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. 

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.


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.


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. 

Chaos and Aerodance Released

So, I wrote some books. Chaos Trims My Beard: A Fantasy Noir, and Aerodance: A Neon Space Opera- Episode 1: Pilots are now both available on Kindle and in paperback.

Chaos has been an active project in some form or another for almost five years. But that is what I get when I decided to make my first novel be a fantasy story, a mystery noir, and a dark comedy all in one. And now it's here and I very much hope you enjoy it. Towards the end of the book, there's a note from me that talks about some short stories/novellas coming out that expand the stories of Chaos (and Aerodance). Chaos's bonus story is well on its way and focuses on the origins of a certain young, air-headed woman and how she came to be in the position that she is by the time Chaos rolls around.

The other book, Aerodance, was born out of me asking myself if the glitzy, laser-saturated tone of 80's and 90's space cartoons and anime could possibly be captured in a novel. Episode 1: Pilots, was written like a TV pilot in that we're jumping all over the galaxy seeing character origins and following different locations, but pretty soon we're going to have a handful of people aboard a ship, being sort of a family while they sort of save the galaxy. I'm going to talk more about the Aerodance series and its release structure and whatnot soon, but for now, Episode 2: Through the Gates is coming out at the end of this month. The bonus story is going to focus on the origin of the series' main location, the Dragosa, and is going to be available here and in the mailing list in the next few weeks.