Friday, July 8, 2011

Combination Plate 19

Warning: I will discuss significant plot elements and endings.

Ken Grimwood: Replay, an SF novel

Edith Wharton: A Son at the Front, a novel

Anthony Trollope: The Last Chronicle of Barset, a novel

Fred Saberhagen: Changeling Earth, an SF novel

Terminator 3: The Rise of the Machines, a nonreview

Ken Grimwood's Replay has to be one of the most unusual time-traveling novels I've read. It's the answer to the commonly asked question--"What would you do if you could go back in time and do it all over again, knowing what you know now?" It's also closest to Audrey
Niffenegger's novel, The Time Traveler's Wife, for in both works the time travelers have no control over their movements. However, where the time traveling seemed to be completely random events in Niffenegger's book, there is a very strict pattern in Grimwood's novel.

Jeff Winston, a successful forty-three year old business has a heart attack at the office and dies at 1:06 PM on October 18, 1988. He knows that he is having an heart attack and dying. When he regains consciousness, he decides he hadn't died after all. But . . .

Confused, he sees the date on the cover of a news magazine--May 6, 1963. Winston discovers that he has returned to his 18 year-old self. His body is that of an eighteen year old, but he retains all of his memories. He now has a chance to do it again, knowing now what will come.

He uses his knowledge as one might predict. He bets on sporting events and political races and the stock market. He becomes a very rich man. However, he also remembers his heart attack at the relatively early age of forty-three. This he feels he can change also, with a healthy diet and regular exercise and the best medical care he can afford, and he now can afford the best. Shortly before the day that he had first suffered the heart attack, he gets a complete medical checkup and it told by the doctor that he is in excellent health. However, he again suffers an heart attack at the same age as his first trip and dies.

He again regains consciousness and finds himself back in 1963, but, a short time later than his first trip. He hadn't gone back quite as far this time. And, this was to be the pattern. He would die at age forty-three and return to an earlier stage in his life, but always a bit later than his previous reincarnation. The result is quite startling: each time he suffers an heart attack and goes back into the past, the period becomes shorter and shorter, and unless there is some change, he can see that at some point there will weeks, then days, then hours between his death and his resurrection.

Eventually he meets two others who share his situation--a young woman and a man--both of whom are quite different. During one of his trips, he attempts to change historical events by letting others know, and this has results completely unforeseen by him.

It's an interesting story, with no SF or Fantasy elements present, except of course for the strange form of time travel which allows him to live his life, or that period of it, again, and again, and again. . .each time with a chance to answer the question: "What would you do if you could do it over again?


Edith Wharton: A Son at the Front

This novel is quite different from most of Edith Wharton's works. It is set, for the most part, in Paris, and not in New York. The novel begins just days before the beginning of World War I. The focus is less on the actual fighting and more upon the war's effects on those who are part of what is called the Home Front. These are the people who will not see combat directly but will be affected by the war regardless.

John Campton is an American painter who has lived for many years in Paris. He is divorced and his wife has remarried. His wife got custody of their son, George. Now, John and his son are going to take a trip, and then George will leave for the US and his new job. It may be the last time he will see his son for a long time.

However, just as George arrives in Paris, WWI breaks out. Since George was born in France, he has dual US/French citizenship. Within a day of the outbreak of hostilities, France orders a callup of all eligible males which includes George.

While John can't prevent his son from being drafted, he does his utmost to keep George out of combat. Ironically, he finds his greatest and most influential ally to be Anderson Brant, his wife's second husband, whom he dislikes intensely.

While the novel focuses on the Comptons, their story is embedded in a tapestry that depicts life in Paris during the War--those who sacrifice their time and energy and wealth in support of France and its soldiers and also those who use the situation to profit from it.

This is not one of Wharton's best novels. The war dominates the plot, which leads to a weak story line, with little of the subtlety and complexity of characterization and plot that typifies most of Wharton's works.

Anthony Trollope: The Last Chronicle of Barset

This the sixth and final novel in the Barchester series. It's also, I think, the longest in the series, comprising 700+ pages of small print. This is understandable as Trollope attempts to finish the series. In this work are most of the major characters that were featured in the earlier five novels: the Grantlys, Mr. Harding and his daughters and their husbands, Frank Gresham, the Thornes, Johnny Eames, Lily Dale, and Augustus Crosbie, along with the Crawleys and the Proudies, and various others.

The featured families are the Grantlys and the Crawleys. Josiah Crawley, the poverty-stricken, inordinately proud and insanely obstinate curate of Hogglestock, is at one of the centers of the novel, along with Johnny Eames and Lily Dale.

Crawley has been accused of stealing a twenty pound check (the equivalent in purchasing power today of $1900+). The repercussions of this go far beyond his own possible imprisonment, for his daughter Grace is all but engaged to Henry Grantly, the son of Archdeacon Grantly. The archdeacon is appalled at the thought of his family being connected to the daughter of a thief and has threatened to cut off his stipend and disinherit him by leaving his estate to his oldest son.

Mrs. Proudie, the domineering wife of Bishop Proudie, decides to get involved (this is not unusual for her as she considers herself to be the moral and social leader of the community) and harasses Bishop Proudie to assume more ecclesiastical powers than he has and remove Crawley even before his civil trial. She comes to a fitting end, and only those who regret having no one to hate in the novel will miss her. The narrator does try to point out her virtues, but as the narrator admits, it's probably to late to attempt any sort of rehabilitation in the mind of the reader.

The second thread is that of Johnny Eames' courtship of Lily Dale. In a previous novel, he had just reached the point of proposing to Lily when Augustus Crosbie appears and in a whirlwind courtship gets her to fall in love with him. However, within a week of their announced engagement, Crosbie breaks it off for an engagement to a heiress (Lily will bring no money to the union, and Crosbie needs money to finance his career). Lily, regardless of Crosbie's treatment of her, decides she is in love with him and will be true to his memory for the rest of her life.

In the Last Chronicle, Johnny hasn't given up hope and continues his courtship. Then Augustus reappears (his wife has conveniently died shortly after their marriage). He says he is still in love with Lily, now realizes his mistake, and wants to know if there's any hope for him.

The major problem with the work is its predictability. Trollope has already told us in a previous novel the outcome of the Johnny Eames--Lily Dale courtship. Since goodness usually wins out, Crawley will be vindicated; the only question is how he got the check and why he thought it was his. He thought he got it from his friend, the Dean, but the Dean insists he never gave him the check.

Once the problem of the theft is resolved, then the young lovers, Henry and Grace, will be able join their lives in eternal wedded bliss. Since the young lovers in Trollope
always overcome the obstacles, they will be united at the end, and therefore, the problem of the theft will be resolved some way.

Overall, It's a massive work and requires a decent set of notes and what is especially needed is a listing of the characters and the roles they played in the previous novels. While the novel probably can be read without the others, I would strongly recommend reading the others to get the full flavor of the work. As a concluding work for the series, I would say that it's successful.


Fred Saberhagen: Changeling Earth, an SF novel

This is not one of Saberhagen's best novels. It was first published in 1973 and according to my edition, it has had ten printings. So, it has a very good publishing history. It's an action-oriented tale set in the far future, after a catastrophic war between the East and the West.

Being set so far in the future, little details remain of the war, but the conflict goes on, between two factions, the Empire of the East, and small groups of rebels. The weapons are medieval, and some combatants, wizards, etc., have magic powers--dark magic and white magic--as well as the ability to call up spirits in times of need. There is even a magic talisman that both sides recognize as being powerful in some unknown way.

The Empire of the East has the talisman, but shortly after the beginning of the novel, a small band of rebels infiltrate a guarded compound and steal the talisman with the aid of a slave who is the maid to the consort of one of the high ranking officials in the Empire. The remainder of the story is of the pursuit of the rebels by the forces of the Empire, and the struggle by those holding the talisman to gain a sanctuary somewhere in the North, a place where the source of the white magic is to be found.

Once the sanctuary is gained, the rebels discover that all is not as it seems. The war between the East and the West had actually been directed by AIs on each side of the conflict. Both AIs had launched powerful electro-magnetic beams at each other, and in the collision, demons appeared. Were they created by the collision or released by the collision? That wasn't clear, but they were there and they influenced the course of the war. Those who developed powers on both sides called for a truce and together worked to subdue the most powerful demons. They were successful. But now, one of the wizards of the East decided he was strong enough to call up and control them.

The novel then is the story of the last battle between the East and the West, that had been in hiatus for so many thousands of years.


Terminator 3: The Rise of the Machines

This will be something different. I will briefly discuss why I stopped watching this film.

I had enjoyed the first one in the series starring Arnold Schwarzenegger as the bad guy. His style of acting fits perfectly the humorless and inhuman nature of the android or robot. There was a plot and a bit of character development and plenty of action. It was enjoyable to turn one's brain to Low and just go along with the story. The special effects were excellent also.

Making the Terminator almost unstoppable added to the fun as one could watch the thing being slowly chopped to pieces as its programming, which did not allow for failure, carried it on to its final destruction. M
ore satisfaction, I think, is provided by the slow demolition of the creature than by simply blowing it up.

I also watched the second Terminator film, when Arnold returns as a good Terminator who is programmed to protect rather than destroy. I didn't enjoy this one as much as it was all action, all car and truck chases, all gun battles, and all explosions and fire and so on. The plot or story emerged only at the end when they attempted to stop the development of the AI that turned on humanity.

I wasn't sure what to expect when I started up the DVD of Terminator 3: The Rise of the Machines. I soon found out. T1 began when Arnold appears nude and wanders a short distance until he finds a human with clothes. OK, that makes sense. T3 begins the same way, only the nude terminator is a female, attractive naturally. The terminator then wanders out into the street to find a female whom she presumably kills and takes her car and clothing. What is confusing is that the terminator appears in a clothing store and could simply have taken clothing from the store before wandering out.

Once in the car, the terminator begins a search for its targets, the same way T1 began. Then before anything else happens, we are presented with a car chase. It's at that point I decided I wasn't in the mood for another all action, all gunfight, all car chase, all explosion film. I suppose that I will be told that I gave up too soon, that there really was a decent plot or story line that went beyond a race to save some of the targets before the terminator got them all.

I guess it's a prejudice of mine. A film really can't be all that interesting if the director has to begin with a car chase scene. I also gave up on the last of The Lethal Weapon series, which also had a car chase scene in the first few minutes. I have developed several rules now: first, regardless of how good the first in a series is, the rest get weaker the further they get from the original film, and secondly, a good indication of the film's weakness in plot and storyline is how soon the car chase scene is inserted after the opening credits.


  1. In response to the T3 review:

    I haven't seen this movie, so I don't know if it's worth watching. I do recall it got poor reviews. Sometimes I really have to be in the mood for an action movie before I can watch it. Sort of like "Sometimes I want a steak, but sometimes I just want Cheetos." To me, most action movies are Cheetos. This is one reason I don't do Netflix. As I understand it, you must make a list of what you want to see and you'll be sent it when it's available. What if I get sent Cheetos when I'm in the mood for a steak? Or visa versa?

    As far as your rule saying that the subsequent movies in a series keep getting worse, I really don't know if that's true for every action film. However, I personally thought that the second Pirates of the Caribbean movie, Dead Man's Chest, was better than the first in the series. ( I haven't seen #4 yet, though.)

    I love your film reviews. I hope you'll continue to make them a part of your blog.

  2. Cheryl,

    Keep in mind that you can have anywhere from 1 or more DVDs at home from Netflix. If you are not in the mood for Cheetos, just hold on to it until you are in the mood for cheetos. There's no penalty for keeping a DVD for days or even weeks.

    Secondly, Netflix generally tells you whether a DVD is immediately available or there will be a short wait, a long wait, or an extremely long wait.

    I'm on the three-at-a-time plan (thinking about going to the four, but the local library has a decent selection so I get many DVDs from them also. I order my queue so that I have a variety of types coming regularly.

    You could get the two-at-a-time plan and order a Cheeto and a steak DVD. That way you could have one that would fit your mood at the time.

  3. Cheryl,

    I'm sure that there are series that don't follow my rule of diminishing quality over time. It's just that the ones I remember do follow the rule, and I can't come up with ones that don't follow the rule.

  4. Fred,

    Thanks for the Netflix info. It's something to consider, now.