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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

Sunday, March 13, 2016

The Witch
In popular culture, the witch hunt is a popular trope. Rooted in actual witch hunts in early modern Europe and colonial North America (15th through 18th centuries), it's a seemingly generic feature of human behavior easily extrapolated into nearly any moral threat. The U.S. roots in Salem were renewed in the 1950s Red Scare, and so on. We've all seen such stories in movies and television, but writer/director Robert Eggers' The Witch is a fascinating take on the matter. Spoilers aho, fun ahoy.

Set in early 17th century New England, it tells the story of a puritan family struggling to survive on their own. Towards the beginning of the film, the youngest member of the family (an infant) is abducted and the family begins to suspect evil forces from the woods next to their farm as the explanation for their woes. It isn't wrong before members of the family start casting suspicion upon one another. A witch walks among us.

Eggers took care with the historical realities, and his background doing the grunt work of production design, set carpenter, etc... served him well. He apparently spent five years researching the colonial setting, consulting primary source documents on everything from architecture to period language. Indeed, most of the dialog is directly culled from Puritan prayer manuals and period diaries, making the speech a little difficult to follow at first, but the mood of which suits the film perfectly. All of this lends a sense of verisimilitude, except for one key detail: the witches themselves!

It's clear, even early on in the film, that the witches are real. These days, most witch hunt stories are completely one sided. For instance, I recently watched a Star Trek: The Next Generation episode called The Drumhead, in which a retired admiral investigates and explosion aboard the enterprise, quickly jumping to accusations of conspiracy and treason. It's a good episode, but it's one in which there's never any real doubt as to the outcome. Most examples of a witch hunt in pop culture focus on completely unfounded accusations, but in The Witch, such accusations actually are founded. There really are witches in the woods tormenting the family. One of the insidious things about witches is that they lurk among us, waiting for opportune times to do us harm and often throw suspicion on others. Because of their nature, we tend to abandon our principles and our morals in our desperate attempt to find our foe. The Witch understands this, and because of its staggering period authenticity, we must acknowledge the supernatural's existence, even as our protagonists have no way of rooting them out and end up turning on one another. This sets the movie apart from the typical witch hunt tale, while not excusing the resultant behavior. Despite the setting of the film, it's clearly aiming at more contemporary witch hunts than actual historical accounts.

If someone were to make a movie about, say, Joseph McCarthy, much would be made of the near total lack of concrete evidence for his anti-Communist crusade. As it should! But little would be made of the fact that, despite his deplorable methods of intimidation, his rants about "Communists in the State Department" were basically true. Of course, most of the people and organizations that McCarthy accused were unsupported by evidence, making the topic decidedly muddled. Again, a movie attempting to tell this story would probably bypass this complexity to focus more on the lack of evidence and the persecution than the actual communists that were deploying their Gramscian weapons on an unsuspecting public.

Even today, the concept applies to our national obsession with terrorists. At its core, fighting terrorism is a witch hunt. But since we know that terrorists actually exist, it's not your typical witch hunt narrative. Sonny Bunch sees The Witch as a radicalization narrative:
...I think The Witch has done something far more interesting. Or, at least, more unique. It's not peddling a traditional witch hunt narrative. It's offering a radicalization narrative. Thomasin's tale is the story of how a young person, marginalized by society and her family, comes to join a radical group. It's a story you see in the news today relatively regularly, one that usually focuses on disaffected young Muslims who, alienated by their perceived mistreatment at the hands of Westerners and languishing in poverty, leave their homes to join ISIS and other terrorist groups. They seek belonging and fellowship. And if they happen to find it amongst killers and psychopaths, well, so be it.
The Witch is a horror film. One in which the witches actually exist, even. But the horror in the film is not derived from cheap jump scares. The environment is creepy on its own and the film does an admirable job of slowly building tension through visual techniques, but the real horror is not that the witches exist. Rather, it's that we have no way to fight them and that traditionally, we've resorted to morally compromised methods that easily lead to our downfall (and potentially strengthening our enemy in the process). I'll leave the application of this to current events as an exercise for the reader.

The film is deliberately paced and the dialog takes some getting used to, but it never descends into a slog, and once you start thinking through its implications, it becomes more chilling and fascinating. It's beautiful, well composed, well acted, and more relevant than I ever expected. It's not an easy sit, but it's a worthwhile one that has only grown in my estimation as it continues to occupy my thoughts.
Posted by Mark on March 13, 2016 at 01:45 PM .: Comments (0) | link :.

End of this day's posts

Wednesday, March 09, 2016

Comments Are Working Now!
At least, I think they are, hence this test post which you can safely ignore.
Ignore Me!
I've confirmed that the two most popular login types are working, so Google OpenID and Wordpress users are free to fire away in the comments. It looks like the new version of Google ID (now that I've got it working) actually shows a relevant name and even links to Google+ (formerly, you got a username at best, and a weird string of characters at worst). Go forth, ye readers, and comment. Also, why are you reading this? I said to ignore this post. IGNORE ME!
Posted by Mark on March 09, 2016 at 11:25 PM .: Comments (7) | link :.

End of this day's posts

Sunday, March 06, 2016

Gentleman Jole and the Red Queen
One of the great things about Lois McMaster Bujold's Vorkosigan novels is the sheer variety of genres and stories that she manages to wring out of her universe. It speaks to how well the worldbuilding in the series works, but also to her breadth as a writer. I'm sure you could generally categorize the series as action/adventure in the mold of Horatio Hornblower, but when you start to narrow it down, you find a wide array of sub-genres: military SF, spy thriller, drawing room intrigue, political conspiracy, mystery (of many kinds), legal drama, and even straight up romance. As the series has progressed, she has trended away from the more action oriented aspects and more towards interpersonal dramas and romance. Most of the series is told through the eyes of the pint-sized force-of-nature that is Miles Vorkosigan, though the series (chronologically) began with his mother Cordelia Naismith and father Aral Vorkosigan. It's been 25 years since Cordelia headlined a novel, but she has returned in Bujold's latest novel, Gentleman Jole and the Red Queen. Spoilers, I guess, more from the series rather than just this book, though I guess some of that might pop up too.

Three years after her husband's untimely death, Cordelia Vorkosigan thinks it's time to resign her post as Vicereine of Sergyar and move her life in another direction altogether. Along the way, she ensnares the unsuspecting Admiral Oliver Jole in her schemes, and he suddenly finds himself contemplating possibilities he would never have dreampt up on his own.

This may not sound like much of a plot, and truth be told, there really isn't one. There's no grand political conspiracy driving the events, no dead bodies, no explosions, no Cetagandan invasion fleets, just a rather well executed character piece. This usually isn't my sort of thing, so I think it speaks volumes about Bujold's worldbuilding and capability of producing lovable characters that I really enjoyed the novel. Part of this is certainly that this is something almost completely new to the series. The books it most resembles would be A Civil Campaign and indeed, there are some light parallels between the stories (I'm thinking primarily of an unexpected family visit). But even A Civil Campaign had the structure of an adventure, even if it wasn't strictly so. The centerpiece of that novel was a dinner party for crying out loud. And what's more, it was fantastically exciting. No such disasters here.

There are subtleties here that Bujold has yet to explore in the series. Since most of the series was seen through the eyes of the young, we don't get a lot of insight into what was actually going on with the parent's generation. It turns out there were some, er, interesting relationships being built. This novel reveals many of these things, and concerns itself with the concept of dealing with the grief of losing a loved one. Aral's loss is keenly felt by most of the main players, and Cordelia's plan to course correct her life is her way of acknowledging that she must move on.

For reasons I'll leave unclear, Admiral Jole felt the loss of Aral nearly as much as Cordelia, and her plans have suddenly given his late-life a hope that he never really considered. Jole is not strictly a new character, having been briefly mentioned in several previous novels, but his part was always as a handsome, competent aid to Aral Vorkosigan. As usual, I'm left wondering if Bujold always had this story in mind and was peppering hints to this obscure side character in order to lay groundwork for this story, but this generally speaks to her ability to craft lovable characters.

The pairing is a good one, and it deals with late-life issues in a way that most stories never dare. This being a science fiction universe, a 76 year old woman deciding to change careers and have more kids does not seem so far fetched since she can expect to live to 120 years old. Similarly, a career military man can find other uses for his keen observational skills, and maybe have some kids of his own. Interestingly enough, Bujold is still wringing new and intriguing implications out her concept of a Uterine Replicator, even now, thirty years after she began writing these stories.

The usual coterie of side characters pepper the story, both new and old, and as per usual, they are all delightful. Despite a wide cast of characters, it never falls into an unfocused, episodic trap, and generally remains deceptively compelling.

It's a fascinating book primarily for what it doesn't do. One of the things I cherish about this series of books is how frequently Bujold manages to subvert expectations. I often find myself thinking This can't be right!? Is she really doing this? and then being utterly enthralled as Bujold sooths whatever stupid reservations I may have. I have learned that you must simply go with the flow and trust in Bujuold. In this case, I suspected that we might see some political intrigue or inciting incidents, but as the novel progressed and the story stubbornly refused to indulge my predictions, I started to get a feel for something different and interesting. Like Cordelia and Oliver, you have to be willing to let the story go its own way.

In a recent interview, Bujold noted that sort of difficulty in certain audiences:
Bujold, 66, remarks she was once part of a book club discussion of her fantasy novel, The Curse Of Chalion, with a group of junior high students, "where it gradually became apparent that the hero was far more alien to them by being an old man of 35 - practically like their parents! - than by being a demon-ridden medieval fantasy nobleman."
I suspect Gentleman Jole and the Red Queen would garner a similar reaction, though I think ones experience in SF/Fantasy greatly reduces any complaints you might have about the exploration of late-life challenges this novel confronts. After all, if you're willing to consider the implications of a "demon-ridden medieval fantasy nobleman", why not a 76 year old widowed Vicereine and her desire to raise a new family? Or maybe I'm just getting older and wiser...
Posted by Mark on March 06, 2016 at 01:47 PM .: Comments (0) | link :.

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