Microsoft Biographies

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Bill Gates recently produced a documentary series about himself called “Inside Bill’s Brain” on Netflix. Predictably it was self aggrandizing propaganda. But it reminded me that I had bought a few books about the tech overlords who now rule us and, as I was laid up after a procedure for a while, it was a good time as any to dig in.

Bill Gates and the Making of the Microsoft Empire
by James Wallace, Jim Erickson

This is a highly recommended biography of the man behind the corporate juggernaut Microsoft, a company that found a way to lease the only essential program needed to run a computer to nearly every user in the world. In 1976 and 1980, Congress allowed the copyrighting of software and this law is how Gates became the richest man alive. Gates owned DOS and later Windows, which because of cheap IBM clones became the standard. Therefore anyone who made software had to pay the Microsoft toll to get on Windows or DOS. Microsoft also made applications. Hmm I wonder if owning the platform they would run on would give them a competitive advantage? Of course it did, that’s why they destroyed WordPerfect with Microsoft Word, VisiCalc and Lotus 123 with Microsoft Excel, and on and on. Yet somehow they were never broken up. They most famously destroyed Netscape by including a free web browser with Windows.

So what’s in Bill’s brain according to authors Wallace, Erickson and Paul Allen biographer Laura Rich? One word: greed. He is one of the greediest businessmen in history and that’s saying something. But what’s inside Bill’s brain is not the focus of the story or at all the most interesting part. The rise of the PC and software industry is.

For anyone who enjoyed the documentary “Triumph of the Nerds” you will really enjoy this book. Meticulously researched and written like a novel, it’s a real page turner. The authors manage to end every chapter on a cliffhanger. The story of how Microsoft came to be is fascinating. The reason why Bill Gates and Paul Allen got there first was simply because it was their hobby at the perfect time. Once they realized that there hobby could make money (and a fuckton of it), they jumped at the chance.

Bill Gates, being a silver spoon fed rich kid, didn’t ever have to worry about putting food on the table so he could go all in and move to whatever town was at the epicenter of the PC. In the beginning it was in Albuquerque, New Mexico. His parents had the connections, his partner Paul Allen had the idea and programming expertise, and Bill had the drive to destroy competitors and become a king. He wasn’t interested in girls, he wasn’t interested in booze or fun. He was interested in winning. There really is little to admire about him, except maybe his work ethic and business know-how. But being a workaholic is really seen more as a vice, not a virtue. He forced everyone around him to work 12-14 hour days or even to just live in their office as he did. Just so he could destroy so-so potential competitor.

The book was written before Gates became a media darling philanthropist. It ends when he was at his height around the release of Windows 95. But Gates philanthropy is a smokescreen. For all he’s donated, he’s still at the top of the billionaires club. His investments make him so much money that he can give away billions and still make it all back. There’s Bill Gates – the image he made for himself and then there’s the real Bill Gates – the evil, manipulative bully who got lucky.

5 anti-trust lawsuits outta 5

And then there’s his former partner…

Demystifying Paul Allen
By Laura Rich

A shorter book about a less interesting career, Rich’s “Zillionaire” actually takes a lot of it’s info about the early days of Microsoft from “Hard Drive.” But unlike that book, this is not about the history of Microsoft. This is an exposé on the hard to pin down co-founder and then mysterious venture capitalist cable tycoon, Paul Allen. This is a story about a wasted life and wasted potential. Other than one moment of brilliance, Paul Allen never amounted to much despite being one of the richest men alive. Allen is now dead from cancer. His moment was when he saw an issue of Popular Electronics magazine with a photo of the Altair 8800 (the first PC) on the cover. He knew that the day had finally come. No more would hobbyists or businesses have to deal with room-size mainframes the way he and Gates did in high school. This was the moment when the PC revolution began and that PC would need a programming language. He knew that whomever got their first would get the prize.

Both Allen and Gates worked on this first version of BASIC, but it was Allen who was the lead and one who flew to Albuquerque alone to run it on the Altair for the first time. He finished writing the code by hand on a napkin on the flight down. And it worked. He couldn’t believe that it did, and the Microsoft Empire was born.

Allen was much better liked by early MS employees than the slovenly Gates would often didn’t shower and enjoyed yelling and screaming at the top of his lungs. Gates was a spoiled little prince but Allen grew up middle class and had a little more… well class. But he left MS after only eight years due to his cancer diagnosis and the brutal workload imposed by Gates and never came back. Once Microsoft went public he became richer than God and as a result he changed.

Allen dedicated the rest of his life to luxury and decadence, building the biggest yachts on Earth and throwing parties that were compared to the days of Roman Emperors. He threw his money at failing business after failing business, losing billions. The one post-Microsoft Empire he managed to build was Charter Communications, but even they ended up being a loss in the end. He called himself “The Idea Man” but he only had one really good idea. Nothing he ever did compared to his prescience about the PC industry. Like Gates, he completely missed the internet boat.

I found it a bit sickening that his obituaries praised him for putting so much money into his sports teams and into his hometown of Seattle. He did it serve himself and never protested that he didn’t. If others benefited from his lavish spending it was by accident. There really is nothing to admire about Paul Allen. At least Bill Gates had a photographic memory and naturally high intelligence. Allen could have done something amazing with this king-like wealth, but now it’s in the hands of his sister and her descendants, so just another worthless dynasty.

That said, this book was also a fun read, but it’s more of a personality profile or exposé, less of a history book.

4 super yachts outta 5

The Winds of War (1983) *****

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TL;DR The mini-series actually stands up better than the book IMO. See below for more.

Perhaps it’s the age I live in, but I don’t have much time for thousand page novels anymore. They were a relic of the ‘70s and ‘80s before we had video games that you didn’t get bored of after a few minutes and before the VCR and cable really took hold. Killing time with a long book was a good thing. But now we want our stories to get to the point and fast. Wouk was famous enough at the time that he could write whatever the hell he wanted to and it would get published. Therefore he did very little editing to The Winds of War, despite the fact that at over a thousand pages, he only got to the Pearl Harbor attack. I feel that he could have easily cut 300 pages, and by reading modern reviews on, many others agree with me. In particular the character of Natalie Jastrow and the many chapters devoted to her could mostly be eliminated without harming the story. She is just a plot device, a way to show what was happening in Poland and Italy before the U.S. entered the war, and as the token Jew. The main character “Pug” Henry is a devout Christian. Even though she’s supposed to be intelligent, her actions in the novel are anything but. Pug’s youngest son, Byron “Briny” Henry isn’t much better but he is at least a foil for his stodgy by-the-book father. 

In the mini-series Natalie Jastrow is played by the then 45 year old Ali MacGraw and Briny is played by the then 39 year old Jan-Michael Vincent. They are supposed to be 26 and 22 respectively. Interestingly both MacGraw and Vincent were discovered by talent agents for their good looks and plucked from obscurity into a career in Hollywood and for MacGraw it was overnight stardom. She was honored with a spot in front of Mann’s Chinese Theater with only three film credits. For Vincent it took about ten years working on films and TV shows before The Winds of War became his breakthrough role. It lead directly to his casting as the lead in the TV action series Airwolf. The show ended up being canceled because of his out of control drinking. That is why you never heard much from him after that. Nobody wanted to deal with his antics and Dan Curtis did not rehire him for the sequel. It’s quite sad as Vincent had real star quality. Ali MacGraw’s performance was widely panned, her age was indeed noticed by viewers and she also did not return and was replaced by Jane Seymour (who lobbied for the part) in War and Remembrance.

I actually did not find MacGraw’s performance to be that bad, she was just wildly miscast. Who in their right mind would get a 45 year old woman to play a 26 year old girl? It makes no sense except that MacGraw was an aging star and was still covered in the tabloids because of her high profile marriages. Fading star power was the same reason why Curtis cast an over-the-hill Robert Mitchum as Pug. Mitchum is great as the lead character, however he’s just too old. Pug is supposed to be an in-shape driven man in his early fifties. Mitchum was 66 at the time and badly out of shape. In a scene where Pug is supposed to display his tennis prowess, Mitchum is clearly wearing a girdle to suck in his huge gut. But that said, his casting was nowhere near as offensive or distracting as MacGraw’s. 

Curtis makes up for those errors with brilliant casting for most of the secondary characters. Especially when it came to historical figures, he nailed it. He smartly cast actors who had previously played those parts in either plays, movies, or TV shows in the past. Ralph Bellamy is great as FDR, little known British character actor Howard Lang does a commendable Churchill, and German character actor Günter Meisner turned in a truly memorable tongue-rolling portrayal of the Fuhrer. Two other actors stood out. One was Polly Bergen as Pug’s wife. She was nominated for an Emmy for her portrayal of Rhonda Henry and had previously starred with Robert Mitchum in the original Cape Fear. But the real standout performance to me was British actress Victoria Tennant as Pug’s much younger mistress Pamela Tudsbury. Although it’s nearly inconceivable that such a young attractive woman would fall in love with a grizzled overweight and married old man her emotions seemed so genuine and real. It’s a shame that she never really was known for anything other than the two Wouk mini-series, but she does get much more screen time in the follow-up. Tennant though was probably also miscast as she was 32 at the time and was supposed to be playing ten years younger. 

One more casting win was the stunningly gorgeous Lisa Eilbacher as Pug’s daughter, who is probably most famous for losing out to Carrie Fisher for the role of Princess Leia in Star Wars. I’ll put the video of her audition below. I can see why George Lucas was stuck deciding between these two because either one would have been good. And much like Fisher, Eilbacher’s career never really went anywhere past the early eighties. Her only notable film role was Beverly Hills Cop.

As most of you probably know Wouk’s story is about America right before it’s entry into WWII. Most of the characters are fictional but they interact with real historical figures. Pug just happens to meet FDR, Hitler, Mussolini, Churchill and even Stalin in the same year. Unlikely to say the least, but it provides a very wide view of the war and all of its participants. The book and mini-series truly can be defined by the word EPIC.

One facet that makes the book better than the series are the fascinating chapters “written” by the fictional German general Armin von Roon as he sat in prison after the war. Pug Henry “translates” the work and provides commentary. To me, these are the best chapters in both novels and the most fun to re-read. By providing a German view of the war Wouk can really see things from a different angle and makes some very salient points. 

I am just praising the series a bit more here because it’s just such an incredible accomplishment. Never before had a book been so faithfully rendered in film. No wonder because Wouk himself wrote the teleplay. Here are just a few facts from Wikipedia to give one an idea of the scope of this project:

– The series consists of 7 episodes and has a runtime of 14 hours 40 minutes.
– The 962-page script contained 1,785 scenes and 285 speaking parts.
– The production involved 4,000 camera setups and shot a million feet of exposed film.
– The estimated budget was very large for its time, $38 million ($120 million in 2017 dollars).
– The production had a 206-day shooting schedule and came in four days ahead of schedule.
– The series was shot at 404 locations in Europe, California and Washington state over 14 months.

Even though Curtis had a huge budget and over a year to shoot, you have to give him credit for getting in done ahead of schedule. The series is a bit dated now but I thoroughly enjoyed it and found it to be very binge-worthy and addictive. Besides the unbelievability of Ali MacGraw, the main other problem is the 4:3 aspect ratio. We are so used to widescreen TVs now that seeing a cinematically shot film presented as a square is annoying. Curtis did shoot it like a film, not a television series, so he often has two actors on screen at the same time for over-the-shoulder shots and such. But it often looks like the two characters are close enough to kiss because of the tight framing. Additionally the locations and 1940’s set design really deserved the widescreen treatment. It’s a real shame that this series has never been remastered on blu-ray with 5.1 surround sound. Equally shameful, it is not available on Netflix or Amazon to stream. I watched the DVDs which is the best way to experience it at this point. But all 7 episodes are on YouTube (with a bit too much compression) but they’re watchable (link below). 

So while both the series and the book deserve to be revisited I would personally skip the long-winded novel and get right to the series. It covers all of the major plot points of the book and keeps the dialogue virtually word for word. It is one of the best WWII films ever made (if you view it as a film). It would be a great introduction to the reasons for the war for someone who was just learning about it.

”The mini-series form is the best storytelling vehicle there is. It is the only one that allows you to tell a story the way it should be told.” A prescient quote from Dan Curtis back in 1988. 

It has its flaws (mostly with casting) but I have to give this amazing series a 5 outta 5. The music is great, the locations and cinematography are top notch, and it really blew away anything else on TV in 1982. The series won Emmy’s for cinematography, costumes, and visual effects. That is another thing that is a bit dated: the model shots of ships and bombers are of course models, not CGI, but I thought that they looked awesome for the time personally. It’s really only the scale of the water that really gives them away. 

YouTube playist

Avengers – Infinity War/Endgame ****

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The inclusion of so many characters from so many movies is impressive as hell as are the VFX in both films. It’s difficult to imagine Marvel, or any other studio, making a more epic crossover. That said, I have two main criticisms.

The Infinity Gauntlet was one of my favorite crossovers when I was a kid. It was basically meant to be Marvel’s version of The Crisis on Infinite Earths. It ended up not being as good, but did sell very well and used the same artist from Crisis, George Perez. The movies were a nice nod to the story but didn’t follow it. Thanos’ motivation, for instance, in Infinity War makes zero sense. Apologists have used the excuse “Well he IS crazy,” but that’s not good enough. He couldn’t be stupid enough to think that killing only half of all life would cure overpopulation for more than a couple of decades. Since I have been alive the world human population has nearly doubled. So in 50 years all of his work will have been undone. If Thanos did painlessly kill every sentient in the universe then he would ironically become the greatest hero of all time as he would have ended all current suffering and all future suffering. 

Image result for death marvel universe thanos comic

In the books he chose half because it would be an impressive amount of beings to kill without really devastating the order of things. He did it to impress an unimpressable woman, the female personification of Death. It would have been much more interesting to go that way. 

The deaths in Endgame were so obviously used as a way to get rid of expensive cast members, so the three heroes who died were unsurprising and expected. But the worst idea they had was how to handle Cap’s exit. 

Cap is another character who I have been following since childhood and one thing that he is not is a goddamn quitter. It’s the same problem I had with Nolan’s third Batman film: he not only quits being Batman once, but TWICE in the same movie! Bruce Wayne and Steve Rogers are very similar characters in many ways. They are both idealists and neither one of them ever married. There is a reason for that: RESPONSIBILITY. As in, “With great power…” you know, the most famous line Stan Lee ever wrote.

For some reason the writers of the movie and the directors cannot even agree on what happened. Either Cap created an alternate timeline where he could settle down and none of this ever happened or he went back in the current timeline and just sat around watching TV while Bucky was being tortured in Russia. So that would mean that he just let all this happen again and did nothing. That is just not acceptable if we know Cap to be a courageous, self-sacrificing superhero. Key word “super.” He’s not a normal soldier. He doesn’t relax while evil exists. He doesn’t retire. He doesn’t quit to grow old in peace and quiet. Because there can be no peace until evil is wiped out and that’s a war that’s never-ending.

Miracleman by Alan Moore *****

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The first question you might ask is “Who the hell is Miracleman?” That is a loaded question. I will break it down as simply as I can, but the fact that there is an entire book dedicated to explaining where this character came from shows how convoluted the history is. In fact, this character has the most unique and litigious history of any superhero character ever.

1939: Fawcett Publications, in an attempt to capitalize on the success of National Publications “Superman” created a team of six superheroes each with the power of a Greek god. An executive at Fawcett suggested that the team of six should be combined into one character who would have all six of the teams super powers. Thus “Captain Thunder” was born in the pages of “Flash Comics” #1.

1940: To their dismay Fawcett soon realized that they did not have the rights to “Captain Thunder” or “Flash Comics” and had to rename their creation “Captain Marvel” and their comic book to “Whiz Comics.” Whiz Comics #2 is considered to be the first appearance of Captain Marvel, now known to us as “Shazam” which is an acronym for all of the Captain’s powers taken from the mythological characters Solomon, Hercules, Atlas, Zeus, Achilles and Mercury. Captain Marvel is in reality 12 year old Billy Batson, a homeless orphan who is chosen by the 3,000 year old wizard Shazam “for being pure of heart” to continue his fight against evil. The wizard tells Billy that he need only say the word “SHAZAM!” and he will be given the powers of the gods.

1948: Captain Marvel became the best-selling comic book of the 1940s. Many issues sold over 1 million copies. Numbers unheard of today. Naturally this irked National (now known as DC Comics) who thought that Captain Marvel too closely resembled their hero Superman. So they sued Fawcett and after years of litigation they killed the character. Captain Marvel and Fawcett’s entire comic book division ceased to exist by 1953. DC would eventually buy Fawcett’s catalog of characters in the ’70s.

1954: While Captain Marvel sales had declined in the U.S., the character was still a big hit in England, where reprints of American comics were very popular. Unwilling to let this cash cow die out, British publisher Mick Anglo was able to make new stories by changing the character’s name to “Marvelman” and redesigning his costume. These comics were published until 1963 and were much beloved by the British audience, especially making an impression on a lower-class kid from Northampton named Alan Moore.

1982: A new British black and white superhero anthology comic called Warrior began publication in 1982 and it was decided to bring back Marvelman for a new audience. Warrior publisher Dez Skinn had a hard time finding a writer/artist team who were interested in the character. The black and white comics of the ’50s were considered to be cheap trash for children by the ‘80s. But then Skinn heard of an unknown writer who would “give his eye teeth” to write Marvelman. Famous British artists Brian Bolland and Dave Gibbons (who would later go on to draw Watchmen) turned it down so the art duties went to Garry Leach and an upcoming artist named Alan Davis. The first part of what would become one of the greatest sagas in superhero comics was published as black and white serial stories in Warrior. Moore ended up feuding with his publisher (a common theme in his career) and the rights were sold off to American publisher Eclipse Comics.

1985: Eclipse reformatted, relettered, and colored Moore’s original stories from Warrior and then hired him to complete the story.  The character also got a new name to avoid litigation from Marvel Comics. He was now “Miracleman,” but in essence he was still the same Captain Marvel who debuted in 1941. Three new artists (Chuck Austen, Rick Veitch and John Totleben) were hired to complete the work. The story ran until issue #16.

1990: Writer Neil Gaiman started to write a new story arc for Eclipse after Moore’s departure but the company went bankrupt in 1994. But the fact is Moore’s arc is a complete story. There was no need to continue it. So even though Gaiman’s story ends on a cliffhanger, his run was poor and unnecessary compared to Moore’s with ugly artwork by Mark Buckingham. But it did link Gaiman to the character which lead to…

1996: Todd McFarlane purchased the rights to Eclipse Comics thinking that he would also be getting the rights to Miracleman. He thought wrong, but that didn’t stop him from putting the character in his Spawn comics and making the only Miracleman action figure (packaged with Spawn of course).

2001: Neil Gaiman formed a company, Marvels and Miracles LLC, solely to clear up the ownership of Miracleman long-term. In court it was discovered that McFarlane nor Eclipse Comics owned the rights to Marvelman, but they remained with his original British creator Mick Anglo.

2009: At the San Diego Comic Con Marvel Comics announced that they had purchased the rights to Miracleman/Marvelman from Mick Anglo. Since 2010 they have been reprinting classic ‘50s Marvelman stories as well as Alan Moore’s ‘80s run, with improved lettering and coloring. In a bizarre move Alan Moore requested that his name be removed from the reprints, citing a hatred of Marvel Comics over past slights. So if you buy a reprint now it says merely “The Original Writer.”

It is a shame as Moore deserves credit for what is perhaps the finest superhero story I have ever read, besides Batman Year One, The Dark Knight, and Watchmen. This story was an end of innocence for superheros and beginning of what was later called “The British Invasion” of American comics. It was the most adult superhero story that had been told up to that point, making Marvel’s stuff look like low brow kid’s stuff. Moore realized that Marvelman was aimed at young children and most of the old stories could not be seriously read by an adult. The storytelling was ridiculous and over the top, yet he didn’t want to start anew, he needed to acknowledge that history.

What he did was shear brilliance. Instead of being a little boy chosen by a magic wizard, Billy Batson (renamed Michael Moran) was a guinea pig in a government experiment to create a god-like soldier with alien technology. But it was realized that he was too powerful so he was kept unconscious with all of his memories of his ‘50s adventures being implanted by comic book reading scientists.

Moore picks it up in the ‘80s where Michael Moran has no memory of his time as Miracleman and is an out of shape 40-something reporter. While at a nuclear power plant on an assignment he sees the word “atomic” written backwards, he says it aloud “KIMOTA!” and he is transformed into the 20-something god-like being Miracleman once again.

In the first arc Moore shows what it would be like if Captain Marvel never said the word “Shazam!” again and also (through the sidekick Kid Miracleman) what it would be like if Captain Marvel stayed as his superhero form, never reverting back to Billy Batson for decades. He also graphically shows us what would happen if a man with the power of Shazam was chaotic evil instead of lawful good. Moore wanted to make his story as realistic as he possibly could and there was no editor to stop him as their would have been at DC Comics.

“There is a passion here, but not human passion. There is fierce and desperate emotion, but not an emotion that we would recognize… They are titans, and we will never understand the alien inferno that blazes in the furnace of their souls. We will never grasp their hopes, their despair, never comprehend the blistering rage that informs each devastating blow… We will never know the destiny that howls in their hearts, never know their pain, their love, their almost sexual hatred… And perhaps we will be the less for that.”   – Alan Moore, Miracleman Chapter 5

In other words, Miracleman is a god, just like Superman. For either of these beings to put on a tie and glasses and go to work like a normal human being is ridiculous. It doesn’t take long for Michael Moran to completely forget about his past life. He is not a man anymore. He has the power to make the world a better place and if it requires becoming dictator of Earth then he will do it. This is a comic book that rivals Herbert in it’s philosophy, science, and musings on the human condition.

It took me until Marvel finally secured the rights to be able to read it all because it’s been out of print for years. When it originally came out I was too young to read something this adult. Now was as good of a time as any because this story is timeless. The only thing I can complain about a bit is the art. As mentioned the best artists working at the time turned it down. Alan Moore was a nobody back then. Also the first series was drawn for black and white publication. Coloring work like that is kind of like coloring an old black and white film, it’s not the way it was meant to be seen by the people who created it. But that said, much of the artwork is beautifully detailed and elegantly arranged.

Despite the fact that there was a huge legal battle for the character, nothing has really been done with him since. He is just a carbon copy of DC’s Shazam and Marvel has their own female Captain Marvel now. But the main reason, I believe, is that Moore tied up his story. There was really no where to go from there. Gaiman’s issues that followed Moore’s read like an extended epilogue more than anything. Moore’s work reached such a grand height that it makes anything that will follow it seem like a step down.

5 Miracles Outta 5

Miracleman by Alex Ross

A Christmas Memory (1966) *****

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My Xmas movie this year was A Christmas Memory based on the short story by Truman Capote. It was first aired as a 1 hour TV movie on ABC in 1966 and is narrated by Capote himself.

I didn’t even know that this movie existed until I found out that one of my co-workers is also a Capote fan and he gave me a DVD of it. It is based on Capote’s own childhood, where his parents were usually absent and he ended up being raised by his cousins. In this case, a mentally immature cousin who is about 50 years his senior. Since they are both childlike they get along famously.

I don’t know for sure what it is about Capote’s writing but I started to well up with tears almost immediately. This story was published in the same volume as his more famous story “Breakfast at Tiffany’s.” That story as well makes me strive to hold myself together for some reason. I think it’s the way Capote describes friendship and how fragile it can be. After all (like romantic relationships) every friendship will also end someday, one way or another. The narrator in “Breakfast at Tiffany’s” actually has a platonic relationship with Holly Golightly in the book (as he is gay) so it’s a story of friends, not lovers, as portrayed in the film. A similar relationship exists in this movie. Buddy (a stand in for Capote) looks up to his older, wiser, more experienced female friend. But when he notices her defects and mental breakdowns he loses a part of his childhood innocence and is forced to grow up.

It’s an old TV movie so take that for what it is. My wife had a hard time getting into it for that reason. Perhaps because I am familiar with the source material, I liked it better than someone who is not. I watched the original black and white version, but it has since been colorized. Probably the only thing that has not aged so well are the sound effects and recorded dialogue. But the original music still sounds great.

I haven’t cried from a movie like this in a long time. I don’t know if that’s just me or not but if you are looking for a sentimental film to watch next December, you could do worse.

5 Paper Kites Outta 5

Darth Maul: Shadow Hunter by Michael Reaves ***

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Shadow Hunter is a prequel to The Phantom Menace and leads directly into the events of that film.

A Neimoidian from the Trade Federation has decided to betray Darth Sidious (Senator Palpatine) and sell some information about the plan to blockade Naboo. As someone in the underworld could profit handsomely from this knowledge, he escapes to the capital planet of Coruscant with a “holocron” a data crystal which becomes the MacGuffin of this tale. Sidious tasks his apprentice to retrieve it no matter the cost as the Neimoidian could spoil his delicate plans to overthrow the Republic and become Emperor.

Standing in Maul’s way is a Correllian scam artist named Lorn Pavan, his droid sidekick Eye-Five, and a Jedi Padawan named Darsha Assant. Pavan is a good character although he is too close to Han Solo in my opinion. The book itself has a problem with fan service, for instance Pavan manages to get himself frozen in carbonite, despite the fact that carbonite freezing was simply a part of Cloud City’s industrial infrastructure and Darth Vader was supposed to be the first person to try it out on a human being. Pavan uses it to escape Maul at one point in the book as he is a Sith and can detect life even if hidden. Being frozen means that Pavan was in suspended animation was able to avoid detection and escape.

The Padawan Darsha was not so lucky though as she is forced to take on Maul in a lightsaber duel. Her master already became a victim of Maul earlier in the book. It plays out a bit like Revenge of the Sith or Rogue One. The good guys fall like dominos to Maul’s double-blade. I really liked the character of Darsha because unlike the Mary Sue from the Disney sequels, she fucks up constantly. Her original mission that brings her in contact with Lorn Pavan is a complete failure. Her master has to come bail her out. So she is filled with insecurity and doubt, making her relatable. She knows that she cannot beat Darth Maul yet she has no choice but to bravely fight him anyways. How much more interesting would it have been if, even after his master is cut down, Obi-Wan still could not beat Maul in single combat and had make the most out of escaping to fight another day instead?

The book has the quality of a good horror story. It is a chase in which the heroes can only manage to stay a few steps ahead of Maul at any given moment. Not a lot of time is spent inside Maul’s head (he is portrayed almost like a Terminator) but when we learn his internal thoughts his philosophy seems to closely resemble that a of a samurai. What Maul detests most is an unworthy opponent. When he slices the head off of the rogue Neimoidian he feels a sense of disgust that his victim cowered and didn’t offer any defense. Although he hates the Jedi, he learns to respect them for their valiant but doomed defense.

I have checked out a few of the prequel books and this one is the best one I have read so far. It does help that I am a Darth Maul fan. He has the Vaderesque quality of being really scary but also really cool and intriguing. This is something that Count Dooku and General Grievous lack. Why George Lucas decided to have a new Vader for every prequel movie rather than letting it be Maul for all three, we will probably never know, but it was clearly a mistake. The fans wanted more Maul but never got him. So we read books like this instead.

If the novel didn’t have so much fan service and callbacks to the original trilogy I would rank it higher, but it’ still a very engaging, fast-paced story with tons of action. Some of the stuff that takes place in the lower depths of Coruscant’s slums was good old pulp adventure at it’s finest.

The cover art for this book was just a disappointing collage of movie stills. So instead I will post this amazing fan art of Maul’s final duel with Darsha Assant.

3 Lightsabers Outta 5

Solo – A Star Wars Story *

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I shouldn’t be surprised but this Disney Star Wars film managed to be even worse than I imagined. Just like the other three so far.

Lacking any originality, reason, or purpose this blundering borefest lasts almost two and a half hours. It’s difficult to finish in one sitting without wanting to punch yourself in the face. Speaking of faces, they cast a guy with a weird looking one to play Harrison Ford. He looks nothing like him, he acts nothing like him, and I didn’t think for one second they were the same guy. Chewie uses all of the recycled noises he made in previous films. He plays the exact same 3D chess game he played in Star Wars and The Force Awakens, and even the moves are exactly the same. You would think after 50 or so years he would get sick of it. Hmmm.

Donald Glover is good as Billy Dee. What a concept, get an actor who can actually ACT like the guy he’s playing! Woody Harrelson is just good ol’ Woody, but it was still nice to have another competent performance. Paul Bettany as the heavy is as good as you would expect a talented actor to be with a criminally lame script. Emilia Clarke is pretty much a non-character as the love interest. When she meets up with Han it is completely by coincidence, a common trope in Disney Star Wars films.

Speaking of love interest… sigh. This is the dreaded “SJW” part of the film. Lando’s “love” interest and co-pilot is a “female” droid. A droid that is really, really upset about “robot slavery.” The film fails to explain how a computer can be enslaved other than in some kind of metaphorical sense. The droids in Star Wars aren’t even very advanced machines. Nothing like the robots in The Matrix. Tape an iPhone to a Roomba and you pretty much have a droid. These things are tools, nothing more. They are given personalities to make them easier to use. Droids don’t actually have feelings, yet L3 is clearly in love with Lando and wants to fuck him. How it can fuck him without any sexual orifices is a mystery but the film makes a lame joke about it. Lando also clearly has feelings for it. I don’t get it. Why have a machine as a co-pilot? If that’s what he wanted to do then why not just plug it’s CPU into a USB port? Why would a computer need arms and legs to fly a ship? The droids in the Disney films, just like The Force and the Jedi, are completely different than in the original series. Those droids were built for very specialized tasks: protocol, interpreter, waiter, etc. But ones like L3 can do anything! Fight a war, have sex, fly a ship… who needs humans?

Nothing can be worse than The Last Jedi but this piece of crap is easily a worse film than Rogue One. Because Rogue One had 30 seconds of Vader slicing dudes in half. This has the Millennium Falcon being chased through an asteroid field to an oldie but goodie by John Williams called “The Asteroid Field.” Maybe I’m imagining it but I feel like I’ve seen that somewhere before. Hmmm. Yes, almost every beat and visual element in this film is a callback to something from the Star Wars Trilogy. I really did not expect it to be this bad, but Disney surprised me again. Just not in a good way.

Did I mention that it’s one of the most expensive films ever made? Even ILM seemed bored making this one.

1 Star War Outta 5

Peter The Great His Life and World by Robert K. Massie *****

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It is a dense read, slightly longer than King’s novel The Stand (and it took me most of the summer to get through) but I must say I was not bored or distracted reading this excellent and engaging biography.

Peter Romanov was Tsar of Russia (later upgraded to Emperor of All The Russias) from 1682-1725. It was equally a biography and a European history lesson for me.

The age of Louis XIV is in it’s twilight as the book begins and Russia is a not well-regarded backwater kingdom (or tsardom). Moscow or Moskovĭ was “Russia” at that time. Most Europeans referred to Russians as “Muscovites.” Massie starts off his book by describing the Muscovite/Russian character. They are not a conquering or aggressive people but rather a nation of defenders. Russia has been invaded constantly since the beginning from all directions. The fact that they are still a unified country after so many invasions, hardships, and wars proves one thing: Russians are tough motherfuckers.

Peter’s father, the Tsar Alexis, was not a bad tsar but he preferred to stay cloistered in the Kremlin and barely ever left it’s walls. But many of his policies, such as toleration of foreigners, set up the legendary reign and accomplishments of his famous son. When Peter was a child, the Streltsy, elite infantry troops with political power (think of the Nazi SS) rebelled and stormed the Kremlin. They did not like that Peter (who came from his father’s second marriage) was going to be the next tsar over his physically frail but older brother from his father’s first marriage. Peter witnessed them slaughter some of his beloved family members and he never forgot or forgave them. They would later pay for this uprising when his brother died and he became the sole autocrat… oh yes, they would pay dearly and gruesomely.

Peter could be both cruel and kind, which makes reading about his life quite interesting. Sometimes he would resemble his ancestor Ivan the Terrible, while other times he could be kind and just. He did altogether seem to be a rather logical king and his reasons for action or inaction were usually justified. But if anyone dared betray him, there would be no mercy. For example, he had is own unfortunate son and heir tortured to death. Because of this the title of Empress would go to his wife Catherine (who came from nothing) after his death.

The title “The Great” clearly implied that Peter did some things in his life. Some of them are:

– Built the first Russian Navy, literally from a single rotting boat.
– Founded the city of St. Petersburg, giving Russia it’s first warm water port and a new capital.
– Defeated Charles XII and Sweden in The Great Northern War.
– Lead a “Grand Embassy” to all of the major cities of Europe introducing Russians to Europe and Europeans to Russia.
– Reformed the Russian educational system and calender.
– Founded Russia’s first state newspaper.
– Created the flag of Russia (still used today).
– Organized the first standing army.
– Completely reorganized the government bureaucracy, removing automatic posts by blood and instead promoted people on merit. Many of his closest lieutenants and even his wife were originally common folk.
– Instituted tax reform to pay for his many projects and wars.

While he is regarded highly in Russia today he was not very popular with the people in his lifetime. His tax burden was so heavy than many peasants and nobles fled into Russia’s vast forests and frontiers never to be seen again. However, unlike our recent American administrations which are burdening future generations with outrageous debt, he paid for St. Petersburg and his many wars in full. He never had to borrow money from a foreign country or pay for any of it on credit. So the people of Peter’s time could take some pride in the fact that without them Russia would still be a backwater.

That is what is he is best known for, catapulting a medieval “oriental” country into a modern European one. Russia as a world power can be traced directly back to Peter’s reforms and forced Europeanization of his country. This is another reason why his overtly religious people thought he may be the antichrist. They didn’t like foreigners and their foreign customs.

The book reads like an exciting novel. The pace only slows when Massie leaves Peter and segways into the “World” in the title. It’s not just a book on Russian history but a book on every power in Europe around the year 1700. Louis XIV, William of Orange, Charles XII, Sultan Ahmet III… if you don’t know these names you will know them intimately by the end. The warrior king Charles XII of Sweden is an especially interesting character. Just as the Russian character was one of defense, that of Charles and Sweden was one of aggressive war and military conquest. Hard to imagine that with the Sweden we know today.

This is one of the best history books I have ever read. The fact that I was largely ignorant about Russian history did help me enjoy it more and much of the information was new to me. Highly recommended!

5 Tsars Outta 5

War Against the Mafia (1969) by Don Pendleton ****

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War Against the Mafia 
by Don Pendleton
First appearance of Mack Bolan

There are few pulp heroes to gain traction since the 1930’s. One of those few is “The Executioner” Mack Bolan. Not only did he appear thirty years after the heyday of pulps, he became the most successful character in the entire genre with 600 original novels and counting. Writer Don Pendleton thought that there was a gap in the marketplace for principled men of action. It was this same gap in Hollywood in the 1970’s that lead to the rise of Schwarzenegger and Stallone. Men crave strong role models and Dustin Hoffman wasn’t it. Bolan was different than pulp heroes who came before. Characters like Doc Savage, who at least tried not to kill, and always stayed on the right side of the law. In War Against the Mafia Bolan pretty much breaks all the laws.

I don’t need to say much about the character Mack Bolan because he is Frank Castle for the most part. The only difference is that instead of his family being targeted directly by the mafia for termination, they die indirectly. The details are grim and I could see how that experience would make any man go insane with rage. Bolan even throws his military career away just to make them pay. But Bolan is a man of principles and mere revenge isn’t a very principled stance. He is killing the mob so that they can’t hurt anyone else again. He is not content killing the few who destroyed his family, no, he must kill them all. Going from city to city, leaving a trail of bloody bodies. The story isn’t enough for one novel and Bolan’s war with the mob is not concluded until book #38 Pendleton’s final Executioner story. The rest of the series would be written by ghostwriters. Pendleton (who died in the 1995) was a Robert Heinlein/Bob Howard kind of tough guy, the likes of which you don’t see too often anymore. But the Executioners legacy lives on and you can still find out what Mack is up to at your local book store… book store did I say book store? I mean

Apparently Bradly Cooper has control of the rights to The Executioner and is finally developing a feature film about him.

4 Guns Blazing Outta 5

The Man of Bronze (1933) by Lester Dent ***

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The Man of Bronze
by Lester Dent
First appearance of Doc Savage

The Shadow became a huge hit for Street & Smith. They realized that there was great demand for exciting action/adventure heroes. They tasked Oklahoma pulp writer Lester Dent (forced to use the pen name Kenneth Robeson) with the job and Doc Savage Magazine was born. The first novel The Man of Bronze introduced Clark “Doc” Savage, the superhuman adventurer who would inspire nearly every comic book character of the Golden Age.

Unlike The Shadow, whose stories were about the realistic underworld of big city crime, Doc Savage used high tech inventions, futuristic vehicles, and unparalleled training to fight evil all over the world. He is referred to in the novel as being a “superman.” We have seen so many characters like Doc Savage in comics and films that it seems like old hat now, but in 1933 there was no Captain America or Wolverine, there was only Doc. The novel today is still very readable and fun. I think a younger person would really enjoy it. The plot has to do with an undiscovered valley in South America. Doc’s deceased famous father left clues for his son on how to get there, but an evil organization is trying to stop him. Doc dodges assassins throughout the book and then has to stop a civil war between warring factions of Mayans. As for the love of a beautiful Mayan princess, Doc will have none of it! His only love is for righting wrongs and high adventure. Doc’s companions just shake their heads, but will follow him to the grave if he asked them to.

Dent was not as talented a writer as Gibson, but what he lacked in prose, he made up for in imagination. Many action tropes can probably be attributed to him. Doc uses a fatal judo chop to the back of the neck which may be the first time that was used. One can see much of Bruce Wayne in Doc and is probably why Doc Savage comics never took off. The man in the batsuit beat him to it. Although popular in the 30’s after comic books surpassed pulps in the 40’s and 50’s Doc Savage faded into obscurity until the 60’s when his adventurers were reprinted in their entirety as paperback novels. It was the covers of these novels, painted by James Bama, that we got the well known look of Doc Savage with tattered shirt and exaggerated widow’s peak. The paperback run finally finished in 1990.

Shane Black will be directing a Doc Savage film starring The Rock as Clark Savage.

3 Pyramids of Mayan Gold Outta 5