Hugo Award Season 2018

The nomination period for the 2018 Hugo Awards is open, so it's time to get out the vote before the requisite whining and bitter recriminations start in earnest. I've read a bunch of eligible works, but of course not all will make the cut. Here's where I'm at right now: A much better list than last year, when I was only really able to muster a couple of nominations. I'm betting at least one or two will make the finalists, but short fiction is always so impossible to predict. I have a few novels on the bubble as well:
  • Artemis by Andy Weir - It's a fun book, but it doesn't hang together as well as The Martian and the story doesn't feel entirely baked. Some things about this just didn't sit so well with me, but I wouldn't be opposed to a nomination (and indeed, it would probably fair well when compared against the last few years' finalists).
  • The Caledonian Gambit by Dan Moren - I'm about halfway through this one, which seems like a pretty straightforward space opera/spy thriller type of thing. Great start, but it's bogged down in the midsection. A strong finish could certainly put this on my ballot though.
  • Raven Stratagem by Yoon Ha Lee - I'm a fan of Yoon Ha Lee's work (see above referenced novelette), and I liked the first novel in this series quite a bit. I will definitely read this before the nomination period closes, but as the second in a series, I'm not sure how likely it is that I'll put this on my list, even if I love it.
I haven't looked at Best Series in detail, but an initial glance reveals that Steven Brust's Vlad Taltos Series is eligible, which would work. I still think the entire concept of the award is flawed due to logistical considerations (for example, Brust has 15 Vlad Taltos novels, with almost as many additional short fiction entries - how does one read enough of that, along with all the other nominees in order to make an informed decision?)

As per usual, I'll continue to avoid the most mainstream choices for Best Dramatic Presentation, Long Form (i.e. Star Wars and Marvel don't need my help here and will most likely make the ballot, but these movies are worthy of consideration): There's a fair chance that Your Name would be judged ineligible because it came out n Japan in 2016, but it didn't really hit the US until 2017. Otherwise, there's a fair chance that one or two of these movies might sneak onto the ballot. Fingers crossed.

Also of note is that Retro Hugos for works published in 1942 are being held this year, and there are a few classics there, notably Asimov's initial Foundation story and CS Lewis' The Screwtape Letters, but the one I really want to nominate is a short story by Hal Clement called "Proof" (it's not available online, but it's in tons of collections - the one I read it in was The Ascent of Wonder). It's an awesome story, and it's tale of creatures living in the sun has long legs and influence.

Any recommendations or suggestions are welcome! I'm curious to see how the nominations go this time around. Will the novels be dominated by series/sequels to previous nominees? Will the reduced puppy contingent have any impact? Do I really care that much? I don't know, but there's only one way to find out.
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I announced the official 2017 Kaedrin Movie Award winners last week. The basic purpose of these awards is to recognize aspects of films that aren't reflected in more traditional, quality focused awards like a Top 10 list or something. However, sometimes even those awards can't capture everything, so we come to the Arbitrary Awards, an opportunity to recognize movies that are weird or flawed in ways that don't conform to normal standards. A few of these "awards" have become an annual tradition, but most are just, well, arbitrary.
  • The "You know what happens when a toad gets struck by lightning? The same thing that happens to everything else" Award for Worst Dialogue: Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets. A good portion of this award is perhaps due to dreadful miscasting, but the dialog, particularly the "banter" between Valerian and Laureline, just doesn't work. Thanks to the visuals and some of the action, the dialogue doesn't sink the film, but still. As a notable runner up: Bright features the line: "Faerie lives matter" which is pretty bad.
  • The Proximity to Jason Vorhees Award for Heroic Stupidity: Alien: Covenant. It follows in the footsteps of its predecessor, which is probably more stupid, but this one doesn't even pretend to be smart.
  • Best Monster with a Sense of Humor: Korg, voiced by Taika Waititi in Thor: Ragnarok. So great.
  • This Monster Fucks Award: The Shape of Water. I love that this is a movie whose genesis was probably Guillermo del Toro watching Creature from the Black Lagoon and thinking "This guy fucks."
  • Most Unfortunate Facial Hair: Kenneth Branagh in Murder on the Orient Express. I mean, it's glorious. But also stupid.
  • Achievement in the Field of Gratuitous Violence: Brawl in Cell Block 99. This one requires no real explanation, does it?
  • Most Extreme Toast-Buttering Sound Design: Phantom Thread. The extent to which I like this movie is the extent to which I like these handful of scenes, which are utterly brilliant.
  • John Carpenter Memorial Award: The Void. Yeah, yeah, Carpenter isn't actually dead yet, but he's not making movies like this anymore either, so here we are. Great practical effects, solid compositions, weird, horrific stuff.
  • The Breaking News Award for Most Action Packed Long Take: Three. God bless Johnnie To. There's not a lot to this movie, but it builds to a ridiculous single take that utilizes that Matrix-style bullet cam thing that justifies the entire exercise.
  • Fictional Business Chain of the Year: The Continental, John Wick: Chapter 2. So great.
  • Most Needlessly Lurid Method of Surveillance: Kingsman: The Golden Circle. It's like they heard the complaints about certain juvenile elements of the first movie and were like, let's lean into that.
  • The Scarlett Johansson in Her Award for Best Virtual Girlfriend: Ana de Armas as Joi in Blade Runner 2049. I mean, she actually appears on screen, so it's not as tough as Scarlett's role, but still.
  • Most Excessive Needledrops of the Year: Atomic Blonde. I mean, they're great, and all, but there's like, I dunno, 20 too many of them.
  • Best FPS Sequence of the Year: The Villainess. Various films have attempted to ape the First Person Shooter aesthetic over the years, but none as successfully as the opening scene in The Villainess, which is utterly amazing.
  • Most Needlessly Mean Spirited Hazing Rituals: Raw. Man, veterinary school in France is intense.
  • Best Movie With 10 Minutes of Plot Stretched Out To Feature Length: A Ghost Story. The award title says most of it, but it's worth noting that 5 minutes of the 10-minute plot is just Roony Mara eating a pie. I kinda like this movie, but I kinda hate it too.
  • Worst Publicist in the World Award: Herald, played by Kristen Wiig in Mother!. I mean, sure, I guess she's good at her job, kinda, but not really.
Coming down the homestretch, with only the Top 10 and Oscars commentary remaining. Stay tuned...
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2017 Kaedrin Movie Award Winners!

The nominations for the 2017 Kaedrin Movie Awards were announced last week. I'm sure your anticipation knows no bounds, so today I'll be announcing the winners. Next week, I'll announce the winners of some more goofy, freeform categories that we call the Arbitrary Awards, and not long after that, I'll post my top 10 of 2017. Finally, we'll have some Oscars talk (predictions and probably live-tweeting or retweeting funnier people than me) and then it's on to 2018. Without further ado:
  • Best Villain/Badass: Adrian Toomes / Vulture, played by Michael Keaton in Spider-Man: Homecoming. While I'd judge the overall quality of villainy in 2017 to be relatively low, the relative strength of the nominees was actually pretty high. Keaton's Vulture might be the best MCU villain (with the only real competition being Loki), in large part because his motivations are so relatable and almost even justified. Runner up would be Adam Driver as Kylo Ren in Star Wars: The Last Jedi, who continues to carve out a unique form of villainy in the largely black and white Star Wars universe. Pennywise the Clown, played by Bill Skarsgård in It, is also well worth a mention, but fell behind a bit due to excessive use of CGI in the film. Michael Fassbender's David is a fascinating character, it's just a shame that Alien: Covenant is such a bad movie. Kurt Russell also made for a more engaging than usual Marvel Villain in Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2, and the extent to which the character Hela works at all in Thor: Ragnarok is due entirely to Cate Blanchett's sheer force of charisma. The remaining nominees all have their pros and cons, of course, but in the end, it's Keaton's year.
  • Best Hero/Badass: Lorraine Broughton, played by Charlize Theron in Atomic Blonde and Bradley Thomas, played by Vince Vaughn in Brawl in Cell Block 99 (tie). Oy, I couldn't decide, so I just chose both. A cheat, but these are two great badasses. An utterly brutal, punishing performance from an unexpected source in Vince Vaughn. I mean, he beats up a car with his bare hands, and that's the least badass thing he does. Charlize Theron kicks a lot of ass and pulls off some of the more intense action sequences of the year (more on this in a bit)...
    Atomic Blonde
    She's more polished and stylized than Vaughn, making this an almost apples to oranges comparison, hence the tie. On the superhero front, Wonder Woman was certainly a contender. The Villainess suffered a bit from melodrama, but has some wonderful sequences for its titular hero. Tom Hardy's role in Dunkirk was probably too small to really take the award, but it's a pivotal (and yes, badass) role. Similarly, there were a bunch of nominees, like Armie Hammer's character in Free Fire, that were great, but only really functioned as part of a larger ensemble.
  • Best Comedic Performance: James Franco in The Disaster Artist. There's something kinda bittersweet about the performance, but I feel like there's a genuine love for the character in the performance, and so it did make me laugh quite a bit. Runner up would be Saoirse Ronan in Lady Bird (believe it or not, she's a former Best Hero/Badass winner, and might be the first person nominated for both). Kumail Nanjiani in The Big Sick was also a front-runner. The other nominees were all great, of course, but tended to be smaller performances or part of a larger ensemble, which is always a difficulty with this particular award.
  • Breakthrough Performance: Robert Pattinson in The Lost City of Z and Good Time. Alright, so this is an example of what makes this award a little strange. I obviously knew who Robert Pattinson was, but I must admit that his rise to sparkly vampire stardom did set a point of reference that was perhaps not ideal for him. I also knew that he had done some smaller, more independent fare over the years (perhaps to escape his sparkly vampire reputation), but this year saw two pretty fantastic performances (both in movies I don't love, per say). I didn't even recognize him in The Lost City of Z, but the real performance of the year was in Good Time. The movie is a bit too much of a downer for me overall, but he's amazing in it. As for the other nominees, well, just getting the nomination is an award right? Also of note, I probably should have included Vicky Krieps from Phantom Thread as a nominee, but didn't because I'm the worst. Take a bow Vicky, you were wonderful.
  • Most Visually Stunning: Dunkirk. The thing with this category is that the nominees can usually be split into two camps: Gorgeous spectacle and well photographed with impeccable cinematography. Winners tend to favor the former rather than the latter, but this year it went the other way.
    Dunkirk is pretty
    Perhaps it was the theatrical experience of IMAX 70mm, and to be sure, there's a little spectacle in the movie... but nothing quite as ostentatiously spectacular as Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets, which was actually one of a handful of others that was a solid choice. Star Wars: The Last Jedi also merits a mention in the gorgeous spectacle realm (and it's also conversant in film history in a way that no Star Wars film has been since the originals, which is worth recognizing), and Blade Runner 2049 straddles the line well. Columbus might actually be the film with the best cinematography and composition, but it all felt a little static for my taste. The other nominees are nothing to sneeze at either, so maybe quit it with all the sneezing, ok?
  • Best Sci-Fi or Horror Film: Get Out. I know this is not a common mix of genres, but rare is the year that science fiction films could warrant a category of their own, so I always pad out the category with some horror. The past several years have seen strong SF presence, and this year there's a nice mix, but the ultimate winner goes to horror. Get Out is a wonder. Supremely entertaining on its own, filled with social relevance without feeling preachy or didactic (and indeed, playing on such expectations to superb effect).
    Get Out
    Lots of other good choices. No clear second place, though I will make special mention of Better Watch Out, The Girl with All the Gifts, and Your Name, as they don't show up much in these sorts of discussions, and I love them all...
  • Best Sequel/Reboot: Spider-Man: Homecoming. I feel like this movie had the deck stacked against it. It's the second reboot in less than ten years, and the previous few films (going back to even Raimi's disappointing third entry) did little to inspire confidence. True, the new Marvel take showed up in Civil War (and was great there), but that could have easily been a fluke. Ultimately, though, this movie succeeded where many Marvel movies fail. It had a great villain, and while the stakes were smaller in an objective sense, I felt just as involved as one of the more planet-threatening box-shooting-a-beam-of-light-into-the-sky scenarios (if not moreso). I was also quite close on Star Wars: The Last Jedi, but the whole Casino planet subplot held me back a bit. Honestly, this was a pretty strong year for this category. Several of these films compare favorably to previous winners. I have a general aversion to sequels though, so it's often difficult for me to populate this category. But not this year, for some reason.
  • Biggest Disappointment: The Mummy. I had high hopes. I really did. I love the old Universal monster-verse, which you could argue as being the original cinematic universe, so it just made sense to properly revive those old properties. It's been done numerous times before (most successfully with the Hammer Horror films in the 60s), but for whatever reason, Universal just keep stumbling, and this latest attempt, an explicit effort to set up a cinematic universe, flamed out rather spectacularly. Many elements were there. I actually like Tom Cruise. Sofia Boutella was an inspired choice for the Mummy. Unfortunately, with the exception of the plane crash sequence, most of the film fell flat and the blatant hooks for future films did no favors. While perhaps not objectively the worst nominee, it was the most disappointing because my expectations and hopes conspired to let me down on this one. Of the other nominees, I rather liked the idea of Killing Gunther and Schwarzenegger was great in it... but it's just a shame that he only shows up at the end, and that the rest of the movie is subpar at best. Most disappointing. Magellan is one probably no one else watched, and I guess with good reason, but it's disappointing because there are some interesting ideas that just sort of go nowhere in the end...
  • Best Action Sequences: Atomic Blonde. Several great setpieces in the film, notably the stairwell long take, but also lots of others. John Wick: Chapter 2 is the runner up, I guess, and the two films share the same aesthetic, but Atomic Blonde's felt fresher and more distinct. Baby Driver and Three are both noteworthy in that they have one exceptional action setpiece (the opening car chase of Baby Drive, and the shootout finale in Three) that drove its nomination, but could not pull ahead for the win. Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets suffered a similar fate, even if it had a little more consistent action throughout the film. The Villainess also had a spectacular first person opening that guaranteed a nomination, but could not bring it hope with the remainder of the film...
  • Best Plot Twist/Surprise: Your Name. Whether or not you can see a plot twist coming is a measure that is not as meaningful as you might think, but I have to be honest in that I really didn't see the twist in this one coming. I almost feel bad even indicating that there is a twist in this movie at all, as I certainly don't want to spoil anything, but who am I kidding: this is an anime movie that few of you will probably watch. I considered Split for a while, because it's another one I didn't see coming and loved when it happened, but the implications of that twist held it back a little. I loved the sort of downer twist of Blade Runner 2049, but then, it's also a bit of a downer. Better Watch Out is the rare "early" twist that actually works well. But now we're edging ever closer to spoiler territory, so I'll refrain from ruining the other nominees (even though, again, just saying that there is a twist can be something of a spoiler; I guess that's just a risk we have to take, eh?)
  • Best High Concept Film: Bad Genius. Another obscure one that you probably haven't seen, this is a Thai teen movie... and it's the best caper of the year (albeit unconventionally so). I won't say much more about it, but it's definitely worth checking out. Shout out to Happy Death Day for being an actual good take on the whole "What if Groundhog Day was a horror movie?" concept that has been done poorly oh so often. Of course, it's still a blatant ripoff of Groundhog Day, so it can't get the win, but it's got a nice twist or two on the formula. Also Wheelman, a sorta action packed version of Locke that doesn't get much play.
  • 2017's 2016 Movie of the Year: Silicon Cowboys. I guess? I mean, it's a pretty straightforward documentary on the rise and fall of Compaq computers. A topic in my wheelhouse, so there is that. And it's totally worth checking out if you like this sort of thing, but it's not really something that would have cracked my Top 10 (or even honorable mentions) last year. The other nominees are fine for what they are, but it turns out that I didn't follow up on a lot of 2016 movies this year, to the point where I probably should have just removed this category altogether. And this isn't the first year this happened either, so this might be destined to become a quasi-annual Arbitrary Award someday. But for now, I'm fine with giving it to the nerdy computer documentary.
Phew! Some of those category were really difficult, and after my first draft right now, I'm waffling hard on a couple of my choices (update: yep, I put a tie for best hero/badass because I'm the worst).
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2017 Kaedrin Movie Awards

Welcome to the twelfth annual Kaedrin Movie Awards! A dozen years years! Over a decade of dauntless dorkery! The idea is to recognize films for various achievements that don't always reflect well on top 10 lists or traditional awards. There are lots of formal award categories and nominees listed below, but once those are announced, we'll also leave some room for Arbitrary Awards that are more goofy and freeform. Finally, we'll post a traditional top 10 list (usually sometime in mid-February). But first up is the awards! [Previous Installments here: 2006 | 2007 | 2008 | 2009 | 2010 | 2011 | 2012 | 2013 | 2014 | 2015 | 2016]

Standard disclaimers apply: It must be a 2017 movie (with the one caveat that some 2016 films were not accessible until 2017 and are thus eligible under fiat) and I obviously have to have seen the movie. As of this writing, I've seen 86 movies that would be considered a 2017 release. Significantly less than your typical critic, but more than your average moviegoer and enough to populate these awards. Obviously this is a personal exercise that is subjective in nature, but the world would be a boring place indeed if we all loved the same things for the same reasons, right? Sound good? Let's get this party started:

Best Villain/Badass
Another middling year for villainy. I didn't have any problem populating the list, but true standouts were rare. As usual, my picks in this category are limited to individuals, not groups (i.e. no vampires or zombies as a general menace, etc...) or ideas.

Best Hero/Badass
A much better year for heroism, both in terms of the villainy they faced, but also with respect to last year, which was severely lackluster. Again limited to individuals and not groups.

Best Comedic Performance
This category is sometimes difficult to populate because comedy so often comes in the form of an ensemble and that does impact this year, to an extent. Looking through my list of films, though, I see very few straight comedies this year, which is a failing on my part, I guess. Still some decent choices available though.

Breakthrough Performance
Always an interesting category to populate. Sometimes, it's not so much about someone's industry breakthrough, but a more personal breakthrough. This can happen even with established actors who put out a performance that forces me to reconsider what they're capable of. This year, we've got more of a moderate crop of young up-and-comers. The main criteria for this category was if I watched a movie, then immediately looking up the actor/actress on IMDB to see what else they've done (or where they came from). A somewhat vague category, but that's why these awards are fun.

Most Visually Stunning
Sometimes even bad movies can look really great... A pretty good year for this sort of thing, with a good mix of spectacle and more sober, well-photographed beauty.

Best Sci-Fi or Horror Film
I like to give a little love to my favorite genres, hence this category. It may seem like an odd combo, but they're basically my two favorite genres, and there aren't always enough movies in one or the other to always justify a full category, so I mash them together. A pretty decent balance this year, though.

Best Sequel/Reboot
Often a difficult category to populate, and there were plenty of duds this year, but there were still a surprising number of worthwhile sequels/reboots this year.

Biggest Disappointment
A category usually dominated by sequels or remakes, but oddly, this year only features a couple of those. This category is definitely weird in that sometimes I actually enjoy these movies... but my expectations were just too high when I saw them. Related reading: Joe Posnanski's Plus-Minus Scale (these movies scored especially poor on that scale).

Best Action Sequences
This award isn't for individual action sequences, but rather an overall estimation of each film, and this has been a pretty good year for action.

Best Plot Twist/Surprise
Well, I suppose even listing nominees here constitutes something of a spoiler, but it's a risk we'll have to take, right?

Best High Concept Film
A nebulous category, to be sure, but a fun one because these are generally interesting movies. Lots of borderline cases this year, but a few strong standouts...

2017's 2016 Movie of the Year
There are always movies I miss out on, whether due to availability or laziness, but when I do catch up with them, I'm often taken with them. Sometimes a very difficult category to populate, maybe because I didn't see much after I posted last year's Top 10, or didn't like what I did manage to see, or just plain forgot that I saw it (which, to be fair, probably says something about the movie's chances). Frankly, not a lot going on this year for this category...

Phew! I feel like I'm a bit overpopulated in my nominees, but what are you gonna do? Winners to be announced next week, followed by Arbitrary Awards, a traditional Top 10 of the year, and finally some Oscars commentary. Stay tuned!
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Vintage SF Month is hosted by the Little Red Reviewer. The objective: Read and discuss "older than I am" Science Fiction in the month of January.
"Across the gulfs between the worlds, from end to end of a Solar System poised taut and trembling on the verge of history, the rumors flew. Somebody’s made it, the Big Jump. Somebody came back." -The Big Jump (Page 1, Kindle Locations 82-86).
Leigh Brackett is best known for her screenplays, notably including The Empire Strikes Back, but she actually had a long history of SF writing behind her at that point. A few years ago, I read Brackett's The Sword of Rhiannon, a Mars-based adventure featuring an Indy Jones-like protagonist, and greatly enjoyed it. So I figured it was time for another, this time opting for The Big Jump.

The novel opens with the return of the first interstellar expedition (a mission dubbed "The Big Jump"), but the authorities are vague and noncommittal about what was learned. Arch Comyn takes it upon himself to solve the mystery, sneaking into secret facilities to discover that only one crew member made the return trip, half-dead and near insane. Hearing the man's dying words, Comyn bluffs his way into the follow-up mission. But is he ready to discover what awaits us beyond the Big Jump?

The first half of the novel reads kinda like a Noir and SF mashup, and Brackett pulls it off in style.
"[...he] wished he knew two things: who had paid the boy with the bad teeth to kill him, and whether this ace in the hole he was going to bluff the Cochranes with might not turn out to be just a low spade after all—a spade suitable for grave digging." -The Big Jump (Page 36, Kindle Locations 973-975).
Yes, this was the woman who wrote the screenplays for The Big Sleep and The Long Goodbye, and it shows. Indeed, while the story and characters are somewhat standard, it is Brackett's prose which elevates this into something worth reading.
"This was not the going between worlds that men had grown used to. This was an adventure into madness." -The Big Jump (Page 70, Kindle Locations 1888)
The story is a bit dated (originally published in 1955) and its short length (bordering on novella) means you can't really delve too deeply into characterization, but Brackett's prose turns the page and her plotting has enough twists and turns to be interesting without seeming convoluted. I can see how the finale, which features a fair amount of existential ambiguity, might turn some folks off, but I found an unexpected depth in it that worked well for me. It's perhaps at odds with the pulpy beginnings, but it does set up some interesting questions (which have to go unanswered).
"They had not conquered any stars. A star had conquered them." -The Big Jump (Page 132, Kindle Locations 3408-3409).
While not Brackett's best, fans of old, pulpy SF would enjoy this, and it works well on that level. The general story is probably something like you've read before, but Brackett's style and verve carry the novel favorably.
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Link Dump

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I'm brewing beer today (something like this), so here are some linkies from the depths of ye olde internets:
  • The 10 Best Movies of 2017 - Christopher Orr's list is nice and all, but this is worth reading for all his cheeky categorical awards later in the post. I will be shamelessly ripping some of them off for my Arbitrary Awards.
  • The Ten Best Films Of 2017, And Other Films - Glenn Kenny's extended list always has stuff I've never heard of, but would probably like.
  • This Year, Make a Movie-Related New Year's Resolution - Matt Singer makes a good point:
    Want to know why most New Year’s resolutions flame out by February? Because they’re always about doing things that suck. Losing weight, drinking less sugary soda, reading a bunch of books: All of these things are awful. Even painful! No wonder no one ever follows through.

    That’s why, every year, I make a New Year’s resolution about movies. In my experience, a person is much more likely to commit to self-improvement when self-improvement involves watching a lot of films.
    Except for the part about reading books. Anyway, one of his suggested resolutions is to watch 50 films made before 1950. Looking back at my viewing last year, I only had 5 (and 2 of those were movies I'd seen before). This seems like a decent idea. I should get on that.
  • Disney's Fox Acquisition Likely Won't See Original 'Star Wars' Trilogy Released - It turns out that the whole Fox rights aspect wasn't really that big of a hurdle. It's still George Lucas' fault.
And that's all for now...
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Vintage SF Month is hosted by the Little Red Reviewer. The objective: Read and discuss "older than I am" Science Fiction in the month of January.

A common trope in Science Fiction is the discovery of some sort of vast, enigmatic structure, often affectionately termed a "Big Dumb Object". The stories revolve around deciphering the structure, who built it, and so on. While there are earlier examples of this sort of thing, Larry Niven's 1970 novel Ringworld is generally held up as a gleaming example of the sub-genre, a trope codifier if not a ur example.

Louis Wu, a 200 year old but restless Earthling, is recruited for a mysterious deep space mission by Nessus, a three-legged alien that sports two snake-like heads mounted on long necks (they're called Puppeteers). Nessus also recruits Speaker-to-Animals, another alien, this one from an aggressive feline race called the Kzin, and Teela Brown, who seems to have been chosen for luck. What? Yeah, more on this in a bit. Nessus is annoyingly vague about the details of his mission, but it eventually turns out that the ever-cautious Puppeteers have spied a rather massive object in a distant star, the titular Ringworld, and this expedition is going to investigate any possible threats.

The Ringworld itself is a megastructure that doesn't so much orbit a sun, but rather surrounds it. Unlike a Dyson Sphere, it doesn't completely encapsulate the sun, but forms a ring around it. The one in the book is said to be approximately the diameter of Earth's orbit, which means it contains a surface area equivalent to approximately three million earths.

The opening of the novel is quite enjoyable. The character introductions and recruitment are ably handled and the initial discovery and explanation of the Ringworld (and its scale) provides that sense of wonder hit that SF fans clamor for (even if I was already aware of what a Ringworld was, which does blunt the impact a bit, I guess, but that's not the book's fault). Once they crash land on the Ringworld and start exploring the surface (looking for a way to repair their spacecraft), things are more uneven. Some of the episodes that take place here are done well and interesting, others are not quite as effective.

The characters are typical SF fodder, meaning that this isn't a particularly deep dive into their personalities and interactions, but there's enough there to keep things moving. Some aspects of the characters go over better than others. Louis Wu is mildly bland, but makes for a good everyman protagonist. Speaker-to-Animals is amusing, but comes off as a Star Trek-like alien race (i.e. a human being with certain traits exaggerated). Nessus is a bit too unpredictably passive, but interesting enough.

Teela Brown's raison d'etre is a bit odd for an SF novel. You see, she was bred for luck, which seems like a strangely irrational thing for a SF story to focus on. That concept is, however, explored in interesting ways. For instance, the crew is initially confused as to why they crash landed, considering they were traveling with the benefit of Teela's luck. But then someone mentions that if she was really lucky, Nessus would have never discovered her in the first place. It later turns out that her luck has served her (and only her) well, but in unexpected and unpredictable ways. So it's sorta like a SF exploration of a not so SF idea.

One of the more annoying things about the story, though, is that we learn almost nothing about the Ringworld Engineers, those who actually built this megastructure. We do see some of their descendents, but after some sort of past tragedy, they are mere shadows of their former glory. Some speculation is made about how their downfall came about (something about alien mold), but little is really known about them. Also, they are distressingly similar in appearance to humans, something that isn't really delved into very much. This undercuts some of the wonder present in the premise, though it doesn't wholly diminish it.

Thematically, Niven does a reasonable job exploring the concepts around playing God and the hubris of certain projects. And the novel has been incredibly influential. As previously mentioned, it's among the first Big Dumb Object stories, and most of what followed used a similar structure to the plot. I read Arthur C. Clarke's Rendezvous with Rama a few decades ago (ugh) at this point, but I actually remember that as being a slightly better take on the concept. Though they share many similarities and neither are perfect, Ringworld is missing that perfect last sentence stinger that punctuates Rama.

This is an interesting book, and I can see why it's so influential, but I do suspect that this ultimately winds up being the sort of thing that only students of the genre can really love. Too many of the stories that this inspired have made improvements, such that going back to read this afterwards might seem like a bit of a letdown. Basically, I should have read this 20 years ago when my brother did. It was sitting right there on his shelf, why didn't I just grab it? Fortunately, I do consider myself a bit if a student of the genre, so I did find this rather interesting. Next up on the Vintage SF Month list is a pulpy tale from Leigh Brackett, so stay tuned.

Update: I have been corrected! The Puppeteers are not quadrupeds, but rather three-legged. A thousand pardons. The post has been updated.

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2017 in Movies and Year End Cramming

Most critics and publications have already published their "Best of 2017" lists and other such reminiscences for the past orbital cycle. Here at Kaedrin, we love movies but we don't play by anyone's rules but our own, and sometimes not even those. As such, we're going to spend the next month or so looking back on the year in movies. This is traditionally focused on movies released in 2017 (Kaedrin Movie Awards are coming next, with the Top 10, and Oscars coming after that...), but I'm going to drill down a bit into my overall movie-watching for the year too. I keep track of all my movie watching on Letterboxd (we should be friends there) and while I used to only log the current year's releases, I started logging all movies for the last couple of years, and now I've got some stats I can share (similar to my year in books). Kicking things off are some overall stats:
  • 264 movies watched
  • 477 hours watched
  • 22 movies a month on average
  • 5.1 movies a week on average
movies watched by week
Looking at the breakdown by week, you can see a lot of variability, with the biggest week including 12 films (this was during my Martial Arts phase), followed by two weeks with 11 films (one during the Six Weeks of Halloween, and the other being part of the year-end rush during a vacation). In terms of the day of the week, watching tends to center on the weekend.
Movie Genres, Countries, and Languages
Next we look at genres, countries, and languages. No huge surprise here, Action movies leading the pack (again at least partially driven by that Martial Arts jag), and USA and English comprising the bulk of my watching. There are some caveats here, as lots of movies might have a weird country of origin (but then, much of that is movies you'd think are USA being somewhere else, so it doesn't exactly improve the ratio). This might be something to work on in the coming year...
Map of movies by country
Not sure how many different countries I saw movies from, but this visualization looks nice, right?
Movie Breakdown
23.5% of the movies I watched are listed as 2017 movies (this is a bit tricky though, as some movies are listed as 2016 weren't really released until 2017) and 29.5% of movies were rewatches... In terms of ratings spread, I'm probably a bit on the generous side, with 3.5 (out of 5) stars being my most common rating (with 3 stars being second most common), but it still represents a sorta bell curve, so I guess that's good.
Movie Stars
Most watched stars are lead by, yep, a bunch of martial arts guys (with Jackie Chan taking the top spot). Also of note here, only one white dude (Anthony Hopkins) and only one actress (Erika Blanc).
Directors
Most watched directors are notably more white and male, though we again see a lot of martial arts directors too.
Movie Highs and Lows
An unsurprising highest rated film, with some more unexpected or underseen movies in terms of ratings, popularity, and obscurity.

And finally, here are some movies I'm hoping to catch up with in the next month or so before I post my traditional top 10.
  • Molly's Game - Aaron Sorkin's latest, I'm cheating a bit here because I literally just watched this yesterday (I started compiling this post last week). It's great! Typically witty Sorkin dialogue, and good procedural chops.
  • Personal Shopper - Another one that I just caught up with (I started compiling this list last week), I put it in my queue because the Fighting in the War Room podcast kept mentioning it in conjunction with Hitchcock. I liked it a lot, but comparing it to Hitch is a bit of a stretch. It's far too languid and unevenly paced for that. Still, there's some great texting sequences and Kristen Stewart gives a phenomenal performance.
  • Wormwood - Errol Morris' latest documentary was released on Netflix as a six part series. I've started it, and it's good so far (a little heavy on the re-enactments, though they're done really well).
  • Blade of the Immortal - I'm hit or miss with Takashi Miike, but this one seems interesting and is next up on the chopping block.
  • The Post - Steven Speilberg's latest, don't need much more incentive than that.
  • Phantom Thread - Paul Thomas Anderson's latest, I'm not sure how wide this release will be or if I'll be able to get to it, but it's PTA, so it's worth keeping an eye on...
  • Faces Places - Similarly, I have no idea if I'll be able to see this in time (or even when it will be released in the US), but it sounds interesting.
  • Sweet Virginia - A neo-noir thriller that seems like my sorta bag.
  • Take Me - A weird high concept thriller, I might take a flier on this if I can find it...
  • The Ballad of Lefty Brown - Bill Pullman plays a sidekick in a Western that is forced into the spotlight when his more famous partner is killed, sounds interesting enough...
  • The Florida Project - Sounds interesting, but not sure when it'll be available for me, so I may not get to it...
  • It Comes at Night - I've been hearing mixed things about this all year, it doesn't really seem like it would be my favorite, but I might give it a shot since it's available on Amazon Prime Streaming...
  • Dave Made a Maze - Goofy high concept film about a guy who gets lost in a cardboard fort he built in his living room.
  • Ingrid Goes West - Aubrey Plaza plays a social media stalker, sounds interesting enough...
  • Wolf Warrior 2 - Apparently a massive success in China, it didn't get much of a release here...
Well, that should keep me busy. There are a few others that I'm not sure I'll be able to get to due to availability as well, but I'll probably hit 90 or so 2017 movies before I finish my top 10, which is a banner year... Stay tuned, Kaedrin Movie Awards are incoming....
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2017 in Books

Well 2017 happened, and I read some books. In accordance with tradition, I shall take look back at my year in reading (and watching and drinking, but those will come later). I keep track of my reading at Goodreads (we should be friends there), and they have a bunch of fancy statistical visualization tools (but definitely not enough for a dork like me), so let's dig into it: First up is the total number of books read:
Total books read in 2017
I read 54 books in 2017, which is a record in the current era (i.e. since I started tracking my reading in 2010), though a fair amount of these titles are actually short fiction, but we'll get more into that later. Full list of titles here. Also of note, a fair amount of these were audiobooks, which sometimes feels like cheating. Still, even taking into account these disclaimers, looking at another angle is also a record breaker:
Number of pages read per year
With a nod to the inherent variability of page numbers, I just barely slipped past last year's count by almost 100 pages. Not half bad. More info:
Summary of Book Reading in 2017
As befits the expansion of short fiction this year, the average page length is down significantly to 279 pages (from 296 last year, 306 the previous year, and the record of 356, set in 2013, when the quantity of books was quite small). The longest book of the year was The Rise and Fall of D.O.D.O. at 752 pages, which is nothing to sneeze at (so NO SNEEZING), but notably lower than last year, when I read two 900+ page books.
Pie Chart of Books Read in 2017
Another breakdown of the books, with an expansion of short fiction, but I will say that was mostly absorbed by not reading any comic books this year.
Books I Read in 2017 by Publication Date
In terms of publication dates, I did ok at spreading things out, but perhaps not as good as last year. The whole Hugo Awards participation thing makes it a bit challenging, but even beyond that, I read plenty of recent stuff. I am looking forward to digging into some more vintage fiction in 2018. Moar assorted thoughts:
  • Only 7 non-fiction books for 2017, which is lower than it should be and will need to be rectified in 2018. I know I said something similar last year, but I mean it for reals this year.
  • 27 of the 54 books were written by women, with an additional two co-authored by women (so 29 total), which I'm pretty sure is a record to me. Also of note: this happened almost completely by accident and without any real plan. Go figure.
  • The oldest book I read last year was 1953's Mission of Gravity, by Hal Clement, which was fabulous.
  • A quick scan of the list reveals that only 19 of the books were Science Fiction, which seems a bit unusual (and I was being pretty generous, for instance including Rise and Fall of D.O.D.O., which is borderline). A fair amount of this was driven by the Hugo Awards (which seemed to be more fantasy focused than usual), though also Lois McMaster Bujold published three Penric and Desdemona (i.e. fantasy) novellas this year, and I read more stuff for Halloween than normal... which might have driven my SF numbers down. I suspect this will revert to the norm this year.
And that about covers it. Stay tuned for a overall movie recap, followed by the traditional onslaught of the Kaedrin Movie Awards. Sprinkled in there will be some reviews for Vintage SF Month, because I'm looking forward to that...
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Star Wars:The Last Jedi

The short, non-spoiler reaction: I liked The Last Jedi a lot, a solid *** (out of four) entry in the series, about on par with The Force Awakens (maybe a little better). However, I've learned not to trust my initial reactions to a Star Wars film, so much of what follows should be taken with a grain of salt. Like a lot of folks my age, the original Star Wars trilogy occupies a special place in my heart, and that sort of goodwill carries over to any new entry in the series, even the prequels (which have obviously not held up). That said, I certainly have my fair share of issues with this latest offering, even if I think the good bits outweigh the bad. Assorted thoughts are below, and from this point on, Spoilers abound. You have been warned.
  • Many of the best things about this movie are also the worst things. The overarching theme of the film is the value of failure, which is a pretty bold stance to take for a series focused on fun adventures (though perhaps not an entirely unexpected one for a middle entry in a trilogy). You'll notice I said "value", as the film's ultimate point is that there is a certain nobility in failure, provided you learn and grow from your mistakes. The three major plotlines are all about failure. The A plot, which follows Rey's struggle with both Luke Skywalker and Kylo Ren is steeped in failure. Luke's failure to recognize Kylo's path to the Dark Side, his failure to stop it, and his failure in retreating away from the Force (and his friends) to hide at a remote Jedi temple. Kylo's failures are myriad. Rey tries to turn Kylo, but fails. The B plot, with follows Poe Dameron as he attempts to lead the rebel fleet's escape from the First Order. At first his efforts seem successful, but then you realize that he sacrificed the rebel's entire bomber squadron on what was ultimately a pyrric victory. He's demoted and must find a way to redeem himself, perhaps not in such a hot-headed way. The C plot concerns Finn and new friend Rose Tico as they, um, go to a casino and try to find a codebeaker or something? Whatever, this is the one part of the movie that is almost completely pointless. Yes, it's also about failure, but it does so in a way that is largely redundant and ham-fisted. Like, prequel levels awful. The A and B plots work reasonably well though, and there are enough parallels that it manages to tie together in the end. The structure isn't particularly elegant, but it ultimately works.
  • All of my big issues with the series stems from the need to incorporate our heroes from the original trilogy into this new story... 30 years later. This implies a lot of backstory that has to be skipped over, but it also means that all of our heroes have to regress in one way or another. Luke was flying pretty high after saving the Galaxy and redeeming his father's soul in the Jedi. Han and Leia were in love and would clearly become leaders in the New Republic. And if these new movies were made in the 80s, you might be able to pull off some stories (a la Timothy Zahn's Thrawn Trilogy, which I think I enjoy more than these movies, but I digress), but now that it's 30+ years later, options are more limited. You have to either make them tiny side characters with little actual influence, or you need to generate some sort of conflict that pulls them down from the success they achieved in the original trilogy.

    We can't have the New Republic be super successful, because how then will the First Order be any threat? JJ dealt with that by creating a more powerful Death Star and destroying the New Republic's stronghold planets, thus making the rebellion into underdogs again. Many of the complaints I've seen about The Last Jedi also stem from this imperative. Luke's seemingly uncharacteristic retreat from his failure in training Ben (an event that also precipitated the break up between Han and Leia, after which they also regressed to their original character traits - but for some reason no one cared that Han reverted back to a careless smuggler in the previous movie. At least Leia was still trying to fight, even if that's where she was at the start of the series too.) To me, the conflict generated by Luke's failure was natural and logical, if not exactly what we want from the character. Luke has always been somewhat hubristic, as his failures in Empire demonstrate. Yes, he eventually made the right decision in the Emperor's throne room, but he was clearly in over his head. I think his failure in training Ben followed by his retreat into isolation is perfectly cromulent. There's a convincing argument to be made that he should have perhaps come around sooner once Rey explained how dire the situation had gotten, but I was fine with the way it played out. We also don't get a ton of backstory here, just enough to see that Luke's failure with Ben was traumatic to him. Of course, he eventually does the right thing and helps save the rebellion. But Luke isn't the main character in this Trilogy, Rey is. She's the eponymous Last Jedi, not Luke.
  • I was initially a little annoyed by Snoke's unceremonious dispatching at the hands of Kylo Ren, but the more I think about it, the more I like it. Yeah, I'd like to know more about how Snoke turned Ben into Kylo Ren (wasn't Knights of Ren supposed to be a thing? What is that?), but then I realized - we didn't know anything about the Emperor in the original films. He looked and acted evil and Darth Vader bowed to him, which was good enough at the time. There's a whole throne room sequence in The Last Jedi that recalls the Emperor scene in Return of the Jedi, but with the added and frankly unexpected twist that Kylo Ren kills Snoke not with the intention of saving Rey, but for his own selfish purposes (the way Vader was encouraging Luke to kill the Emperor so that they could rule the Galaxy as father and son). For her part, Rey does not give in to this temptation. She failed to convert Kylo Ren, but at least she didn't destroy herself in the process. We also get an explanation as to Rey's origins, solving a mystery that turned out to be a red herring - she's a nobody! Taking into account where this information is coming from, this might not be true, but even if it is, I think it works. The Kylo and Rey dynamic has been the best part of this new trilogy so far, and I'm really looking forward to seeing how it resolves (as it clearly won't resolve the way the Luke/Vader relationship did).
  • I've already pointed out how bad Finn's plotline is, but it's worth reiterating that it absolutely doesn't work. The whole trip to the Casino was at best redundant and at worst pointless and distracting. Benicio del Toro's character was confusing and weird, and the whole didactic income inequality bit was unnecessary. You could probably excise the entirety of this little episode without losing anything from the story. The pairing with Rose could be fine, but it just falls flat because their task is pointless (and that whole relationship culminates with the biggest groaner line of the movie). Another challenge of incorporating the older characters with new ones is that we're now juggling a lot of characters. This sort of ensemble thing is possible, but it's really, really difficult, and Johnson couldn't pull it off. It would have been better if they just found a way for Finn and Poe to collaborate or something.
  • Captain Phasma continues to underwhelm, in part because she's just part of Finn's story, so she felt shoehorned in for no real reason. Laura Dern's Vice Admiral Holdo was fine and her sacrifice towards the end is a great, badass moment. Still, if she had just told Poe the plan earlier, or even that she had a plan at all, that might have been nice. Also, I think it would have been better if Admiral Akbar was the one to perform that badass turnabout maneuver, but that's a minor point. Maz Kanata's little sequence was pretty funny, actually, but it doesn't fit at all with the movie and it's part of Finn's plot, so bleh. I loved the exasperated Jedi temple nuns who kept having to clean up after Rey. For the most part, I thought the humor in the movie worked well too. The Porgs were cute.
  • From a pure craft standpoint, the movie is beautiful and it sounds great. I need to see the movie again to really break down the visual language and make sure it's not just style with no substance, but there's a lot of standout sequences. The red salt sands were a nice touch (i.e. Luke's projection doesn't disturb the salt, a subtle hint at his nature) and quite beautiful. I'll say the casting and all the performances were also very good, even when something isn't working.
  • Some of my friends were complaining about the new Force powers in this one, and that apparently no one needs to be trained in the Force anymore. For the latter one, well, that was a problem that originated in The Force Awakens. For the former complaint, duh, the Force is just magic. No one complained when the Emperor started shooting lightning out of his fingers, they just thought it was cool. Similarly, I thought Luke's projection was pretty badass. For all the spaceships and lasers, this isn't science fiction, folks. If you try to come up with some sort of scientific explanation for it, you end up with bullshit like midichlorians.
  • Like The Force Awakens, there's a lot of callbacks in The Last Jedi, but Johnson managed to put more of a twist on it. This isn't wholly new, but it's also not entirely reliant on nostalgia or rehashing the same old ideas and beats. This is exactly what I was looking forward to with new Star Wars movies, and one of the reasons I wasn't in love with the inclusion of the original trilogy cast (along with the difficulties mentioned above). I would certainly like more originality in the future, but I think this gradual move is fine for now.
  • I really enjoyed the movie, but it still falls somewhere in the middle of the pack. The original trilogy still occupies the top, with these newer movies in the middle and the prequels way down at the bottom. I know this movie seems somewhat divisive, but I'm not entirely sure how widespread that is. Two of my friends were pretty annoyed with the movie, but everyone else I know seemed to enjoy it a lot (though all agree that Finn's story blows). Critics seem to love it too, though the aggregate audience scores are more mixed. Also, while I like this a lot, it's still my least favorite Rian Johnson movie. I am genuinely curious to see what he does with a new standalone Star Wars trilogy, one where he's not bogged down by mandates and baggage from previous films... but I'd also he rather be making his own wholly original projects too.
  • Slightly off topic, but why hasn't Disney released pristine, restored original cut Star Wars trilogy on Blu-Ray yet? The special editions have really not held up at all, and it would be great to have a good copy of the originals... (Update: I have been reliably informed that this was held up by rights issues, but now that Disney bought Fox, this might actually happen for reals. Godspeed, you greedy corporate goons!)
Not perfect, but quite enjoyable. Definitely looking forward to more Star Wars movies, even if I wonder when we'll hit full saturation of this market... We're starting to see cracks already, I don't think it unreasonable to see a total bomb at some point in the series...
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