- 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...
- 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.
- 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.
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
- "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.
- "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.
- "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.
- "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.
- "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.
- "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.
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.
- The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938) - The birth of swashbuckling?
MARION: You speak treason!Yes, lots of swashbuckling. We all know the general story, and this seems like a pretty standard depiction (as you'd expect from a movie of this period). Some decent setpieces here, and Errol Flynn has a charisma that carries the film. Surprisingly violent, lots of outright murder, which is almost amusing these days. Good transfer, vibrant colors (partly due to costuming, I'm sure), really clean visuals (watched on Blu Ray). Holds up reasonably well, and is clearly influential (beyond the general Robin Hood influence, which obviously goes much further back). ***
ROBIN HOOD: Fluently
- I Married a Witch (1942) - A witch and her trickster father are burned at the stake, their souls becoming trapped in a tree. Before she dies, the witch curses the family that burned her at the stake. Fast forward to present day, a descendant is running for governor when the witch and her father are freed from their confines. They quickly set about torturing the poor guy... by making him fall in love with the witch, played by Veronica Lake? Not very torturous, if you ask me.
- The Lady Eve (1941) - Harry, an awkward heir to a brewery fortune is instead fascinated with snakes. While transporting a rare snake to the mainland on a cruise ship, he's targeted by a trio of card sharps. Only problem is that one of the sharpies falls in love with him (and he with her). Shenanigans ensue. One thing I love is that when Harry finds out that his love is a con woman, he pretty much immediately confronts her. Too many stories draw this out, have people hide what they know, refuse to communicate, etc... Here it sets off a quick change in tone, but obviously everything works out in the end. Starring a young Henry Fonda, who makes for a decent befuddled mark, and Barbara Stanwyck, a sharp presence for sure. Also of note, the "Gargantuan-bellied, frog-voiced character actor" Eugene Palette, always fun (he was Friar Tuck in Robin Hood). ***
- Un Chien Andalou (1929) - Salvador Dali collaborated with a young Luis Buñuel (this short is his first credit) on this avant-garde surrealist film. As you might imagine, there's not really a plot as such, more just a series of dreamlike vignettes featuring a lot of imagery that is clearly influential in the horror genre. It covers everything from gory eyeball gags (the film's eye-opening introduction features a graphic depiction of a man slicing through an eyeball cross-cut to thin clouds passing across the moon; Fulci must have loved this), to body horror (ants emerge from a hole in a man's palm; a man's mouth closes up to reveal only skin where his mouth should be; Cronenberg must have loved this), to the Death's Head moth (Buffalo Bill probably liked this), and more. Definitely worth a watch for horror historians or fans of surrealism.
- A Funny Shave (1906) - Yes, I suppose I'm cheating by including shorts in this series, especially this one, which is only 2 minutes long (give or take). A man lathers up for a shave and takes a taste of his shaving cream, then hallucinates, seeing several creepy looking, clown-like caricatures in the mirror. Director Segundo de Chomón is known for pushing the boundaries of trick photography. Not really mindblowing in a modern viewing, but in 1906, I'm guessing it was pretty impressive.
- Meshes of the Afternoon (1943) - Another short film, I'm really spiraling here. Still, this is a really interesting one. Exceptional use of shadows. Jump cuts, slow motion, superimposition. It's ominous, moody, and elliptical. The black cloaked figure with a mirror for a face is a striking image, and one I'm surprised we haven't seen more of in modern films.
Again not much of a plot here, it feels more like an experiment exploring female desires and a dark love. Or something like that. Co-directed by Maya Deren, who has a reputation as one of the more influential avante-garde directors of the 40s and 50s, she unfortunately doesn't have any real feature length films available. Not sure if this was by choice or perhaps more likely, constraints of the Hollywood system. Again, an interesting flick, especially for horror historians.
The incredible Shinichi “Sonny” Chiba is WOLFGUY, the only survivor of a clan of werewolves who relies on his feral, full-moon-activated superpowers to solve mysterious crimes. One night, a bizarre and bloody death in the Tokyo streets plunges him into a far reaching conspiracy populated by crooked politicians, naked white women, bit players like Hideo Murota, a phantom tiger, and - best of all - a shadowy organization (called the J-CIA) out to steal the secret of Wolfguy’s powers and the blood right out of his veins.Oh, and it has an alternate subtitle you see sometimes, "Wolfguy - Enraged Lycanthrope".
- Chiba never actually transforms into a werewolf, but he does jump around like a wolf a few times.
- At one point, Chiba has been disemboweled, but since it was the full moon, he was able suck his intestines back into his body using only the power of his mind.
- Chiba sleeps with every woman he meets, often within only a couple of minutes. Ah, the 70s.
- The soundtrack is an awesome, swanky 70s affair with some psychodelia thrown in for good measure.
- Visually, it's a pretty trippy affair. Lots of zooms and dutch angles which combine well with the funky soundtrack.
- I watched this on Shudder, which has the recent Arrow restoration of the film, so it's a really good transfer. Better looking than most exploitation of the era, though maybe that's just because it's been restored.
I'm sad to say that until this novel, I had not read any of Kim Stanley Robinson's previous works. I've had Red Mars in my queue for a long time, but since New York 2140 was nominated for this year's Hugo ballot, I figured it was finally time to bite the bullet. Unfortunately, I don't think this was a particularly good introduction.
Set in a future where the world has endured two sudden, catastrophic "pulses" of rising sea levels, this novel focuses mostly on New York City, which has managed to adapt and survive as a sorta New Venice, using various high-tech solutions to cope with the water levels. The story, such as it is, follows several residents of the MetLife Tower on Madison Square as they go about their lives. The Met is run as a co-op, generating food and power as well as providing shelter.
At first, it seems like there's a buildup of plot elements that will all come together in the end, but it ultimately doesn't go in that direction. At least, not in as satisfying a way as I was expecting from some of the initial chapters. There's two programmers, Mutt & Jeff, who want to muck with various finance laws/code and get kidnapped. Inspector Gen is a police officer investigating their disappearance, as well as some other mysterious stuff about security contractors. Two young kids, Roberto and Stefan, are engaging in an old-fashioned sunken treasure hunt. The Met is run by social workers like Charlotte, who is trying to fend off a purchase offer for the building. Vlade is the building manager, and he's finding weird little malfunctions in some of the water-proofing tech of the building as well as being the general glue of all the folks living in the building. Franklin is a hedge fund manager who is anticipating a housing bubble burst and trying to position himself to profit. He's also trying to get into a woman's pants (this gets tedious and belies future twists in his story). Amelia is a ditzy social media star and environmental activist that lives in the Met, but spends most of her time in a dirigible helping animal migrations. Like any story with a large ensemble cast, some of these plot threads are more enjoyable than others, but it's all set up reasonably well and it leads to a sense of anticipation.
Unfortunately, most of these plot threads simply fizzle out in an anti-climactic fashion. Roberto and Stefan find their sunken treasure quickly and easily, enlist Vlade and his ex to actually extract the treasure. During that process, they inadvertently stumble on the location where Mutt & Jeff were being held. Gen is pleased by that discovery, but it doesn't lead to much for her investigation, which is unglamorous and slow moving. Franklin is enlisted to launder the treasure, but that also goes smoothly. Amelia's initial efforts to move polar bears to a better climate is literally nuked by environmentalists? But somehow that's also anti-climactic, with little in the way of fallout (both literally and figuratively). Later, there's a hurricane that hits New York that has some mildly compelling episodes, but the drama that is derived from that feels half-baked and rushed. It becomes clear that it's only there to provide a thin excuse for the blatant wish fulfillment of the finale. That finale, which involves a large proportion of the population simply not paying their bills, is probably the most politically partisan part of the story and the most likely to annoy (I was not exactly on board with this plan, which seemed to somehow go off without a hitch and with unconvincing simplicity). It all hinges on a lot of coincidences and unbelievable changes of heart, such as Franklin's Grinch-like transformation (which did not feel earned). Aside from Vlade and maybe the two kids, I didn't particularly find the characters very engaging either, but rather more like partisan plot delivery devices.
Mostly the novel is basically about how pissed off Kim Stanley Robinson is about the 2008 economic crisis. And like, that's not an unsympathetic stance, but this novel doesn't really provide much in the way of new perspectives on the matter. In fact, the longer the novel goes on, the more clear it becomes that everything he's set up in the worldbuilding is there to comment on our present-day economic ills (or those of 2008). Again, that isn't necessarily a problem. Great art can be manipulative, but in bad art, you can see the strings being pulled, and that's what's going on here. This can be subjective, to be sure, but it was not successful for me. Plus, we're already steeped in critiques of capitalism or explanations for 2008. I mean, if you weren't familiar with this stuff, this book might read much better, but while I'm no expert in the matter, I didn't find much here to chew on that isn't better explored in popular non-fiction. The bald, tailor-made way in which Robinson patterns the issues affecting New York in 2140 means that there's not much new to learn about finance here. Add to that a disjointed narrative that isn't really interested in being an actual story, and you're left with a simple screed. A valued one, perhaps, but a screed nonetheless.
This is most obvious in the chapters attributed to a nameless "citizen", which are basically didactic and condescending history lectures from an angry standin for Robinson. Some of the information imparted in these rants are actually interesting and get at the technical aspects of the worldbuilding, but the tone is generally offputting and weird. At one point, this citizen even urges us to skip these chapters if we're not interested in them, which feels like a bit of self-awareness on Robinson's part, but it's also a confounding notion. Being self-aware of your bad choices does not exactly excuse them (this sort of thing works best in very limited doses). Look, science fiction is infamous for its info-dumps and I'm usually pretty forgiving of such, but this is pretty excessive. (At one point, the citizen is whining about how most of the population didn't see the whole climate change problem coming, or if they did, they didn't do anything about it; then he mentions that only some scientists and science fiction writers were ahead of the curve, which just felt kinda smug on Robinson's part.)
I kept thinking about a couple of other books while reading this one. First, I thought a lot about Cryptonomicon. If you ever pinned me down and forced me to pick a favorite book (an impossible task!), it would probably be Cryptonomicon. And I do see a lot of surface similarities here. There's no CliFi in that book, but lots of speculations about finance, treasure-hunts, money-laundering, and so on. It's also a big ensemble piece with multiple viewpoint characters and a sorta disjointed narrative featuring tons of digressions and yes, info-dumps. I love the book, but I have yet to meet a person in real life who has read it and loved it (there are plenty on the internet who do, to be sure, but still). I kept wondering if my experience reading New York 2140 was like my real-life friends' experience reading Cryptonomicon. As New York 2140 progresses and diverges more clearly from what Cryptonomicon is doing, this feeling lessened, but I thought it an interesting observation. Ultimately, I think Cryptonomicon tightened its various plot threads as it went on, while New York 2140 slowly unraveled. It also speculated on new technology (cryto-currency and data havens), which put a spin on economics that was new and interesting and thus not as well covered by non-fiction of the time.
The other book I kept thinking of was Neptune's Brood. Charlie Stross is pretty clearly not a fan of things like capitalism and debt (and I'm sure he was just as upset at the 2008 economic crisis), but he still managed to build a fascinating story around finance (!) that gave me that vaunted Sense of Wonder that great SF can generate. And his message was baked into an entertaining space-opera that plays well as a narrative all on its own. As a result, his book is much more successful at making me think about our current day woes than New York 2140, which strikes me as a fictional rehashing of Paul Krugman or Thomas Piketty or whatever. I suppose Robinson was trying to use climate change as the mutator of economic ideas, but that's not as interesting or effective as Stross' use of Slow Debt and planetary colonization. Or, you know, non-fiction about climate change and finance today.
Science fiction is often used to comment on present day ills, but the way Robinson constructs his critique doesn't work. I'm not really sure who this book is for. It won't convince political opponents, that's for sure. Moderates might take more from it, but I suspect they'd have my main complaint: If I want to learn more about 2008 (or climate change), there are far better and more accessible non-fictional avenues to pursue, and New York 2140 is nowhere near abstracted enough to be more broadly applicable (a feat that both Cryptonomicon and Neptune's Brood managed because they abstracted and generalized to an interesting degree). I suspect people who are more aligned with Robinson's politics would like it, but that means this is just preaching to the choir. I suppose there's value in that, but perhaps not "Best Science Fiction Novel of the Year" value.
For all my whinging about this book, it wasn't particularly difficult to read and in fact flowed pretty smoothly. It was certainly overlong, the pacing was inconsistent, and more episodic than I'd want, but there were plenty of interesting ideas and page-turning moments. They just didn't add up to a cohesive whole for me. I think you can tell that this will be towards the bottom of my Hugo ballot. At this point, I've read all the novels (review of Six Wakes is incoming; spoiler alert, I liked that a lot more than this...). I'm not entirely sure what will be at the top, but there's a pretty clear list of three tiers for me (and New York 2140, sadly, is on that bottom tier).
- Solo is fine. We're fine. We're all fine here, now, thank you. How are you? It's a movie that doesn't need to exist and maybe Star Wars should be more than just fine, but that's where we're at. Even the stuff I don't like is mostly fine.
- When Solo was announced, the general consensus was that it was a pretty dumb idea and that no one really cared about, but then they went and hired Phil Lord and Chris Miller, people who have literally made their career out of taking the dumbest ideas ever and making good to great movies out of them (I mean, 21 Jump Street wasn't a movie anyone thought would work, and they made it good, then made 22 Jump Street and it was still good. Also: The Lego Movie.) For some reason, Disney let them get to like 3 weeks before filming was scheduled to end, then fired them and hired Ron Howard to reshoot 70% of the film and make it safe or something. As mentioned above, the result is cromulent I guess, but I'd still be really curious to see what Lord and Miller's version looked like. A comedy heist Star Wars flick could have been a ton of fun. I feel like the version we got was toned down, with any edges shaved off. But who knows? It's really easy for us to second guess the decision, but it's actually quite possible that Lord and Miller had finally reached a breaking point and failed to convert a bad idea into a good film. Their reputation is good and they probably got out of this better than if their film was actually released because now everyone is questioning Disney's decision.
- Maybe I should talk about the actual movie, eh? Spoilers aho! So we start off on Corellia with Han as basically a street urchin doing the bidding of
FaginLady Proxima, but he's just stolen a valuable bit of merchandise and hopes to escape with Qi'ra. Of course, things don't go as planned, Qi'ra is captured and Han only escapes by joining the Imperial Navy. After flunking out of pilot school, he becomes an infantryman and during some battle or another he runs into Beckett and immediately figures out that he's a criminal of some kind, but gets thrown into jail and fed to some horrifying monster that turns out to be Chewbacca. Naturally, they hit it off and eventually catch up with Beckett and participate in their planned heist, which does not go well thanks to a rival crew lead by one Enfys Nest. Beckett goes to his boss, who tells him he needs to get some space fuel and fast, so another heist is planned. Oh, and it turns out that Qi'ra is working for Beckett's boss, that's convenient. They recruit Lando Calrissian and his droid L3-37 because they have a ship, the Millenium Falcon. Then they go to Kessel, resulting in the infamous Kessel Run. Once they return, they get another runin with Enfys Nest and things come to a head with Beckett's boss. Betrayals and intrigue, etc... It's all fine.
- I know that there was an aesthetic choice to forgo the opening crawl in the non-numbered Star Wars Stories, but this movie literally starts with multiple screens of textual introduction and it's like, why not use the already established Star Wars convention of a crawl to accomplish that? This is a quibble to be sure, but the crawl is one of those things that is so distinctly Star Wars that it seemed weird to avoid it in this case (the lack of a crawl didn't bother me too much with Rogue One, so it's not like every movie has to have a crawl, but it seemed appropriate here).
- Alden Ehrenreich is fine as Han Solo. He doesn't really remind you of Harrison Ford, but that actually kinda works in this movie's favor. He's perhaps not as charismatic as Ford was in the originals, but that's an impossible comparison, so I'd say he's charismatic enough. There are some interesting relationships here which kinda lead to the Han Solo we know, though the character arc in this movie feels incomplete and a little incongrous with the original film. When we first met Han Solo in Star Wars, he was kinda selfish and cynical, but his arc in that film is to be convinced to care again by Luke and Leia and to hop onboard with the Rebellion (an arc that continues throughout the original trilogy). When we meet Han in this film, he's kinda naive and optimistic. He's got a girl and things are looking up. Even once that falls through, he's optimistic that he'll be reunited with her. And he is! There's some interesting stuff there too, as we're not really sure what Qi'ra's been doing since they've been separated, but Han seems excited to be around her again. Beckett keeps telling him he's a fool for trusting anyone, which makes for another interesting relationship. The end of Solo works well enough, but it leaves too many loose threads with respect to Han's arc. Beckett's betray is probably the best portrayed, and that bit about Han shooting him first is one of the few pieces of fan service that actually works really well. You can see Han hardening a bit with Beckett. Qi'ra's relationship is left a little unclear, and one of the problems with the movie is that it's clearly setting up for a sequel where Qi'ra more thoroughly breaks Han's heart. As it is, Han actually supports the Rebellion at the end of this film, which means that while he's hardened a bit, he hasn't quite reached the cynicism that we know he'll reach by Star Wars. I would much rather this have been a self-contained film where we see all of this, because the result, while fine, is not quite as satisfying.
- Lando is great and Donald Glover does a good job walking the line between doing his own thing and utilizing the affect of Billy Dee Williams (particularly the way he talks). Lando's droid L3-37 is one of the more entertaining bits of the film, but also one of the more confounding characters. She's got this whole droid rights thing going on which is actually a kinda interesting thing in the Star Wars universe because droids are legit treated like slaves, but it's all sorta played as a joke? Then she's killed and uploaded into the Millenium Falcon (against her will?) Still, I liked the interactions between Lando and L3 and thought many of this worked reasonably well. I'm not sure I'd actually want to see a Lando movie with Han Solo as a side character, but I suspect that might have been more original and interesting than the film we got.
- The fan service bits were mostly terrible. I know that Han Solo's dice was a neat little detail in the set dressing from the original film (supposedly a reference to American Graffiti, a film in which Lucas and Ford worked previously) and I guess it made a bit of sense in The Last Jedi because Han was gone and we needed something to remember him by, but man, we don't need this much of the dice. Similarly, we absolutely do not need a scene where Han gets assigned the last name Solo... it's a pretty cringe-worthy moment. I guess it was nice to see Sabacc being played, but it's a difficult thing to film and it mostly only works because we see Lando cheating. I didn't really need to see the Kessel run either. Fans had long since retconned the whole "made the Kessel Run in less than 12 parsecs" mistake (and it definitely was a mistake), so seeing it onscreen didn't really add anything. Similarly, we've always known that Han won the Millenium Falcon from Lando in a game of chance, so actually seeing it play out isn't that exciting. None of this is actively bad (well, the name thing is pretty terrible), but it's all the sort of thing that's probably better in our imaginations than it was on screen.
- The film does have a couple of heists that are pretty entertaining. I mean, no, it's not going to stand up as one of the best heist films or anything, but it adds a nice bit of flavor to the Star Wars universe. The first heist with the train is a bit confusing in conception (why is this stuff on a train? Why does Val have to die?) but it's a well executed action sequence. Despite not needing to see the Kessel run, it was also well executed and I liked seeing unexpected stuff like a giant, tentacled, Lovecraftian space-monster being thrown at our heroes. The post-heist machinations had some good bits of business too, with Beckett's betrayal and Han's anticipation of such, and so on. Again, not going to be the first heist flick I reach for but... it's fine.
- Enfys Nest is kinda interesting, but again suffers from what I assume are some sequel setup issues. The character design and costumes are great. How she keeps getting the drop on Beckett and his crew is unexplained and a little weird. The reveal when she takes off her mask is well shot, but leads you to believe that something of major import is being revealed, but really we're just supposed to be surprised that it's a girl with freckles? At first I was curious if we were supposed to already know who this person is (and I know some have made some connection between Enfys Nest and Saw Gerrera, but that's stretching it), but no, it's just playing the reveal of a female as a surprise. Further, she explains that this criminal syndicate that Beckett and Solo are working for is supporting the Empire and she's part of a sorta Proto-Rebellion. This makes no sense though, since Beckett and Solo were stealing from the Empire. I dunno, maybe they were doing the Heat thing where the Empire gets their stuff stolen, gets pain insurance, then buys back their stuff for half price or somesuch? Or maybe Enfys Nest is lying and we'll find out in a sequel and that will be one of the things that leads to Han's disillusioned cynicism? Either way, it doesn't really work in this movie.
- So there's a cameo at the end that was completely unnecessary and I'm sure confusing for some folks. Yes, Darth Maul is the head of the crime syndicate and Qi'ra is working for him, but the scene was just so blatantly angling for a sequel that it really left a bad taste in my mouth. It's also the first time Disney also implied that you needed to know more than the films to understand what's going on... (Maul survived his bisection in Episode I and came back in the Clone Wars and Rebels TV series) This all feels like a mistake.
- Solo has done incredibly bad at the box office. This is likely due to a multitude of factors, such as being so close to the last Star Wars film, having so much competition from similar blockbusters all around it, and perhaps even a follow-on effect of some whiny fans that didn't like Last Jedi. The loss of Lord and Miller couldn't have helped either. I mean, obviously I saw it, but my enthusiasm was lessened.
- Speaking of Star Wars: The Last Jedi, I revisited that film in preparation for Solo, and I think it mostly still holds up. A few additional thoughts on that film: It strikes me as being the first modern Star Wars film that's as conversant with cinema in the same way as the original Star Wars. Johnson is clearly making references to Kurosawa here, this time Rashomon (Luke and Ben's version of the same stories) and Ran (the striking use of red in a battle sequence) rather than The Hidden Fortress (R2-D2 and C-3PO bumbling through the series) in the originals. Even the Canto Bight sequence has this dolly shot that is clearly inspired by Wings, and it's a very nice shot. I do still think that Canto Bight sequence is poorly conceived and executed, but the nuts and bolts filmmaking still works (and there's lots of other cinematic references too). Poe Dameron's story and the whole fleet escape plot has waned a bit in my estimation, though it's still functional and entertaining enough. I like Poe's arc here, but it could have been better illustrated. The more I think about it, the more annoyed I am that they killed Admiral Ackbar the way they did. Laura Dern's a great actress and I like her in this movie, but it would have been more resonant to use a character we knew in that situation, and the whole Holdo Maneuver thing would have been more effective coming from Ackbar. Instead we're simply told that Ackbar was among those who perished in an offhand manner. Annoying. The Luke, Rey, and Ben/Kylo sections are still my favorite parts of the movie. Johnson actually does a really good job editing these three plotlines together, even if one of them is redundant and unnecessary (again, nuts and bolts filmmaking chops are present here, even when something isn't working). Ultimately I still enjoy the movie quite a bit and I'm really thankful that Johnson has cleared the path to do something new with the series. Will Episode IX actually fulfill that potential?
- I'm still waiting, Disney. Pristine HD/UHD 4K transfers of the originals please, and none of that special edition bullshit. You had Han learn to shoot first in Solo, please restore that (and dozens of other things) in the originals. Some people have mentioned that there are some legal things that need to be worked out with Fox, but I've also heard that they've held back from releasing the original movies because George Lucas doesn't want them released. I guess that's honorable in its own way, but come on. It's clear there's a desire for these things. Solo isn't making much money, so if you want a little boost going into Episode IX, this is a surefire way to get it. Search your feelings, you know it to be true!
Update: Added a couple of thoughts. I knew I forgot something..
- The 25 Most Ridiculous Movie Promo Photos of All Time - My favorites are Jodie Foster posing with an actual lamb and Arnold as Mr. Freeze posing with his wife, who doesn't have a speaking part in the movie (she's in a coma).
- The Rockies Believe They Have an Unbreakable Code - Interesting dissection of coded baseball signals:
Iannetta said three-digit codes are never repeated in-game for the same call.It gets a little into data and how much you really should be trying to control the game through signals...
“If I get ‘1-4-3,’ and it’s a throw over to first base, we’ll never use ‘1-4-3’ again to throw over,” Iannetta said. “There will never be repetition… It’s pretty impossible to steal signs if you use the system we are using.”
- "Syndrome K" was a phony disease made up by doctors in the Fatebenefratelli Hospital during WWII to prevent Nazis from investigating too closely. And it worked! They called it a contagious, fatal disease whose symptoms included convulsions, dementia, paralysis, and, ultimately, death from asphyxiation. Patients were advised to look sick until the doctors could find a way to smuggle them out safely. Nazis mostly kept their distance, though they eventually figured it out (but not after approximately a hundred Jews were saved).
- MTV Presents: This Is Horror (1991) - Someone uploaded this one-hour special in its entirety, including commercials from back in the day.
- Arrested Development: Star Wars with Ron Howard! - Ron Howard narrates Star Wars in the Arrested Development style.
- The Rhetoric of the Hyperlink - Nerding out on how hyperlinks change the way we should write:
The reason this scares some people is rather Freudian: when an author hyperlinks, s/he instantly transforms the author-reader relationship from parent-child to adult-adult. You must decide how to read.It's an interesting technological way to force the topic, but I've always maintained that reading shouldn't be as passive as many people take it as. It's also worth noting that just because the hyperlink is there, doesn't mean people will follow it (think of all the people who comment on an article based on the headline, etc...)
N.K. Jemisin's The Stone Sky is the concluding volume of a trilogy of beloved novels... that I've never really managed to connect with. I have generally found that these novels' pessimism and relentless misery have only served to distance me from the narrative rather than suck me in. I like a lot of the worldbuilding choices of the initial book, The Fifth Season, but I the story was full of misery porn which resulted in a detached reading experience for me. The second book, The Obelisk Gate, continued the misery and suffered from middle-book-in-a-trilogy syndrome. This didn't stop Hugo voters from awarding the Best Novel Hugos for both, and I judge a fair chance of The Stone Sky to bring home the third straight.
The story picks up where we left off. Essun is traveling with her comm, Castrima, in searching for a new place to live, but ultimately seeks to find her daughter Nassun and help save the world by bringing the moon back into proper orbit. Nassun, for her part, has lead a miserable life, is fed up with the world, and wants to destroy it by smashing the moon into the earth. Finally, we get glimpses of the past as Hoa describes Syl Anagist, a civilization that existed thousands of years ago which, we soon learn, created the obelisks and inadvertently shot the moon out of its orbit, thus causing their destruction and leading to the current, miserable situation.
Interestingly, the entire story is narrated by Hoa. He appears to be telling the story to Essun, as her sections of the story are in second person (as they've been throughout the series). Hoa's portions are in first person, and Nassun's are in third. It's an interesting choice and I suppose there's a reason for it, but it ultimately felt a bit distracting at times and my dumbass engineer's brain kept wondering about irrelevant things: How does Hoa know the inner emotions of closed off people like Essun and Nassun so well? Wait, when is Hoa relating all this to Essun? Why is he relating this to Essun? I can certainly come up with answers to these questions and they're ultimately nitpicks. The thing is, I find this happens most often when I'm not sucked into a story. I've learned to trust that these sorts of nitpicks don't mean much in and of themselves, but the fact that I'm making them at all means something important and indicates a deeper problem.
While I like a lot of the worldbuilding choices, this isn't a world I like spending time in, nor do I particularly enjoy hanging out with these characters. I mean, I don't think we're even supposed to like them very much. Sure, they've endured horrendous hardships and misery, but they've also perpetuated that abuse and oppression and some are easily described as mass murderers. That people struggle to deal with abuse or respond in ugly ways that only serve to continue the cycle is certainly relevant (and obviously reflects some of our society's worst tendencies), but it's difficult to sustain. This is the point, I guesss, and it does represent rich thematic ground. I just don't like wallowing in it for three books, especially since all of this was so ably demonstrated in the first book. I didn't love that one either, but I could see why it was so well regarded. The succeeding volumes feel like a rehashing of the same ideas, over and over again, and they do so using that awkward second person narrative device that tells more than it shows.
The book attempts a hopeful but ambiguous ending, which is something that I would appreciate much more if anything else in the series had indicated a cause for that hope. When your premise is that the end of the world is coming and the world is not worth saving, it's difficult to care about the actual outcome. I don't want every story to be fluffy bunnies and rainbows, but these books tend to be so extreme in their portrait of misery that I was immediately detached from the story and never found a way back in.
I feel like I'm being very harsh on the novel here. Perhaps it's because I never would have read the second or third books in this series, but I did because I wanted to vote in the Hugos (and I don't think it's fair to vote when you haven't read the book). The funny thing is that this is probably the most upbeat of the three books and I probably enjoyed reading it more than the previous installments too. Plus, it actually has an ending and some sense of closure! Some of the characters actually express love in this book, and it's a love that is genuine. As mentioned above, it's got a mildly happy ending. However, after all the betrayals, endless rehashings of infanticide and abuse, and inescapable oppression, the hope at the end feels hollow and unearned. Maybe we're supposed to feel that way and I just don't like being immersed in despair? Look, these books are very well written and I think I can say that Jemisin achieves exactly what she wanted, which is certainly laudable. It's just not my bag, and that's fine.
As far as the Hugo Awards go, this will probably end up on the bottom of my ballot. I'm still reading one novel and I suppose it could fall off a cliff, but I'm doubting that.