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Review: Blake’s 7: Mediasphere by Kate Orman and Jon Blum September 27, 2015

Posted by sjroby in Blake's 7, Book reviews.
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Mediasphere cover art

Mediasphere by Jon Blum and Kate Orman

Big Finish Productions has done a wonderful job bringing back the cult series Blake’s 7 as audio stories, with its Liberator Chronicles and Classic Audio Adventures lines. It also started a line of new Blake’s 7 novels, but I think it’s reasonable to say those haven’t been quite as satisfying. For one thing, there haven’t been a lot of them; for another, they’ve tended to range from enjoyably competent to appallingly wrongheaded. At the moment, it isn’t clear whether they’ll even be doing any more, and the audio line is going through some changes of its own.

If Mediasphere turns out to be the last B7 novel, which I very much hope is not the case, at least it’s going out on a high. Blum and Orman may be best known for their contributions to Doctor Who, but Blum also coauthored (with Rupert Booth) a Prisoner tie-in novel that feels like a precursor of sorts to this one.

One of the key problems with writing tie-ins to old SF is that you’re working in a superseded future. We may not have spaceships, but we have information and communications technology that tends to be far beyond what TV shows predicted in many respects, and there’s been a lot of social change, too. But it’s possible to balance a faithful approach to the source material with awareness of how the world has changed since the source material was created. Blum’s The Prisoner’s Dilemma was, on the surface, entirely faithful to the original TV series, but it was also very clearly a 21st century take on the show. Likewise, Mediasphere doesn’t make any changes to the core of Blake’s 7; the characters, setting, and technology are entirely consistent with the TV series. Even the idea of a centralized media facility is consistent with TV creations like Star One — the Federation is not big on decentralization. But the idea of a B7 character becoming a contestant in a reality TV show as a way of gaining access to the central media facility is very 21st century. Mediasphere presents a cynical view of the media, with “reality” entertainment broadcasting and “news” propaganda being part of the same machinery. Even at its most meta — Vila working with the writers of a Federation propaganda show that satirizes Blake and his team — the novel keeps its portrayal of the characters believable and consistent with their TV originals, and also keeps the plot moving. It’s a caper novel, a satire, a meta exploration of Blake’s 7 and its characters.

One thing that the book has that the audios don’t: Dayna. Josette Simon hasn’t appeared in any of the audios, but that’s not a problem for the novels. She and Vila are the primary characters in the book, each being well developed and given the chance to do a few things they never did on TV.

Blake’s 7 fans haven’t had a lot of good novels. We haven’t had a lot of novels, period. But this is one of the highlights.

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Review: No Time Like the Past by Greg Cox September 13, 2015

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Sometimes a gimmicky notion works. Like, let’s do a TOS/Voyager crossover. In this case, it works by keeping it simple: there’s just one Voyager character meeting the TOS crew. Seven of Nine finds herself zapped to the 23rd century and manages to convince Kirk et al that’s she’s from Starfleet, she’s from the future, and there’s a quest to be followed to get her back to the future. She finds a piece of the mcguffin, gets a stardate that connects to a planet visited on that date by the Enterprise, and off they go to that planet, to find the next piece. It’s not quite that simple, thanks to the Federation ambassador on the Enterprise, the Orions who want Seven’s knowledge of the future, and the time travel shenanigans that ensue at each point, not to mention a big fight for the Enterprise when it’s boarded by Orions.

So, good action-oriented plot structure, some fun revisitations of a few classic TOS worlds, a mystery, solid work on the familiar TOS and Voyager characters. It’s a good romp.

However.

It’s Greg Cox, so there shall be in-jokes and references. Fortunately, the story doesn’t call for too many of them, and they tend to be less obtrusive than in some of his other books.

More important are two big Treklit cliches. There’s the idiot ambassador, for one. Enough said.

But there’s also the 1930s pulp fiction bad guys, in this case the Orions, who have all the character depth and dimensionality of a very very short strand of monomolecular wire.  They’re bad guys, nothing more. And they talk like too many other Treklit aliens. “Habroz nodded. ‘Let it not be said that the captain of the Navaar is a fool.’” Let it also not be said that the captain of the Navaar sounds like a character in a book written in the 21st century and set in the 23rd. He could just say, “I’m not an idiot.” It’s as if the universal translator was programmed to sound like melodramatic historical/fantasy fiction. Time for an upgrade.

So, as long as you don’t mind the Treklit conventions and cliches, there’s a good time to be had here.

Wish I had time for some binge rereads September 13, 2015

Posted by sjroby in Book reviews, Life in general.
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I have hundreds of unread books, lots of unwatched DVDs, and a ridiculous backlog of Big Finish audios, so I don’t reread much. But every so often I think wistfully about some rereading binges I’d love to undertake.

James Ellroy. I’ve gone off his stuff a bit as he seems to have become something of a self-parody, but I still remember the joy of discovering his books in the 1990s. And his latest book is the first of his second LA Quartet. So I would love to reread the first LA Quartet and the related novel Clandestine. The Black Dahlia was the first of his books that I read and it blew me away. Noir, hardboiled, epic, it didn’t so much recreate a time and place as drag you into an almost hallucinatory world.

Mervyn Peake. It’s been a long time since I read the Gormenghast trilogy and I’m curious about the fourth book published a few years back from his notes. It’s not fantasy, exactly, but it’s not in this world, either. A Dickensian group of characters in an ancient castle the size of a city. Not a great deal of action but great prose, strange people, and lots of atmosphere.

Jack O’Connell. A mystery bookstore owner once handed me a copy of O’Connell’s second novel Wireless and said I didn’t like this but you might. He was right. I’d like to reread the Quinsigamond series of loosely connected novels. They’re set in a fictional northeastern US city, and the first, Box Nine, is a relatively straightforward mystery movel. Each successive book shifts a bit further away from conventional mystery and the world as we know it, though it never really becomes fantasy or science fiction. Wireless and The Skin Palace in particular I’d like to revisit.

Gene Wolfe. The Book of the New Sun. A bit of Dickens again and Peake in a strange, far future tale that’s as much about the prose style as the story. It’s not something you can read in bits and pieces during commutes and whatnot; you have to get into the prose style, and you may need a dictionary, but it’s an experience like few others.

Cornell Woolrich. Everything. Well, maybe the Black novels first (Rendezvous in Black, Black Alibi, etc), then the short stories, then the other novels. Woolrich wrote emotionally overwrought noir. What happens in his books is sometimes arbitrary, sometimes unlikely; it’s fate — doom — ruining the lives of often innocent, ordinary people. Some of the stories have happy endings, because he was something of a romantic. His work often wars between love and loneliness, overwhelming passion or crushing despair. They are frequently over the top if you think about them, but when you read them, you’re riding the emotional rush and suspense too much to worry about realism. A lot of his work has been adapted for film, radio, and TV, but it doesn’t always capture the feel very well.

And then there’s some David Goodis and Thorne Smith and Jim Thompson I’d like to reread, too… Lots of white guys, true, mostly American, mostly dead, mostly straight, but I’m not sure how significant that is. One or two at least are religious, a couple at least are conservative, so it’s not about what I can relate to.

Review: Star Trek: New Frontier: The Returned by Peter David September 7, 2015

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Three more Netgalley reviews in one, produced in exchange for free advance e-versions. I’ve put all three in one post, so beware of spoilers.

Part I

New Frontier fans will love this. Others may wonder what the fuss is all about.

There’s no denying the importance of New Frontier in the world of Star Trek fiction. It was the first books-only series and it was a hit with readers. Things have changed over the years, including the editorial staff at Pocket, and it’s been a while since the last New Frontier novel. That may be part of the inspiration for the title, but there are plenty of returns in the story, as well. Longtime New Frontier fans will be glad to see many of the old gang, who scattered somewhat over the course of the series, back together in action. And there are other returns, including various characters in the storyline set on New Thallon. So I expect fans will be very happy with this new installment.

Me, I’m not so sure. This is Star Trek written as Marvel comic, complete with superheroes. The dialogue tends to be wisecracking banter or portentous and stilted. And a lot of stupid setups are required to let the regulars get their buttkicking highlights. One of the most important planets is guarded only by a dozen Starfleet marines, instead of ships, satellites, force fields, automatic weapons arrays, sensors, and other 24th century tech. Why? So Mackenzie Calhoun can kick butt and almost do something he shouldn’t. Characters consistently make dumb decisions so they can blow up in their faces later. Characters who should be able to think of obviously solutions to technical issues fail to, so that other characters can reveal their brilliance. It gets tiresome. But it’s short and it moves quickly.

This is not a good jumping on point for new readers, because it basically picks up in the middle of a few storylines. But I’d be surprised if anyone who’s already a New Frontier fan is anything other than thrilled.

Part II

Fast moving but frustrating

Like its predecessor, this is an action-packed tale in which many of the characters can kick a lot of butt and none can think their way out of a paper bag. Characters impetuously jump into action and then decide they should have looked before they leaped. They’re constantly surprised when their choices have repercussions.

This one, more than the first may have longtime fans questioning a few decisions, but by and large it’s New Frontier for New Frontier fans.

Part III

Well. Definitely a must-read for New Frontier fans and possibly a what the heck?! experience for the unconverted.

It may seem like an easy shot to say that Peter A. David, who’s written a lot of comics for Marvel, DC, and other publishers, writes New Frontier more like a Marvel comic than any Star Trek TV series, but I think there’s some truth to it. And for some readers, that’s probably what draws them in. It’s a uniquely over the top and action-packed take on the Star Trek universe.

Part 3 of the saga wraps up everything set up in the first two installments — unsurprisingly, as it was originally announced as a single novel. It’s been said that, depending on sales, this may be the end of this particular series. If so, at least the D’myurj storyline and the Thallonian storyline are wrapped up, and there’s some character resolution as well, but PAD also drops a revelation or two that can lead to new stories if the series continues. Either way, job done.

I still have some issues with this miniseries within the series, though. Throughout all three parts, characters are much too eager to jump into violent hand-to-hand combat as their preferred method of dispute resolution. Captain Calhoun in particular commits some acts of violence that should have him drummed out of Starfleet and into a psych ward, but at the end of the book everyone seems to be happy with him staying in command of his ship. A surprise guest star whose identity is revealed at the end of the second part is also played as much more of a bloodthirsty and physically violent character than we’ve seen him in a very long time. The flipside to all this is that characters keep deciding the only way for them to resolve an issue is to let themselves get killed. It’s kill or be killed, except during the sex scenes, and one of them is pretty unpleasant, too. Nobody is capable of thinking their way out of a situation. What the D’myurj do doesn’t make much sense; what their enemies do doesn’t make much sense; how Calhoun tries to deal with them doesn’t make much sense. No one pays attention to what should be obvious developments just so they can be shocked by utterly predictable things they missed.

One minor example of the characters’ not thinking about anything but just blindly acting based on emotion, and this isn’t much of a spoiler: one Starfleet officer has had a baby with the late leader of an alien empire. She takes it for granted that the baby must some day lead that empire because of the divine right of kings or something, and no one questions it; no one says, maybe this empire would be a much better place as a democracy. It’s just not an issue. Of course this months-old baby is the only logical choice for leader of an interstellar empire not allied with the Federation because that’s what his dad wanted, and of course Federation/Starfleet people should interfere with the empire’s internal politics to make it happen.

But. It’s fast-paced, full of action, brings together a lot of the old gang again, ties up some story lines, and sets up a couple of things that could be explored in future books. So it does what it set out to do, and no doubt many readers will wonder how I could have any problems with it. It really is essential reading for New Frontier fans.

Powys Media’s Space: 1999 novels September 6, 2015

Posted by sjroby in Book reviews, Space: 1999.
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Space: 1999: The Final Revolution by William Latham

Space: 1999: The Final Revolution by William Latham

Back in 2002, something strange and unexpected happened: a small US publisher produced Resurrection, the first original Space: 1999 novel in over twenty years. In the years since, Powys Media has been responsible for eight more original novels, revised versions of two of the 1970s tie-ins, a revision of the Year Two novelizations by Michael Butterworth in a single big hardcover, a short story anthology, and two nonfiction books about the Powysverse books. A few more books are planned but there’s no guarantee they’ll happen, as the original guiding force behind Powys, Mateo Latosa, stepped down a while back and novelist William Latham has taken over as the force behind the company. He’s already announced that the company is winding down, but he hopes to get the last few books done.

I have to admit, I think the line’s been something of a mixed bag. Latosa (and Latham, I assume) planned a continuity for the books that included making some changes to the show’s canon, bridging the gap between Year One and Year Two of the TV series, and moving forward to a resolution for the series. It’s not a bad idea but the resolution, I thought, sometimes left something to be desired.

The line premiered with Latham’s novel Resurrection. His only previous novel, a Frankenstein-inspired novel, was the first book published by Powys, and he was reportedly not a Space: 1999 fan before Latosa got him involved. That’s cause for concern, it seems to me, and some of the choices Latosa and Latham made also had me wondering. They launched their line with a sequel to a first season episode, “End of Eternity,” that had the series characters affected by an alien and not being themselves. So they’re starting with a continuity-heavy story based on an episode I didn’t remember (didn’t have it on VHS and hadn’t bought the DVDs yet) and didn’t properly reintroduce the characters because they were essentially possessed. At least, that’s how I remember it. Plus, the book was an expensive mail-order-only proposition, short by modern standards, and with questionable choices like printing the entire text in a sans serif font.

And yet, it was a thrill to have the book. I got into Space: 1999 as a 12-year-old back in 1975. I bought the novelizations and other products and, though I thought the core premise was kind of goofy, I loved the show.

The next novel solidified my interest in the line. Written by John Kenneth Muir, author of nonfiction books on Space: 1999, Blake’s 7, Doctor Who, and others, it bridged Y1 and Y2, explaining the departures of a few characters in a novel that didn’t feel like a continuity exercise but was instead a strong, suspenseful read. It was followed by another good one, a Victor Bergman-focused novel by Brian Ball, who’d written one of the 1970s novelizations.

Then came (in my opinion, at least) a couple of bad decisions. Only three years after Resurrection, with only three novels under their belt, Powys published an expanded version of Resurrection that included an adaptation of “End of Eternity” and a prequel story. Then they produced their Year Two book, a big, overpriced collection of material that their target audience probably all already had. It added an adaptation of a missed episode and made some tweaks that would tie into the Powys continuity, but it never seemed like an essential step. I have it but still haven’t read it, because I read the original books decades ago and I have the DVDs.

Around the same time Powys published its single finest work, the novel The Prisoner’s Dilemma by Jon Blum and Rupert Booth, the first of their planned series of Prisoner novels. But that’s a story of its own.

Things went quiet for years. Then, in 2010, there was a burst of activity. First, a short story anthology with a mix of familiar names and new writers; then Born for Adversity, the first Year Three novel, by veteran Doctor Who and Star Trek novelist David McIntee (a big positive sign, it seemed at the time; a good book by a bigger name than William Latham, anyway); Latham’s two-part epic Omega and Alpha, an ambitious (too much so, possibly) attempt at pulling together a number of strands from the TV series to explain what Starlog writer David Hutchison dubbed the Mysterious Unknown Force; and, before the end of the year, Latham;s Chasing the Cyclops, a behind-the-scenes nonfiction book about the planning on the Powysverse storyline and Omega and Alpha in particular.

All we got in 2011 was a revised version of John Rankine’s 1976 tie-in novel Android Planet. I hadn’t been too impressed with it then and wasn’t much more impressed this time around. 2012 saw Pat Sokol’s The Powysverse Compendium, a guide to the Powys version of Space: 1999 continuity, and a revision of Rankine’s 1976 Phoenix of Megaron, about which I felt much as I did about Android Planet. 2013 saw Latham’s novel Johnny Byrne’s Children of the Gods, based on an unproduced episode. However, the episode wasn’t filmed because it was already a bit of a cliche, and Latham’s changes to freshen it up didn’t really make it that much more interesting. John Kenneth Muir’s second Space: 1999 novel, The Whispering Sea, appeared in 2014, and was a solidly entertaining book, the best since at least Born for Adversity.

This year started with a surprising note from Bill Latham on the Powys website: Powys would be winding down the books and its operations, and Latham would oversee the last few books without Latosa. He hoped to produce some books in the pipeline before the end of the year. Well, August saw the release of his The Final Revolution, the book that wraps up the Space: 1999 story, building on the short unofficial video Message From Moonbase Alpha. I don’t know if we’ll see the other novel or two or the second planned short story anthology, but at least the continuity has reached its planned ending.

The Final Revolution is set a couple of decades after the TV series. The regulars are getting older (including Victor Bergman, who returned to Alpha a few books back), the next generation is growing up, new areas have been built to expand beyond the core of Moonbase Alpha. But then the moon is (literally) pulled into a lunatic alien leader’s genocidal plans and a desperate plan of escape leads to an extradimensional place of mystery. There’s a bit too much philosophizing and some dialogue that suggests Latham read a few books of daily affirmations, but by and large the book is engaging and entertaining, even if some of the new young characters aren’t fully fleshed out. The book also refers back to Omega and Alpha a fair amount, so it’s not all going to make sense to newcomers. But it has a satisfying ending as Project Exodus finally brings the Alphans to a new home — and there’s a surprise near the end that ties into an earlier novel. Not a bad conclusion to a mixed line of books.

(All these years later and Powys still uses a sans serif font, its books are still expensive, and they’re still not available through usual channels — though at least now you can order them through lulu.com.)

It’s been a long, strange trip, but after a few periods of cynicism and frustration on my part along the way, I really hope Latham can see his plans through and get another book or two out before winding down Powys, though I assume they’re set earlier in the continuity.