Redshirts by John Scalzi—a brief review and commentary

Fans of Star Trek, the original series, will immediately understand the premise of this very humorous novel. For the few folks who aren’t familiar with the show, there were a handful of officers who were the “stars” of Star Trek. In the show, the starship ventured from planet to planet. Often, one or more officers left the ship on “away” missions, and they were almost always dangerous. Those bridge officers were usually accompanied by security officers, and in the color scheme of the original series, security staff wore red shirts. As the show couldn’t lose any main cast members, the extras, playing security staff, would invariably be the ones to be maimed or killed.

In Redshirts, the author follows a young officer assigned to the Intrepid, the flagship of the Universal Union. Ensign Dahl is thrilled to be onboard, but soon becomes apprehensive, because he quickly realizes that when lowly crew members accompany the captain, its chief science officer, or its chief engineer, those lowly crew members would bear the brunt of any dangerous action. In other words, Ensign Dahl is a “red shirt” without actually wearing a red uniform. So, as a very intelligent young officer, Dahl must navigate the command structure of the Intrepid and learn how to stay alive. Quickly, he figures out that it is best to be anywhere other than on an “Away Mission.”

At times, Redshirts is laugh out loud funny. For instance, any attack on the ship will take out the lower decks, but the bridge always remains unscathed. And one young lieutenant has so many close calls, but he never dies, as he is a “main character.” Soon it becomes apparent that only a few characters will always survive. More experienced crew members seem to have figured out how to dodge being tapped for away missions, thus newbies like Ensign Dahl are more likely to end up dead. Rather than explain what they do and what the manage to figure out, I will simply say that the novel goes where the reader might not expect. And, while the novel really is funny, it is also a bit challenging.

Not since Galaxy Quest have I seen such a good parody of television space opera. Fans of the genre will certainly find something to like in Redshirts. And, for those few folks who have never seen Star Trek in any of its various iterations, this novel is still funny, but probably won’t resonate quite so well. However, the novel is rather, well, novel in that it doesn’t end at the end. Instead there are three sections after the end, called Codas. Some reviewers liked them, some did not. Hopefully, some of my readers will take up the challenge and try this book.

Science fiction fans tend to be smart, and it takes some smarts to appreciate this novel. That said, it is quite creative.

Star Trek Voyager: A Celebration

While all Star Trek series are worthy, some are just more interesting than others. Deep Space Nine has some great characters and acting, but initially suffered from being “stationary” rather than zipping around like the Star Trek ( the original series) or Star Trek: The Next Generation. As Roddenberry’s vision had sharpened and the syndication model freed him from many constraints, probably TNG is the overall best series. Certainly, the acting is amazing and the scrips are often really great, too. But, as special effects have become better and better, TNG suffers a bit in that area. Enter Star Trek: Voyager, which had a seriously huge void to fill, as it debut was a mere six months after TNG ended its seven year run. I also reviewed a book, Star Trek Voyager, A Vision of the Future, written during Voyager’s run, which is good, but last year, this volume, written as an anniversary edition, does a much better job of explaining the series as a whole, from development to the two part ending episode, “End Game.”

Upon receiving the book, I thought it would be one of those “coffee table” books, long on pictures and short on words. Nope, although there are many pictures. Indeed, the use of now decades old still pictures from the series is sometimes a weak point. However, there are drawings, pictures of behind the scenes contributors, and plenty of text. Overall, I really enjoyed the book, which is written in short segments which can be quickly read, but there are many sections, and these don’t necessarily need to be read in any fixed order.

The book begins, logically, with series development, and then there’s a short (two page) section devoted to the title sequence. I had no idea that this part (often “skipped” while streaming) was nominated for an Emmy award. Interspersed with the more technical aspects of the series are longer passages about the characters, beginning, of course, with Captain Janeway. The authors (two principal and two others, along with a general editor and a sub-editor) rely upon previously published material as well as newly conducted interviews with some cast members, as well as writers, producers, artist, and a host of others. Kate Mulgrew, who played Janeway, is among those who share memories in this book, and she discusses how much pressure was upon her as the first female captain of a Star Trek series, and how she approached the character as well as learning the scientific language necessary in this sort of show.

As there were many episodes (16 the first season, and 26 in each of the following six seasons) not all of them are featured, but sections devoted what are termed “key” episodes are mixed in with the other segments. The first, “Caretaker” is the two part pilot, and some of the other key episodes include “Tuvix” a character created by a transporter accident in which Neelix and Tuvok are blended into one individual. Each character gets a section, and most of multi episode villains do also. There are a couple of segments about the ship, one about the Delta Flyer, which is a smaller ship built by the Voyager crew about halfway through their journey, as well as segments about the special effects department, the makeup artists, the costumers, the writers, and the directors. As a fan of Voyager since it originally was broadcast, I knew quite a bit about the series, but there’s a lot of new material. For instance, I knew that some of the actors directed certain episodes, but I did not know that Star Trek actually fostered this by holding a “director in training” program. Roxann Dawson, who played Lt. Torres, directed a couple of episodes of Voyager, but went on to become a sought after director. She states that the program changed her life.

Bob Picardo took advantage of the DIT program and directed episodes of Voyager, but he also gets a writing credit, as he pitched a story line which was used, and he co-wrote the script. Robbie McNeil, who played Tom Paris, also directed multiple episodes of Voyager and went on to direct other projects.

When TNG was in production, many of the special effects were done with models, but by the time Voyager was being produced, digital graphics were beginning to be more cost effective, as well as allowing more creative shots, so as the seven seasons went by, more and more VFX were done digitally. However, in the show’s 100th episode, “Timeless”, the ship is depicted as crashing into a snow and ice covered planet. The visual effects crew found that digital snow wasn’t working, so they ended up doing a practical shot with a model crashing into a tray of baking soda. I’ve seen that episode several times, and I am amazed by how good it looks on the screen.

For fans of Star Trek Voyager, this book is a real treat. For readers interested in television, particularly directing, writing, and special effects, it is worthy. Casual readers or those who just “look at the pictures” might be a tad disappointed in this book, but I read it cover to cover, with a couple sections earning a second reading. For now, it has a spot on my “keeper” shelf, too.

Time for Dystopian Science Fiction?

Reader’s Alley, a nifty site for bargain eBook lovers, divides their science fiction offerings into sub-genres: sci-fi romance, sci-fi thriller, and science fiction, dystopian. While those first two descriptors would seem self-evident, the dystopian flavor is considered by some (mostly jaded members of academia) as the only serious science fiction. Typically, I avoid reading dystopias because they tend to be so darned depressing. But, with all that is happening in the news, which I also try to avoid, perhaps it is time to take a look at the genre.

One of the finest books about the history of science fiction is Brian Aldiss’ Trillion Year Spree, which covers science fiction literature from its beginnings to the early 1980s. Aldiss does discuss many sub-genres, but the thread of dystopia runs strongly throughout his encyclopedia of science fiction in printed form. The term, dystopia, is applicable to “a world in which everything is imperfect, and everything goes terribly wrong. Dystopian literature shows us a nightmarish image about what might happen to the world in the near future. Usually the main themes of dystopian works are rebellion, oppression, revolutions, wars, overpopulation, and disasters. On the other hand, Utopia is a perfect world – exactly opposite of dystopia.”

Science has, until recently, been viewed as a two edged sword; while it can make life much better, mis-use of science has been the root of all sorts of evils. Frankenstein, by Mary Shelley, is often considered to be the first science fiction novel, and the dark side of science is clearly the central theme of the novel. Dr. Heidegger’s Experiment and Rappacini’s Daughter, short stories by Nathaniel Hawthorne, also feature mis-use of science as their main themes. When teaching those stories, which used to be in many American Lit anthologies, one way to make it simple for students is to say, “Hawthorne is basically telling his readers, ‘don’t mess around with Mother Nature’.”

Later novelists fine tuned dystopian themes, with societies becoming more and more restrictive upon the populace. Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World and George Orwell’s 1984 share these themes, “including the consequences of totalitarianismmass surveillance, and repressive regimentation of persons and behaviours within society.” Kurt Vonnegut’s short story, Harrison Burgeron is one of the most widely read dystopian stories, due to its inclusion in anthologies for students, and I recently read a news story liking our current government policies to Vonnegut’s didactic work. Y’all, it is scary when dystopia becomes reality.

Of course, many fans of science fiction today seldom, if ever, read it. Instead, what they know of utopia and dystopia is presented via video. Early episodes of Star Trek explored both sides of the scientific divide. The Ultimate Computer, rather dated today, explored the man vs. machine conflict, using future war games as a setting for its rather disturbing premise. Various dystopian novels have been adapted to long form (movies) video, including everything from 1984 to Planet of the Apes. There are literally dozens of dystopian sci fi films. Some are rather laughable now (Mad Max?) but others are quite troubling.

My own fiction, which has many conflicts for characters to attempt to resolve, certainly isn’t “happily ever after, ” but it isn’t as dark as some of these works, and that’s because my outlook on life is more pragmatic. Hopefully, there will be some gravitation away from the totalitarian policies of modern politicians and administrators. But, when I consider what I am seeing when I do go out and about, I wonder. I really do. Remember this: In each fictional dystopia, the goal was to make things better for certain segments of the population, and bad outcomes are unhappy accidents. Be careful what you wish for—

Retro Review: Moondust and Madness by Janelle Taylor

MoondustA friend (a generation older than I am) recommended books by Janelle Taylor, saying she is a prolific series romance writer from Georgia.  That’s true. Goodreads lists lots and lots of titles by Taylor, and apparently she sold quite a few books in her heyday. The series my friend recommended was “western” but as I am a science fiction fan, I chose to read book one in the Moondust series, Moondust and Madness.

Reviews for the ebook, which I read, are not plentiful, but are mostly positive. However, a deeper dive into those reveal that the positive reviews are mostly by readers who remembered this yarn from way back, whereas younger, first time readers are not impressed. I understand both points of view.

Moondust and Madness is a traditional 80s bodice ripper novel, which just happens to be set in space. Heroine Jana Greyson is a scientist who is abducted by an alien gathering up human mates for a large system of planets in another galaxy. These alien abductions are sanctioned by the alien powers that be due to the devastation of an engineered virus which caused a lack of fertility amongst the alien females. BTW, these aliens look just like humans, and can breed with them, so the only thing Jana (and her five hundred companions) need is an inner ear translation device and some brainwashing to help her get ready for her new life. Much of the science fiction trappings seem to have been lifted from Star Trek, from “Star Fleet” to transporters. That could be viewed as “ripping off” Trek, but I think it was more to give readers some familiar science fiction props. This is a romance novel, so there are very few explanations of how gadgets or space ships work.

Lots of political intrigue and the on-again off-again romance between Jana and her captor, Varian Saar, make up the more than five hundred pages of this novel, which begins a series featuring other characters set in the same universe. While I liked the book at times, it is just too retro for most readers. I won’t continue the series, but I did finish it.

For readers who like alien abduction and then fall in love plots, Myra Nour used this same basic plot for her much better novel, Love’s Captive. And, if you want a dose of reality wherein the heroine doesn’t fall in love with her captor, try my novel, Trinity on Tylos.

 

For All Mankind—on Apple TV

MankindWith the purchase of a new device from Apple comes a free subscription to their relatively new paid streaming platform. As hubby and I are often seeking a new television series to binge watch, we just finished For All Mankind on the Apple platform, and overall, we liked it quite a lot. However, I read several reviews, with criticisms being at least as numerous as the accolades, and often both are well deserved. The series was developed in part by Ronald D. Moore, who has a stellar (pun intended) reputation for writing and producing excellent science fiction, from Star Trek the Next Generation to Outlander, and with the simply superb reboot of Battlestar Galactica in between.

The scenario is quite promising: In an alternate history, the Soviet Union beats the United States to be the first nation to put a man on the moon, and the growing rivalry between nations causes the space program of the United States to flourish, rather than founder. Neither our citizens nor our politicians like being second best, so the need to catch up and surpass drives the plot. As an alternate history, many of the characters are based upon real people, but quite a few characters are inventions. Even those who are based upon real people have different adventures (or mis-adventures) due to the fictional nature of the series. The acting is good, as is the writing. The effects are very good, also. The sets, props, and costumes are really amazing—it’s truly a back to the 60s look. So far, so good.

But, as many negative reviewers have noted, the series is typical of our “social justice” modern agenda. Immigration, same sex relationships, race relations, and feminism are more than just sub-plots in this re-imagining of the space race. Each of these social justice themes has a story arc devoted to it, and these themes are every bit as strong as the “what if America had continued to send people to the moon?” theme that is the advertised plot line.

Alas, any subtle use of themes is no more. This alternate history is very good, but the social justice warriors are using a sledge hammer to right perceived wrongs. For All Mankind is just like many modern day productions in that regard. What could have been A+ for Apple’s streaming service is instead closer to a B-.

If you have Apple TV, check it out. If you don’t, I wouldn’t buy it for this series alone.

Star Trek Picard—review and commentary

 

Ryan in Trek

Then and now— Seven of Nine


Star Trek
is an integral part of American culture
and a controversial view of the future of humanity. It began with Gene Roddenberry’s concept for a serious science fiction television series, a novel idea in the early 60s, and it has continued to evolve for fifty years. As America has changed, as science fiction has changed, as television has changed, Star Trek has changed, too.

Picard is set two decades after the feature film, Nemesis, and is based upon the series Star Trek The Next Generation, which ran for seven years on television. Later, four of the feature films were based upon the characters from TNG series. Picard has ten episodes in season one, but the second and third seasons are planned for CBS All Access, which is how hubby and I watched the first season.

This made for the web series has very high production values—the sets and effects rival feature films. Sir Patrick Stewart is still an amazing actor, although the pace of the series (slow!) seems to be partially dictated by the age of its principal character. Viewers who prefer space battles and fisticuffs will probably be a bit disappointed. Casual viewers may also find the editing, with its rapid cuts from scene to scene, confusing. Honestly, I don’t like that aspect at all, but this is apparently in line with Picard‘s sister show, Star Trek Discovery.

Spoiler alert—

We both thought the first few episodes were confusing and lacking in characters, apart from Jean Luc Picard himself, with whom we could empathize. The writers made a good decision in embracing the age of the main character. Anything else would insult the viewer, as Patrick Stewart looks and sounds old. For us, as fans of Star Trek Voyager, the show got better when Jeri Ryan pops in, as an older and less “Borg” version of Seven of Nine. Ryan is still riveting to watch, even without the cat suit that made her fodder for lots of magazine pictures in the late 1990s. In the seventeen years since her character graced the small screen, Seven has become much more human—in her speech pattern, in her attire, and in part due to suffering losses associated with years of living in a deteriorating society.

A key word here is suffering. One of the better aspects of Trek in its first few decades was  its optimistic view of the future of humanity. Although Roddenberry sought to put serious science fiction onto television, and therefore into lots of living rooms, his vision was seldom dark. However, much of serious science fiction—in print, in film, in gaming, and even in graphic forms—has embraced the dystopian view of the future of humanity. A utopia is an idealized society in which social and technical advances serve to make all things better for humanity. Yes, I did say it was idealistic! A dystopia is the polar opposite, in which “advances” in society and technology make things worse. For some examples of dystopian literature/film, think of Orwell’s 1984 or the film Blade Runner, based upon the work of Phillip K. Dick.

Alas, Picard‘s greatest weakness isn’t its slow pace or its rather confusing editing. Nor is it the “flashbacks” in which the characters look just as old as they do in the current timeline, no doubt due to the unforgiving nature of high def photography. Nope, the core problem for many fans of Star Trek will undoubtedly be the dark vision of the future embraced by the writers. Picard is a dystopia. Beloved characters from the previous Trek series will suffer, and some will die. New characters suffer and some of them die, too. And, by and large, those deaths may very well be without purpose, meaning, and certainly without honor.

Star Trek Picard has some strengths, including dazzling cinematography, a rich background of material from which the writers can draw inspiration, and an aging but talented main character. Guest stars include characters from TNG and Voyager, and the development of Seven of Nine, the former Borg, works well. Enjoy the series, but temper your expectations. This is post-modern Star Trek.