Friday, May 20, 2011

Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? - Phillip K. Dick

For many years now the trend in Hollywood has been to make movies based on awesome books.  I'm not sure what started the whole thing, but these days it seems to show no sign of slowing down.  It's pretty easy to understand the trend.  Authors who get books turned into movies, TV shows, lunchboxes, and shirts at Hot Topic seem to own nicer houses, and Hollywood writers can get paid a lot know...writing.  It's really a win-win situation.  At the same time, those of us in the general public, can probably think of one or two (or fifty) terrible movies that were based on really great books.  Whenever I hear about one of my beloved novels or comics being turned into a movie or TV show, my first reaction is, "Please God, don't let them ruin it!"  Unfortunately, those prayers are not always answered.

On the other hand, there is something very rewarding about discovering an author based on a movie you loved.  Working in reverse order usually has much better results.  So when I discovered that one of my favorite movies, "Blade Runner," was actually based on a book, I had no choice but to hunt down a copy and read it immediately.  

The story follows a bounty hunter named Rick Deckard, through a single day as he hunts down eight androids who have escaped Mars and taken human identities on Earth.  The androids are all of a sophisticated new model called Nexus 6, which makes them much more "human" than previous models.  As Deckard hunts them down, and comes face-to-face with each of them, he is confronted with a moral dilemma, and specific questions about what it means to be alive.  The androids desire to live.  To be as close to human as they can.  To enjoy life, and thrive on Earth.  And yet Deckard is hired to wipe them out.  At first he regards them as mere objects of human creation.  A computer that has stopped functioning as it's designer intended.  But as he goes on, he interacts with them, talks to them, hears their stories, and realizes that they might be more than just objects.  Can he continue to destroy them when he cannot define what it is that makes us alive?

Apart from the plot's central story are a few side journeys that really add a lot of depth to the book.  First is the story of Deckard and his wife.  Both are stuck in lives that are devoid of any meaning.  In fact, much of the Earth is in the same situation.  Humans rely on machines to "inject" them with emotions, often unable to feel anything without the machine's help.  They are lifeless creatures, reliant on man-made inventions to make them feel alive again.

The second subplot concerns the ownership of pets.  Earth has become a radioactive wasteland after a huge war.  Many animals have become completely, or are on the verge of being extinct.  Because of this, animals are a prized possession.  A status symbol, and coveted asset.  The less wealthy are dependent on electronic versions of animals, to allow them similar social standing, and a sense of accomplishment.  Deckard owns an electric sheep.  Nobody except he and his wife know that it is electric.  His status in intact in society, and yet he constantly struggles with knowing that his sheep is not genuine.  He cannot appreciate it, because it is metal on the inside.  He despises its falseness, constantly obsessing over the possibility of one day having a genuine animal. 

"Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep" is a lot like the movie "Blade Runner," and yet so different in many ways.  If you have seen the movie, you will immediately recognize many of the characters and plot points, but after that many of the similarities disappear.  Phillip K. Dick's book is a lot less about sci-fi action, and more about deep philosophical questions.  It forces you to ask, "What does it mean to be alive?", and yet leaves the question unanswered.  To me there is something very satisfying about a book that is able to take you through a fantastic journey, simultaneously making you think about life's great questions.  "Androids" is able to do just that, all without feeling forced or preachy.  For all the terrible movie adaptations out there, it only takes one like "Blade Runner"  to make me hope the trend continues for a long, long time.

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Slaughterhouse Five - Kurt Vonnegut

As an avid reader, I have a pretty solid stack of books sitting in a pile next to my bed, waiting to be read.  I also have another stack in my office at work, and a couple more situated in key areas around my apartment.  I honestly can't remember the last time any of these piles shrunk; in fact they grow at a pretty steady rate.  Given my love for reading, as well as my hatred of throwing my hard earned money down the toilet, I know that I will eventually get around to reading all of them.  At the same time, I also have a slightly different stack of books to read.  This stack is stored somewhere deep in my brain, and consist of books that fall under the category, "Oh man, I really need to read that!"  These are books that I see others reading, or glance at on store shelves, or even hear about on TV, the radio, or from friends.  I file their memory away in my brain for later retrieval.

For quite a while now, maybe even several years, "Slaughterhouse Five" has fallen into the deep recesses of my brain's book pile.  It remained there until just a few weeks ago when suddenly I happened to remember it on a trip to Barnes and Noble.  I've been hearing a lot about Vonnegut lately, as more and more people recommend his work to me.  "Slaughterhouse" is of course his most famous work, and considered one of the best English novels of the 20th century.  Critical acclaim usually doesn't mean much to me, but due to all the hype I decided to give "Slaughterhouse" a shot, and dove right in.

The book tells the story of Billy Pilgrim, a man who has become "unstuck" in time.  According to him, he was kidnapped by a race of aliens called the Tralfamadorians, and put in one of their zoos.  Due to their influence, they have enabled him to become unstuck in time, which means he can see and travel between all the moments of his life in in any order.  The story goes between Billy's younger days, his days as a soldier in World War II, his life after the war, and his later years as an older man.

The majority of the story revolves around Billy's time in the war.  As I read the story I couldn't help but think about Forrest Gump.  Billy is a lot like Forrest, a slow-witted man that is somewhat oblivious to the world around him, and yet also likable due to his innocence.  As a character, Billy is everything that war is not, and yet he finds himself in the midst of one of the worst wars the earth has ever seen.  There are many political statements made throughout the book, playing off of this contrast of character and setting.

While I did enjoy the book, I have to say that I wasn't blown away by it.  It is written in a great style that I really enjoyed, but at the same time the story never really sucked me in like I had hoped.  The main problem I had with the book was that I never really found myself caring about Billy.  He was likable, but not lovable.  I understand why Vonnegut made Billy the way he did, but I found it hard to care about him as the book went on.

Even though Billy is less than lovable, one could easily argue that he isn't even the main attraction.  The real gem of this book is the descriptions of the effects of war.  Vonnegut does a great job of describing what war is really about, and focuses on what happens when the war ends, and yet doesn't really end at all.  The war has an end date in the history books, but the effects last for years to come.  Broken lives, destroyed cities, generations forever changed.  These are the real starring characters of the book, and the ones that stay in your memory long after reading the last page.

There are many things to appreciate about "Slaughterhouse Five," and really only one or two minor complaints.  The writing style was fantastic.  The story was thought provoking, and kept me interested till the end.  The story is full of humor, social commentary, and moments that can't help but tug at your heart.  I also really liked the sci-fi aspects of time travel and the alien influence.  I'm a sucker for anything science fiction, so that was fun and added some great variety to the story.  As already mentioned, my only real complaint was with the character of Billy Pilgrim, and while I didn't connect with him, I completely understand that if he was any different the story would have a much different feel and effect.  You can't really blame Vonnegut for making Billy the way he did.  He just didn't really work for me, and personal preference is of course, personal.  In the end, "Slaughterhouse Five" was an enjoyable read, that kept me thinking long after I finished reading it.  It also inspired me to read more Vonnegut, which is of course one of the best endorsements a book can get.

Saturday, May 7, 2011

The Wind-Up Bird Chronicles - Haruki Murakami

Last month I was introduced to Haruki Murakami when I read the fantastic book, "Kafka on the Shore."  I was so hyped on that book, that immediately after finishing it I went to Barnes and Noble and picked up this novel, excitedly anticipating another mind-blowing adventure.  Unfortunately, after finishing "The Wind-Up Bird Chronicles," I feel a lot less satisfied than when I first experienced Murakami's work.  If you ever saw "The Matrix: Reloaded," then you might know what I mean.  The original Matrix was amazing, and while the second had a lot of the same aspects that made the first great, the initial awe wasn't there.  In the same way, I felt that "The Wind-Up Bird Chronicles," had a lot of the same great aspects as "Kafka," but when you feature them in a less inspired story, similar tricks just don't have the same impact.

The story takes place in Japan, and follows the life of a young man named Toru Okada.  Mr. Okada is currently unemployed, and lives with his wife Kumiko and their cat.  Toru has recently quit his office job, and is in the process of doing some soul searching to discover what his real calling in life is.  While he goes through this process, his wife continues to work and support their small family.  One day Toru and Kumiko discover that their cat has gone missing.  The cat has extreme sentimental value to Kumiko, and she asks Toru to find it by any means possible.  Thus starts the adventures of Toru Okada, as he sets out to solve the mystery of the missing cat.  He soons gets mixed up with several very interesting characters, including an old war veteran, a psychic prostitute, and a "spiritual healer" and her son.  What starts as a simple everyday task, soon turns into a crazy search that has much more to do with Toru, and less with his cat.

After reading this book, I really can't help but wish that I had read it before I read "Kafka on the Shore."  I think that if I had done that, I would have appreciated this book a lot more.  Unfortunately, that wasn't the case, and I left with the feeling that the sequel just didn't hold up to the original.  Of course, the two books are not linked in any way, but I think the analogy still works.

One thing I really enjoy about Murakami is he is really great at leaving a lot of his stories open to interpretation.  Right as you think he is going to explain everything, you turn the page and realize that the book is done.  It makes you develop your own ways to explain the unexplainable, imagining all sorts of possible tie-ups.  While I enjoyed that aspect of his writing in "Kafka," here I found it less appealing.  One reason for that is because in "Kafka" I think that the loose ends were much more open ended, freely giving way to the reader's imagination.  The places that my mind went were fun, and played easily off of the loose ends that Murakami left.  In "The Wind-Up Bird Chronicles," the loose ends were less easy to tie imagination to.  They were simply beyond the scope of my imagination, and instead made little to no sense in many cases.  A few were well thought out, but others just left me with the feeling that Murakami was just being vague for no good reason. 

Looking back over these last few paragraphs, I really feel like I am bashing this book too much.  While I was reading it, I actually enjoyed the story, and didn't have to fight to get through it.  At the same time, I just didn't feel like it met my expectations.  If you are interested in reading Murakami, I would have to recommend "Kafka on the Shore" much more highly.  However, if you think you might read a couple of his books, you may want to start with this one.  It's a lot easier to appreciate a good novel when you haven't read an authors greater works right before.

Monday, May 2, 2011

Uncanny X-Force - Rick Remender & Jerome Opena

I've never really been that into super-hero comics.  Batman is of course the exception to that rule, but if he ever starts shooting lasers from his eyes I might have to reconsider my loyalty.  I'm not sure why I've been steering clear of hero comics this long, but if I had to guess I'd say that the movie "Spiderman 3" played a pretty big role.

Thankfully, I don't hold grudges for too long, so after a short hiatus from Marvel, I was willing to give them another chance.  After reading "Uncanny X-Force," I can't help but thinking I waited too long to get back on board.  Without a doubt this is one of my favorite current series', and one that I think everybody should be reading.

First of all, if you are going to make a superhero team, this might just be the perfect formula.  You've got the tough guy, the hot babe, the wise cracking joker, the leader with an inner struggle that might destroy him, and the French guy.  Ok, well it's an ALMOST perfect formula.  Joking aside, even though I went into the story without a clue as to the mysterious Fantomex (aka the French guy), I found myself actually enjoying his character and how he fit in with the rest of the more well-known players.  Each hero fits into the story, has a unique voice, and plays well off of the others.  Plus it has Deadpool...on a team.  How can you not read that?

Even though Remender is working with an all-star cast, that doesn't guarantee a Grammy.  In the last few months I've read quite a few comics that "could have been awesome."  Great concepts and characters don't always amount to a great comic book.  Fortunately, in this case, Remender knows his way around a script, and has put his amazing cast into an equally amazing storyline.

The first story arc is one of the best things I have read in quite a while.  It is an epic adventure surrounding the rebirth of Apocalypse, and brings the X-Force into some nasty battles against his current horsemen lineup.  It immediately brought me back to my younger days as a kid watching X-Men cartoons on Saturday mornings, and the epic Apocalypse battles from back then.  Of course, as I grew up, so did the comics.  If Remender's version was made for TV they would probably have to leave Fox and go to HBO.  But that only adds to the appeal for this adult reader.

Adding to the "grown up" feel of the story is the amazing artwork.  I really enjoy the look of the series, and the way that Jerome Opena illustrates it.  It is dark and bloody, and goes well with the characters on the team.  They are all killers with messy pasts, and the artwork masterfully reflects that aspect of the story.

While I can't completely say that I've made the jump to being a super-hero junkie, I will say that "Uncanny X-Force" has opened the doors of possibility a little wider.  Due to my love for this series I have already gone out and started to read some other Marvel hero series', which is a pretty big endorsement in my book.  If you are looking for an engrossing story, with one of the better teams of heroes out there, this is definitely the place to start.

Monday, April 25, 2011

Super Dinosaur - Robert Kirkman

The last couple of weeks have been pretty dead as far as my blogging goes.  I've been reading a ton of stuff, but most of it has been an attempting to catch up to current releases on the various comic series I follow.  I've also been reading an awesome novel that I should be finishing and posting about in a few days.  In the midst of all this reading, I had the opportunity to pick up a really great first issue of "Super Dinosaur," which just released this month.  I am a sucker for friend's recommendations, so when my friend Sunda recommended it, I knew it was bound for blog fame.  First of all, Sunda has purple hair, so really, how can you not value her opinion?  And second, this is a comic about dinosaurs.  Not just dinosaurs, but dinosaurs that wear robotic armor and fight each other.  If that doesn't do anything for you then you are probably this guy.  Keeping both of those facts in mind, I spent my four dollars, and headed home to dive into the adventure.

The story of "Super Dinosaur" revolves around a teenage boy named Derek Dynamo.  He is the son of Doctor Dynamo, a brilliant scientist.  Doctor Dynamo and his former partner Max Maximus co-discovered that under the Earth's surface is a place called "Inner Earth," which is the home to the dinosaurs!  Inner Earth also contains a rare material called "DynOre," which is basically solar power contained in rock form.  Soon after their discovery, the two scientists become enemies, with Maximus trying to take over the world, and Dynamo trying to protect it.  Doctor Dynamo recruits his son, his created robot "Wheels," and a giant T-Rex named Super Dinosaur, or "SD" for short.  Together, the four of them battle the forces of Max Maximus and protect Inner Earth from his evil plans of world domination.

If you are over the age of 12, then there might have been a few times in that last paragraph that you rolled your eyes.  When I first started reading this comic, I have to admit, I was a little turned off by some of the lackluster choices.  "Max Maximus?"  "Derek Dynamo"?  "DynOre?"  I mean, even the comic's title is a little..well, unoriginal.  This isn't exactly the complex Kirkman I've grown to love.  Where are the dark, gritty, emotionally taxing story lines?  The exploding zombies?  Where are all the things that made Kirkman a comic legend?  Then it hit me, Spielberg did "Saving Private Ryan," but he also did "E.T."  Maybe this new Kirkman is different, but that doesn't mean it's not worthy of praise. 

After reading "Super Dinosaur," it was pretty obvious that Kirkman was writing this book for younger audiences.  When asked about the series, Kirkman said, "I want it to be a true all-ages book in that it's appropriate for kids young enough but still able to read, and it's still something that my fan base will probably enjoy."

Honestly, when he puts it that way, he nailed it!  This is the perfect comic series for young readers.  It's got everything that kids love, action, adventure, fun artwork, it's simple to read, and...oh yeah, DINOSAURS!  It's a home run.  Not only would any kid gladly read this story, but Kirkman also did something that is truly rare in youth fiction – he made it appeal to older readers as well.  While I wasn't as captivated as I have been with some of his "Walking Dead" storylines, I have to admit, I had a lot of fun with "Super Dinosaur."  It was an enjoyable read, simple, fun, and entertaining.  When a book has all those characteristics, it doesn't matter if you are 12 or 29, it makes it worth the read.

Saturday, April 9, 2011

Morning Glories - Nick Spencer

I have to admit, when I first heard about "Morning Glories" I was a little bit less than enthusiastic about reading it.  Reading a comic about six gifted kids at a prestigious prep school seemed about as appealing as a trip to the dentist.  I spent four years in high school, and believe me, I'm not in any rush to go back.  Unfortunately, every trip to my comic store had me passing "Morning Glories" on the shelf, trying to avoid eye contact.  It didn't help that everyone I talked to told me I needed to be reading it.  I was starting to have flashbacks to 1997 when "Titanic" came out and peer pressure led to one of the bigger mistakes of my twenty-nine years.  Was I really about to read something made for teenage girls, just because everyone said it was good? 

As I've already mentioned, "Morning Glories" takes place inside a prestigious prep school for gifted teens.  The story follows six new students as they arrive at school, get situated, and start to experience all that their new home has to offer.  Almost immediately they realize that things are not exactly what they expected.  They discover they all have the same birthday, which just happens to be on the exact day they were brought to Morning Glory Academy.  They also soon realize their past lives have been completely erased; not even their own parents remember them.  As panic sets in, the students are confronted with a harsh truth: they are prisoners in their own school!  The entire staff of Morning Glory Academy seems to have some dark ulterior motive for the students, but that motive is a complete mystery.  As this newly formed alliance of six begins to oppose the authority of their captors, they embark on a mission to reclaim one of their members from unknown horrors, and to try to answer the biggest mystery of them all – why were they brought here in the first place?

After reading through the first six issues in one sitting, I can tell you that I am in a much better mindset than when I exited the movie theater after "Titanic" in 1997.  The great thing about "Morning Glories" was that it shattered all of my preconceived notions.  I was expecting "The Breakfast Club," and instead I got a well written, beautifully illustrated, intricate, dark , sci-fi mystery, that just happened to take place in a high school.  There's no better feeling than when something goes above and beyond your expectations, and "Morning Glories" did just that.

The other thing that got me excited about "Morning Glories" is it's a fairly new series.  I believe they are on comic 8 or 9 right now, so catching up is really pretty easy.  As I mentioned in some of my other posts, trying to jump in on a well established series can sometimes be daunting, but that isn't a problem here.  The first six issues are available in paperback trade form for only TEN BUCKS!  That's a fantastic deal, and really allows you to check out this great series without much of an investment.  Although, if you are like me, that initial ten dollars might quickly turn into an extra four each month.  Whether you're a fan of high school or not, take a chance on "Morning Glories."  I think you'll find high school to be a lot more interesting this time around.

Friday, April 8, 2011

Nonplayer - Nate Simpson

I usually like to wait to review comics until I can read at least the first trade (6+ issues), but this week I am making an exception.  It's been a while since I mentioned Jeff Wester in a blog post (hey, you can only name drop so much), but once again Jeff came through with the goods.  This week he posted about a new comic release called "Non Player" that was hitting store shelves.  Fortunately I spend way too much time on Facebook, so I saw his recommendation about 3.2 seconds after he posted it, and was soon standing outside Iguana Comics waiting for someone to open the shop.  Due to my lack of social life and quick speed-walking skills, I was soon in possession of a brand new copy of this amazing first issue.

"Non Player" takes place in two very different worlds.  The "real world"– a  technology-rich, futuristic setting – and an online fantasy world in which players become their alter ego and live the adventure.  The story centers around a young woman named Dana Stevens, who lives a very mundane lifestyle as a delivery girl, but takes every opportunity to live out her fantasy online.  Apparently as the story goes on, the lines between the two worlds will be blurred, making for an interesting concept, and hopefully some great story lines.

Obviously I can't say a whole heck of a lot about this book yet, because I've only read the first issue.  However, in my short four month obsession with comics, I haven't read anything yet that has me this excited for the next issue.  The concept is awesome, especially as an ex-WoW player, and the artwork is amazing.  This book has some of the most stunning artwork I have seen ANYWHERE, and is worth a purchase just based on that alone.  If I could afford it, I would wallpaper my room with this guy's art.

Artwork aside, I found the actual story line to be very engaging, and while there wasn't a whole ton of depth yet, I felt like it did a great job of drawing me in.  Really all we get to see is a pretty epic battle scene, followed by some "real world" dialogue and character interaction.  It definitely sets the scene for the next book, and gets the series off to a great start. 

If you're looking to get in on the ground floor of a great new series, then get down to Iguana and reserve a copy of "Non Player."  Image just announced a second printing to come soon, which is great news for the series.  As an avid MMO fan, I'm hoping "Non Player" takes after World of Warcraft, and sticks around for many years to come.