Archive for the ‘Books’ Category

Movie Time: Cirque Du Freak: The Vampire’s Assistant

October 27, 2009

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Cirque Du Freak: The Vampire’s Assistant
Directed by Paul Weitz
Starring John C. Reilly, Josh Hutcherson, Chris Massoglia

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Darren and Steve are best friends. They are also opposites in almost every way. Darren is the good kid, works hard in school, makes good grades, etc. Steve is the teenage punk from a troubled home that is apt to get into trouble. After finding a flyer for a traveling circus of freaks, the two decide to attend… and both of their lives are transformed.

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During the show, Steve recognizes the magician to be a vampire from one of the many books he has on the subject. Darren, on the other hand, is far more interested in the unique spider that works with the magician/vampire.

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When the show is broken up by local citizens and police, Darren and Steve are separated. Darren finds himself outside the dressing room of the magician/vampire, and decides he wants to see the spider again. Inside he finds the spider, but hears someone coming down the hall and grabs the spider and sneaks into the closet.

The magician/vampire and a friend step into the room and shortly thereafter… and so does Steve. Steve confronts the magician/vampire, and tells him he wants to be made a vampire, that he has nothing else to live for. The vampire sends him away.

When he gets the chance, Darren makes a run for it, and goes home, with the spider.

The next day, Darren takes the spider with him to school and meets up with Steve. The spider, accidentally freed from its cage, bites Steve, leaving him near death.

Darren makes his way back to the theater where they saw the show, hoping that the vampire can help Steve. The vampire makes a deal to help Steve, in exchange for Darren becoming his assistant… and a half-vampire.

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Thus begins Cirque Du Freak: The Vampire’s Assistant. This movie is an obvious foundation for other films planned for a series based on the Cirque Du Freak books, which is both good and bad. Good, in that it is trying to establish a world and we are introduced to a lot of characters so that we get a feel for that world. Bad, in that many of those characters are given little time to truly establish themselves.

But, if the film does spawn the sequels, that will be forgiven, perhaps even lauded as we don’t have to deal with the problems of introducing so many characters with each subsequent installment.

The real basis of the story, though, is the rivalry between two sets of bloodsuckers – the Vampires and the Vampanese. Vampires, in this setting, are the “good” guys – they still drink blood, but they only sedate their victims, they don’t kill them. The Vampanese, on the other hand, are violent and bloodthirsty, and power hungry. There has been a long tentative peace treaty between the two groups, but it is now threatened.

I’ll admit that I knew nothing about this film going in. I had seen one commercial for it, and decided to see it just because of the planned theme for this week. And, though the film had a lot of faults, I was pleasantly surprised overall.

This isn’t really a vampire film, though. There are “sorta” vampires in it, but it is almost… vampires sifted through Tim Burton’s brain and then highlighted with Harry Potter-ness… if that makes any sense. The film is more of a quirky fantasy than anything in the realm of horror. Because of that, a lot of people will be immediately turned off of the film. Me? I’m rather proud of myself. When I realized what this film was going for, I thought, “Oh, okay. Well, I’m not exactly the target audience, but let’s see what happens.”

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And, sure enough, I’m not the audience for this film. I can’t imagine rushing out to get the DVD for it when it comes out, or even going out of my way to see it again… but I did find it enjoyable.

Yeah, I could talk about the shortcomings of the film all day. I could tell you that Chris Massoglia, who plays Darren, is essentially a clone of Ashton Kutcher and that his performance seemed disengaged. I could complain that the other freaks of the Cirque didn’t get anywhere near enough screen time, and that the large number of name actors were generally wasted in the film.

But, you know what? That is a bunch of nitpicky kinda stuff that, while accurate, didn’t really stop me from enjoying this movie. The effects for the movie were pretty cool, even if some were a little too obviously computer animated. The makeup on this film was stellar, though, top notch stuff that really made this world come alive.

And, though they had limited screen time, the cast of freaks were really good. Jane Krakowski as Corma Limbs was bizarrely perky.

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Orlando Jones as Alexander Ribs was… well, Orlando Jones. (Orlando Jones seems to be himself in most things.) Ken Watanabe had an amazing presence as Mr. Tall, and Patrick Fugit was so fantastic as the Snake Boy that I’d like to see an entire movie based on that character.

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And, there is Salma Hayak… being all Salma Hayak and hot and all.

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The most amazing performance for me, though, had to be John C. Reilly as Crespley, the vampire. The role is so completely against type for him, but he manages to completely own it.

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His turn as the weary, cynical vampire is enough for me to recommend this movie to anyone I know. He delivers some of the best lines in the film that range from dark, wry humor, to an almost sad melancholy, and delivers them well.

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Honestly, other than when he appeared on Late Night with Conan O’Brien and tore into Kevin Costner about when they both were doing For Love of the Game, this is my favorite thing John C. Reilly has ever done!

(And, by the way, if anyone knows where to find a clip of that, I’d be forever grateful to have it!)

For me, this movie was an unexpected treat. It won’t appeal to everyone, as it is definitely aimed toward mid-teens, but it wasn’t bad. In fact, I’ll go so far as to say that I wouldn’t mind seeing this film get some sequels, if only to expand on this world and to see the actors in supporting roles get a chance to shine.

I’m giving Cirque Du Freak: The Vampire’s Assistant three out of five Running Steves.

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If nothing, this film has made me want to seek out the series of books on which it was based.

EG’s Review: World War Z

October 23, 2009

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Alright, peoples, you’ve waited long enough to hear about this one! The Steve Austin Book Club is back, and more extreme than ever! Or, perhaps that is Xtreme! Mayhaps we should rename ourselves The Xteve AuXtin BooX Club, as an indicator of our new hip and happenin’ ways!

Or, not.

Anyway, this is the review of World War Z: An Oral History of the Zombie War by Max Brooks. This review is apt to spoil the book, so if you haven’t read it and want to, you may want to skip this. There will be SPOILERS-A-PLENTY! If you have read the book, feel free to leave a comment!

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Now with the preliminaries out of the way, sit back and enjoy!

World War Z is a collection of the post-Zombie War rememberances of indidual survivors throughout the world. It is ten years after the official end of the war… a time to look back. The book is presented in a series of personal stories/interviews with individuals discussing their roles and reactions as the world was plunged into a panic and near extinction of the human race. Using these personal stories, the audience follows as the events of the Zombie War are revealed in pieces, from its start within the borders of China, to the various steps taken by governments throughout the world in attempts to protect their borders, through battlefields where traditional tactics are found lacking, to the eventual steps toward survival, which rely on plans for each nation to virtually abandon most of their citizens. The stories come from average individuals, politicians, military personnel, corporate leaders, slackers, etc., etc., etc.

And… that’s about the sum of it.

Let me start this by saying that the concept of this book is genius. I loved the premise and the style used. As an avid fan of the History Channel, I could really see this story being told through the account of eye witnesses just as much of their programming does. If there is any downside to that, it is that I think that this is one of those few occassions where the upcoming film based on this book may surpass the book in effectiveness. Why? Because the biggest complaint I have about the book seems to be a near universal complaint about it – while we are told that the stories come from various individuals, the vast majority of the stories are very much in the same voice, seemingly from the same individual. That is why I think the movie has the advantage. The various actors will lend their own spin to each vignette, allowing the audience to see a greater variance than what was afforded in the book.

I did appreciate the fact that the author knew his audience. Very little time was spent dwelling on what zombies are and trying to explain them away. Instead, he worked from a standpoint of “the people that pick this book up know what these creatures are.” It was nice to not have the lodestone of origin dragging the book down.

Now, the downside. Without an establishing of the specifics of the zombie of this book, we don’t have a firm enough idea of what these zombies are really like. And, it seems that the author forgets as well. There are times when we are told that zombies eventually decompose, and yet we are confronted with zombies in several instances that seem to have survived locked up in abandoned homes for years, no worse for wear. We are told that frozen weather will freeze zombies, yet they can walk unencumbered along the ocean floor, which rests at right about 32 degrees. (Fun science fact: the ocean, being salty, doesn’t freeze until the water hits about 28.5 degrees. Now you know, and knowing is half the battle.)

There also seems to be a real lack of knowledge about military weaponry. The idea that modern weapons would be less than effective against the undead is really hard to believe. The shrapnel described in the book always somehow managed to avoid hitting the zombies in the head. There is a reason that the militaries of the world issue metal helmets to their soldiers.

I can go along, to some extent, with the laughable actions of government during a situation like this, but the overall political commentary in the book is hack-kneed and blunt to the point of near rhetoric. Everything is too surface, no depth.

I was also unimpressed with the two types of people that we were presented with in the book: the noble hero and the scummy opportunist. There didn’t seem to be any other degrees of personality. I understand that a tragedy can be a polarizing event, but there are more shades to people than this, and not having those shades made almost all the characters boring and relatively two-dimensional.

Which, now that I think about it and re-read my last complaint, is the problem I have with the book as a whole. For all the supposed individuals “interviewed” in the book, there just isn’t enough to any of them. The characters are flat, which is really what makes them all sound the same. Perhaps if the author had focused on fewer stories, we could have had a more in depth character study of each. People aren’t simply noble or evil… they are far more complicated than that.

The book wasn’t terrible, but I expected and wanted so much more from it. As I mentioned, I’m really hoping that the actors in the planned film are able to bring that little extra to this project that is sorely missing in the book. For the potential of this book and the concept, I’m giving it two and a half Running Steves.

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And, here’s to hoping that the film gets moving from development limbo and into actual production!

Secondhand Selections: Sphere by Michael Crichton

October 2, 2009

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Greetings, faithful readers, and welcome to another new feature here at The Steve Austin Book Club – Secondhand Selections!

What is Secondhand Selections? Recently, EG was in a thrift store (We’ve established he is cheap, right?), and came upon a shelf of books. As he started looking through the books, he noticed that there were several science fiction and fantasy books among the myriad of diet books, self-improvement books, and thirty-year-old textbooks.

Considering that the average paperback now rings in at $7.99 and up, the chance to pick up a couple of books for a dollar or less appealed to him!

And, thus was the seed of this feature planted!

The rules are simple – the books reviewed in this feature have to be purchased either at a resale shop (thrift store, Goodwill, whatever). It is a chance to prove that there is cheap, literary treasure out there to be had! Or, on the other hand, there is a chance that reading some of these books might also explain how they ended up abandoned to a resale shop.

Now, let’s get to it, with the very book that EG picked up on that day when the concept of this feature was born: Michael Chrichton’s Sphere!

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This review was written with as few spoilers as I could manage and still give you, the reader, an idea of what the book was about. I’m pretty sure that you’ll be reasonably safe reading this review, but if you don’t want to know anything about the book, STOP NOW!!!

Overview:

In the middle of the South Pacific, a spacecraft is located near the bottom of the ocean floor, and, based on the surrounding environment, it has been there for at least 300 years. The ramifications of the find spur the U.S. Navy to proceed with a top secret plan written during the Carter Administration, titled “Recommendations for the Human Contact Team to Interact with Unknown Life Forms (ULF).” The author of that plan, psychologist Norman Johnson, is called in, along with mathematician Harry Adams, biochemist Beth Halpern, and astrophysicist Ted Fielding, as the civilian team to assist Captain Harold Barnes as they investigate the finding.

The team sets up shop one in an artificial underwater habitat, and soon begins exploring the mysterious ship that yields yields more questions than answers – such as, why are all the signs on the ship in English?

In the exploration of the ship, the team locates a large, perfectly polished silver sphere about 30 feet in diameter, and completely alien.

Approaching storms require the team to return to the surface, but, before they leave one of the team members does the unexpected… and enters the alien sphere.

Unable to evacuate, the team is stuck as the storms come and they are cut off from the surface world until the weather clears. Eventually, the team member that entered the sphere comes out of it.

And, that is when things start to get really interesting, as an unknown entity begins to contact them.

Review:

I have to admit something – I saw the movie Sphere in the theater in 1998. And, I have not thought of it since then, other than to think, “Well, that was a waste of money.”

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In that case, why did I pick up this book? We all know that, generally speaking, books tend to be far superior to the films made of them. I’m not knocking film, it is just really difficult to transform a tapestry woven over 300 pages or so into a 90-minute film. As a result, a lot is lost… or changed.

Sometimes, the film can be pretty good as well, and then you seek out the book, which is what I did with a little art film titled Jurassic Park.

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I liked the movie, and a lot of people told me I should read the book, because it was even better.

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So I did. I read the book, and it was great. It was also different from the movie.

When I came across Sphere at the thrift shop, my immediate thought was, “blech!” Then, I realized two things: My feelings were based entirely on the film, and Sphere was written by Michael Crichton, who also happened to write Jurassic Park. Based on that, I decided to give the book a chance.

The book is, overall, a page turner. Crichton knew how to connect with the reader, as proven in his other books, and it is no different here. It also picks up speed as it goes along, until the reader is nearly racing toward the end. (That’s something I really like to feel in books.)

Despite some pretty “out there” concepts of science (and, by “out there” I mean both complicated and suspect), the book was accessible throughout, due in a great part to choosing as the main character Norman Johnson, a non-scientist that asks the questions that the reader has almost as quickly as the reader comes up with them.

Sadly, the other characters in the book tend to be one of two options – two-dimensional or non-existant. The other members of the team recieve the two-dimensional fill out in characterization, while other characters seem to simply be until they are no more. I can’t say for sure if this was by design, so that the reader latches onto Norman even more, but it does tend to make some of the dramatic moments of the book less impactful, because we don’t have an attachment to other characters.

The action sequences are well-built throughout the book, and do have that sense of urgency needed to drive the reader forward. Thankfully, it is written so that the reader doesn’t get too hung up along the way with techno-babble. I’ve read some books that get focus on that so much that you feel like you are reading a technical manual!

There are, though, some massive lapses in common sense that pop up throughout the book. As an example, when the characters worry about running out of air in the habitat waiting for the storms to abate, I immediately found myself asking why they wouldn’t go over to the spacecraft, which had already been shown to be able to support them.

Another problem is that there are some unexplained jumps in logic that are made. Toward the end of the book, there is a character that, despite having been unconscious for more than 12 hours, seems to be completely up to speed on what is going on upon waking, leaving the reader going, “huh?”

I think the biggest disappointment with the book is the ending, which is a little too simple, almost trite, in how it ties up all the loose ends. In that regard, the reader is left unsatisfied.

I don’t mean to be hard on the book. It isn’t bad, it really isn’t, and it is very exciting at times. And, trust me, it is sooooo much better than the movie. It just wasn’t as good as I wish it had been.

For that reason, I’m giving the book a solid two and a half Running Steves.

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And, maybe, since I haven’t seen the movie in eleven years, maybe I’ll watch that again and let you know how I feel about it in more detail sometime!

BOOK CLUB DISCUSSION: DUNE by FRANK HERBERT

July 15, 2008

Howdy there, folks, and welcome once again to the Book Club Discussion. 

Today, we look at Dune by Frank Herbert.  As always, this will be a SPOILERIFIC look at the novel, so if you don’t want to know what happens, don’t read this!!!  If you have read the novel, feel free to add your thoughts by commenting at the bottom.  Now, prepare yourselves…

SYNOPSIS:
In the far distant future, humanity has spread throughout the universe. Planets are ruled by various Houses, held together under the ruler of an Emperor. 

Among the Houses are the Harkonnens (a despicable group that rule by deception, oppression, and force) under Baron Vladimir Harkonnen, and the Atreides (a group of true nobility and just ways) led by Duke Leto. As you might guess, there is no love lost between the two Houses.

Unfortunately for Leto and his people, the Emperor sees Leto as a threat to his power, and he hatches a plan with the Harkonnens

Leto is instructed by the Emperor to leave his planet and take control of Arrakis, a desert planet that is nearly unlivable. Arrakis has one resource, though, that is precious – Spice Melange. The Spice is mined in the sands of the desert. Ingesting the spice allows one the ability to see possible paths into the future. And, it is very addictive. As such, it is highly valuable and much sought after. 

By taking Leto from his home planet and moving him to the unfamiliar and inhospitable wasteland that is Arrakis, his enemies hope to make an opportunity to destroy him and his house. The Emperor eliminates a threat to his power, and the Harkonnens eliminate a rival House.

Though Leto senses the trap, he is obligated to follow through. Along with his military force, he is joined by his concubine, Jessica, a Bene Gesserit (an religious order of women who serve as advisers, being somewhat prescient and able to control the actions of others verbally), and their son, Paul.

Unbeknownst to anyone save the Bene Gesserit, breeding has been manipulated to bring forth a prophesied leader, the Kwisatz Haderach, a male trained in the ways of the Bene Gesserit. Jessica believes that Paul is that leader.

The Atreides move to Arrakis and take control of the planet. On arriving, Leto is introduced to the “natives” of the planet, a group called the Fremen. Through constant exposure to the Spice, the Fremen’s eyes are blue on blue, with no whites. While the Harkonnens saw the Fremen as merely uncivilized desert dwellers, Leto sees them as the key to Arrakis – a force of people that have learned the ways of the desert planet and adapted.

Before long, the House of Atreides is attacked from within. The action ignites accusations of betrayal, causing an atmosphere of mistrust to form. Unknown to any is that the betrayer is actually Dr. Yueh, a trusted confidant to the family. His betrayal, though, is not so simple – he loves the Atreides and hates the Harkonnen. As we learn later, his reasoning for the betrayal is actually an attempt to destroy the Baron Vladimir.

Essentially, Yueh delivers the Duke into the hands of the Baron, while the forces of the Harkonnen (along with the disguised forces of the Emperor, the Sardaukar) attack and scatter the Atreides forces.

Paul and his mother manage to escape, thanks to Dr. Yueh, and eventually take refuge with the Fremen, thanks in no small part to their fighting abilities, which the Fremen refer to as the “weirding”.

Paul thrives in the new environment, to the point that the Fremen begin to wonder if he is actually the Lisan alGaib (or Voice from the Outer World), the Mahdi (Messiah) that will transform Arrakis into a paradise. Paul takes on his Fremen name of Paul Muad’Dib (a mouse native to Arrakis) and quickly is seen as a great leader. His mother, Jessica, takes on the role of the Reverend Mother to the Fremen.

Years pass and under the leadership of Paul Muad’Dib, the Fremen grow stronger, until the moment comes when Paul Muad’Dib decides the time has come to retake his rightful position of Duke of the House of Atriedes, ruler of the planet of Arrakis.

An all encompassing, well planned out attack is made and Paul Muad’Dib and the Fremen are victorious. In a final blow to the Emperor, Paul threatens to destroy all of the Spice on the planet, a move that not only secures his position as Duke and ruler, but also leads to a marriage to the Emporer’s daughter, making him next in line to ascend to the throne.

DISCUSSION:

OG: Well, this one’s a whopper; and, not just because it’s a big book with lots of them pesky words to read, but more so because of all of the even peskier ideas Herbert packs into it. Huge, important ideas and themes piled on top of the already massive amounts of plot, intrigue, character development and world, nay, universe building he shoves between the covers.

EG:  It is quite the layered novel.

OG:  Indeed.  So, where to begin discussing this thing? I had a lot of trouble deciding until I remembered reading this 1979 quote by Frank Herbert in which he said:

“The bottom line of the Dune trilogy is: beware of heroes. Much better rely on your own judgment, and your own mistakes.”

I read this quote directly after finishing the book and it really opened up my understanding of what I had just been through. After some more digging around, I then located where Herbert expanded on this thought in his essay “Dune Genesis” (found here: http://www.dunenovels.com/news/genesis.html) in which he basically lays out the short story of how and why he came to write this series in the first place. Here’s a couple more choice quotes from there that give you the flavor, but I’d recommend anyone who read this book to read the whole essay when they have the time…

“…superheroes are disastrous for humankind. Even if we find a real hero (whatever-or whoever-that may be), eventually fallible mortals take over the power structure that always comes into being around such a leader.” 

And…

“Don’t give over all of your critical faculties to people in power, no matter how admirable those people may appear to be. Beneath the hero’s facade you will find a human being who makes human mistakes. Enormous problems arise when human mistakes are made on the grand scale available to a superhero.”

I think the reason I want to start off here and why this idea resonates with me so much is that as I read “Dune” I read it under the penumbra of all the other stories out there about heroes rising to their rightful place as savior of their people/land/world/universe. I mean, you can’t get through this book without thinking that Herbert is riffing on the thousands year old tradition of the “heroes journey.” Even if one hasn’t read any Joseph Campbell, they’ve at least seen “Star Wars” and can probably fill in the major beats the story hits along the way. (Heck, EG, didn’t you, like me, think at many point, “Man, George Lucas totally read Dune before he wrote a word of Star Wars and just ripped it off all over the place!” I can just hear his thoughts, “Hmm, two moons, huh? I’ll just make it two suns and nobody’ll notice.”)

EG:  Um… actually, Star Wars didn’t come to MY mind… but the different view of the heroic journey did.  But, please, go on.

OG:  I suppose my hatred of the prequels (and Indy IV, to boot) have got me looking for other things to accuse George Lucas of.  Maybe plagiarism isn’t one of them.  Anyway, that said, reading the above quotes and getting into Herbert’s motivations here, made me realize that though he was using the basic skeleton or formula of the heroes journey, unlike Star Wars, he was using it as a means of, if not tearing it down (at least not in the first book), then definitely scrutinizing it and calling it into question.

On the one hand, you read about the horrors of the Harkonnen rule over Arakkis and the scheming of the Emperor within that, and you recognize that the Fremen and the rest of the universe absolutely need a savior to come. A Kwisatz Haderach or Lisan alGaib has to rise to stop this great evil and bring peace and tranquility to the world. But, while that’s true, rarely in these types of stories do we reckon with the flip side of that. And, Dune magnificently explores that side of things. This person is a human being. This man (well, child really), Paul Muad’Dib has loves and hates and flaws and all those things that great power and authority can only eventually tarnish and inflate.

And, as he journey’s along to find his place of power, the inner struggle that he goes through, the conflict with his mother over her place in that journey, and the feeling of inescapable doom and anxiety that outlines his prescience is what separates this story from the rest.

So, I’ve just kicked us off with a big, fat mouthful. What do you think about this EG? Did you finish this book thinking that the day had been saved and all was right with the world, which is how I initially put it down before more thought and more insight from the author. Or, did you, ever wiser than I, flip the last page and say, “Yeah, things are okay now, but there’s a dark moon on the rise?”

EG:  Actually, the flashing visions of the future that Paul could see did clue me in.  You said the word “inescapable.”  That is what really turns the heroic journey on its ear.  Paul, through his own prescience, quite literally “sees” the problems with him assuming the role of the Kwisatz Haderach and the Lisan alGaib, and yet, despite that knowledge, he finds himself locked into that path.  He was bred for it, he was trained for it, and even with his own misgivings, at each turn he finds himself falling into or even embracing those positions.  His reluctance in thought helps give us a nice reminder that despite outward appearances, things are probably not going to be coming up roses later on down the path.  It is really quite a contradiction, because through Paul’s eyes, we see that what he’s doing is leading up to, among other things, a holy war, and Paul, in thought, is desperate to prevent that, yet instead of avoiding the decisions that will lead to that, he runs toward them.  In theory, Paul could have joined the Fremen and then merely lived out his life among them, with his wife, Chani, and their children.  In actuality, though, the person we come to know as Paul really would not, possibly could not, take that passive route. 

OG: Okay, so putting all that high-falutin‘ talk about heroes journeys and the greater themes of Dune aside, what did you think of the book just as a reader? Were you entertained? Did it make you want to read more?

EG: I enjoyed the book, overall.  It was very slow going at first, but after a time, I was able to really get into the story.  Knowing that the book was set up from the outset to be a trilogy, I knew that there was going to be a lot of groundwork laid that would only really come into play in later books… which is something I found that I had to remind myself of on several occasions.  What I mean is, toward the end of the book, I’d think, “Nothing was done with _____?  Why did they bring it in at all?  Oh.  Yeah.  Trilogy.”

OG: Well, as you already know, I already read the second book, “Dune Messiah” immediately after finishing this one. So, I guess that’s as good an indication as any about how much I enjoyed “Dune” purely as a reader. And, I must say, it’s quite a contrast to how I was feeling early in the book. I am often quite disoriented when thrown head-first into a universe with no warning. I appreciate the author’s intention in doing that and admire it from a storytelling standpoint, but I’d be lying if I didn’t tell you that I often want to be talked down to at the start of a book. It’s sad, but true. I’m often too lazy to do the work that’s required for keeping up with this kind of writing. The text from Princess Irulan’s writings and the usage of words, alien languages, and concepts that aren’t immediately explained made me a bit foggy in the first chapters and I struggled to find my footing.

EG:  Oh, let me interject here!  I ABSOLUTELY understand what you are saying!  The start of this book reminded me a lot of something my father said after he read Frank E. Peretti’s This Present Darkness.  I had read and enjoyed the book, so I loaned it to him, lo those many years ago.  After he read it, I asked what he thought, and he said, “Well, it was okay.  I don’t know why the angels had to have bizarre names, though.  TalGuiloArmoth?  Why couldn’t they just have normal names?  In the Bible, the angels had names like Michael and Gabrielle.”  I don’t think I fully appreciated that statement until Dune.  Slogging through those first pages… my mind kept searching for anything familiar, which was a bit of a distraction.  It was a huge relief once I got to “Paul” and “Jessica.”

OG:  Amen to that, brother.  So, once I did find that footing and had a sense of this universe and it’s history, then I was off to the races and ripping the pages aside as fast as I could. Though it was definitely a challenging read and one where I wasn’t always clear on what was happening, I still would call this book a page-turner.

EG: I don’t know that I’d go quite that far.  I probably didn’t get that feeling until maybe the last 100 pages of the book or so – once Paul was prepping to ride the maker.  At that point, the action seemed to shift gears for me.  You asked, earlier, if I would be interested in reading more of the Dune novels in the future, and, yeah, I will, but not right away.  Some time away will do me good.

I did find what I consider to be two glaring shortcomings in the book, aspects that I don’t see being resolved to my satisfaction in future books.  You, having read the second book though, can correct me if I’m wrong.

First, the death of Paul’s son, Leto.  For me, it registered almost zero impact.  Leto was an entirely off camera character – we, as readers, never met him, never saw any interaction between him and his father, and then his death was something we only heard about.  Mind you, not that I wanted a gripping tale of how the Harkonnens came in and killed a child, but I did need something to give the character a little substance.  Especially since Paul is so in control of his emotions, saving his grief for another time on repeated occasions.  The whole thing was dealt with in a way that completely disconnected me, and so I didn’t “feel” the death.

OG:  I’m with you there.  Come to think of it, I can’t imagine what kept Herbert from including more of Paul’s family life.  It’s not like he was afraid of making the book too long.  It’s down right strange, now that you mention it.  The final showdown is what so much of the book builds towards and since nothing short of the fate of the universe is hanging in the balance, the added weight that that death brought to it and Paul’s decisions couldn’t have been overdone.  Definitely a missed opportunity.

EG:  The second shortcoming I’d note is the upstaging of Thufir Hawat.  Baron Vladimir Harkonnen came up with the plan to enlist Thufir Hawat as his own Mentat, despite the fact that Thufir was loyal to the House of Atreides.  The Baron cultivated the deception in Thufir’s mind that the betrayer of the House of Atreides was none other than Jessica, Concubine to Leto, Mother to Paul, and Bene Gesserit witch.  Thufir accepts the position of Mentat for Vladimir, with the idea that one day he could finally gain his vengeance on her.  For what seemed like hundreds of pages, I waited, wondering, is he going to kill her, forcing Paul to kill him?  Is he going to find out too late that it was all a Harkonnen trick and be driven mad by his actions?  I waited and waited, anticipating this moment…

…and when the moment came, Thufir Hawat wasn’t even in the room.  Come to think of it, I’m not sure he was even on the planet, yet.  What happens instead of the confrontation I was looking forward to is the reintroduction of Gurney Halleck, who has taken a position aboard a smuggler’s ship, and felt the same way about Jessica that Thufir Hawat did.  The scene comes where Gurney takes Jessica and threatens her life in front of Paul, who explains the truth to him, and Gurney is so grieved at his own actions that he offers his life to both of them.  They forgive him, and the story moves forward.  At that point, I thought, “That whole scene should have been with Thufir Hawat instead.”  At the very least, I thought that having that scene occur really took the wind out of the sails of a forthcoming scene of confrontation that did include Thufir Hawat.  But, then, it didn’t matter, because at the end of the book, again, off screen, someone had explained the truth to Thufir Hawat and that was that.  It was very anticlimactic to me.

 OG:  Well, just as I’m starting to think of this book as this perfect, smooth block of marbled cheese, aged to perfection, you blast a couple significant holes through it and suddenly I’m dealing with plain ole’ Swiss!   Well, I shouldn’t overdo it.  I still adore Dune, but this second shortcoming you’ve noted is a pretty big stumble plot-wise.  I think I did have the thought in the back of my head that Hawat would be a bigger player at the end.  I think that’s a seed that Herbert planted early on and sort of lost track of as he lost the plot.  Then, when it became more expedient to bring Gurney back into things in the last act, I think he transferred that motivation to him.  Ultimately, while a misstep, I think it doesn’t undo the drama completely.  I mean, what that plot development led to, for me, was the most emotionally satisfying moment in the book – where Jessica fully realizes the damage that the Bene Gesserit meddling has done to Paulas and her part in it.  It was the closest that Jessica and Paul came to healing between them and I really felt the impact of that, despite the fact that it should have been Hawat holding a knife to her throat.  

Regardless, I’m quite willing to forgive those two incidents of narrative sloppiness.  Dune has greatness to burn in it’s pages which, for me, cover a multitude of sins.  So, I’m gonna do it.  I’m giving this book a full 5 Running Steves, EG.  How about you?

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EG:  Wow, you sure do like to throw around those Running Steves, don’t ya?  

OG:  Sure do!  As long as Steve Austin has nothing to do with the book, that is.

EG:  Well, for me, Dune really does land somewhere between 3 1/2 Running Steves and 4 Running Steves.  The two major shortcomings are gonna cost this one.  I’m giving it 3 1/2 Running Steves.

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OG:  Well, that’s just something you’ll have to live with for the rest of your life!!!!  Well, I guess that about does it.  Honestly, there’s a lot more I thought I’d get to in this discussion, but it being mid-July already and my fingers being tired, I think we should cut this puppy down.  If I get the energy up, I might bring up a couple more points in the comments section.  That is, unless that section is so flooded by our many readers that I can’t get a word in edge-wise.  Tee-hee.

Oh, and speaking of July, we’ve made no announcement of the book of the month because there isn’t one.  This is turning out to be a pretty busy Summer in anticipation of EG and OG’s great hajj to the San Diego International Comic Con!  

So, look forward to the next book in August.  Max Brooks’ “WORLD WAR Z.”

BOOK CLUB DISCUSSION: CYBORG by MARTIN CAIDIN

June 4, 2008

It’s finally here! Herein is contained the Book of the Month review of Martin Caidin’s Cyborg, much delayed, and sent out with the heartfelt apologies of the two tardy losers who post this blog, EG and OG.  As always, beware! There are SPOILERS within! If you haven’t read the book and want to and don’t want to know anything about it yet, now is the time to bale! 

 

If you’ve read the book and want to participate, we’d love it if you left a comment or 12 at the bottom of the post. Now, if we are all set, please settle down, sit a spell, kick your shoes off, and let’s take a look at Cyborg! 

 

SYNOPSIS:

 

“Steve Austin, astronaut. A man barely alive.  Gentlemen, we can rebuild him. We have the technology.  We have the capability to build the world’s first bionic man. Steve Austin will be that man. Better than he was before. Better, stronger, faster.” 

 

And, so goes the original opening of “The Six Million Dollar Man,” the TV series based on this month’s book, Cyborg by Martin CaidinCyborg is indeed the tale of Steve Austin, but a different one than most of us who watched the series are used to. Not completely different… but different enough. 

 

Air Force Colonel Steve Austin is a former astronaut who had become a test pilot. During a test flight, there is a catastrophic accident, leaving Steve Austin barely alive. As a result of the accident, he loses his left arm, both legs, and his left eye.  But he survives. 

 

Dr. Rudy Wells, Austin’s physician and friend, is approached by Oscar Goldman of the Office of Strategic Operations (OSO), with a proposition. Using the cybernetic breakthroughs of leading researcher Dr. Killian, Steve Austin could return to a relatively normal existence, not a crippled shell of the former man.  Wells, knowing that Austin would rather die than live in his condition, decides to allow the procedures.  We follow as Austin is implanted with his cybernetics and given a great amount of detail about how they work, their advantages, and their limitations, as Steve Austin becomes the first true Cybernetic Organism (or Cyborg). 

 

As Austin recovers from the procedures, we also follow his mental state, from his feelings of less than a man, to freak, moving toward acceptance of his state, and even to a place of gratitude for the advantages he has.  The reader is treated to the testing of the cybernetics of Austin, as he learns his abilities and limitations.  Before long, the OSO decides that it is time for Austin and his new cybernetics to serve their country, and begin sending him out on missions. This first is simply a recon mission, but an amazingly dangerous one, infiltrating a secret Russian base near the southeastern perimeter of the United States. 

 

Shortly after a successful completion of that mission, Austin is sent into the Middle East to steal a Russian MiG-27. 

 

On with the discussion! 

  

DISCUSSION:

 

EG: This is the first book we’ve taken a look at that has some “hard” science fiction elements to it. That is, it has really in-depth scientific description and explanation, focusing on theoretically accurate possibilities for the future of real science. Not simply, “Yeah, we gave him robot legs!” OG, I’m really interested in your reaction to this book, since you’ve admitted to having less experience with science fiction in book form. 

 

OG: You’re right, I have.  And I’ve really been looking forward to bringing some hard sci-fi into my diet. I love reading about new developments in technology and other futurist type writing, so I think I’d enjoy that stuff within the context of a greater work of fiction. That said, in a novel, I think I can only truly enjoy it if it’s been woven seamlessly into the narrative. My problem with Cyborg was that it didn’t handle that balance properly. My understanding is that before writing fiction Martin Caidin was an aviator or aeronautics engineer of some sort. That doesn’t surprise me in the least because many of his science-based passages were so dry that they chapped my lips.

 

That difficult reading (and, as short as this book is, I really did have a hard time slogging through it) only had a real payoff in terms of narrative as Steve began to deal with the psychological implications of what he’s become and his upgraded body. And, while that character stuff was much darker than I expected from the source material for “The Six Million Dollar Man,” (at least I don’t recall any scenes where Lee Majors attempts suicide!!!) it made the earlier stuff worthwhile because Caidin really forces you as the reader to understand how the “bionics” would work in conjunction with the body and therefore puts you squarely inside Austin’s head. 

 

EG:  That is true.  As for the character, no, in the TV show, Steve Austin never attempted suicide.  I’ve read some articles that refer to the Steve Austin in the book as “bloodthirsty,” but I don’t think of the character in that way.  To me, he is what I would call more “militaristic.”  He has a job to do, he has been trained and prepared to do that job, and he does that job.  In that frame of mind, in those situations, moral debate is left for a later time, perhaps by other people entirely.  And, the description of the cybernetics, to me, actually helps fill out Steve Austin as a character a bit.  Instead of seeing the cybernetics as an arm and legs, they very much became more “tools” in my head.  For example, when they talked about the limitations of the legs in side to side movement, or when they described the arm as a piston-like sort of battering ram, I saw them more clearly as tools of the man, rather than a part of the man himself.  Steve Austin was being equipped.  Modifications are even made from mission to mission.  The science-based passages helped cement that in my mind. 

 

OG:  Well, I can see that.  I did like all of that stuff, but it could have been done so much more fluidly by another writer. Caidin, to me, seems like the prototype for Michael Crichton, someone I feel does a better job of mixing the sciency exposition with the story and character. Well, from what little I’ve read from him, that is. 

 

EG:  I can’t argue with that.  It was infinitely easier to read through, for example, Jurassic Park (you did know that was a book before it was a movie, right OG?) than it was to get through Cyborg.  I gotta warn you though, my friend – a lot of hard science fiction suffers from this same problem. 

 

OG:  Well, yes, Mr. Smarty Pants, Jurassic Park and The Lost World happen to be two of the Crichton books that I have read. 

 

Anyway, what might have worked better from a storytelling point of view would be to start the novel in first person following the surgery as Steve begins to deal with what has happened and then, through third person flashbacks (better) or through conversations with one of the three exposition-mad characters in this book (worse), we could slowly learn about the accident and the technology that was integrated into his body. That way you dole out the science in bite-sized chunks that also serve the greater story. Instead of what you have now, which is kind of like drinking a gallon of NyQuil prior to eating a delicious piece of cake. 

 

EG:  Yeah, I went in expecting something closer to the TV show, but instead I got a hard science fiction book that turned into a spy thriller.  And, being totally honest, I’ll admit – I was very happy once we moved beyond the hard science fiction and into the spy stuff. I didn’t dislike the hard SF, it is just that, as you mentioned, long sections of pseudo-science technical explanation and testing can become…tedious. Getting to the application of Steve Austin’s cybernetic enhancements was much more interesting.  Perhaps Caidin could have focused on each of the cybernetics as they were about to be used, giving the explanation, and then immediately going into an application. 

 

OG: I think so.  And, I too welcomed the fact that this wasn’t just a big hunk of American cheese with dubious “science” on top.  I mean, the TV show is cool for what it was, but had that been all the book was, it might have been easier for me to get through, but wouldn’t have been as interesting. That said, I wouldn’t have minded in the slightest if Caidin had dropped the dusty realism just long enough to give our boy that cool telescoping eye from the show. A camera is fine and all and perhaps more plausible. But, come on! We’d all gladly suspend some disbelief in favor of a telescoping eye!  By the way, do you recall Steve Austin having a dart-shooting finger in the show? 

 

EG: No, Steve didn’t have the dart-shooting finger.  I also found the science-based book version of Steve Austin more interesting than the Steve Austin of TV.  I liked that  he couldn’t run at super speed or bend steel girders.  I was even fascinated by the explanation of his endurance abilities – that the heart and lungs that supported him when he was all man actually supplied much more for him after his accident, since they didn’t have to “feed” one arm and two legs.  I honestly didn’t miss the telescopic eye at all. 

 

OG: You didn’t miss the telescopic eye!?!?  Oh man, I don’t think there’s a single book I’ve read in my life that wouldn’t benefit from a telescopic eye or two.  I mean, imagine if Atticus Finch had had one.  Well, I don’t know what he would have done with it, but it probably would’ve come in handy when he had to shoot the rabid dog.  Of course, he did all right in that regard without it.  But still.

 

Okay, so I majorly digressed. 

 

Anyway, yeah, I also started to turn the pages at a faster clip once it became the spy thriller that it became. Again, it reminds me of another writer and, based on the characterization of Steve Austin that Caidin gives us, it’s a writer I wouldn’t be surprised to find he was an avid reader of. That would be Ian Fleming. And, this is not just because of the obvious comparisons to James Bond in terms of secret missions, cool gadgets, etc. Fleming also began as a technician in the field he later wrote fiction about and also wrote about a dark, manly man character that dispenses with human life without passion and views his employer with more than a smidgen of cynicism; a character who seems to hate himself while being simultaneously confident in his ability to do the job at hand. I will risk beating the proverbial dead horse here to point out that the primary difference between Fleming and Caidin is that Fleming made the transition from practitioner of spy-craft to fiction writer much more smoothly and entertainingly than Caidin did from aviator to sci-fi novelist. 

 

My hunch is that Caidin’s following three Steve Austin novels improve without having to do all the heavy lifting that’s taken care of in this one. Do you have any interest in reading any of those? 

 

EG:  I think we can plan on putting those on a list for a future date. 

 

OG:  Shonuff!

 

EG:  Maybe we’ll get through one in less than two and half months! 

 

OG:  ‘Nuff said.

 

EG:  For this book, though, despite the dry portions of theoretical science, I enjoyed it.  And, though it seems somehow a sacrilege to give the inspiration of this little club a less than 5 Running Steves rating, I’m gonna have to go with 3 1/2 out of 5 Running Steves

 

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OG: Yes, it does seem like a sin, but I’m gonna go just a bit lower and give it 3 Running Steves

 

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Hey, I don’t know if you caught any of NBC’s “Bionic Woman” re-tread debacle, but I kind of wonder if the makers of that show read Cyborg prior to putting it together. Now, they were hampered by some bad writing and not great casting. Also, they went a little too “Battlestar” on the thing and basically drained any fun out of what should be a little fun on principle alone. That said, they did try their hand at injecting some of the melancholy and moral quandary of becoming a cyborg (against your will) that you only really get from this book and not from the previous TV incarnations of these characters. And, while they failed completely, I can see better what they might have been attempting and it makes me wonder if it couldn’t have worked, or if a “Six Million Dollar Man” remake would be worth a thought. NBC certainly won’t be trying that any time soon. But, it makes me wonder.  Maybe some day. 

 

EG:  I did see the first four episodes of that series.  I don’t know if the book inspired it at all; I would say it was just the writing staff infusing a common “angst” into the show for the purposes of conflict.  (Get ready, because I’m about to go all geeky trivia here!)  I would say that the issue of melancholy and moral quandary was actually handled pretty well in the TV film “The Return of the Six Million Dollar Man and the Bionic Woman,” in which Steve Austin’s estranged son was in a similar crash to his father, and his father asks OSO to implant bionics in him. 

 

Afterwards, he deals with the issues of not wanting the bionics, particularly because of his feelings toward his father.  He even has to be counseled about it.  I remember liking the movie… but it has been 20 years since I saw it.  To further my geeky cred, though, there was another reunion movie a couple of years later called “Bionic Showdown,” and it starred a bionic Sandra Bullock.  I remember it stunk though, a lot, in spite of my crush on Sandra Bullock.  And, I don’t think the near 20 years since my last viewing will change THAT opinion at all. 

 

OG:  Wow.  “Return of…” sounds like a Netflix candidate for me.  Awesome. 

 

In that vein, I must say I’m excited at the forthcoming “$40,000 Man” about an astronaut involved in a terrible accident and is then rebuilt by the government on a shoe-string budget. Could be some comedy gold in there and maybe distract Jack Black away from any Green Lantern project he may have been thinking of in the past. 

 

EG: Uh… yeah.  You know, I have not been thrilled at the thought of any of these comedies that have been proposed over the years, be it the Jim Carrey “Six Million Dollar Man” or this one.  Then again, there haven’t been all that many comedies that have looked good to me in recent years.  But, if it keeps Jack Black away from Green Lantern, well, I’m all for it. 

 

OG:  Well, I think that just about does it.  Onward and upward.  And, dear readers, you should know that we here at the SABC are working feverishly to make sure we get “Dune” read and discussed in time for the end of June, beginning of July. 

 

We look forward to that and hope to see you in the comments section on this one or the next!

  

Review: All-New Iron Manual #1

May 15, 2008

They got me.

I hate when that happens.

See, I don’t tend buy comic book one-shots.  Most of the time, they are overpriced and all too often, the “extra pages” included are nothing more than reprints of stories I’ve probably already read.

I’m also wary of projects that come out just to tie-in with movies.

And yet…

*Sigh*

I order my comics through an online service.  It is a great convenience, having discounted comics delivered right to my door (the nearest comic book shop to my house is a 20 minute drive away).  The one disadvantage is pre-ordering and not having the chance to really look at what I’m buying ahead of time.  I am forced to depend on the blurbs put out by the various companies about their projects.

Overall, it isn’t that big a deal.  I know what artists and writers I like, and my track record is pretty good for avoiding pitfalls.

Not so today.  Today, I recieved my shipment of comics, and, sitting atop the pile, is the physical representation of my own stupidity:  All-New Iron Manual #1.

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Yep.  A one-shot designed just to take advantage of the Iron Man film recently released.

So, why didn’t the red flags go up on this project for me?  Actually, they did, but I chose to ignore them.  And, why did I buy a book so glaringly not for me? 

Here is the description of the book that I ordered:

These are the chronicles of Tony Stark: the playboy, the genius inventor, the philanthropist, the director of S.H.I.E.L.D., the futurist, the hero. This Handbook is the definitive resource to the world of Iron Man, featuring Tony’s closest allies (Happy and Pepper Hogan, War Machine, the Order) and deadliest foes (Justin Hammer, Mandarin, Obadiah Stane)! Includes a complete gallery of the Iron Man armors, plus all-new schematics of key armors and the S.H.I.E.L.D. Helicarrier!

I read through that description and was unimpressed… until that last sentence.  That last, horribly deceptive sentence.

One of my favorite things about Iron Man is the fact that his armor changes.  Unlike other comic book heroes, who seem to stay with relatively unchanging costumes for most of their existence, Iron Man’s look has updated every few years since inception.

Imagine my thrill about the chance to have a complete gallery of those armors!

So, despite my reservations, despite all the warning signs, and despite the $4.99 cover price, I bought the All-New Iron Manual #1.

I will never learn.

With undisguised excitement, I picked up the comic from my recent shipment, determined to take a look at it immediately.  The cover?  Fantastic.  It brought hope to me for what would be contained within.

I began to flip through the pages.  It was, essentially, what was promised – basically, a lot of entries about characters, pulled from the Official Handbook of the Marvel Universe.  I continued flipping, knowing I would eventually be greeted by an amazing gallery of the various armors used over the years.

Then, I got to the actual Iron Man entry, and beheld the gallery.

And regret set in.

In my dreams, I hoped for a sequence of splash pages, each type of armor brilliantly displayed in detail, one per page.  In more realistic fashion, I thought that maybe I’d get two sets of armor per page, maybe not as detailed or dynamic, but still a nice display.  Bare minimum, I was expecting the gallery pages to be quartered, displaying four armors per page.

Any of those would have been preferable to what I got.

Bordering the Iron Man entry, like guards for the gutter, were a series of armor images, measuring about 1 inch wide by 2 1/2 inches tall.  There are eight per page (one row of four on the top, one row of four on the bottom), with an equal amount of space devoted the text of the detailed history of Iron Man throughout the “gallery.”

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Thirty-nine types of armor, displayed across the top and bottom of five pages.

Yep, Marvel, you got me.  I was expecting an incredible display of the various armors, and you give me thumbnails.

Ha ha.

Jokes on me.

Listen folks, if you are wanting a detailed look at Iron Man and his supporting cast/enemies, this book does deliver that.  If you, like me, were hoping for more in the way of art, save your five bucks and go visit The Iron Man Armory, which has better images of most of the armors anyway.

 

Review: Dave Sims’ Glamourpuss

May 5, 2008

Okay, true confession time:  I’ve never read Cerebus.

For the majority of my life, I’ve been a mainstream comic guy.  Still am.  Now, though, I’m more open to independent projects.

Still, though, Cerebus is something that I’d like to get around to reading at some point.

My friend OG mentioned that he also missed out on Cerebus, but that he was jumping on board with the new Dave Sim project, Glamourpuss.
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I have another confession to make:  The more I heard about Glamourpuss, the less I wanted to pick it up.

The bits and pieces I heard about it were not exciting me.  The idea of a satirical book made up of drawings based on the models of women’s fashion magazines?  Wow.  So not my cup of tea.

Honestly, it felt more and more as if this was turning into some sort of self-indulgent vanity project, that Sim was taking advantage of his Cerebus fans to purposefully put out a book, completely without a market, just because he could.

Yet, my curiousity about the project could not be denied.  If there was to be a disaster, I intended to be there to gawk at it.

This past week, I recieved my comics in the mail (thank you discount online ordering services!!!), and among the stack of spandex covered superheroes was Glamourpuss.
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In a time when my curiosity often makes me regret plopping down my hard-earned cash on new comic projects, Glamourpuss turned out to be a real surprise.

It was good.

It was more than good.  It was fantastic.

What I had feared would be a mediocre satire turned out to be more of a personal examination of the photo-realistic line art of such artists as Al Williamson, Stan Drake, Neal Adams, and Alex Raymond.

And, yet, it wasn’t merely a clinical and dry examination of the art styles or the men.  It felt very much like having a conversation with a knowledgeable fan, who as he talked, took out a piece of paper to demonstrate what he was talking about.

Throughout the book, Sims demonstrates the styles used, not by merely photocopying the images and pasting them in (because the copies have been reproduced so many times that the details are all but lost), but by actually tracing and redrawing them, diversifying the line weight in his best guess of what the original was.

And, as he does so, the project takes on a very personal feel of an artist trying to grasp the techniques of a style that is all too seldom seen.  Glamourpuss is a journal recounting this voyage.
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Oh, there are aspects of the satire within the book.  And, while it is competent enough, it is more of a window dressing to the book.

Here I am, I’ve come this far, and I haven’t really talked about the art itself!  If you are only concerned about the art in your comics, don’t worry.  You will not be disappointed in this book.  It is really, truly beautiful stuff.  By examining the art under the guiding explanations of Sims, you will take even more from it.

Is this a self-indulgent vanity project?  Yeah, it really is.  It certainly isn’t a “traditional” type of comic book.  And, if Dave Sims was not Dave Sims, there is little chance anyone would have ever heard of this book.  That said, even though it is a self-indulgent vanity project, it is a really, really good self-indulgent vanity project.

If you haven’t checked it out, you should.

Events and a Free Gift from The Steve Austin Book Club

April 29, 2008

It has begun.

Almost like clockwork, Marvel and DC roll out their annual “events.”  This year, Marvel has Secret Invasion and DC has Final Crisis.

I’m not really going to talk about the events.  Not really.

See, I figure they don’t really need a publicity push from me.  By this point, you are either going to buy them or not.

Me?  I’m buying the main series of each, a total of 16 comics (if you include DC Universe 0 with Final Crisis – which I do), eight from each company.

But, if I wanted, I could go broke buying all of the various tie-ins for the two main events.

As of my most recent count, start to end, Final Crisis, if one were to purchase every one of the tie-in books along with the main series, the total jumps from eight up to a shocking (or, maybe not so much anymore) 26 issues.  And, that does not include what Dan Didio refers to as “Sightings” issues – which are signposts, marking important storybeats and moments throughout the DC Universe.  These will relate to Final Crisis, but not directly tie-in.  Even if all of the books were only $2.99 (which they won’t all be – I’m reasonably sure the main issues are $3.99 each), that is over a $75.00 investment!

But, if you wanna really talk about breaking the bank, then hats off to Marvel.  If you were to gather all of the tie-in issues along with the main series for Secret Invasion (NOT including issues referred to as “Infiltration” issues, which lead into the series), you are gonna pick up a jaw-dropping 58 issues before it is all done.  Again, even if all the issues were only $2.99 each (and, again, they aren’t), you are looking at over $170.00!!!

Yeah, I’m buying the main book, but if the story isn’t complete in those issues, too bad.  I’m not handing any more of my disposable income over for these events.  I just won’t do it.

In that spirit, we here at The Steve Austin Book Club would like to offer this:

 
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(Ah, signature banners.  Gotta love them.  For those of you unfamiliar with them, they are images that appear at the bottom of an individuals postings on various message boards.) 

That signature banner pretty much sums up my feelings about events designed to empty your wallet with superfluous issues light on content and heavy in price.  Feel free to click on it and save the full size version and use it at your leisure on the various message boards you enjoy!

And, just a quick note that the Book of the Month review for April, Cyborg by Martin Caidin, is going to be delayed.  OG and EG sincerely apologize for this delay (and, well, the lack of content in general).  With any luck, we’ll have it up by mid-May, so keep an eye out for it.  In the meantime, we will (hopefully) be putting out some more consistent postings. 

Thank you for your patience!

BOOK CLUB DISCUSSION: ENDER’S GAME

April 3, 2008

Folks, it’s that time once again.  So, sit a spell, kick your shoes off, and get to reading!  Oh, and as always, our review/conversation is filled with SPOILERS.  If you haven’t read the book and want to, don’t read this.  If you have read the book, jump in to the discussion via our all too seldom used comments section!  Without further ado… 

THE SYNOPSIS:

“Ender’s Game” by Orson Scott Card is the story of a young child on whom the fate of humanity rests.  In this futuristic tale, the Earth has come under attack twice by the devastating “buggers.”  United by the shared threat, the world government of Earth tasks itself with finding the one person that can lead humanity to victory in the next battle.  That government looks to its children to find that leader.  Andrew Wiggin, aka Ender, is the third and youngest child in his family.  Most families are only allowed to have two children, but the government found both of Ender’s siblings (ruthless Peter and compassionate Valentine) to be so close to the type of leader that they were looking for that they allowed a third child hoping that one would be a cross between the two.  (There is a subplot in the book of how Ender’s siblings rise to political prominence on Earth, and it is pretty good, but a lot to go into right here). 

After monitoring young Ender from the age of three to the age of six, the International Fleet decides that it is time to begin training Ender for his life’s mission.  Ender is removed from his family and sent to Battle School.  At Battle School, children are trained for war using games, both computer and physical scenarios, that only get progressively harder.  Ender is surrounded by other elite children but, in an effort to make him into the leader he needs to be by his instructors, Ender is systematically isolated socially from his fellow students in obviously cruel yet (to the instructors, at any rate) necessary ways. 

Despite these measures and the pressure and stress of the environment, Ender excels, advancing quickly, moving from shunned child to awe-inspiring leader.  It is a path that makes enemies and repeatedly Ender finds himself having to defend himself from violent attacks.   Throughout the novel, Ender and the situations he is placed in are manipulated by his instructors.  Despite realizing this, Ender continues his training for a greater purpose.  The manipulation comes to a dramatic conclusion when Ender discovers that the latest series of “games” he has been training with are actual remote battles near the Buggers’ home world, and he is responsible for the genocide of that race of beings.  The book ends with Ender coming to learn about his enemies and, in fact, becoming their hope for a future existence.  But, that is another book altogether.   

THE DISCUSSION: 

OG:  As referenced in on of my recent blog postings of shame, “Ender’s Game” is on that list of revered sci-fi books that I’ve regretted never having read.  And, to be honest, until the idea of the book club came about it was one that I think I never would have gotten around to.  Something about seeing the letters YA on the spine of it at the library made me think that the time for this book in my life had passed.  I assumed (very, very wrongly) that it must be geared towards kids only, wouldn’t resonate with me anymore, and would perhaps be too simplistic due to its designated audience. Well, I couldn’t have been more wrong on all counts.  This is a challenging, complex, and heady novel in all the right ways.  In fact, I’m gonna drop this little hyperbole bomb early in my reaction here so as to make it clear what direction I’m going to go:  “Ender’s Game” is a masterpiece. 

There, I said it.  And, before I go any deeper into that sentiment, I suppose I should give you the equal opportunity to make any similar or contrary declarations at the outset here… 

EG:  Ender’s Game blew chunks!!!  It was horrible!  It was…actually, all that is a lie.  I just wanted to find some way to disagree with you about this, but I can’t.  I have to say, I thoroughly enjoyed this book, despite the unconscionable acts of the adults within, the obvious child abuse, and the systematic destruction of a kid’s psyche.  The book is one of the best science fiction novels I’ve ever read.  My copy didn’t have the “juvenile fiction” stigma emblazoned on its spine, so I went in without any thoughts that this could be a book for the younger set.  Of course, now having read it, I can see the definite youth appeal of the book. 

OG:  I agree that it totally works for guys our advanced age, but I will say, my biggest regret having not read this until now is that I sure could have used this book back in middles school or high school.  Granted, the character of Ender Wiggin is a remarkable child, one far smarter than I was then or am even now, but the alienation and distress he experiences in the battle school is drawn so effectively by Card that I can’t imagine many children who wouldn’t respond to it in some deeply personal way.  But, not only that, I would wager that over the past two decades this book has probably given a lot of kids the insight into the bullies and thugs in their lives which helped them to cope with and endure the special kind of cruelty that kids can visit upon one and other. 

EG:  Exactly.  I mean, when I was a kid I was stuck in some advanced programs (not bragging her – those things only breed social retardation – nothing to be proud of there), so I immediately related to the main character.  But, as you said, virtually any early teen could relate to the alienation factor.  Which, actually, while I’m thinking about it, is my one gripe about the book.  There was one aspect of the whole novel that I simply couldn’t suspend disbelief on – the ages.  A six year old going through all of this?  Even granting it being the future and the advanced intelligence of the characters, I could not resolve that in my mind.  What I ended up doing a lot of the time was moving the age up by about four years in my head.  Somehow that was enough to overcome my disbelief…until the text mentioned the ages again, and I was momentarily taken out of the story by those speed bumps.  But, if that is my only gripe about a book, I’m thankful.  

OG:  I’m really glad you brought the age issue up.  Much as I loved this book, I had the same trouble you did.  It was really off-putting at first.  Somehow I was eventually able to suspend disbelief sufficiently enough, but I still can’t imagine why Card chose to make the kids in the story this young.  After reading this I even looked up a lot of interviews with Card and commentary on the novel trying to find this out and never found anything where this was addressed.  I think I only ultimately made peace with it while reading because I kept assuming that the story would leap ahead a few years at some point and make my concerns moot.  Even though it never did, I think that that false assumption coupled with the strong distraction of a really well-told story got me to a point where I wasn’t even thinking about Ender’s age anymore.  Like you, it only flooded back into my thoughts and became a distraction whenever the author made a point to bring it up. 

Actually, if anything, the character’s ages had me thinking a lot of another book along the way.  And, again, it’s a book that I didn’t get around to reading until quite recently – “The Lord of the Flies.”  In many ways, “Ender’s Game” seems very much like the complete inverse of that premise, but I could only focus on the obvious similarities.  The biggest difference between the two is that of the presence and influence of adults.  While authority figures are completely absent in “Lord of the Flies,” they are critically influential on the events and overall plot of “Ender’s Game.”  But, despite that, the adults at the Battle School are hardly seen and never intervene overtly.  So, ultimately, both books end up being about boys left to their own devices and what happens in that situation.  And, if Card is to be believed, it doesn’t matter if there is chaos (as on the island of “Flies”) or order (as in the Battle School) boys will be boys and that can be a very bad, very devastating thing.   

EG:  Actually, I think the difference is that the behavior of the boys in Battle School were not the simple result of their own tribal de-civilization, but rather the organized and reasoned manipulation by the adults.  In that way, I see it really much more along the lines of “Anna to the Infinite Power” or “The Boys from Brazil.” 

OG:  Curse you EG!  Always reminding me of more things that I haven’t read.  Go on. 

EG:  Mind you, both of those dealt with cloning, but they also dealt with manipulating the cloned children so that they would grow up a certain way.  And, since I brought up “The Boys from Brazil,” which deals with the cloning of Hitler, I’ll throw in my Nazi reference here as well.  The manipulation of Ender by Graff seems very Mengele-esque to me…he fully realizes that what he is doing is destroying Ender, yet continues to do it for the greater ideal.  And, there is no real guarantee any of it will work – it is all an experiment, one which we are given indications has not worked on other children, causing them to commit suicide.  In the case of Ender, there are camps that would say that the greater good is served, but there are also camps that would say that losing one’s soul in the process negates the greater good. 

OG:  Well, I definitely want to delve into the Nazi comparison because I have some thoughts on that.  But first, regarding “Lord of the Flies,” I would say you’re absolutely correct about the difference between the two, but I think there is still something in both books that wants to explore the inherent cruelty of children and how they deal with it in social groups.  The biggest difference between the two really is how the different heroes of the books deal with it.  Ralph in “Flies” is unable to keep control or keep the chaos and cruelty at bay.  Ender, in contrast, fulfills his role as leader and overcomes all obstacles, bringing many of the boys with him as he does so. 

But, that comparison isn’t as interesting a conversation as the Nazi thing.  As I said, I read a lot of reviews and articles after finishing the book and came across one that was apparently a big deal right after Ender first came out.  It’s an essay by Elaine Radford entitled “Ender and Hitler: Sympathy for the Superman” and can be found here: 

http://peachfront.diaryland.com/enderhitlte.html 

To boil it down, her argument is that “Ender’s Game” is a defense for Hitler and other perpetrators of genocide because it makes the argument that Hitler, like Ender, can be excused for his actions because of a rough upbringing and because he thought what he was doing was right.  I think her argument completely misses the point of the book.  You can’t even argue that Ender is engaging in the faulty “I was just following orders” Nuremburg defense because he was completely in the dark the whole time.  He was hoodwinked and the real comparison to the Nazis, if one is to be made, is the one you made to Graff.  He’s the one making the “genocide for the greater good” excuses.  And, while Card tries to portray Graff’s struggle in human terms I don’t think he ultimately lets him off the hook or gives him an easy excuse. 

EG:  Yeah, I’m going to have to call that comparison faulty.  There is a big difference between having a rough upbringing and being purposefully manipulated.  (A quick aside – The Boys from Brazil focuses on the idea of trying to place clones in similar situations to the original person to get them to develop in the same way – and raises the same sorts of questions about whether a person is condemned by circumstance or able to rise above.)  I would even argue that Hitler could’ve risen above his circumstances, but that Ender, as long as he was seen as the “great hope,” never had that chance because they were not going to stop manipulating him into their ideal military commander until he succeeded or lost his mind or died.  We are talking about a teenager who has been tricked into committing genocide, something he might have figured out on his own if their measures had not deprived him of sleep and rest for such an extended period of time.  And to finally reach the completion of your “training,” only to be told it was all real?  That your orders and actions and plans had resulted in not only the death of your own forces, but the obliteration of an entire alien race?  If Ender is to be considered a monster, then how much more so are those that “created” him? 

I suppose, if I had a second gripe with the book, it would related to how quickly Ender recovers (or, at least, manages to cope) with discovering he has committed genocide.  And, then the kicker – discovering that the first two attacks from the Buggers was a mistake, that they had no clue humans were intelligent life?  Top that with the fact that the Buggers realized they were going to be destroyed and left their legacy to the architect of their destruction?  I don’t know.  I mean, I think I wanted something more from Ender.  I guess I could be wrong here, now that I think about it.  I was thinking I wanted a more fiery and fierce righteous indignation against the people that manipulated him, maybe more grief over what he had done to the Buggers…but by that point in the story, his head had been played with so much that maybe all that was left was what we were given. 

OG:  True.  And, I see where you’re coming from in your wanting more from him in the way of rage at that moment.  It’s certainly what we feel as the reader.  But, since we know how incredibly intuitive Ender is in his understanding of his opponents every stop along the way, I think we can infer that he immediately realized that righteous indignation or any outburst would be fruitless.  At the moment the truth is revealed to him, he can see right away that the whole system is rigged so completely and he knows that there is no benefit to striking out at that point.  Instead, he bides his time, gets to the bottom of things, and once he has the egg-sac he plots to renew the Bugger race to try and counterbalance what has been done and redeem it in some way. 

Of course, there’s no way to truly make it right, but it’s all he can do at that point.  And, that’s why I think the criticism I pointed to above is so off the mark.  It’s as if the writer of that essay just didn’t read the last part of the book.  Clearly, Ender is deeply troubled by the part he played in the Bugger genocide, knows how he was manipulated, understands that it was morally wrong, and seeks to make it right.  In that way, the message of this book is extremely moral. 

EG:  But that does give me a thought.  What if the story had not included the “redemption” of Ender?  Suppose, we get to the end, after the Buggers have been destroyed, and we merely see Ender leave Earth with Valentine?  I mean, yeah, it is a moot point since the Bugger legacy is left with Ender and obviously future books deal with that, but I have to admit, I would still have sympathy for the tragic figure of Ender even without him coming to discover the truth about the Buggers and taking on the role of “Speaker For the Dead” for them.   

OG:  I hadn’t considered that but it’s true that as I was reading it I was completely sympathetic to him before I even had read the concluding portions detailing Ender’s discoveries.  That’s a very good point. 

So, one final thing I wanted to address concerning the major reveal of the book (that the battle simulator is not really that at all and that Ender is in fact really killing Buggers) is how it works narratively.  I believe I effectively demonstrated in our “American Gods” discussion that I am quite dense.  Not getting the obvious Low-Key/Loki clues and the like.  But, I have to say that I remarkably knew exactly what was up once Ender and his compatriots were in the simulator.  And, not because I’m especially smart (I have to believe that you weren’t fooled by this at all EG), but because I read the back cover of the book prior to reading it.  The blurb on the back begins… “Andrew ‘Ender’ Wiggin thinks he is playing computer simulated war games at the Battle School; he is, in fact, engaged in something far more desperate.”  Just the words “thinks he is playing” was enough to reveal it all to me. 

How obvious is that!?!?!  I’d see that blurb every time I picked up the book to read and the phrasing never left my head.  And, once we got into the simulator room, the words were banging me in the forehead saying “SEE!  SEE! He only THINKS he’s playing a game!” Stupid blurb.  It didn’t ruin my enjoyment of the book really, but just really irritated me.  Of course, you’re probably about to tell me that this should have been obvious to anyone just reading the words from left to right.  Go ahead. 

EG:  Okay…well, I wasn’t going to mention it.  I mean, seriously, I made doubly sure not to say, “You know, I figured out that the ‘simulations’ were actual battles relatively soon after the introduction of Mazer Rackham,” but since you brought it up…yeah, I figured it out  But, to make you feel better, I think you would’ve figured it out as well just from straight reading.   Since you talked about reading the back of the book and receiving a bit of a spoiler, let me just say I’ve stopped reading the backs of books, the prefaces, the introductions…even most reviews.  I was spoiled pretty badly in the intro of a book about a year ago, which blatantly revealed the “twist” of the book, and it completely ruined the book for me.  So, I now wait until I’ve already read the book before I read any of those things.   

OG:  I think I’ll be adopting that practice myself from here on out. 

EG:  But, that is really neither here nor there.  Back to the topic at hand! 

OG:  You know, the best thing I can say about how good this book was is that I’m dying to read “Speaker for the Dead” now.  I want more of this world and want to see what Ender does next.  Knowing that “Speaker” was actually conceived of first and is considered by many to be the superior of the two only amps up my excitement.  How about you?  Any concluding thoughts? 

EG:  Actually, while I was aware of the sequels to this book, I hadn’t heard that “Speaker” was supposed to be superior.  Hmm.  We’ll have to keep that in mind for the future.  Oh, and one more thing:  Knowing you are the third born in your household, I feel compelled to refer to you as Third from now on. 

OG:  I shall wear the title with pride!  (And, while neither of my older brother’s skinned any squirrels alive, I did witness them shooting frogs with BB guns, so that probably counts.)  Oh, by the way, I’m busting out the full 5 Running Steves for this one.  Easily. 

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EG:  Well, Third, I’m going to give this one 4.5 Running Steves.  I might’ve gone up to a 4.75, but I don’t want to fool with making a new graphic for that, so this book will have to settle for next best thing from me. 

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OG:  Cool.  You know, I heard there’s a movie in development for this one.  You think they’re really gonna keep the characters the ages they are?  I can’t imagine.  I mean, he does a good enough job making it work in the book, but there’s no way a modern movie audience will be able to get on board with that. 

EG:  Honestly?  Even advancing the kids by four or five years wouldn’t work.  I don’t think a screen adaptation of this book would remotely work.  I mean, if people wanted to sit in a darkened theater watching kids playing video games for a couple of hours, the long-form commercial known as The Wizard (starring TV’s Fred Savage) would have been a blockbuster. 


OG:  HA!  Well, I won’t argue with that.  Instead, I’ll let this clip from The Wizard do the arguing for me…
 
 OG:  And, I guess that’s as great a place to stop as anywhere.  We’ll meet up again in a month for a conversation about Martin Caidin’s “Cyborg.”  Until then, I’ll hopefully be posting a little more regularly and EG will soon be regaling us with his promised, but much-delayed review of 1998’s “Lost in Space.”

MY GREAT SHAME, Part 1

March 20, 2008

Hey there good people of Blogveria!  How art thou? 

So, there’s been plenty of big comic book news out there in the wake of Wizard World LA, but none that really floats my proverbial boat.  I mean, Matt Fraction is one of my favorite current comic book writer’s, but the excitement of him joining with Brubaker as co-writer of “Uncanny X-Men” was immediately urinated on with the addition of these four words:  “New artist, Greg Land.”  And to think, they almost had me considering buying that title. 

No, none of that news was as exciting to me as the word from Stephen King (an not news from a con, mind you, but from NPR.  What’s that?  A comic story on NPR?  What happened?  Did they run out of stories about wheat harvesting?) that Marvel comics is going to be putting out a graphic novel adaptation of his epic novel “The Stand.”  

Here’s a link to the story:   http://forum.newsarama.com/showthread.php?t=150380 

I am a big fan of the King.  I’ve liked pretty much every book I’ve ever read of his and have been reading since I could get my hands on the stuff.  But, and this is a cause of great shame for me, I have somehow never made the time in all these many years to read “The Stand.”  I’ve read plenty of long books in my day, but for some reason the page count of this particular book has just always been too daunting to me.   

And, I suppose the fact that I’ve gotten so excited about this adaptation full of purdy pictures and all (ya know, so’s I can easily understand it) should also be shameful to me.  And, well, it is.  Just shameful.  And, It’s sad that my first encounter with the book that, outside of the Dark Tower series, is supposed to be the signature work of an author I adore might be in comic form due to my own bestial laziness.   

Well, this shame got me to thinking of all of the other books that I really should have read by now.  In fact, that list is a good part of what motivated me to start this blog in the first place. 

So, in the interest of full disclosure, I thought I’d share the top 15 sci-fi and fantasy novels that I’m most ashamed to have never read.   

I hope and assume you’re sitting down.  It’s not pretty people.  Here they are in alphabetical order: 

THE TOP 15 SCI-FI/FANTASY BOOKS I HAVEN’T READ (to my great shame): 

1984 by George Orwell:  Seems like everyone but me had to read this one in high school.  It’s one of those rare books (like “Catch-22”) that I haven’t read but that I make reference to on a regular basis. 

A Wrinkle In Time by Madeline L’Engle:  I can’t even tell you how many times I must have picked this one up in the library of my junior high school, carried it around for twenty minutes, and then saw something I wanted to read more and put this back.  Not sure what held me back each time but I have a good feeling I’ve been missing out every year since. 

Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll:  Another of those quintessential texts you find referenced on a regular basis in pop culture but one that many folks, I’ve found, haven’t actually taken the time to read.   

At The Mountains of Madness by H.P. Lovecraft:  I wrote this Lovecraft off early in life as a “poor man’s Poe” and, having now read many of his stories in the past few years, I can say that I was mostly right to do so.  But, I think before I finally write him off completely and for all time I should read this signature work since I understand everything else I’ve read only nibbles at the periphery of the themes and concepts that this one explores.   

Brave New World by Aldos Huxley:  I’ve been told to read this one so many times and in the most finger-waving, shame-on-you sort of terms that I fear it’ll be like taking cough syrup.  I guess it makes me a bit of a blockhead, but I really just want a novel to be fun.  I’m always nervous when a book is supposed to be “good for me.”   

Childhood’s End by Arthur C. Clarke:  A big RIP to this old gent this week.  As big a fan of “2001: A Space Odyssey” as I am, it’s downright uncool that I haven’t read a single one of Clarke’s novels.  This is the one I’ve always known about as THE BOOK of his to read but I could just as easily add “Rendezvous With Rama” to this list.   

Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury:  Another title from the high school reading list that I somehow avoided and, from what I understand, another one like “Brave New World” that I need to read not just for its merits as a novel but for my betterment as a human.  Well, as I said, that kind of “good for you” crap is certainly not going to get me to read it any faster.  What will do it for me, though, is the fact that I really like Bradbury.  “Martian Chronicles” is one of my old school favorites and I remember many frightened nights in the thrall of “Something Wicked This Way Comes.”    

Foundation (series) by Issac Asimov:  By the way, I didn’t just miss these “Foundation” books.  I never read the “I, Robot” stuff either.  So, just tell me where I turn in my “Geek Credibility Card” and I’ll get to it right away and never bother you again.   

Frankenstein by Mary Shelley:  Not just a horror classic, but one of the granddaddy’s of sci-fi.  This one’s even on my book shelf, so what exactly am I waiting for?  Of course, I haven’t read “Dracula” either.  

I Am Legend by Richard Matheson:  Netflix just advised me that I should have the film version of this in my mailbox today.  Will Smith already killed my desire to read the aforementioned “I, Robot” so I’m wondering if I’ll have any appetite for this one after this weekend.  Here’s hoping.  All I know is that I should really start chipping away at this list before he adapts any more of these books.   (Ironically, the ridiculous yet sublime “Omega Man” only makes me want to read this one even more!) 

Man in the High Castle by Phillip K. Dick:  True confessions time.  I have a blog about science fiction and I’ve never read any Phillip K. Dick.  What am I even doing here? 

Slaughterhouse 5 by Kurt Vonnegut:  True confession number two.  Never read Vonnegut either.  If it makes it better, I haven’t read any John Grisham or V.C. Andrews either.  It doesn’t make it better, does it? 

Stranger in a Strange Land by Robert Heinlein:  I remember reading “Have Spacesuit Will Travel” and thinking that Heinlein books were just goofy, outdated fodder for kids, but I’m told that I am very much mistaken.  This one and a few other of his books are on the very long to-do list.   

The Time Machine by H.G. Wells:  Couldn’t decide if this or “War of the Worlds” should be on this list more, but ended up picking Time Machine because of how much I’ve heard reference to the mythology of that universe.  Additionally, I really ought to read this just to scrub the memory of that terrible film that came out a few years back with Guy Pearce from my brain.  Ugh.   

Watership Down by Richard Adams:  Any “Lost” fan worth his salt is supposed to have read this one, so I guess I can’t go on much longer without doing so.  Not that “Lost” is about anthropomorphic bunny rabbits, but I hear along with “The Stand” that it’s a crucial reference point. 

And, that’s it folks.  Of course, “Dune” and “Ender’s Game” would have easily been on this list were it not for the book club, so at least that’s something.  If EG hadn’t (I think) already read most of the above I’d be adding those to the Steve Austin curriculum as well. 

Anyway, now that I’ve got that off my chest, you may commence being disgusted with me now. 

COMING SOON:  My Great Shame, Part 2: Movies