Wednesday, January 30, 2008

Tales From The Discount Bin: The Kobayashi Maru

[For some reason Blogger won't allow me to add an image, so I'll try to remember and add one later. Also it won't let me spellcheck, so hopefully I don't make too many glaring mistakes.]

You know, I'm a geek. That's no secret. At best, I'm a dork. I don't think I quite make nerd because I'm not smart enough. Or at least not smart enough in any specialized area. In any field that I feel myself to be fairly well versed, I can think of several personal friends of mine who are more so. That suits me, actually. 'Jack of all trades, master of none' may unfortunately describe my life sometimes, but I've always preferred to be a bit eclectic in my interests. There are too many wonderful things in the world to limit yourself to just one field. And still, there are many more things out there that I have no real experience in. With this blog you've seen me attempting to stretch the boundaries of my cultural knowledge, and today I make another little nudge at that amorphous wall. Today I take another step into the depths of geekiness, boldly going, you might say, into a new, if not final, frontier. Yes, today I review a Star Trek novel.

Now, there are probably a few people who recognized todays subject from the title line alone, and to them I say 'Welcome! Greetings, member of my tribe!' The Kobayashi Maru, as any geek worth his salt knows, is the name of a Starfleet Training exercise first mentioned in Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan. The test has since been mentioned in every subsequent Trek television series, as the Star Trek equivalent of 'damned if you do, damned if you don't.' Basically, the test involves the cadet acting as ship's captain, and receiving a distress call from a civilian ship inside the Klingon nuetral zone(a no-fly zone for both the Federation & the Klingon Empire, for those not in the know). If you ignore the distress call, the civilians will almost certainly die, but if you attempt a rescue, you will be risking intergalactic war. Indeed, immediately upon entering the Neutral Zone in the simulation, three Klingon Warbirds appear and open fire. The cadet can choose to fight back, but the computer has stacked the odds, and for every warbird you destroy, 3 more appear, until the ship is destroyed. Basically it's a no-win scenario, designed to test a command officer's ability to make tough situations that very realistically could kill his entire crew.

In The Kobayashi Maru, the first Trek novel by Julia Ecklar(she would go on to write 10 more), we get to read how most of Kirk's commanding officers handled the test. Returning from an away mission, Kirk, Sulu, Chekov, Scotty & McCoy are stranded when their shuttle hits a gravitic mine(it doesn't matter what it is) and their shuttle loses all power. With no way of contacting the Enterprise, and no way for the Enterprise to find them(too much debris and interference), the group passes the time by recounting how their Starfleet days, specifically in relation to the Kobayashi Maru simulation.

We all know how Kirk dealt with the test-it was revealed in The Wrath of Khan that he reprogrammed the simulation so that the Klingons feared him, and refused to attack. The book breezes by this, but spends even less time on how Chekov passed his test, putting considerably more focus on what came afterwards. It turns out Chekov was a bit of a career-minded dickhead in his academy years. After self-destructing his ship during the Kobayashi Maru simulation, Chekov and his class are sent off to an empty space station(closed for repairs, as it were) for a 24 hour test. The premise is simple; there is an assassin on the station, all you have to do is stay alive for one day. Immediately the cadets begin to form alliances and wage war on their fellow students. Imagine a futuristic version of the movie Battle Royale. Chekov, after betraying/killing his friends, then takes out the few remaining cadets by once again 'committing suicide', taking everyone else out when he sets off a bomb he'd been carrying. In the end it's revealed that there was no assassin, and they were being tested on their ability to find peaceful solutions to problems. The Kobayashi Maru, this test, and then that one episode of The Next Generation where Wesley was tested when Starfleet pretended a bunch of his classmates had died in an explosion. Starfleet are a bunch of douchebags.

Sulu is next, and his story begins slightly before he enters Command School, setting up his loving relationship with his great-grandfather, who is dying(slowly) from some unnamed illness. When Sulu finds out his great-grandfather has discontinued treatment, he stops talking to him. A few months later, after a training exercise, he is informed that his great-grandfather has died. The day after this is when he takes the Kobayashi Maru. Still reeling from the news, Sulu takes a completely non-violent approach to the test. When he receives the distress call from within the Nuetral Zone, he sends word back that he will contact Starfleet and they can contact a Klingon ambassador who will, hopefully, facilitate a rescue. This is, by far, the most logical response. After all, what was the freighter doing in the nuetral zone? Without being able to scan the area, how can he be sure it isn't a trap? Also, I found Sulu the most likable character in the book, and his relationship with his Great Grandfather felt authentic. Kirk was, even back in Starfleet, prone to an irritating sense of entitlement, Chekov was, simply, an anti-social jerk, and Scotty, as a character, was almost an afterthought.

Scotty's story walked that line between character drama and science jibber-jabber that has been the bane of the Star Trek universe almost from the get-go. The original series always had better ideas than execution, but as soon as the movies and Next Generation rolled around, the superior execution brought with it an increased focus on fake science. Really, when I watch Star Trek, I don't really care about dilithium crystals or warp cores or how the transporter works. All I need, when watching a science fiction show, is to know that the technology exists. After getting that out of the way, it's time to focus on some character development.

So yes, the big surprise here is that Scotty went to command school before changing his vocation to engineering. He never wanted to be there, though; his mind was always built more for schematics and tinkering than for command. His family, however, viewed engineering as a disappointing career choice, and pressured him into going for a command post. One of Scotty's teachers notices this, and gives him a way to study engineering without disappointing his family; The Kobayashi Maru. Scotty's solution to the test isn't so much a solution as it is a series of increasingly complex ways to destroy Klingon ships. And here's where the science jibber-jabber comes in, because many of the ways in which he destroys Klingon ships involve using the transporter to materialize things like dark matter into a Klingon ship, or causing some weird harmonic frequency between the Klingon's shields that causes them all to explode. I started to phase out a bit, but it also had that unorthodox problem solving aspect that I find oddly satisfying.

Scotty's instructor speaks up and has Scotty kicked out of command school for failing the Kobayashi Maru(apparently the only time this has ever happened). There's some made up reason involving Scotty using a technique that works in theory, but he knew to be impossible in reality, and thus he was cheating. But really, the bigger issue is that his instructor, well-meaning as he might be, thought that the best way to convince Scotty's family that he should be an engineer was to kick him out of command school. Surely that won't disappoint them, right?

In the end, of course, the tale-telling has not only kept everyone's spirits up, but given them an idea of how to signal a rescue. The Kobayashi Maru was a quick read, and all in all I really enjoyed it. I'm not sure if I'm ready to jump into the deep end and commit to any more Trek novels, but it was still a pretty good time.

It's The End of the World As We Know It, And I Feel Horrible

Pretty upsetting news in Variety the other day. Michael Bay, apparently not content with ruining the Amityville Horror or Texas Chainsaw Massacre remakes, has decided to use his Platinum Dunes production company for even more unnecessary horror remakes. First up is his remake of Friday The 13th, which will apparently be including elements of the sequels(Jason Voorhees is reportedly the killer in the new movie, and he didn't properly start killing until the second film). Now, the Amityville Horror was never a favorite of mine, so it was easy to ignore the new one. Likewise Friday the 13th was always a bit more slapdash and scattershot than some of it's slasher-pic brethren. But what really gets me angry are the films he plans on making next. After the Friday the 13th remake, we can look for a complete reboot of A Nightmare on Elm Street. Full of jittery camerawork and MTV flash cuts, to be sure.

And it doesn't stop there! After that we can look forward to a remake of Near Dark, a pretty nifty vampire movie from 1987. And, to top it all off(for now), a remake of Alfred Fucking Hitchcock's The Birds.

The man must be stopped.

Monday, January 28, 2008

Back-Issue Tuesday

Action Comics #466(1976)
(as always, if the images appear too small, just click on them for larger versions)

Yep, another Superman cover. Get used to it; I picked up a healthy stack of silver-age Superman comics and picked up a few story arcs off of ebay, so I have Superman backissues to last me awhile. The reason I picked this one up should be obvious to anyone who can see that cover. The story I made up in my head involved Lex Luthor finally snapping, gleefully beating up small children for their halloween candy. I mean, look at that face, notice the pure unadulterated joy. Luthor's having one hell of a time.

Anyone not wanting to be disappointed is advised to just quit while you still have that glorious image in your head, because the story inside is a bit of a letdown. I've actually really been enjoying the silver age stories in the old Superman comics I picked up, but that probably has a lot to do with the writing talents of Denny O'Neil. Cary Bates is the writer of this issue, and I can't say that I was impressed much.

Action Comics #466 is actually a continuation from the previous issue, and begins with Superman already reverted to a Superboy, but luckily there's a lengthy flashback showing Superman meeting up with a 10 year old Batman and a teenaged Flash, who warn him that Luthor is gunning for him next.

I wish I had more to say about this issue, because that would mean that it had been more interesting. The rest of the story involves Superman, Flash and Batman attacking Luthor, who, in a prototype of his armored super-suit, overpowers the juvenile heroes. The fight between the four actually has some pretty cool moments, and it's a bit shocking to see Batman and the Flash die, even if you know it won't last til the end of the issue. After "killing" the two heroes, Luthor puts one of his power gloves on Superboy, forcing the young superhero to punch himself in the face repeatedly.

There's some hokey hoodoo bullshit here that I still don't completely understand, where Superboy's self inflicted beating somehow makes him realize that young Batman and Flash were, actually, robot versions of his friends. He even explains, in inner monologue, how when he used his X-Ray vision to look under his friend's cowls he saw his friend's faces because that's what he expected to see, but in actuality they looked nothing like who they were supposed to be. This is odd because it was never mentioned previously that Superboy had done that, and so it was a completely unnecesary bit of explanation that only makes Superboy seem like an idiot. And a jerk. I mean, way to respect the privacy of your colleagues, Supes.

After realizing his friends weren't actually killed by Luthor, Superboy is suddenly aware that he was never turned into a child after all, but it was only the power of suggestion! Or something like that, it doesn't really say. All that's made clear is that when Superboy makes this realization, he suddenly grows into a Superman, and punches Luthor good. The end.

One interesting thing to come out of this comic is a pretty hilarious explanation of why Luthor hates Superman;

Yes, the official history used to be that Superboy, in the act of blowing out a fire in a young Lex Luthor's laboratory, spilled some chemicals that made all of Luthor's hair fall out. This is probably the most petty backstory in comics. Fortunately DC realized this, and eventually retconned the whole thing so that, not only did Lex go bald, but Superman failed to save a lifeform Luthor had created. That's a little better. Nowadays they don't much mention a backstory between the two, and Luthor is just a power-mad genius billionare who despises Superman for being an alien and holding back humanity by always rescuing it. Or something like that. Really, it depends on the writer.

Bonus; on a slightly more unintentionally humorous front, we get a bonus one page story at the end. Part of a series entitled 'Justice For All Includes Children,' where we see Superman offer nuggets of advice about how to help kids. This issue's story was about physical child abuse, and while it isn't quite on the same level as that mid-80s Spiderman/Power Pack issue about child abuse, I still get a kick out of the father's earnest reply here.

Friday, January 25, 2008

Things You Notice In A Comic Shop

This is the cover(without logo) for the newest issue of The Authority; Prime. It's not a book I read, but it generally has good writers attached to it, and I have read some of The Midnighter's(the guy in black, in the bottom foreground) solo stuff. Take a look:

I really like this cover because the guy at the top is apparantly punching himself in the face. Really hard. Because clearly the man he's fighting has missed him completely.

Monday, January 14, 2008

Tales From the Discount Bin: The Shrinking Man

After so many novels from the late 1800's/early 1900's, it was both a shock and a pleasure to read a book that had sentence fragments. For that and a few other reasons Richard Matheson's Shrinking Man became one of the quickest and most enjoyable reads I've had in awhile.
The Shrinking Man is another case of being familiar with the work of an author through secondary sources, primarily movies and Twilight Zone episodes that Matheson wrote or inspired, but completely ignorant of his actual written output. I'd seen both versions(but not the new one) of I Am Legend, but I never got around to reading the novel, as much as I love those films. Similarly The Incredible Shrinking Man is one of my favorite movies of all time, and I'm just now reading the great, slim novel it was based on. I must say I was surprised at just how closely the movie sticks to the books template, with a few changes here and there(that I'll cover a little further on).

Scott Carey, in the opening chapter, is caught and sprayed by a mysterious cloud of mist while on the deck of his boat, and that's enough to start a shocking and regular shrinking(precisely 1/7th of an inch a day). At first he's a curiosity, but as the shrinking goes on day by day, month by month, with no end or variation, the horror quickly sinks in. Chapters detailing important events in Scott's life among his wife and daughter are intercut with longer passages detailing what he believes to be his last week alive. He's reached the height of one inch, and at the rate he's shrinking he ticks off the days until his death, or more accurately his disappearance. These chapters are both tense and psychologically challenging, following his daily life as he struggles for survival, lost in his basement and locked in perpetual mortal combat with a Black Widow larger than he is. The movie takes this slightly jumbled chronology and makes it all more linear, while still keeping the majority of the events as described. Right down to the romantic encounter with a Little Person who is just his height.

The science in the book is largely unexplained, although we do find the source of this phenomena towards the end of the book. It's a mistake, I think, although probably at the time it was seen as a necessary one. I would have been perfectly fine with that vague mist in the prologue, but Matheson tries to pinpoint the actual cause of Scott Carey's shrinking, and spends a bit of time explaining the physics of it, and those are by far the weakest sections of the book. Not only does it ruin a bit of the mystery and slow down the pace a bit, but the explanations are exceedingly hokey, particularly 50 years later when CSI and PBS and the Discovery channel have made everyone an armchair scientist. It's a bit curious that Scott's shrinking is precisely 1/7th of an inch a day, and that that never varies. You'd think that the process would accelerate as he shrank and there became less and less of him to disappear. Or that it doesn't actually happen every day, but only while he sleeps, not gradually throughout the day(and not EVERY TIME he sleeps, but every time he sleeps at night). These things wouldn't be worth mentioning if Matheson himself hadn't tried to address other aspects of how this logically could happen. If he'd ignored this problem it would be easier for the reader to simply let it slide and immerse himself in the book.

But as I said, minor quibbles. The book remains a pretty gripping read throughout, and evoked a few moments where I felt my stomach tightening and became tense and uncomfortable(in a good way) while reading. The ending for the book is almost precisely the same as that of the film, so I can't say that was a surprise. Although the film did make the ending, which is optimistic and uplifting in it's own twisted way, slightly more religious in nature. *Spoiler* When Scott goes to sleep on that last night, he finds it a shock to wake up at all, only to find that he's shrunk to a scale immeasurable by normal standards, and his overwhelming pessimism is replaced by a hopefulness, that life can exist on smaller and smaller scales and he'll keep travelling, keep experiencing, and keep living through them all. That famous line from the film, 'to God there is no zero!' is in the book 'in nature there is no zero!'. *End Spoiler* A small alteration, to be sure, but it does have a pretty large tonal difference.

Saturday, January 12, 2008

Tales From The Discount Bin: Comic Book Edition

[Some of the images in here may be too small to read, but clicking on any of them will enlarge it to full screen size.]

I have a certain soft spot for silver age comic book covers, it's absurdly hilarious the different ways comic book companies tried to entice readers with wackier and wackier images. Every now and then, while working at the comic shop, I run across one that seems especially noteworthy. And, if the price is right, I'll usually pick it up(some of those books from the 70s are a bit prohibitive in cost). Superman #240 is not the silliest or most incomprehensible cover out there, but I still got a kick out of it. From both Superman's jilted, whiny dismissal of humanity to the pure anger and hatred thrown towards the man who's by this time saved Earth countless times. Of course, it's entirely possible that Superman deserves all of the hatred. I mean, what if he failed to save a busload of orphans on their way to Disneyworld from falling off a cliff because saving them would mean dropping his ice cream cone? I could see that pissing some people off.

The book opens on a building almost completely engulfed in flames. The fire crew are helpless to stop the blaze, and would let it burn itself out if not for the woman and her children trapped on the top floor. "if ever there was a job for Superman, this is it" the fire chief tells Supes. Despite the fact that his powers have been weakening lately, Superman does what he always does, and rushes in to save the family. Note the boredom evident in the crowds reaction. A building going up in flames and threatening the lives of a family? Pure excitement. It's a shame they had to call in that killjoy Superman to spoil the bonfire.

So, does Superman's failure involve letting a family burn to death because his powers have failed him? Well... no. Superman saves the woman and her two small children and flies them to safety, but that's not enough for this town. Metropolis has apparently become so used to Superman saving them from everything that they expect it now, treat it as their right to have Superman save them. Look at how the landlord reacts to Superman saving the lives of his tenants:

So there's Superman's big failure. His weakening powers meant that instead of holding the building up while the fire raged around him, the building collapsed and buried him in rubble. Thankfully he was not seriously harmed, but that's not how the citizens of Metropolis see it. 'Superman Fails!' is the headline that day, and he's become a laughingstock.

"Be careful no buildings fall on you!" has got to be the strangest way to mock someones masculinity. The guy flew into a raging inferno, saved three people, and then had a building collapse on his head. And then he walked away practically unscathed. He may not be as strong as he once was, but he's still not a guy I want to be taunting and mocking. Also, what is Superman doing? Does he normally just go for strolls through Metropolis streets in his costume?

But dimwitted construction workers are the least of Superman's worries, for the headlines touting his weakness have caught the attention of the unimaginatively named 'Anti-Superman Gang', who have decided to use this as an opportunity to test their power against Superman. In a daytime bank heist, complete with anti-aircraft guns, they shoot Superman out of the sky and are only stopped at the last moment when Superman hurls a vault door at their getaway vehicle.

Back at work, as Clark Kent, he receives an odd visitor; I-Ching, a blind Asian mystic who is normally seen in the pages of Wonder Woman. He is aware of Superman's secret identity, and of his recent problems, and offers his aid in trying to regain Supes' powers. But the anti-Superman gang is watching, and they follow Kent hoping he will lead them to the weakened Superman.

Now, I can forgive people not recognizing Superman and Clark Kent are the same person. In fact just a few years prior to this comic the official explanation was that Superman vibrated at a rate that made photographs of him in-costume unreadable. And Jeph Loeb made a convincing argument in recent history that no one would assume Superman is Clark Kent because, well, how could they see such a godlike being as just a regular guy? But come on. These guys are idiots.

Caught in the midst of I-Ching's meditative therapy, Superman must fight off the thugs with the lack of any super-strength. Now completely powerless, Superman knocks the anti-Superman gang unconscious while thinking of what his new life without super-powers will be like. And the story ends on a slightly positive note with Superman deciding to live his life to the fullest. If he can't be the best hero on the planet, well, he'll become the best human being he can be.

This is actually part of a yearlong story-arc in 1971 where DC was trying to streamline and revamp the Superman mythology. There was an explosion where Superman got hit in the chest with Kryptonite, but afterwards found all Kryptonite on earth had become harmless lead. However the explosion opened the way for the Sandman, an inter dimensional being that began sapping Superman of his strength, eventually wanting to become Superman he took on his appearance as well. The story(and this issue as well) was pretty cool, and the writing, if you can get past the silver-age obviousness of the dialogue, is pretty solid. It's a shame DC immediately ignored the Sandman character and the events of this storyline, because it's an intriguing arc that could have had a much larger impact.

On a side note, this comic came with a pretty genius bonus story in the back. 'An Untold Tale of the Planet Krypton' that has a very distinct 'Tales From The Crypt'(or Tales From the Krypton, for those of you who love bad puns) feel. In it a scientist's assistant plans to use his bosses time machine to travel back in time 1,000 years with stolen technology where he can rule the planet. He steals and murders for this technology, and almost succeeds in travelling through time. However, the technology he took along on the trip causes a power surge in the time machine that reverses his direction in time, depositing him 50 years in the future. The last panel is of him floating in space, dead, because 50 years in the future there is no Krypton.

Thursday, January 03, 2008

Tales From The Discount Bin: War of the Worlds

Admittedly I'm becoming a bit loose with my guidelines for this series, because no one would argue that HG Wells is a discount bin writer. But this is my blog, so you're just going to have to live with it.

I've been a War of the Worlds fan for years, actually for, at this point, at least half of my life. Keep in mind I had never read the original novel, but I had been a fan of the George Pal produced film version, and I watched every episode of the Canadian television show in the late 80's early 90's. I even read the novel tie-in to that series, which is a pretty direct sequel to the 1953 film(not the original novella), and I've read several comics adaptations. But for some reason, a reason I have no explanation for, I've never gotten around to reading the HG Wells original. So with all of this War of the Worlds-inspired entertainment out there, was there anything new to discover in the book that started it all?

Basically everything was new to me, since all of the versions I've seen/read have taken substantial liberties with the source material. Even the 2005 Hollywood version, which was supposed to be fairly accurate, was an entirely new story set against the War of the Worlds backdrop. Some of the events in the book are mirrored in the film, but were often altered to the point where you can recognise the source but it's easy to miss.

The novel follows a nameless narrator(who we can assume is HG Wells, from the scattered references to family and occupation that we get) as he travels the English countryside during the Martian invasion. Separated from his wife, our hero has a series of adventures both alone and with a succession of quirky survivors. There's a couple chapters in the first half of the book where the protagonist recounts what his brother was off doing in London, and this opens the book up nicely, giving a larger picture of the war and illustrating how the mass public reacts to Martian invaders(the narrator spends his time in smaller burgs where the reaction is similar but on a much smaller scale). The mentions of his brother cease suddenly about halfway through the novel, but we can assume that he survived to tell the author his story.

For the entirety to novel is nicely [aced, and the glimpses we get of the war are enticing. Realistically, our hero never gets a full view of most of the skirmishes, and so his information is based on the pieces he saw, or second-hand information that another character recounts to him. The book is obviously written after the war has been resolved, but Wells avoids an omnipotent explanation for things he only experienced parts of. I can hazard a guess that the writer(the character, not Wells) was assuming a basic knowledge of these events by his potential audience. And the book does once or twice use the tried and true 'history has recorded' line to pass over some details without seeming to ignore them, but here it isn't too grievous. Usually I hate it when an author uses that device, but here it's used primarily for things I wouldn't be too interested in anyway. In fact, he could have used it a bit more, because he gets into the specifics of Martian anatomy a little too much, although interestingly they share some similarities with the Plant Men from Edgar Rice Burroughs' Gods of Mars(specifically the way they reproduce).

There are plenty of small details that I enjoyed, things that could have gone unnoticed, but their inclusion serves to add some realism and depth to the novel. There's an implied ecology on Mars, with a quick mention of a humanoid race that the Martians brought with them as a food supply(although they had all died by the time the war began), and the 'red weed' that begins to flourish in the wake of the Martians. And it turns out that in the book, that twist ending actually has some foreshadowing. During his lengthy discussion of Martian anatomy, Wells mentions that Mars is apparently fairly sterile, as the Martians have no bacteria or microscopic germs of any kind on their home planet.
In the end, however, I found the book a little too hard to get into. Aside from the absolutely brilliant opening paragraph, Wells writes in the familiar Victorian fashion; all run-on sentences and crisp, proper phrasing. That becomes it's downfall, actually; the book is too proper and, well, English to be truly engaging. I love everything about the book aside from the actual language, which is fairly distancing. Wells has some good ideas, and a good sense of forward momentum, but his actual writing skills, at least in this book, leave a little to be desired.

[I'm not actually sure why that cover was chosen for the book, since it's quite obvious the people on the cover are neither human nor Martian. This edition was printed in 1964, after the original movie had created it's own look for the Martians, and certainly went against the popular image of Wells' aliens. I wonder where they got it from.]