Sunday, October 19, 2014

Captain J. Evans Pritchard of the Starship Enterprise

One of the charms of the often clumsy morality plays of the old Star Trek series was how they could often be pulled off with quite a bit of style when the episode was well-written. The leads of the series -- William Shatner, Leonard Nimoy and DeForrest Kelley -- were competent professional actors with a lot of combined experience in television and when given some top-level TV material could make top-level genre entertainment surrounding the Moral of the Story.

In 2014's The Weight of Worlds, multiple Trek-novel author Greg Cox manages to pull off the part about writing a story with an Important Point. He comes nowhere close to offering anything like the panache of the best work old TV veterans like D.C. Fontana, Gene L. Coon, Jerome Bixby or even series creator Gene Roddenberry himself ("best work" is an important qualifier here. Coon was also responsible for "Spock's Brain.")

The Ephrata Institute is a think tank located on an isolated planet near the edge of Federation space. One day it sends out a garbled distress call, and Starfleet sends the Enterprise to investigate. Invaders from another dimension have attacked the institute, and their control of gravity threatens to render them too much for the Enterprise crew to handle. While Captain James T. Kirk and Mr. Spock are brought to the invaders' homeworld to confront their leader, other landing party members must combat the invading force and help protect the Enterprise herself.

Cox offers up a couple of neat items -- dissidents on the invader's homeworld chose Kirk as their potential champion because examining Ephrata's records showed he had a history of toppling false deities. And an injury to Engineer Scott puts Lieutenant Uhura in command of the Enterprise; a role that series backstory said she was trained for but which we never got to see.

But those are garnishes on an empty plate; Weight of Worlds reads like a low-end episode of the animated series of Star Trek aired in 1973-74. Cox has a penchant for name-dropping old series episodes in unnecessary and awkward ways. Kirk declines a party invitation with a memory of how a party attended by Dr. Helen Noel went awry in "Dagger of the Mind," for example. Lieutenant Sulu develops a crush on his fellow landing-party fugitive, but Cox is nowhere near talented enough to show that develop so he just tells us. And he is also nowhere near talented enough to make his central idea -- beware religious crusaders who are convinced their truth is The Truth -- anything more than a moralistic cliché that carries no weight. Cox has more than a dozen Trek novels and many more movie and video-game tie-in novelizations to his credit, so it's difficult to understand why at this point in his career he can't write a novel with enough skill to sell his simplistic sermon.
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Television series usually have a person called a "showrunner," who makes certain things like continuity and character development are watched for mistakes. Episodes may be written or filmed "out of order," for example, and so a showrunner checks whether or not an episode written earlier but filmed later keeps up with what's happened before.

Actors themselves may play a role in this kind of checking, too. An actor who has played a character for some time will probably have an idea or understanding about the person they are pretending to be, and they might question an action or dialogue given to them based on that character understanding. "I don't know if (character I play) would do that," he or she might say, and it's not always from pain-in-the-butt artiste tendencies.

So I am pretty sure that both George Takei and William Shatner, who don't see eye-to-eye on much of anything these days, would taken David R. George III's Allegiance in Exile story if it had been presented to them as a script into the showrunner's office and said, "Sulu (and/or) Kirk would never do this."

The Enterprise is exploring a new sector of space late in its five-year mission, and finds a beautiful but uninhabited world. Examination of the world shows the remains of colony, destroyed within the last year, but no sign of inhabitants or attackers. The mystery deepens when a kind of automated defense system fires on a landing party and the Enterprise itself. Sulu is nearly killed but is saved by a female crewmate, Ensign Trinh, who specializes in archaeology and anthropology and whose information could be vital to understanding what happened on the planet.

The mystery deepens further a few months later when the crew discovers another colony planet destroyed in the same manner. In the meantime, Sulu and Trinh have developed a romantic relationship, and he is sickened with worry about the danger she will face as a member of a new landing party. When she is injured, he blames Kirk and angrily confronts him, while the captain himself meekly acquiesces to his junior's accusations.

George begins with the interesting mystery of the destroyed colonies, but heads right off the rails just as soon as Sulu and Trinh develop their romance. Sulu is a lovestruck adolescent rather than a grown man, and his anger at Kirk regresses him further into a toddler throwing a tantrum because an adult took his toy away from him. Nothing in the younger character's reactions looks anything like a person who understands that both he and his girlfriend have taken on potentially dangerous jobs that may place them in harm's way, and did so with wide-open eyes and adult decisions.

Kirk himself, far from a commander who knows that leadership means deciding things, and in his business decisions can have fatal consequences, questions himself even more than Sulu does and allows himself to be completely disrespected by a junior officer with nary a peep in response. Trinh is nothing more than a prop to help Sulu have a Moment of Crisis; she's not even allowed to have a good onscreen demise but relegated to the Tragic Life-Threatening Injury of a cheap soap opera.

The mystery itself is merely a setup to introduce some characters seen in later incarnations of the Trek world, some of which are George's own rather than from any broadcast episodes of any of the TV shows. He does so, and all he had to do was wreck 40-plus years of character continuity to do it.
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Now, it may be that the proper response to a couple of slams of lightweight genre fiction is a gentle reminder that, "Hey, it's genre fiction. You shouldn't expect too much." That's a valid observation and a good guide, but the problem is that neither of these books comes anywhere close to "too much." Genre fiction and television in general and Star Trek in particular have produced some real top-drawer efforts. Some of the best of series novels and episodes can prompt, for a questioning reader/viewer, just as serious a reflection on the human condition as any serious literature. And some of the best were just great yarns that entertained for as long as they lasted even if they didn't linger in the mind afterward.

By those standards as well, both Weight and Allegiance fail miserably. A devoted fandom that will happily and loyally swoop up anything in their chosen favorite world deserves better than books like these.

P.S. -- Neither book has a character named J. Evans Pritchard. He's from a different fictional environment, although his work was produced from the same milieu.

Saturday, October 18, 2014

Students Byte Teacher's Apple?

If you run a school system and you want to make a big splash, buy a lot of glizy, gleaming tech and offer it to the students. But according to Dr. Madhav Chavan, who runs the educational non-profit company Pratham in India, that purchase probably won't do much for students who aren't already going to succeed.

The reason, Dr. Chavan says, is because the tech is just a patch on a broken system, and because much of the modern communication and information system isn't linear. While the traditional education system, which sorts students into grades and categories based on age and shlurps them up at one end to dispense them at the other whether they are actually educated or not, is most definitely linear.

I won't argue with Dr. Chavan, whose company is the largest nongovernmental education supplier in India. He began it after teaching chemistry at the University of Houston and then the Institute of Chemical Technology in Mumbai. Pratham began as a way to provide low-cost preschool education among the poorest people of Mumbai, and its success earned him the WISE Prize in Education in 2012. He probably knows a lot more about the intersection of technology and education than I do, and I would have to agree about the limited effectiveness of a non-linear-oriented set of tools in somehow repairing or improving a linear system.

But I'd take it one step more, myself. To me, one of the largest reasons that technology alone can't "fix" broken education systems is that education of human beings requires, before anything else, invested and interested human beings. The best teachers I remember are ones who wanted me to know the stuff they taught because I would be better off knowing it. My least favorites either wanted me to think just like they did or didn't much care whether I came out of class knowing anything more than I did when I went in. The best could teach with chalk and a flat rock; the worst couldn't help me learn anything with a Cray XK7 at their disposal.

Of course, hiring teachers like that means you have to make some room for them by offloading the dead weight. And ditching a significant percentage of anybody employed by the school who has a two- or three-word title beginning with "assistant" or "deputy." And probably a couple of other things, but I doubt Dr. Chavan needs my advice on that.

Friday, October 17, 2014

One Thought...Just One Thought

It is my belief that being a city official in Santa Fe Springs, California, must be the easiest job in the world, even easier than being a writer for Game of Thrones ("OK, Tyrion something something, and then Sean Bean dies, and then all the women strip").

I say this because a city official in Santa Fe Springs, California, decided to cite the Miranda family for the playset they had in their back yard. It was not made of plutonium or old oilfield equipment or used concrete imported from Chernobyl. Just plain old cedar. But its presence represented the storage of items in the family's yard, according to a citation, so the family got a ticket.

Oh, did I mention that the playset was given to the family for their 10-year-old daughter Tiffany, who suffers from seizures because of a rare and incurable condition called Lennox-Gastaut syndrome? And that the playset had been donated by the Make-A-Wish Foundation? Four years ago?

Yes, that's right. Someone in the city government of Santa Fe Springs, California, decided to write a ticket to the family to get rid of their playset. Entropy will increase to infinity and our universe will end some few milliseconds earlier than it might have otherwise because of the energy used up by a person who wanted a family with a disabled 10-year-old daughter to tear down her swing set donated to her by Make-A-Wish.

The city manager, of course, has backed off the citation, saying it was just to make the family clean up debris around the swing-set. Which is, of course, not what the tickets given to the family say.

Now, the weaseling done by the city manager and other officials is to be expected. As spineless as are most elected officials, they are towers of strength and constancy compared to the Gríma Wormtongues hired to run things. What blows my mind is that at all of the steps of this process, there was no one -- apparently not a single person -- who connected the family in the citation with the fairly well-publicized donation of the swing set from the not-exactly-low-profile organization Make-A-Wish.

Or heck, leave that out. Just fit your mind around some soulless suck of a code enforcement officer somewhere writing a family a ticket saying they had to get rid of a backyard swing set, even if the child had no disabling conditions and the swing set had been bought and erected solely by Dad, his wallet and his extensive colorful vocabulary.

I believe in original sin, which means I believe that government-less anarchy is an unworkable form of human society if we want to protect the weak and safeguard everyone's basic human rights. But there are some days when I wonder just how in the world it could be that much worse than what some people in power do now.

Thursday, October 16, 2014

In Defense of Photoshop

Yes, I know it allows silly magazines to create pictures of people who are unrealistically thin and for unscrupulous folks to try to slant the news. But it also allows this:


The original may be found here.

Wednesday, October 15, 2014

I Have Set My Bow in the Clouds...

Well, technically there are no clouds, and it's not a double rainbow or nothin', but this view of the Milky Way as an arc across the night sky in Utah is pretty cool nonetheless:


Tuesday, October 14, 2014

Novel Economics

Sometimes you are glad you read books. Sometimes you are glad you read them and bought them. Sometimes you are glad you read them and bought them on sale. Sometimes you are glad you read them and bought them used. And sometimes you are glad you read them and even gladder the only money you paid is whatever portion of your sales tax goes to support your local public library. The latest Virgil Flowers novel from John Sandford, Deadline, is an excellent example.

Virgil, a roving investigator for the Minnesota Bureau of Criminal Apprehension, stops by his friend Johnson Johnson's hometown to look into a dognapping ring. He begins to see the ring has links to some local methamphetamine dealers, but before he can dig too far into the case a reporter for the local newsweekly is murdered. Since he was also a drug abuser, there could be some ties into the crimes Virgil is investigating, or it could be linked to an entirely different set of crimes. Is Virgil following the trail on his own, or is he being led by others away from a far more serious matter? It's not really a question, as the dust jacket tells us who wanted the reporter dead and how they decided on it. Deadline is not a whodunit so much as a "Will Virgil catch whodunit?"

The Flowers novels have sort of become Sandford's Dortmunder series. Donald Westlake wrote some serious crime novels with seriously bad people in them, and then he also wrote some comedic crime novels with the hapless Dortmunder and his crew almost but not quite managing to pull off a big score. Parker (whom Westlake wrote as Richard Stark) celebrated hard-boiled crime fiction while Dortmunder satirized it and poked a little fun at its conventions. Lucas Davenport in Sandford's "Prey" series is a sometimes not-so-well-contained Loose Cannon Cop Who Will Cut Corners to Get the Bad Guys. Flowers, even though he investigates crimes just as serious, does so with an eye towards the silliness of that trope and with storylines that graft them into some of the more amusing elements of the small towns where they happen. The resolution of the dognapping case, for example, contains several elements and players who would make Westlake proud.

But while the Dortmunder novels popped up infrequently enough to stay fresh (with two exceptions, Westlake wrote them with a 3-5 year gap between them starting in 1970), Virgil arrives every year and Deadline as the eighth novel in the series is showing the wear in the tread. Virgil trades witty barbs with his colorful cast of friends and acquaintances (such as the aforementioned Johnson Johnson), name drops favorite authorial bands, gets backup help (and an upping of the fratboy bro atmosphere) from fellow investigators Jenkins and Shrake, goofs up, gets it right, and so on. Much of this is entertaining, but none of it is new, especially the Virgil-Jenkins-Shrake interactions. The first couple of dozen times they're amusing, the next few they're skippable and after that they're like fire ants that think they're funny: They keep coming and biting even though no one's laughing.

Maybe the best thing for the Flowers series would be a vacation in 2015. It probably won't happen, and I'll probably read whatever comes out with the series name on it. But that's what a library is for.
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And then there are the books where you resent every tuppence, farthing, ha'penny or copper shaving that's in any way transferred from your possession on account of you choosing to read it. Welcome to Andrew Vachss' 2014 Urban Renewal, the second in the series about Cross and his crew of mercenary Chicago criminals.

Cross and his crew are investing in real estate, buying some available property with an eye towards making some semi-legal money off of it. So they'll have to run off some gangs that occupy the nearby area. And they do some other crimes, and we flash back to how the crew began, when Cross met Ace in a juvenile prison and then included the immense Rhino. And we have a drag race, and some fights, and just about every hard-boiled cliché and stereotype Vachss can cram between two covers before his publisher said, "All my editors will quit if you don't stop now."

Seriously, Vachss wastes pages showing us how an old-school pimp dying of tuberculosis teaches his nephew how to make actual money in the real criminal world of pimping, piling lecture on lecture from the older man before killing the younger pimp, and not even "onscreen" in the book, in order to protect a hooker that a dancer at their strip club has brought in to escape his abusive behavior. Then Cross and crew murder the pimp's other hooker because she has enough money that she might hire a private detective once she decides he's missing, and wind up murdering both the hooker they'd tried to rescue and the dancer who brought her in because someone said the rescued hooker worked for the FBI. And after mocking the dancer for being stupid enough to believe them when they said they would let her go. Tons of fine crime stories have criminals as antiheroes that we wind up rooting for because the writer built the story around interesting people who happen to be tough-guy crooks. Vachss has built the Cross stories around people who are less tough guys than they are bullies with a mean streak. You might complain that I have spoiled some of the book, but that would be incorrect. It was spoiled as soon as the ink hit the page.

Vachss, who has never been one to underestimate his own prophetic voice, would probably counter that the world of the Cross books is so bleak because it represents the lives of too many people used by a predatory part of society and cast off by the indifference of the rest. Perhaps. But telling me what made the people I'm reading about become such mean-spirited bullies doesn't tell me why the story they're in wanders all over the place while managing to go nowhere doing it.

Vachss knows how to write, and he knows how to construct a storyline with characters you'd rather see make it to the end of the book instead of die early so you could get rid of what they came in and wash your hands repeatedly. He did so several times in his Burke series, and he wove his philosophical points into the story in ways that showed what he wanted to say instead of telling it. So there is simply no reason for half-assed re-hash like this to go out with his name on it. And no reason for anyone to either spend money acquiring it or time reading it.

Monday, October 13, 2014

Kids Is Expensive

For a significant portion of my life, I believe my father, at least, saw me in part as a way to vacuum money from his pocket. I broke a leg, I needed braces, I took allergy shots for nine years, etc., etc.

But I had nothing on Calvin of Calvin and Hobbes fame, whom this writer estimated cost his parents better than $1,800 a month in various damages and associated expenses.

As is noted, though, in the strip reproduced at the end of the article, there were a number of counter-balancing influences to those costs. Which is the only part of my raising I ever heard about from my folks, anyway, and is the only part my dad seems to remember now when he talks about those days.

That'll do.