The Orville is not Star Trek But It Really Wants To Be

Star Trek: Discovery was one of the best attempts to insult an entire fanbase in a single go I’ve ever seen. Many disappointed Trekkies turned to The Orville, on Fox, to see if it was any good. Intrigued, I went as well, less to find a replacement for Star Trek and more as a curious scifi connoisseur. The results were…. mixed.

Seth Macfarlane thinks he’s funny. I don’t. Seth Macfarlane loves Star Trek. So do I. Seth Macfarlane is best known for producing “humor” for Fox, and got to make The Orville in no small part because he’s brought the network a lot of money in the past. That he would be expected to blend the two together is no surprise. Whether it works and can keep working is another question entirely.

The Orville‘s biggest strength is Seth Macfarlane’s love for the genre and his desire to tribute it. It’s biggest weakness is Macfarlane’s extremely questionable sense of humor.

Let me start by praising the show. The Orville looks far more like Roddenberry’s vision of the future than anything we’ve seen on CBS. It’s bright, it’s positive, it’s ambitious and cooperative. It tackles social questions in quirky ways that sometimes hit and sometimes miss. There are also some pretty big differences from Star Trek. The most glaring is the way The Orville relies heavily on Macfarlane’s sense of humor to fill running time.

It’s hard to come up with a good way to look at The Orville, as it’s not Star Trek but so closely mimics the Star Trek format that it’s hard to draw a meaningful distinction. The Trek formula, as noted last week, is much about the Crew confronting Problems in Space and Solving them. The crew is very much a unit, although Captain Mercer (Seth Macfarlane) and Commander Grayson (Adrianne Palicki) play a slightly larger role than the others. The Orville itself hasn’t developed much of a personality yet, although it hasn’t been blown to shreds yet and it does have the advantage of being a very pretty vehicle with a distinctive silhouette and we get to see a lot of shots of it doing interesting things in the pilot episode and the opening credits.

Also, kudos to The Orville showrunners for seeing the importance of the opening credits for setting the tone of the show. Unlike the Discovery opening, which makes the show seem like it’s about equipment schematics, The Orville opens with the beauty and wonder of space and shows the ship taking us on a romp through it. Exactly what we want to see.

The acting is pretty good. This is my first time seeing Macfarlane live on camera and I find him to be a pretty charismatic guy. The whole cast does well with their parts but major props go to Peter Macon as Lt. Cmdr. Bortus, who has mastered the Worf effect of emoting constantly in spite of speaking very little and being locked behind serious prosthetics. The casting goes one step further with Halston Sage, who plays Lt. Alara Kitan. Kitan is an alien from a high gravity world and she is shorter and more compact than the other crew, which is the kind of build suggested by our modern understanding of gravity and human/humanoid physiology. There’s real chemistry among the crew as well, especially between Macfarlane and his costars.

However, while Macfarlane as an actor brings some of the strongest chops The Orville has, he’s the show’s greatest weakness as well. His sense of “humor” revolves around setting up incredibly awkward situations and expecting us to laugh at them, as in the sequence where Mercer and Grayson – a divorced couple – get stuck talking to Mercer’s parents on the bridge of their ship in “Command Performance”. Or the awkward elevator sequence in “If the Stars Should Appear”. Then there’s the reliance on non-sequitors for humor, which generally whiffs as in the Elvis’ Last Words bit in “Command Performance” and a general reliance on crude humor which is going to be very subjective. Humor, of course, is subjective over all but this show is going to be more subjective than most. For me, only about 15-20% of the humor lands and the rest is eyerolling at best or interrupts my immersion in the show at worst.

It’s too bad because The Orville does do one thing perfectly and that, surprisingly enough, is engaging with the cultural issues of the day in a thoughtful manner. “About a Girl” tackles a wide swath of issues from transgenderism and parenting to gender roles in ways that are not always well thought out but clearly come from a position of respect and compassion and never offers us easy answers or pat moralizing. “Command Performance” is a well thought out, show length gag at the expense of reality TV and its effects on our culture and privacy. “If the Stars Should Appear” questions where we will put the balance between systems that have kept us alive and well and the omnipresent need to change and grow. Of them all, “If the Stars Should Appear” is the most pat and tropey but still manages to make overtures to both sides of its discussion, a feature missing from most media looking at the modern culture wars.

Most of all, The Orville is optimistic. Where many shows today are postmoderm pessimism fests The Orville is bright and energetic, chasing that future it’s sure we can find if we just pull together and put our best foot forward. There’s a place for everyone there, from the self-satisfied and superior robot Isaac to the taciturn and antisocial Bortus, and everyone in between. I’m not sure how much more of The Orville I’ll watch but I praise Macfarlane for putting the show together. In spite of its flaws it’s exactly what we need more of – a show that tries to keep an open mind while looking for the brightest future it can find.

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Voltron: The Legendary Five Man Band

A month or so ago I wrote about how five man groups are pretty much the gold standard for good storytelling, presenting good options for different character dynamics without bringing too many characters for the audience to track to the table.

There’s a great example of this character dynamic in the Netflix series Voltron: Legendary Defender. The basic premise of this shown is that five ancient and powerful alien war robots fall into the hands of human pilots, who must then wield them as separate entities and in the combined super robot known as Voltron. These five pilots are, of course, the core five man band of the show. The cast starts out by with a central cast that fits basic archetypes – Shiro, the soldier, Keith, the loner, Lance, the goofball, Hunk, the anxious, and Pidge, the nerd. These archetypes quickly flesh out as the character’s various motivations keep them moving at odds with one another.

The clearest example of this is Pidge, a girl who is passing herself as a boy in an effort to track down her father and brother, who went missing on a deep space mission. She’s hiding her identity because she’s already drawn too much bad attention from the authorities prying into classified files but, when she meets Shiro, who disappeared on the same mission and reappears under equally mysterious circumstances, she has to decide how much she trusts him and the three others whisked away on the wild ride they’re undertaking. It’s a particularly cryptic balancing act to watch as we’re not aware Pidge is a girl at first.

Character dynamics are at the heart of Voltron, from the clashing personalities of Keith and Lance to the uncertain relationship between Allura, the alien princess who’s father built Voltron, and her human paladins. But these aren’t the only important character dynamics. In fact, arguably the most important character dynamic exists between Shiro, the tyrannical Emperor Zarkon, and the Black Lion, the war machine both men wielded in battle at one time. Zarkon seeks to reclaim the lion with single-minded zeal while Shiro is driven by conscience and a clear desire not to let down his current team like he fears he did his last. (Shiro has a touch of the amnesia.)

It’s not just the heroes who have good character dynamics. There are interesting faces and motives among the villains as well, including factions and traitors, double agents who give the two sides multiple points of contact and an interesting glimpse into how the two sides are similar and different. It’s this kind of character writing that makes the show so very compelling and, with the third season introducing a five man band on the villain’s side, we can only expect these dynamics to go deeper.

Last week I went on about how I’ve found Marvel’s Netflix lineup to be incredibly lackluster. Serviceable but not compelling. Oddly enough, Voltron, with a total running time comparable to the length of Daredevil alone, has managed to build more compelling villains and, as a direct result, more compelling heroes than the entire Marvel Netflix line.

Voltron doesn’t just have strong heroes with deep flaws, who bond with each other in interesting and meaningful ways. It has surprisingly deep villains in a struggle that makes it clear one side has a moral edge over the other without letting the villains become caricatures or jokes. While Zarkon can come off as a bit of a tantrum thrower his deep connection to the Black Lion and a fuller understanding of his history, as revealed in season three, actually makes his single mindedness a little clearer. If I have one worry about the future of the show it’s how the story seems to be casting Zarkon as a victim of crystallized evil, rather than a man who turned to evil of his own volition, seeking goals he thought were good. There’s elements of both in his story right now.

C.S. Lewis’ most lasting works of fiction were the Chronicles of Narnia, a series of books that meant for children that people of all ages love reading over and over. Sometimes stories meant for children make the strongest impressions and one thing is sure – Voltron: Legendary Defender may be aimed at children but it’s making a really strong impression right now. Worth checking out if you have the time.

The Ampersand

We’re going to talk about China Meiville’s Railsea and it’s going to include spoilers. You’ve been warned.

That said, we’re not actually going to talk about the plot of Railsea but the worldbuilding. Knowing this doesn’t change the story itself in any way. But, in many respects, the best part of Railsea is… well, the railsea. Everything in this strange, topsy-turvy world runs on rails and the book is full of strange little touches that help you remember that this is not the world you know.

What’s nice is that the story never goes out of its way to shove those moments into your face. They’re subtle and pointed, always clearly intended to illustrate some aspect of Meiville’s world that is different from ours. Well, most of the worldbuilding is that way. There was one aspect of it that shows up on the first page, digs its claws into you and won’t stop annoying you for at least fifty more pages. The phenomenon is thus: the prose never uses a comma in lists but rather stringing them together with a series of ands. Except the letters “a”, “n” and “d” are never written in that order anywhere in the text of the book. Every instance of the word “and” is replaced with The Ampersand. You can even begin sentences with &, removing the need for capital letters.

To make a confession: I hated this tendency at first. The prose was cluttered with unnecessary conjunctions and the ampersand jumped out at me whenever it was used, never quite enough to break the flow of the story but enough to grab at the back of the mind. It was wrong but I was enjoying the rest of the book enough to struggle through. Eventually, the ampersands faded into the background. Then I reached Railsea chapter 33 and read these words:

“The lines of the railsea go everywhere but from one place straight to another. It is always switchback, junction, coils around & over our own train-trails.

What word better could there be to symbolize the railsea that connects and separates all lands, than ‘&’ itself? Where else does the railsea take us but to this place & that one & that one & that one, & so on? & what better embodies, in the sweep of the pen, the recurved motion of trains, than ‘&’?”

Mind. Blown.

Most of us think of worldbuilding in terms of what happened in the history of the world, or what they eat, or how they dress, or what kind of governments there are, what kind of buildings they build, what kind of rituals they have for births, marriages and deaths. That kind of stuff is well and good. It’s an important part of cultures and traditions to understand these things. The same is true for ecology, environment and larger scale parts of the picture. But what Meiville did with The Ampersand was go a level deeper.

He asked the very simple question, “If the world is fundamentally like this, what kind of changes might happen to the very ways people think? The way they talk? The way they write?”

Then, instead of a long Martin-esque exposition about traditions and rituals, he just shows us the people of that world acting like they would and lets us get used to it, no matter how odd it first strikes us. In time the curtain is pulled back for us but when it is we’ve already grown so used to the strangeness that the explanation is just icing on the cake.

This kind of worldbuilding is great but have care. Without the other worldbuilding, the careful assembly of ideas into a coherent culture and environment, you can’t come up with something like The Ampersand. What makes The Ampersand so striking is that Meiville did all that work and then went a level further. He came up with an idea that fit his world so perfectly then went back and hid all his tracks, weaving it into the fabric of his tale page by page until he found the right time to share it. This is not a technique to try and use at the start of worldbuilding but at the end. But if you do use it that way and you’re very patient it can make for a great culmination to the work.

 

Kado, The Right Answer

Science fiction is about the politics and societies of the future. There’s no better example of that than one of it’s landmark works, Isaac Asimov’s Foundation trilogy, which focuses on those topics exclusively. But in its focus on these two subjects the genre very often gets distracted from the thing that makes questions of society and politics important: the individual. After all, it is the individual impact of these questions that drives people to consider them at all. While many people will set aside their own concerns of health and happiness if they think it’s for a greater good; without a clear statement of how deprivation might serve the greater good it’s unlikely any will make such sacrifices. Conversely, if you want to prevent people from giving of themselves the simplest way to do it is to convince them there is nothing greater than themselves worth looking for.

But beyond all that, there is another question science fiction is often interested in. Namely, what is the nature of individual?

Kado, The Right Answer is interested in all three of these questions. Sadly, it’s not always adept at answering them.

The basic premise of Kado is scifi gold, beginning with a bizarre extradimensional object intruding into our world over an airport in Japan, absorbing an airplane and making itself at home. Most of the first episode is devoted to the Japanese government trying to figure out what they’re dealing with and ends with a passenger from the plane appearing on top of the object as an ambassador for the entity within. The second episode gives us events from the passenger’s perspective. The rest of the show is about what the entity wants and how humanity will react to it.

Kado plays with many of the wonderful hypotheticals futurists like to dream about, like limitless energy and the impact such technology might have. But it doesn’t explore any of them with a great deal of depth, as the story plays out over a matter of a few months, not nearly enough time to examine the deep changes that might result from a power source that theoretically anyone can create. By the same token even more fantastic technology is introduced in the second half of the show and given freely to humanity by the entity from beyond but what that might mean for humanity in the long run is never really unpacked.

The political ramifications are explored to an extent, with the UN becoming involved and Japan facing everything from threats of sanctions to prying business executives. While the Japanese government plays around these things in gutsy and amusing ways the real depths of these political machinations aren’t deeply explored either.

Finally, two thirds of the way through the season, the question of human nature and what it might mean in the face of life altering technology and beings from other dimensions is introduced. Unfortunately, Kado has been more interested in it’s clever technologies and shallow machinations than in developing its characters. There were hints of who the people dealing directly with Kado and it’s enigmatic passenger were but not quite enough to move them beyond fairly one dimensional characters. While Kado never disrespects it’s characters or treats them as props to a poorly conceived plot it never quite manages to let us get to know them enough to be invested in the existential crisis that Kado’s appearance ultimately provokes.

With twelve full twenty minute episodes plus a prequel it might seem like Kado wasn’t pressed for time to unpack it’s ideas but the show felt overstuffed, like it might have been able to make more of its high concepts if only there had been time to play around with them. Many interesting side characters never developed beyond a single note and the main trio are sketched well but without nuance. And, as I already said, none of the futurist ideas that the story introduces are explored with any depth. I wanted to like Kado, the Right Answer more than I did, and if you’re a sucker for scifi in general or first contact stories specifically you’ll probably still like this show. But casual scifi fans or the general public should give it a pass.

Always Be Afraid

Netflix – the great timesink of our era. I’ll admit that I don’t watch much with the eight bucks a month it costs me but shows like Trollhunters certainly make it worthwhile. I’ll also admit that when I heard about a kid’s show written by Guillermo del Toro I had about the same hopes as I had for a bedtime story by M. Night Shyalaman, which was not a whole lot. But I watched it all the same as it came well recommended and I was pleasantly surprised.

Long story short, Jim Lake is a kid in high school who finds an amulet that lets him turn into the Trollhunter, a sort of U.S. Marshall for trolls, those weird looking guys who turn into rock if they’re touched by sunlight. Jim is the first non-troll to be accepted by the amulet and gain the powers of the Trollhunter, which amount to summoning a suit of armor and sword composed of daylight and deadly to trolls, and he joins with a couple of trolls, Blinky and AARGH, and his friend Toby to keep trolls safe while trying to keep the amulet out of the hands of trolls who are up to no good.

Jim’s story is sadly typical for kids his age: No father, mother working too hard to keep the household together, crush on a girl he doesn’t know how to approach and no role model to work off of. Well, except for Mr. Strickler, one of the teachers at school, and maybe Blinky, the troll in charge of teaching him the lore of the trollhunters. But life was hard enough without mystical amulets and bloodthirsty troll generals chasing wherever he goes.

So let’s talk about stuff in a spoilery fashion.

Trollhunters has the potential to be a very generic tale. A couple of things set it apart from other young adult stories of this stripe. First, Jim’s relationship with his mother is very well developed and rings true. Jim cares for his mother and tries to take up as much of the slack as he can even as she tries to be two parents at once. It’s sweet and sad at the same time. The one disappointment in this is that Jim doesn’t share his new job with his mom like he does with his friend Toby and, when she eventually does find out about it, a plot contrivance wipes her memory soon after. I liked the dynamic between the two when Jim was struggling to make his mom see how important his place in the troll world was and she was struggling to let him do what she knew made him whole. Taking it out of play so quickly felt cheap.

Mr. Strickler fixes one of the problems many YA tales have – good villains. We watch him ascend from a lackey to a legitimate player in the power struggle in the troll kingdoms through ruthlessness and cunning. The show is replete with clever dialog for him, especially after Jim learns who he is and Strickler starts giving him warnings in coded language in public. There’s a brilliant scene where he visits Jim and his mother (still in the dark at the time) at their home for dinner. He spars with Jim, verbally and physically, all while both dance around Barbara out of a mutual desire to keep her in the dark. It’s one of the best moments in the whole show.

Finally there’s Blinky, the wonky, many-eyed troll that teaches Jim the ropes. He’s a different kind of mentor figure, eccentric and intellectual without ever being distant or unapproachable. Too often today intelligence is associated with emotional dysfunction. Blinky is a an emotionally functional but very smart troll, full of sage advice and strategic insight. He’s not a brave troll himself, nor does he have the strength to fight in the first place. He’s more of a Merlin to Jim’s Arthur, on hand with books, wise words and the fix when social situations pose a problem, but rarely taking a hand in fights.

Speaking of Merlin, one of the most interesting parts of Trollhunters is the lore of the world. Jim’s amulet is activated with the phrase, “For the glory of Merlin, Daylight is mine to command!” This touch of Arthurian lore adds an interesting twist to the show. After all, the Lady of the Lake made Arthur a king so what does that say about Jim Lake? Or about his father?

There’s lots of other fun bits of lore scattered about, like the way we learn how to defeat the ultimate bad guy or the troll facts Blinky is always sharing out. But my favorite has to be the first rule of trollhunting: Always be afraid. Frank Hubbard sneered at fear as a weakness, del Toro reminds us it’s something that can help us so long as we don’t let it control us. That kind of simple, practical and time tested life advice is the foundation of every story in Trollhunters and it’s hard not to love the story for it.

Two Strings and a Clockwork Orange

Kubo and the Two Strings is a wonderfully written and animated movie that I found profoundly disturbing. I want to talk about what I loved about it but I also want to talk about what bothered me and in order to do the second part I’m going to have to get into major spoilers. Like, discussing how Kubo finally defeated his villain and what the fallout of that was. You’ve been warned.

Let me start with the basics. Kubo is a kid missing his dad and his mom isn’t always there, mentally speaking. He can also control paper by playing music on his shamisen (a Japanese instrument vaguely like a banjo) and he’s missing an eye that his grandfather, the Moon King, stole from him when he was a baby. Naturally, the plot kicks off when Kubo’s grandfather discovers where his grandson has been hiding all these years.

Kubo leaves his mother and, with the help of Monkey, a guardian statue turned real, and Beetle, an anthropomorphic beetle who claims to know Kubo’s father somehow and lost his memories to the Moon King, the boy must collect the three pieces of a legendary suit of armor and defeat his grandfather.

When Kubo is slow and meandering it’s still pretty good. When the story moves then it’s great. I particularly liked the character moments between Monkey, Beetle and Kubo. The three aren’t together long before it becomes clear that these are the parents Kubo never had – quite literally as the Monkey contains the fragment of his mother’s soul that was lacking in her for so long and the Beetle is Kubo’s father, transformed and rendered amnesiac by the Moon King’s power. The bristly but unified way Kubo’s parents act before they realize this fact makes their odd couple romance plainly obvious to the audience while not shoving in our face. I also appreciate the fact that, even when they don’t know who the other is, there’s never any competition between the two or any attempt on the screenwriter’s part to make one look better than the other.

Beetle is focused on goals, finishing Kubo’s quest and making him strong and independent. Monkey focuses on keeping him safe and provided for. It’s a pleasing dynamic and conflict in it comes very naturally and is resolved in equally satisfying ways. More movie families should be written like this one.

The Moon King was an interesting but underdeveloped character. His sense of personal perfection was an understandable driving force and I liked the symbolism of his taking Kubo’s eyes to represent his trying to blind him to the value of others. His winding up with the eye he took from Kubo replacing one of his blind eyes was a nice touch.

My one gripe with the writing is how obvious they made it that the momentos from Kubo’s parents – a lock of hair from his mother and his father’s bowstring – would form new strings for the shamisen after Kubo broke the old ones. I think it would have bothered me less if he hadn’t broken his instruments strings until after he had both momentos or if the old strings hadn’t broken at all and replacing them had been a necessary part of his working his final magic. Or, y’know, if that little plot element hadn’t been spoiled in the title of the movie.

So yeah, the movie was written great and animated in a fun and distinct way which I found beautiful and expressive but can’t really explain well in writing. (I know, I know, I got one job…) All that said, why did the movie disturb me?

Because it’s a kids film and it portrays A Clockwork Orange as a recipe for utopian paradise. Let me explain.

In addition to giving his grandfather his left eye, Kubo also brainwashes the Moon King. After Kubo works his final magic the Moon King has no memories, just like Kubo’s father in beetle form. So Kubo tell the Moon King he is a man of compassion and kindness. The movie has established Kubo as a great storyteller and entertainer and Kubo turns his abilities to convincing the Moon King he’s never been anything but a kind old grandfather in a small village and said village joins in the scam. This leads directly to the film’s “happy ending”.

“The stories we tell ourselves” is a running theme through Kubo and, as a storyteller myself, I kind of understand what they’re saying. Seeing our life as a story is a tool to help us make some sense of it. We could look at it that way and draw some solace from that fact, I have no problem with that notion so long as we keep in mind that we’re not the entirety of the story but a part of a much larger story unfolding all around us. That philosophical rabbit hole is not where we’re going today.

What bothers me about the ending of Kubo and the Two Strings is that Kubo stole his grandfather’s story by force, just as the Moon King stole from Kubo’s father and mother. Worse, Kubo replaced the Moon King’s identity with a lie. Sure, the story glosses that over with a happy ending but Kubo’s solution is nothing of the kind. Lies always get found out and, no matter how well intentioned they might be, the destroy trust between the liar and the victim. If the Moon King was an implacable and dangerous foe before being violated in such a way what will he be after the deception comes to light? Kubo didn’t tell a story to help someone know themselves, he told them a story to hide the truth from them and in doing so he let down the author’s first duty, to his audience.

Worse, the Moon King’s entire purpose in the story was undermined. Instead of being confronted with his shortcomings by Kubo’s stronger character the Moon King was just swept under a rug, he was never given the chance to overcome the villain he was nor did his villainy destroy him. He’s never confronted by how his lack of compassion would destroy him and he’s poorer for it, as are we the audience.

Ultimately, while Kubo and the Two Strings does a great job showing us it’s characters and their struggles the only thing I can take away from the tale is this: Kubo’s flawed human compassion was no better than the Moon King’s lack of compassion. What was needed was a story of perfect compassion.

Reading List, Part Five

Out of the Silent Planet, by C.S. Lewis

Genre(s): Science Fiction

Sequels: First in a trilogy

Out of the Silent Planet is the beginning of Lewis’ greatest series of novels. While Narnia may be his best known franchise those who’s exposure to his fiction ends there are truly missing out. (His greatest single novel is undoubtedly Til We Have Faces, which is a topic for another time.) Oddly enough this story started as a sort of dare between Lewis and his good friend J.R.R. Tolkien where Lewis was to write a spacefaring story and Tolkien a time traveling one. Sadly, Tolkien’s story doesn’t exist in it’s entirety. But Out of the Silent Planet does and it’s pretty good.

Dr. Elwin Ransom, a character loosely based on Tolkien, is a student of languages who attempts to help a person he sees being abducted but winds up an abductee himself. A few drugs later he finds himself in a spaceship headed towards Mars. Once on planet Ransom escapes his captors and makes contact with the locals, setting in motion a long trip to meet the guardian of the planet and a deeper understanding of the solar system.

While Out of the Silent Planet is not the most exciting or gripping book on it’s own it does serve as the foundation for the trilogy. Perelandra, the sequel is arguably the best and well worth struggling through the slower parts of Silent Planet. After all, where else can you read about Not-Quite-Tolkien fighting hand to hand with the devil incarnate? That Hideous Strength combines the high concepts of the first two books with a sense of foreboding and suspense that you won’t get anywhere else in Lewis’ writing. All three books are well worth the read.

Lost Triumph, by Tom Carhart

Genre(s): Military History, Nonfiction

The third day of the Battle of Gettysburg is a mystery to many. The almost invincible Confederate General Robert E. Lee sent a division under the command of Major General George Pickett into the teeth of Major General George Meade’s Union positions. After a short, desperate contest Pickett’s men fell back, broken and bleeding. Many people believe that the Confederacy was defeated that day and the furthest point the charge reached is often called the high watermark of the Confederacy. The mystery of the day is simple.

Why would a general of Lee’s quality send his men into what almost everyone agreed was certain defeat?

There’s no answer on record, of course. But in this book Carhart suggests what he may have been attempting. Lost Triumph is divided into two basic sections. The first explores Lee, his command philosophy and his relations with his generals. Lee was Commandant at the West Point Military Academy for a time before the Civil War and his curriculum and later real life victories all point to certain strategies he believed most effective and Carhart sketches how Pickett’s attack might have been part of a greater scheme to break the back of the Union army.

The second half of the book is a gripping account of the other things occurring at Gettysburg just before and during Pickett’s Charge. It tells the story of Major General J.E.B. Stuart, leader of the Invincibles, the Confederacy’s most famous cavalry division, and how they tried to round the Union flank. And it tells how they, and possibly all of Lee’s plans, were undone by a combination of superior weaponry, dedicated fighting and gallant leadership.

Lee’s trust in Stuart was legendary and Stuart’s trust in his own men was equally strong. The Army of Northern Virginia thought them capable of anything, hence the nickname Invincibles. It would make sense that the second half of Lee’s plan, if any grander plan existed, would fall to Stuart’s cavalry. Ironically, that unfounded confidence would lead to their defeat by a brigade of the Union cavalry that Confederate horsemen thought so little of.

A brigade led by Brigadier General George Armstrong Custer.

Court of the Air, by Stephen Hunt

Genre(s): Fantasy, Steam Punk

Sequels: Five novels and a few short stories

The Kingdom of Jackals, the Republic with a King, is one of the preeminent nations in its world. They have the Royal Aerostatic Navy, one of the world’s only working democracies and a culture stretching back centuries. For all that, it’s not a great place for the likes of Molly Templar, a young girl who keeps finding the people around her dead. Someone’s out to get her and even with the help of an internationally recognized archaeologist, a thinking machine and a retired smuggler she may not make it to see another day.

Oliver Brooks had it pretty easy until his uncle was murdered and someone tried to pin the death on him. Now he’s on the run with an agent of Jackal’s most secret police force – the Court of the Air, who look down from above the clouds and will judge all they see, even those beyond the law.

Problem is, something’s rotten in the good Kingdom of Jackals and even the Court is blind to it. Only Molly has the key to saving the nation but the poor girl just wants to write books. If she and Oliver can’t rally their friends, figure out the secrets of the Court and set things right disaster looms as enough power to lock the world in a new Ice Age lays just beyond the grasp of a madman.

Hunt’s stories are crazy trips with just about every idea he can get his hands on thrown into the stew. Steam powered robots walk side by side with political commentary and the threat of a pantheon of gods that worship other gods. While none of the commentary is particularly deep and the characters are sometimes a little flat there’s enough pulpy nonsense here to make for a riproaring good time.

Cobra, by Timothy Zahn

Genre(s): Science Fiction

Sequels: A good ten so far, with more coming

Yes, I love just about everything this guy writes.

Cobra is the story of Johnny Moreau, who joins an elite supersoldier unit called the COBRAs, gaining nearly unbreakable bones, motorized joints and a computer that runs it all and gives him a near-inhuman reaction speed and precision of movement. It’s also not your average war story.

In the typical book of this type we’d follow the protagonist through training and onto the field until he’d won a few significant victories and we were left waiting for the sequel.

Johnny’s war ends in victory by the end of the first act.

The problem is, the computer that controls Cobra’s combat reflexes cannot be reprogrammed (by design, to make them impossible to subvert that way) and can’t be removed without basically crippling them. Cobras are the lethal killing machines the people needed but they can’t stop being those machines after the war is over. Thus the Dominion of Man is left with a conundrum – what to do with these people no one quite trusts with their safety but who still deserve to be treated as heroes?

While not a groundbreaking book, Cobra offers an interesting take on the cost of war and how the future is unlikely to change it. Not everything has an easy solution and Cobra doesn’t offer those either. But it does show that, difficult though it may be, those solutions are worth looking for.

Dave Barry in Cyberspace, by Dave Barry

Genre(s): Humor, Satire, Nonfiction

Pulitzer Prize winning satirist Dave Barry once wrote a book about computers. This was in 1996, back when the DOS prompt was still a thing. I know you kids don’t know what that is, but suffice it to say we didn’t just poke pictures on a screen and have computers do what we want. We had to work to waste time on our computers.

In this book Barry goes on a romp through all the different ways we’ve complicated our lives using technology and it’s well worth the price of admission. Beginning from the destruction of the 1890 census – the first such census to use computing technology as part of the tabulation of data – Barry shows how the computer has not been our friend. It’s just another wild creature that humanity needs to beat into submission, one face slamming into the keyboard at a time.

Whether you’re looking for an amusing history of computers two decades ago or just want to relive the halcyon days of BAD COMMAND OR FILENAME then this is a book that you’ll love.