Sunday, November 29, 2009

Splinter of the Mind's Eye (Foster, Alan Dean)

Rating: 3
Year: 1978
Genre: Sci / Star Wars
Read again? Ask me in 10 years.

I took nearly 5 pages of notes for this one. Woof.

This was the first "Star Wars" spin-off book to pop up after the original movie. I ate it up, like many "Star Wars"-hungry kids of the time. I suppose Foster--and Brian Daley, with his "Han Solo" books--knew their audience. At least, I hope they were deliberately writing for 11-year-olds. It would explain a few things.

As with Daley's "Solo" books, you won't find "Star Wars" anywhere in or on the book, just the "from the Adventures of Luke Skywalker" note beneath the title. But you know it's SW because it's got SW words--Luke Skywalker! Princess Leia! R2-D2! C-3PO!

And Darth Vader!

That was all this 11-year-old needed.

Luke & Leia are sneaking from the outskirts of the Circarpous system to a meeting with possible Rebel sympathizers on the 4th planet. Instead of them driving something sensible like a shuttle or courier ship, Luke's in his trusty X-Wing (with Artoo) and Leia's flying a Y-Wing (with 3PO).

Leia's ship develops convenient engine trouble and they make a forced landing on Dagobah Circarpous V, aka Mimban, a swampy, slimy mudhole that Yoda would love. Both ships are wrecked (convenient lightning-like disruption in the upper atmosphere), and the four of them make their way to a landing beacon, hoping for passage off-planet.

They find an Imperial mining colony, complete with Stormtroopers and rowdy miners. Luke & Leia steal some clothes and try to fit in. They meet an old woman and strike a deal with her: help her find the fabled Kaiburr crystal, she'll help them steal a ship.

--Leia's engine trouble is in her upper-right engine...on a Y-Wing? They only HAVE two engines. I'm not gonna be out-geeked by this hack!

--The lightning-like disruption doesn't damage Artoo, even though the droid's exposed outside Luke's ship.

--Landing beacon, colony--but no one picked up all the radio chatter between Luke & Leia before and during the crisis. After he crashes, Luke refrains from yelling while he looks for Leia--might attract attention.

--The Big Battle near the end features a primitive tribe of critters that demolish a company of Stormtroopers without using energy weapons. The Coway aren't ewoks, but the parallels between this and "Jedi" are amusing. Obviously (if we take this book as canon) the Empire didn't learn a thing from the encounter.

--The Kaiburr crystal: a honking big glowing ruby that magnifies the Force. And we never see it again once the book's done.

This is another B-grade sci-fi book like Daley's "Han Solo" trio and the horrible epic series "New Jedi Order." The plot doesn't twist much at all, and we plod half-awake from situation to situation--oh, look, they're gonna crash. Oh, she fell into quicksand. Look, Stormtroopers. Oh, now she fell through a hole in the ground. That guy's gonna kill Luke. Oh no, Stormtroopers are coming. Hey, that's that Darth Vader guy, he's not very nice. What? The book's done? Yay.

Where Daley relies on the longer words in his thesaurus to remind us that he's being sophisticated, Foster tends to go for word-count.

Characterization isn't great; Leia is just the girl-in-distress, screaming and crying hysterically at times. She gets mad at Luke after the crash-landing for not pulling a miracle out of his ass and saving the mission...WHOSE ship had engine trouble? Then she gets mad at him for being right about not trying to land on Mimban. She gets mad a lot. She does the Space Bitch thing a lot. Meh.

Foster DOES play lightly with the sexual tension between pre-sibling Luke and Leia (remember, it's not until "Return of the Jedi" that we learn about that), but they still never do more than exhange significant stares. There was some attempt at character development, but none of them are interesting people for the reader to identify with.

Dialog is laughable at best; none of the Big Names sounds like him- or herself. They all sound like Foster's writing.

If you want GOOD "Star Wars," find Timothy Zahn's "Thrawn" books--a trilogy and a pair--and skip this one.

Thursday, November 26, 2009

Solo 02--Han Solo's Revenge (Daley, Brian)

Rating: 3
Year: 1979
Genre: Sci-Fi / Star Wars
Read Again? In a decade, perhaps

Second in the Han Solo set.

No dusty encrustations decorate his thesaurus: Daley the syllable-smith forges onward!

This is the most complex of the three books; Solo and Chewie each get their own plotlines! Beyond that, it's a straight line "B" book like the other two.

They start off on Kamar, showing travel movies to the natives...when the natives become restless, Solo decides to put in a "blind" offer--pilot and ship need work, no questions asked.

They get a contact, show up, and soon find that they're expected to give some slavers and their "cargo" a ride. Firefight, k'pew, k'pew, bad guys die, Han decides to go to the slavers' contact on Bonadan: someone owes him and Chewie 10,000 credits!

The slavers are waiting. Another fight, slash slash, Chewie and Solo split up--the Wookiee in the Millennium Falcon, Han with his new gal-pal on a slow boat--all headed to Ammuud, the next planet in line. Solo still doesn't have the money, and the slavers are still after him!

On top of all this, a skip-tracer from a collections agency has tracked the Falcon to Bonadan and intends to take the ship as payment for money Han owes someone else. This character's pretty lame as Space Critters go. Remember--it's Sci-Fi, so we have to have anthropomorphized animals-as-people; Lucas gave us Space Mice, Space Trees, Space Wolves, Space Twin Sisters, Space Walruses (Walri?), Space Yaks, Space Squids, Space Goats, and Space Teddy Bears....

Daley gives us...the Space Otter. Or maybe it's a Space Seal. Space Otter sounds better. Spray (get it? Aquatic critter, watery name? ha, ha) is buck-toothed, near-sighted, talks with a lifp around thofe bfig teef. This is supposed to be the comic relief, since Spray stays with Chewie and the Falcon--you've got that whole big, hairy wookie/small Space Otter "Odd Couple" thing...meh.

That's the thing, here. Daley doesn't use ANY of these elements to advantage. Han and the women in all three books don't really have a lot of developed sexual tension to push the characters along. They're set-dressing, all equally anonymous and generic, all pale reflections of Princess Leia.

The various Space Critters--a pair of humanoid Space Cats in "Star's End," the Space Otter here, and the Space Caterpillar in "Lost Legacy"--are underdeveloped, not particularly interesting or funny. They're just boring 2-dimensional people like the other characters, only they're funny-looking.

This is also the book that introduces what has become my least-favorite "Star Wars" critter name: howlrunner. No matter what planet we're on (or what planet someone's from), "howlrunner" is the standard "Star Wars" name for a wolf. Given that most of the language is "translated" for us in the narrative...why not just call it a wolf, or "the wolf-like [alien-sounding name]"?

There are some notable howlers--other than Space Wolves--in the story. Chewie is forced to make a high-altitude mountain landing; while he's setting up a sensor on a nearby ridge, there's a stampede of Space Cattle--and they're getting dangerously close to him! So our Wookiee McGyver builds himself a hang glider!

Yes. A hang glider.

From the corpse of a pterosaur, the sensor tripod, some clamps, and some cable!

He glides too far...face-plants into the nearby lake...and Space Otter is there! Chewie is saved!!

You can safely skip all three of these books. But it's good news for Alan Dean Foster: He's not the worst "Star Wars" writer anymore. This is subject to change, because I'm considering reading his ghost-written "Star Wars" novelization. I haven't cracked it open in more than 20 years, and I remember really disliking it.

Sunday, November 22, 2009

Quickie: A History of Florida Forts (de Quesada, Alejandro)

Rating: 4
Year: 2006
Genre: History/Forts
Read again? (still reading)

I'm all about forts, especially those built along the Coastal U.S. in the aftermath of the War of 1812. But any fort is cool with me.

I got this book in May 2007 during a visit to the Castillo de San Marcos in St. Augustine. I started in on it, but didn't get very deep in, so this'll be a "quickie" review.

There's a wealth of information in its 200 pages, and plenty of half-tone black & white photos and illustrations. The book's divided into four large chapters:

1. The Colonial Era
2. The Territorial Era and Seminole Wars
3. The Civil War
4. The Modern Era

I seem to remember that the reading was dry, but in fairness it's been nearly 2 years, so I need to start over.

Solo 03--Han Solo and the Lost Legacy (Daley, Brian)

Rating: 3
Year: 1980
Genre: Sci-Fi/Star Wars
Read again? In another decade

Ooops. I read 'em out of order. This is the third in the set that isn't so much a trilogy as three stand-alone stories.

Daley's back at the thesaurus for this third Solo book, filling in the syllables to let us know that we're reading Science Fiction, not your common dimestore paperback.

Han and Chewie are in the Tion Hegemony, a galactic backwater, having skipped out of the Corporate Sector. Times are bad, business is slow, and they end up working as pit crew for an arrogant air-show flyer. Then they get an offer: ship some educational materials to a university on another world.

It turns out they were recommended by an old pal, Badure, who has a line on something big--a treasure vault containing the last hoard of tributes to Xim the Despot (I wonder if he called himself that?). This is Science Fiction, so we have to have a history expert who just happens to be a Space Caterpillar. He's seeking his fortune and glory before he becomes a Space Butterfly (but Daley calls that a "chromawing").

Badure also warns Solo that he's being stalked by the notorious assassin Gallandro, fastest gun in the galaxy, who has a score to settle.

Then there's the army of Xim's war robots, talking dinosaurs, and Daley's thesaurus, which should be named as a character itself.

Marginally better than "Star's End," but still firmly on the "B" list; Daley's plots flow right downstream with few twists or turns. His characters are simply there, barely fleshed out, not particularly compelling--and they all sound alike.

But it's Daley's narrative style that suffers the most; those extra syllables don't make the prose seem sophisticated, just clumsy.

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Solo 01--Han Solo at Star's End (Daley, Brian)

Rating: 3
Year: 1979
Genre: Sci-Fi/Star Wars
Read Again? In another 10 years

First of the original Han Solo trilogy.

I devoured this book and the other "Star Wars" tie-ins over that long, dark time between the original "Star Wars" and "The Empire Strikes Back." That 12-year-old me couldn't get enough--Lucas' brainchild was in my blood, no matter that I was maybe 18 months later than every other kid on the planet in seeing the original.

This is pre-franchise "Star Wars." You won't find those two words anywhere on the book. There's just a little tag under the title letting you know that it's from the Adventures of Luke Skywalker.

But it has Han Solo! It's got Chewbacca the Wookiee! It's got the Millennium Falcon! It's got other "Star Wars" words! But there's no Empire, no Luke Skywalker, no Jabba the Hutt. Han and Chewie are in the United States Corporate Sector, where the government places profit above everything else.

After the Falcon takes some damage on a smuggling run, Han & Chewie seek out an old friend: Doc, the leader of a...consortium of enterprise-minded ship techs, who can and will do most anything, no questions asked, for the right price. "Outlaw-techs," as Daley calls them. But Doc's not there--he disappeared months ago, leaving his daughter Jessa to run the family business.

Jessa is happy to make the repairs; all Han has to do is go to a meet-spot, pick up some people, and take them where they need to go. The meet-spot is a Corporate Sector data center; the people are looking for information about missing relatives, "disappeared" as undesirables. Their first passenger is a droid, Bollux, and its little super-computer pal Blue Max. We have to have comic relief, right?

The mission goes well enough at first. Han & Chewie meet their contact, they get into the data center, Max finds the information they need, the rest of the team shows up, and it's time for a firefight and daring escape!

Yeah, almost. Before they can escape, Chewie is nabbed by the security guys--and now he's "disappeared" too.

As with Alan Dean Foster's "Alien" books, Daley's got a style peppered with expensive syllables, since apparently that's what makes something science-fictiony. Why say "work and play" when you can have "toil and enjoyment"? Why use a simple lock when "impoundment fastener" has 5 more syllables? When you tell time in Daley's "Star Wars" (and others', since many of his ideas are aped by later writers), you don't use hours. You use "Standard Time-Parts," with the capitals intact. Even the wordy Mercedes Lackey tells time in candlemarks. One less syllable, yes--but less clunky.

Yeah, yeah, I know Daley--and others who write like this--are trying to tech it up, use more "sophisticated" language, but it feels fake and clunky and doesn't really add anything of substance to the narrative. Solo comes off at times sounding like some upper-class professor rather than the fast-talkin' wise-ass.

"Star's End" isn't Great Literature, doesn't explore the histories of its main characters, and doesn't make them grow into better beings. It has the benefit of being better than anything George Lucas has done in the past 20 years, so that's worth something.

Sunday, November 8, 2009

Confederacy of Dunces, A (Toole, J K)

Rating: 4
Year: 1980
Genre: Satire/Farce/Comedy
Read Again? In a few years

This one's hard to write; it took nearly 2 weeks to read--and it's not that long a book. It doesn't drag, there's plenty of humor along the way, and Toole's writing is easy to get along with. He has a good feel for character, an ear for dialect in early 1960's New Orleans, and a solid grasp of what it takes to spin out various threads in a story, then tie them all up at the end without holding the reader's hand and explaining every single thing.

But I'm having trouble, here. Most of it is that I had my head full of Upton Sinclair's "The Jungle" audiobook. The rest is that the main character, Ignatius Reilly, is about as unlikable as one human being can be. He's a seriously odd duck. He's fat, with blue and yellow eyes (liver problems?), passes gas freely from both ends, and has a funk about him from various personal habits. He fills notebook after notebook with stuff like this:

  • "With the breakdown of the Medieval system, the gods of Chaos, Lunacy, and Bad Taste gained ascendancy." Ignatius was writing in one of his Big Chief tablets. "After a period in which the western world had enjoyed order, tranquility, unity, and oneness with its True God and Trinity, there appeared winds of change which spelled evil days ahead. An ill wind blows no one good. The luminous years of Abelard, Thomas a Becket, and Everyman dimmed into dross; Fortuna's wheel had turned on humanity, crushing its collarbone, smashing its skull, twisting its torso, puncturing its pelvis, sorrowing its soul. Having once been so high, humanity fell so low. What had once been dedicated to the soul was now dedicated to the sale."
But he actually TALKS like that, too:

  • "My nerves!" Ignatius said. He was slumped down in the seat so that just the top of his green hunting cap appeared in the window, looking like the tip of a promising watermelon. From the rear, where he always sat, having read somewhere that the seat next to the driver was the most dangerous, he watched his mother's wild and inexpert shifting with disapproval. "I suspect that you have effectively demolished the small car that someone innocently parked behind this bus. You had better succeed in getting out of this spot before its owner happens along."
It reminds me of Sherlock Holmes, for some reason, but never was there a Holmesian story that felt so much like an extended episode of "M*A*S*H"; as with the show, there are a couple of reasonably sane characters surrounded by insanity. The sanest of them all is a young black man (Burma Jones) who sits in the background and watches all the craziness: Ignatius organizing co-workers in a revolt against a "tyrannical" employer; a low-end bar owner who produces pornographic postcards; an elderly man who fancies Ignatius' mother; Ignatius selling hot dogs on Bourbon Street, dressed as a pirate.

The other sane one is Gus Levy, owner of the Levy Pants factory. He hates the company his overbearing father left him; his wife hates him for this, and is little more than a constantly-scheming ridicule machine bent on undermining Gus and alienating his daughters from him. It's his company Ignatius tries to free the workers from--so of course Mrs. Levy decides Ignatius must be some sort of heroic idealist.

Ignatius' mother grows the most in the story; in the beginning, Irene is Ignatius' doormat, hiding in a cheap-wine stupor. But she makes a friend who convinces her to stand up for herself.

It's a fun read, but not a challenging one. You're not going to get deep thoughts and learn arcane things, here.

Jungle, The (Sinclair, Upton)

Rating: 5
Year: 1906 (audiobook, 1994)
Genre: Fiction
Read Again? Yes

A masterfully-told story of a Lithuanian immigrant and his in-laws who are lured to Chicago's Packingtown.

Jurgis Rudkus starts out an optimistic man, full of the hope of the American Dream. He soon realizes that the entire system in Packingtown is arrayed against him and all the other workers. Wages are kept low, the hours are brutally long, and once you're in the system, there's no way out unless you know how to get in with the higher-ups. It's every man for himself.

Jurgis can't understand why every man he meets hates the job, hates the company, hates most of their co-workers, the bosses, the town. All he wants to do is have an honest job, and provide for his family. They pool their meager resources together and put a down-payment of $300 on a house. Their agent only tells them that they'll be paying $12 per month--and once the total of $1500 is paid off, it's theirs. They soon find that it's a trap. The agent didn't mention interest, taxes, or property improvement fees. He didn't tell them that being late on a full monthly payment plus interest will get them kicked out to the street.

We see the family ground down, near-starving in winter when the work is slack, scrabbling for pennies to put onto the next house payment, and working in horrible conditions where a small injury can put a worker on the street, his place taken up by someone fit and healthy. It's an awful, squalid world Jurgis and his family live in; Sinclair compares people to trees fighting for the tiniest amount of sunlight, only to fall like dead branches when winter comes.

It took nearly two weeks to get through this 15-hour Audiobook version; the story moved well, tightly-written by Sinclair and adequately narrated by Robert Morris. The only boring part is the last few chapters, when Jurgis stumbles into a Socialist Party meeting while just trying to keep warm. From there we're treated to Utopian preachings from various speakers. It was interesting to see it from the inside, but that's when the book really stopped being about Jurgis and started being about Sinclair's Socialism, with Jurgis as an observer.

Still, I can't take a point for that, since the story was utterly riveting. I look forward to actually reading it the next time, rather than listening to the somewhat odd narration. Robert Morris' reading reminded me of filmstrips and movies in elementary or middle school; he speaks clearly, but there's an odd rhythm in his speech.