Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Book Review: “Dean Koontz’s Frankenstein Trilogy”

Let me start by giving you a little back story on me. When I was in high school, I devoured novels like a fiend. They were a good way to kill time during lulls in activity, and it made it less awkward when I didn’t have any friends to talk to (*single tear drips down*). But seriously, don’t cry for me Argentina, I’ve come to terms with being a social misfit. I was a huge Trekker back then (and still am I suppose), so I pretty much read all Star Trek novels, but occasionally other authors snuck in there too. Michael Crichton, Clive Cussler, Steven King, and the subject of today’s review, Dean Koontz.

But then something happened after I graduated. I discovered the Internet, and shortly thereafter, I discovered fan fiction. Novels started to feel old fashioned to me. Fan fiction was interactive, it was democratic. I started writing, and it felt good to have an outlet for my thoughts and ideas. And it felt really good to hear positive reviews from my peers on what I had written. There were so many interesting ideas floating around, seemingly endless, and no matter how bizarre a concept you could find a story. Sure, a lot of it was crap, but some of it was fantastic. And it was rewarding, sifting through all of the noise to find the gems.

But eventually the novelty wore off, and sifting through all the garbage was no longer fun. But the real defining moment came when I got a new job where I couldn’t get on the Internet at work anymore. I had to find something to fill in the lulls again, so I turned back to my old friend, books. I was reminded how much more rewarding an experience it can be to read a story by an experienced, talented author who knows how to weave a narrative as opposed to just someone who has an interesting idea and may or may not know how to turn that into a readable story. I rediscovered Star Trek novels (more on that in future reviews, hopefully) and I’ve become just a little obsessed with Dean Koontz.

Some have called Koontz a poor man’s Steven King, but I think that’s an unfair assessment. The two may write in the same genre on occasion, and be neighbors on the bookshelf thanks to the alphabet, but Koontz has his own unique style that I think sets him apart. His protagonists tend to be quirky and quick-witted, his dialogue pithy and almost Joss Whedon-like at times. His villains are dramatic, theatrical even. Confident and powerful, yet often times childlike. His settings often have as much character as the people he fills them with. He seems to have a gift for describing vast, abandoned spaces. And of course, his love for dogs has been expressed again and again with many a canine character, always portrayed as noble and heroic figures in his books.

Dean Koontz’s Frankenstein started its life as a television series for the USA network, with Koontz and Martin Scorsese signed on as executive producers. Koontz left the project after creative differences with USA, and the network ended up producing the pilot as a movie instead (available now on DVD). Koontz then developed his original idea for the series into this trilogy of novels.

The first book opens with our protagonists, New Orleans homicide detectives Carson O’Connor and Michael Maddison, on the trail of a serial killer called The Surgeon, who removes body parts from his victims. Carson is a dedicated, hard-nosed female cop with an autistic brother in her care. Michael, in a lot of ways, reminds me of Xander from Buffy the Vampire Slayer. He provides comic relief at times, but he’s a good cop and he’s dedicated to Carson. When during the autopsy of the latest victim of The Surgeon they discover that the man had two hearts, among other oddities, they find themselves on the strangest case of their lives.

Meanwhile, across the world in Tibet, living in a monastery, we’re introduced to Frankenstein’s monster, who now calls himself Deucalion. He’s been alive for over 200 years, traveling the world, trying to come to terms with what he is. Centuries prior, he killed his maker’s wife, and became horribly scarred when Victor tried to kill him in retaliation. Deucalion thought he was alone, but a letter from an old friend reveals that his maker is somehow alive and well, and living in New Orleans. The monks tattoo his face to cover his scars, and he travels to the Big Easy to seek out his former master.

Victor Frankenstein, or Victor Helios as he now calls himself, is a villain unlike any other the world has ever known. Megalomaniacal, completely self-absorbed, obsessed with his own brilliance and his twisted view of the world, Victor has made himself nigh immortal and seeks to replace humanity with his own New Race of man made monsters. No longer cobbled together from corpses, the New Race are created from scratch in a lab and programmed with total obedience to Victor. On the outside, they look completely human. But on the inside, each one of them is a ticking time bomb.

Another element of Koontz’s style is that he likes to spend as much time in the head of his villains as he does his heroes. This is especially true in the Frankenstein books, as we spend more time with Victor then probably any other character. We’re treated to every aspect of his cruelty and depravity, especially with regards to Erika, the new wife that he creates for himself. Perhaps this is why his eventual meeting of Deucalion in the second book seems so short and anticlimactic. The two meet face to face only twice in the entire trilogy.

Deucalion and the detectives meet in the first book and become allies against Victor, just as his New Race is starting to collapse. Some are driven insane by their programming, others experience complete physical breakdowns. Victor of course is too egomaniacal to see any fault within himself, as each step of the way he shows total denial in the fact that his empire is crumbling around him.

In the third book there’s the requisite appearance of a dog, as we build up to the final climax of the story. With three entire books of build up, maybe it can’t help but feel a little anticlimactic at the end, but it just seems to me like things were wrapped up a little too quickly at the end. Another trait of Koontz’s books is incredibly short dénouements, and this one has to be the shortest one yet. Still, Koontz manages to throw in a reference to his Odd Thomas series, which made me smile.

All in all, I think this trilogy is a great continuation of the classic horror story, with interesting characters and classic Koontz tropes along the way. But you don’t have to take my word for it!

Friday, February 12, 2010

Way Too Late Movie Review – "District 9"

If there’s one thing that being snowed in for two days is good for, it’s catching up on my movie watching. So in between bouts of shoveling out my car (because my landlord is an asshole who didn’t get our parking lot plowed until 9:00 Sunday night), I managed to finally sit down and watch District 9. As with most of the movies that I watch way too late, D9’s reputation preceded it. Most of what I had read on the Internet said that the first half of the movie, with its faux-documentary style was great, but that the second half devolved into just another action movie. What I was expecting was a hard line, a moment where the documentary ended and the action movie started, but it wasn’t quite as cut and dry as that.

Throughout the movie the style seems to shift back and forth. Even during action sequences the movie will cut to security camera footage of the action, or news footage, or talking heads talking about the events that are taking place. In the beginning of the movie the documentary style serves the story well. We get our back story without any clunky dialogue, we’re introduced to characters in a way that makes them seem very real and natural, but by the end of the movie that all seems to fall apart. The interview segments and security camera shots no longer serve a purpose other than as a distraction, save maybe for the very end of the movie where they provide a nice capper to the climax. Ultimately, I thought the first half of the movie seemed to drag in parts, and a lot of the more comical aspects of the main character didn’t seem to fit with the tone of the film.

The premise is probably the strongest aspect of the movie. It’s Alien Nation, only much darker. Instead of the aliens assimilating into human society, they’re segregated and exploited. The Prawns, as the aliens are called, occupy a slum called District 9, where they’ve been relegated to trading their advanced alien weaponry (which is useless to humans, who are unable to operate it) to the Nigerian mob for cat food.

Our protagonist is Wikus Van De Merwe, a pencil pusher with the MNU who happens to have the unlucky distinction of being the boss’s son-in-law. Wikus is put in charge of the project to evict that aliens from District 9 and move them to the new District 10, far outside of Johannesburg. It’s clear from almost the beginning that he is in over his head, and as he blunders from one eviction to the next in District 9, he becomes exposed to an alien liquid that begins to change him into a Prawn. It’s then that he discovers two things. The MNU are conducting some pretty shady experiments on the Prawns, and his life isn’t worth spit to anyone but himself.

Wikus is a character that one would expect to find on “The Office”, not in an action movie. And it’s that juxtaposition that drives the movie, as this less than average guy finds himself in one untenable situation after another and is forced to make compromises that he never would have previously thought himself capable of. At first, to get his life back, and then finally, to do what’s right, knowing that he will probably never have his life back. Wikus isn’t a smart man, he isn’t even a very good man, but in the end he finds himself an unlikely hero, in a world that considers him a traitor, in a body that is not his own.

Even though I think the movie dragged and lost its tone at times, I think it succeeds in telling an unusual story in an interesting way.

My Netflix Rating: Three out of Five Stars

Thursday, February 4, 2010

Tuesday, February 2, 2010

Top 7 Bizarre Alien Foods

If there’s one thing that I’ve learned from watching the Travel Channel (or as I like to call it, Food Network II), it’s that you can tell a lot about a culture by looking at the food they eat. If there are two things I’ve learned, the second would be that Andrew Zimmern enjoys eating testicles. The stranger and more disgusting the food, the more a culture seems to be proud of it. This is true of even regional cuisine right here in the states. Case in point, my own hometown of Philadelphia has a little local delicacy called Scrapple. It is essentially the fruit cake of meat products, in that it is a good way to use leftovers. They take the parts of the pig that they can’t put into hotdogs and press it together in a loaf. It’s then sliced and fried and served with breakfast. Personally, I think it’s delicious, as long as you don’t think too much about what you’re eating.

So what does Scrapple, or cheesesteaks for that matter, say about my fair city? What does spicy food say about a culture? It’s fun to speculate, and it’s fun to think about these fictional alien foods and wonder what they might say about their respective races. As I looked back on some of these foods, I can’t help but think of Andrew Zimmern again from “Bizarre Foods” and I wonder what his reactions to some of them might be.

Gagh (Klingon)

Gagh are serpent worms, usually consumed live. Where I come from, we call it bait. Klingons are big on death, so the closer their food is to it the more appealing it is. The appeal of Gagh seems to be not in the taste, but in the feeling of the worms’ death throes in the mouth and stomach. Even when they are eating, they have to be defeating an enemy in some way. From the other Klingon cuisine that we’ve seen, it seems that they’re also big on I-dare-you-to-eat-this foods. They like to prove their bravado by eating things that other species would find repellent. Any Klingons living on Earth in the 24th Century probably enjoy haggis and stinky tofu.

I’m pretty sure I’ve seen Andrew Zimmern eat live insects and worms before, so Gagh wouldn’t phase him a bit. He’d swallow them without issue, comment on their earthy flavor (or Qo’noSy flavor I suppose) and ask you to pass the targ testicles.

Hasperat (Bajoran)

Hasperat is a spicy concoction that resembles a burrito, though it does not appear to contain any meat. Its eye-watering, tongue searing heat seems to be its primary feature. Ro Laren commented once that her father made the spiciest Hasperat that she had ever tasted. She then offered to make it for the leader of the Maquis cell that she was infiltrating at the time, thereby setting him up to be a father figure for her, right before he was gunned down in cold blood by the Cardassians. Spicy food can also be considered a type of I-dare-you-to-eat-this food, but not because of any gross-out factor. It’s almost a test of strength and character, a trial by fire if you will. In a way, I think this represents the Bajoran people very well. They are a deeply religious people, and so they revere tradition. They have a pride in themselves that comes with fighting oppression, and a need to show their strength. But they are also a passionate people, and to me spicy food has always represented a desire for the spice of life.

Again, Andrew Zimmern wouldn’t have a problem here. He’d probably ask if there was some small animal available whose organ meat he could spread on the tortilla to add some flavor.

Plomeek Soup (Vulcan)

Plomeek soup is a dish that is probably most famous in Star Trek lore for Spock throwing a bowl of it against the wall in “Amok Time” when he was going through Pon Farr. That Christine Chapel, she never could take a hint.

It’s often described as bland in taste. No real surprise there. If spicy food represents passion and zeal for life, then Vulcan cuisine in general is probably plain and tasteless. It’s doubtful that they would see the logic in preparing a meal with complex flavors, food to them is just sustenance. But then, no one species is ever all one thing. An argument could be made that the flavor of Vulcan food is simply subtle, and needs to be appreciated as such. Neelix once tried to prepare Plomeek soup for Tuvok on Voyager, but he found it to be too spicy. Neelix then told him to go fuck himself. No, wait, that was a different episode, my mistake.

If Andrew Zimmern were to take a culinary tour of the galaxy, circa the 24th Century, he’d probably skip Vulcan. Since Vulcans are largely vegetarians, brains and testicles aren’t likely to be on the menu.

Tube Grubs (Ferengi)

Who would have thought that the Ferengi and the Klingons would have something in common, namely the eating of live worms. In addition, Ferengi also use a product called Beetle Snuff, which they snort to get a buzz on. I think there’s definitely an effort here to make the Ferengi seem more rodent or troll like. They’re short, they hunch over and cringe a lot, they eat insects, and it rains a lot on Ferenginar so there’s a good likelihood of finding them hiding under bridges for refuge.

The Ferengi enjoy their tube grubs chilled, and occasionally pre-chewed by their women folk. I think Andrew would be fine with the cold worms, but he’d probably pass on the naked bridge troll chewing on them first. He’s just not that kind of guy.

Jumja Stick (Bajoran)

A Jumja Stick is an extremely sweet Bajoran confection made from the sap of the Jumja tree. They were often seen carried by people on the promenade on DS9. Chief O’Brien and Nog both had an affinity for them. In a way, I think things that are extremely sweet can say much the same about a culture as things that are extremely spicy, they’re both forms of excess. If spicy food represents passion, then sweet food represents decadence, something that Bajorans might like to show off after the Occupation.

“What is that? Is that a testicle? No? Damn!”

Leola Root (?)

A root vegetable native to the Delta quadrant, its taste was never fully described, only that it was bad. Very, very bad. During the starship Voyager’s trek across the Delta quadrant, their resident guide and self-proclaimed morale officer Neelix introduced them to leola root. He cooked many dishes using the vegetable including leola root stew, leola rice pilaf, leola bark tea, I think he even used leola root to make that coffee substitute that he tried to foist on Janeway. There was even a running gag among fans regarding the number of shuttlecraft that had been destroyed during Voyager’s run that they were making additional shuttles out of the stuff. Thankfully for Neelix, he didn’t return to the Alpha quadrant with the rest of Voyager’s crew. If he had, he would have likely stood trial for crimes against taste buds.

Something tells me that Andrew Zimmern and Neelix would have gotten along swimmingly. He could have spent a lifetime sampling the bizarre concoctions that erupted out of that kitchen.

Rokeg Blood Pie (Klingon)

Rokeg Blood Pie is a Klingon dessert, and a favorite dish of the Enterprise-D’s own Lt. Worf. Though not explicitly stated, we can assume that it’s made with blood of some kind. Klingon cuisine seems to feature a lot of blood and organ meat, that is when what they’re eating isn’t still alive. In fact, there’s even a variety of Gagh that’s packed in targ blood. They’re a warrior culture, and blood equals life and death, so there’s some symbolism involved. Or maybe they just have an iron deficiency, who knows.

“What are those things sticking out of the top? Are they testicles? Gimmie!”

Monday, February 1, 2010

Grand Moff Steve Jobs

Is it just me, or does Steve Jobs look more and more like Grand Moff Tarkin every day?

"Purchase the new iPad, or I will destroy Alderran!"