Reviews

EOS 10 – SF podcast – Season 1

Today I would like to share one of my most recent finds: while I don’t usually listen to audiobooks because I tend to get distracted if I don’t have a page to focus on, I was looking for something to listen to – besides music – while taking a walk or doing some chores around the house, but still the kind of work that did not require the same level of commitment and attention as an average-length book.

Podcasts sounded like a good alternative, because their shorter duration would be perfect against the “threat” of distraction, so I did some research on the internet and the first one that caught my eye was this serialized SF story, now in its fourth season, set on a remote space station where humans and aliens mix. At the beginning of the story, Dr. Ryan Dalias is sent to EOS 10 as a back-up for the resident main physician, renowned Dr. Horace Urvidian, who has become a hopeless alcoholic.  It’s not surprising that the first meeting of the two does not go very well, particularly considering Dr. Urvidian’s abrasive character and rough disposition – even in the rare instances when he’s sober. The main cast also includes senior nurse Jane Johns, practical and irreverent (and one wonders if the latter is the result of some time spent with Dr. Urvidian); Levi, a deposed royal who now works as a dishwasher in a restaurant, dreaming of one day regaining his former position – that is, when he does not haunt the infirmary, being a hypochondriac; and Akmazian, smuggler, terrorist, spy and probably a few other equally unsavory occupations.

This first season mainly introduces the various characters and gives us something of their backstory – mainly for Dalias and Urvidian – and shows the two slowly and very, very cautiously building a bond of mutual respect and understanding, while we learn something about the universe in which the story takes place and about the station itself. The overall tone is light and humorous, at times bending toward the farcical, as it happens in episode 4 where a close encounter with an alien aphrodisiac causes unexpected and very embarrassing consequences for Dr. Dalias. Just to give an idea of the overall flavor of this podcast, think of a cross between Star Trek: DS9 and Grey’s Anatomy, wrapped up in the delightful craziness of Galaxy Quest.  This lightness however leaves enough room for more serious themes like addiction, or the tragic consequences brought on by outright refusal of traditional medicine, just to name a couple, although the balance still tends toward the whimsical.

I have quite enjoyed this first season, and not just because it kept me company as I was otherwise engaged: I am now invested in these characters and their stories, and can heartily recommend this podcast as a quick and fun intermission between more serious reading – or listening! – material.

My Rating:

Reviews

STAR TREK: AVAILABLE LIGHT, by Dayton Ward

Continuing from linked book Control, detailing the struggle against the shady organization called Section 31 and the disclosure of its dark deeds by the work of an investigative reporter, Available Light offers a two-pronged story that on one side follows the ongoing investigation into Section 31 and its Starfleet high-ranking members, and on the other a more run-of-the-mill adventure of the Enterprise-E tasked with an expedition into an unexplored region of the galaxy.

On Earth, the Section 31 officers are being hunted down and arrested, despite their attempts at hiding or keeping a low profile, and a case against them is being mounted by Federation authorities: figures we learned to know in the course of the various Trek series, like Admirals Ross and Necheyev, make their appearance as we learn of their involvement in the organization and in the forced deposition of a former, crooked Federation president, who was subsequently murdered.  What’s sadly surprising is that Captain Picard had taken part in the events leading to the deposition of president Zife, and although he was not entangled in the man’s murder, his unwitting connection with Section 31 threatens to stain his reputation and puts him under an unwelcome spotlight, not to mention Starfleet’s embarrassment at the blemish falling on such a renowned officer.

Meanwhile, in deep space, the Enterprise encounters what appears like a huge derelict ship: the boarding party finds that the vessel is however in pristine condition and this mystery leads to the discovery that it’s one of several arks bringing the population of a doomed planet toward a new home. To face the long voyage, they decided to employ a combination of transporter and holodeck technology that enabled them to live a sort of virtual life while in transit, but a malfunction in the energy distribution system is threatening their existence, so that they need the Enterprise’s help to survive and continue their voyage. 

As I said, this novel moves on two quite different tracks, and this dichotomy makes for a somewhat uneven narrative: while the eventful and intriguing plot about the alien craft supplies the ‘adventure’ part of the story, it is nothing more than the kind of standard fare we could find in any one of the televised episodes, and in my opinion it does not hold a candle to the much more interesting segment concerning the investigation and trial preparation against Section 31, which was explored only as the B-plot.  Granted, the chapters devoted to the Enterprise’s mission allow the reader to get to know in depth the ‘new faces’ in the ship’s complement: time has passed since our last look at this crew on a screen and there have been many changes here, so it’s interesting to see who these new people are and how they are filling the proverbial shoes of the crew members we used to know so well.  Still, I could not avoid a sensation of “been there, done that” as the story developed on the well-oiled rails of strange encounters, initial misunderstandings, brief conflict and then peaceful cooperation: nothing wrong in that, of course, but the number of pages devoted to a fairly predictable script seemed too high when there was a much more intriguing narrative track to sink one’s teeth in – particularly after the breath-stopping narrative I enjoyed with Control.

It’s widely recognized that conflict offers the best opportunities for plot and character development, and the Section 31 thread looks like the perfect opportunity to explore – borrowing the saga’s famous motto – territory where no one has gone before: the discovery that despite the high ideals animating the Federation, it could nevertheless harbor a secret organization acting more often than not against those ideals and pursuing questionable goals through disreputable deeds.  Such a concept might have greatly enraged creator Gene Roddenberry, whose utopian vision of the future did not include such elements, but still it holds great storytelling potential and the possibility to explore the moral quandary of doing the wrong thing for the right reasons – provided that one could truly determine what those right reasons are, of course.

Sadly, we don’t see enough of the difficult work of obtaining enough information to prosecute the officers responsible for Section 31’s actions, nor are we afforded a deeper look into the public’s reactions to what amounts to a mediatic bombshell that must surely have shaken the Federation to its foundations.  There are long discussions between the new Federation president, Starfleet’s commanding admiral and the Federation’s Attorney General Louvois (whom we met in one of my favorite TNG episodes, The Measure of a Man) about how to proceed, how much to reveal to the public and what to do with Picard – who holds the difficult position of being a distinguished and respected hero but is now tainted by his connection with the conspirators – and some of the moral implications of the whole sorry mess are touched on, but never delved in too deeply.  Picard’s side of the situation is fortunately given more narrative room, as we see him struggle with his conscience and his principles: his superiors would like to keep him out of it entirely, considering that his involvement was a matter of misplaced good faith rather than intentional wrongdoing, but still he’s faced with an ethical dilemma, and remembering the precept that a Starfleet’s officer first duty is to the truth, he decides to return to Earth and offer his statement on the facts as he knows them. He also knows that this is the only avenue open to him if he wants to hold on to his integrity, and he’s ready to face any consequence that might be in store for him – which is perfectly in character with his personality as we got to know it on screen.

Much as I felt somewhat cheated of an intriguing storyline here, there is the promise of more on the subject of Section 31 in the next novel in this sequence, Collateral Damage, where I hope that what I sorely missed here will be explored in depth.

My Rating:

Reviews

THE LAST COYOTE (Harry Bosch #4), by Michael Connelly

In my exploration of this crime/thriller series I have arrived at an important marker for the definition of Harry Bosch’s character, one where his past is explored in depth opening a window on how that past shaped his personality.

As The Last Coyote opens, Bosch is home on involuntary leave after he threw his superior officer through a glass wall: while his situation is being examined, he’s been remanded to a series of counseling sessions with the department’s psychiatrist, Dr. Hinojos, where he keeps resisting the doctor’s attempts at understanding what makes him tick. Feeling increasingly restless, despite being busy with trying to fix his house after a damaging earthquake, he decides to tackle a cold case that is very close and personal – his mother’s murder, which happened when he was a young boy, and is still unsolved. 

The investigation will not only compel Bosch to revisit the past with all its hurts, but most importantly will force him to face himself and understand why he is the person he is now – not to mention that, story-wise, this is a journey that provides many surprises for the reader as well: since I met this character through the TV version first, I thought I knew how events would move forward, but I was delighted to discover that, despite the similarities, there are many narrative threads that are completely different, so I’m certain that future books will offer as many unforeseen developments as this one did.

There is an interesting parallel here between Bosch’s house – marked for demolition since the earthquake undermined its foundations – and his present life: in previous books we saw him always pushing the boundaries and going out of his way to thumb his nose at people in authority, but now he has indeed crossed a dangerous line, and it hardly matters that his commanding officer is an inept bureaucrat with a penchant for stupid taunts, the fight that ended with the lieutenant flying through a glass wall might very well be the last straw in a long series of insubordinate stunts.  So, just as the house is condemned – no matter how much work Bosch puts into it – his whole career is in a precarious situation, and the decision of pursuing the investigation in his mother’s murder seems like the only element in his life he can control: until now we saw Bosch relentlessly seeking the truth for the victims of his cases, in this instance he does the same for himself and his mother.

The reason his mother’s murder is still a cold case some 35 years after the fact is two-fold: on one side there were not enough clues that would lead to a suspect, and on the other she was a hooker, which placed her very low on the scale of “worthy” subjects – this must be at the roots of Bosch’s personal philosophy concerning victims, that everybody counts, or nobody counts. His dogged determination to get to the roots of every case he’s assigned to must come from the realization that justice is not dealt impartially or fairly, and that a victim’s standing determines the level of energy poured into any given case.  What’s interesting here is that Bosch does not feel “tainted” by the knowledge of his mother’s profession, that even in his adult years he holds on to the awareness of her love for him; there is a sentence that sums up his feelings quite clearly and shows the depth of his sense of loss – and ultimately the vulnerability he tries to conceal from the world:

“I don’t blame her for anything. I blame the man who took her from me. […] All I know is that she did all she could to get me out of there.[…] She never stopped trying. She just ran out of time.”

As the investigation proceeds – revealing some unexpected ties into the Los Angeles political scene – so does Bosch’s journey of self-discovery thanks to Dr. Hinojos’ treatment: I really enjoyed the psychiatrist’s character because this is the first woman in the series who does not bend or break under the detective’s rough manners, but instead faces him head on and even forces him to look inside himself and dig for the truth. I hope this is the first in a hopefully long list of female characters who can be strong without being either a proverbial dark lady or a heartless operator, the indication that – narratively speaking – times are changing and moving toward a less biased point of view.

Story-wise, The Last Coyote offers a compelling look into Bosch’s investigation as the old clues are lined up and explored, leading toward interesting directions – and a few red herrings that made the final revelation even more remarkable. I enjoyed many of the twists scattered through the book, particularly the one where Bosch quite childishly uses his boss’ identity to mask his inquiries and get broader access, only to have this prank backfire in a spectacularly dramatic way.

This book has all the flavor of a turning point in the series: the past is finally dealt with, the damaged house, Bosch’s lair and refuge if you want, is torn down – there are many indications that the next volume will see some changes both in the main character and in the way he faces his job. Curiosity will certainly lead me to the next volume in the series in a very short while…

My Rating:

Reviews

SOME CHOOSE DARKNESS (Rory Moore/Lane Phillips #1), by Charlie Donlea

I became aware of this author’s work through the review Mogsy at Bibliosanctum posted for the second book of this series: intrigued by what I was reading, I searched for the series’ starter and found both an amazing thriller and a new writer to keep firmly on my radar.

Some Choose Darkness moves on two different temporal lines: the past, set between the years 1979 and 1981, and the present, alternating chapters from both timelines and building a sense of impending doom that compelled me to turn the pages at a very fast rate. Between the end of the ’70s and the start of the ’80s, a serial killer nicknamed “the Thief” preyed on young women in the Chicago area, and  several of them disappeared: we see their end through the eyes of the killer, who enjoys torturing his victims in a very gruesome manner, and we also follow the obsessive search for clues from a troubled woman, Angela Mitchell, who manages to uncover the killer’s identity. 

In the present, almost 40 years after the Thief was apprehended on the charge of murdering Angela, whose body was however never found, the killer is ready to be released on parole and since his lawyer just died, the case is shifted to the man’s daughter, Rory Moore, who normally works for the police as a forensic reconstructionist on cold cases. The Thief is convinced that Angela is still alive, and he asks Rory to continue the search for the woman started by her father: intrigued by the mystery she’s faced with, Rory launches on a journey of discovery not unlike the one that faced Angela as she pieced together the clues about the serial killer, and in both timelines the two women will face chilling discoveries…

Some Choose Darkness focuses more on the psychological aspects of the story (although there are enough twists and revelations to keep your adrenaline running high) and does so by following the path of the two center figures in both timelines, who share many similarities: Angela Mitchell is the typical suburban wife, with a nice house and a caring husband, but she’s afflicted both by an obsessive/compulsive disorder and relational difficulties comparable to autism. Although frightened by the news about the disappearance of young women in the summer or 1979, she keeps collecting newspaper clippings on this story and compiles detailed profiles for the missing women: her husband’s worry about this obsession, that is clearly exacerbating her condition, and her only friend’s doubts about the conclusions Angela reaches, only lead the woman to keep searching and to finally come to a revelation that will place her life in extreme danger.

For her part, Rory suffers as well from a borderline form of autism and OCD, but she channeled it all into the ability to extrapolate data in a very unconventional way, which – together with her eidetic memory – turns her into a quirky, but effective, investigator and a powerful asset for the Chicago PD.  Once tasked by her client with examining clues about Angela Mitchell’s continued existence, Rory is enthralled by her discoveries and the mystery surrounding the woman, and as she tries to solve the puzzle she finds herself on an unexpected path, where momentous revelations will change her life forever.

The most fascinating element in this novel comes from the two protagonists, both troubled by behavioral issues but not succumbing to them, on the contrary putting the differences engendered by their psychological makeup to use: the comparison between the two timelines’ approach to their affliction underlines all the difficulties encountered by Angela as she’s treated with various degrees of contempt by acquaintances and even by the media – even when her findings help apprehend the Thief, she’s depicted by reporters as a mental wreck, with little or no acknowledgment of her role in the solution of the crime.  The way the author represents her is very different, however, because he manages to showcase an inner strength in Angela, one that first carries her forward in a relentless search for the truth and then urges her to take an arduous, heart-breaking path.

Rory is an equally strong figure: unlike Angela she enjoyed the understanding and support of her parents, so she has been able to create a series of coping mechanisms that allow her to lead a normal life and to carve a unique working niche in which her talents can be put to the best of uses.  There is a fascinating narrative thread in which we learn about Rory’s side activity in repairing damaged porcelain dolls: if on one side it shows her need to set things right, restoring the integrity and the beauty of these objects, on the other it’s easy to see how they might be a representation of herself, and the unexpressed statement about Rory’s will of repairing herself without external help.

These two fascinating characters are set in a very enthralling story, one where the two timelines enhance each other leading the readers toward the final showdown in a progression where you can only expect the unexpected: the pacing, as I noticed, is relentless, revelations and discoveries come in a natural way that never feels forced or contrived, and the build-up of tension becomes at times unbearable while keeping you glued to the pages with irresistible fascination.

What I liked most about Some Choose Darkness is that while we get acquainted with the killer’s mentality, the story is not so much about him but rather about the women pitted against his deranged world-view and cruelty.  The character of Rory is a fascinating one, and I enjoyed witnessing how her mind works, so I will keep following her journey in the books that see her protagonist, together with other novels from this newly discovered author who made me a fan with just one book…

My Rating:

Reviews

ALONE TOGETHER: A DS9 COMPANION

Sometimes it’s the unlooked-for finds that turn out to be the best: a few weeks ago, while surfing on YouTube, I found the link to this online four-part story, a sort of continuation of the Star Trek series Deep Space Nine.  Further investigation revealed that it’s part of a much larger collection of videos on the YouTube channel of actor Alexander Siddig, best known as Doctor Julian Bashir in the series.

On this channel, the actor keeps in touch with his fans, and at some point he thought he would cheer them up, helping them forget the… Pandemic Blues, by asking a few of his co-stars on DS9 to read online this script, penned by Canadian author Matthew Campbell.

Each one of the participating actors contributed from his or her home (via the ubiquitous Zoom, I presume), giving life to a story that’s both fascinating and actual, since it also deals with a pandemic, in this case hitting hard on the Cardassian homeworld. Besides Alexander Sidding, reprising his role of Dr. Bashir, you will see and hear Andrew Robinson as Garak, and enjoy the cameo contributions by Cirroc Lofton (Jake Sisko), Nana Visitor (Kira) and Armin Shimerman (Quark).

Don’t expect props, CGI or even makeup (although at some point a delightfully funny set of dentures makes its appearance…), but if you listen without looking at the screen, it’s like being back once again on the station and watching the characters we know so well come back to life.  I enjoyed this four-part online story so much that I started a complete rewatch of Deep Space Nine (thank you, Netflix! 😀 ), discovering that, unlike some of its Trek brethren, it has not only withstood time very well, but it feels as actual and fresh as if it were created today.

So, here are the links to the four chapters of the story: enjoy!

Reviews

CALL OF THE BONE SHIPS (The Tide Child #2), by R.J. Barker

I received this novel from Orbit Books through NetGalley, in exchange for an honest review: my thanks to both of them for this opportunity.

From the very first book in RJ Barker’s The Wounded Kingdom series I knew I had encountered a talented new voice in the fantasy genre, so I should not have been surprised that his new saga The Tide Child would follow on the same footsteps, but once again I discovered how this author is able to surpass himself with each new work he publishes: Call of the Bone Ships is the gripping sequel to an outstanding first volume, and it drew me into this world even more deeply than its predecessor did.

We’re back aboard the Tide Child, the black ship of the forsaken among the islanders peopling this world, and her captain – pardon me, shipwife – Meas Gilbryn is bent on ending the long war between her people, the dwellers of the Hundred Isles, and the Gaunt Islanders, and to this effect she had a hand in the creation of a place, Safeharbour, where both groups could live together. It’s a short-lived dream, however, and soon enough Meas, her second Joron and the whole crew must face both the threat to their own existence and the mystery of the mass abductions of weak and powerless people, carried in slave ships to an unknown destination and killed for some dark, loathsome purpose. This is as much of the story as I feel comfortable in sharing, because to say more would deprive any reader of the joy and terror of discovering what this book has in store for them.

With Call of the Bone Ships you don’t need to choose between a character- or plot-driven story, because you can have both: there are long sea chases, battles, mutinies and a dreadful mystery to be solved in what at times becomes an undercover operation, complete with double-dealing agents; there are the delightful details of everyday life at sea on a very peculiar ship that’s crafted out of dragon bones; and again one can meet amazing creatures, or terrifying ones. But what carries this novel more than anything else is the strength of its characters: in the series’ opener they were introduced and we got to know them a little, together with the fascinating world they inhabit, but here – now that the needs for background have been fulfilled – they are given more than enough room to expand. And shine.

“Lucky” Meas moves a little to the sidelines here, although she remains the strong, determined leader capable of taking a motley group of rejects and turning them into a loyal and proud crew: one might say that she is the heart and soul of the ship and the inspiration that drives them to move forward even in the face of certain death. But here she leaves more room for Joron Twiner, her deck-keeper or first officer, to grow into a more rounded, many-faceted character.  Where he started his journey as a despondent, defeated individual, he slowly gained more confidence in himself and a measure of pride in his accomplishments under Meas’ tutelage: in this book we see him not only reach new levels of self-respect and wisdom, but also inspire the same feelings in the rest of the crew as he earns their own consideration and loyalty.

Perversely enough, though, this newfound connection with the rest of the crew and the way he has come to care for them – shown in many little gestures of appreciation and understanding – leave him exposed, vulnerable: now that he has something worthwhile to lose, he’s bound to suffer under the cruel blows of chance as he was not when he had nothing of value he could call his own. And in the course of the story Joron will lose much, in more ways than one, which will remind us that this is a harsh, unforgiving world, that always exacts a price for the small favors it chooses to bestow on people.

Together with Joron, we gain a better understanding of a few secondary characters aboard the Tide Child, and if some of them are not exactly friendly or trustworthy, it all adds to the delightful variety offered by this crew and enhances the story with little and big details that build on its substance. Among these characters, however, the one that stands out more is that of the Gullaime, the avian creature able to summon the winds necessary to propel the ship, or to tame the fury of storms.  The first glimpse we were given of the Gullaime in the first book was that of a wretched creature, kept in the darkness of the hold and summoned only when need arose, but otherwise considered as a useful tool rather than a living being: the different outlook imposed by Meas has now morphed the Tide Child’s Gullaime into an assertive, curious individual and a valued member of the ship’s complement, but it’s in his interactions with Joron that the Windtalker sparkles with intriguing life and opens the way to a number of questions that simply beg to find an answer. There is a so-far barely explained bond between the Gullaime and Joron, one that takes the form of a pervasive song whose effects have been touched on but not completely disclosed, and yet this takes second place to the emotional connection between the two of them that seems to go beyond the confines of mere respect and friendship. I am eager to have this mystery unveiled, but for now I count myself very happy to have witnessed the many, meaningful interactions between the two of them.

There is a great amount of emotional content in Call of the Bone Ships because it offers a number of poignant personal interactions, made even more so by the contrast with the harsh shipboard life and the drama of the quest in which Meas, Joron and the crew are involved. Together with the captivating descriptions of life at sea, of powerful storms and creature-infested waters, these moments gift the book with a lyrical quality that runs seamlessly throughout the story and turns it into a compelling and exciting read. If you have not read The Tide Child series yet, do yourselves a favor and pick it up: you will not regret it.

My Rating:

Reviews

BATTLESTAR GALACTICA REWATCH: Season 4 (2008/2009) – #SciFiMonth

ARTWORK by Tithi Luadthong from 123RF.com

While still narratively intriguing, the fourth and final season of BSG looks somewhat uncertain of the direction it wants to take and that translates into an uneven pacing that on my first viewing, due to the weekly distance between episodes, resulted in some confusion on my part: the series’ trademark sentence about the Cylons having a plan made me often wonder whether the creators truly had one, as well… However, this rewatch fared better in this instance, but that did not save the season from feeling less focused than its predecessors.

Season 3 ended with momentous revelations, like the identity of four out of the Final Five Cylons and the return of Kara Thrace, previously believed dead and now declaring she knows the way to fabled Earth: here is where the narrative arc stumbles a little, devoting a considerable space to her mission to retrace that path, apparently buried in hard-to-retrieve memories. It’s clear from the start that this might turn out to be a wild goose chase, and the microcosm present on the ship tasked with the search mirrors perfectly the strain and discord that are running rampant in the fleet, while Kara’s disconnect from reality tarnishes the image of a character that until this moment had generally been depicted as a resolute, if headstrong, one.

A little more interesting is the narrative thread concerning the four newly-aware Cylons and their stress in grappling with this revelation and their past as members of the Fleet: just imagine having hated someone all your life, only to discover that you’re one of them… This theme becomes all the more disturbing once the internal conflict dividing the Cylons brings a rebel group to offer an alliance to the humans and help in finding Earth: as I often say, strife it the motivator that carries the best character development, and this is no exception. Humans, already divided and frayed at the edges after years on the run, now find themselves on the cusp of a momentous decision: accept the help of their former enemies, of the creatures that decimated their numbers, or bow to the law of diminishing returns and know that their journey might end in death.

This struggle – moral, political, practical – brings on one of the best, most adrenaline-laden narrative arcs of the season, as an attempted coup shakes the Fleet to its core and brings mutiny to the very heart of Galactica, with its accompanying trail of fighting and bloodshed. Hard as it is to witness, this grim segment moves the story back toward its human (in the wider sense of the word) dimension and portrays both sides of the dilemma from an emotional standpoint, using characters we have learned to know well and showing us different (if not always palatable) sides of their personality.

The final episodes of the season are certainly satisfying in that they give a closure to the long arc of the survivors looking for a new home where to rebuild a civilization, but at the same time they are imbued with more of the spiritual material scattered throughout the story, and I’m not sure that these elements work here as seamlessly as they previously did: where the survivors’ polytheistic faith, and the Cylons’ monotheistic credo, were threaded into the tissue of the epic, giving both groups a spiritual basis to draw from, toward the end of the season we are also treated with “angelic” figures sent to oversee the travelers’ path and to keep observing them as their history develops through the ages of the new world, and I’m still struggling to figure how they fit into the overall narrative.

Where the ending worked for me, however, was in its emotional content, particularly in the series of goodbyes fueling the last portion of the story: Adama’s parting with his beloved Galactica, whose structure finally gives up after long years in service and the beatings it took during the long run; the last journey of the Fleet’s ships, headed toward the sun so as not to leave traces of more advanced technology on a new, primitive world; the breaking of the crew into separate groups, to better insure the survival of the new settlements. Above all shines the final goodbye between Adama and a dying Roslin (which I chose to celebrate with the soundtrack fragment linked at the end of the review): for someone who’s not very romantically-inclined like me, the slow-burn relationship between these two individuals was one of the highlights of the series, portraying two mature people who move toward each other first in mutual understanding, then in shared goals and finally acknowledging the bond that ties them. I find it easy to admit that I felt for them as I did not for other characters, and that their last scenes together moved me to tears: in my opinion that would have been a more fitting conclusion than the one chosen by the authors because this one, despite its emotional content, still offered a ray of hope for the future.

All things considered, the mild disappointment I experienced after my first watch of this final season was greatly mitigated, and I can better understand now why many label Battlestar Galactica as one of the best space opera epics to ever hit television: it’s not perfect, granted, but it shows a willingness to get out of previously established molds in the genre that is well worth of the praise it collected.

My Rating:

Reviews

CONTROL (Star Trek: Section 31), by David Mack – #SciFiMonth

ARTWORK by Tithi Luadthong from 123RF.com

As I was “stocking up” on my SF readings for SciFi Month, I was unlucky enough to hit a negative streak: I started and abandoned three books which looked promising on the outside but that ultimately proved otherwise.  Looking at my TBR offered no inspiring alternatives, probably because those previous failures had somewhat soured my mood, and I wondered if I had not hit a dreaded reading slump – the bookworm’s nemesis…

Then inspiration struck: to get out of the slump, or bad mood, or whatever I wanted to call it, I needed some comfort read – the bookish equivalent of chocolate – so I peeked at a list of recently published Star Trek books. A friend of mine is fond of saying that the best way to cure any upset is to watch a Trek episode: she maintains that Starfleet’s uniforms have a soothing effect on the mind, and I followed her advice. It worked – and it worked quite well, at least as far as finding a book I would like was concerned, because the story itself is as far from reassuring as one can imagine, although that did not diminish its grip on my imagination.

The premise for Control is that shortly before the birth of the United Federation of Planets, a team of scientist created a very evolved artificial intelligence whose mandate was to act as an all-seeing monitor, evaluating possible threats and alerting the competent authorities so they could intervene. The creators of Uraei – that’s the name of the program, after the Egyptian serpent goddess – wanted it to bring public safety to the next level and hasten along the betterment of the human race: unfortunately, they wrote Uraei far too well, and the A.I. evolved beyond its intended parameters, acquiring consciousness and literally taking over the management of the Federation and many of its allies by manipulating or facilitating events, and setting up its own enforcement agency, the shady Section 31, which carried out the directives of the program – now calling itself Control – through means that were quite far from the Federation’s and Starfleet’s ideals.

If you are familiar with the TV series Person of Interest, the concept of an artificial intelligence taking up a world-wide surveillance of every human action will not come as a novelty, but where Mr. Finch’s Machine was created to prevent those crimes too small to raise the attention of the competent authorities, and therefore was imbued with its creator’s sense of justice and morals, Uraei and Control bear a closer resemblance to the Machine’s evil twin, Samaritan, whose ultimate goal was world domination. To achieve that goal, Control viciously manipulated many – if not all – of the Federation’s historical events we have come to know through the various incarnations of Star Trek, causing a massive, shocking double take for the readers who see the other, mostly ugly other side of the coin of an organization whose objectives were peace and universal harmony: all that we readers (and viewers) had taken for granted in the decades of the franchise’s life, is now hung upside down by this chilling revelation.

David Mack’s Control explores two timelines, one following the inception of Uraei’s infiltration into the Federation’s framework and the other the “present” where an investigative journalist discovers the existence of Section 31 and its invisible master, and enrolls Dr. Bashir and his partner Sarina Douglas in the attempt to destroy the supercomputer’s hold on the fabric of society.  This is a dark, sometimes quite bleak story, but it’s also a compulsive, immersive read: besides Bashir, there are several familiar faces from the saga, like a reincarnated Data and his daughter Lal, or the former Cardassian spy Garak, and the author – unlike what can sometimes happen with tie-in novels – manages to bring them back to life with faithful accuracy, so that it’s easy to see and hear them, and to be drawn into their almost hopeless fight against an all-encompassing enemy that had two centuries of time to establish its chokehold on reality.

The pace is indeed relentless, offering a story that relies heavily on plot and yet does not feel deprived of characterization, since we know most of these people very well and can understand what makes them tick and how years and events have changed them. At the same time, the novel poses several thought provoking questions, not least the one about our increasing reliance on technology, and the dangers inherent in the propensity to entrust vital issues to the impersonal judgement of machines, which in the long run might turn into surrendering our choices to the cold logic of algorithms in which there is no room for ethics or principles.  And again, the whole Uraei/Control scenario raises some doubts about the ideal, enlightened society envisioned by Gene Roddenberry, whose concept of a future in which humanity’s “better angels” would prevail seems to be negated here by the discovery that mankind has been led to that utopian goal by the coldly calculating hand of a sophisticated program.

 As far as Trek novels go, Control is no picnic, not by a long shot: besides the high-octane action scenes, the sudden twists and the feeling of a fight against time – not to mention against an entity that always seems to be three moves ahead of its adversaries – there is a very non-Trek feeling of helplessness that sharply contrasts with the franchise’s optimistic bent, the sense that our heroes are this time battling against proverbial windmills, and the ending reinforces this sensation: after all, how do you destroy a capillary web that insinuated itself everywhere in society’s infrastructure, without also destroying that same infrastructure? Or if you manage that, can you be sure about its complete eradication?  You will not close this book with the usual satisfaction of knowing that every piece of the puzzle has found its rightful place, on the contrary you will find here a quite unsettling story – and one whose implications made me wonder at some strange Federation behavior exhibited in the newest TV series Picard – but at the same time I can tell you that this might turn out to be the best, most believable and most emotionally satisfying Star Trek novel you have read so far.

And to me that’s hight praise, indeed.

My Rating:

Reviews

BATTLESTAR GALACTICA REWATCH: Season 3 (2006) – #SciFiMonth

ARTWORK by Tithi Luadthong from 123RF.com

After two riveting seasons, Battlestar Galactica loses some of its previous steam in the third one: where the first handful of episodes offers an in-depth look on life in the settlement of New Caprica under the Cylons’ domination, the rest of the season – with the exception of the three final chapters – shifts its focus to a number of episodes centered on the plight of individual characters, not always managing to offer an intriguing point of view or to be successful in the message it wanted to convey.

In the beginning, what I had previously defined as a depressing portrayal of the refugees’ conditions in the newly established settlement, turns into the dramatic representation of their struggle under the Cylons’ government, aided and abetted by president Baltar’s morally weak ineptitude. In a parallel of the ordeals suffered by European countries fallen under Nazi occupation, we witness mass incarcerations and the disappearance of many individuals and the torture and maiming of others, while the resistance movement created by the colonists tries to sabotage the Cylons as much as possible, thus exasperating an already strained situation.   The conditions aboard Galactica and the rest of the fleet, that took flight at the enemy’s approach and is monitoring New Caprica from afar, are not much better: guilt over the forced choice of abandoning the colony and the creeping sense of impotence prey on already fraying nerves, as the decision on how to proceed becomes more imperative.

This physical break between the two halves of the survivors exemplifies the leitmotif of the whole season, where we see both humans and Cylons experience profound fractures that threaten to create dangerous divisions in both groups: as far as humanity is concerned, the reunification of the fleet, achieved through a massive rescue operation that is one of the best and most breath-taking action sequences of the season, does not heal the rift and instead leads first toward a form of “us and them” mentality, where the colonists look at the spacefaring humans as having led a charmed life, and then to a string of summary executions as a clandestine tribunal hunts and sentences those accused of collaborating with the enemy.  The Cylons, for their part, differ on the methods to deal with the humans – reason with them or beat them into submission – and it looks as if prolonged contact with their former creators has “contaminated” them with the same kind of emotional instability that seems to drive them away from their preordained goal.

All these issues are very interesting, and in the course of the season they give rise to a number of stand-alone episodes that more or less successfully shed light on the survivors’ problems: from the strict class divisions enforced according to the planet of origin and hinting at something of a caste system throughout the Twelve Colonies, to the loosely related story of a Mengele-like doctor trying to wipe out the individuals from a specific planet, these episodes show how the drive for survival is not enough to unite these people into a cohesive whole, but rather it exasperates social tensions that were already in place before the Cylons’ attack and have been simmering during the long months of flight from the attackers and of occupation on New Caprica.

Where the show sadly falters is when it tries to create personal drama in the form of a love triangle – or rather quadrangle – that in my opinion takes too much narrative space that could have been devoted to better and more interesting themes. At some point we are treated by the flare-up of the romantic entanglement between Starbuck and Apollo, something we are told must have been simmering for a long time and that the two are now incapable of keeping under wraps, uncaring of the pain they are inflicting on their respective partners. I know that a good portion of my distaste for this story thread comes from my profound dislike of the trope, but there is more that works against it, starting from the total lack of on-screen chemistry between the two and moving on to the totally loathsome way they treat their spouses, guilt over the break of their marriage vows (something we already learned is frowned on in the Twelve Colonies) expressed just in a perfunctory matter. Not to mention that I could not have cared less about their oh-so-contrived on-screen passion…

Fortunately, the last three episodes mark a return to the intense examination of moral questions standing at the roots of the overall story: as the trial against Gaius Baltar for his crimes during the Cylons’ occupation starts, the focus shifts to the meaning of justice – it had been touched briefly in the earlier episode “Collaborators” I mentioned before, but here it examines in depth the differences between justice and vengeance, of the rules of law against the drive of an angry mob seeking revenge. My opinion of Lee ‘Apollo’ Adama went back a few notches after the nosedive it took during the “forbidden love” episodes, thanks to his speech in defense not so much of Baltar but of a justice system that did not take into account the changed conditions for humanity’s survivors and was driven by the unspoken need to punish one man for everyone’s dark deeds carried out after the Cylons’ attack.

If this third season sags a little in its middle, the explosive beginning and the ominous end, revealing the surprising identity of four of the remaining human-looking Cylons, more than make up for it and hopefully lead toward more revelations in the fourth and final season.

And for the usual soundtrack sample I enjoy attaching to these reviews, here is one of my favorites for this season, Bear McCreary’s, Kat’s Sacrifice from the highly emotional episode The Passage:

My Rating:

Reviews

BATTLESTAR GALACTICA REWATCH: Season 2 (2005) – #SciFiMonth

ARTWORK by Tithi Luadthong from 123RF.com

Where Season 1 of Battlestar Galactica focused mainly on the survival of the few humans who escaped the genocidal attack of the Cylons, this second season showcases in a dramatic way their inability to set aside petty concerns even in the face of imminent annihilation: once this kind of life on the run, plagued by short supplies and the dread from constant incursion, starts to become the “new normal”, the lack of hope turns people into the uglier version of themselves and seems to answer a question Commander Adama asked himself when he wondered about the human’s race worthiness of its survival. In this season, no one seems able to escape from their darker side rearing its ugly head at some point.

This new season begins where the previous one left off, after the shooting of Adama at the hands of the sleeper Cylon agent Boomer: as the Galactica’s commander battles for his life, leadership shifts to his XO Colonel Tigh – a man more comfortable with following orders than issuing them, and a drunkard to boot. As his own deep-rooted uncertainties flare up in the wake of a series of problems he’s not suited to resolve, Tigh over-reacts and only manages to make matters worse, pitching the military against the civilians in what can only result in a bloodbath.  President Roslin causes further divisions by insisting on a detour to the ancient planet of Kobol, where clues to the location of Earth might be found: her actions, and her open confrontation with Tigh, who lacks Adama’s skills at mediation, cause a split in the fleet that mines resources, defensive capabilities and, above all, morale.

Ironically enough, though, the main players orbiting around Galactica find again a common ground when the appearance of another Battlestar, the Pegasus, fills everyone with hope only to destroy it at the discovery of the true price of survival: Pegasus escaped the initial attack and under the command of Admiral Cain has been harrying the Cylons ever since, but she and her crew have sacrificed every remaining shred of humanity for their mission, and the clash between Cain and Adama threatens to become as cold-blooded as the atrocities perpetrated by the woman and her crew.  The Cylons themselves are starting to experience a very humanlike lack of cohesiveness as some of them now believe the attempted genocide unleashed on the Twelve Colonies might have been unwarranted, and are in favor of attempting a mediation. In other words, for both contenders the enemy seems to be present both on the outside and on the inside, and the recurrent theme in this season seems indeed to be the heightened danger coming from within…

The show’s creators took a bold path in portraying their “heroes” in their lowest moments, as they are ready to sacrifice integrity in the name of a higher purpose, which would of course be robbed of its ethical foundations if such acts were carried out to the bitter end: so we see Adama prepared to order the assassination of Admiral Cain to preserve the fleet from taking a dangerously inhuman direction, involving Starbuck as his hand in the plan – the moral struggle of the pilot as she wrestles loyalty to Adama, revulsion for Cain’s merciless acts and admiration for the woman’s accomplishments, is one of the finest acting feats of the series so far.  President Roslin faces a similar choice when she tries to rig the presidential elections that would otherwise see Gaius Baltar succeed, and it’s impossible not to feel dismay when she backs off and Baltar’s inevitable win looks like the first step toward the survivors’ downfall.

Ironically enough, it’s Baltar who takes a contrary journey: his brief moment of redemption, when he finds a miracle cure for Roslin who’s dying of cancer, is shortly undermined by the decision to run against her in the presidential race, not because of a higher calling but for selfish, petty reasons, thus squandering what looked like the last chance to atone for his guilt.  Baltar keeps appearing as congenitally unable to shrug off the mix of self-importance and self-loathing at the roots of his character, a combination that engenders equally opposite reactions: you pity him one moment and despise him the next, the latter feeling always being the strongest one.  So it’s not surprising that it’s under Baltar’s presidency that the survivors’ worst hour comes to be: first he endorses the decision to settle on a barely habitable planet that does not offer much in the field of resources (or pleasant environments, for that matter…), the lesser choice of people who have lost the hope of a better future; then he reveals himself as an inept leader, more concerned with idleness and debauchery than with the running of a colony; and finally, when the Cylons find them and invade the planet, he caves in far too easily, driven by his usual fear-fueled ineptitude. 

The remnants of humanity reach the proverbial bottom in this final segment of the season: living like refugees in a dismal lineup of temporary shelters separated by muddy paths, under a perpetually cloudy sky that adds a further note of misery to a depressing existence, trying to make the best out of a disheartening situation. But it’s with the arrival of the Cylons that this fragile illusion is shattered: the image of the mechanical Centurions marching through the settlement, a picture starkly reminiscent of the Nazi army entering Paris, closes the last episode with a feeling of doom and heartbreak that will certainly carry over in the next season.

And to underscore this feeling of unease, here is my usual pick from Bear McCreary’s soundtrack for the season, One Year Later

My Rating: