Monday, August 28, 2017

The Maya Colonize The Caribbean?

Still self-banned from the alternate-history forum, but I found a cool discussion thread leading into a new timeline. Behold "Maya Colonization of the Caribbean"!

The gist of it is that the Maya develop outrigger canoes in the late pre-classic/early classic period. The Maya spread out into the Caribbean islands, with the technology spreading ahead of them and getting adopted by the Taino people, the tribes that in real history greeted Columbus and suffered greatly for it. The end result is a Mayan thalassocracy controlling the Caribbean basin, including major islands like Cuba, Hispaniola, etc. as well as the mouth of the Mississippi River in what will become the United States. Although there's a good bit of preliminary discussion, the actual alternate timeline starts here.

In real history, the Maya urban civilization (the Maya people are still there) collapsed due to overpopulation and resource exhaustion, but with the improved sailing capability and the trade routes existing this time around that didn't in real history, the surplus population moves out into the Caribbean islands. Eventually expansion becomes more land-based as the mainland stabilizes and the Maya civilization (they were decentralized city-states, like Greece, so it's not one giant empire) spreads further down into Central America and even onto the Pacific coastline.

By the time Columbus's ships arrive (nothing that changes in the Western Hemisphere is realistically going to affect the East unless the Maya manage to contact the Vikings, who would have to travel much farther south than they did in our history), civilization in the region has advanced well beyond the Taino chiefdoms Columbus encountered.

Not sure if the writer plans to depict what happens after Columbus's ships arrive (it ends with their arrival), but what's there is pretty cool.

Sunday, August 13, 2017

Book Review: Thrawn (2017)

Here it is, folks. My review of Timothy Zahn's 2017 Thrawn novel, in which the beloved (if that's the right word) Imperial Grand Admiral that Zahn created for the old Expanded Universe is given a back-story for his appearance as the Season Three Big Bad in Star Wars Rebels.

The Plot

A group of Imperials exploring a planet find themselves under attack by a mysterious foe who, though fighting on foot, manages by unknown means to bring down at least one fighter aircraft and kills multiple soldiers. They evacuate the planet only to find their enemy has come with them. They capture him, only to discover he's an exiled Chiss military officer named Mitth'raw'nuruodo--or as he tells them to call him, Thrawn.

Taken to Coruscant, he manages to impress Emperor Palpatine and is recruited into the Imperial military. The novel follows his rise through the ranks in the years preceding Rebels, with him having to deal with anti-alien prejudice on his own side while he fights pirates and the inklings of what will become the Rebel Alliance.

The Good

*The fact this book even exists is good. The first novel in the original Thrawn trilogy, Heir to the Empire, was the first new Star Wars material in over a decade and proved to be a major hit. It spawned two sequels, Dark Force Rising and The Last Command, as well as the entire Star Wars Expanded Universe. The EU got so clunky and contradictory I can't fault Disney for torching the whole thing when they bought LucasFilm, but they destroyed the good with the bad by nuking Thrawn, Mara Jade, etc. Now Thrawn's back, and they've brought a lot of his original back-story (his exile by the Chiss, for example) with him. And the book copy doesn't ignore the original Thrawn Trilogy--the story is being sold as a sort of "before he was famous" for Thrawn.

*Thrawn's characterization is very much like the original Thrawn trilogy. In my commentary on the trilogy, I described him as having a very Lie to Me focus on body language and little details. This is really depicted only in one or two scenes, but in Thrawn we see it a whole lot. The majority of the story is told from Eli Vatto's POV much like how Sherlock Holmes' story is told by Watson, but there are lots and lots of italicized portions from Thrawn's POV that show his hyper-focus on details of others' body language. Furthermore, he's not just a human with blue skin--he can see in the infrared spectrum, which allows to him to perceive more about people's reactions.

*Per the Sherlock Holmes comment, although we get Thrawn's POV in journal entries at the beginning of each chapter, they're not overwhelming. And we finally learn just how his examination of his enemies' artwork helps him anticipate their battle strategies.

*I've only seen bits and pieces of Rebels on YouTube, but Thrawn provides a lot of back-story for the planet of Lothal, Imperial Governor Pryce, Thrawn, etc. Rebels fans will really like this. If I'd seen more of Rebels, I'd probably enjoy the book at lot more. The last chunk of the book explicitly ties in with Thrawn's introduction in the show and the suppression of the insurgency on the world of Batonn, where civilian casualties were significantly higher than insurgent ones.

*In the Expanded Universe, the Empire was depicted as both extremely racist (toward non-humans) and rather sexist as well. Here Imperial racism is handled a bit more subtly. The Empire is a successor state to a multi-species Republic that has lasted for thousands of years, so going Nazi, even with the Emperor scapegoating non-humans for the Clone Wars (in the Revenge of the Sith novelization that seemed to be Dooku's idea about what would happen afterward), would be very difficult. Thrawn's time at the Imperial Academy shows this pretty well--the atmosphere is very prejudiced overall and there's a lot of ugly behavior thrown his way, but he's still able to attend and graduate. And sexism doesn't seem to be an issue at all, which matches the more gender-egalitarian picture of the Empire depicted in previous new-canon books.

*Over the course of the story, we see more and more about the logistical side of building a certain mega-project. In fact, said project's logistical demands play a major role in many of Thrawn's adventures in this period.

The Bad

*It initially isn't clear the italicized portions scattered throughout the text are from Thrawn's point of view.

*Given that this takes place during the period of peace (albeit a repressive one) that followed the end of the Clone Wars and the rise of the Empire and preceded the Rebellion, not a lot happens military-wise. Most of what Thrawn seems to be is detain smugglers and fight pirates. There's not really a lot of action. Like in the original Thrawn novels, a lot of the combat maneuvering and what-not is told rather than shown.

*We see the rise of Governor Pryce of Lothal, which is interesting if you'd like to learn about Imperial politics and how the Senate functioned under the Emperor. It's a nice bit of her Rebels back-story, but it wasn't super-duper interesting.

The Verdict

It's worth reading if you're a big fan of Rebels. I'd recommend getting it from the library. 7.0 out of 10.

Saturday, August 12, 2017

Movie Review: The Dark Tower (2017)

Long ago when I was in high school, I read some of my father's older editions of Stephen King's Dark Tower novels, illustrated by the awesome Michael Whelan. I think there were only three--The Gunslinger, The Drawing of the Three, and The Wastelands. I eventually finished the series--they're what started me toward writing Battle for the Wastelands--and I eagerly awaited the movie I heard was coming.

The Plot

Teenage Jake Chambers (Tom Taylor) is having dreams of fiery apocalypse. The psychiatrist his mother and stepfather are sending him to think they have to do with the death of his firefighter father, but it turns out he's having psychic visions of another world. The villainous Man in Black (Matthew McConaughey) is sending agents to abduct children with psychic potential to assist his plan to undermine the Dark Tower in the center of the cosmos, to allow the horrors of the outer darkness through.

Fortunately Jake is also having visions of Roland, the last gunslinger (Idris Elba). Jake escapes the agents of the Man in Black into Mid-World, left in ruins by a long-ago apocalyptic war, and soon meets Roland. The two have to survive attacks by the minions of the Man in Black as well as stop him from bringing down the Tower...

The Good

*The beginning is very well-done. We start out with some idyllic 1950s-esque suburbia (only more peacefully multi-racial) full of children and teens playing with each other. Then the air raid sirens start going off. Only instead of some kind of attack, it turns out that many of the children are being summoned into an ominous black pyramid by people who are obviously non-human creatures wearing human disguises. And did I mention this little idyll and the horror within sit atop a mesa surrounded by post-apocalyptic desolation?

*Although we don't see the Man in Black's ability to destroy civilizations by manipulating people, we do see in the small scale. He telepathically torments Roland and Jake with visions of their fathers and tries to play on Roland's guilt for those he failed to protect, he plays on Jake's stepfather's resentment of him, etc. We also see his pettiness--he twists a girl's mind to hate her mother to amuse himself, he forces minions who failed to kill each other, etc.

*There are some good visuals, like when Jake first arrives on Mid-World and spots the sand-encrusted ruins of a tank from the war that caused the world to "move on." There's also what looks like a giant mall with its own mass transit station, with a more primitive village of people wearing what look like modern clothes in its shadow. Let's be realistic--if there was some kind of apocalyptic event tomorrow, there'd still be continuity in culture, dress, etc.

*Tom Taylor does a good job as Jake. Matthew McConaughey is all right as the Man in Black. I'd hoped for better from him--see below. Elba doesn't really have a lot to say or emote as Roland, although he does the action scenes quite well.

*There are a lot of good action sequences and the movie is generally entertaining.

*There are some amusing one-liners here and there.

The Bad

*As someone who's read the books I recognized a lot of the events, Easter Eggs, etc. in the film, but so much more could have been said about them. The battle in whose aftermath we see the Man in Black kill a wounded man, the "last stand," is almost certainly the Battle of Jericho Hill, or some alternate-reality version of it. It's never actually named, nor do we see the actual battle or who was fighting in it. They tried to squeeze too much into too short a running time and although what emerged was decent, The Dark Tower is supposed to be an American Lord of the Rings. This could have been a trilogy of films at least. Maybe there's a 2-3 hour director's cut somewhere and I hope to God there is because there's so much they could have explored but didn't.

*The film makes Jake for all intents and purposes the protagonist when he doesn't even show up in the book series until later. Roland is the protagonist of The Gunslinger, but we don't meet him until well into the film. One of the critics on The Geek's Guide to the Galaxy podcast flat-out described him as a sidekick to Jake, which has an unfortunate Hollywood history. I wouldn't go that far, but I'd be far more interested in seeing Roland's adventures, perhaps cross-cut with Jake's story in New York, until they cross paths. That would be a good chance to work in some episodes from Roland's journey in The Gunslinger, for example.

*Per the above, although there're some good character material for the Man in Black, he could still be developed more. In the books, for example, he had an affair with Roland's mother and the teen Roland accidentally killed her while trying to kill him. He's held a grudge for her death ever since--in The Dark Tower, the last novel in the cycle, it's his "most of all" reason for hating Roland. Here all we see is him mocking Roland about his "soft-skinned mother" (implying he had an acquaintance with said skin) and calling Roland's father a poor excuse for a man. A man in love (or at least in lust) with a married woman might comment on her looks and look down on her husband, but the full story isn't here. It would have been more interesting if the death of Gabrielle Deschain was part of what fueled his destructive tendencies. In The Wolves of the Calla, he does have enough feelings to be hurt when accused of cruelty, for example.

*In the commercials the Man in Black comes off as a lot more menacing and powerful. I'd expected McConaughey to play him with more intensity than what we got on-screen. The death of a character very important to Roland early on could be a good place to show this--in the scene the Man in Black basically tells the character to stop breathing and he does. He then walks away, catching the single shot Roland shoots at him almost offhand. If he's deflecting and dodging bullets all while psychically forcing a guy to suffocate himself, it'd be a lot scarier.

*There's an incursion from the outer darkness that's meant to illustrate what horrors will invade reality if the Tower falls, but it happens at night and it's too dark to really see just what kind of critter that is.

*The film starts to drag toward the middle. I think I remember looking at my watch.

Many of the criticisms I'm posting here are echoed and put into words more coherently by The Geek's Guide to the Galaxy podcast's review of the film. Gotta give credit where it's due.

The Verdict

A rather shallow take on a much richer mythology. If there's not going to be a sequel, I hope there's a much longer director's cut out there somewhere. I do remember seeing a still of McConaughey walking through an icy wasteland past some corpses and whistling, there were scenes in commercials of mutant goons in the desert that weren't in the film either, and neither was the line where Jake asks if the Man in Black is the devil and Roland says he's worse. There might be more out there. 7.5 out of 10.