A Humble Star Wars Wishlist

In the leadup to Episode IX (amongst general saturation of other Star Wars related ephemera), I thought it was time for some entitled fanboy wanking. Which is to say that I don't actually expect any of this to really happen and am not making demands or anything, but I thought it might be fun to list out some things that would be nice. Interestingly, this doesn't have much to do with the current Star Wars film regime, but there are some thoughts on where they could go after the supposed break that's coming up...
  • I've said it before and I'll keep saying it: My number one wish is for a pristine 4K UHD release of the original Star Wars trilogy.
    • I realize that physical media is dying and the 4K market is even more niche than the general physical media market, but if there's one property that could pull it off, it's Star Wars.
    • My preference would be for the original, non-special editions to be included in the release. You can still have the Special Editions somewhere. I mean, come on, if the Blade Runner release can warrant literally 5 different versions of the same movie in one box, I think Disney could figure something out here.
    • I'm willing to admit that a lot of the more technical changes to the original trilogy are worth it. In particular, cleaning up the compositing (i.e. the boxes around spacecraft, the transparancy in the cockpit from Empire, etc...) is worth it. No one complains about those changes, and I would actually love it for those to be included. This does make for a more complicated case though ("Release the originals but you can change the things I don't love" is a difficult case to make). A lot of the other changes are probably fine, if unnecessary. Actually:
    • There are really only two unforgivable changes: 1. Han not shooting first, and 2. Darth Vader's saying "No, Nooooooo" at the end of Jedi (this one was added for the Blu-Ray release in an epic troll, echoing one of the worst bits from the prequels). If you were to remove both of those changes, but keep the entirety of the rest of the special editions in the 4K release, I'd be happy. I mean, sure, the Jabba scene in Star Wars is completely unnecessary as are a few other changes, but they're at least debatable and not actively horrendous. Remove the two aforementioned worst changes and you'll get 99.9% of the fanbase onboard. Or maybe George Lucas will just continue to troll his fans by wearing a Han Shot First t-shirt.
  • I hope that future movies beyond Episode IX will be new stories. New Characters. Minimal prequel baggage. Some ideas:
    • Grand Admiral Thrawn - We've already lost the ability to do Timothy Zahn's original Thrawn trilogy, but you could still salvage some of the main ideas behind the threat of Thrawn and create a compelling new story. This would be complicated a bit by the character's appearance in current efforts like Rebels and Zahn's more recent Thrawn books (which are fun, but their prequel nature holds them back), but it's all workable.
    • Knights of the Old Republic - Technically a prequel, sure, but with all new characters and thus a story that isn't hampered by what we already know. You don't need to follow the video games' story here (not least of which because video game adaptations don't exactly have a great track record), but the general idea that you can tell a story in this universe completely unconnected from the context of the films and still be successful is worth noting.
    • Small Scale Threats - We've already done the planet/galaxy scale threats and the Death Star is more than played-out; why not tell a more personal, character based story that generates stakes based on already established universal themes of good and evil, rather than wholly existential threats?
  • It would be nice if future Star Wars installments had some sort of vision other than "Make lots of money!" To be sure, I feel like the current Disney installments have had some interesting ideas, but they're completely disjointed. It's easy to complain about George Lucas and the prequels, but the man had a vision and for all their faults, the prequels were more cohesive than what Disney's been doing. Marvel's been playing this cohesive vision across many properties game long enough for us to know it's possible. But then, so many other attempts to imitate that have failed that it's clearly not an easy thing to pull off. But between Pixar and Marvel, Disney has proven they are capable of doing so. Whether that's through producers or a stable of writers/directors or other creatives, it should be possible. All signs point to a break after Episode IX (notwithstanding the TV shows), which is probably a good thing. When it does come back, it would be great if there was some sort of guiding vision behind the movies. This is easier said than done, for sure, but that's what's needed to make a good franchise work.
I almost didn't publish this post because it seems so very trifling and it's not like these sentiments haven't been covered elsewhere, but you know what, it reminded me of what it was like to blog 15 years ago. In these heady days of social media, that sort of thing doesn't happen very much anymore. So there.

2019 Hugo Awards: Final Ballot

The voting deadline for this year's Hugo Awards was last week, so I figured I'd post my final ballot. It's mostly fiction awards, with a couple others thrown in for good measure, including some of the 1944 retro Hugo categories.

Best Novel

  1. Spinning Silver, by Naomi Novik [My Review]
  2. Revenant Gun, by Yoon Ha Lee [My Review]
  3. Trail of Lightning, by Rebecca Roanhorse [My Review]
  4. Record of a Spaceborn Few, by Becky Chambers [My Review]
  5. Space Opera, by Catherynne M. Valente [My Review]
  6. The Calculating Stars, by Mary Robinette Kowal [My Review]
This is a modest year for the Hugo novels. I enjoyed my top two ranked entries, but neither were as good as other offerings from the same authors in the past few years. The next two are fine, but I'm not sure they quite hit the "best of the year" levels required by an award. And the bottom two really just didn't work for me, even if they've got some redeeming qualities overall (no need to deploy No Award here). Of course, I'm the worst, so I haven't read a ton of other stuff from 2018 that would qualify, and while I really enjoyed, for example, Scalzi's The Consuming Fire, I don't think it reaches Hugo levels either.

Best Novella and Novelette

I skipped both categories this year, mostly just because I ran out of time and would rather spend my time reading Stephenson's new novel (which starts great, but appears to be trailing off...) than Shawshanking my way through these categories. Of what I read, I did enjoy The Murderbot Diaries stuff (looking forward to the upcoming novel) and The Tea Master and the Detective, so make of that what you will.

Best Short Story

  1. A Witch’s Guide to Escape: A Practical Compendium of Portal Fantasies” by Alix E. Harrow
  2. The Court Magician” by Sarah Pinsker
  3. The Rose MacGregor Drinking and Admiration Society” by T. Kingfisher
  4. The Tale of the Three Beautiful Raptor Sisters, and the Prince Who Was Made of Meat” by Brooke Bolander
  5. STET” by Sarah Gailey
  6. The Secret Lives of the Nine Negro Teeth of George Washington” by P. Djèlí Clark
See My Reviews for more info. A mixed bag, as per usual for short stories, but I really enjoyed the first two ranked stories here. In an unlikely turn of events, I feel like both of those stories are frontrunners for the actual award as well, so obviously this will end up with one of the stories I didn't love.

Best Dramatic Presentation, Long Form

  1. Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse
  2. Sorry to Bother You
  3. Annihilation
  4. Black Panther
  5. Avengers: Infinity War
  6. A Quiet Place
As per usual, this award gets filled up with the most mainstream stuff, but a couple of smaller things snuck their way onto the list, which is good enough, I guess. Of course, my number one is pretty mainstream, but it's so great.

1944 Retro Hugos: Best Novelette

  1. “Mimsy Were the Borogoves,” by Lewis Padgett (C.L. Moore & Henry Kuttner) (Astounding Science-Fiction, February 1943)
  2. “The Halfling,” by Leigh Brackett (Astonishing Stories, February 1943)
  3. “Citadel of Lost Ships,” by Leigh Brackett (Planet Stories, March 1943)
  4. “The Proud Robot,” by Lewis Padgett (Henry Kuttner) (Astounding Science-Fiction, February 1943)
  5. “Symbiotica,” by Eric Frank Russell (Astounding Science-Fiction, October 1943)
  6. “Thieves’ House,” by Fritz Leiber, Jr (Unknown Worlds, February 1943)
Not much to say here, I really enjoy the first two stories, the rest are a bit mixed.

1944 Retro Hugos: Best Dramatic Presentation, Long Form

  1. Heaven Can Wait
  2. Phantom of the Opera
  3. Cabin in the Sky
  4. A Guy Named Joe
  5. Münchhausen
  6. No Award
No Award deployed because the 1943 Batman is hot garbage. Heaven Can Wait is the pretty clear winner here though, and it's not especially close.

1944 Retro Hugos: Best Dramatic Presentation, Short Form

  1. I Walked with a Zombie
  2. Super-Rabbit
  3. The Seventh Victim
  4. Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man
  5. Der Fuehrer's Face
  6. No Award
No Award deployed because The Ape Man is awful. It's funny that all the Val Lewton/RKO and Universal Horror movies are technically Short Form (because they're all 70-75 minutes or so), but here we are. The Looney Tunes stuff is great too.

So that just about does it for the Hugos this year. The ceremony is in a few weeks, so stay tuned to see who actually wins...

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Link Dump

As per usual, interesting links from the depths of ye olde internets:
  • The Problem Solving of Filmmaking - Great video made by David F. Sandberg, the director of Shazam!, explaining the multitude of problems to be solved in even the most trivial of scenes. It reminded me of a great anecdote about Kurosawa that I cannot find anymore, but went something like this: An interviewer praised the composition of a shot in one of Kurosawa's period movies, and asked him what inspired the shot. Kurosawa answered that if the camera was pointed just a little more to one side, then you would have seen a busy highway with lots of cars. If it was just a little more to the other side, then you would have seen a big factory. He pointed the camera where he did not just because it looked good, but because he couldn't really point it anywhere else...
  • My many years of reading dangerously - whether Twitter likes it or not - Andy Miller reads a ton of books and thus made the reasonable decision to talk about it on social media. This, of course, is a disaster:
    I really love reading. The thing that drives me crazy about social media - about life, in fact - is the presumption of bad faith where none exists. Motives attributed to me for regularly posting, and it’s hard to emphasise this enough, A PHOTO OF A PILE OF BOOKS ON A KITCHEN DRESSER include: lying; boasting; publicity-seeking; ego-boosting; product-shilling; cultural-gatekeeping; trying to make individual correspondents feel guilty about the quantity and/or quality of their reading; and, of course, reminding hard-working, family-loving men of the pleasures they have sacrificed by working hard and loving their damn families, one of which is the reading of books. When they discover I have a job and a family too, that only makes it worse.
    It's important to recognize that Twitter is not the real world.
  • Kim Stanley Robinson on Infodumps - He's not a fan of the term:
    Someone once described your Mars books as an infodump tunneled by narrative moles. I think it was a compliment. What do you think?

    No, not a compliment. I reject the word "infodump" categorically -- that's a smartass word out of the cyberpunks' workshop culture, them thinking that they knew how fiction works, as if it were a tinker toy they could disassemble and label superciliously, as if they knew what they were doing. Not true in any way. I reject "expository lump" also, which is another way of saying it. All these are attacks on the idea that fiction can have any kind of writing included in it. It's an attempt to say "fiction can only be stage business" which is a stupid position I abhor and find all too common in responses on amazon.com and the like. All these people who think they know what fiction is, where do they come from? I've been writing it for thirty years and I don't know what it is, but what I do know is that the novel in particular is a very big and flexible form, and I say, or sing: Don't fence me in!

    To me, infodumps are just a part of SF and thus not inherently a bad thing. As Robinson goes on to say (there's more to the quote at the link), SF needs science, and science is expository. So he certainly has a point here, but on the other hand, exposition and infodumps can be done poorly. It's all subjective and I'd argue that SF needs to make room for this sort of thing, but it's possible to go too far.
  • Quantum Physics, the Mandela Effect and perceived changes to your NECS entrée data - So this company that creates food distribution software made this video talking about how the names of foods are changing (i.e. Haas vs Hass Avocado) and how it's all due to Quantum Physics, the Mandela effect, and alternate universes and what the hell am I watching? Is this some sort of elaborate hoax? YouTube is filled with videos like this, to be sure, but not from the CEO of a software company. Maybe it's just because I'm reading Neal Stephenson's Fall, or Dodge in Hell (which has a lot to say about false information on the internet), but this feels like the truth is slipping away from the internet.
  • Iguana Chased by Snakes - I mean, yeah, pretty great chase scene, better than most Hollywood versions...
That's all for now...
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Dennis Cozzalio of the Sergio Leone and the Infield Fly Rule blog has posted another of his famous movie quizes, and as always, I'm excited to participate. Previous installments answering questions from Professor Hubert Farnsworth, David Huxley, Professor Fate, Professor Russell Johnson, Dr. Smith, Professor Peabody, Professor Severus Snape, Professor Ed Avery, Dr. Anton Phibes, Sister Clodagh, Professor Arthur Chipping, Miss Jean Brodie, Professor Larry Gopnick, Professor Dewey Finn, Ms. Elizabeth Halsey, Professor Abraham Setrakian, Mr. Dadier, Professor Abronsius, Professor Moriarty, and Professor Birdman are also available. As an aside, the movie that Dr. Jonathan Hemlock appears in is a weirdly memorable one that I have an odd affection for, which is nice. Let's get to it:

1) Name a musician who never starred in a movie who you feel could have been a movie star or at least had a compelling cinematic presence

I had a surprisingly hard time finding someone who didn't have a film credit (as an actor, not as themselves), so I'll just give the first one I could find, which is Jimi Hendrix. He obviously appears in Woodstock, but as himself (it's a documentary). He seems like a guy that could have shown up in some of those vaunted 70s films...

2) Akira or Ghost in the Shell *

I definitely prefer Ghost in the Shell due to its characters and ideas, but I will give credit to Akira for its visual style and animation, which is superior (not that Ghost is entirely a slouch in that department, to be sure, but still).

3) Charles Lee Ray or Freddy Krueger? *

Freddy Krueger, without question. I like Child's Play (and even some of the sequels) just fine, but they always seemed a bit silly to me, whereas A Nightmare on Elm Street has a premise that is one of the purest distillations of horror ever put on screen, and Freddy is the instrument of all that.

Freddy Krueger
Of course, he later veered into schlocky self-parody, but Charles Lee Ray kinda, sorta started as a caricature in the first place. I should probably revisit the Child's Play movies someday, but Freddy just always scared me as a kid, and that sorta thing isn't easily overcome...

4) Most excruciating moment/scene you've ever sat through in a film

Since it would be doubly excruciating to catalog and sift through such moments, I'll just go with the first to come to mind, which is most of the film Martyrs. I have an odd sort of respect for it, considering I never want to see it again and will probably never recommend it to anyone (other than someone asking for that sort of thing, I guess).

5) Henry Cavill or Armie Hammer?

This is a tough one, as both are actors that I really want to succeed, but who seem to have continually been frustrated by being forced into lackluster movies. They're both great in the severely underrated The Man from U.N.C.L.E. (presumably the basis for this question), but their other films are severely mixed. I'll give it to Cavill at the moment (based in an alarming amount on the way that he, like, reloads his fists in Mission: Impossible - Fallout and also, he's a great Superman who does his best given dreadful material to work with), but Hammer could easily overtake given a couple more good performances (he seems to have more range, I think, but I just haven't seen enough of it).

6) Name a movie you introduced to a young person, one which was out of their expressed line of interest or experience, which they came to either appreciate or flat-out love

I'm having trouble thinking of specifics here, but I do consider it a victory that my nieces now prefer the original Star Wars trilogy (and in particular, Empire) over the Prequels and more recent Disney entries.

7) Second favorite Robert Rossellini film

Embarrassed mulligan here.

8) What movie shaped your perceptions of New York City, Los Angeles and/or Chicago before you ever went there and experienced the cities for yourself.

For New York, Ghostbusters, though I probably got to New York early enough to not have perceptions shaped by something more meaningful. I've only been to Chicago once, but I guess The Fugitive and The Blues Brothers work. And I have yet to visit L.A. and there are more options here than anywhere else, so I'll just go with Heat and leave it at that.

9) Name another movie that shaped, for better or worse, another city or location that you eventually visited or came to know well.

I've lived near Philadelphia my whole life, but I'll always associate it with Rocky and Trading Places, though the latter probably doesn't have anywhere near the mindshare of the former. Despite living near the city, I rarely go into it, which is kinda sad.

10) Bela Lugosi or Christopher Lee? *

As Dracula? Bela Lugosi. As an overall filmography? Christopher Lee.

11) Elizabeth Debicki or Alicia Vikander?

This is a little like the Cavill/Hammer question earlier in that these actresses both show great promise, but are still early on in their careers and thus one could really pull ahead of the other. I'll give it to Vikander for her performance in Ex Machina, but obviously Debicki could easily overtake with, like, one star-making role.

12) The last movie you saw theatrically? The last on physical media? Via streaming?

Theatrically, it would have been Midsommar, but the power was out at the theater when I arrived, so it was God's way of saying I should come home and answer this question with The Dead Don't Die. Great deadpan humor, some nifty meta stuff, a little messy and I'm not sure it entirely works, but I enjoyed it. On physical media, Lone Wolf and Cub: Baby Cart at the River Styx, great presentation from the Criteron Collection.

Lone Wolf and Cub: Baby Cart at the River Styx
And via streaming, The Man Who Killed Hitler and Then The Bigfoot, not quite the fun romp implied by the title and a little jumbled in its narrative (the frequent flashbacks don't quite work), but once I got past the preconceptions (which, to be sure, are the title's fault - this could have been a good answer for one of the questions below about favorite titles, but the title doesn't represent the film well enough to take it), I rather liked it.

13) Who are the actors, classic and contemporary you are always glad to see?

I tend to take Hitchcock's infamous view that "All actors are cattle." but obviously it's always fun to see certain people show up. Depending on how you define this, the list would probably be entirely too long, so I'll just look at some of the most frequent folks I've been glad to see show up over the last couple of years: Boris Karloff, Veronica Lake (both staples of my 50 Under 50 project last year), Linnea Quigley (a Six Weeks of Halloween fixture.... which, come to think of it, is also true of Karloff and even partially Lake), Philip Seymour Hoffman, Samuel L. Jackson, and you know what? It would probably be a lot easier to list the actors that I'm rarely glad to see. In the interest of time, we'll just leave it here for now.

14) Second favorite Federico Fellini film

Even more embarrassed mulligan here.

15) Tessa Thompson or Danai Gurira *

Tessa Thompson, though I see that Gurira showed up in the bonkers My Soul to Take, a movie that only a few of us like, so I feel like I need to grant extra points here. Neither is particularly well served by their MCU roles at this point, but Thompson seems to be setup for a solo adventure maybe?

16) The Black Bird or The Two Jakes?

I have not seen either of these, but given my general feeling on sequels and reboots these days (particularly long-gap sequels as both of these are), I'm pretty confident that my answer would be "neither". But if you asked me which I was most curious to actually watch, it would probably be The Black Bird.

17) Your favorite movie title

Wow, that's not a broad question at all, is it? It's tempting to just list favorite movies with reasonable titles like The Godfather or Halloween, but maybe it would be one of the more goofy or weird titles like Santa Claus Conquers the Martians, Death Bed: The Bed That Eats, Don't Be a Menace to South Central While Drinking Your Juice in the Hood, and of course: Night of the Day of the Dawn of the Son of the Bride of the Return of the Revenge of the Terror of the Attack of the Evil, Mutant, Hellbound, Flesh-Eating Subhumanoid Zombified Living Dead, Part 3, which is nice and all, but the real champions of this answer should be one of the baroque titles from Giallo movies. In particular, Your Vice Is a Locked Room and Only I Have the Key, which is clearly the best title in the history of cinema.

18) Second favorite Luchino Visconti film

Yet another embarrassing mulligan.

19) Given the recent trend, what's the movie that seems like an all-too-obvious candidate for a splashy adaptation to Broadway?

I don't really know squat about Broadway aside from the highest of high profile stuff, so I don't know, Star Wars? On the other hand, I mean, it's not like Planet of the Apes couldn't rake in the dough considering there's already a template that people absolutely love. Back on that first hand, there's no need to ruin an absolutely perfect bit like that, so let's keep it with Star Wars.

20) Name a director you feel is consistently misunderstood

I struggled with this one, so I'll just go with David Lynch. His films tend to be pretty surreal to start with, people have wildly varying theories, and of course, he steadfastly refuses to answer any questions about the meaning of his work. Misunderstood... by design?

21) Chris Evans or Chris Hemsworth? *

I feel like Evans has more meat on the resume, but Hemsworth has better comedic chops. Evans for now, but Hemsworth could make a run for it someday.

22) What's the film that most unexpectedly grew in your estimation from trivial, or unworthy, or simply enjoyable, to a true favorite with some actual meat on its bones?

The Silence of the Lambs is a movie that I initially just saw as a sorta schlocky serial killer tale (definitely entertaining, but my teen brain wasn't picking up on much else), but it has slowly but surely wormed its way into my head, prompting rewatch after rewatch until it grew into one of my absolute favorites. Early on it was one of those confusing Best Picture winners. Now it's still confusing, but more along the lines of "How did the Academy actually manage to get it right?"

23) I Am Curious (Yellow), yes or no?

I don't know anything about this (I assume we're talking about a film), but given my usual answer to this sort of question: yes. I'm just not the censorious type, though I guess one need not interpret "no" as being censorship or whatever. But I guess I do, so there.

24) Second favorite Lucio Fulci film

Ah, finally an Italian director I don't need to take a mulligan on! I'll go with The Beyond. Creepy atmosphere and an A+ eye-gouging gag (though to be fair, most Fulci movies have that).

25) Are the movies as we now know them coming to an end? (http://collider.com/will-streaming-kill-movies/)

Movies are always evolving and they don't exist in a vacuum. There's certainly much more competition for mindshare these days, so movies are adjusting. This isn't a new thing. The theatrical experience is much more in danger, but even that will probably continue to soldier on in some form. In Neal Stephenson's novel The System of the World, the character Daniel Waterhouse ponders how new systems supplant older systems:

"It has been my view for some years that a new System of the World is being created around us. I used to suppose that it would drive out and annihilate any older Systems. But things I have seen recently ... have convinced me that new Systems never replace old ones, but only surround and encapsulate them, even as, under a microscope, we may see that living within our bodies are animalcules, smaller and simpler than us, and yet thriving even as we thrive. ... And so I say that Alchemy shall not vanish, as I always hoped. Rather, it shall be encapsulated within the new System of the World, and become a familiar and even comforting presence there, though its name may change and its practitioners speak no more about the Philosopher's Stone." (page 639)
So the movies will not vanish, but rather it shall be surrounded and encapsulated by whatever the future holds for streaming or VR or AR or, you know, the future.

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Hugo Awards: Space Opera

Comedian Martin Mull famously quipped "Writing about music is like dancing about architecture." This is something of a problem for Catherine Valente's Hugo-nominated novel, Space Opera, seeing as though the story is about a Eurovision-style Galactic Grand Prix music contest. Earth is home to one of the latest discovered species and must thus prove their sentience by competing in the Grand Prix. Of course, if they come in last place, they face sudden and complete extermination. The Galaxy helpfully provides a list of Earth musicians who could perhaps stand a chance, but the only living musician on the list is one Decibel Jones, a washed-up David Bowie wannabe glam rock act.

If this all sounds rather stupid, well, that's because it is. Valente herself proclaims it to be so during the opening of the novel while unceremoniously doing away with the Fermi Paradox by claiming that "...life is the opposite of rare and precious. It's everywhere; it's wet and sticky; it has all the restraint of a toddler left too long at day care without a juice box. And life, it all its infinite and tender intergalactic variety, would have gravely disappointed poor gentle-eyed Enrico Fermi had he lived only a little longer, for it is deeply, profoundly, execrably stupid." The refrain that "Life is beautiful. And life is stupid." is frequently bandied about, and I suppose its meant to inoculate the novel from its mostly dumb premises (Narrator: It does not.) This is the sort of thing best used with restraint, and tends to collapse when used to prop up an entire novel. The prose is written with an unearned confidence and contempt that gets old real fast, and ultimately makes no sense (she takes lots of potshots and what I'm sure she deems easy targets, and it comes off smarmy at best). Of course, it's all meant to be comedy, and there are some nice turns of phrase and I maybe chuckled a few times, but this comes nowhere near the heights of Douglas Adams or Terry Pratchett (while being indebted to both authors).

The plot isn't even particularly original. In particular, the same basic premise was used in a Rick and Morty episode from a few years ago... and it didn't even particularly work well in that case. You could thus say that it's a ripe premise to steal and do it right this time, I guess, but that didn't particularly happen here either. The plot is paper thin, besotted with nonsensical and uninteresting tangents, and the characters are childish and unlikable. Unoriginality isn't necessarily a death blow; look no further than this year's nominated Spinning Silver, which is clearly based on well-known European folklore, but manages to spin and add to its influences in original ways. Space Opera has no such redeeming qualities when it comes to its derivative ideas.

So no, I did not like this book. But! I can kinda see why it's nominated. The plot and the characters are uninspired, to be sure, but the prose does sometimes, er, sing. To be sure, there's a fine line between interminable run-on sentences and Pynchon-esque panache, and for me it was much more the former than the latter, but I can see how some would cotton to the style and think it worthy of a nomination. Take, for instance, this quick digression:

You might think that Musmar the Night Manager could not possibly have known about the regional human holiday known as Halloween, but by one of those many curious coincidences that comprise the only real evidence for a divine and wobbling hand in the design of the universe, some variant of Halloween is celebrated by every sentient species in the galaxy. There is, it would appear, something about the achievement of sentience that immediately fills the afflicted with the longing to become something else, something brighter, something wilder and more fearsome and morbid and covered in felt and glue and glitter, to escape into the mask of some other impossible life, and to afterward consume vast quantities of sweets.
As a big fan of Halloween, I rather liked that bit... but as mentioned earlier, this sort of thing gets old fast. Your mileage may vary, but this does seem like the sort of thing where a small but devoted coterie of readers loved this so much that they got it onto the ballot, while the masses aren't really willing to put up with this sort of style over substance. I can see and respect the stylistic flair here, but only on an intellectual level. Mostly I just don't get it. It's all just dancing about architecture.

As you can no doubt tell, this will be at or near the bottom of my ballot. Interestingly, I suspect that this will do well in the first round of voting (the Hugos use an Instant Runoff Voting system), but drop off a cliff once the second round commences. Spinning Silver will be getting my number one vote at this point, with Revenant Gun and Trail of Lightning taking the number two and three spots respectively (I go back and forth on ranking these two though), followed by Record of a Spaceborn Few, and finally Space Opera and The Calculating Stars bringing up the rear. This wraps up the Hugo Best Novel finalists. I may find some time to do novellas and/or novelettes, but I've got plenty of other stuff to read at this point, so who knows?

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Hugo Awards: The Calculating Stars

In 1952, a huge meteorite lands off the eastern coast of the U.S.A., obliterating Washington D.C. and the surrounding environs. This initial destruction is only the start, however, as the strike boils enough water to initially result in dramatic cooling on a global scale. But water vapor is a greenhouse gas, so after this initial cooldown, the earth will experience an accelerated greenhouse effect, potentially to the point where the oceans will boil and the earth will become uninhabitable. Elma York and her husband Nathaniel are scientists and mathematicians who managed to survive the initial impact, and quickly become embroiled in a new space race, but instead of the soviets, we're racing global warming to establish a colony on Mars. So goes the initial setup of Mary Robinette Kowal's Hugo nominated novel The Calculating Stars.

It's a cool premise with lots of potential... and if it sounds a little familiar, that's because it's rather similar to the idea behind Neal Stephenson's Seveneves. Kowal attempts to differentiate this by shifting the timeline back to the 1950s, drawing out the timeline to get out to space, and narrowly focusing on characters and woke social issues. After the initial burst of action from the meteorite hit, the novel slows considerably as Kowal focuses on Elma's battles against the sexist, racist, anti-semitic forces aligned against her, not to mention a crippling anxiety problem. It's never boring and Kowal's style is crisp and clear, mostly free from hooptedoodle, but my mind kept wandering. Sometimes this can be a good thing, but most of my questions about the worldbuilding or technology or even some of the characters basically went unanswered.

The frustrating part about this story is that it's clear that Kowal knows her space-race era stuff, but is primarily content to leave that in the background. Tidbits and tantalizing hints of fascinating engineering challenges and space travel problems are dropped here and there (showing that Kowal probably spent a lot of time researching and thinking about these things) and they keep the story just interesting enough, but they are clearly not the focus of the novel. Maybe she just assumes most of the people reading her book are already quite familiar with early NASA technology and practices (a fair assumption), but this is supposed to be a science fiction book, and we get precious little of that sort of geeking out. Alright fine, so it's more a novel about how Elma and friends combat bigotry in an effort to save the human race, right? Well, sure, but even that gets pretty short shrift. There's a lot of prose devoted to that, to be sure, but Kowal tries to be so inclusive that a lot of it comes off as only being a cursory examination of a particular issue. A huge, diverse cast of characters is introduced, but are rarely fleshed out beyond their differentiating characteristics, ironically leaving many of the portrayals feeling rather stereotypical.

Indeed, the biggest thing holding Elma back from achieving her goal is not sexism or anti-semitism, but rather her crippling anxiety when confronted with reporters and TV interviews (she's fine under pressure as a pilot or doing complex equations in her head, but she gets severe stage fright whenever she has to give an interview). This struggle with anxiety is actually the best portrayed issue in the book and the only one that really stands out effectively (it is rare to see this sort of topic tackled well), but that only serves to undercut the other issues she frequently brings up. Even that issue is solved rather easily by taking a medication that doesn't result in complications, other than the fact that she tries to hide it from the space program (which the main villain of the piece tries unsuccessfully to use against her - spoilers, I guess, but it's not hard to see where this is going).

As a result of the narrow focus on characters, the rest of the worldbuilding also left me wanting. Washington D.C. is destroyed, but we don't see much of the fallout of that (much more time is spent on our protagonist's relatives, who lived in the region). There's a brief mention that the Soviets were hit hardest by the miniature ice-age and that the union dissolved or somesuch. China is briefly addressed. There's some food riots that happen at one point (after all, the meteorite hit in Spring, meaning that summer crops were probably not very successful), but only peripherally. The space program is better covered, but never really takes full shape because we're so laser focused on a small group of characters. Ditto for the sense of urgency, which seems awfully vague considering the planet is supposed to be rendered uninhabitable in the near future. As with the whole space program details above, it seems like Kowal thought about all this and developed a realistic alternate history, but consigned it to the background.

After I finished the book, I went on a mini-binge of space-race stuff. Apollo 11 is a recently released documentary with restored, high-definition footage from the moon landing mission. It's spectacular, featuring never-seen-before footage that looks amazing and while I'm not exactly a scholar of the era, there were a few tidbits that I'd never seen portrayed before. Highly recommended! From the Earth to the Moon is an HBO mini-series from the late 90s (a sorta precursor to prestige TV) that covers a lot of ground in the Apollo program (I'm about halfway through this rewatch, and it's about is good as I remember - I particularly love the episode titled Spider, which is about the design of the lunar module). Then I watched Capricorn One, a schlocky conspiracy thriller about faking a Mars mission. Certainly not high-art, but better and more fun than I'd have expected.

Kowal covers a lot of ground in The Calculating Stars, but the issue is that it's already well tread ground. So well tread that I kept thinking of other things that did it better, even in non-fiction. From Seveneves to Hidden Figures to diving down a rabbit whole wondering who the woman in the control room was in the aforementioned Apollo 11 documentary (her name was JoAnn Morgan and she has an interesting story), I got more out of all this supplementary stuff than out of the book itself. Maybe that's unfair? But we don't read in a vacuum, all these things are connected and I can't help but wonder about the premise here. The idea of establishing colonies in space using 50s era technology is great, but it's a shame that this book only skims the surface of so many fascinating parts of that. Even the areas focused on don't feel entirely baked. There is a sequel to this novel called The Fated Sky, which seems like maybe it would cover more dorky space stuff or get at some of the other things I was interested in, but I can't really gin up any enthusiasm to proceed (and it's not nominated either, which it easily could have been given the way the Hugos work).

I'm clearly in the minority here when it comes to this book though. It's been well received and most readers seem to get a lot more out of it than I do, which is great. Not everything has to be for me, and I can respect a well constructed novel (which this is), even if I didn't entirely connect with it. That being said, it will end up somewhere near the bottom of my Hugo ballot.

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Link Dump

As per usual, interesting stuffs from the depths of the internets:
  • Terminator: Dark Fate trailer turned AMA with Arnold - So Arnold Schwarzenegger posts the Terminator: Dark Fate trailer on Reddit and it turns into an impromptu AMA. Someone asked: "Did y'all know how hilarious COMMANDO was (in a great way!) while filming it?" Arnold's response is amazing:
    As soon as I carried a thousand pound log with one arm I knew it was funny. But let me share the scenes you didn’t see that I tried to get in.

    I wanted to cut off a guy’s arm and kill him with it. This wasn’t in the script. He would throw a knife at me and after he missed, while his arm was still extended, I chop it off at the shoulder with a machete and beat him to death with it. Needless to say, I was asked by the head of the studio, Larry Gordon to come to his office. And he said “what the fuck is the matter with you? Do you want to make money with this movie or an x-rated movie?”

    I said “you’re right” and he said “get the fuck out of my office.”
    That's awesome. I need to watch Commando again (and it's not like it's been so long since the last time...)
  • You’re No Longer the Man Now, Dog! - It's hard to believe it's been around 15 damn years since YTMND became a thing, but in internet time, that's an eternity. The surprisingly influential (but at this point, pretty staid) site has shut down, but it's still there on the Internet Archive...
  • Amazon Stolen Package Tracking - Heh.
  • Hell of a Week - Well, that escalated quickly.
  • You Do Not Fit In Here - This comic perfectly encapsulates are frustrating phenomenon.
  • Pee Wee's Jurassic Adventure - Who did this?
That's all for now...
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Hugo Awards: Spinning Silver

Spinning Silver is a standalone fantasy novel by Naomi Novik and it's been nominated for this year's Hugo Awards. A previous novel, Uprooted, was also nominated a few years ago, and I quite enjoyed it (I was one of the ones nominating it). Alas, it lost out to the Jemison juggernaut. This year's entry seems like it could fare better.

In a small village, a young Jewish girl named Miryem lives with her father, a particularly ineffectual money-lender who is barely able to keep the family afloat. When her mother falls ill, Miryem takes up the mantle and starts collecting debts from their neighbors, who had clearly been taking advantage of her father's incompetence. It turns out that she has quite a knack for it. She's so adept that she gains a reputation of being able to turn silver into gold, which draws the attention of the Staryks, wintery fae folk who live in the forest and torment the locals. The icy Staryk king leaves a bag of silver for Miryem, insisting that she turn the silver into gold. She takes the silver to a jeweler who fashions it into a ring, which they sell to the duke for gold. Unphased, the Staryk king continues to ask Miryem to convert silver into even more gold two more times, which results in a necklace and crown, both sold to the same duke. The duke hopes the fancy jewelry will attract the Tsar to marry his daughter Irina, which he does (though not apparently because of the jewelry).

Having converted ever increasing amounts of silver into gold, the Staryk king reluctantly pledges to marry Miryem, making her the queen of his ice kingdom. For her part, Miryem finds that in the Staryk realm, she is actually able to magically transform silver into gold, but she's obviously not happy being married to a monster, and seeks escape. Meanwhile, Irina has married the Tsar, but found him oddly disinterested. Her jewelry, made from Staryk silver, has magical powers that let her walk through mirrors into a snowy landscape. She quickly realizes that the Tsar is possessed by some sort of fiery demon that wants to literally consume her, so she uses her jewelry to hide in the mirror, thus foiling the fire demon.

So Miryem and Irina are both stuck in unwanted marriages to minor deities, and must find a way to extricate themselves from the situation, all while protecting the common folk from the dangerous conflict that's brewing. It's a song of ice and fire, if you will, but much more compact (and less grim).

If some of the plot details sound a bit familiar, that's because Novik has based a fair amount of this story on European folklore, particularly the story of Rumpelstiltskin, but with other legends like the Chernobog weaved in for flavor and depth. And of course, this is obviously a much expanded and more detailed story than Rumpelstiltskin (which is probably shorter than this review).

As with Novik's previous Hugo nominee, Uprooted, this is a standalone novel, which is a breath of fresh air in the series-laden fantasy genre. I think I may like that earlier book a bit better, but this one will clearly do well on my Hugo Novel ballot this year. It's a good story, told well.

I was quite pleased with the novel, but I do have a few minor complaints. One is that the grand majority of the novel is told in first-person, but switches viewpoints seamlessly, meaning that it takes a minute before you realize which character you're with. Also, while this is a standalone, the pacing does flag a bit in the middle, especially once you glean the general direction of the various plotlines. The two main threads, with Miryem and Irina, fare pretty well, but there is a third thread featuring a woman named Wanda, who Miryem had hired as an assistant (Wanda's labor is basically paying off her drunken father's debts). Wanda's story generally drags a bit, and doesn't quite have the heft of Miryem and Irina's predicament (it shares thematic similarities, but those events end up feeling a bit redundant). It takes a bit too long for Novik to pull the various plot threads into a cohesive whole. But tighten those threads she does, and in pretty satisfying and sometimes unexpected ways. The ending left me fully satisfied, though there is one odd grace note, a romantic pairing that seemed like it was a bit too abrupt (and probably could have been seeded better earlier in the story). All in all, these flaws are easily overlooked, especially in a genre known for expansive bloat.

The story carries with it much in the way of thematic heft, touching on economics, the power dynamics of marriage, climate-change, and anti-semitism (amongst other ideas), but doing so in a largely organic way that emerges from the story. Nothing feels bolted-on or out of place. Likewise, there's no hectoring lectures here. But the themes are present and allow for thought and exploration.

So it's a fun little fantasy story, well written and satisfying, and as such, I'm expecting it to be near or at the top of my Hugo ballot. I still have to finish two additional nominees, but from what I've read of those so far, I don't see anything overtaking this one.

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Hugo Awards: 2019 Short Stories

I'm not entirely sure why I keep reading the Hugo finalists for the Best Short Story category. Actually, strike that, I know exactly why: they're short and I can get through all of them quickly. And theoretically, they should be a really nice sampler pack of what's going on in SF. In practice, I've really liked about 3-4 of the stories I've read over the past 6 or 7 years. A bunch of others are fine if unremarkable, but whatever the case, it's not a good batting average. This year's nominees illustrate a couple of my issues. One is that only two of the stories actual deign to tell a real story (they're both decent, at least). Another is that they're basically all fantasy stories, and the one that ostensibly has an SF idea doesn't seem terribly interested by the idea (which, to be sure, is a decades-old idea and partial reality these days). I know the awards are for SF and F, but I tend towards SF. Likewise, some of this has to do with personal preference, and these stories just aren't pressing my buttons. Perhaps some year they will?
  1. A Witch’s Guide to Escape: A Practical Compendium of Portal Fantasies” by Alix E. Harrow - A librarian (who is also a witch) notices a troubled teen who is drawn to stories of escape. It doesn't take long to see why and what this kid needs, but can our librarian friend find a way to help? Spoiler alert, yes she does, and I can't help but feel charmed by this stories insistence that escapism can be a pretty decent thing, especially in our troubling times (like any good thing, its possible to overdo it, I guess, but this story does not go there, nor does it need to). Its also in its favor that this is an actual story with actual characters and a real (if short) arc. You'd be surprised how few Hugo finalists in the short story category can meet such a lofty goal.
  2. The Court Magician” by Sarah Pinsker - Chronicles a young street urchin who becomes obsessed with street magic (which are really just tricks), then jumps at the chance to learn "real" magic. Like any good consideration of actual magic, this one has a price. Another actual story with a beginning and an end, albeit a more bittersweet tale. That being said, this is quite good and well worth checking out.
  3. The Rose MacGregor Drinking and Admiration Society” by T. Kingfisher - A group of fae sit around a campfire and reminisce about a puny mortal named Rose MacGregor who managed to trick all of them before settling down with her true love, a blacksmith. It's a kinda charming structure, and the idea of the trickster fae getting the tables turned upon them is nice and all, but then, there's not much meat on the bone here. It's mostly told in flashback, and the story, such as it is, doesn't have much of an arc. It's still enjoyable for what it is, but it just doesn't have enough oomph to make it higher than this ranking.
  4. The Tale of the Three Beautiful Raptor Sisters, and the Prince Who Was Made of Meat” by Brooke Bolander - A bumbling and idiotic prince makes his way into the dangerous hunting grounds of three raptor sisters, who are so dumbfounded by this fellow's lack of fear that one of them figures it must be a trick and follows him back to his castle. She is promptly imprisoned, and the other two sisters seek to break her out, with the help of a witchly princess. The story relies heavily on a sorta fairy tale tone; everything is hightened and a little silly, but it ultimately ends up feeling rather slight. Again, there's little in the way of story here, just vague tones and mild themes that are barely worth digging out. To be sure, it's not exactly bad, and I had no problem reading it, but it didn't particularly grab me, and I can feel its claws slipping, such that I'm pretty sure I won't remember a thing about this in a few days.
  5. STET” by Sarah Gailey - Ostensibly written in the form of some sort of academic publication, complete with footnotes that are longer than the text, editor's notes/obelisms (the term "STET" is latin for "let it stand", which is what an author uses to let the editor know that a note/correction should be ignored and the original text should remain in place). The subject matter concerns autonomous cars and the inevitable deaths that would result from decisions made by AI, etc... However, the "story" is much more concerned with the author processing through some sort of grief (obviously caused by an self-driving car killing a loved one). It's an interesting, if slightly hard to follow, format, and the subject matter is worth exploration (and indeed, the many complications of self-driving cars has been explore elsewhere)... its just that I don't feel like there's enough story here, just a vague sense of grief and rage. This is the only finalist that even comes close to being actual Science Fiction, but it doesn't do much on that front, preferring instead to focus on the aforementioned grief and rage. It reminded me of the infamous "If You Were a Dinosaur, My Love" (tiny hint of an SF idea, weird experimental format, wallowing in grief, etc...), but I could see something along these lines working quite a lot better... However, in its current form, it didn't do a whole lot for me.
  6. The Secret Lives of the Nine Negro Teeth of George Washington” by P. Djèlí Clark - George Washington is famous for having "Wooden Teeth", but while he had multiple sets of dentures, none appear to have been made of wood. Some were made of ivory, some with various alloys and metals, and most morbidly, some were made of actual human teeth. Said human teeth were almost certainly from slaves, though some of the teeth may have come from desperately poor folk. This story takes this fact and describes the people the teeth came from. Each one has certain characteristics that are sorta imprinted on the tooth, and thus causes some sort of ironic consequence (i.e. a tooth from a slave that escaped often falls out of the denture). These are mundane at first, but get more fantastical as it progresses. He goes through nine teeth... and then the story just sorta ends. By which I mean that it's not much of a story, per say. Well written and some of the teeth have interesting nuggets, but there's not a whole lot here, and in fact, I found researching Washington's actual teeth more interesting than the sorta fantastical stuff in the story.
So there you go. I don't generally deploy the "No Award" designation in my voting, but I'm a little tempted to reverse my normal stance and only vote for the top 2, with No Award at 3. That seems somewhat silly though. We'll see. I'm working my way through the fourth of six novels right now, and I'm not sure if I'll get to all the Novellas/Novelettes this year (I will read at least a couple of the ones that interest me)...
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Record of a Spaceborn Few is the third book set in Becky Chambers' Wayfarers universe, but like the other two, it is mostly self-contained. There's an offhand reference to the events of the first book, but it's from the perspective of a new group of characters. I've generally enjoyed the books in this series, a space opera that focuses on nice people, rather than grim despair or dystopia (as a lot of modern takes go). The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet was a character-driven, episodic narrative about the crew of a hyperspace tunneling ship that had seen better days. Most of the events covered in the book were well done but underwhelming, though it ended on a relatively strong note and the characters were enjoyable. The next book, A Closed and Common Orbit, focused much closer on two of the characters from the first book, and was significantly better for it. Like the first book, the stakes and tension weren't particularly high, but the two characters at the heart of the story were endearing and interesting and once again, the ending was strong. I enjoyed that second book enough to nominate it for a Hugo Award, and it did become a finalist (I ended up ranking it #2 on my final ballot). Record of a Spaceborn Few is also a finalist for the Hugo Awards, so I was looking forward to catching up with it.

At this point, I would normally go for some sort of plot summary or describe the premise, but... there's not really much to go on here. It's really just a series of day-in-the-life character sketches, similar to The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet, but with even less tension or drama. The characters are nice and all, but I find that this book doesn't add much to the universe Chambers has created, and the almost total lack of stakes doesn't help either. It's not bad, per say, but the Hugo nomination does it no favors in the expectations department.

The characters are a mixed bunch. Tessa is a mother raising her family as best she can while her husband is often working far away. Kip is a teenager going through a by-the-numbers coming of age story. Eyas is a professional undertaker, which is more important in space because of the way bodies are disposed of (or, er, recycled back into the fragile ecosystem of people living in space), etc... Isabel is an archivist who teams up with an alien ethnologist. Finally, Sawyer is a naive newcomer to the fleet, unsure of his place and struggling to fit in. Each characters' story has small intersections with the others, but the general lack of plot lessens the impact these can have. At least two of the stories are variations on stories we've seen a billion times before (such that honestly, using the word "variation" to describe them is a stretch). Only one has any sort of conflict built into it at all, and it's one that we readers can see coming a million miles away, but the character in question is too daft to even realize what's going on. That one, at least, has a genuine surprise built into it, and that surprise drives the last half or so of the book (directly and indirectly).

Again, it's not bad, and I do think there's a place for this sort of book, but I don't think that it's "best SF novel of the year" material. It's true that I rarely enjoy slice-of-life storytelling though, so maybe others will get more of a kick out of it. Mixed in with the character sketches are some decent SF worldbuilding bits, but they're all disconnected and feel more like window-dressing, thanks to the meandering plotlines. The nuts and bolts writing craft is certainly up to standard, and I enjoy Chambers' style and general positivity, so I'm still very open to reading more in this series. As it is nominated for a Hugo though, I think this book is ranking towards the bottom of my ballot (at least, of the three that I've read so far - I could see this sticking right in the middle of the ballot once I finish the others).

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