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Sunday, May 22, 2016

SF Book Review, Part 23
Just catching up with SF reading, including the tail end of Hugo candidates and some other stuff. One of these actually made the cut for my Hugo ballot, but alas did not become a finalist. Let's hop in:
  • Corsair by James L. Cambias - The "space pirates" trope can be a fun one if you're willing to sacrifice scientific rigor in favor of a ripping good yarn, essentially pretending that space is an ocean and thus vulnerable to piracy. But space isn't an ocean and the logistics of piracy in space make such an outcome unlikely. And yet, James Cambias has actually managed to make it work in this novel. He does so by cleverly setting up the "ocean" in a limited fashion, speculating about mining operations on the Moon by unmanned semi-autonomous spacecraft (whether there's anything actually worth the trouble of mining on the Moon is another question). This means that piracy is actually conducted from the comfort of our home planet via hacking attacks (sometimes involving other unmanned spacecraft, but still). While the space between Earth and the Moon is vast, energy efficiency essentially dictates the past most of the valuable cargo will have to pass through. The Earth/Moon Lagrange Point is essentially pirate-infested waters. All of this is background, of course, but it's this sort of subtle cleverness that Cambias threads through his work that attracts me. The story itself takes a little while to get going, but works well enough. David Schwartz and Elizabeth Santiago meet each other at MIT, but while they initially hit it off, it seems clear that their general attitudes don't fit together (especially David's more morally flexible approach). A decade later and Santiago is in the Air Force helping fight space piracy. Unbeknownst to her, David is secretly "Captain Jack, the Space Pirate", the most infamous and successful space pirate of them all. Captain Jack's latest endeavor, though, is sponsored by a shady group with their own agenda. When things start to go pear-shaped, David and Elizabeth's paths cross again. Some of the space pirate stuff feels a little cheesy, to be sure, and David's attitude seems naive, egotistical, and maybe even sociopathic at times, but he's at least competent and otherwise likeable enough that he sneaks through. Still, once things get going, it's a lot of fun, and the underlying cleverness worked enough for me that I threw it a Hugo nod (which, of course, did not make the finalists). Cambias is quickly becoming an author I look out for...
  • Zero World by Jason M. Hough - Peter Caswell is an technologically enhanced assassin. To ensure operational security, he has neural implants that prevent him from remembering any details of his missions. After his handler activates him for an emergency mission, Caswell finds himself on an alien but oddly familiar world, tasked with seeking out and murdering an escaped human. Naturally, all is not what it seems, and as Peter goes further down the rabbit-hole, other revelations make him question his involvement... until he hits his time limit and regresses to his "innocent" state. This was an enjoyable enough read, and while some of the later plot twists are well done, others are wholly predictable. It's a bit overlong and yet, incomplete, as it seems like there will be more books in the series. I'm on the fence as to whether or not I'd read those books, which I guess says something about this one. Again, very enjoyable, but somewhat disposable...
  • Stories of Your Life and Others by Ted Chiang - A few years ago, I read Chiang's story "The Truth of Fact, the Truth of Feeling" and was impressed enough that I made a note to go back and check out more of his stories. In typical Kaedrin fashion, we're only now getting to read more of his stories, but they're pretty fascinating. Some of them are more purely fantasy, but clearly from the mind of a SF author ("Tower of Babylon", "Hell Is the Absence of God"). Most of them have very human cores, even when delving deeply into the science of this or that. "Story of Your Life" is certainly a standout, covering a team of scientists and liguists making first contact with an alien species (Cross-cut with one of the scientist's memories of her daughter). It's apparently going to be a movie directed by Denis Villeneuve and starring Amy Adams, which sounds promising, though I can't imagine this being a "crowd-pleaser" of a movie... "Understand", about a man given an experimental drug to heal brain damage which has the unexpected side-effect of dramatically improving his intellect. Soon, he's being hunted by the government and, more ominously, another super-intelligence. Very interesting and entertaining. Like all short-story collections, this is a bit uneven, but the quality is overall pretty high.
  • Triplet by Timothy Zahn - I always come back to Zahn, a solid craftsman who I can usually count on for some SF comfort-food. This is one of his earlier efforts, about a three planet system connected through magic. It's yet another play on Clarke's infamous "Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic", though in this case, Zahn takes it literally, positing flying carpets, trolls, demons, and so on... It's not a long book, but it does take a bit of time to get going, and our main characters aren't quite as enjoyable as you'd probably want here (my favorite character is the bodyguard Hart, a man our main characters spend most of their time avoiding... drats.) Zahn has lots of better efforts, but this was fun enough.
  • The Commuter by Thomas A. Mays - Originally a finalist for this year's Short Story Hugo, Mays asked to be removed because all of the nominees were part of the Rabid Puppy slate. But I greatly enjoyed Mays' previous effort, a novel called A Sword into Darkness, so I decided to pick this up and give it a shot. It's a fun little fantasy tale of a man whose daughter is inadvertently stuck in the Faerie land. Action packed, fun, and a little clever, it's a good little story and worth checking out...
And that's all for now. I've started making my way through this year's Hugo finalists, so you should be seeing some more reviews here soon enough...
Posted by Mark on May 22, 2016 at 02:14 PM .: Comments (0) | link :.

End of this day's posts

Sunday, May 15, 2016

Captain America: Civil War
Who would win in a fight: Captain America or Iron Man? Such speculation is a hallmark of schoolyard debate and can be a blast to discuss... in isolation. The problem with trying to execute this as part of a larger narrative is that you need to come up with a convincing way to pit two heroes against one another. This often leads to amusing enough sequences that don't make much sense when seen in context. My least favorite parts of the The Avengers are the scenes where our heroes are bickering or outright fighting. Take the Iron Man versus Thor sequence (with special appearance by Captain America). It's a lot of fun to watch! But why are they fighting? Mostly so Thor can shoot lightning at Iron Man, which will have the unexpected consequence of supercharging the suit. Or to ponder the age old question of what happens when Thor's hammer Mjolnir meets Cap's vibranium shield. It doesn't really serve the story, but again, it's fun and even a little clever. It's certainly a step above anything in Age of Ultron. The scene with the Hulk Buster? I got very little out of that. I gather that my opinion on this isn't the most common, or at least that most true comic book nerds are much more into the idea, as it's clearly a time-honored tradition derived from the comic books themselves. It's just the sort of thing that bounces off of me.

All of which is to say that Marvel's latest, Captain America: Civil War, has its work cut out for it. Truth be told, I was not enamored with the idea behind this installment in Marvel's grand shared-universe experiment. But I have to respect their willingness to take chances, and they've done a remarkable job thus far, so it's hard to count them out. I'm pleasantly surprised to report that Marvel's done it. This movie is a stunning juggling act. Not a perfect one. Like, they dropped a few elements but were able to desperately flail their legs to kick them back up in the air before they fell to the ground. The sort of thing that Olympic judges will tut-tut and say oh, that will cost them a 0.1 score reduction while the rest of us just marvel (pun intended!) that this athlete managed to save an awkward situation. They still end up with a great score and maybe even metal, but it's not one for the record books. Ok, I think we've beaten this metaphor into the ground.

The success is mostly due to the philosophical conflict at the center of the film. It's a situation where you can empathize with both sides of the argument and indeed, there isn't really a good answer. It's confronting one of the core issues with superhero stories in the first place, which is that so many of these characters are essentially vigilantes. Right around the time Marvel was just getting started, there were a bunch of comic book movies that were tackling this problem head-on. For instance, The Dark Knight took a very pragmatic view of Bruce Wayne's plan. As Harvey Dent opines:
You either die a hero, or you live long enough to see yourself become the villain. Look, whoever the Batman is, he's looking for someone to take his place. He doesn't want to do it forever.
Because who could do it forever? When you place yourself above the rule of law, you will inevitably yield unfavorable consequences. The Avengers certainly have. Of course, they were initially government sanctioned, which makes some of the complaints in this film a little hypocritical. They talk about New York as if S.H.I.E.L.D. didn't put together the Avengers in the first place. Then again, Age of Ultron really saddles this film with distinctly unheroic collateral damage that would undoubtedly lead to widespread distrust of these heroes. So Tony Stark's guilt and plan for some sort of oversight is an understandable perspective (and an interesting evolution of his character since his first appearance). For his part, Steve Rodgers's hesitation to submit to this constraint is perfectly cromulent when you consider his role in exposing the corruption of S.H.I.E.L.D. The film isn't perfect in the execution of this debate, but it does actually make room for the discussion. It takes the ideas seriously and doesn't flinch at the complexity. It does, perhaps, let the fisticuffs fly a bit too quick to be convincing, and the tone gets yanked around quite a bit. Again, Marvel is incredibly good at this, so the tonal inconsistencies are handled deftly enough to escape too much scrutiny.

This movie is stuffed to the gills, something that usually dooms a movie into incomprehensibility. Most superhero franchises fall into this trap at some point, incorporating extra villains and side characters and franchise-service until the entire narrative collapses in on itself. The list of culprits is long and distinguished. Joel Schumacher's Batman films, Spider-Man 3, X-Men: The Last Stand, and most recently and relevantly, Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice*. Civil War has all the elements necessary for its implosion, but has somehow, improbably, made it all work. I don't know how they did it, but I'm really glad they did.

To be sure, a lot of this movie is not strictly necessary. But most of those extraneous bits are so entertaining that who would ever want to remove it? Take Spider Man. He's one of the main highlights of the movie! The character is handled perfectly. Distinct from previous filmic incarnations, but from what I can understand, very true to the character on the page. And yet, he's completely superfluous. Having Tony Stark recruit him is handled well... so long as you don't start wondering why he invited an unproven teenager to a giant superhero battle. Speaking of which, like, half of the folks involved in that battle don't have a particularly good reason to be there. Well, not half, but why is Hawkeye there? Why is Ant-Man there? Wait, I get the disagreement, but why are they fighting again? Maybe instead of this infighting, Marvel could just come up with a decent villain for once? But I digress.

Ultimately, the plot of this movie doesn't quite hold up under the close scrutiny of Hitchcock's refridgerator. In particular, the plan of the master-manipulator working behind the scenes to foment this conflict is quite obtuse. Then again, who cares? The set piece at the airport is so damn entertaining that it's hard to fault of the movie for bending over backwards to get us there. The ultimate motivations of this villain are surprising and thematically relevant. The whole movie embraces a smaller-scale battle of wills and fisticuffs rather than powerbeams into the sky, invading armies, or explodey bits (well, alright, there are plenty of explodey bits). This is refreshing and genuinely involving. You don't want these characters to be fighting, but you can understand why. You might not even particularly agree with either of them, but you can see where they're coming from and fill in some blanks on your own.

So the movie is overstuffed, but most of this stuffing is still great. We get a nice introduction to Black Panther, a sorta mini-origin story and actually, he's one of the few characters to really undergo a character arc and where he ends up is more heroic than most of our other heros. As Black Panther, he's maybe a bit underwhelming, but Chadwick Boseman's performance, especially when under the T'Challa persona, makes a lot out of a little. He will be served well in his own film. I've already mentioned how great Spider Man is, but can we just bask in how great he was during the airport set piece? His nervous quips and clear love of all the Avengers (even the ones he's fighting) come through strong, and he has some of the best lines in the movie. Speaking of quips, Paul Rudd's Ant-Man shows up and it speaks to his charisma that we're so glad we're watching him that we don't really question why he's even there until after the movie. He's so enamored with all the Avengers, and he gets some really good moments to shine. It's revealed that Emily VanCamp's character from the previous film is actually Sharon Carter (niece of Peggy Carter), which leads to a shoehorned romantic subplot for Cap that is simultaneously a long time coming and also a bit rushed and awkward... but totally worth it for the reaction shot of Bucky and Sam. Speaking of which, Bucky and Sam's interactions are absolutely great. There's not quite enough of it to really enter Laurel and Hardy slapstick territory, but what we get is great. I've mentioned the villain Zemo's absurd plan, but Daniel Bruhl plays him well enough that we think less about the plan than about his motivation.

Jeeze, I could probably spend a few thousand more words enumerating all of the little moments I loved in this film, Chris Farley Show style, but in the interest of time, I will leave it at that. If you have enjoyed any of the Marvel movies thus far, you will enjoy this one. Certainly a big step up from Age of Ultron (which attempted and failed at many of the things this movie succeeds at), and they managed to take a premise I wasn't really on board with and make it work to an extent I would have never guessed possible. It is basically an extended playing-in-the-sandbox excuse for pitting superheroes against one another and coming up with clever ways for superpowers to interact, but is so good at it that you can't help but be won over by the sheer audacity and skillful execution on display. The thematic heft at its core provides depth, but the movie doesn't quite descend into overly grim and gritty territory. It ends with some things unresolved, but in a totally satisfying way.

When Age of Ultron came out, I mentioned that Marvel was really leaning into the comic-bookeyness of this whole endeavor. It's one of the reasons we can so easily forgive how overstuffed this movie is. Sure, Black Panther wasn't given that much to do... but he'll have plenty to do in his own movie at some point (and with Ryan Coogler at the helm? I think we're all on board with that!) We're going to see most of these characters again, and probably sooner rather than later. I also opined that: "The never-ending serialized nature of comic books are coming to the screen, fraught with all the attendant baggage that entails." With Age of Ultron, I was seeing the strain. With Civil War, I'm seeing the opportunities, even if I still find the whole Civil War concept a bit dubious. In the immortal words of that great philosopher, Axl Rose, what's so civil about war anyway?**

* This is the actual title of the movie. Someone actually thought that up, and then more people actually approved it and put hundreds of millions dollars behind it.

** Seriously, though***, wouldn't it be awesome if they played that song at some point?

*** Ok, not seriously, that's a terrible idea, I'm the worst.
Posted by Mark on May 15, 2016 at 09:43 AM .: Comments (0) | link :.

End of this day's posts

Sunday, May 08, 2016

The Movie Queue
There've been a string of limited release films in recent (and upcoming) months and I've done a poor job actually keeping up with these suckers. In fact, I'm behind on just about everything, including more mainstream releases like 10 Cloverfield Lane and even Captain America: Civil War. Still, here's a few movies I'm going to have to catch up with soon:
  • Green Room - Jeremy Saulnier's follow-up to the interesting, small-scale revenge flick, Blue Ruin. This one is something about a band who inadvertently witnesses a murder and tries to survive against a group of skinheads lead by none other than Patrick Stewart. In. Limited release right now, but everyone seems to love it.
  • High Rise - Don't know a lot about this one except that it apparently played like gangbusters at last year's Fantastic Fest, which is usually enough for me. Also, it stars Tom Hiddleston, Jeremy Irons, and Sienna Miller. Not sure when it comes out, but will probably be limited until it hits streaming, etc....
  • The Invitation - Another small, independent film that's in limited release right now. All the descriptions make it sound kinda like it wouldn't be my thing, but then, I gather the description is somewhat misleading. Will have to check it out.
  • Everybody Wants Some - Alright, so you don't need me to tell you about Richard Linklater's latest, especially since it's described as the spiritual successor to Dazed and Confused, but Linklater often rubs me the wrong way. This seems like it could work though. We shall see!
  • Tickled - "The Hunt for the Truth in Competitive Tickling" Apparently real, and what else do you need to know about this documentary?
  • Black Mountain Side - I don't remember where I heard about this little horror film, but hey, the description sounds interesting: "A group of archaeologists uncover a strange structure in Northern Canada, dating over ten thousand years before the present. The team finds themselves isolated when their communication systems fail and it's not long before they begin to feel the effects of the solitude." Yes, I will watch this.
As always, there's interesting stuff out there if you're willing to dig. What's on your list?
Posted by Mark on May 08, 2016 at 12:39 PM .: Comments (0) | link :.

End of this day's posts

Sunday, May 01, 2016

The 2016 Hugo Awards: Initial Thoughts
The 2016 Hugo Award Finalists were announced this week and yes, it's another shit show, but maybe sorta not as bad as last year? I hope? Assorted thoughts below:
  • So the Rabid Puppies once again dominated the finalists, presumably due to their habit of generally following the slate laid out by their dark leader. In comparison, Sad Puppies seem ineffectual, but actually, this is probably what the whole Puppy effort should have looked like from the start. They got some things on the ballot without dominating the process. If we are to take them at their word that they just wanted to highlight works that traditionally get short shrift at the Hugos (I know it didn't start like that, but it did evolve into that), then this seems nice. The Rabid approach seems tailor made to hurt the award and just plain piss people off. As I mentioned last year, it's one thing to be more successful than expected, but it's another to experience that backlash and then just double down on your approach. In any case, it does seem as if their influence is centered around the lower-participation categories. As such, I expect anti-slating measures to end up in the rules for next year, which will hopefully erode attempts to game the system like this.
  • Fortunately, at least part of the Puppy success this year was driven by the inclusion of works from mainstream authors on the lists. The Rabids had folks like Neal Stephenson , Neil Gaiman, Alastair Reynolds , and Lois McMaster Bujold on their slate, which, well, these are all people who don't need any help getting nominated. In addition to those names, the Sads even included the likes of Ann Leckie, John Scalzi, Nnedi Okorafor, Naomi Novik, and Cat Valente, most of whom don't seem to exactly fit the puppy mold if they aren't actively hostile towards each other. I am, of course, not the first to mention this, but it does seem to have the effect of softening the impact such that the scortched-earth No Award response feels less likely this year. There are some who are calling these mainstream choices "shields" and coming up with elaborate conspiracy theories about their inclusion, but who knows? I mean, yeah, I could dig through the muck and try to figure out what the Rabid intentions really are, but jeeze, who wants to get into their head? I like a lot of these authors and hell, I even nominated some of them (completely independent of recommendation lists or slates, imagine that!). Of course, this has been my approach all along, but others, even strident opposition, seem to be getting on board that train.
  • This post will hopefully be the extent of my Puppy wrangling for the year. As usual, I plan to read the works and judge them accordingly. More thoughts on major categories below, but at an initial glance, there are most certainly some things I'll be putting below No Award (especially when you get to the lower-participation categories), but some of the categories are actually pretty exciting.
  • Best Novel features a pretty solid little lineup, three of which I've already read. A little heavy on the fantasy side of the award for my tastes, but that happens sometimes. Neal Stephenson's Seveneves is the clear frontrunner for me, though Naomi Novik's Uprooted isn't too far behind (i.e. there's a reason both of these novels were on my ballot). I wasn't a huge fan of Ann Leckie's Ancillary Mercy, so N.K. Jemisin's The Fifth Season or Jim Butcher's The Cinder Spires: The Aeronaut's Windlass certainly has the chance to climb up the ranks. From what I know of these two unread novels, I don't expect them to overtake Seveneves, but I'm rooting for them. I should probably note that I'm a Stephenson nut, so it would take a lot to unseat him, even if I think this particular effort is more flawed than some of his others. One last note about the Puppies with respect to this category: I'm pleasantly surprised to see that John Wright's Somewhither didn't make the cut. From what I can see, it was very popular with puppies and John Wright has been a bannerman for the movement, so the fact that this didn't make it to the final ballot means that, for Novels at least, you need to have broad support (the one Puppy nom that didn't have a good chance to make it otherwise was The Aeronaut's Windlass, but then, Butcher is an incredibly popular mainstream author, so his book was probably bolstered by non-Puppy votes).
  • Best Novella is actually looking pretty good too. I've only read one (Bujold's Penric's Demon), but that one work was better than anything nominated in this category for the past few years (and a damn sight better than last year's John Wright dominated slate). None of the nominees fill me with the dread of reading dross, which again, is a big step up from last year. I'm kinda looking forward to reading something by Brandon Sanderson that isn't 1000 pages long. Binti, The Builders, and Slow Bullets sound pretty interesting too.
  • Best Novelette is less clear to me, but I don't see any major red flags (though I suppose having two stories from the same anthology is a bit gauche). The only author I recognize is Stephen King, an author you don't see in the Hugos very much to be sure, but I'm not complaining. This is the least popular of the major fiction categories, which probably explains Puppy dominance here. I'm as guilty as the next fellow here though, as I didn't nominate any novelettes this year.
  • Best Short Story is... bizarre. Where to start? The elephant in the room is, I guess, Space Raptor Butt Invasion by Chuck Tingle (a writer of gay, science fiction erotica who would fit right in with my Weird Book of the Week series alongside our last selection, Lacey Noonan, author of I Don't Care if My Best Friend's Mom is a Sasquatch, She's Hot and I'm Taking a Shower With Her and A Gronking to Remember (first in a series of Rob Gronkowski themed erotica novels)). In some ways, this is an inspired choice. In other ways, what the fuck? Also of note, Thomas A. Mays has asked that his story, The Commuter, be removed from the ballot (for admirable reasons), which is a shame, because I really enjoyed his last novel (and even nominated it last year!) I will most likely still read his short story. After that, we've got two military SF stories (one from the same anthology mentioned above in Novelettes) and If You Were an Award, My Love, a clear reaction to Rachel Swirsky's infamous If You Were a Dinosaur, My Love, which, like, ugh. Really? It was written about a year or two too late and it's just an exercise in petty spite, filled with Scalz-hate-boners and the like. There is something wrong in Short Story land. I read plenty of decent short stories every year, but they never end up on the ballot, and I suspect the problem is that there's too much short fiction out there and none of us are reading all the things so our votes get spread far and wide, making the category vulnerable to slating and even very popular authors (even before the Puppies, witness the inclusion of John Scalzi's absurd April Fool's joke, "Shadow War of the Night Dragons: Book One: The Dead City: Prologue", a funny little parody to be sure, but best short story of the year?). I don't know what the solution is here, though maybe the rules changes will have an impact.
  • Best Dramatic Presentation (Long Form) turns out exactly like I thought, with my three favorite nominees in addition to standards like Star Wars and Avengers... Still would have rather seen something like Predestination make the ballot, but I guess it's too much to expect for the Hugo voters to actually look for small, independent movies.
  • As for the other categories, ehhhh, we'll see. Few of these categories hold much interest for me, though I might be tempted to look at a couple of them because I like a nominee or two there. For instance, long time Kaedrin compatriot Shamus Young made it on the Fan Writer ballot this year, which is pleasant to see (another instance of Rabids glomming onto a popular writer, albeit one who primarily writes about video games). Despite a long history of awards, File770 probably deserves some additional recognition for becoming the defacto clearing house for fandom during last year's clusterfuck of a Hugo process. And so on.
As usual, I plan to spend most of my time reading through the nominees and judging them accordingly, rather than attempting to wade through the usual BS.
Posted by Mark on May 01, 2016 at 02:51 PM .: Comments (2) | link :.

End of this day's posts

Sunday, April 17, 2016

Dark Knighted
In the wake of the disastrous Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice*, I thought it was time to take a look back at Batman, so I went out and read a bunch of the more famous and lauded comics as well as a few peripheral bits of media. My experience with comic books and graphic novels is limited, to be sure, but I did briefly go through a phase in the early 1990s where I read a bunch of stuff, including some Batman and Superman. These weren't particularly memorable, though there was that whole Death of Superman thing (and the subsequent return) that was pretty hard to miss. I also read a bunch of them newfangled Image comics, but believe it or not, my focus at the time was more on licensed properties like The Terminator, Aliens, and Predator (and come to think of it, Batman versus Predator was nestled in there somewhere). More recently, friends turned me on to the likes of Locke & Key and Morning Glories, but not so much superhero comics. All of which is to say that you should probably take what follows with the appropriate boulder of salt.
  • The Dark Knight Returns - A 4 issue miniseries set in an alternate, dystopian Gotham City where a 55 year old Batman snaps and comes out of retirement to deal with a growing gang menace as well as some old foes (and while he's at it, friends). Grim and gritty, this is probably one of the most influential comics of all time. Also, probably one of the most overrated. Coming at this from the outside (and 30 years later), it seems like a dramatic pendulum swing, the polar opposite of the campy 60s Adam West Batman TV series. Perhaps a necessary change, but almost certainly an overcorrection. Written by Frank Miller with art from Miller and Klaus Janson, I found the book to be a bit of a slog. Miller's writing is pretty text heavy, with a clunky overuse of cross-cutting (or whatever the comic book equivalent to that is) and relying a little too heavily on an extended critique of the news media. The artwork feels kinda sloppy and jumbled, with some exceptions. The use of a 16 panel grid sometimes leads to highly repetitive and awkward visual cues. It sometimes feels like the art isn't finished. I'm guessing the washed out tone was intentional, but aside from the new Robin character, a lot of this feels a little too muddled. The one visual thing that did work for me are the striking splash pages.
    Splash Page
    Perhaps because of the repetitive grid preceding them, the splash pages have a high impact and the art is usually much more distinctive and focused. They're doled out sparingly, but that only increases their effectiveness. From what I can tell, this is one of the influential things about this book, though I don't know enough to say for sure... Storywise, there actually isn't much going on here. It's all just an excuse for Miller to indulge in graphic excess, relying too much on the shock value of having, say, Selina Kyle be a hooker or Batman riding up to criminals in a tank or something. It's not so much that the story is dark that's the problem (though it does feel excessive), it's that there isn't much of a story at all, it's just a flimsy pretense to go dark. Reading this after seeing Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice*, I'm guessing that Zack Snyder was majorly influenced by this book. His movie has a similar disjointed structure (except that it's a lot worse on screen that it is on the page). Overall, glad I read this, but I can't see myself revisiting it much.
  • Batman: The Killing Joke - This short graphic novel, written by Alan Moore with art from Brian Bolland, is more like it. Once again, we're greeted with stultifying darkness, but here, at least, it works. The art is also quite beautiful and much more appropriate for the story. Speaking of which, there actually is a story. A very dark, very gruesome story, to be sure, but at least something that makes sense. There's shock value here, but that's a means to an end, not the end in itself.
    Reveal of the Joker
    What's more, the art seems singularly focused on moving the story along. It's not an afterthought or formality, it's specifically designed. Everything feels deliberate and planned, like Moore and Bolland are actually taking advantage of the medium (imagine that) to, for example, provide a surprise when you turn the page. There is little of this in Miller's TDKR. There are some strange choices here, notably the idea of showing the Joker's origin (though I suppose you can retcon it as being another made up story, a la Heath Ledger's Joker), but it's all something I'm willing to go with. To continue the pendulum metaphor from above, we're still on that grim and gritty swing, but we're starting to fall back down towards the equilibrium. Not by much, but enough. I found out after I read this that apparently there's some sort of argument about the ending, whether or not someone is killed. In some ways, the book is ambiguous, in others, it's visually very clear. The artwork is so generally well done that I have to take this as being intentional. Sorry, trying to avoid spoilers here, but this is well worth checking out.
  • Batman: Year One - Another 4 issue run written by Frank Miller, this one is illustrated by David Mazzucchelli, and thus avoids much of the sloppiness I perceived in TDKR. Miller's script is also toned down a bit here too, retaining the darkness but relying less on shock value and more on actual story, which I appreciated much more. It's a retelling of Batman's origin, and his initial forays into crime-fighting. Much of this is focused on Batman's failures, to be sure, but hey, one scene follows another in a generally logical progression that actually makes sense. Way to go, Miller! The art is generally better than TDKR as well, and some of the imagery does feel quite iconic (if not as great as Killing Joke). It's clear that some of this inspired Christopher Nolan's Batman Begins, even if it's not a one-to-one adaptation.
  • Batman: The Animated Series - This is basically my Batman. I had watched some of the 60s show and I'd seen the Tim Burton Batman movie, but this series, more than anything else, is what made me love Batman as a character. I noticed that this was on Amazon Prime streaming, so I threw on a few episodes, hoping it would live up to my memory. I'm happy to report that it has held up incredibly well. This show is fantastic. From the unique German expressionism/Art Deco visuals, to the voice acting, to the well paced and plotted stories, this gets everything just right. One of the many reasons the show works so well is that it, like its source material, is episodic in nature. This causes so much angst in filmic portrayals because the filmmakers are always trying to cram so much into their 2 hour limit that they often have trouble balancing it all together. The series does not need to worry about such things, and manages to stay very focused and on point throughout. The show was created for kids, but it has a surprisingly ambitious streak, such that adults can still get a lot out of this. Take, for instance, the pure visual storytelling on display in the opening credits - a heist is foiled by Batman, no dialogue, just visuals. While the tone is not as dark as the other things in this post, it was a welcome respite, while not descending into ridiculous camp. They struck a perfect balance here, and it's the sort of thing that I think everyone enjoys, including the hardest of hard-core comic fans and normal people alike. I'm really looking forward to watching more of these...
  • The Caped Crusade: Batman and the Rise of Nerd Culture by Glen Weldon - This recently released cultural history of Batman, tracing him from his origins up through current incarnations, was quite enlightening. Weldon (of Pop Culture Happy Hour fame) clearly has a love of the character that runs deep, and he has done his homework. He posits an interesting cycle for the Caped Crusader, from noir detective to kid and family friendly superhero and back again, it seems like my pendulum metapahor earlier in this post is particularly apt for this character. As evidenced by this post, I'm no expert, but it does seem like Weldon has taken a pretty comprehensive look at the character on both the pages of comic books as well as other adaptations. If you're a fan of Batman, this is well worth checking out.
And that just about covers it. Up next on the Batman front: Batman: The Long Halloween, which seems like something I might want to save for later reading...

* This is the actual title of the movie. Someone actually thought that up, and then more people actually approved it and put hundreds of millions dollars behind it.
Posted by Mark on April 17, 2016 at 02:41 PM .: Comments (0) | link :.

End of this day's posts

Sunday, April 10, 2016

Link Dump
Time is short, so we shall venture into yonder internets in search of interesting linkys for you to follow:
  • Patrolling Disputed Waters, U.S. and China Jockey for Dominance - Interesting article on the interactions between the U.S. and Chinese Navies, worth reading just for the highly coded and exceedingly polite exchanges between Naval ships like this:
    ...so began an elaborate diplomatic dance.

    "This is U.S. Warship 62. Good morning, sir. It is a pleasant day at sea, over."

    No response.

    "This is U.S. Warship 62. Good morning, sir. It is a pleasant day to be at sea, over."

    Still no response.

    Captain Renshaw turned to Ensign Li. "You're up," he said. "They can't pretend they don't speak Chinese."

    "Chinese Warship 575, this is U.S. Warship 62," Ensign Li said in Chinese. "Today is a sunny day for a sea voyage, over."

    ...Suddenly, the radio crackled again as the frigate responded in Chinese: "U.S. Warship 62, this is Chinese Warship 575. Today’s weather is great. It is a pleasure to meet you at sea."

    Ensign Li responded, also in Chinese: "This is U.S. Warship 62. The weather is indeed great. It is a pleasure to meet you, too, over."

    Preliminaries dispensed with, the Chinese ship got down to business, switching to English. "How long have you been since departing from your home port? Over."

    Captain Renshaw was immediately shaking his head. "No, we're not answering that. I would never ask him that."

    Ensign Giancana picked up the radio again. "Chinese Warship 575, this is U.S. Navy Warship 62. We do not talk about our schedules. But we are enjoying our time at sea, over."
    And it goes on from there, excellent.
  • The Memory Palace: Jackie the MGM Lion - You've seen her roar a lot, this is the story behind MGM's infamous lion.
  • Keanu shredding with Taran Butler in preparation for what is sure to be another cinematic masterpiece, John Wick 2.
  • Can you fold paper more than 7 times with hydraulic press - Maybe, but it sorta ceases to be paper at that point...
  • A Wannabe Supervillain Built His Own Thermite Cannon - Because of course.
  • Outrageous Oliver Reed Interview on Late Night (1987) - And I thought today's celebrities were crazy.
And that's all for now!
Posted by Mark on April 10, 2016 at 08:16 PM .: Comments (0) | link :.

End of this day's posts

Sunday, April 03, 2016

SF Book Review, Part 22: Ye Olde School SF
One of the things that participating in the Hugo Awards process has evoked in me is a strong desire to read older SF. This often lends a sense of deja vu, as older works are foundational and thus many things you're used to think of as modern are actually quite old hat in the SF world. Sometimes this is a conscious homage, others are more inadvertent (or, at least, unclear). Anywho, I'm once again quite behind in reviewing these books, so here goes nothing:
  • Needle by Hal Clement - A pair of amorphous alien beings crash lands on earth, their hosts dying in the process. One is a Hunter, a sort of policeman, and the other is a criminal. They are symbiotes, and after their crash landing, they must immediately seek new hosts. The Hunter ends up in the body of 15-year-old Robert Kinnaird. After making contact, they must seek out their quarry, but how do you find a needle in a haystack... especially when the needle appears to be a piece of hay? Clement is an author I'm going to need to read more of, as I quite enjoyed everything of his that I've read, including this, his first novel. He has a very hard SF style to him, spending a lot of time working out the logistics of, say, the way the Hunter establishes contact with Kinnaird (it's not simple and there are several fits and starts, but it makes perfect sense). This is the book's primary strength, and that process was my favorite part. Once they've established ways to communicate, the hunt is on, but that part is actually less well plotted than you'd expect and goes on a bit too long (though the book is quite short). I don't know if this book is the ur example of symbiotic aliens in SF, but its among the first, and I'm guessing one of the more rigorous attempts as well. I'd be curious if, for instance, Wesley Chu had read this book before embarking on his Tao series... Regardless, this is a quality work and probably a good introductory text for novice SF readers. I will most certainly be reading more Clement in the near future.
  • The Stainless Steel Rat by Harry Harrison - Slippery Jim diGriz is a con-man who is out-conned by the Special Corps, but instead of going to jail, he's recruited by the Corps to help investigate a new warship being built in secret. Along the way, he meets Angelina, a deadly con-woman who is orchestrating the whole thing. This book was a little more disappointing, though the premise is certainly sound and some of the ideas work well. The execution is a bit off though; the character of Angelina didn't feel right and I'm thinking there are probably better con-man turned police stories out there. Then again, this is apparently just the first in a long series of books, so perhaps that's why this has the reputation that it does. I'd be inclined to check out some more of these, but probably not anytime soon.
  • Callahan's Crosstime Saloon, Time Travellers Strictly Cash, and Callahan's Secret by Spider Robinson - The first three books in a long series of short story collections all centered around Callahan's Bar, your friendly neighborhood tavern where the reguars are anything but regular. time travelers, vampires, con-men, cybernetic aliens, telepaths, and perhaps worst of all, expert punsters. Yes, if you like puns, you will love these stories. As with most short story collections, these can be a bit uneven, and as the series progresses the stories tend to get longer and more complex. Still, for the most part they are fun exercises filled with interesting ideas. Robinson clearly loves Science Fiction, and in many cases will make references or homages to SF in-story (even using the SF initials). The setting is the clear draw here, as Callahan's Bar is a wonderfully warm and inviting location filled with empathetic patrons who, despite their love of groan-inducing puns, are quite smart and helpful to strangers who have big problems. Some highlights include "The Centipede's Dilemma", "Mirror / rorriM Off The Wall", and "Pyotr's Story". I enjoyed a lot of the stories here, but I think I've had my fill for the moment, though if I ever get a hankering for more, there are several other collections available.
That covers it for now. Up next are some newer books, then we'll be in the swing of Hugo season...
Posted by Mark on April 03, 2016 at 01:59 PM .: Comments (2) | link :.

End of this day's posts

Sunday, March 27, 2016

Hugo Award Nominations
As the nomination period for this year's Hugo Awards draws to a close, I figure I should cobble my shortlists together. I have not made a ton of progress since last time, but there's a few new things on the list and some other categories that I neglected. The Sad Puppies released their list recently, and it appears to be less of a clusterfuck, though everyone still has their undergarments in a bunch about the puppies, which I just don't get. The brand is pretty muddled at this point, and the lists include a lot of works by authors that typical puppy voters ostensibly hate (i.e. Ann Leckie? John Scalzi? Nnedi Okorafor? Cat Valente?), though there are a few stereotypical Puppy authors. My guess? John Wright's novel will make it (ugh) and possibly Jim Butcher's book, in addition to the mainstream nominees that I think almost everyone is voting for (like, uh, my list below). I'm hoping this will be less controversial, as I hate all the requisite whining that everyone has to wade through once the finalists are announced. For next year's Sad Puppies, what they should do is allow each participant to rank 5 works in each category, and then use Australian rules voting to determine a winner in each categor... wait a second, this sounds familiar. Anywho, I'll just leave it at that and throw up my nominations (additions from last time are marked with an asterisk):

Best Novel: No changes here. I read three more eligible books since last time, but none which I think should be nominated. I really, really enjoyed Bujold's Gentleman Jole and the Red Queen, but it seems like a poor point to enter the series and I hate it when someone nominates a book and, like, you have to read 10 other books in order to understand what's going on (also not sure it's even eligible for this year). I'm currently in the midst of James Cambias' Corsair, which is still a possibility, but so far it's not really at the level of my current nominees so I'm guessing I'll leave it off the final list.

Best Novella: Duh. No change from last time, and while I have my hesitations on her novel, this novella is great.

Best Short Story: I managed to read some more short stories; most didn't make the cut, but I liked the two additions, even if I won't be heartbroken when they inevitably fail to become finalists (though hmm, looks like one is on the Sad Puppy list).

Best Dramatic Presentation, Long Form: This lineup works for me. I'm betting that Mad Max and The Martian as locks, and Star Wars too (which is partly why I'm not nominating it). I'm really hoping that Predestination and/or Ex Machina can muster enough support to make it, but small, independent, smart movies rarely make the Hugo finalists. It's baffling. I think What We Do in the Shadows will only get one vote (mine), but hey, a man can dream and I do love that movie.

Best Dramatic Presentation, Short Form: I added Jessica Jones S1E1 to the list because it's a pretty fantastic introduction to the series, getting right to the heart of the matter and just how terrifying the villain can be. Otherwise, I'm not particularly sanguine about this list, except for The Chickening, which is utterly brilliant.

Best Fanzine Normally a category I avoid, but I had to single out File 770 for excellent coverage of the Hugos during last year's clusterfuck. Mike Glyer covered the controversy, but also managed to highlight, you know, actual posts about the stories, etc...

Campbell Award
  • Andy Weir*
People seem to think Andy Weir is eligible for this award, despite The Martian not being eligible last year? Or was it? I don't know, but I figure it's worth throwing this up in case it's an actual possibility.

And I think that just about covers what I'll be nominating. There's an off chance I'll get to some other stuff during this week, but for now, this is what I've got. Curious to see how the finalists turn out, but not particularly anxious for more controversy and hand wringing. Still undecided as to whether I'll be voting this year...
Posted by Mark on March 27, 2016 at 05:50 PM .: Comments (0) | link :.

End of this day's posts

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