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Monday, April 29, 2013

One Second After by William R Forstchen

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I've been meaning to read this one for a while. I like some of the TEOTWAWKI fiction/film that's been produced, and hearing the raves about this from "mainstream" readers, I figured it would be hard to go wrong.

I remember looking at a cover of Popular Science or Popular Mechanics back in the 1980s, showing a nuclear blast in the atmosphere above Kansas. The blurb said such an explosion could knock out electronic devices all over the United States. It was over a decade later before "Electro-Magnetic Pulse," or EMP, became a familiar term in our lexicon. With the Cold War over, most everyone assumed it would never be used as a weapon. But rumors were widespread that EMP devices were being planted under the highways as a means of ending high-speed chases.

Forstchen has written a novel which assumes there are still nations and organizations around the world with ill will toward the USA, and they cripple us with just the sort of EMP attack theorized by that magazine in the '80s. He speculates how things go in the first year after such an attack in one small town near Asheville, North Carolina. It's not really a survivalist novel, though it does document the community's efforts to survive.

The protagonist, John, has a few things in his favor. He's a retired Bird Colonel, and a professor of history, which enables him to plan and execute the defense of Black Mountain. His mother-in-law owns a couple functional pre-electronic ignition vehicles (not dependent on microcircuitry--therefore EMP-resistant). And he lives up in the hills where there is plenty of game to first.

John also has some disadvantages. Primarily, one of his daughters is a diabetic, and dependent on insulin.

Forstchen concentrates on the medical side of such a scenario--with food availability being a related health factor. And it would be every bit the nightmare he describes.

An EMP wouldn't just knock us back to the 1960s or '70s (before our entire society became so dependent on electronics). It wouldn't just knock us back to WWII, or even the 1800s. Because of our ignorance of how things were done before the pervasive technology we now take for granted, it would be more like the Middle Ages. How many of us know how to farm? How many know how to turn wheat into bread (assuming you live within range of where wheat is grown)? How many can fix stuff when it breaks (without power tools)? You can hunt for food if you have firearms, or are knowledgeable enough to build your own traps or weapons (which you probably aren't). OK. But how will you prevent most of the meat from spoiling before you can eat it? How many even know how to start a fire? How would you transport the tons of crops from the west and midwest to the starving masses in the rest of the country before it rots where it sits?

Forstchen grazes these subjects while spinning this yarn. Again: this is not a survival story. And it sure isn't escapist entertainment. It's a warning. On a few occasions John wonders at why no precautions were ever taken against this very real threat.

(WARNING: political screed follows. Colored text.)

"Our" government is about 17 trillion dollars in debt last I had the stomach to check, and putting us millions deeper in debt with every passing second. What are we spending the money on? Bailing OTHER countries out of their problems, for one thing. Our tax dollars have already turned Red China into a superpower, and transferred our industrial capacity to them. And we're borrowing billions from them so we can give it right back to them in the form of foreign aid. (I dare anyone to justify that. It cannot be justified, so it is ignored.) Part of that astronomical debt has been accumulated by bailing out Wall Street, of course, and other institutions, at the expense of the middle class. It's being used to form, fund, train, equip and arm various organizations (standing armies, is what the founding fathers would call them) to infringe and eradicate our individual rights protected by the Constitution which every politician swears to uphold. The money's used to make those same politicians filthy rich on our dime, as they immunize themselves from the "laws" they pass for the rest of us. The money is heaped upon illegal aliens and the Parasite Class to bribe them into loyalty to the Democrat Machine and to continue to steal our elections. It's used to arm and feed our enemies in the Middle East and around the world, to topple existing regimes and replace them with even more anti-American despots. It's used to fund undeclared wars. It's used to prop up the hopelessly corrupt, incompetent, anti-American, anti-Christian and anti-Semitic would-be world government called the United Nations. It's used to fund an untold number of frivolous studies and "works of art;" to pay for infanticide, condoms and untold multitudes of political pork. It's used to cover up the unending crimes perpetrated by the present administration while funding their exorbitant vacations, concerts and shopping sprees even as those of us trying to earn an honest living (if we're fortunate enough to still be employed) have to deal with higher and higher cost of living as the wages we earn plummet in buying power.

That's just a glimpse of where this money is being flushed, as the government refuses to fulfill its legitimate functions (like securing the borders). Meanwhile not one dime of this astronomical spending is directed toward strategic missile defense, a civil defense infrastructure, or protecting our power grids from EMP. "Homeland Security" is all about planning for an offensive war against American citizens, evidently, and has nothing to do with protecting the homeland from attack.

And while this goes on, the nations that hate us (but are all too willing to accept our handouts) are acquiring the capability to knock us into Medieval times with relative ease.

Forstchen slips a few pointed questions into the narrative about why nothing was done before it was too late, but never questions the priorities of those holding the purse strings, as I just did. Understandable, for a number of reasons. What I've just done is considered "preachy." And "preaching" is only tolerated when hardcore leftists are doing it. Also, as obvious by an introduction written by Newt Gingrich this is a neocon novel. My definition of neocon: a socialist who wants a strong military and espouses lower taxation. 

In the Newspeak we're being trained to use, Marxists are called "liberals" and neocons are called "conservatives." I've just about quit using the term "conservative" (at least without quotation marks) because the term is constantly used to describe anyone not as devoutly left-wing as those who control the mainstream media. Don't let all the misnomers confuse you. Neocons split from the Democrats basically during the Cold War because Stalin and Mao were a bit excessive in pursuing Marx's utopia, and neocons prefer a more subtle and gradual, less violent means toward the same ends (as long as taxes are dialed down a bit while military strength is dialed up) while the "liberals" adore the likes of Fidel Castro and Hugo Chavez...Until/unless knowledge of their own despotism becomes too common.

The neocon disposition is evident in some of the solutions and policies conceived by the good guys in One Second After. But it's all plausible enough, and even though I would be classified as a dangerous kook in a TEOTWAWKI community presided over by the Forstchens or Gingriches of the world, One Second After was still a decent read for me. Enough attention was paid to character and conflict to keep me turning pages, and caring what happened next.

Wednesday, April 24, 2013

Full Asylum by Michael Isenberg


I didn't plan it this way, but reading this book kinda' fits into my recent mini-007 meme.

Our hero, overqualified software engineer Gimbel O'Hare, is a James Bond fan. The 007 character and his adventures speak to Gimbel's quest for excellence in what he does. In fact, there's a couple times when Gimbel suffers some sort of psychological identity displacement and imagines that he IS Bond...

Oh, wait a minute. The name is Dunn. John Dunn. Not Bond-James Bond. His operative ID and the name of Her Majesty's Secret Service are altered, as well. And Gimbel's not the only guy suffering this fantasy/reality swap. But that's just one element in Isenberg's delightfully absurd satire.

O'Hare works for Byte Yourself, a software company which has jumped from an entrepreneurial start-up into an empire--much to the chagrin of competitors and bureaucrats. Those competitors and bureaucrats have joined forces to bring down Byte Yourself, and Gimbel O'Hare is caught in the middle of it.

Full Asylum weaves together British superspy mania, professional wrestling, paintball and a charming cast of characters in a tale of office politics gone viral. Or should I say, gone pandemic?

Here's a notable line of dialog from a book which takes pains to be upbeat, or at least humorous, most of the time:

"...It isn't easy when everyone responsible for enforcing the law works for the criminal."

In the spirit of Ian Fleming, Isenberg has some nifty names for some of his characters as well: Cherri Tarte, Dora Jarr, Lacey Briefs...

If you're in the mood for some social satire with a lighthearted touch and a positive attitude, give this one a read.

Thursday, April 18, 2013

Not as Lame as Quantum of Solace! Skyfall

Looks like I've got a little 007 theme going lately.

I've been going through Ian Fleming's books, and re-watching the Bond movies. After seeing Casino Royale a while back, it seemed like the film franchise was reconnecting with the roots. I also saw Quantum of Solace, and remember very little of it. If I had to describe it in one word, I'd say, "forgettable." But I'm usually willing to give someone another chance after falling flat, so I gave Skyfall a look.

I'll remember this one, so it's at least an improvement over the last Bond effort. But it's hard for me to classify it as a Bond movie.

Seems to me the film makers weren't trying to make a Bond movie--they were trying to make a typical blockbuster action flick: a formulaic Explosion Fest punctuated by chase scenes. In that they were successful. They also threw in a villain who is, basically, Hannibal Lecter without the cannibalism. And they tied it up nicely in the end to make it a reboot of the 007 mythos, with a new M, a new Q and a new Moneypenny.

There was a cameo by the 007 spy car from the Connery-era movies, too. The Aston Martin was never a very attractive vehicle in my opinion, so what happened wasn't as annoying as it was designed to be. But from the moment it appeared on screen I knew (modern action flick directors having a fetish for vehicular destruction) the sucker was toast. What goes through their minds, anyway? Do they fear that moviegoers will demand their money back if there's one less cinematic fiery blast in their cookie cutter plots? Or are they just too caught up in some kind of sick pyro-sexual thrill to think at all?

(It's also, like destruction of the Skyfall Estate, part of the formula: Take the character back to his roots, then destroy them. How many times is the Batcave going to be destroyed I wonder--or at least discovered by the bad guys and the entire population of Gotham City? As many times as you buy a ticket to see it, plus one.)

Skyfall is a crowd-pleaser, but could have just as easily been a Die Hard, Bourne, Taken or fill-in-the-blank series movie. Watch the videos--they sum up a lot of my thoughts on this movie.

Monday, April 15, 2013

42: Another By-the-Numbers Black History Jock Movie

I used to be a sucker for these movies. From Louis Gossett Jr. playing Satchel Paige to The Express: the Ernie Davis Story not too long ago, I ate this stuff up. But my enthusiasm has waned in recent years.

One reason this movie has a strike against it (pun intended) from the opening pitch is because the story has been told so many times already. It's difficult enough scraping up some originality for ANY jock flick, much less the Black History subgenre of jock flicks.

Most people still love to watch a silver screen depiction of an athlete overcoming adversity, beating the odds and earning some kind of great victory. Not easy to do without becoming predictable. Throw in the "color barrier" aspect from the Jim Crow days and not only is the outcome predictable, so is most of the conflict on the way to it. We know the hero is going to be persecuted by rednecks in the bleachers, on the opposing teams and in their own locker room. Bigots will deny them hotel rooms, seats on planes and buses, and rob them of good plays on the field with blatantly crooked officiating. There will be a gratifying scene or two of those bigots getting some measure of commuppance; a touching instance of a teammate overcoming his own bigotry to help the hero at a critical juncture; and of course the big Victorious Moment when the hero scores the big home run/touchdown/goal/knockout/three-pointer/whatever.

I don't know that much about baseball and have never followed it (though I played in Little League and plenty of sand lot games as a kid), but according to some quick Internet research, 42 is surprisingly factual (if chronologically tweaked). And yet while watching it, I couldn't help feeling that it wasn't about Jackie Robinson the man--Jackie Robinson's name was merely stuffed into the Hollywood Black History Jock Flick cookie cutter.

The film makers combined visuals, dialog and mood music at all the Big Moments for the desired effect, but to me this was just faithful adherence to a well-worn formula. It's hard to tell if there was much, or any, passion for the subject matter.

This lack of passion trickled down into the performance of most of the actors. The best I can score most of them is "near miss." I can't fault the players, who certainly seem talented enough. In the case of Robinson's wife, reporter Wendell Smith and both managers of the Brooklyn Dodgers, they just didn't have much to work with. They were given just enough screen time and dialog to mark off a box on the formula checklist, but not enough to contribute anything significant to the story. Nicole Beharie as Rachel Robinson, for instance, could have been instrumental in helping her husband temper the rage building in him from the injustice he suffered. It almost seemed like that's what we were about to see once or twice. But if the scenes were ever shot, they must have wound up on the cutting room floor. So the passionate embraces and expressions of concern which were included amounted to nothing more than boxes checked off. Successful stamps of the cookie cutter.

Even the lead actor Chadwick Boseman wasn't given sufficient opportunity to define the Jackie Robinson character beyond type. Harrison Ford, however, hogged the camera from beginning to end, mugging and hamming as owner Branch Rickey. So much so that the flick was more about him than about Robinson. There's no doubt in my mind that Ford used his clout as a big name movie star to amp-up his part, to the detriment of the film itself and the other actors in it. And critics may even praise him for "stealing the show."

Robinson (as well as American League counterpart Larry Doby, and trailblazers Satchel Paige and Josh Gibson) were exceptional athletes and remarkable men. Unfortunately, there's nothing exceptional or remarkable about this movie.

In addition to the formula being so overused, maybe Hollywood film makers are equally hindered, subconsciously by their own worldview, from crafting a noteworthy film on this topic. After all, to tell the story with any modicum of historical reality they must depict an individual who, through hard work, diligence, determination and a measure of God-given talent, fights his way up from obscurity, rejects mediocrity, pursues excellence and achieves it despite the many forms of adversity in his path--usually an offshoot of institutionalized group identity. And the individual's exceptional accomplishments did not come by way of entitlement programs or government handouts.

That's not a message Hollywood likes to deliver.

Wednesday, April 10, 2013

Some thoughts on the Bond of Ian Fleming and Hollywood

Thanks to Books on Tape, Blackstone Audio, et al, and now Audible Audio for my Kindle, I'm tearing through books at a steady rate during work-related travel.

After paying for my subscription to Audible Audio, I decided it was finally time to read the source material for the spy movies I grew up with. I had previously read Casino Royale and You Only Live Twice which were fairly good reads, but were quite a different flavor from the Bond flicks I'd seen. So anyway, I set out to go through the rest of the Bond canon in the order the novels were written. So far, in addition to the two mentioned above, I've read Live and Let Die, Moonraker and From Russia With Love.

The first Bond I ever saw on screen was Roger Moore. It wasn't until my teen years I began to see some of the Sean Connery flicks. I knew nothing about the literary Bond, and didn't favor one actor over the other, but I liked the Connery flicks better. My favorite became Thunderball. How can you go wrong with an underground battle between frogmen using spearguns and submerged jet skis?

My senior year in high school I got a chance to see Dr. No and I really liked it. Not many cool gadgets, but the feel of it was groovy, and Connery's Bond in this flick was one cool customer (closer to Ian Fleming's character, in my opinion, than any actor has come until Daniel Craig or perhaps Timothy Dalton).

Speaking of Timothy Dalton, I just saw License to Kill this month. Hollywood finally did to Felix Leiter what Fleming did to him in the second Bond novel. I was shocked to read about the fate of Bond's CIA counterpart in Live and Let Die, not just because it was gruesome, but because Felix Leiter had been a healthy, able-bodied staple in just about every Bond movie.

I'm sure this topic has been analyzed to death, so I won't ramble on too long. But reading the books does take some of the Bond mystique away.

The silver screen Bond is a supercharged exaggeration of the character in nearly every way, as are his adventures. The literary Bond has only used his "license to kill" a couple times in his career. The movie Bond kills anywhere from three to a dozen times in any given story.

One of those kills to Bond's credit, by the way, occurred during the war if I remember correctly. What war? Fleming's Bond got into intelligence work during WWII, and continued serving in that capacity into the Cold War. In the movies, he was strictly Cold War, and we were never given any indication how he got into the business. He was conceived in a test tube by M for all we knew. With all the reboots, I think even the Cold War origin will soon be swept back (if it hasn't already). And with the Daniel Craig films delving more into the Bond character than any previous flicks, we'll probably get his background filled in, too (retrofitted, of course).

Hmm. Just checking the canon, I realized I skipped Diamonds Are Forever. Have to remedy that. I was actually checking because From Russia With Love ended in an almost cliffhanger fashion and I wanted to see what followed it, guessing it would be You Only Live Twice. Nope. Dr. No.

Well, my Bond education will continue. Though the books are interesting, I don't like them enough to make them a priority. So this could take a while.

Wednesday, April 3, 2013

Day-by-Day Armageddon by J.L. Bourne

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I am new to Zombiemania and, truthfully, still an outsider. But my education has begun. My textbooks? The first two seasons of The Walking Dead, and this book.

Well, I also saw Night of the Comet back at York Theater many moons ago, as well as I Am Legend much more recently. Okay, technically IAL was about vampires, but they behaved enough like zombies for the movie to fit in the genre. I've also watched a variety of post-apocalyptic flicks wherein mutants behave pretty much like zombies, too. Seeing as how zombies originated in Voodoo, one could argue that even the zombies in "purist" zombie film/fiction aren't exactly zombies, either.

Back to the book: (I listened to an advertised "unabridged" audible audio version via my kindle/car stereo.) Bourne has written it in journal fashion, from the perspective of a Navy aviator living in San Antonio. It has a familiar TEOTWAWKI feel to it--the hero survives the initial catastrophe only to face the struggle for survival in a new, far more dangerous world. Enemies are everywhere--mostly undead--but he collects friends along the way.

The collection of basically decent, moral people band together in an effort to survive, facing death no matter which way they turn. There are many suspenseful scenes, some interesting locations, and the implied promise that the narrative will take us on an epic journey...

Then the book ends without taking us anywhere.

Afraid that I must have bought a glitched version with the last 2/3rds missing, I checked good ol' Amazon. My investigation turned up evidence that this book began as free zombie fan fiction on a blog. And now it makes perfect sense why there is no story arc or character development, and why it ended just when it had potential to get really interesting. Basically I paid money for some blogger's writing experiment.

And now I will end this post similar to how Bourne ended Day by Da