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Uncle Orson Reviews Everything
November 15, 2009

First appeared in print in The Rhinoceros Times, Greensboro, NC.


Cirque, Acrostics, eGames, Ringworld

There is only one thing that could have dragged me to a vampire movie, and that was the solemn assurance from my fifteen-year-old that this vampire movie (a) had actual characters, (b) did not sexualize vampirism, and ( c) was not the same old nonsense.

With those promises firmly in place, my wife and I docilely followed our daughter to see Cirque du Freak: The Vampire's Assistant, with the firm expectation that (a) I would hate it and (b) my wife would sleep through it.

Neither happened. To our surprise, it was entertaining from beginning to end. It mocked many of the old vampire clichés, and had an interesting storyline with a plethora of quirky characters -- including the two teenage boys who, best friends at the start (and perhaps still), find themselves "destined" by Mr. Tiny, manipulator extraordinaire, to have a battle to the death in some later sequel.

Based on a series of Young Adult novels, The Vampire's Assistant takes liberties with the plots of the books -- but this is not a bad thing. While some diehard fans of the books will be (and have been) outraged, the fact is that the book series grew like Topsy.

Screenwriters Brian Helgeland and Paul Weitz (who also directed) took an unmanageable series of books and drew from several to create a very good script for the first movie.

The character of Larten Crepsley -- the Merlin/Obi-wan/Dumbledore of this story -- is given a wonderful, contradictory personality, and as played by John C. Reilly may be the single element that makes this movie soar.

Ken Watanabe as Mr. Tall, Salma Hayek as Madame Truska, Ray Stevenson as the villain Murlaugh, and Michael Cerveris as Mr. Tiny all give strong performances, and Willem Dafoe is very good as the underused Gavner Purl.

But the show absolutely depends on the actors playing teenagers -- newcomer Chris Massoglia is real as the down-to-earth hero, Darren, and Josh Hutcherson (Zathura, Bridge to Terabithia, Journey to the Center of the Earth) is superb as his best friend/nemesis Steve.

Add to their performances Patrick (Almost Famous) Fugit's sympathetic turn as Evra the Snake Boy and Jessica Carlson's sweet depiction of Rebecca the Monkey Girl, and you have as strong an ensemble of teenage characters as I've seen.

The only mistake is that Darren's family is treated like the Dursleys in the Harry Potter movies -- foolish caricatures who subtract from the reality of the story.

The movie is almost gone from Greensboro -- after all, I'm not going to go to a vampire movie on the first weekend -- but it will soon be out on DVD and is well worth watching -- and, I think, owning.

Unfortunately, with a $70 million budget and a worldwide gross so far of $22.7 million, the movie looks like a disastrous failure, financially -- which suggests that it's unlikely that any sequels will be made. What a shame. Because this movie's quality is head-and-shoulders above Twilight, which violates all my rules about what makes vampire movies tolerable.

Ironically, I'll bet some people stayed away from Cirque du Freak: The Vampire's Assistant because they assumed it was just a rip-off of Twilight -- though the Cirque du Freak books have been out far longer than the Twilight books, and I wouldn't be surprised if Stephenie Meyer had been influenced by them.

Writer-Director Paul Weitz can't be blamed for the financial failure of this movie, certainly. But perhaps he can be, when you consider that his metier is subtlety -- as in About a Boy and In Good Company. And "blame" should be shared by Brian Helgeland, who, after all, is merely the author of L.A. Confidential, A Knight's Tale, and Mystic River.

No, it's all my fault. If I had reviewed Vampire's Assistant earlier, then millions of people, seeing that it had my approval, would have bought tickets and made it a smash hit.

I hope this movie hits so big on DVD that a sequel gets made after all. Meanwhile, though, if this first movie is the only one ever made, it is still a fully satisfying entertainment.

*

I like most kinds of crossword puzzles. Cryptics, for example (the usual kind in Britain), add a layer of decoding and doublechecking that makes the player feel much smarter for solving each clue.

And these days, hardly anybody bothers to make regular crossword puzzles that don't have some kind of gimmick or motif that adds more satisfaction.

My favorite kind of crossword, though, isn't technically a crossword at all. Acrostics consist of rows of blanks and spaces that, when solved, spell out a quotation. You fill in the blanks by answering word and trivia questions below, and matching up the numbered letters in the answers and the quotation.

I think part of my pleasure in acrostics comes from the fact that the quotation is actual language -- not just words, but words in context. So much of the process of solving comes from knowing how language works -- knowing what is grammatically and orthographically possible or likely.

But the best thing is that when you're done, you not only have a filled-in grid, you also have the quotation itself, which can be amusing, informative, or thought-provoking. In short, you actually get a prize at the end, in addition to the satisfaction of having filled it all in.

Acrostics are generally not as hard as cryptics, though in truth all crossword-type puzzles depend, for their difficulty, entirely on the clues. As Games magazine proves with the last puzzle in every issue, you can take the exact same grid and make it either easy or hard, depending on which set of clues you decide to work from.

MENSA, the high-IQ club, helps support itself and its activities by publishing Official MENSA Puzzle Books, and their series of MENSA Big Book of Acrostics are the best acrostic books I've seen.

Author Michael Ashley does a superb job of choosing quotations, and if he tends to rely on books of anecdotes and witticisms, as well as Dave Barry and Bill Bryson, that only guarantees that there'll be plenty of humor. He steers clear of political stuff, and my only criticism of this series is that so far it has only two volumes.

No, there's a second criticism. Because the first two volumes came out in 2008, it looked like a semiannual series. But all of 2009 has passed without a single entry, which suggests that it didn't sell well enough and it has been canceled.

Isn't that the way my life goes? The stuff I like best is too often such a minority taste that the cold dead hand of Adam Smith slaps me down again and again.

Since I have appreciated Michael Ashley's acrostics, I looked him up on Amazon and discovered that he has also edited a series of books of "Historical Whodunits." It sounds like an interesting kind of fiction anthology, and so I'll be giving them a try.

*

Computer Games are dominated these days by first-person shooters and other mammoth games that require that you invest many hours of twitching and adrenaline to win. I admire these games. I love watching other people demonstrate them for me. I'm just too old, and too busy, to play them.

That's because none of them have a "geezer" setting that slows the game down enough that those of us with fading synapses have a hope of winning.

This lack of customizability has always puzzled me. Sure, in an online game you all have to play at the same speed, but when I'm playing alone, against the computer, what harm would it do to allow me to set the speed where I need it so I can enjoy the game?

Yes, they often have a "novice" setting -- but it's not the same thing. Usually "novice" is intended as a training version of the game. But I don't need that. I'm not stupid, I'm just slow. Permanently and irrevocably slow. And the gamewrights generally shut me out.

Which is why I'm enjoying a series of games from eGames -- http://www.egames.com -- which offers a wide selection of inexpensive, clever, and usually well-designed games of every genre.

This means that I can buy and download games that take no longer than the time I can afford to devote to them; games that aren't fast twitchers, but instead allow me to take my time to think. But I don't have to give up high-quality graphics, and often the games are wonderfully creative and entertaining.

For instance, for a month I played Faerie Solitaire almost every day. While, as a fantasy writer myself, I found the storyline to be a little silly (I usually just skipped the story bits), the various solitaire games were absolutely compelling.

Besides a vast variety of spreads, the games also enabled you to acquire special powers -- like a few peek-aheads per game, or a few opportunities to change the top card, or other "cheats" which, because they are within the rules, allow you to develop strategies to get through some incredibly hard levels.

Weirdly enough, however, after a couple of months the game suddenly disappeared from my computer. When the very helpful manager of the website allowed me to reinstall it, the same thing happened again a few days later. But that's OK -- I had essentially worked my way through the whole thing and had received far more than my money's worth in enjoyment.

Right now I'm still working my way, a few screens at a time, through Magic Ball, which is far and away the best pinball game I've ever played.

It doesn't look like a pinball game, but it is. You control, not a pair of flippers, but a bow-shaped paddle that lets you bounce the ball back into the screen. And instead of just racking up points on an unchanging array of bumpers and such, you're given a scene to methodically destroy.

Yep, this is the ultimate knock-em-down game. As your ball bounces around through the scene, it destroys everything it touches -- though sometimes it has to touch four or five times.

Meanwhile, the game starts throwing things at you that aren't the ball. There are diamonds and coins for you to try to catch and collect. There are cool features you can acquire for a few seconds at a time -- one that turns your paddle into a cannon, for instance, or a laser; one that makes the ball "drunk" so its path is quite unpredictable; one that brings in an "atom robot" which, once it lands, you can blow up to break open a large chunk of the field; and dozens of others.

One of the main delights of the game is the art. Different levels take you to different places, and while there are some who will be offended by the deliberate and comic treatment of the "natives" -- human and animal -- of each habitat, it seems to me to be done with affection and humor. The choice of sounds when you collide with things is especially entertaining.

The prices are, in my opinion, more than reasonable for the value you'll receive. And you can easily buy these games as a gift for someone else -- as long as you have their email address.

Just one word of warning: When you buy a game, you get a long, long letter of instructions. What you don't know (unless they've listened to my complaint and revised it!) is that the instruction letter includes, at the very end -- so it's not visible on the first screen -- the key codes you must use to activate the game.

It's not in a separate email, so just keep reading the instructions in their bossy, imperious tone, till you get to the codes you need -- and remember that the game itself will not be in that tone!

*

In my ongoing love affair with audiobooks on my Nano -- all downloaded from Audible.com -- there have been some losers.

For instance, while I have fond memories of reading Jo's Boys, by Louisa May Alcott, when I was about eight years old, it certainly does take a long time for any kind of story to get started, and the tone is distant and a little simpering. Unlike Little Women and Little Men, to which it is a sequel, Jo's Boys simply doesn't hold up.

But it's certainly no worse than the sequel to Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn -- Tom Sawyer, Detective -- which exists solely to show that Mark Twain can write as bad a book as anyone. You can have a pair of books that are classics, and follow them with a miserable self-imitation that fails completely, and it doesn't erase any of the quality of the first two.

I also gave The Pickwick Papers a try, and while it's possible that the book might get better if I stuck with it, life is simply too short. The "humor" of the book depends on its being a parody of a kind of writing and a way of life that simply no longer exist. The result was that it was not even slightly amusing -- though that may have been partly the result of a rather second-rate reading.

Perhaps a reader with a genuine and droll English accent might have made the experience more pleasurable, but the plodding flat American accent of the humorless reader made it deadly.

Listening to mediocre readers certainly makes you appreciate the good ones! Tom Parker's reading of Larry Niven's classic novel Ringworld, for instance, is simply superb. You quickly cease to notice Parker at all -- you don't really notice that it's being read at all. You're simply absorbing the story.

And Ringworld is a book that holds up better and better each time I reread it. Larry Niven emerged in the world of science fiction at precisely the time that a lot of writers were rejecting (or "moving beyond") the classic science-based fiction of Asimov, Heinlein, Clarke, and their ilk.

Some truly brilliant work was done at that time, led, perhaps, by Harlan Ellison with his own brilliant short stories and his Dangerous Visions anthologies.

Meanwhile, Heinlein himself -- the master of the science-adventure story -- had started writing the self-indulgent sex-obsessed bushwa that marred the end of his career.

So it was up to Larry Niven to keep the tradition of Heinleinesque fiction alive. At no time, however, did Niven imitate Heinlein. Instead, he matched Heinlein's quality while telling stories that bore the stamp of Niven's own astonishing imagination and wit.

Ringworld is set in a far future when at least two different alien species have made direct contact with the human race. One, the Kzin, is a violent predatory race, from which the Wookies of Star Wars were obviously stolen. Humans fought several vicious wars with them, and we would certainly have been wiped out if we had not acquired a few bits of superior technology from another species.

Then there are the Puppeteers, which make the Kzin seem almost human. With three legs and two heads, the Puppeteers are certainly not designed to use human furniture. The "heads" each have a single eye and a mouth -- whose lips are used the way we use fingers. The brain, however, is located in the thorax, between the two long, slender necks.

The result is that the heads look like a pair of sock puppets -- hence the name "Puppeteers" for the species.

The Puppeteers are absolute cowards (or so it seems). They will go to astonishing lengths to keep themselves safe from any and all dangers. As the novel opens, they are moving their planets on a vast voyage to another galaxy -- to avoid being around when our galactic core explodes.

Along the way, they have run across a solar system whose inhabitants have taken most of the planetary mass and reshaped it into an incredible world -- a vast ring, many thousands of miles wide, that encircles their sun like a ribbon.

The result is so much living room that trillions of people could dwell there without bumping into each other.

But the technology to make such a world is so mind-numbingly advanced that the Puppeteers are terrified that the makers of the Ringworld might be a danger to them. Therefore they put together a tiny expedition to visit and observe the Ringworld and report on it.

The party consists of one Puppeteer -- an insane one, by definition, since he is willing to take risks -- one Kzin, and two humans. One of them, Louis Wu, narrates the book; the other, Teela Brown, is brought along because she's lucky.

In fact, that's the central scientific conceit of the story -- that it is possible to breed for luckiness. Because human population is being severely limited, the chance to have more than two children is determined by lottery. Thus there are several generations of humans who exist only because of lottery wins, and Teela Brown is the luckiest of them all.

Whatever luck means! Because a lot of what happens to this expedition is not what anyone would call lucky!

A few things don't hold up well. Niven, to avoid swearing (the book was published in 1970), uses the unfortunate substitute "tanj," which is an acronym of "There Ain't No Justice." The word is only occasionally irritating, but nowadays it simply feels unnecessary.

The other thing that hasn't help up well is the sex. In the late 1960s and early 1970s writers in every genre were reveling in the then-new freedom to show their characters having sex. The result is that sex acts are included that are neither necessary nor interesting today, in our more jaded time.

I think if Niven were writing Ringworld today, he would impatiently skip over or merely refer to sex acts that he overdescribed (though never pornographically), as so many other writers did in that era.

But these irritations are rare, and can't really be counted as flaws -- I remember that when I first read the book, I was of that time, and simply accepted these aspects of the story.

What matters is that Niven's clear, strong writing, his inventive world creation, and his delightful characters keep this book alive as one of the great works of science fiction.

And it's so entertaining that listening to it can keep you awake on a long, late-night drive. So yes, Ringworld can save your life!


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