Tuesday, February 28, 2017

An End of Winter Avalanche of Mini Book Reviews

As the dark days of winter draw to a close (at least, in theory — we've been hit with snowstorms twice this weekend, and this is supposed to be the Lower Mainland!), I've discovered in the course of reorganizing my library that my pile of books to be reviewed before they can be shelved has been, well, piling-up! To get them to the safety of the shelves, and to give you a few titles to think about if you're looking for something to read, I figured it was high time to sit down and babble a bit about what I've been devouring for the past several months.

In this edition of the Mini Book Reviews, we'll take a look at:

Wild Cards — High Stakes                 edited by George RR Martin & Melinda Snodgrass

Seveneves                                            by Neal Stephenson

A Desolate Splendor                           by John Jantunen

Last Year                                             by Robert Charles Wilson

The Goblin Emperor                           by Katherine Addison

Lovecraft Country                               by Matt Ruff

The Mongoliad — Book One               by Neal Stephenson, Greg Bear, Mark Teppo,
                                                             ED deBirmingham, Erik Bear, Joseph Brassey & Cooper Moo

The Mammoth Book of Dieselpunk     edited by Sean Wallace

Clockwork Canada                              edited by Dominik Parisien

Mother of Eden                                    by Chris Beckett


As usual, spoilers ahead.

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Wild Cards — High Stakes edited by George RR Martin & Melinda Snodgrass

This latest addition to the Wild Cards series explodes out of the gate right where its predecessor, Lowball, left off: a lethal underworld fightclub and gambling ring in Kazakhstan that's been kidnapping Jokers off the streets of New York has been busted open. Markus "The Infamous Black Tongue" Morgan, a snake-centaur vigilante who was taken for the games, is now on the run with a Russian woman he befriended while in captivity, looking to get home any way he can. Officer Francis Black, a normal human serving in New York's Jokertown police precinct, has also been caught overseas in the battle at the fightclub, and now finds himself in the strange position of having to team-up with the elderly Ace gangster who was running the operation just to try to stay safe as the city of Talas begins to erupt into horrific violence. With the end of the death matches, a strange force has spread throughout the city, driving people to kill each other, and transforming them into nightmare creatures. The chaos is being generated by a Lovecraftian entity forcing its way in from another dimension to spread its malevolence across our world. Back in New York, the UN's team of Ace peacekeepers, The Committee, gathers to go to Kazakhstan to make a stand against the darkness.

As with the rest of the series, High Stakes is immensely entertaining. The plot thunders along like an out-of-control freight train heading for a stalled school bus. The characters are well-rounded and interesting — even those who aren't likeable are still people who I couldn't take my eyes off and wanted to see more of. Each individual character arc was well-crafted and, while functioning perfectly independently, meshed with the others to form a cohesive and believable overall story. The real sign of the book's quality was the level of frustration it created at the end of each chapter: I wanted to stay with that chapter's character to find out what happened to him/her next, but at the same time I couldn't wait to find out what was happening to the next protagonist in the chapter ahead.

For all of the violence and depravity splashing through these pages, what's often most brutal is the impact of it on the minds and emotions of those who are forced to witness, battle, or endure it. Even with the help of a local wildcard-powered healer, no-one escapes unscathed. Not really. What was most surprising though, was that the authors pulled back a bit from the horror at the end. Which is not to say that I was surprised by the ultimate conclusion of the story, but rather that the plot seemed unavoidably pointed towards a truly awful sacrifice that would have had to be made to save the day, and then that didn't happen. Perhaps the authors stepped back from that brink because it would have been a pyrrhic victory, because it would have left the characters too soiled. And, you know, I'm okay with that.

If you haven't read it yet, go out and buy or borrow Wild Cards — High Stakes.


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Seveneves by Neal Stephenson

I find myself shocked to say this about a Neal Stephenson book, but here goes: Seveneves is a novel that wants to be superb, but turns out to be merely adequate.

The story begins in the near future, when a mysterious object shatters the Earth's moon. With months before the debris field begins to rain down, scouring life from the surface of the Earth, the world unites to channel all of its resources into building a fleet of mini arks to join the International Space Station (now attached to a captured iron asteroid) in orbit to house as many young scientists as possible. The goal is to keep humanity alive in space for a few thousand years until the Earth can be made habitable again. But while "in space, no-one can hear you scream", it's also true that no-one can escape politics and the darker side of human nature. And these factors come into play again millennia down the road when it's time for the new species' descended from humanity to go home.

Something that struck me (and no, it wasn't a rogue chunk of the moon) during the opening act of Seveneves was how the destruction of the moon reminded me of the opening credits of the early 80s cartoon Thundarr the Barbarian — except there would be no lightsabers, wizards, or Wookiee ripoff Ookla the Mok when the dust settled. Not much of anything at all, in fact. It also reminded me of the scene in the first half of Simon Wells' 2002 remake of The Time Machine, where the moon is blown apart (by overzealous mining). The efforts of a (mostly) united world to pool resources to save humanity (one way or another) also harkens back to Firstborn, the third volume of Arthur C. Clarke and Stephen Baxter's Time Odyssey series.

On the positive side, Seveneves offers a cast of well-rounded characters who react in a believable way to the gigantic challenges they face, in terms of the construction project, personal relationships (especially having to deal with saying goodbye to loved ones who wouldn't be part of the offworld evacuation), politics, and survival. Stephenson also offers a (mostly — but I'll get to that in a sec) believable response to a crisis sparked by a mega-scale natural catastrophe. And the overall story is one that should be gripping, with moments of real tension. I also appreciated the fact that the book is as an argument for the plausibility of the space ark or generation ship, at a time when stories like Kim Stanley Robinson's Aurora (which, don't get me wrong, I thoroughly enjoyed) seek to label this old trope of sf as unworkable.

But Seveneves is dragged down by some significant faults. The first is infodump. I mean a shocking, brutal, unforgivable level of infodump. Now, I know there are hard science fiction fans out there who love, nay, insist on, stories deeply, strongly anchored in known scientific fact; who want to see the equations; who get off on detailed, jargon-heavy explanations of technical minutia — and they probably enjoyed the hell out of this book's tidal wave of hard science. I didn't. I don't mind some level of technical exposition, but what I'm really looking for in a story is a good story. Story is king. No. Story is god. And when the formulae or physics or chemical analysis or whatever gets in the way of the story, then the author hasn't done his/her job. And the technical details most certainly get in the way of the story here. There are countless pages — frequently consecutive pages — where Stephenson overexplains orbital mechanics and course calculations, to the point where opportunities for character and story development are ignored — no, smashed underfoot — and pacing is sacrificed bloodily on the alter of obsessive jargon. And nearly all of it is unnecessary. Single sentences could have summed up what it takes the author pages to do. It's technical masturbation. Seveneves is a book that's more than 850 pages long, but it probably could have been 600 or 700 pages — and much more intellectually and emotionally satisfying — if the infodump and other, occasional instances of repetition in the writing, had been hacked out. Yeah, Stephenson's known for writing door-stopper-sized tomes these days, but this one didn't have to be this big.

And speaking of unnecessarily big, Seveneves also should have been smaller because it should have been split into two books. The third act, set in the far future, is so completely different from the initial how-do-we-survive-a-meteor-shower-apocalypse-and-not-subsequently-kill-each-other-in-orbit story in terms of tone, type of plot, character interactions, and character goals (and lower levels of infodump), that it should have been flushed-out and made into a sequel.

Lastly, as much as I'll give Stephenson credit for being realistic in his portrayal of how inevitable human politics and personal greed, and instinct-level animal viciousness, can lead to projects started with the best intentions (like saving humanity) running into serious trouble; and as much as I'll give him credit for, as an American writer, making an American politician one of the prime causes of trouble in the story, I don't think the author gives the reader a broad enough look at the different ways governments and individuals would behave in the desperate scramble to survive in the face of extinction. Going back to Clarke & Baxter's Firstborn, we're told that even as most of humanity works to prepare to withstand the coming solar blast, some of the super-rich build their own luxury space stations in orbital safe spots to ride-out the disaster. While Stephenson tells us in Seveneves about one politician violating the evacuation rules, and of one family company's attempts to dig a deep shelter (which, admittedly, leaves the door open for others having done the same), what he doesn't get into (probably because he didn't leave room for plot while cramming the book with infodump) is the likelihood that various governments or powerful individuals would also have gone rogue to get into the orbital arklet swarm and take control, or built outward-bound colony ships, or dug deep shelters to emerge much sooner to establish a larger, stronger control over the surface before the orbital descendants could, well, descend in their re-colonization plan.

I wanted to love Seveneves. I really did. It had all the elements I want out of a story. But the infodump  and other failings killed it as surely as a bombardment of moon fragments.


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A Desolate Splendor by John Jantunen

If you grabbed John Jantunen's A Desolate Splendor off the shelf and flipped to a random page, there's a good chance you'd think you'd found yourself in the middle of a typical CanLit pastoral. You might find yourself drifting along amidst the slow rhythm of life on the farm, interspersed with the occasional challenge from nature, but where, really, the biggest challenges are in the relationships between family members. But then you'd turn the page and find something very different. Maybe the adventures of a teenager exploring the wilderness on this own. Or the story of a teenaged girl finding her own path after escaping brutality. Or the story of two young First Nations men trying to make a name for themselves with a daring raid. Or the experiences of a small gang of former soldiers and other stragglers living hand-to-mouth, day by day, preying on whomever they come across and revelling in retelling their old war stories as some kind of way to hold onto a non-existent past and justify their continued existence. Or the account of a group of women looking for an opportunity to escape a bleak existence of rape and enslavement at the hands of a horde of mute, self-multilating, cannibalistic men —the Echoes — who exist solely to burn, kill, and destroy. And as you spiralled down this black hole of increasingly grim plot threads, you'd quickly realize that, far from being a naval-gazing pastoral or a pioneer-era frontier adventure, this is a hard tale about hard-scrabble life in a post-apocalyptic world.

Jantunen paints a picture of a future far enough down the road from its disaster that the old world (while remembered by some) is entirely irrelevant. The remains of a highway are a curiosity in the distance rather than a trade or travel route. A car is nothing more than a dusty, dead amusement in a barn. What concerns the people of this deceptive rural tranquility the most is having enough food to survive after they've paid-off the protection racket of the roving gangs. Their crops are threatened by flocks of ravenous birds, and even the rain. Farmers and their dogs have to fight off packs of huge, vicious bear-wolves. And sometimes the Echoes come avalanching through at night to take the women and kill, eat, and burn the rest. Civilization is gone, and it often looks like humanity — referring both to our species and to the ability of people to demonstrate kindness, mercy, and understanding to one-another — may not be far behind.

And yet, for all its horrors, the world of A Desolate Splendor is not so unremittingly bleak as that of Cormac McArthy's The Road, and this saves the book from corrupting the experience of reading into a form of torture. Here, strangers met in the wild are not automatically enemies — some help those in trouble. There's a chance for redemption and a moment of peace, to build new family units instead of just watching as they're torn apart. And there's room for hope. Because of this, the characters remain interesting. We get to see them grow as individuals, form new relationships, and experience the world in different ways.

But this is still the post-apocalypse. Even in the protagonists' moments of triumph, there's still the lingering, nagging, vague fear, like a scream bouncing off the walls of an enclosed room again and again, that the Echoes might still be out there and about to come sweeping in once more. As much as they are a literal menace in the story, the Echoes are a metaphorical representation of humanity's current, active, seemingly unthinking (or at least indifferent) embrace of behaviour that could leave the real world desolate. Perhaps even more frightening are the members of the soldiers' gang, who are every bit as predatory and brutal as the Echoes, but operate behind friendly smiles and chit-chat with the farmers under the thin venire of providing a necessary service. And so even as the story leaves us with the splendour of a new family unit growing together, and of two young people possibly making a future for themselves, neither the characters nor the reader can sit entirely comfortably.

In the interests of full disclosure, I should note that a copy of this book was sent to me by the author. But that doesn't affect my opinion at all. A Desolate Splendor is an absorbing, smart read and worth picking up.


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Last Year by Robert Charles Wilson

Robert Charles Wilson's newest novel, Last Year, is the love child of Hell on Wheels and Escape from LA, midwifed by The Time Tunnel. And I enjoyed the hell out of it.

Set in the late 1800s, the story is about Jesse Cullum, a man born in a rough part of San Francisco, who's led a life as an itinerant worker across the American West, and is now a member of the security staff at the City of Futurity, a tourist resort for people of his era — and ours. He's also a man who just wants to own a good pair of Oakley sunglasses, a goal in life that's made more difficult when his current pair is broken while saving President Grant from a would-be assassin.

Futurity is the creation of a 21st-Century billionaire who's exploiting technology that can create gateways to the pasts of alternate timelines (not the past of his own specific timeline, thereby avoiding paradoxes). The facility only runs for a few years before it's closed down, and a new one is constructed to bridge to another, similar timeline. In addition to giving tourists from the present the chance to visit the Old West, tourists from the past are invited to pay to stay at the resort and see museums hinting at the wonders of the future, and take rides on helicopters. An important part of the business also involves selling cheap, supposedly harmless technology of the future to the locals in exchange for gold (a currency that's good in any timeline).

The problem is, someone on the inside has been selling dangerous technology — like Glock handguns — to the locals. Worse, the culprit has been sharing details about civil rights advances of the future, offending the stodgy beliefs of the people of the past and throwing the country into chaos, and putting Futurity itself at risk. Having proven his toughness and reliability, Cullum is partnered with Elizabeth DePaul, a security officer and military veteran from the future, and sent to investigate the technological and historical leaks. Over the course of their assignments together, Cullum comes to the realization that just doing his job and owning a pair of Oakleys might not be enough in life, and that finding your place in the world sometimes means changing worlds entirely.

If you read enough of Wilson's work, you soon learn that he likes to switch back and forth between stories about big, galaxy-spanning, high-concept philosophical material exploring man's place in the universe (if humanity even has a place amidst the grand workings of things ancient and unfathomable), and smaller, more intimate stories about individuals trying to figure out their place in their own lives. And he does both very well. Last Year is one the latter types of stories. It's not about time travel or paradoxes, or the mysteries of where this technology comes from. Even the question of the ethics of the use of the time gate technology by the owner of Futurity is very much on the sidelines. This is an in-depth exploration of a person figuring out what's most important to him, realizing that he wants to go through life with someone who he cares about and who cares about him, rather than just going through the motions alone, and deciding what he has to do to have important relationships with other people. He transforms from being just another commodity that Futurity has at its disposal to a full person who takes an active role in what he's going to do and what happens around him. Which makes it more interesting that throughout the story, two worlds — the past and the future — revolve around Cullum, but in the end, he takes the position of "the world be damned". He really doesn't care what happens to his own world (the past) or the ramifications of Futurity's collapse on the future, as long as he's able to be with Elizabeth and ensure the safety of his sister. Which ultimately puts the reader in the same position: by the end of the novel, it doesn't matter what happens to the owner of Futurity or his daughter, or what the company will do next either in the 21st Century or the past of any alternate timeline, or what the mystery of the time-travel technology is really all about; all the matters is that Cullum's shot at finding happiness.

Make some time to go out and read Last Year.


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The Goblin Emperor by Katherine Addison

Try to recall everything you've read about goblins and elves. Now forget it. That's your homework before reading Katherine Addison's The Goblin Emperor.

You'll find no sweeping medieval-style battles between armies of light and soldiers of darkness over the fate of the world. There's a total absence of conjuring of fae magic in glades under the stars. And there won't be any torchlit monstrous blood rites sating the hungers of old gods in the stygian darkness of deep caverns. No, this is a book about courtly manners, the occasional bit of intrigue, and municipal infrastructure proposals. Which makes The Goblin Emperor wholly refreshing.

Set in a fantasy world that's advanced to a Regency or Victorian era equivalent of technology and society, the story follows Maia, the exiled son of the elven emperor's fourth wife — a goblin princess — who finds himself catapulted to the throne and ultimate power after an airship crash kills his father and older brothers. Taken to the imperial capital, Maia must establish his authority over headstrong members of the bureaucracy and his extended family, learn to conduct himself like a cultured noble and good ruler, avoid overthrow and assassination, and, perhaps most challenging of all, find a wife. Then there's the matter of whether to approve the construction of a bridge. And that's pretty much it.

On one hand, I enjoyed all of the ways that Addison has bucked the usual fantasy trends when writing stories about elves or goblins. As much as I like tales in medieval-analogous settings, there's always a point when I wonder about the apparent technological and social stagnation that's present in these worlds, and wish that authors could show us what it would be like if they evolved towards something more modern. The Goblin Emperor does that, giving us airships right off the bat, and a large elven nation that has a modern type of diplomatic relationship with its goblin neighbour, focussed on maintaining peace and profitable commerce. Another difference is the approach to appearance and behaviour. Normally, we're presented with pointy-eared beauties (although Addison's elves are pointy-eared and never described as average-looking or ugly) and twisted monsters locked in unrelenting hatred and coming together only to slaughter one-another in an eternal holy war. This time, the elves and goblins are described as being kindred species physically, or, more likely, simply different ethnicities of the same race, with differences in skin tone and hair and eye colour. And, as the varieties of skin tone and eye colour in the imperial palace demonstrate, intermarriage at all levels of society is not uncommon. These elves and goblins may be hobbled socially by varying degrees of racism, differences in customs, and distrust no doubt founded in disputes or wars of the past, but they enjoy some of the same activities, like dancing and horse breeding and riding, and, ultimately, want the same things out of life. Like humans, they're more alike than not. And the decision to centre the story around life at court, instead of a grand adventure abroad to save the world, was a nice change of pace.

But a story focussed entirely on the minutia of courtly manners, broken only by the occasional kidnapping and threat of usurpation and death, is of limited appeal. There's also no real depth to the writing — it's not a story with especially juicy metaphors to decipher; or where a reader can pay attention to different aspects and learn new things on a second or third pass; or fun enough to go on the reread rollercoaster again. And speaking of writing, the frequent use of quasi-antiquated language like "canst do nothing for thyself" is clumsy and distracting. As a worldbuilding technique designed to illustrate the difference in the elvish culture from ours, or the language and culture of the imperial court from that of the common citizens, it's over-the-top, unnecessary (given the lavish descriptions of court customs, dress, etc), and distances the reader from the story.

I didn't dislike The Goblin Emperor, I just can't see any reason to read it again.


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Lovecraft Country by Matt Ruff

It's no stretch to say that HP Lovecraft and his works have been the subject of a lot of the conversation in the world of speculative fiction in recent years. Check out the sf shelves in any bookstore and you'll see novels and collections of short stories both inspired by (and sometimes drawing directly from his characters or worlds) and reacting to his work. Matt Ruff's Lovecraft Country is one of the latest comments in that conversations, and one that's definitely worth paying attention to.

The novel is a mosaic of interconnected stories focusing on former soldier Atticus Turner and the members of his extended family and their friends. As if being African-American in the racism-plagued US of the 1950s wasn't hard enough, the family is dragged into the schemes of a group of cultists trying to draw on the dark powers of a Lovecraftian netherworld to increase its members' wealth and influence. Again and again, the cultists use blackmail and other tricks to try to force the family members to become their tools, though sometimes they run afoul of the group simply through sheer bad luck. Through their love for and loyalty to one-another, determination, intelligence, and courage, the family members survive everything from encounters with ghosts, trips to other worlds, missions to recover arcane objects, and ceremonies to tap ancient godlike power. In fact, they do more than survive: they triumph.

I've read a few Lovecraft stories over the years, and while I'm not a fan of his work, I am a fan of Matt Ruff's, and it only took a couple of pages to make me a big fan of Lovecraft Country. Each character is well-crafted: three dimensional and believable. Each has their own strengths and weaknesses. Some are people you'd love to hang out with; others aren't that likeable. Either way, you get a good understanding of why they do what they do, and see how each grows throughout their experiences. Each of the stories is well put together too — as unique in their own ways as the characters are, whether they're action-oriented, or leaning more towards quieter journeys of self-discovery. Each is both frightening and inspiring. And all of them fit together perfectly, like the members of the family, to form a greater whole.

In terms of what the novel as a whole, is saying, it's obviously a critique of America — both for the racism of its past (where Jim Crow laws in the South made life for blacks into Russian Roulette, and tacitly accepted discrimination and violence frequently made other parts of the country not much better), and for the fact that despite some social advances, the legacy of that racism remains today.

Ruff is also using the novel to hold Lovecraft and his writing to account on a number of levels. In terms of the mechanics of storytelling and the patterns of the plots, Lovecraft's tales are universally bleak, frequently involve powers and entities beyond human comprehension, and end in death, or at least the loss of one's mind or part of one's soul. And yet here, confronted by similar situations, we see that the forces involved are, in fact, pretty comprehensible to our protagonists. The members of the family are smart people who quickly grasp the situations their faced with, the stakes, the tools, and the implications, and they then move on to deciding how best to survive what's happening, and possibly counteract the people who seek to exploit them. Rather than bleakness, as bad as things get, the family tenaciously hangs on to hope — hope that they'll be reunited with each other, that they'll be free of the machinations of the cult, that their businesses will thrive, that they'll have good lives, and that America will change to become a nation of truly equal people. Far from losing things like their lives, sanity, or souls, the protagonists save each other's lives, and gain everything from new homes to stronger family bonds and a better understanding of one-another.

The Lovecraft stories that I've read also tend to lack any real action: someone goes someplace old and evil and just kind of hangs out, they feel a terrible presence, and death ensues, or sanity or souls are lost. In Ruff's story(ies) though, there's a lot of action: detailed descriptions of searches for missing family members, escapes from race riots, attempts to recover arcane objects from booby-trapped rooms that might exist in other dimensions, researching safe travel tips for African-Americans, and sometimes they take a break from dealing with the forces of evil to have fun at parties. While these stories do take their time for the protagonists to think about what's happening, or to discuss things with other characters, the plots are never slow for long.

Lovecraft also wasn't known for including women in his stories. Here, female protagonists headline many of the stories, and loom strongly in the background of those lead by the men.

Lovecraft Country is also a response to HPL's racism. All of the protagonists here are African-American. All are educated, strong, hard-working, self-determining people. Some run businesses, all support their family, friends, and community, and preserve their history as they openly work to make a better future. And, as noted above, all come out on top when faced by challenges, whether they're supernatural or man-made racism or greed. By contrast, it's the rich, well-connected, white cultists and their minions who are ultimately brought down — destroyed when their arcane experiments go awry, or disempowered (literally, one of the prime manipulators loses his magical powers, as well as his influence within the cult), and their group is broken-up (though the cult never really had much cohesion, as its members seemed to always be scheming against each other one way or another). The cultists are always operating in secret — even keeping secrets from one-another. They come in from a position of having lost their history, and finish the story having lost their future, both as individuals with power, and as a group able to engineer grand projects and schemes.

In the end, I found myself asking a dangerous question: Is Lovecraft Country better than the real America of the 1950s? I know that, as a white Canadian, I'm treading on thin ice exploring this train of thought, and could very well be missing perspective important to interpreting this book. But it seems to me that for all the supernatural horror present in the fictional world of the novel, at least the odds are somewhat evened: the intelligence, loyalty, and determination of the Turners and their family and friends gives them an advantage in dealing with said supernatural horrors that the white cultists, for all their monetary and political/social advantages, don't have. In Lovecraft Country, when it comes to overcoming supernatural horrors, it's the African-American protagonists who come out on top, and do so immediately — they don't have to labour for years to get on an equal footing. In the America of the real world, on the other hand, that equal footing would be decades of hard work and sacrifice away, and some might argue that it still hasn't arrived.

Next time you're in the bookstore or library, take a trip to Lovecraft Country.


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The Mongoliad — Book One, by Neal Stephenson, Greg Bear, Mark Teppo, ED deBirmingham, Erik Bear, Joseph Brassey and Cooper Moo

In the middle of 13th Century, the Mongols are preparing for an invasion of Europe. As he waits for the right moment to attack, the general in charge of the invasion stages a medieval version of Mortal Kombat, inviting warriors from across the known world to come and battle one-another in death matches to show off their prowess. But these gladiatorial games are more than just entertainment: they're a means for the general to evaluate the abilities of his potential enemies, a political diversion to lull the leaders of Europe into thinking they have more time than they actually do, and a way to show off the strength of his own forces. A group of knights from the monastic Ordo Militum Vindicis Intactae, otherwise known as the Shield Brethren, are on their way to the tournament, but the event is a diversion tactic for them as well. While they try to draw the Mongols' attention to themselves at the games, another contingent of Shield Brethren, aided by the female scout Cnan, makes its way east on a secret mission: to assassinate Ogedei, the Khan of Khans. Meanwhile, in the Mongol capital of Karakorum, a young warrior, Gansukh, is sent to the imperial court to protect Ogedei. But Gansukh soon learns that the great khan may need to be protected from himself more than assassins — suffering from increasing depression  as he chafes at administrative life rather than being in the saddle at war or hunting, Ogedei has become a drunk who behaves erratically. If dealing with a temperamental khan and palace intrigues weren't enough, Gansukh faces the challenge of learning the manners and customs of the court from Lian, a Chinese slave, to become a political operator himself.

As much as I should have enjoyed The Mongoliad, with its melees, descriptions of varied medieval European and Asian fighting styles, court intrigues, and cultural details, the whole thing just felt flat. None of the characters were particularly interesting, the plot seemed to drag, and even the action sequences failed to have any real emotional impact. Maybe it's a case of too many chefs spoiling the sauce. I don't know.

I'll give the authors credit: they've done an excellent job of researching the arms and armour, fighting styles, cultures and dress of the period. But none of it was enough to make me want to see the series through.


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The Mammoth Book of Dieselpunk edited by Sean Wallace

If you're looking for a one-stop introduction to dieselpunk (sf set between the end of the First World War and the end of World War II, or on worlds with an analogous level of technology and set of cultures) that examines this sub-genre from a variety of perspectives, The Mammoth Book of Dieselpunk is for you.

This door-stopper of a collection roars to a start with Jay Lake and Shannon Page's butt-stompingly fun "Rolling Steel: A Pre-Apocalyptic Love Story" and, for the most part, keeps up the smokey, greasy noir-era coolness all the way through. Along the way, it shifts gears from time to time, slowing down for stories like Jeremiah Tolbert's "Instead of a Loving Heart" or AC Wise's "The Double Blind", before hitting the gas again for an entry like Dan Rabarts' "Floodgate".

Sometimes the anthology's engine sputters, or the thing blows a tire: not every story is good. One or two would have done just as well on the scrap heap. But that's to be expected in a collection of this size, and overall the thing is shiny and rolls along nicely.


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Clockwork Canada edited by Dominik Parisien

I've been waiting for a Canadian-centred steampunk anthology for a long time. While the country's history is much older than Queen Victoria's era, stretching back thousands of years to the time when First Nations people came over from Siberia, to several hundred years ago when the first Europeans, Africans, and Asians began arriving, and while some of the key moments in our history predate her as well (such as the British victory over France in the Seven Years' War, or the successful driving-back of American invaders in the War of 1812) and others wouldn't come until decades after she was gone, the British North American colonies did get their official start as a country under old Vicky's watch. And personally, spending the first half of my childhood in south-western Ontario, the legacy of the Victorian era was all around me: many neighbourhoods were still graced with its big red brick homes, those homes were filled with furniture and other antiques from those days, and people gathered in parks on chilly May nights for Victoria Day fireworks displays. Canada is a country that's perfect to celebrate this past — and to hold it accountable — and there's no better form of literature to do that than speculative fiction. Which brings us to Clockwork Canada, edited by Dominik Parisien.

Like the various regions of Canada, the stories in this anthology are very much a matter of personal taste. Taken together, they form a workable tapestry that showcases the many different interpretations of who we are. Individually, they're very hit and miss, depending on what you're looking for. I enjoyed Holly Shofield's "East Wind in Carrall Street" with its clockwork lion and two kids trying to bridge their cultures, Brent Nichols' steampunk superhero yarn "The Harpoonist", and the female-James-Bond-esque Klondike adventure "Strange Things Done" by Michal Wojcik. While some of the other stories could have used some work, or could have been replaced with better fare, overall, Clockwork Canada is a collection worth reading.


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Mother of Eden by Chris Beckett

Eden is a planet with no light other than the bioluminescence of its plants and animals. The thousands of humans who live there are descended from just two survivors of a spaceshipwreck many generations before. They've now spread across their world, founding a number of different cultures, each based on the specific beliefs, stories, and teachings of some of the people involved in a violent schism generations before. Starlight Brooking — a member of a peaceful, isolated island commune following the tenants of Jeff, a crippled inventor and dreamer — takes part in a trading expedition to a town on the mainland (founded by followers of a brutal thug who took control of the original Eden society, in part prompting the great schism) where she meets Greenstone Johnson, a young prince from a subterranean settlement on a continent on the other side of the ocean (founded by supporters of John, the strong-willed young hunter and inventor who was also partly responsible for the split in the original society). The two are attracted to each other, and Starlight goes with him across the sea, where they're married and she is given the role of Mother, or spiritual leader, of his people. Starlight quickly sees inequalities in her new culture, and begins using her influence to push through changes. But some of the nobles feel threatened by this new, more gentle way of doing things, and Starlight and Greenstone find themselves facing a revolution.

Mother of Eden is the sequel to Chris Beckett's magnificently-crafted Dark Eden, and, while it's a fundamentally different story, it's every bit as good as its predecessor.  There's a clear biblical allusion running through the series, with the first novel being a mixture of Genesis and Exodus, casting John as a combination Cain and Moses, while Mother of Eden casts Starlight as a New Testament-style messiah — minus the divinity and miracles. Like the original, the protagonists and supporting characters of MOE are well-rounded and believable, each possessing their share of flaws.

The various cultures that have evolved from the schism are also believable, with each having its own variation on the original tribe's hybrid founder-worship and cargo-cult religion, its own laws and politics, styles of clothing, levels of technological achievement, manner of speaking, and rivalries with and tolerances for the other nations.

The plot moves along briskly and yet leaves time for characters to process what's happening to them, and at the end of each chapter I was torn between wanting more of that section's character, while being eager to see what the protagonist occupying the next segment was doing.

While Mother of Eden was wholly satisfying on its own, I can't wait to see what Chris Beckett has in store for readers in the third book.


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Tuesday, January 31, 2017

Star Wars Rogue One - a Cautionary Tale about the Dangers of Bad Upper Management

When we watch Star Wars films, we expect action and adventure, plucky heroes who defy the odds, and stories that reassure us that good eventually triumphs over evil. The newest instalment in the franchise, Rogue One: A Star Wars Story, delivers all of that, though in a darker, grittier fashion than its predecessors. But what's most interesting is something else that it does: Rogue One offers a cautionary tale about the dangers of bad upper management.

This movie doesn't just contain flat depictions of tyrants who are evil simply because they want to rule the universe. It's an in-depth study of the different types of real, toxic personalities who get into positions of power and weaken organizations; their failings; and the consequences of these problems. What's particularly impressive is that it's not just the Empire that's held up to the microscope; the flaws of the good guys — the leaders of the Rebel Alliance — are exposed too.

Yes, yes. Of course. Spoilers ahead and all that.

Rogue One is told through the eyes of two people trying to find their way in the world. The first is orphan Jyn Erso, a young woman trying to escape from Imperial custody, find her lost father (who was kidnapped by the Empire to help with the Death Star project), and — eventually — bring freedom to the galaxy. The other is Orson Krennic, an Imperial officer who's enthusiastic about his work (as the project leader for the Death Star's construction), and wants some recognition for a job well done — and maybe a promotion.

Both run tragically afoul of bad upper managers in their respective workplaces. Unless you're very fortunate, at some point you've probably worked for, or with, one or more of these types of executives, and you understand the havoc they can wreak on employees and organizations.

Krennic would seem to be the most obvious example of someone who's been victimized by bad managers. Ranking somewhere in the fluid wilderness of middle management on the Imperial org chart (sure, the Death Star is the Empire's biggest project at the moment — that we know about — but Krennic's pay grade isn't as high as a regional governor/Grand Moff, probably not as high as an admiral, certainly not on the level of one of the Emperor's ministers, and definitely not anywhere near a Sith Lord), Krennic is dedicated to doing anything and everything to make his assignment a success. Is he evil? Absolutely. It's hard to feel much pity for someone who's cavalier about mass murder as a measure of his project's success, and who includes kidnapping and murder as part of acceptable human resources practices (even if these activities are accepted part of the Empire's corporate culture). And yet there's no denying that Krennic gets a raw deal. Never mind the expected challenges of having to recruit the right talent (I mean, come on, flying all the way out to the middle of nowhere for a head-hunting meeting to land Galen Erso must have been a real scheduling hassle), obtain the necessary resources, deal with the actual designing of the battlestation (after all, we don't know how much effort the Seperatist forces actually put into the Death Star's blueprints during the Clone Wars — Darth Tyranus might have left Geonosis with nothing more than an exterior appearance concept sketch saved to a jpg file waiting to be printed on a big foamcore sheet for a public information/zoning hearing), planning the construction logistics, and actually getting the thing built, the guy's gotta deal with some of the worst senior management in the galaxy. Starting with Grand Moff/Governor Tarkin.

Because Tarkin is a bully.

Without getting involved in any of the hard work himself, Tarkin constantly tells Krennic that his work isn't good enough, pressures him to get to the job done faster, and threatens him with punishment if the Death Star project fails or has operational shortcomings. It goes without saying that  threatening an employee and putting him or her down all the time doesn't foster top-notch work or loyalty. And demanding faster work on a complex project leads to corner-cutting, stress- and fatigue-induced mistakes, and the potential for disaster.

Moreover, Tarkin's refusal to take any responsibility for delay or failure (also the hallmark of a bullying manager) is done without a hint of irony on his part, even though the governor always reminds Krennic that he is in charge. Tarkin complains about security breaches even though he's heaped security oversight duties onto Krennic, who's specialty is R&D engineering and wearing crisp white tunics and capes, and who's already overworked as the construction foreman. The fault lies with Tarkin for not doing the smart thing and hand-picking oh, I don't know, maybe an actual veteran security expert from the ranks of the Imperial Starfleet or the Emperor's red-robed praetorian guard to handle security for the Empire's biggest and most expensive weapon right from the start. Rather than admitting his mistake or responsibility, Tarkin heaps more pressure and blame on Krennic. You just know that if there was a mis-fire of the Death Star's planetkiller laser, and if the Emperor then called a project post-mortem meeting to discuss what went wrong, Tarkin would bring Krennic along to make a PowerPoint presentation prior to the next item on the agenda: screaming, writhing death by Force lightning.

And, while doing none of the actual work, Tarkin is also the kind of senior manager who relishes in taking all of the credit for successful projects. When Krennic announces that the Death Star is complete and it's main gun is ready for its first firing, Tarkin denies him the opportunity to blow up an entire planet (as the weapon was designed to do), limiting the test to the destruction of a mere city. Tarkin's excuse: "We need a statement, not a manifesto." But that's a lie. If you build a planetkiller, it needs to be tested on a planet, or at least a good-sized moon. But Tarkin doesn't want that to happen while Krennic is around, because Tarkin refuses to allow for the possibility of anyone other than himself getting credit for the success of Project Death Star. He allows Krennic to be present for the destruction of the temple city on Jedha just to make sure that the gun works — a statement, if you will, of its functionality for his own progress reports — but Tarkin clearly wants the public destruction of an entire planet — the issuing of the Empire's manifesto of its supreme power — to be ordered, overseen by, and credited to himself alone. There's a real emphasis on Tarkin being associated with the weapon's first major test, and with that being necessarily highly publicly visible. We see this later (in the overall timeline of the franchise) in the governor's statement to Princess Leia in A New Hope about the need to destroy Alderaan because Dantooine was too remote. It's pretty clear that Tarkin had two criteria to determine the completeness of the project: the successful test fire of the main gun (because, hey, if you can take out a city and the surrounding countryside, the planetkiller setting will probably work too), and the elimination of any possible security leaks around the battlestation's plans. Once the city on  Jedha was destroyed, Tarkin's only use for Krennic was to do the mop-up dirty work of killing anyone who might have leaked the details of the station's schematics. After that, Tarkin could get rid of Krennic so he could take all the credit for the Death Star's success for himself.

And there's no doubt that getting rid of Krennic was always part of Tarkin's plan. As stated before, the governor was all too willing to throw Krennic under the bus in the event of failure, but the outcome of the raid on Scarif also makes it pretty clear that Tarkin was going to eliminate him one way or another even if the project was a success. Tarkin blows up the Imperial archive base on Scarif knowing full well that Krennic is down there (on Tarkin's orders). Could Krennic have been killed in the fighting? Sure. But he could also still be alive. Tarkin doesn't even bother to call and check. Given his success on the Death Star, Krennic is obviously one of, if not the most effective project managers currently in the Empire — an important staff resource for any organization. And yet Tarkin's all to willing to vaporize him with a giant laser or see him crushed by a tsunami just to ensure that the governor gets all the credit for himself. Under these circumstances, it's not unreasonable to speculate that even if Krennic and the archive base's general had succeeded in crushing the Rebel raid and prevented the Death Star plans from being transmitted off-site, Tarkin would still have found a way to remove him. Best case scenario: Tarkin would have banished Krennic to some unimportant outpost in the middle of nowhere where no-one of rank would ever hear from him again. No further work on major projects like "Black Sabre" or "Scruffy Nerf-herder" or whatever other labels get put on the Emperor's X-files, just assignments like designing a new sewage system for an abandoned industrial park on Coruscant, or testing the cold resistance of Wookiee hair versus Wampa fur, or evaluating the nutritional value of blue milk versus Gorax armpit sweat. Worst case scenario: Tarkin would have had Krennic executed as soon as he was back aboard the Death Star, if not blown out of the sky when his shuttle was on final approach. You could argue that if Krennic had survived, he would have been a risk to the Empire if Tarkin ignored or marginalized him, because, for revenge, he could have defected to the Rebellion or at least sold the battlestation's blueprints to them. But it's a lot simpler than that. Tarkin is type of manager who's insecure about staff who do good work and have ambition about advancing through the company ranks. Tarkin wanted all of the credit, Krennic demanded to be recognized for his efforts, and so Krennic was going to die.

Grand Moff Tarkin: the type of senior manager who bullies staff by threatening them and telling them that they're of no consequence, who makes unreasonable demands on project completion, who refuses to share any responsibility for failure, and who buries staff who do good work so he can take all the credit.

But he's not the only example of a toxic senior management style. There's also Darth Vader: the wagon circler.

When things get bad working under Tarkin, Krennic goes to the next executive on the ladder (or, even if Vader isn't Tarkin's superior, he's at least another vice-president-level boss who has some interest in the project) and asks for some intervention, or at least clarification of roles and responsibilities. As is proper. After all, most organizations would say that ideally, if a staffer has a problem with his or her boss, the staffer should try to work things out with the boss, and, failing that, go up the ladder or to HR. Krennic does that. And is told by the Dark Lord of the Sith to fall in line, quit whining and get the job done, and forget about any aspirations for a promotion. There's obviously a problem with Tarkin's behaviour, but instead of doing anything about it, Vader's the type of senior manager who circles the wagons with other executives when something goes wrong. Whether it's because Vader and Tarkin are golf buddies at the Emperor's annual Texas scramble tournament, or because the Sith Lord thinks he's already got enough on his plate without having to deal with an HR issue in someone else's department, or because he wants to avoid getting into a pissing match with another VP, or because the Emperor's apprentice thinks that dealing with a problem involving another senior manager would expose a weakness in the organization's overall management staffing and strategy that would make all the executives look bad, or because Ani just doesn't give a shit about the little people, he does nothing. It's a management style that's bad for any organization because it hurts morale, increases the likelihood of losing good workers, and can ultimately cause operations to go off the rails because the people in charge are making poor decisions. Need proof? Vader does nothing about Tarkin's behaviour during the Death Star's construction, initial testing, and the raid on Scarif, resulting in not only the loss of a talented engineer and project manager, but an entire archiving base (and who knows how many important documents contained therein that didn't have copies in other locations), two Star Destroyers, several fighters, and countless personnel. One might even argue that Tarkin's behaviour in Rogue One planted the seeds for the Death Star's destruction in A New Hope. And Vader could have intervened and prevented the whole affair. Instead he chose to back, or at least tolerate, Tarkin and his bad management practices.

But don't think that having toxic executives is a failing exclusive to the Empire. It would be too easy to dismiss it as simply being a case of an evil begetting evil and necessarily attracting people to senior management who are flawed to the point of weakening their organization. After all, look at Hank Scorpio (The Simpsons), Aunty Entity (Mad Max: Beyond Thunderdome), or Thulsa Doom (1982's Conan the Barbarian). These are badguys who have built fairly solid organizations, expanding the reach and success of their operations, building infrastructure, hiring effective and unified senior managers (mostly), recognizing risks and trying to deal with them, and generally treating their staff well. Bad upper management is a risk any organization (large or small, public or private sector, corporate or non-profit, good or evil) runs if it doesn't honestly look at and monitor its senior management as scrupulously as it does its front-line staff. Rogue One makes it abundantly clear that the Rebel Alliance has this problem too. And it's a problem that ultimately gets Jyn Erso killed.

Let's start with General Draven: the close-minded manager.

Draven is apparently the chief of the Rebellion's covert operations/dirty tricks/black ops/assassination division. Initially, he appears to be ruthlessly effective at the job, coordinating Cassian Andor's activities, identifying Jyn as a potential asset and ordering her extraction from Imperial custody (you can't really say that she was "freed" because the Rebels don't give her her liberty once she's out of the prison wagon — K-2SO knocks her flat), and coordinating an air strike on the Imperial kyber refinery on Eadu. In fact, his goal of engineering the murder of Galen is so single-minded and unremitting that he seems as bloodthirsty as Saw Gererra is rumoured to be. And yet, it's that single-mindedness that makes Draven a poor senior manager in the Rebellion hierarchy. When his operatives bring Jyn to him, his only thought is to use her to flush out her father so the Death Star engineer can be killed. There's no indication that Draven is willing to consider using Jyn to capture Galen to pump him for information, or maybe convert him to the Rebel cause and put him to work helping to actively identify weaknesses in the battlestation and coordinate attacks, or maybe even design some cool weapons or defensive systems for the Alliance that might help even the odds against the superior Imperial fleet. Instead, he's fixated on assassination and wastes a potential resource. In fact, his well-organized airstrike on Eadu proves that he jumps the gun rather than thinking out the possibilities — were it not for the X-wing attack on the refinery, Galen might have been alive for the Rebels to kidnap and exploit.

Draven is also a victim of limited thinking in the wake of the Eadu attack when he refuses to consider the possibility that Jyn (and by extension, Galen) may be telling the truth about the Death Star having a critical weakness in its design. He then goes further and argues against any attempt to try to steal the battlestation's plans. A lack of faith in front-line employees is a sure way to demoralize them and cause the organization to lose talented staff. If Draven had been better at his job and more open to possibilities, the raid on the Imperial archive on Scarif could have been better planned, equipped, and staffed. Rather than merely being a success because Jyn's commandos and Admiral Raddus' fleet were able to get the plans out (and only being a success because of that hand-off, since nearly everybody died in the attempt), a better organized raid might have resulted in the capture of other important information from the archive (like, say, the names of Imperial agents sent to infiltrate the Rebellion, or structural plans that would facilitate a break-in at the Imperial palace on Coruscant, or the list of Emperor Palpatine's favourite hamburger toppings that could be poisoned — or worse, waylaid to create Imperial frustration with an inadequately dresesed burger) and maybe more of the Rebel staff making it out of that raid alive. And Draven has to take some of the blame for those losses. Caution is one thing, but a good manager knows to look at all the possibilities, and is sometimes willing to take a chance on a plan that could have a big pay-off. In many respects, Draven's the kind of person who should never have made it to the executive level. Rather, he'd be more effective at a much lower management level where he could focus on one particular set of tasks, and where he couldn't limit the Rebellion's ability to at least investigate, if not completely exploit, new opportunities.

Speaking of hardasses, Saw Gererra is another senior manager you wouldn't want to have in your organization. He's the brilliant tactician who's doesn't understand long-term planning.

Now, let's get the obligatory detail-obsessed nerdy nitpicking out of the way: technically, no, Gererra is not an official member of the Rebel Alliance. He's the independent leader of a separate terrorist group who's seen as a little too extreme by the Rebel leadership (The Rebels shoot nervous contacts in alleys; Gererra's people start firefights with Imperial transport columns in the middle of busy urban streets where tiny children are present, so it's a matter of degrees between Rebel freedom fighters and Gererra terrorists. I guess.). But that's splitting hairs. Clearly Gererra and the Rebel leaders know each other and it's likely they've worked together in the past, and while they've technically gone their separate ways, Draven's attempt to contact Gererra for info on Galen is clearly and indication that there's a desire to work together again in the future. So he's separate, but not that separate. Like a former partner in a business who's become an independent contractor that might be brought back in at some point, or the head of a stakeholder agency that's in the same field who might be convinced to partner-up on certain sectoral initiatives, or the head of a separate division in a large conglomerate.

So, under the overall umbrella of groups rebelling against the Empire, as executive team members go, Gererra is highly effective at leading his team when he's focussed on challenges in front of him, like organizing an ambush, or roughing-up a defecting Imperial pilot to determine his reliability. But in the final analysis, he's a poor leader because he hasn't planned ahead, addressed major threats to the organization (like the possibility of something big coming along and blowing everybody up), or come up with strategies to prevent, minimize, or evade those threats. Granted, to be fair, something as ridiculously huge as the Death Star and its ability to destroy Jedha's temple city and Gererra's base  and several hundred square kilometres of surrounding territory might be unforeseeable. Except for the fact that the Death Tomato-er-Star (Muppet Babies flashback) was sitting there in orbit for all to see, getting shipments of kyber crystals everyday, which should have tipped him off that something seriously bad could happen. But even beyond that, Gererra doesn't escape criticism because he could have planned for other, entirely reasonable threats to his base, like having its security compromised and its location leaked, and waking up one day to have a Star Destroyer parked overhead about to begin an overwhelming aerial/spatial bombardment — which would have had the same practical effect as the blast wave from the nearby strike from the Death Star's main gun. Gererra should have installed planetary-defence-strength shields like the Rebels later did on Hoth in 'Empire, or, if that strong an energy signature would have advertised his position, then at least a means to evacuate all of his troops quickly and efficiently (like a transport, or set of escape pods, or super high-speed underground rail line). Anything to get his people out safely and allow them to regroup and launch a counter-attack. But he didn't. The very real possibility of having his base wiped off the map in some form of attack didn't occur to him. And it got all of his people — including Gererra himself — killed.

Back within the ranks of the Rebel Alliance proper, if we're looking for more examples of bad management at the executive level, pretty much every faction leader around the board room table is guilty of weakening their organization. With the exception of Admiral Raddus, Senator Bail Organa, and Senator Mon Motha (although her managerial failings will be examined shortly), none of them recognize the opportunity presented by Jyn's Death Star information (either disbelieving her or not bothering to take the time to consider it) to take the initiative in the next phase of the war against the Empire. They're also unable to agree on a single course of action for the common good. There isn't even any talk of compromise: different faction leaders just start threatening to walk away from the table. This leaves the Rebellion in the position of doing nothing in the face of a new threat, and creates the very real possibility that its factions could break apart, rendering each less effective in mounting a resistance (whether armed or merely politically) and making it easier for the Empire to pick them off one by one. This lack of solidarity among the members of the senior management team and their inability to act on opportunity makes them, as much as General Draven, responsible for the raid on Scarif being as ill-planned as it was, and for the deaths of everyone involved and the loss of valuable equipment.

Which takes us right to the top: Senator Mon Motha, the weak leader.

Admittedly, there are differences between being the leader of a coalition engaged in an armed political uprising and the CEO of a corporation or executive director of a non-profit or chief bureaucrat or elected official in a government. More diplomacy is needed; firing people can be difficult when they're volunteers who are armed and don't want to leave; and if one of your faction leaders doesn't like how things are going, they can pack up an entire division of the organization and go their own way — or knock the boss off and take over. Although, a disloyal exec can quit, entice talent away from the company, and set up his/her own shop,  and those with an eye on power can sweet-talk a company or charity's board of directors into changing the leadership. So it is fair to criticize Mon Motha in the context of allowing bad senior managers to hold her organization back.

As the leader of the Rebel Alliance (and it's pretty clear that she is the CEO, or president, or chair of the board, or executive director, based on her interactions with Draven, how she's trying to run the meeting of the heads of the various Rebel factions, and, later in Return of the Jedi, how she's on-site prior to the attack on Death Star II to give the big pep talk), Mon Motha suffers from a pair of related problems: she can't keep control of her senior executives, and she's unable ensure their unity.

From the scenes in the Rebel command centre on the moon of Yavin, we get the impression that Draven reports to Mon Motha. He may plan and coordinate military operations, but it's pretty clear that he has to keep her apprised of the situation, and that she has the final say in what's going to happen. This is emphasized when Jyn and Cassian are about to leave for Eadu, and Draven quietly takes the spy aside and instructs him to kill Galen regardless of how things go. The fact that the general does this so surreptitiously gave me the impression that he wasn't just trying to prevent Jyn from overhearing; he didn't want Mon Motha catching wind of the scheme either because she'd disapprove and possibly override him. The fact that this is happening at all illustrates that the senator doesn't have control over her senior staff. How many other operations are going on without her knowledge or consent that might impact the Rebellion's survival — or it's public image (something a career politician would be especially sensitive to)? If she had control over her executives, this wouldn't have happened.

This lack of control over her senior management team becomes a full-blown crisis at the end of the film when she's unable to keep the various faction leaders unified as they react to the news of the Death Star's destruction of the temple city on Jedha. Some, like Admiral Raddus, want to keep fighting, others insist on hiding, others think the war's over and they should disband, while some call for open negotiations with the Empire, which is tantamount to surrender. It ends with some groups walking away from the table and threatening to leave the Alliance if other factions insist on fighting and possibly incurring the Empire's planet-killing wrath. It also ends with Jyn and Casssian leading a band of other front-line staff in an impromptu raid on Scarif without the knowledge of Mon Motha and the other executives, and thus without the opportunity for better planning. And Mon Motha is helpless through the whole thing.  She clearly doesn't have enough control over the others — whether through respect or leverage — to make a final decision, issue an order, and have them follow it. She's unable to bring them around to her position through reason or diplomacy. And she fails to inspire them to remain united and redouble their efforts to bring down the Empire. There's no rousing "Will you stand together?" speech like Captain Sheridan's when he returned from Z'ha'dum on Babylon 5, or the not-quite-as-strong-but-still-adequate "Victory or death!" speech from Ambassador Enduran in The Last Starfighter. Rather, she's ringing her hands helplessly, probably dreaming of the future when in Return of the Jedi when she can make a sad little statement about the deaths of many Bothans (thereby alienating everyone else in the Alliance who's worked to expose the secret construction of Death Star II). It's a failure to give them the inspiration for success that they need when they need it the most. The result is a Rebel Alliance so fractious that anyone can do pretty much anything he/she wants.

That's not to say Mon Motha needs to be like her opposite number, Emperor Palapatine. There's no need for Force lightning or choking, Order 66, or Death Stars. But a good CEO needs to have earned the respect of her senior managers so that when she makes an informed decision and issues orders, they'll carry them out. Because Mon Motha fails in this respect, it's amazing the Alliance managed to survive, never mind eventually win control over a sizeable chunk of the galaxy.

The New Republic seems to have been founded in spite of its leadership, not because of it. For that matter, the Empire seems to have rolled along as long as it did on inertia, rather because of any quality in its executive team (at least those presented in the films). Ultimately, Rogue One: A Star Wars Story isn't standing on a soapbox and shouting a full manifesto on how to build the perfect organization, nor is it a class warrior anarchist screed against all people in positions of power. But it does make a statement about the dangers of having bad upper management. And when we hear regular stories in the news about organizations plagued by workplace bullying and harassment, disaffected and burnt-out employees, companies or whole industries weakened by short-sightedness or dissension among the ranks, or greedy leaders focussed only on their own personal gain, it seems Rogue One is perhaps the most grimly relevant instalment of the Star Wars franchise for our times.

Tuesday, January 03, 2017

Becoming a Caricature of Myself

Happy New Year, everyone! Whatever you celebrated this past holiday season — even if it was just a chance to sit back and relax for a day — I hope everything went well for you and the new year is off to a good start.

Normally I try not to brag about my holiday haul of presents, but one (well, two, given together) was so nerdily awesome that I just had to share:

My wife had a couple of caricatures done portraying me as Ned Stark from A Song of Ice and Fire and Captain Chaos (perhaps the greatest superhero of all time) from The Cannonball Run (she decided that both should also include representations of our science fictionally-named cats, Ripley and Melanie, making trouble, as usual). The art was done by a friend of hers, Karen Poon, who was one of the animators on My Little Pony.





For years, I'd always thought it would be fun to have a little vanity piece like a personalized comic book cover hanging in my study, and while these pictures aren't quite the same thing, they're pretty cool and will get their place of pride on the wall.

Wednesday, December 28, 2016

Drowned in Moonlight

Leia shot first.

In the opening act of Star Wars - Episode IV: A New Hope — or just Star Wars as we called it in the late 70s and early 80s —when the Rebel blockade runner is boarded by Imperial troops, after getting the Death Star plans away in Artoo Deetoo, Princess Leia is confronted by a squad of stormtroopers. Does she scream? Beg for mercy? Vainly make a weak, half-hearted slap against the soldiers' chest plates as they drag her way? Collapse in a faint? No. She calmly pulls out her space Magnum, takes careful aim, and blows one of the badguys away before trying to retreat to an escape pod of more defensible position. They have to shoot her with a stun bolt in order to take her. In all the flap a few years ago about George Lucas' retooling of ANH and whether Han should have been left to shoot first in his face off with Greedo, and what this meant to his status as a hero, there was never any question about Leia shooting first at the beginning of the movie. As much as Han shooting first was a fundamental part of his character, Leia shooting first was an inseparable part of hers.

With the passing of actress Carrie Fisher yesterday, that's what sticks out most clearly in my mind: Leia shot first.

I was just three when ANH was released, and my parents, being decidedly not science fiction fans (and, in all fairness, probably concerned that the aliens and badguys might be too scary for a toddler) didn't take me to see it. But there were Star Wars-related toys and other merchandise everywhere back in those days, so I knew what it was, more-or-less what it was about, and who the characters were, and the princess was part of that. And she wasn't like the usual damsels-in-distress that I'd seen on TV and the movies: Leia kicked ass and didn't take shit from anybody. You didn't need to have seen the movie to know that. Her action figure (front and centre in the huge Star Wars display shelf in the upstairs toy section of the Highway Market in Kitchener) came with a gun. When The Empire Strikes Back came out in 1980, my parents did take me to see it in the theatre, and Carrie Fisher made a huge impression on me. Here was a female character who was one of the senior leaders of the Rebellion (at least, at Echo Base on Hoth — it was never clear in the original trilogy where she ranked among the gaggle of Rebel generals, senators, and admirals, but it was up there at any rate), she was calling the shots in the command centre (refusing to leave her post when the Imperials attacked until the place was falling down around her ears and the base had been compromised), giving the tactical briefing for the fighter/transport evacuation, helping to keep the 'Falcon on her feet, refusing to be taken-in by Lando Calrissian's game, and more than willing to tear Cloud City apart to try to save Han and Luke. But while I saw ESB first, the impression of Leia that sticks out the most in my mind was her shooting first aboard Tantive IV in ANH. When I finally saw ANH on my birthday in '81 on a primitive laserdisc machine, my impressions of Leia were confirmed: here was a tough, smart woman who wasn't afraid of facing-down the scariest people in the galaxy, but she could still be tender when her friends were hurting, or frightened when her homeworld was about to get blasted into oblivion. Tough but human.

This was important to my development as a young boy, and as a speculative fiction fan: to see women in this kind of positive, front-and-centre hero's role. To see them as equals of the male characters. It affected how I became a man, and helped ensure I had a broad appreciation of characters and perspectives in speculative fiction — and life in general.

And I give Carrie Fisher a huge amount of credit for that in her portrayal of Leia.

Over the years, I've enjoyed her work in other roles: as Jake's vengeful, jilted fiance in The Blues Brothers; or Paula the crazy adulteress in The Man with One Red Shoe (I'd follow her into a tree any day); or the wagon-wheel-coffee-table-hating friend in When Harry Met Sally; or her hilarious cameos as the nun in Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back and the doctor in Fanboys. Whether she was on screen for just a minute or throughout the whole movie, she brought a real genuineness to her characters (no matter how wacky they were) that made them all the more enjoyable. I'll also give her credit for her script-doctor work on movies like The Wedding Singer and Lethal Weapon 3. As important as the actors are to bringing characters and story to life, none of it would happen without good writers.

But, as good as she was in those roles, to quote Max von Sydow's character in The Force Awakens, she'll always be royalty to me. As much as I respect Carrie Fisher's wish that her obituaries remember her as having "drowned in moonlight, strangled by my own bra" (and think that's one hell of a funny line), I'll always remember her as Leia, who shot first.


Saturday, December 24, 2016

An Ode to the Yuletide Ineptitude of Canada Post

Christmas is a time for giving, and while I'd like to be able to give something to everyone on my list, at least one person won't be getting their present this year, thanks for a complete failure on the part of Canada Post. I'd ordered two packages back in November — one of which is a Christmas present for someone — and they still haven't come. This is insult added to injury: back in August, Canada Post lost a bank draft that was sent to us — it never arrived here, and was never returned to sender.

It would seem the posties really aren't interested in dealing with calls from concerned members of the public either. Their website says:

"Please note that we can only investigate individual letters that have been assigned a tracking number.  For regular mail, your feedback helps us learn where to improve our delivery system.  Feedback will not receive a direct response." 

So, if the vendor you made a purchase from doesn't have a tracking number for you, you're SOL and Canada Post won't even bother to respond to an email. Even if you do have a tracking number, you're SOL as well, as evidenced by the legion of complaints in the comments sections of posts on their Facebook page. It's nice that the organization claims it wants to learn to improve, but a good place to start would be, you know, actually delivering things, like it's paid to do.

I tried phoning Canada Post's "help" line on Friday afternoon, but the Byzantine phone tree appears designed to prevent a caller from actually speaking to a live human being. If you do get through to someone, don't expect any help. I finally got through to someone named Jennifer, who told me there was nothing that could be done, and then hung up on me. Yup, great commitment to customer service there, Jennifer and Canada Post.

Looking at this foolishness from a speculative fictional perspective, it would appear that Canada Post is either harbouring a not-so-secret steampunk desire to travel back in time to 1816 where its business practices might fit in better, or it's in desperate need of a visit by Marley's ghost to learn the true meaning of Christmas... and maybe get some tips on the efficient operation of a business.

In the spirit of the season, I've composed the following Ode to the Yuletide Ineptitude of Canada Post:

'Twas the night before Christmas,
And all through the town
People were crying

Because Canada Post had let them down.
They'd ordered their presents
Weeks and months beforehand with care,
But Canada Post failed to deliver them,
So beneath their trees, all was bare.
Post office social media sites gave non-answers;
It's "customer service" reps hung up the phones;
Whether people had tracking numbers or not
No presents came to their homes.
Plenty of junk mail was delivered
But of presents, there were none.
And at the end of Christmas Eve day
Canada Post collectively wiped its hands and said "I'm done!"
And I heard the postal service exclaim
As staff left for holiday vacations that night:
"We don't give a damn about your parcels!
Kiss our keisters tonight!"


Monday, December 05, 2016

50 Years of Star Trek - Plus a Couple of Weeks

Star Trek didn't have much of an effect on my development as a science fiction fan. I wasn't one of the first generation of people to watch the adventures of the starship Enterprise and her crew when the show debuted 50 years ago — well, 50 years ago plus a couple of weeks — so it didn't explode into my consciousness as something completely new. But coming into it as part of the second generation of fans — the syndication viewers — it has been there all of my life, so as someone who loves sf in general, I was pretty much destined to become a fan. With the 50th anniversary of the original show having come — and gone! — I thought I'd reflect on what Star Trek's various incarnations have meant to me over the years.

When I was a little kid in the late 1970s, there was a lot of science and fiction and fantasy (especially aimed at kids) in pop culture. It wasn't necessarily good, but there was a lot of choice. By the time I was 4 in '78 (and possibly even a little earlier than that, though my memories are a bit spotty going back that far), my parents let me have free reign of the TV on Saturday mornings, throughout the daytime, and even into the early evening if they didn't want to watch something else. There was Starblazers (or Space Battleship Yamato if we're going by the original Japanese name for this anime classic), with the image of the Argo tearing free of the rocky seabed being one of my first clear memories of watching TV. The Superfriends featured prominently among Saturday morning cartoons, and reruns of older superhero-inspired animated shows like Spider-Man and The Superman/Aquaman Hour of Adventure aired throughout the rest of the week. For the afternoons, there was more anime: Battle of the Planets (Gatchaman in Japan; or "G-Force" as we called it, for the name of the feathered team of heroes). In the evenings, we had Battlestar Galactica and Buck Rogers. Oh, and then there was a little thing called Star Wars — not on TV, but deeply ingrained in the zeitgeist. For its part, Star Trek was just another name on the roster of rerun syndication alongside The Time Tunnel, Land of the Giants, and Bewitched. Even Gilligan's Island had the occasional speculative fiction-heavy episode. So, with its spaceships and aliens and ray guns, of course I watched 'Trek as a little guy. I didn't love it, but it was sf and if it was on and if there was nothing that I liked better, I'd pay attention.

That is, until I saw the episode "A Private Little War." It scared the shit out of me, and after seeing it, I wouldn't go near Trek for a long time. No, it wasn't the Mugato that upset me (Come on, really? A white gorilla suit with a horn? The Horta and the salt vampire were scarier than that!). It was what happened to the hill witch, Nona. Remember how Nona decides her husband, Tyree (the chief of the hill people) is weak, and steals a phaser when she fails to seduce Kirk, and tries to bring it to the Klingon-allied townsfolk to exchange for a position of power? It doesn't work. Instead of welcoming her, or haggling over the price of the new superweapon, the bunch of townsmen Nona encounters decides to gang rape her. Now, this was 1960s television, so the scene wasn't as intense as say Lieutenant Thorne's assault of Boomer in the new Battlestar Galactica episode "Pegasus," but the group of men passing Nona around their circle, grabbing her and forcibly kissing her sends a loud and clear message about what's going to happen. As a little kid watching this on a Saturday afternoon or whenever, I didn't understand the exact implication. I only understood that some bad men were being mean to this lady, that they were pushing her around (and it was already a hard and fast rule for me and my little friends at that age that you absolutely did not push or hit girls), and that they were kissing her and she didn't like it. It didn't matter that Nona herself was a kind of bad guy in the story. Even without understanding the specifics of what the scene was foreshadowing, I knew that what was happening was really, really wrong, and I found it deeply frightening, and I din't want to see any more. I turned the channel and avoided Star Trek like the plague for years.

The only exception would be when Star Trek: The Motion Picture came out: I didn't watch the movie (my parents had no interest in Trek or science fiction of any kind, really, so they certainly wouldn't be taking their 5-year-old to that film), but I did pay attention to the trailers on TV. Most of the teaser scenes went over my head, but, despite my wariness of Trek, I was fascinated by the shots of the Enterprise in the orbital dock yard. I still have very clear memories of that part of the TV spots. But I didn't want to see the movie and I still steered clear of the show.

There wasn't even the possibility of easing back into it with the animated Star Trek TV series of the 70s. None of the stations our aerial tower was able to pick up back then ran it. I didn't even know it existed until the late 80s when we'd moved out west and the new house had cable, and even then, toon-Trek was only running dubbed en francaise on a French language station. At that point, it was a moment's curiosity; nothing more.

Fast forward to early 1985 and the golden age of the VCR. My dad came home from work one day with a couple of tapes he'd rented at the local independent video store (in those days, in a small city like Cambridge, Ontario, little indie video stores were the only places you could rent, aside from some of the big department stores like Sears or Eatons or Hudson's Bay, which had movie rental counters in the sections where they sold VHS and Beta machines), including Star Trek III: The Search for Spock. Again, my folks had no interest in sf, but they knew my little brother and I liked the stuff, so Dad picked it up thinking we'd enjoy it. Now, as an 11-year-old who'd braved the library ghost scene in Ghostbusters, I was a long way from that 4-or-5-year-old who'd been freaked-out by the depredations of the townspeople of the planet Neural, but I still had to think about whether to break my self-imposed Trek taboo. Since Dad had gone to the trouble of renting it for us, and (call me shallow if you like) since the illustration on the case looked kinda cool, I figured I'd give it a shot. And I loved it. The Enterprise looked detailed and high-tech and cool, and (with its battle scars) looked like it had some history to it. This new ship was a far cry from the bland tubes and flat surfaces and simple switches and fat lights that dominated the 1960s model and sets, which looked like stuff we'd build in our basement out of cardboard appliance boxes. There were palpable emotions running through the scene of Enterprise limping back into Spacedock at the beginning, and excitement as it fled from Excelsior later on (a space chase that was actually funny, with the new flagship sputtering to a stop like an old Model-T). There were the big stakes of David coming to terms with his mistake (and then getting killed), Kirk losing his son, and everyone hoping against hope that they could bring Spock back to life. Let's not forget the ship battles. The destruction of the Enterprise still raises the hairs on the back of my neck. As on-screen spaceship deaths go, it set the bar. Only the destruction of Babylon 5 and the wreck of Serenity are its equals. The final flight of Galactica and its fleet into Sol at the close of the new Battlestar Galactica series failed to have anywhere near the same emotional punch (and the real failure was that it should have!). TSFS also had a whole planet tearing itself apart in spectacular fashion — this wasn't like Star Wars where there was just a flash of light and a world seen from a distance was gone, we got to see Genesis wracked by earthquakes and volcanic eruptions for a third of the movie before it finally blasted itself into interplanetary ruin. But what impressed me most of all was the Klingons. Thanks to the writing, direction, and the acting skills of Christopher Lloyd (in a huge step away from the Reverend Jim I'd watched on Taxi), these Klingons were nothing like their 1960s predecessors. In the old show, the Klingons were scheming, grumpy braggarts. There was nothing really unique about them, certainly nothing alien. They were just assholes. With goatees and Trump-like tans. But these new Klingons felt like a different species. Lloyd really gives the impression that he's thinking in a different way than a human would, along the lines of a different set of values and feelings. They had their own language and a rough, inhuman (while still humanoid) look and manner of dress (all building off the new foundations laid down in the opening act of TMP). And they didn't just make threats: they blew shit up (and choked weird mutant space worms) without a second thought. Commander Kruge even had a creepy pet alligator-wolf to add to his badass appearance. The Trek III Klingons demonstrated that the people behind the films were thinking hard about putting on a good show. I decided that it was time to give Star Trek another chance.

A couple of months later, as my family was moving out to BC, I had the chance to watch The Wrath of Khan. We were staying in a hotel just a couple of days before the flight, and luckily the place had Superchannel, and one night when my parents were out at a farewell party, TWOK aired. Again, I loved it. How could I not? Interstellar high stakes with serious discussion about whether the Federation was doing the right thing by pursuing the Genesis research, Kirk coping with reuniting with a family he'd never known he'd had, Khan going crazy with the need to get revenge for his wife's death, an ongoing slugfest between two huge ships (Reliant's ambush of Enterprise, and the subsequent carnage aboard NCC 1701A still raise the hairs on the back of my neck), and the death of Spock (which still gets me a little weepy). It's not only my favourite Star Trek movie, it's the pinnacle of the franchise, in my opinion.

Not long after, once I was in BC, I started rewatching the original series. There were two reasons behind this. First, because in the mid-late 80s, there wasn't much in the way of science fiction or fantasy programming on TV that was any good and so I was at the mercy of whatever the UHF stations across the border in Washington would air. Second, because the kids at my new school called me "Spock" — their local slang epithet for nerd, geek, or anyone who made and effort to study and enjoyed learning — and I figured I'd better get more familiar with the original source material if they were going to force this crap on me. So, with reruns of Star Trek coming on every weekend, it wasn't long before I'd watched the entire series and decided that for all of its faults (cheap sets, over-the-top acting, and sometimes lack of subtlety), it was pretty good. The crew was diverse, and they were smart enough that their first option in a crisis was to try to reason their way out of it. Regardless of the intent of the bullies at school, I started to wear the nickname "Spock" with pride. Hell, when we had to draw pastel pictures in grade 7 art class, I drew a pretty good likeness of Mr Spock.

While devouring everything sf at the video store, I came across Star Trek: The Motion Picture and finally got to see what those TV spots years before were all about. And it was... well... it was one of those films that once you've seen it, there's no need to watch more than the first 30-45 minutes ever again. I loved the opening act where the Klingons get their asses kicked by V'Ger. Having watched the films out of order, I'd already seen the new style Klingons in TSFS, but I thoroughly enjoyed seeing more of them, hearing more of their language, and watching a trio of their cruisers waste no time unloading on the strange visitor in their space (as opposed to the Klingons of the old series, who probably would have postured and threatened for half an hour before firing their first shot) — only to have things go very wrong for them very quickly. This let us to see the closest thing to Klingon panic we'd get until the opening of The Undiscovered Country. Then there was Kirk's (and the audience's) introduction to the refitted Enterprise in the orbital dockyard. Accompanied by that soaring Jerry Goldsmith music, the unveiling of the ship took my breath away as much as it did Kirk's. Until that scene, I'd never thought of Enterprise as beautiful. But she was. And grand. And there was a grandeur throughout the movie as a whole, both physically, in the portrayal of of the ships (transports pulling into Enterprise's hanger!), space stations, the Vulcan temple, and most especially V'Ger in all its too-big-to-comprehend cloud-shrouded bulk, but also in the characters striving to be bigger than their circumstances, and the overarching theme of transcendence. And for all of that, it was also a film about everything having consequences, from Kirk rushing the launch of the Enterprise, to Decker and Ilia working together again, to Spock's answering the call of an unknown entity (and the call of his old life), to V'Ger's quest to become something more. In some ways, for being so cerebral, TMP was the epitome of Star Trek. But the movie was also deeply tedious. As much as the original Trek was about discussing the big questions and exploring the nature of who we are, there's no denying that action was an equally important part of the overall story. Kirk had to punch someone or order Sulu to fire the phasers every other episode or it just wasn't Trek. Neither V'Ger's route of the Klingons in the opening act, nor the torpedoing of the asteroid, nor the disintegration of Ilia was enough to break up the long bouts of soulful staring or the endless wannabe-2001 plunge through V'Ger's cloud (incidentally, "V'Ger's Cloud" should probably have been the name of a drink at Quark's bar on DS9). TMP is an important part of the Star Trek canon, but it's not the best instalment.

Right around that time, Trek made a resurgence, and there was an avalanche of entries into the franchise. Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home got things rolling in '86 when it hit the theatres and, because it was funny, appealed to the general audience enough that for a little while the "Spock" jabs stopped at school. Just for a little while. Double dumb ass on them. If nothing else, this instalment picked up where "The Doomsday Machine" episode of the original series left off in the quest to try to prove that a roll of aluminum foil could be a frightening opponent... and, like its forebear, didn't really succeed. But you had to like the twist at the end where a woman walks out on Kirk for a change.

Then a newer, bigger, uglier, heavily pixelated Enterprise D lumbered onto the TV screens for Star Trek: The Next Generation. Looking back, the first season is nearly unwatchable (with the exception of a couple of episodes like "Conspiracy" or "Skin of Evil," or anything with Q that might otherwise have been terrible but was tolerable because of John de Lancie's deliciously intentional, unapologetic, balls-to-the-wall moustache twirling combined with childish mockery of the crew), but I and all of my fanboy friends were glued to it because there still wasn't much in the way of sf TV shows at that point (sure, the War of the Worlds TV series would launch in a year, but that had limited appeal). Over time, it got better, but it remained a niche show followed only by a few other geeks in my junior high and high school. By the time it started to find its stride somewhere in season 2, the stories were getting better and were starting to draw people in (Especially with "The Best of Both Worlds" 2-parter cliffhanger bridging seasons 3 and 4 — no-one could forget Picard being assimilated by the Borg. In fact, I remember a local news story at the time profiling a man who was dying of some disease, who said that one of his regrets was that he wouldn't live to see the second part/premier episode of season 4 — that's sf entering the zeitgeist!) but as good as some of the stories were becoming, I'd read enough science fiction by that point that nothing on the show was particularly new. Ultimately, I think the real value of Next Gen was proving that spinoffs of Star Trek were not only possible, but that they could (occasionally) out-do the original. It paved the way for other, better TV spinoffs.

This was also the time when I started reading the Star Trek novels. They were kind of like cotton candy I'd snack on, on the side, while devouring other, more intellectually nutritious, science fiction and fantasy. But let's give credit where credit is due: some of them were fun! Vonda N. McIntyre's novelizations of TWOK and TSFS were pretty entertaining, and among the media tie-ins, I enjoyed Diane Carey's Final Frontier (a story about Kirk's father joining a mission aboard the brand new Enterprise in the Romulan neutral zone), Margaret Wander Bonanno's Strangers from the Sky (about a secret Vulcan-Human first contact on Earth), and Diane Duane's Spock's World (which had a wonderful line to the effect of "Vulcan didn't have a moon, it had a nightmare"). With the exception of the movie novelizations, the media tie-ins had no place in the official Trek universe continuity, but let's face it, the various franchise movies and TV series played so fast and loose with continuity, the concept was more or less irrelevant.

But even as TV was taking the Trek universe 80 years into the future with different crews and new challenges, the movies kept throwing the aging original cast into the interstellar meat grinder again and again. And, at this point, a pattern began to emerge: every other Trek movie was a complete disaster. TMP was flawed, but II through IV were pretty good. The Final Frontier (under Shatner's direction) in '88, was like a "marsh melon" that had fallen off its stick and rolled in a pile of fresh dog crap. Things got back on track in '91 with The Undiscovered Country, which kicked all kinds of ass. Some really great performances, especially between Nimoy and Kim Cattrall, and Christopher Plummer bestrode that flick like a god. His performance during the trial scene especially was a work of genius ("Don't wait for the translation! Just answer the question!" is still one of my favourite lines of the entire franchise). But things took a nosedive again in Generations. The old series-Next Gen crossover had only one redeeming scene: Kirk's first death (okay, "disappearance" if you want to get technical) aboard Enterprise B. The great hero finally succumbs to something he's seen (and sometimes caused) again and again, but has never touched him until this point: a redshirt death — a quick, almost anonymous and at-the-time unlamented death in the line of duty, just trying to keep the ship running so the captain can steer her to safety, with no posturing or grand last words. And then the flick got down to the serious business of sucking. First Contact, on the other hand, was a solid, exciting story, with some good performances by the Next Gen cast, and some excellent supporting moments by Alice Krige as the Borg queen ("Watch your future's end."), Alfre Woodard as Lily, the intended co-pilot of the Phoenix ("You broke your little ships."), and James Cromwell as a drunken anti-hero version of human warp speed pioneer Zefram Cochrane ("I built this ship so I could retire to some tropical island... filled with... naked women. THAT'S Zefram Cochrane. THAT'S his vision. That other guy you keep talking about, this historical figure? I never met him."). Even if this Cochran doesn't entirely square with the guy Kirk met in the original series (again, that old fast-and-loose approach to continuity in the Trek universe), it's great to watch his character develop through the story. Insurrection? Part of the low patch again. Then onto Nemesis, which had its ups and downs, but certainly wasn't a bad film. I just wish the Next Gen instalments could have ended on a higher note.

Meanwhile, in the TV world, there was Deep Space Nine. The show was unique (for the franchise) in a number of ways: the lead character, Commander (later Captain) Benjamin Sisko was African-American; a family man who brought his son, Jake, with him; he was dealing with the loss of his wife; contrary to the usual Star Trek lead, he (initially) didn't really want the job, and certainly wasn't comfortable for a long time with being the Bajoran messiah. DS9's pilot was also interesting because it bucked the usual "one big happy family" feeling that Trek tended to foster within Starfleet, with Sisko doing little to mask his grudge against Picard for the death of his wife, Jennifer, during the battle of Wolf359 against the Borg — led by Locutus/Picard. The show was also different from the rest of the franchise because of its frequent meditations on religion and how it interacts with a modern, scientific society and different cultures with different beliefs. Other Trek series touched on religion in episodes every now and again, but in DS9 it was a regular fact of life that had to be dealt with because of the beliefs of the local Bajoran society, and especially the station's Bajoran first officer, Kira Nerys. While there were badguys of the week, the show differed from the others in that one of its regular themes was living under the threat of a known enemy — the Cardassians — and dealing with the personal and societal effects of that race's previous conquest of Bajor. Last but not least, DS9 was set on a space station. It didn't go anywhere, so, initially, adventure had to come to it. Until the Klingon and Dominion wars, that is, when things really got interesting. Despite suffering from the usual rocky first season that seems mandatory for Trek shows, in many ways DS9 was the best and most mature of the Star Trek series. There were deeper explorations of the characters, darker moral challenges and murkier motivations, and, for the back half of the series, the prolonged study of the brutality of war and the difficulty of overcoming existing prejudices and old ways of doing things. In part, the credit for this higher quality of the show goes to the writers, actors, and directors who crafted it episode by episode. But that alone wasn't enough. What made DS9 so good was that it was pushed: It was in direct competition with Babylon 5, another show about life aboard a frontier space station beset by all manner of political intrigues and threats from out of the darkness. And Babylon 5 was a better show. Despite having a lower budget, B5 was better written (smarter, funnier, sadder, more frightening, more prescient, and, in its portrayal of its characters and their highs and lows, more real), more mature, and had a complex and complete overarching series plot. DS9 may have had the Trek legacy and popularity behind it, but it constantly had to work to be the best it could be to stay respectable in the eyes of fans who had another option. And while it didn't quite match up to B5, DS9 became one hell of a good show that I enjoyed throughout my university and broadcast school years, and much of it is worth rewatching ("The Way of the Warrior", "Trials and Tribble-ations", "By Inferno's Light", "Far Beyond the Stars", and "In the Pale Moonlight" being my favourites). The only thing that really bothered me was the series finale, where Sisko leaves his family — with his new wife, Cassidy, pregnant — to go off with the wormhole aliens and become a god. Now, if time doesn't have any real meaning to the "Prophets", why was it so imperative for Sisko to go with them right away? When they make their demand of him, his response should have been something like "Time is meaningless to you, so you can sit tight for about 17 or 18 years while I support my wife through the rest of her pregnancy and childbirth, and raise my kid to an age where she/he can deal with dad moving out for a while." But no. He makes a token resistance and then goes along with their illogical demand. Hear that sound? It was the ball getting dropped. But that wasn't enough to ruin my overall enjoyment of the series.

Round about this time, my friend David introduced me to Star Fleet Battles. With this table-top strategy game, we weren't limited to watching the occasional ship-to-ship or fleet battle on DS9; we could stage them ourselves! Gathered around the hex board with our other buddies, JP and Jim, we'd spend afternoons or evenings over the summer breaks in university slugging it out between the Federation, Klingons and all manner of other major and minor interstellar powers. I usually chose to play the Gorn, since "The Arena" was one of my favourite old series episodes (maybe it was because the Gorn reminded me a little of Godzilla, who I've loved ever since I was a little guy) and more often than not took their dreadnought into battle. And, more often than not, I got my scaly reptilian ass handed to me. The Gorn dreadnought was a solid capital ship, with lots of power, an impressive phaser suite, a nice complement of shuttles (I used them as fighters), and those big nasty plasma torpedoes. But it was slow, and those plasma torpedoes took far too long to arm and fire, and they were treated like missiles or drones and so took forever to track their targets around the board (unlike photon torpedoes or disrupters, which were treated like energy weapons and hit or missed their targets instantly — a section the rules I still think is completely unfair, and not just because the rule worked against me). My opponents would usually just outrun the plasma torps, and, because the other guys enjoyed playing Klingons, lob drones (each with their own nasty weapons packages) at me until I was a charred hulk adrift in space. Still, the game was a lot of fun, especially with those guys, and I miss those days.

The mid-90s also saw the launch of the new series: Star Trek: Voyager. Focussing on the adventures of a Federation scout ship lost in the Delta quadrant during the Next Gen era, the show differed somewhat from the usual franchise formula. Led by a female captain, the crew was a hybrid of Starfleet personnel and Maquis raiders (freedom fighters by their own assertion, though rebels and possibly terrorists from their actions in some episodes of DS9), along with others picked up from around the quadrant along the way. And while the crew of Voyager did explore many strange new worlds, the show's focus was on their efforts to get home to the Alpha quadrant, trying to avoid threats like the Kazon, Hirogen (ripoffs of the hunters from Predator), and the Borg along the way. The first season was, in keeping with the Next Gen Trek pattern, weak, but the show did improve. While it did have some great episodes, like the two-parter "Year of Hell", "Prophecy" and "Endgame", the writing rarely reached the level of maturity and intelligence that DS9 did.

By 2001, Paramount was at it again, winding the clock back and giving us the prequel series Enterprise. This addition to the franchise (about a starship sent out by Earth in the years before the Federation to explore the galaxy — without the Vulcans holding them back... much — and try to make new friends) has taken heat over the years for being the weakest series. While I can't say that I loved it, I'll give STE credit for bucking the the franchise trend and starting out with a strong first season. Season 2 started to decline though, and by season 3, I'd dropped it. I finally punched it up on Netflix a couple of months ago to go back and watch a few key episodes of the final seasons.

Then came the reboot movie series. Eeesh. All style and no substance. Not even Star Trek, really. I'll give JJ Abrams credit for the first one, Star Trek, because it was fun, despite its stupidity. The opening battle where the Kelvin is destroyed is both exciting and touching. And, as much as constructing the Enterprise in a corn field in the middle of Iowa made no sense (except perhaps as an argument that the entire reboot series is nothing but a hallucination of Ray Kinsella as he has a complete mental breakdown after the supposed events of Field of Dreams, probably due to some exotic fungus on his corn), it's a beautiful image on-screen. But the plot's dumb and the lead characters are strident idiots who spend more time arguing with each other like that drunken-resentful-middle-aged-couple-on-the-downslope-of-a-marriage-that-you-try-to-avoid-at-a-party than they do actually trying to figure out a way out of their predicament or discuss what's at stake. And that's what's at the heart of real Star Trek stories: an examination of issues. There may be aliens and fighting and explosions and redshirt deaths and even some laughs, but Star Trek has always been about talking about different sides of important issues. And Abrams' follies had none of that. That's why they're not 'Trek.

Into Darkness was even worse: a brain-dead, self-indulgent mockery of The Wrath of Khan. We only saw it in the theatre because my wife is a Cumberbatch fangirl. I vowed I would never do it again — not if Paramount was serving up any more Abrams-style reboots, anyway. So we took a pass on Beyond this past summer. I may watch it when it comes on Netflix just for the sake of saying I've seen the reboot farce all the way through, but from what I've heard from friends who did see it, I'm in no hurry.

Now, looking ahead to 2017, there's a new TV series on the way: Star Trek: Discovery. I haven't really been following the gossip about the show, and while I have to say the design for the new ship looks like the bastard child of a Constitution class heavy cruiser and a Klingon D7 battlecruiser, I'm willing to give it a chance. After all, Star Trek has always been there, and even if it falters sometimes,  it eventually comes back around again, usually with pretty good results. May it continue to boldly go...