Babylon 5: Season 1- Signs and Portents

Don’t mind us, just making an incredibly addicting space opera TV show.

Babylon 5 has been recommended to me a number of times by other science fiction fans. It came out when I was young enough that it probably would have been well beyond me. So, it’s taken a while for me to get into it since I didn’t grow up on it and, let’s be honest, the special effects haven’t aged well at all. It makes the show seem very cheesy at times, and it’s also clear at points that it is over-acted. The CG is extremely out of date. So I wasn’t sure if I could get into it. But, when a flash sale happened on Amazon and I had some Christmas money, I grabbed the whole series at a bargain price and decided to finally check it out. I need to talk about season one, now. There will be spoilers for this season only. Please DO NOT SPOIL any later seasons!

Signs and Portents

I did not expect, at all, the total mixture of feelings that this show has made me feel. I laughed, I cried… I got involved. It’s fantastic television of the absolute highest order. I just finished season 1 and let me tell you, I have feelings about it. The characters are fascinating (though I gotta say, I’m still not 100% sold on the casting of Garibaldi–the guy just doesn’t look the part they try to have him play as a relentlessly tough guy). I absolutely love Ambassador Mollari, for example. He’s a walking trope, but what a way to play it! They flesh him out so that you don’t mind him, and his humor is just spot on.  The music is just phenomenal, by the way.

Also, can we talk about how this is basically just a space opera novel series as a TV show? I mean seriously how is this show not even more revered than it is?

I want to talk about some of the episodes, too. First, “Believers.” What the hell, Babylon 5? Why you gotta do me like that? Just thinking about that episode pains me. It seems like a not-so-subtle look at Jehovah’s Witness beliefs about blood transfusions and refusing care based on that, but they somehow make it almost sympathetic by having the doctor be so damned uncaring about other people’s beliefs. Then, they gotta turn around and plunge the knife in and twist it. I was not ready for that! Not at all!

“Deathwalker” was another great episode. “You are not ready for immortality” – Ambassador Kosh, laying down the law on humans. Or should I saw the Law? I don’t know. It was awesome.

“Born to the Purple” was fantastic character development for Ambassador Mollari, but holy crap was I not ready, again, for the feels I’d have when Garibaldi finally tracked down what was going on with Ivanova. It made Ivanova much more interesting–she had initially seemed very one dimensional to me, but now she’s a hardass with heart and I love it.

“Soul Hunter” was awesome for its turnabout on the villain narrative. Just a fantastic bit of storytelling there.

Also what the hell is going on here?

And all throughout this season, there are, yes, “Signs and Portents” that show something bigger is happening. The finale is just fantastic. Now it’s time for me to go watch more of this fantastic series!

SDG.

 

“The Mechanical” – Ian Tregillis’s Steampunk Epic

I first read The Mechanical after I saw it at a bookstore. The premise immediately struck me as something I’d be interested in, so I gave it a try. I was completely enamored at once with its compelling cast of characters and extremely high octane drama and intensity. I want to commend it to my readers here, so I’ve written up a short review. There will be some minor SPOILERS here so if you want to avoid that, just go read the book, it’s great.

The Mechanical

There are many things that make this book great. First, the setting. It’s set in the early 1900s in an alternative world in which the Dutch have mastered a kind of magical clockwork that allows them to animate robots to do their bidding. This has led to the Dutch dominating much of the world. Meanwhile, readers are also treated to following the attempts of New France to become a power again, using their chemical know-how to fight the mechanicals of the Dutch. Throughout all of this is woven a heaping helping of religious strife, with the Dutch Protestants and French Catholics being at odds against each other on almost every level.

Another aspect of the series is its fantastic characters. Ian Tregillis writes not just one, but three extremely compelling characters that were sympathetic almost from the start. On the flip side, it’s not always clear who is “good” or “bad” in many of the scenarios presented. Because much of the conflict is over both religious and economic war, it is difficult to find a right side, and that certainly reflects the real world. But tied into this is a third fantastic part of the series, which is the deep philosophical questions raised about free will and religion that come with it. Jax, a mechanical and one of the protagonists, is immediately sympathetic as one who seemingly has free will thwarted by clockwork. Meanwhile, other characters must deal with almost opposite effects. It is all fascinating.

Yet all of these wonderful details are tied into a plot with an absolutely roaring pace that never lets up. Whether it’s spy drama, nefarious evil, or warfare, there is an enormous amount of action in this book, and it never lets off the gas. It is a thrill ride that has much deeper elements than one might expect.

I have read the rest of the series, back when it first came out, and it is all very good. I will be re-reading it on audiobooks now as I continue. I recommend this series to you, dear readers. Check it out! Read The Mechanical now! And come back and discuss it with me!

Links

“The Guns Above” by Robyn Bennis- A Steampunk Delight– Like Steampunk? Be sure to also read Robyn Bennis’s fantastic “The Guns Above.”

J.W. Wartick- Always Have a Reason– Check out my “main site” which talks about philosophy of religion, theology, and Christian apologetics (among other random topics). I love science fiction so that comes up integrated with theology fairly frequently as well. I’d love to have you follow there, too!

Be sure to follow me on Twitter for discussion of posts, links to other pages of interest, random talk about theology/philosophy/apologetics/movies/scifi/sports and more!

SDG.

 

 

Vintage Sci-Fi Month 2020- Review and Retrospective

January was #VintageSciFiMonth, a month in which readers are encouraged to read vintage science fiction. I took to it with gusto, clearing out a slate for reading a bunch of older science fiction works that I’ve been wanting to dive into for a while. I also followed the hashtag and account on Twitter and picked up some recommendations for others. What defines a novel as vintage sci-fi? The working rule is that it was written before you were born, but feel free to give that wiggle room if you want! I decided to write out the list of vintage sci-fi I read for January and give them some brief ratings and reviews. I’d love to know what you read/enjoyed, as well. I’m always looking for more reads!

I also wrote some longer reviews in January for some of the works, and you can read those by clicking here and scrolling through.

My list of Reads and brief ratings

Shards of Honor by Lois McMaster Bujold- I read this one with my wife this go-round, having convinced her to join in on the vintage sci-fi fun. I listened to it for this re-read, and I adored it even more than I did the first time. Bujold has an excellent writing style and characters that are very true to life. We both enjoyed it greatly. Grade: A

Tau Zero by Poul Anderson- Not the first time I’ve tried to read this one, I decided to tackle it at a slower pace and really pay attention to everything along the way this time. I enjoyed it even less than the first time I tried it. Anderson seems much more interested in telling us about the character’s sex lives than developing them as characters. The main plot didn’t draw me in at all, either. Grade: D+

The Squares of the City by John Brunner- I adored this book as a kid but definitely did not understand it. As an adult, I found it a fascinating, even subversive take on numerous modern (for its time) problems. Having it set around a real chess game somehow didn’t turn it all into a gimmick, either. It’s fantastic. Grade: A

The Skylark Series by E.E. “Doc” Smith– I enjoyed Smith’s Lensman series for what it was, but Skylark didn’t seem anywhere near as interesting. I forced myself through the series for completion’s sake, because that’s how I do things, but I did not enjoy it at almost any point. It’s dated, and it definitely shows… a lot. Grade: D

Cobra by Timothy Zahn- A surprising take on what seemed initially to be generic military sci-fi. Zahn deals with trauma, PTSD, what to do with soldiers when they come home, colonialism, and more all while moving the plot along at an absolutely breakneck speed. Grade: A-

Thorns by Robert Silverberg- I found this one to be enthralling and haunting by turns. It is the kind of book that sticks with you for weeks afterwards as you can’t stop thinking about it. Silverberg really started off his “serious” sci-fi with a bang in this one. It’s nearly flawless. Grade: A+

Courtship Rite by Donald Kingsbury- What if I told you there were a book about cannibals in the future worshiping an orbiting spaceship and somehow all their extremely weird acts and creepy, sometimes disgusting rituals actually make sense? It’s a weird, almost horrible book. But it made it all so sensible! Definitely recommended. Grade: A

A Choice of Gods by Clifford Simak- The central plot isn’t fantastic, but I loved Simak’s lengthy monologues and explorations of the human, alien, and robot psyches. Not his best work, but still top-notch overall. I was surprised by how not-terribly he dealt with questions about colonialism as well. Grade: A-

City of the Chasch by Jack Vance- It’s a pulpy sci-fi adventure that shares themes and ideas with the Barsoom series (John Carter). It’s just not as fun as the Barsoom series, and so it was difficult for me to get into it. Served with a heaping helping of outdated gender norms, as well. Grade: C-

Lord of Light by Roger Zelazny- A re-read for me. I’m still blown away by Zelazny’s stylistic prose here, which reads just like some translations of religious works I’ve read. It’s a fascinating sci-fi retelling of the rise of Buddhism from Hinduism and the colonization/import of Christianity as well. I loved it. Grade: A+

The Haunted Stars by Edmond Hamilton- A recommendation from another vintage sci-fi month reader, I grabbed it when they said fans of Star Trek would like it. I then spent about 85% of the book baffled by that comparison, but then I understood towards the end. It has all the trappings of some of my favorite sci-fi- ancient relics, linguistics, and adventure with huge themes. It’s serious and pulpy all at once and I loved it. Grade: A-

Foundation’s Edge by Isaac Asimov- Asimov thought of some fantastic concepts and characters, finally, but then spent the last 1/3 or so of the book dumping it all down the drain with somewhat ironic inverse deus ex machinas and his own apparent view of a utopic planet. I don’t know, it was weird and stupid by turns, but the core ideas were good enough to keep me going. Grade: B-

Past Master by R.A. Lafferty- I can’t really say enough about this one, which was my first Lafferty read ever. It’s deeply thoughtful, and the more you peel back its layers, the more you find. It has fascinating characters, and imports Thomas More (the guy who wrote Utopia) into the future in strangely believable and fantastic ways. I loved every second of this book, and every page had me thinking and delving more deeply into it. Grade: A+

Project Pope by Clifford Simak- Every aspect of Simak’s thought is present here, from robots that are re-skins of humans to deep religious questioning to fascinating pastoral scenes. It’s almost like comfort food, until Simak hits you upside the head with a big idea that challenges how you think about some aspect of reality and faith. I adored it. Grade: A

Links

SDG.

Vintage Sci-Fi Month: “Cobra” by Timothy Zahn

The cover is delightfully pulpy but also -very- misleading.

January is Vintage Sci-Fi Month and I’m hoping to feature a number of looks at vintage sci-fi I’m reading for the month to spur some discussion and hear your thoughts! Follow Vintage Sci-Fi Month on Twitter and get in on the fun, too! As I recall, the rule for calling something “Vintage” is that it was written before you were born, but feel free to adjust that as you like.

Cobra by Timothy Zahn 

I ended up buying the omnibus edition of the Cobra Trilogy at Manticon 2015, where I met Zahn, David Weber (my favorite author), Eric Flint, and others. I got it signed while I was there, and for about 5 years it has languished on my TBR pile. But, having had the rare experience of exhausting my library pile before my weekly trip, I delved into some books I owned for once! With it being Vintage sci-fi month, I figured I’d check out Cobra, published in 1986.

Honestly, the premise didn’t really strike me as anything terribly exciting. A super soldier fights against enemies–it’s a standard trope of science fiction that’s made many an appearance. Of course, I’m a pretty big fan of military sci-fi, so I tend to gravitate this trope and others like it. But when I actually began reading the book, it became quickly apparent that the premise isn’t really what the book is about at all.

Jonny Moreau is a likable enough main character to whom we are introduced as he struggles with the question of whether to enlist or not. He quickly does, and suddenly finds himself slated to become a Cobra, a new kind of super soldier with heightened abilities to go along with a nanocomputer to help analyze and react to threats and a body built to suit it. Jonny expects to be deployed as a kind of undercover insurgent in advance of invading enemies, and we as readers go along assuming that’s what the book will then end up being about. But, again, it’s not. Just as Jonny is about to get involved in some serious war, witnessing glimpses here and there, we jump ahead years and instead see Jonny trying to cope with his memories back home. He tries to strike it back up with his girlfriend, he tries to find jobs, but he is ostracized as a freak due to his, well, freakish abilities having been a Cobra. He can’t blend in anywhere.

But it turns out the human government has a plan! They’ve made a deal with their alien enemies to colonize on the other side of their space, going through a narrow corridor the Trofts grudgingly open in order to get there. And who do they decide would be the perfect colonists? None other than the already super-adapted Cobra soldiers! Off they go! Thought you were reading a military sci-fi novel? Now you’re reading one about colonization. But there are more surprises in store because some Cobra units go rogue and try to set up their own government, then the Troft close off the corridor, and the crap hits the fan. Suddenly the Cobra have their own civilization that is set apart from the human Dominion of Man, and that’s pretty much where we end after a whirlwind of events set over more than a decade.

Honestly, this book is maybe 20% about being a super soldier and 40% about dealing with the stress and life that comes with being such a soldier with another 40% about the colonization of a new planet/government intrigue. PTSD (implied), trying to cope with the horrors of war that has home, questions of political loyalties: these are just a few of the heady topics Zahn brings up in Cobra. He does so in typical Zahn fashion, though, moving along with the action such that some of the most emotionally impactful moments go by very quickly. That’s probably the biggest weakness in Cobra: so much happens and it moves so quickly that readers aren’t able to fully appreciate or grasp the horror of Jonny’s life at points.

But it is there. All the pieces are in place. As a reader, you can see the horror, feel the awfulness of some of the situations, and sympathize with Jonny as it happens. Zahn does not quite pull the trigger on making the book entirely a commentary on the horrors of war, but it’s all there. It just gets a bit glorified towards the end with the colonization happening, but even there it is all imperfect, a little weird, and ambiguous. Zahn’s strength is in making compelling characters, and that certainly comes through in this book, but his unwillingness to fully embrace what seems like a core part of the book–the questions facing a super soldier with nothing to do–undermines the power of the book somewhat.

Having read Cobra, I’m left feeling a bit confused, to be honest. Looking back on it, I’d say it is an engaging read. It does not quite live up to the potential of some of the ideals Zahn hints at throughout, but it keeps the pages turning even as your brain is working to catch up with the themes and action. I enjoyed Cobra quite a bit and will definitely be reading the rest of the trilogy. I’d recommend it to readers who are looking to go off the beaten path in their military sci-fi reading.

Links

J.W. Wartick- Always Have a Reason– Check out my “main site” which talks about philosophy of religion, theology, and Christian apologetics (among other random topics). I love science fiction so that comes up integrated with theology fairly frequently as well. I’d love to have you follow there, too!

My Read-Through of the Hugos– Check out all my posts on reading through the Hugo Award winners and nominees. Tons of sci-fi fantasy discussion throughout.

Be sure to follow me on Twitter for discussion of posts, links to other pages of interest, random talk about theology/philosophy/apologetics/movies/scifi/sports and more!

SDG.

Vintage Sci-Fi Month: “Past Master” by R.A. Lafferty

January is Vintage Sci-Fi Month and I’m hoping to feature a number of looks at vintage sci-fi I’m reading for the month to spur some discussion and hear your thoughts! Follow Vintage Sci-Fi Month on Twitter and get in on the fun, too! As I recall, the rule for calling something “Vintage” is that it was written before you were born, but feel free to adjust that as you like.

Past Master by R.A. Lafferty

I’ve never read a work by Lafferty before this one, though he was recommended to me time and again. One of the foibles of loving books so much is that you sometimes think you know better than other people do about what you may enjoy. My apologies to all who recommended Lafferty–I should have dived in the first time his name came up!  I was absolutely blown away by Past Master. I wish I’d read it earlier.

This novel is dense. Though it’s short, I could hardly believe it only weighed in around 190 pages when I looked it up online. The book took me as long to read as most 400+ page novels do, largely because I found myself so drawn into the premise, prose, and symbolism found throughout. There’s no question here that Lafferty has steeped this book in layers upon layers of meaning, to the point that unpacking it all would take quite a bit of study. Whether it’s the play upon “Evita” (Lilith? Eve? Someone else?), the way Lafferty interconnects discussions of Utopia with questions about the soul, or how dreams play out in faster-than-light travel, there are so many rabbit trails one could follow in this novel that reading it sometimes felt like work at times. But the work was enjoyable–like the work where you don’t want to stop. You’re loving it, and you’re good at it, and it’s got to be done!

There are whole scenes in this novel that had me re-reading them in order to try to pick up on more strands of meaning. One scene has Thomas More… wait, what? Yes, I forgot to mention that Thomas More–the one who wrote Utopia and was executed for not recognizing the annulment of King Henry’s marriage–is one of the main characters in the book. Let’s step back. The plot has Thomas More get fetched from his own time before his death to help rescue a future Utopia, but the inhabitants of the future Utopia apparently don’t realize that More’s Utopia was more a biting satire in Lafferty’s vision than it was a goal for a future society. Anyway, there’s a scene where Thomas More is confronted by a beautiful woman who tries to seduce him, apparently wanting to seduce a Saint, and More and her get in a lengthy conversation about the meaning of her name, Evita, and whether she is like Eve, the mother of life, or a Lilith-like seductress and wicked person, largely based upon her name. Twists and turns come fast and hard in the conversation, and it is a delight–especially for me as someone who knows a decent amount of church history and has studied Greek/Hebrew (only the basics!). Scenes like that, though, are found throughout the book.

There’s no question that Lafferty is offering the book as his own form of social commentary. Is a utopia with all needs met worth selling souls for? What is the church to become or do in such a society? What might Thomas More think of applying his thought to a real world situation? Mis-applying it? Is Lafferty really just making one extended commentary and pushback on Vatican II, as the introduction to the version I read briefly suggested? These questions warred in my consciousness while I read the book, though they never took away the enjoyment I had throughout, they simply added to it. Lafferty’s prose style is also great. As I said, it’s dense, but it also manages to be lyrical at times and full of wonder throughout.

Past Master is one of those novels that you read and realize it’s going to stick with you for a long time. I am so happy I finally got around to reading it, and I recommend it highly to you, fellow sci-fi/fantasy lovers! Heck, even if you don’t really care about sci-fi/fantasy, it’s a great read and occasional exploration of religious/science themes and more. Go read it!

Links

J.W. Wartick- Always Have a Reason– Check out my “main site” which talks about philosophy of religion, theology, and Christian apologetics (among other random topics). I love science fiction so that comes up integrated with theology fairly frequently as well. I’d love to have you follow there, too!

My Read-Through of the Hugos– Check out all my posts on reading through the Hugo Award winners and nominees. Tons of sci-fi fantasy discussion throughout.

Be sure to follow me on Twitter for discussion of posts, links to other pages of interest, random talk about theology/philosophy/apologetics/movies/scifi/sports and more!

SDG.

Guest Post: “Seeing Our Present Through the Lens of the Past” – Vintage Sci-Fi

Pluto- Inspiration of many a sci-fi work, photo from NASA (Public Domain)

I’m very excited to offer up a guest post about Vintage Sci-Fi in anticipation of Vintage Sci-Fi Month (January). I hope you will join me an many others in dedicating a month of reading to vintage sci-fi (the loose definition of “vintage” that has been adopted is anything written before the year of your birth). I’m hosting this post as part of a blog tour for Vintage Sci-Fi Month!

Jacob of RedStarReviews is a lifelong reader who found out about #VintageSciFiMonth after it had been around for a few years and immediately joined in and now January is his favorite month of the year for reading.

Seeing Our Present Through The Lens Of The Past

We are almost in the year 2020. When we go back and read Vintage SciFi stories it’s quickly apparent that a lot of the authors guessed wrongly on how their future would turn out because we’ve bypassed several dates covered in these books and not left the solar system or met aliens or have personal jet packs in every household for ease of transportation. So why would we want to read stories that are seemingly outdated? Or even problematic in their views? That’s a question I’ve asked and been asked so I’ve invested some thought into this and would love sharing my answer with y’all!

I think there is great value (and fun) in seeing our present/near future through the eyes of the creative minds of our past. Some you’ll read and see they weren’t too far off, others are so far off it’s like you’re reading alternative histories, while others you read and you wonder if the author was a time traveler. However when you’re reading words directed towards the future from the past you’re also seeing the hopes, bias, dreams, fears, and thought processes from an earlier age and there is value in that. You can be reminded of how far we’ve come as a species and have hope that we’ll continue to grow; or maybe see where we’ve failed to grow and start addressing that. You get to see what dangers inspired concern in the hearts of those writers and consider if we’ve moved past those fears or if we still need to address those issues. You get to see us through their eyes and see if we measure up, fall short, or exceed their thoughts on the future of humanity.

Seeing ourselves through the eyes of others is a challenging and much needed experience! It is a worthwhile thought experiment and a good way to discover personal and societal growth. Vintage SciFi allows us the opportunity to do this and it’s one of the reasons why I love #VintageSciFiMonth and eagerly await January every year! I hope you’ll consider joining us this year and gain some new perspectives from older works.

 

“The Genius Plague” by David Walton – math, cryptography, and thrilling adventures

One of my favorite sub-genres of science fiction is what I call “disaster” sci-fi (tell me if there’s a better name, please!), and I include things like cli-fi (climate based science fiction) and plagues of the future. Greg Bear is one who has written a lot in this area, and most of Michael Crichton’s novels fell into this general category as well. It tends to be a mashup of real science, math, and wild extrapolations. It’s a kind of offshoot of hard sci-fi that combines thrillers with science fiction.

David Walton, with The Genius Plague, has rocketed onto my radar as a truly gifted writer in this sub-genre. Look, if you’re one to avoid SPOILERS, as I am, don’t read on from here AND DON’T READ THE BLURB ON THE BOOK and go read it ASAP. Read on if you want a fuller picture or to talk about the book with me–please do!

I’m a sucker for mushrooms. No, I don’t like to eat them, but yes, they are fascinating. Diverse, hugely innovative, ancient, and creepy. They beg for science fiction novelists to write about them, and they’ve been successful in those novels I’ve read about them–The Girl With all the Gifts, for example: yes please! Walton starts off with a bang- a mycologist (scientist who studies mushrooms) in the Amazon gets ambushed for no apparent reason along with a woman. They’re both infected with a fungal lung thing and she dies but he survives–just changed. As his brother, who goes to work for the NSA, starts to crack some codes (with Walton mixing a small amount of math and cryptography in just for fun), the menace of this fungal plague grows exponentially.

There are many moving parts in this book: whether it’s Neil’s employment at the NSA and the linguistics, cryptography, and mathematics thrown together for that, or Paul’s interaction with the mushrooms, or international politics, it all moves swiftly. Sometimes, it moves a bit too quickly, and a bit of hand-waving is involved, particularly in the move from beginnings of infection to a seeming world threat. But generally, Walton balances the pace with characterization and fascinating set pieces. Though I wasn’t terribly surprised by any of the twists and turns, I loved the ride so much I’d do it again in a heartbeat. I found this book un-put-down-able, as one of the blurbs on the front cover also called it. I basically opened it yesterday and only stopped while caring for my kids. It was an absolute blast of a novel, and one that had a satisfying conclusion.

Another reason I loved this book is that the characters are fully formed and have unique feels to them. Also (and this is a big spoiler for some character development towards the VERY end, so don’t read it if you don’t want it spoiled), I liked that Neil and Shaunessy didn’t end up together and decided to be friends-ish. It was a kind of affirmation of male-female friendship that I truly appreciated. Well done, Walton! [/end big spoilers]

The Genius Plague has earned a place on my personal top 100 sci-fi novels list. It does have a few flaws, but those are overshadowed by a truly great novel that kept me turning the pages compulsively all day. Go read it!

Links

J.W. Wartick- Always Have a Reason– Check out my “main site” which talks about philosophy of religion, theology, and Christian apologetics (among other random topics). I love science fiction so that comes up integrated with theology fairly frequently as well. I’d love to have you follow there, too!

Be sure to follow me on Twitter for discussion of posts, links to other pages of interest, random talk about theology/philosophy/apologetics/movies/scifi/sports and more!

SDG.