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Sunday, July 19, 2015

Link Dump
As per usual, interesting things from the depths of the internets:
  • The Suicide Squad trailer was great, why does Warner Bros. sound so angry about it? - The prevailing narrative is that Marvel has their shit together when it comes to their cinematic universe, but that Warner Bros (and DC) can't quite crack the code. I've always thought this was sloppy thinking, but then, this is also a pretty fantastic illustration of how the two companies approach their work. Marvel's response to a leaked trailer is fun and endearing. Warner Bros's response? Petty and annoyed. Incidentally, Suicide Squad looks like it could work pretty well, though I suspect it's success will hinge entirely on Margot Robbie's performance (which appears to be electric!)
  • Hollywood is quick to cry censorship. The industry's not wrong to be afraid. - An excellent summary of the weird cycle of criticism and censorship, and the constantly rehashed arguments that never seem to result in anything productive. This touches on issues of free speech and how differently people seem to treat the term "censorship". I tend to favor the freedom side of that equation. In the words of Ray Bradbury (commenting on the response to Fahrenheit 451): "There is more than one way to burn a book. And the world is full of people running about with lit matches." It doesn't matter if it's a government match, the books will burn either way.
  • Film as Bomb - Interesting discussion of Cronenberg's The Brood...
    With The Brood, what was the bug that Cronenberg jammed up the collective, middlebrow ass? The fact that it was outrageously melodramatic in its boldly literal metaphors: suppressed rage creates murderous children. Plus its refusal to make a scapegoat out of any one character, class, gender or type (no matter what the director's 'ideological' critics, including Robin Wood, have long claimed). Cronenberg's despair and his mockery spare nobody; and this leaves some spectators crying foul over "misanthropy" and looking in vain for "someone to care about".
    Cronenberg is certainly a fascinating filmmaker, one I love, but never seem to be on the same page with. On the other hand, that might be why I love his films.
  • It Began With Secret Pickles, and Survived a War - A pretty simple tale of a long-married couple from the Bronx, probably a dime a dozen, but dat headline!
    One day, looking for something new to do, Bucky had a thought.

    "I asked her, 'Would you like a pickle?' "

    There were Jewish delis every few blocks in their neck of the Bronx. Bagels, bialys, cream cheese, lox, whitefish - and barrels of pickles, a penny apiece.

    It became a summer of secret pickles.
    (This was before Bucky became the Winter Soldier.)
  • Friday the 13th Part IV - Running Man - And you guys thought I was obsessive about Friday the 13th movies? Check out this guy, who attempts to decipher an obscure character mentioned in the credits for The Final Chapter...
    Who is Running Man? Lots of people run in the movie, but they're all credited. Could it be an instance where Jason is credited multiple times like he is in part 3? There we had Jason, Prowler, and Jason Stunt Double. Maybe Jason actor Ted White refused to do the scene where he runs after Trish and Thad Geer sprinted to the rescue.

    Somehow I doubt it though. The only section of the movie with a lot of extras is the beginning, when everyone is cleaning up the mess from part 3. One of those extras runs. He runs so much in fact, that I'm convinced he must be Running Man.
    Friday the 13th, the series of movies that never stops giving.
That's all for now. Apologies for the lack of Wednesday entries of late. This might continue for the near future, but who knows? Maybe I'll get inspired or something...
Posted by Mark on July 19, 2015 at 08:52 PM .: Comments (0) | link :.

End of this day's posts

Sunday, July 12, 2015

Quasi-Hugo Awards: Terms of Enlistment
The initial Hugo Award finalists for Best Novel included a book called Lines of Departure. It was one of the suggestions from Sad Puppies/Rabid Puppies, and once that came to the attention of the author, Marko Kloos, he promptly withdrew his acceptance of the nomination (this withdrawal lead to the inclusion of The Three-Body Problem in the category). As a result, he's one of the few authors to emerge mostly unscathed by the whole affair. The puppies seemed to respect his decision and lots of others vowed to read his books anyway, probably giving him a boost in sales without the vitriolic baggage everyone else is dealing with. For my part, the nominated novel just seemed like it would be cool, so I felt I should check it out regardless of what all the factions of fandom thought. In fact, when nominees were initially announced, this was the one I was most looking forward to... Alas, it's actually the second in a series, so I started with the first novel: Terms of Enlistment.

At its core, it's a solid military science fiction novel, pretty much hitting all the expected tropes. The story is told from the perspective of Andrew Grayson, a welfare rat living in a prison-like tenement in Boston. He's one of the "lucky" few to be accepted for military service, and he jumps at the opportunity of escaping his near-dystopian surroundings without thinking too much about the *ahem* terms of enlistment. Every convention of the subgenre is covered, from saying goodbyes to basic training with its drill sergeants and physical exhaustion, to a shit assignment that turns out to be more prestigious than thought, to (eventually) exploding spaceships and battles on alien planets.

As these things go, it's a pretty well executed version of the common MilSF tropes. This might seem derivative and repetitious to some folks, but I've always been of a mind that a well executed version of a common story has value. What you usually end up with is something akin to SF comfort food, with the occasional feint towards something more transcendent. The start of this novel feels more like the former, but as the story progresses, we start to move towards the latter. We never really get that true transcendence, but this is only the first novel in a series and while it has a decent ending, it's also clearly setting up a rich groundwork for the sequel.

Kloos has nice, clean, concise prose, and he's excellent at describing battles and explosions and whatnot. The characters are generally likable and competent without being ridiculous caricatures. This isn't a particularly deep novel of characterization, but it's pretty good by the standards of MilSF. The worldbuilding seemed a bit hokey at first, but it gets better as it goes on, and the ending throws a nice little wrench into the proceedings, making it a good setup for the following books. Initially, it almost seemed like this would be one of those novels where our protagonist is propelled through a series of episodic adventures that ultimately lead nowhere, but Kloos manages to keep the narrative tight enough that each combat mission leads into the next in an entertaining fashion that keeps the pages turning.

Thematically, it's a bit straightforward until we get to the ending, which presents a tantalizing reversal of a common trope. Lots of MilSF concerns itself with bug hunts and aliens that are insectoid in nature. In this case, it appears that the human beings might be the insects of the universe (er, metaphorically speaking), which is a pretty clever take on a tired theme, and while Kloos is pretty explicit about this theme, he manages to make it feel earned and not hoary.

Ultimately, it's a promising start, and I'm really happy I decided to read these books. As you might be able to tell from the above, it's a novel that starts off extremely derivative and trope-driven, but it eventually starts to take things into more interesting places, hinting at even more to come. I'm very much looking forward to the next installment, which is more than I can probably say about all of the actual nominees for this year's Best Novel. Of course, I still need to read Lines of Departure before commenting on how it would fit into this year's ballot (had it survived the nomination), but I should probably finish off that Dresden book and Seveneves first... In the meantime, if you're looking for a relatively straightforward MilSF novel series that shows some promise at transcending its roots, this is worth a look.
Posted by Mark on July 12, 2015 at 03:45 PM .: Comments (0) | link :.

End of this day's posts

Sunday, July 05, 2015

Hugo Awards: Novellas
The other shorter-than-a-novel-but-longer-than-a-short-story category, these tend to be longer reads, which is a shame because I didn't particularly care for any of them. It's also one of the weirder categories in that three of the five nominees are from the same author. Two of the stories are also significantly expanded versions of much shorter stories (which, given my complaints below, would probably have been much better for me). None of the nominees are particularly terrible, per say, I just failed to connect with them, and it makes me wish there was a little more variety here. I don't want too dwell on this, so let's just get to it:
  1. One Bright Star to Guide Them, by John C. Wright - This was pretty clearly my favorite of the bunch, a baroque tale of magic that evokes Arthurian legends, C. S. Lewis (complete with an appearance by a giant lion), Tolkien, and maybe even Stephen King's Gunslinger series. The problem with this approach is that I would much rather be reading the works that served as inspiration than the novella itself. Still, of the other stories on the ballot, this was the most successful story and at least Wright's style seemed to fit this narrative. It's not a story I love, but I don't mind having read it and it's well constructed and written.
  2. Big Boys Don't Cry by Tom Kratman - A few years ago, I read Anne McCaffrey's The Ship Who Sang, not realizing that it appears to be the template for so many other stories of sentient vehicles. I didn't even enjoy the book, as its episodic structure was frustrating and left me cold. Kratman's vehicle is a massive, sentient tank named Maggie (short for Magnolia) who, like McCaffrey's singing ship, undergoes a series of episodic adventures that left me feeling disconnected from the story. Some of these episodes are actually pretty well executed though, and Kratman is pretty good at writing combat sequences, but there are more battles than necessary here, they're disconnected from one another, and they're interweaved with weird infodumps that grind the pace to a halt. This was apaprently one of the stories that was originally published in shorter form, then expanded to novella size... I haven't read the original, but I'm betting the expansion did a disservice to the story. Still, there are interesting questions here about the motivation of sentient vehicles, especially when it comes to the complete lack of respect from their human masters. The ending of this story takes a pretty dark turn, and is almost comically didactic, but it at least gives the story a conclusion.
  3. "Flow", by Arlan Andrews, Sr. - The tale of northerners selling an iceberg to the Warm Lands, then running afoul of the local religious inquisition or some such. There's some interesting stuff hinted at here, but it never really goes beyond hinting, and I really could care less about our main protagonist. This is one of those stories that just sorta flies by (not in the way of a page turner, though, it actually took a while to read this one), leaving almost no impression whatsoever. It's not terrible, I just could not connect with it.
  4. "The Plural of Helen of Troy", by John C. Wright - I should like this story. All the hooks are there, but it's like Wright forgot to attach the fishing line, so once he hooked me and attempted to reel it in, nothing really happened and now I've got these hooks all over me and I'm not one of those people who loves piercings, John! Seriously though, it's a time travel story told with a Memento-like reverse non-linearity. Or something. The protagonist is a detective hired by one John F. Kennedy to kill a future JFK with the help of a middle JFK and maybe an alternate timeline JFK, all because Marilyn Monroe is Helen of Troy and is also a slave of the evil JFK, who is going to become a timelord or something. Look, I enjoy the byzantine structures of time travel plots, poring over details and making diagrams with straws, and so on. But Wright's baroque style simply doesn't fit here, and the rules of time travel and whatnot don't seem particularly well established (or are elided to the point of incomprehensibility). I get the impression this is part of a larger collection of stories within a similar setting, so maybe that's what I'm picking up on. Regardless, this seemed about twice as long as it needed to be and while the details kinda fit, I found myself caring less as time went on. Again, I should really like this story. But I don't.
  5. "Pale Realms of Shade", by John C. Wright - Another story with a pretty neat hook, a psychic detective who dies and comes back as a ghost (or maybe he's going to become an angry poltergeist), visits with his ex-wife and business partner, along with a "fixer" (i.e. the devil) and a priest for some redemption. Along the way, we find out why and how he died, and so on. It's actually a pretty complete narrative, but it's one of those things that just really made me want to see more about this detective's exploits taking down vampires and werewolves back when he was alive. As it is, we're left with a dour, depressing tale that I never connected with. Wright's style just doesn't seem to connect very well with me.
For the first time this year, I'm actually thinking about deploying No Award on my ballot, if only to get past the ridiculous notion that one author wrote the three best novellas of the year or something. I mean, I guess such a thing is possible, but not with these three stories. That being said, Wright also wrote my clear favorite of the bunch, so I'm not slotting No Award very high.
Posted by Mark on July 05, 2015 at 03:50 PM .: Comments (2) | link :.

End of this day's posts

Sunday, June 28, 2015

Hugo Awards: Best Dramatic Presentation, Long Form
This award is one of the stranger categories for the Hugos. This year, it's something of a respite from the all controversy and vitriol surrounding Puppies and Kittens and all the other nicknames people are handing out with reckless abandon. Which is funny, because as a movie person, I've always found the nominees to this category mediocre at best. It seems that while the electorate can focus on obscure artistic exercises for the fiction awards, they are generally focused on the biggest budget, widest releases from a filmic standpoint.

There are certainly exceptions. The voters seem to enjoy Duncan Jones, giving the low budget Moon the rocket in 2010 and nominating Source Code in 2012 (both flawed films, to be sure, but at least they're unexpected choices). There are a handful of other non-obvious choices (i.e. A Scanner Darkly, District 9, etc...), and a whole boatload of Hollywood pap (i.e. Avatar, The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey, etc...) There's nothing inherently wrong with big budgets, wide releases, star vehicles, or Hollywood invovlement, to be sure, and there are plenty of fabulous choices in that realm (i.e. Inception, Gravity), but what of the lower budget, obscure, or foreign films that never seem to find their way onto the ballot? I guess I can see why Upstream Color didn't make the ballot last year; it's a pretty inscrutable movie. But then, so was a lot of the nominated fiction! Voters are willing to dig through the heaps for short stories and novelettes, why can't they seem to find things like Detention, Sound of My Voice, Attack the Block, Timecrimes, Triangle, The Man from Earth, and probably a dozen others that are escaping me right now. Sure, many are obscure genre pics, but isn't that the point of the Hugo awards taking on the category? Movies like Avatar get plenty of recognition from the mainstream, why not highlight things that aren't so easy to find, the way we do for fiction?

This year, we have at least two nominees that were deserving (and that didn't have Upstream's impenetrable style), including Coherence (to be fair, there are some eligibility concerns on that one), The One I Love, and maybe even Snowpiercer (a film I kinda hated, but it seems up the voters' alley). Alas, they did not make it, and to be sure, Hollywood had a pretty good year, putting out plenty of genuinely good movies. Indeed, I even nominated 3 of these, so I guess I shouldn't complain! My vote will go something like this (I'm going to be partially quoting myself on some of these, with some added comments more specific to the Hugos)
  1. The Lego Movie - Writer/Directors Phil Lord and Christopher Miller have made a career out of making movies out of seemingly stupid premises, and this movie may be their crowning achievement. This sounded so much like a cynical cash-grab by Hollywood, but I found myself immediately charmed by the film's fast paced humor and wit. The thing that tips this to the top of my vote is that it is actually very impressive from a visual standpoint. It's got great jokes, and some of them are visual jokes. This is a movie that actually uses its medium in a way that few movies do these days.
  2. Captain America: The Winter Soldier - Marvel firing on all cylinders, this is a dramatic improvement over the first Captain America, topping it in everything from action set pieces to consistent interpersonal touches. Considering the wider context, this movie makes some pretty bold moves too, channeling paranoid 70s thrillers (and even casting Robert Redford to underline that point) and throwing a huge monkey wrench into the whole Marvel universe (something I admire about it - as a standalone, it would be fine, but the fact that there are seemingly lasting consequences helps here). I'm actually on the fence with where to place this in relation to Guardians, but for now, it take the #2 slot.
  3. Guardians of the Galaxy - This could have failed so miserably in so many different ways, but my guess is that James Gunn's goofy personality is what saved the whole thing (even if it's toned down a bit here). Once again, it's the interpersonal touches that makes these Marvel movies tick, even this one, which is almost completely disconnected from all the other movies. It's also a big ball of fun, so there's that.
  4. Edge of Tomorrow - There's a lot to quibble about with this movie, but I'll tell you, it really worked for me. From a filmmaking craft perspective, the editing here is incredibly well executed. The ending has some issues and Cruise has his own baggage, but I had a whole lot of fun. I actually voted for this on my ballot, not thinking it would garner enough votes (it was fairly underrated and underviewed last year, even by mainstream audiences), but even then, it would have ended up towards the bottom of my ballot...
  5. Interstellar - There's a lot to like about this film, but it never quite congealed into something as cohesive as Nolan's previous work. Certainly gets points for ambition, but the film is a little clunky in its execution. It all fits together, and there are great ideas and emotional moments at its core, but perhaps could use some smoothing over some of the rougher edges (of which there are, sadly, many). A clear last place finisher for the Hugos. Not an entirely unworthy nominee, but I'd have much rather seen a few other movies in place of this one...
So there you have it. Maybe I'm being a little too hard on voters, as this is a pretty good slate, and it's nice to comment on something and not have to even bother with the whole controversial nonsense that has snowed us in this year.
Posted by Mark on June 28, 2015 at 04:29 PM .: Comments (0) | link :.

End of this day's posts

Sunday, June 21, 2015

Hugo Awards: Novelettes
Novelettes! Good old novelettes! What do you call something that's longer than a short story, but shorter than a novel? A novella, of course, but that's too easy. Let's invent something between a short story and a novella, and call it a novelette! On the one hand, it is a bit odd that SF/F seems to be the only genre in literature that makes this distinction (something about a legacy of SF's pulpy magazine roots, where different sized works had different pay scales) and it seems rather pointless and confusing for no real reason. On the other hand, it just means we get to read more fiction, which is actually a pretty cool thing. Once again, none of my nominees made the final ballot, but such is the way of short fiction awards. Last year's Novelettes were pretty darn good (with one obvious and notable exception), and it looks like this years will rival that:
  1. "The Triple Sun: A Golden Age Tale", Rajnar Vajra (Analog, 07/08-2014) - My clear favorite of the bunch, this tale of Exoplanetary Explorer cadets redeeming themselves after getting caught up in a bar fight is well written, well paced, and entertaining. It tells a full story, presents some interesting puzzles, and uses reason and logic to resolve the problems that arise. I don't know that it's particularly deep in terms of thematic heft, but it's deeply entertaining, which is usually enough for me (and so many other stories seem to forget that part) and this story struck the right chord. I feel like I should be saying more, but this is the one story on the ballot that I definitely would have put on my nominations if I had read it earlier.
  2. "Championship B'tok", Edward M. Lerner (Analog, 09-2014) - This one is a bit of an odd duck in that it feels kinda like a pilot episode of a TV show. In a colonized solar system, various unexplained breakdowns have been occurring with increasing frequency. This includes both human and alien settlements, and while the humans were able to weather the aliens' initial invasion 20 years ago, tensions are high. The aliens are hiding something, the mysterious sabotage is hitting everyone, and the humans are getting ready to launch a new interstellar starship. I actually quite enjoyed the setup, but then, that's mostly what this is: setup. It's got a lot of great storytelling elements in play. Intrigue, subterfuge, conspiracy, and so on, but this feels like one of those stories that is really just an excerpt from a larger work. This sort of thing is always weird to judge when it comes to awards like this. I think it says something that I do really want to follow up on this story at some point, because that speaks to how engaging it was. But how to judge an incomplete experience when it comes voting time? Also worth noting is that Lerner's prose style is a bit on the stilted side. I can see why some of the more literary Hugo voters are annoyed by a story like this. Often I read people's complaints about this sort of thing and shrug them off, but they may have a point here. For instance, this sentence appears in the text: "Something long dreaded was at long last at hand." Look, I'm not the most talented writer in the world, but even for me, this is a pretty obvious clunker. That said, it had some great ideas and the storytelling was on point, so it ends up falling higher on my list than lower (depending on how I feel, this may drop down a peg when voting time comes).
  3. "Ashes to Ashes, Dust to Dust, Earth to Alluvium", Gray Rinehart (Orson Scott Card's InterGalactic Medicine Show, 05-2014) - This feels almost like the inverse of Championship B'tok. In this scenario, aliens and humans clashed in the past, but this time the aliens won and are keeping the humans kinda bottled up in their colony. The story concerns a man who is dying. His last wish is to be buried, a practice that he thinks might throw their alien masters for a loop. It's a neat little puzzle and a complete story, but it's not quite as entertaining or fun as the above two.
  4. "The Journeyman: In the Stone House", Michael F. Flynn (Analog, 06-2014) - This is the weirdest of the bunch, a strange tale of various quasi-primitive clans coming together to train and set out on an expedition. Or something. This one is a bit light on plot. It's got some nice character moments and a couple of great one-liners (particularly Sammi o' th' Eagles), but it seems to be somewhat lacking in the realm of points. Flynn's style also threw me for a loop, as it's pretty ornate and detailed, but didn't really flow well for me (also annoying - the voters packet only had this on pdf, which has an annoying interface.) I did not hate it, but I never really got into it either.
  5. "The Day the World Turned Upside Down", Thomas Olde Heuvelt, Lia Belt translator (Lightspeed, 04-2014) - Remember above when I said that a lot of well written stories forget to be entertaining? Yeah, here's a good example of this. The premise is that one day, gravity reverses itself. Most everyone who is outside simply falls off the planet, while those inside are slammed up against their ceilings, and so on. Interesting, I guess, but don't go looking for explanations (fine) or even logical consistency (how are people still able to breath, why doesn't water in rivers, etc... fall, and so on...). It reminded me of last year's short story "The Water That Falls on You from Nowhere", only this one is a little less coherent. There's a guy and his girlfriend just recently broke up with him, making this the second time the world turned upside down for him (zing!) and he makes a trek across the city to get to his girlfriend's apartment. Along the way, he meets a little girl and some other characters, but it's all pretty pointless, and pretty emphatically not my sort of story.
So there you have it. I'd say that this compares pretty favorably to last year's slate, and that it's maybe slightly better than this year's short story slate.
Posted by Mark on June 21, 2015 at 08:23 PM .: Comments (0) | link :.

End of this day's posts

Wednesday, June 17, 2015

Disgruntled, Freakish Reflections on Game of Thrones
The fifth season of Game of Thrones just ended and it's been a doozy, so I figured it was time to peel off some disgruntled, freakish reflections on the show. In typical Kaedrin fashion, I've waited 5 seasons to do so, though I did once comment on the Red Wedding as it related to Joss Whedon. Major Spoilers for the entire show up until this point!
  • I enjoy the show a great deal, as evidenced by the fact that it is one of two shows that I actually watch live (the other? Silicon Valley, the show after GoT and coincidentally my favorite active comedy), a distinction that might be more due to its timeslot than anything else, but still. On the other hand, I've never really considered it more than a really violent, fun soap opera. Sure, you can read into it if you want, and the epic scope of the story is indeed impressive, but it feels a little on the bloated side, and I don't know that I'd ever really want to rewatch the show. Indeed, it took me a while to get into the show for that reason. It's a show that I watch to see what will happen next, not a show I generally obsess over. Nothing wrong with that, and the series ain't over yet, so maybe I'll change my tune on that in the future.
  • The first half of this season felt like setup and filler, but once things started happening, they came on fast and furious, and hot damn, the last three or four episodes were quite engaging. Cersei's short-sighted and petty attempt to get back at Margaery finally turns back on her, as everyone expected (doesn't make it any less satisfying when it happens!) Daenerys meets Tyrion! The Dorne thread doesn't entirely work, but it ends with a bang. And then there were the really big things.
  • The battle of Hardhome was fantastic and signals a shift from petty politicking to existential struggle. The TV series is called Game of Thrones, but it's worth noting that the book series is called A Song of Ice and Fire. The icy White walkers have been hinted at all throughout the series, but this appears to be the start of their campaign proper. Much is made in this episode about the ability of Dragonglass to kill them, and then we find out that John Snow's valyrian steel sword can also do the trick. Note that valyrian steel is also referred to as Dragonsteel, and who do we know that has access to firey Dragons? Yeah, I'd say the endgame of the series is coming into focus, which is interesting because as I mentioned earlier, it really did seem like more of a neverending soap opera than a complete narrative. This isn't to say that the series (book or TV) doesn't have their work cut out for them, as this will still be exceedingly difficult to pull off. The themes of the series so far just don't fit with Dany riding to the rescue on her dragons and then triumphantly taking the throne. Honor and righteousness is punished in this world, and though Dany has snuck by with her dignity, I don't think unambiguous triumph is in the cards. On the other hand, I don't know that anyone would be particularly satisfied by a cynical, nihilistic, and tragic ending either. There's a fine line to walk here. Fortunately, it seems possible that this could actually work, which is a good thing.
  • Stannis has always been a turd, and attempts to soften his image earlier this season really telegraphed some of his (horrendous) actions later in the series, and when he finally burns his daughter at the stake (in a scene that genuinely had me asking why I watch this show - seriously one of the two most brutal moments in the series, particularly because they linger on it for so long). This resolution has me wondering what the whole point of the Stannis storyline actually was. Did we really need Stannis at all? I mean, I like Davos and I guess Melisandre could do some interesting things now, but otherwise, Stannis really is the Pierce of this show (perhaps one of many, but still). Tick this in the GoT is just a soap opera column.
  • On the occasion of the Red Wedding, I had opined that "while the Red Wedding is the end of characters we like, it's also the beginning of a villain we're going to love to hate!" and in large part, one of the things that keeps people watching this show is that we want to see our villains get their comeuppance. But it's worth noting that this comeuppance is rarely as satisfying as we might think. Sometimes it's great, as in Joffrey's death. But it is often undercut in one way or another. Take Arya's final revenge on Meryn Trant in the finale. It was fantastic! Then Arya goes back to the house of black and white, gets scolded, and finds herself going blind. While the show's initial conceit was that honor and righeousness was a flaw that would get you killed, it seems that vengeance is also not all it's cracked up to be, which is an interesting turn for the series, and we've seen a fair amount of that in this season...
  • The finale was a bit odd in that so much happened, and so quickly, that much of it felt unresolved and unsatisfying. But then, that's kinda the point of a finale. Still, there were a lot of deaths, only some of which felt earned, and some of which might not actually be deaths? I mean, what happened to Sansa and Theon? Was that suicide, or were they jumping into a soft snowdrift or something? And whenever someone dies offscreen, it's hard to not succumb to pointless conspiracy mongering (did Stannis actually die?) And so on. John seems like the most substantial death, though I can't say as though I hadn't been expecting it. I mean, that whole Ollie character seemed to be telegraphic it, and the fact that John actually came into his own as an honorable leader means that his time was coming to an end. I can't say as though John was my favorite character though, and indeed, much of his misadventures north of the wall seemed kinda lame to me, though it was starting to turn around this season. Rumors abound that Melisandre might resurrect him, which feels kinda lame, but might come off ok if done well. Still, next season seems like a bit of a corker. As I understand it, we're now caught up with and even eclipsing the books at this point, though it does seem like the next installment might be out in early 2016.
  • Speaking of the books, at the urging of a friend, I've taken to listening to the audiobooks of the series, so I may have more to say about that as I listen to them. My initial thought is that watching the TV show was actually good prep for the books, as the amount of detail and obscure characters packed into even the first few hours of the book would have been overwhelming or simply lost in the shuffle. But knowing who the Tyrells or Boltons are, right from the start, gives you a bit of a leg up on the books. As I mentioned earlier, I have no real desire to rewatch the series, and listing to the books makes me wonder if that's actually true because I'm enjoying them well enough. They are super long, but because of my familiarity with the general thrust of the story, it helps.
That's all for now. Will probably have more to say once I finish the first book...
Posted by Mark on June 17, 2015 at 10:30 PM .: Comments (0) | link :.

End of this day's posts

Sunday, June 14, 2015

Hugo Awards: The Dark Between the Stars
Hard as it may be to believe in these Star Wars saturated times, there was a period following Return of the Jedi in which the hallowed franchise faded from the pop culture consciousness. The trilogy had ended and nostalgia had yet to set in. In 1991, three new novels appeared, Timothy Zahn's Thrawn Trilogy, which covered the continuing adventures of Luke, Leia, and Han, while peppering in some new folks for added flavor. Music to my teenage kid ears, and I loved those books. The three novels were a massive success and ushered in an age of what became known as the Star Wars Expanded Universe. They were quickly followed by Kevin J. Anderson's Jedi Academy trilogy, a not quite as successful continuation of Zahn's story. Anderson wrote many other Star Wars novels (notably the Young Jedi Knights series), but I was never particularly inspired to explore more because I didn't particularly care for the Jedi Academy books. They were fine, I guess, but lacked the thrilling pop of Zahn's initial entries, and while there were some memorable bits, it lacked the satisfaction I got out of initially rejoining my childhood heroes. I always wondered if that was a function of Anderson's writing, or whether it was because he was saddled with pre-existing conditions and unrealistic expectations... So Kevin J. Anderson is a hugely prolific author that has toiled away for years on licensed works for Star Wars, The X-Files, and Dune, though he occasionally puts forth some original novels as well. It is one of those novels that got nominated for the Hugo Awards this year.

From all outward appearances The Dark Between the Stars is a straightforward Space Opera, complete with requisite fancy starships and big explosions. The first of a planned trilogy (though set in a universe the author previously created), it delivers pretty much exactly what you'd expect: Space Opera comfort food, and little else. This is not meant to be belittling, as I tend to enjoy such exercises when done well (the aforementioned Zahn has long been my crutch for these purposes) and what we have here certainly fits the bill, if not perfectly.

It's filled with typical Space Opera tropes. A cast of thousands, quick chapters cutting back and forth between various plot elements, lots of spaceships, aliens, and explosions, an existential threat, and so on. I gather much of the worldbuilding has occurred in a previous series, but Anderson does a fine job establishing the key players. There's several Roamer clans who are basically industrious space gyspies, and we get a close look at several clans. There's a Confederation of several human factions (including Roamers), lead by a monarchy (we follow their family pretty closely). There's a bizarre mad scientist named Zoe Alakis who researches diseases and develops cures that she does not share with anyone for unknown reasons. There's the Ildirans, an older race of polymorphic aliens that is allied with the humans (not without tension, naturally) and whose history seems to drive much of the story. The Klikiss were an insectoid race that was apparently defeated in the previous series, though there remains a small cache of Klikiss robots that play a role here. The near extinct Verdani that are a telepathic network of trees that humans can use to communicate (among other things). So basically, a lot of plot threads here, and much in the way of history and worldbuilding.

During a joint exploration mission, a Human and Ildiran expedition uncovers hidden Klikiss robots and, more ominously, a dark nebula that appears to envelop and dissipate everything it touches. The Ildirans think this dark between the stars (ding ding!) are the Shana Rei, an ancient, legendary race that seem to personify entropy (the notion of order and thought appear to anger them and even cause them pain). The Shana Rei and Klikiss robots ally to destroy all sentient life in the galaxy. Ildirans and Humans struggle to find weapons with which to fight the chaotic force that seems to be popping up throughout the galaxy and destroying outposts, etc...

As a villain and existential threat, the Shana Rei are interesting at first, though I do believe that Anderson perhaps gives us too much of a glimpse into their world. For creatures that personify entropy and chaos, they seem to spend a fair amount of time talking to the Klikiss robots or creating ships to attack other sentient life (i.e. things that rely on order and sentience in itself). They also don't seem to be successful enough in this book to be truly terrifying. They may have been more effective had we known less about them or their motivations. Similarly, many of the distinct plotlines seem rather tangential to the story. Some do start to converge towards the end of the book, but much is left open ended, leaving this feeling a bit incomplete. As the first in a series, that's not too unexpected, but it also makes this difficult to judge this for the awards.

The biggest problem with this novel is that it reminds much of similar exercises that were just executed better. In particular, I kept thinking of Peter F. Hamilton's Commonwealth Duo, a pair of books I certainly had problems with (notably with their excessive length), but which were far better at creating a truly alien threat and delivering on the terror such a thing represents. Indeed, I think I'd call this book Hamilton-lite. It's not as long (which is good!) and the plot is slightly tighter (not saying much given Hamilton's bloat, but fine!), but the ideas and storytelling aren't quite as big or bold either (that's bad!).

When I was in college, I spent one of my two free electives on a film class. One of the subjects we covered was the Auteur theory, basically the idea that a film's director is the primary author of a movie and that it's their distinct creative vision that we're seeing on screen. For some reason, we watched Thelma & Louise, and my teacher dismissed director Ridley Scott as a mere "craftsman" rather than a true Auteur. But what about Alien, we all ask. She responds by mentioning the other creative talent involved, and mentions that just because Scott is a craftsman doesn't mean he can't produce a brilliant work, just that its brilliance can't be traced back mostly to him. Given that filmmaking is a collaborative endeavor, that's probably a much better way of viewing things anyway. It was an interesting discussion, but I don't want to belabor the point. The idea of a distinction between a true Auteur and a craftsman is what keeps coming to mind when I think of Kevin J. Anderson. I mean, books aren't collaborative in the way movies are, but the distinction between a craftsman and, let's say, a master, is what I'm falling back on here. He's a fine author, his prose gets the job done, and the books I've read by him are enjoyable. I still find them a little too diffuse, a little too derivative. So Anderson is a fine craftsman, and honestly, I could see myself revisiting this universe because I had a decent enough time with it. But he's not a master, and while this represents good old-fashioned SF comfort food, I'm not sure it's well executed enough to be worth the stretch.

The question now becomes where to rank this on my ballot. It's certainly a fun adventure, even if it's not really doing anything new or particularly notable. On the other hand, while something like The Goblin Emperor set its sights high, I don't think it delivered on its potential and was a bit of a slog to get through. I feel similarly to Ancillary Sword, a novel that might be fine on its own, but represents a baffling way to continue a series that started off in a fascinating way. I don't think The Dark Between the Stars is better written that either of those novels, but I did enjoy it more than them and could see myself revisiting the series at some point. At this point, I'm at a loss as to where to place this novel on my ballot. I'm pretty certain that The Three Body Problem will end up at the top, but after that, who knows? I'll just have to see how I feel when the time comes to finalize the ballot, I guess. Up next: Jim Butcher's Skin Game... the 15th in a series of novels where I've only read 3. I obviously don't have time to catch up, but maybe the novel will be standalone enough that I can get through it... In the meantime, those novelettes and novellas won't read themselves.
Posted by Mark on June 14, 2015 at 11:48 AM .: Comments (0) | link :.

End of this day's posts

Sunday, June 07, 2015

Hugo Awards: Short Stories
My feelings on short stories are decidedly mixed, because most of the short fiction I read is from collections that are, by their very nature, uneven. As with Anthology Films, I generally find myself exhausted by the inconsistency. Also, as someone who tends to gravitate towards actual storytelling rather than character sketches or tone poems (or similar exercises in style), a short story can be quite difficult to execute. A lot must be accomplished in a short time, and a certain economy of language is needed to make it all work. There are some people who are great at this sort of thing, but I find them few and far between, so collections of short stories tend to fall short even if they include stories I love. In my experience, the exceptions tend to be collections from a single author, like Asimov's I, Robot or Barker's Books of Blood. That being said, I've been reading significantly more short fiction lately, primarily because of my participation in the Hugo Awards. I found myself quite disappointed with last year's nominated slate, so I actually went the extra mile this year and read a bunch of stuff so that I could participate in the nomination portion of the process. Of course, none of my nominees actually made the final ballot. Such is the way of the short story award (with so many options, the votes tend to be pretty widely spread out, hence all the consternation about the Puppy slates which probably gave their recommendations undue influence this year). But is the ballot any better this year? Only one way to find out, and here are the results, in handy voting order:
  1. Totaled by Kary English - Told from the perspective of a brain that has been separated from its body (courtesy of a car accident) and subsequently preserved in a device that presumably resembles that which was used to preserve Walt Disney's head or something. In the story, this is new technology, so the process is imperfect and while the brain can be kept alive for a significant amount of time, it still only amounts to around 6 months or so. Fortunately, the disembodied brain in question was the woman leading the project, so she's able to quickly set up a rudimentary communication scheme with her lab partner. Interfaces for sound and visuals are ginned up and successful, but by that point the brain's deterioration has begun. This could have been one of those pointless tone poems I mentioned earlier, but English keeps things approachable, taking things step by step. The portrayal of a brain separated from the majority of its inputs (and outputs, for that matter), and slowly regaining some measure of them as time goes on, is well done and seems realistic enough. One could view some of the things portrayed here as pessimistic, but I didn't really read it that way. When the brain deteriorates, she eventually asks to be disconnected before she loses all sense of lucidity (the end of the story starts to lilt into an Algernon-like devolution of language into simplistic quasi-stream of consciousness prose). I suppose this is a form of suicide, but it was inevitable at that point, and the experimental brain-in-a-jar technology allowed for a closure (both in terms of completing some of her research and even seeing her kids again) that would have otherwise been impossible. I found that touching and effective enough that this was a clear winner in the category.
  2. Turncoat by Steve Rzasa - This was the only nominated story that I'd actually read before the slate was announced, and it nearly made my ballot, though it was knocked off as I read other stories. This tale of an AI that inhabits a ship is certainly covering well tread ground, with stories like The Ship Who Sang or last year's Hugo Award winning novel Ancillary Justice going deeper into the subject. However, the thing that's really stuck with me in this story is the role and actions of the "uploaded" humans. I'd love to believe that such a thing would be possible in the long run, but how would we ever know the exact relationship between an uploaded human and its original, biological brain? What is lost and gained in the transition, and this story gets at some of the more troubling aspects of such suppositions. This is all world-building, of course, as the story itself is a fairly effective military campaign where an AI, disturbed by its uploaded masters, defects to the opposing side to try and save biological humans. I can see why this approach would rankle folks not into MilSF, but that's a sub-genre that generally works for me, so here we are.
  3. On a Spiritual Plain by Lou Antonelli - A spiritual and heartfelt tale of humans discovering that the soul is actually a real, quantifiable thing, thanks to an alien planet's strange magnetic fields. There is less of a story here, though there are some similarities to Totaled, where someone dies but is given a temporary reprieve so that they can glean some sense of closure. That closure is less effectively portrayed here, perhaps because this story is not told from the ghost's perspective, but it is certainly implied. This actually reminded me of Timothy Zahn's Conquerors trilogy, though Antonelli seems much more taken with the more spiritual implications than Zahn (who used a similar device for a more story driven purpose). There are some oddities about this that left me scratching my head, though I guess it makes sense from a more thematic perspective. Still, this is supposed to be SF, and I would have expected less of a rush to allow the ghost to pass on... In the end, it's a decent story and I enjoyed it well enough, not too far behind Turncoat, but clearly inferior to Totaled.
  4. A Single Samurai by Steven Diamond - The tale of a single samurai taking on a mountain-sized Kaiju monster, this has stuck with me surprisingly well, even if there are a bunch of things that don't quite jive with me. There are, for instance, a bunch of stylistic affectations that don't really work for me at all. The story being told is effective enough though, and is what lets me enjoy it for what it is. There's a decent sense of scale, and our protagonist is a man of honor who, while not perfect, manages to figure out how to defeat the monster. Could perhaps swap places with On a Spiritual Plain, though those stylistic affectations bother me for some reason (note: that usually doesn't stop me if I think the story in question is interesting enough, which I guess isn't enough in this case).
  5. The Parliament of Beasts and Birds by John C. Wright - Yeah, I don't really get it. I guess there's some interesting stuff in here somewhere ("the poopflinger has a point"), but there's little story here. If the stylistic affectations of A Single Samurai bothered me, the affectations here downright bored me. It's about a bunch of animals talking to each other in the wake of the Twilight of Man, trying to decide who will lead, or something like that. There are lots of Bibilical intonations, but the whole thing feels more poetic than story-like, and I did not particularly care for that. As part of the Puppy coterie complaining about the lack of good ol' fashioned storytelling (a sentiment I admit that I have sympathy for), I have to wonder what's up with this piece. As much of the Puppy slate has been derided, I have enjoyed a fair amount of it for its back-to-basics approach, but this does not fit there, and feels more like last year's slate (albeit with a more Religious slant than last year's stories). It's fine for what it is, but it is pretty emphatically not my thing.
I definitely found this list an improvement over last year's slate, which again, I did not particularly enjoy. With the possible exception of Totaled, I generally prefer the stuff I nominated to the finalists above, but then, I would think that, wouldn't I? I don't see the need to deploy No Award in this category, though I would not be surprised to see Wright's story fall below that threshold (and we'll see how I feel when the time comes to actually finalize my ballot, I guess).
Posted by Mark on June 07, 2015 at 10:48 AM .: Comments (0) | link :.

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