Quick Review – Fantastic Voyage

Before I begin – there are some spoilers in here. Since the basic plot of this book has been imitated so often, though, I don’t expect it will spoil things for too many people. It’s like worrying about ruining the “chicken crossing the road” joke for someone …

This is a tough one. Fantastic Voyage is a classic, and it is written by Asimov, a giant in his field. And, frankly, I didn’t find it all that impressive. Now, this is partly no fault of the author. The fact is, were I reading this when it first came out, the novel concept of shrinking people down and injecting them into a human body might have really floored me. Unfortunately, many years later, I’ve not only seen the movie adaptation, but also many, many rip-offs of the concept, the latest being in an episode of Phineas and Ferb (which I highly recommend).

So, the first problem is certainly no fault of the author. Unfortunately, the first problem is exacerbated by the second problem, which is only due to Asimov – the characters are so wooden and hollow that plodding through half of the book waiting for them to be shrunk is just mind numbingly boring. The characters aren’t just stereotypes, they are stereotypes of stereotypes. And after the stereotypes are finally miniaturized and injected, the book really doesn’t get much better. The description of the human anatomy from the point of view of the miniaturized explorers is sometimes interesting, but occasionally difficult enough for me to picture that any wonder was just lost. But then every step of the story involves entering a new part of the anatomy, introducing the “problem” and then solving said problem, often in obvious ways.

In one important way, Fantastic Voyage was way ahead of its time. Just as many (okay, most) modern movies sacrifice story to special effects, Fantastic Voyage ignores compelling (hell, even mildly interesting) characters and conflicts for the supposed wonder of seeing white blood cells up close. For me, the anatomy lesson and the make-believe physics of the miniaturization process just wasn’t enough. If you haven’t read the book, I recommend sticking with the movie.

JMS

And now I need to finish my Beastmen of Nabu article and then get busy with the illusionist, a low-level adventure set in the catacombs of Ophir, and I need to begin plotting out the next chunk of sandbox …

Quick Review – Star Trek 2

I finished reading Star Trek 2, adapted by James Blish. Now, this is not a novelization of the Wrath of Khan, but rather an adaptation of several Star Trek episodes (including “Space Seed”, from which we get Khan) originally published in 1968. Apparently, there are multiple volumes of this series. The volume contains the following adaptations: “Arena”, “A Taste of Armageddon”, “Tomorrow is Yesterday”, “Errand of Mercy”, “Court Martial”, “Operation – Annihilate!”, “The City on the Edge of Forever” and “Space Seed”.

I’ve seen all of these episodes of course, so you might wonder the point of reading them. While adaptations of books to film are often lacking, primarily because of all that has to be left behind and the penchant of Hollywood for re-writing the source material, I have often found novelizations of movies to be an improvement. The written word has an unlimited special effects budget for one thing, and the writers of adaptations usually fill in the gaps of characterization in interesting ways.

The fun of this book is that it predates the fan-boy “canon” of modern Star Trek, where everything has been organized, classified and filled in. In 1968, Star Trek was still something of an unknown quantity, much as Star Wars was in the late 1970’s, when we had only seen one film and were still able to fill in the details with our own young imaginations.

Since it predates canon, we discover some interesting details that might be fun to explore in a role-playing game set in a more pulp sci-fi Star Trek setting. A couple that spring to mind are the description of the gorn in “Arena” –

“The first thing he saw was the Gorn. It was a biped, a reptile, a lizard that walked like a man. It stood about six feet four, with tremendous musculature, dully gleaming skin, a ridge of hard plate running down its back, and a strong, thick tail. The tail did not look prehensile; rather, it seemed to be a balancing organ, suggesting that the creature could run very fast indeed if it wished. The head was equipped with two tiny earholes and a wide mouth full of sharp teeth.”

Not terribly different from what we saw on screen, except for the “run very fast indeed”. The adaptation gives you a much better sense for the fact that Kirk was supposed to be completely outmatched physically by the gorn, and that his only hope for winning was to use his brain.

In “Errand of Mercy”, we learn about the Klingons –

“The Klingons were hard-faced, hard-muscled men, originally of Oriental stock.”

Surprise – the Klingons are humans, though obviously separated from the rest of humanity at some point in the past and thus of slightly different stock, larger and more militaristic. In effect, hobgoblins to the Federation’s humans.

Kirk comes off as more of a Flash Gordon-type in the book and Spock is more half-human than Nimoy portrayed him. The book contains other little notions that might make old Trek fans see the series in a new light, and for that reason the book is worth reading. Understand, it is a thin volume (112 pages) and a very quick read, but since I picked it up for $2.80 at a used book store, I would say I got my money’s worth.

Lin Carter’s The Barbarian of World’s End

Ganelon Silvermane, a name to conjure … well, to conjure the imagination of a thirteen year-old boy. Lin Carter’s Gondwane epic, of which The Barbarian of World’s End is fourth book (hey, I started the Lord of Rings with Two Towers, I guess it’s a habit), is a strange thing. Reading the book, I felt like I was reading a bizarre fairy tale meant for children (or children at heart). There is very little dialogue, and the dialogue there is is not the stuff of Shakespeare. The prose is written as though the story is being told to you by an uncle – and from the subject matter, probably a very strange uncle whose had a bit too much to drink.

I am aware that this sounds like I’m trashing the book, but I really rather liked it. It is not great literature, but it is as imaginative as hell. The characters, creatures and city-states of Gondwane would feel right at home in Encounter Critical and any campaign setting that you could imagine would feel at home in Encounter Critical. Mobile cities, flying castles, tiger men, noseless brigands – dozens of things to fire the imagination of any Referee trying to run a retro-stupid world and have a blast doing it. When I started the book, I was not that impressed. When I finished the book, I was determined to find the rest of the epic and see what other bizarre creations Lin Carter had up his sleeve.

Emphyrio by Jack Vance

While I was on my trip to Chicago, I managed to finish Emphyrio by Jack Vance, published in 1969. In enjoyed the book, but I always enjoy Jack Vance, so that might have had something to do with it. Like all of his works, it was full of lovely (or at least interesting) descriptions; full of wonder yet believable – the wondrous mundane, if you will.

The story concerns the life of one Ghyl Tarvoke, inhabitant of the planet Halma and member of a slightly repressive society. The story follows Ghyl’s life from boy to man, and is reminiscent of the journeys of Cugel (but with a more respectable protagonist). The story is science fiction, but really only in terms of the setting. Like all of Vance’s material, Emphyrio is about the characters and the interplay of the characters and the world they find themselves in. I was satisfied with the story’s conclusion, though the “twist” that leads to it was pretty obvious in retrospect, and I’m surprised I didn’t pick up on it until Ghyl did.

Vance is always a fun read for me. He does a good job of writing into his stories a pervasive danger derived from the way the stories within the story so rarely play out the way they “should”, and from Vance’s willingness to deny characters, important and unimportant, a pleasant ending.