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Books - House of Cards

Item Description
The Pleasure planet Liantac was once the greatest gambling resort in the Uncharted Territories. Even now, having fallen on hard times, it remains a spectacle of glitz and greed. Astronaut John Crichton and his fellow interstellar fugitives see Liantac as the source of much-needed supplies – except for Rygel, whose boundless avarice is tempted by the promise of easy riches. Imagine his shock, then, when he loses their starship, Moya, in a game of chance! To discharge the debt, and liberate their ship from the planetary authorities, Crichton, Aeryn, and the others must take on a number of challenging assignments. But all is not what it seems, for treachery and deadly intrigue hides within this... House of Cards.

by Mary Wood

There are two distinct advantages to writing a novel for an established sci-fi series like Farscape. The most obvious is that you can tell a story that hasn't been told before. You can allow your audience to "see" an unaired episode. While I'm sure there are strict limits on advancing characters and core story arcs, you can take our heroes on unique adventures that the series has yet to explore. You can make up little back-stories that no one has thought of yet. The other advantage is that you can tell that unique story in a way that would be difficult or impossible to translate onscreen. You can create complex aliens and alien worlds that are prohibitive onscreen due to time, budget, or the scope of what CGI and animatronics can do. Even more than that however, you can get into the characters' heads the way we can't really do onscreen. Even in episodes like "Revenging Angel" where we are taking a trip through John Crichton's psyche, we are still third party, outside observers. In a book, one can really explore the different perspectives of each character or delve deeper into the alieness of the alien players.

It seems to me that these two elements would have gotten the attention they deserved in "House of Cards" if the book hadn't left me with the feeling that I'm playing Farscape Trivia in the middle of trying to read the story. More on that in a moment.

I believe that if Keith had focused on original storytelling the rest would have fallen into place. For the most part, he does have a good handle on the personas of the main characters. We especially get some good moments with Chiana as the free spirit and not-quite-reformed thief. Crichton's view of the Uncharted Territories through his present-day pop-culture driven self almost gets to be too much at times, but only almost. I can't really fault Keith for that as I would say the same about several of the show's episodes. Most of the characters get a few good one-liners in that really speak volumes about their personalities. It's always good when a writer can say so much about a character's persona in a very brief line or moment of interaction with other characters. One of the best lines has to go to Aeryn in response to Crichton's Earth pop-culture references; "Just ignore him. It's what we all do."

The core story itself takes place on a Las Vegas like planet. Kind of like how Star Trek aliens are often joked to be "humans with funny foreheads" (not just in look, but in personality), this planet was Las Vegas with an alien name and 3 or 4 funny alien customs tossed in. It otherwise takes an awful lot for granted that a completely alien culture would basically look *exactly* the same as ours, right down to the Wayne Newton type entertainment and showgirls. Add to that, one of the characters – and the section of story that involves him – is a carbon copy of Br'Nee from "Bone to be Wild" with a different name and face slapped onto him. Add to that, too many more elements or characters that could have been original, but instead were rehashed versions of things we've already seen. It's one thing to take inspiration from other sources. We are after all a product of our upbringing; everything we say and do is inspired by what we've seen and experienced. But it's quite another thing to do a Vanilla Ice; change the last note and call it a completely different song. Given, this was a highly praised form of storytelling 2,000+ years ago in the Middle East. It is not as universally accepted or praised in Western culture today.

The native aliens themselves are original enough and I definitely do picture something that would be difficult to do with CGI or animatronics. One problem though; they are about the only new aliens we see. At every possible opportunity Keith is describing this room/building/street/planet full of aliens. Aside from the Lians (natives), they are all Luxans, Sebaceans, Delvians, and every once in a while, aliens we've seen on Farscape as guest characters like Halosians. Because he has taken on the responsibility of writing an officially sanctioned novel, I must assume that Keith has watched all or at least most of the episodes of Farscape. If so, he would have to notice that aside from Sebaceans (Peacekeepers) and the occasional Scarran, it is extremely rare for any of the other characters to happen upon one of their own race or run into the same guest-alien race twice. So when Keith describes to me this planet chock full of familiar faces, I have to wonder why he goes so conspicuously out of his way to do that. It's not to illustrate how rare an occurrence that is, because the other characters think nothing of it (which, as a side note, makes them woefully out of character). It isn't key to the story. I know from his description of the Lians that he's capable of inventing new alien races (all he'd have to do in this case is name them – not even describe them). The only other reason I can think of is that Keith is saying to the world, "Hey everyone! I watch Farscape … I really do! I even know who the Halosians are!"

I see this kind of thing in FanFic all the time. Frequent, unnecessary, overtly obvious references to alien races or elements or scenes that just don't seem to be there for any good reason other than for the author to impress us with his/her knowledge of the Farscape and Farscape trivia. Is this such a problem? It is when it detracts from the story. It's especially bad when it's detrimental to the story, as in the very out of character case above. It can also confuse the issue at hand and really throw off readers who hadn't seen the episode or scene he's referring to. Consider this example:

Crichton grinned. "Congrats D'Argo. You look like you again."
"What are you talking about? I always look like me. Except when I was in Chiana's and Pilot's bodies of course..."

"Out of their Minds" has no bearing on this scene or this novel whatsoever. Bringing it up doesn't enhance or shed new light on any of the characters. For readers who haven't seen "Out of their Minds," I can see this being really confusing. "When did this happen? 'Of course' could suggest it happens often. Does D'Argo have special powers that enable him to switch bodies? How does this figure into the plot of "House of Cards?" This kind of thing is constant throughout the book. And again, it's out of character. On the show itself, the characters are not constantly making reference to their past adventures. Occasionally, yes, and usually only if it pertains to the current plot. Why? Don't want to confuse new viewers. Here's another example:

"I'm telling you I was cheated," Rygel said, tugging angrily at [the security collar around his neck]. "And," he added, "this frelling collar itches."
"Now you know how I felt" Chiana muttered.

Even having seen "Durka Returns," my first thought when I read this was, "Wait a minute! When did they put a security collar on Chiana? Did I skip a page?" It's bad enough that Keith is continually interrupting the story with unnecessary Farscape trivia, but what really seals my score of "1" is that it's done to a detrimental extreme.

Lastly, when you do bring existing elements and past scenes into play, be very sure that you have your facts straight. Keith makes a few references to Aeryn being ousted from the Peacekeepers for being "contaminated by aliens." I wonder if he's aware that it wasn't "aliens," it was one "unclassified alien;" John Crichton. He has a character refer to D'Argo as "Ka" as if "Ka" is a first name. Nothing up to the timeframe of "House of Cards" clearly establishes what the "Ka" stands for, but the clues are strong that it is not a first name. As this character lives on a planet full of – among other familiar races – Luxans, Keith's usage of it here is risky at best, sloppy at worst.

Some advice for Keith and other writers; You don't have to prove to us that you've seen "Farscape." We assume you've seen it. Just write the story. And do tell an original story. When Chiana asks, "Why doesn't anyone trust me," and the characters start saying, "Well, there was the time that you…" don't be afraid to make something up. Moya is trapped in orbit by an artificially created field made of clorium; "one of the six elements that Leviathans are forbidden to carry, as it acts as an anesthetic to them." Yes Keith, we're all happy that you've seen "I, ET" or at least read DallasScaper's synopsis of it. But recall also that it was 6 forbidden "cargos," not "elements," and clorium turned out to be that planet's version of salt or pepper. I envision this gigantic cloud of salt around Moya and wonder how you would make the salt stay in place, as once an object (including a grain of salt) is set into motion in space, it just keeps on moving until its path is interrupted. Can you at least make up a name for one of the other 5 forbidden cargos and use it? Or better yet, not reference "I, ET" at all and make up an element of your own?

With all this talk of playing "Name That Obscure Reference," I can't help but end this review by naming one of my own. From "The Island Stallion Races," Walter Farley, Copyright 1955. Young Steve is on a spaceship where most of the objects, including the furniture, is out of sync with his human visual field:

There were no chairs, no furniture in this endless room. Yet Jay gently pushed him down and Steve felt a support of some sort beneath him. Whatever it was, it hugged him close, molding itself to his figure even when he moved his arms and legs. Never before had he sat so comfortably or been so relaxed, so completely at ease.

From "House of Cards," Keith R. A. DeCandido, Copyright 2000:

Crichton sat in one of the beanbag-like chairs. As soon as his body touched the surface, the seat seemed to undulate. "Whoa! That thing's alive."
"John, these are conformer chairs. They adjust themselves to provide maximum comfort once you sit in them."

This leaves me wondering; strange coincidence? Or is Keith trying to prove to me that he too read all of the Walter Farley Black Stallion/Island Stallion books as a kid?

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Item Details
Item: Farscape: House of Cards (Book 1/US, Book 2/UK)
Recommended Retail Price: $6.99, 5.99
Authors: Keith R.A. DeCandido
Publisher: Tor Books (US), Boxtree (UK)
Length: 224 pages (US), 256 pages (UK)
ISBN: 0812561627 (US), 0752219170 (UK)`

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