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Wednesday, October 01, 2014

6WH: The Marathon Will Be Televised
Seeing as though we're living in the Golden Age of Television, it seems like I should be taking advantage of that in this Halloween Marathon of Horror. All the cool kids are doing it, so I might as well play along. Without further ado, here are some TV shows I've been watching of late:
  • From Dusk till Dawn: The Series - S1E1 - Pilot - Based on the Tarantino scripted, Rodriguez directed 1996 film, this series appears to be nothing more than an expanded retelling of the same basic story. It is very slick, well produced, and generally competent in its execution, but it suffers from familiarity (if you've seen the first movie). This pilot episode is an expanded take on the little pit stop that marks the beginning of the film. It is very well done, tense and well paced, but again, we all generally know how it's going to play out.
    Seth and Richie Gecko
    There are some minor differences here, as we get a closer look at the police officers in search of the Gecko brothers and some more details on the Gecko brothers' alliances across the border, but they all seem like minor differences. It's not at all bad, and in fact, this is a pretty tight episode. I imagine that if you haven't seen the movie, it would feel very effective... it's just that I've seen this story before and I feel like I know where it's going to end up. I like it enough to keep watching, but like a lot of Rodriguez's recent work, I'm not entirely sure it needs to exist...
  • From Dusk till Dawn: The Series - S1E2 - Blood Runs Thick - This second episode flashes back to the bank robbery that is only hinted at in the movie, and once again, it's well executed, but we all know where it's going to end, with mitigates the tension a bit too much. We are also introduced to the preacher (played by Robert Patrick, who is fine, but no Harvey Keitel) and get some more details into why he's doing what he's doing. We also see the Gecko's Mexical ally in more detail here, and it starts to diverge a bit more from the movie. It seems that Richie Gecko has some sort of value to the Mexican side of things (read: the vampires) that is not entirely clear to Seth Gecko (or, for that matter, us the viewers, as this was not really in the movie). It's still following all the beats of the movie, but I can kinda see the seeds of some twists and turns that might be different later on. I'm inclined to keep watching.
  • The X-Files - S2:E13 - Irresistible - I'm following along with Kumail Nanjiani's The X-Files Files podcast, and this was one that was recently covered. I forgot just how effective this particular episode really is. It's about an "escalating fetishist" who has gotten a taste for murder. It is exceedingly creepy. The X-Files was always good at casting, but when it comes to amazingly creepy dudes, they almost always hit it out of the park. Think Tooms (where the actor seems to be almost as creepy in real life as he is in the show), but also the dude in this show, who has a thing for women's hair, amongst other things. Really effective episode, and since I've been rewatching the entire series (because of the podcast), it actually made a bit more sense. This is a standalone, but it makes more sense when you realize that Scully has just been kidnapped by aliens and returned (or something like that). And of course, Mulder and Scully have great chemistry, even when one of them is suffering from some sort of issue. This episode also represents the growth of the show from wonky alien conspiracies and supernatural monster stories to more prosaic serial killer themes, something that was quite popular in the 90s (perhaps kicked off by The Silence of the Lambs). It's something the series wold come back to often, and while there are some glimpses of something that is perhaps supernatural, it is one of the epsiodes that is well based in reality (the visions of some serial killer survivors describe similar hallucinations of the killer appearing demonic at one time or another, for instance). One of the better standalone, monster of the week episodes.
  • The X-Files - S2:E14 - Die Hand die verletzt - I've already mentioned this before as one of my favorite X-Files episodes, and I have little to add to that. It's a great take on the old, hoary satanist fears of the 80s, simultaneously dismissing and reinforcing such fears. I love the idea of lapsed satanists being taken to task by more dedicated members of their own "religion", even if this is one of those episodes where Mulder and Scully really don't have much impact on the outcome of the story (except to act as witness).
    I don't want to ruin anything and I've probably already said too much, but this one hits on many of the things that make the X-Files so great.
  • American Horror Story - S1E1 - Pilot - Despite the above, Horror television isn't all that common, and this is one of the few currently active horror tv shows. It's a sorta anthology, except that each story takes up a full season. This particular story, basically about a haunted house and the dysfunctional family who moves in, was the first season story. The second season was about an insane asylum, the third season about a coven of witches, and the forthcoming fourth season seems to be about circus freaks. This initial episode really runs the gauntlet of horror tropes. We've got a haunted house, a Harbinger (in the parlance of The Cabin in the Woods), ghostly twins (a la The Shining, except male), a former resident of the house (perhaps also playing the Harbinger), a gimp suit (!?), a maid who appears differently to some members of the family (also akin to The Shining in some ways that I won't go into). Despite some shotgunning of tropes, this particular episode held my attention pretty well, though the cracks were clearly visibile and I expect them to widen in future episodes. Still, it was better than expected and I expect to watch a few more episodes. That being said, nothing about this show really appeals to me. I get the impression, even from this first, solid episode, that things will get pretty ridiculous and nonsensical as the series grinds on, and that it will be mean-spirited enough that I can't really see myself rooting for anyone in the show. I'd love to be proven wrong, and so far, the show is certainly compelling enough, but I could see this sort of thing quickly devolving into something less appealing to me. I suspect that I won't even finish this first season (full disclosure, I watched about 4-5 episodes of the second season and pretty much gave up on it, and I wouldn't be surprised if the first season goes the same way). But there's only one way to find out!
That's all for now. Stay tuned for what I'm hoping will be a recently released horror weekend.
Posted by Mark on October 01, 2014 at 10:53 PM .: Comments (0) | link :.

End of this day's posts

Sunday, September 28, 2014

6WH: Week 2 - Seventies Horror
After enjoying last week's original Invasion of the Body Snatchers, I decided to check out the remake, which I had never seen. Suitably inspired, I added two more seventies horror movies to the hopper for this week's theme. Not the most creative of themes, but it will have to do. Let's get to it:
  • Night of the Creeps (trailer)
  • Invasion Of The Bunny Snatchers (Looney Tunes)
  • The Invasion (trailer)
  • Invasion of the Body Snatchers - Perhaps due to the usual stigma applied to remakes, I wasn't expecting that much out of this, so I was surprised at how much I ended up enjoying it. It mostly follows the same beats from the original, but director Philip Kaufman brings a stylish eye to the proceedings, deploying every visual trick in the book. You could say that the camera work and goofy camera angles is distracting or showy, but it's all used to add to the story, so I was pretty happy with that aspect. Adding to the tension is a buzzing, pulsing electronic score that is stereotypically 70s (but in a good way). Gone are the Cold War allusions (which weren't that thick to begin with), replaced instead with the paranoia and conspiracy that characterizes so much of 70s cinema. The story has moved from a small California town to San Francisco proper (allowing for many interesting canted camera angles), and our heroes, played by Donald Sutherland (rockin a bitchin porno stache) and Brooke Adams, work for the Department of Health.
    Donald Sutherland
    We also get a slightly better idea of how the actual imitation process actually works. As much as I enjoyed the first movie, the process by which the pod people duplicate people doesn't make much sense. Here it is marginally better, though still quite fuzzy in its own right. The special effects are also slightly better, and more creepy as well. There's a fabulous credits sequence that shows the pods traveling through space, landing on earth and taking root within our ecosystem (the sequence ends with a bizarre cameo featuring Robert Duvall dressed as a priest and swinging on a swingset with a bunch of kids, very weird).
    Home of the pod?

    Robert Duvall?
    The sequence goes on for a solid 5-10 minutes, which is representative of the movie overall. It is a bit too long, perhaps because Kaufman takes so much time playing with the camera instead of rocketing the story along. That being said, I kinda enjoy that they took the extra time to do that sort of thing, and I love that opening sequence. The supporting cast, including folks like Jeff Goldblum and Leonard Nimoy (!), is also pretty fantastic. As I noted last week, the ending of the original seemed rushed and a little odd. The ending of this remake is more cohesive, though being the 70s, it's not exactly upbeat (and if you goof off on the internets a lot, you've probably seen the gif of it floating all over the place). Overall, I really enjoyed this one, which certainly stands up as a worthy remake (if not quite the top tier). It's weird enough (the aforementioned Duvall cameo and of course, that dog with a human face!?) to have carved out its own identity, while still remaining true to the original story. ***
  • Honest Zombie (Robot Chicken)
  • Shaun of the Dead (trailer)
  • Zombi 2 (trailer)
  • Children Shouldn't Play with Dead Things - Unfortunately, the best thing I can say about this early Bob Clarke (of Black Christmas and, uh, Christmas Story fame) movie is that I love the title. It calls to mind those weird titles from Italian Giallos, and the sequence leading up to the title is probably my favorite in the movie. So it started off well enough for me, but it sorta fell apart from there...
    Children Shouldnt Play With Dead Things
    Instead, we're left with a rather bland zombie movie about a group of kids from some sort of theater troupe who travel to a small island that is apparently used solely as a graveyard. They dig up a body and play around with some evil satanic ceremony intended to bring back the dead. Naturally, they're more successful than planned and hijinks ensue. Clearly a very low budget affair, and though there's some decent makeup on the dead folks, there isn't really any real gore factor to make up for a lackluster plot. I'm not a big gore hound or anything, but since the story in zombie movies is uniformly non-existent and boring, I can usually count on gore to keep things interesting. This movie has decent performances for what it is and there's one or two small twists that work, I guess, but it's ultimately a ho-hum zombie affair that didn't really do much for me. The characters are kinda meh, and the cinematography leans a little too dark (though this is clearly a bad transfer - I wonder how much better it would look if it got the Criterion treatment or something). So I clearly didn't love this movie, though to be fair, I'm not a huge zombie fan to start with, so maybe you zombie lovers will enjoy it more than I did... *1/2
  • How Scream Should Have Ended (short)
  • Black Christmas (1974 trailer)
  • Black Sabbath (trailer)
  • When a Stranger Calls - What a strange movie. I could have sworn I'd seen it before, but it turns out that I only really saw the beginning of the movie. Indeed, most of what you think about with this movie is that first 20 minutes (the recent remake attempted to take this opening and stretch it out to an hour and a half. I haven't seen it, but reviews were mixed to poor...). There's a sorta reprise of the opening in the last 20 minutes, but everything inbetween is a curveball.
    A Stranger is Calling
    Our heroine (played by Carol Kane) disappears for a solid hour of the movie, where instead we follow Charles Durning's private investigator character in a weird sorta police procedural drama. The movie even attempts to humanize the scumbag murderer, though not too much. It's just a really odd way to pace the story as that middle act goes on way too long. Of course, the movie is famous for the "call is coming from inside the house!" gag (which was seemingly lifted wholesale from the aforementioned Black Christmas), but there's more to like here. If they had managed to tighten up that middle act, this could have been a really solid movie. As it is, it remains a kinda curiosity, albeit one that's worth checking out (not before you've seen Black Christmas though!). **1/2
That's all for now. Stay tuned for some more recent horror offerings next week, followed by a week of Neo-Slashers. Other than that, my schedule is still pretty open, so if you have any ideas for movies I should watch, let me know!
Posted by Mark on September 28, 2014 at 02:57 PM .: Comments (0) | link :.

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Sunday, September 21, 2014

Six Weeks of Halloween 2014: Week 1 - The Remade
My most favoritest time of the year has arrived, carrying with it leaf piles, mutilated pumpkins, decorative skeletons, fake cobwebs, and other oxymoronic traditions that are nominally ghastly but suddenly become socially acceptable. To celebrate the season, I always embark on a six week long horror movie marathon. Why six weeks? Because that's, like, two weeks better than four (the typical Halloween marathon length).

We kick things off this week with what I'm calling "The Remade". Mostly because that sounds cool and almost represents a horror movie title of its own, but in reality, I watched three classic horror movies from the 1950s that were remade in the 1970s and 1980s. Remakes have a somewhat spotty reputation amongst film nerds in general, and horror dorks in particular. The recent spate of Platinum Dunes (amongst others) remakes of beloved horror movies seems to be driving the current distaste, mostly with good reason. Remakes from other eras are perhaps not as universally reviled. For my part, I find it difficult to get too worked up about this sort of thing, especially since I've realized that a remake is generally accompanied by a corresponding release of a remastered, high-quality edition of the original movie. So yes, the Black Christmas remake wasn't great, but the original got a fantastic DVD release, so it's hard to complain. Similarly, this year's forthcoming The Town That Dreaded Sundown remake is welcome, if only because the original will suddenly come back in print and be widely available too (in this case, the remake shows some promise too, especially since they chose a relatively obscure movie to remake). In any case, movies from the 50s that were remade in the 80s actually worked reasonably well for the remakes (not covered in this post, but could/should be: The Fly, whose remake is superb). But it's still interesting to go back and revisit the remade, as I did this weekend:
  • G.I. Joe - S01E28 - The Germ (TV Episode)
  • Phantoms (trailer)
  • The Blob (1988 trailer)
  • The Blob (1958) - A small meteorite containing a small, blob-like substance that eats everything it comes in contact with, growing as it goes. I don't know this is the first movie where something falls from the sky and some old dude finds it and pokes it with a stick, only to be consumed by whatever, but it's certainly the quintessential example of the trope. This is actually a local movie, filmed in a bunch of Philly suburbs like Downingtown, and the famous movie theater and diner are still around in Phoenixville, where they have an annual "Blobfest" and re-enact running from the theater screaming. As a film, it concerns itself greatly with the no-one believes the teenager angle.
    You meddling kids!
    You meddling kids!
    More metaphorically, it's pretty clearly filled with Cold War symbolism, right up to the solution where they drop the blob off in the arctic, literally freezing the problem. I'm sure someone has a global warming polemic in store fore the inevitable next remake. As it is, the 1988 remake turned the threat from outer space aliens to a secret government project. And while the special effects are genuinely creepy and gory, there's something mean spirited about the remake that doesn't really jive with me. Which is a shame, because as these things go, the blob itself is a rather fantastic and genuinely alien concept. The original is entertaining enough, though it has some weird tonal issues (like, for instance, the absurdly silly theme song that plays over the beginning of the film). The remake overcorrects into making it a really unpleasant affair. Of course, it's been done over and over again in pop culture, including Dean Koontz's novel Phantoms (which is a gazillion times better than the movie adaptation and puts a different spin on a blob-like creature) and more goofy fare, like the episode of G.I. Joe linked above. In the end, this was an interesting enough watch, and worth the stretch for students of the genre. **1/2
  • Who Goes There? by John Campbell (Short Story)
  • Zombie Zombie (Stop Motion Short)
  • The Thing (1982 trailer)
  • The Thing from Another World (1951) - Very loosely based on John Campbell's short story, Who Goes There?, this movie follows a group of scientists and Air Force personnel as they discover a downed spaceship and its alien inhabitant frozen in the ice. Eventually he thaws out, and hijinks ensue. It turns out that I'd never seen this before, which is surprising. It's played more like a straight creature feature, and as those things go, it's actually pretty good. A little talky at times, but there are some great shots, especially when the monster shows up (and they do a good job keeping him hidden in the early proceedings).
    The Thing
    However, it doesn't really leverage the "alien impostor" element of the story at all, which was surprising. This is a pretty clear case where John Carpenter's 1982 remake is superior in almost every way. Not only is it a better adaptation of the original story, but it just works all around. Unlike the mean-spirited nature of The Blob remake, this one strikes a good balance, even while maintaining spectacular creature effects and gore. That being said, the 1951 film is very different, and has its own charms. The Cold War symbolism is probably toned down a bit here, but it's clearly there, and that's unsurprising given the nature of the 1950s! The 2011 prequel is a little perfunctory and forgettable, but it's reasonably effective for what it is. In terms of influence, the original short story has certainly been referenced and homaged repeatedly throughout the years, such as the X-Files episode "Ice". The original movie is worth a watch for fans, but you'd probably be better served reading the original Campbell story. **1/2
  • The Puppet Masters (trailer)
  • Slither (trailer)
  • Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1978 trailer)
  • Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956) - I was surprised to find that this was my favorite of the three movies I watched this weekend. A small town is slowly being replaced by emotionless copies of residents. It turns out that they are grown in pods from outer space. More Cold War and Communism symbolism here, and it's funny, because it's based on what is, by all accounts, a second rate novel that was preceded by much better received stories by Heinlein (The Puppet Masters) and Bradbury. And yet, Invasion is the one that clearly caught the zeitgeist and has proven to be very influential, inspiring countless remakes and homages.
    Not a Pod Person
    Not a Pod Person
    I'll lay this success at the feet of journeyman director Don Siegel, who was famous for accepting junk material and elevating it to something interesting or even great. So while perhaps not as action packed as the other two films, this one nevertheless manages to be the most involving thing I saw this weekend. I wouldn't call it completely transcendent, and the ending certainly seems abrupt and a little strange, but I can see why it has garnered so much love over the years, and it's well worth a watch. I actually have not seen the 1978 remake (except for that one clip we all know about), but I'll probably revisit sometime during this 6WH. ***
So things have gotten off to an interesting start. Thematically, we've got a lot of Cold War fears being represented here, lots of alien menaces, communists are everywhere and they're going to take us over, don't you know? In addition, there's a lot of "No one will believe me about the crazy conspiracy" tropes. I'll have to see if these sorts of themes persist through other 50s movies, or if I just lucked out.

I have no idea what next week's theme will be, but rest assured, it probably won't be as quaint as the 1950s conception of horror. Also, just want to give a shoutout to the brainchild of the Six Weeks of Halloween, Kernunrex, who is of course going to put me to shame in terms of the number of movies he watches and quality of commentary he posts, so be sure to check him out. Also, Bonehead XL has already begun his marathon and will surely outpace me as well.
Posted by Mark on September 21, 2014 at 08:17 PM .: Comments (2) | link :.

End of this day's posts

Sunday, September 14, 2014

SF Book Review, Part 17
Since we've come dangerously close to decorative gourd season, motherfuckers, I figure I should knock out a few reviews before the Six Weeks of Halloween horror movie marathon begins in earnest. There's going to be some overlap here with the most recent book queue, but a few other books I've read recently as well.
  • Afterparty by Daryl Gregory - I bought this one blind, based solely on a quick recommendation by my friend Chandra. I wish I'd looked at the blurb though, as this book has my deck stacked against it. I really don't like stories that center around drug use. There are a few that have worked, but more often than not, I find myself frustrated and annoyed. There are some interesting bits here, and in theory, it could have worked for me, but it never really connected. In the future, there's been a smart drug revolution, with people able to quickly and easily design new drugs and print them out on a "chemjet". When a new drug called Numinous starts making the rounds, Lyda Rose recognizes it as something she worked on earlier in her career and tries to find out who is making this stuff again. The drug provides a sort of spiritual euphoria, but those who take too much start to hallucinate their own personal guardian angel (or similar figure from your chosen belief system) and that hallucination never goes away. Alas, the SFnal elements are basically window dressing, an excuse to whine about religion or wallow in self-pity and guilt. The world isn't quite a dystopia, I guess, but we only really see the worst elements of it. This would not be a fatal issue, except that I really couldn't stand Lyda as a protagonist. She's clearly had a rough go at it, so I can see where she's coming from, I just didn't find her methods particularly effective or worth following in this much detail. If it weren't for her paranoid friend Ollie, perhaps the only competent character in the book (despite the continual reminder that her paranoia often gets the better of her), this book would have really been miserable. It does get better as it goes on and the ending works well enough, but it's not really my thing and I found the whole thing rather depressing...
  • A Darkling Sea by James Cambias - This story takes place at the bottom of a deep, ice-covered ocean on the planet Ilmatar. A human research party is there to observe the natives - blind lobster-like creatures that congregate around deep sea vents for sustenance and use sonar for navigation. However, the humans are prohibited from actually contacting the Ilmatarans by a peace treaty with a third race, the Sholen, who want to limit humanity's expansion into the galaxy. When an unfortunate accident results in a human death, the Sholen kick up some diplomatic fuss in order to get the humans to leave, eventually resorting to force... and the Ilmatarans are caught in the middle. I enjoyed this novel greatly. Cambias has created a well balanced set of conflicts here, with sympathy extending to nearly all players. The Sholen, while clearly antagonistic, are not mere carboard cutouts. They have their own motivations and biases that would be amusing if the situation here wasn't so dire. The Ilmatarans' society is logically thought out given their environment, and their motivations are well established. You could argue that both alien races are a little too human-like in their thinking, but I think they cleared the bar on that (they aren't the Tines or Primes, but they're decent). Thematically, the book covers some interesting ground without ever feeling particularly preachy or manipulative. For instance, the whole thing is pretty thorough takedown of the rather silly Star Trek conceit of the "Prime Directive" (which basically forbids Starfleet personnel from interacting with developing alien races), but that emerges naturally from the story, rather than as a lecture. Overall, this is one of my favorite SF books of the year so far, and is an early possibility for a Hugo nomination next year.
  • Grave Peril by Jim Butcher - The third book in the Dresden Files and while it's an improvement over the second installment (which I did not particularly enjoy), it's still not quite the fun modern fantasy adventure I keep thinking it will deliver. I have this sneaking suspicion that I'll probably come back to this series again at some point when I'm looking for something kinda trashy, and I've heard the series gets better as it goes on... This installment covers how Harry deals with a particular uprising of ghosts and spirits, as well as a sneaky Vampire power grab. There's plenty to like here, and there are a bunch of memorable episodes, but then a lot of this falls a bit flat. The primary side characters include Harry's continually damseled girlfriend Susan and his sorta partner in crime, Michael. I feel like both of them kinda came out of nowhere, though it's been a while, so maybe they made brief appearances earlier in the series (I'm pretty sure Susand did, actually). Murphy seems like a great character, but she's sidelined for most of this book. Dresden's stepmother makes many appearances and represents another thing that feels like it came out of nowhere. Fortunately, the bulk of the story is reasonably well done. As per usual, the magic stuff tends to get out of hand and Dresden seemingly endures wayy too much physical damage to be effective, but that's par for the course in this series. In the end, I had a fine time with this, even if it didn't really knock my socks off.
  • The Martian by Andy Weir - You know that scene in Apollo 13 where the NASA team dumps a bunch of parts on the table and tries to make a square filter fit into a round hole, using only the equipment available in the space capsule? Yeah, this book is 350 pages of that, only the astronaut in question is alone and stranded on Mars. And he's got a lot more resources and equipment available to him. Still, this is a fascinating chronicle of how he survives in the hostile environment of Mars. Author Andy Weir cuts no corners, and painstakingly explains how each little bit works. Even more impressive, he makes all of the science approachable and even exciting. He also manages to insert a fair amount of humor into the proceedings, which helps greatly. This isn't particularly a great character piece, but the challenges facing the character and the problem solving that goes into resolving issues more than makes up for any deficiencies in that area. There are no villains here, only a harrowing fight for survival. This is ultimately one of the most impressive pieces of Hard SF I've read in a long time. Not quite as diamond-hard as Greg Egan, but the accessibility and humor make this a gazillion times more approachable and entertaining (if not quite as mind-blowing). You could perhaps argue that the level of detail goes a little overboard, but it was music to this systems analyst's ears. If this winds up being eligible for the Hugo awards next year, it will almost certainly garner my vote. Highly recommended for those not scared by science (and really, if you're scared by science, why are you reading science fiction!?)
And that's all for now. Stay tuned for the Six Weeks of Halloween, starting next Sunday. Up first, I think, will be what I'm calling The Remade (three 50s classics that have been remade).
Posted by Mark on September 14, 2014 at 06:27 PM .: Comments (0) | link :.

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Wednesday, September 10, 2014

The Book Queue
It's hard to believe that my last published book queue was over a year ago, though I guess you could say that the Hugo Award nominees were a de facto queue early on in the year. Now that the Hugos are over, I've moved on to some other things. At first I wanted some palate cleansers, but once I realized that my supporting membership this year enables me to nominate and vote on next year's awards, I'm back on the hunt for new and interesting SF. Recommendations are welcome, but I have already compiled a pretty lengthy list (a few of which, I've already started...), so let's see what's coming up:
  • A Darkling Sea by James Cambias - I actually just finished this very well executed deep-sea first contact story (basically), so I won't say much more except that I'm pretty sure I'll be nominating this for the award. I'm also pretty sure it won't get enough votes, but a man can hope.
  • Lock In by John Scalzi - I just started this book recently and am about a quarter of the way through it. It's a sorta near future detective story, with robots and the like. I'm being deliberately vague about it, but so far, so good. As of right now, it's not a lock for my nominating vote, but it will almost surely be nominated next year. Scalzi's a popular guy and this book has been getting good reviews.
  • The Martian by Andy Weir - I have also started this book, about an astronaut stranded on Mars, and it might be my favorite book of the year so far. Unfortunately, it's Hugo eligibility is questionable. Weir self-published the novel in 2012, but it was so well received that he got a more traditional publishing deal, which republished the book in 2014. The rules seem pretty clear that this was eligible in 2013... but then, I also know that Scalzi's Old Man's War was self-published on his website several years prior to its being nominated for a Hugo, so perhaps there is hope. Regardless, this is one of the more audacious hard-SF efforts I've read in a while, and yet it remains accessible and even funny. Highly recommended, but I'm getting ahead of myself. I will try to review these suckers when I finish them.
  • A Sword Into Darkness by Thomas A. Mays - A military SF book by a formal naval officer, I've heard good things. Another self-published book, I'm almost certain this will not be nominated, but I also haven't read it yet, so I guess we'll find out. It does sound like it's right up my alley though.
  • Hieroglyph: Stories and Visions for a Better Future - A collection of stories inspired by the optimism of golden age SF, this is a project driven by Neal Stephenson (so you know I'm all over it), but includes stories from lots of other folks (including, I might add, the aforementioned James Cambias). Hopefully this will be good fodder for the short fiction categories.
  • The Three-Body Problem by Liu Cixin - There's apparently some buzz for this one because Liu Cixin is China's most popular SF author, and this is the first time his work has been published in English. Translated words don't tend to do well at the Hugos though, so I guess we'll see. I know very little about it, but I'm willing to give it a shot based purely on buzz...
  • World of Fire by James Lovegrove - The first in a series of books where the main character is troubleshooter dropped into various situations where the local authorities are stumped. The SFnal catch is that this guy's original bodied died, and he's continually being downloaded into other bodies on various planets. Or something like that. I'm not expecting Hugo quality stuff here, just some entertaining, fun space-opera type stuff.
  • Ancillary Sword by Anne Leckie - The sequel to this year's awards monster (it won the Hugo and every other award in its path), if this is actually published this year (it's not available for presale yet, even though it's due in October), it's a shoe-in for another nomination (unless, I guess, it's really bad).
There are, of course, plenty of other interesting books coming out that I may want to check out, but this seems like a promising start...
Posted by Mark on September 10, 2014 at 08:52 PM .: Comments (0) | link :.

End of this day's posts

Sunday, September 07, 2014

The Wheel of Time: The Great Hunt
When Robert Jordan's entire Wheel of Time series was nominated for a Best Novel Hugo Award this year, I knew I wouldn't have time to read all of the books. While you might think that's due to laziness, it should be noted that the series consists of 14 books, 10,000+ pages, and 4.4+ million words. According to my Goodreads stats, I'm averaging something like 12,000 pages a year, and given the fact that I only had a few months before votes were due, it was basically impossible. Fortunately for me, I didn't particularly care for the first book in the series, The Eye of the World, so reading the entire series became unnecessary. That being said, the publisher, Tor books, was exceedingly generous in making the entire text available in the voters packet, so I thought I'd give the series another chance before voting. I got about halfway through the second book, The Great Hunt, before I had to cast my votes for the Hugo, and I felt good about my ballot. I finished the book not long after, and I must say, it's a big improvement over the first book, even as it suffers from many of the same issues.

The story picks up where we left off, with our heroic band of misfits taking refuge in a town, waiting for a bunch of Aes Sedai to consult on the happenings of the first book. Nynaeve and Egwene plan to accompany them to train as Aes Sedai, while the rest plan to return home. Our nominal protagonist, Rand al'Thor, has definitively been identified as "The Dragon Reborn" (basically a "Chosen One" type of situation), and is thus developing some major trust issues. Not long after the arrival of the Aes Sedai, the city is attacked by Darkfriends, and two powerful artifacts are stolen, including the cursed dagger which is magically linked to Mat, so it seems that our three farmboys are headed off with a large search party to retrieve the stolen treasures. Meanwhile, foreign invaders called the Seanchan have begun to encroach on the border, and there are all sorts of other weird happenings throughout the world.

There are a lot of similarities to the first book here. There's an ancient, powerful artifact that is in danger, there's a bunch of epic journeys, tangential episodic adventures, hearty stews (of course), our band of heroes is separated, and eventually reunited - you know, high fantasy tropes galore. The difference between this book and the previous is that each element here is better done and more memorable. It's still bloated and sloppy, but at least there's some more interesting stuff that's happening. It helps that we already have a pretty good handle on the cast of characters, despite a few new ones, so little time is wasted rehashing what we already know.

The episodic stuff actually works reasonably well. For example, at one point Rand, Loial, and Thurin (the latter being a new character) are separated from the search party and find themselves in a town called Cairhien, where they play something called "The Great Game", an intrigue-charged game of politics and maneuver amongst the various factions of the city (I'm guessing the name here is historically based). For various reasons, Rand appears to be a Lord to the city, so he is expected to play. His instinct is to simply ignore various invites and overtures, but it turns out that this is taken to mean that he is even more important than he appears. His inaction is interpreted to be a rather extreme action. And so on.

Nynaeve and Egwene have a couple interesting episodes as well. Their training with the Aes Sedai leads to a lot of additional knowledge about how things work in that weird magical lawyer/mafia hybrid environment. They meet up with Elayne and Min (both characters had bit parts in the first book, and were a welcome addition here), and have a rather disturbing run-in with the Seanchan later in the book (this is one of the more memorable tangents, actually).

There are plenty of other tangents that perhaps don't work as well as the above examples, but for the most part, the characters are growing. Rand is still a little whiny because he doesn't want to be the Chosen One (a fair complaint, to be sure), but he is also nowhere near as passive or blank as he was in the first book. He has spent some time training as a swordsman, and his chosen one powers are starting to add up (even if he's scared that they will eventually make him crazy). Mat is still a bit of a turd, but he's still cursed, so that's to be expected. Perrin makes himself useful, further developing his latent talent to talk to wolves. Nynaeve and Egwene are both learning a lot, and having to deal with some interesting problems. Moraine and Lan get some more background and motivation. Many of the side characters are further developed. A handful of new characters seem to have some interesting stuff to do.

All of this would still feel rather unsatisfying, except that Jordan manages to bring everything together for a big climax towards the end of the book that is genuinely involving and even exciting. Don't get me wrong, it's still bloated and overlong, but there is an actual payoff at the end of this book that is encouraging. When I finished the first book, I wasn't upset or anything and I had enjoyed myself well enough, but I wasn't that interested in exploring more of the series. This book does indicate that such a thing might actually be possible, and so I'm thus marginally more inclined to pick up book 3 at some point. None of this would have changed the way I voted for the Hugos, of course, but it's still encouraging.

From what I understand, the series bogs down for a while in the middle books, but eventually all the pieces are assembled for the final battle, which sounds like it could be an interesting experience. I'm planning on reading a bunch of 2014 books and stories in preparation for next year's Hugo nomination season, but if I read two books a year... I should be finished sometime around 2020. Er, ok, so maybe not. Still, it's not entirely outside the realm of possibility, which is more than I could say after the first book, and you never know. After all, I already have all the books on my Kindle. Ah well, the Wheel turns...
Posted by Mark on September 07, 2014 at 02:16 PM .: Comments (0) | link :.

End of this day's posts

Wednesday, September 03, 2014

Weird Movie of the Week
Last time on Weird Movie of the Week, we took a look at a werewolf who was also a cop. This time, we've got a touching tale of a gay yeti and his frat boy lover:
...sexually repressed Frat Boy Adam finds himself kidnapped by a twisted cult and offered as human sacrifice to a homicidal and wildly homosexual Mountain Yeti. But when the misunderstood Yeti spares his life, young Adam soon gives in to his deepest desires and finds love with his new furry friend. As the kinky fun heats up, the outraged cultists set out to put a stop to the shocking man-beast love once and for all!
Yes, it's called Yeti: A Love Story (aka Yeti: A Gay Love Story), and it is, of course, a Troma production (so ultra-low budget and intentionally terrible). Apparently it's part of Troma's Cinema VeriGay collection. It is also available for free, in its entirety, on YouTube, so don't worry about trying to find it. Because I know you were getting worried about its availability (oddly, it seems that many Weird Movies of the Week are hard to find).
Posted by Mark on September 03, 2014 at 06:03 PM .: Comments (0) | link :.

End of this day's posts

Sunday, August 31, 2014

Link Dump
Assorted and sundry links for your enjoyment on this fine holiday weekend:
  • Selections From H.P. Lovecraft's Brief Tenure as a Whitman's Sampler Copywriter - Luke Burns channels Lovecraft rather well, to humorous effect:
    Peanut Butter Cup

    In 1856, a fisherman from a tiny hamlet on the New England coast made a terrible pact with serpentine beasts from beneath the sea, that he might create the most delicious sweet seen upon the Earth since the days of the great Elder Race. Thus was forged the satanic pact between peanut butter and chocolate that resulted in the mutant offspring you see before you!

    Chocolate Cherry Cordial

    You must not think me mad when I tell you what I found below the thin shell of chocolate used to disguise this bonbon’s true face. Yes! Hidden beneath its rich exterior is a hideously moist cherry cordial! What deranged architect could have engineered this non-Euclidean aberration? I dare not speculate.
    Yum. (via file 770)
  • Breaking Down the Hugos: Careful Like - Justin Landon has the most thorough breakdown of the Hugo Award results, complete with statistical analysis and general commentary.
  • Detecting the Writer - An intriguing post by Doctor Science about the tropes and patterns of mystery novels. The title of the post is derived from this Dorothy Sayers quote:
    The mystery-monger's principal difficulty is that of varying his surprises. "You know my methods, Watson," says the detective, and it is only too painfully true. The beauty of Watson was, of course, that after thirty years he still did not know Holmes's methods; but the average readers is sharper-witted. After reading half a dozen stories by one author, he is sufficiently advanced in Dupin's psychological method to see with the author's eyes. He knows that, when Mr. Austin Freeman drowns somebody in a pond full of water-snails, there will be something odd and localised about those snails; he knows that, when one of Mr. Wills Croft's characters has a cast-iron alibi, that alibi will turn out to have holes in it; he knows that if Father Knox casts suspicion on a Papist, the Papist will turn out to be innocent; instead of detecting the murderer, he is engaged in detecting the writer.
    (Emphasis mine). It probably has a broader application, but anyone who watches any of the gazillion police procedurals out there (Law & Order, CSI, Bones, etc...) will be intimately familiar with what Sayers is talking about. Also of note in this post is the excellent "One Body Test", and something close to my own lament that so many mysteries are so focused on murder. As Doctor Science mentions, "death isn't the only thing worth investigating."
  • The Great Unread - Joseph Luzzi explores that age old question: Why do some classics continue to fascinate while others gather dust? To do so, he looks at two Italian classics Alessandro Manzoni's novel The Betrothed, popular in Italy, but not anywhere else, and Carlo Collodi's The Adventures of Pinocchio, which is universally beloved and continually referenced all over the world.
    Manzoni's novel promotes a Christian faith whose adherents are rewarded for submitting to God's providential wisdom. Collodi's story, beyond exploring the plight of Italians in their newborn nation, describes how children learn to make their way in an adult society, with all its strictures and codes of behavior. Manzoni's legacy in Italy is so strong that his book will always be read there. But outside of Italy, those same readers curious about Collodi's star-crossed puppet are likely never to give Manzoni's thoroughly Christian universe a second thought.

    This contrast, between a celebrated and largely unread classic and an enduringly popular classic, shows that a key to a work's ongoing celebrity is that dangerous term: universality.
    Interesting stuff.
That's all for now...
Posted by Mark on August 31, 2014 at 07:53 PM .: Comments (0) | link :.

End of this day's posts

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