“Captain Vorpatril’s Alliance” by Lois Bujold (2012)

(This is 2018 Reading Challenge Book #1.) 

I still love the “Vorkosigan Saga” books, but recent events have caused me to reflect more on what is in them and I am finding some aspects uncomfortable. I had tried reading the “Ivan Book” once before and gave up halfway through, but this time I knew I had to power on and it was worth it, in the end. We have a fun, if meandering, science fiction adventure which ends with a literal bang. Ivan isn’t my favorite protagonist as he just lets things happen to him much of the time, but when he needs to be crafty, he is. Tej, the second viewpoint character, is craftier but she gets completely subsumed when her family reappears in the midpoint of the book. (I had given up just prior to that point, during a long section of continuity-porn as Ivan had to interact with as many of the established Vor Saga characters as possible.) That said, I love her love of languages and only wish that Ms. Bujold had gone deeper into how languages evolved on the planet… but maybe no one else wants that.

My problem with the story is twofold: first, there’s a cringy section towards the beginning where Ivan chases after his bride-to-be and he gets… stalkerish. It’s part of the story that he has to get close to her to help a security confidant, but it’s done in such a way that he would not take “no” from the lady for an answer. Fortunately, she had the good sense to stun him. This was followed by a sham-marriage with not-sham sex. Yes, all characters were adults and they could decide whether to sleep together or not, but there was a tremendous power differential. She felt that sleeping with him would increase the chance he would get attached to her and thus keep her safe from her pursuers, but I just found the whole sequence unsettling. Maybe “realistic”, but it bothers me that he would take advantage of her desperation in that way. It was voluntary, but the situation just felt wrong– both that she would use sex to manipulate him and that he would accept sex from someone that was doing it purely because she needed his money and connections. The fact that they fell in love later didn’t change that.

Secondly, I find Ms. Bujold in this book to be bordering on a totalitarianism fetish. Barrayar is a dictatorship where the people lack basic rights, have an absolute monarch as a emperor, a heavy dose of militaristic nationalism, and no rights to freedoms or privacy. ImpSec agents, particularly high-level ones, are judge, jury, and executioner. The emperor’s will goes and they can cover up any wrongdoing if the emperor wills it. The entire ending hinges on this. The government is run as a boys-club (with some women) of high-ranking castes and rich nobles, not unlike European governments of the 18th century. And yet, we are encouraged to forget all that. We are told how happy the people are even though they are “subjects”. The ImpSec agent who can read all your files at a whim with no due process needed is just “Cousin Miles”, and the emperor “Gregor” is practically on a first-name basis with the protagonists. It puts such a happy face on what should be a terrifying and oppressive world because the “good guys” happen to be in charge of everything. Make Donald Trump the emperor with the same power (or Bernie Sanders, Hillary Clinton, or anyone else), have them stock all the high-level positions with their family like Imperial Auditor Jared Kushner or Imperial Auditor Chelsea Clinton– both with powers of life or death, unlimited access to your home and files, and no oversight except their blood-related “emperor”. It’s terrifying. And Ms. Bujold paints it as a happy place where justice is served instead of a place where you should feel disquiet. Yes, there were “Mad Emperors” in the past, but that is behind us! We’re a friendly dictatorship now!

All in all, it was a nice book and a good start to the year and I am glad to have finished it. I’ll be reading “Gentleman Jole and the Red Queen”, the next book, later in the year. My next selection was going to be a random friend-selected book, “A Horseman Riding By” by R. F. Delderfiield, but that will take some time to arrive from the library. (I am also uncertain whether that counts as one book; I’ll have to see when it arrives.) In the meantime, I’m reading “The Storm Before the Storm” by Mike Duncan. 

My 2018 Reading Challenge

Stated briefly: I don’t read enough anymore. In my youth, I could eat books like candy and go through multiple novels a day. Now, I hardly read at all except for research. Most of my information today gets digested in podcasts and audiobooks. In 2018, I want to change that. Naturally, I want to do it in an overly-complicated way.

My goal will be to read 24 books, fiction or nonfiction. Not that many, still doable even with a schedule of work, teaching, blogging, and family time. I’ve decided to select the books by somewhat randomly rotating through four categories:

  1. Books my wife recommends. She gets the lion’s share and she has never led me wrong before.
  2. Books that I want to read. This consists of a few that have been on my list for years (“Journey to the West” as a prime example) as well as books written by my friends. I am gifted to know many authors and a few I have not read more than a sampling of their work.
  3. Books that I buy. I am not permitted to buy any books this year which I will not read. For that reason, I already have “The Storm Before the Storm” by Mike Duncan on the reading list, as well as the new “Fire and Fury”. I am also going to randomly pick out books that I own but have never got around to reading.
  4. Finally, but most importantly, books selected by my friends earlier this year. Since they suggested 50 books, far more than I may get to, I have an overly complicated process for randomly picking which I will read.

As I read each one, I will write a little thing– not a full fledged book review, but my thoughts. This may interest no one but me, but writing it will help me to cement the book in my brain before moving onto the next one. I want to make sure that I savor each one, not just consume and throw away.

Onward to the first book: “Captain Vorpatril’s Alliance” by Lois Bujold (2012), selected by my wife. (Always the right way to start!)

“Tom Swift and His Atomic Earth Blaster” by Jim Lawrence (1954)

As I prepare to play Seastalker for The Adventure Gamer, I am continuing to read Jim Lawrence’s earlier juvenile fiction. Last month, I took a look at my first Hardy Boys story, The Ghost at Skeleton Rock. This time, I wanted to jump back to Mr. Lawrence’s very first (that I have been able to find) published novel, 1954’s Tom Swift and His Atomic Earth Blaster.

Tom Swift was, like the Hardy Boys, a Stratemeyer Syndicate series. Like all Syndicate series, Tom Swift stories were written by a pseudonym consisting of a collection of writers and editors rather than a specific individual. Individual stories could be outlined by one author, written by a second, and edited by a third before having a finished product. (And, in a few cases, completely rewritten by a fourth for re-releases.) Tom Swift stories were actually among the oldest of the series, with the first novel, Tom Swift and his Motorcycle, published in 1910. In these early stories, Tom Swift was an adventurer and inventor who solved problems using the power of his intellect and his increasingly sci-fi inventions. Unlike most of the later series, Tom Swift was allowed to age over the course of his adventurers, eventually getting married and having a son, Tom Swift Jr. His son then became the star of the stories from the 1950s onward, although from that point the characters did not continue to age through their original runs. The original continuity ended in 1971 although three further Tom Swift series were released through the mid-00s. It’s likely the stories will be picked up again.

Continue reading “Tom Swift and His Atomic Earth Blaster” by Jim Lawrence (1954)

Jim Lawrence’s Bibliography

In the next couple of weeks, over on The Adventure Gamer, I will be playing Seastalker. I mentioned this earlier in my review of a Hardy Boys mystery, and I am presently working my way through stories featuring Tom Swift, Jr. and Nancy Drew. All of these young-adult novels were written by Jim Lawrence, but you would never know it from their covers. Jim was a dedicated ghostwriter, creating fiction that he would never get credit for. Nonetheless, I have become quite interested in his history and have started to pull together a bibliography of his books based on various sources that I found online. This is most likely not a complete list. This is made more complicated by the fact that there are at least three authors named Jim (or James) Lawrence, including one artist who worked in comics. Trying to separate out which Mr. Lawrence wrote what has been quite a challenge!

That’s where you come in. Do you know of any additional works by Jim Lawrence? Do you have details of specific radio play scripts that he wrote? If so, please drop me a note below. For everyone else, here is the list that I have gathered so far:

Continue reading Jim Lawrence’s Bibliography

“The Ghost at Skeleton Rock” by Jim Lawrence (1957)

This week, at approaching four decades old, I read my first Hardy Boys book. In specific, I read the thirty-seventh Hardy Boys book, The Ghost at Skeleton Rock, ghost-written by Jim Lawrence. It’s a strange place to start, but my interest is not with the Hardy Boys in general (although I find the whole industry that produces these serial books fascinating), but rather with the author, the late Jim Lawrence. Over on The Adventure Gamer, I have been slowly working my way through all of the games created by Infocom. In a few weeks, I’ll start playing Seastalker, the twelfth adventure, and the first written by the pair of Stu Galley and Jim Lawrence. The game is Infocom’s first “juvenile” game and they brought on board a master of juvenile fiction to help script it. By the 1980s, Jim had already proven himself a master of juvenile fiction across radio, newspaper comics, and books– most of the latter ghostwritten for the Stratemeyer Syndicate. To ensure I approached his game with an understanding of the genre, I committed myself to reading several of Jim’s original books. This is my first.

Continue reading “The Ghost at Skeleton Rock” by Jim Lawrence (1957)

Thirteenth Doctor: Revealed In A Familiar Setting

I love the choice of location for the 13th doctor reveal, but did anyone else notice that it closely echoes the location where War + 10 + 11 met during the Day of the Doctor? Notice the 16th/17th century setting, the woods, and the wall with the convenient hole in it where the TARDIS emerges. Where have we seen that before?

I am excited for our new Thirteenth Doctor! While I am sure there are fans that won’t appreciate the gender-swap, it was about time to do something new and exciting with the series. Capaldi was fantastic but traditional; I am positive the new Doctor will shake things up.

Infocom’s The Witness (1983)

Not too long ago, I took a look at Deadline, Infocom’s first adventure game mystery as a side-story to the marathon that I’m currently writing for The Adventure Gamer. It was a genre-buster, proving once and for all that great adventures could be found in many genres. I am still slowly winding my way through early Infocom classics and I have finally reached Deadline’s pseudo-sequel: 1983’s The Witness. Tucked away in the middle of a run of science fiction adventures (after Starcross and Suspended but before Planetfall), it abandoned the contemporary setting of its predecessor for the hard-boiled detectives of the 1930s. Even though my colleague Ilmari already reviewed this game, I could not resist poking my head in to get the full Infocom experience.

While Deadline has been designed by Mark Blanc, one of the Infocom founders and co-writer on the Zork series, he did not have time to work on the sequel. Instead, he provided some aspects of the basic scenario to design-newcomer Stu Galley. Stu had been an Infocom founder, but he worked on the business side rather than the creative one. Nonetheless, Marc had too much on his plate and Stu was convinced to headline the game. Even from the start it is different than what came before: this time, the crime has not been committed yet. We’re going to witness the crime (hence, the title) and have twelve hours to figure out what really happened. Let’s play!

Continue reading Infocom’s The Witness (1983)

Top Children’s Museums in the United States

This summer, my wife and I are planning a short vacation with our preschooler. Unfortunately, we hit a snag: we could not agree on where we wanted to go. Ireland? Too far. Cape Breton? Too out of the way. Cleveland? Too boring. And so on. So, how did we resolve our dispute? Let the preschooler pick. Or rather, we decided to plan our trip based on fantastic Children’s Museums and see where the data took us.

There are lots of sites out there that provide recommendations but they do not all have the same list. To give us the best possible experience, I took the top eight lists that I could find of “Top 10” or “Top 25” museums and summed them up, looking for museums that everyone could agree were the best. Since I like to share, let me give you my results:

Best of the Best: 8 of 8

  • Boston Children’s Museum (Boston, MA)

Only one museum managed to be on all eight lists that I found: Boston Children’s Museum. And it is amazing! But unfortunately we are locals and have been there many times.

88%: 7 of 8

  • Port Discovery Children’s Museum (Baltimore, MD)
  • Strong Museum of Play (Rochester, NY)
  • Please Touch Museum (Philadelphia, PA)
  • Children’s Museum of Indianapolis (Indianapolis, IN)
  • Minnesota Children’s Museum (St. Paul, MN)

Of those, I have only been to Indianapolis so we have a lot of fun exploration in front of us for a few years!

The Middle List: 4 to 8 recommendations

  • Children’s Museum of Houston (Houston, TX) – 6 of 8
  • Children’s Museum of Denver (Denver, CO) – 5 of 8
  • Brooklyn Children’s Museum (Brooklyn, NY) – 4 of 8

The Brooklyn Children’s Museum was fantastic so if that only gets 4 of 8 then you know that the others are even better.

Pretty Good Ones: 2 to 3 recommendations

  • Museum of Science and Industry (Chicago, IL)
  • COSI (Columbus, OH)
  • Kohl Children’s Museum (Chicago, IL)
  • Madison Children’s Museum (Madison, WI)
  • Pittsburgh Children’s Museum (Pittsburgh, PA)
  • The Phoenix Children’s Museum (Phoenix, AZ)
  • Liberty Science Center (Jersey City, NJ)
  • Exploratorium (San Francisco, CA)
  • Discovery Place (Charlotte, NC)
  • Discovery Center Museum (Rockford, IL)

I have already been to a few of these as well (MoSI, COSI, Pittsburgh, and the Discovery Place) and they were great too! After this, my analysis found a number more probably fantastic museums that were just recommended as a “top” one by one site or the other.

I hope you find this list helpful in planning your preschooler-focused vacation, it sure has helped me!

 

 

Infocom’s Deadline (1982)

Most of my blogging time these days is over on The Adventure Gamer where I am currently working on a marathon of Zork-related games by Infocom. I’ve recently completed and reviewed mainframe Zork (also known as Dungeon), Zork I, and Zork II and am about to start playing 1982’s Zork III. (You can find a complete index of my TAG contributions here.) Between the second and third Zork title, Infocom completed a monumental chapter in the history of computer games: Deadline, one of the first mystery games and one of the first games that could rightfully use the label “interactive fiction”. Previous “mystery” games such as Sierra’s Mystery House (another game I reviewed for TAG) were treasure hunts with mystery elements; finally we had a game that could stand beside the works of Agatha Christie and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle.

As my colleague on TAG, Ilmari, already reviewed Deadline (see his review here), I did not want to step on his toes by doing another official review there. And yet, I wanted the experience of playing the game and documenting my thoughts as I did. That leads us to this special bonus post: my play and review of Deadline here while I work on Zork III over there. I haven’t read Ilmari’s review so I am coming into this game completely unspoiled, except that I played a bit of it (and didn’t understand it very well) when I was a kid. Let’s play!

Continue reading Infocom’s Deadline (1982)

The Pilaf Saga – Dragon Ball Episodes 1-13

I love Dragon Ball. I can’t properly explain why, but I’ve never claimed that my TV habit were sane. Like many American fans, I was exposed first to its sequel series, Dragon Ball Z, on Toonami. They played a fairly butchered version of the start of that show (the Saiyan arc up through the first portion with Freeza’s minions).  I had no idea at the time that I had missed out on the real beginning of the story or that it was based on a manga or really anything else. It, Tenchi Muyo, and Sailor Moon made up most of my early anime habit.

It has been many years since I’ve seen just about any of the original Dragon Ball and I’ve never made it all the way through that series. I’ve decided to kick off a new rewatch for myself of the show in order, discussing episodes in roughly groups of 10-15 depending on where the plot points break off. This first post covers the 13-episode “Pilaf Arc” which kicks off the anime.

Continue reading The Pilaf Saga – Dragon Ball Episodes 1-13