Stranger in a Strange Land— another item from my “Keeper” shelf

Stranger CoverAs a youngster, I loved science fiction. From being a little kid watching Fireball XL5: The Complete Series on television to reading the novels of Robert Heinlein while in school, to seeing the original Star Wars: A New Hope at the cinema while in college (gosh, I’m old, right?) I really loved sci-fi. Actually, I still do, but this is a blast from the past post, so here goes.

Heinlein, now considered one of the “grand masters” of classic science fiction, wrote young adult novels and short stories for a number of years. However, his groundbreaking and movie inspiring Starship Troopers is considered a turning point into adult fiction because this novel begins his exploration of themes that appeal to a more mature audience, including libertarian politics. Perhaps modern readers wouldn’t realize it, but the powered body armor in Starship Troopers was one of those prescient inventions that makes reading and watching science fiction so important to the development of technology.

Stranger in a Strange Land (Remembering Tomorrow)was published a couple of years after Troopers, and while less “realistic” the novel takes some giant leaps into thematic explorations. The novel deals with the life of one Valentine Michael Smith, the first human born on Mars, and because he was orphaned he was reared by the natives of that planet, and later brought back to earth as a young adult human who knows absolutely nothing about his home planet or its inhabitants, hence the title. This situation is a fabulous set up for what science fiction does best: explore what makes humanity work (or not.) I used to read this novel annually, and I have never tired of it, because there are so many themes. Indeed, while doing a master’s degree in English, I wrote a pretty decent term paper on the topic of how Heinlein uses the world savior theme in the novel, and didn’t get thrown out of my fairly conservative program.

The characters in Stranger are often larger than life, but Jubal Harshaw, lawyer, doctor, and homespun philosopher (as well as the voice of the author) is my favorite. His employees and associates included Anne, a “fair witness” which is sort of a human version of a body cam, as she only reports what is seen. As in many Heinlein works, there are any number of gems, but even people who haven’t read Stranger may use the invented word “grok” which is a Martian term for being one with someone or something, in such a way that it is fully understood or appreciated.

Modern science fiction has split into many sub-genres, but Stranger in a Strange Land pre-dates that, and in a good way. Grand Master Robert Heinlein was not restricted to hard science or the softer “social” aspects of the genre, although he uses both hard and softer themes to challenge societal norms. Indeed, this novel broke new ground when first published, and it is just as thoughtful and thought provoking today. Certainly, it deserves a read, but it is so complex that it almost needs a Cliff Notes commentary but not quite yet. Despite its age, it is still in print, so go get a copy!

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Count the flags!

FlagWe had an interesting discussion about celebrating America’s Independence Day, and the  ways to celebrate are as diverse as the country itself. Most of the towns around here offer some sort of fireworks, usually preceded by live music, and people bring lawn chairs and visit for a while. When our kids were kids, we usually visited the one in the town where we lived. Currently, we live out in the country, so we don’t usually bother.

Hubby wants to watch a movie, preferably Independence Day Resurgence(Bluray+DVD+Digital HD). We loved the original ID4 movie, but somehow we missed seeing the sequel. Despite its mediocre reviews, I imagine that we’ll be looking for that one in a couple of days.

In my work as an adjunct instructor, I work with students from lots of differing situations, but some of the most interesting are immigrants to our country. Many of them are just so appreciative for the opportunities that Americans have. I remember one gentleman, originally from Romania, who came over a couple of decades back, beginning with nothing but some work ethic. At first he made his living doing odd jobs. He worked his way into owning his own construction business, and he and his wife raised their family through hard work and savvy real estate deals. At our college, he was working on his HVAC (that’s heating and air-conditioning) certification, as he wanted to open an HVAC business so he could scale back doing difficult construction work as he aged. Being a very smart business man, he said that in the south making money on repairing air conditioning was a sure thing! One day at the end of our class, he spend probably half an hour, telling all of us about what a wonderful country we were living in, because he could never do all that he was doing in the economically and socially constricted country of his birth. It was quite refreshing. Sometimes, caught up in the polarized morass of modern media, Americans forget just how wonderful our country is, and how it differs from others.

When I mentioned that it can be difficult teaching young children about our country, one  mother of youngsters mentioned that when they are driving in the car, her kids count flags. Regardless of the destination, they look for the red, white, and blue symbol of our great country. That, too, is a great way to begin celebrating the good ol’ US of A.

Happy American Independence Day, y’all.

Girl Power? Wonder Woman review and commentary

I’m not a frequent visitor to first run movies, as hubby and I enjoy our Netflix subscription (and homemade popcorn) more. Sometimes, however, a film comes out that piques my interest so we make the trek to our local multiplex and join a group of folks we’ve never met to see a movie. After reading some reviews and seeing a couple of trailers, I told hubby that I intended to see Wonder Woman, with or without him, so we went to see it.

Gal Gadot is fabulous in this film as the title character, as is Chris Pine’s side kick, Steve Trevor. Others do a good job, and Robin Wright is visually stunning as the Amazon general. Indeed, stunning is a word that comes to mind through the first half of the film. An superhero movie that is not a sequel must begin with some exposition, and that is a tricky phase. Too much detail threatens to bore the non-faithful viewer, but too little will disappoint those faithful fans who will show up regardless of what critics say. This version of Wonder Woman nails the exposition, with lots of action woven into the backstory. The costumes are simply amazing as are the settings and the action sequences. The characters do a great job of holding the viewers’ interest as the setting shifts from the island of the Amazons to WWI London. Again, the settings work well, as do the costumes, and it was easy to feel that we’d been transported back a hundred years.

(I am purposely leaving out details, as I do not want to ruin this movie for those who haven’t seen it, if there is anyone left in that category.)

Once the main mission of our heroine gets underway, the action is almost non-stop, and the villains are properly villainous. If I am totally honest, the final action sequence is a tad too long, but the overall effect is that this is a really good movie. Wonder Woman 2017 earns its fabulous score on Rotten Tomatoes.

I know nothing of director Patty Jenkins other work, nor have I seen Gadot in other films, but I have liked Chris Pine’s version of Captain Kirk in the rebooted Star Trek, and I thought he did a great job in the period action-adventure The Finest Hours (Theatrical). This super hero flick really hits on all cylinders: it is reasonably true to the comic book version, won’t disappoint fans of the old television series, and is so well made that newbies will enjoy it, too.

Please enjoy the links to these previous films available online, and consider going to see Wonder Woman.

Jackie— a brief review and commentary


We recently ordered up the DVD version of Jackie, starring Natalie Portman. Like many baby boomers, I remember the Kennedy assassination and its aftermath. Yes, I was just a child, but I still exactly where I was when I first heard the news, and I do remember that funeral procession as it appeared on our black and white television.

The film version of those events, entitled simply Jackie, is not especially linear, as the story line has a journalist coming to the Kennedy home in Massachusetts, to interview the former first lady about that terrible day and its aftermath. The story is actually a series of flashbacks. Featured in several of those is the famous television film of Jackie leading a tour of the White House, and the filmmakers carefully recreated a number of well documented events, including the arrival at Love Field and the motorcade (which was, of course, interrupted by the assassination.)

Other scenes give viewers a fictionalized but probably accurate glimpse of the horrors of that day. These include Jackie cleaning the blood from her face on Air Force One, and her removing the bloodstained pink wool suit, washing her hair, and Kennedy’s blood flows down her back. Although only seconds long, the shooting is also amazingly accurately depicted, and this is no fuzzy 8mm film— the assassination is high def and horrifying. The film also answers some questions that I’ve had, such as why Jackie tried to get out of the car, and why she didn’t change clothes before disembarking from the plane in Washington. The costumes, the sets, the cars, and the blending of old footage with new footage is really top notch. The cast does a very good job, especially Portman, who may not look all that much like Mrs. Kennedy, but she clearly worked hard on getting the accent and mannerisms down. Before it was over, I began to forget that this wasn’t the real Jackie Kennedy on the screen.

All-in-all, this film does a really good job of adding insight for viewers already familiar with the story. Perhaps more importantly, however, it gives younger generations a chance to see exactly what price is paid when a leader such as JFK dies at the hands of an assassin. Jackie is historically accurate, as well as being emotionally gut wrenching.

Travelers— the Netflix series

TravelersWe gave DirecTV the old “heave ho” five years ago, when we moved. At the time, we were carrying two large house payments, so utilizing our internet and Netflix services and forgoing the bill for a television service was a temporary measure to save a few bucks each month. Here we are, five years later, with the previous house sold, but during our financial mini-crisis, we learned how little we actually used the TV service, so we never signed on again. When I went back to grad school, I got Amazon Student (a great deal, by the way) so we still have Amazon Prime, and we look at Amazon videos from time to time, but YouTube and Netflix are the primary means of powering the big screen in our living room.

There is a problem with Netflix, however, and that is the way it “recommends” movies and shows. Our suggestions seem to be crap most of the time. So, every once in a while, I look up an article which purports to list “the best ???” on Netflix right now. And, thus we found a Netflix series called “Travelers.”

The premise of this science fiction series is a really good idea: In the distant, dark, future, people figure out how to send the consciousness of an agent (a traveler) back into the body of a person who is about to die. Since the time and manner of death are often documented, these folks from the future have to select a proper host and zip into the body just in time to thwart the death, and are then able to take over the host’s body and join with other “travelers” to perform various missions that are supposed to make the future a better place to be. Each traveler must deal with the situation his or her host is in, as well as managing to complete assigned missions, and hopefully not be seen as an imposter. This premise yields some suspenseful plots as well as quite a lot of dramatic irony, as the viewer knows that the person inside the host is not the person who was about to die.

We’ve not finished season one (the only season available as of this writing) but if the rest of the episodes are as good as the ones we have seen, we are certainly going to enjoy following along with these futuristic Travelers. If you are a Netflix subscriber and like suspense and/or science fiction, do check out this original series.

And, if you are a student or know someone who is, don’t forget the great deals available via Amazon Student:  Join Prime Student FREE Two-Day Shipping for College Students

Adding to the List

That’s the “to be read”list, of course. As I’ve been going through this blog and updating some links, killing off a few out of date posts, and generally trying to do some cyber housekeeping, I’ve run across some sequels that I want to read.

First up, Evergreen, which had some rights to the story of Honor Harrington, David Weber’s amazing space opera, has closed up shop, but there is a second comic book version of the story available. Here’s the cover (and a link to buy if you are so inclined.) While I’m not much of a graphic novel fan, I love Honor Harrington stories, especially those toward the beginning of the saga, which these comics depict.


 

And, the also amazing, but not so famous, Kennedy Hudner has added to his space opera, as Alarm of War is up to Volume III, entitled Desperate Measures. I’ve enjoyed the other books in the series, so I am looking forward to this one. Again, here’s some cover art with a link.


And, if you are like me and you read a lot of digital books and haven’t checked into Amazon’s Kindle programs, do take a look at this:

Join Amazon Kindle Unlimited 30-Day Free Trial

Star Trek and Philosophy: The Wrath of Kant— a brief review

Okay, I am a sucker for a good title, and this book has a good title and a good cover. Win-win! And it is about Star Trek, which I like quite a lot. But it is rather deep at times, so I wouldn’t rate it five stars, but fans of Trek who have some knowledge of philosophy might award it a solid four, perhaps.

What is between the covers is a collection of essays edited by Jason T. Eberl and Kevin S. Decker. These essays use Star Trek’s various television shows and movies to explore philosophical issues, and it helps quite a lot if the reader is familiar with all forms of Trek. Since I never watched all of DS9 or Enterprise, I was sometimes a bit lost.

The first essay is a nifty one, as it is based upon a Next Generation episode, “Darmok.” Both the essay and the episode dealt with the difficulty of translating a totally alien language. Throughout most of the Trek episodes there was a “universal translator” which was a bit like Google Translate, but it depended upon languages having some commonalities. Of course, communication via such means can go astray quite easily, but what about an alien species that doesn’t communicate the way we do? The issues would be far beyond going from English to Chinese, and I understand that can be difficult.

As the essays in this book are by different authors, the tone and topics vary quite a lot. For me, it was a book to nibble at, but not a cover to cover read. I’ve always viewed Star Trek as more intellectual than Star Wars, but this book takes it to an even higher plane. For fans of all things Trek, there are some really delicious ideas to examine in this collection, so if that describes you, go for it!

Winter’s Bone— review and commentary

Winter's BoneAs the film Winter’s Bone is based upon a novel, let me be clear— I am discussing the film, not the book. Hubby and I watched it via Amazon Prime, due to seeing it listed as one of the best films available via streaming, and it stars a young (pre Hunger Games) Jennifer Lawrence. I knew little else about it, other than the brief description on Amazon.

Honestly, it is a haunting movie, but is isn’t a horror story. This film is a polar opposite of a action adventure. Not that it isn’t interesting, because it is, but this is a window into a world that will be foreign to many of us, but maybe not as foreign as we’d like, because drug users, abusers, and dealers are an ever growing aspect of modern America.

Basically, the story follows the efforts of seventeen-year-old Ree Dolly (Lawrence) to find her missing father, after a bail bondsman informs her that if her dad doesn’t show up for his trial, the family home is forfeit. The setting is in the Ozark Mountains, within the past few years, based on the cars. The father manufactures meth, and this is apparently no secret. Jessup Dolly hasn’t been around for a while, and there is little to eat, for the family or their animals. Ree is also burdened with younger siblings who rely upon her, because the mother is a mentally ill mute. As Ree goes from person to person, asking for news of her father, the viewer learns much about the poverty and other issues that inhabitants of this community endure.

When I was a youngster, I remember reading Oliver Twist and thinking that if one more bad thing happened to that kid, I was going to return the book to the library, unfinished. More misfortunes did befall young Oliver, so I didn’t finish the novel. A few years later I saw the musical Oliver on school field trip, so I did finally learn what happened to the characters. And while Winter’s Bone has little in common with Oliver Twist, the relentless despair with only a small germ of hope is similar.

As I do hope readers of Visions and Revisions will take a look at the film, I’m avoiding spoilers. Certainly, Jennifer Lawrence is amazing in this film, but the rest of the cast is excellent, too. The filmmaker did a fabulous job of showing the situation but not telling the viewer what to believe.

I have to agree that Winter’s Bone is an excellent film, and it brings a simple yet sophisticated treatment to the problems associated with the drug culture in rural America.

Air Force One is Down— review and commentary

I was watching Netflix with hubby, and I saw a British mini-series entitled “Alistair McLean’s Air Force One is Down” as an available title, so we spent a couple of evenings with it. Although this film ended up as a recommendation for me because it has Linda Hamilton (of Terminator and Beauty and the Beast fame,) I chose it because it was supposed to be based on a novel by Alistair McLean. He was a favorite writer of mine when I was in my teens and 20s, and yes, I am fully aware that I am dating myself by mentioning that.

Oh, my gosh, how wonderful were those reads. He wrote twenty something novels, several of which were the basis for films (including The Guns of Navarone, Ice Station Zebra, and Breakheart Pass.) My intro to his work was actually his only sequel (Force 10 from Navarone) but it was stood alone well enough that I wanted to read more from the author.

Alas, hubby and I were disappointed by this film. The cinematography, special effects, score, and cast were all pretty good. The problems were, for the most part, in the writing. In part, plot devices that worked in novels in the 50s and 60s just do not work now. For instance, the dastardly villain has captured our hero and his two compatriots. He places the hero character in a deadly situation, and the hero’s two sidekicks are locked into a pit that rapidly fills with water. Of course, the hero manages a super human feat and the all of them survive. Nowadays, the villain would shoot the hero and his sidekicks and be done with it. This doesn’t happen just once in the two part story; it happens over and over. As hubby said, “This thing has major plot holes.” And it does.

After we finished watching the entire film (at my insistence, as hubby would have bailed during part 1) I looked up the novel. According to that scholarly resource Wikipedia, McLean did not write the novel. Instead, he sketched out some plots for a series of novels which bear his name, but other authors wrote the books. In this case, John Denis is the author of the book that the mini-series is supposed to be based upon.

So… the film is sorta interesting, but I really can’t recommend very highly. Still, if you are interested, it is available via Amazon:

Alarm of War— The Other Side of Fear

A while back, I wrote a positive review of Kennedy Hudner’s Alarm of War. Perhaps its greatest downside was that it clearly was intended to have a sequel. For a few months, I checked Amazon, hoping that Hudner had released the second part, but after a while, I quit looking. Then, as I reviewed my “keeper” files, I saw Alarm of War and looked again. Low and behold, Alarm of War, Book II: The Other Side of Fear was published in 2014. Finally, I had the sequel, but alas, it’s really part II of a trilogy. So, I am back to waiting.

However, it would be remiss to not review the second book. So, here’s a true confession: I went back and re-read the Alarm of War because it had been so long that I was certain I needed a refresher. Good plan, as I enjoyed it almost as much the second time. Once I had swiped the last page, I jumped right into The Other Side of Fear, and it wowed me from the opening scene.

While there are some stereotypical situations and characters, there is plenty of depth to Hudner’s ensemble of main characters, who met as they went through basic training during the first novel. My favorite is Emily Tuttle, a former history teacher with a brilliant grasp of military strategy. Other main characters include Grant Skiffington, the favored son of an admiral; Hiram Brill, a geeky guy who instinctively puts together intelligence into workable prophecies; and Marine sergeant Maria Sanchez, who is super gung ho, but reads books and likes to hang out with the nerd, Hiram. These characters all had intertwining adventures in the first book and book two immediately picks up the action.

Rather than write a bunch of spoilers, I will say this: Mr. Hudner’s series reminds me quite a lot of the early works of David Weber, the creator of the great Honor Harrington series. But, by using the ensemble, rather than centering on one character, Hudner is able to bring in various aspects of his universe, but keep the reader’s interest. At times, Weber spends more time explaining his villains than his heroine, and that has always bothered me. As a huge fan of military sci fi in general, and Honor Harrington in particular, it is hard to say this, but, “Move over, Mr. Weber.” Kennedy Hudner is writing some seriously kick-butt military sci-fi. Really.

As of this writing, the first book is a bargain at 99¢, and The Other Side of Fear is $3.99. My gosh, so much entertainment for less than the price of a movie ticket!