Saturday, August 27, 2005

BOOKS: 4 For World War II

World War II has been popping up in my most recent spate of reading. While only one specifically occurs during the timeframe of WWII, all deal tangentially with the subject in an adventurous aor science fictional way.

I just finished John Birmingham’s Weapons of Choice. It’s sort of a reverse-take on The Philadelphia Experiment. In that movie, a sailor is jumped 40 years into the future from a WWII naval vessel. It’s a good one. Rent it.

The reverse happens in Weapons of Choice, as a naval flotilla a dozen or so years in the future, is sent back into the looming Battle of Midway. And naturally, 21st century technology is akin to magic to the hard-fighting men of the 40’s. Brutally so. The opening skirmish runs the first quarter of the book and reads like a Tom Clancy hardware descriptive. It’s detailed to the extent I was wondering where all the good reviews of this book were coming from, since I’m not a Clancy aficionado. Then, comes a page that simply says “D├ętente.”

And from there on, the book is fascinating. And crude, and racist, and misogynist and probably a lot like what those times were like. It’s pretty good. Except for one thing.


Actually, the book comes to a stop, with an ad for the next part of the series, due in November of this year. AAARRRRRGGHHHH!!!! Not a single word about duology, trilogy or whatever is planned, graces the cover. And none of the reviews I read mentioned it either. There ought to be a law consigning publishers who don’t admit to an incomplete story to some sort of stygian jail cell in the outback of Afghanistan.

I recommend you buy this book a few years down the line when Birmingham’s finished the series. Until then, read at your own peril.

Somewhere in the middle of the first section of Weapons of Choice, I took the time to read the Top Ten: The Forty-Niners graphic novel by Alan Moore and Gene Ha. It deals with the aftermath of WWII, when all the super-heroes who fought on both sides of the way, returned to the USA and to Neopolis specifically. It’s a prequel of sorts for the Top Ten series of comics that posit a future where EVERY resident of Neopolis has some sort of super power and the cops who have to police them.

Moore is an exceedingly talented writer. He pays homage to the history of comics while twisting them in a way that takes a certain maturity to read. In fact, this book should have a mature readers’ label on it. I certainly wouldn’t want the younger members of my Movie Mob reading it. Gene Ha’s artwork is a fitting companion to Moore’s words.

The book itself takes the reader through the nascent Neopolis that is a slum of sorts for super-heroes. There’s sex and violence, horror and triumph. This hard-cover graphic novel isn’t cheap, near fourty bucks after taxes, but it does show what good writing and good art can do for an original American art form.

Following those two books, I started off on my Clive Cussler reading month. I had four Cussler books on the top of the reading pile and grabbed The Lost City first. It’s a Kurt Austin adventure, Cussler’s ‘B’ series lead character. WWII gets little shrift in this book, which starts at the cusp of the first World War instead. However, it is stated in the book that one of the BAD people in the book was instrumental in the fomenting of both World Wars. Soooo, I guess it qualifies as a member of this reading set.

The Lost City is not Cussler at his best. It’s certainly a cinematic story, but the solutions to many of the problems are unbelievable or too simple for the supposedly bright folks who get involved. Bluntly, this is a Cussler tome that can be skipped.

Cussler’s ‘A’ character is Dirk Pitt and Black Wind is shared by Pitt and his son, Dirk Jr. It starts off late in WWII with some evil Japanese do-badders and sets up a bunch of Korean zealots as a pre-cursor to a current day “evil organization” not too unlike Al Qaeda. A failed attempt to try and gas cities on the North American west coast in WWII revives to become a threat to modern-day America. Cussler’s love of mcguffins once again leads a reader down a path to nowhere, but the rest of the book is decent Cussler. My faith in Cussler has been shaken occasionally over the years, and I HATE, REALLY HATE, his annoying habit of late of injecting a Cussler character into his books, but it’s a page-turner. Perfect for summer-reading.

No more WWII for me for the next while. A couple of Cussler’s ‘C’ series books dealing with The Corporation await.

SPORTS: If I was GM of the Blue Jays

J.P. Ricciardi didn’t ask me, but I’ve come up with a plan to spend the $30 million or so dollars Ted Rogers will give him extra next year to populate the Toronto Blue Jays’ roster.

I’m not going to go crazy in the free-agent pool. It’s going to cost close to $9 million next year, but I hire Kevin Millwood to give that extra boost to the starting pitcher roster. I’d prefer to give the money to Matt Morris, but you don’t win bidding wars with the St. Louis Cardinals. On the other hand, Millwood’s turn this season in Cleveland means he’s over the AL Introductory Phase that hurts a LOT of ex-NL’ers.

The other low-cost hire is Mark Bellhorn, to come in as a back-up second-baseman and disciplined pinch-hitter. If Bellhorn goes elsewhere this season and gets a contract next year for joining up this year, then I go after ex-Blue Jay John Macdonald.

Now, I remodel the roster with a couple of trades that involve taking on salary. The first one is the big one: Reliever Jason Frasor and Triple AAA prospects John Haddig (3B) and David Purcey (LHP) going to the Cincinnati Reds for Ken Griffey.

The Reds want to move an outfielder and big-ticket Griffey is part of a four-man outfield that suffers from only having three spots to play regularly. He’s been injury-prone and the contract makes him risky to any team, including the Reds. In Haddig, the Reds get the Future’s Game World 3B starter in case fellow kiddy hot-cornerman Edwin Encarnacion falters, and a first-round, big-potential left-hander in Purcey. Frasor could even end up being the Reds’ closer, a role he did last season in Toronto. At worst he helps out in the bullpen.

Griffey represents a gamble to the Jays. He’s earning eight figures and he’s got that aforementioned injury bug. About this stage in the career of Paul Molitor, he was similarly unblessed. And Molitor bounced back really well. While Griffey isn’t the best player in baseball any longer (and he WAS at one point), he’s a tonic to the Blue Jay batting order.

Power, which Griffey represents as much as anything else, is also needed in the form of Pat Burrell, who comes over from Philadelphia, along with Class A OF Jake Blalock, for OF Alexis Rios and reliever Brandon League. Philly makes this trade because Rios has the potential to be better than Burrell and he’s almost as good now, for a lot less money. He’s also a significantly better outfielder, which helps the Phillies defensively. League is that proverbial power arm who might or might not ever harnass it. The Jays get Burrell because he’s a mature power-hitter who can hide in the DH slot and then play outfield in a pinch. Blalock is a future major-league outfielder.

Lastly, the Jays move perennial prospect Guillermo Quiroz to the Tampa Devil Rays for Toby Hall. Quiroz still holds allure as a starter while Hall has to get out of Tampa and away from Lou Piniella (Who might move out at the same time anyway).

So let’s see how the Blue Jay roster takes shape in 2006. Across the outfield, we have Frank Catalanotto/Reed Johnson in LF, Vernon Wells in CF and Ken Griffey in RF. The infield starters are Corey Koskie 3B, Russ Adams SS, Orlando Hudson 2B and Shea Hillenbrand 1B. The catcher combo is Greg Zaun and Toby Hall. The DH is Pat Burrell, who covers off the fifth-outfielder spot. The IF backups are Aaron Hill on the left side, and Mark Bellhorn on the left side. The 14th offensive spot goes to PH Eric Hinske, if he can’t be disposed of. Otherwise, John Ford Griffin probably gets the nod over Greg Gross, who needs to keep playing full-time. Griffin’s a future DH, if he ever gets to the majors. If Hinske does stay, then he’s the backup 1B. Otherwise, Koskie or Burrell might occasionally have to pick up a first-basemen’s mitt.

The batting order goes Adams, Catalanotto/Johnson, Griffey, Burrell, Wells, Koskie, Hillenbrand, Zaun/Hall, Hudson.

The pitching staff sees Roy Halladay, Ted Lilly, Kevin Millwood, Gustavo Chacin and Scott Downs produce a decent mix of experience and youth. The long man in the six-man bullpen is Pete Walker. The middle men are rookie Lee Gronkiewicz, Justin Speir, Vince Chulk and the lone lefty, Scott Schoeneweis. The closer remains Miguel Batista. It would be nice to find a second lefty, but he would have to be at least as good as the man he replaces. Alternatively, the Jays could go with one of the Syracuse-bound youngsters in the fifth slot and move Downs to long relief. That might cost Walker his spot, or more likely free up Speir or Chulk for trade.

Down in the minors, Gross would be the top offensive prospect, along with first baseman Kevin Barker. The pitchers itching to get to Toronto would include Dave Bush and Dustin McGowan, currently 40 per cent of the Blue Jay starting staff, as well as Chad Gaudin, Francisco Rosario, Shawn Marcum, Spike Lundberg and Zach Jackson. That seems to be a decent pool of pitching talent to handle the inevitable injuries.

The one weak spot would be finding a couple of veteran MIF types to play in Syracuse to cover off any injuries to Hudson, Adams and/or Hill.

There you have it. The Blue Jays, 2006 playoff contenders.

Sunday, August 21, 2005

TV: The Sci-Fi Three

Normally, I like to watch my episodical TV in at least month-long chunks. Especially the shows given to cliff-hangers. Thus, over the last few years, I've become accustomed to sitting down and watching the whole of a Stargate SG-1 season. Somehow, however, I actually slipped two season behind and never actually got to watch the first season of Stargate Atlantis ... until recently.

About a month ago, I watched seasons seven and eight of SG-1 and the debut season of Atlantis. And I thoroughly enjoyed the week it took me to watch the 60 hours or so of science fiction. I was a sceptic of SG-1 when it debuted, utterly convinced there was no way the show could last beyond its inaugural season, despite liking the show. Keep that in mind as you read further, I COULD be wrong again, and in a major way.

The last two seasons of SG-1 each were meant to be a final season. Thus, the shows ended pleasantly at a conclusion of sorts. This is a wonderful thing. Atlantis did not. And this was not a good thing.

I had found myself quite enjoying Atlantis more than its parent. Torri Higginson and Rachel Luttrell grew on me with each passing show, while I found I could put with David Hewlett's caustic Canadian (we had to export him to the States to maintain our 'nice' reputation). Joe Flanigan had his Richard Dean Anderson patter down pat and I was constantly reminded how much the early years of SG-1 was fun. But the cliff-hanger ending meant breaking the now-established pattern of "wait 'til the year's over" viewing habit.

Besides, it wasn't the only show solving a cliff-hanger from last season. The two Stargates have been teamed with Battlestar Galactica to provide viewers with a Friday-full of good 'ol space opera. So I reluctantly started watching the shows as they come out, starting early last month.

And I am troubled. Of the three, only Atlantis has remained fun to watch. I have no qualms with it, so far into the new season. Jason Momoa, one of the few good things about the not-sadly belated North Shore, has largely replaced Canuck Rainbow Francks as a regular. But Francks has gotten himself a Daniel Shanks-like semi-regular guest-star spot that's been effective so far. (Shanks largely took season six of SG-1 off, making it into about a quarter of the episodes). Nothing has been cringe-worthy in the show and each hour seems to be able to stand on its own.

Before bouncing off the roof about the other two, let me state that I'm a card-carrying agnostic. I think religion is good, organized religion too frequently not so good. I've played bridge on teams with a Scottish Presbyterian, a Roman Catholic, a Hindu, a Jew and and Muslim. You CAN get along, whatever your beliefs, if you permit others their's. I think religion belongs in the home and at your place of worship. Not on my TV screen, as a major plot element.

So, despite a real star turn by ex-Farscaper Claudia Black as the mostly amoral Vala, SG-1 has come close to losing me for this season. In fact, Black has ended her arc as of this week, and woe to any producer who doesn't rush to get her back. They MUST take advantage of the out they left themselves when Vala apparently sacrificed herself to stave off the religious zealots, the Ori. (The religion being Origin, get it, ORIGIN. Yeah, lame.)

As such, the shows have descended from the fight against the Goa'uld false gods, who KNEW they were taking advantage of ignorant followers, to nuts who are doing it for religious reasons. Gak! Sure, there's some resonance in forward-thinkers as to pastiching the current uber-evangelic society we Earthlings find ourselves in these days. But I watch TV to get AWAY from the vagaries of our existence. The Ori schmucks (And YES, I know the translation of the word) are all-too powerful in a way that means we are a "War of the Worlds" viral solution away from winning. It's not going to end up being human engenuity that carries the day. Just some random happening. Even though I have enjoyed the other SG-1 additions, Ben Browder, Beau Bridges and the always welcome Lexa Doig (of Andromeda fame), I've got serious worries that SG-1 is finally in a final season.

Which brings me to the new, darker Battlestar Galactica. And it's internal battle between the religious following of now-deposed President Roslin and those following the orders of Commander Adama. Sure, it's a made-up religion and yes, I didn't shed any tears when the book-carrying priestess got blown up this week, but it's so ... ground-level. Galactica is SUPPOSED to look somewhat grungy. Sure, they don't have top-level communications to go with their star-spanning space-ships. But the primitiveness of what they do have, makes this whole Cylon thing, with their instant Galaxy-wide internet too incongrous. A lot of people make a lot of stupid decisions in key positions. When you have no real internal logic that makes sense, you play up religion. Gak, yet again. Or should I say FRAK again! It's cute the way the writers get Frak to replace the other F-word, but EVERYBODY in Galactica's using it and the cute charm of it has become TOO FRAKKIN' MUCH!

There ARE some nice touches this season in Galactica. The constant Baltar-Six internal monologues have been few and far between. Tish Helfer is gorgeous, but SOOOOO unneccesary. Richard Hatch is getting some good play as a bad guy who's going to be a REALLY bad guy some time soon, aided by henchman James Remar, who's work is consistently enjoyable. The multi-Boomers have devolved into the single Cylon who MIGHT be siding with the humans. Grace Park's handling that duty well. But I still can't get over having religion thrust into my fiction.

At some point, and that point's soon, the Sci-Fi Three, might become ONE ... and wait for the others, for a time when I've got absolutely nothing else to watch.