Review: Dragon Teeth

Michael Crichton’s most recent posthumously published novel, Dragon Teeth, released in 2017, tracks a fictitious young man coming of age on a journey into the American West, where he interacts with quite real people and observes fictionalized versions of real events from the era. It’s ostensibly about the Bone Wars, the dynamite rivalry between paleontologists Othniel Charles Marsh and Edward Drinker Cope, and that is certainly part of the story, but it’s also an Old West tale where Deadwood features prominently, something I didn’t expect but that makes sense given the setting and the twists and turns of the novel’s plot. Unlike Crichton’s signature techno-thrillers, it’s more a historical adventure like one of his early novels, The Great Train Robbery (which I have not read), and that makes quite a bit of sense, as the Dragon Teeth manuscript (or at least the basic idea behind the story) was apparently started in 1974, a year before the publication of The Great Train Robbery. It also reminds me a bit of Pirate Latitudes (which I have read), his first posthumously published work and a similarly fun historical adventure, starring pirates instead of cowboys.

While Dragon Teeth was fun and breezy to read, it also covers interesting subject matter and manages to provide a fairly complex and frank take on the expansion west by American citizens into indigenous lands, albeit through the perspective of the wealthy American protagonist. As per usual, the book feels well-researched and demonstrates that Crichton took liberties with historical characters and events, changing and reorganizing as he saw fit to tell the story he wanted without feeling overly bound by how things exactly happened. Outside of that, I don’t find that I have much to say about the story, positively or negatively. It’s not the deepest Crichton novel, but its pulp adventure craft shines.

The Alien RPG

As I anticipated when I first brought this up, I didn’t have a chance to run any Alien RPG sessions before Halloween. Still, I’ve looked over a considerable amount of the currently available materials, including the full core rulebook, the starter set with its Chariot of the Gods cinematic mode adventure, the separate Destroyer of Worlds cinematic mode adventure pack, and the Alien: Colonial Marines campaign book. The materials are consistently good, providing wonderful storytelling frameworks for whichever play mode you want to try.

I’m really impressed with the quality of the stories. I’d be tempted to read comic miniseries adapting either of the full cinematic mode adventures, and the Colonial Marines story hooks would make for a great horror novel or television series. Every description, character, and plot point is dripping with the dark, gritty atmospherics of the Alien films. Some suggested passages in the Colonial Marines campaign’s proposed adventures actually startled me with the vividness of the grotesque imagery. Of course, the thing with an RPG is that it’s about a communal storytelling experience, an only partially composed and largely impromptu shared narrative that is adaptive to the input of multiple players working together–or against each other. So a particularly exciting bit of prose doesn’t necessarily translate to a fun adventure in practice. That said, these story details allow for a lot of flavor and texture, but even if you followed the campaign suggestions or story structure of a cinematic module quite rigorously, you’d find that they’re more suggestions for what can happen, elements to pop in among everything else going on, rather than a set of instructions on what should happen.

The rules are fairly simple and straightforward, as well, which continues to put the emphasis on narrative: both the foundation placed by the GM (here, Game Mother, a cute nod to the common shipboard AI of the setting) and the development constructed by the players are geared around horror storytelling. Crafting a character is quite simple in campaign mode, even simpler in cinematic mode, and pre-generated in the published cinematic adventures. Most mechanical actions are resolved by d6 die rolls, and while there are custom dice in the starter set to fit the atmosphere, nothing’s going to stop anyone from using normal d6 dice as needed. The published cinematic adventures use maps, glossy character sheets, and agenda/plot effect/item cards to make things even simpler and more visual. Furthermore, the game explicitly encourages the avoidance of dice rolls except for in high-stress, dramatically important moments, rather than for every mundane situation where a skill check might occur.

I keep using “cinematic mode” and “campaign mode” without defining terms, and the distinction is important. Developer Free League has created two separate ways to play their RPG. In cinematic play, the goal is to represent the horror and impossible odds of the films. Narrative is prioritized over mechanics. Characters and their relationships are predetermined. You’re typically dealing with a xenomorph or adjacent threat, and player death is expected. Very few, if any, characters are likely to make it to the end. A few cinematic adventures already exist, and more should be on the way, but you could also craft your own, keeping in mind the structure provided for cinematic adventures. Meanwhile, campaign play is the sandbox style of a traditional RPG: players develop a group of characters (and the game puts a particular emphasis on backgrounds, relationships, and motivations, in line with the popular shift to narrative-first roleplaying), the GM provides an open-ended framework for a series of adventures, and there’s typically an overarching campaign that ties everything together. Campaign play is also supposed to be a mode where you don’t see the xenomorphs and their kin much if at all; those buggers are lethal threats, pure murder machines, and it would be implausible for a group to keep coming up against them and walking away intact–not to mention that they’d lose their frightful edge with that increased frequency of appearance. As a result, this mode is more focused on the other terrors of space: corporate greed, military overexpansion, pointless war, the exploitation of the working class, the grinding industrial dangerousness of mining and trucking amidst the stars, strange alien species and exotic diseases of different varieties, the alien nature of the synthetic mind, and the simple cold vacuum of the void.

Interestingly, the cinematic adventures and campaign setting in existence so far build atop each other. While the fates of specific characters and the actual outcomes of individual events are left to player-guided outcomes, the larger story is coalescing toward something bigger, developing from one story to the next. In general, it would appear that corporate and military interests have developed a series of amoral research programs focused on weaponizing or defending against the xenomorph and its ilk, and as these living weapons are proliferated, more outbreaks are occurring with whole colonies going dark, even as a mysterious enemy that may just be returned Engineers begins bio-bombing frontier territories. All of this is interspersed within a larger sociopolitical narrative that recreates the Cold War among the stars, with a sizable third option in the form of a collective emerging out of an Anglo-Japanese alliance that seems increasingly frustrated with the Americans and the communists even as it gets danced along on puppet strings guided by Weyland-Yutani (and there are dozens of corporate interests existing in a free zone of space that represent yet another option). I found the explorations of some of the bioweapons projects some of the most enthralling parts, like for instance the body horror take on a mech suit that is the black-ops Project Berserker in the Colonial Marines supplement. The backstories powering this surprisingly dense lore comb deeply through the franchise’s history of films (including rejected/unpublished drafts of sequels), books, comics, and games. Despite this, a familiarity with the original Alien and/or Aliens is all that is required to enjoy this game setting, since all the core conventions of the setting are more or less established in those sources. There does feel to be a core canon that one would benefit from, though, of Alien, Aliens, Alien 3, Prometheus, and Alien: Covenant. On the other end of the spectrum, there appears to be a hard line drawn to separate the Alien franchise from the Alien v. Predator multimedia crossover.

As I mentioned in the past, some seem concerned with the mechanical implementation of features like panic or cinematic agendas, in that they can deprive player agency at key junctures. I can understand that perspective, and I’m limited by not having played the game with a group yet, but I suspect that this could force a lot of interesting dramatic tension and good complicating elements, so long as players are fully aware of this system. To quote myself, the game has mechanics baked into it “to make the players feel insecure, underpowered, under-resourced, and facing threats they can’t possibly comprehend or defeat.” The risk of losing control at important moments furthers that thematic objective.

I think the only point that I’m wary on is the portrayal of mental illness. Horror is meant to terrify, to revolt, to press against taboos and push down boundaries. I get that. And this game is set in a franchise with themes tightly wrapped around fear/disgust with metaphorical rape by an unknowable monster that would be Lovecraftian if not for its blind focus on killing over any higher-function thought. Still, that said, just because something is meant to push uncomfortable boundaries, to scare us and disgust us, it doesn’t mean that we can’t ask questions of it, to push back on it. I actually think the use of “panic” as a system is rather appropriate, as a fear response in a fight-or-flight situation could be unexpected and uncharacteristic especially when facing such horrid monstrosities. The use of panic as an unpredictable reaction to extreme stress, rather than the cruder “sanity” meter employed in too many horror games (a mechanic I’ve recently encountered playing the now roughly year-old Early Access game Phasmophobia), seems like a positive improvement. The game also talks about trauma and PTSD, perhaps a bit too lightly, as an after-effect of exposure to these creatures and the other threats of space. The game has some permanent reactions to mental trauma that can develop and are mechanically described/implemented. Some will cringe at this, but I honestly don’t see anything in the descriptions or effects that seems cruel or inappropriate (potential permanent reactions to trauma include phobia, alcoholism, recurrent nightmares, depression, drug use, and amnesia). So far, the only place where I think Free League clearly slipped up is in one tiny detail: describing an android character in Destroyer of Worlds as having a “bipolar” personality when really they mean to indicate that he alternates between his own personality and an assumed personality of another synthetic who has hacked into his mind (which, by the way, is a very specific example of how character agendas can sometimes override personal player choice in how to roleplay a character). Of course, bipolar disorder is a severe mental illness, and “bipolar” often gets used incorrectly/fliply to refer to someone prone to quick mood changes–or, as in this case, to someone who fluctuates between personality types. They’re really trying to describe the synthetic version of dissociative identity disorder, or if you wanted to go for a more religious/spiritual spin, you could argue that–given that the character really is being taken over by an outside personality–he’s actually “possessed.” And neither of these descriptions, whether the religious flair or the psychiatric diagnosis, reflect an actual personality. But we’re talking about one word on one character sheet in one cinematic adventure module, and as Free League is a Swedish publisher, I wonder if this is really a linguistic or cultural translation error more than anything else.

That ultimately quite minor concern aside, I’m really fascinated by what Free League has designed. As they plan to continue to release more cinematic adventures and campaign books based around the other core careers of space trucker and colonist, I have to imagine I’ll continue to stay engaged at least in reading these new publications. Even without playing it, the on-the-page storytelling has so far been enough to keep me invested.

What I’m Into: Fall 2021

It’s been a long time since I’ve had posts just talking about what I was into at a given moment. Not review, or analysis, just an overview of everything engaging me at the moment. Those posts were sort of aimless, but also sort of fun, because I’d just talk about whatever was absorbing me at the moment. I’ve had so much narrowed focus on big franchise things lately on the blog that I think one of these sorts of scattered, aimless, free-form posts is long overdue.

So, what am I into right now?

What I’m Reading

I’m reading quite a few things, hopping between them. I’m finally around to Michael Crichton’s posthumous Dragon Teeth, which so far has been an enjoyable Western adventure romp with the fairly unique focus on the Bone Wars and early field paleontology. Marsh and Cope are characterized quite colorfully but the rest of the cast, including the protagonist, are fairly bland. I’m simultaneously reading Star Wars: Master & Apprentice by Claudia Gray, which does a great job portraying Qui-Gon and Obi-Wan at an especially fraught moment in their relationship before the events of the prequel trilogy, alongside a lot of cool Jedi Stuff. Then I’m reading Jon Dubin’s Social Security Disability Law and the American Labor Market; it’s been a while since I’ve tackled a truly academic book, and so I’m making slow progress through this dense text despite the rather slender physical packaging, but it’s very worthwhile, and I’m sure it would be a tremendous resource not just for disability law scholars but practitioners like me and perhaps even a general reader seeking to better understand the arbitrary and archaic way that the Social Security Administration attempts to account for an individual’s ability to perform other work and to determine how much of that work actually exists, and in what form, in the national economy.

I’ve also been churning through the published materials for the Alien RPG from Free League. This is just tremendous stuff. I’m not particularly interested in published adventures in general but the cinematic mode gameplay modules that have been published so far offer some really tense, vivid, horrific scenarios. And mechanically, there are a lot of ways to make the players feel insecure, underpowered, under-resourced, and facing threats they can’t possibly comprehend or defeat. (I’ve seen at least one reviewer suggest that agendas and effects like panic take the roleplaying out of the players’ hands, but players would still have to play out how things happen–this if anything just sets up more dramatic opportunities and encourages a feeling of loss of control at key moments that reflects the horror focus of the game.) Just as importantly, the RPG recognizes that the Alien franchise has been about a lot more than the alien from the very beginning, and it builds out enough complicated politics between interstellar governments and mega-corps to provide entertaining storytelling possibilities for their open-sandbox campaign mode. I hope to get some friends to play through at least one or two of the cinematic games in the near future. I think I’ll have more to say about all the materials when I’m through reading them, but of course a proper review of a game is rather incomplete if not based on play experience, so you’ll have to take it with a grain of salt unless I get a group together for this quicker than I think likely. In fact, there are a few different Alien/Aliens posts coming up, but I’m going to keep them to a single day, rather than another series spanning multiple weeks; Halloween seems appropriate.

What I’m Playing

I’ve been in a bit of a tabletop gaming mood lately. Way back in February, I wrote about a routine I had of playing Ring Fit Adventure, a single-player RPG, and then Star Wars: Squadrons with friends over the course of the week. All of that’s changed since then. Ring Fit Adventure play is now quite sporadic. The single-player video game of choice varies a lot as well. And the Squadrons play changed over to (virtual) tabletop roleplaying with those friends; one of them has always been an exceptional gamemaster and has been leading us through an Edge of the Empire campaign, and I haven’t had this much fun with a tabletop RPG in years. I’ve even led a couple of sessions with some side characters set within the same continuity. So between that and reading the Alien materials more recently, I’ve been really energized to try to get to more tabletop roleplaying. As usual, I’ll probably spend a lot more time thinking about settings and stories than actually playing any of these systems, but it’s generative creative energy either way. In addition to the aforementioned materials, I broke down and purchased the Cypher System Rulebook and its Predation supplement because the Terra Nova-meets-Dinotopia-meets-Xenozoic setting looks too damn cool.

I also just pledged on Kickstarter to back a physical printing of Matthew Gravelyn’s survival-adventure journaling game Clever Girl because I can’t get enough of dinosaurs in games and fiction. It’s not the only unlicensed work heavily inspired by Jurassic Park that I’ve recently purchased–about a month ago, I got Dinosaur World from Pandasaurus; it’s a delightful competitive game about building the best dinosaur park you can, producing dinosaurs amid other attractions and amenities and attempting to keep interest in your park maintained through constant expansion and greater risk (it’s also a sequel to their previous Dinosaur Island, which I haven’t played). My wife and I have only played Dinosaur World once so far, and it took a while for us both to get a feel for how the rounds flowed and everything that we should be keeping in mind during the different phases. Once we got that down, it was a lot of fun, and I’ve been itching to play again with a full four players (it’s for 2 to 4).

We technically attended Gen Con this year, but we were only there for part of a day (Sam really struggles with crowds and being in public now). Nonetheless, between Gen Con and online purchases, I’ve picked up quite a number of board games–nothing super-new but certainly games released over the last few years that I’ve been wanting to play. Aside from Nemesis, the ones I picked out this year have been mostly licensed stuff. I’ll write more if/when I get around to these games. I also might write about some of the older games we haven’t played in a while if we pull them out in the coming months–which I hope to be the case more and more as we’re trying to set aside some time for board games, both between the two of us and with a couple friends, on a recurrent basis. Hopefully, there will be no dramatic new developments in the pandemic that would require us to back off from that.

Normally, I would have brought up video games sooner, but I haven’t been playing as much lately. I’ve been intermittently playing Mass Effect: Legendary Edition. I’m trying to do three playthroughs of each game in the trilogy (on top of the playthroughs I had in the original releases of these games). I’m currently on the second playthrough of the second game with my only Renegade character, and even without being a pure Renegade, I don’t enjoy how much of a dick you are with this playstyle. But I’ve been just as likely to play a little bit of Jurassic World: Evolution (yes, I keep coming back to it after all) or The Sims 4. I’ve even given Alien: Isolation another try, finishing…most of it. I’ll have a post about that experience on Halloween, as well. The video game I’m most excited about isn’t even out for about another month: Jurassic World Evolution 2 looks like an improvement on the original in about every way–and at 280 hours recorded, I’ve now put more time into this game than any other in my Steam library.

What I’m watching

I re-watched “The Ninth Jedi” and “The Elder” from Star Wars: Visions this weekend. They’re so good. I’ve also been watching Letterkenny, Marvel’s What If…?, DC’s third season of Titans, and Only Murders in the Building. I’m only current on Only Murders, which is hilarious while simultaneously being surprisingly heartfelt and mysterious. Martin Short, Steve Martin, and Selena Gomez are all delivering fantastic performances every episode. Lastly, for television at least, I’ve started watching The Haunting of Bly Manor, just as most people are now talking about Mike Flanagan’s latest Netflix series, Midnight Mass. Ah, I’m forever behind the times.

I don’t think I’ve watched very many new or new-to-me movies recently, or at least not since The Suicide Squad, which has already been nearly two months ago. Once more, it’s what’s in the near future that my attention is more focused on. I’ll be seeing The Many Saints of Newark, actually in a cinema, sometime this week, and I’ll also be going to Dune in theater later this month or early November. I’m sure I’ll be posting reactions to both when I can.


I’ve written before about trying to balance consumption of big franchises and existing IP with original creative works. Looking at my blog posts this year, and paying attention to what I’m currently engaging with, I am a little disappointed to realize how heavily my consumption has favored the former this year. But since 2020, life has been tumultuous for a lot of people, and that’s certainly been true for my house. Plus, work has remained quite busy for about a year now. So I guess it’s okay if I’m taking in more junk comfort entertainment. I’d also argue that even though these creative works most benefit large corporations and often regurgitate existing ideas, characters, plot structures, and so on, some of the current franchise productions are managing to mine new territory and do really interesting things. Still, it’s something worth being mindful of, and it might gradually lead to a rebalance of what I’m spending my time on.

I think I’d like to sign off by doing something a little differently and talk specifically about what I’m into creating instead of just consuming. Outside of this blog and the briefs I prepare for work, I haven’t written consistently in a long while now. But I do have sporadic bursts of creativity. I try to jot ideas down in a journal. Over the past few months, a few dreams have connected with other, older ideas and led to two full outlines for fantasy stories set in a shared universe. I think they’re each maybe novella length, at least, and I’d really like to devote some time to writing those stories in full. I’ve also been dabbling with fan fiction, though I haven’t completed any of those projects. Some of it’s been related to those Jurassic Park gap stories I mentioned in that series of posts on here. The fantasy stories are closer to my heart and so even if I finish them, I probably won’t post more than some excerpts here, but I think I very well might just post any finished fan fiction to this blog. Maybe writing this here, publicly, will get me to commit to completing some of these projects.

And that’s just about everything I’m into, for now.

Review – Star Wars: Visions

Star Wars: Visions is an incredible creative treasure trove and probably the single most-exciting and innovative addition to the franchise since…I can’t even say when, but certainly at least since I’ve been a fan. The easiest comparison point I can make isn’t even a work of fiction, exactly, but the West End Games release of the Star Wars roleplaying game, before my time as a fan. That opened the galaxy up wildly, inviting players to take on new roles and tell their own stories while providing a great deal of new lore and settings and story prompts. In the same way, Visions is refreshingly free from the intertangled core relationships between familiar characters that fill most of Star Wars content (brief appearances by Boba Fett and Jabba the Hutt in a single episode of this anthology notwithstanding). But more than that, it feels free from the stranglehold of canon itself. You can choose to align the stories to the larger canon galaxy if you want, or imagine them in alternative universes, but they’re doing their own thing that’s not hung up on continuity or interconnected storytelling. It’s the freedom of creative energy from many creators also found in A Certain Point of View, but with a complete detachment from the films. It’s beautiful and inspiring.

Visions is, of course, an anthology series from different anime studios with very distinctive styles. For someone familiar with anime broadly and a fan of certain works, but lacking some of the cultural touchstones of a true fan (and I’d fall into this casual-fan category), you’ll surely recognize some influences, homages, and familiar styles. I’d be fascinated to know what a heavy anime fan made of the nine unique shorts, though. Just as excitingly, I think this is a great jumping-off point for someone with little to no familiarity with anime as a medium, as it showcases a wide range of art and animation styles, themes, and storytelling methods. Each episode feels quite unique.

It’s easy to binge all nine episodes, as I did; they’re all fairly short and intensely watchable. I can imagine easily re-watching many of these episodes again and again, as well. Every episode feels crafted by an auteur with a unique point of view and intent, and as a result, they’re all worth watching, although I certainly favored some over others. I expect that we’ll see a lot of officially licensed works, fan fiction, and analytical essays exploring the dimensions of each and every one of these episodes over time. I know I’d certainly like to see more, especially of my favorite stories of this batch, and basically every episode has some dangling plot threads that could be woven into follow-up chapters.

Speaking of favorites, there were a few knock-outs for me: “The Duel,” a story of a wandering Ronin who stumbles onto a village besieged by a group of bandits (lovingly rendered like an old black-and-white film with heavy nods to Akira Kurosawa, with splashes of color for lasers and lightsabers), from studio Kamikaze Douga; “The Ninth Jedi,” set in a distant future in which the Jedi have disappeared from the galaxy, where the daughter of a man who’s rediscovered the techniques behind crafting lightsabers must do her part to renew the Order, from Production I.G; and “The Elder,” showcasing a Master/Padawan team during the height of the Old Republic who stumble upon a powerful Dark Sider in the Outer Rim, from Trigger.

While those were the ones I most loved, virtually every episode had some charming character, intriguing idea, or gorgeous aesthetic. “Tatooine Rhapsody,” from Studio Colorido, managed to combine a band story, a gangster story, a Jedi in the Dark Times plot, and one really oddball punk Hutt. “The Village Bride,” from Kinema Citrus, offered another interesting alternative Force tradition and provided an understated redemption narrative for the Jedi exile protagonist that left a lot of intriguing mystery. “T0-B1,” from Science Saru, mixed a quirky, silly tone with some rather dark narrative and a classic animation style with themes that echoed Astro Boy, Mega Man, and Pinnochio–and it offers up a droid that may just be able to feel the Force, or at least who truly understands the concepts of the Force and finds a way of life more authentic to the Jedi way than the dreams of adventure he started off with. “Lop and Ochō,” from Geno Studio, has some truly gorgeous visuals and a strong emotional heart about complicated family dynamics, although the narrative itself is way too rushed and confused, deserving much more room to breathe and grow. “Akakiri,” from Science Saru, feels largely like an even more explicit remake of The Hidden Fortress than A New Hope, with a dash of Obi-Wan’s complicated history with Satine thrown in, up until its very dark twist ending, an ending that perhaps won’t feel so entirely surprising given how George Lucas tended to treat dreams and prophecy in his films–but this, too, is a whole lot of narrative that feels a tad rushed, or maybe ended too early, right when the story gets interesting. The only one I didn’t really like was “The Twins,” from studio Trigger just like “The Elder”; this story, rather than the brooding and tense investigation with a quietly dynamic mentor-student relationship at the core of “The Elder,” was exposition-heavy, flashy and over-the-top, heavy-handed with its ideas, and somewhat absurd in the excesses of its stylized action sequences, although my wife was a fan and could probably explain its charms quite well. There’s something for everyone in this set, and each story will appeal to someone, truly.

There’s a lot more that I could say about each episode. Like I said earlier, I expect there will be a lot of essays exploring elements of every episode, after all, and I think the episodes are worth that level of intense consideration. But I’ll leave this as a broad initial reaction: this was some incredible television, all the more remarkable because I’d felt rather indifferent about it until the opening scene of that very first episode. This is good Star Wars and good animation, well worth the viewing.

And yes, now I’m really stoked for Emma Mieko Candon’s Ronin, a novel that will expand on the world of “The Duel”; I’m sure we’ll see many more works that do similar for the other stories–or, at least, I really hope so.

Jurassic Park as Metaphor for Family Trauma

The element that takes the Jurassic Park formula beyond simple action-adventure fun is the emphasis on human characters with flaws and clear arcs. That human emphasis has, whether intentionally or inadvertently, often resulted in movies with a subtext about family trauma. This is a topic I’ve thought and talked about intermittently on other platforms, but I want to try to develop it a little more here.

Most of the Park and World films are guided by a loss of family unity and a gradual rebuilding of family around kids. The pattern starts with Jurassic Park: Tim and Lex come to the island to get them away from their parents’ divorce. Through the events of the film, they bond with Grant, who starts out as someone who is very child-averse. As he guides them through the park safely and comes to care deeply about them, he’s addressing the issue in his own otherwise solid relationship with Sattler: she wants kids, but he couldn’t stand them. In the final helicopter flight out, Alan and Ellie share looks that express a great number of things: relief, gratitude, affection…but also there seems to be a shared recognition of how things have changed, as the kids rest against the man who starts out the movie terrifying a child merely out of slight annoyance over an offhanded remark. At least within the scope of the movie, the kids have found a new family, somewhat ironically formed around a man who never wanted one.

The Lost World continues the pattern. This time, Ian Malcolm’s daughter Kelly finds herself torn between separated parents. Her mother’s off on a trip with a new love interest. Her father, a habitual divorcé who’s never made time to nurture relationships with his (ex-)wives or kid(s), acts similarly disinterested in her and inconvenienced by her presence. Rather than be pawned off on one of her dad’s acquaintances, Kelly stows away to come along on his next expedition. The horrors of the island bring her to bond closely with Ian’s girlfriend, Sarah, and Ian finds renewed focus on the safety of both Sarah and Kelly. Ian repeatedly risks his life for both of them. This focus on protecting family ties in rather nicely with the threat from the Tyrannosaurus family that occupies the second and third acts of the film. Once more, the movie ends with a moment of peace for the reformed family, with Kelly, Sarah, and Ian all on the couch; in a reverse on the original, the child stays awake and watches over the sleeping adults.

Jurassic Park III once more finds much of the character motivations in a divorce. The Kirbys have divorced, Paul hasn’t really moved on while Amanda has, and their son Eric is caught in the middle. Eric gets stranded on Isla Sorna because of Amanda’s reckless “fun” boyfriend. The trauma of the island pushes Paul and Amanda back together, and the little nuclear family appears restored by the end of the film. In a separate arc, Grant and Sattler have remained friends but split up; Grant seems to slowly be reintroducing himself to Sattler’s new life of husband and child, but he feels out of place. Ellie insists that Alan can ask for help if he needs it. And by the end of the film, he’s able to do so in a moment of crisis, and she’s there for them. The dinosaurs get their family arc, too, as the Velociraptor pack is desperately pursuing their stolen eggs, and the Pteranodon flock attack to feed their offspring.

By this point, the recurrence of divorce and separation begins to feel somewhere between a fundamental franchise building block and a tired trope trotted out simply because it worked before. Either way, it’s back again in Jurassic World. Brothers Zach and Gray get sent to the titular theme park to visit their aunt Claire while their parents finalize a divorce back home. (Side note: I recall people complaining that the divorce reveal came from nowhere, but this is hinted at from as early as the airport departure scene, and the scene where Karen and Claire talk made that pretty clear to me even though it’s not explicitly stated until a little later on.) Even as their family falls apart, the brothers recommit to each other, and Zach changes his attitude from an aloof bully to a caring and supportive older brother. Claire’s arc echoes both John Hammond (as the most visible face of the park administration’s hubris and a more prominent figure than Masrani) and Alan Grant. From Grant, she gets the same apparent disinterest in kids or parenting, and her commitment to saving her nephews provides a somewhat similar arc, though bogged down in sexism: Grant undergoes an attitude change that is not required by society but simply a natural progression that resolves a tension in his romantic relationship, while Claire is nagged by her sister about how she’ll one day want to have children, stares longingly at a child reunited with their parent, is called out or treated differently because of her awkwardness with kids, and is operating within a larger societal notion that women should be guided by a desire to nurture and raise children. Regardless, while the arc had its missteps, I do believe the intent was to provide an arc that echoed Grant’s. Her relationship with the rugged Owen, from exes to romantic partners, suggests something of a collision of the Sarah/Ian and Amanda/Paul relationships from the other films, as well. Then, of course, as I recently wrote about at length, Owen’s relationship with Blue and the raptor pack provides the dinosaur family narrative for this entry in the series.

Finally, Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom is partially about people looking for connection and purpose after losing everything. Owen and Claire have split up and slowly reconnect, Owen is motivated to save his abandoned baby Blue, and Claire is guided by a desire to make right her failings at the park and feels deeply obligated to the dinosaurs she once saw as only “assets.” Lockwood fell out with business partner Hammond after using cloning technology to duplicate his deceased daughter. Over the course of the movie, that cloned girl, Maisie, learns the truth about her identity only after she discovers that her “grandfather” was killed by his not-so-loyal assistant. Once more, a family is formed by film’s end, this time between Owen, Claire, and Maisie. As all three characters are returning in Dominion, perhaps this new found family will be a little more permanent. And for the dinosaur family, Owen reunites with Blue, only to part ways once more by the end of the film.

Not only is this deconstruction and reformation of family structures so central to the movies’ narratives, but the movies themselves work as a metaphor for that family turmoil–as I suggested way back at the top. The dinosaurs are a vehicle for children’s wonder, amazement, and curiosity. Family and children were clearly on the mind of Michael Crichton when he wrote the original novel. As he’s quoted as saying in The Making of Jurassic Park:

My wife was pregnant with my first child, and I found that I couldn’t walk past a toy store without buying a stuffed toy. And what I was buying, more often than not, were stuffed dinosaurs. My wife couldn’t understand it. We knew we were having a girl. Why was I buying all these dinosaurs? And I would say, “Well, girls like dinosaurs, too.” But it was clear that I was sort of obsessed with dinosaurs; and the whole idea of children and dinosaurs, and the meaning of what that was, was just on my mind a lot during that period.

(Don Shay & Jody Duncan, p. 3)

Dr. Will Tattersdill, an academic researching the “social history of dinosaurs” in popular culture over the decades, has discussed how dinosaurs “mean a yearning for the past” and allow the observer to experience both human culture and natural history simultaneously. It’s interesting to consider that framework in recognizing that these movies start with characters, especially kids, yearning to connect with the dinosaurs, being awed by the dinosaurs, before the dinosaurs turn against them. The past isn’t enough to shield them from the crisis of the present, and in fact leads to that very crisis, the dissolution of the preexisting family.

It pains me to say that I can’t recall who said this or where it was printed, but I vaguely recall a comparison made between dinosaurs and children’s parents. Dinosaurs are big, objects of affection, at times terrifying, representative of a past before you existed, just as parents are to kids. A divorce or separation causes a considerable amount of chaos and confusion, if not outright trauma, for a young child, and these devoted caretakers also may inadvertently harm the child in the process of an especially bitter divorce. I think there’s something there in the Jurassic Park franchise, in that these kids admire the dinosaurs, the dinosaurs cause them harm, and they ultimately learn to coexist with the dinosaurs and survive. That evolution typically overlaps with the reformation of the family or the creation of a new found family.

At least to my eye, then, the experiences of the characters make literal the emotional harm and healing associated with the largely background family dynamics that inform the motivations and relationships central to every Jurassic Park movie.

Jurassic Park: Book vs. Film

It’s common knowledge that the book is always better than the movie. Except for when it isn’t. Jurassic Park is a fairly unique case, in that the movie is an incredible achievement and is distinctly superior to the book, and yet in adapting from print to screen, it takes some liberties and changes some characters and plot arcs for the worse. While I do believe that the best version of Jurassic Park exists on the screen, there are some notable caveats that go with that statement, and depending on your storytelling priorities, it’s perfectly reasonable to favor the book. It’s sort of a tie, then, isn’t it?

Below are the elements I favored in each version.

Better in the Film

  1. Almost all of the characters. Except for the case of Gennaro (made into a symbol of corporate greed and embodied primarily by cowardice) and Nedry (who remains a fairly simple bumbling villain, and yet another character motivated by greed), they’re all more human and complex.
    1. Hammond is refreshingly reformed, not a simple corporate bad guy or “evil Walt Disney” like the book, and I think his realization over the course of the film that the park was a bad idea, his recognition that his consultants’ concerns about power, control, and chaos were right, provides a fantastic character arc that also serves to reinforce the central theme of the movie in a better and more subtle way than the preachy lectures from Malcolm in the novel; this also provides a nice setup for Hammond’s reformation and attempt to get the dinosaurs left alone that motivates him to act in The Lost World.
    2. Grant has a fantastic new arc, becoming more comfortable with children and developing paternal characteristics that had otherwise been lacking and suggest a likely improvement in his long-term relationship with Sattler (and so I’ll never really forgive Jurassic Park III for bringing the two back as exes, with Sattler having found another partner to start a family with).
    3. Speaking of Sattler, the sensitivity and fearful resolve brought to the role by Laura Dern make for an improved character over the more generic Action Hero Woman defined solely by beauty and nerves of steel in the book.
    4. Malcolm is made to be hipper and funnier, somewhat less a boring know-it-all, in part thanks to far fewer speeches and in part due to the magnetism Jeff Goldblum naturally produces.
    5. Switching the relative ages of dino-nerd Tim and scaredy-cat Lex, and then making Lex a computer geek, makes Lex far less annoying and gives her something practical to do while retaining Tim’s function in the story. Helpful, endearing kids–who are still kids and require protection–make Grant’s arc even more plausible and, more importantly, make it easier for the audience (or at least me) to care when the kids are imperiled. (I literally gasp every time I watch that Explorer slide over the edge with Grant and Lex barely grasping the line to safety in time.)
  2. The design of the park is gorgeous, the sets are amazing, and it looks better than I could have imagined from reading the book alone. In fact, the book makes the park seem smaller, in a way, even though there’s a more involved tour and then the extended river raft sequence to show more of it and more of the dinosaurs in it. (Tough to beat the lush Hawaiian ridges in the background of the film for making the island and park seem enormous.)
  3. The movie focuses on a smaller set of intense action scenes with plenty of smaller character moments in between. The book is too much a run of threat after threat, with virtually no character development (I’ll talk in the next section about the cool moments of meandering the book gets into, but they’re not there for character development).
  4. The movie really nails moments of awe. In the book, there’s more sickening dread throughout. Whereas the movie still opens with the Velociraptor attack, it then shifts to introducing our characters, and when we get to the island, we get the cool Brachiosaurus scene. The book lingers on moments of horror, characterized by the introductory scene in which a maimed man is brought back to the mainland to die, followed by a prolonged subplot about several Procompsognathus that have escaped to the mainland to prey on infants.
  5. The movie ends with a sense of hope and renewed purpose. The book ends on a darker note, with a much higher body count, the island napalmed, predators escaped to the mainland, and the surviving protagonists held prisoner.

Better in the Book

  1. Gennaro is done a great disservice in the film by combining his character with Ed Regis and killing him off early. I really like the Gennaro of the book. He’s still representative of corporate greed and irresponsibility, but he’s frankly not a bad man, and he’s provided an opportunity for reluctant redemption. Gennaro’s also the book’s everyman and therefore makes for the most relatable viewpoint character, in contrast to the author’s mouthpiece that is Malcolm or the Action Heroes of Grant and Sattler.
  2. There is not a single best version of Muldoon, but the book’s version has some strong points in his favor. I love Bob Peck’s portrayal, but I also like the older, alcoholic, roguish figure of the novel. I also enjoy Muldoon’s meatier role, as he becomes centrally involved in the subplot of attempting to get the park back online, doing things like tranquilizing the adult Tyrannosaurus, finding Nedry’s corpse, and distracting the raptors when attempting to restore power. And there’s the fact that Muldoon makes it out alive in the book. I do prefer the film’s treatment of death–anyone and everyone is at risk, and even though the body count is lower, it’s not the simple use of violent death as moral consequence that Crichton tends to employ in his books. Still, Muldoon’s a character I want to make it off the island; he knew better, and he actually paid attention to the threat the dinosaurs represented. It’s especially humiliating for the film version of the character in that he’s taken down by the dinosaurs he’s supposed to know and respect/fear.
  3. The dinosaurs in the book are more accurate, at least for the time of publication. The film takes too many liberties with some of its dinosaurs, though they are still mostly quite realistic (again, for the time of release) and certainly dynamic in a way that most audiences hadn’t seen before. Even the weird divergences in the book, like Velociraptor actually being Deinonychus, are explicitly discussed, and the speculative behaviors presented for some of the dinosaurs are exactly that–speculative, not necessarily inaccurate.
  4. The book actually answers the questions raised by its central mysteries. The movie never explains why the Triceratops keeps getting sick (nor does it even bother to suggest that Sattler is right) or how the Velociraptor were breeding without notice or able to escape their confinement to lay eggs in the park. The novel simply had more raptors, so it was easier to imagine them secretly disappearing at night in small numbers, but the movie has only the three, so it’s a little harder to imagine that no one would ever notice (then again, they had a skeleton crew to run the park, even more so in the movie).
  5. The book also spends more time fleshing out how the park is run and staffed, how things go to hell and how systems are restored, and even what the dinosaurs really are. I liked the moments spent with Muldoon, Wu, and Harding and the more behind-the-curtain elements that their stories, and Hammond’s, provided. While I’d never want to see a movie remake of Jurassic Park, which is more or less perfect as is, I really wouldn’t mind at all a television series that adapted the novel and mirrored its more meandering pace and curiosity about every element of how this park could possibly exist. Spielberg rightly focused on the awe and spectacle, but I like Crichton’s intense focus on rationalizing everything, on making it seem real, like an incident that had actually occurred. Crichton was interested in the infrastructure and logistics of it all, and I suppose I am too.

A fairly neutral point is how each version left the state of the fictional universe for potential sequels. Certainly sequels are never necessary, but we’ve certainly had plenty of sequels nonetheless, and it’s interesting to consider how the changed landscapes at the conclusions of the original stories impacted what later stories could reasonably be told.

The book closes off any option of a return to Isla Nublar, given its dramatic napalm bombing finale. However, it does leave the dangling thread of some of the dinosaurs having reached the mainland–at least some Procompsognathus and what is suggested to be Velociraptor. That might have been a rather limited scope for a sequel, but you’d immediately be in a world where dinosaurs were coexisting with remote human populations, and that could have been interesting. I’m rather glad we didn’t see that sequel, though, because I don’t think I’d much care for such a scenario where there were only a few small theropods left. Sure, it could have been an interesting story about preserving and containing de-extinct and now endangered life that was nonetheless an invasive species, but I bet it would have been more a monster narrative about killer dinosaurs.

Ultimately, it was the better choice for Crichton to abandon this subplot. And, given his interest in a plausible prehistoric park and in the nuts-and-bolts infrastructure of it, the existence of a Site B makes a lot of sense and is a good starting point. It doesn’t feel like a do-over, but more a reflection that Jurassic Park would have required considerable facilities for genetics, manufacturing, incubation, and raising the young dinosaurs that likely would have to be larger than the infrastructure suggested even in the book’s version of the park. It’s a natural development. I’m also hardly alone in finding that Crichton’s best stories tend to borrow themes and structures from classic literature, so it shouldn’t be surprising that he turned to perhaps the most signature adventure story of humans stumbling upon a lost prehistoric land for the sequel, lifting even the title of Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Lost World for his novel. Once more, Crichton spends a lot of time on nuts and bolts, building out a plausible sequence of events for the characters to discover this lost world and articulating a coherent explanation for its existence and abandonment. But the plot itself suffers, and he reuses character types from Jurassic Park, down to bringing along two kids. Truly, once the team gets to the island, the plot takes a backseat to a series of mostly disconnected action set pieces, interesting speculative dinosaur behaviors, and long-winded philosophical debates among the protagonists. The central mystery on the island–how can the ecosystem support so many carnivores?–is not especially interesting and keeps getting derailed by the next action scene. And the central antagonists are just bumbling poachers, as Crichton apparently felt it necessary to bring the BioSyn corporate antagonist behind Nedry back into the mix in a rather mundane way. Perhaps the most unusual carryover from the first book is the return of Ian Malcolm, a character who was quite dead. While a bizarre choice, I imagine this was an acquiescence to audience interest and the very living version of the character in the movie. It might perhaps be another nod to Arthur Conan Doyle, who in addition to writing The Lost World was of course the creator of Sherlock Holmes, whom he once killed off and later brought back.

Spielberg and screenwriter David Koepp had their own loose ends they could have followed up on. After all, there’s no mention of bombing the island. There could have still been dinosaurs on Isla Nublar. Perhaps InGen could have sent in a team to try to control the situation, encountering new threats and exploring previously unseen areas of the park. The mysteries left unanswered in the film could have been addressed. And while the lysine contingency would have gone into effect with the absence of human intervention, the animals’ continued survival would have been another mystery to answer–after all, that was another question left to address on Isla Sorna either way. While they largely scrapped the broad adventure plot of Crichton’s sequel, they did pull in several of the characters, a few of the action sequences, and the broad concept of the second island, so Nublar was left neglected. Of course, the films did eventually get back to Isla Nublar and a reorganized park, but in the process, they left the fate of the dinosaurs on Isla Sorna in shadow. Why was the volcanic eruption on Isla Nublar a potential threat of re-extinction for the dinosaurs if they were thriving on Site B? The only for-certain explanation, provided in ancillary materials like the Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom Survival Guide, is that the animals were relocated from Isla Sorna to the new park on Isla Nublar. Were they all moved? How did InGen get around the apparent preserve status set up for Isla Sorna after the events of The Lost World, especially if they completely depleted the newly established ecosystem in the process? Regardless, it would have been nice if each film didn’t act as though there was only one island with dinosaurs on it, that island being whichever one was the focus of that given film.

But now I’m way off topic. The bottom line: there are a great many things I like about both the book and movie version of Jurassic Park, and I’m glad they both exist.

Review: Making Contact

Making Contact: Preparing for the New Realities of Extraterrestrial Existence by Alan Steinfeld

My rating: 1 of 5 stars


I was provided an advanced copy of Making Contact, apparently because of my interest in the much better UFOs: Generals, Pilots and Government Officials Go on the Record by Leslie Kean. Making Contact is a book for true believers only, those already caught up in the mythology of conspiracy theories, alien abductions, and interdimensional communication. Only the especially credulous, already well-versed in the layers of contradictory alien contact lore, could truly enjoy this book. As such, this is a case where the book is just a bad fit for me.

But I unfortunately have to discourage anyone else from reading. We live in an age in which misinformation spreads rapidly and easily, and this book represents exactly the sort of dangerous misinformation we should be avoiding. People without strong critical thinking skills might be persuaded, for instance, by the chapter in this book written by social scientists misexplaining and misapplying complex hard science fields like quantum physics to justify disjointed narratives of alien/UFO superpowers.

I’d also suggest that this book is the sort of thing that undermines any real interest in engaging seriously with the phenomenon of unidentified flying objects. I’m sure there’s an explanation for those 5% of sightings that can’t be explained currently even with sufficient data about the sighting, and that explanation may not be very interesting but it would still be worthwhile to know. I’d love to see serious research into that phenomenon. But why would any serious scientist want to touch the subject if the people shouting most loudly about it also insist that the mere existence of UFOs indicates interstellar or interdimensional beings visiting us not-so-surreptitiously on Earth? What legitimate researcher would bother to think there’s anything there if they’re always hearing about the phenomenon in the context of stories about alien abductions, mystical energy fields, telepathic contactees, and elaborate but entirely unsupported conspiracy theories?

Furthermore, the book feels a bit rushed, perhaps because of the need to put something out in advance of the release to the public of the DOD report on UFOs that should be made available by the end of June. Of course, since this book’s publication, it’s become pretty clear that the report, as per usual, cannot definitively state what the phenomenon is. That’s to be expected and not reflective of a conspiracy but just the reality that it’s hard to verify every case of something strange seen in the sky after the fact. But of course, the essays included in the book seem to believe that this is all part of a rolling buildup to full Disclosure, the almost Rapture-level event anticipated in the far-out ufology community in which the government will come clean and reveal the full depths of contact with extraterrestrials, complete with revelations about its sordid history of involvement with benevolent and malevolent ETs and their remarkable technologies.

It’s a shame, too, because not all of the essays are bad. Nick Pope’s essay, while increasingly speculative toward the end, is actually a very level take on the UFO phenomenon and rather clearly and logically explains why it’s very unlikely that there’s any big government conspiracy at all. A transcript of a talk by the late psychiatrist and alien abduction researcher John Mack offered a nuanced accounting of his work and speculation about what it could mean–and while it’s certainly not a convincing argument for legitimate alien abduction occurrences, it’s an interesting reminder that these experiences are very real to the people reporting them. Finally, the book excerpt by famous abductee/writer Whitley Strieber and the fascinatingly fragmented and abstract essay by abductee/performer Henrietta Weekes were interesting insights into the perspectives of those actually reporting an “alien abduction” experience. I think it’s notable that the essays I’ve cited downplay the significance of the actual UFO phenomenon and put more weight into subjective experience related to a separate phenomenon, that of the reported alien abduction, experiences that seem very real to the alleged abductees. However, I think it would be far more interesting to read about the experience as a psychosocial phenomenon, rather than as further support for those desperately looking for proof of alien contact, no matter how incompatible the various sources of evidence.

I’d suggest looking for writings by Pope, Mack, Strieber, or Weekes outside of this anthology, where they can be engaged with (even if not accepted/believed) on their own terms.

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Finally, if you’re interested in reading something worthwhile on the history of investigation into the UFO phenomenon, I’d strongly recommend the April 30th essay “How the Pentagon Started Taking U.F.O.s Seriously” by Gideon Lewis-Kraus on The New Yorker.

Review: Surviving Death (Book)

Surviving Death: A Journalist Investigates Evidence for an Afterlife by Leslie Kean

My rating: 4 of 5 stars


Just like Leslie Kean’s UFOs: Generals, Pilots and Government Officials Go on the Record was for the UFO phenomenon, her Surviving Death: A Journalist Investigates Evidence for an Afterlife is a great introductory text about contemporary evidence for the afterlife geared at a mainstream audience. It’s not an examination of religious belief, and Kean presents herself as agnostic on the subject although inclined to believe that consciousness continues beyond death. She tries to maintain objectivity while also being explicit about her subjective perspective and personal biases; she weaves her own personal experiences into her reporting in a way that makes the book more intimate, more personally authentic, and yet more troubled. I’ll get to that more later.

The first thing you have to get past when reading this book is that Kean is not at all agnostic on the subject of psychic abilities. Quoting British psychologist David Fontana, she writes in the introduction, “Psychic abilities are a matter of fact, not of belief.” She then insists, “The reader will encounter the reality of the most refined psychic functioning throughout this book, and by the end will have no questions as to its existence.” I doubt that many readers, not previously inclined to believe in psychic abilities, will have shifted the needle on their views at all by the end. I certainly still have plenty of questions, having only been primed to accept that there may be some form of psychic ability in some humans thanks to having read Annie Jacobsen’s Phenomena: The Secret History of the U.S. Government’s Investigations into Extrasensory Perception and Psychokinesis. Nonetheless, you have to at least be willing to accept that parapsychologists and other paranormal researchers typically accept psychic abilities as existing to some degree or other, as this forms the big debate for many of these researchers in the narrative: is the evidence we have of some continuation of consciousness beyond death actually supportive of that hypothesis, or is it only reflective of the immense psychic abilities that some living agents may possess to access and synthesize otherwise hidden or unknown information sources that would often be separated without any clear connection? By the end of the book, I do believe that an objective and fair-minded reader will have to acknowledge that if at least some of the phenomena reported are genuine, then one of these possibilities must be true, and the living-agent hypothesis feels like a remarkably conservative position, a recognition that it’s at least as outlandish, if not more so, to make the great number of assumptions needed to reach a hypothesis in which consciousness somehow survives death. Either way, you should be prepared for some rather interesting discussion regarding the concept of non-local consciousness and how it might interact with one’s physical brain–something not presented as fact but as informed speculation in an attempt to explain some of the things described.

So what is described? Kean slowly constructs a narrative of the potential afterlife by building on one section of study after another, starting with reincarnation accounts, moving on to near-death experiences and “actual-death” experiences, providing connective tissue with overlapping accounts between those with NDEs and some of the details children provide about what happens between reincarnations, then steaming on to the end with mental mediumship, trance mediumship, apparitions, and physical mediumship. The plausibility of the experiences started off high for me and gradually decreased over time. (In fact, I’m already rather partial to reincarnation narratives because the best ones seem, to me at least, to be rather difficult to fake without the active involvement of the researcher in the fraud, and the accounts can’t really be brushed away as merely coincidental or absorbed through environment; Old Souls by Tom Shroder, which is referenced by Kean in Surviving Death, turned me onto the parapsychological research into this field, which at its very least is compelling as a form of oral history/folklore collection.)

Kean is quite aware of the decreasing-plausibility concern, and I think she spends an unusual amount of time and space on mediumship and mental mediumship in particular because the field has such a strong history of fraud and resultant public skepticism. She is convinced, along with some other paranormal researchers, that there are legitimate mediums, and I have to say that what she shares of the readings by the exceptional mental mediums she has seen certainly suggests access to knowledge they could not otherwise possess that probably wouldn’t be possible with advance research or cold reading. But physical mediumship has always seemed too razzle-dazzle to be credible, seemingly set up with the intent to deceive, with the closet behind the medium and the darkness or low red light required for anything to happen. Plus, everything else works within an understanding that perhaps consciousness is non-local and can survive death, but it does not have many mechanisms to interact with our material plane, in the dimensions our physical bodies inhabit, and it may fundamentally be something unverifiable, but it doesn’t require a rethinking of our physical reality. However, physical mediumship, with its ectoplasm and conjurations of hands and feet and sometimes whole forms, with its vanishing and materialization of objects, with its projection of strange voices, reads like a bizarre stage show and would require reexamination of how we think the world works in pretty significant ways. It’s a bridge too far for me, and I suspect that will be the case for many people. Kean’s fighting a losing battle there, and her narration of sessions she has attended doesn’t do much for me. Surely she is convinced, and I truly believe she experienced what she writes, but I think that this is just evidence that she was sufficiently fooled by the performers. Many intelligent, educated, skeptical people can be fooled by an especially convincing hustle, so she would hardly be in bad company, but I just can’t accept the extraordinary claims invited by physical mediums without extraordinary evidence that will never be forthcoming. I suppose nothing’s impossible, but I’m not willing to let down my guard and believe just about anything simply because it could possibly be true. I think that’s the very path to the really whacky, far-out-there High Strangeness crowd.

While I think it was a mistake to devote so much time to physical mediumship, it is nonetheless the case that Kean has probably written the most persuasive argument possible to take the practice seriously. And in doing so, her interweaving of her personal experiences in the wake of her grief over losing her brother and a close friend makes the book something far more personal and emotional than I would have expected, even as she often keeps a rather clinical, dry, and objective writing style. It’s certainly a far more revealing book about the author as a person than UFOs was, and I appreciate the vulnerability, even though I can’t reward it with full belief.

Surviving Death presents a series of fascinating narratives, and I’ve barely touched on all that is covered for such a relatively small volume. Much like UFOs, it has its flaws, but it’s essential reading for its paranormal subject matter.



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