Monday, January 22, 2018

Clearing Some Tabs

-- Dear sweet heavenly day, Stephen King has had an actual idea: A Law & Order series including vampires. Sure, there have been vampire cop shows before, most notably the 1990s Canadian syndicated show Forever Knight. And Angel began with the conceit of Buffy's former boyfriend working as a kind of private detective, prowling the much-meaner-than-believed streets of Los Angeles. But King means the actual Law & Order universe, with the "chung-chung" and voice-of-Moses intro and everything. Someone riffing off of King's Tweet suggested an intro, but I think this would be better: "In the criminal justice system crimes are divided into two separate but equally serious groups: Natural crimes handled by human police officers and attorneys and supernatural crimes, handled in secret by a different kind of investigator. These are their stories."

-- So the federal government was shut down for an entire weekend and Monday. Furloughed workers will receive their pay in arrears; since the shutdown itself did not even last an entire payroll period it's unlikely that their checks will look any different than they would have otherwise. Good thing I didn't invest in any "I survived Shutdown 2018" merchandise.

-- Time to pick up that Philadelphia Eagles' fandom banner I last waved in 2005.

-- Some evidence suggests the sky may not be falling after all.

Sunday, January 21, 2018

Uncanny

Writing at The New Atlantis, Alexi Sargeant goes into great detail about why the recent use of CGI to recreate actors who died is not just creepy, it's more steps than you want in the direction of movies that have nothing to them and wind up not mattering.

Sargeant focuses on the recreated Peter Cushing we saw in Rogue One, filmed and released more than 20 years after Cushing died and 40 years after he played the role in question, the Grand Moff Tarkin. His take is a little different than many, which complain about the "uncanny valley" that exists when we look at faces which are supposed to be real people but which are whipped-up collections of pixels. Even the most perfect give many people a mild case of the creeps. The complaint says that the technology is still limited and these kinds of recreations should wait until that valley can be bridged.

Sargeant, on the other hand, says that better recreations might eventually close the gap but that will actually make things worse. We'll have a Peter Cushing indistinguishable from the actual one, for example, who can be superimposed over a stand-in actor for blocking and reaction purposes. Except we won't. We will have a digital recreation of the way the actor looked in one particular role (pretty darn scary) that will only do what the director wants. Sure, actors are supposed to read the dialogue written for them, even when George Lucas writes it. It's what they get paid for. But they bring some of their own vision for a character to the performance, and they speak with their own intonations or inflections. Does a line need to carry sarcasm? Compassion? Anger? Do those emotions need to be visible on the surface or masked? Historically, those questions are answered collaboratively, with ideas ad suggestions from directors, other cast members and even -- saints and angels preserve us -- the writer.

There could still be collaboration in determining how a CGI actor delivers lines and responds to other characters onscreen, of course. But one voice won't be heard, and that's the voice that belongs to the face we're watching. Valley-spanning improvements that lead to more "resurrections" like this will wind up disenfranchising the very person whose skill and sensibility made the role important in the first place.

Saturday, January 20, 2018

The Establishment

The last time Virgil Flowers was in Trippton, MN, the school board tried to kill him. At least this time the homicidal administrators he encountered in 2014's Deadline are behind bars, but the town of Trippton has coughed up another mystery -- and another body -- in the middle of winter, and Virgil is called on to help figure it out in 2017's Deep Freeze.

This time, the victim is Gina Hemming, the Trippton High School Class of 1992's queen bee, who is found in a rare open patch of water on the frozen river, after she was killed and her body dumped. The last people to see her alive were some classmates helping to plan the class reunion, and since this is Trippton there's a decent chance the killer is one of them. But as a bank president, Gina had been able to develop other potential enemies, so even the class reunion committee isn't a slam dunk.

Exactly who the killer is, how the murder happened and how Gina's body ended up in a river some distance from her home are all things Virgil will have to find out in the midst of an icy small-town Minnesota winter. While trying to help out a private investigator who's looking into the creation of of ersatz talking Barbie dolls that have a rather different set of sayings than those parents want to hear from kids' toys, which may wind up being the more dangerous job.

Freeze is fun and a little better put together than Deadline, rolling its B plot into the main narrative a lot more smoothly than that novel did. "Sandford" is the pen name of Minneapolis reporter John Camp, so the description of the folks and scheme caught up in the Barbie knockoffs carries a lot of authentic features. And he continues to use realistically schlubby people as criminals rather than posit every backwoods hamlet as the home of a Master Criminal Genius.

It limps a little because of some needless salacious details about Gina's private life and more sympathy for the B-plot criminals than they merit given their own threatening moves. But the more disciplined narrative and the attention to the main thread help it to being one of the better novels in the series since the first few books.
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First Tyson Connor started flashing much more cash and expensive material than any teenager should have. His working mother Devon didn't quite believe his stories about where it all came from but she couldn't prove him wrong. Then Tyson disappeared, so Devon has come to Elvis Cole to find her son. As Elvis digs deeper into exactly what Tyson and his friends have been doing, he learns that the kids themselves may not know what kind of trouble they have stirred up, nor who else is chasing them down. Even with his friend, the tough guy's tough guy Joe Pike along, there's no telling if Elvis can extract Tyson from the mess he's in. Or get out of it with his own skin intact.

The Wanted is the 17th novel featuring Elvis and Joe (three of the series have Joe as the POV character). Crais has been able to maintain his wit and keep Elvis in top form as a wisecracker. His penchant for Hawaiian shirts and Disney-character office accessories makes him seem deceptively lightweight until he has to pick up his end of a scuffle or bad-dude staredown. It's one of the things that's helped distinguish him from Robert B. Parker's Spenser. Pike is there to be stoic or menacing as necessary and he fills that role well; Crais doesn't make the mistake of using things we've learned about Pike from elsewhere to flesh him out of Elvis doesn't already know them.

That said, The Wanted isn't on the high end of the Cole-Pike series. For one, its pair of stalking hitmen owe more than a little to Jules and Vincent, but lack enough of the Travolta-Jackson charisma to make them amusing or interesting. For another, Tyson is a thoroughly unlikable little twerp whose friends are lightly sketched stereotypes that are even harder to like than he is.

Crais has been up and down through the course of the series, with some top-level work and some stuff that seems like setting the word processor on autopilot, so there's no reason to suspect Wanted signals a downturn. But its subpar status does make a reader a little more eager for the next volume and a little bit of redemption.
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Ex-Mossad operators Aaron and Shoshana don't officially work for the government of Israel any more. Which means they do things the Israeli government wants done but doesn't want anyone to know they want them done. Pike Logan and the operators of the Taskforce know how that kind of game works, since they do it every day. When Aaron disappears and Shoshana is the target of an assassination attempt, the Taskforce's routine surveillance of an arms dealer turns out to be a deeper and more dangerous mission than they thought. Not in the least because working with Shoshana could be just as lethal as working against her and because the Taskforce's oversight board has no interest in the matter beyond stopping an arms deal. The fate of Aaron and the ultimate design of the plotters is not their concern. But it is Pike's. Guess whose vision wins out.

For his 12th tale of the Taskforce, retired special forces officer Brad Taylor didn't hang his story on an item from news headlines. He tried instead to spin up a yarn on his own, which makes for more focus on our characters than on explaining the evil plot, which is pretty simple at its base. It's a nice change of pace but doesn't reduce the suspense thriller mayhem level all that much. When Pike tries to rein in Shoshana's almost instinctive bloodlust, he's reminded of the same tendencies in himself and recognizes how Aaron is the Israeli assassin's link to humanity the way his partner and teammate Jennifer is for him.  It's not a literary-level exchange but definitely owes a lot to Nietzsche's abyss and what happens when one gazes into it too long.

The plot doesn't hold together as well as some of the other Logan tales that have real-world headlines as a peg; Taylor seems to work better with that kind of anchor. And Shoshana's anxiety-inspired mania starts to wear on a reader about two-thirds of the way through the book, especially when an episode of it seems to follow immediately after another declaration of belief in Pike and his plan. But a little extra work on the people he's been telling us about is welcome, and there's a fun little episode in the middle of the story that retells one of the mishaps Taylor had when researching his story. If Taylor's next novel also leans a little more heavily on character than plot, well, he'l probably be better at it the second time around. And if it doesn't we have some more depth to our team of heroes and a little more reason to care about what their dangerous missions may cost them even when they survive.

Friday, January 19, 2018

Test Pattern 2

Breathing is better. Cognition and ability to focus, not so much ;-)

Trying again tomorrow, perhaps.

Thursday, January 18, 2018

Test Pattern

Picked up the crud -- and while I'm sure blog posts aren't disease vectors, medication leaves me alternating between fuzzy and asleep. It just took me five tries to type "asleep."

So doctor tomorrow, quiet tonight.

Wednesday, January 17, 2018

Political Science

Arizona: We've got the craziest primary in the world! Featuring a guy who's only walking around outside of bars because of a presidential pardon. Nobody can top that!

Maryland: Hold my beer.

Some Suspense!

Lots of news writers think they have a novel in them, but Washington Post columnist David Ignatius actually has -- ten so far. Nine are espionage thrillers, including his latest, The Quantum Spy, and they all take advantage of Ignatius' career focusing on international events and issues.

Quantum Spy hinges on the development of a "quantum computer," which will have information processors that use the properties of quantum mechanics to make themselves faster than even the best super-computers available today. Different researchers in the United States hunt down different routes to find one that works, while Chinese spies look for information from them and try to build from that research.

CIA agent Harris Chang is part of the U.S. effort to counteract Chinese operations and perhaps find sources to learn about China's own research into quantum computing. He's on an arc for big things within the agency, although there's still an undercurrent of mistrust regarding his Chinese heritage. Harris is the son and grandson of immigrants but grew up in the US and had a distinguished career in Iraq.

When a recruitment operation goes awry some of the blame attaches to him even though the fault was another officer's. The ripples from the failure spread outward, as Chinese intelligence learns who Harris is and simultaneously sews misinformation designed to bring him under suspicion and reaches out to him to try to bring him to China's side. Harris is curious about his family past, which the Chinese handler seems to know, but is not at all tempted to work for the enemy. Nevertheless, suspicion against him mounts and he struggles against what he knows to be an unfair judgment. Harris will have to work against his own colleagues as well as Chinese spies in order to clear his name, uncover the real mole and help close the trap on a foreign intelligence chief his boss wants to suborn.

Ignatius' other novels have a reputation for simple storytelling, direct movement, and plausible, clearly explained "MacGuffins" that drive the plot. Quantum Spy bats one for three, as he helps outline in pretty understandable prose exactly what kind of leap quantum computing could be for the country that develops it first. But his characterizations are either inconsistent, as in Harris Chang's case, or flat, as in the case of the eventual mole. Harris is either a great blooming espionage talent, a hopelessly naive lunkhead or a troubled young man disconnected from a past he wants to find. His role doesn't change organically so much as based on what a particular scene calls for. The mole and other characters that have pivotal roles come in way too much like generic entries from central casting, espionage thriller office. Their actions and motivations read more like entries from a file card than people making choices or responding to others.

There's an interesting cat-and-mouse game buried in The Quantum Spy and an interesting parallel between scientists trying to drag sense our of the randomness of the quantum universe and spies trying to drag sense out of the turns and counterturns of the espionage game. But the only way to find those things is to try to drag sense out of the mare's nest of a novel they're in, and that's work that a better story wouldn't ask of its readers.
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Thomas Perry has a strong history with both series characters like Jane Whitfield and hitman Michael Schaeffer, the eponymous Butcher's Boy of his first novel, and standalone books. His 2018 The Bomb Maker pits security specialist and former LAPD Bomb Squad commander Dick Stahl against an unnamed genius building brilliant -- and deadly -- bombs designed to work against a bomb specialists' own training.

The Bomb Maker has a lot of strong points. Extensive research lets Perry detail the way Stahl and the anonymous bomb maker approach their work, creating the atmosphere of a life-or-death chess game as the two men make move and countermove. The tension is higher on Stahl's side because a mistake will cost him his life, but it's equally high for the bomb maker as Stahl's continued success builds the pressure on his unbalanced mind.

Although he is brought back only temporarily, Stahl quickly becomes involved in an affair with one of his subordinates, Diane Hines. Her presence on the bomb squad raises the stakes for him, since she too could fall to the bomb maker's twisted genius.

The affair between Dick and Diane is a little far-fetched, beginning on the evening after they first work together and progressing rather quickly from there. The course of true love may not be supposed to run smoothly, but when the story telling it has just as many fits and starts it makes things fall apart pretty quickly. The Bomb Maker is loaded with padding, some of it related to the bomb maker himself and others to different characters. And not even all of those are connected to the main story, which makes their lines even more rabbit trails than they might be otherwise.

The Bomb Maker is a rare miss for Perry, whose usual gift for narrative focus and realistic dialogue deserts him and undercuts the tension-filled disposal scenes and conflict between the Stahl and the bomb maker himself. It's not really a dud, but it certainly doesn't pack the punch he's led readers to expect.
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Over the course of a 40-plus year career as a novelist, practicing physician F. Paul Wilson has woven together several of his books as a part of a Secret History that outlines a battle between good and evil on a cosmic scale. First the Adversary Cycle, then the interweaving Repairman Jack series and now the Intrusive Cosmic Entities (ICE) sequence. The latest began with 2017's Panacea and continues with The God Gene.

Medical examiner Laura Fanning and mercenary Rick Hayden are still recovering emotionally from the events of Panacea when a chance news item lets Rick know his brother is missing. Although they were both adopted and differed in age, Rick believes he needs to track his brother Keith, who liquidated all of his assets and disappeared into Africa after finding a strange blue-eyed primate. Laura accompanies him despite the danger, and the pair find themselves facing smugglers, unscrupulous pilots and a brilliant scientist who may be past the edge of madness and who might endanger them all to fulfill his deadly plan. But their discovery of what at first seemed like a lost species of lemur might be even worse, leading to events that could endanger the lives of millions.

Wilson's medical background gives him a very good handle on the genetic oddities of the primates at the center of the story and the so-called "God gene" they share with humans. In more than a few places his exposition enters MEGO (My Eyes Glaze Over) territory, but most of the time it's in small enough doses to stay within the story. And after 40 years, he can write characters who are fairly engaging in spite of their shallowness and strongly stereotypical nature, as well as maintain tension across several acts of his story.

But he trips over many of the same things that hobbled him in the Repairman Jack series -- at crucial points he takes a left turn into the supernatural and invalidates nearly all of the terrestrial work he's done. In one of those novels, Jack's own arrogance leads directly to the deaths of two people he tried to help, but before we can see this take any toll on him we ramp up into the World Beyond and the problems of two dead people don't amount to a hill of beans. When we learn the secret behind the strange primates and their connection to Rick's missing brother, we almost immediately veer into the realm of the Intrusive Cosmic Entities and most of the science we had seen put to use in understanding the primates is rendered meaningless.

Wilson's a confessed fan of the "eldritch horror" of H. P. Lovecraft and ties most of his Secret History into a dispute between beings as vast and unknowable as Cthulhu itself. But he rarely manages the transition from the mundane to the macabre as well as Lovecraft did and it sends him off track all too often. He can write horror thrillers -- Midnight Mass is one of the better vampire stories of the last 25 years and it skillfully weaves its horror and action thriller elements together. But when it comes to his signature meta-series, he can too often be too clever for his own good. The God Gene is one of those times.