Sunday, January 21, 2018

Book Review: The Sentinels: When Strikes The Warlord (2006)

I met Van Allen Plexico a few years ago at DragonCon through my friend James R. Tuck. I've since kept up with him through Facebook. I've tried my hand at superhero (or more specifically supervillain) fiction with "Ubermensch" and "Needs Must," but Plexico has written a series of superhero novels, the Sentinels series. What follows is part of a deal for his help promoting the audio version of "I am the Wendigo," let the record state, but it's an honest one.

So here's my review of the first one, When Strikes The Warlord...

The Plot

Earth is under threat from the villainous Warlord, a world-conquering supervillain. Standing in his way are a combination of superheroes, some seasoned veterans and others newbies still exploring their powers. But the Warlord has allies and minions of his own.

Who will triumph? Well, you'll have to read the book. :)

The Good

*Although the book does not seem to be primarily a comedic work, there are some lines and situations that are straight-up hilarious. The appearance of minor super-villain known as "The Wombat" made me laugh out loud, something that rarely happens in a book. There's other humor as well that's more subtle, including a villain(ess) who lampshades the trope about improbably skimpy female comic-character costumes.

*The character Francisco, though initially a sycophantic Igor figure for the villainous Warlord, has a lot more initiative and is in control of a lot more than he initially seems. Giving a villain a servile minion is kind of a cliche, but Plexico elaborates on his character quite a bit. That's one of the more creative elements in the book and I approve.

*The story flows well and has some good description.

The Bad

*There are some aspects of the story that could have been developed better if they'd been introduced earlier. For example, the villainous Warlord has got several lesser superhumans--most of them villains, but at least one a hero he's misled--working for him, but they aren't really developed as characters. The most interesting one--the misled hero, as opposed to the goons--is only in one scene. He seems like he could have an interesting back-story, but we don't see a whole lot. Perhaps he can get his own Sentinels story? Mr. Plexico himself said the story gets more complex as the series goes along, so this might be a positive, not a negative, for some readers.

*The humor doesn't really kick in until the later part of the story. And the humor, when it comes, is really funny--see my above comment about the Wombat. If the humor had started from the get-go, it would have been a much stronger book.

*One character is amnesiac and remembers little about his pre-superhero past--think Wolverine from X-Men. However, that's not introduced until well into the book. I think it might be the first scene from the character's point of view, in which case the later introduction makes sense, but it might then have been better to have his POV earlier or have it referenced in another character's POV so it's not so jarring.

The Verdict

A good, quick read for when one is exercising with one's Kindle, but could be better developed. Check it out on Kindle Unlimited if you're not up for buying it. Definitely going to read the second book. 7.5 out of 10.

Thursday, January 18, 2018

Blast from the Past Movie Review: Total Recall (1990)

A few weeks ago for Myopia: Defend Your Childhood, we watched the 1990 science fiction/action film Total Recall starring Arnold Schwarzenegger. I had never seen the movie before, although I'd seen stills of people's eyes popping out of their heads and had heard of the legendary woman with three breasts.

Well, here's the link to the podcast. Now onto the review...

The Plot

In the late 21st Century, humankind has explored and settled much of the solar system, including Mars. The Red Planet is used as a resource base for waging a war on Earth, with the colonists there exploited like a company town on steroids--they even have to pay for their air. Bored construction worker Doug Quaid (Arnold Schwarzenegger) has been having dreams of Mars and a mysterious dark-haired woman and would like to visit, but his attractive wife Lori (Sharon Stone) tries to dissuade him. Instead he purchases memories of a trip to Mars, including a secret-agent fantasy, to be installed in his brain.

Then things go wrong, very wrong. Hunted by secret agents led by the villainous Richter (Michael Ironside) and guided by a videotape of...himself, he ultimately travels to Mars to see just what's going on.

The Good

*The movie is action-packed and never dull. Although in many films I find myself going for my phone out of boredom, in this one I only looked at my phone once or twice during the entire film and that was because I was keeping tabs on some discussions I was involved in on social media, NOT because I was bored. Seriously, it was a lot of fun.

*Although Arnold's often over-the-top reactions and mannerisms are often mocked (go down to the Memetic Mutation entry on this TVTropes page to find a few of them), I didn't really have a problem with them here. In many cases (pulling something out of his nose, having his mind messed with), they were quite appropriate.

*I liked the supporting cast. Sharon Stone does a good job handling both aspects of her character, one of which is clearly a mask for the other. And Michael Ironside puts his intensity to good use. I liked how they developed Richter and Lori as more than just a couple thugs working for Cohaagen. Finally, I really liked Mel Johnson Jr. as the mouthy cab-driver Benny.

*There are plenty of memorable minor characters. I liked Benny quite a lot as a character--he was really funny. There's also a midget prostitute nicknamed Thumbelina (Debbie Lee Carrington) that's rather memorable.

*I liked a lot of the visuals, particularly the exterior shots of Mars.

The Bad

*In economics terms, air for most of a space colony would be a nonexcludable good. The air supply to an individual household (if homes are individually sealed) or an individual section of a town (since it's a big plot point that sections can be sealed) could be cut off for nonpayment, but in most places (like a job site, a public street, etc), payers and non-payers would be mingled and it would be impractical to exclude non-payers. It would make more sense if the Martian colonial government charged high taxes on the general public for air, ostensibly to maintain the colony's life-support but in reality simply enriching the administration. Although the aesthetic they were going for was a company town in the vein of coal-mining Appalachia, Cohaagen seems to be a political leader rather than a company boss and the settlement is described as the "Martian Federal Colony," not a big oil rig owned by a major corporation.

*Mars does not have a vacuum that would suck people's eyes out or cause them to suffer other decompression injuries. Mars has a thin atmosphere that's impossible for humans to breathe and is too cold for humans to survive on most of the planet. Someone sucked out of the dome due to, say, a gunshot smashing a panel, would suffocate, but they wouldn't suffer as ridiculously. Speaking of domes shattering, WWII bombers often returned to bases with lots of bullet holes, but that didn't decompress the plane in the vein of the A-Team episode about the skyjackers. Even if that were the case (handwave the settlement as being in a region or altitude where the atmosphere is thinner), one would think a future Martian colony would be more durably constructed. The fact it's not could be a plot point--the construction was done by a private corporation eager to exploit Mars' minerals at the lowest possible cost or the government wanted it built as quickly as possible to start mining for the war effort--but that never comes up.

(I'm imagining a more aware goon getting sucked out through a hole in the dome yelling, "DAMN LOWEST BIDDER!")

*There's a completely random scene where a large woman coming to visit Mars turns out to be more than she seems. It was amusing to watch, but I wasn't sure what exactly was going on.

*Mars' gravity is also 38% Earth's gravity. There's some missed opportunities in terms of physics--you could have a real little guy pick up and throw Arnold Schwarzenegger because he'd weigh a lot less, you could have Arnold punch a guy and he flies hundreds of feet, etc. It could look like an early version of The Matrix. :) It'd make the film rather comedic, but given the genre, a little of that wouldn't be a problem.

*I'm not going to go into a lot of detail here for reasons of spoilers, but the process that takes place at the climax of the film would realistically take months or years, not a few minutes. And unless other issues are taken care of, I don't think it would be sustainable.

The Verdict

A fun movie despite the silly accents and the flawed science. 9.0 out of 10.

Monday, January 15, 2018

A Victorious Comunero Alternate Timeline

Once upon a time as an undergraduate at the University of Georgia, I took a class entitled "Spain of Cervantes," which was about Spanish history and culture in the early modern period. One thing that stuck out to me was the revolt of the comuneros, in which a bunch of cities rebelled against the increasingly overbearing Spanish monarchy and like "every other early modern revolt" got crushed. However, during the lead up to the decisive battle, the Comuneros made poor decisions and the battle itself could have gone differently.

So what might have happened if the Comuneros defeated the royalists? Here's one possibility, "La Republica Comunera de Castilla." I'm not totally sure where the divergence from actual history is, but the end result is the kingdom of Castile becomes an alliance of self-governing cities, some of which have issues with each other--some communities are tolerant of Lutherans and Erasmians, for example, while others are stringently not. There's also a sort of folk democracy emerging in the rural areas, especially those whose nobility were killed or chased out during the revolt. Finally, the old notions of dishonor del trabajo (the idea that working with one's hands is degrading) fade and the more liberal (in the classical sense) ideas of several Spanish philosophers and economists that were ignored or suppressed in real history get implemented.

Spain's European wars go rather differently--for starters, the new Castilian (not Spanish) republic is allied with the old enemy France against Aragon and the Imperial possessions in Italy and Germany who want Spain back. And most of Spain and Spain's empire in the Americas (at this point just the Caribbean and greater Mexico) lost, the Hapsburgs are going to pay more attention to and be more respectful (at least in matters of economics and at least for awhile) to what would become the Netherlands, forestalling our history's Dutch Revolt. England ends up getting incorporated into the Hapsburg domains through marriages and the convenient deaths of male heirs. Meanwhile, the conquest of the Inca goes rather differently and more piecemeal, since the republic cannot support or control the conquistadors to the degree the Spanish kingdom did.

At the current point in the timeline there's a shift back toward monarchism in Spain with this one politician becoming a Caesar-figure, although it's not clear if he's going to end up an unofficial monarch like the Medici in Italy, formally claim kingship, or overreach and get killed like Caesar. We'll see how it goes. I would like to see a sustained republican system in Spain, but the culture in this time period was very monarchical. And the history of England, the Americas, Portugal (repeatedly beaten by the Castilian republic), etc. is going to be very different regardless.