William Shakespeare: A Popular Life

This … book … was originally released in 2001, and all but states it is meant to ride the doublet-tails of “the success of the Oscar-winning film Shakespeare in Love“. I was puzzled by this for a moment – I don’t usually expect a book received through Netgalley to be fifteen years old. But hey – a Shakespeare biography! How can that be bad?

This. This is how that can be bad.

From the introduction: My aim has been to give Shakespeare a life, not only as a historical figure who can be brought to life, but the dimension of one who is still living. To do this I have dropped the usual tentative approach of scholars (the “might’s”, the “could have’s” and “may have’s”).

That’s a nice idea, to a reader who loves Shakespeare. To a reader who loves Shakespeare and who has read biographies, looking for something new or fresh, it’s horrendous. Because the problem with Shakespeare from that point of view is that perhaps every single aspect of his life, birth to death and everything in between, involves “‘might’s’, the ‘could have’s’ and ‘may have’s'”. That’s why there’s an authorship question in some people’s minds: we just don’t know much about the man at all.

The above quote worried me, a little. What worried me more was the author’s statement that he would be using the plays and sonnets to extrapolate fact. I didn’t make it far into the book, but even in the few pages I read there were at least a couple of statements – not presented as supposition, but absolute fact – which gave me actual pain:

– “Denied, or perhaps ultimately uninterested in, confession to a priest, he came over the years to turn his plays into secret and disguised confessionals, in which he could play both confessor and penitent.”

– “Anne [Hathaway] was nurtured and protected by both Shakespeare and his mother as few women were in Elizabethan times.” Which as far as I know is completely unsupported by anything known about the Shakespeare menage.

I am baffled about why this foundationless bubble of guesses and fantasy is presented as a biography. If it had a plot, this would be a novel; plotless, it’s a tissue of lies.

The usual disclaimer: I received this book via Netgalley for review.

Hell Bay – Will Thomas

It’s funny – I didn’t realize till I took a look at the other books in this series that I had requested a sample of the first book, “Some Danger Involved” some time ago. I never bought it. I’m glad now.

This started out rather well. I always begin a book with the expectation of giving it at least four stars, and mentally adjust accordingly, and the prologue was darkly entertaining. Those expectations seemed pretty safe.

Before long, though, issues with the writing began to crop up.

The idea is that the great and inscrutable Barker is called in as security for a French ambassador at a secret meeting on an island in the Scillies; this is being camouflaged by a house party. Barker doesn’t like house parties or bodyguard work. I know this, better than perhaps anything else, because I was told so many, many times – between his own grumbling and the main character/narrator’s slightly gleeful commentary, it felt like it was reiterated at least a dozen times. Barker tries to wiggle out of it by suggesting a security force –

“I might make a recommendation to you, it would be to hire a full detail of guards, even if they are not needed. There is too much that could go wrong.”
“The French ambassador insists upon privacy. He wishes to come and see how his favorite goddaughter is doing, and has no desire to see the island full of British men in uniforms.”
“How astute is he? Would he notice a few extra footmen or undergardeners?”
“Too astute to trick so easily.”

So, basically, the ambassador is a moron. This is borne out by the events of the book, in which the island equivalent of a country house party disintegrates into, basically, Agatha Christie’s [book:Ten Little Indians], and the ambassador becomes remarkably sulky over taking even basic precautions. He does bring an extra special French James Bond, Delacroix, with him – but Delacroix comes onto the island well after the ambassador, has a quick chat with Barker – and then leaves. He’s a foodie, you see, and he wants to get back to the boat and into the galley. I’m still struggling to understand how someone can be an effective bodyguard when not even on the same land mass. Of course, when the bad guy kills him he has an even harder job being any kind of bodyguard. It’s kind of hilarious when the ambassador insists on heaping praise on him for the rest of the book, considering he did nothing but die en route to a fish dinner.

What really baffled me about this was that the author then has the ambassador commenting that the island was “too large … to be watched over by just two men.” Well … yeah.

The main character/narrator, Thomas Llewelyn, began to annoy me very early on. “I regarded the two young women I was warned against, and found them a trifle wanting.” One reason for the house party, you see, is to marry off the young scion(s) of the house, and Llewelyn had best not interfere with that.

The writing was not terrible (though it does need a good editor to deal with punctuation and homonym errors – a gun shot is not a “rapport”, one does not “stare” an opinion, one does not “fair” better or worse, and when one cannot “bare” to discuss something I begin to lose my grip on my temper) – this is why it gets two stars instead of the one I kind of want to give it. But it did try too hard in places, hammering a point home when a softer touch would have been more than sufficient. And, not to be repetitive, the author has a tendency to repeat himself.

As mentioned (oh no, the repetition is contagious!), people suddenly start getting picked off one by one. I don’t know if the writer was aiming for irony, or trying to create a poignant situation for the Great Hero Barker and his sidekick Llewelyn, or simply wanted to try his own hand at Ten Little Indians, but it was in truth just sad to read on the one hand Llewelyn’s worshipful tributes to his boss, and on the other hand see person after person die on his watch.

“I was hired as security for this event.”
…”You’re not doing very well at it, in my opinion.”

I wouldn’t hire the guy.

And if someone could explain to me why it was only after the violence begins that Llewelyn – hired as security – hurries off to get his gun, I’d … never mind. Not interested. Especially after he later, in the middle of things, curses himself for leaving his revolver in his room. Really? Someone could pop out of any corner or hedge at any moment to try to kill you or, more importantly, one of the people you were hired to protect, and you’re unarmed? Again? I hope these idiots didn’t get paid.

Once I started to dislike the main characters and the story I began to poke at all the holes in the writing, which aren’t really even worth the space. Except I found it puzzling that it wasn’t till the 21% mark that Barker is described as a Scotsman; I would have thought that if that was important it would have come out earlier. I suppose I should be grateful that dialogue in a brogue is kept to a minimum. Oh, and the whole episode with Llewelyn and a cohort trying to close shutters was silly from beginning to end; he as narrator comments that he made a tempting target against the light, and fails to come to the realization that it might be clever to put out said light. He encounters all sorts of difficulty with getting the shutters secured, and I was almost brought to the point of yelling at the book for him to go get the damned butler who might have a clue.

The killer besieging the house seems, according to Barker’s hypothesis, to have a checklist of victims, and is killing in order. Which means that he passes up opportunities to kill Llewelyn and others – despite the fact that it’s remarkably stupid not to reduce the number of defenders.

The survivors in the house turn against Barker, somehow losing faith in his abilities after several people die. So he moves into the rooms formerly occupied by his now-deceased employer, the lord of the manor. He had some kind of reason for this, but the audacity of it, added to the questionable decision to have his girlfriend in the adjoining room, did not go down well with me or with the other survivors.

There’s more – there’s so much more – like:
“The Sharps is a long-distance rifle, known for its accuracy … [several pages later] … No, the Sharps is not that accurate” … [several pages later] … “he’s carrying what I might consider the deadliest weapon on the planet.”

The same thing happens with the food provided by the cook. It’s bland; it’s wonderful; it’s boring; it’s delicious.

I made many more notes and highlights on my Kindle, but there’s really no point in continuing to beat this dead horse. I managed to finish the book, but what started out with me interested and intrigued ended with me frustrated and relieved to be done.

Also, “Hell Bay”? It’s a cool name – but it has very little to do with the plot.

The usual disclaimer: I received this book via Netgalley for review.

Unholy Blue – Darby Kaye

What a marvelous book. It is so rare to see relationships done so well as this between father and child, father and new lover, lover and child; it all feels utterly natural and true and believable. And it all serves to inspire affection for these characters. Grief is handled well, not that I’ll go into any details about that for spoilers’ sake, and also the surprise of joy; doubt and worry; battle and friendship.

It’s a wild gallop of a book, this, hitting the ground running and barely letting up before the end. It starts with a father and young son on the run. From what, the reader is not told for a little while – but it’s immediately obvious that this isn’t any mundane danger, and when someone comes to the rescue it’s pretty clear that she’s not exactly mundane either.

The book is the sequel to Stag Lord, but stands on its own very well; the author is very skilled at telling what has gone before without irrevocably spoiling the previous book. The writing is beautiful; the characters are wonderful (including the young boy, which can be a tricky proposition); the secret culture and the evil enemies are engrossing. Love.

The usual disclaimer: I received this book via Netgalley for review.

The Road to Little Dribbling – Bill Bryson

I’ve always enjoyed Bill Bryson. I loved A Walk in the Woods and The Mother Tongue and his Shakespeare book, etc. This? Not this. I couldn’t manage this.

Yes, it was lovely to learn that we’ve all been pronouncing “Everest” wrong (and that George Everest never went up it). It’s good to know that almost 40% of London is park and the city is almost half as populated as New York, and France and England are only 20.6 miles apart at their closest point, and such. Motopia is a very cool idea and I’m enjoying running it through Google Image. But…

>“It’s not the same thing at all. You can’t be this stupid.”

>“Well, pardon me for saying so, but you’re an idiot,” I said matter-of-factly.

This is Bryson quoting … himself. And both times he was talking to a young person in the service industry. If he’s being honest and not self-mocking or self-parodying or whatever, Bill Bryson is apparently a jackass.

“Do you want fries with that?” the young man serving me asked.
I hesitated for a moment, and in a pained but patient tone said: “No. That’s why I didn’t ask for fries, you see.”

Seriously. I don’t want to spend time with this person. When he calls Leslie Charteris “a recluse and a bigot” it feels very much like a pot and kettle pronouncement.

The humor is forced, and very much largely unfunny. I’m disappointed – and I quit.

The usual disclaimer: I received this book via Netgalley for review.

And Star Trek is 50

Hard as it is to believe, today, September 8 of 2016, is the fiftieth anniversary of the first episode of Star Trek. On 9/8/66, “The Man Trap” aired on NBC. (I believe it was at 8:30 – and as I write this at 8:30, BBCAmerica has just begun a celebratory marathon, bless their hearts.) (“‘Plum’?”) I discovered it when I was sixteen, so that makes it pretty much my thirtieth anniversary with the show.
I had planned to do something all creative and funny and (hopefully) fun to celebrate, but time and life (and whatever other magazines you care to name) have not been on my side. I’ll finish the Star Trek Bingo game soon, though; I won’t make any promises (I’ve done THAT before), but that will probably show up in a while. So, instead, it’s me and the keyboard and whatever comes to mind.

Is it a cliche to say that Star Trek changed my life?

I was never all that engaged in science classes. But my reading changed drastically once the the Five Year Mission became a part of my life, and I remember asking my eye doctor if my eyesight (which is terrible) would keep me from becoming an astronaut. He looked at me like I’d gone mad, and it must have seemed like it: there I was, a short, not-exactly-svelte, Coke-bottle-lens-wearing, thoroughly unscientific girl who would rather go read Tolkien than participate in any sports and could barely tell a photon from a quasar … but I was serious. (I was also pretty thoroughly disqualified; yes, my eyesight would pretty much keep me out of space even if nothing else did.)

“Vulcan has no moon, Miss Uhura.”
“I’m not surprised, Mr. Spock.”

(It’s obvious I haven’t written much about Star Trek on this laptop; I just got a squiggly red line under “Uhura”, so I never added her to my dictionary. The computer wanted to change it to “Hurrah”. That works.)

I don’t remember what my first episode was. I do know that it didn’t take long before I was scouring the TVGuide looking for episodes I hadn’t seen yet, hunting up any and all sources of books for anything, anything at all on Trek. They carried novels in our local grocery store. If I haven’t already given away my age, this was before the internet, before DVDs, and just as (*gasp*) VHS tapes were becoming widely available. The only chance I was going to have to see each episode was to wait for (if I recall correctly) channel 11 to pull it out of the vault at (I believe) four o’clock one day. Before long I could identify any episode within three seconds; I whiled away the time between customers at my first cash register job by listing all the episodes from memory; I read every novel, good and bad and indifferent. It was a difficult time for me, high school, as it is for a lot of people, and I had fallen head over heels in love. I loved the characters, particularly and most especially McCoy, and I adored the 431st member of the crew, the Enterprise herself. But most of all I wanted to live there and then. In the 23rd century in general, and specifically if possible on that ship.

(Janice Rand! She breaks my heart, now, knowing what I know.) (“Why don’t you go chase an asteroid?”) (Good lord that skirt is short. “May the Great Bird of the Galaxy bless your planet!”)

By the time I came on board (so to speak), the first three movies were well out. I had no idea what to do with The Motion Picture, but I loved Walter Koenig’s book about the making thereof. For some strange reason what sticks in my head is that time he asked Persis Khambatta if he could kiss her on the top of her bald head, and she let him – and he wound up with a toothful of makeup. Memory is an odd thing. (My God, she’s dead? I don’t think I knew that.) Star Trek II came on HBO right around the time my parents decided to spring for it, and I watched it every chance I got – which probably amounted to dozens. I videotaped it, audiotaped it, transcribed it (learned quite a bit about writing by doing so) – and then ABC aired a “director’s cut” that I thought was spectacular. I still know a surprising amount by heart. (“Keptin! Dis is the garden spot of Citi Alpha Seex!”) STIII:TSFS … I don’t recall if the pastel drawing I did of the crew standing on the Genesis planet watching the comet that had been my beloved Enterprise made it into my art school portfolio – it wasn’t bad, but I hope not. I don’t remember how, but I won tickets to Star Trek IV – I wrote to a friend with “I won I won I won” over and over in a spiral. (I was very young, and I don’t think I’d ever won anything before. And it was Star Trek.) It was wonderful, and I loved every second of it, and dissolved into helpless, blissful tears with this scene:

It still makes me cry. The phrase I used a lot about it went something like “blue-white, blindingly bright joy”. I told you I loved that ship. Hello, gorgeous…

(Speaking of which, Bones looks fantastic in that black tee.)

I won’t talk about the next two movies, much less the “reboot” films; this is supposed to be a celebration. I was equal parts thrilled and scared about The Next Generation – it took some time, but I loved the ship; I hated and envied poor Wesley Crusher in equal measure (though I would never have dreamed of writing and telling Wil Wheaton so), and I was a Jean-Luc devotee almost immediately. I have always, always loathed Worf. But it was so good to have Star Trek most every week.

I remember getting books about the space program out of the library (and for possibly the first time in my life as a precocious reader being completely stymied by what I was trying to read). And then there were the Star Trek novels, of course, dozens of them of wildly varied quality. And to this day I know “Tiger, tiger, burning bright” and “She walks in beauty like the night” because they were quoted in Star Trek episodes. I researched, you see. I have always taken my fandom seriously.

I was filled with the deep, deep desire to – well, here:


If I can’t get up there, I want us to get up there. U.S., not U.S. – it’s gotten so I don’t care much who gets their butts up there, as long as somebody makes some kind of progress toward getting us out there. I was destroyed by the Challenger explosion – I still can’t look at images of the smoke trails. And then Columbia. And then the end of the shuttle program. When people say the money would be better spent elsewhere, I am left literally speechless, completely baffled by that point of view. I’m glad no one said it to me in my more vulnerable teens – I have literally no idea what I would have said or done. I was in Florida for training for my job when the last launch happened, and I didn’t ask if I could get up on the roof or find someplace to see it. I’ll always regret that.

My fandom has had its ups and downs. I was delighted when my brother took me to see Jimmy Doohan in some auto dealership parking lot, and I believe he signed a calendar. Then my cousin and I dragged our mothers to a Star Trek convention in Boston (Walter Koenig was there, and the dealer’s room was like heaven. Slightly tacky heaven) and when we became mobile ourselves we went to as many cons as possible. Fortunately, Creation liked to use a hotel in nearby New Haven, so we got to “meet” everybody who was on the circuit – I know we saw Jimmy Doohan (who was peeved by the book called Mr. Scott’s Guide to the Enterprise, because he rightly felt he should have been involved), and we have to have seen George Takei (yes – I remember him talking about deleted scenes from STIV). The Next Gen crew took some precedence at the time, and we queued (heh) up for Frakes and Marina Sirtis (she exclaimed over my hair, which was about three feet long at the time – I remember her saying she had to wear extensions) and Michael Dorn – and, bless the day, Patrick Stewart (who did not sign autographs, but did recite Puck’s last speech from the Dream. I believe he bobbled it a bit). We met and had the chance to chat with Max Grodenchik years later, and he was magnificent; John de Lancie was at other end of the table. (He was an ass. I still snarl at Q even more than is absolutely necessary.) Oh, and then there was the infamous blooper reel!

When I heard about the Shatner “Get a life” thing, I was (being still very young) incensed; I confess even so many years later I was just slightly jubilant when Kirk got killed dead. Well, good grief, no wonder – that SNL skit was in 1986, right when I was beginning to catch fire. I had absolutely no sense of humor about my geekdom; yes, there was a lot of truth in all the bad jokes. At the conventions we attended, we saw the people wearing uniforms who should have stayed far, far away from spandex; every Q&A session there was someone asking some insanely detailed, abstruse question about the science or timeline or philosophy of this episode or that, without the least clue that the actor being questioned had not the faintest clue. But it’s always been kind of like a family thing: we can say anything we want about each other, but if you say a word against my family, you have me to answer to.

(Still watching “Man Trap” – Hey, there’s a girl in pants!)

Between Shatner and the debacle that was STV and this and that, I drifted away from Star Trek. Then a month or so ago I discovered the Mission Log Podcast, in which a couple of guys (Ken Ray and John Champion) have – sponsored by Rod Roddenberry, son of Gene – taken on a mumbledy-year mission: exploring the Star Trek universe one episode at a time, starting with started first aired episode (the one that’s on now) and working through TOS, then the animated series, the first six movies, TNG (they’re in the second season now), and up next DS9 and Voyager and Enterprise and the rest of the movies, and eventually the reboots, and even more eventually the new series starting in January – offering a bit of trivia (the voice of the ship’s cook in “Charlie X” is that of Gene Roddenberry) and a lot of analysis, and so much geekiness that … for the first time in over a decade, I’m watching Star Trek, playing catch-up on the podcast. It’s like the first time for some of it. And I’m having a wonderful time. Some of the old joy is coming back. I didn’t time it to coincide with the anniversary – I was just looking for a podcast, because I didn’t feel like listening to any of my audiobooks, and went “Eh, what the hell” with Mission Log. But I’m glad.

I listened not long ago to an episode of another podcast (nameless to protect the … um) in which the hosts decided to debate the timeless argument “Which is better, Star Wars or Star Trek”? It was kind of awful, because it seemed more like a filler episode for a week when they had nothing better to do, and because one of the guys made it abundantly clear he didn’t want to be doing it, and because either they were both lousy debaters or the fact that neither of them cared what they were saying was just … abundantly clear.

Me, I’ve never really explored the question of whether one is better than the other. It’s a stupid question, actually, in my mind, because it’s like asking whether pizza is better than apple pie – they’re very different things.

I do love Star Wars. (Episodes four, five, six, and seven, at least. The other three… Thank you, no.) I enjoy the stories, the characters, the adventure, the music, the spectacle. Seeing Episode Seven earlier this year was amazing – I came out of it saying “That is what going to the movies should be!”

But I’ve been a Trekkie for a long time. Those four Star Wars movies haven’t had remotely the impact on me that all those hours of Trek, on TV, in movies, in books (fiction and non-fiction), in person have had. Star Wars is fun. Star Trek is part of me. I aspire more to Janice Rand’s basket weave than Princess Leia’s cinnamon buns. Peel back my skin, you’ll probably find blue velour.

I still very frequently make a commanding gesture or snap my fingers to get elevator and other automatic doors to open; since watching “The Naked Time” again I’ve been blowing on them, too. Get me drunk and I’ll probably either sing Irish ballads or “Girls in space be wary”. Quotes and references routinely make their way into my vocabulary. (No, I don’t speak Klingon. Not much. Honest, I think I can only say the equivalent of “beam me up”.)

Something that finally occurred to me is that Star Wars is like reading a great fantasy novel, in which wonderful characters have wonderful adventures in a setting that has nothing whatsoever to do with the real world. “Long long ago in a galaxy far far away.” It’s an adventure, and it’s fun. But Star Trek …

Star Trek is about us.

This is our future. It is the real world, made better – projected out to a time when we have made it better. If we fight, and work very hard, and stop doing stupid things to the planet and to each other, this is what our future might look like. These characters are our descendants – or, if we can catch a ship that’s done a slingshot around the sun, or get ourselves put into some kind of cryogenic sleep, us. While Star Wars explores the environs of Alderaan and Tatooine, while the human characters are Corellian and Naboo, Star Trek always comes back to Earth. Starfleet Academy is on Earth, and the human characters are from Russia and the United States of Africa and Iowa. I can go visit the aircraft carrier Enterprise and the space shuttle Enterprise.

I’m never going to say flat out Star Trek is better than Star Wars; there’s plenty of room at the top for both, and they both deserve to be there. But for me, Star Trek is more important. Star Trek is more. Star Trek is hope.

And the Enterprise is prettier than the Millennium Falcon.

So raise a glass with me, be it tranya or Saurian brandy, tea (“Earl Grey, hot”) or Romulan ale (“Why, Bones, you know this is illegal.” “I only use it for medicinal purposes”): to those who have gone before:

DeForest Kelley
James Doohan
Leonard Nimoy
Majel Barrett Roddenberry
Grace Lee Whitney
Merritt Butrick
Ricardo Montalban
Persis Khambatta

…and too many more.

To those we still have with us, cast and crew – may they all, living and dead, know how much they’re loved.

To Lucille Ball, for – improbably, wonderfully – making it all possible.

To Gene Roddenberry, the Great Bird of the Galaxy, for all of it.

Thank you.

The Underground Railroad – Colson Whitehead

I havered over requesting this book. The description makes it sound so brutal, so scarring, that I wasn’t sure I wanted to subject myself to that right now.

And it is brutal. Colson Whitehead is the AntiMargaretMitchell, point for point canceling out and more than canceling out any cheerful images of happy “darkies” unwilling to leave their comfortable slavery where they’re looked after like kin. Bondage in this Georgia is the worst of all possible worsts, with arbitrary and severe punishments, and slim-to-no chance of escape. In this Georgia there is no solace to be found even in fellow slaves, because every single man and woman in the quarters “would sell out their dearest to escape the bite of the cat-o’-nine-tails” and “Freemen informed on their African brothers and sisters”. I think I found that even more disturbing than the creative tortures and executions the slave owners came up with.

I’m not sure how to put this without inviting attack, but it was … too much. Mark me: I have no doubt that there were plantations and slave owners just like this – far more, I have no doubt, than remotely resembled Tara. I think, though, at a certain point violence piled on violence topped with more violence becomes more like a comic book or The Game of Thrones than a story based on truth. I wouldn’t say I was deadened to it by the end – the day I become deadened to violence of this sort is the day I want to be locked away. I will say I was skimming.

And while the central conceit of the book, the idea that the Underground Railroad was, in fact, a railroad which was underground, was clever and led to some extraordinary moments, it also, for me, did a disservice to the rest of the story. It’s a clever idea – but it’s ridiculous, and a bit frustrating: why on earth would so many spend so much time and money and labor to build something so easily derailed? Which is of course a pun, and also meant literally. Steel and wood for the tracks, all the materials to keep the tunnels open, and all the sweat and probably blood spent in digging mile after mile of tunnel – all to function painfully briefly before being destroyed … it was all so fantastical that it cast the whole book in the same light of fantasy.

I think perhaps if the fantasy element of the Railroad had been pushed even further it might have been more successful; also, the feeling persists that, in terms of the violence described, less is more. In addition to the simple excess is the simple fact that an evil and vicious slave owner makes a bad businessman, since slaves are an expensive investment to be destroying so liberally. I suppose that’s part of the point, in a way; the owner from whom Cora and Cesar escape is not terribly interested in the running of the plantation.

The usual disclaimer: I received this book via Netgalley for review.

Boarding the Enterprise

September 8, 2016 is the fiftieth anniversary of the first airing of Star Trek. It’s also close enough to the thirtieth anniversary of the indeterminate date I first saw Trek.

Hold on a moment, would you – I need to hyperventilate a bit.

I had a little thing about my history with Star Trek all typed up and ready to open this review – but, luckily for you, I did not enjoy this book. I’ll save my biographical notes (hold your applause), and cut to the chase?

As a once and again Trekkie, when I saw “Boarding the Enterprise” on Netgalley I didn’t think about it, just clicked “request”. Mindful of the rapidly approaching anniversary, I dove into it, and was pleased … until I wasn’t. For one thing, don’t get the idea that this is a book celebrating the fiftieth anniversary of Trek. No – it’s a book that was apparently originally released around the fortieth anniversary of Trek, apparently dug up and reissued by its publisher to capitalize on a bigger celebration. That is sufficient reason for me to knock a star off its rating. For one thing, the text is dated: “From The Sopranos to HBO’s Rome, from MTV to CNN and Fox News, to the Discovery and the Sci-Fi Channels, all that we see on cable today is the result of Star Trek’s amazing voyages beyond the networks.” Ah, the good old days when The Sopranos and Rome were on, and it was still the Sci-Fi Channel… For another thing – really? You can’t come up with new material to commemorate something as big as this date?

Another reason not to be very fond of this book is – well, the full title is: “Boarding the Enterprise: Transporters,Tribbles, And the Vulcan Death Grip in Gene Roddenberry’s Star Trek”. Having finished, I marked it thus on Goodreads, and thought “Vulcan Death Grip? Did I skim that part?” Because I did skim parts. So I did a search of the book. Nope, it doesn’t seem to be mentioned anywhere. Odd.

It did start well. The introduction by Robert J. Sawyer and the Foreword (“Still Trekkin’ After All These Years”) by David Gerrold hit all the right notes, and set it up to be the celebration I was looking for. Another odd thing – apparently Gerrold’s foreword was written, or revised, for the re-release, because it begins “It’s fifty years later.” Any other mention of the time frame specifically says forty. (If I ever knew that an early title for the Tribbles episode was “A Fuzzy Thing Happened . . .” I’d forgotten – I think it’s better.)

“Star Trek in the Real World” by Norman Spinrad was fine. I enjoyed the recap of how and why the prototype space shuttle was named Enterprise. I didn’t so much enjoy the revelation of the flim-flammery that went into the letter-writing campaign to save Trek. I made a note of one line about the show’s cancellation: “this ‘failure’ was still watched by twenty million people a week for three years.” I did some checking; the Season 5 debut of The Walking Dead “crushed” cable records with 17.3 million viewers; the season 6 finale came in at 19.36 million. It’s a completely different TV universe, of course – but it’s something to think about. At any given time I can find several people with whom I can talk about each episode (without going online, I mean – online I can find millions). I can only imagine what it was like to be watching first-run Trek.

Roddenberry consulted experts and the Enterprise was designed and even blue-printed down to the smallest niggling detail, to the point where NASA even took a look at his plans to pick up some tips on spaceship ergonomics.

I enjoyed “I Remember Star Trek. . .” by D. C. Fontana, happily, though I was momentarily distracted by the idea of Shatner’s reaction to “Bill Shatner, whose hair was thinning, had to resort to a toupee on every show.” It was a nice collection of behind-the-scenes stuff that I had either forgotten about or never saw before.

One network executive, frustrated by our insistence on honesty in the science and truth in the stories we were telling, finally blurted out in a meeting, “You people think that ship is really up there!” Bob Justman had the last word on that occasion. He said, “It is.”

After that it became less “Yay Star Trek!” and more “I’m so clever/funny/clever and funny, let me tell you all about it in a Trek context.” Some of the articles – such as the ones about religion and personal identity – annoyed in part because I’m frankly weary of complaints about how the point of view of the show changed from one season or episode to the next… It was an anthology show. It had many different writers. Consistency would be nice, but they weren’t looking to make something people would be writing footnoted scholarly articles about fifty years hence.

“All Our Tomorrows: The Shared Universe of Star Trek” by Allen Steele – makes exactly that point, discussing the novelty of a series which told standalone stories each week, bound together by the same characters and the same sets. Interesting read; not entirely up to the level I was looking for, but interesting. (But you know I’m looking for nits to pick: I highlighted this – “also revealed that Spock had a first name but that it was unpronounceable; I suspect that it was ‘Arnold,’ but that he was just too embarrassed to admit it.” Cute. But we don’t know that it’s Spock’s FIRST name we’re missing. The line from the episode is: “You never told me if you had another name, Mr. Spock.” For all we know, Spock is his first name; it’s a family name we might be missing. Considering his mother calls him Spock, I think that’s reasonable.

“The Prime Question” by Eric Greene re-treads the well-worn path about how Kirk loved to flout the Prime Directive. How original. There’s more, about how Trek handled political commentary and the race issues of the day… Again, been there and done that. I did find it interesting to read “It was largely through Spock, for instance, that Star Trek dealt with questions of racial identity and assimilation, and growing up as a multiracial kid, I especially identified with him because he was the only mixed-race character I knew of in pop culture.” That never occurred to me. Spock was pretty amazing.

“We Find the One Quite Adequate: Religious Attitudes in Star Trek” by Michael A. Burstein – Another article which tries to find one unified religious outlook in a series that was written by several people. On the whole, pointless. Also, the essay includes complaints about that one wedding and that one memorial service being conducted by, respectively, Kirk and Spock rather than a ship’s chaplain. Well, if they had a chaplain aboard for every religion represented aboard the Enterprise, they would, to paraphrase Chief Brody, need a bigger boat. The Trek podcast I’ve been listening to talks about the not-infrequent need to retcon (create retroactive continuity); on this question I can retcon to my heart’s content. Are there five Catholics aboard? Each holy day they can convene in the chapel, or a briefing room, or someone’s quarters, and basically 23rd-century-Skype with a priest back home for Mass. Lather, rinse, repeat for different denominations and beliefs. There. Done.

“Who Am I? Personal Identity in the Original Star Trek” by Lyle Zynda – see prior, re: several authors. I understand the impulse to explore a concept throughout the series – I’m just not interested in the grafting on of deep philosophical and political subtexts that the writers probably never intended.

“What Have You Done with Spock’s Brain?!?” by Don DeBrandt talks about how stupid it is for Vulcans to try to be emotionless, with attempts at humor. See prior, re: “trying to be funny”. Mr. DeBrandt, if you’re so clever, why don’t you go create a completely unique, consistent, and interesting alien race? Oh, sorry – you’re too busy writing CSI novels. No – CSI Miami novels. Never mind. It irritates me deeply when someone takes a moment from the series, excises it from context, and runs with it, solely to make their point. To wit: “So how did Kirk react to seeing his best friend finally happy and in love? ‘All right, you mutinous, computerized, disloyal half-breed— we’ll see about you deserting my ship!'” Uh, no. That’s how Kirk reacted to seeing his friend under the control of spores which rendered him incapable of making independent decisions or of accomplishing more than looking for shapes in clouds.

“Lost Secrets of Pre-War Human Technology: Seat Belts, Circuit Breakers and Memory Allocation” by Lawrence Watt-Evans – Something I seem to find myself saying now and then is that there’s a difference between “trying to be funny” and “being funny”. There’s a vast gulf there. This article was slightly amusing, but pushed the joke too far. (See prior, re: “trying to be funny”.) For one thing, the writer might be clever enough in 2016 (or 2006) to know that computers since the fifties were capable of memory allocation which would have prevented half the computer explosions Kirk caused over the years – but seriously, in 1966, when the vast majority of the population had never touched a computer and manuals were probably abstruse and hard to obtain, could all the writers of Trek reasonably have been expected to know about something like memory allocation? As to seat belts – sure, given the amount of knocking about the crew took, seat belts might have been a good idea. But, looked at from a production point of view, a) they would have cost more, and b) would viewers really want to watch every week as crewmembers buckled themselves in, and then had to pause to unfasten themselves before they went rushing off to emergencies?

“Exaggerate with Extreme Prejudice” by Robert A. Metzger actually achieved humor, if somewhat heavy-handed humor. It’s a possible explanation for how exactly Scotty achieved his miracles, based on the author’s reality, and it’s pretty clever. As with so many other articles in this book, I hesitate about the use of 21st century knowledge when discussing 23rd century technology – that’s two full centuries in which untold discoveries can be made which will render everything in this article irrelevant. But it’s pretty clever.

“To Boldly Teach What No One Has Taught Before” by David DeGraff brought back the spirit I had hoped for in the book, discussing how DeGraff, as a teacher, uses Star Trek and science fiction in general to put his lessons across for his students. Very nice. If the whole book had been examples of “I’m [fill in occupation here] because of Star Trek, and here’s my story”, I’d read the heck out of it.

“Who Killed the Space Race?” by Adam Roberts – Spoiler alert: according to this guy, Star Trek killed the space race. He has some points, but I think it’s a shallow analysis, and – yet again – inappropriate to the theme of the book, at least as I thought it was going to be.

“Alexander for the Modern Age: How Star Trek’s Female Fans Reinvented Romance and Heroic Myth in Their Own Image” by Melissa Dickinson – Really? You want to celebrate a milestone anniversary of this show by telling me about slash fiction? I’m appalled. Not as appalled as I was when I first learned of what were called the “K/S ladies”, but pretty damned appalled. For me, it’s an extreme violation of what the characters are about, positing that in order to feel strong emotions about each other they must be more than friends. That’s moronic, and the only way you’re going to rouse more anger is if you bring Frodo and Sam into the discussion. Don’t.

“How Star Trek Liberated Television” by Paul Levinson – ok; interesting: Star Trek changed things by being a success in syndication. Problem is, this was already discussed earlier.

“Being Better” by Howard Weinstein talks about the Message of Star Trek, and how it faded in later series, which may well be part of why they were less successful. “The original Star Trek often reiterated simple verities about human aspirations. So did the original-series movies, and (in more subtle undertones) The Next Generation and Deep Space Nine. But I think Voyager and Enterprise muted the message; Star Trek’s audience no longer heard the call that first brought them into the tent, and drifted 203away.” Feels right to me.

I learned a few things, or re-learned them – that Lee Cronin was actually Gene L. Coon (a near-anagram), and Walter Koenig (of all people) didn’t participate in the animated series (wonder why). I learned that after the second TOS season science fiction writers were not sought to write for any of the shows – far from it. I learned (or re-learned) that “the word ‘quasar’ comes from ‘QuasiStellar Radio Source'”. And there was an happy moment of connection on reading about the “marmalade rocks and tangerine skies” of Mars.

There were moments of what I wanted in this book, but they were badly diluted. Honestly, this is a time to celebrate the series that has meant so much to so many for five decades. I wanted more of this:

“We may not be quite sure how to get there from here, but as Edith Keeler said in Harlan Ellison’s episode ‘The City on the Edge of Forever’ (1–28), Star Trek taught us that the days and the years ahead are worth living for. More than anything else, the series was about hope.” … “Long before Star Trek, poet Emily Dickinson wrote: ‘Hope is the thing with feathers that perches in the soul.’ For us, hope was the thing with warp-drive nacelles and we wanted to beam aboard for the ride.

That’s what it’s all about, Charlie Brown.

I knocked off a star for trying to pass a retread over on the fandom; another star came off for the near-misery of some of the essays. Another half-star off for the slash article and a complete lack of Vulcan death grips – 2.5 stars, where allowed. In the spirit of the half-century, three on Goodreads.

The usual disclaimer: I received this book via Netgalley for review.

The Legendarium – Kevin G. Summers, Michael Bunker – Robert Rossman


First off, I sincerely hope the authors are (or, you know, were) VERY good friends with “NYTbestsellingauthorHughHowey”. Actually, I would harbor a strong suspicion that one (or both) of the authors IS Hugh Howey … except … I loved Wool. I didn’t love this.

See, there is a rather large difference between “trying to be funny” and “being funny”. This I realized in spades while listening to Ben Aaronovitch’s [book:Foxglove Summer], which, while not constructed as a comic novel, made me laugh out loud quite often, seemingly without even trying. Legendarium tried very, very hard – so hard – but … I did more cringing than anything.

Why use Hugh Howey’s name and then change “Wool” to “Cotton”? What’s the point? Is that supposed to be funny?

The writing was awkward, with the same word sometimes awkwardly being used in the same sentence. (See what I did there?) The plot made me think of nothing so much as a handful of spaghetti. It’s an unoriginal idea done badly. The tone was juvenile. Not the content or the story – I don’t mean that this was a book suitable for or meant for children, not if any parents have any sense. No, I mean that the authors’ mindset seemed to be that of 13-year-old boys. I found it shocking that there were no details about toilet functions in the lifepod.

Worst of all, though, is the fact that the two main characters are complete and utter idiots. I have a hard time enjoying a book – like Wuthering Heights – in which there isn’t a character I can like. I’m even less likely to enjoy a book in which I’m expected to spend time with idiots; I don’t have much patience for fools in any setting, fictional or nonfictional. But – ok, the two “heroes” are completely annoying morons, and they utterly failed in their first mission. But here’s the thing: how could they possibly not fail? How is it possible to successfully complete a mission when not only do you not know what the parameters of said mission are, but you don’t even know there IS a mission? In plain spoilerese, they had no way of knowing they ought to snatch up some borogroves – and, moreover, had no way of knowing what the damn things were. So. Yeah. They failed. Yeah, they were idiots not to say “Hm – sword on a spaceship. Let’s grab it, just in case “, but there’s no contesting the fact that they’re idiots.

If I never hear the word “doughnut” again, I’ll be just as happy.

Cold Days – Jim Butcher – James Marsters

“Okay, come on,” I said. “You’re going to buy me a lawsuit, Bob.”
“Hush, Harry. Or you’ll go to the special hell.”
I blinked at that, confused. I’m not supposed to be the guy who doesn’t get the reference joke, dammit.

I find it … yes, inconceivable that Harry Dresden has not seen Firefly. That’s terrible. Someone get him a shielded DVD player, stat.

Somehow I seem to read the Dresden Files at just the times when they’ll hit me hardest.

…I could almost pretend I was there again. That I was home.
But they’d burned down my home. I had repaid them for it, with interest, but I still felt oddly hollow in my guts when I thought about how I would never see it again. I missed Mister, my cat. I missed my dog. I missed the familiarity of having a place that I knew, that was a shelter. I missed my life. I’d been away from home for what felt like a very long time.

I didn’t get to repay anyone for losing my home and my dog. It just happened. This was not the first time I had to put aside a Harry Dresden novel and … well, anyway. (Changing the subject rapidly) Gosh, I think there were more f–bombs dropped in this one; I haven’t done a count or anything, but they seemed more frequent. Of course, Harry more than had reason.

I went into this one with a little reluctance. I didn’t want to hear about Harry Dresden, Winter Knight. I wanted his old life back almost as much as he did. I wanted the Scooby Gang. But the reunions made it all worthwhile. My note at 20%: “That is, and probably always will be, the only time a heartfelt “Asshole” has made me curl up and cry like a little girl.”

Warning: embarrassing levels of FanGirl ahead

I always loved these books, always. But I may never read one again – not when I can have James Marsters read them to me. Are they perfect narrations? Not one hundred percent, really; there’s an occasional missed accentuation that tweaks the meaning of a sentence – but a lot of narrators do that. And what he lacks in the occasional mundane accent, he more than makes up in dialogue, both standard and Harry’s internal dialogue. Why would I go back to reading these books off paper or pixel when the “Oh” in my head wouldn’t carry half the meaning that the single syllable can bring off when voiced by James Marsters? That man, my God… I want to lock him in a room and make him read me all my favorite books. (Hush about any other things that might come to mind, this is a family show.)

I don’t like using cliches; “Dream Team” is a cliche. But nothing else comes to mind that so perfectly describes these books: Jim Butcher providing the universe, Harry Dresden living in it, and … just reading the books is like the first scenes of The Wizard of Oz. There’s nothing wrong with that – black and white can be lovely and perfectly sufficient, and after all “Over the Rainbow” comes during that part – but for some things you just can’t beat fully saturated technicolor. James Marsters’s narration is wide–screen, HD technicolor. Practically 3–D.

I always did crush a bit on Spike. It’s nice to still be in love with James Marsters. It’s a perfect marriage, this; Butcher’s geekiness makes mine look like I’m not trying, and the wisecrackery with which he imbues Harry Dresden is PHD level. JM’s Spike was part of one of the geekiest of geeky shows, and the wise Spike cracked was always among the sharpest and most fun (and quotable). Long may it wave.