Tag Archives: science fiction

R.I.P. Ralph McQuarrie

Concept art for The Empire Strikes Back by Ralph McQuarrie

Ralph McQuarrie was not a household name, yet the characters and creations he conceptualized are seared into the consciousness of generations of Earthlings.  You don’t have to be a science fiction fan at all to know and love R2-D2, C-3PO, Yoda, Darth Vader, Chewbacca, or Boba Fett.  I challenge you to find a male between the ages of 8 and 48 who doesn’t want to do the Kessel Run in the Millennium Falcon in less than 10 parsecs. It was McQuarrie’s art that brought all of those characters into our lives– and yes, I would argue the Millennium Falcon is a character.  So it is with a heavy heart that I report the news of Ralph McQuarrie’s passing today at the age of 82.

McQuarrie's concept art for the Millennium Falcon.

Without the vision of McQuarrie, it’s impossible to say what the original Star Wars trilogy would have looked like.  Though since he didn’t work on the second trilogy, I think it’s safe to say things probably would have been a whole lot different.  George Lucas usually gets the credit for bringing the Star Wars universe to life, but it was McQuarrie’s blueprints, sketches, concept art, and ideas that made the characters, spaceships and planets look and feel both compelling and believable.

The ship that warped all concepts of what a spaceship had to look like-- Boba Fett's Slave I from Return of the Jedi.

It would have been more than enough to have conceived the Star Wars iconography.  But McQuarrie also designed the mothership for Close Encounters of the Third Kind, he worked on E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial, Raiders of the Lost Ark, Star Trek IV, and Jurassic Park.  And all those ships in the original Battlestar Galactica?  McQuarrie had a hand in that as well.

The Cylons taking on a Viper Mk. II. Concept art for the original Battlestar Galactica.

When I was in the 4th grade, I had this book of Empire Strikes Back concept art.  I wore the spine out of that book tracing pictures of Yoda, the snow speeders and Imperial AT-ATs.  It fired my imagination and undoubtedly played a part in my fondness for faffing about with home made spaceships nowadays.  I don’t know why it’s important, I just know that it is.  So I bid Ralph McQuarrie a heartfelt farewell.  May he be free to roam the cosmos in the coolest spaceships ever designed.

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Audiobook Review – Pandora’s Star By Peter Hamilton

Original artwork for Pandora's Star by Jim Burns.

I struggled with this one.  One hour into Pandora’s Star, I was beginning to wonder if I had chosen a dud.  With this particular audiobook, one hour was about 1/40th the way through.  So the thought of riding this thing out to the end began to wear on me.  But I persisted.  And I’m so glad I did because, and it makes me wince as write the words, it gets really good about halfway through.

Peter Hamilton does space opera on a grandiose scale.  The word “epic” is woefully and inappropriately applied to decidedly un-epic things all the time these days, so I hesitate to invoke the word for fear of sounding like a snowboarder after a day on the slopes.  But I assure you, Pandora’s Star is truly, fiendishly, unrelentingly Epic.

The idea of attempting a plot synopsis fills me with inertia.  I would have to start by saying that while the over-arching genre is sprawling space opera, there is also quite a bit of espionage, political intrigue, police procedural and travel narrative mixed in.  This is what you would call “hard” science fiction.  It makes the assumption that you don’t need things like faster-than-light travel, wormholes, cybernetic enhancements, and multiple life rejuvenations explained to you.  Which is great, because if Hamilton took the time to explain it the way he takes the time to build worlds through stunning yet sometimes overlong descriptive set pieces, the book would be three times as long.  Hamilton loves detail and goes deep.  When he does, you’d better hang on.  Sometimes it can be a bit overcooked, but the price you pay makes the universe he has so painstakingly constructed that much more vivid.

Lame, generic, undoubtedly Americanized audiobook virtual cover.

The story begins in the not-too-distant future as humans are making their first exploratory steps onto Mars.  A manned spaceflight has just landed and all of earth is watching those fateful first steps as two merry prankster scientists open a wormhole and join the mission, crashing the landing party and thus relegating the very idea of spaceship travel to the dustbin of history before it ever begins.  Fast-forward several hundred years and wormhole technology has allowed humans to travel from star system to star system with ease.  Hamilton imagines an intergalactic railway system where trains travel planet to planet via tunnels containing wormhole gateways to your planetary destination.  It’s a marvelously delicious old-fashioned twist that is fleshed out with descriptions of the trains and names given to the engines.

On a distant planet, a lone astronomer witness something spectacular– a binary star pair blinks out of existence.  Stars don’t just turn off on their own. The best guess is that some sort of barrier has surrounded each star.  Is this an offensive maneuver to keep the baddies out or a defensive maneuver to harness the power of the system’s sun?  Someone or something has caused this and the proper thing to do is investigate.  But the pair of stars is out of wormhole range.  A spaceship must be built.  The story splits into numerous directions involving a cast of dozens that all tangle together in a ways that would delight Dickens and dazzle Dostoyevsky.  What unfolds is a mostly interesting and entertaining tale of a cosmic conspiracy hinted at in the book’s title.

Which all sounds perfectly cromulent on its face.  But I have to go back to the beginning to air my grievances.  The main reason this audiobook was so difficult to get into is John Lee’s narration.  It’s not bad, but Lee’s voice has a sonorously lugubrious, aloof quality that I found easy to tune out.  After the sharp and spry narration of the past few books I’ve listened to, it was hard to adjust to.  His voice characterization is very same-ish throughout, making it tough at times to remember who is who, though I can’t blame him entirely for that.  There are just too many characters to expect even the most expert impersonator to give unique voice to each one.  He tries, but falls short.  This is especially in evidence when curses are required.  Unless you’re looking for a cure for insomnia, I don’t recommend listening to this book at bedtime.  Too often, I fell asleep and had to find my place the next day only to discover several hours had passed.

Thankfully, when the story really kicks into gear, the shortfalls of the narration fall away.  I actually came to like Lee’s voice and style, it just took some time to get there.  Pandora’s Star is the first in a two-volume set Hamilton has called “The Commonwealth Saga.”  The second volume is Judas Unchained, which I have already started.  There is no choice.  Hamilton leaves Pandora’s reader/listener hanging with a seriously cheeky cosmic poke in the eye to the very notion of a cliffhanger.  I can only say that when it ended, I actually said “Noooo!!!” aloud.  So I’d say that’s a recommendation.

But it’s a recommendation with a few caveats.  First and foremost, this is one for the true-believers.  If you haven’t read some of the sci fi classics and are unfamiliar with a few of the genre’s “gimme” conceits, you’ll be lost.  This is not an entry level science fiction book.  Second– and I say this reluctantly– a niggling twinge inside tells me I may have been better off reading this one.  And I may yet go back and do it.

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Let’s Make Something Beautiful: Turn A Nazi Bomber Into A Spaceship

Scale model making is one true subculture that has yet to go mainstream and be turned into a reality television talent show.  Probably because it would be the world’s dullest program, populated by nerdy old farts who’ve sniffed too much glue.  Don’t believe me?  Go to any hobby shop– well, any of the few remaining hobby shops that still sell scale models– and watch the model makers in their natural habitat.  You’ll likely find it’s an excellent cure for insomnia, especially if you dare engage them in conversation.

I can say this because I am a scale modeler and I know it’s kind of a boring hobby to anyone who’s not also an enthusiast.  I used to feel the same way until I got into it.  There are many different kinds of model makers.  Personally, I prefer the subject of WWII aviation.  However, I also love science fiction.  But unless you’re just dying to build something from Star Trek, Star Wars, or Battlestar Gallactica, there are few options.  The good news is, with just a little bit of creativity, your stodgy old Jerry Blitz bomber can become a Martian warbird like this:

To find out how I did it, follow me after the jump for a rather photo-intensive explanation.

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Audiobook Review – Ready Player One by Ernest Cline

When I first read the reviews for Ready Player One, I thought it sounded like too precious a love letter to ’80s nostalgia and nerd-boy fantasy in-jokes.  I’m always skeptical of someone else’s nostalgia.  My memories of The Way Things Were are precious and specific.  Agree with me and we’re members of the same secret handshake society.  Tarnish my memory and you may as well have insulted my mother.  This is especially true in book form where I can’t challenge the author’s recollection or make the case for mine.

Perhaps because I was a teenager at the time, I’ve found the past several years’ worth of nostalgia for the  Reagan era particularly irksome.  Then again, when I  survey the current pop culture, I can understand why any era but now looks infinitely better.  Was Debbie Gibson better than Justin Bieber?  No, but I’d take the worst pop music of the ’80s over the best pop music of today.  The key for me, and part of the reason I think Ready Player One is successful, is that back then, there was still an underground, a counterculture, something beyond what was on Top 40 radio and MTV.  Even though MTV grudgingly gave over 120 Minutes a week to play “underground” music back then, there was no such thing as “geek chic” or “cool nerdyness.”  If you were a nerd, skater, punk rocker or new waver, you were weird.  An outcast.  It was as much a badge of honor as it was a source of pain.

So after my initial trepidation, I succumbed to the novel’s intriguing premise and used a precious Audible credit.  Set in the post-collapse era of the 2040s in an America devastated by decades of recession, where trailer parks have become sprawling suburban ghettos with trailers stacked several stories on top of each other, a revolutionary game maker has just died and left his vast fortune inside the virtual world he created.  But there’s a catch– the fortune can only be found by means of an elaborate scavenger hunt, which sets off a worldwide craze that has everyone researching every aspect of James Halliday, the game’s notoriously ’80s-obsessed, super geek creator.

Halliday was one of the earliest game designers.  He came of age in the 80s, programmed many successful video games, made huge piles of cash, and then disappeared.  He emerged many years later with his newest invention, the OASIS– a virtual universe with thousands of planets which are accessed via immersion rigs the player uses to interact with his environment.   Though it started as an MMORPG, gradually people began to live their lives in the OASIS, going to school, working and socializing virtually.  For most people, life inside the OASIS is infinitely better than reality.

The virtual world here will be nothing new to readers of William Gibson or Neal Stephenson.  In fact, with millions of people playing games like World of Warcraft and and living a virtual Second Life, the OASIS doesn’t sound far-fetched at all.  Cline does introduce interesting ideas about what getting a virtual education could be like.  But Ready Player One is more interested in furthering a story than introducing new ideas.  And the story here is the age-old story of the young man on a quest.

Our hero, Wade Watts, is a high school kid who lives in one of the aforementioned trailer park stacks and has, like everyone else in the world, become consumed with Haliday and the hunt for his fortune.  The scavenger hunt involves a riddle that, five years after Haliday’s death, no one has been able to solve.  Many people have even begun to speculate it was an elaborate ruse, but Watts, via his OASIS avatar, Parzival, persists.  And what do you know?  All that ’80s research pays off and Parzival finds the first clue, setting off the worldwide craze anew.

The rest of the novel is Parzival’s quest to unlock the three gates that will lead to Haliday’s riches.  In the grand tradition of all great quests, he gets by with a little help from some friends and danger lurks around every corner in the form of a mega corporation that wants to turn the OASIS into a commercialized hellscape against Haliday’s wishes.

With such a simple and proven premise, it would be tempting to think Ready Player One would appeal to a wide audience.  But, like the games and stories it’s so in love with, its greatest strength is also its greatest weakness.  If you are not familiar with ’80s culture, and to some extent ’80s subculture, you will miss all the best references, get few of the jokes, and generally be made to feel how those of us who loved this stuff back in the day felt– not invited to the cool kids’ party.  Ready Player One is the ultimate Revenge  of the Nerds.  This one is for us, the ones who were hassled by the jocks and called fags because we dressed funny and had weird hair.  And though it is far from perfect, there is much here to revel in.

The story is good, solidly written and well-told.  It’s not laugh out loud funny, but it is filled with knowing grin moments.  But there is one reason I believe you should get the audiobook version.  Wil Wheaton.  The story is told from Parzival’s perspective and Wil Wheaton positively is Wade Watts.  He owns the performance and comes across as intimate and believable.  Wheaton even gets a shout-out in the story, which I did laugh out loud at.  I give the narration hefty weight when reviewing audiobooks and I would say Wheaton’s performance may even actually elevate the material here.  He suits the book perfectly.

Overall, it’s a fun listen.  You know how it’s going to end, but the ride is entertaining.  Especially when that ride is a DeLorean spaceship.

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Audiobook Review – Old Man’s War by John Scalzi

Old Man’s War is one of the many books that’s been on my ever-expanding list of books I can never find second hand.  I’ve heard and read a lot of good things about it, most comparing it favorably to Robert Heinlein’s seminal sci-fi classic, Starship Troopers.  Comparisons like this generally do poor service to the work and the reader.  But they are often made, causing fans of the former to buy the latter.  This is especially true of us sad sci-fi readers who seem to always be looking for a book that will rouse the same feelings of joy, excitement and discovery as when we first read Heinlein, Clarke, Asimov, or the other old masters who made us realize that good science fiction could also be good literature.

The story begins with, as you might have gleaned from the title, an old man.  We meet out intrepid protagonist, John Perry, just as he turns 75.  In this unspecified but not-too-distant future, old folks can enroll in the Colonial Defense Forces, who will train them as soldiers to defend interstellar human colonies from the nasties of the universe.  Little is known about the CDF on Earth, but there is speculation that they are able to stop or possibly reverse the aging process– why else would they recruit a bunch of old farts to fight their battles?

So, in the selfless pursuit of a longer life, many septuagenarians join CDF rather than face the inevitable on Earth.  There are a few caveats– once you join CDF and ship out, you are, for all legal purposes, dead to everyone on Earth.  You will never be able to return.  You have to serve for at least two years, possibly ten.  But at the end, you’ll get your own stake on one of the new colonies and be a hero.  For reasons that aren’t entirely clear, the CDF isn’t too keen to share it’s new-found and hard-won technological advances with the Earth-bound.  We learn right away that Perry’s wife has been dead awhile and, though he has a son, they don’t seem particularly close.  So, like the young adults in Heinlein’s novel, Perry and about a thousand fellow seniors ship out to the great beyond.

The first part of the novel moves about like its inhabitants.  It reads like eavesdropping on retirement center conversations.  Except here, the spry gang of recruits spends a lot of time speculating on the many ways the CDF is going to make improvements to their decrepit bodies.  Just as it’s beginning to wear a bit thin, things pick up when we discover exactly what CDF has in store.  There’s no pleasant gene therapy or restoration of old bones and tissues.  The oldsters have their minds transplanted into new and better bodies, each equipped with the latest advances in technology such as Smart Blood and a BrainPal, which is basically like having the most badass computer accessible in your head.  Scalzi’s dialogue is full of tired sarcasm.  So if you’re the type of reader who would get annoyed when Perry cleverly names his BrainPal “Asshole,” this is not going to be your kind of book.

From here on out, it’s basically the story of training recruits with spectacularly awesome bodies and tech and then fighting aliens of all sorts.  The only little bit of added depth is that because our protagonists are older and wiser, they understand they are fighting for humanity’s manifest destiny.  Or something like that.  I can’t say for sure because I started losing interest about halfway through.  The biggest problem for me was that I just wasn’t all that into John Perry.  It seems like Scalzi wants him to play as a latter-day Clint Eastwood character– a wise, world-weary, loner with a tough exterior and a heart of gold.  But I couldn’t buy in.  I get that he’s supposed to represent the every man going through a dynamic change just as he thought his life had run its course.  I just didn’t find him very compelling.

The best science fiction does one of two things.  The first kind introduces us to worlds and creatures and ideas that are completely new, yet exciting because they are plausible.  You know, the science-y part of science fiction.  The second kind forces us to examine what it means to be human in the present and what being a human could be like in the future.  Ideally, the absolute best sci-fi does both.  Old Man’s War falls more into the second camp because the ideas are not all that new.  But even what it has to say about being human isn’t all that refreshing or insightful.  But worst part for me was, by the end of the penultimate chapter, I knew exactly how it was going to end.  To my mind, the worst thing science fiction can be is predictable.

After my last two epic audiobook listens, this one was really short.  As much as I thought the writing was OK, I thought the performance by narrator William Durfis was sub par.  His biggest failing is that he attempts to give all the characters distinct voices, but they all sound the same.  When there are conversations taking place, this shortcoming is woefully evident.  Maybe I’m spoiled by excellent performances I’ve heard recently by readers Nick Podehl and MacLeod Andrews, but I can’t help but feel the whole affair would have been at least a smidge more compelling if the narrator were better.

I’d say because of its brevity and the fair to middling narration, you may be better off actually reading this one.

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