A Thousand Words: Alien Vs. Predator Arcade

Alien Vs. Predator Arcade

Coming on the heels of my last post about beat ’em ups, one of the more interesting examples came from Capcom. The 1994 Alien Vs. Predator arcade game is fascinating. As a game, it has the same beautiful spritework you’d expect from a Capcom game of this time period. Its mixture of enemies is not exactly a bunch of street punks led by a well-dressed man with a gun.

But what the most interesting thing is is that it does what an adaptation needs to do. Granted, in many ways the setting tone is kind of incompatible with the game-you aren’t an outmatched human facing horrific, inhuman monsters, you’re beating up hordes of them en masse. But in terms of the pure essence, it distills all the convoluted lore into one simple goal. Humans reluctantly ally with monsters who sometimes want to kill them against both monsters who always want to kill them and a government/corporate conspiracy foolishly trying to use the latter monsters.

And this is done so well that Capcom could put a bubbly-voiced kounichi in and have it work.

 

 

Review: X-COM UFO Defense

X-COM UFO Defense

Video game novelizations do not have the best reputation. Keeping that in mind, how does Diane Duane’s work on the classic video game X-COM turn out?

The story of X-COM commander Jonelle Barrett running a base in Switzerland, Duane seems interested in making a huge effort to write about everything except fighting aliens. This by itself isn’t too bad. In terms of accuracy, X-COM, particularly the original, is as much about managing resources as it was battling the invaders. In terms of plausibility, no one’s going to be spending every waking moment shooting Sectoids. In terms of characterization, they shouldn’t be automaton spacesuit commandos.

And yet they basically are, for the book is about 95% pure padding. Descriptions of Swiss geography fill most of it, alongside what seems like an obligatory mention of every element in the game. The rest consists of half-hearted “she just looked at the names and wanted to get them over with” battles with redshirts that are every bit as expendable and forgettable as the actual minions one controls in the games. This is one of the most blatantly obvious “I did this for the money with no enthusiasm” books I’ve read.

Review: Edison’s Conquest of Mars

Edison’s Conquest of Mars

From energy guns to ancient aliens building ancient civilization megastructures, a lot of sci-fi tropes originated in Edison’s Conquest of Mars. Besides that, this book is fascinating because of how min-max it is. A sequel to War of the Worlds bootlegs (it’s a bit of a long story), author Garrett Serviss made-something.

On one hand, the prose is terrible and flat even by 19th Century standards. It’s a self-promoting effort by the title character/famous person. The plot goes against Wells’ theme to a ridiculous extent. The most ridiculous elements seem mundane when actually described. It was originally a short-form serial and it shows in the writing.

And yet so much of the sci-fi cheap thriller was started, or at least popularized here. This, is very much like seeing a video game or movie that’s at the very, very beginning of its genre. It looks horrifically crude in comparison to its later successors, but you have to start somewhere.

Review: Foundation

Foundation

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Now I can add Isaac Asimov to the list of famous authors reviewed on Fuldapocalypse, and what better book than his masterpiece, Foundation?

I’m somewhat leery of reviewing massively successful books by famous authors. A part of me has this guarded “it can’t possibly be as good as they say” feeling, and I like giving more obscure stories a platform. But I felt I had to.

The story of the decaying empire and genuis Hari Seldon’s plan is very Shakespearean. By which I mean it’s a well-done story that nonetheless has gotten retroactively treated as something a lot more highbrow than it was upon first release. This isn’t a mere spacesuit commando book, but it’s still much closer to Ken Bulmer than it is to Stephen Baxter.

And while this isn’t Asimov’s fault, a lot of this is dated. There’s the obvious, like treating “nuclear power” as some kind of super-technology. There’s the historical conceits, like taking Edward Gibbon’s view of ancient Rome too closely. Then there’s the central premise of a triumphant technocratic process, the sort of thing embodied most by… Robert McNamara.

Yet I don’t want to come across as too negative. This is very readable, and it’s been so influential for science fiction that seeing where a lot of the tropes became popularized is also fun. This is a “classic” I do recommend.

Review: The Delian Cycle

The Delian Cycle

The quality of Kenneth Bulmer’s “Delian Cycle” of Dray Prescot novels (I got the omnibus edition) can be described in this anecdote. I dove straight through all 27 Survivalists with ease. To get through the five individually shorter Prescots took me considerably more effort. The question is…. why? I know I’ve explained my frustrations in my review of the second installment, but they deserve elaboration. After all, it’s not like I’ve had objections to reading similarly shallow cheap thrillers before.

The biggest reason is the prose, which is incredibly overwrought. It’s very hard to get through and takes away from whatever feelings the action might generate. Bulmer is seemingly never satisfied to use one paragraph to describe something when he can use three, and throw in another made-up word or ten while he’s at it. Still, if I can read Mike Lunnon-Wood, I can read him.

Then there’s the action, which labors under the horrendous prose and is just so constant that it becomes mundane. This is another reason, and it’d be a perfectly good reason. After all, cheap thrillers need to be good with action. But the action still isn’t the worst.

Another issue is the setting. The worldbuilding consists of nothing but throwing out so many names that the omnibus needs a giant glossary at the end, yet all it accomplishes is the creation of a sword and planet theme park, with the “exotic” names and airships and places being pushed so hard they lose any appeal. But it’s not like a bad setting is an absolute turn-off in a genre that depends on execution.

No, I think the biggest problem is the artificial nature of it. The books always involve Prescot getting teleported in and out by the MacGuffin People Star Lords. To use so blatant a setup would be bad, but what makes it worse is that they’re written in a kayfabe “Prescot has narrated this on cassette tapes to Alan Burt Akers [Bulmer’s pen name]” style. What turns this from a gimmick into a flaw is that the tapes are used as get-out-of-trouble cards where-not infrequently during a dramatic moment-Bulmer will just say “and then the tapes are missing, but Prescot clearly got out of it”.

I maintain a weird curiosity for the series, but it’s not very good.

Review: The Suns of Scorpio

The Suns Of Scorpio

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A while ago on Fuldapocalypse, I reviewed the first of Kenneth Bulmer’s Dray Prescot “sword and planet” novels, Transit to Scorpio. That was at least somewhat fun. The second novel, The Suns of Scorpio, is less fun and more pretentious. And after only one book, the novelty of the setting has definitely worn off.

The setting is about a continent wide and a millimeter deep. This wouldn’t be such a problem if it was supposed to be mundane (ie, a world with a convenient near-endless supply of mobsters for Mack Bolan to kill) but it’s intended to be “exotic” and “awe-inspiring”. What it comes across as is nothing more than a literary version of the kind of trashy sword and sandal movie you’d see on Mystery Science Theater. By trying to be more than it is, the setting turns into less than it is.

Of course, the setting and concept are all secondary to the execution in this kind of work. And here it fails even more crucially. Bulmer’s prose is ridiculous without being ridiculously fun. To call it purple would be an incredibly horrific understatement. Yet it really isn’t that exciting. It should be, but it isn’t, since Bulmer just overdoes everything. Especially the descriptions.

To top it off, The Suns of Scorpio ends on a cliffhanger that brings the artificiality of the setting to full force. I’ll just say that after reading this, I knew why the sword and planet genre declined so much in popularity.

(As an aside, with 52 entries completed before Bulmer’s death, Dray Prescot is one of those individual series that far outstrips the entire “conventional WWIII” niche in terms of quantity).

Review: Never Die Twice

Never Die Twice

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Mark Jones’ Never Die Twice is the first book in the Reaper Force: Viper series, detailing the adventures of cybernetically enhanced heroine Natalie Nicks. With short chapters and simple prose that reminded me of Sidney Sheldon of all people, it’s not the most technically adept book. Even by cheap thriller standards.

What it is, however, is a fun book. It lands on the sci-fi end of the technothriller spectrum, with a lot of “just barely sorta a little kinda maybe slightly plausible” technology. I’ve used the “homemade apple strudel” analogy before to describe something that you know isn’t the most well constructed, but is still quite enjoyable. And this definitely fits the bill. I mean, the book has a line about pitting humans against grizzly bears in races. Its backstory is basically that of The Bionic Woman. What’s not to like?

Review: Drakon

Drakon

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The fourth book in the Draka series, Drakon is the story of the Draka utterly triumphant, having bioengineered humanity into master and servant subspecies-in one universe, with only the descendants of those who escaped the “Final War” to stand against them. Too bad homo drakenis Gwendolyn Ingolfsson got sucked through a wormhole experiment into the then-present. She plots to take over the world for the Draka, with only a strange cast of people from multiple universes to stop her.

This isn’t really alternate history, even in the most fleeting sense. It’s pure cheesy science fiction, a “fight the Terminator-Predator-Amazon” story. Drakon is as sleazy as it’s cheesy, with Stirling never missing a chance to throw in a lurid detail. And while it works as a turn-your-brain-off “51% book”, there are some legitimate and serious flaws.

First, it doesn’t have, say, Jon Land’s sense of buildup. Too much is revealed too fast, and the residual baggage of the alternate history background burdens it even more. Second, the conclusion is an utter clunker. That is to say, it’s a simultaneously confusing and rushed mess of escalation that ends with a contrivance and ridiculously obvious setup for a sequel that understandably never came. Third, the only interesting character is Ingolfsson herself, and even she could be done a lot better.

Take away the fandom controversy and the legitimately distinct (however dubious) alternate history that made up the first three installments, and all you have is, as I’ve said before, tawdry fiction that, while not unreadable or unenjoyable, wouldn’t really stand out.

Review: The Awakening

The Awakening

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The tenth Survivalist book, The Awakening is when the series changes significantly. Having spent centuries in suspended animation to ride out a world-consuming fire wave underground, the Rourkes now emerge to take stock of the changes and aid the space-launched Eden Project as it prepares to return. John Rourke ages his children by selectively thawing and refreezing them so that they can be the same age as the adults when they wake up, and they emerge into a world where human life still exists.

This book, if I had to reedit/adapt the Survivalist series, probably wouldn’t even exist at all. I’d probably fold the recovery and the Eden Project return into an epilogue to Book 9 at worst and a few extra chapters at best, and then conclude the series there. But in actual history, the books were selling enough to continue and Ahern finally had the ability to make them more and more science fiction-y.

While the Survivalist series was never a “hard” setting to begin with (after all, the nuclear war caused multiple states to tumble into the ocean), here begins an even more contrived setup. There was an underground shelter. And another underground shelter. And another underground city. And an underwater city! It’s very much like a Bethesda Fallout game where there’s a lot of conveniently working stuff laying around centuries after the war, and it becomes a more obvious author’s toy with each new book after this.

(Later there will be a second timeskip that will obliterate the last traces of any post-apocalyptic residue in the setting, but that’s another story)

The actual book itself is more satisfactory Jerry Ahern action, but this is still the time when the series jumped the shark.

 

A Thousand Words: They Saved Hitler’s Brain

They Saved Hitler’s Brain

This movie is probably best remembered for its title-the originally shipped one the “The Madmen of Mandorus” is not nearly as clear or memorable. In that movie, the Nazis, facing defeat, cut off Hitler’s head while keeping it alive, fly it out of the country, and keep it safe in the fictional Mandorus until they can launch their evil plot to take over the world with poison gas.

Besides the title, there are two more things that make this movie stand out. The first is, of course, the novelty of Hitler’s head in what looks like a glass cake container. The second is what turned it from “The Madmen of Mandorus” to its most famous name.

The movie needed to be lengthened for TV, so an additional, completely unrelated opening act was filmed with UCLA film students. Since pop culture and film technology had changed so much in the few years, it stands out dramatically. All that amounts to in terms of actual plot  is a bunch of people with bad post-Sgt. Pepper Beatles mustaches getting in and out of cars before they all die. Then the actual movie starts, and, barring the Hitler Head, is a conventionally bad B-movie. It’s very stupid all around, but it’s the kind of distinctive “fun-stupid” that’s enjoyably bad.