The Films of Alfred Hitchcock – Part 6 – Strangers on A Train – A Classic Movie Review

Strangers on a Train is a Hitchcock film from the middle of his Hollywood era.  It has one of Hitchcock’s craziest villains and one of the weirdest finales.  Which with Hitchcock is really saying something.  The premise is that two strangers meet on a train and one of them proposes that each commit a murder that benefits the other.  The idea is since they’re perfect strangers they won’t be suspected in a murder associated with the stranger but not himself.  The one proposing the deal is a very strange man named Bruno Anthony (played by Robert Walker) who hates his father.  The other man is a relatively famous amateur tennis player named Guy Haines (played by Farley Granger) who has an unstable and unfaithful wife Miriam, that he’d like to divorce to marry Anne Morton, the daughter of a US Senator.  But Miriam refuses to allow it because of the monetary benefits marriage provides.  Guy doesn’t even know how to react to this outrageous proposal so he treats it jokingly and gets off the train at his stop.  But he accidentally leaves his very expensive and monogrammed cigarette lighter on the train with Bruno.  Guy may treat this proposition as a joke but Bruno certainly doesn’t.  We get a scene with Bruno and his parents.  Bruno and his mother are both lunatics but she seems relatively harmless.  We hear his father state that he will have Bruno put away.  This activates Bruno and he proceeds to murder Miriam at an amusement park.  He stalks her and flirts with her and chokes the life out of her.  Then he casually walks away.

Bruno  goes immediately to Guy and announces that he has carried out his side of the bargain and expects Guy to kill Bruno’s father.  When Guy threatens to call the police Bruno counters by saying both would be held responsible in the conspiracy.  Most of the rest of the movie involves Bruno hounding Guy even within his circle of friends.  And this is where you realize that Bruno is the most interesting character in the movie.  His insanity does not prevent him from entertaining the minor characters at dinner parties and outside restaurants.  He tells Anne’s father about his theory of interplanetary clairvoyance and he entertains an old lady socialite with his theories on murder.  Unfortunately he gets carried away and almost chokes her to death at a dinner party.  All in all he’s a very spirited fellow.  But eventually all good things come to an end and when guy doesn’t come through with his “criss-cross” side of the murder bargain, Bruno decides to frame him for the original murder using the monogrammed lighter as evidence.

Several additional scenes advance the story to the climax and we return to the scene of the crime, the amusement park.  A very bizarre and cinematically interesting scene with a carousel brings it to a head and Bruno and Guy and the police finally sort things out.

Even though Guy and his friends are the innocent victims, I never felt all that much sympathy for them.  They don’t really evoke much interest.  They’re all kind of flat.  So, despite the fact that he’s a thoroughgoing psychopath, the movie is really the Bruno Anthony show.  And as creepy as he is he definitely keeps my interest.  I like this Hitchcock pretty well but I could see how it might not appeal to all tastes.  Caveat emptor.

The Films of Alfred Hitchcock – Part 5 – The Thirty Nine Steps – A Classic Movie Review

Continuing on with the British films I’ll review “The Thirty Nine Steps.”  This is another espionage tale where the civilian protagonist is swept up in a confusing web of events that he must navigate or be left holding the bag in a murder manhunt.  Our hero is a Canadian visiting London on a work assignment who meets up with a femme fatale at a London music hall and quickly gets drawn into her attempt to prevent a spy ring from stealing vital British military secrets.  When she ends up in his apartment with a large knife protruding from her back he flees the scene to attempt to clear himself by finding and foiling the espionage ring.

The coincidences, unlikely events and sheer dumb luck that fills the story line makes the suspension of disbelief out of the question.  But Hitchcock replaces it with humor, human interest and a twisting turning plot line that comes full circle and provides the payoff.  Along the way you meet a varied cast of characters each lovingly fleshed out by the dialog and script.  One of my favorites is a milkman delivering to the hero’s building the morning he’s trying to escape from the scene of the murder.  He tries to recruit the milkman to help him escape the scene of the murder but the deliveryman flat out refuses to believe that there’s been a murder and he’s trying to elude the killers.  When the protagonist relents and claims that he’s just spent the night with a married woman and is trying to elude her husband the milkman immediately falls in with the plan and agrees to help without further complaint.  The fleeing man is obviously a brother in arms to the apparently philandering milkman.  Quite a lot of dialog is lavished on this completely ancillary plot device but it’s just this attention to detail that makes the picture memorable and interesting.  And there are several of these types of vignettes sprinkled in the picture.  And there’s a sort of love story although it does involve being handcuffed to a fleeing murder suspect and being gagged and even choked at one point.  But in Hitchcock love will find a way.

The final twist of the story as I mentioned, circles round to the beginning  of the story and is quite clever although there were clues if you were paying attention earlier.  All in all, it is a very well put together plot.

Once again, we have an earlier British Hitchcock that equals or even exceeds the quality of the Hollywood era “classics” that Hitchcock is famous for.  With actors that are complete unknowns to an American audience and immersed in the unfamiliar and idiosyncratic milieu of 1930s Britain, Hitchcock constructs an interesting and highly entertaining story out of a totally improbable premise.

I will dial back my praise with one caveat.  For the younger readers who have been saturated from birth with high definition picture and sound quality, it may be a little off-putting to see an old black and white movie from the 1930s.  This is a restored film where the worst of the sound and visual damage has been repaired.  But it’s picture quality is not even close to 2018 standards.  For those viewers of an older vintage this warning is of course unnecessary.

The Films of Alfred Hitchcock – Part 4 – The Man Who Knew Too Much (1934) – A Classic Movie Review

This review is of the earlier British version of the film.  Simply stated, in my opinion, it’s the better film.  No disrespect to Jimmy Stewart or Doris Day but the 1950s version is not even close to the original.  Once again Hitchcock gives us a tale of everyday people colliding with the world of spies.  In this story there is an international plot to assassinate a foreign leader.  And an English couple who accidentally become entangled in it are forced to choose between stopping the killing or getting their kidnapped daughter back alive.

The film opens up in the Swiss Alps where Bob and Jill Lawrence along with their young daughter Betty are involved in some sporting competitions.  Jill is a competing in a skeet shooting match and sometime during the games they have befriended a French downhill skier named Louis Bernard.  After the competitions they all attend a dinner and dance party.  During the party Louis is fatally shot but he manages to tell the Lawrences that he has a secret message that must be given to the British Consulate.  Bob finds the message in Louis’ room but before he can inform the consulate he receives a message telling him to say nothing if he ever wants to see his daughter Betty alive again.  She’s been kidnapped.

So that’s the setup.  And it takes the rest of the movie for Bob and Jill to figure out the message and find the spies without the help of the police.  In between there are homicidal dentists, sun-worshipping churches and classical music performances at the Albert Hall and most importantly there is Peter Lorre as Abbott.  He will be the only actor familiar to American viewers and he is definitely the highlight of the movie.  Of course, he’s the head villain and the most interesting character in the film.  Being Peter Lorre, he is palpably creepy but at the same time not completely unsympathetic as a character.  His dealings with the Lawrences are strangely cordial, almost friendly, as if it’s all just an unfortunate business situation and there are no hard feelings.  And he can inject a touch of humor into the film such as in a scene where Abbott has left the hideout and gone down to the street to talk to the police.  When the gang hears a police whistle blowing they suspect the worst has occurred.  Hearing footsteps approaching they pull their guns.  When Lorre opens the door, he sees the guns and he puts his hands up and smiles playfully at his gang as if to say, “Well, you’ve got me.  Now what?”  It’s just a throwaway moment but it does provide a human touch to the character and gives an extra dimension to the scene.

The climax of the film is a protracted gun battle between the London police force and the spy ring.  Hitchcock really went to town with this scene and the bad guys start off with a fusillade of lead that seemed more appropriate in a World War II machine gun battle.  The merry mayhem goes on for a good little while and forces the police to raid a hunting store to obtain high powered rifles to compete with the weaponry the bad guys are sporting.  I guess Hitchcock can be seen here to be one of the fathers of the action film.

What I especially liked about this film is the way Hitchcock adds in the little touches that aren’t central to the plot.  During the gun battle the English police officers commandeer the surrounding buildings and watching them interact with the tenants and order them around in their own homes was very interesting not because it advanced the story or included characters that would be seen again but because it was humanly interesting.

I like the British Hitchcock films because I think they’re more grounded in the real world that he came from.  The common people seem a little more real than his later attempts at bystanders and incidental characters as if they were based on real individuals he had known.  Hitchcock is known for his crime films and these mundane bits don’t seem to belong in that genre but to the contrary, I think it’s the mundane but authentic elements in a story that make it feel real and that gives it impact.  Otherwise it becomes just fantasy.  Well anyway that’s my opinion.

The Films of Alfred Hitchcock – Part 3 – Notorious – A Classic Movie Review

Of all the films made by Alfred Hitchcock, the one that most closely aligns with the feel of Hollywood’s Golden Era is Notorious.  The action of the characters and the look and feel of the scenes adheres to the conventions and formulas of that period’s filmmaking.  And I mean this in a positive sense.  The production values are excellent.  The actors are the finest.  The dialog and plot are very well done.  A good case can be made that this is the best movie made in Hitchcock’s long and successful career as a filmmaker.  The movie takes place in 1946.  World War II had just ended and Nazis were still topical.  Ingrid Bergman’s character, Alicia Huberman, is the daughter of a German spy recently convicted of espionage in the United States.  She is a loyal American and agrees to help the U.S. government in the person of T. R. “Dev” Devlin played in his typically winning way by Cary Grant.  Naturally they fall in love but the problem is the government wants Alicia to become romantically entangled with a German industrialist living in Rio de Janeiro named Alex Sebastian (played by the inimitable Claude Rains in his remarkably idiosyncratic way).  She is supposed to find out what dastardly plots these escaped Nazis are planning.  This of course leads to jealousy and spite in Devlin and pain and anger in Alicia.  When circumstances force her to marry Sebastian to maintain the espionage this further poisons the relationship between our two star crossed lovers (are there any other kind?).  The plot has twists and turns and uranium salts (which got Hitchcock in trouble with the real US Government) but throughout we root for the love story and hiss at the bad guys (in this case Nazis and the US Secret Service).  The remarkable thing in this movie is that although Claude Rains is the evil Nazi you kind of sympathize with his character at certain turns.  He is the unfortunate man in a house with two women, his new wife and his domineering mother.  And he is haunted by the ubiquitous Cary Grant popping up everywhere and presumably a rival for his wife’s affections.  Who wouldn’t want an atom bomb available under those difficult circumstances?

Hitchcock’s cinematic work began well before Hollywood’s Golden Era and in England.  He continued to create popular and original thrillers well into the 1960s, long after the studio system had disappeared.  Thus, Hitchcock is not defined by or limited to the Golden Era sensibilities.  But Notorious without a doubt possesses the “classic” look of that era and definitely deserves its reputation as a masterpiece.  Anyone interested in Hitchcock or the movies of the ‘30s and ‘40s should consider viewing this film.

Now put all that aside.  Notorious is a great story.  Hitchcock provides all kinds of suspense and intrigue.  Everyone on both sides is hiding something from everyone, including themselves.  So much deception even starts to trip up the deceivers and eventually it all starts to crumble.  The ending is a collapse all around and a fitting finale.  I highly recommend this movie and hope you’ll enjoy the performances not only by the three main characters but also from all those bit part Nazis doing their best to be wonderfully evil.

Galaxy’s Edge (Volume 4) – Attack of Shadows – A Science Fiction Book Review

Kill Team – Galaxy’s Edge (Volume 3) by Jason Anspach & Nick Cole – A Science Fiction Book Review

The fourth installment in the Galaxy’s Edge series is a straight up mil-sf story chronicling the Battle of Tarrago.  In this sense, it most resembles the first book in this series, “Legionnaire.”  But whereas Legionnaire involved a small force of soldiers scrambling to survive on the outskirts of a larger action, “Attack of Shadows” is the chronicle of a full-blown invasion that plays out not only on the surfaces of a planet and its moon but also in open space.  There is a full contingent of minor characters and any number of set pieces.  There are dog fights between attack fighters, pitched infantry battles, kamikaze bombing runs and battle ships going toe to toe with the big guns.  And then there is Goth Sullus, basically the bogey man.  He is probably modelled after Darth Vader and shares many of his abilities and personality traits.  If you’ve been following my book reviews of the series then you know that the authors have obviously riffed on some of the central features of the Star Wars story.  There is a Galactic Republic rapidly turning into an Empire.  Corrupt leaders are forcing normally loyal military men to become outlaws and apparently there is no shortage of smugglers, bounty hunters, space pirates and even princesses!  And surprisingly, the imitation is far superior to the original.  The characters are infinitely more interesting, the plots actually make sense and the action is extremely well done.

One of the interesting features of the story is the civil war aspect to the conflict.  Basically, the fighting is taking place between Legionnaires fighting on both sides.  And whereas the leaders on both sides are often shown as underhanded there are no cardboard cutout villains in the trenches fighting for either side.  Valor is prominently on display on both sides and realistically, it is often rewarded with death.

Because of the large number of subplots and characters, the chapters are broken down into a very large number of independent scenes that ping pong the action back and forth between the two sides and the multiple locations.  But the storytelling doesn’t suffer because of it and my interest was never lost.

From my point of view this book confirmed my feeling that the military sf aspects of this series are the best part of it.  When the series veers into other scenarios like espionage or individual adventures the story is satisfactory but when the battle scenes erupt the story sings.  It is definitely their strong suit.

So the rebels are led by Darth Vader.  Who am I supposed to be cheering for?  Actually, at this point I’m cheering for Darth Vader, uh, I mean Goth Sullus.  And based on the way the elite leadership of the Republic despises the general population of the galaxy I wouldn’t be surprised if Goth takes of his helmet and is revealed to be Donald Trump.

So, do I have any complaints?  Yes, there are a few too many women running their military and flying their fighter ships.  But at least they don’t appear to be feminist scolds.  And they haven’t tried to add women to the Legion.  That elite fighting force is all men.  So on balance no real problems with the world building.

Summing up, “Attack of Shadows” is the most entertaining book so far in the Galaxy’s Edge series and I highly recommend it to fans of military science fiction.

The Incredibles 2 – A Science Fiction & Fantasy Movie Review

The trailer for this movie says it is fourteen years since the original Incredibles debuted.  That must be true but because at that time I had neither children nor grandchildren of an age to watch it I missed its appearance altogether.  Probably four or five years ago I read that it was probably the only Disney film of recent vintage without a truly ponderous social justice taint so I took it out and liked it.  I watched it with the grandkids and they really liked it too.  But when I saw the coming attractions for the sequel I was annoyed to find a bunch of blather about Mr. Incredible being relegated to Mr. Mom and Elasti-Girl (Mrs. Incredible) being the heroic superhero who earns the daily bread.  And so, it was with a certain amount of trepidation that I took Camera Girl and the two older grandsons to the dying local movie palace to see the film.

Well, my fears were unnecessary.  The movie is good.  By the necessity of a sequel being somewhat derivative by its very nature Incredibles 2 may not rate as highly by some measures and to some audiences.  I found it extremely enjoyable.  Aside from any measures of technical or visual excellence the story line is meager as expected for this genre but acceptable, the main characters retain their original charm and the interactions between the family members defines the heart of the movie.  It is a celebration of the traditional nuclear family.  Mr. Incredible is a 1950s Dad.  Elasti-Girl could be Donna Reed and the kids are the usual bundle of sibling rivalry, growing pains and mischief but whenever the chips are down the family pulls together to save the day and each other.

I’ll keep this short.  If you have kids or grandkids bring them to this movie.  And if you don’t, then go see it yourself.  You’ll have a good time.  My personal favorite scene in the movie is Mr. Incredible coming to terms with his kid’s “new math” homework.  His anguished cry of, “Why would they change math?”, brought back such memories of exactly the same scene in my home that I probably laughed out loud in the theater like an idiot.  Maybe there is still some hope for Disney.  I mean I doubt it, but at least they didn’t alter the characters.  They’re still who they were and still a lot of fun.

Valentine Pontifex – Volume Three of the Majipoor Cycle by Robert Silverberg – A Science Fiction-Fantasy  Book Review

This review is for both the final volume and also an overall review of the series.  I got started reading this series a while ago because of an on-line discussion I had on Orion’s Cold Fire (OCF) with Tom about whether there were any stories that could be considered science fiction and also fantasy.  Tom pointed to the Majipoor Cycle and piqued my curiosity enough that I picked up the books.  For the curious my reviews of the two earlier volumes are here and here.  If you don’t want any spoilers then put this aside until you’ve read those reviews (and possibly the books) and then decide if you want to risk this review.  Otherwise here we go.

The Majipoor books have been a fairly unique experience.  They combine a relatively straight forward adventure tale with a world-building framework that tries to encapsulate approximately ten thousand years of the colonization of a new world by a number of cooperating intelligent alien species.  And Silverberg is an idiosyncratic writer with a style that came of age in the 1960s.  This combines to create a very complex and sometimes meandering tale.

In the third book, Valentine Pontifex, the eponymous protagonist of the first book, Lord Valentine, is re-established as the principal ruler of Majipoor and is preparing for a triumphal tour of the far-flung cities of his realm when premonitions of disaster begin intruding on his mind.  In Majipoor dreams are regarded as legitimate warnings from the reigning spiritual powers, the King of Dreams and the Lady of the Isle.  Under this cloud Valentine and his friends and advisors begin the ill-fated Processional and unsurprisingly a long series of disasters occur.  Valentine identifies these cataclysms with a karmic reaction to the original conquest of Majipoor and attempts to expiate this original sin through diplomacy and love.  The tension between his actions and the situation on the ground makes up the action of the story.

Valentine Pontifex is, as I mentioned, a very complicated and meandering story line.  There are close to a dozen threads weaving through the book with their own characters, locations and subplots, some more important to the main narrative and some less so.  And Silverberg provides a veritable Tolkienian plethora of Majipoorian names.  There is a veritable blizzard of names; names of cities, regions, rivers, forests, animals, trees, fruit, cereal crops, food dishes, wines, medicines and people.  Also Valentine’s character is of a contemplative and judicious nature so that he agonizes a good deal about the conflicting needs of the various parties involved.  Luckily some of the other characters are less conflicted and help to push the action forward.

Another aspect of the story and the Majipoor series in general is the metaphorical nature of the story.  To my mind, Majipoor is a metaphor for the English colonization of the United States.  The aboriginal inhabitants of Majipoor, the Shapeshifters, defeated and relegated to life on an inhospitable reservation, are a stand in for the Native Americans.  The other species brought to Majipoor by the humans equate to the other nationalities and races that have immigrated to the United States.  To be honest, I am not a big fan of this kind of representation.  All too often this kind of metaphorical story telling is just a chance to bash this country and curry favor with the social justice apparatchiks.  And Valentine does have a certain amount of the Jimmy Carter syndrome in his make-up.  There is even a subplot that involves humans hunting and harvesting an intelligent water dwelling species that is the equivalent of whales.

Looking at all these detrimental story elements, you would be unsurprised if I gave Valentine Pontifex and the Majipoor cycle in general a failing grade.  I’m going to instead provide an opinion that combines warning with guarded approval.

My first statement will be the warning.  Majipoor is not for those who are looking for fast-paced adventure and classic fantasy ala Middle Earth.  It is not that.  And if you absolutely are not in the mood to hear about the rights of the dispossessed aborigines skip this story.  And lastly, if you have a very strong aversion to human/lizard-man romances then absolutely skip the second volume Majipoor Chronicles.  As mentioned in my review of that book, this was a weakness of Silverberg living through the Crazy Years of the 1960s.  For them sex was something they had to inject into any scenario.

So those are all the reasons to skip Majipoor.  Now, here’s the guarded approval.  Silverberg has created a genuinely interesting universe.  His characters are engaging and genuinely recognizable humans (even the non-humans).  The story, for the most part, works within its boundaries and despite some pacing problems gets to the finish line intact.  For someone interested in a fusion of science fiction and fantasy the Majipoor books are a quirky read.  Let’s say it’s for the hard-core sf&f connoisseur.

Avengers: Infinity War – A Science Fiction and Fantasy Movie Review

Spoiler alert.  If you don’t want to know how this movie ends don’t read this.  But just know that I don’t recommend this movie.

Last week was a birthday party for one of my grandsons.  I was talking to my two older grandsons (13 and 10 years old) and told them I’d seen a commercial for The Incredibles Part 2.  They told me it was already out so I told them I’d take them to see it Saturday. (May 19th).  Well I checked the theater listings on Friday and it turns out The Incredibles doesn’t start playing until June.  Not wanting to disappoint the kids I asked them if there was anything else out they wanted to see.  Well, they said The Avengers.  I’d brought them to see the first two and they were pretty good.  But I’d heard that the third one (Civil War) was starting to get lefty preachy so I skipped it.  So, I went to Infinity War with some trepidation.  And I had good cause.

This movie is a hot mess.  They threw everything and the kitchen sink into it.  There’s all the Avenger characters, then they added in the Guardians of the Galaxy crew for good measure.  Then there was someone called Doctor Strange and some stray characters with him.  He seemed to be some kind of imitation Dr. Who – Time Lord character.  Then they threw in the Black Panther characters.  And just in case there was anyone who wanted more, they threw in Spiderman.  All these various characters are working together to defeat Thanos.  He’s collecting the Infinity Stones and if he gets all six of them he’ll be able to perform his plan which is to kill half of all the intelligent beings in the Universe.  There’s all kinds of battles and fights and at the end Thanos wins and his power kills half of the world.  You see half of the Avengers and the other super heroes evaporating into dust.

Now, what the hell kind of Super Hero movie is that to bring kids to?  The good guys lose and half of everyone in the world dies.  Of course, in the next movie they’ll bring them all back to life but what a depressing stupid mess!  Thanks Marvel.  Well I sure hope they don’t ruin the Incredibles too.  Honestly, I’m starting to wonder if the only movies worth watching are from a generation ago.  I’m going to start making a list of the movies that we watched as kids and renting or buying them so the grandkids have stuff worth watching.

Stanley Kubrick’s “Full Metal Jacket” – A Movie Review

Kubrick produced some very memorable films.  All the ones I’ve seen are extremely idiosyncratic.  Full Metal Jacket is definitely in the same mold.  It tells the story of a group of U.S. Marines from boot camp to their participation in the Tet Offensive during the height of the Vietnam War.

In the opening scene the Drill Sargent played memorably by R. Lee Ermey berates and sometimes beats on the recruits to cow them and focus their attention on how serious their situation was.  I won’t reveal the details of the boot camp section of the movie but suffice it to say that the consequences of the discipline prove to be as serious as the consequences of war itself.

After the boot camp scenes we go directly to Vietnam and meet up with the new Marines.  One has ended up as a reporter with the military news service “Stars and Stripes.”  He is bored and anxious to get into the field to see the real war.  With the beginning of the Tet Offensive he gets his wish.  He’s sent up country and meets up with one of his boot camp buddies and joins their patrol.  Here he sees the real war with all the brutality and even criminality associated with a guerilla war.  And here we meet the most interesting character of the movie, Animal Mother played by the inimitable Adam Baldwin.  He’s the M60 machine gunner of the platoon wearing ammunitions belts like bandoliers across his chest and shooting an enormous number of rounds at anything that fired at him.  When asked how the war should end he stated that the “smart guys” should bomb North Vietnam into surrendering.  He’s brutal and completely uninterested in helping the South Vietnamese, only in killing the Viet Cong and North Vietnamese and anyone else who gives him trouble.

The final battle scenes show the patrol running into a sniper position.  One of their men is hit in a forward position.  The acting squad leader is worried that a large North Vietnamese force is ahead and doesn’t allow his men to retrieve the downed man even after the sniper continues to wound him with additional shots.  Finally after seeing the wounded man hit several times, Animal Mother charges in.  He manages to reach cover and determines that a lone sniper is at work.  When the patrol reaches him they take further casualties including the acting squad leader.  The final scenes show the ironic nature of this unconventional war and the effect it has on the Americans who have to navigate it.  But as insane as their world has become, they still celebrate the fact that they’ve survived what so many have not.

Based on the tone of his earlier movie “Doctor Strangelove” I assume Kubrick was not a patriotic cheerleader of the Vietnam War but I would say he represented the war right down the middle.  He showed the horror but he doesn’t have the men represented by only pacifists.  They represent a cross-section of attitudes.  They show a cross section of behaviors from humane to sadistic.

It’s been called a classic.  I’d say Full Metal Jacket is a Kubrick style take on the Vietnam War.  I have a brother-in-law who was in the Tet Offensive.  I remember his description of what went on and it seems to jibe very closely to what Kubrick is showing.  That speaks well of what Kubrick made.  I think it’s a good movie and one of the few representations of that war that gets it right.

Galaxy’s Edge – Galactic Outlaws – A Science Fiction Book Review

Back in January I reviewed Legionnaire, the first volume in the Galaxy’s Edge series by Jason Anspach & Nick Cole.  That story was a straight up mil-sf story set in a future where the human race has spread into the galaxy and formed a “Republic” of worlds.  At the point in this Universe’s history that Legionnaire takes place, the Republic is beginning to devolve into an empire, ruled over by an elite that controls the rich central systems, with an underclass occupying the rest of the galaxy and the edge of the galaxy as an outlaw haven where even the powerful Legion can do little but skirmish with the rebels and pirates that abound out there.  By the end of that story it’s apparent that all the skill and valor of the remnant of faithful soldiers is being frittered away for political points by the bureaucrats that call the shots and wield the Legion as a bludgeon against the innocent inhabitants of the poorer sectors of the Republic.  As I said back in January, it is an engaging military tale.

So, what have Anspach and Cole done for an encore?  It appears that Legionnaire merely set the stage for the main event.  This is going to be a space opera of epic proportions.  And it’s easy to see what they intend to do is follow the space opera play book but dial it up to eleven.  And in doing so they are following in a long tradition.  Most recently, George Lucas mined that vein for all it would pay with his Star Wars franchise.  His rebels revolting against a republic that has turned into an evil empire is the latest iteration of a story that goes back to the actual Roman Empire and the tales of Brutus and Spartacus and Masada.

And when I say they’ve dialed it up to eleven I’m not kidding.  The text is full of little blatant references to dialog and images reflecting some scene from Star Wars or Firefly.  It was kind of fun finding them.  And whole characters are parodied.  There is a princess with the rebels named Leenah.  There is a plucky scoundrel in a freighter who rescues the princess.  There is a bot that guards a young damsel in distress.  The bot speaks with some combination of the diction of C3P0 and the Operative from Serenity.  You can literally hear the toff British accent.  And then to make sure you don’t miss any ingredients they are sometimes doubled.  So, there are two scoundrels with freighters helping damsels in distress.  There are two damsels in distress.  There are two bounty hunters.

And there’s even a cantina.  There are mob warlords with bounties on the plucky scoundrels.  There is something like a dark lord whose name is Goth Sullus.  So far there are no Jedi Knights but some of the characters seem to live forever so something’s going on there.

Suffice it to say that a lot of stuff is going on.  And by the end of the book you can see that this is just the beginning of the story.

And now, what do I think of all this?  Well, I have a theory about space opera.  I believe that space opera has the potential to be very good or very bad.  It entirely depends on the imaginative powers and writing skills of the author.  Take an E. E. Doc Smith or an Edgar Rice Burroughs and you get the Lensman stories or Barsoom, fun and excitement.  Take the likes of George Lucas and you end up with Jar Jar Binks or the latest Disney feminist trope with a light saber.

The good news is this is fun space opera.  None of the damsels in distress rescue the hero.  No one mentions race or gender studies terminology and the good guys aren’t ashamed of being good.  I’m pretty sure the authors have included the homages to Star Wars imagery to sort of point out that the story doesn’t have to be bad just because of the space opera tropes.  It just requires the story and characters to be interesting, likable and fun.  And in this case they are.  So if you like your space opera right up front without too much artistic restraint then I’d recommend Galactic Outlaws.