Thursday, December 31, 2009

Happy New Years...

...and all that.

Unless you celebrate the Chinese New Year.

In which case, come back and read this in a couple months.

-Signing off.

Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Mildly Belated Book Review: Dragonback

I've mentioned in the past that Timothy Zahn is one of my favorite current authors.

The Dragonback series is a pretty nice piece of work. Granted, it's "young adult" fiction, but he doesn't particularly simplify it for the readers' sake; he just makes sure it's accessible and appropriate. (Though I would suggest that most of his work is already accessible and appropriate for young adults.)

Among other things, Dragonback is sharp space opera and wonderful world-building. With Zahn in there, there was no way I could say no.

The story opens with Draycos, a dragon-creature called a K'da, on board a ship of refugees fleeing a formidable enemy known only as the Valahgua. The ship is part of a small convoy sent to prepare a world for a fleet of refugees, because the K'da and their partner species, the Shontine, can't take the Valahgua on, and they know it.

When they arrive at the planet, the ships are attacked by unknown vessels mounting unique Valahgua weaponry, and they know that they've been betrayed. Unfortunately, there's no way for them to escape the Valahgua weapons or to warn the refugee fleet. Fortunately, before the entire crew dies, the ship crashes; again unfortunately, there is only one survivor, Draycos himself.

This is almost a no-survivors situation, because the K'da need symbiotic hosts in order to survive, and only two species known have ever been able to host K'da. In what is probably the single most fantastic element of the setting, K'da bond to their hosts by becoming two-dimensional "tattoos." (This is of course a tremendous oversimplification; they actually are supposed to withdraw partially into "four dimensional space," and bond with the skin of their hosts. How they actually derive benefits this way is rather obscure and also completely unimportant. The point is, the K'da are cool aliens who have cool alien powers. There, I said it.) If six hours pass separated from a host, a K'da's strength will fail, and he or she will die.

Draycos becomes incredibly weak waiting for the enemy to come down and finish him off, but instead, a young con artist named Jack Morgan arrives, hoping to salvage something valuable. By this point, Draycos is so weak that he knows he can do only one thing before he dies and evaporates. (K'da actually are supposed to turn two-dee when they die, and then disintegrate. Obviously, they don't leave bodies.) He has the choice of attacking and killing Jack, whom he recognizes as young and probably not hostile, or trying for the one-in-a-million chance that he might be able to take this unknown species as a host.

And of course, you know how one-in-a-million chances usually turn out in fiction-it's practically guaranteed.

Obviously, Jack is pretty nonplussed that he is now host to a noble alien warrior who really desperately wants help in protecting his entire people from extinction; he's got his own problems, most particularly an accusation of thievery, even though he didn't even steal this particular item. (He's actually mostly a reformed con artist; he mostly stole for his now-deceased uncle who might not technically have been his uncle.)

The series flows naturally out of the interactions between Jack and Draycos, and the AI of Jack's ship, Uncle Virge, who imprinted off of his Uncle Virgil and who helps Jack cover for the fact that he's a minor without a guardian. Draycos, who himself is an adult at about thirty, impresses upon Jack the need to do the right thing; Uncle Virge insists he should take care of himself.

Then, of course, there's the fact that the three of them, taken together, complement and augment each other's capabilities. Jack, while he's no longer interested in thieving for a living, does have a considerable aptitude for deception (particularly helpful is his youthful appearance-he's good at looking innocent) and also for a fair amount of the nitty-gritty of stealing things. Draycos is the ultimate concealed weapon, undetectable to those who don't know what to look for (and nobody does in the first three books) and able to take on a small army, with claws that can cut metal and low-level superhumanoid strength (though strictly speaking he is not humanoid), plus other, more bizarre abilities, as well as a truly remarkable strategic mind. Uncle Virge provides a little bit extra when he can maintain radio contact with them (for instance, translating alien languages they don't speak), and being essentially a living ship, is also close air support and the cavalry when need be.

I've only read books one and three (plus some Google Books previews of two and four), but I can tell you-while it builds a bit slowly in book one (Dragon and Thief), by the end of that, it has unfolded into a complex, clever Zahn plot, and it never goes back. There are six books in all, and it is now a complete series.

The series has poignant moments; in the first book (I hope you don't mind if I spoil it-I've spoiled myself a few times already), Jack remarks that Draycos has huge advantages over humans-he's faster, stronger, and more agile than any human, and even smarter than Jack on top of it. Draycos looks rather sober for a moment, and then replies that he can never live alone for more than six hours. (Also, to be fair to Jack, Draycos is sixteen years older than Jack and trained in military strategy, and also has a considerable literary background. I'd probably feel intimidated myself.)

There are also funny and lighthearted moments, often contrasted in rapid succession with grimmer ones (though I won't go out of my way to spoil those). All in all, the Dragonback series is fast-paced quality Zahn, and I strongly recommend it.

As a momentary aside: I find myself rather sad that it's highly unlikely that Star Wars could ever cross over with Dragonback. Once you get past the numerous in-universe and copyright hurdles, there's potential for an idea that fills me with glee and warm fuzzies-a K'da Jedi.

Why is this so amusing?

K'da can't carry personal items or wear clothes because of their six-hour limit on independence. So a K'da Jedi would have to find a symbiotic partner to wear the Jedi robes and carry the Jedi gadgets and credentials, including the lightsaber.

Which means that some K'da Jedi might end up with an all but useless (with regards to combat and such, at least) partner to ride around on. And that thought amuses me terribly.

-Signing off.

Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Golden Age Moment of the Day (13)

It's funny that the Heap is considered a horror character.

I, for one, think he's adorable.

-Signing off.

Monday, December 28, 2009

Masters of the Strange DVD Case

So on Christmas, one of the presents was this "new MOTU" DVD collection.

I looked at it, and automatically assumed from its thickness that it must contain multiple DVDs; as it has a total of ten episodes, this didn't seem unreasonable.

(The other DVD cases I'm comparing it to are those of The Incredibles and a cheap $1 DVD set case-the latter being the most efficient usage of materials I've ever seen in a sturdy DVD case.)

So, what do I find when I look inside?

The weirdest DVD case interior I've ever seen.

There is only one DVD. Hopefully it does in fact contain the declared 10 episodes.


Do you see this? It's a small inner wrapper.

I am inclined to say this is the most egregiously wasteful DVD case I've ever seen.

Of course, it may provide slightly better protection for the DVD than other cases I've seen. But it's still wasteful.

-Signing off.

Friday, December 25, 2009

Merry Christmas Blah Blah

Merry Christmas.

Enjoy a horrible perversion of traditional Christmas music, courtesy of YouTube and stuff.

(EDIT @ 8:30: Hey, my other blog had a post. I wasn't sure it would.)

-Signing off.

Thursday, December 24, 2009

Where's My Exosuit?

The cover of November 1965's Popular Science:

And the cover of May 2008's Popular Science:

I guess it's true what they say-the more things change, the more they stay the same.

-Signing off.

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Golden Age Moment of the Day (12)

What the Heap wants...

...the Heap gets.

-Signing off.

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Space Crazy Comics: Ten Billion B. C.

And now you know what's coming after my Space Western Comics reviews.

As I searched around for something to fill the void in my life (snort, snicker) that would be left by not having any more Space Western Comics to review (though that situation may be changing in the near future), I found that there were really rather a lot of old comics which, for me at least, had a certain amount of that intangible total insanity in a can in them.

And even better-some of the stories I found were drawn by Steve Ditko. According to this Ditko blog, this story has never been reprinted.

A very brief aside-I didn't realize what a versatile artist Ditko really is until I read these stories. I've picked up a few Spider-Man reprints from his run on the title, and I didn't appreciate them as much as I might have. (I liked them, certainly.) But as I read through the stories in this (Outer Space) and other Ditko-drawn comics, I realized, "hey, this Ditko guy, he can draw in lots of styles compared to his contemporaries." I mean, you look at something Jack Kirby drew and you instantly recognize it. That wasn't true of Ditko's work in these comics.

End aside. The first story I'll talk about is about the beginning, figuratively and literally speaking.

Of absolutely no relation to the various "B.C." films.

Notice something? It is explained that this planet, called Primus (hmm...), "might be reckoned" as being 500 light years in diameter. As we'll discover, the inhabitants are awfully humanlike, and the surface conditions are remarkably Earthlike in general. This is truly remarkable weirdness.

I did some calculations to try to determine just how massive a planet that's 500 light years across would have to be in order to have a surface gravity of 1 g. Using Michael Wong's planetary parameters calculator, entering 9.461E15*500=4.731E18 and leaving gravity at one, we come to a mass of 8.221E53kg.

For comparison, this is about 82 times the size of the known universe, according to my physics textbook. Ironically, its effective average density would still have to be so minimal that the calculator gives it a density of zero (ironically, if my mental math is correct, about an order of magnitude or three above the average density of the interstellar medium, though I can't find how this density would compare with a nebula). (A further note-if one revises the surface gravity upwards to even a relatively mild two gs, the planet's event horizon would be outside of its surface, and it would be indistinguishable from a black hole.)

Considering where this story is going, this is sort of appropriate, but I'm getting ahead of myself.

As mentioned, the inhabitants of the planet Primus are essentially human, except for one feature:

Big heads. Of course, if I lived on a planet bigger than the universe, I'd probably have a big head, too.

(Of course, since they use artificial light, they shouldn't have eyes, but we can let that slide, considering what kind of planet they're on.)

Do their massive heads serve a purpose? Yes. They house massive cosmically powered brains.

And they put on old-fashioned hair dryers-excuse me, cosmic power hats-in order to provide energy for their technology.

Which brings us to our first weird moral lesson-it's better to be lucky than good.

The Primals are presented as being a perfect society, a "utopia." Now, colore me prejudiced, but any time I hear "utopia," I think of the fact that the "u-" in utopia can mean one of two things-either "true" or "nothing." ("Eu-" would mean true, while "ou-" means nothing.) The person who coined the phrase was creating a double meaning, probably quite deliberately. Look it up. (Also, look at TVTropes' article on the subject. They capture many of my feelings nicely there.) Anyway, this pie-in-the-sky happyland is presented as being the greatest civilization imaginable, all because they have huge, super-powered brains. Nice.

We know they're good, because they don't use child labor. Yaaay!

Not everything is peaceful and calm on great Primus, however.

There is a rebel. His name is Unicr-er, Accra.

We know they're good, because they eliminated all diseases of the flesh! Yaaaay!

So who is Accra really? This swirly-haired redhead, that's who.

To be quite frank... I like Accra. I can identify with finding a "utopia" a boring, dull place.

Tip: When you offer a rebel a "rest," and he jumps at it, it's not necessarily a good thing.

You'd "like a rest," eh? After complaining about monotony? I suppose a nice green countryside would do you some good...

Too bad they don't have those on Primus.

So he's probably up to no good, out there in the middle of nowhere. What..., where is his other hand?

Aaargh. Darnit, Accra, what are you doing?

He's doing it his way, whatever he's doing.

So what else is happening?

They're watching him. In fact, they have effectively bugged his brain.

Which comes to point number two on Primus's society-in this wonderful utopia, it's perfectly acceptable to read each a person's thoughts when he or she says he or she is unhappy.

Accra's plan is progressing, though, whatever it is. And he's happy about it now.

The eggheads are not so happy. They want to "fix" him.

Which brings us to point three-they consider anyone who disagrees with them mentally ill, and treat dissent as a sickness.

They say something about it being contagious.


Anyway, now we come to Accra's plan: He's going to use his mighty brain to control every other Primal on the planet.

I guess maybe he's not such a nice guy, but at least he's doing something against the status quo, yeah?

Here's the full final page, which shows us what kind of results Accra gets, in nonstandard and glorious Ditko style:


Apparently, having an "evil" thought makes Primus explode. Weird. (Incidentally, it would take 2.301E98 joules of energy to do that based on the results of the Planetary Parameter Calculator, which is rather a lot [more, in fact, than the energy that would be produced by transforming the entire planet to energy!]. Which may hint at just how much cosmic power the Primals have in their brains, or may be a simple insane fact that comes from the sheer ridiculousness of the story's premise.)

Notice what that last panel is doing, there?

It's comparing Accra to Hitler. (Ironically, Accra is a sort of Apocalypse Hitler, in a somewhat more literal sense...)

Now, correct me if I'm wrong, but... Isn't trying to end a horrible, horrible regime like that of Primus a good thing? Granted, it turned out badly, but nobody told him Primus would explode if he had an evil thought.

I love this story for all the wrong reasons.

-Signing off.

Monday, December 21, 2009

Space Western Comics: The Madman of Mars

Well, here it is. The last Space Western Comics story I'm likely to review. ... It's too much to say it's the end of an era, isn't it.

We open on a small rocket approaching Earth. Hard to tell exactly how big it is... It's also hard to tell what direction it's approaching Earth from, especially since that planet in the background can't actually be any known planet, based on information later in the story. (We learn, as one might guess from the title, that it came from Mars.)

So what is this rocket doing?

Wrecking national monuments in France. Oh, and wiping out a city.

So who launched this missile? Nobody knows yet. (Bet they're on Mars, though.)

The carnage continues:

Somewhat hilariously, Spurs later remarks, "Well, it can't be the Commies, since whoever it was bombed Moscow!" ORLY!

Spurs gets a phone call from the military. He's apparently on a first-name basis with the general.

And we learn more cities have been H-bombed. (Why Honolulu, though? Also, why so close in time to New York? That can't be convenient when you're doing long-ranged interplanetary bombardment.)

I hope you appreciate this set of panels here, because I had to hack their respective pages all to pieces in Paint and put them together again in order to get a nice, convenient picture to put up.

Note several things: Hank Roper is carrying a rifle when they're getting ready for interplanetary conflict; they have to take a prop plane to Washington (again with the old-time planes); and the fact that a guy in a US observatory somehow spotted an object right over London right before London was hit. (Curvature of the Earth suggests that should be tricky.)

Anyway, this causes them to speculate that the bombs might be coming from Mars. Spurs' response?



Would these be the same Martians who have rocket cars and giant vacuum cleaners that can suck up atmospheres?

Less advanced? Really?

Eh, never mind.

Fortunately, there's a reliable way to get an answer: A gadget we've never seen before.

How convenient.

I wonder how much money he made on that deal.

One quick magic widget installation later...

They make sure to mention that it works, because apparently they thought their audience was made up of people mildly less capable of inference than your typical toadstool. If you just show it working (say, by showing them finding what they're looking for), the readers can tell, dudes.

So, days later (so speaketh the narration), they get to Mars, and unload a plane to fly around on.

... You... flew there in a rocket ship. Yet you're using a plane to get around.


Eh, whatever.

So, they fly 'round, looking for stuff.

When they get there, they're attacked. By a machine gun.

Considering that the Martians also use ray guns, one can suppose that their enemies aren't from around here.

And they aren't.

Because they're Nazis. (If you read the narration as saying "World War I," that's okay-that's what I read the first time, too. That's just bad scan quality.)

Yes. Nazis. On Mars. Fighting cowboys. Who fly rockets.

This is why I forgive Space Western Comics its foibles. Sure, it's stupid-but it's also really amusingly stupid.

Anyway, the Nazis are true to Golden Age comic form:

Mean and dangerous but stupid as heck.

So stupid that they try to shoot it out when some cowboys with submachine guns pop into their cafeteria while they're unarmed.

Then a Nazi barges in on them, and gets confused.

And then he gets dead.

It's funny because the Nazi gets dead.

Also, note that he had really skinny legs. Maybe it's just the style, or maybe it's just a bad drawing, but I can't help but cringe at that falling Nazi's legs.

One of the Nazi captives goes all Mr. Information, and kind of rambles on a bit.

As I've noted, this facet of Space Western Comics both amuses and annoys me considerably. (Also, note Hank headed into a random room in a known rocket base without looking. What the heck is this guy doing in space?)

We learn how many Nazis there were, and we also learn...

...that one Nazi in particular was also present.

Oh, man, how's this story going to wrap up?

Yes, we've been "To Be Continued'd." If you're interested in the ending, it's described here.

SPOILER: Apparently, Hitler dies.

Join me later this week, when I present the first in my next series of comic book posts, all about crazy space comics.

-Signing off.

Friday, December 18, 2009


Once again, spent enough time working on the other blog's post that I don't have much for you here.

Note than when I talk about "mixing and matching features of animals," that this-

-is not at all what I mean.

-Signing off.

Thursday, December 17, 2009

Cool, The Hypotheticals...

It should be clear by now that I really like weird and alien critters. So when I see something that is some form of "hypothetical" exploration of what life might be like on other planets or in the future, I pretty much have to take a look. (And if you're wondering what brings it on, I've been looking around in preparation for the logical sequel to this article.)

Take this ancestral counterpart to the speculative documentary, made by Disney in 1957(!):

I cannot emphasize how much I love this footage. Since I found it on YouTube the other day, I've watched it at least half a dozen times. (I may have seen it once years ago, but I can't be sure.) It's just so imaginative, so rich, so weird. Sure, it's total nonsense, but speculation on what Mars could be like if it had life could easily be applied to virtually any other planet, real or imaginary.

Also, an awful lot of those critters have a weird, inexplicable ability to eat things merely by wrapping around them, don't they? (My favorite example of that is the flying magnifying glass creature; where are its guts if its central body is the lens?)

I'm more familiar with the works of Dougal Dixon, who has pretty much made a name doing this sort of thing. Perhaps his biggest and most ambitious project was The Future Is Wild!, which was about future ecosystems if there weren't humans to worry about.

Basically, he asked the simple question of "what could these animals turn into?" And his answers were often unconventional. (In this case, he had help-it was obviously a reasonably high-budget project. It wasn't the first time he was a driving force behind a project made for television, though-1997's little-known Natural History of an Alien appears to have been heavily driven by Dixon's work.)

Of course, one can take the ideas further, and few take them further than Wayne Barlowe, one of the world's most famous science fiction illustrators. To get an idea of just what kind of guidelines he had for his work for Expedition, the book upon which the Alien Planet "specumentary" was based, he remarked that he decided early on that there would be no eyes or ears.

I need to find my Barlowe's Guide, darnit.

There are other, lesser-known efforts at specumentaries, as well, such as this one, known in the US as Extraterrestrial.

Great stuff, if you're ever short for ideas, or even if you just dig that sort of thing.

-Signing off.

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Cheesy Sci-Fi Movie Review: Final Days of Planet Earth

Final Days of Planet Earth is a surprisingly good sci-fi/horror made for TV movie/miniseries.

What's good about it?

Well, first off, while it's a smidgen slow, it's not slow like Supernova. Supernova was terminally slow.

No, FDoPE (F'dope!) is slow in a tension-building, suspenseful way.

At the beginning, we join some astronauts on a futuristic moon mission. There's surprisingly good microgravity effects as they come home, and then, all of a sudden, one of the astronauts wakes up alone. Then, a splatter of gore tells us that he's probably the only one left.

A few years later (supposedly, anyway), we join the main plot. A cast of characters gradually get gathered together and drawn to "Room 86." (I rather had the feeling that the original title would have been "The Secret of Room 86," and they changed it to FDoPE for the sake of sounding more exciting.) There, they discover that there's a room behind Room 86 (actually the ombudsman's office) where some guys in white suits with retractable bug claws are butchering human beings. (They discover this without dying because one of their number, an archaeologist, carries a semi-automatic pistol.) It's all very disturbing and grisly-obviously, this isn't for the fainthearted. (Originally, it aired on the Hallmark channel, if what I've read around is correct. Huh?)

What are the bugs butchering humans for? To make people suits, of course! They also want to use some part of our bodies for "fertilizer." It turns out that they need to get chitin from our bodies to feed a fungus which will let them eat/drink it and harden their shells with it. (Why not use some other animal? It turns out they just really hate us, as we learn in a speech from their queen, because we're a horrible abomination to them, what with all our bug-spraying and stuff. In fact, we get the impression that one of the people was sent to Room 86 purely because she's an exterminator.)

Anyway, it was split into two parts, totaling about three hours, probably for the sake of special effects. The aliens in their true forms are giant praying mantids which can kill people with a simple blow to the gut from their big scythe arms, but they're still vulnerable, conveniently, to bullets, stun guns, and machetes. (At one point, some characters went to buy guns; the 3-day wait kept them from picking any up, so he got some machetes instead. Don't tell me it's too easy to get a gun in this country.)

The real problem isn't that they're giant, scary bugs. The real problem is that they're giant, scary bugs that have infiltrated the government, particularly the bureaucracy. I will allow you to momentarily contemplate the horrors of praying mantis bureaucrats.


Okay, let's continue. They turn out to have a secret weapon of sorts-for some reason, they're deathly allergic to the astronaut they didn't kill on the space mission. Why? Who knows? Anyway, they can't even touch him without protection, or they'll die horribly. Eventually, they successfully destroy the hive, blah blah whatever.

So what else is there to say about this? Well, the actress who plays the queen is apparently "hungry," because her performance is almost as hammy as the villains from the two Power Rangers movies. This is not a bad thing-I think it's pretty funny.

Then there's the astronaut, who after being held and tortured by the aliens pulling off his fingernails and stuff (yes, I already said this was a rather grisly movie, didn't I?), was loopy in a funny kind of way.

There's a thing or two that are highly dissatisfying about it, like an unresolved plot point or two (presumably, the aliens are all dead, but at least one character's fate was disturbingly ambiguous), but overall, there are worse things to eat up three hours of your time with. Not for the squeamish, but not a bad movie at all, especially compared to the stuff I got it with.

-Signing off.

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Space Western Comics: Spurs Sees Red!

By now, you know the drill, I hope. (If not, hit the "Space Western Comics" label, and find out!)

We start at an "isolated" radar "tracking" post...

The excessive "use" of "quotation marks" in the "narration" and "dialogue" makes me "raise" my "eyebrow."

Anyway, in a less sarcastic vein, the fact that their radar screen seems to be showing a silhouette of a spaceship cracks me up. They are unable to identify the craft as any known type of vehicle, so they phone it in.

Oh, no! Not a farm!

The mystery craft seems to handle a landing at 400+ miles an hour awfully well...

...if completely without anything resembling grace. Ah, well.

So are we about to get a look at just what kind of crazy persons were piloting that ship?

No. But we do see their handiwork.

Those jerks! They killed some old guy!

His daughter sees what happened from the house, and flees in her car. Where does she go?

Why, to Spurs Jackson's house, of course!

She looks suspiciously like one version of Thula, and she's on a first name basis with Spurs. Peculiar.

Are you wondering just what kind of highly advanced craft Spurs is taking to investigate?

Sorry, but apparently the government got tired of all those darned cowboys just tearing off in rockets whenever their wanderlust hit. So Spurs is stuck in a plane. (There's actually an earlier story where he takes a plane around, too, but I'm saving that one for last. Next week.)

He wants to investigate, and seeing a gaping hole in the side of the barn down there makes him decide to be as cautious and stealthy as possible.

This doesn't work very well...

Spurs claims that his luck's run out, but even considering that in a consecutive panel he hides his gunbelt so that theoretically they'll never suspect he was carrying a piece in the first place, I'd say he's pretty darned lucky yet, seeing as how...

...he's stumbling on a secret Communist Russian mission with half a dozen soldiers with assault rifles, and he somehow lives even though they see him.

There goes plausible deniability.

Also, seeing as how an old man who got shot in the heart earlier is somehow still alive and apparently completely unhurt, there goes plausibility.

We get a very small glimpse under the "saucer's" hood...

Next up, the villain ball!

What do you do when you have a guy at your mercy in Space Western Comics?

Tell them your whole entire plan in detail!

He plans to cover it up...

...but it would have been easier to cover it up by just killing Spurs right off the bat.

No wonder the Soviet Union collapsed, huh?

The old man's reaction is amusing.

Especially since he makes an oblique statement alluding to Jesse James's ghost, which if taken literally might mean that the old man worships Wild West outlaws. Which is actually awesome in a stupid kind of way.

Then, the cavalry shows up.

So the call that guy made earlier wasn't completely pointless, just mostly pointless.

Considering the disappointing quality of this story (primarily the total lack of totally insane nonsense science talk), I was hesitant to present this one. Fortunately, there was a short Space Western Comics feature in the same issue which was worthy of attacking.

In and of itself, this whole "frumious Bandersnatch" thing wouldn't be so bad.

No, the thing that really gets me is that, in the other issue, this spot was taken up by what claims to be a historical account. (I thought I had heard a similar account before; however, a quick Google search turns up nothing relevant. This site describes what would have been somewhat similar encounters in the same time period, give or take a bit.)

I guess the writers just like screwing with science.

-Signing off.