It's so easy to call something bad: An Arbitrary Review of The Orville S1:Ep1

Note: No writing updates today because it would basically just be "I am working on Hammer Squad. Editing is hard." Instead I'm going to ramble about the new Star Trek show, the one I'm actually excited for.

Just from flitting around Twitter last night, the general tv-watching crowd and the ivory tower critics who cover the medium seem to be leering at each other from across a vast expanse called The Orville. Under heavy, HEAVY promotion, Fox ran the pilot of Seth MacFarlane's new sci-fi vehicle—named after its most prominently featured vehicle—twice last night. There are echoes here of the premier of MacFarlane's original flagship Family Guy. The auspicious Sunday football lead-in, the relatively unique nature of the show for the current network-TV landscape, and the uneven nature of the pilot episode all harken back to our intro to MacFarlane's brand of creativity back in 1999.

But the pilot episode, "Old Wounds", was ravaged by critics before audiences had a chance at it. And taking a stroll over to the show's metacritic page shows a user review average score of more than double the one assigned by critics. And many of the negative reviews read like they can't wait to get in a pithy dig at MacFarlane himself, because he made Family Guy, and I don't know, it's not as good as it used to be. Cutaways are bad, or something. I AM A COMEDY CONSUMER AND I CLEARLY HAVE REFINED, BOUTIQUE TASTES.

But I'm not here to go to bat for Seth. MacFarlane the actor is actually the worst part of cast as it stands. He's just not very emotive, and in an episode that opens with him catching his wife in bed with some blue, forehead-gooping alien, there's room for a tour across a few different moods. Instead, we get schlubby, moderately affable, barely-fazed Captain Ed Mercer who responds to adultery, deadly laser fights, and orchestrating the death of entire starship's worth of enemy combatants with less emotion than the robot sitting to his right. This is MacFarlane's baby, yes, and I can see the through-line of thought where he'd want to have himself sitting in the captain's chair and engaging the quantum thrusters or whatever, but the show would be served with a better fictional captain.

Behind the producer's desk, though, MacFarlane's guidance of the show seems right on. Some of the jokes fell flat, but the upside is that this is very clearly not Family Guy in space. It's more like News Radio in The Next Generation. The pair of helmsmen/weapons officers that sit at the very Trekkie two-man console at the bridge's fore are more concerned about getting out of work on time and if they can have soda at their desk than they are about the alien ship trying to kill them. The second officer is a budget version of Drax the Destroyer and pretty much no one knows how to approach him with any humanity, but he's Assistant to the Regional Manager and is in charge when the Captain and Friends are away, so the rank and file accept his presence and idiosyncrasies. The science officer is a human-hating robot, but again, they're all stuck here working together. Where the show gets its legs and life though, is that beyond that clock-in clock-out texture, The Orvillie IS Star Trek: TGS. It's been beaten up for being a bad parody, but that tact misses the mark entirely. From the camera angles to the sound the doors make to the hard cut to the unexpectedly gruesome and sci-fi spectacle that is the episode's only on-screen death, The Orville goes way past homage and love letter and becomes a show that could have easily been happening in the same on-screen universe as the adventures of Picard and crew. The ships look a little different, and the Federation is the Union, but MacFarlane set out to make a 90's Star Trek show, and he did.

And that's the reason I'm excited for the rest of The Orville's first season. The tagline for the coming episodes preview was "Every week a new adventure!" and we don't really have that right now. Aside from murder-of-the-week police procedural shows, everything that exists with even a hint of drama is serialized and dark and gritty. Of course it's goofy that the senior officers stand at full extension in the middle of an open room with lasers whipping past as they calmly drop chitin-armored baddies with well-placed shots directly to the thickest parts of enemy armor. And it's silly that attractive-Klingon-esque girl Alara (with an "A" and not an "E" I'll point out, endlessly) is super strong and can leap WHOLE FOUNTAINS in a single bound. But I want a show where a too-smooth shuttle lands at an alien research station/Van Nuys office building parking lot and discovers a time-acceleration ray. Because it'll be forgotten about next week when they have to resolve a dispute for space oil fracking rights or something. The Orville is fun enough and light enough that it gets away with campy upbeat adventures. Maybe MacFarlane will put his considerable vocal and stage talent to work and become someone worth watching on camera, or maybe the show he's built around himself will be strong enough to sustain its episodic adventures in spite of it. And I'm glad next week's episode won't have had all of its jokes ruined by the endless previews.

It will be interesting to see how The Orville stands up in the face of an ACTUAL new Star Trek show in a few months, but at least I can watch this one without paying for yet another streaming service. 

Hammer Squad and beyond

Summer is winding down, and in the spirit of all the students scurrying back to school and engaging in the high octane deathmatch that is parking at literally any university, I too am taking a hard-charging approach to gridlock and am fixing to get out some fancy new books.

First on the docket, and very hopefully out by the end of September is Hammer Squad. I like the world that Chaos Trims My Beard established, and I wanted to write more in it but not in such a way that infringes on the ongoing stories of Edwayn and Venrick. In the glossary at the end of Chaos, there's a few entries that hint that all was most certainly not well in the intervening time between the Burst and the establishment of the relatively stable society on display in that story. Hammer Squad pulls us back to those first couple of generations after the cataclysm, when humans and dwarves and elves were all eying each other skeptically but maybe thinking about giving it a go together. 

The titular Hammer Squad is a dwarven special forces outfit led by Foreman Dundrear of Hardshoulder. He's full dwarf, a many-decades veteran of fighting above and below ground, and he keeps a few framing hammers up his sleeves just in case he gets separated from his bigger stuff. The story follows one of the first attempts at integrating the forces of the very different societies of elves and humans and dwarves, and I had a fun time crafting what is—at least in part—something like The Expendables but with magic and sledgehammers. It's a military fantasy thriller with covert operations, world-weary commanders, plucky recruits, big explosive showdowns, and some shadowy plotting to nefarious, conspiratorial ends. I hope that you find it fun in the way that Chaos was fun.

After that, we're looking at something totally different in The Shadow Net. It's 206X, and one-time corporate enforcer Lee Bishop is hired to find out why a recently dead socialite is suddenly active on everyone's social media feeds. Thrills! Near-future tech! Brooding! I've got a draft nearly done and then it'll get the polish and shine and be out a bit after Hammer Squad.

Beyond that, before the holidays, Aerodance 4 will get out and pull together the first arc of the Neon Space Opera, and the collection of the first four stories will be available as an e-book bundle. I've also got a massive pile of notes and drafted scenes that, when assembled, look something like the next Edwayn and Venrick story. I was hoping to have it out by summer as the very last page of Chaos advertises, but my brain comes up with good intentions while my fingers scream at all the typing they've suddenly been signed up for. More writing updates next Monday.

Arbitrarily Reviewed- Hard Luck Hank: Screw the Galaxy

Spoiler Disclaimer: The penultimate paragraph of this review makes explicit reference to a number of plot points in Hard Luck Hank: Screw the Galaxy. The book is worth a fresh read, so ignore that last bit if you haven't read the book yet. 

I came across this book on my own while browsing Amazon, and read the Kindle version under a Kindle Unlimited subscription. I have no connection to the author.

The first Hard Luck Hank book is the novel I point to when I get the question as to what spurned me to go from musing scribbler to actually finishing a book. I first read Steven Campbell's debut novel all the way back in 2013 and I was struck by the funny, genre-laden, pulpy thing and sped through it in a day or so. It was a week or so later that I took a hard look at various drafts on my computer with file names like "Fantasy Mage Detective: Breadlust" and started excising bits and pulling together a story that would eventually become Chaos Trims My Beard.

I enjoyed the book so much on that first read through—and found my own motivation after reading it—because I'd finally found a project that was complete, successful, and engaging and had a few trappings of my own nascent work. Now, whenever my own possibly-funny, off-angle genre benders with a dense, grumpy protagonist are giving me troubles, I pick up a HLH book to remind myself how stuff like this can work. I've read through Screw the Galaxy (and its FIVE sequels) a time or two each over the years.

The story lives and dies on Hank's broad mutant shoulders. Hank is generally human-shaped, but it's established almost on the first page that he is incredibly hard to hurt to the point where a hail of bullets would probably just bounce off his eyeball, Man of Steel style. Having a six or seven book series based off a protagonist who only really has to worry about suffocating to death seems like a hard hook, but Hank is just so damn compelling to hang out with. We're in his head, and following along with his first-person grumbling and world-weary musings as he pops those bullets out of his tear ducts and goes about his day. Hank is a working man that lumbers along the fuzzy line of illegality on the space station where he's lived for centuries. He gets called in to deal with uppity gangsters and simpering bureaucrats and has somehow made it his actually compensated business to make sure that a bunch of dumb idiots don't kill each other too bad while they're ripping each other off.

It's something that sounds like it shouldn't work—the impervious protagonist, his generally placating angle, and the overall lack of stakes early in the story—so it speaks to Campbell's tight prose that kept me gleefully hanging around. Hank is funny in a forcibly sardonic way, and the supporting cast is built up like a flawed office/workplace family. Everyone's stuck out here at the ass-end of the galaxy with nothing better to do than make a few extra credits and deal with each other, and the interplay of these various flawed-bordering-on-dangerous (sociopathic, in the case of Hank's mad scientist friend) characters generally works. 

The space station Belvaille feels like Space Los Angeles or some other sprawling metro, complete with massive civic towers, glitzy rows of casinos and nightclubs under the thumb of organized crime lords, and drug-addled slums. Some aliens have names that are an unpronounceable mess of consonants, and others are basically just wriggling piles of lavender spaghetti. Like all good sci-fi settings, it's one where any number of new creatures or pieces of tech could just pop up, but Campbell does a great job of every new thing feeling like it follows the laid-out rules. And if some new location or alien doesn't work, it's generally off-screen by the end of the chapter, and we're back to Hank grumbling. Or eating.

It would be an incomplete review to not mention that Hank would very much could eat his way through a George R. R. Martin novel's worth of feasts, though he mostly enjoys sandwiches. 

The writing—first person and squarely locked somewhere between Hank's ears—is tight. I have a weakness as a reader where I get super grumpy—super quickly—if I'm slogging through loosely constructed prose or a passage after passage of repetitively built sentences that start with "The" or "I". Hard Luck Hank doesn't fall into that category, and descriptions of characters, aliens, and places are evocative enough to get the gist without getting into overly specific breakdowns. Granular detail isn't something Hank himself is necessarily big on, so we don't have to trudge through it. The action is similarly well-done, and Hank takes a massive amount of punishment, though the more gruesome details of his pain are held from us at arms length much in the way the character likely experiences them.

As a personal wiggle with the way I read first person narration, I'm not super fond of exclamation marks during internal dialog/narration. I understand it as a way to convey a character's surprise or a sudden revelation, but I can't ever seem to properly internalize what my own mind shouting at me would be like. When I hit one I usually find myself going back and seeing what was so damn shocking in the first place, but that's me as a reader. It's a testament to how easily the prose flows here that something minor and occasional like that ranks among my specific complaints.

STORY SPOILERS BELOW

If there's one spot where Screw the Galaxy shows itself off as a debut book for both the author and the series, it's in the plotting. Chapters are short, and there's 60 or 70 of them, and for much of the book these individual scenes feel episodic. As soon as we meet Hank and his supporting cast and find out what they're all about, we spend a fair bit of time just following Hank around. Eventually some assassin robots start causing trouble on the station, and we meet a blue-bunny-eared femme fatale with a drug-addict brother who is more or less a god. By the time a planet-sized spaceship shows up and threatens the station and we meet its eternal, crystal-bodied occupant, so many little plots have sprung up, gone dormant, circled around, and been somewhat resolved that it's hard to feel like that this is the ultimate narrative we'd set out to see through from the beginning. The book exists somewhere between a slice of life story, some kind of moderate conspiracy thriller, and a disaster movie (that never gets to the disaster). By the end of it, if you enjoy Hank, you've enjoyed your ride. And you might also see why he's just so damn tired of dealing with all the nonsense all the time. It's good nonsense to be sure, and Campbell does manage to make most everything feel tied in eventually, but it's just a bit meandering in the getting there.

END SPOILERS

Hard Luck Hank: Screw the Galaxy is something different while still standing on a solid, accessible genre foundation. It's witty and well-imagined, and I pick up every new book in the series within days of its release. I've enjoyed at least two read-throughs of each book in this (currently) six-book series, and I absolutely wish there was more like it out there. 

Aerodance Episode 3, and everything else

Aerodance Episode 3: Baker is out for Kindle, paperback, and is free to read with KU and Prime. The entirety of Aerodance grew from the trope of pilots and the relationship they have with their aircraft. In real militaries, pilots go up in whatever plane they get assigned to that day, even if their name is painted on some other fuselage. Maintenance requirements, evening out flight hours, and all the rest of that logistical stuff that keeps aircraft and their operators safe and effective makes the notion of giving Major Chet Gunpass his very own 150 million dollar Raptor impractical to the point of impossibility. But I've always been taken with images like Poe Dameron's Black One halloween-painted X-Wing, and the Red Barron's iconic red Albatross and Fokker. Those aircraft are distinctly tied to those pilots, and maybe there were a bunch of stenciled TIE fighters or Camel's and SPADs painted onto their fuselages. I don't know, but I've always romanticized the trope, so Aerodance is, at least in part, about Tyto and "his" Edge. 

And Baker is so exciting and was so fun to write because it was finally time to dive into that relationship, and to start exploring how Tyto and his mysterious, potentially over-powered ship might factor into the brewing conflict at large. I hope you enjoy it.

Beyond all that, I want to blab about the next few months. It's summer, and I have a lot of time to write and a lot of stories I want to get out. Three seems like a good number of Aerodances to bite off at one time, so Episode 4 will be out in a few months. But I've got other fun stuff to write in the mean time. First up is a Blade Runner-Gibson-Dredd-Cyberpunk story called The Shadow Net. It takes place in Los Angeles a few decades in the future and follows Lee Bishop, a former corporate enforcer type, as he grapples with the notion of how all the data we post about ourselves online can almost take on a life and will of its own. After that, I'm eyeing something I'm calling Hammer Squad, which is probably best described as military-fantasy. It follows a few sledge-swinging, keg-toting dwarven warriors when they're assigned to a joint operation as part of a team with some men, elves, ratmen and some others. It takes place in the Chaos Trims My Beard universe, but decades before Edwayn and Venrick have their eventful weekend. After that, and after the long while that I've spent planning and plotting and coming up with more terrible puns through which to construct entire scenes around, I'm diving into Ratman Deux: Another Fantasy Noir.

Also, I'm working on something called Golem, which will be posted in chapters or substories here and other places for free.

Aerodance Episode 2: Through the Gates

The second episode of Aerodance, Through The Gates is now available on Kindle, the Unlimited/Prime lending library, and paperback.

It was a fun book to write, even if I spiraled in on myself in a lot of new and unusual ways in getting it done in a month. The book is longer than Pilots by about 12k words, though it didn't really hit me until I had the paperbacks in hand and compared them. I think I used the extra pages well, though. The (nearly assembled) crew of the Dragosa finds themselves in a bit of a bind with regards to getting off Tauro VI, and with the help of some new faces they set out to pull off something like a reverse starship heist. It's a weird term, but I hope you guys enjoy it.

Next month (or the end of this month, rather): Episode 3: Baker