Link Dump

  • Posted on
  • by
The Six Weeks of Halloween is fast approaching, so here's a final clearing of the baffles before we descend into horror:
  • The Gig Economy - At first I thought this was a non-fiction commentary on the gig economy, but it quickly becomes clear that this is not the case. It's still a very interesting little piece of internets ephemera, well worth checking out. It actually reminded me of a modern, technology focused version of the opening of Clive Barker's The Great and Secret Show, in which a postal worker assigned to the dead letters office finds patterns in the lost letters. This story posits anonymous gig contracts online, and it turns out that there are patterns to be discovered in the nonsense. An interesting story and might even make good Hugo award fodder (it's probably better than 99% of recent Hugo short stories).
  • Halloween 1978 (The Inside Story) - A Halloween documentary I hadn't seen before? Ok, fine.
  • The Web Design Museum - A blast from the past. We've come a long way...
  • Survivorship bias - The notion that focusing on survivors of a given tragedy can distort conclusions; the military example is a good one:
    During World War II, the statistician Abraham Wald took survivorship bias into his calculations when considering how to minimize bomber losses to enemy fire. Researchers from the Center for Naval Analyses had conducted a study of the damage done to aircraft that had returned from missions, and had recommended that armor be added to the areas that showed the most damage. Wald noted that the study only considered the aircraft that had survived their missions—the bombers that had been shot down were not present for the damage assessment. The holes in the returning aircraft, then, represented areas where a bomber could take damage and still return home safely. Wald proposed that the Navy reinforce areas where the returning aircraft were unscathed, since those were the areas that, if hit, would cause the plane to be lost. His work is considered seminal in the then-fledgling discipline of operational research.
  • Fan Fiction Friday: Hogwarts and a Giant Squid in “First Encounter” - Warning, you probably don't want to read this. More adventurous readers who are not scared of what the internet can throw at them probably don't want to read this either. I didn't particularly want to read it, but someone sent it to me and once I started, I couldn't stop. I used to save all sorts of interesting links on del.icio.us and I had this tag called idontknowwhatthefuckisgoingonhere that I would use to categorize stuff like this. Unfortunately, I kinda do know what's going on here, and it's pretty gross.
That's all for now. Stay frosty people, 6WH starts next Sunday.
Leave a comment...
squares

Summer Movie Wager 2018 - The Results!

The /Filmcast does this thing every year where they pick what they each think will be the top 10 movies of the summer in terms of domestic box office performance. One enterprising listener created a website to coordinate the whole Summer Movie Wager and opened it up to everyone, so this year I figured I'd play along. I posted my ranking way back in April, and it appears that I've done reasonably well!
  • I scored 73 points according to the strange but not quite nonsensical scoring system used for the wager
  • This was enough to rank me above all of the "official" entrants from the /Filmcast (Dave Chen pulled out a last minute coup with a score of 67 because The Meg snuck into the top 10 right near the deadline - an event that also helped me considerably).
  • I ranked 444 in the Global Leaderboard, which is decent considering there were 3800+ players
  • The winner of the Global Leaderboard scored a whopping 96 points, only missing two picks dead on (which, naturally, involved Solo)
Not too shabby. Let's take a closer look at the results. Scores were based on a fixed timeframe (ending September 3/Labor Day Weekend) and there are various bonuses for ranking the picks exactly (i.e. if you get #1 or #10 correct, you get 13 points, if you get any between dead-on, you get 10 points, and the further away from the correct rank you are, the less points you get, etc...) I did pretty darned good, especially considering that I didn't put all that much time or thought into it.
  1. Avengers: Infinity War ($678,781,267, My Rank: #1, 13 points) - Duh. Pretty much everyone had this and it was the clear no-brainer of the season.
  2. Incredibles 2 ($602,579,381, My Rank: #2, 10 points) - I had this much higher than most people, but that turned out to be a wise choice. I was worried that my love for the original was coloring my ranking here, but it turns out that my assumption that it would be the "kids movie of choice" this summer was right on.
  3. Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom ($415,210,470, My Rank: #5, 5 points) - I expected this to fall off (due to the inherent crappiness of the first Jurrasic World), and it did, just not as much as I expected/hoped.
  4. Deadpool 2 ($318,454,369, My Rank: #3, 7 points) - I was hoping for a bit of a bump up from the first film's popularity, but this would up with a modest decrease. In any case, the margin between #3 and #4 is about $100 million, so it wasn't even really close.
  5. Ant-Man and the Wasp ($213,977,857, My Rank: #6, 7 points) - A strong showing for this one, about in line with my projections. In fact, if Solo did just a teensy bit better, it would have been dead on. The margin between the two is a mere $275 Thousand(ish).
  6. Solo: A Star Wars Story ($213,706,487, My Rank: #4, 5 points) - This was definitely a big question mark and yep, I overestimated the power of the Star Wars brand. Many reasons this could have fallen this low on the list, and apparently this was the "single biggest mistake" on my list. I suspect that's not rare for a lot of these. Especially given the razor thin margin between #5 and #6.
  7. Mission: Impossible - Fallout ($206,661,700, My Rank: #8, 7 points) - I had this a little lower due to its release date (I mean, it's still going reasonably strong, even if the wager is complete - a little more time and it could easily have jumped a few spots, actually), but I should not have worried. A tough one to estimate, but at least I was only one off.
  8. Hotel Transylvania 3: Summer Vacation ($162,844,423, My Rank: Dark Horse, 1 point) - The power of the kids' movie (and I'm guessing a rapping Dracula) gets this one higher than expected. This was the one Dark Horse pick that I kinda regretted not putting on the list, but it's not like it did that well.
  9. Ocean's 8 ($139,211,301, My Rank: #7, 5 points) - I was a little overzealous about this one; still not much to really comment on here. It was a fun movie and it did correspondingly well.
  10. The Meg ($123,802,883, My Rank: #10, 13 points) - I was worried about the release date of this, which didn't allow for much time to make the needed money, but damn, I somehow hit this right on. As the summer went on, I was regretting this pick, but it turns out that August being a wasteland and dumping ground for bad movies makes a difference.
  11. Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again ($118,120,770, My Rank: #8, 0 points) - This was the #10 movie right up until, like, the last second, which meant I was not doing so hot. So even though The Meg overtaking this dropped one of my picks outside the top 10, it was a good thing since I hit The Meg right on and thus got the bonus points.
Just to note my remaining "Dark Horse" picks:
  • Christopher Robin - In some ways, I'm a dumb-dumb, because this movie basically had no chance of actually making the top 10. Then again, I didn't actually put it in the top 10 and I did actually get all 10 represented somewhere, so there is that.
  • Skyscraper - I was worried about The Rock's scattered track record and the fact that this was the third movie this year. It seems my skepticism was warranted.
Phew. That was actually a whole lot of fun, and even though paying attention to the results throughout the season is kinda silly (the points and rankings can swing wildly as movies are released, etc...), it's still fun, and something I kept checking. If you like following movies, this is a recommended little game!
Leave a comment...
squares

50 Under 50 - Part V

I'm 31 movies into my resolution to watch 50 movies made before 1950 in 2018 [see Part I | Part II | Part III | Part IV]. I faltered a bit due to vacations, but am pretty much back on track. If I only watch one qualifying movie a week until the end of the year, I'm only 2 movies behind. Considering that I only really started doing this challenge in March or so, I should be good. Further, I expect a fair amount of my 6 Weeks of Halloween horror movie marathon to qualify, such that it's quite possible I'll surpass 50 early. Anywho, let's dive into the most recent batch:
  • The Glass Key (1942) - It's Yojimbo meets Miller's Crossing, only this came before both. The movie opens with Veronica Lake slapping Alan Ladd, who then asks one of his flunkies to meet with Lake's father. The flunky demurrs, so Ladd throws him through a window. My kinda movie.
    Veronica Lake in The Glass Key
    Film noir with the standard complement of crooked politicians, gangsters, henchmen, and murder! Above average, with good performances all around and the occasional brilliant turn of phrase. For instance, at one point Ladd is referred to as "a pop-eyed spaghetti bender", which is a good one. Definitely curious as to the extent of its influence, but it's clearly a precursor to lots of stuff and well worth checking out. **1/2
  • Pitfall (1948) - Dick Powell plays a family man and insurance investigator who sets out to repossess a bunch of fraudulent belongings from a woman. She'd fallen for the wrong guy, who is now serving time. Powell's finding the routines of day to day life are driving him nuts, and he starts to fall for the girl, who represents escape and adventure, of a sort. Unfortunately, Powell had made the mistake of enlisting a PI played by Raymond Burr to help find her in the first place, and Burr's character has not-so-honorable aims of his own. This starts slow and it's not particularly clear where it's going for a while, but once it gets there, things get more interesting. Again, not exactly top tier noir, but perhaps a bit above average. **1/2
  • The Most Dangerous Game (1932) - I don't remember when I first read the Richard Connell short story this movie is based on, but it's long been a mainstay of middle/high school English classes, and a pretty great example of narrative structure. As such, there's been tons of official and unofficial adaptations of this story. Even if you haven't read it, you'll probably recognize the premise: a traveler becomes shipwrecked on an island. It turns out that the island is the home of a reclusive and eccentric man who, while initially welcoming, turns out to be a madman who hunts human beings for sport. The rest of the story is a dangerous game of cat and mouse (or cat and also-cat, if you will). There are countless examples of films inspired by or directly adapting this, but this appears to be the first. Directed by Ernest B. Schoedsack and Merian Cooper, the team that would go on to make King Kong a year later (even going so far as to use the same sets and actress Fay Wray), this film is a straightforward, relatively faithful adaptation. Some elements were added (notably a love interest) and the specific traps and action sequences are padded out a bit, but it's otherwise pretty accurate. Joel McCrea is sufficiently heroic, while Leslie Banks chews the scenery as the villainous madman, certainly providing a template for future villainy. Visually the film has a nice foggy atmosphere and the villain's castle again serves as something of a template for evil lairs. The actual action is decent enough for its time, but a little staid to the modern eye. Clocking in at a svelt 63 minutes, it still moves quickly though. Not the "must-watch" classic that King Kong would become, but certainly worth a watch for students of cinema. ***
  • Safety Last! (1923) - Harold Lloyd was sorta the forgotten third silent comedy genius (behind Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton), but this film represents his masterpiece and includes the one set piece we've all seen (and which has, yes, influenced a ton of other films). Lloyd's main character was called Glasses (because he, um, wore glasses), and in this movie he leaves for the big city to start his blue-collar career, promising his sweetheart that he'll call for her once he starts making the big bucks. Naturally, he's stuck working a menial job at a department store that can't exactly live up to his promises. The first half of the film is an unending series of clever physical stunts, pratfalls, and general comedic gags, but the highlight is the final setpiece where Glasses climbs the outside of the department store in a desperate bid for publicity. It's a genius sequence, and features new obstacles at every floor climbed, most infamously the one where he hangs off of the oversized clock on the outside of the building (a gag referenced repeatedly throughout film history).
    Hanging off the clock in Safety Last!
    Silent comedies tend to fare better to modern viewings than more dramatic fare, but humor doesn't always translate across the decades. This is nearly a century old, but the comedy holds up well. Lloyd doesn't have quite the cache of Chaplin or Keaton, but apparently he's only got himself to blame for that one: "Lloyd kept copyright control of most of his films and re-released them infrequently after his retirement" and not so much because of lack of interest. He wouldn't let theaters use piano to accompany the films (preferring an organ) and charged exorbitant amounts for television airings. As a result, Chaplin and Keaton enjoyed a more favorable reputation and name recognition. After his death, there was renewed interest, and more recent restorations have helped Lloyd along. At least, among film dorks, as most people these days wouldn't dream of watching a silent film. Safety First! would be a decent one to start with though. ***
  • Scarlet Street (1945) - Edward G. Robinson plays an ordinary man going through a mid-life crisis when he inadvertently rescues a woman from an attack on the street. He befriends her, but she's under the impression that he's a rich artist (haha) and sets about conning him for his fortune. This starts awfully slow and doesn't really pick up until the end of the second act. Then things go completely bananas in the final act. As it turns out, the slow first half is really just a slow ratcheting of tension. Stylistically, the film becomes more adventurous as it goes as well (the beginning is not what you'd expect from a filmmaker with the stature of Fritz Lang), with a wonderfully bonkers, very dark, Edgar-Allen-Poe-like ending (that's more like it). I won't spoil anything, but this is worth hanging in there for fans of melodrama/noir mixtures. ***
  • Bicycle Thieves (1948) - This is one of those Criterion Collection/Janus Arthouse films that I've always, well, "dreaded" isn't quite the right word, but it's not the sort of thing that's necessarily a feel-good piece. It tells the story of Antonio, an unemployed man in post-war Italy who finally gets a job. The only catch is that he needs a bicycle to perform the job, so when his bicycle is stolen on his first day at work, he goes into a panic. The rest of the film is a desperate search for the stolen bike, with his son tagging along. It's an astoundingly empathetic film, and one of those situations where even these sorts of small stakes seem massive when contextualized like this (lots of modern blockbusters have planet-destroying stakes, but you don't feel them anywhere near as much as this one man's need to find that damned bike). Stylistically devoid of flourishes or showiness, its restraint perfectly matches the story being told, lending the film a realism not common for its era (it feels much more modern than it actually is). Apparently these weren't even professional actors, but this only enhances the realism, especially with the child actor, who does a phenomenal job (and stays appropriately kid-like throughout). It's heartbreaking, but in the best way possible (this is not something I'm accustomed to saying). ***
So there you have it. We're entering 6 Weeks of Halloween season, so these 50 Under 50 movies will probably be incorporated into those posts for a while, but we'll surely be back later in the year to finish this sucker off.
Leave a comment...
squares

Hugo Awards 2018: The Results

The 2018 Hugo Award winners were announced last Sunday, so it's time for the requisite whinging/celebration that keeps blogs in orbit. I participated this year, but was somewhat less vigilant in reading and voting, but will probably continue to play along. Anyway, let's get to it... (For those who really want to geek out and see how instant-runoff voting works, the detailed voting and nomination stats are available.)
  • The Stone Sky wins best novel and N.K. Jemisin becomes the first author ever to win three in a row. I have not been a particular fan of the series, but people seem to love these books. Too much misery porn for my liking, which always kept me at an arms length from the characters and story. Forcing myself to read the three books over the past few years (if I'm going to vote, I'm going to read the books; the authors deserve that much) probably doesn't help. I don't see why this series in particular deserved the three-peat, but this third book was actually my favorite of the series, so there is that (in fact, the only real baffling winner in the series was the second book, which suffered from clear middle-book-in-a-trilogy problems. I can definitely see why the first and third books won.) The other funny thing about this is that a few years ago, they created a whole award for "Best Series" that could have potentially cut down on the number of sequels in the Best Novel category, but that clearly isn't happening. Scalzi's Collapsing Empire came in second, and probably would have been my choice (though I certainly get the criticisms of it, it was a lot more fun and pushed my SF buttons more than most of the other nominees). New York 2140 came in last place, which also matches my preference...
  • World of the Five Gods (formerly known as the Chalion series after the first book), by Lois McMaster Bujold takes the Best Series Hugo, which is also funny because Bujold won last year for the Vorkosigan Saga (deservedly so, in my opinion, but still). This award still suffers from a big logistical problem, namely that if you haven't already read all the nominees (some of which contain more than 10 novels, etc...), you can't really judge properly. That being said, Bujold is one of my two favorite authors, so this win isn't exactly unwelcome.
  • All Systems Red: The Murderbot Diaries by Martha Wells takes home the rocket for Best Novella. Though I have not read any of the other nominees, I had nominated the Wells story, so I'm happy to see that it did well (and this is a good reminder that the sequels are out, so I should get on that!) I've neglected the novellas in recent years, but it's funny, a lot of the most interesting SF these days is coming out in Novella sized bites, so I might have to pay closer attention to the category this/next year.
  • “The Secret Life of Bots,” by Suzanne Palmer takes the Novelette award, but the only Novelette that I read this year was Yoon Ha Lee's excellent “Extracurricular Activities” (which I was rooting for). I'll probably give Palmer's story a shot though, as it seems fun.
  • "Welcome to your Authentic Indian Experience™", by Rebecca Roanhorse wins Best Short Story. I had placed it firmly in the middle of the pack of my ballot, but didn't feel particularly strongly for any of the stories (despite this year's category in general being of higher quality than the last few years).
  • Wonder Woman wins Best Dramatic Presentation, Long Form. I thought that my preferred Get Out might actually pull it out (it did finish second in the voting), but Hugo voters tend to go for bigger, splashier movies, as evidenced by the other nominees. A The Good Place won the Short Form award, which is great.
  • All in all, not too shabby! I'm definitely curious to see how next year goes. Will series and sequels continue to dominate the Best Novel category? Should Lois McMaster Bujold release a new Sharing Knife book this year to see if she can three-peat the Best Series category? Will Novellas continue their ascendancy? Only one way to find out.
  • I have not read a ton of 2018 SF, and what I have read so far has not struck me as Hugo Worthy (Head On was a lot of fun, but doesn't strike me as needing recognition in this way). Some things I'm looking forward to catching up with though: The Freeze-Frame Revolution, by Peter Watts, The Tea Master and the Detective, by Aliette de Bodard, Artificial Condition and Rogue Protocol (The Murderbot Diaries sequels), by Martha Wells, and a few others (of note: all of the preceding are novellas).
And that's all for now. We've only got a few weeks until the Six Weeks of Halloween starts up, so stay tuned...
Leave a comment...
squares

Link Dump

Just some links I've found interesting on ye olde internets of late: That's all for now. I was hoping to do a Hugo results recap, but it's not starting until late tonight, so you'll have to wait until next week. I know you're all crestfallen, and I apologize.
Leave a comment...
squares

Netflix Recommendations

This is probably a fool's errand since all these movies could disappear from Netflix forever tomorrow, but for today, here are a bunch of movies available on Netflix that you might not have seen because the mechanisms for browsing Netflix are awful, you probably don't need recommendations for stuff like The Dark Knight or Thor: Ragnarok, and some of these movies would be obscure and difficult to hear about in any case:
  • Baahubali: The Beginning and Baahubali 2: The Conclusion - I'm no expert on Indian cinema, but Netflix appears to be making some attempt to court Indian viewers as they are consistently adding movies like these two Tollywood epics. Set in ancient India, a man with a mysterious past learns of his royal heritage and the heroism of his father. Or something. Look, these two movies combined are 5+ hours of action, romance, and more action. If you're a fan of epic battles of mythological proportions, you will enjoy this and the runtime will not seem overlong. Well worth checking out.
  • Bad Genius - This Thai movie about high school students cheating on tests was one of the best heist movies of the past year or two, which is saying a lot. It made my top 10 last year, so I've already sung its praises, but it's still obscure enough to warrant another mention here.
  • Everly - Salma Hayek faces down wave after wave of assassins sent to kill her by a mob boss/kidnapper. A bit video-game like in execution, it's still a very entertaining little action flick that people don't seem to talk about very much. Well worth checking out if you want to see Salma Hayek in wall-to-wall action sequences.
  • Cold in July - An underrated and underseen Texas Noir tale of a protective father who foils a burglar and as a result, gets wrapped up in an ever escalating series of events. Fans of Country Noir would love it, assuming they knew about it (but this movie didn't get a big release).
  • The Way of the Gun - Are you a fan of Christopher McQuarrie's recent Mission: Impossible movies? Well this isn't quite as action packed, but it's McQarrie's highly idiosyncratic directorial debut about a pair of criminals who kidnap a crime boss's pregnant wife for ransom, and then have to deal with the various bag-men sent their way. Fascinating movie with an intricate plot. Well worth checking out.
  • Five more recommendations presented without comment because I've either talked them up too much before or perhaps they're better known than the others or maybe I just didn't have much to say about them (even though I didn't say that much about the above, I know, get over it): The Thin Blue Line, Real Genius, All the Boys Love Mandy Lane, Stardust, and Wind River. You're welcome.
That about covers it. I was going to add a few that I hadn't seen yet to the list, but then, I hadn't seen them yet, so I can't very well recommend them. But that might make for good post later on.
Leave a comment...
squares

SF Book Review: Part 28

  • Posted on
  • by
Of course, I've been reviewing a bunch of recent Hugo nominees separately, but it's been a while since I caught up on reviews of other SF I've been reading, so let's get to it:
  • Eon by Greg Bear - Before I left on vacation last week I posted a poll on twitter asking which SF book I should listen to during the drive (embedded in the vacation was also the annual Operation Cheddar side-mission, which also involves a lot of time in-car). Despite around 400 impressions, only four of you jerks voted, but this Greg Bear book was the winner. As it turns out, it's very good and the audio-book was well produced, but man, it's pretty heady stuff for a trip like this. The story starts in the far flung future of... 2005, when the US and Soviet tensions are strained and nearing a nuclear exchange. Into this volatile political environment comes a massive asteroid, appearing out of a huge energy burst just outside the solar system. It takes up a near-earth orbit, and what appears to initially just be a big-dumb-object turns out to hold secrets within secrets. It soon becomes clear that the "rock" or "potato" (as the Russians call it) is from the future, but maybe not quite our future. The rock once held an advanced civilization, and from studying in their libraries, we see that it was a human civilization made up of the remnants of nuclear war. The history described mostly (but not wholly) matches the history our characters know. Then there is the mysterious seventh chamber, which is larger than the asteroid itself and seems to house a singularity of some sort. This is a big, ambitious hard-SF novel that builds on top of previous big-dumb-object SF in a meaningful way. Sense of wonder abounds, and there are a bunch of startling plot developments throughout the story, which is far-ranging and demands close reading. The SF bits are well done, mixing accessible ideas with more mind-bending concepts. The latter can get a bit dicey or difficult to understand, but there's enough underpinning them to keep the book from feeling bogged down by technobabble (your mileage may vary; it worked well for me). The characters suffer a bit in comparison to the idea content and plot. They're likable enough, and Bear spends plenty of time with them, but they're clearly not the focus of the story, and the book drags a bit when Bear focuses on them. At first, the book does seem hopelessly dated, what with all the Cold War machinations (and a weird Ralph Nader reference), but as we progress through the story and become acquainted with the concept of alternate universes, that complaint shrinks and nearly vanishes (clearly not intentional, as this was written during the Cold War, but still). The finale ties things together reasonably well, though there's still some open ended questions, which I gather are addressed in a sequel to this book. Unlike most of these situations, I can actually see myself following up on that sequel, which I think says something. I don't think Eon is quite as successful as Blood Music, but it's still great, big-scope SF that's well worth checking out.
  • Daemon by Daniel Suarez - When computer game magnate Matthew Sobol dies, a computer program awakens and starts executing various schemes. These start out as small scale murders, but quickly escalate into more devious and wide-ranging territory. Detective Peter Sebeck and a handful of others must find a way to counter the Daemon's ambitions. Pretty straightforward techno-thriller type stuff, entertaining for what it is, but not quite grounded enough to really make an impact. In computer terms, a Daemon is a background process that waits for requests (a necessity in a multi-tasking OS). Here, the term is used more generally, as a mixture of sorta background AI that only kicks off processes once certain things happen (for example, the whole story is kicked of when the Daemon monitors the news for Sobol's obituary). It's not quite a full AI, but it's implied that Sobol has thought up a lot of things in advance or something. Interesting enough as it goes, but the story often goes for flashy over subtle explorations. The character work is simple and purely functional, which again focuses on superficial explorations. This makes for an entertaining and quick read (even if it is probably too long and bloated at parts), but not something that really sticks with you. There is a lot of value in entertainment, and I feel like this often gets lost in the shuffle, so on balance, I liked this book. However, despite some loose ends, I probably won't follow up on the sequel. That being said, I'm curious enough to pick up more Suarez at some point.
  • We Are Legion (We Are Bob) by Dennis Taylor - Bob Johansson just sold his software company and to celebrate, he signs up for a cryogenics program and almost immediately gets into an accident. He wakes up a century later to learn that corpsicles have no rights and that he's now the property of a religious state. His consciousness has been digitized and he's now going to be controlling an interstellar probe looking for habitable planets, which actually aligns pretty well with Bob's personality. However, there are several competing programs out there (notably the Brazilians), and the universe is not necessarily a friendly place. A decent little exploration of Von Neumann probes told in a very entertaining, Scalzi-esque manner. Bob is reasonably likable, and so are the majority of his replicated brethren (each replicant having subtle probabalistic differences that can result in wildly different personalities), and each gets into their own curious adventure. Not as deep or ambitious as Eon, but not simple, trashy surface-level stuff like Daemon, this winds up being an entertaining little book. Clearly the first in a series, this is another one that I will probably revisit at some point.
  • Use of Weapons by Iain M. Banks - This third novel in Banks' Culture series tells the story of Cheradinine Zakalwe, an ex-special-circumstances agent recruited for one more mission by his former handler Diziet Sma and supported by the Culture AI Skaffen Amiskaw. Told in two alternating narrative streams, one moving forward chronologically, the other in reverse. Neither stream is notably great on its own, but their juxtaposition is what gives this novel its complexity as each alternating chapter informs the others, leading to a final revelation. While it is a genuinely well constructed novel, I also find that the glowing terms in which people describe this perhaps oversold the impact, and thus I wound up finding it a bit disappointing. The final narrative twist is interesting, but I'm not sure it can bear the weight of the rest of the story. In particular, the backwards-moving sections of the story are a little repetitive, disjointed, repetitive, and episodic, leading to lots of wallowing in guilt and misery, which is ultimately the point of Zakalwe (and not something I particularly enjoy). It's still a good book, to be sure, but it's much more of a character sketch than a space opera (though it contains enough window dressing on that front, I suppose). I liked it, but found Player of Games to be a much more effective story and probably my favorite Banks novel so far.
  • Millennium by John Varley - A DC-10 and a 747 collide in mid-air, and a team of investigators find a few bits of evidence that don't quite fit. It turns out that teams of people from the future have been time-traveling to the moments before accidents like this and swapping out the passengers with prefabricated smoking bodies. When one such operation goes poorly, more time travelers need to go back to try and fix the problems before they cascade into bigger problems, blah blah, paradox. So this starts off enjoyably enough and the premise is put through its paces, but the ultimate justification and ending left me feeling hollow. I'm not entirely sure it all fits together, and the whole motivation behind the scheme wasn't particularly well established. That said, the in-the-moment bits were pretty well done. It reminds me a bit of a J.J. Abrams mystery-box type story, where all the questions are tantalizing and mysterious, but the solution isn't quite as satisfying as you'd like. So I enjoyed reading it, but it hasn't stuck with me. I'd be down for reading more Varley at some point though...
These were the most recent five books that I've not already covered, but I have a few more to get to at some point, even if I read them quite a bit ago...
Leave a comment...
squares

50 Under 50 - Part IV

I've reached the halfway point in my resolution to watch 50 movies made before 1950 in 2018 [see Part I | Part II | Part III]. The pace has quickened, but I'm still a movie or two behind (not bad since I only started in March). Plus, no cheating this time! All feature length flicks here, though a couple are short (but then, others are 2+ hours, so it evens out). Let's get to it:
  • Duck Soup (1933) - Over a decade ago, I put together a (mildly embarrassing) list of The Greatest Movies I've Never Seen. It wasn't meant to be comprehensive or anything, but one of the areas I wanted to explore more was the Marx Brothers, so I put Duck Soup on the list. A few years later, after having watched the grand majority of the films on the original list, I made another list... that still had Duck Soup on it. Now it's 2018 and I finally sat down and watched it. Lots of deadpan one-liners, puns, and a few wonderful sight gags (the mirror scene is a great bit of sustained brilliance), it's kinda shocking how well the humor still works 80+ years later. I mean, I'm sure some of the jokes went over my head, but the comedic timing still kinda carries them, even if I didn't get the reference. There's some musical numbers that aren't my thing, but the story is something of a political satire that is still kinda relevant today, even if I'm so sick of politics at the moment that I wasn't going to sit down and dig through it all. It's there if you want to do such a thing. It's a fun little rapid-fire joke machine, which is enough for me. ***
  • Red River (1948) - Howard Hawks directed this John Wayne and Montgomery Clift vehicle about a cattle rancher Dunson (Wayne) who intends an ambitious drive from Texas to Missouri. But as difficulties are encountered, Dunson becomes increasingly tyrannical to the point where even his adopted son Matt (Clift) participates in a mutiny. While pretty standard Western fare, this is so exceptionally well executed that it stands as an exemplar of the genre. Wayne is great, of course, but Montgomery Clift actually manages to hold his own.
    Red River
    The real hero of the film, though, is Howard Hawks. Unostentatious but meticulous, it's not particularly showy, but you can always tell when you're in the hands of a master, and this is no exception. In particular, he captures the arid landscapes and expertly frames the massive cattle drive. This isn't a special effects extravaganza or anything, but the stampede scene is still quite impressive. Even simple, routine shots of the cattle herd come across as well done. The story covers a lot of ground and Wayne's descent into madness is fertile territory for thematic heft, if you're so inclined. But really it's just a fun movie. It doesn't shy away from the darker aspects of the West, but it has its heart in the right place, and the 2+ hour runtime flies by quickly. Well worth checking out. ***
  • Stray Dog (1949) - Akira Kurosawa's tale of a police detective (Toshirō Mifune) who loses his gun on a crowded bus; a gun that is later used in a crime. Mifune's detective feels the weight of this and tries to find and reclaim his gun before more people are hurt. I don't know if this is the first story about a cop who has lost their gun, but it's the earliest example I've seen (and there are plenty to choose from). It's got lots of great procedural bits too, as the young detective learns some tricks of the trade, deals with early forensics, and so on. It's a tad long, but hey, it's hard to find fault in a Kurosawa movie, and this is a pretty good one. ***
  • L'inferno (Dante's Inferno) (1911) - An early adaptation of Dante's Divine Comedy (and Gustav Doré's illustrations of same), this was apparently the first feature film made in Italy. While I'm sure it was amazing in its time, it falters a bit today. I mean, adapting Dante isn't exactly an easy task to start with, and the Divine Comedy isn't so much a narrative as it is a catalog of the afterlife, so an adaptation that consists of hefty intertiles and brief vignettes of the various circles of hell can drag a bit at times. That being said, the special effects were actually quite well done, and the film manages to cultivate a pretty eerie atmosphere throughout.
    L Inferno
    It's clearly an influential film and worth watching for students of the horror genre, but it doesn't have a ton of mainstream appeal anymore, even with the version featuring a Tangerine Dream soundtrack. Still, probably worth skimming on a free version on Youtube if you're curious. **
  • The Jungle Book (1942) - A pretty straightforward adaptation of Kipling's story, focusing mostly on the sequences where Mowgli has a hard time adapting to the human village after having grown up in the jungle. While there's lots of animal work, these components are naturally downplayed (the Shere Khan conflict is portrayed, but resolved quickly, with the remainder being a human story). The film looks pretty good, the animal work is decent, Sabu turns in an energetic performance as Mowgli, but I found the pace a bit disjointed and off. This was nominated for a Retro Hugo, but I think it will be pulling up the rear in my rankings... **
  • Invisible Agent (1942) - The Invisible Man's grandson is recruited by the allies to spy on Nazi Germany. Hey, it's a pretty logical extension of the original premise, as an invisible man should make for a great spy, right? And the result is certainly very entertaining, with very well done special effects and a briskly paced story. The tone is rather more comedic than the series' horror origins, but as sequels go, this seems to be one of the better Universal Monster sequels (granted, I haven't seen them all, and I really need to rewatch the original Invisible Man sometime soon). Pretty good performances all around, though Peter Lorre is stuck playing the least convincing Japanese agent ever (poor guy is always being typecast as inappropriate foreigners, like the Mexican General in Hitch's Secret Agent, to choose another example I recently came across). But it's funny, Lorre is still quite a memorable presence in the film. It's mostly just wartime propaganda, but it's still a lot of fun, and a good example of why Universal's movie Monsters are an enduring creation. Another Retro Hugo nomineee, this will probably fall somewhere in the middle of the pack. **1/2
That's all for now. We will soon be hitting the Six Weeks of Halloween horror movie marathon, where I will be sure to hit a couple of weeks worth of sub-1950 movies that should put me above pace for 50 films this year...
Leave a comment...
squares

Hugo Awards: Short Stories

In the past five years of reading Hugo nominated short stories, I think I've enjoyed about 2-3 of the stories quite a bit. That's... not a very good batting average. For whatever reason, I always find that this category just fills up with stories that don't work for me. True, several puppy trolling nominations made the cut, which didn't help (for example: they nominated SF-themed erotica two years in a row, and then another that was a bad parody of a bad story, etc...), but even the stories I liked weren't that great. I've always chalked that up to this category having the lowest barrier to entry. It doesn't take a whole lot of time or effort to seek out a bunch of short stories (mostly available for free online too), so the nominations are spread far and wide. There used to be a requirement that a finalist had to have at least 5% of the nominations in order to be considered, which often resulted in a small category because most stories couldn't clear that bar. So basically, the stories that do make it here rarely have wide appeal. That being said, this year's nominees are actually a pretty congenial bunch. I don't actually hate any of the stories, even if a few don't quite tweak me the way I'd like (even those are pretty good though). I do still find it hard to believe that these are the actual best short fiction of the year, but I'll take this over the past 4 years' worth of nominations. However, I do think it's telling that at least one story on the 1942 Retro Hugos ballot, Proof by Hal Clement, is far better than any of these nominees, which I think says something (I'd have to read/reread a couple of the other 1942 finalists to be sure, but I suspect that ballot is more my speed). Anyway, let's get to it:
  1. "Fandom for Robots" by Vina Jie-Min Prasad - A 1950s era robot named Computron lives its life out in a museum answering questions from tourists and whatnot. One day, someone asks him if he's seen some random future anime show. He gets kinda obsessed with the show and discovers fan fiction, eventually finding someone to collaborate with. It's a delightful little story, perhaps a little too light-hearted to be the best of the year, but it's quite enjoyable. It's sorta like this year's "Cat Pictures Please", in that I suspect Computron is really just a sorta standin for the author. But it's a lot of fun. Might fall down a peg or two in time.
  2. "Sun, Moon, Dust", by Ursula Vernon - Neat little story about a farmer who inherits a magic sword that houses three barbarian warrior souls. Or something like that. The barbarians want to teach the farmer in the ways of war, but he's a farmer in what appears to be peacetime, so he has no need for battle. As it turns out, one of the barbarians might be able to learn something from the farmer. Short and sweet. Not exactly my genre, but nice.
  3. "Welcome to your Authentic Indian Experience™", by Rebecca Roanhorse - Guy runs a VR simulation of Native American vision quests, but instead of being authentic, it's more like a shallow experience derived from the movies. I was a little taken aback by the fact that this guy references the Johnny Depp performance in the Lone Ranger, but then I realized that this is just another indication that our main character is a bit of a dope. It's got a decent twist, but in the end this feels like a rehashing of an idea we've seen a million times, only this time it's from a Native American perspective. It fits, for sure.
  4. "The Martian Obelisk", by Linda Nagata - The earth is dying and humanity is on its way out. In an act of defiance, an architect and her patron attempt to erect a giant monument on Mars that will last far longer than humanity. Then a rover from a human Mars colony thought to be wiped out by disease shows up at the monument. It's an interesting idea and I like the shape of the narrative, but the execution feels a bit off. It's worth a read, though.
  5. "Carnival Nine", by Caroline M. Yoachim - Told from the perspective of little wind-up toys, this ends up being a sorta parable about parenting a special-needs child. It's fantasy, but my dumb engineering brain kept wondering about the physics and metaphysics of these beings; nitpicks which are usually a sign of something deeper. Touching, but a little on the dour side, even before the child shows up.
  6. "Clearly Lettered in a Mostly Steady Hand", by Fran Wilde - A story about someone who visits a museum and is disturbed by what they find. Or something. It felt a lot more like a tone poem than a narrative, and it just sorta washed over me, leaving me with only a feeling of mild unease and pretty much nothing else. Like, I forgot everything about this about five minutes after finishing it. This is the only thing I'd be tempted to put under No Award (and it's pretty much the only story that is guaranteed not to move in my rankings), but I'll be generous and keep it here.
Honestly, I could probably move around the top five of these quite a bit, though I think the top three are likely to remain the top three (though there might be some movement between them). A pretty solid ballot this year.
Leave a comment...
squares

Hugo Awards: Six Wakes

One of the longstanding criticisms of the Hugo Awards is that the same names keep showing up on the shortlist every damn year. No name is necessarily permanent (though some have had tenures lasting 20 years or so, especially in the smaller, more obscure categories), but this is the sort of thing you'd expect for what is essentially a popularity contest. This year is no exception. Of the 6 nominees for Best Novel, 4 are written by an author who has already won the award and another that was also nominated last year. Mur Lafferty is the only author on the shortlist that hasn't had a book nominated before (though she has been nominated in ancillary categories and won the Campbell award a few years back, so not a completely new name). In all honesty, this immediately endears me to the book. Additionally, the book is quite enjoyable and *gasp* not part of a series, also big pluses.

Six Wakes tells the story of six clones who awake a few decades into their mission crewing the starship Dormire. They awake to chaos. Their previous bodies have been gruesomely murdered, the ship is off course, artifical gravity has malfunctioned, and the food printer is only able to make poison. All memory backups and logs have been deleted and the ship's AI is offline. No one has any memories of their journey so far, so we're basically left with a locked-room murder mystery.

There are some clear flaws in the story and worldbuilding here, but funnily enough, I found myself making excuses for them and giving a lot of slack while Lafferty eventually works out some of the issues. I often have a sorta reverse reaction (i.e. a bunch of nitpicks sinking an otherwise good story), so this was an interesting experience, and probably belies a deeper positive feeling about the story.

So this crew of six people are all criminals that have taken on the long and boring trek with the hopes of clearing their records. While this clearly raises the stakes and makes them all suspects, it also feels like a bit of a dumb cliche. This is the premise of a million dumber stories and SyFy movie schlock. Fortunately, Lafferty eventually posits a more plausible reason for these six specific people to be on this trip. Is it totally convincing? I was willing to go with it, but I could see it not working for a lot of folks.

The characters themselves are all reasonably well drawn and naturally, they all have something to hide. Sometimes these are important, sometimes not, which is a key component of the whole mystery genre, so this was well done.

The cloning technology is mature and seemingly ubiquitous, and Lafferty does a great job exploring the logical extensions and unexpected consequences of the technology. Some of the fictional laws surrounding the tech seem rather short-sighted or implausible, but since I was apparently being so charitable, I found it had the ring of political compromise (i.e. a process that often produces incredibly stupid laws). I won't spoil any of the surprises here, but it's definitely a good exploration of the idea (something a lot of the other nominees didn't particularly accomplish this year) and this, more than anything else, is what made me enjoy the book.

So it's a lot of fun and it tackles some interesting philosophical ideas with respect to cloning; flawed but highly enjoyable, I'm find it bubbling up towards the top half of this year's nominees. I don't quite think it will reach the top of my ballot, but it certainly has an advantage over several other works in that it's self-contained, interesting, and enjoyable.

2 Comments
squares