THE ANDROMEDA STRAIN, by Michael Crichton, was the first novel published by Crichton under his actual name. He had published previously under a variety of pen names. His reason for publishing under other names…he was a medical student at Harvard and was actually thinking he might practice medicine someday and didn’t want his patients to know that he was writing on the side. This must have been a “thing” in that era because it strikes me that wouldn’t phase anyone now.

However, Crichton soon after became a best-selling author and gave up the idea of practicing medicine.

I read this novel because of a recommendation by a friend during Covid19…

Do I recommend this novel? No, I don’t and here are 5 reasons why:

  1. The novel puts forward an interesting premise, but not fully baked (I am pretty sure this novel would never get published today)
  2. Bland main characters. It’s hard to keep them straight, they all seem like the same guy (except they attended different Ivy League schools and have slightly different occupations)
  3. So-so tension, but nothing like one of his better books, Jurassic Park, for example
  4. Characters are all white dudes in lab coats and even the non lab-coat characters are all white dudes. *note…when THE ANDROMEDA STRAIN was turned into a film in 1971, the screenwriter changed one of the dudes to a female…even in the 70s the character line-up was thought to be way too monochromatic.
  5. Too much data and exposition and not enough heart. I felt nothing for all the people (except for the infant…who seems to be completely neglected)

Longer Review…

Crichton, who passed in 2008

So…this novel became a best-seller and gave rise to a film that bears the same title. Both were hits/made a lot of money. In fact, this book catapulted Crichton’s career. I can only surmise that there was a great hunger for techno-thrillers at the time and that Crichton scratched an itch that had be itching for a long time.

The funny thing is, immediately following this read, I’m consuming Philip K. Dick’s, DO ANDROIDS DREAM OF ELECTRIC SHEEP and I am so wowed by the writing and how different it is from Crichton’s. Dick knew how to flesh out a character. Crichton did not, at least he didn’t yet. He got much better at it in subsequent novels, many of which I have enjoyed.

So, let me just nit-pick a little…

If I was ever to teach a writing class on the development of a writer…I might choose Crichton and force my class to read this book and then give them the pleasure of Jurassic Park as examples of how one gets better at the craft. THE ANDROMEDA STRAIN almost feels like a “freshman novel”, that novel written by an aspiring author who has one great idea, but can’t quite figure out how to tell the story.

In that class, I would also ask the students to read DO ANDROIDS DREAM OF ELECTRIC SHEEP, by Philip K. Dick, written in the same era.

There is a reason that BLADE RUNNER, a brilliant film and subsequent franchise, emerged out of Dick’s novel, published in 1968, one year before THE ANDROMEDA STRAIN.

The character of Rick Deckard is brilliantly written, fleshed out. The reader feels his pain, his angst, his story as he/she reads. Not only that, the secondary characters are complex, mysterious and full of emotion even when Dick writes about androids. His androids seem more human than Crichton’s actual human characters.

I do believe that Crichton saw his errors and improved immensely, but it will be a mystery to me for a long time that this book, THE ANDROMEDA STRAIN, was published and was sold and was read by so many, including me!

If for some reason you want to buy this book, click here.

To watch the film via Amazon Prime, click here.

 

 

 

 

The second season of HANNA was released July 3 of this year, the dreaded year of Covid, and since all of us are streaming our content each night/day/allday/allnight (until recently, there have been no sports to watch and no air-conditioned movie theaters in which to view the latest fun film)…However, most of us are still suckers for a well-crafted drama. The release of Hanna’s second season by Amazon Prime found me in just the right place for a conspiracy-laden story, inhabited by teens.

I rate this series R, mostly for its violence. HANNA, created and written by David Farr, also portrays a disturbing picture of childhood, so if you have young children/teens who want to watch, you may want to preview this before allowing them to enter into the violent world of Hanna. Other than that, I highly recommend this series. It skirts the line that is science fiction and dystopian.

Short Review of HANNA. 6 Reasons You Want to Watch…

  1. Well written story and well-crafted characters
  2. Outstanding performances by Joel Kinnaman, Mireille Enos (they’re reunited here…having starred together in the award-winning detective series, The Killing.) Hanna is played by Esme Creed-Miles. She’s a British actor, but pulled off the German accent. I don’t think she actually speaks German, but she did speak French fluently. Kinnaman is Swedish. He also carried the German accent and spoke a lot of German to make this role believable.
  3. Timely. A US intelligence service, broken into factions, clawing at more power? Perhaps too real…
  4. Truth and morality emerge in the most unlikely places and the story reminds us of that.
  5. I love the way the characters rarely shout. Erik (Kinneman) and Hanna (Creed-Mills) both have this quality. They speak with intensity, but always quiet and measured, understated. I found myself loving this vibe more than I thought I would, maybe my Scandinavian roots…
  6. A story set in Europe, especially Berlin, London and Paris. Hurray, given we cannot travel there right now.

Longer Review

One of the things I liked about this production was its willingness to go slow. That might sound weird because the story moves at a pretty fast clip, but there is also time in each episode to absorb what is taking place in the character’s lives, in their hearts. I attribute part of that pacing to the editing. THANK YOU DIRECTORS AND EDITORS! It surprised me sometimes what was not put on the screen/what was skipped, but it also revealed what was most essential for the story. I found my brain willing to allow the holes in the plot because the true drama was not withheld from my view.

In season 1, the audience is introduced to Hanna as a baby, also to her mother and to her mother’s savior, Erik (Kinneman) who ends up rescuing Hanna from destruction. Erik, though German, is an insider with the US intelligence agency that is accepting babies in order to turn them into super assassins. Erik becomes Hanna’s guardian and the audience believes he might actually be her father. He isn’t. When Hanna finds out he has lied to her about his biological relationship to her, she is enraged.

Telling the truth is VERY important to Hanna. This seems consistent throughout and is refreshing as a character trait. It grounds the viewer, even when Hanna’s allegiance to the “good” or the “evil” entities in the world seems confusing. Hanna punishes those who lie to her, even when those individuals are her allies.

That dynamic of telling truth versus lying, or shrouding the truth reminds me of how teens (I’ve raised a couple and counseled many) have a nose for truth or fiction. They sense when adults are lying to them. Just tell me the damn truth and don’t protect me from it because you think I can’t handle it said every teen ever.

And I love that about them. I loved that about Hanna. She is so pure in that sense, the audience is ready to root for her in just about any circumstance, even when it feels like she is about to give in to evil.

Hanna has been renewed for a third season. I look forward to seeing how the writers develop this story.

This morning, I finished reading the classic science fiction novel, A CANTICLE FOR LEIBOWITZ. I rate this novel PG for violence.

First, the short review…

To purchase the novel, click A CANTICLE FOR LEIBOWITZ.

5 Reasons I Recommend A CANTICLE FOR LEIBOWITZ 

A Sci-Fi Classic

  1. If you are a science fiction fan and want to be fluent in the genre’s history, Leibowitz is on many lists of must read sci-fi.
  2. The novel’s world is depicted plainly and purposefully, capturing the tragedy of a post nuclear holocaust world without sentimentality. The prose is often lovely and the story becomes more and more gripping as it unfolds.
  3. Especially for the philosopher and the theologian, A CANTICLE FOR LEIBOWITZ puts forward some of the most profound ideas around human evil and our propensity for self-destruction.
  4. Even if you’re not a philosopher, the characters and ideas come together in a way that  does not allow the reader to ignore our society’s seeming dance toward self-destruction.
  5. In a similar vein as On The Beach, by Nevil Shute, A CANTICLE FOR LEIBOWITZ is a story that has the capacity to change our minds about nuclear arms and warfare.

Longer Review

A CANTICLE FOR LEIBOWITZ was originally published in three parts.

Fiat Homo…Let there be man

Fiat Lux…Let there be light

Fiat Voluntas Tua…Let thy will be done

The first two section titles refer to the Biblical account of creation, when God spoke the earth and humankind into being. The third section’s title refers to the Christian New Testament. Not that the idea lacks foundation in the Hebrew Bible, but the phrase itself is taken from The Lord’s Prayer and Jesus’ prayer in Gethsemane before his death. “And he went forward a little, and fell on his face, and prayed, saying, My Father, if it be possible, let this cup pass away from me: nevertheless, not as I will, but as thou wilt.”

A fair amount of Latin is spoken in this novel and I did not understand all of it, but most phrases are translated within the story or the context makes the meaning clear. All of the main characters and narrators are associated with a religious order, the monks of The Leibowitzian Order, that was established following what the novel calls The Flame Deluge.

The monks, much like Irish monks during the Dark Ages, copy, preserve and make available ancient knowledge to those who will have it. For the most part, the barbarians who dwell around the monastic fortress, whose setting is the old American West, hate this knowledge and see it as the reason destruction came to the planet.

An excerpt from the novel:

“After the bombs and the Fallout came the plagues and the madness. Then, in the bloodletting known as the Age of Simplification, the people – those few who remained – rose up against their teachers, their scientists and their rulers, those they held responsible for turning the world into a barren desert…”

A CANTICLE FOR LEIBOWITZ, published in 1959, channels the zeitgeist of an era when people were genuinely terrified of and preparing for nuclear war. For many readers, especially, younger readers, that period of history can feel like a long time ago in a galaxy far far away…but given Covid19, the economic shock that has hit the globe through the shutdown as well as the rise of a belligerent Communist China and a perpetually divided United States, war and/or chaotic one-upsmanship between two superpowers seems less far distant than it has since 1989, when the Soviet Empire collapsed. If World War III were to happen today, what would be the fallout?

Many of the questions posed by Miller in A CANTICLE FOR LEIBOWITZ, are relevant today. There is wisdom and a degree of sobriety that can be gained by our society paying closer attention to stories like this one.

 

Molly, in her hideout

My 8th post on this particular Amazon Prime series. I reviewed chapter by chapter (episodes are called chapters). For a review of the pilot, click Chapter 1.

Today I viewed the finale.

Question that arose…Will DARK/WEB will have a second season? Will there be enough interest? I have no way of knowing. What I can say is this…

There is a kind of resolution that takes place in this final chapter.

  1. Molly is found
  2. The mystery of what she was up to and why she was drawing her friends toward her hiding place is solved
  3. There are a couple of big reveals…one of which doesn’t pack the emotional punch that it should
  4. A perhaps too tidy wrap-up
  5. More horror story tropes…like a corpse, a cabin in the woods, a stormy night without power

The ending to this series felt overly ambitious and contrived…a lot of explaining right at the end to tie up all of the loose ends. Sometimes the characters acted in a way that didn’t make sense to me, didn’t see human, but served the overall plot. I always get frustrated when this is the case. There is a campy nature to the series, maybe this is part of the fun…perhaps another horror trope? However, it also takes itself VERY seriously at times, so I was trying to take it seriously too and sometimes the camp did not match the tone of true evil that was being portrayed.

However, I will give the series lots of chops for these elements:

  1. An ambitious vision in its attempt to unveil evil in our society
  2. A diverse cast of characters, (diverse in ethnicity and sexual orientation)
  3. A female POC director. I loved the direction overall…I wasn’t wild about the all the writing, but hey…I am a writer and am always more picky about the writing than the directing.

Overall, I recommend DARK/WEB if you have the stomach to watch horror/scifi.

7th and Penultimate Chapter. My 7th review in 7 days.

This review will contain spoilers for earlier episodes and minor spoilers for this episode (episodes are called Chapters), so be warned. Go back to menu or click PILOT if you want to read an introduction to the series.

Who is watching through the computer screen?

I’ll say a little about the structure of the series at this point.

  1. Short stories, written by Molly are clues that will help her friends find her. All of the stories are dramatized on screen. This image, for example, is from one of the Molly’s stories called Viral. Nearly every chapter features one of Molly’s stories. About 15 minutes of screentime in Chapter 7 puts the audience in the world of Viral.
  2. All of Molly’s stories are dark, some are pure horror and very gruesome. I almost stopped watching this series after Chapter 2 because of it. Kim Rider, who has read all or most of Molly’s stories as they were online dating, says that Molly uses stories to work out the darkness in her own life.
  3. There are a variety of interesting filming techniques in DARK/WEB. I’ll highlight one. Notice the image posted above with words across the character’s face. These are words of a screenplay being typed by this particular film student, as she sits at her computer. She is the main character in Viral. This view through the computer into the scene has been used throughout the series and gives that creepy feeling that someone is watching from inside or beyond our screens. The audience sees what is taking place, but the characters don’t and we don’t know who is watching…that is unnerving and puts the audience on edge, exactly what the story creators want.
  4. Viral is a story about cyberbullying. The audience understands that unfortunately, cyberbullying takes place in real life. This story may be fictional, but it hits close enough to home to bring about reflections of human cruelty and evil, evil that exists in seemingly normal, everyday people. Looking at cyberbullying headon is horrific and not everyone’s cup of tea. As I indicated above, I almost stopped watching after chapter 2. Viral was also hard to watch.

The story creators of DARK/WEB have given their series this title for a reason. It is documented that the secret and more anonymous world of the dark web exists and exhibits the worst side of humanity. If you are squeamish or needing something more uplifting as entertainment, please be warned. We all know that there are many good people in our world (and that even the “evil” people have potential for redemption…at least I believe that) and most of us hope that the good will ultimately triumph over evil by the tale’s end. We will see…

6th post in 6 days…

Major backstory episode for the larger story arc, which I appreciated. It was the right time to give the audience more reveals. This review will have spoilers of the previous Chapters. For an introduction to the series and no spoilers, click the Pilot.

Pictured is Zach Sullivan before he has his mental break. In chapter 4, he is visited by Ethan in the mental hospital, so the audience meets him well after this scene with Molly. One suspects something bad went down at the job because in the hospital, he freaks out when a phone is brought near him. He and Molly were colleagues at Citadel, the computer/systems security company. Somehow, all roads are leading to Citadel…or are they?

Molly and Zach rely on one another for help with coding (actually…Molly may be the smarter of the two, though Zach has been at the company longer). As they lunch together at work, Zach and another coder tell Molly about Citadel’s secret project called MIHR. Zach is applying for a new job in the company and is hoping he will make the MIHR team.

Zach does get promoted and he does write code related to MIHR. He also stops having friendly lunches with Molly and appears exhausted and unkempt. Eventually, when Zach needs her help in solving another coding issue, she and we encounter MIHR.

This chapter is not gruesome and gives the audience a chance to know Molly better, the character at the center of the mystery.

My favorite episode so far. This is the 3rd post of 8 in 8 days.

The beginning sequence of this chapter is outstanding, will terrify you, make you nervous and curious and might even make you laugh.

The larger arc is filled out in this episode, with another friend of Molly Solis being added to the mix. To read my previous reviews, click The Pilot

Chapter 2

James Woodsley, this friend of Molly’s lives in Madison, WI (my current hometown…so shoutout to my people). James is also sent a short story by Molly. This is viewed in the first moments of the episode.

I can’t say too much more because it will spoil the surprise, but I do want to comment of 4 aspects of DARK/WEB I am appreciating so far:

  1. Outstanding casting. Multi-ethnic. No stereotypes. I noticed this particularly in the pilot…how various characters were cast to upset stereotypes.
  2. DARK/WEB is a HORROR/SCI-FI series, so be warned. Like the film Alien follows the haunted house script a uses many of its tropes (down to the solo female facing the monster in the end), this series too uses horror tropes. It is both futuristic and horrific. These episodes have caused me moments of terror and disturbed my sleep. Not everyone likes this…so this is a warning. From lonely dark streets where the character walks and keeps looking behind his or her back, to darkness, to phones that never quite connect with 911, it’s all there in DARK/WEB. I will reiterate, Chapter 2 was especially horrific.
  3. Roxy Shih, a woman and person of color is doing a brilliant job in the directing, nominated for an Emmy (see below). I’m appreciating her deft touch and so far the writing is very tight. I remind you, these episodes are short…at least they are by film and tv standards, so the creators are accomplishing a lot when they make the audience laugh, cringe and freak out, all in the same 1/2 hour. That doesn’t happen accidentally.

Lastly, here are the Emmy’s DARK/WEB has been nominated for this year:

  • Outstanding Digital Drama Series
    • Michael Nardelli, Tim Nardelli, Mario Miscione, Allison Vanore 
  • Outstanding Directing Team for a Digital Drama Series: 
    • Mario Miscione, Michael Nardelli, Roxy Shih
  • Outstanding Main Title and Graphic Design for a Live-Action Program 
    • Justin Martinez, Tim Nardelli, Mario Miscione, Michael Nardelli
  • Outstanding Light Direction for a Drama or Digital Drama Series
    • Vasiliki Constantinou, Lars Lindstrom
  • Outstanding Music Direction and Composition for a Drama or Digital Drama Series
    • Jonathan Hartman 
  • Outstanding Guest Performer in a Digital Drama Series
    • Rene Heger
  • Outstanding Guest Performer in a Digital Drama Series
    • Graham Sibley

THE CALCULATING STARS, by Mary Robinette Kowal

A Short Review

A Lady Astronaut Novel

I highly recommend reading or listening to this novel. Below are 4 reasons why I loved it…

  1. Lots of dynamic female characters, told in first person by a female pilot/mathematician
  2. Well-written prose, making it easy to read and enjoy
  3. The characters are well drawn and realistic, despite the fact that they’re intellectual superstars
  4. It portrays a healthy marital relationship (for once!). Sometimes, you just want the husband to not be a jerk, and in this novel, that is absolutely the case. *Elma and her husband also enjoy a dynamic sex life, which is why I give the book a PG-13 rating. Nothing terribly graphic, but there are a few heated encounters between husband and wife.

THE CALCULATING STARS is a part of the Lady Astronaut Series, by Kowal, which includes a short story, The Lady Astronaut of Mars and another novel, The Fated Sky.

These stories emerge in an alternative history of Earth, focusing on the US Space program after a meteor plunges into the ocean off the coast of Maryland. The disaster strikes on March 3, 1952 and kills nearly all of the inhabitants of the Eastern Seaboard, including DC and most US government officials.

Kowal quickly frames the narrative from here. A meteorite of this magnitude will change the climate of the Earth forever. It is a matter of time (5-10 years) before the Earth becomes uninhabitable. Nations must work together to relocate to another planet and on this front, women have to be trained alongside men, don’t they? That is the question around which the book pivots. This is the 1950s and not only does racism rear its head in the space program, so does sexism.

The main character, Elma York narrates the story in first person, and I liked her as narrator. She is ambitious and brilliant, but flawed enough to give the story tension.

Elma is not only a renowned mathematician, she is also an experienced pilot, having flown for the WASPs in WWII. Her husband becomes the lead engineer of the new space program. Elma is recruited as one of the computers, seemingly an acceptable “role” for women in the new space venture (think Hidden Figures), but her real hope is to convince the NACA bosses that women are just as able to fly into space as men.

THE CALCULATING STARS won the 2019 Nebula for Best Novel, the 2019 Locus Award for Best Scifi Novel, the 2019 Hugo for Best Novel and the 2019 Sidewise Award for Alternate History.  

Click here to purchase THE CALCULATING STARS

 

I sort of missed it and gonna blame that on COVID19, but April 26 is the day the scifi community celebrates the Alien Franchise. Today, a little late, I’m re-watching ALIEN and feel there are some great lessons for the 2020 human host of COVID19

 

Five Lessons Ripley Can Teach Us About Living with a Hidden Enemy

 

  1. Be on guard at all times. The “man” the “government melded with the corporation” is always trying to pull one over on ya…so be wary.
  2. Take care of your own team (including yourself). The bad guys will infiltrate your team, your mind and your spaceship and they lie real good…they will lull your people into passivity and then STRIKE.
  3. Let go of sentimentality and fight till the end. Some of your team will fall. Hell, you might even fall, but that doesn’t mean you can’t still fight. Do not give up.
  4. Kill the demons…never, never, never give them an inch. They feed off you and will take advantage of any weakness you exhibit. They deserve no mercy, so don’t give them any.
  5. Always keep the goal in mind. Your survival and that of humanity, especially the young and the weak. Hope is everything.

The Parasite

Confession, before I write anything else, I have to say…I love Ripley and not just because Sigourney Weaver graduated from my alma mater and starred gorgeously in the original two Ghost Buster films. I love her for her character in the Alien franchise. I love Ellen Ripley because though she is that suspicious babe you wish would go away most of the time, you def want her on your team when the going gets tough. She always chooses humanity, always chooses moral good, even when it costs her everything.

If you have the stomach for it in this season of quarantine, re-watch the original ALIEN. The creature in the film is modeled after this parasite and not a virus, however, the fear of contagion is palpable and gripping (We can relate).

The ALIEN screenplay, for those who love the genre, resembles the haunted house narrative. Enclosed in a house (in this case, a spaceship) the members of a routine haul (AKA…this crew is made up of blue collar haulers) must battle an enemy determined to consume and hide. Many of the emotions parallel our current quarantine, so if you think it will help you process and release steam, watch Ripley kick ass and conquer.

Cover Art

I love science fiction, dreaming about the future, imagining what our life in outer space might look like someday, but my passion for the genre has as much to do with the past as it does with the future. Science fiction shows us the future but also has the ability to teach us about our past and often does so without the baggage of politics and biases. The stories below are launch pads. Their portrayals of history through story are not by any means comprehensive, but rather snapshots into the lives of people encountering challenges that may be imagined by the author, but mirror history.

Here are a handful of scifi stories that bring the reader face to face with the past:

  1. Superman Smashes the Klan
  2. The Man in the High Castle
  3. Colony
  4. An Excess Male
  5. Kindred

History Lesson #1. SUPERMAN SMASHES THE KLAN. Launch a discussion about the Ku Klux Klan (it’s inception and impact on US race relations).

In this three-issue Superman Comic, Gene Luen Yang gives historic tidbits at the end of each issue. You can read my review of the series here.

In issue 1,Yang highlights the 13th amendment to the constitution (abolition of slavery) and the 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act

Following issue 2, Yang discusses the Jewish immigrants who created Superman.

Following issue 3, Yang discusses the challenges of his own parents, both of whom were immigrants from Taiwan

 

History Lesson #2. Watch or read, THE MAN IN THE HIGH CASTLE (book by Philip K. Dick. The Amazon Prime TV series was  produced by Dick’s daughter, Isa Dick Hackett). Discuss and learn about World War II.

This series is a great way to understand the Axis powers and that tentative alliance that almost took over the globe. You’ll find yourself or your student understanding the world that was inhabited by those who lived under occupation during that war. The French, The Koreans, and many others were forced to survive under Nazi or Japanese rule. Some made compromises, others rebelled. Can you imagine who you would have become to survive an occupation? That question is a great way for students to enter into and understand history.

 

Josh Holloway, Sarah Wayne Callies

History Lesson #3. Watch COLONY on Netflix to begin to grapple with the reality of living under occupation.

In the case of COLONY, the true enemy is an alien race that has invaded Earth, but some of the darkest villains are the human beings who have allied themselves with this conquering force.

Living under occupation, whether under the Greeks, Romans, The Islamic Caliphate, the Brits, the USSR, it requires turncoats, or those who will help to subdue the masses for the sake of the little bits of power and privilege that are doled out by the occupying power. The tv series COLONY does an amazing job of capturing this reality. A longer review can be found here.

 

Maggie Shen King

History Lesson #4. Read AN EXCESS MALE, by Maggie Shen Chen, to begin to understand 20th century Chinese history.

Although this book imagines a future China, this story highlights what is perhaps the most disastrous public policy mandate of all time, THE ONE CHILD POLICY. For my review of this novel, click here. To read my guide for educators, click here.

 

Octavia Butler

History Lesson #5. KINDRED, by Octavia Butler. Read this book (fictional) and one of the other historic slave narratives like, MY LIFE AS A SLAVE, by Frederick Douglass. Discuss the ways slavery dehumanizes all those who participate in its reality.

KINDRED, by the late and great Octavia Butler, gives the reader a taste of the slave-inhabited South of yore. The brutality is evident and palpable. Lessons are brought so close…it’s hard to read this book, yet it is valuable for those trying to understand slavery in 18th and 19th century US. Here is my longer review of Kindred