Dollhouse

Dollhouse 01Dollhouse is an action-adventure series in a science fiction framework that strives to be much more than it actually is.  Created by whiz kid Joss Whedon and produced by its star, Eliza Dushku, the beautiful and well acted series jerks all over the map while consistently delivering fun, action-packed stories that mostly work toward a semi-coherent ending.

The Rossum Corporation (named in homage to the 1920’s play about robots, RUR, Rossom’s Universal Robots) is a gigantic, powerful medical company that takes advantage of their knowledge to manipulate and control active brain function.  They have created a technology that allows them to wipe a brain of all of its permanent memories, recording it onto a “wedge.”  Into this vacant brain, they install an “active” architecture that allows the subject to be implanted with a temporary personality and skills, easily wiped away once their assignment is finished.  They recruit volunteers who wish to forget their lives for a period of five years, during which they will be housed in a secret underground location called a Dollhouse.  Located in major urban areas, there are a number of dollhouses around the world.  They are also not above forcing their enemies into performing this function.  Periodically, each doll is served up a new personality paid for by the extremely wealthy for purposes ranging from a night of steamy sex to enacting a personal fantasy to performing complex business moves or even criminal actions.

The series focuses primarily on the Los Angeles Dollhouse, under the leadership of Adelle DeWitt (Olivia Williams) and Security Chief Laurence Dominic (Reed Diamond).  Their principal technician is the brilliant, geeky Topher Brink (Fran Kranz).  Each Active is named according the Greek alphabet.  Unfortunately, Alpha (Alan Tudyk) suffered an accident in which all of his past personalities were imprinted simultaneously into his Active architecture, creating a schizophrenic, homicidal maniac.  He butchers many of the security personnel and some of the dolls before escaping.  Their primary female doll, Whiskey (Amy Acker), survives, but with her face mutilated.  Rather than waste her talents, they imprint her with the personality of a medical doctor (Dr. Saunders) and put her on the staff.  Alpha also spares Echo (Eliza Dushku) who then becomes the primary female doll.

Dollhouse 02Dushku is forceful in driving the series, not only as the leading actress, but also as the producer.  She has matured into a fine actress and her beauty is simply stunning.

The new number one male doll becomes Victor (Enver Gjokaj), who plays a number of roles throughout the series.  Gjokaj displays mad skills as an actor and his performances enhance the series considerably.  His love interest becomes Sierra (Dichen Lachman), a newcomer to the Dollhouse who also becomes a major player in the series.

Discredited FBI agent Paul Ballard (Tahmoh Penikett) attempts to locate the Dollhouse, aided by his beautiful neighbor, Mellie, who also turns out to be doll November (Miracle Laurie).  Rounding out the cast is Boyd Langton (Harry Lennix), an ex-cop who becomes Echo’s “handler,” the Dollhouse insider who watches over her to make sure she doesn’t come to harm during her assignments.

Almost every aspect of this is beautiful, from the actors to the sets to the kinetic camera work and direction.  Even the title music is truly memorable.  Every episode flows with a speed and symmetry that makes it almost impossible to turn away, frequently using flashback sequences to fill in the past and once using a flash-forward to show the future.  The series finale takes us into that future to see the effect of the technology on the future.

Dollhouse 04Great acting abounds throughout the series.  Although Dusku’s character Echo always fuels the action, terrific performances by Fran Kranz, Enver Gjokaj, and Dichen Lachman enhance nearly episode.  If you like really good acting, it permeates this show, from the leads down to the smallest recurring characters.  In Season Two, Summer Glau has a really great recurring role as Topher’s other half in the Washington D.C. Dollhouse.

That being said, the show does suffer from a lack of identity.  Whedon and his writing staff waver between science fiction, action adventure, and character studies.  They rely far, far too much on violent fight scenes, rather than serious thought, to propel the story forward.  The fight scenes are all done extremely well, but after a while there is a sameness about them that proves ultimately distracting.  Like many shows of this nature, there are some stand-alone episodes, but it mostly catapults forward toward its ending, building details that all come to fruition at one point or another.  There are times in some episodes, however, when the viewer is led to believe that there will be major changes, only to have the show reset at the end of the episode, leaving the viewer back at the status quo when the next episode begins, so there is a certain amount of cognitive dissonance about what is going forward and what is remaining the same.  In terms of the style, Whedon admits on one of the special features that he had once considered doing every episode in a different style, one mystery, one crime, one science fiction, one 1940’s throwback, etc.  He didn’t do it, but I think this ultimately leads to a confusion of style that keeps the show from becoming completely cohesive.

Dollhouse 05The 26 episodes that comprise the two seasons would neatly make one full season of Star Trek, either Next Generation, Deep Space Nine or Voyager.  In addition to the 26 full episodes, there is a pilot included on the DVD that was never aired on Fox.  A confusing mish-mash of scenes, the pilot was eventually carved up, some of it ending up on the cutting room floor and some of it wedged into the story line of Episode 1.

One thing I generally like about DVDs is the ability to illuminate a show or a movie through interviews with the creators and actors, but the Dollhouse DVD is mostly full of self-congratulatory interviews, which I never like.  There’s something about creators and actors just patting themselves on the back that puts me off.  If you’re going to talk about your show, please talk about the theme, the story, the style, and creative arc.  I know you’re good, you don’t have to keep telling me.

The first season ends with a show that takes the Dollhouse into the future and it is extremely compelling.  At first, it put me off, but the more I watched and later as I thought about it, I came to feel that it made a perfect ending.  If the series had been canceled after one season, I would have been extremely satisfied.  In fact, the second season, however, is quite good, if a bit jerky and it is worth waiting for the ending, when the show moves totally into the future.

I highly recommend this television show for all science fiction junkies, for fans of action-adventure and fight scenes, and, oddly enough, for fans of another television show, Quantum Leap, for having great stand-alone episodes that concentrate more on character and story than on fighting and series-building.  In spite of its problems there is a lot of stuff to be found in Dollhouse and it really does get a high recommendation.

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The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins

Hunger GamesThe struggle of right against wrong is probably the oldest theme in entertainment.  When Suzanne Collins wrote her novel, The Hunger Games, it was foremost in her thinking.  However,  society itself molds what is considered right and wrong according to the times, rewriting history and ideals to conform to current thinking.

The Hunger Games, like many excellent novels, moves that conflict to another time and place so that we can clearly see right and wrong for what it is and react accordingly, without prejudice.  This iconic Young Adult dystopian novel, written in First Person Present, certainly brought the entire genre a gigantic step forward, pitching it into the general public as a phenomenon.  Although wildly popular among teens, it has also been a crossover hit with adults, partly because it explores the parameters of right and wrong without prejudice.

In District 12 of the country of Panem, a nation formed from the ruins of the old United States, Katniss Everdeen struggles to feed her family.  Since the death of her father, a coal miner, her mother has become distant and Katniss takes care of her younger sister, Primrose.  Every year, two young people are selected from each district to participate in a fight to the death in a special arena created for them by a game master.  Called the Hunger Games, this event is televised throughout Panem, using special cameras that are hidden all over the arena.  When Prim’s name is unexpectedly chosen, by a representative of the Capitol named Effie Trinket, Katniss volunteers to take her place.  She travels to the Capitol with the male tribute from her district, Peeta Mellark, the son of their local baker.  She remembers that he once threw her a burned loaf of bread when her family was starving.  Accompanied by drunken Haymitch Abernathy, the lone District 12 winner in the history of the games, she learns more about getting sponsors by being likable.

A sytlist named Cinna gives her an appealing appearance and the tributes are all interviewed by television personality Caesar Flickerman.  During his interview, Peeta reveals that he has always had a crush on her, but Katniss suspects he is only saying it to gain sponsors.  Half of the tributes are killed during the first few minutes of the Hunger Games as they try to gain the weapons held in a Cornucopia.  Katniss, Peeta, and a few others run away and the remaining tributes, mostly those from the wealthiest districts who have been professionally trained, join forces to kill them off.  Their leader is a bully named Cato.  While hiding in the woods, she discovers that Peeta has joined forces with them.  She forms an alliance with a young girl, Rue, from District 11, but that is cut short when Rue is killed.  Katniss kills her assassin, then mourns Rue by singing to her and surrounding her body with flowers, an action that elicits much sympathy among the viewers of the event.  Styled as “the star-crossed lovers,” the game master takes advantage of viewer support to change the rules so they can both win if they survive.

Katniss goes looking for Peeta and finds him badly wounded, hiding covered with mud near the river.  She cleans him up and nurses him as best she can, cleaning out a deep wound, and creates a makeshift shelter.  Finally, she kisses him to enhance the story line of “star-crossed lovers” and is rewarded with some broth for Peeta.  Determined to put on a good show and perhaps get some salve for Peeta’s leg, Katniss kisses him again.

Only six tributes remain alive at this point, but they are killed off until only Cato remains.  Forced to the Cornucopia by wild dogs, a struggle ensues until Cato is dead, but the game master changes the rules again, stating that only one of them can be victor.  Katniss brings out deadly berries and they decide to suicide together, but then the game is stopped and they are declared mutual winners.

Haymitch warns Katniss that her act of defiance may have severe repercussions from the government.  At the end, Peeta realizes that she’s been playing a game with his affections to get sponsors and they return to District 12, but Katniss is herself unsure of her feelings.

The book is very economically written, nearly perfect in its concentration on the action, yet through Katniss’ thoughts, we gain all kinds of inside into who she is and we see her arc from someone who just wants to survive into someone who is beginning to understand that a revolution will be necessary.

It moves so quickly that it is tempting to finish the book in one read and then return to it with leisure to savor all of the good writing that makes it a potent novel.

The ideas are not necessarily new, but the style makes it very special.  One of the most difficult things for a writer to create is naming characters and Collins has done a masterful job in giving us names that are unique and resonate.  That carried over so well into the movie where the actors were able to develop their characters based on a name and a very little deep information.

Another triumph of this novel is how well Collins uses the First Person Present perspective.  It is not easy to write, yet in Collins’ hand, it seems effortless.  Moving so quickly, it seems amazingly natural.

An iconic book, The Hunger Games seems destined to be a Young Adult novel that will have many, many years of shelf life, partly because it can be read again and again with deepening enjoyment.

I highly recommend this novel not just for teens, but for all readers.


Hunger Games 03Please read my review of the movie The Hunger Games!

Allegiant by Veronica Roth

Allegiant by Veronica RothThis third and final installment of the Divergent Trilogy takes the bizarre, complicated plot even further and it relies even more on people making stupid decisions, rending it by far the worst of the three books that make up this ill-advised trilogy.

This review reveals the conclusion of the series, but it is for the benefit of the reader as you may not wish to read the whole thing knowing how it ends.

The battle between the factionless, led by Four’s mother, Evelyn, and the former factions, led by Four’s father, Marcus, heats up considerably, so Tris and Four leave Chicago and find the people who are really running this bizarre mess of a society, the Bureau of Genetic Welfare, and its leader David.  It turns out that these people have really screwed things up by trying to create better humans, so the Divergent are actually normal people and those belonging to factions are genetically damaged.  When Four discovers that he is genetically damaged, he stupidly joins in a plot against the Bureau, which, it turns out, wasn’t such a bad idea because they are in fact the big bad villains.  David decides that since their experiment was a failure, they need to release a chemical throughout the city that will wipe the minds of everyone, then they can start out all over again and do it right.

Reacting against this bizarre notion, Tris throws her life away trying to stop him.

It was established in the other novels that Tris has a death wish, but quite frankly, I never took it seriously, because in all other respects, she seemed (in spite of a steady spate of tears) to be a strong, fairly intelligent person.  She is, after all, the heroine.  Readers need to be aware that this trilogy is a *tragedy* in the true sense of the word.  We’re all so used to having happy endings, especially in Young Adult literature, that reading a dystopian YA tragedy is a pretty shocking affair.

Roth has tried to make her death seem organic, by repeatedly bringing up her death wish, but I really thought that it was perhaps the final thing she had to overcome in order to become a complete person.  No, it turns out that she really hasn’t grown that much at all.  She simply throws herself away.

Although the plot, and especially the ending, are serious problems in the novel, maybe the biggest problem is the “voice.”

In the first two novels, Roth established a wonderful voice for Tris and since both of the books are written in the First Person Present tense, it works very well.  The third novel, however, introduces the voice of Four as she alternates perspective in different chapters.  It is a bit of a shock, after having a consistent viewpoint in each of the first two novels, to have someone else speaking, but real problem is that Roth has not bothered to create a unique voice for Four.  He sounds so much like Tris that many times I had to flip back to the beginning of a chapter to find out who was speaking.  In terms of creating unique characters, this is a very serious problem.  Once I understood that Tris would die, the reasoning became apparent: she had to have someone continue speaking after Tris was dead.  In the end, I don’t think that matters at all.  As soon as Tris died, I closed the book and put it away because the voice I had listened to for several hundred thousands words was silenced and I didn’t care what happened afterwards.

Allegiant has the feeling, like Insurgent before it of being a rushed effort.  I don’t think that Roth truly took the time to think through her story before writing it, because there are so many things that don’t make sense, that don’t seem believable, that it seems unnatural, rather than an organically sound plotting.

My final advice to readers would be to enjoy the first book in the series, Divergent, and be happy with that, because it is the only complete, beautifully written, cogent novel in the trilogy.  It is pretty well designed, with strong characters, a terrific plot, and it is written in a style that makes for satisfying reading.

Of all the Young Adult dystopian trilogies in the market, the Divergent Trilogy starts out among the best and ends up among the worst.

All the Weyrs of Pern by Anne McCaffrey

All the Weyrs of PernIn what many thought might be the last of the Pern 9th Pass novels, the computer AIVAS (Artificial Intelligence Voice Address System) serves as a major character in the fight to end Thread forever.  At the end of the previous novel, The Renegades of Pern, AIVAS came to life in the old Landing Administration Building after Piemer, Jancis, Jaxom, and his white dragon, Ruth, had unearthed the solar panels that had been intermittently covered by ash and dust over the last 2,500 years since the explosion of the volcano that sent the original colonists scurrying north to take Hold there.

The following review is written with the understanding that readers are already familiar with the novel, so if you haven’t read it yet, beware of plot spoilers!

With technology long lost to the people of Pern, AIVAS recites the history of the founding of the colony as told in Dragonsdawn, complete with movies and stills showing Admiral Paul Benden, Governor Emily Boll, and all of the other colorful figures, including the exploits of Sallah Telgar in thwarting the evil intentions of Avril Bitra.  In a sonorous male voice, AIVAS explains that his last assignment was to find a way to permanently remove Thread from the skies of Pern.  Now–with the help of darned near the whole planet–he’s found a way to do it.  This delights F’lar no end and they set about reconstructing Landing, teaching Jaxom, Piemer, Jancis, and anyone else who is interested how to assemble and use a computer.  Teaching remedial math, physics, medicine, and so on, he gradually elevates the level of education to the point where they can understand sophisticated concepts and manage complicated machinery, bringing them back to the level they were at when the original colonial ships arrived in orbit some 2,500 Turns ago.

This effort is not without the pernicious attempts of villains to thwart it.  Chief among them are Master Norist, head of the Glass Smith Crafthall and Lords Sigomal of Bitra and Begamon of Nerat.  Norist gives AIVAS the nickname of “The Abomination” and blames it for destroying the traditions of Pern.  He refuses to have anything to do with AIVAS and thus one of his subordinates, Master Morilton takes over working with Landing, his work benefiting from a greater knowledge that Norist.  In addition, Toric’s brother, Hamian, who had been sent to receive his Mastery from Fandarel in the Smithcrafthall, decides to take up the production of plastic, leaving Toric to commit himself to Landing.

AIVAS takes on the education of Master Oldive, Sharra, Mirrim, and others to not only study medicine more deeply, but to take apart frozen Thread ovoids and find ways to change parasitical bacteria into predators.  As time passes, Sharra gradually becomes aware that AIVAS has selected Jaxom to lead the dangerous mission.  Gradually, the craftsmen and dragonriders take each step along the road to prepare them for AIVAS’s Master plan, which he will not actually discuss with them: there are trips between to the Yokahama to prepare the ship for human occupation (and to remove Sallah Telgar’s body from the bridge), repairs and maintenance on the old ship, and extra-vehicular activity to familiarize dragons and riders with space.  Hamian is trying to develop enough space suits for the dragonriders.  Eventually, Jaxom, F’lar and Lessa take a trip to the Red Star to familiarize themselves with the landmarks so they can have reference points for the other dragons.

In spite of the best efforts of D’ram, Lytol, Jaxom, and the others, the Abominators hire devious people to drug and kidnap Master Robinton with the notion that they can force the dragonriders to destroy AIVAS to get him back.  They take this action boldly at the Ruatha Gather with Lord Jaxom and Lady Sharra presiding.  Of course, the dragonriders, with the help of fire lizards, locate Robinton and round up all the villains, who are condemned to exile for all their days.

Using a massive number of bronze dragons, the engines of the three space ships that were used to bring the original colonists to Pern are shifted between to the Red Star, where HNO3 canisters administer leaks that will eat through the metal surrounding the antimatter engines and eventually cause an explosion that will move the Red Star enough out of orbit that it will no longer drop Thread on Pern.  In addition, a number of green riders seed the bacteria that will eventually kill all Thread where it exists in the Oort Cloud, thus eliminating the threat of Thread forever.  What the other dragonriders don’t know is that Jaxom and Ruth lead two of the three groups far back in time to create explosions that nudge the Red Star toward its eventual orbit change–thus the two periods of long Intervals.

The book ends with Master Robinton expiring in the AIVAS chamber as the computer himself, his job done, shuts down to leave the Pernese to solve their future problems themselves.  “To everything there is a season, and a time to every purpose under heaven” is his final message to everyone.

Dragonsdawn and All the Weyrs of Pern are the only genuinely science fiction novels in the Pern series.  Of course, the entire premise is based on a science fiction concept, but that is difficult to tell early in the series.  Indeed, just hearing the title “Dragonriders of Pern” makes most people automatically assume that the series is Fantasy.  Not so and these two books provide the groundwork.  And they are both very fun reads.

This book moves along quickly and it invests serious time in all of the major characters that readers have come to know and love: F’lar and Lessa, Jaxom and Sharra, Piemer and Jancis, Sebell and Menolly.  There is Robinton, D’ram, and Lytol, as well as the sympathetic Lord Holders, most notably Groghe, Larad, and Asgenar.  As the book takes place over four years–and the entire chronicle takes place over thirty Turns–we see the characters aging.  The Weyrleaders are over fifty years old now and we are seeing the decline and eventual surrender of Robinton, moved along by the actions of their enemies.

The villains are, as usual, shallow and one dimensional, while the major, positive characters are much more well-rounded.  And again, I can make the arguments that the villains are nearly unnecessary, given the difficulty of the overall problems to be overcome.  One thing that struck me in the last reading is the great depth of stupidity of McCaffrey’s bad people.  It is almost as if she’s making a point that there will always be shallow, stupid people.  On one level, that seems painfully obvious, but on another level, it seems to run counter to her ideal that most people are good and strive to improve themselves.  Humans are basically generous, fun-loving, inquisitive souls that strive to improve the world around them and also to enjoy the wonders of sexual fulfillment and of having and raising children.  These things are basic to Anne McCaffrey’s view of humanity, yet nearly every book contains a few people that are just stupid and shallow, with no inkling of what living is all about.  I guess the good thing here is that these characters are minor, as opposed Thella in The Renegades of Pern or Avril Bitra in Dragonsdawn.

Overall, this is one of the best books in the series.  If you are a fan of Pern and read the books in order, this is one of the most fun and quick to read.  If there is some sadness that the series is coming to an end, there is also much to delight in here: all of your favorites characters, plus the addition of AIVAS, the great, heroic deeds to be accomplished, the funeral of Sallah Telgar, which is something really special, and, of course, the moving of the Red Star.

It is truly a fun and well-written Dragonriders of Pern novel!

Dragonquest by Anne McCaffrey

 

dragonquestThe sequel to Dragonflight and the second book in the Dragonriders of Pern Trilogy, Dragonquest substantially expands the range of featured characters.  Where the first book concentrated almost exclusively on F’lar and Lessa, the second novel spreads its point of view far and wide.  Masterharper Robinton, Menolly, F’nor, queen rider Brekke, and the boy who is to inherit Ruatha Hold, Lord Jaxom, all take center stage at one point or another, while the Weyrleader and Weyrwoman continue to expand their leadership roles.

It begins nearly seven years after the initial events of Dragonflight with Master Robinton writing a ballad for the upcoming wedding of Lord Asgenar of Lemos Hold to Lady Famira, a half-sister to Lord Larad of Telgar Hold.  (Larad’s half-sisters are complete contrasts, as Lady Thella in The Renegades of Pern proves to be quite a formidable villain.)  He wants to include as many of the changes to Pern as possible, but he is bothered at the way the Oldtimers have failed to integrate into the new culture.  Coming from 400 turns back and skipping the entire last Interval, they expect privileges that Benden and Southern Weyrs do not and they object to the forestation of the planet that requires them to work harder.  This new world view that has blossomed during the last Interval–and championed by F’lar and Less–has disaffected them greatly.  They are more clearly out of time and Robinton laments that F’lar did not take over leadership at the time they came forward.  The old rule that each weyr be independent and separate is not really appropriate in this new time.  As he write, Robinton hears a drum message notifying Fort Weyr that Thread is falling out of pattern.

F’lar’s half brother F’nor, on a visit to the Smithcraft Hall, interrupts two Fort Hold dragonriders who are attempting to pilfer a knife from Fandarel’s assistant, Terry–a knife that was made on commission as Lord Larad’s wedding gift to Lord Asgenar.  One of the men, T’reb, upset because his green dragon is ready to mate, assaults F’nor, stabbing him with his belt knife.  F’nor is sent to the Southern Weyr to recover and F’lar confronts the Oldtimer weyrleaders with this crime, but T’ron cites the independence of the weyrs and frustrates F’lar.  When they discover that Thread has been falling out of pattern and that the Oldtimers failed to inform them, their frustration grows as the Lord Holders worry about possible damage to their property.

Recovering in the Southern Weyr, F’nor gets to know Brekke, who is the secondary weyrwoman there, rider of queen Wirenth, subordinate to Weyrwoman Kylara, whose queen dragon is Prideth.  However, Kylara is vain and wanton.  She has delegated almost all of her duties to Brekke, who also serves as the chief nurse at Southern and is fostering a teenage girl, Mirrim.  Gradually, F’nor falls in love with Brekke and worries about the prudishness of her Farmcraft upbringing, just as she worries that she will inhibit Wirenth when her queen rises to mate.  F’nor begins to wonder if Canth might possibly fly Wirenth.  Even though he is only a brown dragon, he is as big as many bronzes.  Sleeping on the beach one day, Canth informs him that a newly hatched queen fire lizard is hovering about seeking food.  He speaks softly to her and gives her a meat roll from his pouch, Impressing Grall.  He has Canth call back to Southern Weyr for other riders to come Impress the other hatching fire lizards who are turning cannibal with the lack of food on the beach.  Brekke impresses a bronze, Berd, and Mirrim Impresses two greens, Reppa and Lok, and a brown, Tolly.  Kylara was absent during the Impressions, as she was bedding the evil Lord Maron of Nabol, and she is furious that she doesn’t have one.  She decides to haunt the Southern beaches and find her own clutch.

When F’lar is visiting F’nor, Thread falls and he and Mnementh join the fighting.  Afterward, he discovers that there is no sign of Thread infestation and investigates.  He discovers that Southern has a kind of grub that eats Thread.

Four major events occur in Dragonquest that alter the future of the planet.

The first event occurs when Lord Warder Lytol and young Jaxom come to visit Benden Weyr.  Felessen, the son of F’lar and Lessa, takes Jaxom back into the long abandoned caves of the weyr to a secret place where boys go to view Ramoth’s eggs.  Finding a small one all by itself, Jaxom touches the egg.  Fearing discovery, they head back, but their glows wink out and they are lost in the darkness.  Jaxom accidentally pushes a button that opens a door.  The trapped gas knocks the two boys out, but the adults are all extremely excited by the stuff that the original colonists left behind in the room.  They find a microscope and begin to wonder if there might be a way to alter it so that one could see the Red Star close up.  Later, T’ron discovers a telescope at Fort Weyr.

The second major event happens at the wedding of Asgenar and Famira.  F’lar and Lessa arrive with fire lizard eggs to give to the happy couple as gifts.  They arrive just before Meron and Kylara who now both have their own fire lizards.  Fandarel has developed a “distance writer,” a kind of primitive telegraph and it reports the news that Thread is falling, so F’lar decides to join the other Oldtimers in fighting it.  When T’ron learns this, he grows angry at F’lar for interfering in another weyr’s affairs and they duel.  F’lar severely injures T’ron and gives a passionate speech asking for the weyrleaders, lords, and craftmasters to swear their allegiance to him and they do wholeheartedly.  He banishes the Oldtimers to Southern where they can do little damage and decides to move the current dragon folk from Southern to High Reaches Weyr.  Even though he is injured, he goes to fight Thread anyway.

In High Reaches Weyr, Wirenth rises to mate, but Kylara’s Prideth is at Nabol while she is bedding Meron.  In high heat, Prideth challenges Wirenth’s mating flight and the two dragons fight in mid-air.  Both severely injured, Wirenth takes Prideth into between and they both die.  Brekke goes into a deep depression and Kylara goes mad.

The third major event occurs at the hatching of Ramoth’s new clutch of eggs.  Lessa has put Brekke into the pool of girls hoping that she will Impress the new queen and recover from her severe shock and depression.  This is the point at which Dragonsong, the first novel in the Harper Hall Trilogy interconnects with the main trilogy.  There are two accounts of the hatching, one primarily from Jaxom’s point of view in Dragonquest and one from Menolly’s point of view in Dragonsong.  Although Brekke does not re-Impress, her little fire lizard, Berd, challenges Ramoth by entering the hatching grounds chittering at Brekke.  This breaks her out of her depression and she does not Impress the new queen.  However, once the hatching is over, Jaxom watches the little egg he had touched earlier rocking and shaking as if the dragon was trying to break out.  When no one responds, he jumps into the hatching ground and breaks the shell, cutting the sac with his belt knife.  A little white dragon falls out and Jaxom impresses Ruth.

The fourth major even of the novel happens because the lords are all anxious for the dragonriders to go to the Red Star and eradicate Thread at its source.  Not understanding the breadth of space or how big the Red Star actually is, they continue to press for this venture.  F’lar himself would like to go if he could only see it well enough in the telescope at Fort Weyr to be able to jump between.  Lord Meron is at the viewer night after night trying to give coordinates to his little bronze fire lizard, but the creature is so scared it just jumps between.  Watching, F’nor discovers a could formation on the Red Star that is easy to visualize.  He gives the coordinates to Canth and they jump.  The atmosphere of the Red Star is hot and poisonous.  Canth broadcasts their distress back to Pern and every fire lizard in the world picks it up.  Through Ramoth, the word is broadcast to all of the dragons who come to Benden Weyr to form a living bridge to ease the battered bodies of F’nor and Canth back to earth.  At the Harper Hall, in Dragonsinger, Menolly’s nine fire lizards all go berserk and wake everyone up.

The book ends with F’lar conducting a successful experiment with relocating grubs from the southern continent into the Lord Asgenar’s forests at Lemos.  When the lords express discomfort that dragons may be no longer needed, F’lar intimates that dragonriders may use their time exploring the southern continent or even the other planets in their system.

Obviously, from the above brief plot summary, a great deal happens in the novel.  The simplicity of F’lar and Lessa’s relationship in Dragonflight has been replaced by a much deeper and broader story line.  The introduction of Masterharper Robinton and Mastersmith Fandarel in the first book is expanded out to include many other craftsmen and the push toward innovation dominates the society.  There is an obvious need to have not just the weyrs, but the rest of the planet under one leadership and F’lar and Lessa, with their farsightedness and liberality are clearly the ones to do it.  Although F’lar respects the Oldtimers for their contribution to saving Pern, they are clearly out of step with a society that is moving forward.  The economy is now thriving, especially with the additional forestation, and Fandarel is moving technology ahead with both his own inventions and by using the discovery of material the original colonists had carefully packed away for future use.

Both the discovery and seeding of the Thread-eating grubs and F’nor’s trip to the Red Star move the plot along in the direction of ending the menace of Thread forever.

Most important of all, the book moves the story from borderline fantasy firmly into the realm of science fiction.  A planet was colonized by humans, dragons were genetically engineered from the fire lizards, and, following the collapse of the society into a medieval technological state, the humans are beginning to discover their roots and the level of technology that their ancestors brought to Pern.

The broadening of the characters to include Robinton, Fandarel, Menolly, Jaxom, F’nor, Brekke, Mirrim, as well as the Lord Holders Larad, Asgenar, Groghe, Corman, and the personalities of the dragons and fire lizards gives the book–the whole saga–a depth that sets it apart from most other science fiction franchises.  The third book of the trilogy, The White Dragon, dovetailing with the third book of the Harper Hall Trilogy, Dragondrums, expands the story to such a level that it begins to reach a nearly mythological level.

I find it utterly confounding that no high level film or animation has–to this point, at least–been shot and released.  I think that the story would have great appeal and not just to the Young Adult market.  In addition, there would be a whole market for products based on the Pern dragons, fire lizards, and the deeply appealing characters.

Hopefully, something good in the cinema will eventually come from this terrific saga!

Divergent

shailene_woodley_divergent-wideAdapted by Evan Daugherty and Vanessa Taylor from the novel of the same name by Veronica Roth, this 2014 movie is remarkably faithful to the original book, which is both good and bad.  See my review of the novel.

At an unspecified time in a dystopian future, the city of Chicago has been walled in to protect its citizens from the chaos outside.  Their society has been divided into five sects, supposedly to emulate traits that are desirable in this new society, Abnegation (selfless), Erudite (wise), Dauntless (brave), Candor (honest), and Amity (friendly).  Teenagers Beatrice Prior (Shailene Woodley) and her brother, Caleb (Ansel Elgort), must be tested before they make their declaration of which faction they will choose for life.  Their mother, Natalie (Ashley Judd), and father, Andrew (Tony Goldwyn), who serves on the ruling council, are both Abnegation and want them to choose their own faction.  Beatrice, however, shows a strong regard for Dauntless and looks ready to take risks.

During the test, which consists of the administration of a hallucinogenic drug that simulates a series of choices, Beatrice tests out positive for more than one faction (Abnegation, Dauntless, and Erudite).  The woman administering the test, Dauntless Tori (Maggie Q) tells her that she is Divergent, but that she must keep this a secret, claiming only that she tested out as Abnegation.  The next day, Caleb declares himself Erudite.  Caught in a dilemma as to which faction to choose, Beatrice takes Dauntless and is immediately thrown into a new life of daring exploits.  Jumping off the train at Dauntless headquarters, she volunteers to be the first to make a three story leap into a gaping hole in a roof and she does so effortlessly.  Although she is obviously quite brave, her physical training falls short and she is near the bottom of her class.  Putting in extra hours, her training leader, Four (Theo James), gives her extra instruction and she quickly rises in the ranks.  During a field exercise, she demonstrates that she can use her mind to help overcome obstacles, then, when she is again administered a hallucinogenic in order to face her worst fears, she finishes in record time.  Four grows close to her and protects her.

The Erudite are in the process of planning the overthrow of Abnegation and have developed a serum that will place all of the Dauntless soldiers under their mind control, but Four and Beatrice (who goes by the Dauntless name Tris) are immune to the serum and must find a way to defeat the evil Erudite leader Jeanine (Kate Winslet).

If all this sounds a bit far-fetched, it’s because it is quite unbelievable.  The book has the same problem in that the factions with their self-important purposes just doesn’t hold up to close scrutiny.  Although it’s true that Americans are definitely prone to conformity, I find the concept of their adherence, especially among the young, to a single faction to be pretty ludicrous.  The very idea that dividing your society in such a way will lead to peace and prosperity is laughable.

That being said, once a reader or a viewing audience buys into the concept and becomes willing to suspend their disbelief, the story becomes quite compelling, especially the first half where Tris is fighting to be accepted into the Dauntless faction.  We love to see an underdog growing and changing, developing, and showing the big bad bullies that she can hold her own.  We also delight in her ability to be divergent and to live more than one faction.  The direction by Neil Burger is really tight and the movie is smartly edited, but the movie owes most of its success to the two performances by Shailene Woodley and Theo James.  Each of them, in their own way, possess a kind of offbeat beauty that is terrifically attractive, but their acting talents are undoubtedly very strong and they carry the film through its absurd premise.

It’s beautiful to watch.  The cinematography, art direction, and music are all superb and the editing carries the viewer along at a fantastic clip.  Although it runs an astounding two hours and 19 minutes, no time is wasted.  It might have been a better movie if 30 minutes had been cut, but it is fine at its current length.

A very entertaining film, quite well done, if based on a patently absurd premise.

Edge of Tomorrow

Edge of TomorrowUsing the same plot device as Harold Ramis’s temporal breakthrough script Groundhog Day, Edge of Tomorrow gives a more plausible rationale for a person living the same day over and over again, but couches the story in a science fiction action adventure format.

Sometime in the future, a meteor crashes into earth, unleashing a vicious alien fighting force.  These creatures, which look like a cross between an octopus and the creature from Alien, immediately take over most of Europe and then are stopped by the human allies, the United Defense Force (UDF).  The public relations spokesperson for the UDF, Major William Cage (Tom Cruise) announces that the forces have been halted at Verdun by a female soldier using a new fighting machine, Sergeant Rita Vrataski (Emily Blunt).

When ordered to report to the commanding officer of the allied invasion force, British General Brigham (Brendan Gleeson), Cage finds himself ordered to report to the front lines to cover the invasion.  A coward at heart, Cage tries to finagle a way to get out of it and finally resorts to blackmailing the General.  Brigham will have no part of it and orders Cage arrested.  He wakes up the next morning at Heathrow Airport.  He has been busted down to the rank of Private, branded a deserter, and assigned to Master Sergeant Farell (Bill Paxton).  He is marched to his new unit, J Company, a bunch of stupid soldiers dumber than any unit ever depicted in film history (and that’s saying quite a bit, actually).  The next day, he is strapped into his fighting machine and the soldiers are flown to Normandy.

Before the drop, they come under attack and the plane is shot down.  Dropping onto the beach, Cage is truly lost in a masscre.  He is attacked by an alien who is a bit larger than the others and of a bluish color.  Later, this creature will be identified as an “Alpha.”  He is killed by the Alpha and wakes up back at Heathrow, living the same day over.  He tries to convince the others that they are heading to a massacre, but no one will listen.  He is killed and the day resets.  This action prompted the advertising slogan, “Live. Die. Repeat.”  As the days go by, he learns more from each day’s events and finally meets Rita on the field of battle.  She watches him going through a very precise series of motions designed to keep him alive and she tells him, “Find me when you wake up tomorrow.”

This begins a new series of days where he gradually figures out how to find her at Heathrow.  Explaining the situation to her, she takes him down to a basement where Dr. Carter (Noah Taylor), a scientist in the guise of a worker reveals that the aliens are all linked to an Omega that controls them all, but that the Alphas control the time loop.  Rita had previously ran into an Alpha at Verdun and she went through the same process of living a day over and over again until she was badly hurt and they replaced her blood—that is what broke the time loop.  They know that eventually the looper will begin to dream about where the omega is and that his how they will eventually find and kill it.

Rita begins to train him to prepare for battle and they live the same day over and over many times as he begins to perfect how to find the Omega.  He dreams of a dam in Germany where the Omega is hiding and so they hatch a plan to get there.  Every day, of course, he has to re-educate Rita, Carter, and his squadron as to what is going on.  At one point, he and Rita make it pretty far, holding out at a farm house, but he tells her that this is the point where she dies and if he is actually going to kill the Omega, he doesn’t want her dead.  The next time he relives the day, he goes alone and makes it all the way to the dam, but the Omega isn’t there.  Instead, he finds an ambush and is killed again.

Carter has a device that he thinks will allow them to tap into the aliens and find out the real hiding place of the Omega, but part of his equipment has been confiscated by General Brigham.  This begins another series of days where Cage must figure out how to get to the general and convince the man to give him the equipment.  When he does so, he taps into the alien part of his blood and discovers that the Omega is actually hiding underneath the Louvre, but he is injured during the escape and wakes up in the hospital getting fresh blood.

His day will no longer reset and he will only have one chance to take out the Omega.

There are a lot of really good things in this movie. 

Based on the 2004 Japanese novel All You Need Is Kill by Hiroshi Sakurazaka, the screenplay went through a large number of writers to achieve its final form.  As directed by Doug Liman, this film really moves fast.  The trick in these time loop movies is getting the audience to quickly figure out that the same day is being lived over and over again so that each day can move ahead in plot and not get bogged down in too much repetition.  The film copies the techniques used in Groundhog Day to extremely good effect and it moves like a bat out of hell.  It uses a lot of humor to provide relief from the many violent scenes of warfare and it does so very effectively.  The fighting machines used by the soldiers remind me a lot of machines conceived of by Robert A Heinlein in his novel Starship Troopers, a terrific concept that wasn’t actually used in the movie based on Heinlein’s work.  The aliens are extremely well designed and executed.

This movie is a lot of fun to watch!

In addition to all the technical wizardry, the acting is surprisingly good.  Emily Blunt is always great and she really comes through brilliantly in this movie.  Tom Cruise begins as his usually dislikable self, but as the film goes on he gains considerable traction and ends up with a really fine performance.  I liked him for once!

But the best acting job by far is accomplished by Bill Paxton.  I didn’t even know he was in the movie until the credits rolled at the end and then I was stunned because I didn’t recognize him at all.  It is one of those breakthrough acting jobs like Cameron Diaz in Being John Malkovich or Christian Slater in The Figher.

Overall, I think most audiences will enjoy this movie regardless of some of the extremely violent scenes.  The comedy carries well and the film moves so quickly along that it all adds up to more than the sum of its parts.  Quick, fun entertainment.

An Introduction to the World of Pern

Anne McCaffrey’s Dragonriders of Pern Saga

Pern 01

At first glance, one might assume that the Dragonriders of Pern story is fantasy, not science fiction, but Anne McCaffrey has moved the fantastic concept of fire-breathing dragons onto a firm scientific basis.  Granted, it is far from hard science fiction, but even such devices as faster than light travel and telepathy have some science fiction traction.  There is no magic in the series, nor mythical creatures come to life.  It must be considered science fiction. 

The planet Pern exists somewhere in the Sagittarius arm of our spiral galaxy.  It was originally colonized by members of the Federation who were looking to establish a society based on agrarian ideals.  Pern, devoid of the rich metals that were much sought after by the Federation was deemed a perfect spot for such a colony.  The survey team noted that the system of the star named Rukbat had one wandering planet (the “Red Star”) that didn’t follow a normal orbit, but it was not deemed a threat.  However, the early colonists discovered that when it passed too close to Pern, some kind of ovoid life form was cast off from the planet and traveled the distance between the two bodies, turning from hard spheres into vibrant, life eating “threads” when they entered Pern’s atmosphere.

To fight thread, the colonists genetically altered a unique indigenous life form, the “fire lizard” (a small, winged, telepathic creature who chews firestone to breath flames) into a much larger creature: a dragon.  When these creatures hatch from eggs, they bond telepathically with a human who is destined to be their rider.  These dragons and their riders fly high and fast to char thread from the sky and keep it from devouring all of the biological life on Pern.  The fire they belch comes from eating firestone, which ignites when the gasses come into contact with the air.  Dragons can also teleport, traveling into a realm called between, a cold, dark, airless, and sensationless place between one location and another.

McCaffrey has written a number of prequels, including Dragonsdawn, which tells the story of Admiral Paul Benden, Governor Emily Boll, and the other valiant colonists who had to fight thread, Moreta: Dragonlady of Pern, and The Masterharper of Pern, but the Saga officially begins with the first novel of the Dragonriders of Pern trilogy, Dragonflight.

The dragonriders and their beasts are normally housed in gigantic structures of caves, called “weyrs.”  There are six weyrs (Fort, High Reaches, Ista, Igen, Telgar, and Benden) placed at various distances around the northern continent of Pern, but for some unknown reason five are vacant when Dragonflight begins and only one weyr, Benden Weyr, remains to protect the planet.  Later on, a Southern Weyr is established on the Southern continent.

There are five colors of dragons.  From the largest to the smallest, they are:

Gold (queens, female, always bonded with a human female, a weyrwoman)

Bronze (male, always bonded to male riders, they are the only dragons who can mate with the queens)

Brown (male, always bonded to male riders, they mate with greens)

Green (female, always bonded to a male rider, they mate with all male dragons)

Blue (male, always bonded to male riders, they mate with greens).

When a queen dragon mates with a bronze, she first bloods her kill then flies high as the bronze dragons chase her.  The bronze riders assemble around the queen’s rider and when a bronze dragon finally “flies the queen,” mating with her, the bronze rider also mates with the queen’s rider.  The leaders of a weyr are determined by senior queen, whose rider is the Weyrwoman, and the bronze who flies her, whose rider becomes the Weyr Leader.

Although these heterosexual relationships are the norm, the level of homosexuality or bisexuality among riders is extremely high, due to the fact that female green dragons are bonded with male riders and when they mate with a male dragon, the riders also mate.  This loose sexuality makes the weyr a  social unit distinct from the rest of Pern.

Over 2,500 years have passed since the original colonization and humans have lost their memories and records of the past.  They have descended into a feudal state, residing exclusively on the northern continent, where individual political units are called Holds, each governed by a Lord Holder, and most of the skilled occupations are called the Crafts, each governed by a Master.


Major Holds, governed by a Lord Holder.

Far West:

            Tillek, High Reaches

Mountainous Area West:

            Crom, Nabol, Ruatha, Fort, Southern Boll

Moutainous Area East:

            Telgar, Lemos, Igen

 

the_northern_continent_of_pern__labeled__by_oracle_the-d5jkkk9

Map of Pern

Island:

            Ista

Far East:

            Bitra, Benden, Keroon, Nerat

The Major Crafts, governed by a Craft Master

Harper, Smith, Miner, Weaver, Tanner, Herds, Farmer, Forest, Healer

Other crafts are created as needed, including study of the Stars, Printing, and Wood crafts.

Normally, the planet goes through a 250 year cycle with the Red Star; the threads appear every two hundred years, then the pass lasts fifty years, but at the beginning of Dragonflight, the erratic orbit of the Red Star has missed one pass so four hundred years have passed since the last thread incursion.  This has led the people to believe that there will be no more threads.  Many of them have stopped giving their tithes to the weyrs and dragonriders have fallen into disrepute.

The normal rule is one hold to one holder, but a greedy warrior, Lord Fax of the High Reaches, has taken over a number of holds when the saga begins, including the historically rich Ruatha Hold.  In a surprise attack, he killed every member of the Ruathan bloodline, except for one, a girl named Lessa.  When F’lar, a virile young dragonrider from Benden comes in search of a rider for the new queen about to be hatched, he must confront Fax in order to get to Lessa.

CHRONILOGICAL ORDER OF STORIES

The following chronological order of the story only lists the books in the main series as written by Anne McCaffrey.  A second series of books, written by Anne McCaffrey and Todd McCaffrey cover the period of time after the first Thread incursion.

MAIN STORIES

“Survey: PERN” a short story included in The Chronicles of Pern: First Fall.  This story details the original Federation survey of the planet.


dragonsdawnDragonsdawn, the story of the original colonization of Pern.


“The Dolphin’s Bell,” a short story about the evacuation of the Southern Continent, included in The Chronicles of Pern: First Fall.


“The Ford of Red Hanrahan,” a short story about the creation of Ruatha Hold, included in The Chronicles of Pern: First Fall.


“The Second Weyr,” a short story about the founding of Benden Weyr, included in The Chronicles of Pern: First Fall.


“Rescue Run,” a short story about a Federation ship that responded to the call for help issued by rebellious colonists, included in The Chronicles of Pern: First Fall.


“Ever the Twain,” a short story from A Gift of Dragons.


Moreta, Dragonlady of Pern, the story of “Moreta’s Ride,” the ballad that is frequently cited by harpers and plays a major role in Dragonsinger.


Nerilka’s Story, a novella that occurs sometime during the Moreta tale.


The Masterharper of Pern, the story of Petiron and his son Robinton, both Masterharpers of Pern.


“Runner of Pern,” a short story from A Gift of Dragons.


THE DRAGONRIDERS OF PERN TRILOGY

DragonflightDragonflight, the story of how Lessa and F’lar came together to unite Pern and bring the five lost weyrs forward in time to fight Thread after the four hundred year interval before the 9th Pass of the Red Star.


Pern 01Dragonquest, the story of how F’lar and Lessa united the weyrs, how F’nor went between to investigate the Red Star, and how they opened the Southern Continent.


White DragonThe White Dragon, the story of how Jaxom became both a dragonrider and the Lord of Ruatha Hold and how he courted and won Sharra.  It also tells the story of how the Oldtimers were ultimately defeated and the Southern Continent retaken.  Jaxom discovers the site of the original colonial landing.


THE HARPER HALL OF PERN TRILOGY


The first two novels of this trilogy occur during Dragonquest, the second novel of the first trilogy.  The third novel begins before and then overlaps The White Dragon.

McCaffrey DragonsongDragonsong, the story of how Menolly escaped her abusive father and mother at Half Circle Sea Hold, how she impressed her nine fire lizards, and ended up at the Harper Hall.


DragonsingerDragonsinger, the story of how Menolly became a Journeywoman of the Harper Hall.


dragon-drums-det_0Dragondrums, the story of how Piemer got himself a gold fire lizard and permanent became a part of the Southern Continent.


OTHER STORIES IN THE TIMELINE


 

“The Smallest Dragonboy,” a short story included in A Gift of Dragons.


 

“The Girl Who Heard Dragons,” a short story included in A Gift of Dragons.


 

Another novel overlaps the entire time period of the two trilogies:

Renegades of PernRenegades of Pern, the story of Holdless Thella and her attempts to kill the girl who heard dragons.  This novel also dovetails with the end of The White Dragon and contains important information about the relationship of Piemer and Jancis. 


All the Weyrs of PernAll the Weyrs of Pern tells the story of the intelligent computer, AIVAS, who helps the people of Pern finally defeat the Red Star.


The Dolphins of Pern.


Skies of Pern Les EdwardsThe Skies of Pern, the story of F’lessan, son of F’lar and Lessa and his love for Tai, the Green Rider, this book also explains what the dragonriders will do now that there will no longer be Thread for them to fight.

G

Graduate 01The Graduate

One of the best films ever made, this 1967 classic, directed by Mike Nichols, features great performances by Dustin Hoffman, Anne Bancroft and Katherine Ross in a story about a young man considering his future and the mother and daughter who most heavily influence his choices.  A brilliant comedy featuring great songs by Simon and Garfunkel, this is a true classic!


Gravity Sandra BullockGravity

Alfonso Cuarón’s 2013 science fiction film Gravity is extremely well-made, a tight thriller that will keep you on the edge of your seat for an hour and twenty-four minutes holding on for dear life.  It is almost a perfect movie.