Monday, May 28, 2012

STAR TREK: LOG TWO by Alan Dean Foster

Star Trek: Log Two (1974) contains three TV-script-to-novella adaptations by Alan Dean Foster based on episodes of Star Trek: The Animated Series: “The Survivor,” “The Lorelei Signal,” and “The Infinite Vulcan.” Here, the Enterprise rescues a long-lost celebrity humanitarian and travels to a planet that ensnares all the men, and Spock gets abducted by plant people who want to make a giant clone of him.

None of these stories is a world-beater, unfortunately, and they’re fairly predictable. “The Lorelei Signal” is particularly weak, and has little going for it other than a rare instance of Uhura in command. “The Infinite Vulcan” (screenplay by Walter “Chekov” Koenig), which bears a strong resemblance to the terrible TOS episode “Spock’s Brain,” was unimpressive as a cartoon; it’s much better here, due in large part to Foster’s excellent and imaginative portrayal of the setting and creatures. As in Log One, each novella is about sixty pages, and the length and pacing are strengths.

Foster is a good writer, and he does a solid job with weaker material here. However, some of what he does may cause the reader to wonder if he ever actually watched Star Trek. Most egregiously, he gets the Romulan personality (and more) completely wrong, and Scotty’s trademark repair time exaggerations are explicitly contradicted. As in Log One, Foster’s lighter moments don’t work as well as his cosmic reflections, as the interplay and jokes tend to be pretty lame.   

All told, Star Trek: Log Two is decent enough to carry the reader through it, but there are a hundred better Star Trek books out there.


Monday, May 21, 2012

DEADLY FOES OF SPIDER-MAN by Danny Fingeroth et al.

Deadly Foes of Spider-Man (1993) collects the eponymous four-issue 1991 Marvel miniseries. It was written by Danny Fingeroth and penciled by Al Milgrom and Kerry Gammill. Here, the Beetle re-forms the Sinister Syndicate, which includes Hydro-Man, the Rhino, Speed Demon, Boomerang, and Boomerang’s ambitious girlfriend, to pull off a series of robberies (the Shocker pops up, too). They run into trouble with Spider-Man, the Kingpin, and each other.

What sets this volume apart from pretty much every other Spider-Man comic is that it’s written almost entirely from the villains’ perspectives, and it includes some very good character development. It’s a refreshing change of pace, and it goes a long way toward this comic’s readability.

The story itself, alas, isn’t so hot. The plot, which would otherwise be okay, turns on an inexcusably staggering number of blatant contrivances and convenient coincidences (yes, even for a comic book), and this includes most of Spider-Man’s appearances. Their frequency is damaging to the story, as are a couple of particularly egregious and unforgivable ones. It just isn’t good writing.

The art here is not impressive. The diverse and distinguishable faces are a highlight, but the figures are stiff and attempts to show depth on people are often poor. I’m at a loss to explain it – both Milgrom and Gammill have done much better work than this on their own. The inks definitely don’t help, though. There are also quite a few cases of miscoloring.

There are a couple of other little problems here that aren’t Fingeroth’s fault, as they’re endemic to the Spider-verse at large. It’s hard to believe that many of these villains aren’t more competent – especially Speed Demon, who’s practically the Flash. One expects better from the Beetle, too. And the Rhino’s been trapped in his suit for “all these years” in the same pair of boxers (still white) and, apparently, no way to use the restroom? Okay then. Bringing this to the reader’s awareness is the violation of a cardinal comic book “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy.

Deadly Foes of Spider-Man is a neat idea (and one that would later be revisited to better effect in the short-lived Spider-Man’s Tangled Web series), but it just doesn’t have enough going for it to recommend it.


Friday, May 18, 2012

KILLOBYTE by Piers Anthony

Killobyte is a 1993 science fiction novel by Piers Anthony. Here, a paralyzed ex-cop and a depressed teenage diabetic find escape in an online virtual reality game, but are hounded by a malicious hacker/griefer with real-life-threatening results.

The writing here is decent, but not Anthony’s best. The dialogue is often stilted and expository, and the story strains credulity at times, usually when it’s trying to be feel-good or needs to make the plot go. Not for the first time, Anthony seizes on a few topics and themes, and rather than simply including them in the novel, forcibly educates the reader over many pages – here these topics include diabetes, the Druze, and early-1990s hacking.

Anthony perhaps spends too much time on his characters’ backstories, particularly as their profound self-pity is something of a barrier to reader sympathy; it might be natural, but it’s not great reading. Anthony also uses his protagonists to reaffirm gender stereotypes: Walter is fixated on his impotence, Baal on her looks. And it doesn’t help that Killobyte features a teenage villain who’s socially crippled and mentally disturbed – in all, a pitiable figure. Nevertheless, Anthony keeps the pages turning pretty well, and that covers a multitude of flaws.

The real star of the book is the game itself, which is appealing, and which is filled with logic puzzles and logistic challenges – staples of too many Anthony books to list. They aren’t as good as those in the Xanth or Apprentice Adept series, but the Killobyte scenarios are generally immersive and engaging enough to bring the reader through, even if Anthony does overstay his welcome from time to time.

From a gaming perspective, however, Killobyte has not aged well, at least inasmuch as the players of this MMORPG bear precious little resemblance to the modern gaming community. This disrupts suspension of belief in many ways that it wouldn’t have fifteen or even ten years ago. Where are the hardcore gamers? The trolls? The kill poachers? The angry teenagers and their homophobic slurs? (Well, there’s one, but he’s not a player.)

There’s a related problem with Anthony’s Killobyte game itself: it’s presented as a role-playing game, and the players treat it as such, but it’s an inherently kill-count-based game, not unlike any Call of Duty-type shooter (compounding this, some RPG elements, like the standard stat allocation system, don’t feel well thought out). The result is that the ambitious players don’t do the things you’d expect them to do if they were actually trying to rank up (i.e., play for points). Even casual modern gamers will readily see the obvious opportunities for boosting, even if every single one of Anthony’s supposed “serious” gamers are completely oblivious. The game is further muddled by the copious availability of sex, which is typical of Anthony but hard to buy in this context. The game is simultaneously an RPG, a shooter, a vacation destination, and a wish fulfillment, and if it existed as-is in real life, the shootists would ruin it for everyone else – you’d log on to nothing but unrestrained killing and sex.

That may seem like a lot of criticism, but many of these things are just extremely interesting (to those with gaming interests, at least) because they’re so far off the mark (for example, they’re doing VR that’s indistinguishable from reality on dial-up modems with zero lag). Most of it doesn’t seriously damage or break the story.

So then, while Killobyte is dated and certainly not as good a read as it was fifteen years ago, it’s still entertaining enough. If I were reading it for the first time in 2012, there’s no way I’d be able to give it more than three stars, max, but I have fond memories of it from the mid-nineties, before its propositions were so ludicrous. It’s recommended, but only to those with a gaming interest.


Thursday, May 10, 2012


The Amazing Spider-Man (1990) collects issues 88, 89, and 90 of the eponymous comic book; these issues, which were written by Stan Lee and illustrated by John Romita, Gil Kane, and Jim Mooney, were originally published in 1970.

This is a straightforward Spider-Man-versus-Doctor-Octopus story, and it’s important to the Spider-Man canon because it includes the death of Captain Stacy, a formative moment in Spider-Man’s early career. The story itself is decent, but not great. There’s plenty of fighting (fights with Doc Ock haven’t changed much in 40 years), as well as plenty of expository thought bubbles, stilted dialogue, and 70s’ “hipness.” Honestly, it hasn’t aged all that well.

Kane and Romita  are two of the classic Spider-Man illustrators, and their work here is excellent, as always: realistic and dynamic. The comics themselves are presented in black and white. Like a number of Tor’s comic collections, this book is about four inches by seven – standard paperback novel size. The panels have been rearranged to fit the small pages – the material from one page of the original comic is spread over several pages here. This disrupts the flow somewhat, as you might imagine, but not to a damaging degree.

On the whole, these issues are worthwhile, but you can certainly find a better version than this. Try Essential Amazing Spider-Man 4 and 5 or Marvel Masterworks: The Amazing Spider-Man Volume 10 instead.


Wednesday, May 9, 2012


A Shot of Faith to the Head: Be a Confident Believer in an Age of Cranky Atheists is a 2012 philosophy-based Christian apologetic by Mitch Stokes, a philosophy professor with an engineering background. It is largely based on the philosophy of Alvin Plantinga, and is intended to help Christians hold their own in discussions with atheists.

The book is divided into three sections, each one addressing a different argument for atheism: that belief in God is irrational, that science has shown that God doesn’t exist, and that the existence of evil in the world shows that God doesn’t exist.

One of Stokes’s central tasks here is deconstructing evidentialism – the argument that any belief must be supported by sufficient evidence to be rational, and which is used to criticize belief in God. This is probably the highlight of the book. In fact, Stokes generally does an excellent job of picking apart atheistic arguments. He doesn’t do near as good a job, however, on his pro-Christian arguments, which are often too cursory. That this book was put together solely with Christians in mind makes this understandable (Stokes explicitly assumes a Christian worldview on the part of the reader), but it also means that this isn’t really a book you can hand to your atheist friend to read.

While he covers a wide range of atheist scientists and philosophers in his discussions, Stokes leans too heavily on Plantinga for his pro-Christian arguments. A Shot of Faith to the Head thusly serves well enough as an introduction to Plantinga, but it would have been nice to get some other perspectives. However, Plantinga is always Stokes’s go-to guy.

A Shot of Faith to the Head will be accessible to any reasonably educated person without a philosophy degree, but it may prove a great deal of work for the reader, as the philosophical and logical concepts here tend to be complex. The summaries at the end of each chapter are helpful in this regard, but the reader will still have a great deal of cognitive processing to do.

On the whole, Stokes’s refutation of various atheistic arguments and defense of a rational belief are solid, and A Shot of Faith to the Head is a challenging but worthwhile book.


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Disclosure of Material Connection: I received this book free from the publisher through the book review bloggers program. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255: “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.”