Monday, May 22, 2017

This Long Vigil

This Long Vigil by Rhett C. Bruno. Originally published December, 2015 by Pervenio Corp. Approx. 20 pages.

Last June, I concluded my review for Rhett C. Bruno's ambitious bounty hunter novel Titanborn with the observation that he has introduced a universe that is fertile ground for additional stories. This Long Vigil, actually published back in 2015, While this emotional short does take place in the same universe, it is not connected to the story of Titanborn protagonist Malcolm Graves. Let's take a look at the blurb before we get to the review.

After twenty five years serving as the lone human Monitor of the Interstellar Ark, Hermes, Orion is scheduled to be placed back in his hibernation chamber with the other members of the crew. Knowing that he will die there and be replaced before the ship's voyage is over, he decides that he won't accept that fate. Whatever it takes he will escape Hermes and see space again, even if it means defying the regulations of his only friend -- the ship-wide artificial intelligence known as Dan.

The story here revolves around Orion's "last day on the job". We watch as he goes through the mundane motions of his daily tasks, eats the same nutrient-balanced food equivalent, and engages in games of riddles with Dan, the AI that overseas all the major operations of the Hermes. 

And yet, something keeps niggling at the back of Orion's mind. Is it a feeling of doubt, of desire, or both? These feelings are exacerbated as he finalizes his choice for his replacement monitor. Day in, and day out, he witnesses births and deaths which occur in stasis tubes. It is Inhabitant 2781, the beautiful young female who is the forerunner in his replacement choices, that apparently spurs the escalation of Orion's desire to want.....well, to want more.

So, Orion has to make the first true choice of his lifetime. What comes out of it is a sobering, emotional tale. You might be expecting something with an element of danger, or perhaps the kindly Dan assuming a dictator role, but that isn't this story. This is a story that reminds us that the tough choices are often the tough choices because they do not come with guaranteed happy endings.

Orion is a nicely done protagonist. We can sympathize, for sure, with the frustration associated with a mundane life of set tasks. At one point I wondered, what is it that drives him to desire "freedom"? It isn't as though he is shown trying to gather additional intelligence on the "worlds out there". But, then you realize, it is basic human nature to try to see, learn, and know what is a step beyond the familiar.

As in his Circuit books, Bruno gives us an AI that is more compelling than the human character. Dan is a system akin to HAL or AUTO, As the story progresses, we wonder if his efforts at rapport are genuine, or set algorithms in place to maintain the mental sanity of the human element on the ship. However, as the story reaches its climax, it becomes apparent that the concern was in fact genuine (or was it?).

There you have it; a fully-realized, emotional tale packed into an economical wordcount. Give this short a read.

Buy it here.

Visit Rhett's site.

Recent TNL interview with Rhett C. Bruno.

Tuesday, May 16, 2017

Gorgo

Gorgo by Carson Bingham. Originally published by Monarch Books, July, 1960. Approx. 141 pages.

Ok, so here we go with another movie novelization. Most of you who follow the blog know that I am a fan of Godzilla, as well as other giant monster (daikaiju) films. Now, as we all know, the good ol' U.S. of A and Japan are not the only countries to have made giant monster movies. Many others have stepped into the ring, with varied results. Some are great, and some only maintain their notoriety through their lasting mediocrity. Back in 1961, England, land of fish, chips, great actors, and inclement weather, offered the world "Gorgo". It was....well, it's not a bad film.


The acting is pretty wooden, the production values are decent, London makes a great destruction destination, and the costume is clunky as all hell (makes you truly appreciate the Godzilla suit actors). The leads are pretty forgettable, and there's an annoying kid who looks like he was plucked out of a Lassie sequel. And, for some reason, it's not as much fun to watch Brits run in terror as it is Japanese people. Must be the stiff upper lips.

You could say, in the end, that Britain got a Participation Trophy for its involvement in the global kaiju film trade.

Honestly, it's not much to be proud of. Even North Korea won one of those.

All that aside, Gorgo still has its fan base. It even had a comic run with Charlton Comics as well.



But, did you know that Gorgo had a novelization as well? Back in 1960, American pulp novel producer Monarch Books released a treatment of the movie. Let's take a look at the blurb on the back:


If you've actually seen the movie, something about that description will be glaringly odd to you. Namely, who the heck is this Moira character? Gorgo is a movie that is exceedingly bereft of women/romance. If you've seen the Mystery Science Theater treatment of the film (I was going to link it but it's no longer available due to copyright. So much for share the tapes.), Segment 5 of that episode centers around Crow and Servo making a "Women of Gorgo" calendar; the joke being, of course, that there are no women to include on it. So, who is this mysterious, virginal, Moira? Well, more on that in a sec. The way that the novel is structured, it is almost segmented into three parts; and it's best to look at each one at a time.

The opening portion sets the story for us: we meet Joe and Sam, two American salvage trawler operators working off the coast of Ireland. A freak storm tosses them, landing them on the Island of Nara. The crew receives a frosty welcome, courtesy of the shady harbormaster, McCartin. There's more afoot: strange happenings are claiming the lives of local sailors/fishermen. This comes to a head when a nightmarish, prehistoric beast rears its head off the shore. Joe and Sam strike a deal to capture the monster. Then, after making a deal to tender it to the Irish authorities, conniver Joe sells the beast to the owner of Dorkin's Circus in London. Monster in tow, they head off.

This opening act was actually a bit of a surprise. I was expecting some real pulpy, purple, mediocre stuff here. But Bingham (actually a pen name) gives us some authentic seafaring scenes. He even creates some suspense and tension in underwater scenes featuring Gorgo. He fleshes out the leads as well; instead of stiff, B-movie vets, we get a pair of brawling sea dogs (actually, he makes Joe into a yellow-eyed, murderous one).

All fine and good. Then, we get to the second portion; or should I say, the Moira portion. A bit of perspective here; Monarch Books was, as mentioned, best known for pulp books. For an idea of their average offering, let's take a peek at some ads from the back pages of Gorgo:


So, I'm guessing someone at Monarch took a look at the Gorgo material and announced "You know what this needs? It needs a dame angle." And, that's what it got. Enter Moira, a completely naive, consummately buxom young lady living in isolation on Nara. Her and Sam fall predictably hard for one another; to the chagrin of both her dictator-like father, and wolf-eyed Joe. They romance one another, while Gorgo languishes firmly in the background, trapped in a net on the ship. Joe makes a play for her, getting it into Sam's head that she's using him. Sam, in turn, ends up believing whoever is talking to him at the moment, leading him to keep flipping like an epileptic pancake. It's pretty funny. There's a lot of what they used to call "heavy petting". Moira can't seem to move without her clothes hugging and accentuating her ample, nubile curves.

To be honest, this is all a lot of fun. I mean, it is the stuff right out of the time when men's men needed to fight off blood-thirsty weasels and win the swooning girl.

Man, do I remember those days.

What exactly does this have to do with Gorgo, the plot, or the movie it is based on? Absolutely nothing. But then, to play devil's advocate, it's a better substitute than the boring bits in the film.

Finally, we get to the meat and potatoes of any monster film/book; the arrival of the beast. Well, it's no secret (heck, it's mentioned in the linked trailer above), that the captured Gorgo is actually just a baby, and a two hundred foot tall mother is coming to claim it.

I'd say Bingham does this portion fairly well. To be honest, there's not a lot of detail surrounding the monster itself. I don't know if he didn't have a final model to work from, or just couldn't write about Gorgo's flipper ears and over-sized claws without it sounding silly. He even seems to be poking fun at it at one point, mentioning that its motion look more like "someone doing calisthenics" than anything else.

The scenes of destruction and chaos are done well, though. We are given a nice panoramic view of London being destroyed; and it comes off with a realism that trumps what made it to the screen. Heck, throughout the book, the portions which match the movie are all done in a serviceable manner. The problems usually arise whenever Bingham tries to shoehorn Moira back into the narrative. Case in point: one laughable moment when Joe, Sam, and Moira escape an underground rail tunnel after a water main break. Never mind all the collapsed buildings and bodies floating by. Moira turns to Sam, her wet clothes dutifully clinging to her form, and proclaims "Sam! Tis cold I am!" Yeah. Okay, sweetheart. That's the primary concern as London is being destroyed and we are making our egress over the bodies of the fallen.

Other scenes that elicit a good chuckle revolve around London's military defense. Why exactly would you line up your tanks on flimsy bridge to fight a monster that just recently flipped over a Navy destroyer like a dollar store toy boat? Why would you set the Thames on fire and then act surprised when a gust of wind carries the flames to the wooden roofs of nearby buildings? These things make no sense; not in the movie, and certainly not in a book.

And there you have it in a nutshell. The book is not great; but then again, the movie wasn't great either. However, the book is not amateurish, which is what I had feared. The introduced scenes with Moira add a little 'excitement' to the boring parts, but the incongruity of these scenes cannot be overlooked. This is a book whose greatest assets, as well as weaknesses, lie in how dated it is. It is irrefutable fun for giant monster enthusiasts, completist collectors, and fans of novelizations. For all others, you might want to pass. This book does not usually come cheap (this copy set me back about $25 after shipping), and that's a lot of buck for a little bang.

Cover:

Decent grab from the movie. The reddish hue is a nice touch; but honestly, they should've used a different tone, so as to be able to showcase Gorgo's famous blood red eyes.


Friday, May 12, 2017

Sword Art Online 2: Aincrad

Sword Art Online 1:Aincrad by Reki Kawahara. Originally published by Yen Press/Hachette Book Group, 2015. Approx. 242 pages (some color and B&W illustrations as well).

Wow, I can't believe that it's been over a year since I read and reviewed the first light novel in this series. Even sadder, in that time, I've only watched the first three episodes of the show. I must say, I was taken a bit by surprise at how much I enjoyed this title, even to the point where I've begun buying the rest of the novels (they do look quite nice on the shelf). Yes, I am indeed becoming quite the fan of SAO....

Well, maybe not that much of a fan.....

Moving on to Volume 2. I wasn't really sure what to expect in this volume, especially since Volume 1 brought the Aincrad arc to a sufficient close. What Volume 2 actually amounts to is 4 vignettes covering girls that were background characters in the story. Again, since I haven't watched all of the anime, I don't know yet how prominently these girls figure in the show (although Sachi's story, "Red Nosed Reindeer", was the third episode of the show).

The Black Swordsman (49pgs): This story tells how Kirito and Silica the Beast-Tamer first met. This story, to be honest, really isn't that good. Although it is written in the same fun, honest manner, it is just made up of so many "it just so happens" coincidences that it beats your suspension of disbelief over the head. Beast-tamer isn't an official class, but Silica just happens to be one. Monsters don't form emotional bonds with their tamers, but her dragon Pina just so happens to. When it dies; sacrificing itself for her, Silica just so happens to meet Kirito, who just so happens to know about a place to revive it, but it must be done within a time limit set to  necessitate urgency, yet allow for some narrative growth. Well, actually, there was some planning afoot in all the meetings; but still, it comes off as a bit corny.

There is conflict, although by this point in the story Kirito is so "OP" that there is no sense of tension, or risk, involved.

The bonding aspect of the story is fun enough. The problem is that, well, Silica is just kind of annoying. She seems nice and honest enough, but teeters off into being impetuous too easily. Of course, she develops a raging crush on Kirito. I mean, this is all fairly rote and tropey; and usually, the SAO stuff is tropes done right. In this case, not so much so. Still a fun enough story.

Warmth of the Heart (60pgs): The second story tells of how Kirito and Lisbeth the Blacksmith became friends. Lisbeth is a teen blacksmith, of unparalleled skill, who is also hardworking, shrewd, and playful in a teasing manner. She is also Asuna's best friend. However, one day, a mysterious swordsman in black walks into her shop, requesting a one of a kind sword.

In the process of testing her wares, Kirito breaks her best custom sword. The two make a pact to search for a mysterious metal, to see if Lisbeth can fashion a unique sword from that.

The rest of the story details their growing friendship. There is a time in the story, when the two of them are trapped for a bit, which is very effective for portraying the need for basic human interaction - and feeling - that so many trapped in the game are forced to do without. 

For all the falseness of the first story, there is a real touching honesty and depth of emotion in this tale. Maybe it's just that I like Lisbeth a lot more as a character than Silica; who knows? Either way, I think that this story is just better written, overall.

The Girl in the Morning Dew (66pgs): This installment tells the story of Yui, a mysterious young girl found in the woods by Asuna and Kirito during their honeymoon. Exploring the woods after hearing rumors of a 'ghost girl' seen lurking therein, they come upon a lost waif, whom they take in and assume a parental role over. This girl looks to be about 8, yet has regressed in speech to a toddler level (they know she can't be that young because NerveGear has strict controls that prohibit anyone under 13 from logging in, which totally explains how Silica was able to do it at 12). This girl is obviously not a 'ghost', or an NPC. However, she doesn't have stats either - so they can't peg if she's a player or not. So, they decide to head to the Town of Beginnings to see if they can locate her guardian.

There are no answers to be found in the Town of Beginnings, but there is a dilemma - the once respectable Army Guild has devolved into something akin to an extortionist mafia. After befriending a young woman running an impromptu 'orphanage' (again, how young are these kids if they aren't supposed to be under 13?), our intrepid couple sets to right things again.

For the bulk of the story, Yui takes a backseat - mumbling the occasional baby-talk. It isn't until the very end - where the situation allows for convenient exposition - that we get to find out what is going on. At that point, the book really tries to shoehorn in an emotional climax. It's a bit forced, to say the least.

This isn't the worst story in the book, but it isn't great. It's fun enough to see the young newlyweds playing at parenthood, and the new characters are decent. That's really all I can say here.

Red-Nosed Reindeer (41pgs): Reki Kawahara truly saves his best for last here. Readers of the first book will remember that perennial lone wolf Kirito did spend some time with one guild, the Moonlit Black Cats. His subsequent lies to them, in withholding the extent of his power, and their resultant death, hang heavily around his neck like an albatross. However, the heaviest cross he bears is in regards to Sachi, a timid young girl who was a member of the MBC. Poor Sachi, whom he promised would not die - whom he promised he would keep alive. Yeah, the anime goes right into this story on episode 3....


So, yes, Red-Nosed Reindeer tells the story of that doomed guild. It is told in partial flashback format, with the current events centering on Kirito preparing for a special boss quest. The rumor mills have it that when the clock strikes midnight on Christmas Eve, a boss named Nicholas the Renegade will make an appearance, with a bag full of goodies for anyone that can beat him. Best yet, the rumors have it that there might be a resurrection item involved - allowing Kirito to save Sachi, or die the ignoble death he believes he deserves in the process.

Okay, the melodrama is ramped up over 9000 in this story. But, it's all ok, because this is by far the best story in the book. I pondered on that for a bit, and then it hit me - this is the only story told in first-person POV, from Kirito's viewpoint (Warmth of the Heart is the only other first-person POV, but for Lisbeth). Kirito is by and far the heart and soul of this series, and Kawahara is writing on a higher level when he gets inside his head. This story, by far, carries the most gravitas; anger, despondency, and sorrow.

Supporting characterization isn't very strong here; we have an overly emotional appearance by Kirito's friend Klein. Sachi, in the book and in the anime as well, is a pure avatar of the shy, quiet girl that the hero is compelled to want to "care for". Somewhere, in every man's fragile ego, is the need for validation via a proxy such as this. She was made for this role. The rest of the MBC is barely realized. We don't even get their names, save for Keita (the leader) and Tetsuo (the mace-user). Just reading the book, you might not have any idea what they even look like.

Which is why we have the internet.

But, in the end, this is Kirito's story to tell, and it is told very well. Actually, in a way, it is Sachi's story to tell as well, which leads us to the name of the story, and...

...and we'll just leave it at that.

Cover:

Like I said about the last volume, if you like the character design, you'll dig it. Asuna looks better on the cover than Silica, but it is still vibrant and well put together.