie Human novel of the same name and I certainly hope they expand this one into a full film. It's Quentin Tarantino does the supernatural apocalypse and it has all the right pieces to make a decent movie.




Anthem

Description: Aliens sift through the contents of a time capsule as flashbacks show the last few minutes of the people who left behind the mementos shortly before the world ends.

Credits: Jarrett lee Conway (Director / Writer)

Starring: Ossie Beck, Sam Feuer, Christina Robinson, Thomas Phillips

Comments: This is a poignant short film that uses its premise quite well, though I would have liked to have seen it expanded a bit further (not necessarily feature length). I notice in the comments on YouTube that some assume that the film has a particular political point of view, but I think they are missing the point.




The Cycle

Description: An apprentice of magic finds out, that she herself is her greatest enemy. This video is a student short film, made in Berlin.

Credits: David Schuster (Director / Writer)

Starring: Marie Bebber, Steven M. Gilbert, Lucas Wija

Comments: This is an enjoyable fantasy short that could be fleshed out into a full film. The CGI is not the greatest, about video game quality, but it is still pretty decent considering this is a student film.




Pets

Description: The future is clean and easy, with the intelligent spheres guiding you through. This video is a student movie, made in Berlin.

Credits: David Wunderlich (Director / Writer)

Starring: Steven Preisner, Almuth Jabs, Frank Rungwald, Carole Lunt

Comments: This is an interesting little sci fi film that might just make you wonder who is really in control next time you look at one of the your smart devices.




Embers and Dust

Description: For a curious young boy, The War of the Worlds is just the beginning. On the evening of October 30th, 1938 Orson Welles’ voice traveled far across the radio waves, bringing word of an invading alien army from Mars. The theatricality and delivery of the performance, along with recent memories of the Hindenburg disaster (one year prior), sent many listeners into a panic. Unfortunate coincidence would fall upon the town of Concrete WA where, at the height of the invading alien attack, a power transformer blew out sending the entire town and surrounding areas into darkness.

Credits: Patrick Biesemans (Writer / Director)

Starring: Joel Nagel, Virginia Logan, Henry Gagliardi

Comments: A nice piece of retro-sci fi with a very cinematic feel to it. Seems almost like it could have been part of a larger Spielberg-type film and I'd like to see this one expanded to feature length.

Friday, October 12, 2018

TV Review: Manifest

Rating: 2 ½ out of 5 Stars

Bottom Line: This Lost-lookalike has some interesting ideas but does not appear to be built for the long haul.

NBC’s new series Manifest follows the passengers and crew of an airplane that disappears for over five years then mysteriously reappears and lands with no explanation for the absence.  For those on the plane, it only seems like a few hours have passed.  But the rest of the world assumed the plane had crashed and all aboard were lost.  And if this premise is starting to sound a bit like Reverse-Lost, that appears to be exactly what the show is going for.  Mysteries upon mysteries abound, and we are introduced to more and more people from the plane who all seem to share an uncanny connection.

After three episodes, though, the creative team has failed to demonstrate that they grasp what made Lost a must-watch show when it first debuted (and throughout its six-year run).  The veteran show gave us interesting, colorful, and diverse characters amongst its principals, each who had a well-developed backstory.  We became engaged in the characters right away, and the mysteries of the island just added to the intrigue of the show.  Viewers were drawn back each week to learn more about this cast of characters while also putting together the clues for the over-arching mystery.

Manifest, on the other hand, has so far loaded up on stock television characters and stories while throwing in bits of mystery relating to the disappearance and how it has affected those from the plane.  A few of the characters step away from television stereotypes, particularly Cal (played by Jack Messina) and Saanvi (played by Parveen Kaur), but the rest seem to fade into the background, including the show’s leads Michaela Stone (played by Melissa Roxburgh) and Ben Stone (played by Josh Dallas).  Add to this procedural storylines with plenty of soap opera asides, and you have a mish-mash of genres that never really distinguishes itself.

There is perhaps an intriguing storyline here and the show could start to find its legs after a few more episodes, but without interesting enough characters and more original ideas, it seems like diminishing returns will set in pretty quickly.  Manifest reminds me very much of FlashForward, The Event, Alcatraz, and other Lost-wannabes in that it has some potential but it is mired too much in television tropes and attempts to substitute unresolved mysteries for stories.  Sci fi fans like myself are likely already losing interest in the show, and the general television audience will probably start tuning out when they grow frustrated with the murky storylines.

Ratings-wise, this one has actually done quite well for NBC through its first three episodes.  But I personally am ready to tune out considering there are so many better options for viewing in the Peak TV era.  If Manifest continues on its current path, my guess is that the audience will erode and this will end up as another one-season-and-done Lost-imitator like the shows mentioned above.

Saturday, July 28, 2018

Sci Fi Short Theater: The Looking Planet, Final Offer, Adagio, and More

The Looking Planet

Description: During the construction of the universe, a young member of the Cosmos Corps of Engineers decides to break some fundamental laws in the name of self-expression.

Credits: Eric Law Anderson (Director / Writer)

Starring: Samuel Hery, Joe Capalletti, Cindy Robinson

Comments: This film may not fit well with the theories on the creation of the universe in your science text book, but we'll call it an alternate explanation. Beautifully animated, this one is rather poetic and great fun as well.




Final Offer

Description: A down-on-his-luck lawyer awakes in a doorless room to find he's been selected to negotiate on behalf of the human race.

Credits: Mark Slutsky (Director / Writer)

Starring: Anna Hopkins, Aaron Abrams

Comments: Sometimes those legal technicalities can work in your favor as this fun little short proves. This one makes good use of the talented Anna Hopkins who has appeared on The Expanse, Dark Matter, Arrow, and more. Aaron Abrams also does a good job and he has previously been seen on Blindspot, Hannibal, and more




Adagio

Description: A young man sacrifices himself for the lives of a thousand, but will he come back? Based on a story by Robert Heinlein.

Credits: Christian Doran (Director / Writer)

Starring: Matt Popp, Mary Musolino, Rob De Fries

Comments: This is a very moving and well-done piece of science fiction. I've not read the short story it is based on, so I don't know how well it sticks to the source material. But what Doran has done with it here is quite good and I would like to see more work from this director.




Wire Cutters

Description: A chance encounter proves fateful for 2 robots mining on a desolate planet.

Credits: Jack Anderson (Director / Writer)

Comments: This is a nice bit of animated fun with quite excellent CGI. Would love to see them do some more shorts with the same robots.




Hope

Description: With the world ablaze, a lone survivor must preserve all life before meeting his fate. Hope follows Dr. Jacob Thorn's final act to ensure humanity's future after all life is wiped out by an asteroid impact. High above Earth in a space station built solely for this task Thorn has to cope with unimaginable loss as he carries out his mission. More info on this film at this link.

Credits: Frank Anderson (Director / Writer)

Starring: Troy Halverson, Amor Owens, Sheena Wiley

Comments: This is a nice piece of apocalyptic sci fi with a bit of hope to it (thus the title). And the CGI is quite good as well.

Thursday, July 26, 2018

The Anti-Blockbusters: Ex Machina

Rating: 4 ½ out 5 Stars

Bottom Line: In the tradition of the best science fiction movies, this near-flawless film uses its sci fi elements to address moral dilemmas we face in our current social setting.

This movie begins as programmer Caleb Smith, who works for the very Google-like company Blue Book, learns that he has won a one-week trip to the home of the company's reclusive CEO Nathan Bateman. Once Caleb arrives there, he finds that Nathan has built a very human-like robot who he has named Ava. This robot has already passed a Turing test--which determines a machine's ability to exhibit intelligent behavior--and Nathan wants Caleb to continue to test it to prove that it truly possesses artificial intelligence. Through the process, though, Caleb starts to develop feelings for Ava. And when he learns that Nathan plans on upgrading her, which will wipe out her current personality, he decides to try an save her current version from being destroyed.

This movie was written by Alex Garland (28 Days Later, Annihilation) and it was his directorial debut. He does an excellent job with both the script and helming the film and delivers what I believe should be counted as a new classic among science fiction movies. The pacing is slow but never plodding as the story unfolds carefully but does not proceed quite how you may expect. I'm trying to be as spoiler free in this review as possible because the film has plenty of twists and turns which are what truly make it into a great movie.

It's no accident that Nathan's company is analogous to Google because the film addresses issues that impact us due to the rise of tech-giants like that company and others. Artificial intelligence definitely is one of the moral quandaries tackled, but also the constant monitoring and surveillance as well as the extensive data collected on all of us that use their products. In the tradition of the best science fiction tales, this movie looks at how technology impacts us with all of the dilemmas that entails. And that sinks in pretty hard when Caleb comes to an important realization later in the film (again, no spoilers).

The cast is minimal with four actors taking up the vast majority of the screen time. Oscar Isaac, who plays Nathan, went on to play Poe Dameron in the Star Wars films, but the other three actors are not well known in the States. Still, they are more than up to the challenge of carrying this film and work quite well as an ensemble. Isaac probably has the most dominating presence, especially early on, but Alicia Vikander as Ava ends up stealing plenty of scenes, particularly toward the end.

The special effects are none short of excellent, though judiciously used. The majority of the visual effects are used on Ava's machine body and these are flawless. But unlike the typical Hollywood blockbuster, this film does not give us an excess of CGI, nor does it live and die on its visuals alone. Ex Machina has a carefully crafted script that employs good sfx to take it to that next level, but the story and the actors are what truly set it apart. It is not a mega-budget film delivering non-stop action and CGI-overload. It is a much more somber piece that uses its science fiction premise to raise questions very important to our present social situation as well as the direction we are heading. That's what good sci fi movies do.

Available from Amazon.com:

Thursday, July 19, 2018

Review: The X-Files Cold Cases and Stolen Lives (Audio Dramas)

The X-Files: Cold Cases and The X-Files: Stolen Lives are two audio dramas produced exclusively for Audible that brought back the original cast to voice their roles from the show.  They are adapted from the comic book series The X-Files: Season 10 that was published by IDW and written by Joe Harris (Locke & Key) with an assist from Chris Carter.  The series begins by revisiting the lives of Fox Mulder and Dana Scully who have been in hiding and under FBI protection since the events at the end of the ninth and final season of the television series.  Deputy Director Skinner seeks Mulder's help and Scully in kidnapped which leads to a re-opening of the X-Files and kicks off a series of adventures for our favorite FBI paranormal investigators.

These two audio dramas are great fun, providing the perfect return to the X-Files universe and a much more satisfying continuation of the series than the recent revival which has aired sixteen very uneven episodes thus far.  Joe Harris understands the nostalgia value that the original series holds and he makes great use of that, but he also knows how to tell a decent story, and these dramas draw as much on that as fond memories from the original show.  He gives a plausible explanation for where Mulder and Scully have been since the events of the TV series wrapped up in 2002 and why they are now coming back out in to the light of day.  He also brings back many of the favorite characters (and characters we loved to hate) from the show, with reasonable justifications for the presence of those who died off in the series.

Much like the original series, this is comprised of several stand-alone stories as well episodes that are part of a bigger story arc that draws everything together. And it does a good job of recapping much of the mythology from the showing, giving a refresher for returning fans and a catch-up for new listeners.  The television revival should have drawn heavily from the Season 10 comics (which spanned 25 issues), at least for the basic setup, because it is much more faithful to the original series.

As for the audio adaptation, it comes off quite well as expected considering the high-power cast it has on hand. David Duchovny and Gillian Anderson are back in the leads along with Mitch Pileggi as Skinner and many of the original actors from the series (I won't list them all because quite a number count as spoilers). Even Robert Patrick and Annabeth Gish show up as Doggett and Reyes, though their participation is minor. I only have one nitpick and that is that the audio dramas could have used a narrator. There are several times where the actor's dialogue tells the audience what they are doing ("I am walking into the house. I am opening the door to the room. I am walking into the dark room.") and it sounds rather stilted and unrealistic. Other times, you just have to guess what is going on based on the sound effects, which is often times difficult. But apart from that, this is a first rate production.

These two audio dramas are must-haves for long-time fans of the show and are well worth the time you will spend listening to them (both clock in at around four hours). They are only available through Audible that this time, but if you sign up with their two free books promotion (see link below), then you get them both for nothing. And Audible does have the largest selection of audio books out there if you do want to continue your audio adventures (unfortunately they do everything in their proprietary format, though). If you still have a bad taste in your mouth from the revival series, these audio dramas just might be the perfect thing to wash that away. They offer good stories that are faithful to the original series and that are well-performed. X-Files fans will definitely not be disappointed by these.