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Ambassadors From Earth: Pioneering Explorations With Unmanned Spacecraft

Ambassadors From EarthOrder this bookStory: The history of outer solar system exploration is covered in depth, from the earliest notional studies of robotic exploration beyond Mars to the missions that actually made it off the drawing board and into space – Pioneers 10 and 11, Voyagers 1 and 2, and their progeny such as Galileo and Cassini.

Review: This is the book I’ve been looking for and waiting for. There are books aplenty – both lovely and lacking – on the Voyager missions to the outer planets, but while JPL’s machine marvels continue functioning to this day, outlasting interplanetary missions launched both before and since 1977, they were not the first. This book covers the ambitious Pioneer missions to Jupiter and Saturn that preceeded (and, in many ways, paved the way for) the Voyagers, and revealed that there was much to be gained by going and – at least for a while – staying at Jupiter and Saturn. Continue reading

The 100 Greatest Console Video Games: 1977-1987

The 100 Greatest Console Video Games: 1977-1987Order this bookStory: Video game scholar Brett Weiss nominates his picks for the hundred best console games from the heyday of the age of cartridges – from the earliest days of interchangeable cartridges in 1977 to the ascendancy of the Nintendo Entertainment System a decade later. Across a wide variety of game systems and genres, covering killer app originals and ports of popular arcade games alike, the picks represent a wide spectrum of both hardware and software. If that’s not enough for you, an appendix nominates a hundred additional contenders.

Review: In the interests of full disclosure (a dying art these days, isn’t it?), I’ll tell you that I’m quoted in several places in this book, though I didn’t know which quotes from past articles of mine would pop up, so The 100 Greatest Console Video Games was still a nice surprise for me.

The “Top [insert number here] List” format is a mainstay of pop culture retrospectives, but often falls victim to the “received wisdom” of a particular age group or other demographic. Weiss tries to touch on many genres and numerous systems here, encouraging his readers to discover gems that they may have overlooked in the past. Continue reading

Stranger Than Fiction: The Life And Times Of Split Enz

Stranger Than FictionOrder this bookStory: Original Split Enz bassist Mike Chunn, who played with the New Zealand supergroup in its formative art-rock-turned-theatrical-extravaganza phase (1972-77) charts the formation, the heady rise and eventual success of the group, with comments from all of his bandmates and his own insider perspective.

Review: Can there ever really be enough books about the musical career of the Finn Brothers? (For this reader: no. As it so happens, the first book ever reviewed in this section was a book on this very topic.) And strangely enough, the aforementioned book about Crowded House quoted this book heavily: primary source material if ever there was some. And source material doesn’t get much more primary than the memoir of one of the founding members of Split Enz. Continue reading

Warnings: The True Story Of How Science Tamed The Weather

WarningsOrder this bookStory: Mike Smith, former TV meteorologist and founder of Weatherdata, Inc., recounts the formative events that inspired him to study weather – particularly severe weather – and take it up as a career. His involvement in forecasting such severe weather events as Hurricane Katrina and the devastating 2007 Greensburg, Kansas tornado (which destroyed that entire town), is covered in detail.

Review: A fascinating read for at least half of its page count, “Warnings” promises to be a history of forecasting severe weather in the United States. The first half of the book delivers on that admirably, taking us from the era when tornadoes just seemed to sneak up on (and kill) an unaware populace to modern times, when the debate usually isn’t “was there a warning?”, but rather “how much lead time did the warning give?”. From the fabled first (and quite unauthorized) tornado warning issued at, and for, Tinker Air Force Bace in Oklahoma City, the development of severe weather forecasting and warning is traced through the use of modified navigational radars from ships to the development of Doppler radar and computer modeling (and the very hands-on human data gathering that has to happen for the computer modeling to be even remotely useful or accurate). Continue reading

Brighter Day: A Jellyfish Story

Brighter Day: A Jellyfish StoryOrder this bookStory: In tracing the family histories of the band members, charting their musical adventures before and after Jellyfish, and recounting conversations between the band themselves, their agents, label reps, producers, and occasional session players, the author is really trying to answer one question: why were there only two albums?

Review: Jellyfish is a band whose all-too-brief body of work has been dissected, repeatedly remastered, relentlessly reissued, and held up as the standard of an entire genre of music…which really isn’t bad when that body of work consists of the band’s two early ’90s albums, the demos for those albums, and a handful of demos – maybe half an extra album’s worth – of songs pitched to other artists during the band’s active years. None of the demos made it out until nearly a decade after Jellyfish disbanded, though, so we’re talking about two really influential albums.

The answer to the book’s central question takes the form of a book’s worth of classic creative differences and clashes of ego and personality. Always centered around the songwriting duo of Andy Strurmer and Roger Manning, Jellyfish had little room for other creative input, but took on headstrong, confident would-be rock star Jason Falkner during pre-production of the first album anyway. Falkner joined the band on a promise of equal creative input: he’d have a say in what he was playing, and as a songwriter in his own right, he’d get to add material to the band’s catalogue. He also personally coached Manning’s younger brother Chris, who joined as bassist soon afterward. The end of this promising first lineup – the band that recorded 1990’s Bellybutton – was simply down to Falkner losing patience with being shut out as a creative contributor, and Sturmer not being particularly sorry to see him go. Chris Manning, appalled at how all of this had gone down, left soon afterward.

But Sturmer and Roger Manning had another album in mind, heavy on stylistic homage to A Night At The Opera-era Queen; having to recruit another entire band around them wouldn’t stop them. Lyle Workman, fresh from just-broken-up ’80s cult pop heroes Bourgeois Tagg, joined them in the studio to take Falkner’s slot as guitar god, only to be stabbed in the back later by management, concerned that the veteran studio session player didn’t have stage presence. Though much of the killer guitar work on 1994’s Spilt Milk is Workman, the group was formally credited as Sturmer, Manning, and new touring members Tim Smith and Eric Dover.

With everything riding on Sturmer’s mercurial mood shifts and social awkwardness, even that new lineup and the impressive new album came to nought; Jellyfish broke up at the end of touring in support of Spilt Milk and the members went their separate ways. The book takes great pains to note that, while Sturmer and Falkner wound up working as session players on a Paul McCartney album quite by coincidence, and Falkner and Manning have worked together numerous times, Sturmer and Manning have literally not spoken to each other since the breakup of Jellyfish.

And that’s really the tone-setter for the whole book: as much as we might marvel as the music that could have been, the real tragedy is the dissolution of a once-unshakeable friendship and creative partnership. All of the members have moved on to other projects, though Sturmer had faded into the backstage world of producing and writing, without generating any solo material under his own name. Falkner, Manning, and the new members brought aboard for Jellyfish’s short-lived Spilt Milk touring configuration have all gone on to release their own music, that latter pair under the name Umajets, and all of it bears the hallmarks of Jellyfish’s sound and style. Jellyfish lives in every way but name and the full-up reunion fans would like to see.

And thanks to this book, we now have a warts-and-all, honest-to-a-fault record of why. The interviews and recollections are reformatted into conversations that flow like a novel, adding up to a story of musical prodigies whose creativity could more than fill the same studio if all of them gathered there at once. There’s no drug abuse in this story, and the closest anyone gets to having even so much as a drinking problem is when Falkner has to back off on fairly mild recreational drinking because his final days with the band were causing him an ulcer. There are no villains or addictions here – just three brilliant musical talents who couldn’t get along. It’s all recorded expertly and assembled logicallly, so I can recommend Brighter Day: A Jellyfish Story to you…just be aware that it’s disheartening in places, especially to fellow creative types.

Year: July 1, 2016
Author: Craig Dorfman
Publisher: Not Lame Media
Pages: 336

Season Finale: The Unexpected Rise and Fall of the WB and UPN

Season FinaleOrder this bookStory: Industry insiders trace the two rival attempts to create the “fifth network” of the 1990s – Warner Brothers’ WB network and the United Paramount Network, from the earliest discussions of starting them through their mutual decline and merger into the 21st century CW network. Spoiler: neither of the networks, only a handful of the networks’ shows, and only some of their executives’ careers, make it out of the story alive.

Review: As a promo writer/producer at two UPN stations in the 1990s – one in Arkansas, one in Wisconsin – it was my job to try to make all of the network’s shows look good to our audience, as best I could, with the material the network made available to us. It wasn’t easy. UPN was a schizophrenic beast: hip, urban humor one night, sci-fi the next night. And when the network suddenly claimed all five weeknights for its fall 1998 season, that wild spread of shows and genres got even wilder. I always wanted to know: how did those decisions get made, who made them, and why did the promotional push for that…diverse (trying to be charitable there)…1998 season seem to evaporate as soon as the shows premiered?

Written by WB programming executive Suzanne Daniels and Daily Variety reporter Cynthia Littleton (likely drawing from her own coverage of UPN), Season Finale answers that question and many more. Continue reading

Star Trek: The Next Generation – The Space Between

Star Trek: The Next Generation - The Space BetweenOrder this bookStory: A series of loosely connected adventures traces the Enterprise crew’s infrequent brushes with a slowly-unfolding mystery that points toward a shadow faction of Starfleet whose actions could endanger the Federation’s peaceful agenda.

Review: Published in six issues in 2007 to commemorate the 20th anniversary of the launch of Star Trek: The Next Generation, “The Space Between”‘s six discrete stories are so tenuously connected that one could be forgiven for not realizing that there’s connecting tissue at all. But that’s not really a problem, since “The Space Between” also happens to consist of some pretty good stand-alone stories that feel absolutely authentic to the “eras” of TNG that they portray.

The first story, “History Lesson,” is a nifty little mind-bender that would’ve done Brannon Braga proud in the show’s later years of Mental Possession Plots Every Third Week, and yet this one seeems almost fresh, set during the first season with an interesting artistic take on the characters and Tasha Yar kicking ass like she seldom got to do on TV. “Captain’s Pleasure” builds on the notion of Picard taking leave from the big chair to go on archaeological digs (see also The Chase, Gambit part I), and as with the television episodes where that happened, there’s not only an archaeological mystery but a murder mystery to solve, along with the unlikely sight of Beverly Crusher getting down in a Studio 54-style holodeck disco.

“Strategy” fast-forwards to season 7 and, amid a plotline about recurring attacks by a mystery vessel possession Federation, Romulan and Borg tech, addresses the Worf-Troi-Riker love triangle more adeptly than the series ever got around to doing. “Light Of The Day” is an odd duck, almost like a Star Trek take on a zombie story – which, of course, IDW later did across all of its licensed ranges with its Infestation miniseries. With zombies about as overexposed in horror fiction as vampires are these days, this was the least interesting story to me, though it did at least bring Ensign Ro back into the fold (I’m guessing somewhere in season six, since no stardate is given), and features some fascinating visual effects for the view from Geordi’s VISOR.

The in-jokey title of “Space Seeds” (playing off of Space Seed, the original Trek episode that introduced Khan) is set during season 2, and features an interesting agricultural sci/tech mystery (yes, you read that right) in which Wesley Crusher plays a vital role (you read that right too) and even kicks butt (you’re still reading that right). It’s almost my favorite story in the book, with one exception: without the restriction of having to track down a specific actor or meet the approval of producers making a current Trek series, why no Doctor Pulaski?

The end of “Space Seeds” abruptly sets up the final story, “An Inconvenient Truth,” which would seem to be a TNG nod to Section 31 (a concept introduced in Deep Space Nine and later revealed to have been around as far back as The Space BetweenStar Trek: Enterprise). Admiral Nechayev is brought back and cast in a rather sinister light – we still don’t know whose side she’s on by the end of the story. (Maybe she doesn’t know either, explaining her eternal crankiness.)

Writer David Tischman – who scripted all of the disparate adventures – betrays a little bit of love for the last Star Trek spinoff to hit TV to date; Picard’s archaeological team finds a long-lost Starfleet shuttlepod from the starship Columbia (NX-02), while “Strategy” revives the notion of Romulans deploying remote-controlled ships. The TNG characters are written pitch-perfect – perhaps too pitch-perfect, as there are a few places where I rolled my eyes at a couple of seemingly over-the-top characterizations before reminding myself that the TV series, a creature of the ’80s that just happened to live on into the ’90s, would likely have done exactly the same things. For good or ill, Tischman’s scripts evoke the series perfectly.

Casey Maloney’s artwork improves throughout the story cycle, though this may be a case of other inkers (Maloney draws and inks the early stories) bringing their own style to the table and enhancing his already impressive artwork. By the time the final story kicks in, it’s one of the best-looking Trek comics I’ve ever seen. And thank goodness for the lovely cover artwork on the trade paperback: the individual issues had three covers each – an “A” cover (usually very nicely done artwork), a “B” cover (always an execrable photo-montage of well-worn publcity shots) and retailer incentive covers, which zig-zagged between both styles. The cover on the TPB is the best of one world, thank you very much.

This was IDW’s first foray into the Next Generation license, and in many ways it’s still my favorite.

Year: 2007
Writer: David Tischman
Pencils: Casey Maloney
Inks: Casey Maloney, Aaron Leach, Stacie Ponder
Colors: Leonard O’Grady
Letters: Robbie Robbins, Neil Uyetake, Chris Mowry

Publisher: IDW
Pages: 144

The Brilliant Book of Doctor Who 2011

The Brilliant Book of Doctor Who 2011Order this bookStory: A mashup of fiction, behind-the-scenes fact and a treasure trove of photos, the Brilliant Book covers Matt Smith’s first season as the Doctor. Profiles of the show’s stars and creative staff include looks at the production of the 2010 season and glimpses into the history of the show. The Dream Lord put in an appearance to drop vaguely spoilery hints about the 2011 season, but those hints are wedged in between lots of misleading red herrings and other total fabrications.

Review: When I was a kid and Doctor Who was on the cusp of being in vogue in America in the 1980s, Doctor Who books usually shared many qualities – they were nifty hardbacks with nice cover art, they had gobs of information about the show’s past that you were unlikely to find anywhere else in the days before the web and the commercial availability of every complete story in existence, and they also usually happened to be compiled by the late Peter Haining (I hesitate to use the word “written” because Haining made an art form out of collating essays and other content that was written by others). Not unlike the show that inspired it, Haining’s books were wordy and progressed at a very leisurely pace (even for non-fiction), and contained lots of exlamation points!

By contrast, “Doctor Who: The Brilliant Book 2010” changes topics, typographical/layout styles and authors every few pages – a sort of printed representation of the breakneck pace at which the Doctor’s adventures unfold in the modern series. Continue reading

Tron: Betrayal

Tron: BetrayalOrder this bookStory: In 1983, after his nearly miraculous experience on the MCP’s game grid in the ENCOM mainframe, Kevin Flynn creates his own experimental computer system on a computer in the basement of his arcade. With ENCOM’s systems secured from further interference by the MCP, Flynn borrows Alan Bradley’s Tron security program to help keep an eye on the new system. But real world concerns – his duties as the new CEO of ENCOM, his marriage and impending fatherhood – prevent Flynn from devoting the time to the digital world that he would like. His answer is to recreate Clu, another program that originated in the MCP’s system, to act as his deputy in the digital world. But Flynn, Clu and Tron are caught off-guard by a new development on the grid: the emergence of isomorphic algorithms, a new digital life form that Flynn neither created nor anticipated. Flynn sees the advanced society of the isos as a source of inspiration for the solutions to problems of the real world, but Clu sees them as the nexus of expanding disorder within “his” system and decides to take action.

Review: Building on a flashback info-dump from the movie Tron Legacy, “Tron: Betrayal” is a neat piece of connecting tissue bridging the new movie and its 1982 inspiration, but frustratingly, this spinoff project suffers from a specific storytelling problem that also stuck out like a sore thumb on film. Continue reading

The Black Douglas

The Black DouglasOrder this bookStory: William, Earl of Douglas, has struggled since the death of his father to keep his lands intact and in the hands of the Douglas family. But he has enemies at every side. King James II of Scotland wants the lands, while his uncle James, the Red Douglas, covets his titles. When an emissary from France arrives on scene it sets in motion a series of events that will change the political landscape of Scotland forever.

Review: I need to make it clear why I read and am reviewing a little-known book first published over a hundred years ago. It all starts in an unlikely place: “The History of the Hobbit” by John D. Rateliff. I should point out that I am a big fan of “The Hobbit” (even more than its sequel), so the two-volume history of its creation was a must-have for me. But I found that work to be far too opinionated and simple-minded for my taste. Among other issues, Rateliff had a tendency to denigrate any author he did not feel worthy of association with Tolkien. One such author was S. R. Crockett and his novel, “The Black Douglas”. Continue reading