Tuesday, July 28, 2009


The Best of Star Trek: The Next Generation (1994) collects issues 5, 6, 16, and Annuals 1 and 2 from volume 2 of DC Comics’ Star Trek: The Next Generation. It includes three stories by longtime Star Trek writer Michael Jan Friedman and one by John de Lancie (who played Q in various Trek series), with art by Pablo Marcos, Gordon Purcell, Matt Haley, Peter Krause, and Carlos Garzon. In this collection, Geordi and Riker encounter old flames, Dr. Crusher has a birthday, Picard turns into a goat and has another encounter with Q, and Riker teaches a history lesson. TNG writer and producer Jeri Taylor has contributed the book’s introduction, wherein she talks about her involvement with the show and says virtually nothing about the comics.

Somewhat surprisingly, de Lancie’s story (“The Gift”) is the most interesting, although it takes its sweet time to get going (not surprisingly, it prominently features Q). Friedman’s stories are adequate at best – they would have made for fairly mediocre television episodes. Exacerbating the problem are the flow issues in Friedman’s stories – the comic book medium doesn’t lend itself well to the amount of exposition that a typical TNG story features.

The art here is decent – characters are mostly recognizable and don’t suffer too terribly from comic book over-muscleization. The book is garishly colored, though, in the manner of the day, and the backgrounds (which often feel somewhat sparse) suffer as a result.

So these are the “best” stories this series had to offer? Really? DC’s Star Trek: The Next Generation ran for 80 issues plus 6 annuals. If these stories are the best, then the comic must have been poor indeed.



Star Trek: Countdown (2009), a prequel to the 2009 Star Trek film, collects the four-issue comic miniseries of the same name. The story is by Roberto Orci, Alex Kurtzman, Mike Johnson and Tim Jones, and the art is by David Messina. The primary function of this prequel is to provide back-story for Nero, who gets short shrift in the film.

Eight years after the events of Star Trek: Nemesis, Spock and the Romulan miner Nero work to prevent a star that is going supernova from destroying Romulus (and the rest of the galaxy). Aided by the Enterprise-E (captained by a resurrected Data) and Jean-Luc Picard, now the ambassador to Vulcan, they get bogged down in Romulan and Vulcan politicking.

Star Trek: Countdown feels rushed. There’s a lot going on, and the comic often focuses on the less interesting aspects (like all the political bickering). As a result, the focus on character is diminished. Even Nero, one of the book’s main characters, doesn’t get a worthy treatment. His shift from loving miner to power-mad tyrant is quick and glossy. And beyond Nero’s initial relationship with Spock, Countdown gives us little that we couldn’t figure out from the movie.

Other characters from The Next Generation pop up here and there, mostly for no good reason. All of the characters present from TNG, including Data and Picard, are just there to add a few familiar faces. These are well-developed characters whose personalities have been thoroughly explored in hundreds of Star Trek episodes, but here they are completely unremarkable and totally interchangeable. This is a distinct failure to link the new film to the world of TNG.

Messina’s art is fine, even if his people look a bit angular at times. But the familiar characters are mostly recognizable and the ships look good, and that’s what counts. Countdown’s coloring is murky; this is an obvious attempt to give the book a grimmer, more serious tone. But instead, it impairs the art and gives the reader the distinct impression that it’s trying too hard.

Star Trek: Countdown is not officially canon, although there are no canonical red flags. But it really doesn’t matter, because this book really doesn’t matter. It adds little to the new film, and it adds practically nothing to the world of The Next Generation.


Saturday, July 18, 2009

ARROWSMITH by Sinclair Lewis

Arrowsmith is a 1925 novel by Sinclair Lewis (with considerable contributions from Dr. Paul de Kruif); it won the 1926 Pulitzer Prize, but Lewis rejected the award because the thought it promoted pandering in writers. The book chronicles the life of Martin Arrowsmith, a young medical student who tries to make it both as a practicing doctor and as a research scientist.

Arrowsmith is always readable but never particularly interesting. It is rather loosely plotted (although for Lewis it’s rather tightly plotted). Martin Arrowsmith is a headstrong, bridge-burning, tantrum-throwing idealist, and Lewis generates most of the novel’s tension and conflict by throwing the most obnoxious, contrary characters Lewis can think up at him, and letting nature take its course. Much has been made about Arrowsmith being a “heroic” character; this is obviously debatable based on how one defines “heroic”. Lewis certainly makes him a hero of medical idealism; but at the same time Arrowsmith is never particularly sympathetic.

The novel is one great commentary on the medical and scientific professions. In fact, any time Lewis shifts the narrative focus away from Arrowsmith to other characters (which seems to happen unnecessarily often), the reader gets nothing but commentary. How applicable are these comments today? Well, that’s nearly impossible for anyone outside the medical field to say.

Today, Arrowsmith is likely to have an extremely limited appeal: those interested in medicine should find it quite engaging, but few others will.


Monday, July 6, 2009


Assassin’s Apprentice (1995) is the first novel in Robin Hobb’s Farseer fantasy trilogy. Fitz, the bastard son of the heir to the throne, is taken as a child to the royal court, where he is taught all manner of things, including the art of assassinry, and where he gets embroiled in some political intrigue.

For someone as talented and clever as Fitz is supposed to be (Hobb has made him an extremely articulate narrator), he’s frequently distractingly slow on the uptake, especially when it comes to recognizing people the reader has identified pages earlier. On the whole, Fitz is fairly sympathetic because of his circumstances, but he isn’t particularly likeable – not because he’s an assassin, but because he’s so darn namby-pamby (there’s precious little assassination going on here anyway).

The pacing of Assassin’s Apprentice is tough to deal with. The novel gets off to a bad slow beginning, settles into something of a groove, then relapses into a series of fits and starts. Considering how much political intrigue Hobb has set up, it’s surprising how little actually happens. One reason for this is that many of the characters, including Fitz himself, are so very passive. Another is that Hobb doesn’t do a great job establishing place, especially when the location changes.

Hobb writes in the stiff, pretentious, flowery manner reserved almost exclusively for the fantasy genre – that can (and unfortunately must) be overlooked in most modern fantasy novels. More egregious is Hobb’s choice of narrative mode. Assassin’s Apprentice is in the first person, and it often borders on first-person omniscient. Fitz recounts his childhood like he was the most observant six year old in the world, with a photographic memory to boot (Fitz then skips over some boring and unimportant parts of the story with a few jarring I can’t remembers). Fitz chronicles the thoughts and feelings of others, and even the actions of those where he isn’t present. (A great deal of this cannot be attributed to Fitz’s use of “the Skill”.) It is as if Hobb selected first-person, got stuck, and plowed on through anyway. 

All of this is rather a shame since Hobb’s scenario has potential; it’s too bad the story and the writing are so lacking. In spite of the reader’s best efforts to immerse himself (or herself) in the story, Assassin’s Apprentice is just too problematic, and readers may well decide they aren’t interested in the sequels, both of which are considerably longer than this one.


Wednesday, July 1, 2009


The Hornblower Companion: An Atlas and Personal Commentary on the Writing of the Hornblower Saga, with Illustrations and Maps by Samuel Bryant (1964) – well, that about sums it up. This book was published after the ten complete Hornblower novels, but before C. S. Forester began writing Hornblower During the Crisis.

The first half of The Hornblower Companion includes thirty maps that detail each of Hornblower’s adventures, with locations of key events highlighted, and with commentary by Forester on each facing page. There are plenty of spoilers here, so first-time readers of the Hornblower novels should not plan to follow along with these maps. Throughout this section, Forester celebrates how he has made Hornblower one of the luckiest characters in literature. He repeatedly refers to events resulting in Hornblower’s success as “convenient” and “fortunate”, and in defense of his contrived plots only says that if “ordinary rules” applied to Hornblower there would be no Hornblower stories (that is most certainly true). Forester never met a convenient coincidence he didn’t like.

The second half of the book contains Forester’s notes on writing. He describes how the idea for Hornblower originated, how each novel developed, and how his many health problems affected the process; he also details his writing methods. A pattern appears – nearly every Hornblower novel was planned to be the last one Forester wrote. The notes make some similarities between Hornblower and Forester himself rather obvious – the constant dissatisfaction with life is the main thing; Hornblower has also inherited a number of Forester’s mannerisms. These notes also highlight just what a good job Forester did fitting Hornblower’s chronology together (since he wrote them out of sequence) with relatively few inconsistencies.

Astonishingly, mind-bogglingly, Forester says, “In my opinion the story about Hornblower and St. Elizabeth of Hungary…is the best story I have ever written”. “St. Elizabeth of Hungary” from Hornblower in the West Indies – that excruciating, predictable, contrived, hackneyed, deux ex machina-ridden, facepalm-inducing story. What on earth does he like about it? Forester never quite says; in any event it is obvious from this and other passages that Forester is utterly unable to evaluate his writing objectively.

Hornblower fans who are geographically challenged and anyone curious about the writing process will find The Hornblower Companion of interest. Certainly it is illuminating to get Forester’s take on things.