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Friday, December 31, 2010

The Questions Christians Hope No One Will Ask

Every now and then, I like to brush up on my apologetics, if for no other reason than to stay fresh. So when I saw The Questions Christians Hope No One Will Ask by Mark Mittelberg, I figured it might be worth checking out.

Mittelberg's method of compiling the questions was intriguing. He partnered up with the Barna Group and asked Christians what questions they didn't want their non-Christian friends to ask them. He then zeroes in on the questions at the top of the list and then proceeded to answer them.

None of the questions were that eye-opening to me. They're the type of questions that most Christians have struggled with for years, such as "How do you know God really exists?" or "Isn't the Bible just full of myths?" or "Why are so many Christians hypocrites?" Mittelberg then went on to answer those questions to the best of his ability.

None of what he does is all that groundbreaking. I've seen much of what he says in the past. But there were a few times when I encountered a new thought or illustration that helped clarify some point. Having said that, this book would be great for a lay person "in the trenches," speaking with and witnessing to non-Christians.

So it's definitely worth a read, even if you're just brushing up or getting started. An apologetics library is never too full.

Thursday, December 30, 2010

Superman/Batman Apocalypse

Oh, I love my Netflix account right now. I just got done streaming Superman/Batman Apocalypse to my computer and I had some fun with this one.

A surprise arrives in Gotham City in the form of Kara, Superman's cousin. Superman trusts her almost immediately whereas Batman is a bit unsure of why she would show up at that particular moment. This causes problems as they try to find a place for Kara to fit in. She grows sick of the Fortress of Solitude. She can't quite control her powers, so Metropolis is out. It seems that Wonder Woman has to step in and bring her to Paradise Island.

Only the triumvirate of heroes aren't the only ones with designs on the newest Kryptonian on Earth. No, Darkseid of Apokolips has designs for Kara as well, one that could destroy the Man of Steel.

Storywise, this one was kind of all over the place. At first, I thought that they were going for a sort of origin story thing, what with Kara's arrival on Earth as the opening act. But no, you have to be at least somewhat cognizant of the larger DC universe to totally get this movie. I mean, you should have a somewhat passing familiarity with Darkseid and his minions. I mean, I'm all for appearances by Granny Goodness and Big Barda, but even I was left scratching my head about some chick named Harbinger (who bore such a striking resemblance to Supergirl, I thought she was Supergirl when she first appeared).

That being said, this turned out into a fun romp. I was just a touch disappointed at what I thought was supposed to be the "big battle" at the end of the movie (although Batman's gambit rocked), but then when . . . you know what? Spoilers. Never mind. Let's just say that they had a great surprise waiting for me that kept me smiling the whole time.

The voice actors, as usual, were quite good. I mean, you can't go wrong with Tim Daly as Superman and Kevin Conroy as Batman. Honestly. But Summer Glau as Supergirl? And Ed Asner as Granny Goodness? Wow. Inspired choices.

In terms of animation, you can't fault this movie. At least, I enjoyed it.

So definitely see this if you're a comic book geek. But like I said, better do some research on Darkseid, especially if you think I misspelled that.

Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Eufloria

I seem to be doing a lot of video game reviews lately. I suppose that's all right because I've come across some great games. Add another to the list: Eufloria, yet another indie game that I acquired through Steam.

The concept is fairly simple: you are in charge of a group of seedlings that also double as mini starfighters. Yes, you read that sentence correctly. You use these seedlings to plant what are called "Dyson Trees" on asteroids. These trees come in two varieties. One type produces more seedlings. The other deploys mines that destroy enemy seedlings. You are defending your little patch of . . . well, I guess an asteroid field from an invading sickness called the "Grays." You must wipe them out so the Growers can one day return to the field.

In terms of graphics and sound, this game gets by on very little. The asteroids are basically circles. The seedlings are simple, as are the different trees. Each level looks very much like the one before it. The sound consisted of trippy music, generated at random by some factor I never did figure out.

In terms of gameplay, things stay relatively basic. There is some variety in terms of what kind of seedlings your asteroids will produce (differing in terms of power, strength, and speed). I suppose there's a deeper strategy at work in these levels, but often it came down to sheer numbers. I would simply get a large fleet of seedlings together and crush my enemies under my . . . roots? I'm not sure how to make that metaphor work for giant space trees.

The "story," if it can be called that, isn't anything special. It seemed more like someone at the studio sat down and said, "Quick! Come up with something to tie all these levels together!"

All of that being said, this game is incredible enjoyable. There was something fun about watching the different seedlings zip from one asteroid to another, deploying their wings as they came into orbit. While simple, the game draws you in and keeps you playing.

My one gripe, and it is fairly significant, is the lack of a mid-level saving function. Once you start a mission, you can't quit it without losing all of your progress. None of the levels were all that long, but there were a few times when I had to give up halfway through a near win because I had to go do something in the real world. Being able to save my progress might have been nice.

So this is a fun game, a simple game, but a game that's worth checking out.

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Bejeweled 3

I almost feel bad writing a review about this one. See, this was a quasi-"Bowling Ball Named Homer." I hadn't bought my wife enough stocking stuffers this year and I know how much she loves Bejeweled games. Seriously, we own every one. So I figured buying Bejeweled 3, the latest in the franchise, would be a good way to make it up to her. The fact that I wanted to play it too never entered into the equation at all. Nope. Not at all.

Ahem.

Okay, so I admit it, I wanted to check this one out too. I mean, they've created four different iterations of this game over the past several years. After Twist and Blitz, I was kind of wondering what they could do to the hallowed Bejeweled game to make it different.

As it turns out, quite a bit. The geniuses at PopCap Games have done it again, revamping the venerable "match three gems to make them disappear" game and adding some fresh twists to it.

That phrasing is a bit of an intentional nod to the previous incarnation, because PopCap took a lot of stuff from the previous games and included it in this one. Hypercubes, lightning gems, supernova gems, they're all here. Well, all of them except my beloved Fruit Gems from Twist, but beggars can't be choosers.

Also a pleasant surprise were the myriad new styles. You have "Classic" and "Zen" (which I guess is supposed to be easier and relaxing). But then they also added "Lightning" (a new version of Blitz where you gain extra seconds for your next rounds), "Poker" (you put together a hand by carefully matching the gems. It's a lot more fun and difficult than it sounds), "Butterflies" (some of the gems are butterflies that fly up the board to where a spider waits), "Ice Storm" (where ice slowly creeps up the board and you clear it by making matches), "Diamond Mine" (you excavate gold and artifacts by . . . well, you get the idea), and last but not least, "Quest."

Quest Mode was a great surprise. Not only do you have to play versions of the other games with very specific goals, there are also about half a dozen other puzzles you have to solve. For example, in "Balance," you have to match a certain number of red and blue gems, but for every gem you eliminate, they get dumped onto opposite sides of a scale. If the red or blue side gets too heavy, the scale will basically tip and the game ends.

I was pleasantly surprised by all of the changes and I know I'll be playing this one for a while. If I can get the computer away from my wife, that is. After all, it is her game.

Friday, December 17, 2010

Batman: Under the Red Hood

Earlier this week, I watched Batman: Under the Red Hood, the latest animated movie in the Batman franchise. And all I can say is, "Whoa."

The story opens with the tragic death of Jason Todd (the second Robin) at the hands of the Joker, a traumatic event for Batman. Fast forward to modern times, where a new criminal calling himself the Red Hood is making a name for himself by stealing territory from the Black Mask, an underworld kingpin. Naturally, the Black Mask isn't happy with this. And neither is Batman. But as Batman starts to investigate the identity of the Red Hood, it threatens to dredge up some painful memories.

This movie surprised me. It's a lot more adult than I expected, darker and grittier than I expected. The opening ten minutes told me that much. And you have to know a little bit about the Batman universe, like the history of the Red Hood, Jason Todd, and R'as al Ghul or the story might be a little hard to follow. At the same time, having that knowledge made the plot a little predictable. Just a little. Just saying.

The vocal talent was outstanding. I was a little skeptical that John DiMaggio could replace Mark Hamill as the Joker, but he did an excellent job. And then there's Neil Patrick Harris as Nightwing. What surprised me most, though, was that I didn't miss Kevin Conroy as the voice of Batman.

So this one is definitely a must-see for Batman fans and even some non-fans as well.

Thursday, December 16, 2010

World of Goo

Back around Black Friday, the good folks at Steam were having a series of incredible sales. One such sale was a bundle of independent games for life $5. One of the games in said bundle was World of Goo by 2D Boy. I've just finished (most) of this ridiculously addicting ridiculous game and I know I'll be revisiting it soon.

The premise is simple: there is living goo balls and you have to build structures to solve puzzles. Usually these puzzles involve building a lattice-structure to a pipe that will suck up the loose goo balls that skitter along the lattice. But many of these puzzles are anything but simple. You have to do some out-of-the-box thinking to figure out how to build bridges, towers, or dangling chains of . . . well, I think it's supposed to be spit to get to your goal.

The game itself is short, just five quick chapters, but like I said, I know I'll be back to replay the levels. Part of this is to try for the "OCD" badges, namely to finish the levels while achieving a difficult feat (i.e. rescuing so many extra goo balls, completing it in so many moves or within so much time). Plus there's also the tower building mini-game. You can use goo balls that you've rescued to build a tower. Supposedly there's a meta-game that you can eventually reach. I haven't gotten close yet, but I'll keep trying.

If you're interested in trying it out, you can purchase it via Steam here. Trust me, it's worth every penny.

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Tron: Legacy

Thanks to the good folks at Philips Norelco, my wife and I were able to attend a sneak preview of Tron: Legacy tonight. Only this wasn't any ordinary sneak peek. No, this was held at the IMAX Theater at the Minnesota Zoo. In 3D, even! We weren't allowed to bring in cellphones. We had to be security wanded by dour faced gents. And then we got to munch free popcorn in a spacious auditorium to see the sequel close to thirty years in the making!

The movie starts with Flynn, the hero of the first movie, telling wild tales to his son, Sam, about Tron and Clu, his friends on the computerized grid. And then Flynn disappears for fifteen years or so. His son grows up, bitter and angry at Encom, his dad's company. Apparently the company has gone in a direction that Flynn wouldn't have approved of.

A mysterious message draws Sam to Flynn's old arcade, where he is sucked into "the Grid," a cyberworld his dad created. Now Sam has to survive the games, find his father, and escape from that dystopian neon world.

So let's talk story and characters first. In that regard, Tron: Legacy is a hot mess. The initial clash with Encom basically has nothing to do with the story going on in the Grid. And the story in the Grid is sort of nonsensical, having to do with Flynn inventing . . . well, I'm not sure what the Grid is supposed to be. The Internet? Internet 3.0? Some sort of cyber-dealie that will somehow make the world a better place by being flashy and shiny? I have no idea. Apparently Flynn made some sort of discovery that will shake the world to its core. It'll change everything about computers and religion and economics and all that stuff. But here's the thing: they never explain how. Even when the massive change-the-world event happens, it's not really that big of a deal.

More problematic is the sheer predictability of the plot. Every "surprise twist" is telegraphed to the point that you can guess what will happen. At least, I saw most of them coming, especially when it came to Rinzler and Quorra.

But hey, let's be honest here. I didn't go to this movie for the plot and, I suspect, neither will most people. So let's talk visual effects.

Stunning. Mind-melting. Really cool.

Thankfully the world of the Grid is not the bleached out blue-white of the original. There are some pretty vibrant scenery to enjoy and the whole thing popped to life in the 3D. Thankfully, the 3D was not too overwhelming or cheesy. Instead it seemed to be used to add depth and texture to the world. My only gripe was the fact that I had to lock my head into one position for the entire movie. Swivel my head just a little bit and the screen would go out of focus, ruining the effect.

So all in all, I'd say go if you're willing to spring for the 3D. Otherwise, you probably won't be missing much.

"The Dark Knight Rises" Speculation

Okay, so a few months back, I read an interesting article at Entertainment Weekly's website, one that speculated about who the villain for the third installment of Christopher Nolan's Batman movies, namely The Dark Knight Rises. There were some really interesting possibilities (Superman? Could be fun).

But then the rumor mill started churning. Apparently the scuttlebutt was that the villain would be Dr. Hugo Strange and that the movie would be based on Prey. I've never read it, but from what I was was hearing, it would be a pretty awesome story: a rogue police psychiatrist goes to war with Batman, having figured out his true identity. It would fit perfectly with the way The Dark Knight ended, with Batman on the run after supposedly killed Harvey "Two Face" Dent.

But hang on a sec. This past Sunday, Jeff Jensen of Entertainment Weekly pointed out that the speculation about Hugo Strange as the adversary of The Dark Knight Rises seemed to be really close to the apparent plot of up-coming video game Batman: Arkham City. Just check out my post from yesterday with the game trailer. Pointy-bearded Strange (who has cracked Batman's secret identity), the elite squad of police/soldiers hunting for the Dark Knight? Jensen wonders if maybe the rumor mill got their wires crossed. Or if we'll see two very different renditions of the same story.

Well, I was feeling a bit speculative myself and I decided to write a "treatment" of how I would plot out the final Nolan movie. I'm stealing from the original EW article a little and also borrowing from my brother-in-law Chris, who knows his comic books a whole lot better than me. SO here we go:

The Dark Knight Rises opens where the previous film left off, with the Batman on the run. Gotham City has turned against him, but in many ways, Batman doesn't mind. He is still lurking in the shadows, doing his best to take out criminals.

Only he's run into a small problem. Remember those counterfeit Batmen from The Dark Knight? The ones who were "inspired" by Batman but resorted to guns and such? Well, one of them tried to emulate his hero moreso than the others, eschewing firearms and sticking to his martial arts training. Well, this "best of the Batmen" feels betrayed by his hero's fall from grace. In an on-line video, he renounces his cape and cowl, adopting the new persona of "Nightwing." Several times, Nightwing and Batman cross paths, Nightwing making it clear that he's going to take Batman down.

But things only get worse, because the new mayor of Gotham City doesn't think that Commissioner Gordon is doing enough to bring in Batman. So he makes a private arrangement with a powerful mercenary, namely Bane. Bane approaches Nightwing to see if the young vigilante will team up with him so they can "break" Batman. Nightwing agrees, which turns out to be a mistake.

Bane, you see, is using his position as the mayor's muscle to unite Gotham's criminal element under his own ruthless leadership. He uses Nightwing to "discipline" those who oppose him. Eventually Nightwing sees the error of his ways (thanks, in part, to Batman) and they join forces to stop Bane before he can completely take control of Gotham from the underground up.

Of course, the problem is that Batman is still being hunted by the cops and he now faces Bane's army as well. But in the end, Batman and Nightwing take out Bane in a public way, proving to the public that Batman has always been on the side of good. Nightwing admits that he was wrong to judge Batman and leaves town, leaving the Dark Knight to keep his city safe.

Or, since Christian Bale has made this clear that this is his final movie, it could be an interesting twist if they went the Knightfall route and had Bane break Batman over his knee, forcing Bruce Wayne to retire and officially hand over the mantle of Dark Knight to Nightwing, allowing a new Knight to rise.

Now naturally, I'm just spinning this story as I see fit. I also wouldn't mind seeing Clayface replace Bane in my story (not the shapeshifting version, but as a veteran master-of-disguise), sewing tension by impersonating Batman and committing crimes. And, of course, if the movie turns out to have Dr. Hugo Strange, that'd be cool too. I just felt like sharing, that's all.

Monday, December 13, 2010

Trailer for "Batman: Arkham City"

Next year is going to be a good year for gamers. Yesterday I mentioned Mass Effect 3. Well, here's another gem from the VGAs, a trailer for Batman: Arkham City.



Again:

WANT IT NOW!

Sunday, December 12, 2010

Footage of the Metrdome Collapse

Well, they want a new stadium . . .



Wow. But I think this tweet from TheTweetOfGod is a pretty good capper to a weird weekend here in Minnesota:

Mass Effect 3 Teaser Trailer

Apparently this aired last night at the VGAs. I don't get Spike, so I couldn't see it live. But still . . .



Three words:

WANT IT NOW!

Saturday, December 11, 2010

A Blizzard Prayer

Dear God,

After the Day of Judgment, could you do me a favor? Turn off the fires of hell for a day and then give the Devil three things:

1) A heart.
2) A shovel.
3) A driveway full of plow-packed snow.

Thanks!

John

Friday, December 10, 2010

The Sending

I really struggled with whether or not I should write a review of The Sending by Matt Koceich. I kept thinking of the old adage, "If you don't have anything good to say, then don't say anything." And while it isn't nearly that bad, I was severely tempted to simply let this one go. But there's an issue with this book that I felt I had to address, a fairly serious one. I'll get to that in a moment.

The other reason why I wasn't sure I should write a review because people might accuse me of sour grapes. The Sending was the winner of this year's Marcher Lord Select main contest. I was a participant who got eliminated in the first round. So some might think that jealousy might motivate what I'm about to say. Let me assure you, I'm not speaking out of anger or spite. This is simply how I see things.

The Sending is the story of Mark Grant, a young man with an extraordinary gift. He is a remote viewer; he can project himself away from his body. He's been hired as part of a project to find the Garden of Eden so humanity can finally partake of the Tree of Life and experience immortality.

Only Mark's ability and involvement in this project doesn't sit well with his wife, Aubrey. So Mark tries to back out of the project. When he does, his wife and son are kidnapped and he's told that if he wants to see them again, he'll have to finish what he started. He has to find the Garden or he will lose everything that matters to him.

So let's talk good stuff first: the premise is dynamite. A modern-day search for the Garden is a great story. In theory, Mark makes for an interesting character (what with his special ability) and based on the premise, this should be a good book. Unfortunately, the whole thing goes completely off the rails shortly after it starts.

The story is disjointed and confusing. I think Koceich was trying to do something similar to Ted Dekker's Circle trilogy, with two separate realities intermingling. Sadly, the attempt fails. The transitions happen for seemingly no reason and oftentimes, I had no idea what was going on.

The characters also didn't feel real. For me, the worst was Sam, Mark's 4-year-old son. I was beginning to wonder if Sam had some sort of speech impediment or developmental disability because of the way Koceich wrote his dialogue. "Scoy" for "score." "Luh you" for "love you." That sort of thing. I have a four-year-old at home and I asked him to repeat some of Koceich's dialogue. He was able to with clear enunciation. Sam sounded more like he was two than four.

Also problematic for me was the theology. I realize this is speculative fiction and I'm all for dancing on the end of a theological tree-branch at times, but this one really made me wince. Koceich weaves an odd take on Satan's temptation of Adam and Eve that really didn't sit well with me. Maybe it's just me, but I didn't care for it and thought it was a bit over-the-top.

But what really sent me through the roof was the blatant heresy that popped up in the book on more than one occasion. It would appear that Koceich has drifted into a trinitarian heresy known as modalism.

Let me give you an example: from page 136 of the book, Koceich writes, "John just thought that Iesus was Creator but not Father." Later in the book, Mark encounters Jesus and calls Him "Abba" and Jesus refers to Mark as "His son."

Small problem: Jesus is not the Father. This flies in the face of historic Christianity and is opposed by no less than the Athanasian Creed. Quite honestly, when I encountered that first statement, I was so disturbed I almost stopped reading. But I thought maybe it was a typo or an overstatement so I kept reading.

Now I don't know if Koceich meant to drift into a heresy rejected by the Church for the last 1,700 years or so, but I was not happy with this.

At the end of the book, Koceich seemed to be setting himself up for a potential sequel. If that's the case, I'm getting off here. Maybe there's an audience for this book, but it doesn't include me.

The Voyage of the Dawn Treader

Let's talk about The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, shall we?

Edmund and Lucy Pevensie are summoned one last time to Narnia, but instead of traveling with their older siblings, Peter and Susan, they bring along their younger cousin, Eustace Scrubb (who has, in my opinion, one of the most evocative names I've ever encountered. Describes him to a T). They find themselves reunited with King Caspian on a ship called the Dawn Treader. Caspian, having secured Nania and winning himself some peace, is sailing east to the Lone Islands, searching for seven lords who fled his evil uncle.

As it turns out, all is not well. A great evil is brewing in the eastern oceans, one that threatens to consume all of Narnia. Only Edmund and Lucy and their companions can free Narnia from its grip.

If you've read The Voyage of the Dawn Treader by C. S. Lewis, you're probably scratching your head about that last paragraph. I certainly was while sitting in the movie theater. I was a little disturbed at some of the liberties that the director took in this movie. The book's story centers around Caspian's quest to find the seven lords simply to find them. Narnia isn't in jeopardy. There's no "big bad" lurking in the shadows, waiting to devour everyone. And yet, even without the high adventure, Lewis's book is a fun read.

The movie is a little . . . off, I suppose you could say. It's a fun ride, that's for sure. It was great to finally see the Dufflepuds brought to life. But the newly tacked on adventure quest didn't mesh with Lewis's original material too well. They tinkered with the plot and added in some stuff that made me roll my eyes (i.e. the three lords at Aslan's Table and when they were restored; way to miss the point).

But what made me smile is what the director kept in. Eustace's journey hews very closely to the book and that was a good thing. Like I said, the Dufflepuds were awesome, even if they were only in there for a brief moment.

But best of all, they kept the line. THE line, the one that helps explain what Narnia is all about. Aslan says it to the children right at the end of the movie and it's so important, I'm going to quote it from the original book:

"I am [in your world too]. But there I have another name. You must learn to know me by that name. This was the very reason why you were brought to Narnia, that by knowing me here for a little, you may know me better there."

Given who Aslan represents in Narnia, it's great that they kept that key statement intact and didn't fiddle with it.

So I guess, all in all, this was an okay movie. I worry, though, about future adaptations. If they continue to stray too much, Narnia might become unrecognizable. But for now, it was good to join them on the voyage.

Tuesday, November 30, 2010

So You Want to Write a Novel

I'm just going to leave this here on today, the last day of NaNoWriMo. This hurts to watch, because it's unfortunately true. Which is also what makes it so funny.

Monday, November 29, 2010

Beyond Black Mesa

My goodness gracious! About two years ago, I found a fan film depicting the world of Half Life 2 that was pretty cool. Well, I've stumbled across another one:




Only thing missing? Gordon. But hey, that'd be hard to cast for a fan film. Still pretty effective.

Thursday, November 25, 2010

König’s Fire


Well, merry Thanksgiving to me. Turns out that I and my darling wife have caught the stomach flu that hit our son earlier this week. It was a long, unpleasant night, the only bright spot of which was the fact that I was able to finish reading König’s Fire by Marc Schooley.

This is the story of a man who was nicknamed Sascha König, a man nicknamed Nebuchadnezzar by his Nazi brethren during World War II. König is sent to the Nachthaus, a Nazi camp in a mine set in the middle of a dense forest, to be its resident chemist. The Nachthaus is a prison for dissidents, political prisoners, war prisoners, and other undesirables. One of König’s duties is to stoke the fires of the Nachthaus’s ovens. He gets them to burn seven times hotter than before (hence the nickname).

But all is not well at the Nachthaus. For starters, there is the gypsy girl, whose eyes haunt König as he goes about his work. And then there is the fact that nature itself is pounding at the front gates of the Nachthaus, trying to eradicate the evil from its midst. But most of all is the fact that König’s conscience is stirring and he’s beginning to realize that he’s been in the wrong for a long time. The question is, will he awake from his daydream or will he let the Nachthaus consume his soul?

This was a weird book. I’m just going to be blunt and come right and say it. I mean, I read the backcover copy and so I was ready for a little bit of weirdness, but there was a lot more than I ever expected. That’s not necessarily a bad thing. I’m all about the weirdness in a speculative fiction book. I guess what threw me off was how the weirdness was introduced. Schooley introduces some of the weird concepts in a matter-of-fact way, almost as if it’s natural to encounter what König experiences. Now Schooley easily explained why nobody seemed all that surprised to see what König saw in the Nachthaus, but it still was a bit hard to swallow at first.

There were also some times when Schooley’s authorial voice got in the way of the story, but those times were minor. The most jarring was when König starts referring to a group of women as “de vemen.” I get why he did it the first time, but Schooley kept using that phrasing through the rest of the book and while it made some sense to help label this particular group of women (who had a specific role in the story), the repeated use was a little off-putting.

But these are all minor complaints. Overall, the story is very good, unpredictable and a true rollercoaster ride through the choppy waters of where obedience and duty intersect with morality and virtue. König was a fascinating character, especially given his role and duties in the Nachthaus, but he was also one in a great cast. In short, this was a great book and a great addition to the Marcher Lord Press library.

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Dream House Addition

Okay, so for a while now, I've been designing my dream house. I call it my "when I'm an international best-selling author and have tons of money to sink into a house that has all the features my crazy imagination can cook up" house. In other words, the house that I will never actually get to build. What? I'm realistic here.

Anyway, I just saw a video of something that must be included. Check it out:



Now I'm not as big of a Trekkie as I used to be. Enterprise pretty much killed that part of me. But my inner-nerd sat up and took notice of this. Really cool!

Friday, November 19, 2010

Civilzation V


Okay, so I'm a little behind on this one. Civilization V came out a while back and I waited before I got it. And I wanted to play it through a few times to get the hang of how it all fits together. And, I've gotta be honest, when it comes to a Civilization game, I have a tendency to keep clicking "next turn" until the wee hours of the morning.

I've been a Civilization fanatic for a while now. I know I've played this franchise since at least Civilization II, possibly even the original on my roommate's Mac back in college. When I heard that they were releasing a new version, I knew that this would be one I'd be buying and playing obsessively. But I've got to be honest, there were some changes I'd heard about that I wasn't entirely sure about. But it's Civilization, so I figured it would work out okay.

For those of you unfamiliar with the Civ franchise, it's a turn-based strategy game. You are the leader of a civilization and you have to guide it. Do you want to focus on scientific innovation? Spread far and wide by founding new colonies? Become a blood-thirsty, ruthless warlord intent on crushing everyone beneath your feet? Or some combination thereof? You can do that, playing such historical figures as Gandhi, George Washington, Queen Elizabeth, or Montezuma. Along the way to victory, you can fight barbarians, build great Wonders, and eventually, extend your reach to the stars.

For those of you who have played this franchise before, that's old hat. So let's talk about some specific changes from IV to V.

The biggest change is that you can no longer stack your units. That was one of my wartime strategies in the old versions: build several dozen tanks, flock them together in one big stack, and then have this massive army roll over everyone else. You can't do that any more. Only one unit can occupy one space at a time. That adds some interesting twists to planning a battle. You have to figure out how to get your army from one point to another and there are times when your own units can mess you up.

Let me give you an example. In my first game, I was perched on the north end of an hourglass shaped continent. A nation I wanted to wipe out was on the southern end. I had to move my entire army through a narrow isthmus but couldn't because my workers were constructing a road. I had to stop them, move them out of the way, and march my troops through. It adds an interesting wrinkle to battles.

There are a lot of other changes that I could go into but I won't. They've axed religions, revamped cultural policies, added in independent city states, and streamlined a lot of the game's interfaces. Since I'm so late to the party, I won't go into detail on each and every one of them. Instead, I'll say this: it's a great game.

I wasn't sold right away. A lot of the changes threw me my first game and I had a hard time navigating the new interfaces and figuring out the changes. But the second game went a lot smoother. I've racked up a few victories now and while I can't say that I've got it all figured out, I'm comfortable enough to know that I'll be enjoying this one for a long time.

Now if you'll excuse me, I need to go conquer the world as Alexander the Great.

Thursday, November 18, 2010

Advent Conspiracy

I first heard about this a few years ago from on an on-line video (this one, I think), so when I saw the book Advent Conspiracy by Rick McKinley, Chris Seay, and Greg Holder, I figured I should check it out. I knew the gist of the book already: change the way you celebrate Christmas.

And in many ways, the book delivers on that premise. They point out that we don't spend any amount of real time in the true story of Christmas. Oh, we're aware of it. And yes, we do spend time in church leading up to Christmas. But the sad thing is, the miracle of the Christ child's birth doesn't impact the way we celebrate Christmas. Worship is just an extra hour we take out of our busy schedule, one dominated with giving gifts that nobody really needs or wants. The challenge of the Conspiracy is to stop buying into the consumerism mentality of a secular Christmas and return to the simple joy of living in the incarnational love of God.

It's a good message and a good challenge, to stop buying so much stuff and instead using that money to change the world for the better (the authors' chosen charity is Living Water International, an organization that seeks to bring safe drinking water to people around the world). The problem is, the book itself is a bit light. It's not that thick in terms of pages to begin with, and over half the book is a small group discussion guide for a DVD Bible study series (the DVD for which did not come with the book).

Basically it boils down to a quick read that lays a good challenge on its readers, but it could have maybe been developed a little bit more. But it's certainly given me something to think about for this Christmas and beyond.

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Lair of the Shadow Broker

A few months back, the good folks at BioWare released another DLC package for one of my favorite video games, namely Mass Effect 2. I've snatched up every other DLC package that they've put out for this game, so I knew that Lair of the Shadow Broker would be no different. But what really piqued my interest was when I read that decisions you make in this mission will effect your gameplay in the up-coming Mass Effect 3. One of the things I loved about Mass Effect 2 was the way it showed players the consequences of their actions in the original. I know I'll be getting the third installment, so I figured, I'd better get to the Lair so I can start getting ready for the final installment of this apparent trilogy.

The story is pretty simple. Commander Shepard's old friend, Liara T'Soni needs help. She's been hunting for the elusive Shadow Broker for the past two years. Shepard's contacts in Cerberus have information she can use, so they pass it on to Shepard to pass on to Liara. Only when Shepard gets to Liara's apartment, she's gone. Shepard has to find her and then help her bring down one of the most dangerous people in the galaxy.

I really liked this mission. A lot. For starters, there are the settings. You travel across a cityscape in Ilium, fighting across most of it. I even didn't mind driving the taxi through its "streets," and I'm not a fan of Mass Effect driving levels. I'll do them, but I don't enjoy them. The Shadow Broker's base is also a pleasant surprise. There were some unique features that I enjoyed using during the battles and the final boss battle, while a bit simplistic, is still a lot of fun.

Gameplay aside, the writing that went into this new mission is fantastic too. Shepard has some great one-liners he unleashes throughout the mission. But it's also fascinating to watch Liara as she comes to grips with her two year obsession. What's especially fun is if your in-game character had a romance with Liara in the original game. It definitely effects the way this mission plays out.

But what really surprised (and delighted) me is what you get after you complete the mission. No simple monetary reward, you gain access to some very powerful tools that help you find resources, money, and even retrain your team members (a feature the game did not have before). But my favorite has to be the dossiers the Shadow Broker collected. None of it effects the game overall, but it does help add some more depth and color to the characters in-game.

My favorite part, though, were the surveillance videos. Little snippets of footage of people doing weird stuff for seemingly no reason. It was just strange enough that I had to keep coming back to see all of them. I was actually a bit bummed when I learned that there are only three sets of videos.

I do have one complaint about this DLC, and it's a minor point, I suppose. One of the things you can do after you finish the mission is purchase information on where to find specific in-game resources. The game then marks your galaxy map as to where to find the right planets. That's great, but the problem is, the planets stay labeled, even after you visited them and retrieved said resources. On my latest playthrough, I had so many labels on my galaxy map from other missions that I could barely see where the individual starsystems were. It would have been nice if there were a way to clear those resource labels once you're done with them. A minor gripe, but there you go.

I honestly don't know if there will be any other DLCs coming out before Mass Effect 3. If there are and they're as good as this one, I know I'll be revisiting Commander Shepard's world once again.

Monday, November 15, 2010

Bliss

Let's just get this out of the way: I'm the wrong gender for this book. If I didn't know Jenness Walker from ACFW (and still suffered from residual guilt from laughing at her two years ago; long story), it probably wouldn't have blipped on my radar. But here we are: I just recently finished Bliss by Jenness Walker and Tracy Bowen. Not surprisingly, I've learned that straight chick-lit is not my cup of tea. Or designer handbag. Or something equally girlie, probably made sparkly with ribbons and bangles or some such thing.

Indie Moore is on a search for her bliss and she's bound and determined to find it. Using the advice found in her daily horoscopes, she moves from Nebraska to Florida, with no home, no job, and no idea how she'll find what she truly needs. She falls in with an odd assortment of characters, who give him jobs, a roof over her head, and a new perspective. There's Ellie, a work-a-holic artist with her own pottery shop, Meredith and Bo, bakery owners, Leah, an author who cleans houses on the side, and Nick, the hunky boat captain. Indie struggles with her up-bringing (a flighty Mom into just about every New Age-y thing imaginable) and with finding where she actually belongs.

Again, keep in mind, I do not have enough X chromosomes to be considered part of the target market, so I think it's understandable that I didn't really get into this book. It was well written, don't get me wrong. Indie is a great and vibrant main character and I often found myself chuckling at her misadventures. I did wonder at times if the portrayal of her mother was all that realistic (she seemed a bit over-the-top at times), but otherwise, I enjoyed myself while reading this book.

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

A Random Act of Culture

This is really cool. I've often wanted to organize a flash mob of some kind, but honestly, I don't know what I'd have it do. But this is still pretty cool. Wish I could have been there to see it.

Tuesday, November 09, 2010

The Mimic Octopus

God's creation is so cool. To wit, the mimic octopus:

Monday, November 08, 2010

A Gritty Hunger Games Adaptation?

I spotted an open letter to the presumed director of the Hunger Games adaptation on the Entertainment Weekly website. I just read it through, and I couldn't agree more. So I thought I'd pass it on.

What do you think? Have moviemakers gone off the deep end with the grit?

Friday, November 05, 2010

Star Wars Theme as a Baroque Gavotte

Makes me wish I had paid more attention in my music classes:

Thursday, November 04, 2010

The Tenth Crusader

Rick Macey is back in The Tenth Crusader by Kirk Outerbridge. The cyborg private investigator-turned-government operative has a new mission. He's asked by the government to return to the Philippines to investigate the death of a diplomatic negotiator, one connected with a pan-religious organization. Macey doesn't want to go; he's supposed to be on a honeymoon with his wife, Sheila. But when Macey learns that the murder is connected to a group he was once affiliated with decades earlier, he has to go back, even if it means encountering a part of his past he wishes would stay dead and buried.

I really enjoyed this book, even more than the first in the series. Outerbridge does an excellent job creating a believable futuristic world. Everything that he describes makes sense. That goes both for the cybernetic details and the religious details. Outerbridge spends a lot of time working in details about Islam and it seems that he's done his homework.

I really can't complain about much, but there were two details that bugged me. I had a hard time tracking with the overall plot at times. Outerbridge has put together a very intricate evil scheme for the villain, one that I really didn't understand. I think I understand it now, but there were times when all of the cyber-powered fights and explosions seemed to overwhelm the details. Not horrendously so; I think I've got a handle on it now. But I'm still not entirely sure how everyone relates.

The thing that really bothers me is Macey's wife, Sheila. I did not like her at all in this book. Not even a little. I don't know exactly what it is about her that grates on my nerves so badly, but I winced every time she popped in. Given the fact that I didn't really care for the romantic subplot from the first book, I'm guessing it's related to that.

But overall, this was an excellent book. I'm hoping to go on another Rick Macey adventure soon!

Wednesday, November 03, 2010

CSFF Blog Tour: "The Skin Map" Day Three

One of the things that surprised me the most about The Skin Map by Stephen Lawhead is the inclusion of ley lines in the plot. I've seen these mystical thing-a-majigs in fantasy novels in the past and I'm sure I read about them in my younger days when I was fascinated by all things esoteric, mysterious, and bizarre. About the only thing I could remember about ley lines going into this book was that New Agers really like them for some reason. Oh, and they also showed up in The Da Vinci Code briefly, which doesn't exactly endear them to me.

But Lawhead made them work. I'm not saying that I think ley lines are anything mystical or the gateway to alternate realities or anything like that. But Lawhead took a decidedly dicey spiritual concept and "baptized" it quite nicely. Like I said in Monday's post, the faith content of the story wasn't explicit, but it's pretty clear that Lawhead's use of these mystical doo-dads will remain firmly in touch with Christianity.

That's one of the fun things about Christian speculative fiction. You can take some decidedly sketchy concepts and sanctify them, giving them a Christian twist and letting them loose. While I haven't always liked where some authors take those twists, I'm always up for seeing how it's done. It makes the genre more exciting to read as a whole, I think, if you have an author who's willing to take that kind of leap and invites us to leap with him or her.

Maybe that's just me. Go and see what the rest of the tourists have to say:

Red Bissell
Thomas Clayton Booher
Keanan Brand
Grace Bridges
Beckie Burnham
Morgan L. Busse
Jeff Chapman
Christian Fiction Book Reviews
Valerie Comer
Karri Compton
Amy Cruson
CSFF Blog Tour
Stacey Dale
D. G. D. Davidson
George Duncan
April Erwin
Tori Greene
Ryan Heart
Bruce Hennigan
Timothy Hicks
Christopher Hopper
Becky Jesse
Cris Jesse
Becca Johnson
Jason Joyner
Julie
Carol Keen
Krystine Kercher
Shannon McDermott
Allen McGraw
Matt Mikalatos
Rebecca LuElla Miller
Nissa
Gavin Patchett
Sarah Sawyer
Chawna Schroeder
Kathleen Smith
Rachel Starr Thomson
Donna Swanson
Robert Treskillard
Steve Trower
Fred Warren
Dona Watson
Phyllis Wheeler
Nicole White
Elizabeth Williams
Dave Wilson

Tuesday, November 02, 2010

CSFF Blog Tour: "The Skin Map" Day Two

Remember how yesterday, I said that I figured I'd have no problem reading The Skin Map by Stephen Lawhead in four days? I knew I'd have no problem almost right away. That's because the first paragraph so grabbed me that I knew I had to keep reading.

Here it is:

Had he but known that before the day was over he would discover the hidden dimensions of the universe, Kit might have been better prepared. At least, he would have brought an umbrella.


I know, right? I laughed with sheer delight at the simplicity and, on one level, absurdity of that statement. An umbrella? Really? What does that have to do with the hidden dimensions of the universe. It raised just enough questions that I knew I had to keep reading.

That, I think, is the key to writing a great book. An author has to grab his or her reader by the end of the first page and compel them to keep reading. It's even better if he or she can do it by the end of the first paragraph. Or even the first line. Lawhead's book is a great example of this.

Just bringing this up sent me back to my bookshelf to look for other great first lines in other books. And I found a few.

This is from The Dark Glory War by Michael A. Stackpole:

The day they gave me my mask was the first day I felt truly alive.


Brings up a great question, doesn't it? Why is the main character receiving a mask? Why does it have such a profound effect on him? It's that sentence that brings us into a great adventure, one in which masks play a large part.

Here's the first paragraph from the best-selling book, The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins:

When I wake up, the other side of the bed is cold. My fingers stretch out, seeking Prim's warmth but finding only the rough canvas cover of the mattress. She must have had bad dreams and climbed in with our mother. Of course, she did. This is the day of the reaping.

Already we know that something bad is going to happen, something connected to the ominous sounding "reaping." Thus enticed, we continue into a gripping adventure.

Here's another one, this time from within the realm of Christian fiction, namely Rooms by James L. Rubart:

Why would a man he never knew build him a home on one of the most spectacular beaches on the West Coast?
An excellent question, one that encapsulates the story. We wonder the same thing and that keeps us reading as Micah Taylor tries to answer that question.

So is it absolutely necessary to have a killer opening line? Not necessarily. I was surprised at how long it took me to find these three examples. But it certainly doesn't hurt. I mean, a great opening paragraph made me want to read a book in four days. That, I would say, can be counted as a success.

How about you, fair readers? Know of any killer opening lines/paragraphs?

Be sure to check out what the other tourists have to say:

Red Bissell
Thomas Clayton Booher
Keanan Brand
Grace Bridges
Beckie Burnham
Morgan L. Busse
Jeff Chapman
Christian Fiction Book Reviews
Valerie Comer
Karri Compton
Amy Cruson
CSFF Blog Tour
Stacey Dale
D. G. D. Davidson
George Duncan
April Erwin
Tori Greene
Ryan Heart
Bruce Hennigan
Timothy Hicks
Christopher Hopper
Becky Jesse
Cris Jesse
Becca Johnson
Jason Joyner
Julie
Carol Keen
Krystine Kercher
Shannon McDermott
Allen McGraw
Matt Mikalatos
Rebecca LuElla Miller
Nissa
Gavin Patchett
Sarah Sawyer
Chawna Schroeder
Kathleen Smith
Rachel Starr Thomson
Donna Swanson
Robert Treskillard
Steve Trower
Fred Warren
Dona Watson
Phyllis Wheeler
Nicole White
Elizabeth Williams
Dave Wilson

Monday, November 01, 2010

CSFF Blog Tour: "The Skin Map" Day One

I was a little nervous about this one. See, I knew we were going to be covering The Skin Map by Stephen Lawhead for this blog tour. I had requested a free reviewers copy from the publisher but I hadn't seen one yet. By my reckoning, the blog tour was going to get started soon and I hadn't read the book. And then, finally, the book arrived, a scant four days before the tour was scheduled to start. I panicked. My schedule was packed as it was. How was I going to read a 400-page tome in four days?

Well, it turns out I needn't have worried. Many tourists were in the same boat as me and so, our blog tour got pushed back by a week. But here's the ironic thing: this book was good enough, I could have easily devoured it in four days. Less than that, even. Lawhead has crafted a fun adventure that kept me turning pages.

Kit Livingstone is an ordinary guy from London setting out on an ordinary day when his life takes an unexpected turn. As he tries to take a shortcut through Stane Way, he runs into his great-grandfather, a man who supposedly walked out on his family close to a century earlier. Great-Grandpa Cosimo informs Kit that he's inherited the ability to travel to different dimensional realities via ley lines. Cosimo invites Kit to come along with him on a quest to find the titular Skin Map, a diagram of the intersecting universes tattooed on one of the earliest ley explorers.

But Kit and Cosimo aren't the only ones looking for the Skin Map. And ultimately, the Skin Map isn't the real prize. There's a greater treasure waiting to be discovered.

Like I said, I really enjoyed this book. In some ways, it reminded me of a Neil Gaiman story. It has that kind of wit coupled with the same kind of esoteric subject matter. Kit and his girlfriend Mina are great characters and I was rooting for them the whole time. It's easy to see that Lawhead spent a great deal of time researching his settings and they positively came to life for me on the page.

The plot itself is a bit winding and, at times, a little hard to follow. One character in particular kept popping up everywhere, enough so that I began to wonder if it was the same individual or copies from alternate realities. There also seemed to be a time-bending nature to some of the story; I honestly don't know if the story was told in a linear fashion or more of a "hop to this time, hop to that time" way. My only real gripe is that Lawhead's excursion to Egypt seemed tacked on. At least, at first. He tied it in nicely at the end, but when I was reading it originally, I couldn't figure out why Egyptian archaeology was included. Maybe it's just me.

In terms of faith content, this is definitely what I'd call "tiller fiction" in the spectrum of Christian fiction. While God is mentioned, it's usually in passing and not in any truly discernible Christian fashion. It's clear from his other works that Lawhead writes from a Christian worldview and I'm sure that worldview will continue to assert itself in future books.

All in all, it was a great book and I'm looking forward to the next in the series. Check out what the other tourists have to say:

Red Bissell
Thomas Clayton Booher
Keanan Brand
Grace Bridges
Beckie Burnham
Morgan L. Busse
Jeff Chapman
Christian Fiction Book Reviews
Valerie Comer
Karri Compton
Amy Cruson
CSFF Blog Tour
Stacey Dale
D. G. D. Davidson
George Duncan
April Erwin
Tori Greene
Ryan Heart
Bruce Hennigan
Timothy Hicks
Christopher Hopper
Becky Jesse
Cris Jesse
Becca Johnson
Jason Joyner
Julie
Carol Keen
Krystine Kercher
Shannon McDermott
Allen McGraw
Matt Mikalatos
Rebecca LuElla Miller
Nissa
Gavin Patchett
Sarah Sawyer
Chawna Schroeder
Kathleen Smith
Rachel Starr Thomson
Donna Swanson
Robert Treskillard
Steve Trower
Fred Warren
Dona Watson
Phyllis Wheeler
Nicole White
Elizabeth Williams
Dave Wilson

Sunday, October 31, 2010

I died a little inside . . .

Remember that post I made a while back, how some Irish filmmaker claims to have caught sight of a time traveler caught on film in a '20s movie? Yeah, the experts have weighed in. Turns out the most likely explanation is that she was hard of hearing and had a compact ear trumpet.

Yeah, I know, I'm disappointed too. I mean, I'm well acquainted with Occam's Razor. Still, just a tiny little part of me is sad that the whole thing was debunked.

Thursday, October 28, 2010

Beethoven's Imperial March

Gotta love classically trained pianists. To wit: The Imperial March (a.k.a. Darth Vader's theme song) as if written by Beethoven:

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Want to colonize a planet?

NASA and DARPA are apparently working on a Hundred Year Starship to send humans out to alien worlds . . . and leave them there.

No, this isn't some new funky political prison. It's the first step of a colonization program.

Now we may never see the culmination of this project in my lifetime, but if they were calling for colonists, I'd be tempted. A little. Of course, I just asked my wife if she would come with me and she shot me down. So I guess I'm staying on Earth for the foreseeable future.

But it's still a cool story.

Would you go?

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

CDC Reports Drop in Teen Pregnancy

A few days ago, I saw an interesting article. The CDC apparently has reported that the teen birth rate has dropped to the lowest point in the last few years. That is good news. I hope it means that teenagers are making better decisions when it comes to sex and being smarter if they're making . . . well, how shall I put this? Less sanctified choices? Is that a clear enough euphemism?

But at the same time, a part of this report made me a little sad. Apparently Minnesota and Wisconsin have two of the lowest rates in the country. Good for us.

Unless you're a family waiting to adopt.

Can you help us? My wife and I have been waiting for over a year. If God wants us to wait longer, we will, but I also hope that right now, someone is reading this post and knows of a young lady who is considering adoption. If that's you, please pass along our contact information. We are home study approved and have a four year old son who is eager to have a little brother or sister (although he recently told us that he's sure we'll find him a little sister; we're fine either way).

If they want to contact us directly, they can send an e-mail to johnorjill (at) live (dot) com (replacing the words in parentheses with the proper symbols; we don't want to be inundated with spam). Or they can contact our agency, Lutheran Social Services of Minnesota.

Come on, how can you say "No" to this face:



His, not mine, obviously.

Monday, October 25, 2010

Shakespeare in the Original Klingon . . . er, English

Okay, so I shouldn't go quoting Star Trek movies when I want to talk about something really cool.

When you think of William Shakespeare and read his plays, how do the characters sound in your mind? Pretty posh, right? Good, proper English accents. The sort you'd expect to hear while having tea with the Queen, right-o?

Wrong-o.

As it turns out, the English of Shakespeare's time sounded an awful lot like ours. And a professor at the University of Kansas is mounting a production of A Midsummer Night's Dream with the actors doing original pronunciation. If you're lazy and don't feel like clicking the link, just watch the video below:



Something that I haven't really brought up before on this blog is the fact that I majored in theatre when I attended Concordia University in St. Paul. My third year there, we did a Shakespeare festival called Lovers, Heroes, and Fools. I played three fools. I tried to not take it personally.

Watching this video takes me back. And it makes me wish I could slip off to Kansas to take in a play. Looks like it would be a fun time.

Saturday, October 23, 2010

I Have a Bad Feeling About This . . .

Rumor has it George Lucas might be cooking up more Star Wars movies, set 100 to 1,000 years after the original trilogy.

There's a massive disturbance in the Force. Huge. Sad thing is, I know I'd probably go to them. At least once.

Because I just can't help myself. George Lucas, why do you insist on hurting us?

Friday, October 22, 2010

Season in the Mist

Okay, so I took a chance with this one. I just finished reading Seasons in the Mist by Deborah Kinnard.

It's basically the story of a young woman named Bethany Lindstrom, a graduate student from Chicago who flies to England as part of her studies. But instead of heading to Oxford, as she plans, she winds up taking a trip to Cornwall, where she stays in an ancient manor. While there, she stumbles into a portal that sends her back in time to 14th century England. There she finds herself caught up in some sort of political imbroglio and attracted to Baron Michael Veryan.

Okay, so here's the good stuff. Kinnard nailed the voice of 14th century England. At least, I think she did. As near as I can tell, no modern anachronisms sneak into the text (unless they come from Beth, which makes sense). It's very obvious that Kinnard did her research when it came to 14th century Cornwall and England. I got the feel that I was there.

That said, though, I don't think this book was for me. Sure, the time travel element is speculative fiction but I'm not sure that it's what you would call central to the plot. Sure, Beth is a classic "fish out of water," but thanks to her studies, she adapts quickly. In many ways, this is just a historical romance with some spec fic window dressing.

In the end, it was an okay diversion but I think I'll get off here (since this is listed as Book One of a series). Maybe this would be better for those who want more romance in their spec fic. But it's not for me.

Thursday, October 21, 2010

Time traveler caught on camera

I just came across this YouTube video. It's interesting, to say the least.



Now I have my doubts if this is really a time traveler. There's probably a perfectly reasonable explanation for what's going on. But it's still kind of creepy, right?

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Hitler's War

I think I'm almost done with Harry Turtledove.

Don't get me wrong. I've loved his stuff in the past. I devoured his counterfactual history novels and simply adored what he did with the Confederates-as-Nazis series (I don't remember the name of the whole series; there were lots of smaller ones. American Empire?). He's also written some dynamite short stories that I've stumbled over in different anthologies. Yet the last few books of his I've read haven't wowed me.

So I thought I'd give Hitler's War a try. Like the cover blurb says, Turtledove was the master of alternate history and this seemed like an interesting concept. What if, instead of caving in to Hitler in 1938, Neville Chamberlain had refused to sign the Munich Accord? What if World War II started early?

In Turtledove's version of events, it doesn't really seem to have mattered that much. At least, I can't tell what the difference is. Oh, sure, Poland isn't conquered by Germany and instead sides with the Reich against the Soviets. And apparently some Spanish guy named Sanjurjo lives instead of dying in a fiery plane crash. But part of the problem with this book is that we don't have a broad view of the historical changes. All we see is battle after battle after battle. I suppose someone more familiar with the early stages of World War II could spot the changes better than me.

More problematic is Turtledove's character bloat. Rather than focus on one or two people, Turtledove slams together a cast of hundreds and sends the plot ricocheting through each of their viewpoints. I suppose this is helpful for us to keep track of the global scale of "the war that came early," but an unfortunate by-product is that we don't get to know any of the characters well. Simply put, there's no attachment point for the readers. It might have helped me if there were only two or three characters to follow. Granted, I would have lost the global view of the war, but I'm not sure said global view helped me all that much.

And I know I've said this before, but Turtledove seems to love repetitious phrases. There are certain turns of phrases that he overuses throughout the book. One of his pets, variations of "tell me I'm wrong," aren't as plentiful, but still creep up. Several characters pray to "a God they weren't sure they believed in anymore." That sort of thing. Rather than find fresh ways of saying something, we simply got characters repeating the same phrases in radically different situations.

I think this is intended to be the first book in a new series. I wish those who continue on luck, because this is where I get off. This war started early; my trip with Turtledove ends the same way.

Saturday, October 09, 2010

Skipper Dan: The "Weird Al" Musical

Okay, I should probably be lying down and watching more episodes of Battlestar Galactica right now (I guess being sick has its perks), but I have to get this off my chest. Part of this stems from the fact that I haven't posted a blog entry in close to a week. I think I may be developing "the shakes," man. Or I feel obligated to the few people who come and visit my corner of cyberspace.

Anyway, regardless, the other day I had an idea. And by other day, I mean twenty years ago. When I was in high school, I discovered the joy that is theatre. And one day, it occurred to me that someone could take the music of "Weird Al" Yankovic and turn it into a stage musical. Sure, you'd have to stitch together the songs in a new way, but it could turn into something fun.

But at the time, I dismissed the idea, because no one would ever want to go to a musical based on the collected works of a particular recording artist. Right? Right? I'm right, aren't I?

Eventually this nascent idea vanished into whatever fog occupied my mind when I was a teenager. But funny thing about me: my mind is a big sponge. Stuff gets soaked up into it and then resurfaces at the oddest time. So this past week, as I was going about my business, the idea resurfaced.

So I decided to Tweet about it:

I don't know for sure why I did that. Maybe I was hoping that the Weird One himself would notice and respond. No such luck.

In spite of that, though, the idea wouldn't leave me alone. And so, the other night, I printed out a list of every song that "Weird Al" has made (I have them all on my iPod, so it didn't take long). I immediately eliminated his parodies and his polkas. As great as they are, I suspect that licensing the original music for a musical would be cost prohibitive. Then I started looking at the songs and playing some of them to see if any connections or ideas jumped out.

And wouldn't you know it . . .

Now I'm not saying that what I've come up with is necessarily great. This is barely a first draft, if that. I'm open to suggestions. But without any further ado, I give you:

Skipper Dan: The "Weird Al" Musical

ACT I:
Our protagonist is a young man named Skipper Dan, a high school thespian with large dreams that crashed and burned badly. As our musical opens, Skipper Dan laments about his career path ("Skipper Dan" from Internet Leaks).
He yearns to recapture his lost glory and escape the jungle cruise ride he now helms.

His friends, naturally, don't think that it's that big of a deal. There's Wally, his oldest and best friend who's a little off. There's Julia, his platonic female friend who works in the local nursing home. And then there's Gary, a slimy ladies man who has a somewhat genuine heart of gold. As they gather at Wally's house to enjoy Wally's superb waffles, Skipper Dan laments how his life is going. Gary tries to sympathize, saying that he doesn't think he'll ever achieve his dream of finding the perfect woman. The others scoff at this, pointing out that Gary has never had any success with women. Gary responds by detailing the faults of his previous romantic conquests ("Close But No Cigar" on Straight Outta Lynwood). Skipper Dan says that at least Gary's making some headway. He wishes that he could break free from the Jungle Cruise Ride. Gary and Dan ask Wally if he has any dreams. Wally responds by saying that his life is perfect the way it is. He's happy and the others should be too. The three boys press Julia if she has any unfulfilled dreams. She demurs, but it's pretty obvious that any dreams she has involves Dan.

Dan goes to work, settling into his usual routine of helming a boat through the Jungle Cruise Ride. But today, something is different. For starters, Dan's boss, Mr. Howler, explains that he's going on vacation and is leaving the park in Dan's hands. That would be momentous enough, but there is a stunning girl named Melanie at the park, a woman so beautiful that she has suitors lined up to express their affection for her ("Melanie" on Even Worse). Melanie has eyes only for Dan. She explains that she works for a Mr. Krog, a Hollywood producer, who wants to meet with the manager of the park. Of course, that would be Dan himself.

They go to a restaurant to meet Mr. Krog, who makes a big entrance, promising the world to the people gathered in the restaurant("The Check's in the Mail" on Weird Al Yankovic). Mr. Krog then explains that he is putting together a new horror movie, one he wants to shoot in the Jungle Cruise Ride. It would mean closing the park for the shooting schedule. Dan isn't sure, so Krog sweetens the deal by offering him the lead role. Dan is naturally interested; it would mean a return to the spotlight for him. He finally dares ask about the title and Krog tells him: Nature Trail to Hell . . . in 3D! ("Nature Trail to Hell" on In 3-D) Krog paints such a brilliant portrait of this movie, Dan immediately accepts.

Excited about his news, Dan rushes to tell Wally. Wally is unimpressed. He thinks that Dan is fine as he is. Dan moves on to find Julia at work at the nursing home. The residents aren't helpful; instead of telling Dan where Julia is, they badger him about how things used to be("When I Was Your Age" on Off the Deep End). Dan breaks away from the chorus to find Julia sitting with her favorite resident, Mr. Frump, an elderly man hooked up to a breathing apparatus. Julia is excited for Dan until she hears about Melanie. That upsets her but Dan, so excited about his big break, doesn't notice how hurt she is.

As the shooting at the Jungle Cruise Ride begins, Dan is in seventh heaven. He's sure that this is going to be his big break. He's especially flattered since Melanie seems to be lavishing a great deal of attention on him. But all is not right. Krog seems to want to tear up a lot of the Ride for the shooting. When Dan protests, Krog gives him an invitation to an exclusive Hollywood party. Melanie agrees to accompany Dan and his friends.

The party is great! For starters, Dan runs into a friend of his from college, a kid he knew as Jimmy the Geek who is now a huge Hollywood star ("That Boy Could Dance" on In 3-D). The only one not having a good time is Julia. She's upset by the way the way Melanie is treating Dan. Dan seems to think that she's in love with him, but it's pretty clear she's not.

Wally, in the meantime, overhears Melanie talking to Krog on her cellphone. It becomes pretty clear that Melanie and Krog are up to no good, that Melanie's job is to pretend to like Dan to keep him distracted. Wally tries to warn Dan, but Dan is too starstruck to listen. So Wally does the only thing he can: he tricks the party's DJ into playing polka to break it all up (NOTE: I'd love it if this polka could be one of the parodies, but there's that whole copyright thing).

Once the party is over, Dan confronts Wally. Wally points out that he's hurting Julia. Dan retorts that Wally is just jealous because Dan is finally achieving his dream, something Wally will never do because Wally is stupid. Dan is going to stick with Melanie and fulfill his destiny. Wally responds by saying that he lives his life the way he wants to, without compromise. In short, he dares to be stupid (What else? "Dare to Be Stupid" on Dare to Be Stupid).

ACT TWO: Julia is at work, sitting at the bedside of her favorite patient, Mr. Frump, and she expresses her love for the old man ("Mr. Frump in the Iron Lung" on Weird Al Yankovic). Wally and Gary visit her, mostly to make sure she's okay. Dan may be clueless about her true feelings, but they've known all along. It turns out that after the party, Wally did some digging on Krog. It turns out that Krog was never a Hollywood producer. Instead, he was partners with a land developer, a man who has wanted to tear down the Jungle Cruise Line for years to put up another strip mall. Mr. Howler had never wanted to sell. Wally suspects that Krog is going to wreck the Line in the bogus shooting of the movie, leaving such a mess that Mr. Howler will have no choice but to sell. This steels Julia's resolve. They have to save Dan.

Dan doesn't want to listen to Wally. Julia forges ahead, laying out the evidence. Dan doesn't want to listen to her either, saying that Melanie would never do anything to hurt him, that they're in love. Julia retorts that he wouldn't recognize someone who loves him if she were right in front of him. Wally and Julia leave. Dan is angry, but the seeds of doubt have been planted.

Dan realizes what a tool he's been. He confronts Krog, who admits to the truth. Why not? He signed a contract with Dan. He has the right to do what he wants. And if Dan does anything to break that contract, Krog will sue him ("I'll Sue Ya" on Straight Outta Lynwood). Dan is sent reeling, especially when Melanie treats him like garbage. She reveals that her job was just to keep Dan busy while Krog did his thing. Dan laments the death of his "relationship." ("You Don't Love Me Anymore" on Off the Deep End)

What can Dan do? Mr. Howler will be heartbroken when he discovers that his beloved Jungle Cruise Line has been wrecked and will probably take it out on Dan. Worse, Dan has wrecked his friendships with everyone. He's alone and unsure of what to do.

But his friends haven't abandoned him. Not at all. They rally around him, even Julia. But when Dan remains just as clueless around her, Julia can't take it any longer. She releases her pent up feelings ("You Make Me" on Even Worse) and kisses him.

With his friends at his side, Dan rallies. He steels himself by thinking of what his favorite celebrity would do ("Who, Chuck Norris?" "No, Charles Nelson Reilly!" ("CNR" on Internet Leaks)) and comes up with a plan to get Krog out of the park . . .

[NOTE: I have no idea what this plan entails. Just a few thoughts: it involves Gary putting the moves on Melanie ("Wanna B Ur Lovr" on Poodle Hat). Or maybe getting some help from their friend Jimmy, the actual Hollywood star. Beyond that, I don't know.]

In the end, Krog is defeated, and when Melanie tries to come crawling back to Dan to save her rear end, Dan responds by either telling her that he hasn't missed her since she's been gone ("Since You've Been Gone" on Bad Hair Day) OR he tells her he doesn't want to spend one more minute with her ("One More Minute" from Dare to Be Stupid) [NOTE: It's a toss-up on these two].

But what to do about the park? Well, as it turns out, Mr. Frump, Julia's favorite resident, recently passed away and his will stipulated that his massive fortune be left to whatever nurse showed him the most affection. Julia gives some of it to Dan so the park can be fixed.

When Mr. Howler returns from his vacation, he's none the wiser about what happened. Dan tenders his resignation. Mr. Howler is surprised and wonders if it's because Dan will finally pursue his dreams. Dan says that he will, but not his old dream. He's found a new one.

It entails using the rest of the Frump inheritance to help Wally open a Waffle House ("Waffle King" on Alapalooza) and, in the end, Dan realizes that sometimes the "stupid" dreams are the best, especially if it means being true to yourself, prompting the cast to reprise Dare to Be Stupid.

CURTAIN CALL

Yeah, I know. It's not perfect. It'd need a lot of work. But what do you think? How would Dan and friends evict the sinister Krog and his sidekick? Have I missed any part of Weird Al's catalog of original songs that should be included?