Book Review: Doomsday Book by Connie Willis


Author: Connie Willis
Title: Doomsday Book
Narrator: Jenny Sterlin
Publication Info: Recorded Books, Inc., 2000 (Originally published in 1993)
Previously Read by the Same Author:

Summary/Review:

I first read Doomsday Book 16 years ago and it immediately became one of my favorite books and lead me to several other Willis’ novels. This novel begins in Oxford in 2054 where history students use time travel technology to observe the past.  Willis has written several loosely-connected novels and short stories using this same premise.

In this novel, undergraduate Kivrin Engle desires to study the Middle Ages, even though the time travel net has never been used to travel that far back in the past.  The leader of the Medieval Studies department is eager to make a splash by permitting Kivrin to go the the 14th century, and even bypasses some of the standard safety protocols. Kivrin’s advisor and mentor, Mr. Dunworthy, is frustrated by Medieval’s carelessness and deeply worried about what dangers Kivrin may face in the time of cuthroats and Black Death.

The stage is set for Something to Go Wrong, with the twist being that an outbreak of deadly influenza strikes Oxford, with the city placed under quarantine.  The engineer who ran the time travel net for Kivrin’s drop into the past is one of the first to fall ill, thus making it impossible to retrieve Kivrin.  Mr. Dunworthy ends up helping his friend Dr. Mary Ahrens care for the sick, and also watching Mary’s visiting nephew Colin, with whom he forms a paternal relationship.

Meanwhile, in the 14th century, Kivrin has also been stricken with influenza. In a state of delirium, she is brought to the home of a village near Oxford to the home of a minor noble family, and nursed back to health. Some of the best scenes illustrating “the past is a different country” involve Kivrin initially having trouble communicating with her hosts, despite her studies and a translator implanted in her head.  Kivrin also has a recorder imbedded in her hand, cleverly allowing her to look like she’s praying when recording her thoughts, and many passages of the novel are in the form of her journal entries.

Once Kivrin recovers from her illness, she forms a bond with the children of the household, the playful 5-year-old Agnes, and the more serious Rosemund, who at the age of 12 is already promised in marriage to a much older man.  Kivrin essentially becames a caretaker for the children, aiding the overtaxed Lady Eliwys, while being an object of scorn and suscpicion for Eliwys’ mother-in-law Lady Imeyne. It is rare to have a female protagonist in time travel stories, often for the practical reason that for most of history the life of women was severely restricted and dangerous.  But through Kivrin’s point of view, the reader gets an (admitedly fictional) look into the overlooked women’s domestic sphere of the Middle Ages.

Another key character in the medieval storyline is Father Roche.  The poor and uneducated priest is mocked by Lady Imeyne, but nevertheless is devout to God and the community.  Kivrin forms a strong relationship with Father Roche as well, and despite her own lack of faith, recognizes Roche as a good person. Father Roche by turn, sees Kivrin as an angel, and while literally not true, it’s easy to see why her sudden appearance and seemingly magical skills would be interpreted as such from his worldview.

There are a couple of other twists in the plot, that I won’t spoil here, although I will not that the source of the 21st century influenza outbreak is a genius plot device.  By and large, things don’t turn out well for most of the characters in both storylines.  And since Willis is excellent at developing the characters and their relationships, Doomsday Book is a heartbreaking novel.  Nevertheless, it is also uplifting, because it emphasizes love in the relationships (Kivrin and Father Roche, Mr. Dunworthy and Colin, and others) among people who are neither related nor romantically involved, which is surprisingly uncommon in fiction.

Doomsday Book is not a flawless novel and others have pointed out its anachronisms and the many coincidences in the plot that are just too neat and tidy.  I think what’s good about the book outweighs these problems for the most part. One distracting problem with this book is that Willis envisioned a future with the technology for time travel and implanting translators and recorders in the body, but she did not anticipate mobile telephones (even though they already existed at the time this novel was published).  Instead, people in the future Oxford story use video phones, a device that is found in a lot of futuristic fiction of the 20th century (see 2001: A Space Odyssey, Blade Runner, and Until the End of the World for prominent examples).  This would just be a small quirk, but so much of the novel relies on characters needing to find a phone and not being able to reach others by phone that it becomes laughable at times.

Overall, this is a terrific book in the time travel genre and one with a lot of humanity and heart. And a future without mobile phones really doesn’t sound all that bad.

Recommended books:

Rating: ****1/2

Movie Review: Solo: A Star Wars Story (2018)


Title: Solo: A Star Wars Story
Release Date: May 25, 2018
Director: Ron Howard
Production Company:Walt Disney Studios
Motion Pictures
Summary/Review:

Han Solo is one of the most beloved characters in movie history and in 4 movies (and a holiday special), he was portrayed by Harrison Ford, arguably the most popular actor of the past five decades.  A Han Solo movie without Harrison Ford is missing an essential element.  Not that Alden Ehrenreich can be blamed as he does an excellent job performing as a young Han, it’s just not possible for him to be the same character.

As one might expect from an origin story, a lot of familiar aspects of the Han Solo character are introduced here.  We see Han get his last name, meet Chewbacca(Joonas Suotamo) for the first time, get his blaster, meet Lando Calrissian (Donald Glover), and acquire the Millenium Falcon.  The notorious Kessel Run is even part of the plot.  Many of the movies set pieces are generic  or derivative action-adventure tropes.  Early on, landspeeders are used in a classic car chase, then there’s a railroad heist, and finally scenes of the Falcon dodging asteroids and a space creature reminiscent of Empire Strikes Back.

Where Solo works best is around the edges, where we see the people and events that shape Han Solo into becoming both cynical and self-interested and having a big heart with a weakness for the underdog.  The former is demonstrated by Han’s mentor/antagonist Tobias Beckett (Woody Harrelson) who repeatedly instructs Han to not trust anyone.  Another important figure is Qi’ra (Emilia Clarke), Han’s childhood sweetheart.  At the start of the film, we see them both trying to escape their home planet of Corellia, but Qi’ra is captured at a checkpoint.  Han serves in the Imperial Navy for three years with plans to go back to rescue her, but when they meet again, she has found her own way out, and it’s strongly implied that she’s done some unsavory things in the process.

Han’s heart is shown again and again.  He’s placed in a pit to fight Chewbacca to the death, but realizes that they are both prisoners and finds a way for both of them to escape.  A big twist in the film involves another antagonist Enfys Nest (Erin Kellyman), and Han’s response to new knowledge is very telling.  Even Han’s final confrontation with Tobias is one that’s filled with tears, rather than celebration.

Solo has a lot in common with the other Star Wars Story, Rogue One, in that it shows the People’s perspective of the galaxy rather than one of royals, knights, and generals.  Imperial officers are typically unquestionably evil, but the one who recruits Han has a tender moment where he calls Han “son.”  Of course he also promises Han that he’ll be flying starships, so it’s very telling when the movie jumps ahead three years to show Han in a battle, on foot.  Deconstructing the myth of Imperial efficiency, the battle is depicted as a mess with no clear objectives and the officers having nothing more to offer than catchphrases.  Also like Rogue One, one of the best characters is a droid.  In this case Lando’s companion Elthree (Phoebe Waller-Bridge) who speaks the truth that has been evident through all the Star Wars movies: droids are treated as slaves and need to be liberated.

The movie never seems to decide whether it wants to be a romp or to delve into the more serious undertones of poverty in the Empire and what that drives people to do.  As a result the movie is a bit uneven and not as good as it could be.  Nevertheless, the acting is strong, the humor is sharp, and Solo is generally an entertaining movie.  It’s a worthy addition to the Star Wars saga (and certainly better than any of the prequels).

Rating: ***

Book Review: Christmas on a Rational Planet by Lawrence Miles


Author: Lawrence Miles
Title: Christmas on a Rational Planet
Publication Info: London : Doctor Who Books, 1996.
Summary/Review:

This is the first Doctor Who novel by Lawrence Miles, who would later go on to be one of the leading writers of the Eighth Doctor Adventures, introduce the Faction Paradox, and co-wrote the history of Doctor Who series About Time.  But in this first novel, Roz is trapped in a town in New York in 1799, Chris is trapped in the TARDIS with someone trying to kill him, and secret socities are worshipping Satan and the like.  The book is interesting at parts, but also just weird in ways that makes it hard to follow.

Rating: **1/2

Book Review: Alcatraz Versus the Dark Talent by Brandon Sanderson


Author: Brandon Sanderson
TitleAlcatraz Versus the Dark Talent
Narrator: Ramon de Ocampo
Publication Info: Recorded Books (2016)

Previously Read By the Same Author:  Alcatraz Versus the Evil LibrariansAlcatraz Versus the Scrivener’s Bones, Alcatraz Versus the Knights of Crystallia and Alcatraz Versus the Shattered Lens
Summary/Review:

The fifth and possibly final Alcatraz book picks up where the previous one ended with Alcatraz having destroyed all of his family’s talents.  Now he must ally with his mother – an evil librarian – to stop his father, a Free Kingdomer whose desire to give every one on Earth a Smedry Talent which could have disastrous consequences.  Smedry and his team go to the Evil Librarian’s Highbrary – a.k.a The Library of Congress in an alternate universe version of Washington, DC.  Unfortunately, Smedry’s friend and defender, Bastille remains in stasis for the better part of the book.  Smedry and Bastille’s love/hate chemistry when they are together is one of the best part of the series and this book suffers from its absence (although when Bastille finally makes her entrance, it’s spectacular).  The book has the usual clever wordplay – including a chapter of delicious puns – but it feels like Sanderson’s heart is not really in it anymore, and it is the weakest book in the series.  Or it could be Alcatraz, who obstinately states this is the last part of his biography after an uncharacteristically dark ending to the book.  But Alcatraz is an unreliable narrator who has lied to us before, and there are clues that this is all just a big cliffhanger leading to yet another book.

Rating: ***

Book Review: Just War by Lance Parkin


Author: Lance Parkin
TitleJust War
Publication Info: London : Doctor Who Books, c1996.
Summary/Review:

The Seventh Doctor makes frequent visits to World War II: The Curse of Fenric on tv, Colditz on audio, Timewyrm: Exodus and this book in the Virgin New Adventures. We begin this book with one of this Doctor’s great manipulative plans.  Roz and Chris are working with British intelligence in London, Benny is undercover with the Resistance in Guernsey, and the Doctor is seeking a particularly genius Nazi scientist.  Things go horribly wrong, of course, and as happens all to often in the New Adventures, it leads to a companion getting tortured. The book features a strong narrative though, one of the most easily readable New Adventures, with great character moments for Benny, Roz, and Chris.  It’s also close to being a pure historical, with The Butterfly Effect and the Doctor’s hubris being the main antagonists outside of the Nazis.

Rating: ***1/2

Book Review: Early Riser by Jasper Fforde


AuthorJasper Fforde
Title: Early Riser
Publication Info: [New York] : Viking, [2018]
Other Books Read by Same AuthorThe Eyre Affair, Lost in a Good Book, The Well of Lost PlotsShades of GrayThe Last DragonslayerThe Song of the QuarkbeastOne of Our Thursdays is Missing, and The Eye of Zoltar.
Summary/Review:

I’ve been a fan of Jasper Fforde ever since my now defunct book club selected The Eyre Affair way back in 2002.  He generally pumps out his humorous, clever, metafictional, and totally original novels about once a year, but this time Fforde Ffans had to wait FIVE WHOLE YEARS for his new book.

Early Riser is unrelated to any of Fforde’s previous series of novels, although it shares some elements of the classic Fforde style. Every Fforde novel, while comical, is set in a dystopia and Fforde’s dystopia of choice is the Bureaucratic Hell.  In this novel, the alternate universe Earth is beset by long, brutal winters, so humanity survives through hibernation.  The Winter Consuls, a police force of sorts, stay awake to protect the rest.  Charlie Worthing, a Novice Winter Consul, narrates his first winter in this dangerous job.

One challenge is that Morphenox, the drug that helps people hibernate, has the side effect of putting people in a state of narcosis.  Sometimes they can still perform menial tasks, but if they get hungry, they may also try to eat people.  (And if long winters and zombie-like creatures make you think of A Song of Ice and Fire, there are some tangential similarities).  Charlie also has to contend with a woman who, dolphin-like, sleeps with only half of her brain at time, and has completely different and conflicting personalities.  Then there are dreams that are going viral among the sleepers and even becoming dangerous. And there’s a mythical creature called The Gronk, who loves Rogers & Hammerstein musicals and folding laundry, but will also eat peoples’ fingers (I doubt Fforde is aware of the New England Patriots football player, but its funny all the same).

Fforde novels tend to be high-concept, and Early Riser was the most difficult one for me to comprehend in the early going what exactly are the parameters of this world and getting past the jargon that’s sprinkled liberally in the text.  I eventually cottoned on.  The book is funny, but it feels more grimdark than other Fforde novels.  There’s an obvious parody of climate change in the novel, but there’s also the darkness of people’s’ souls in their willingness to exploit others for a little gain.  Early Riser is a challenging read, but ultimately a worthwhile one, and a worthy addition to the Fforde oeuvre.

Recommended books: Passage by Connie Willis.
Rating: ****

Book Review: The Also People by Ben Aaronovitch


Author: Ben Aaronovitch
TitleThe Also People
Publication Info: London : Doctor Who Books, 1995.
Summary/Review:

The Doctor takes Benny, Roz, and Chris on vacation to the Worldsphere, a world populated by the technologically advanced, utopians society of The People.  In addition to the advanced People – who can change their shape and gender – the Worldsphere is populated with sentient artificial lifeforms, including God (who got its name as a joke from watching over the Worldsphere), ships, drones, and even tables, bathtubs, and parachutes.

Because The People are so technologically advanced they have a nonaggression treaty with the Time Lords that prevents them from developing time travel.  The Doctor and God are friendly but also don’t trust one another and dance around a lot of tensions.  And despite saying the visit to the Worldsphere is a holiday, the Doctor also has ulterior motives involving an old frenemy, and a difficult decision for Benny.  When a drone is murdered, the Doctor also volunteers to investigate the crime, and Roz is key in using her skills in the procedural story.

The Also People is inspired by a science-fiction series called the Culture by Iain M. Banks.  I’m not at all familiar with Banks’ work, but it does appear to be another example of Doctor Who crashing into another genre and making another story.

Rating: ****

Movie Review: Atlantis: The Lost Empire (2001)


TitleAtlantis: The Lost Empire
Release Date: June 15, 2001
Director: Gary Trousdale and Kirk Wise
Production Company: Walt Disney Pictures
Summary/Review:

One of the most under-the-radar animated film releases in recent Walt Disney Pictures memory, Atlantis: The Lost Empire pretty much stands alone as a Jules Verne + steampunk + Indiana Jones action-adventure story with science fiction and fantasy elements.  Milo Thatch (perfectly voiced by Michael J. Fox), a scholarly cartographer and linguist, is recruited to join basically a military expedition to find the lost continent of Atlantis in 1914. Their inevitable discovery of a surviving civilization puts the noble and idealistic Milo at odds with the exploitative mission of the rest of the task force. He also befriends Kida, the princess of Atlantis (portrayed by Cree Summer), who is a criminally underdeveloped character who is drawn in ways that seem designed to appeal to the male gaze.

It’s stunning that this movie was released just a year after The Emperor’s New Groove which was saturated in the ironically-detatched pop culture of its era.  Atlantis, by contrast, is disarmingly straightforward and sincere in its storytelling in a refreshingly old-fashioned way.  Unfortunately, old fashioned means that Atlantis is derivative and predictable in all of its plot beats.  I can’t put finger on it exactly, but this movie comes so close to being great, and again and again fails to do so.  Everything looks good and all the pieces are there, but it just lacks the Disney magic that brings it all together.  I wish this movie had succeeded because there’s an opening for a solid animated adventure classic in the Disney canon.

Rating: **

Movie Review: Blade Runner (1982)


TitleBlade Runner
Release Date: June 25, 1982
Director: Ridley Scott
Production Company: The Ladd Company
Summary/Review:

It’s 2019, so it’s time for me to finally watch the 1982 movie that’s set in 2019, Blade Runner.  I should note that on the advice of a fan, I didn’t watch the 1982 release, but the Final Cut released in 2007 (and the last of seven different versions of the movie released).  This means that I  got to watch the movie without poorly written voice-overs and a happy ending that many viewers feel marred the theatrical release.

The story focuses on Rick Deckard (Harrison Ford), a police investigator tasked with finding renegade replicants (synthetic humans designed to work on Earth’s off-world colonies) and “retire” them (kill them).  In this instance, Deckard has to track down four replicants who have come to Earth seeking the secret of elongating their lives beyond the four years programmed into their DNA, and in the process Deckard meets an even more advanced replicant named Rachael (Sean Young) who is initially not aware she’s not human.  Deckard and Rachael form an awkward relationship, while Deckard hunts down the other four and eventually faces off against the renegade replicants leader Roy (Rutger Hauer).

With it being 2019, the predictions of the future are largely inaccurate, but interesting nonetheless (I’m particularly amused that Blade Runner, like 2001: A Space Odyssey and Until the End of the World, features video payphones but didn’t foresee portable devices).  The vision of 2019 in this film is of a dark, claustrophobic, yet lonely world. Blade Runner imagines the deteriorating inner cities of the 1970s and 1980s simply left to rot while monolithic buildings for corporations and the wealthy are just built above them.  The set dressing features an incredible amount of trash and dirt which the camera lingers on to make the point. Ironically, American cities like Los Angeles are tidier and shinier than when the film was made for the most part.  Omnipresent advertising lights up the sides of buildings and from looming airships floating low above the city, in one of the more accurate predictions of the real 2019.  This movie must’ve hired armies of extras – or expertly filmed the same packs of extras from clever angles – to fill the set’s streets with the people Deckard must elbow through.  And the people come from all over the world – Chinese predominately, even in the advertising – but I heard a whole lot of languages spoken.  The great achievement of Blade Runner is so thoroughly creating a world that feels real and lived in.

I found the movie very uncomfortable to watch, which is not a bad thing since it is definitely designed to discomfort with its dystopian view of the future and examination of humanity.  It’s good that I did NOT watch this back in the 1980s, because it would’ve totally freaked out my younger self.  Despite having accrued a lot of cultural knowledge of the story over time, there were a lot of WTF! moments that caught me off guard.  I’m particularly haunted by J.F. Sebastian’s “toys” which just plain creeped me out.  Of course, I probably didn’t need to wait until I was 45 to get around to watching this movie for the first time.

Blade Runner is a movie that impresses, although I can’t say that I love it.  There’s definitely some good acting from the three leads and of course the sets and visuals are remarkable. But the story leaves me a bit cold, although I’m not sure if it’s missing something, or if I just can’t cogitate the dystopian themes yet.  Nevertheless, I think I will have to revisit it at some point and perhaps check out some of the alternate versions.

Rating: ***1/2

Book Review: Original Sin by Andy Lane


Author: Andy Lane
TitleOriginal Sin
Publication Info: London : Doctor Who Books, 1995.
Summary/Review:

There’s a lot going on in this sprawling Doctor Who New Adventures novel.

    • First, it introduces a pair of new companions, Roz & Cwej, a pair of Adjucators (basically, cops) from Earth in the far future.  Roz is the grizzled veteran whose partner/mentor died and Cwej is the cheerful, ambitious rookie. In addition to these buddy cop story tropes, they find themselves uncovering a conspiracy!
    • The setting is the Earth in the far future when cities like London have been build up as spaceports with the wealthy living in gleaming towers, while the rest live in the dark, decaying Undertown (a concept that was later used in the tv story Gridlock).
    • The Earth is part of a dystopian society ruled by a Divine Empress who controls the galaxy (or at least the solar system, not sure).
    • Also featuring in this story are the Hith, a species of large, slug-like creatures who.  Berenice’s befriends a Hith whose death actually prompts her and the Doctor to visit future and get involved in this story.
    • There’s an imprisoned serial killer who the Doctor calls upon for advice, very much modeled on Hannibal Lecter.
    • Finally, the big reveal is that the Big Bad behind this all is Tobias Vaughn from the 1960s tv story The Invasion, who has managed to live thousands of years as a cyborg.

It’s a very busy story with a lot of weirdness, such as Cwej spending part of the narrative resembling a teddy bear, for fashion.  It also has the New Adventures’ trait of introducing lots of characters in new places and expecting the reader to remember them. That is, when the author actually mentions the names and is not doing that trick of keeping their identity secret.  It’s rather annoying and makes this book more of a struggle to read than necessary, but otherwise it’s entertaining.

Rating: ***

Virgin New Adventures