The Geriatric Brigades!

John Scalzi's Old Man's War is a modern scifi classic, which is probably why I've only just got around to reading it; for all that I keep meaning to crack Don Quixote and 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea and the like, I am just not one for the classics. I think I just resist the idea that I might read anything because I 'should', rather than because I want to. A hallmark of having been in school, in one form or another, for all but about four years of my entire life, I suspect. I'm just a little tired of being told what to read.

Also, those fighters?  Complete lies.  It's infantry all the way.

The story concerns the titular old man, and his titular war. John Perry of Idaho is a widower and a senior, making him perfect for the needs of the Colonial Defence Force. The CDF, which seems to be a body completely independent of any particular government's control, offers the chance to join up only to those who have passed the age of seventy-five, for two very good reasons. One, anyone who has reached that age, and is still in decent enough physical and mental shape to even consider joining a military organization, is likely to have a lifetime of useful skills, abilities and thought processes already deeply ingrained, along with a sense of connection to the broader human community. A young person might join up for adventure; an old person would be joining up for a purpose. And two, what the CDF has to offer as a reward for service is distinctly valuable to those sorts of people; it's not until you can see death on the horizon, after all, that the promise of more life is really going to hit home.

The book is less a discrete narrative than a series of occurrences, following Perry from his wife's grave on Idaho, to Colonial Station in geo-synchronus orbit over Earth, onto the CDFS Henry Hudson, a transport full of other recruits, into basic training on Beta Pyxis and finally, out into the broader conflicts that seem to constantly assail the human Colonies (and yes, it's capitalized like that; 'the Colonies'). Along the way he meets various people, mostly good, and mostly dead by the end, since the universe in which Perry and his fellows find themselves is stranger and more dangerous than anyone can possibly imagine, and an unimaginable threat is one almost impossible to defend against. His training sergeant, Ruiz, is a particularly delightful character, an Angry Drill Instructor right out of Hollywood's central casting but self-aware enough to warn his recruits that he doesn't act like this because it's 'what's expected', but because being loud and angry and borderline abusive is just about the only way to really get through to people just how completely out of their depth they suddenly are. He's also got a good friend in Alan, and eventually a rather strange connection to Jane Sagan, a member of the mysterious 'ghost brigades', the CDF Special Forces. There are other characters sprinkled around, of course, and generally speaking they're all pretty decent, more than capable of carrying their part of the plot with enough style to make them more than just Stock Character #21-A. Which is good, because as I said, there's not actually much plot, so the character work had better be strong.

If there's not much plot, though, there are some very nicely constructed set pieces. The biggest two are basic training and the Battle for Coral, but in between Perry sees action in a variety of rather strange places. From fighting insectoid aliens who're centuries ahead of humanity's technology but restrained by a desire to sanctify the lesser races through the ritual shedding of blood, rather than simply annihilating them, to one-inch tall humanoids with a dangerous space fleet but cities that invite any normal human to play Godzilla, to pterodactyls and giant spiders and a few other odds and ends in between, Perry's adventures give the reader a glimpse of just how fundamentally weird the galaxy really is. It's not as hostile as, say, the galaxy in Warhammer 40K, but it's certainly nowhere you'd find the United Federation of Planets, or even the remains of the Systems Commonwealth. There are a few species who're willing to live and let live, but for most, the cutthroat competition for land and resources is every bit as fierce among the stars as it ever was for colonial Europe.

The cover of my copy had a blurb that compared the author to Heinlein, and I'd agree, but with a caveat. See, I don't actually like Heinlein very much. Starship Troopers is a demi-fascist mess, a war book with no decent action scenes and a ludicrous premise (an all-volunteer army big enough to defend humanity across the stars based on the reward of voting?), Stranger in a Strange Land has trite, self-congratulatory new-age ideas about love and sex and life and death, and the less said about Lazarus Long and his omnisexual exploits, the better. What I will say about Old Man's War, then, is that it's like Heinlein the way he 'should' have written. In that regard, it made me think of a novel I read a while back, Armor by John Steakley; the idea of Armor was to take the general idea of Heinlein's Mobile Infantry, file the edges off, and actually give the readers some decent military action. Old Man's War is Heinlein-esque in the same way. It takes a dubious idea, military service conferring a particular social benefit, but cleans it up; rather than a franchise that most people in stable democracies can't seem to be bothered to exercise when it costs them nothing at all, Old Man's War offers the elderly a chance to start over again physically, promising youth and vitality, but this time with the wisdom to use those gifts better. Old Man's War also incorporates technology into the soldiers in a way Starship Troopers and Armour never did, building better personal platforms for war-fighting rather than wrapping frail humans in powerful suits of armour.

Old Man's War is not a heavy book. Clocking in at just three hundred and thirteen pages, with a fair-sized font and spacing, I breezed through this thing in a couple of days, and that's with work, chores, relationships and the finishing touches for an Allied contingent for my Tau cadre squeezing it from all sides. But part of the reason I went through it so quickly was because it's a very good book; I could easily have spent twice as long on it, if not longer, if it was just okay. The writing style is very loose and natural, though I found myself mentally skipping over 'I said', 'he said' and 'she said' as the book wore on, since the author almost never ends a piece of dialogue without the relevant suffix, and if it never gets particularly deeply involved in certain moral dilemmas or ethical arguments, I got the feeling it was more because the author wanted the reader to think about the pros and cons themselves, rather than because he was lazy. This scifi classic is fun and funny, with some decent action, decent technological imaginings, and a final set-piece that gives a nice sense of closure to a story that hasn't really been building to anything in particular, and very specifically doesn't end when the book runs out of pages. It's a look into a year or so in the life of John Perry, not the story of a military campaign or an enlisted man's climb up the ranks, and while that might leave it feeling a little insubstantial in places, it's also got a certain relaxed charm that works very well. Old Man's War is one classic, at least, that's worth reading for its own sake.


With a Great Budget, Comes Great Expectations

When you put the word 'amazing' in your title, or any other superlative really, you're tempting fate to a certain extent. A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius really doesn't have any wiggle room based on its rather hyperbolic name, and while it's not nearly so over-the-top, The Amazing Spiderman finds itself running the same risk. After all, there have already been three Spiderman movies against which to compare this one; it's going to have to be amazing, to pull off that name.

And happily, it is.

You even get used to his basketball-based costume.  Promise.

The Amazing Spiderman is a hard reset on the Spiderman movie franchise, completely wiping out Tobey Maguire's run. Instead of Maguire, Amazing gives us Andrew Garfield as 'nerdy' Peter Parker and, eventually, the titular wall-crawler himself. This Spiderman is still a high school student, dealing with bullies, living with his Aunt May and Uncle Ben after the disappearance of his parents, and pining over the beautiful blonde Gwen Stacey. Peter's story is set into motion by the discovery of some of his father's old research notes, rescued from the basement before a malfunctioning washing machine floods it. The notes bring him to Oscorp, and eventually to Dr. Curt Connors, who after appearing in two of the original run's films to no real purpose finally gets the turn into the monstrous Lizard. In addition to a supervillain, Spiderman has to deal with Captain Stacey, chief of the NYCPD and, it just so happens, father of Gwen Stacey herself. And of course, along the line, poor Uncle Ben takes a bullet, teaching Peter a very important lesson.

This film is notable for re-imagining so many of the elements of Spiderman's origin, both those from the original comic run and those popularized by the Maguire films. Peter's parents play a larger role in the story, even appearing on screen, and there's certainly a sense that they're going to turn up somewhere down the line in this movie series. Uncle Ben also gets a hugely expanded role, though mostly at the expense of Aunt May, who has perhaps two quick scenes after his death and doesn't really accomplish anything with them. The mechanical webshooters make their first appearance on screen. Flash Thompson is present, of course, first as the swaggering bully and later as the Spiderman fanboy, in a move true to the comic. Norman and Harry Osborn are absent, though Norman is an off-screen force often acknowledged, but never seen. As for Peter's nerdiness, and his love of science, well... I have to say it's a bit of an informed attribute, frankly. Yes, he goes to some kind of 'science high school', and yes, he has a bizarre semi-remote door lock that takes almost as much energy and three times as long as doing it manually, and yes he eventually seems to actually know something about what he's doing. But honestly, the impression one leaves the theatre with is less 'nerdy Peter Parker' and more 'Xtreme skateboarding photographer Peter Parker'. It's not bad, necessarily, but I would've liked to see more done to build his 'nerdy' credentials from the start.

One thing I absolutely will not fault this movie for, though, is Gwen Stacey. After frankly suffering through a rather forgettable MJ, a character who got progressively blander (and blonder) with each outing, Gwen is a treat. Emma Stone and Andrew Garfield have believable chemistry with each other, and even manage to pull off the 'awkward teenage crush two-step', the little hands-in-pockets, head-down, fidgeting-feet shuffle people that age tend to engage in whenever they're forced to confront actual emotional intimacy. Garfield and Stone really do sell the romance, far more than Maguire and Dunst ever did, which is delightfully ironic considering Maguire's earnest voiceover assurance that the first movie was 'a story about a girl'. Gwen has far more character than MJ ever managed, and an actual role in the plot beyond 'hot girl'.

So, I've already done it; everyone has. And really, how could you talk about Amazing Spiderman without comparing it to the Maguire trilogy? I'm just going to hit a couple of points, since mostly it's been covered elsewhere, in greater depth. I think Maguire did a better job as nerdy Peter Parker, but Garfield was a far better Spiderman. Dunst was a nonentity compared to Stone. I preferred the organic webshooters, because Peter being able to make the web fluid and not selling it or patenting it for use is silly given how often he's broke, and if he's buying it (as he seems to be doing in this movie) it should be laughably easy to track down who's mail ordering crates of the stuff and use that to track down Spiderman. Dafoe's Norma Osborn was a far more interesting villain than Rhys Ifans Curt Connors, though the fights against the Lizard are infinitely more impressive than those against the Green Goblin. Stan Lee's cameo in Amazing is extremely funny, and probably a bit better than in the original. The schmaltzy 'New Yorkers come to Spiderman's rescue' scene in Amazing is executed better, a more understated and personally grounded expression that pays off far better than New Yorkers chucking junk at the Goblin off the Brooklyn Bridge. And finally, Uncle Ben and Aunt May. Rosemary Harris does a far better job as Aunt May than Sally Fields, though Fields is given almost nothing to work with. On the other hand, for all the paternal charm of Cliff Robertson, Martin Sheen absolutely knocks it out of the park as Uncle Ben in Amazing. That man is just fantastic, owning every scene he's in, and easily swinging between making the audience laugh and making them cry. The only dim spot in his performance isn't even his fault; in a bizarre desire not to use the 'with great power comes great responsibility' line, Sheen is saddled instead with the most roundabout paraphrase of that thought you could imagine. He doesn't quite manage to pull it off, but he comes closer than any other actor I can think of would've, and if the worst you can say about a performance is that he got a few clunky lines, well, that's pretty good.

There are, however, two points on which Amazing simply fails compared to the original Spiderman movie. There's no J.K. Chesterton as J. Jonah Jameson. And there's no Bruce Campbell.


Blame It On the Fireworks

Excited as I was to get through the new 40K ruleset, well, it was also the Canada Day long weekend.  So, you know, it took me a while.

Also, it's a freaking big book!

But I've gone through it, and I have to say that, not only is it not nearly as bad as all manner of people were just so completely certain it was going to be, it's actually quite good.  Despite the talk of 6th reinventing the wheel, it is, like 5th and 4th before, predominantly a tweaking of the pre-existing ruleset; the shooting rules have been streamlined and simplified, Rapid Fire was tweaked to make standard infantry more mobile and more dangerous, Hull Points have taken care of the 'unkillable' vehicle issue, vehicles can no longer score or contest unless otherwise noted, FNP and cover were both toned down somewhat, and there are more missions than the last edition offered, but without the wild swings that something like the Battle Missions book could be guilty of.  And not only are the pre-existing elements as well handled as could be expected, but the newly created ones are balanced, as well.  The restrictions on Allies are fairly serious, and will certainly stop the creation of any kind of 'super army', particularly if the two detachments are anything less than Battle Brothers.  The Fortifications are pretty reasonable, as well; despite the Chicken Little-ing, they range from '50 points extra for the exact same cover saves Infantry had in the last edition' to 'an immobile Land Raider with fewer powerful guns', and the Fortification Damage Table is rather punishing for units inside and the Fortification itself.  Also, you only get a single Fortification per 1999 points, so you can hardly drown the table in advantageous terrain.  The only real trick with them is that, since they're deployed before terrain, tournaments will have to slot it in extra, oh, five minutes per game for the players to arrange their tables.  Oh, and GW even built rules for how to set up terrain, as well, so there's a moderated mechanism to handle that, as well. 

It's almost like they know what they're doing.

The one element that gives me some pause are the new Flyer rules.  Being immune to assault, needing 6s to hit unless you have Skyfire (which no non-Flyer/Fortification unit does) and getting to fire 4 weapons each shooting phase, at standard BS, are a bit intimidating.  A close look at them, however, reveals as many weaknesses as strengths.  They have to travel at least 18" each turn with just a single pivot of at-most-90 degrees at the start of their movement, which is going to badly hamper their shooting ability given all their weapons are forward-facing; there is no flat-out cover save anymore, and the only way a Flyer can get the Jink save is to make all its shooting next turn Snap Shots; getting Skyfire to shoot at enemy Flyers means losing the ability to engage ground targets with anything but Snap Shots; Flyer transports that are wrecked or explode are murder on their passengers, to the tune of 'S10 AP1 hits on all models', and that unit can't disembark from a Flyer unless it switches to Hover mode, making itself a giant target and limiting its ability to deal damage.  In all, it seems that Flyers are likely to alternate between 'glass cannon' and 'brick with a cudgel', depending on which mode they're in.

Now, what does 6th edition mean for my Tau?  Well, there are a few things.  Deny the Witch is nice, because it gives us at least some psychic defence.  Acute Senses on battlesuits is now useless, since they can't Outflank anyway, but that's more than made up for by the way blacksun filters work; a BSF on a single model in a unit means the entire unit can ignore Night Fight.  Hit and Run is similarly 'if one can, everyone can', which may make Vectored Retro-Thrusters on an 'el or 'o worthwhile.  The Jink save for moving skimmers is a little annoying, since Eldar and Dark Eldar get it too, along with Marine landspeeders and Flyers (sometimes), but it does mean that Tau players don't have to spend points on disruption pods for every vehicle; they basically come built-in, now, and they work against those annoying melta shots from closer than 12" away.  Rapid Fire is explicitly 'half maximum range = 2 shots', which is nice since it means the pulse rifle is no longer being arbitrarily restricted to 12".  The strangest thing, from the FAQ, is that Target Locks no longer function at all; this is weird because, while the Target Priority tests they were predicated on are gone, a new USR called Split Fire has been created that allows for exactly the same thing.  Snap Fire is nice, since Markerlights can now fire on the move; not well, of course, but it's better than a Pathfinder team could manage before.  And between the new 'take casualties from the front' shooting rules and Overwatch, there's a real chance Tau can blunt the danger of getting charged by large numbers of 5+ save models.  Stealth suits now have a constant 4+ cover save, thanks to the Shroud and Stealth special rules; I still don't think they're worth taking, but it's a point in their favour.  And while it's not a tactic I encourage, the Preferred Enemy special rule now allows for re-rolling To Hit rolls for both close combat and shooting; sacrificing an Ethereal to essentially twin-link every gun in your army could be tempting.

So.  Warhammer 40,000, 6th edition.  I've read it, and I think I've understood it, though I'm looking forwards to getting a couple of practice games under my belt to really iron everything out.  But as far as preliminary thoughts go?  I have to say, not bad, Games Workshop.  Not bad one bit.