Saturday, July 30, 2016

The Starlost, Episode 4, "The Pisces" (1973)

The Starlost, Episode 4, "The Pisces"

While hanging about the Ark, our protagonists are on hand to see a ship arrive. This ship, the Pisces, had left the Ark many years before, and failing to rendezvous in a timely manner, had hit relativistic speeds. For them, only ten years had passed.

How did they greet these newcomers on realizing that they were actually crew members? Did they reveal the accident immediately? No, they went along for a while, not asking questions, not providing answers, until the protagonists finally told the newcomers that they 400 years had passed.

Even stranger, the newcomers were hit with a relativistic dementia, whose only cure was to go back into deep space. In service to that, the two junior crew members, both women, hijacked the ship and set course for Earth because they didn't want to die when the Ark collided with a star. (And who could blame them? They tripled the number of available men on board.) Eventually our trio of tedium broke up the mutiny and got dropped back on the Ark, whereupon reset button was pushed and the Pisces left the Ark to preserve its crew members.

What did our protagonists learn? They had learned that a few reactors had blown up. That's it.

I'm pretty sure the navigator got some nookie. Given who her crew mates had been, a big strong blacksmith who could go for longer than 30 seconds must have seemed like an irresistible opportunity.

On the whole, this episode felt like an acceptable 22-minute plot stretched into 50 minutes. Almost every bizarre storytelling decision of the plot can trace itself back to this overstretched plot.

Friday, July 29, 2016

The Starlost, Episode 3, "The Goddess of Calabra" (1973)

The Starlost, Episode 3, "The Goddess of Calabra" (1973)

The journeys of our protagonists take them into a dome dominated by a military society. All the women died centuries ago, while the men have continued onward through cloning. It's an all male society, where the governor wins his position through mortal combat. If this doesn't sound bad enough, all strangers are immediately suspect as mutants. To make things awkward and slimy, Rachael is a woman, and is immediately declared a goddess for the political advantage of the governor. He plans to marry her to seal his position against all rivals. Rachel's companions fight free, taking sanctuary with the priests, who actually know something about the ark and its purpose. Deciding to end the charade, one of protagonists fights the governor in moral combat, winning the fight, but leaving the governor alive. They manage to escape.

The plot of this particular story seems straight forward at first, but that's only because I explained them well. As played out in the show, the plot resembles a demolition derby, where the various points crash into each other until all the plot points are fully broken, and even the sole surviving plot point is barely operational.

You'll recognize some familiar faces in this episode. Barry Morse played the chief priest. John Colicos played the governor. Not surprisingly, both went on to playing similarly toned SF roles in the future.

This particular episode took me three sittings to get through, the overall episode having the engagement of a minefield.

Thursday, July 28, 2016

The Starlost, Episode 2, "Lazarus from the Mist" (1973)

The Starlost, Episode 2, "Lazarus from the Mist" (1973)

In the second episode of The Starlost, our protagoinsts revive a cryogenically frozen man and learn pitifully little from their opportunity.

The episode picks up where 101 left off. The trio walks from the bridge to the main medical section. There, a group of people descended from guards protect the area, killing pretty much anyone who shows up. What lies in the medical area is sacred. Somehow our protagonists make it through, and there discover a hold full of people in suspended animation. Working things out, they succeed in reviving on such man, but as luck would have it, they revived a man with radiation sickness. He's dying even as they try to win his help. For some unfathomable reason, the ark builders thought it okay to send a dying man even in an emergency merely because his wife asked for this to happen. The man answers some of their questions, they beat off the guards again, and then they put the man back into stasis. As for the degenerate guards, they find a nearby dome and give it to them as their home, presumably locking them in.

Some things amaze me. The protagonists were unbelievably unlucky in finding the one person in the whole frozen section who was dying. Next, with the lives of everyone on board at stake, didn't try to revive anyone else. Given the literal life or death stakes, they should have revived everyone. Instead, they walk off after the episode is over and never consider the frozen people again.

Just as confusing, the security people didn't know about the other domes or didn't have access to them, so they became degenerates in the halls. If anyone would know about all the areas, and have access to them, it would have been the security people.

The episode concludes with the protagonists learning a few more tantalizing clues, then essentially hitting the reset button. This pattern will continue, frustrating so, as the series progresses. One is given the illusion of progress rather than actual progress.

Wednesday, July 27, 2016

The Starlost, Episode 1, "Voyage of Discovery" (1973)

The Starlost, Episode 1, Voyage of Discovery (1973)

Summary: This episode opens the series. Three stilted young people from the dome Cypress Corners, as wood as their home implied, discover that their home is actually part of an ark in space, a colony ship headed towards doom.

Synopsys: Our lead character wants to marry Rachel, but is denied by the Creator, whose voice is heard from a black device. It turns out that the zelot leader of these space-quakers is using his own voice to speak as the Creator, that Rachel must marry the town smith. There's nothing wrong with the marriage at all. When our hero is chased by a mob of his fellows, he flees into the tunnels of the ship where he discovers the truth about his home. The ship will soon crash into a G-type star. On returning, he grabs his girl and escapes with her back into the ship, this time chased by the smith. When they discover the bridge together, the truth becomes self-apparent.

The show itself contained none of the pacing or humor that rival American shows had been showing, following instead the dryer pacing of early 70's British programming, such as Doctor Who. (If you doubt me, go watch the contemporary Doctor Who series "The Ark in Space.") However, as Doctor Who usually had colorful characters in the lead, this show didn't. I am honestly stunned by blandness of the main characters, who work to show little to no emotion at all. If there was any cast more lacking in chemistry, I want a showdown. Let see who lacks the most.

Sunday, July 24, 2016

The Beginning Place (1979)

The Beginning Place (1979) by Urusula LeGuin was one of those books that I used to see in the library. Something about the title grabbed me, but I never quite got around to picking it up. I thought it was a young adult book, but in that, I was wrong. Now we would call it a new adult book.

This book challenges my ability to summarize it, or even understand it. Although pegged as part romance, it doesn't progress as you would expect a romance to progress. The man isn't strong. The woman isn't beautiful. Their destinies are not perfect together, if only they'd see it. Quite honestly, what we have is two normally hurt people trying to turn themselves into competent adults, and having a too few role models to fall back on.

Meanwhile, we have the fantasy world which is vaguely gothic in feel, always evening, yet usually pleasant and welcoming. The world itself seems to have rules rather than overt magic steamrolling the narrative. This is not a story of overt magic. This world feels substantially more whole, feeds our protagonists in a more satisfying way. And while they are they, time almost stops, but never completely enough to forget yourself. The responsibilities of the real world always pull them out.

Although I'd like to rate this highly, I found that the story left me, as a person, a bit emptier. The romance felt rushed and perfunctory. The ending felt out of character. The symbolism left me hanging. Whatever this book was supposed to be, or aimed to be, I feel that it went too far in too many directions to leave it much of anything. Like a hollow chocolate bunny, an outside layer of delicious can't hide the empty middle.

Wednesday, July 20, 2016

Final Fantasy X (2001)

Final Fantasy X (2001) is highly regarded as one of the best, if not the best, of the Final Fantasy (FF) series. Replaying this game fifteen years later, I still find the story solid, the mechanics solid, the game play solid, and the mini-games so god-screamingly fubar that I want to murder a game developer. For this revisit, I bought the Remastered HD version for PC.

The HD remaster looks very, very nice, while retaining the bright colors and vibrancy of the original version. Thank you, artists, for not ruining the wonderful aesthetic. FFX is truly one of the most beautiful RPGs ever created.

The story itself follows the understandable Final Fantasy arc. We get a team, a crisis, a journey, eventually leading to an airship, and a final boss battle in an etherial place. It's what they did from there that made the story work. This is the first FF (I think) where a major point of the story is the romance between the hero and the heroine. It's a tragic love story. Over the course of the story, we learn that if she succeed, she dies, but if he succeed, then he dies. Our lovers are star crossed, their eternal longing certain. It's the success of this element, played straight, that expanded the story from being a boy's story to being and everybody story. Add to that the story of the previous generation, told through flashbacks, the stories of all the other companions, and the stories of other peoples, and you get a FF so packed with story that it splits its seams when it laughs.

You see all the usual FF classes, all the same, and yet all a little different. Yuna is both a summoner and a white mage, and the Aeons she summons don't just flash through for a round, but stick around and fight as their own beings. With the Aeons being so powerful, it means that Yuna is easily the most powerful character in the game when you need her to be. Lulu is a black mage, down to her black dress. She doesn't have a pointy hat, but her stuff animals that she uses to cast spells are of all the cutsie creatures that his version of FF didn't use (such as moogles and onion knights). Kimari combines the powers of a blue mage and a dragoon, in the most disappointing combo in the game, not being a strong enough spellcaster to matter and not being a strong enough warrior to matter. Rikku is both a thief and an alchemist. Auron is a swordsman. Tidus is another swordsman with elements of a bard. Wakka is an archer in the guise of a blitzball player, his specialty being status ailments.

The advancement system is like nothing that I've seen before or since, with the characters buying spheres on a grid, growing in power not by leveling, but by traversing the vast sphere grid. As the characters fight, they acquire both sphere levels and spheres for activating those levels.

Power doesn't just proceed linearly, it proceeds laterally. Rikku enables the modification of weapons using collected items and spheres. A few encounters allow the same with aeons, also using collected items and spheres. Combine the right things together for the right kinds of fight, and your characters can now grow powerful in completely new ways.

As all FF games, this one has bosses galore. Sometimes the boss fights are fun, sometimes they're annoying, and sometimes they are grinding long, especially at the end. Most of the time, I had fun with the bosses. My only annoyance with them is that they are immune to anything interesting that your character do. This makes sense, as the game developers didn't want you using any "I WIN" spell combo to trivialize the boss fight.

The PC Remastered version came with controls to increase or remove random encounters, a mechanical auto-fight, and a gameplay speedup. This helped in many instances later in the game when things got grindy.

Along with all the good comes a little bad. While some of the mini-games included were fun, for the most part, I found too many annoying, and some flat-out murderously frustrating. The monster arena subquest, where you seek to catch 10 of every monster, proceeds quickly at first, but in the later dungeons, some of the encounters show up so rarely that you can spend hours grinding just to get to 10 encounters. (I'm looking at you, Tonberry.) One subquest required that I dodge lightning bolts, but I dodged 0 lightning bolts in 30 or 40 tries. I think that my video was lagging behind the software so that when the image appeared on my monitor, I was already too late to dodge the lightning bolt. Even so, you had to dodge 200 of those thing in a row. That's FUBAR crazy. Challenges are one thing, but self-torture is entirely a different thing.

Getting to some of the best spells in the game proved rather hard. At this point, I haven't found enough Lvl. 4 key spheres to unlock any of the best spells. With enough work, yes, I can collect them, but that just brings us back to the grind. I had this problem on the first play through. Fortunately, you don't need the best of everything to complete the game. I think that those super spells were there to satisfy the completionist and challenge-obsessed players. They like the crazy hard challenges thrown into games.

The characters have all sorts of special celestial weapons that they can acquire, which is fun except for all the mini-games that have to get played to acquire said weapons. There's even a few hidden aeons that can be acquired.

This HD version is descended from the International version, which introduced dark aeons to the game. For some unfathomable reason, the designers put super-impossible (but not impossible) aeons into places where you had to face them, whereupon you got butchered. I found that they sucked so much fun out of the game that I used a game editor to remove them. I had no problem with the challenge, but I had every problem with the designers requiring you to power up your characters so that you could get the items that you needed to power up your characters. By the time that you can defeat the dark aeons, you don't need the special items at all.

As normal, the final boss fights are insanely hard and long, with multiple stages of defeat. Fortunately, you can work them out. The problem in losing, of course, is that you need to go through all the cut scenes all over again, and you can't skip.

My main problem with the end game is that it got rather grindy. I ran into this problem when I first played FFX. I can grind valiant at first, but soon I flag. There soon comes a point where the potential reward is offset by the tedium of the journey. The offered challenge is just not enough to draw me on.

And then there's Blitzball. I figured out more of it this time, but truth be said, the game bores me and your opponents run over you for so long that playing the game just gets unrewarding fast. Even worse, some of Wakka's best moves are tied to the blitzball subgame, so if you don't play it, one of your characters doesn't get his best stuff. Evil!!!

That much said, don't let my rants about the endgame fool you. The flaws of the endgame stand out so starkly because the reset of the game works so fabulously well. And for some, the flaws are what they love. There are people who love blitzball. There are people who love the challenges. There are people who love the crazy side quests. It's all good for somebody.

I hope that ten years from now, I take the time to play it again.

Monday, July 18, 2016

Time War (1973)

Time War (1973) by Lin Carter was a tribute to A. E. van Vogt. This sort of novel was a huge throwback to a former days of SF, in the 30's and 40's, when van Vogt wrote his convoluted stories of the super man. (And, incidentally, reminds us of the racism of the time which so permeated SF.) Lin explains the the style of the novel in the epilogue.

In this story, a man learns that he can teleport, and soon after, learns that he is the radionic superman, a rare event in the history of the world. From there develops not only a convoluted plot, taking only 160 pages to resolve, but endless amounts of describing and redescribing the same situation over and over. Yes, at merely 160 pages, the book feels padded. Quite often, my eyes glazed over and I failed to read paragraphs at a time, but that didn't matter. The same facts were deployed again and again, just in case you missed one.

In case you were in doubt, there's only one beautiful woman in the book, and the guy ends up with her end in the end. This sort of book is a male self-fulfillment fantasy.

This books also feels a bit like a conservative fulfillment fantasy as well. It should be noted that the ordinary people of the future acted like children, lived without responsibility, and were not awake to their predicament. That sounds like an awful lot like today's modern Conservative rhetoric. In contrast, the Conservative Superman takes his business to the top, his astonishing mind destroying his foes, untangling tangles plots, and generally self-making himself. He needed no help.

In all honestly, I can't rate this book as low as it deserves, but I can't rate it highly at all. The book bored me in a mere 160 pages. That's an astonishing feat. If you happen to like this classic stuff, then maybe you'll enjoy it. Myself, I'll give it a pass. I'll also give Lin Carter another try, just not by reading a tribute to a classic style.

Friday, July 15, 2016

Midnight at the Well of Souls (1977)

Midnight at the Well of Souls begins Jack Chalker's Well World series. Tacking WORLD onto a concept was the freshest meme back then, and the Well World certainly delivers. When I picked up the book, I didn't expect much, but I found the prose style energetic, up-paced, and entertaining. This was a much better read than I was expecting. And like most of the SF of that era, it wraps itself up in one book.

The story itself is a sci-fantasy. That's all due to the concept of the Well World, where many different races live in hexagons on the planet's surface. They were all artificially created by a race called the Markovians, and the planet itself is run by a world brain. Thus, you have super-high tech appearing as magic, and many otherwise fantasy creatures, such as centaurs, mermaids, and hyper-intelligent concepts. (Really).

Yet, that's not the story. That's just the concept.

In the story itself, the passengers on a freighter, responding to a distress call, find themselves dragged into the Well World, given new bodies, and begin a race to reach the control center of the planet. To do that, each group must lie, cheat, steal, and cross alien and hostile hexes in order to get there first.

The protagonist is a freighter captain, and inhumanly old Nathan Brazil, who doesn't much like what the human race has come to. Identical service clones are not his idea of a good time. When pulled into Well World, it soon becomes clear that there's more to Nathan than meets the eye, and he knows more about the Well World than he's letting on.

The book has a little sex, but not graphic enough to bother with. If you're easily offended by inter-species sex, and all the possible variations of offended implied by changing bodies, which also means changing genders, then this might not be a good book for you. Even so, the risque is mild by today's standards, and I don't think that most folks would notice much.

Sunday, July 10, 2016

The Best Science Fiction and Fantasy Stories of the Year (2007)

I found The Best Science Fiction and Fantasy of the Year (2007) a rather frustrating and glorious experience, depending on the story. On balance, I found too many stories simply not to my taste, so I skipped them. Of the stories that remained, I can heartily endorse each and every one of them as GOOD.

What was wrong with this collection? I found that too many of these stories weren't fantasy or science fiction stories, they were other kinds of story with fantasy or SF twists, usually at the end. While I don't call them bad stories, as each was written very well, they simply didn't strike me as belonging in this collection. You might think me narrow minded or intolerant or fussy or behind the times, and maybe I am each of these things, but I strongly disagree with the notion. I've read some pretty radical stuff in my day without blinking. This stuff wasn't radical, it was boring.

Even worse than boring was the sameness of all the stories. I could have sworn up and down that most of these stories was written by the same dull writer. The voicing came across like a machine had produced each story, each one using the same kind of pacing and technique. Unfortunately, without the engagement being in the stories, each one felt dull.

As for the good tales, they were a varied and engaging lot. I'll give a shout-out to some of my favorites. My criteria is that the story must work through its SF or fantasy element. If you can easily change the element while keeping the heart of the story, I don't consider it a SF or Fantasy story. Also excluded is any story which I've forgotten the plot for only a few days after reading it.

Three Twilight Tales - Jo Walton
These three, fairytale style stories, are just long enough to entertain and get their point across.

The Island - Peter Watts
A fantastic psychological hard SF story and a hard SF story at the same time.

Ferryman - Margo Lanagan
This is a very mythic tale, told well.

Dragon's Teeth - Alex Irvine
While I found the ending rather empty, and the structure rather awkward and forced at times, the story is a fine example of low fantasy which, when working well, works extremely well.

Mongoose - Sarah Monette and Elizabeth Bear
This is pretty much a medium-hardness SF tale. While I think that the story lacks a certain something and has a few pacing issues, I rather enjoyed everything else.

Before My Last Breath - Robert Reed
Mankind discovers an alien graveyard. Simple, yet mournful.

Joboy - Diana Wynne Jones
A boy discovers his own heritage the hard way. I think that the story ended a bit poorly, but it held me all the way through with no issues.

Utriusque Cosmi - Robert Charles Wilson
I don't know whether to call this a time travel story, a memoir, or a rationalized Theosophical universe. Honestly, it's all of the above and it just WORKS.

A Delicate Architcture - Catherynne M. Valente
This is a fairytale style story, about a confetion-made girl, one with great heart and heartlessness.

The Cat Who Walked a Thousand Miles - Kij Johnson
This was a simple animal perspective story, well done. This story screams "read me out loud." Interestingly, she had a second story in this volume which was too much even for me to read.