Tuesday, November 28, 2023

A Pale Light in the Black


A Pale Light in the Black is, unfortunately, not science fiction. It's not even a space opera. It's a sports novel in space.

For the past year, their close loss in the annual Boarding Games has haunted Interceptor Team: Zuma’s Ghost. With this year’s competition looming, they’re looking forward to some payback—until an unexpected personnel change leaves them reeling.

 And Someone is targeting members of Zuma’s Ghost, a mysterious opponent willing to kill to safeguard a secret that could shake society to its core . . . a secret that could lead to their deaths and kill thousands more unless Max and her new team stop them. Rescue those in danger, find the bad guys, win the Games. It’s all in a day’s work at the NeoG.

Based on the description, I expected a story balanced  between preparing for the big competition and uncovering the secret conflict, but that wasn't the case. While there were bits of an investigation scattered throughout the book, at least 80% of the story focused on competition and the celebrity it brought the characters. Maybe 10% of the story was about the characters' family issues and mere 10% about investigating the mystery eventually revealed threat  

I've never liked sports and don't enjoy reading about sports celebrities. So I ended up skimming through the last third of the book.

When the final conflict came, it was a bit of a let down. The villain was too easily caught. There was never any real tension or question about who would prevail.

So, only read this book if you're a sports fan.

Tuesday, July 25, 2023

New episodes of Futurama start today


This caught me by surprise, but Hulu released a new episode of Futurama today (7/24/2023). 

Futurama was an innovative satirical cartoon that originally aired on Fox from 1999 - 2003. There were also a few movies after the original series was cancelled.

The cartoon is known and loved for it's hilarious send ups of common sci fi tropes as well as its satirical portrayal of politics and mass media.

Depending on which web site you look at, the new episodes may be identified as season 8 or season 11. I think this is due to confusion over whether the movies count as seasons. 

Regardless, I'm looking forward to the new episodes.

Wednesday, July 12, 2023

Fantastic Voyage

 Fantastic Voyage by Issac Asimov

Four men and one woman reduced to a microscopic fraction of their original size, boarding a miniaturized atomic sub and being injected into a dying man's carotid artery. Passing through the heart, entering the inner ear where even the slightest sound would destroy them, battling relentlessly into the cranium.

Their objective . . . to reach a blood clot and destroy it with the piercing rays of a laser.

Isaac Asimov wrote the novel based on Harry Kliener's screen play. Rumor has it, that when Asimov saw the original screen play, he remarked that it was full of plot holes and scientific inaccuracies, and insisted on correcting them for the novel. 

Unfortunately, he failed to correct the basic structural and character development flaws. So instead of a 'fantastic voyage', we have a seriously flawed novel. 

The first chapter is literally four "As you know, Bob" conversations about the importance of an off-page character. The Turkey City Lexicon lists an "As you know, Bob" as when two characters tell each other what they already know to bring the reader up to speed. It's a common sci fi trope among beginners. Editors hate it, and this book exemplifies one of the reasons for that hatred. 

By having his characters discuss an off-page character, the author is telling the reader that the characters he's introducing us to on the page aren't that important. So the reader is wondering" if these characters aren't that important, why is the writer wasting my time introducing me to them? Let's get to the real story".

Granted this book was written in 1966, is based on a movie, and opening scenes like this were very common in films of the time. But I still expected better writing from a Grand Master of Science Fiction. 

A second major flaw is the dialog. Most of the dialog consists of one character telling another what they should be thinking. Often with hyperbolic emotional exaggeration that might have worked on the screen, but on the page, makes the characters look like caricatures.

It's was difficult to get into the story, and I was so disgusted with the dialog, I quit reading half way through. Can't recommend this book, not even for historical value.

Tuesday, May 30, 2023

The Glass Teat

I'd heard about Harlan Ellison's The Glass Teat for years, but couldn't find a copy until recently. I'd heard it was an insightful commentary on the deleterious effects television had on the human mind and American culture. Nope, it's not. It's a collection of short vitriolic rants about the lack of realism in a  TV shows and a few other things Ellison didn't like.

According to the book's intro, these rants were originally a weekly newspaper column, reproduced here the order they were written. So there's no real structure, nothing to tie them together.  And since I've never seen most of the shows he mentions, it's impossible to determine how accurate his opinions are. 

The out-of-date references and the vitriolic rhetoric make this book a waste of time for most audiences. The only readers I'd recommend this book for is those specifically studying the counter culture of the 1960s and 70s.

Sunday, May 14, 2023

School Spirits

Okay, enough with the negative reviews. Time to talk about something really, really good: School Spirits.

Streaming from Paramount+, School Spirits is a supernatural crime drama staring Peyton List and Christian Flores. 

Peyton List plays Maddie Nears, a teenager who has just died and whose spirit is now stuck at school. But she has no memory of how she died or where her body is.  The show follows Maddie's ghost and her living friends as they try to solve the mystery of what happened.

Each episode the kids investigate a different potential suspect. First Maddie's boyfriend, then her teacher, then.... (hey too many spoilers). Each episode ends with the kids discovering a clue that clears one suspect and casts suspicion on a new one. Keeping my interest right up to unexpected twist at the end of the first season. (and no, I'm not going to tell you what was finally revealed.)

Along the way we meet many of the other ghosts who've died at this school over the past 60 years, all of whom are trapped there, with no way out. Maddie forms personal connections with four of these other ghosts, and these friendships provide some deep and beautiful character moments.

In spite of the fact that I usually hate high school dramas, School Spirits proved to be one of the best shows of 2023, thanks in no small part to Peyton List's superb performance. But I'm giving this show high marks all around: Excellent writing, directing and acting from everyone involved in the show. I'm looking forward to season 2.

Saturday, May 13, 2023

Class of '09 TV show

Class of '09 is a sci fi crime drama now airing on the FX channel and streaming from Hulu. The show follows four  FBI agents in three different periods of their careers: as cadets in '09, as mid-level agents 2023, and as senior agents in 2034. 

More importantly for sci fi fans, in 2034, the FBI has replaced most of its analysts with an AI that can predict crime and stop it before it happens. 

In the pilot's first scene,  which takes place in the future, the AI sends two agents who apparently haven't seen each other for years to arrest a man without explanation. But instead of finding him, they find a recording of the FBI director (another classmate) claiming the US is now the safest nation on Earth. 

Without preparation, were suddenly thrust back to the moment they meet - their first day of training at Quantico. After a few moments seeing the characters here, then were sent back further in time to when one of them was recruited. (I almost turned off the show right there. I hate flashbacks within flashbacks.)

To write a fair review, I watched the first two episodes. But I couldn't get into the show. Time jumps happen frequently and without preparation.  One minute we're seeing them in at training, then in the middle of an under cover assignment 14 years later, then back to training, then back to 2034. This  totally destroys the rhythms of each story line, and makes it impossible to connect with any of the characters.

The events in each time period seem totally disconnected from the others. There's no mention of the AI in the 2009 or 2023 scenes. No mention of the 2023 crimes in the 2034 scenes. (At least not in the first two episodes.) And in the 2023 scenes, the agents are working totally separate cases. So you're trying to follow six different story lines.  That is way too much.

 In the future scenes, there are hints and accusations that the AI has gone rogue. But these scenes are so brief and the acting is so wooden, you don't care. Brian Tyree Henry, playing the FBI director, looks like he's stoned or sleep walking through these scenes. Kate Mara is nearly as dull. (The other two supposed leads are barely present through the first two episodes.)

 While I normally like to see TV shows try new innovations, Class of '09 simply doesn't work.

Sunday, May 7, 2023


Chindi is the third novel McDevitt's Academy series. But fortunately, you don't have to read the other books to enjoy (or hate) this one Chindi stands on it's own.   

On a routine survey mission studying a neutron star, an Academy starship discovers an alien transmission, but can't track it's origin.
Five years later, a satellite finally encounters the signal again, which inspires the Contact Society, a wealthy group of enthusiasts to launch an expedition to track it's origin.  Providing a starship to the Academy to be piloted by Captain Priscilla “Hutch” Hutchins, the Contact Society embarks on a mission to find the source of the transmission.

The novel proceeds like a slow motion scavenger hunt across multiple star systems. And I do mean "slow" McDevitt brilliantly describes the settings, capturing the wonder and awe of alien starscapes. But totally fails with character development.

On page 335 McDevitt explicitly states the recurring theme of the book: 

There have been studies over the years supporting the proposition that groups composed entirely of women usually made intelligent decisions, that exclusively male groups usually did a bit less well, and mixed groups did the most poorly of all.  It appeared that, when women were present, testosterone got the upper hand and men took greater risks. Correspondingly, women in mixed groups tended to revert to roles, becoming more passive and going along with whatever misjudgement the males might perpetrate.

I've seen a few studies on groupthinking and I think this can be true when the women are of lower social rank, new to a group, or subordinate employees. But NOT when the woman is accomplished in her own right, achieves a rank as high as starship captain, or is the only experienced person in a group of amateurs. McDevitt misapplied the theme, and diminishes his heroine, his starship captain, to behaving like teenage schoolgirl desperately trying to fit in with the 'cool kids'. The reader wonders how she ever achieved the rank of captain.

Definitely NOT the way to write a memorable heroine, especially not in the 21st Century.

The other characters are given detailed backstories as they are introduced. (Essentially infodumps) But by the time you're way into the novel half are dead (due to stupid decisions) and rest feel interchangeable. And the frequent POV shifts do nothing to distinguish one from another. 

The conclusion was a major disappointment. The author wrote himself into a corner with the final rescue. And instead of showing how his heroine resolved it, he skipped over it to the point after she had been rescued. And the mystery of the Chindi is left unresolved.

Definitely NOT how I'd write an epic space adventure.

Monday, May 1, 2023

Six Wakes

Six Wakes is a sci fi murder mystery from Mur Lafferty. Five clones (the AI makes six) on a deep space mission wake to find that their previous incarnations have been murdered, they've lost 25 years worth of memories, and the ship's computer has been sabotaged.

Complicating the problem is the fact that all of the crew have criminal pasts. Although their previous incarnations apparently worked peacefully together for over 20 years, these clones don't know each other, and don't trust each other.

Perhaps I watch too much TV. But it seems like the author combined the idea of cloning with the premises of two recent TV shows, School Spirits (where the lead character wakes as a ghost and tries to solve her own murder), and Dark Matter (where six people wake on a space ship with no memory of their past). But the crew of Six Wakes do remember their lives before joining the crew, and flashback chapters reveal that those pasts to be more connected than even their previous incarnations knew.


The Writer's Perspective

Although the story rehashes familiar territory and none of the characters really stand out, Lafferty seems to have a gift for foreshadowing. She weaves hints and clues of what's to come into each character's backstory. I was impressed with how she foreshadowed the characters' prior connections without revealing too much too quickly. This helped the story unfold at a good pace and kept me interested enough to keep reading.

Tuesday, April 25, 2023

An Essay on Philip K. Dick’s novel, “Radio Free Albemuth”

 In 2004, I was prompted to write an essay to address the following question:  Is America's role in the world contributing to the enhancement of general human welfare?

I had just finished reading  Philip K. Dick’s novel, “Radio Free Albemuth”. So I based my essay on that reading.


I recently read Philip K. Dick’s novel, “Radio Free Albemuth”. In this book, Dick speculated what might happen if the people accidentally elected a paranoid fascist dictator as the President of the United States. Dick died in 1982, and his estate published the book posthumously in 1985. But it’s amazing how closely his vision resembled the events of 2002-2003.

Dick’s fictional villain, Ferris F. Freemont, traveled the country speaking of threats from subversive elements out to destroy the United States. Like Hitler in the 1930s, he used patriotism and fear to rally the people behind his cause. He created the Friends of the American People (FAP). A Nazi-like organization that got people spying on each other in order to ensure their loyalty to the President.

Dick’s three protagonists were a novelist, a singer and a record company executive. Since recording artists often have the ability to inspire people’s passions and rally them to a cause, FAP wanted to prevent the singer from recording any music that might criticize the President. They blackmailed the writer into spying on the record executive, and the record executive into spying on the singer.

As I read Dick’s novel in March 2003,  I couldn’t help noticing the similarity to the Dixie Chicks controversy. President Bush was traveling the country in 2002 spreading fear about Al Qeada’s and Iraq’s potential for attacking American citizens. Bush said it was essential that we start a war with Iraq. And when a recording artist, Natalie Manes of the Dixie Chicks, criticized Bush’s position, the country jumped on her. 

Political commentators and several major news organizations blasted her. “Support your President,” they insisted. “Doesn’t he deserve your support?” they asked rhetorically. Political commentators harassed her for weeks. Bush’s supporters sent threatening letters, staged protests, and burned her CDs. They pressured her into backing down and apologizing for exercising her right to free speech.
Although Natalie Manes backed down, many other people stood their ground. Janeane Garofalo, Martin Sheen, Mike Farrell, Tim Robbins and nearly 100 other celebrities banded together and continued speaking out against the U.S. starting a war with Iraq. These people weren’t just fighting for peace, they were fighting for their Freedom of Speech. 

The founders of the United States declared that freedom of speech was a basic and inalienable right. Opinions expressed at the time reflected a belief that without the freedom of speech, there could be no true liberty.1 If the ability to pursue liberty is a measure of human welfare, then our welfare has been under a malicious attack by those claiming to cherish it. 

Like Dick’s fictional FAP, the mainstream news media can sometimes act like an oppressive watchdog organization, spewing propaganda under the guise of patriotism and unbiased reports; and doing everything possible to discredit or silence other voices. Dick’s novel shows clearly how losing the freedom of speech can create fear and mistrust among people, and how people ruled by these emotions become afraid to stand up for their rights, or the rights of others. They become afraid to openly question even the most obviously false rhetoric and propaganda.
We must never let these things happen to us.

Natalie Manes showed us that we need to stand up for our Freedom of Speech or it can be taken from us; and with it, our liberty. Tim Robbins and other celebrities show us that we can still stand up and fight for our Freedom of Speech and our liberty. But celebrities cannot do the job for us. We must all maintain the ‘eternal vigilance’ necessary to become aware of these attacks on our freedoms, our liberty and our welfare. 

The United States remains a rhetorical battlefield in which we must continually fight for the right to create a better society. We are all soldiers in this fight. Together we all must stand up for our beliefs and continuously fight to protect our Freedom of Speech.  When Americans fight to protect the Freedom of Speech, we contribute the most to general human welfare. 

It's amazing how good science fiction can remain relevant for so many years in spite of changing culture and technology.

Seven Mercies

Seven Mercies is the second half of the Seven Devils duology. (Read my review of the first book.) Like the first book in the series, it's a mixed bag; a lot to like, and a few things that don't quite work. 


Seven Mercies starts a few months after the conclusion of the first book. The rebel forces are decimated. The empire is stronger than ever, and our heroes are struggling to find supplies. Rumors arrive that the other empire has found a way to free people from the Oracle's mind control. So two of the devils go under cover to verify it. 

In the mean time, the others try to free one of their former leaders from prison before he is turned into a mindless vessel for the AI that runs the empire. It's too late, of course, he's already fully under the AI's control. So when they bring him back, the AI speaks through him, persuading the youngest rebel to return to her job as the AI's programmer and engineer. The AI then persuades her young engineer to write the code that lets it take over everyone in the empire. Everyone with a chip in their head across the entire length of the empire is reduced to mindless drones. (Yep, that's essentially what just happened on Star Trek: Picard Season 3, Episode 9.) 

The rebels must fight through an army of drones to rescue their young engineer and destroy the AI. 

Most of the characters are well developed (although some make really stupid decisions) and action is intense. Making the book enjoyable to read.... if you can ignore the occasional clumsy writing and a basic world building error.

The Writer's Perspective

The first book was marketed as a feminist space opera. But the second book reveals that  four of the characters are bisexual and one is transgender, making this more of a queer space opera. This also creates an internal contradiction that shows the authors failed to do their research. 

In the real world, sexual identity and orientation develop during gestation. The genetic engineering program and artificial gestation process that the authors described would never have allowed the development of homosexual and transgender traits in just a few random individuals among a creche of engineered soldiers. 

This basic flaw in the world building prevents the suspension of disbelief necessary for the reader to totally immerse themselves in the fictional universe. It also highlights how important it is for science fiction writers to research the science they write about.

If you can ignore this basic error, you'll enjoy both Seven Devils and Seven Mercies.

Friday, April 21, 2023

Fired on Mars

Fired on Mars is a new animated sci fi show on HBO Max. Unfortunately, this is a slow, boring portrait of a man who gets fired and falls into a long depression. I barely got through the pilot episode without turning off the TV and picking up a book.

The pilot episode ignored some of the most basic requirements of a good storytelling: 1. Give your character a goal to achieve and 2. build a believable world.

Jeff Cooper (voiced by Luke Wilson) is a graphic designer who gave up his life to travel to Mars. But 8 months after arriving, the company eliminates his position. This leaves him with nothing to do, and no way to return home. So he falls into a terrible depression. He tries once or twice to let people know that he's available to work, but no one cares.

The worldbuilding is absolutely terrible. The office, even though it's on Mars, looks like any typical office from the 1990s. Brightly lit, spacious, and everyone in open cubicles. It could easily be on Earth. The computers look like iMacs (which I've never seen in a real office) from the late 1990s. Close ups show them running Mac OS 5 or 6 (which were obsolete by the time iMacs were produced) and software that looks like MacDraw from the 1980s. Yet Jeff has a modern smart phone that provides instant communication between Earth and Mars. 

The banal and superficial dialogue makes all the characters sound like idiots. Worse, nothing in the dialogue contributes to the worldbuilding. Most of this dialogue could have occurred in any generic company anywhere on Earth 30 years ago.

 I don't know what HBO was thinking when they produced this show. But I will not watch a second episode.

Sunday, April 16, 2023

The Magician's Apprentice

The Magician's Apprentice is a slow moving, poorly constructed prequel to Trudi Canavan's Black Magic Trilogy.

While I enjoyed Thief's Magic and Angel of Storms, I found it difficult to finish this book.

Every chapter has a different viewpoint character (the titular apprentice is only one of a dozen) and several are minor or inconsequential characters. 

Nearly every chapter is dominated by the viewpoint character trying to guess what other characters are thinking. While this shows that all the characters are empathic toward each other, it dilutes their personalities and eventually all the characters just kind of blend together, and you often forget who's viewpoint the chapter is supposed to be in. It also drags the story down, making the reader want to jump ahead to the next action scene. 

About two thirds into the book, the author adds a new subplot, which eventually results in the founding of a new city. I'm guessing this subplot was an origin story to some aspect of the Black Magic Trilogy.  (I haven't read those books) But it was unnecessary for the story in the Magician's Apprentice's, and didn't fit with the primary story.

If you're a fan of the Black Magic Trilogy, you might find The Magician's Apprentice a little interesting. But otherwise, don't waste your time.

Sunday, April 9, 2023

The Ark

Since the cancellation of Stargate SG-1, the Sci Fi channel's programming has deteriorated considerably. It's gotten so bad that I quit looking at the channel's listings. So I nearly missed The Ark.

Unfortunately, this show's is off to a poor start.

The Premise

The Earth can no longer sustain human life. So mankind builds arks, puts the best and brightest in suspended animation and sends them out to colonize new worlds.

Still a year from their destination, something strikes Ark 1, killing the command crew and forces the junior officers out of suspended animation prematurely. With another year in their journey, little food, little water, and a barely functioning ship, the junior officers have to step up and save themselves. 

Except that the crew, supposedly comprised of Earth's best and brightest young people, immediately devolve into petty high school-like rivalries and arguments over who's in command. The dialog also often contradicts the 'best and brightest' premise. Angus, the chief agriculturalist says he's not a scientist, in spite of having a degree in agricultural science. Alicia, a computer genius who was originally assigned to work in waste management, has to explain basic astrophysics concepts to the new captain and the navigator. 

In the third episode. The ship is in danger of colliding with an asteroid. In spite of the water shortage,  no one asks for an analysis of the asteroid's composition until they see from their window that the asteroid has a tail. This is very bad science. In the real world, even a comet totally composed of ice wouldn't have a tail this far from a star.

The show starts to improve in the seventh episode, where they find Ark 3 disabled and the crew dead, They also discover that in the years since they left Earth, the ark program developed faster than light travel, and the later arks can travel faster than Ark 1. They later find video records showing that Ark 15 had attacked Ark 3, surmise that probably attacked Ark 1, and is racing ahead to their destination. 

The poorly written dialog and all the petty dramas often made me cringe. But each episode so far has ended on a cliff hanger that made me want to watch the next one. And starting with episode 7, each episode has revealed a bit more of a potentially complex fictional universe. This gives the viewer the impression of something bigger come. So in spite of the poor start, this show has potential. I'm going to keep watching, hoping it continues to improve.

Tuesday, April 4, 2023

The Janitors of the Post-Apocalypse

The Janitors of the Post-Apocalypse is a comic space opera from Hugo Award winning author Jim Hines.

Book 1: Terminal Alliance

Book 2: Terminal Uprising

Book 3: Terminal Peace


After a mysterious plague devolves the entire human race into feral monsters, the alien Krakau come to earth and develop a partial cure. The 'cured' humans are recruited as soldiers in their war against the Prodryan. And those who are unfit to be soldiers become janitors on the K's space ships. 

Mops is the lead janitor on the Pufferfish, fortunately for her. While Mops and her crew are in hazmat suits cleaning up the plumbing mess in the alien sector of the ship, the rest of the human crew reverts to their feral state, basically acting like mindless zombies eating the non-human crew and trying to eat anything else they can. 

Mops and her janitorial team are spared this fate, that means the janitors must find out what happened and try to save the rest of the crew. Their investigation sends them across the galaxy chasing clues. Along the way, they discover that most of what they've been told about Earth's history might be a lie. 

Humans might not be as monstrous as they've been told. And the aliens who claimed to save them from the plague, may have been responsible for it.

The Writer's Perspective

Two things I really love about the first book:

  • Nothing is easy for the crew.
  • Even after the janitorial crew take over the ship, they continue to think like janitors.

The janitorial team has to step outside their comfort zone. They have to learn to fly the ship, navigate the galaxy, fire the weapons, infiltrate a space station, steal classified data, treat a plague, and avert a war. Nothing is easy. It takes days/weeks. And it results in a multitude of comic errors. 

But while learning and growing all the characters stay true to their origins. They continue to think like janitors, and find solutions to their problems in their janitorial experience.

Satire can get away with many things that serious space operas should never even try, including toilet humor, aliens that act like humans, and zombies on space ships. (I've stopped reading several books after the first few chapters because the aliens acted like humans.) But Hines combines these elements wonderfully. 

All three books are wonderfully written and lots of fun to read.

Sunday, March 19, 2023

Not Dead Yet

Not Dead Yet is a cross-genre sitcom that combines elements of chick-lit with urban fantasy. Gina Rodriguez plays Nell Serrano, a flustered and frustrated woman trying to return to her newspaper career after devastating divorce. Unfortunately for Nell, the only job available at the paper is writing obituaries. And once she's assigned to write an obit, she starts to see the person's ghost.

Not Dead Yet attempts to reverse the usual trope. Instead of the living helping the dead move on, the dead attempt to help Nell deal with her problems and move on from the traumatic divorce. They help her meet new friends, reconnect with old friends, reenter the dating world and of course, write their obits.

Based on the first five episodes, Not Dead Yet is a mediocre (at best) sitcom. Rodriguez plays Nell essentially the same as she played Jane the Virgin. She's constantly flustered and frustrated. Showing a great deal of talent, but not much range as an actress. The supporting characters are one dimensional and the humor falls flat. (I haven't laughed once.) Hanna Simone, playing Nell's best friend, Sam, Josh Banday, playing their token gay coworker and Lauren Ash, playing their insecure and nutty boss are little more than set dressings. And most of the ghosts have been one-dimensional. Martin Mull's character is the exception. Mull plays Monty as sweet, sentimental, and romantic old man, which is very different from the acerbic characters he usually plays. Unfortunately, he's only in two of these five episodes.

The sitcom format means there's about 22 minutes of program. Combine that with Nell's flustered approach to the world and everything feels rushed. The format also stretches the credibility of the premise a bit. Nell appears to be assigned only one obit per week, which begs the questions: Does only one person die in that city every week? And how good of a writer can she be if she needs a whole week to write two paragraphs?

As chick-lit, it has some potential, though it still needs work. But as an urban fantasy, it's very disappointing.

Sunday, March 12, 2023

Seven Devils

Seven Devils is the story of five women fighting for freedom against an oppressive intergalactic empire. Eris, the former heir to the throne, threw away her heritage after being forced to kill most of her brothers to earn it. Clo, a mechanical genius from the slums. Nyx an elite soldier who grew tired of killing. Rhea, a genetically engineered concubine. And Ariadne, a genetically engineered computer genius. 

Together they fight against an oppressive empire and the Artificial Intelligence system that controls the minds of nearly everyone in that empire. 

Most novels with more than two POV characters change POVs too often. This makes the characters feel like 'paper dolls', or plot devices to advance the action. The frequent POV shifts prevents me from connecting with the characters or caring what happens to them.

Seven Devils solves this problem by introducing the characters more gradually. We get several chapters to know Eris and Clo before we're introduced to the other three. More importantly, the early chapters illuminate the history of these two, giving considerable depth to the conflict between them.

The book frequently shifts back to the past to describe the traumatic events that led each of the five main characters to breaking away from their former lives. Each of these flashback chapters adds more depth to the characters and helps explain their attitudes and actions in the novel's present. 

 The Writer's Perspective

A couple of weeks ago, I was discussing supporting characters with a fellow writer in the workshop. One of her supporting characters had acted inconsistently from chapter to chapter. In early chapters, she was hostile to the main character. Yet later, she said she'd always been a supporter of the main character's family. This continuity error resulted from the author not developing the supporting character's background early enough to see the story through their eyes. 

Although most novels would not benefit from the back-and-forth structure of Seven Devils, I think authors need to develop their supporting characters' histories, perspective and motivations early in the writing process, or at least when the character is first introduced. Not only does this give the character depth, it also helps inform how the story progresses. And Seven Devils illustrates one of the ways to do that. 

Seven Devils isn't perfect. Because of the frequent viewpoint changes, the writers frequently remind the reader whose viewpoint their reading. They do this by starting or ending sentences statements like "Eris knew..." And this often feels clumsy or heavy-handed. Also, many parts of the novel (especially the space ships and the weapons) would have benefited from clearer descriptions. But the main characters do engage you, especially Eris and Clo. You want to see them overcome their past and resolve their differences. That makes the novel worth reading, and I'm looking forward to the second book of the series

Sunday, March 5, 2023

Mind Control from Trope to Subgenre

Reading yet another book with mind-controlling villain. It's gotten me thinking about how the mind control trope evolved into an entire subgenre of erotic mind control stories (which includes erotic hypnosis).

Western literature has portrayed various forms of hypnosis and mind control ever since Homer sang of Odysseus' encounter with the sirens – mermaids whose song was so beautiful it drove men mad with desire. Early Christians wrote about demons (incubi and succubi) who visited people in their sleep and filled their dreams with lust. Medieval and Renaissance authors wrote about witches and fairies casting love spells.

In the 17th-19th Centuries, physicians began to recognize hypnosis and trance as real phenomenon, and authors such as Bram Stoker (Dracula) and George du Maurier (Trilby) began incorporating hypnosis into their fiction. Stoker's Dracula mesmerized his victims, and held them enthralled while he fed on them. While George du Maurier's Svengali kept his protégé (a beautiful young woman) entranced.

Dracula, of course, inspired hundreds of vampire films, from Nosferatu to Buffy The Vampire Slayer; many of which show vampires seductively hypnotizing and enthralling members of the opposite sex. The Hammer Studio films are particularly notable for their erotic hypnosis scenes. Dracula Has Risen from the Grave and The Brides of Dracula both portrayed the vampires hypnotizing beautiful women in their bed chambers; and the women clearly became sexually aroused as they fell under the vampires' influence.

In the 1960s and 70s, hypnosis and mind control became one of the most common tropes on television. Batman, Bewitched, Get Smart, Gilligan's Island, Scooby Doo, I Dream of Jeanie, Lost in Space, Josie and the Pussycats, Superfriends, and even Underdog all included episodes with some form of hypnosis or mind control. These shows were less overtly sexual than the Dracula films. But when the hypnotist and subject were opposite genders, the scenes often contained subtle erotic undertones. In Gilligan's Island, for example, a mad scientist invented a ring that turned the wearer into an obedient robot. When Ginger and Mary Ann put on the ring, their blank facial expressions closely resembled that of the entranced women in the vampire films. And they both replied to commands with the phrase, "Yes, Master." just like many vampires' thralls.

At the same time, DC and Marvel comics developed dozens of mind controlling villains such as Emma Frost, Jarvis Tetch, Kilgrave, Poison Ivy, and The Ring Master, each with their own style of mind control. Poison Ivy and Kilgrave, for example, used sex pheromones to compel members of the opposite gender love and obey them. Naturally, these stories inspired the readers and viewers to imagine more explicitly erotic fantasies. 

Although mind control was one of the most prevalent themes in pop culture, it remained a trope (a plot device for comedy, horror, crime, and adventure stories) until the emergence of interest-based internet communities. 

Just like the printing press and the VCR, as soon as the internet became available, people used it to share sexual material. Enthusiasts who grew up on the above pop culture quickly established bulletin boards and chat rooms to discuss erotic fantasies with various forms of mind control. Then they began writing stories.

Today the Erotic Mind Control Story Archive boasts close to 30,000 stories. While the theme of these stories is always some combination of mind control and sex, they also include many sci fi elements, such as magical spells, supernatural creatures, pheromone perfumes, cursed objects, telepathy, and brainwashing machines. This makes erotic mind control fiction a subgenre of fantasy and science fiction. 

Wednesday, March 1, 2023

My Dad the Bounty Hunter

My Dad the Bounty Hunter is a good, solid, children's show. It's well written, well acted and beautifully animated. But serious sci fi  fans may be disappointed.

Terry, the dad, is the toughest bounty hunter in all the galaxy. But his family has no idea. They think he's a truck driver on Earth. The first episode begins with Terry finishing an easy job and looking forward to a weekend with his kids. 

But the minute the ex wife drops off the kids at his house, he gets called for an emergency job. The kids, upset that he's leaving them again, decide to stowaway in his trunk, surprise him at work and force him to spend time with them. 

Of course they're the ones surprised when they pop out of the trunk and find themselves on Terry's spaceship. Fortunately, Terry tracks his fugitive to an amusement park planet, and the family gets to enjoy a relaxed afternoon before things get crazy.

Make no mistake, this is a kids' show. Sean and Lisa drive the action. Their presence complicates an 'easy' job. But they rise to the occasion, solving problems, rescuing their dad from prison. And when the Lisa discovers the fugitive they're hunting might be a hero, not a villain,  it's the kids who remind their father what it means to 'do the right thing'. 

For serious sci fi fans, there was nothing new or innovative about the show. I'd seen the same character types and plot twists in dozens of shows. But for children new to the genre, the quality writing, acting, and animation should make the show very enjoyable.

Saturday, February 25, 2023

Hounded by Kevin Hearne


Hounded by Kevin Hearne, the first book in The Iron Druid series, is an urban fantasy in the same vein as The Dresden Files and the Alex Verus series. 

Atticus O'Sullivan is a two thousand year old druid living in contemporary Arizona. Some time in the distant past, Atticus absconded with a magical sword that belonged to the Celtic god, Aenghus Og. And he's been either running or hiding ever since.

Things start to heat up when two goddesses separately bring warnings that Aenghus has found him and will soon come to kill him. He's then attacked several times until he's forced to stand and fight.

Like Harry Dresden, Atticus O'Sullivan has lots of magical allies and lots of enemies, including werewolves, witches and vampires.  But unlike Dresden, O'Sullivan has two thousand years of magical experience. He knows himself,  his powers, and the people around him. And he has no trouble seeing through most of the enemy's deceptions. Atticus is smart, personable, and resourceful. Exactly the kind of character I enjoy reading about.

Story wise, Hounded doesn't break any new ground. But it's solidly written and entertaining. The one thing that makes Hounded stand out from other urban fantasies is the canine humor. Atticus has a telepathic link with his intelligent Irish wolfhound, who likes to  joke about sausages and French Poodles. Again, nothing new, but entertaining.

Saturday, February 18, 2023

The Forever War

 The Forever War. details William Mandella's experience of being conscripted into a pointless interstellar war. Madella holds a Phd in physics and planned to become a teacher. But being conscripted ended his plans and his ability to determine the direction of his own life. 

The Forever War is a fish-out-of-water story. The millitary moves Mandella from situation to situation, never giving him a chance get comfortable. He's never given a chance to grow, rise to the occasion, or solve a significant problem. He's a cog in a vast military machine that doesn't care if he lives or dies. This is evident in the callus way half the soldiers die in training before ever seeing real combat. 

After being injured in his first engagement, Madella is released to civilian life. But decades have passed back home, and the world has changed. The government has neglected social reforms to support the war. Crime and inflation are rampant, and Mandella feels more alienated from his home than he did from the military that abused him. He feels forced to reenlist, even though he knows the war is a complete waste.

The Forever War is not the type of story I enjoy, but is one that makes you think. (That's probably why it won the Hugo and Nebula for Best Novel.) The book serves as an allegory for the author's experience in the Vietnam War. And from that perspective, you see how the military industrial complex uses the government to profit off of a war that no one can win. Literally at the expense of people's personal freedoms and social deterioration. 

Not only did this book illustrate the author's experience in the Vietnam War, but you can also see parallels in the more recent Iraq and Afghanistan wars. This makes The Forever War just as relevant today as it was 45 years ago.

The writer's perspective

From the writer's perspective, The Forever War is a great example of how to show the fictional world through the eyes and actions of the protagonist. There are a few info dumps in the dialog between characters. But they're presented as part of an orientation lecture that shows the world the characters are in.


First published in 1974,  

Tuesday, January 17, 2023

Caves of Steel by Isaac Asimov

Asimov's Caves of Steel is reported to be one of the first cross over science fiction detective stories.

The story takes place thousands of years in the future. But I'd swear I was reading a novelized episode of The Andy Griffith Show. Elijah Baily talks and acts just like Barney Fife. He's prone to wild emotional outbursts and totally irrational accusations. The robot, Daneel Olivaw responds to Baily exactly the way Sheriff Andy Taylor responded to Deputy Fife, with calm rational arguments that do nothing to persuade the irrational detective. The dialog between Baily and his wife was unbelievably ridiculous.

And we were more than 100 pages into the novel before they even started investigating the crime. 200 pages in, and I still haven't seen any empirical evidence pointing to the murderer.

If you're interested in the history of science fiction, you might find this novel interesting. But if you're looking for an entertaining story skip it.