All posts by Peter Damien

Peter Damien is a busy writer who lives in Minnesota because he just really likes frigid temperatures and mosquitoes. He lives in the crawl-spaces between heaps of books and can be seen scurrying out at dusk to search for food and ALL the TEA. His wife and two boys haven't figured out how to get him out of the house, so they put up with him. He as astonishing hair.

REVIEW: The Physics of Superheroes by James Kakalios

REVIEW SUMMARY: A fun way to learn more about both superheroes and science.

MY RATING:

BRIEF SYNOPSIS: Building off of his acclaimed university science course, James Kakaios uses superhero powers, trivia, and nerdy questions to explore the fantastic through the lens of science and physics.

MY REVIEW:
PROS:Fun and light; never dwells on a single topic long enough to wear out its welcome; eases you into the science and the math; James Kakalios knows an awful lot about comics.
CONS: Easy or not, the math might put some people off.
BOTTOM LINE: A wealth of information about superheroes, science, and physics. A fantastic way to introduce someone to science who thinks they aren’t interested in the topic.
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Uncanny Robots

It’s really remarkable and exciting to learn about the research that’s happening on robots and artificial intelligence these days. It doesn’t get as much press as I feel it should, except when it manifests in odd and surprising places.

Siri, for example. One might argue that Siri — the conversationalist voice which comes with the iPhone 4S — isn’t true artificial intelligence, but frankly, I think it’s a matter of degrees. We humans are difference engines pulling from vast mental databases of information and past experience, making our decisions and our replies to the world. Is Siri any different?

Particularly when we begin taking these artificial intelligences with their responsive abilities and find a way to funnel the vast amount of information, personality, and life on the Internet into them (and find a way to make it USEFUL information. The Internet is many things, but considered as a mind, it’s a crazy person) we’ll very shortly find ourselves with some incredible intelligences.

The biggest mistake I think we’re making, though, is trying to make our robots look human.
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REVIEW: Subversion edited by Bart R. Leib

MY RATING:

BRIEF SYNOPSIS: Sixteen stories about subversion and acts of rebellion, both large and political or small and personal.

MY REVIEW:

PROS: In some places, a very subtle and mature examination of subversion and rebellion, and of challenging the norm in the world about you. A number of excellent authors put forward stories which I dearly wish to make my friends read.

CONS: It’s not all killer and no filler. There are a few dud stories.

BOTTOM LINE: A great deal more subtle than I initially expected, and an excellent book with which to discover from fantastic up-and-coming talent.

When Crossed Genres offered me an ARC of their upcoming anthology Subversion via Twitter, I said yes straight away. After all, I’m a tremendously subversive person. It’s true! I wear a great deal of black clothing, I have a tendency to rant on the internet about things I don’t like, I don’t drive, and I drink tea instead of coffee, and in fact it’s a good thing I don’t leave the house a great deal or else I could subvert all of Western Civilization. Also, I quite like to read and write short fiction. What I’m saying is, me and this anthology, we were a pretty good match.

Actually, we’re a good match, because I like well-written and thoughtful short fiction, and there’s a great deal of that on display here. We’ll get into that in a moment. But first, a word about the cover…

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REVIEW: 100 Cupboards by N.D. Wilson

REVIEW SUMMARY: Brilliantly written fantasy in the tradition of Madeline L’Engle, to be read by young adults of all ages.

MY RATING:

BRIEF SYNOPSIS: Henry York goes to stay in Henry, Kansas, with his Aunt’s family. While adjusting to the new life, he discovers that behind the plaster of his bedroom wall are dozens and dozens of cupboards. 99 of them. When opened, they all seem to go to other worlds far beyond Kansas.

MY REVIEW:

PROS: Strong and beautiful language; an intriguing premise which takes it’s time, to good effect; wonderful dialog and characterization.

CONS: The slow pace might put some readers off, those who are expecting a fast-past fantasy novel.

BOTTOM LINE: This is such a good book, I think it’s a shame it’s ONLY in the young-adult sections. There should be copies everywhere, so everyone reads it.

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REVIEW: Never Knew Another by J.M. McDermott

REVIEW SUMMARY:A dense, elaborate, amazing novel that begs for re-reading.

MY RATING:

BRIEF SYNOPSIS: This is the story of Rachel Nolander, the child of a demon, and Jona Lord Joni, also a demon child, and how these two hunted outcasts meet.

MY REVIEW:

PROS:A clear, unfettered prose style, allowing for moments of poetry without becoming florid or overwrought; an inventive story which takes a fairly simple pair of ideas and builds a complex narrative out of them; the length.

CONS:The structure of the novel, the stories within stories, might make it hard for readers to instantly pick up, but will reward them if they do; dialog is sparse throughout the book, excellent when it appears, but I wish there’d been more.

BOTTOM LINE: A powerful, visceral fantasy novel which has at its heart the a tragical love story, well-populated by people you cannot help but care for. Strong language and writing makes this a book to revisit.

Never Knew Another arrived in the mail from the author himself, inscribed with a personalization I had suggested to him earlier on. I’ve known McDermott for a little while, in a casual sort of way, I hadn’t read his first novel (The Last Dragon), and I was excited to see this, his second novel arrive. I knew nothing about it, but the arrival of any book excites me.

That said, I was nervous. I am not a fan of high fantasy of any sort, though not for lack of trying. Be it your Terry Brooks, or your George R. R. Martin, stories set in other worlds which seem to owe something to Tolkien always leave me cold, wonderful though they may be. I’d promised to review Never Knew Another, and was worried that I might hate it and have to say so.

Happily, I needn’t have been concerned.

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SF/F Adaptations – The Good, The Bad, & The Ugly

My wife and I went to see Avatar the week that it came out, and we both enjoyed it tremendously. It was big and beautiful and exciting and fun. And if the plot was a little predictable, and if the characters were a little flat, there are worse things. I was excited just to see some big space opera happening on a movie screen again. Full of color and aliens and emotions besides scowls.

But as we were walking out of the theater, there was one thing which had caught and held my attention, and it was something specific which was missing from the ending credits.

Avatar, of course, wasn’t adapted from anything. It came out of James Cameron’s head.

(We can argue, of course, that it was adapted from Pocahontas, perhaps, and fair enough, but you get my point).

The reason this interested me is, nearly everything that hits the theaters is adapted from something.

“Based on the comic book series by Alan Moore”, “based on the television series created by Gene Roddenberry”, “based on the series of words-put-in-rows by Stephanie Meyer”… And we can go further afield than that: “based on the newspaper strip by Jim Davis”, “based on the action figure G.I. Joe”, for haven’s sakes.

The only thing we haven’t yet seen adapted are breakfast cereal mascots. Get Michael Bay to produce a Cap’n Crunch movie. Give it a techno soundtrack and you’ve got a summer blockbuster.

We know that the vast majority of things Hollywood produces are adaptations, because people comment on it fairly regularly, both on the street and in interviews. “Hollywood just rehashes everything, they’ve run out of original ideas,” is neck-in-neck with the other common grumble, “MTV doesn’t play any damn music videos now.”

Adaptations are such a fact of life, something like Avatar – or, another sterling example, any of the perfect pieces of cinematic artwork created by Pixar – catches our attention for sheer fact that it isn’t based off anything at all.

So with that in mind, let’s examine adaptations a little further.

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Slow Tuesday Night

I don’t know how many of you have G-mail, or spend any particular amount of time following technology related news. I don’t follow with any tremendous devotion, but I like to keep up on the big things that happen. I was content to watch the iPad be launched, for example. And over this past weekend, I watched as Google launched Buzz and met with a more or less unanimous uproar of irritation and crankiness.

Now for the complete details on the product, the irritation, and the ensuing techno-drama, you can probably rustle up a fair bit of information all on your own. I don’t necessarily need to recap for you. I’ll offer you this link which gives you a clue on the issues.

People raged (or were just mildly irked; I mean, I don’t want to sound like the whole internet got out pitchforks and torches). It was a disaster for Google on the level normally reserved for Amazon.com and their ideas. It had to be fixed, and right now.

There was something in that above article which caught my eye, though. A particular quote.

Next Few Days! Guys, you have got a few hours at most to sort this out – its the weekend, loads of people have now got the time to look at it (like this blog post) and loads of ordinary Gmail users are going to come home from work and discover this happening to them.

Google was promising to get things ironed out in the next few days, and over the next couple of weeks. And the reaction, in more than a couple of places, was the above. Days? Days? You’ve got hours! Frankly, if we’re getting into double-digit minutes here, guys, you are pushing it! (I know I’m exaggerating; it’s a hobby)

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REVIEW: Unseen Academicals by Terry Pratchett

REVIEW SUMMARY: A very scattered, disjointed Discworld novel, which has some bright spots making it worth a look.

MY RATING:

BRIEF SYNOPSIS: Football finally arrives on the Discworld, as well as the Discworld’s first super-model; both of these things provide a back-drop to a classic Romeo and Juliet love story.

MY REVIEW:

PROS: Pratchett never fails to write excellent dialogue and some of the emotional points the book hits are very effective.

CONS: The plot feels all over the place, never really comes together, and then is hastily wrapped-up. Not so streamlined and precise as some previous books.

BOTTOM LINE: Someone who is already a Terry Pratchett fan will find good bits in here, I think. Someone who is not a Terry Pratchett fan will not find this a good place to start.

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REVIEW: Duma Key by Stephen King

REVIEW SUMMARY: One of Stephen King’s most interesting novels.

MY RATING:

BRIEF SYNOPSIS: With his life, and mind, in shambles after an industrial accident, Edgar Freemantle retreats to an island in Florida, where both the island, and Edgar, are deeper and darker than he had imagined.

MY REVIEW:

PROS: As with any King novel, it’s full of strong dialog, sharp characters, and a slowly-building mystery which makes it hard to put down.

CONS: A few King-isms creep in (the tendency for characters to laugh uncontrollably, to tears, in odd places, as one example).

BOTTOM LINE:Sharp, poignant, scary, mysterious, funny, with a terrific ending, this is one Stephen King novel among a few others that I would hand to someone and say “Here, you might like this author…”

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REVIEW: Batman: Arkham Asylum

REVIEW SUMMARY: A highly polished game in every aspect, putting it on the top of the heap of Batman stories, not to mention video games this year.

MY RATING:

BRIEF SYNOPSIS: Batman returns an escaped Joker to the high security insane clinic, Arkham Asylum, only to discover that it was a trap to lure Batman in.

MY REVIEW:

PROS: Amazing combat systems, but stealth and FreeFlow brawling; a brilliant Batman storyline; excellent return of Kevin Conroy as the voice of Batman, and Mark Hamill as the Joker; clever redesigns of all Batman villains; Mark Hamill’s performance as Joker; a wealth of extras; Joker’s voice, performed by Mark Hamill.

CONS: Commissioner Gordon is built like a brick wall and is a bit distracting.

BOTTOM LINE: An amazing Batman story and a combat system that’s so fluid, you can’t help but enjoy big fights, amazing voice acting and a really top-notch story leaves this standing as one of the best uses of Batman we’ve ever seen. And my favorite.

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Comic Books vs. Natural Selection

About a week ago, someone sent me an article which pointed out that, surprisingly, Disney had bought Marvel Comics for something like four billion dollars. This deal outraged some fans, irritated others, and gave great amusement to still more. Mostly, I couldn’t muster any ire. I’m a life-long comic book fan, and someone who extols the virtues and capabilities of the medium. Nevertheless, the news made a blip on my radar and then I got on with my day.

Then, yesterday afternoon, I saw a different article, which was that Warner Brothers were taking DC Comics and ‘re-branding’ it DC Entertainment.

Both articles — and the interview I’ve just linked to — are full of fairly sickening big-business gibberish talk. I mean, who really wants to grow up to “handle the strategic development of creative license opportunities’? Who talks like that? If someone talked to you in that fashion on the street, you’d call for the police and take them away for some sort of treatment. Electro-shock, for preference. But I digress.

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MOVIE REVIEW: Watchmen

REVIEW SUMMARY: Lovely images and faithful panel translations, but with no emotional significance, or grounding.

BRIEF SYNOPSIS: The film is set in an alternate 1985, in which Nixon has remained in office far longer than two terms, the Doomsday clock is ticking ever closer to the fatal midnight mark…and super-heroes have been existing in the world for some time now. The story begins with the murder of one of them, The Comedian. The mystery of who hunts the Watchmen begins to be explored by Rorschach.

MY REVIEW:

PROS: Gorgeous imagery, with scenes from the comic copied exactly. Also, a soundtrack that you can’t help but notice as it turns up throughout the film. Some of the most amazing opening credits out there.

CONS: Almost everything else. The acting is extremely dodgy at times. There is no emotion or context or explanation for what’s happening.

BOTTOM LINE: Since one has to read the comic to really get anything of interest out of the film, the film is little more than some brought-to-life panels. Interesting to look at, but it doesn’t have a leg to stand on.

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REVIEW: Torchwood: Children of Earth

REVIEW SUMMARY: Really brilliant, except when it’s really not.

MY RATING:

BRIEF SYNOPSIS: All across the world, all of the children are freezing and chanting. Over and over. “WE ARE COMING.” Something called the 456 is coming to Earth, and only Torchwood can stop it.

MY REVIEW:

PROS: This really does contain some of the strongest, best writing that Torchwood’s had so far. Occasionally, it’s on-par with Doctor Who.

CONS: The same problems that have always plagued Torchwood surface here, too.

BOTTOM LINE: Like most good Torchwood , it’s powerful and exciting, and like most of Torchwood, it seems to foul up in the end stretch…

(WARNING: This is a spoiler-riffic sort of review. Depart, thee who dost not wish to know.)

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MOVIE REVIEW: The Fountain (2006)

REVIEW SUMMARY: A movie that is stunning not only in its visual imagery, but also in its storytelling and emotional power.

MY RATING:

BRIEF SYNOPSIS: A movie built around three parallel stories dealing with life, death, love, and more than I can put into this brief line. A brief synopsis does not do justice to this film.

MY REVIEW:

PROS: The imagery is stunning, the acting is powerful and heart-breaking and wonderful, the soundtrack is a work of art all by itself, and the whole film is practically poetry on-screen.

CONS: Might not appeal to everyone, this is definitely not a casual watch. Transformers this ain’t.

BOTTOM LINE: Absolutely worth the watch, just for the sheer emotion of it. And probably needs a few re-watches, at that.

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An Open Letter to Ghostbusters III

Unless you’ve been living under a very large rock, on the side of some mountain somewhere, you are probably aware that there’s a new Ghostbusters movie in-development. All the old cast is back, and we’ve got Eliza Dushku signed on. (Well, Rick Moranis isn’t back. He made so much money off of the Honey, I Shrunk The Kids franchise, he retired from filmmaking and is entirely disinterested. Which I think is pretty cool of him actually.) Anyway, whether or not we’ll ever actually see this new Ghostbusters film is always a bit uncertain. Douglas Adams said that making a movie was like trying to cook a steak by having a succession of people walk past the meat and breath hot air on it. And he’s pretty much right. It’ll absolutely happen, unless it absolutely doesn’t.

But that isn’t our concern today.

No, we are gathered to advise. Because increasingly, in the past ten years, this new Ghostbusters film finds itself working in a tradition. Who knew? And what is this tradition?

It is the tradition of much-later-on-sequels.

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REVIEW: Last Defender of Camelot by Roger Zelazny

REVIEW SUMMARY: A stellar collection, containing some of Zelazny’s finest stories, some of which were later expanded into major, influential novels.

MY RATING:

BRIEF SYNOPSIS: A strong collection of stories by a master of science fiction, including stories like “Damnation Alley” which were later expanded into novels.

MY REVIEW:

PROS: It’s like a Roger Zelazny primer, full of all of his writerly strengths and power of imagination.

CONS: Barely a con, but I really wish the introductions to the stories had been longer and gone into more detail; the few places where they do, it’s really a delight

BOTTOM LINE: The best place to start reading Zelazny, even before you move to the novels.

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REVIEW: The Best of Michael Moorcock, edited by John Davey, and Ann & Jeff VanderMeer

REVIEW SUMMARY: Contains a couple of must-read stories, and then just other stuff.

MY RATING:

BRIEF SYNOPSIS: A collection of short stories from all different points through Moorcock’s career, assembled to give the reader all his best.

MY REVIEW:

PROS: Stories like “Behold the Man” and “A Winter Admiral” are beautiful and jaw-dropping.

CONS: So many other stories in the book are just a slog to get through.

BOTTOM LINE: Feels less like a best-of collection and more like a miscellany, and an unenjoyable one at that.

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eBook Readers, or, How To Miss The Point

I assume that if you have any connection with the internet world and its culture (and I have not entirely decided if this is “culture” like a group of people and their shared common experiences, knowledge, and rituals or “culture” like bacteria samples; it depends on how close I’ve been to Craigslist that day) then you probably have heard about the Amazon Kindle e-book reader. You cannot visit Amazon.com without them assuring you that the Kindle is perfect for everything, which can be perplexing if, like me, you primarily use Amazon.com to purchase loose leaf tea.

And you have probably also heard of their competitors, things like the Sony eBook Reader, which is slim and brushed metal and has the advantage over Amazon of actually being carried in real-world stores where people go. My local Target has one on display, which you can fiddle with and realize how little desire you have to read Marley & Me in any form, let alone eBook.

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Revisiting Star Trek [Part 7 of 7]: The New Trek Reboot

[NOTE: This is the seventh essay in Pete Tzinski’s 7-part series leading up to the premiere of the new Star Trek film. See also: Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4, Part 5, and Part 6.]

(It’s the final countdown! Well, the rest of the week was the final countdown. It’s counted down now. The new film is upon us. There are lines outside of the theater, my cereal box has a cutout Star Trek poster on it (yes, I am cutting it out), I cannot go thirty seconds without seeing a commercial for the film, and I’ve been whistling the theme to The Next Generation all day. It’s make or break time. Let’s talk about the final piece of this week-long puzzle…)

It’s a big deal, this new Star Trek film, and one doesn’t have to be any sort of Trekkie to realize that. It’s a big deal that we’re starting over from scratch, replacing all the classic characters with new actors, changing how the Enterprise NCC-1701 looks, and rebuilding it all from the ground up, with a director who is a bit of a celebrity-director right now. It’s being treated as a big summer movie meant for everyone rather than just Star Trek fans.

It’s a big deal.

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Revisiting Star Trek [Part 6 of 7]: The Films

[NOTE: This is the sixth essay in Pete Tzinski’s 7-part series leading up to the premiere of the new Star Trek film. See also: Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4, and Part 5.]

(We’re nearly at the end here. Just this one, and another, article and then the new Star Trek picture is upon us and we will either be rejoicing, or going to our local bars and trying to drink it out of business. Personally, I’m holding out hope for the former option.)

After the original Star Trek series was canceled, it returned to us in movie-form long before we ever saw any new television series. All the way through the whole history of Star Trek, there have been movies, like sign posts on the trip. Up until now, we’ve had ten of them altogether – although that number is very shortly about to tick up to eleven. If I did an article about each movie at the lengths of the previous articles, you would kill me before I even finished with The Wrath of Khan. So I’m going to talk about all of the movies at a bit of a run. Mostly, I’m going to leave out the background and just talk about them and me. I hope you don’t mind. Let’s get to it.

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