Saturday, January 25, 2014

Show Review: Helix

Given my day job, two kids and the various demands of daily life, I typically find myself with only a few hours of spare time to devote to watching television. That's why 'New Show' season is typically a fairly hectic time of research, thinning the list of potential candidates and then PVR-ing a few to determine which make the final cut for long-term (read a season) viewing.  Every once in a while I'll drop some of these shows part way through the season.

One of the shows that caught my attention early on was a program that didn't even launch until this year: Helix (links to IMDB).  The commercials were suitably vague enough to pique my interest.  I knew it involved medical viruses, had some horror/suspense elements to it and took place in an Antarctic station.  The cast isn't a list of well known actors, which can sometimes make or break a show.  The production quality and complexity of plot lines are typically high on my list of requirements before I follow a prgram; this I found in Helix, in spades.

The idea of a medical based horror/suspense is certainly nothing new, and it brings with it many of the common tropes and ideas expected from a medical suspense-thriller/horror.  The concept was popularized long before the more recent Resident Evil computer games and cinematic interpretations, I Am Legend, 28 Days After, et al.  Helix has a production quality that matches anything on television.  Set in a sub-terranean base located in the Antarctic, the distant and remote locale a character in and of itself.  The music and background sounds are exceedingly similar to the Resident Evil score, which really adds to the eerie feeling to each episode.  

The driving force behind the complexity of the plot is the mystery behind the medical pathogen that is infecting the base.  A team from CDC is sent to deal with the outbreak, facing a series of complications, and personnel with their own counter-motivations.  Since there are so few of the viewing audience that have the medical and bio-chem expertise to really critique the science or techniques behind the show (which certainly includes me), the disparity of the science and that level of knowledge makes the pathogen akin to a sort of magic.  We see the effects, we understand there is a scientific reasoning behind the infection and are shown through the research the characters conduct just how it works, yet for all we know of the machinations of a pathogen and vectors, it may as well be magic.

I find the concept of the show as incredibly interesting, the production and the acting engaging.  The concept and execution behind the Resident Evil film (the first, none of those follow-ups) was one I thoroughly enjoyed; I Am Legend is another film I enjoyed.  Both of these films were based on heavy use of computer graphics and violence.  The television series Helix has the same medical background and conspiracy, yet after two episodes, the majority of the action and suspense seems to be based on the threat of the pathogen and the interaction of the incredibly frightened personnel of the base, and the hidden agendas that are bit-by-bit being revealed.  Thusfar, I find worth Helix to really be worth my investment of time.  I'm really looking forward to the following episodes.
Have you seen Helix?  If not, I recommend you give it a try.


Tuesday, January 21, 2014

2014 - The Year of the Hardcover Book

One of the conclusion I had at the turn of the New Year was to start collecting the hardbound copies of the classic works from science fiction and fantasy.  Part of the reasoning was my simply voracious appetite for reading when I was younger, single and not a father of two.  This left me with an astounding collection of softbound and paperback novels that really only served the purpose of filling shelf space and boxes in storage.  I needed to get rid of them, so I did.  My wife had bought me a Kobo a few years back and since then I've been nearly exclusively reading ebooks on that platform. I like the Kobo and the experience of the e-Readers.  That said, there is something to be said for the tangible element of reading.  So spring forth my desire to collect the classics.

There are a few definitive beginning points: the Lord of the Rings trilogy, 1984 and the like.  There are only too numerous a list of classic works from either science fiction or fantasy or those that combine both.  A few examples (of hundreds):

NPR List of 100 Top Science Fiction & Fantasy Books

Flavorwire's Top 50 Sci-Fi/Fantasy Novels That Everyone Should Read

Top 100 Fantasy Books

Top 25 Fantasy Books

Top 25 Science Fiction Books

I'm currently finishing up the Lord of the Rings trilogy that I borrowed from my father-in-law.  I received 1984, by George Orwell, for Christmas and I plan on getting around ten classics this year, reading them all and providing a review of each.  My short list of purchases for 2014 are the following, in no particular order:

1.  Ender's Game, by Orson Scott Card:  Politics aside, I was completely enthralled by this novel when I first read it.  I read the entire Ender series in paperback, finding the following works delving into harder science fiction than I was used to at the time.  There were a few parts of his later works that don't strike well with me either, but this was before the days of pervasive Internet and some of OSC's more recent and infamous statements.  That said, this the first in the series is a definite for my collection.

2.  Dune, by Frank Herbert:  Another classic I read in my youth, I vaguely remember the details.  I do recall watching the movie shortly thereafter and grudgingly accepting it as a 'decent' rendition of the novel.  I fully understood the limitations that Hollywood had in regards to production and special effects.  Regardless, I am fully committed to adding this one to my collection.

3.  The Last Unicorn, by Peter S. Beagle:  I have never read this book, yet from everything I have heard and read it is something of a masterpiece of english fantasy.  My only connection to this work is the animated version, something of a psychadelic tale that involved a little unicorn, a small group of friends and a flaming bull.  I laugh as I try to recall the details, only to find myself truly wondering how far some interpretations can sometimes differ from the written work.

4. The Left Hand of Darkness, by Ursula Le Guin:  Another I have not read but continuously appears on must-read lists.

5. Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep, by Philip K. Dick:  I've been a huge fan of Bladerunner since I saw the film for the first time.  The film resonates still, through various re-releases and different renditions (original score, Director's cut, etc).  When I found out this was adapted from a novel, I immediately bought it for my Kobo.  I enjoyed it so much I know it must be one of the first half-dozen for my collection.

6.  Starship Troopers, by Robert A. Heinlein:  After having seen the cinematic version, I suppose it could be forgiven that it took me over a decade to get to the novel.  I actually did it because of a challenge someone posted on a message board; that passionate refusal to accept the cheesy film as anything related to the book drew my attention, and I was stunned at just how much I had missed in those intervening years!  A definite addition.

So those are the defines that I have on my radar.  I've already read the Wheel of Time series but have no interest in collecting it hardbound.  I also have George R.R. Martin's series, A Song of Ice and Fire, sitting in my Kobo; I'll read those willingly in e-format and get the completed set once complete, desperately hoping it doen't go the way of Wheel of Time.  

Other than that, does anything seem out of place or significantly overlooked?  I'd appreciate any comments or suggestions.  I've got four more spots to round out the ten that I'd like to start with this year.

Friday, January 17, 2014

My New Toys - or - I Love my Mac

So Christmas came around and things went well.  I found myself in the situation where I could expedite my purchase of a new computer.  Each time I've bought a new computer, it's always been with a view to keeping it for 10 years or so.  My previous computer was a Dell desktop, which I upgraded to the nines and it still works really well.  I decided this round that I'd get a Macbook Pro.  My reasoning was that this product would be my  production platform for creative writing, while the desktop remained the central family computer.

I had to wait for about two weeks after the order to allow the upgraded system to arrive from Apple's assembly plant in China.  It was a rather anxious couple of weeks.  When it finally arrived, I still couldn't quite grasp just how well and far laptops have come since I bought my Dell.  Back then, laptops were huge, clunky affairs.  To put into perspective, a colleague was cleaning her desk and returning an old Toshiba.  The system was nearly as thick as the box for my MBP!  So, with a grin that knew no limits, I unpacked and gleefully started 'er up; I've haven't looked back since.  With 16 Gb of RAM and a fully upgraded processor, I'm content with the basic storage capacity, given the system's primary function.  If it ever comes to it, external flash storage is a hell of a lot cheaper than Apple's proprietary hardware.

Another toy I decided to get to tide me over while the MBP was being assembled was the Apple iPad Air; again, the bare bones storage capacity is more than enough for our purposes.  What a sweet little system!  My wife and mother-in-law are still awestruck that this thin, little device can do so much.  I went for the Air instead of the Mini largely due to screen size preference and a few reviews that showed the Air had a slightly better capacity for graphic presentation.

Now that I have a dedicated platform, I'm looking forward to cracking some works out!

Sunday, January 12, 2014

SFWA World Building Questions

I’ve stumbled onto this particular site a few times over the years, typically anytime someone on the Absolute Write forums starts asking about worldbuilding; it’s a staple link that always gets brought up.  Albeit not an exhaustive link, it can truly be a daunting link for authors just starting out and looking for a place to start.  It truly does ask a daunting amount of questions, not all of which apply, which may or may not initially occur.  That said, I’ve taken it upon myself to review the list and see how it applies to my fantasy ms, as well as the remainder of the Ochra series books.
A review of these questions may seem like an exercise in futility; I mean, after one novel written, you’d think these questions would have been answered already, right?  More to the point, it’s a chance to do some worldbuilding detail-work that may have gone unnoticed, yet it also provides the opportunity to draw on your second- and third-order effect answers and develop story ideas.  Case in point: in the Ochra series, the J’in Empire is a caste society.  Mages/sorcerers, which are considered samurai caste, were born with their abilities, able to tap into a sub-current of energy they use to shape their spells.  Not everyone born with the ability develops the potential to tap into this energy.  If they are born into the ability though, what if a peasant-class child was born with this spark?  This led to the development of a secondary character, a samurai bounty hunter of sorts that sniffs out these waifs born with the ability.  This leads to other questions:  how does he sniff them out?  What does he do when he finds one?  Does he pay the family for the child?  If so, does this create a sort of lottery system?  How would that impact the society?  How would that be interpreted by the samurai?
Part One, The World
The Basics:  Largely an Earth-like world, most questions like gravity, basic flora and fauna and the like are already assumed to be the same (no need to recreate a pine tree, or call a maple something new).  Then we get into the specifics of races.  An epic fantasy, the Ochra series includes a gamut of other races like elves, dwarves, dragons, ratmen, orcs, goblins, et cetera.  The realms of Ihr’Vessen are currently in a post-cataclysmic era, the two pantheons of gods having fought a war that was finally brought to an end.  The elves are the sole remaining superpower among mortal beings.
Humanity is actually in a relatively nascent stage.  The tribes scattered across a region of the continent ‘recently’ vacated by the elves; recently is something like 1000 years or more.  The three major human kingdoms have diverged into their own specialties, their cultures developed to reflect different worldviews.  The primary human kingdom the Ochra series follows in the J’in Empire, a samurai culture that is based heavily on Sengoku period Japan, with Chinese and Korean myth and culture woven in as well.  As this differs radically from the Euro-centric standard for most epic-high fantasy, it brings with it some unique idiosyncrasies: names are particularly foreign, yet this poses the problem of keeping names straight, particularly when most Asian cultures speak family name prior to given name.  Most readers are likely to also visualise against the backdrop of popular films or anime.  Films like The Last Samurai and 13 Assassins are actually rather good pieces to draw from, in that they at least tried to make things as culturally and historically accurate as possible; films like Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon and a plethora of anime tend to stray a little too far into the fantastical for my taste (I must admit I absolutely adore the imagery and action sequences from Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon).
Population:  These numbers are something I’ve had to put some research into.  Taking a cue into the middle ages of Europe, a continental region the size in question for my manuscript could handle a population of several millions.  The actual figures are neither directly pertinent not required for the storyline.  That said, as background information it provides a baseline to work from.  I found this site, which boils down demography in a fantasy setting into a rather intuitive system that works for me.  It is geared towards a Game Master developing his Role-Playing Game setting, yet the parallels remain – author or GM, you’re both telling a story.
In the European Middle Ages, the population was curbed for some time by Viking, Arab and Slavic or Magyar expansions.  In my case, the elves vacated the lands but oversaw the ‘lesser’ species development.  This over watch would also have to include some form of protection from the predations of the surviving rival factions of the elves, namely the goblins and orcs.  I’ve used this as a bit of a cheat to help along the development of humanity in a slightly compressed time span.  Once the human tribes had diverged into their own distinct paths with regions of their own, the elves withdrew to a supervisory role of sorts.
Source of Magic:  Another issue worthy of thought, particularly if it plays a significant role in your story.  In my case I’ve both mages/sorcerers, as well as clerics/priests.  The former draw their powers from the underlying current of energy that they alone are able to recognize, tap into and mold to their spell forms and abilities.  Mages use spell forms and rituals to carefully construct the conduit that the power gets siphoned through with predictable results.  Sorcerers on the other hand draw the power into themselves, their instinctual drive the conduit for the power, which makes their magic less predictable but easier to access.  Priests and clerics are largely the exact same thing, just a question of title, yet both draw their powers from the grace of their gods.  Since the cataclysm ended, the gods were limited in their direct influence.  Their latent power could be drawn upon if a cleric met the phantom presence’s.... entry requirements, for lack of a better term.
Again, none of this is essential to the actual story, yet it creates a good baseline and reference point for the plot whenever things seem to be drawing off course and into territory I’ve not explored.  A quick reference back to my notes and more times than not, I’ve got a place to go from, or a new plot point to exploit.

Saturday, January 11, 2014

2013 - Books Read in Review

Well, Christmas and New Years’s have come and gone.  Hopefully things as you hoped for, happiness and health in plenty, enjoying the season for all it can provide.  One of the first things I did at the turn of the New Year was to take stock of what I read and what I have immediately sitting on my ‘to read’ list.

1.       Lord of the Rings, The Fellowship of the Ring, by J.R.R. Tolkien (9 out of 10):  For any lovers of fantasy and authors of the genre, don’t throw anything, allow me to beg forgiveness and come out from hiding behind my rock for not giving this a 10.  I’ll grant this is the grand-daddy of the genre, heck the work that defined the genre.  Written back in a time where language had its distinct idioms from works we see published today, the language is particularly dense.  That said it is poetic and exceedingly influential in conveying the spirit of Middle Earth to the reader.  Tolkien may take a full page to describe a certain scene, yet there is no doubt that the reader is therein fully immersed into the scene.  Tom Bombadil scenes included, this was a rousing and endearing return to Middle Earth.

2.       Lord of the Rings, The Two Towers, by J.R.R. Tolkien (9 out of 10):  In what could only be described as two finite story arcs, I found the division of the book into near exclusively Helm’s Deep and the battle of Isengard, followed by Frodo’s voyage, to be a bit distracting.  Understanding that today’s process would have seen the chapters intertwined differently, this is hardly a point of serious critique.  I found the Helm’s Deep battle particularly engaging, the relationship between Gimli and Legolas particularly well done.  Again, the language would be an impediment, but reading this straight after The Fellowship, I found the language as engrossing as the events within the plot.  Frodo’s trials suffered from a certain amount of denouement after Helm’s Deep and Isengard; this despite my fear of insects adding a slightly agonizing and personal effect to the Shelob scenes.

3.       Stormdancer, by Jay Kristoff (8 out of 10):  The first in a samurai-steam punk trilogy, I found the idea intriguing.  To be honest, I also wanted to see how another writer was presenting a samurai culture.  After purchasing the book, I discovered some rumblings on the Internet about the author’s inappropriate use of the Japanese language.  No expert by far, there were a few instances I noted a detraction, but nothing that forced me to stop throwing the book against a wall.  The steam punk aspect of the plot is interesting, the cultural impacts on samurai and peasant alike convincingly portrayed.  Although suffering obvious symbolism, I like how Jay executed the concept that the chi that powers the technology is derived from a plant that is killing the land.  The heroine, Yukiko, through use of a secret power in which she can communicate with animals, links to an arishitora (a griffon by the name of Buruu) to combat the vile influence of the Shogun.

4.       Kinslayer, by Jay Kristoff (7 out of 10):  The follow-up to Stormdancer, I found the pacing fell way-off.  Yukiko gets dragged off by Buruu’s raging hormones.  By far the most interesting part of the book was the intrigues that occurred in the capital, as members of the rebellious Kagé attempt to undermine the process of recognizing a new Shogun.  The results sent the empire into absolute revolt.  This, his sophomore release in the trilogy didn’t quite meet my expectations; it established a great story arc for the Kagé, yet really only seemed to set things up for the third instalment, Yukiko playing a really minor role.

5.       Characters and Viewpoint, by Orson Scott Card (7 out of 10):  In all honesty, this is more about reading the book after having written my manuscript, and largely because much of it seemed rather self-explanatory.  Some of the character development sections proved useful, yet the majority were rather unnecessary after the section heading.  The viewpoint section helped solidify some issues I had with my third-person perspective.  Overall, it’s a fine reference book, one I would highly recommend to any budding authors.  It will certainly be a source I refer to in the future, if nothing else than to review the viewpoints and perspective sections.

6.       The Perfect Nazi, by Martin Davidson (8 out of 10):  Taking a break from genre books, I read this gripping account of a Scottish historian’s efforts to delve into the history of one of his great uncles, whom he discovered was a card-carrying Nazi and member of the SS.  This quasi-history and social commentary in the context of researching his family’s history reviews the social influences on German youth and the post-Weirmach era; competing politics were literally at war in the streets and pubs of Berlin until a radical by the name of Hitler finally rose to power.  Following what documentation he could find, the author brings us through a Germany in flux, where the young boys who watched their fathers go off to war with a feeling of impunity, forcibly submitted to punishing post-war concessions, and then latch on to the ideals of Hitler.

7.       WWZ, by Max Brooks (9 out of 10):  I really liked the way this book was presented.  A series of small expose-style reports from a multitude of perspectives give an overview of the war with raging zombies.  Divided into several sections, each builds upon the preceding section, demonstrating how the virus was spread, the general ignorance the world placed on the threat until it was too late, as well as the stumbling steps taken to finally defeat it.  I found the military perspectives amusing and pretty much spot-on for how soldiers react to higher command’s orders, often mixing bewilderment with perceived errors in judgement with a sense of duty and perseverance; often the macro-picture doesn’t translate well into micro-level scenarios, something Max Brooks did well to show.  There were a few scenes I simply wandered through until the following scene:  the Chinese sub and the blind Japanese swordsman left me shaking my head.  Overall, a great read; I have yet to see the cinematic interpretation.

Books In My ‘To Read’ Pile (no particular order)

1.       Lord of the Rings, The Return of the King, by J.R.R. Tolkien:  Having completed the first two, it would simply be criminal to not complete the trilogy.  Despite ‘knowing how it ends,’ the language and the depth of the characters and landscape are breathtakingly worth it.  Then I can pull out my DVDs and watch the cinematic versions again.

2.       Let’s Pretend This Never Happened, by Jenny Lawson:  One of the New Year’s commitments my wife and I made was to a book club run by one of our friends.  It’s just the couples that went to New York City, as well as another very close high school friend of my wife’s and her boyfriend.  This, the first book chosen, is something of an enigma, though some quick research places it on a large number of Best Seller lists and Must Read Lists.

3.       Drift, by Rachel Maddow:  A controversial piece by an investigative journalist, it examines the American capacity, inclination and the evolution of how the country decides and makes war on others.

4.       1984, by George Orwell:  As part of my Christmas wish list, I started including hardcover versions of classic science fiction and fantasy novels.  Since nearly all my leisure reading is done on my Kobo, I thought to begin collecting the best of the best in hardcover for my personal library.  The first I received was 1984.

5.       Ender’s Game, by Orson Scott Card:  Regardless of the debate about the author’s politics, this book I believe is worth the investment and the read.  Like 1984, it is part of my project to collect some of the classics and better books I have read.  Previously read when I was sixteen, I think.

Overall, I can honestly say I'm rather surprised just how little I accomplished reading this year.  Typically I'd belt out about twice as many.  Work and an eight-week long illness likely the biggest culprits.  Now that both have dramatically improved, I should be able to get back and enjoy a few more.